Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why the Mar Saba Letter Disproves All Scholarly Assumptions About the Development of the Canonical Gospels

I can't tell you how happy I am to get the opportunity to type another post into my blog and that I have people to read what I write.  I literally walk around all day trying to find an opportunity to take another step toward solving the riddle of the origins of Christianity.  Indeed that is what we are going here every night, one step at a time. 

It is only because of the inherent cowardice of scholars that the Letter to Theodore has been ignored.  We could even go further.  It is only because of the inherent lack of common sense among scholars that they would worry about the possibility that Morton Smith forged the Letter to Theodore.  This never made sense as a conspiracy theory.  There was no smoking gun.  There was no plausible motive.  The arguments for forgery were built on smoke and mirrors and now, little by little, they have all fallen away one by one. 

What are we left with?  The real reason why everyone mistrusts the letter Morton Smith discovered in a Greek monastery.  The current generation simply aren't smart enough to figure out what it is saying.  The Letter to Theodore humiliates their alleged mastery of Biblical and Patristic sources.  They can't make heads of tails of it because they really don't know who Clement is, what the Alexandrian tradition was all about and most importantly - what was really going in Christianity at the end of the second century. 

It is one thing of course to regurgitate 'facts' and 'concepts' associated with the aforementioned subjects.  This is how academia 'tests' its own.  Yet has anyone in this generation really understand these people, places and concepts from almost two thousand years ago?  And then you have why the Letter to Theodore discomforts the experts.  It demonstrates that they really don't have the expertise they claim to possess.  They fail the test so to speak when challenged with a relic from the ancient past.  That is why so many of them want to overturn the examinations and go back to the safety of the artificial reality they call home. 

Yet most of us who accept the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore were never blinded by the arrogance of expertise.  We simply waited to see whether there was anything to all these whispers about their being something 'wrong' with the discovery.  We waded through all the fantastic claims about 'secret codes,' alleged inspiration from Canadian evangelical pulp fiction novels (who knew such a genre even existed!) and supposed criminal motivations drawn from a Marvel comic book and then we were left back where we started - breathless at the possibility that a window to the earliest period of Alexandrian Christianity was now open to us. 

How were we to make sense of the Letter to Theodore when so many before us had failed or even gave up trying?  The answer was of course to make sense of Clement of Alexandria.  Why focus so much attention on the motivations of an innocent Morton Smith?  We tried instead to get into the head of Clement and understand why it was that he never mentioned the existence of this 'mystic gospel' in his writings?

Was it really that unthinkable that Clement's Alexandrian tradition might have had such a document in its possession?  The more we looked the more we saw that indeed Clement and his student Origen were indeed holding something back from us.  Did it rise to the level of a 'secret gospel'?   It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty but there was without a doubt some great secret at the heart of contemporary Alexandrian Christianity?  Things just didn't add up. 

That was the first difference between us and them.  They always feel the need to defend the integrity of the inherited picture of a unified Catholic Church, the portrait drawn up for us by Eusebius of Caesarea.  Eusebius was a student of Pamphilus of Caesarea who had inherited a school and a library from Origen who of course was in turn a student of Clement in Alexandria.  Eusebius's attempt to apologize for this Alexandrian tradition and reconcile it with the rival Roman Church is rarely acknowledged.  Its truth is just 'assumed.' 

Yet very little makes sense here when you really stand back from it.  Alexandria emerges as a third rate Christian community, unmentioned in Acts, not witnessed by any surviving apostolic documents and the silence of Alexandrian luminaries like Clement and Origen with regards to their city's connection to St. Mark is just brushed off as 'another proof' of the See's 'third rate' status. 

If Alexandria is so 'third rate' why does Origen, the embodiment of Alexadrian Christianity in the third century, emerge as such a towering influence over his age and every age thereafter?  Why does Alexandria itself emerge in the fourth century as the bastion of opposition to the 'false compromise' of Constantine the Great if the tradition had no 'real' apostolic roots when every other See with acknowledged apostolic roots went along with the new agenda?  Indeed most curious of all, why would Constantine have allowed this 'third rate' tradition to determine the date of Easter if it had no 'real' apostolic roots?

It all doesn't make sense but scholars just go along with it because 'knowing the right answers' is what got them into positions of authority.  Yet all these 'right answers' lead to a dead end when they confront the Letter to Theodore.  Clement makes explicit reference to the community's habit of deliberately avoiding referencing the name of its patron saint Mark.  Yet somehow none of this seems 'explain' any of the mysteries of Alexandria because - as I just mentioned - 'everything makes sense' already just the way it is. 

Of course this is the very place we started to make sense of the Letter to Theodore because we happened to stumble upon an ignored observation by the great nineteenth century scholar Philip Schaff.  Clement's writings do secret points of contact with a heretic named 'Mark' the head of the 'Marcosians' who are mercilessly attacked in the writings of the Roman Church Father Irenaeus. It wasn't then that Clement was hiding an association with one influential figure name Mark but two.  Could it be that one 'secret Mark' was related to the other?  Birger Pearson mercilesslessly criticized my assertion but the reality is that nothing stands in the way of that association except typically uncritical scholarly assumptions.

And we can take matters even one step further.  In the age which immediately followed Clement's expulsion from Alexandria a 'former' member of the Marcionite heresy was deacon of the Alexandrian church for most of the first half of the third century.  This man, Ambrose, just happened to be the benefactor of Clement's student Origen who was in turn also accused of heresy in due course.  By the time of Origen's death, anyone who adhered to the Alexandrian faith was identified as an 'Origenist' and when 'Origenists' like Jerome were accused of being heretics they inevitably ended up distancing themselves from Marcion "neque nos vero marcionis et Manichaei dogma sectantes" ('we ourselves do not follow the views of Marcion and Mani" Ep. 48). 

How do we reconcile the crypto-Marcosian heresy associated with Clement with the crypto-Marcionite heresy of Origen and Ambrose?  Once again it is the uncritical acceptance of the authority of Irenaeus and the belief that his classification of the various heresies was completely accurate.  Indeed once you realize that most scholars agree that a large part of Book One of Against Heresies - including Irenaeus's description of the Marcionites - derives ultimately from the Syntagma of Justin, it becomes difficult to defend the precision of the descriptions contained therein.

The revisiting the example of Ambrose the deacon perfectly embodies these difficulties.  Origen's patron is identifed as a Valentinian by Eusebius (HE 6.18.1), a Marcionite by Jerome, (Ill. Liv. 56) and Epiphanius writes that 'some say that Ambrose was a Marcionite, but some, that he was a Sabellian.' (Pan. 64.3) The only way to reconcile these accounts is to remember that the Marcosians are usually classified as a branch of the Valentinian tradition by the arrangement of Against Heresies but this again points to the inexactness of Irenaeus's original classifications. 

Yet we have already seen how scholars prefer the 'perfection' and simplicity of artificialities over the ambiguity inherent in reality.  This is why they don't know what to do with the Letter to Theodore and it is why they continue to use Irenaeus's classification system even though it breaks down whenever it comes face to face with the reality of actually historical figures like Ambrose, Origen or Clement. 

I would argue that we should only use Irenaeus as a general guide for the truth of Alexandrian Christianity.  The Alexandrian Church was clearly rooted in some 'alternative' tradition which gave birth to three sectarian forms which could be distinguished from one another.  As we have just demonstrated the closest that Irenaeus gets to the 'real world' with this classification system is an explicit association of each one of these sects with a particular canonical gospel - 'Marcion' is somehow associated with a 'shortened' gospel which is identified as a 'corrupt Luke,' 'other Marcionites' are connected with a longer version of Mark and the Valentinians with John. 

While this is not very much to go on, it is enough to begin piecing together a historical context for the Letter to Theodore.  For I have already noted that it was the editors of Against Heresies who assembled Irenaeus's original material posthumously are the ones who provided the mistaken impression that the Marcosians were Valentinians.  The clearest proof of this assertion is that the section on the Marcosians is not included in Tertullian's preservation of Irenaeus's original lecture on the Valentinians.  Yet Epiphanius and Gregory Nazianzus's linking of the Marcosians and Marcionites also speaks in favor of this assertion no less than the fact that Marcion is originally a diminutive of Marcus. 

Once we get to the point that we realize that Irenaeus makes explicit reference to two types of associates of 'Marcion'- one which used a shortened 'openly' disseminating gospel and another which used a fuller gospel of Mark - it is impossible not to see the parallels with the formula of the Letter to Theodore.  We have already pointed the Marcionite formulations and interpretations of the Apostolikon in the writings of Clement.  We have also argued that a number of words and phrases in the writings of Clement and Origen helps support the identification of the 'mystic gospel' mentioned in to Theodore as being present in the Alexandrian Church. 

We have claimed that Irenaeus actually fashioned Luke as an anti-Marcionite text developed from the gospel references in the widely disseminating 'Antitheses.'  The Marcionites acknowledged that their publicly circulating gospel was a shortened version of something else - presumably the fuller gospel of Mark of the 'other' Marcionites mentioned in Against Heresies.  We have argued that Irenaeus developed Luke in order to displace the tradition reliance on 'mystic Mark.'  Yet von Harnack has alerted us to the presence of another level to Irenaeus's argument - contemporary Marcionites seem to have also 'rejected' the gospel of John. 

This doesn't mean of course that the Gospel of John as it is preserved in the Catholic canon had any influence over Marcion or Marcionitism.  Rather we should see it as going back to a contemporary controversy already mentioned in the Letter to Theodore itself.  Someone was passing around another 'more spiritual' gospel which occupied the traditional role of 'mystic Mark' in the Alexandrian tradition.  That the text would eventually be identified as 'according to John' is hardly problematic as the Alexandria tradition sees 'Mark' and 'John' as names of the same person. 

There are many signs that 'Marcionites' rejected the gospel of John outside of Book Three Chapter Eleven of Against Heresies (just discussed in our last post).  There is a whole tradition of John (or his 'authorized representative' Polycarp) rejecting Marcion and it clearly reflects the same historical reality as the material we just cited which tells of Marcion rejecting the Gospel of John.  One such example is reconstructed for us from Fortunatian's Prologue to the fourth gospel by Robert Eisler:

The Gospel of John was revealed and given
to the Churches by John whilst he was still alive in the body,
as Papias, called the Hieropolitan,
the beloved disciple of John,
has reported in his five books of 'Exegetics'.
But (he who) wrote down the Gospel, John dictating correctly the true (evangel) (was)
Marcion the heretic. Having been disapproved by him for
holding contrary views, he was expelled by John.
He had, however, brought him writings, or letters,
from the brethren who were in the Pontus.

Regardless of whether it is acknowledged that the Marcionites used 'Secret Mark' yet, it has to at least be agreed that Irenaeus's claim that the Marcionites used a shortened gospel of Luke is only one part of a much more complex historical situation.  Scholars only buy into this simplified version of history because it clears the way for them to devote their attention to the tradition of their ancestors.  The same situation which unfortunately confronts us when trying to make sense of Morton Smith's discovery.

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