Sunday, June 20, 2010

Birger Pearson on Marcus the Heretic

One of the reasons I treasure Birger Pearson's work is that I always rediscover new things when I read his writings a second time. I was doing just this the other night.  I had pulled his Ancient Gnosticism: Tradition and Literature off the shelf and just happened to glance at his opening statement about Marcus which reads:

Marcus presents his teaching as a revelation from the Tetrad in the Pleroma. What is interesting about Marcus's system is that he interprets a Valentinian myth with the use of numerology and alphabet mysticism. The Valentinian aeons are represented as elements or letters of the alphabet. (The Greek word stoicheion can mean “element” or a “letter” of the alphabet.) The primal Father “willed to make utterable that of him which was ineffable and to give form to that which was invisible,” and “opened his mouth and sent forth a word which was similar to himself." "He uttered the first word of his name, which was 'beginning' (Arche),” a word made up of four letters (Greek αρχή).[p. 169]

In this one paragraph there is a wealth of information that might escape the eye of a naive observer.

Let's start with Marcus's interest in the Tetrad. It has been well documented that Marcus's connection with a figure called 'Colorbasus' goes back to the Aramaic 'all four.' Now Pearson explains WHY this is so.

It goes back to a Marcosian interest in the first line of Genesis which in the LXX has αρχή replace the Hebrew בְּרֵאשִׁית

ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν

So we can clarify Pearson's observation a little bit by saying that Irenaeus reports to us that the Marcosians undoubtedly said that their founder Mark had a revelation from 'four' in heaven because that group undoubtedly inherited a mystical interest in the opening lines of Genesis FROM THE JEWS AND SAMARITANS. It had nothing to do with 'adapting a myth' from the Valentinians.

But before we get there let's note that Marcus himself is always reported to REALLY be interested in the number six. There are no real mentions of Marcus actually bothering with the number four anywhere in the report. Instead everywhere else we hear about Marcus understanding that SIX was the number of creation.

I would argue that Irenaeus is only reporting about a Greek adaptation of the original Marcosian system. The followers of Marcus developed their teachings from Hebrew traditions like the one which appears among the writings of the Samaritans under the name 'Mark' from the same period:

See how it is in Bereshit and number the letters—six—like the six days, for each one resembles the other; and the name which brought all created things into being sealed the whole. Therefore He said, "God finished" (Gen. ii. 2). Bereshit was the starting-point and God finished (ibid. Targ.). Also the six days, Sabbath and holiness.[Mimar Marqe iv.2]

I want to emphasize then that given the Marcosian interest in the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet has been altered to make it fit the limitations of the Greek system. In some places Irenaeus speaks of the Episemon in others the Tetrad BECAUSE THE GREEK TEXT OF GENESIS uses a four letter word (αρχή) as opposed to the original six letter word (בְּרֵאשִׁית).

There can be no doubt that the original understanding developed from Hebrew sources (the sect maintained there prayers in Hebrew or Aramaic).

To this end Christianity in my mind originally shared the same interest in kabbalah as Jews and Samaritans did including the idea that there number six (or sixth letter) created the world. Not only did sages notice that there were six letters in the word for 'beginning' in Hebrew but the very word בְּרֵאשִׁית was often divided into two and read בְּרֵא שִׁית or 'created six' (see Midrash haGadol, Genesis 1:1, 11 - 12; Seder Rabbah di-Vreshit, 1 (Battei Midrashot, 1:19), where it is said that the world was created by six letters (BT Sukkah 49a; Zohar 1:15 b, 39b)

Yet Jewish sources also (as I have noted before) read the first sentence of Genesis in such a way that the real subject of the first sentence in Genesis (i.e. the hidden God) was deliberately obscured from the text. So the Zohar:

With this beginning the unknown and concealed one created the palace. This palace is called א אֱלֹהִים Elohim (God). The secret is בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים - with beginning _______ created God [Zohar 1:15a]

I think that everyone will agree that this is EXACTLY what Marcus and his tradition must have originally understood ONLY IRENAEUS IS REPORTING a version of the original interpretation that was specifically developed for Greek speakers (hence the Tetrad).

The original idea was that the letter vav (Hebrew) or episemon (Greek) gave a revelation to Marcus through which he created the gospel.

Indeed let's also pick up on Pearson's second point that the Greek word στοιχεῖον meant 'letter' as well as 'element.' Notice now that in the writings ascribed to the Apostle there are clear references to these same 'letters':

Galatians 4:3 οὕτως καὶ ἡμεῖς, ὅτε ἦμεν νήπιοι ὑπὸ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου ἤμεθα δεδουλωμένοι·

So we also, when we were children, were held in bondage under the στοιχεῖα of the world.

Galatians 4:9 νῦν δὲ γνόντες θεόν, μᾶλλον δὲ γνωσθέντες ὑπὸ θεοῦ, πῶς ἐπιστρέφετε πάλιν ἐπὶ τὰ ἀσθενῆ καὶ πτωχὰ στοιχεῖα οἷς πάλιν ἄνωθεν δουλεῦσαι / δουλεύειν θέλετε;

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, why do you turn back again to the weak and miserable στοιχεῖα, to which you desire to be in bondage all over again?

Colossians 2:8 βλέπετε μή τις ὑμᾶς ἔσται ὁ συλαγωγῶν διὰ τῆς φιλοσοφίας καὶ κενῆς ἀπάτης κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπων κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου καὶ οὐ κατὰ Χριστόν·

Be careful that you don't let anyone rob you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the στοιχεῖα of the world, and not after Christ.

Colossians 2:20 Εἰ ἀπεθάνετε σὺν Χριστῷ ἀπὸ τῶν στοιχείων τοῦ κόσμου, τί ὡς ζῶντες ἐν κόσμῳ δογματίζεσθε;

If you died with Christ from the worldly στοιχείων, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to ordinances

Isn't it at least possible that the followers of Mark had the RIGHT interpretation of these passages?

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