Thursday, July 15, 2010

Origen's Twenty Seventh Homily on Numbers

I have been reading every early Alexandrian text that I can get my hands on to help identify a specifically Alexandrian Christian context for the fifty stars that appear on two sides and back of the throne of St. Mark. I think I might have figured one out. Origen in his Twenty Seventh Homily on Numbers points to the 'forty two stations' or 'stops' that take Israel from liberation in Egypt to the Promised Land in Numbers Chapter Thirty Three as being related to forty two steps to spiritual perfection.

While scholars of the Patristic literature view this as 'typical' of Origen's inventive interpretation of scripture, it may surprise them that a similar exegesis is well established among Hasidic Jewry. Yet the identification of something secret being hidden in the reference to the number forty two goes back as far as Nahmanides. Not only does he point to the delineation of the 42 stages, but also by the additional declaration that "...Moses wrote their goings forth, according to their stations, by the commandment of God..." (Numbers 33:1-2). These words suggested to him that something about the recording of these journeys is uniquely important.

In approaching the issue, Nahmanides first quotes Rashi (who cites the words of 'Rabbi Moshe the Preacher') that Moses "set his mind to write down the journeyings. It was his intention thereby to inform [future generations] of the loving kindness of God..." After all, He protected His nation despite their manifold travels. After quoting Rashi, he then turns to Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, Section 3, Chapter 50), who understands the detail as a means of corroborating the historical truth of the narrative. He adds that later generations might think they sojourned in a "desert that was near cultivated land, oases which were comfortable for human habitation, places in which it was possible to till and reap or to feed on plants, areas with many wells..." Hence the enumeration of all these way-stations to emphasize the extent of the miracle of Israelite subsistence.

After quoting these views, Nahmanides concludes with a most intriguing comment: "Thus the writing down of the journeying was a commandment of God, either for reasons mentioned above, or a purpose the secret of which has not been revealed to us..." Nahmanides seems to be hinting at a hidden kabbalistic secret of the highest order. It might well be the same 'allegorical' secret that was passed on to Origen through the Alexandrian Church's relationship with the all but destroyed Alexandrian Jewish community, the one being essentially built on top of the other.

After all, the concept of "ma'aseh avot siman l'banim" (the actions of the fathers are a sign of what will happen to the children) is well known to the sages, and one of the guiding principles of Nahmanides's biblical commentary. This was something 'typical' in the Origenist sense, something which was to serve as a 'lesson' for generations.

Clearly there has to be some parallel here to the forty two days after the crossing of the sea. The Jewish and Samaritan traditions have always held that the ancient Israelites entered the sea on the seventh day and arrived at the other side on the eighth. This had a great deal of significance with the original 'gnostic' interest in the Ogdoad (the 'eighthness') which is intimately associated with baptism.

Moses received the Torah fifty days after setting out from the first Passover yet it was also forty two days after the crossing of the sea. One may even argue that a Christian tradition emerged which applied this interest in the Pentecost which followed the death and burial of Jesus on the Friday before the Sabbath.

It is also worth noting that the Alexandrian tradition can be demonstrated to have a strange obsession with connecting the number forty two with the end of the Jewish religion. In Book 1 of his Stromateis, at 145, 5 (ed. O. Stählin), Clement states that forty-two years and three months separate the fall of Jerusalem (which happened in the summer of 70 C.E.) from the Passion. Origen mentions the same forty-two years, but with some reservation, in Against Celsus, at IV.22. In his Homily on Jeremiah, at XIV.13, Origen refers to the same forty-two years more assertively as the time separating year 15 of Tiberius from the fall of Jerusalem. Apparently, the assumption is that Jesus died in year 15 of Tiberius. This year date is mentioned in Luke 3:1, but not in direct connection with the event.

On this basis, the resulting year would be 28 C.E. (70-42), not 29 C.E. Upon closer inspection, however, Clement's account (Stromateis I.145, 2-5) may be seen to be internally inconsistent. Clement counts (1) about thirty years from Jesus's birth to baptism, (2) one year to his death, (3) forty-two years and three months to the fall of Jerusalem, and (4) 122 years, 10 months, and 13 days to the death of Commodus. But the total from the birth of Jesus to the death of Commodus is given as 194 years, 1 month, and 13 days. One would rather expect 196 years, 1 month, and 13 days. Something is wrong.

All that can be said for certain is that there MUST HAVE BEEN an early interest in the number forty two in Alexandrian Christianity which dates to a period where baptism was associated with the number eight for reasons already demonstrated. The efforts to which Clement goes to show that forty two years separated Jesus's death and the destruction of the temple is paralleled by Origen's interest in emphasizing that there were forty two generations from Abraham to Jesus in Matthew 1:17 (Origen Twenty Seventh Homily on Numbers).

The source of all these Alexandrian interpretations must have been an Alexandrian Jewish mystical interpretation of Numbers 33. Indeed we see an uncanny similarity in the Hasidic interpretation of the material to this day which is almost identical to Origen's writings. For instance, the verses in Numbers are typically divided by the Hasidim into three groups of fourteen as well and are used to imply 'stations' in the spiritual journey of individuals back to their spiritual source.

Yet I think that the original context of course was rooted in the fact that forty two when added to eight (the day on which the Israelites reached the other side of the sea) leads to fifty the so-called 'perfect number.' I think the secret teaching that Nahmanides won't reveal has everything to do with the messiah and the Jubilee year.

More on that later ...

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