Friday, October 8, 2010

My Theory on the Origins of the Gospel [Part One]

I am hopeful the issue of the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore will be settled soon. If I had all the money in the world, it would have been settled yesterday but that's another story. The point is that I have settled on a unique interpretation of the document. I think the key to make sense of it is the word hypomnemata. Justin uses it to describe the gospels in his day. Clement uses it to describe the original works composed by Mark:

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. As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own and Peter's hypomnemata, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected.

Regular readers of my blog know that I have done of lot of work developing an appreciation for the hypomnemata genre in Christian antiquity. Clement's Stromateis is a hypomenmata. Almost every Christian writer in the second and third century seems to have written this kind of work which is best translated as 'commentary' - a commentary developed from a mix of sources. Indeed exactly what is described here.

The point is that it is only our inherited presuppositions which make us think that we possess 'the original' gospels and - for instance - Tatian's Diatessaron represents something 'inferior' because it was developed from a patch work of earlier sources. But Tatian's teacher Justin speaks of the gospel as 'the hypomnemata of the apostles.' The Christians of Syria and the Middle East preferred this 'mixed gospel' to our supposed 'original texts.'

In Alexandria we know that Tatian's text was influential but there is also reference to a specifically Alexandrian 'Diatessaron' associated with Origen's teacher Ammonius Sacca. The Syrian writer Ebed-Jesu of the fourteenth century speaks of "a Gospel which a man of Alexandria compiled, Ammonius, who is Tatian, and he called it Diatessaron." Similarly Bar Salibi distinguishes the Diatessaron from an Alexandrian Gospel which superficially resembled it and was witnessed by 'Elias of Salamia called Aphthonius' who:

constructed a Gospel on the model of the Diatessaron of Ammonius (of Alexandria), mentioned by Eusebius in his introduction to the Canons, which he made for the Gospel. Elias sought for that Diatessaron but could not find it; and so he constructed another after the likeness of it. And this Elias finds fault with several things in the Canons of Eusebius, and points out errors in them, and with good reason. But this work which Elias compiled is not often met with.

I have searched high and low for someone named either 'Elias of Salamia' or 'Aphthonius' who could reasonably be supposed to have (a) been associated with the so-called 'Alexandrian Diatessaron' and (b) would have lived AFTER the time of Eusebius and could have challenged the claims of his Canons. I have so far found only one reasonable possibility for the identity of this writer - Aphthonius of Alexandria, a figure mentioned in Philostorgius' History as he develops the story of the prominent 'Arianist' Aetius of Antioch. We read that:

After this expulsion, he [Aetius] lived for some time with Athanasius, a disciple of the martyr Lucian. who at that time was bishop of Anagarbus. Under him he read the writings of the evangelists, and made himself perfect master of their contents ; this done, he found his way to Tarsus, in order to see Anthony, who had himself been one of the disciples of Lucian. From him he learned the interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles, and lived with him for some space of time, while he as yet held the rank of a mere presbyter. But upon his elevation to the episcopate, Anthony found that he had no time to devote to the instruction of Aetius ; so the latter returned to Antioch, in order to become the disciple of Leontius, who was at that time a presbyter at Antioch, and had been one of the pupils of Lucian. He expounded to Aetius the books of "the Prophets," and especially Ezekiel. But again ill-will, as Philostorgius dreams, or rather, as one might say with greater truth, his own unbridled tongue, and the impious nature of his doctrines, drove him from the city. Thence accordingly Aetius took his departure into Cilicia, where one of the heretical sect of the Borboriani entirely overcame and confounded him in a disputation in defence of his doctrines. On this account he began to be cast down in spirit, and to feel that life was no longer worth living for, seeing that he found falsehood to be more powerful than truth. While Aetius was in this state of mind, as Philostorgius declares, a vision appeared to him, which raised him up again, and confirmed his mind; for it showed him by certain external signs the indomitable strength of the wisdom which should hereafter be imparted to him. From that time forward Aetius had a special gift from God, which saved him from defeat in his disputations. Not long afterwards a certain man named Aphthonius, a leader of the mad heresy of the Manichaeans, and who had gained great renown for his wisdom as well as for his eloquence, met him in the city of Alexandria, for the curiosity of Aetius was so much excited by his fame that he had actually gone thither from Antioch to see him. But upon coming to a regular discussion, Aetius very shortly dumbfounded Aphthonius, and reduced hirn to deep shame from the pinnacle of glory. Aphthonius was so grievously afflicted by the suddenness of his defeat that he fell into a dangerous sickness, on which death shortly ensued, his bodily strength not being able to bear up against it for more than seven days. But Aetius went on everywhere overcoming his adversaries, and gaining the most illustrious victories. At the same time, he gave himself up to the study of medicine, that he might be able to cure diseases not of the soul only, but also of the body. He had also, as a master in this line, Sopolis, a man inferior to none of his day in his art. But if at any time he chanced to be in want of necessaries, he would go by night to some artisan of his former trade, that he might not be hindered from attending to more important business during the day, and quickly finished anything of gold that needed a skilful hand, and so getting his pay from the goldsmith, he supported life. But this all happened in the reign of Constantius, at the same time when Theophilus was staying at Antioch, after his return from India.[Philostorgius Church History i.15]

Now, if it is deemed possible that Aphthonius, head of the so-called 'Manichaean community' in Alexandria might be Elias of Salamia, it could explain the line in Bar Salibi that he "sought for that Diatessaron (of Alexandria) but could not find it; and so he constructed another after the likeness of it. And this [he] finds fault with several things in the Canons of Eusebius, and points out errors in them, and with good reason" by saying that Aphthonius as a convert to Manichaeanism employed Mani's 'Gospel of the Living.' Nevertheless the Alexandrians to whom he appealed Mani's dualistic message might have either known of or still possessed the original Alexandrian gospel.

It should be noted that our information about the contact between Aphthonius and Aetius is unfortunately filters through TWO different sources. What we have now is a fragment of an anti-Arian account of a pro-Arian history of Philostorgius. God knows who or what group Aphthonius of Alexandria might have belonged to (note - there were no historical 'Borborites' yet one of our sources claims that Aetius met and debated one).

What I am saying here represents just a 'good guess' as to who this figure might be. I can't find any more information about this figure and at least one expert on the Diatessaron says that Bar Salibi's reference is all we have. As such I think we should examine this intriguing possibility that he might have a 'heretic' a little more closely.

I think we should assist our readers with some chronological details related to this text of Eusebius which seems to be at the heart of a dispute with Aphthonius.

Eusebius wrote the Letter to Carpianus in the first years of the fourth century. In that address Eusebius attached a copy of the following table telling Carpianus the following information about this 'Alexandrian Diatessaron':

Ammonius the Alexandrian, having exerted a great deal of energy and effort as was necessary, bequeaths to us a harmonized account of the four gospels. Alongside the Gospel according to Matthew, he placed the corresponding sections of the other gospels. But this had the inevitable result of ruining the sequential order of the other three gospels, as far as a continuous reading of the text was concerned. Keeping, however, both the body and sequence of the other gospels completely intact, in order that you may be able to know where each evangelist wrote passages in which they were led by love of truth to speak about the same things, I drew up a total of ten tables according to another system, acquiring the raw data6 from the work of the man mentioned above. These tables are set out for you below.

The first of them lists the reference numbers for similar things recounted in the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the second in the three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the third in the three, Matthew, Luke, and John; the fourth in the three, Matthew, Mark, and John; the fifth in the two, Matthew, and Luke; the sixth in the two, Matthew and Mark; the seventh in the two, Matthew and John; the eighth in the two, Mark and Luke; the ninth in the two, Luke and John; the tenth is for unique things recorded in each gospel.

Now that I have outlined the structure of the tables set out below, I will explain how to use them. In each of the four gospels, consecutive reference numbers are assigned to each section, starting from the first, then the second, and the third, and so on in sequence, proceeding through the whole gospel to the book's end. Every reference number has a numeral written below it in red that indicates in which of the ten tables the reference number is located. If the red numeral is a I, the reference number is clearly in the first table, and if it is a II, in the second, and thus in sequence to the numeral ten.

And so, suppose you open one of the four gospels at some point, wishing to go to a certain chapter in order to know what gospels recount similar things and to find in each gospel the related passages in which the evangelists were led to speak about the same things. By using the reference number assigned for the section in which you are interested and looking for it within the table indicated by the red numeral below it, you will immediately discover from the titles at the head of the table how many and which gospels recount similar things. By going to the other gospels' reference numbers that are in the same row as the reference number11 in the table you are at and looking them up in the related passages of each gospel, you will find similar things mentioned.

Now let's stop for a moment and marvel at the parallel between Eusebius's letter to Carpianus and Clement's letter to Theodore. Someone has written to each of these Church Fathers about the contents of an otherwise unknown Alexandrian gospel. In the same way that Clement points to 'others' (i.e. 'Carpocratians') who keep saying 'untrue' things about his Alexandrian Gospel, Eusebius' claims about the Alexandrian gospel are disputed by a figure named Aphthonius who is in similarly associated with a 'heretical sect.'

Whatever Aphthonius's criticism were, Bar Salibi's source seems to acknowledge their underlying accuracy.

While we are unsure when Aphthonius would have rejected Eusebius' canon the context of Bar Salibi's statement could be used to indicate that it happened shortly after Eusebius' original account.

We can read the statement that Aphthonius "sought for that Diatessaron but could not find it" in two ways. The only way that makes any sense is if Aphthonius wrote close enough to the time of Eusebius that - as an Alexandrian - he figured that IF such a text as Eusebius claimed to be an 'Alexandrian Diatessaron' actually existed, he would have expected to find it.

As such the information which Bar Salibi provides for us in what follows - "and so he constructed another after the likeness of it" (i.e. the Alexandrian Diatessaron) is only a reference to the fact that Aphthonius knew that another text was actually in the hand of Ammonius and previous generations of Alexandrians.

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