Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reconstructing Clement's Unrecognized Reference to the Secret Gospel of Alexandria [Part Three]

We are slowly making our way towards the clearest proof that Clement cryptically alluded to the existence of a secret gospel in the adyton (shrine) of the Church of St. Mark in Alexandria.  Yet every step along our path we end up coming up against prejudices which stand in the way of our proper understanding of the original material.  Indeed what has always stood in our way of knowing the truth is our inherited presuppositions.  We think we already know what Christianity is.  We think we know who 'Paul' is, who 'Mark' is so it becomes unnecessary for us to investigate further how other traditions - the Marcionites in particular - constructed their paradigm. 

Indeed in the aftermath of Morton Smith's discovery of the Letter to Theodore those who think they know what Christianity is, was and always will be have found themselves in a dilemma.  How could Clement have argued that there was such a thing as this 'secret gospel'?  At its most simplistic, the pious reason to themselves that if they belonged to the same Catholic tradition as Clement and they were never informed about a 'secret gospel' then it is impossible or at least unlikely that the Alexandrian could have referenced a text that 'makes no sense' in Christianity. 

I don't think this line of reasoning is very helpful.  The bottom line of course is that things are always changing and adapting in the world.  What Christianity has become is not necessarily the same thing as what Christianity was in the beginning.  If we are to attempt to take the Letter to Theodore seriously we can't attempt to force our inherited presuppositions on to the material but rather allow the text to tell us what the ancient beliefs and practices of Alexandria were at the end of the second century. 

Indeed I think we have taken the first step towards making sense of the document by noticing that Marcionites must have read 1 Corinthians Chapter 2 in a way which greatly resembled Clement's paradigm in to Theodore:

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified ... My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.

We do, however, speak a wisdom among the perfect, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began ... as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” - the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the Depth of God ... This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, comparing spiritual things with spiritual [1 Corinthians 2.1 - 13]

In both to Theodore and the Marcionite reading of the material in the second chapter of 1 Corinthians there is the uncanny sense of a twofold revelation.  On the one hand there is a openly promulgated 'testimony about God .. and him crucified' clearly a historical narrative and on the other a 'secret wisdom' safely guarded by the priesthood in the Church of Alexandria.  As we noted in our last post, the Alexandrians always took the dictum 'comparing spirtual things with spiritual' to mean 'filter the historical narrative through secondary source materials' (or indeed a secondary source) which in turn 'revealed' the hidden mysteries encoded in the text.

While the idea that a Christian community would have two gospels - one publically revealed and another 'hidden' - sounds rather esoteric and strange we have argued that the specific terminology of 1 Corinthians can only have been interpreted in this way by the Marcionites.  Yet before we get back to examining the references to this conception in the Fifth Book of the Stromateis of Clement let's at least acknowledge that this idea is clearly modeled on the mystical traditions of Qumran.  The understanding of law at Qumran is encapsulated in the sectarian legal categories of the nigleh (“revealed,” pl. niglot) and the nistar (“hidden" or "secret" pl. nistarot) (Schiffman 1975, 23–32; 1995, 247– 49; Shemesh and Werman 1998). The nigleh indicates the law that has been revealed to all of Israel, as found in the Torah and its basic understanding. The nistar refers to the laws and interpretations that were revealed only to the members of the Qumran community (CD 3:12–16), yet hidden from other Jews.

While the community had access to both the revealed and hidden law and therefore the totality of Jewish law, other Jews were only aware of the revealed law. Yet, they are still condemned for their non-observance of the hidden laws:

Every initiate into the Council of the Community (Yahad) is to enter the covenant in full view of all the volunteers. He shall take upon himself a binding oath to return to the Law of Moses, according to all that He commanded, with all his heart and all his mind, to all that has been revealed (nigleh) from it to the Sons of Zadok – priests and preservers of the covenant, seekers of his will – and the majority of the men of their covenant (that is, those who have jointly volunteered for His truth and to live by what please Him). Each one who thus enters the covenant by oath is to separate himself from all of the perverse men, they who walk in the wicked way, for such are not reckoned as part of His covenant. They “have not sought Him nor inquired of His statutes” (Zeph 1:6) so as to discover the hidden laws (nistarot) in which they err to their shame. Even the revealed laws (niglot) they knowingly transgress, thus stirring God’s judgmental wrath and full vengeance: the curses of the Mosaic covenant. He will bring against them weighty judgments, eternal destruction with none spared. (1QS 5:7 – 13; all translations, with minor modification, follow Parry and Tov 2004–2005).

It is very important that we do not confuse the idea of the hidden Torah with oral law.  The original conception was rooted in the understanding of a second Torah revealed at Sinai which was kept from Israel.

Schiffman points to a very interesting passage in the Damascus document which I will argue provides the proper historical context for understanding 'secret Mark.'  We read:

And regarding the Prince it is written (Deut. 17:17): "He shall not have many wives," but David had not read the sealed Book of the Law, which was in the ark, which (viz. the ark) had not been opened in Israel from the day of the death of Eleazar and Joshua and the elders.   Since they (Israel) worshipped Ashtoret the nigleh was hidden until the arising of Zadok. (CDC 5:1 - 5)

The idea then that a 'secret Torah' was hidden in the 'holy of Holies' which becomes the nistar of the community.  Indeed if we follow Wacholder's suggestion that the Temple Scroll was the second part of a two-part text of which the first part was the book of Jubilees. This second Torah was the messianic Torah which was to replace the current Torah at the dawn of the messianic age.  

Indeed one could even argue that this 'second Torah' written by an angel, or rather (alternatively) dictated by him to Moses on Sinai, the first Torah being the well-known canonic text, which was written by God himself (Jub. 1:4-6, 26-9; 6:22) stood at one time was kept hidden in the inner sanctum while the revealed Torah was employed in the world around it.  Whatever the case may be, it is enough to say that the idea of a 'secret Torah' or a 'secret wisdom' which was the 'key' to unlock the mysteries of the revealed Torah, remained a part of the Jewish religion until this very day. 

For as long as there has been kabbalah it has been identified by Jews as hochmat ha-nistar, the 'secret wisdom.'  The Zohar itself is identified as the torat ha-nistar - the 'secret Torah' and makes reference to its revelation of 'secret wisdom' everywhere in its pages:
Man being naturally too weak and powerless to possess, has corrupted the divine wisdom which the Holy One imparted and made known to the world and also using it for selfish ends and purposes and presuming on the knowledge of it, has dared to rebel and revolt against their lord. This secret hidden wisdom was revealed at first and imparted to Adam who by it became instructed in its secret doctrine respecting the celestial spheres and their guarding angels. Though endowed with all this profound knowledge, he allowed himself to be influenced and deceived by the tempter so that the fount of this divine wisdom and treasury of knowledge became closed to him. After his repentance, it was again opened to him, but only partially so. In the book that bears his name, he has transmitted this divine wisdom to his successors who, after acquiring a knowledge of it, provoked the wrath of the Holy One against them by their abuse of it for selfish purposes. Its mysteries were taught by the Holy One to Noah who at first did the will of God, but alas! as scripture records of him, he drank of the wine, that is, of the secret wisdom, and was drunken and lay uncovered within his tent, a full explanation of which words we have already given. Afterwards it was imparted to Abraham who in the service of the Lord used it with great advantage to himself, but he begat Ishmael, who vexed the Holy One. So also was it with Isaac who begat Esau. Jacob married two sisters. To Moses was this secret wisdom imparted; and of him it is written, 'Who is faithful in all mine house' (Num. XII. 7), for he manifested his faithfulness in that he never ceased making it the great study of his life. King Solomon became entrusted with it; and of him it is written, 'The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, King of Israel,' and also the prophetic visions of a man who had God with him and was thus able to do all things. Said Solomon himself, since God is with me and hath given this wisdom unto me, whatever seemeth good unto me, I can do. But of him scripture relates, 'And the Lord raised up the adversary unto Solomon' (I. Kings XI. 14). Observe, it was owing to their abuse of true wisdom that the builders of Babel foolishly and rashly revolted against the Holy One, and after striving to execute their evil project became scattered over the face of the earth and lost entirely all knowledge of the mysteries of the secret wisdom. The time will, however, come, when it will be revealed and made known to the world by the Holy One, and he will then become the sole object of man's worship and adoration, as it is written, 'And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them' (Ez. XXXVI. 27); or in other words, I will not impart my wisdom to man as aforetime that so they might avoid falling, but slowly and gradually they may learn it by meditation, and thus by assimilation walk uprightly and keep my commandments." [Zohar Genesis 78]

The point I am trying to establish for my readership is that when Clement says that there is a 'secret gospel' in the inner sanctum (adyton) of the Church of Alexandria there is absolutely no reason to doubt the plausibility of this scenario.  Christianity presumably derived its origins from a pre-existent Judaism.  This is as plausible an explanation for the beginnings of the church and its gospel as the miraculous narrative involving illiterature fishermen ..

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