17 May 2023

Why does Saint Paul mention the Scythians?

Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)

In terms of ancestry, I am genetically related to a number of different peoples who lived in Late Antiquity: the Visigoths and Ostrogoths, the Cherusci, the Chatti, the Thuringii, the Langobardi (all Germanic peoples), the Gauls and Britons (both Celts) and the Pannonian Illyrians. One tribe among my ancestors, however, stands out: the Scythians. The Scythians were a nomadic people who lived in the Caucasus Mountains around what is now Georgia and southern Russia; as they expanded, their territory extended across the Pontic Steppe as far as Moldova and Romania to the west, and to the east as far as Kazakhstan. Like most nomadic peoples of the time, they were a motley crew, and probably included diverse elements including Iranian, Turkic, Finnic-Ugric and Caucasian. Their rule extended briefly into Asia Minor; later on, a number of allied tribes emerged from what had been the Scythian Empire: the Sauromatæ, the Massagetæ, the Cimmerians and the Saka, or Sai. The Alans (or Yancai), the nomadic people who invaded Europe along with the Huns and from whom the modern culture of the Ossetians descends, were themselves a scion of the Scythian stem.

The great question is: why did Saint Paul include the Scythians in this passage in Colossians?

To answer that question, we need to understand first the connotation that term Σκυθης had to the Greek-speaking audience that Saint Paul was addressing. To the Greeks, and to the entirety of the Roman Empire in fact, the Scythians were the penultimate barbarians. From the Greek perspective, the Scythians were seen as savages: ruthless, cruel, inebriated, undisciplined, lacking in restraint. They were purported to drink the blood of their enemies and fashion the skulls of those they killed into drinking-vessels. The Greeks often used the imagery of wild animals to describe the Scythians.

But the relationship of the Greeks to the Scythians was more complex than this. Scythian culture was as often an object of desire or wistful longing. For example, the Greek myth of the Amazons was probably derived from the way Scythian (specifically Sauromatae) women would wear weapons and armour and participate in war. There was thus an element of sexual exoticism that accompanied the Scythians. In other places, Scythians were often cast in the role of the ‘noble savage’: free from the constraints of civilisation and thus in a permanent state of childlike innocence. In a word, the Greek attitude toward the Scythians may be described as a progenitor or as an early example of orientalism.

As Saint Paul was both an educated Jew and a Roman citizen, we should not imagine that he was ignorant of any portion of this context, or that his choice of the word Σκυθης in this list was accidental. On one level, we may take it as read that there were Scythians among the members of the Early Church; there’s not really any reason to doubt, given the presence of Scythians in Asia Minor, that Saint Paul was not speaking literally here. But on another level, the inclusion of Σκυθης points to a much deeper element in the Pauline discourse. Given what the Scythians represented to the Greek audience he was addressing, Paul’s explicit inclusion of them in his description of the Church and its members is an implicit rebuke of these orientalist or proto-orientalist attitudes among them. Just as Greeks did not have to undergo circumcision to be included in the ἐκκλησία, so Paul is saying, nor did Jews have to give up their identities as Jews to be included in the ἐκκλησία, so too were barbarians welcome as long as they were sincere in following Christ. Even Scythians were welcome in the ἐκκλησία, without having to be Hellenised first!

Does any of this sound familiar?

These days there is a marked increase in orientalist discourse on account of the world organising itself into a ‘harder’ NATO bloc, the ‘West’, aligned firmly against ‘the rest’, most notably against Russia and against China. It is disingenuous to pretend that the facts are otherwise. It is also disingenuous to pretend that Russian and Chinese people are not the objects of orientalist fantasising on the part of the West, even in the present day, or that Ukrainian nationalist discourse (fervently stoked by NATO actors) isn’t deliberately invoking these orientalist tropes as part-and-parcel of its anti-Russian pathos.

Saint Paul would reject all of this, utterly. He would reject out-of-hand the a priori assumptions of both Ukrainian nationalism and the aggressive Western, particularly American and British, chauvinism against Russia and China. He rejected them in his own day, as Colossians 3:11 makes plain. Saint Paul was neither in the business of ‘defending the West’, nor of ‘defending democracy’. He was not in the business of defeating the enemies of Rome by force, no matter how ‘barbaric’ they were. Nor was he even in the business of converting the ‘barbarians’ to either a Greek or a Jewish civilisational standard. He was in the business of bringing the good news of Christ—who was both Jewish and Roman, as well as being an outlaw to both worlds when He was put to death on the Cross—to the world, barbarians, even Scythians, and by extension those even further east, very much included.

Saint Ilya Fondaminskii-Bunakov, himself a Jew by ancestry, provocatively suggested that Christianity was the spiritual response, even the ‘revenge’, of the awakened East against the false, pretentious, homogenising universalisms of Greek and Roman civilisation. Intriguingly, he even referred specifically to the Scythians as a formative ‘Eastern’ influence on the Russian state. In our own day, we need to recover this insight with regard to the false, pretentious, homogenising universalism of the American imperium. Our own imperium elevates to godhead not necessarily a Cæsar or a god-emperor (though we do have people with such pretensions, for which irony is but a flimsy excuse). Instead we promote a set of falsely-universal ideals (whether bourgeois democracy, capitalism, industrialism, even shallow identitarian ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity-equity-inclusion’) in whose name that imperium is enforced through economic, political and military violence. If we are to take Saint Paul’s admonition to the Colossians seriously, then we should prepare a world, at the very least an ἐκκλησία in which Russians are free to be Russians, Chinese are free to be Chinese, Iranians are free to be Iranians, Syrians to be Syrians, Vietnamese to be Vietnamese, Indigenous to be Indigenous—not with any chauvinism or pretensions to grandeur attached, for in Christ and His kingdom such worldly distinctions are devoid of importance, but in the full depth of their cultural belonging.