Monday, July 26, 2010

Salt, Secret Mark and the Jewish Mystical Tradition

I have been having a wonderful discussion someone at the site about the name Sabaoth and I thought I might provide another example of the traditional Jewish interest in the Ogdoad (and its relationship with words with numerological values 78, 778 and the like). I have always had an interest in Morton Smith's discovery of the Mar Saba document and was drawn immediately to its reference to salt.

Given that the Angelina Jolie movie has just come out it might be timely to take a second look at that passage:

For the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt becomes foolish. (To Theodore 1.13 - 15)

A number of scholars have puzzled over gospels saying "if the salt becomes foolish (μωρανθῇ) how shall it be salted?" (Mat 5:13) and concluded that it must derive from an Aramaic original.

Most attention has been focused on the parallel passage in Mark "if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again?" (Mark 9:50) Bischoff suggested that there is a wordplay here, tabla de'tebel, "salt of the world." The word "earth" means world. F. Perles reads it le letabla wela lezable khasher, "fit neither as spuce (table, confused with tebel, which is rendered in the Gr. by ge) nor as fertilizer (zabla). M. Black reconstructs the Aramaic as follows:

"Ye are the salt of the earth
('attun melah 'ar'a)

But if the salt has lots its savour wherewith shall it be salted.
('m taphel melah lema tabbelunnah)

It is neither fit for the ground, nor yet for dung ...
(la leara, 'aph la lere'a kashar)

As he understands it, the question "how shall it be restored" is purely rhetorical. Salt cannot lose its saltiness. All attempts to prove that it can are unconvincing. Understood rhetorically, it is admirably illustrated by a rabbinic passage in the same vein: "They asked [R. Joshua]: 'When salt became unsavory wherewith is it to be salted?' He replied, 'With the afterbirth of a mule!' 'And is there an afterbirth of a mule?' 'And can it become unsavory?' [B. Bekh. 8b]

Yet I don't understand why Black renders the last clause as tabbelunnah when the the Aramaic parallel in Bechorot 8b reads:

When salt becomes unsavory, wherewith do they salt it? (Bekh 8b)

melah ki sari vk'mileha

The point is that sari comes from sareh which means BOTH 'foolish' and 'unsavory.' I don't know why Black didn't see that. I will have to reread the section again.

But with regards to the meaning of the passage has escaped most interpreters the answer can only be explained through gematria. For the word for salt מלח has a numerological value of 78. Isaac Luria the famed kabbalist long understood 78 to be related to the Tetragrammaton which has a value of 26. A trinity of Tetragrammatons equals 78 and for this reason it was well established in his tradition that:

The Holy Ari Zal teaches that when eating bread one should dip the bread in salt three times since three times Hashem (God's name) 26 equals 78, the gematria for both salt מלח and bread לחמ [Poem of Jerome Rothenberg]

The point is that as there has been ABSOLUTELY NO SATISFACTORY explanation of this saying we have to at least consider the possibility of a mystical interpretation. I would go one step further and argue that 78 is indicative of the same principle as שבעות (which has a value of 778) - i.e. the messianic 'year of favor' and all that is associated with it.

Again, I am not advocating the use of mystical arguments where solid evidence leads to a less ambiguous interpretation. But in this case, no one else seems to make either heads or tails of the material.

So it is when we go back to Clement's use of the term in To Theodore we see that in other passage of his writings salt is - in the manner of the rabbinic tradition - seen as a preserving agent. I can't help but see a parallel between:

Now of the things they keep saying about the divinely inspired Gospel according to Mark, some are altogether falsifications, and others, even if they do contain some true elements, nevertheless are not reported truly. For the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor.

And what appears in Stromata Book 7 Chapter 8:

Wherefore it was not said to all, You are the salt of the earth. (Matthew 5:13) For there are some even of the hearers of the word who are like the fishes of the sea, which, reared from their birth in brine, yet need salt to dress them for food. Accordingly I wholly approve of the tragedy, when it says:—

O son, false words can be well spoken,
And truth may be vanquished by beauty of words.
But this is not what is most correct, but nature and what is right;
He who practices eloquence is indeed wise,
But I consider deeds always better than words.

So much attention has been focused on that unfortunate work by Carlson that the obviousness of the parallels here get lost in a question about whether or not ancients had free-flowing salt (they did). The only important idea that is not explicitly mentioned in the passage from the Stromata is the idea that the EXPLICIT connection between the salt and the mixture of false words.

I would argue however that salt (i.e. the number 78) is indicative of the power of God, the PERSONAL salvatory preservative which is endangered by mixture of false words i.e. words from gospels outside of the original Alexandrian gospel of Mark.

Maybe I am missing something ...

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.