Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Fire Purification Ritual of Samaritanism and Alexandrian Christianity [Part One]

It is very strange, this 'Secret Mark debate.'  One always gets the feeling that the people attacking it are really fighting against Morton Smith, the text's discoverer.  If we were to start all over again and look at the most important sentence in the whole work, the one which reads:

Ο γουν Μαρκος, κατα την του Πετρου εν Ρωμη διατριβην ανεγραψε τας πραξεις του κυριου· ου μεντοι πασας εξαγγελλων· ουδε μην τας μυστικας υποσημαινων

As Scott Brown notes in his Mark's Other Gospel when mystikon is applied to the gospel referenced by Clement in the Letter to Theodore the word mystikon:

does not appear out of nowhere, as could be expected of a standard designation known to both Clement and Theodore. Rather, it appears after Clement had used a plural form of the same adjective (namely, mystikai) as his description of a certain category of Jesus’ “doings” which Mark did not include in the first version ... The longer gospel, in other words, may be distinguished as the mystikon gospel because it was the gospel that included the mystikai doings of the Lord — a distinctive set of materials not included in the first version.

I agree with most of what Brown is saying only I would emphasize one thing above all else. The things pertaining to the mysteries here are not just things which Jesus established with a disciple, but at the same time rituals that continued to be preserved at Alexandria. This has to reinforced at every turn otherwise the reader will end up ignoring the obvious fact - the initiated youth has to be the evangelist Mark himself.

For when you look at the statement cited above it is impossible that Clement is just limiting himself to a statement about something in the past:

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 things pertaining to the mysteries, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed.

Mark's gospel writing is clearly purposed with two aims in mind - "the things pertaining to the mysteries" and the things "he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed." These are the same two classes of people in the Church identified by Clement at the beginning of Book Five - i.e. those 'of faith' who only knew the Son and those 'of knowledge' to whom the Father was revealed.

The initiation that Jesus establishes with the youth is clearly the latter group deemed 'the perfect' yet Mark establishes both forms of the gospel. How was it that Mark learned this secret of initiation if he was not the one to whom the mysteries were originally revealed? Some might argue that Peter was the one initiated but that makes no sense given the fact that the mysteries are later described as being preserved in Alexandria, the see of St. Mark.

Most people aren't even aware that when we use the terminology 'Holy See' (= Lat. Sancta Sedes) it literally means 'the Holy Seat.' While the Sancta Sedes of St. Peter is at Rome, we have a relic in Venice which is said to be the original episcopal throne of Alexandria dating to the third century at the very latest. There has been general agreement that the letters at the left are the letters MWṦBMRQ'WNGELSṬS'LKSNDRYH. The first word on the throne - moshav - can mean a session (of a court of law and so on) and in the right context, the hearing and judgment. This is its most common usage. Even this meaning is limited, since a routine sitting of a committee would be termed a yeshiva. Moshav would also be applicable to the act of enthronement. The word moshav is not the designation of the object. The meaning would be “The seat of Mark the Evangelist is Alexandria”.

It is impossible to get around the fact that the mysteries which Jesus initiated the youth eventually come to be established in Mark's home see. Given the fact that ritual silence is established around these mysteries it is difficult to get around the idea that Mark was the original initiate. Given also that these are 'mysteries of divine kingship' it is hard not to see that the initiation itself must have been thought to involve a throne.

It is worth noting that in his recent article the Place of the Hypotyposies in the Clementine Corpus eminent Clementine expert Bogdan Bucur sees the heart of the Alexandrian Christian religion as "both Plato’s 'vision of truly great mysteries' and the biblical notion of God’s anthropomorphic appearance on the divine chariot-throne." (p. 330) The suggestion would then be that the throne of St. Mark was already at the heart of the 'mysteries of divine kingship' that he received from Jesus.

My point then is that we can't continue to read this passage in to Theodore as ignorant Westerners any longer. The paradigm at the heart of the letter manifests a tradition wholly rooted in the authority and experience of St. Mark. To this end when we read:

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 things pertaining to the mysteries, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed.

it has to be seen that 'the things pertaining to the mysteries' are the rituals being practiced in Alexandria. In other words, Clement isn't merely saying that Mark didn't write down the 'secret passages' in canonical Mark but in fact he is explaining to Theodore that there is no hint of what took place in the great mysteries.

Indeed Clement has to reassure Theodore that there is nothing explicit in the description of the 'things pertaining to the mysteries' because Theodore has obviously heard something from those identified as Carpocratians which leads him to believe that he learned the truth. A little later Clement emphasizes again that Mark:

did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain passages of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth covered by seven.

In other words, Mark added to the narrative of canonical Mark allegedly to take people beyond mere 'faith' into 'perfect knowledge.' Clement goes on to say that the mystic gospel was given to the church where the 'see of Mark' was established in order to guide those "being initiated into the great mysteries." Yet cannot we not finally see that we are going round and round the underlying connection that the throne covered by seven stromata is very symbol of the mysteries of divine kingship?

It is interesting to note that this must have been Morton Smith's original interpretation of the letter when interviewed for Time magazine in 1961.  The author explains (with obvious direction from Smith):

According to Clement, Mark, while he was with Peter in Rome, wrote ''an account of the Lord's doings" that presumably was the basis of his Gospel as it is now known. But he withheld those "doings" which only the initiated should have knowledge of and did not even hint ''at the ones pertaining to the mysteries."

Yet by the time Smith published his 1973 book he decided to read the text in another way completely - i.e. Mark decided to leave out 'secret sayings' from the canonical gospel.

It would be hard to imagine that Clement means to tell Theodore that Clement failed to make reference to a water baptism at this point in the narrative.  Theodore was presumably a Christian and shared the rite of water baptism if that was being referenced.  If this were true, Clement would be speaking inter pares and so one would have expected him to confirm this detail if that was being 'hinted at' in the narrative.  The place to start our investigation is the fact that Theodore has clearly come into contact with Carpocratians who are always identified as practicing some sort of fire purification ritual.

The best place to start any discussion of this ritual is Erdsman's Le Baptême de Feu. Here Origen is cited as having consistently confirmed the baptism of fire as a purification ritual:

At the Jordan river, John awaited those who came for baptism. Some he rejected, saying, "generation of vipers," and so on.3 But those who confessed their faults and sins he received. In the same way, the Lord Jesus Christ will stand in the river of fire near the "flaming sword." If anyone desires to pass over to paradise after departing this life, and needs cleansing, Christ will baptize him in this river and send him across to the place he longs for. But whoever does not have the sign of earlier baptisms, him Christ will not baptize in the fiery bath. For, it is fitting that one should be baptized first in “water and the Spirit.” Then, when he comes to the fiery river, he can show that he preserved the bathing in water and the Spirit. Then he will deserve to receive in addition the baptism in Christ Jesus, to whom is glory and power for ages of ages. Amen

It should be noted here that when Origen says 'in the same' here he literally means the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua is the typology of fire of baptism:

but since all these things are crammed full of mysteries, we cannot omit mentioning the more precious ones, even though these things which are commanded according to the letter seem useful and necessary. so let us consider what Moses' death means: doubtless it means the end of the law, (Rom 10:4) but of that law which is said to be “according to the letter." now what is this end? it is namely the cessation of the sacrifices and of the other things which are commanded in the law by a similar observance. so then, when these things receive their end, Jesus takes up his rule. “For Christ is the end of the law for justice to all who believe.” (Rom 10:4) and just as it is said about the former things, that “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” (1 Cor 10:2) so also it may be said about Jesus that “all were baptized in the Holy Spirit and in water." (John 1:33) For it is Jesus who passes through the waters of the Jordan, and in a certain manner even then baptizes the people in them and he is the one who divides out to all the land of inheritance, the holy land, not to the first people, but to the second; for the first people, on account of their transgression, “fell in the desert.” (1 Cor 10:5) of the time of Jesus, it is said that “the land rested from wars." (Josh 11:23) It was impossible to say this of the time of Moses. but this is said of Jesus my lord, not of that son of nun.

And would that my land would cease from wars! indeed it can cease, if I fight faithfully for Jesus my leader. For if i obey my lord Jesus, my flesh will never rise up in insurrection against my spirit, nor will my land be attacked by pagan adversaries, that is, it will not be goaded on by various lusts. so let us pray that Jesus may reign over us and that our land will cease from wars, ceased from the attacks of carnal desires. and when these have ceased, then each one will rest “under his own vine and under his own fig tree,” and under his own olive tree. For under the covering of the Father and of the son and of the Holy spirit, the soul will rest that has recovered peace between the flesh and the spirit within itself. To the eternal God be the “glory in the ages of ages. Amen. [Origen Homily on Numbers 22]

And then even more curiously Origen identifies the water baptism of John the Baptist with the Crossing of the Sea [Exodus 15] and the fire baptism with the Jordan in other writings, this even though John the Baptist is clearly reported to have been in the Jordan!

I believe the Joshua-typology is critical to make sense of the fire purification ritual most notably because it also shows up in the Samaritan account of the conquest of Canaan by their 'great King' Baba Rabbah (either in 180 CE or 324 CE). As Bowman first noted:

Now Baba Rabba, with whom the Book of Joshua (Scaliger MS) ends, established the Temple on Mt. Gerizim and divided up the land among the Samaritans. He was, as it were, a second Joshua. [John Bowman, the Identity and Date of the Unnamed Feast of John 5:1 p. 47]

Bowman and Crown have sought to apply the Joshua typology to Baba but I - along with a lot of other scholars - think their analysis is faulty here. Baba is the type of Moses and his nephew Libi (Levi) the so-called 'Great Skopos' (= ἐπίσκοπος) is his Joshua.

I will cite the whole translation of the pertinent material by Cohen in what follows, yet it is important to note that ἐπίσκοπος aside from denoting a Christian biship also meant 'officer' or general in Moses's army as the LXX still preserves:

Moses was angry with the officers (ἐπισκόποις) of the army, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, who came from the service of the war. [Num 31:15 LXX]

In the account the follows we will see Baba take Libi under his wing like Joshua, initiating him into mysteries but also specifically preparing the children of Israel with a fire ritual which prepares the Israelites for the conquest of Canaan.

The concept of purification by fire among the Samaritans has always been noted by scholars. This is referred to by Montgomery, although nothing substantial has yet been brought to light on this subject. Montgomery relates the prohibition against burning anything, imposed upon the Samaritans by the emperor Zeno, to this religious fire-rite that is supposed to have been part of their ritual. An obscure fire-rite is referred to in our section of Chronicle II. After Levi had dispatched the Roman force on Mount Gerizim, we are told that Baba lit a beacon on top of the mountain as a signal for his community to take revenge on the Roman administrators who had persecuted them hitherto. It is then that the children are prepared with fire.

It might be better however for us to start from the beginning of the narrative, where a hint of Moses's initiation of Joshua greets the reader:

The righteous King Baba Rabbah himself rose up, whereupon all the princes rose with him, and they went to see who was at the door. When they opened the door they took fright, for the 'Great Skopos' himself was standing at the door. They were unable to talk to him, so terrified were they the moment they saw him. Levi hurried, however, and fell at the feet of his uncle, the righteous king, the Priest Baba Rabbah, and kissed them. He took his hands in his own and kissed them; and, falling about his neck, he wept, saying, in the holy language of the Hebrew tongue, 'Now I can die, having seen you again, that you are still alive.' The righteous King Baba Rabbah was now sure that the 'Great Skopos' was Levi, his nephew.

At that time there was the sound of great celebration in that place, among Baba Rabbah and all those assembled there of the Samaritan-Israelite community. Baba Rabbah then took his nephew's hand and led him into an inner place. Seating him at his right hand, Baba Rabbah started to ask his nephew about all that he had done during the period of his exile in the land of the Romans. Levi, the 'Great Skopos,' related to Baba Rabbah all the things which he had done, in the hearing of all who were gathered there. Their rejoicing knew no bounds, and they sang praises and songs of thanksgiving in a great and loud voice to the Lord who had delivered them from every disaster and retribution.

When Levi had finished addressing his uncle Baba Rabbah he added the following: 'Tomorrow night, in the middle of the night, mobilise sword-bearing men. Let them stay close to me and observe my orders. For, when the enemy falls asleep, I will quickly rise up and strike their necks with the sword, in revenge for the Lord, may His name be sanctified. We will smite them, destroy them and blot out their name from under the heaven. May help from the Lord our God attend us, and may He deliver us from their evil.'

Thus it happened that Levi rose up and ascended the mountain quickly, discovering all the Romans asleep and quite unaware that he had ever left the mountain or returned to its summit. (Now this took place on the night of the termination of the festival of the seventh month, or, to be more exact, the night of the termination of the festival of the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly.)

The righteous King Baba Rabbah then sent a message to all the cities round about him, wherein men of the community of Samaritan-Israelites lived, in which he said, 'Be equipped and armed for war, and be ready at midnight.' When you see the flame of fire on the top of the hill which is on top of the Chosen Place, Mount Gerizim Beth-El, then smite the leaders and officials appointed over you by the Romans. Leave no remnant of them, but destroy every one of their officials, as well as all those who might prevent you from consolidating your Faith. Smite with the sword all those around you until they are destroyed, so that you may reach you may reach your brethren and assemble, all of you together, in the plain of Moreh, which is next to the Chosen Place, Mount Gerizim Beth-El.'

So it was that about midnight the whole army of the righteous King Baba Rabbah, may the favour and forgiveness of God be upon him, assembled in their hosts. They all ascended the holy Mountain, Mount Gerizim Beth-El, with the righteous King, the Priest Baba Rabbah leading them. There was but a spear's throw between them and the summit of the Mount of Blessing, Mount Gerizim Beth-El, when Levi realised how close they were to him. He rose up with great zeal, sword in hand, armed with divine aid, sanctified be His name, and he pierced with his sword the king, his men and all the Elders who were to be found on that mountain.

Then Levi cried out in a loud voice: 'The Lord is mighty in war; Lord is His name.' When the Samaritan-Israelite community heard their cries, they also cried out in unison, 'The Lord is mighty in war; Lord is His name.' The whole earth trembled at the sound of their shouting. At that moment not a beast in the field remained crouching in its lair. On hearing the noise of the people, they all fled at the sound, saying, 'Such sounds we have never ever heard before.'

After that, Levi and his uncle, the righteous King Baba Rabbah, and all the men who were with him, arose and kindled a fire on the top of the hill which was the summit of the Mountain of Inheritance, Mount Gerizim Beth-El, so that the whole community of Samaritan-Israelites, who dwelt in the cities, might see it and do all that the rightous King Baba Rabbah had commanded them. When all the people living in the cities, the settlements and other places saw the flames of fire, they arose and smote all the leaders and officers who had been appointed over them by the Roman community, allowing none to remain.

The Israelite community arose that night and overthrew all the Roman meeting-houses and all their posts, blotting out their name from the Mountain of the Divine Presence, Mount Gerizim Beth-El. From the day the Samaritan-Israelite community did this to the Romans, Samaritan children have set fire to the wood of their Succah-booths on the night of the termination of the festival of the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly which concludes the festivals of the Lord. This episode has thus remained a memorial among them unto this day.

Then the righteous King Baba Rabbah and all the Elders of the people sang this song: 'The Lord our God is our shepherd, we shall not want. To the Lord is the earth and the fullness thereof, the Divine Presence and all that dwells therein. for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. To you O Lord, our God, will we lift up our face; in You we have trusted, and You did not let us down. Therefore our enemies have not derided us. All who wait for You will surfer no violence; but they that deal treacherously without cause will suffer violence. The Lord is our salvation, whom shall we fear? In the Lord's hand is the life of our souls, of what shall we be afraid? For when the wicked approached to devour our flesh, our adversaries and enemies all stumbled and fell. Though a great host should encamp against us, our heart will not fear. Though war should arise against us, we will not tremble; for He is our deliverer.  One request of the Lord we have — that will we seek after: that we may dwell in His place, the Mountain of Blessing, the Mount of Holiness, the Mount of Inheritance and Divine Presence, the Chosen Place, Mount Gerizim Beth-El.

May our heads be raised high above our enemies around us, may His will be efficacious and may His habitation be disclosed to us, that we may offer our sacrifices upon His altar. Then will we see it established, though not yet; then we will behold it, though not soon. A star shall come forth out of Jacob, a comet shall arise from Israel. He shall smite the heads of Moab and beat down all the sons of strife. Edom shall be his conquest, after which Israel will do valiant deeds. [Jeffrey Cohen, Samaritan Chronicle p. 96 - 98]

The victory and momentous slaughter that ensued was henceforth commemorated, we are told, by a fire ritual performed by Samaritan children; a ritual which, according to the Chronicler, had survived to his own day.  Yet we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the story must have been purged of some important information.  Why would the Samaritans merely have looked up at the fire on Gerizim as a 'signal' to kill the Romans?  They could have done this without a fire burning on the mountain.

The chronicler is clearly explaining a ritual which has survived down to his own time associated with the lighting of fires on the last day of Sukkot.  Yet the point is that even among the Jews Sukkot recalls the Israelites' travels in the Sinai desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt. To this end it is important to note that a second mention of this fire ritual is made in the Chronicle:

Now the chiefs, who had been appointed over them by authority of the kings of the foreign nations, arrived to prevent them from carrying out the statutes of the holy Law, just as they used to prevent them previously. However, all the men of the Samaritan-Israelite community rose up against them and quickly slew them and burnt them in fire. Simultaneously, in every city, in every town and in every place this act was committed against the honoured chiefs of the nations in all the cities of the Israelite community. It took place on the night before the New Moon of the seventh (month), and the Samaritan-Israelites established a commemoration to that event.

If the reader looks at Cohen's analysis of these stories they will see that he rightly connects this with stories of Samaritans lighting fires to confuse the calculation of the Jewish New Year. Cohen's assumption is that this was a custom associated with Rosh Hashonah and he ultimately connects the interest with a very old Samaritan interest in Moses' original instruction into 'divine mysteries' when he stood in the fire on Sinai.

Yet I think that the Samaritans who set these New Year fires in the seven month were Dositheans (or Sebbueans i.e. 'seveners' so-called because they unlike the mainstream Samaritans celebrated the beginning of the year in the seventh month with the Jews). The surviving Samaritan tradition represents a fusion of Dosithean ideas alongside orthodox tradition. To this end, there are two dates for Joshua's crossing of the Jordan on the first day of the sixth month and then either the first or the tenth of the first month.

I think the Samaritan fire lighting ceremony was connected with the Zoroastrian fire lighting rituals on the first of the year.

Email with comments or questions.

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