Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why Scholars Make Bad Lovers [Part One]

In my last post I made reference to the relatively recent publication of Peter Jeffery reaction to the Biblical Archaeology Review's handwriting analysis of the Mar Saba document. Jeffery is a well respected authority on early music who took an interest in disproving Morton Smith's discovery of an eighteenth century manuscript in an ancient monastery. I noted then that Jeffery emphasized in his commentary that he never claimed in any of his published works that Smith actually forged the letter.

Of course, my interest in drawing attention to this publication is to emphasize the effect that Venetia Anastasopoulou was having on scholarship. Yet it would be misleading for anyone to infer from my citation of Jeffery that he had someone given up believing that the Mar Saba document is a 'fake.' Jeffery makes clear in his commentary that he still believes that there are a number of 'questions' about the content of the document that have to be answered by people like me who accept its genuiness. So it is that I have decided to take up his challenge and answer most of his concerns.

It has to be noted that my reconstruction of the history of the late second and early third century Church is very unique among scholars. The arguments I am about to develop are my own. No one should think that I somehow speak for the rest of those who feel the document is genuine. Let us then cite the closing words of Peter Jeffery's response and see if my reconstruction of the period is more believable than his and those who share his conservative ideology:

Those who consider the text ancient, on the other hand, completely disagree with each other as to its origin and interpretation. Does the Secret Gospel pre-date or post-date canonical Mark? Why the secrecy? Are the sexual innuendoes actually present or not? What are the Carpocratians actually being accused of? What is the meaning of Salome’s expanded role? Before they declare victory, those who would place the document in the second century need to face such questions instead of ignoring or minimizing them, and come to some level of consensus on a compelling interpretation that shows why their dating makes the most sense.

A lot of Jeffery's concerns about the references to the homosexuality of the Carpocratians is easily dismissed. Those who raise 'questions' about the Mar Saba document often point to the fact that the account of the Carpocratians in Against Heresies does not make specific reference to homosexuality among members of the sect. This is found only in Epiphanius account and since Epiphanius wrote in the fourth century rather than at the time of Clement of Alexandria (late second to early third century) the text should be considered a forgery.

Yet Hugh Lawlor and many others have already demonstrated that Irenaeus and Epiphanius are both drawing from a lost hypomnemata first published during the time of (Pope) Anicetus and then later again to the time of (Pope) Eleutherius. Lawlor has demonstrated that Epiphanius's citation of the original material from the hypomnemata is verbatim whereas what appears in Irenaeus and Eusebius is of inferior quality. The reference to the Carpocratians is argued by Lawlor to be so literal it obvious represents an exact citation. Epiphanius's reference to the homosexual practices of the Carpocratians was undoubtedly also a verbatim citation from the hypomnemata - a hypomnemata which we have already demonstrated Clement of Alexandria used and cited in his Stromateis.

As similar argument can be used to dismiss Jeffery's 'questions' about the expanded role of Salome. For we have also pointed out that there can be no doubt that Celsus the pagan critic was also drawing from this same document. In fact his True Account can be dated to the period of joint rule between Commodus and his father Marcus Aurelius (c. 177 CE) thus making it the earliest reference to the hypomnemata. Celsus makes specific reference not only to 'those of Marcellina' - a figure identified as a 'Carpocratian' by later Church Fathers. Celsus's MS of the hypomnemata actually identifies her sect as 'the Harpocratians of Salome,' again only strengthening the credibility of the Mar Saba document.

So what's left of Jeffery's 'questions' about the content of the Mar Saba document? Oh yes, two things it seems - (1) why would the Alexandrian Gospel of Mark have been kept secret and (2) how could Clement have encouraged his hearers to swear false oaths. Most reasonable people wouldn't even attempt an answer to these questions because they really aren't that serious anyway. Do any of these things in any way challenge the authenticity of the document? No, by contrast they remind us how artificial our knowledge of the Church Fathers is and the times in which they lived.

Indeed, there are very few people who have anything profound to say about the humanity of the Church Fathers. You know - what they looked like, how they lived, where they lived etc. All we have are a number of texts purportedly written by so and so. That isn't knowledge; it's utter superficiality. At best we know how the Nicene Church wanted to remember figures like Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandrian which isn't saying very much at all.

Experience has taught me that almost all of the people who are experts on the Patristic writings of the early period are themselves people who embrace the Catholic position in some form. No one should be surprised that the world's leading experts on gay literature are themselves homosexual, or that cooks tend to be overweight. But can a gay person really give an unbiased understanding of what homosexuality is or isn't? In the same way, we have to ask - can a Catholic really provide us with a critical evaluation of what the late second and third century Church was or wasn't like?

Here's what I am driving at. We have inherited this understanding of the development of Christianity where Jesus is on one end of the spectrum and 'the Church' on the other. Standing in between 'the Bridegroom' and his 'Bride' are the disciples who 'publicly preached' his message. Eventually these oral pronoucements were written down as scriptures - we are told - and then when these works were all collected into one 'New Testament' the Church began.

I don't have an issue with much of this. My suspicion is that people like Jeffrey haven't thought through their belief systems in any meaningful way. For there are obvious difficulities in this model with the exact moment that 'the Church' commenced its operations. It's nice to imagine that there was a smooth transition from small communities developed around charismatic preachers and witnesses to the word and 'the great Church' we have all come to take for granted but there had to have been some bumps along the road. Not everyone could have been in 'perfect concord' with the decisions about what was accepted as orthodoxy - both in terms of texts and traditions - and what was ultimately rejected. These decisions could not possibly have been made in a democratic forum. After all 'divine truth' isn't subject to the will of the majority.

The way Irenaeus for instance talks about 'the tradition of Peter and Paul' makes clear that the decision regarding what was deemed 'right belief' was made by a small number of Roman presbyters - possibly only a handful. Their decision had to have been imposed on the rest of the Christian world. For it is impossible to imagine that Alexandrian presbyters would have welcomed the subordination of their St. Mark and indeed their apostolic witness.

So why was 'Secret Mark' kept secret? Well let's start with the word 'secret.' It does figure prominently in the anti-heretical writings of Irenaeus. The 'unlawful' forms of Christianity are essentially 'secret' forms of the religion who face 'imminent danger' if they are apprehended. But let's leave aside the question of Irenaeus's writings for a moment and focus on those of a slightly older contemporary - that of the pagan writer Celsus again.

It is amazing to see how most people interpret Celsus's writings. They make it seem as if Celsus was condemning Christianity as a whole with his True Account. Nothing could be further from the truth. The focus of Celsus's efforts is to condemn the forms of Christianity which deny the ruler of the world. Celsus views these sects a dangerous break from established tradition and by the end of his work he seems to accuse them of represent a disloyal - and even seditious - religious association.

Indeed Origen makes clear that Celsus's 'first statement' against Christianityreflects exactly the kind of environment that could produce a document such as the contents of the Mar Saba document - i.e. Clement's Letter to Theodore. Origen notes:

the first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that “of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.” And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the agape of the Christians, as if they had their origin in the common danger, and were more binding than any oaths. Since, then, he babbles about the public law, alleging that the associations of the Christians are in violation of it, we have to reply [Against Celsus 1.1]

As we noted this reference to 'secret' Christian associations that swear false oaths is the first thing that Celsus says about the heresies. Later he acknowledges that Christians lived in fear because they could be arrested and killed for their beliefs. At the same time, he heaps praise on 'the members of the great Church' - i.e. Irenaeus's community - for their maintenance of Jewish customs and religious principles.

Is it really unimaginable then that a document like To Theodore could have been produced in this period? Is its reference to 'secrecy' and 'false oaths' really out of character for what Celsus reports was quite common for Christians who weren't attached to the 'great Church'? Ah, but that is the real issue for people like Jeffery. Clement of Alexandria is counted as a Father of the 'great Church.' Surely he could not have shared the heretical beliefs of the communities condemned by Irenaeus in his writings.

Of course if Jeffery was more knowledgeable about the state of Clementine scholarship he would realize that a number of scholars - including Philp Schaff the editor of the standard collection of writings of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers - have noted that many parts of Clement's writings resemble one heretical group in particular - i.e. 'those of Mark,' a gnostic group that Irenaeus devotes nine chapters of his Against Heresies. Is it possible that 'those of Mark' were really members of a tradition which preserved the now heretical beliefs of St. Mark in a hostile political environment? I strongly suspect this to be true.

The point is that when we go back to Clement's Letter to Theodore and see the way the author encourages his hearers to adhere to a secret doctrine 'more binding than any oath' - we plainly see that there is a general agreement with Celsus's report cited above:

To them, therefore, as I said above, one must never give way; nor, when they put forward their falsifications, should one concede that the secret Gospel is by Mark, but should even deny it on oath. For, "Not all true things are to be said to all men". For this reason the Wisdom of God, through Solomon, advises, "Answer the fool from his folly", teaching that the light of the truth should be hidden from those who are mentally blind. Again it says, "From him who has not shall be taken away", and "Let the fool walk in darkness". But we are "children of Light", having been illuminated by "the dayspring" of the spirit of the Lord "from on high", and "Where the Spirit of the Lord is", it says, "there is liberty", for "All things are pure to the pure". [To Theodore 2.10 - 19]

There is of course another way that the words can be rendered into English - Scott Brown's "nor, when they put forward their falsifications, should one concede that it is Mark’s mystic Gospel, but should even deny it on oath." Both translations are supported by the Greek but we should stick with Smith's original rendering if only because it echoes debates between members of the Marcionite sect and Catholics in the general period.

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