I am currently revising a paper I hope to send off for publication soon on Augustine’s homilies on 1 John and the Donatists. The Donatists had arisen after persecutions in N. Africa and the crux of their theology was about purity. Had one’s Bishop turned over the Scriptures (or some other holy books – cf. the letter of Mensurius to Secundus of Tigisis where he admits he only turned over heretical books, not Scripture – CSEL 53.74) or relented in their faith during Roman persecutions, they were considered ritually impure, and thus all sacramental efficacy had been removed from them. They were no longer able to baptize, to confect the Eucharist, etc. (cf. Cyprian’s Epistula 67 – the Donatists weren’t inventing this whole-cloth).
The Donatists had a militant wing called the ‘Circumcellions’ – so named because they hung out circum cellas (around the shrines of the martyrs). Augustine, after having cited Mt. 7.16 (“By their works you will know them.”), writes in his 10th Enarratio en Psalmos:
uideo plane mira opera, quotidianas uiolentias circumcellionum sub episcopis et presbyteris ducibus circumquaque uolitare, et terribiles fustes Israeles uocare.
Indeed I see incredible works, the daily violent acts of the Circumcellions conducted everywhere under the leadership of their bishops and priests – and they call their terrible clubs, “Israels.”
That is, the Circumcellions would “educate” their Catholic foes with these cudgels which they called “Israels.” Possidius, Augustine’s often-ignored biographer, records in the 12th chapter of the Vita Augustini that Augustine had almost been ambushed by these Circumcellions, but had, by providence, taken a different road and thus their ambush was foiled. Augustine also mentions this in a recently-discovered work, Contra Paganos (§45). Possidius himself had not been so lucky and was beaten by them, though he survived.
At any rate, I can’t but help see this as a little bit of humor on the part of the Donatists that they called their weapons “Israels.” I think it also demonstrates a couple of things: 1) Theology matters. Accounts of early Christianity which downplay this (and there are more than a few) seem to miss the point. Theology was so pervasive that even when making a joke, the Donatists turned to Scripture. 2) The ancients had wicked senses of humor, just like moderns.