Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Mystical Interest in the Numbers Seven and Eight in the Writings of Clement of Alexandria

Almost by accident I stumbled on what has been one of the most exciting discoveries in some time.  A scholar who isn't afraid to attempt to incorporate the Letter to Theodore into the mystical context of the writings of Clement of Alexandria.  His name is Andrew Itter and the book is the Esoteric teaching in the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria and it was published by Brill (who else!) just last year.

The funny thing is that I was just telling Roger Viklund the other day that I was going to stop arguing for the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore because there was so much work to be done understanding the Letter in terms of the writings of Clement and the greater Alexandrian tradition.  And then it was that I discovered some Aussie has already beaten me to the punch!

It really is wonderful to read Itter's work which must have just been published by Brill last year. A little background on him. He is currently the Head of Religious Education at Girton Grammar School, Bendigo, Australia. Prior to this he taught at Trinity College, University of Melbourne. Itter won the D. M. Myers University medal for La Trobe University’s best Humanities and Social Science thesis for his Honours work on Dionysius the Areopagite and was awarded his doctorate from La Trobe in 2004.

Here's a sample of what he has to say about the mystical interest in the number seven and eight:

[Morton] Smith points out that kekalymmenes here translated as 'veils', is the term used by Clement to refer to the outer-covering of the tabernacle and also to the concealed nature of the books of the Stromateis. However, the seven veils mentioned here surround the inner sanctuary, the adyton, not the temple or the tabernacle, as a whole as mentioned in the fifth book.  If the veils mentioned in the letter surround the inner and not the outer sanctuary then they equate with the seven stages of purification of which we have been speaking and which take the initiate fully into the Holy of Holies rather than the seven circuits which only take the initiate to the outer covering of the tabernacle.  They constitute the last seven stages of the ascent and not the first as represented by the circuits. Strictly speaking the seven circuits do not represent the purificatory process of the gnostic or high priest, but the “barrier of popular unbelief," (Str. - 4) which stands outside the outer covering of the tabernacle and which cannot, therefore, represent what is being called mystagogic in the letter [to Theodore].  The seven veils of the mystagogy refer more probably to the purificatory stage of Clement's soteriology, the holy septenary that leads to the ogdoad.

The confusion concerning the seven circuits and seven veils poses another interesting conundrum.  If the letter is spurious, as some scholars believe, the author wrote it without the understanding that Clement distinguishes the inner sanctuary from the tabernacle as a whole, and that the seven circuits only lead to the outside of the whole structure.  The letter concerning the secret gospel supports the internal evidence of the Stromateis without the supposedly spurious author knowing it. This would suggest authentic Clementine material. I suggest then that the last seven stages of Clement's soteriology constitute the mystagogy that is referred to in the letter concerning the secret Gospel of Mark. Clement tells us that the Saviour himself initiates us into the mysteries, and freely uses the language of the Greek mysteries to do so.48 Further evidence to confirm this position can be found in Clement's account of Genesis 22.3–4, Abraham's search for an altar on which to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Clement allegorises the three days in which Abraham searched for the alter believing that the first day constitutes the sight of “beautiful things”, the second “the soul's best desire”, and the third when the “mind sees spiritual things” where the eyes of thought are opened by the Teacher (didaskalou) who rose on the third day.  Clement proffers the idea that the three days may refer to the mystery of the “seal”, but he suggests that it is here that the soul sees the akolouthia which leads to the place that “contains all things universally” which Plato had called the realm of ideas. This begins the mystagogic stage of his ascent represented by Abraham being initiated (mystagogeitai) by an angel.  This sequence would appear to correspond with the last phase of Clement's soteriological sequence. We can also note the role that angels play in this process and which also appeared in the description of the soteriological ascent to the Lord's mansion where souls become equal to the angels. (Str. - 5).

The mystagogic sequence appears again in a discussion of the passage from 2 Corinthians 12.2–4 concerning the man who is caught up into the third heaven and who heard unutterable things.  Clement suggests that this passage demonstrates the impossibility of expressing God. Yet he also suggests that if the man does begin to speak above the third heaven, which is usually unlawful, it becomes “lawful for those to initiate elect souls in the mysteries there." (Str.  This passage comes after a discussion on the incapacity of the multitude to “reach to summit of intellectual objects”.(Str. - 2)  According to Clement, only Moses can ascend the mountain and enter the thick cloud that surrounds God.  The passage from Paul is placed within the context of Moses' ascent of Mount Sinai, demonstrating that the heavens of which the apostle spoke represent steps for initiating elect souls into the mysteries, just as Moses was initiated.  It is only on reaching the third heaven that it becomes lawful for them to initiate the elect souls in the mysteries; that is, it is only in the third stage of ascent that the mystagogy begins. This agrees with what has already been  posited of the soteriological sequence. After two saving changes, the ascent through knowledge that takes the soul to the ark constitutes the mystagogy of the third phase of Clement's divine pedagogy.

In summary, the seven days in which the high priest purifies himself and the temple prior to the Day of Atonement correspond to the mystagogy that prepares the soul for entering the ogdoad.  In the letter concerning the secret Gospel of Mark this mystagogy is represented as veils of concealment surrounding the inner sanctuary of the written gospel itself.  This mystagogic phase takes place at the third stage of ascent as Clement's interpretations of Genesis 22 and 2 Corinthians 12 demonstrate. The soteriological sequence consists then of three saving changes, the third of which is divided into seven mystagogic veils (kekalymmenes) importantly a term that Clement applies to the books of the Stromateis as well. Lastly, the ogdoad, or what Clement sometimes calls the Lord's mansion, is the culmination of the seven-fold mystagogy and is where the soul is free to to contemplate the ideas of God. For Clement's gnostic, this is analogous to the high priest viewing the contents of the ark.
[Andrew Itter, Esoteric teaching in the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria p. 45 - 47]

There are a few things that I could add to Itter's understanding of the relationship between the seven and eight and the initiation ritual in the Letter to Theodore.  The way the first addition to Secret Mark in the Letter to Theodore is written, it is obvious that it is meant to have the baptism fall on the 'goings out' (motzae) of the Sabbath.  This was the very moment that the Israelites went into the water during the Exodus and the connection to this event is already made in 1 Corinthians 10.  Yet given our consistent argument here that Clement was certainly a Marcosian or used Marcosian material (so Schaff and others) the specific identification of the 'other' baptism of this tradition as an apolutrosis certainly goes back to Exodus. 

Indeed given Hilgenfeld's demonstration that the name 'Marcion' began life as a diminutive of Mark and Gregory Nazianzen inherent assumption that Marcionites and Marcosians were one and the same, we can take Itter's observation about Clement's interest in the 'third heaven' one step further.  For Eznik of Kolb (fifth century Armenian Church Father) explains that the Marcionites identified the 'third heaven' as actually the ogdoad. 

According to Eznik Marcion is said "to have taught that there were three heavens: in the highest dwelt the good God, in the second the God of the Law, in the lowest His angels; beneath lay Hyle, or matter, having an independent existence of its own." [p. 697]  In other words, as we see in Jewish mysticism this word essentially conforms to the number 'six' - this is the 'first heaven.'  Above this is the 'seventh heaven' where the Jewish God resides and above him in the eighth is the Christian God.  Eznik also says that Marcion claimed to have the vision referenced in 2 Cor 12.4 in the heaven above the Creator. 

In any event, I will have more to say about this wonderful book in due course after I finish it.  But it was very exciting to see someone more qualified than myself embark on a task which is sorely needed in scholarship today - the incorporation of To Theodore into the mainstream of academic research into the origins of Alexandrian Christianity. 

Email with comments or questions.

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