Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why We Can Be Certain That the Church of St. Mark at the Time of Clement of Alexandria Did Not Have 'Solid Walls' and Instead Resembled the Desert Tabernacle of Moses

I very strongly believe the material I have been writing about over the last few days would make a compelling enough read that it deserves to be placed in a book.  I think people out there are naturally attracted to things like the so-called 'Ophite diagram' (so-called by Origen).  The idea that Christians ritually acknowledged a 'heavenly ascent' through 'seven circuits' to the supernal realms is the stuff that attracts 'regular folks.'  I also believe that my work connecting the tradition that Moses established the desert tabernacle in imitation of the same heavenly image of ten concentric circles and moreover that this understanding is reflected in the so-called 'Secret Gospel of Mark' is a very plausible argument for the authenticity of the discovery.

Let me put to you another way.  It is strange that Morton Smith never connects the initiation 'after six day' with the gnostic ascent through seven heavens.  Of course part of the reason he doesn't do this is because it's not in the text. But then the text of the Letter to Theodore does say that Mark the author of the so-called 'Secret Gospel':

did not divulge the things not to be uttered (τὰ ἀπόῤῥη), 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 sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the ἄδυτον of that truth enveloped by seven (circuits).

So here's what I am thinking. There's no evidence of the physical remains of churches in Egypt or anywhere else for that matter in the early period. We have already seen that Clement's writing's necessarily compare the physicality of the desert tabernacle with τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τῇ ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ. It is now almost second nature for us to translate ἐκκλησίᾳ as Church. However we know for certain that the word originally just meant 'assembly' in Greek.

At some point ἐκκλησίᾳ transformed into a word which meant 'the physical building in which Christians gathered.' Yet I have always struggled with the idea that Christians actually had a physical structure in Alexandria in the late second century at this time. We all talk about 'the primitive Church' but in Egypt it would have been very different. After all Christianity developed from Judaism and the ancient Israelites escaped from ancient Egypt to take hold of the Promised Land.

The closest thing I can compare it to in modern times is the idea of 'Germany' among contemporary Jews even today. Yes on some intellectual level Jews have started to separate Germans from Nazis but the truth is that 'Germany' or 'Germans' at least among American Jews necessarily brings forth remarks identifying it with a place of trial. In the same way, it would have been impossible for ancient Christians in Alexandria not to have made the connection with the fact that they were living in a place from which their forefathers sought 'redemption.'

To this end, I can't help but think that in the earliest period of the Christian presence in Egypt, ἐκκλησίᾳ literally meant 'assembly' - i.e. the place where Christians gathered. The terminology can certainly be used independently of a physical structure as we see from statement of Stephen in Acts that:

Moses was with our ancestors, the assembly of God’s people in the wilderness, when the angel spoke to him at Mount Sinai. And there Moses received life-giving words to pass on to us.

οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ γενόμενος ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ μετὰ τοῦ ἀγγέλου τοῦ λαλοῦντος αὐτῷ ἐν τῷ ὄρει Σινᾶ καὶ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν, ὃς ἐδέξατο λόγια ζῶντα δοῦναι ἡμῖν (Acts 7.38)

Again the one certainty we have is that Egyptian Christians themselves denied that their ancestors gathered in physical buildings until the turn of the fourth century. Severus of Al'Ashmunein puts it this way "up to this time (i.e. the reign of Theonas d. 300 CE) the people had celebrated the liturgy in caves and underground places and secret resorts."

Yet it must be regarded that the history of the Church in the third century was very different from that of the late second century - the time that Clement began writing. The persecutions of Egyptian Christianity drove the ἐκκλησίᾳ into the secret places mentioned by Severus. Yet in the period before the persecutions, one wonders what kind of gathering Clement of Alexandria is reflecting by his reference to the ἐκκλησίᾳ τῇ ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ in to Theodore.

Looking at the Stromateis we see that Clement identifies the ὁμακοεῖον of the Pythagoreans as 'the church now so called' (καὶ τὴν ἐκκλησίαν τὴν νῦν οὕτω καλουμένην). [Strom 1.15] We might like to think that the Clement is clearly saying is that the Pythagorean homakeion is the precursor to the so-called Catechetical School of Alexandria. But Clement's point is clearly that it was the precursor to the church as such. As Kahn explains:

The members of a Pythagorean community were bound together by common cult practices, including specific burial rites: Herodotus (II.81) reports that they could not be buried in woolen garments. (This restriction is presumably connected with respect for animal life). Members were called homakooi, "those who come together to listen," and their assembly hall was a homakoeion, a place "for hearing together." What they heard was an akousma, a "hearing," or a symbolon, a "password." The content of what they heard was protected by a vow of silence: the teachings of Pythagoras were not to be revealed to nonmembers. Silence also seems to have played a part in the course of initiation. We are told of a five-year trial period during which initiates, who had put their property in common, were to listen in silence to the voice of Pythagoras. (Koina ta phildn, "friends have all things in common," was a Pythagorean saying that is often quoted by Plato). During these "hearings" the speaker was shielded from their view by a linen curtain. Only after the successful completion of this test period were the initiates permitted inside: they then became "esoterics," members of Pythagoras' household or inner circle, and were allowed to see the master in person. If they failed the test, they received double their property back but were treated as dead by their "fellow hearers." [C.H. Khan, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A brief history, Hackett, Cambridge 2001. p. 8-9]

It is simply shameful that Patristic scholarship allows itself to ignore the explicit evidence of Clement of Alexandria that the Church of Alexandria developed directly from a Pythagorean in order to make the Alexandrian Church Father 'jibe' with our inherited notions of what Christianity is. How is any fair evaluation of the Letter to Theodore supposed to survive this unconscious conspiracy?

For clearly there are so many ideas which point to the authenticity of the Mar Saba letter all we need to do is allow the evidence from Clement's writing to speak for itself. For instance, the Carpocratians are consistently portrayed as Platonizing Christians. The earliest report that Christians were using Plato so much it verged on 'stealing' occurs in the pagan writer Celsus. Yet Celsus nowhere limits his comments to a particular sect. 'The Church' as such and even the author of the gospel 'stole' from the Pythagorean philosopher is his point.

There is one 'Church' which can be meant here - the 'church of Alexandria' - and only one gospel i.e. the gospel of Mark. This is clear from Celsus's citation of the Question of the Rich Youth which comes directly from a variant text of Mark but moreover the fact that Irenaeus, another near contemporary has inherited a very Platonic description of the Gospel of Mark as "the winged Gospel," the text that "sent the gift of the celestial Spirit over all the earth, protecting us with His wings" and moreover "by means of the Gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom." [AH 3.11.8] As I have noted many times this whole conception is a reflection of the Platonic salvation formula in the Phaedrus.

I needn't get into the fact that the question raised by the otherwise unknown Theodore in the Mar Saba letter - i.e. the business about γυμνοὶ γυμνῷ - is itself another reference to Platonic philosophy (cf. Maximus of Tyre Dissertation 13). The point is that in the late second century the Alexandrian form of the Gospel of Mark was identified as a Platonic composition. While Clement accepts that the Christian ἐκκλησίᾳ was a direct descendant of the Pythagorean ὁμακοεῖον in the first book of the Stromata (generally thought to have been written c. 193 CE) by the time the rest of the books were written the idea that heretics were solely responsible for an over-dependence on Plato - i.e. the so-called Marcionites and Carpocratians - gradually became introduced into his discussions. The later books of Clement are generally identified as reflecting contact with the Alexandrian persecutions of the early third century.

If we scrutinize Clement's original statement that the ὁμακοεῖον of the Pythagoreans as 'the church now so called' (καὶ τὴν ἐκκλησίαν τὴν νῦν οὕτω καλουμένην) we can see immediate points of contact with Secret Mark. The first of course being the identification of those outside of Christianity as 'the dead.' This figures not only in the likely ritual identification of the baptized as starting their initiation in a 'state of death' (as the youth in LGM 1 but also the various Pauline statements to this effect) but we see in Stromata Book Three the Marcionites go so far as to imply they have put on a better nature than that granted to them by the Creator from their awakening from a dead state. One additional factor in this mystical understanding in Boucolia especially has to be that graves were literally scattered all over the beaches of the environs outside the ἐκκλησία.

We should also consider also Clement's later 'criticism' of the Carpocratians for holding all property in common. Yet I am now particularly attracted to the idea that the Pythagorean notion of outsiders being separated from the main assembly by a linen cloth as particularly useful to explain the physicality of the ἐκκλησίᾳ τῇ ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ. Raymond Bernard notes in his Pythagoras the Immortal Sage that:

the Pythagorists were those who were attracted to the movement from the outside and who did not live in the Pythagorean community; they were the Auditors, or hearers, who formed the greater number of Pythagoras's disciples. Nicomachus tells us that two thousand of these were influenced by one oration of his, as they gathered with their wives and children in the common auditory named Hemocoion, and resolved to adopt a community life together, establishing a city and later colonizing that part of Italy called Magna Grecia, so denominated from the numerous colonies of Grecians by whom it was settled, and, in some degree from the memory of the illustrious achievements which Pythagoras and his followers had accomplished there (p. 60)

Harry Tzalas, underwater researcher and a personal friend, has come to the same conclusions about the environs of the Church of St. Mark in the Boucolia - i.e. that there was a large encampment of souls living very close to the holy site.

Yet I will argue that the underlying identification of τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τῇ ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ with the desert tabernacle throughout the writings of Clement and other early Christian writers makes it almost certain that the 'veil' which separated the auditors from the 'perfect' must have been something like the tenting. In other words, there couldn't have been a physical building in which the early Christians gathered but rather the auditors sat outside the tabernacle hearing the service and its divine choir among the περιβόλων.

The reason for this assumption is that it makes no sense to imagine that the baptized sat in the Holy of Holies. This area was originally intended only for the High Priest to enter - a single person. Expanding this area would make it unrecognizable. Yet we also have to recognize that Clement repeatedly identifies circumcision as the ritual which allowed entry into the ἀδύτων in the Jewish tabernacle. If the Christian ἐκκλησίᾳ was somehow halfway between the desert tabernacle and Pythagorean ὁμακοεῖον then the veil or curtain which separated the 'living' from the 'dead' must have been the actual wall of physical tabernacle. This is even intimated in the physical layout of the temple where the uncircumcised are afforded a 'porch' which is outside of the main structure of the building.

The difficulty of course is reconciling the idea in to Theodore where Clement says that Mark established his longer gospel in such a way that:

to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the ἄδυτον of that truth enveloped by seven (circuits).

The point is that as anyone who has ever attended a religious service, the liturgy is developed from the gospel narrative. The priest reads a section of text and then expounds upon its meaning. If the auditors were 'outside' the physical structure of a building (which we know from Severus Al'Ashmunein did not exist in the early period anyway) they would have been unable to be drawn into the ἀδύτων. The whole system described here wouldn't make any sense.

There are several difficulties with the possible suggestion that the Alexandrian Church allowed just about anyone to come and seat themselves in the pews. The rites of the Church are consistently described as 'mysteries' and only the pure were allowed to attend these services. Judaism, Samaritan or any system developed from the actual laws of Moses clearly prohibits the idea of the profane or those ritually unprepared from joining the ἐκκλησίᾳ. There is that age old difficulty of Egyptian sources telling us that there was only one ἐκκλησίᾳ in all of Egypt before the fourth century and more over no 'hard' physical structure (= a building) to contain those people.

Clearly then the idea there are several arguments in favor of the idea that the ancient Alexandrians gathered in a replica desert tabernacle. The most obvious being that the earliest Christians were vehemently opposed not only to the sacrifices of the temple but to the idea of going beyond the original desert tabernacle. This seems to be Stephen's point in Acts and it was a view shared by the Samaritan Dosithean sect.

The idea that humans should gather in a solid physical being seems to contradict the basic idea that all things were about to succumb to the impending cosmic fires of the end times too. There are numerous scriptures which would support this notion, yet most interesting of all the idea that the Jews were in error for building a temple would necessarily suppose a going back to the kind of structures actually sanctioned by God (i.e. what Moses, Joshua and the later Patriarchs used).

Finally I am particularly stuck by the physical description of the ἐκκλησίᾳ at the end of the Stromata where the gathering place of Christians is identified in clearly metaphorical terms:

Those, then, that adhere to impious words (τῶν ἀσεβῶν ἁπτόμενοι λόγων), and dictate them to others, inasmuch as they do not make a right but a perverse use of the divine words (τοῖς λόγοις τοῖς θείοις), neither themselves enter into the kingdom of heaven, nor permit those whom they have deluded to attain the truth (τυγχάνειν τῆς ἀληθείας). But not having the key of entrance (τὴν κλεῖν ἔχοντες), but a false (ψευδῆ) and as is expressed colloquially - a counterfeit key (ἀντικλεῖδα) - by which they do not enter in as we enter in by drawing aside the curtain (τὴν αὐλείαν ἀναπετάσαντες) through the tradition of the Lord (τοῦ κυρίου παραδόσεως εἴσιμεν), but bursting through the side-door, and digging clandestinely through the wall of the Church, and stepping over the truth, they constitute themselves the Mystagogues of the soul of the impious. [Strom. 7.17]

Of course I defy anyone to argue that the description here does not resemble what is said in the Letter to Theodore. There is the mention of 'truth' sitting at the heart of the church and many related terms. Yet I want to use what time we have left to make clear that the description here is that of an ἐκκλησίᾳ which was formed as a tent - i.e. as the desert tabernacle of Moses. The key to understanding this is the particular use of the term αὐλείαν as the outer wall which separated the ἀδύτων where the 'truth' stood.

It is impossible to argue that αὐλείαν meant a 'veil' that hid the inner sanctuary. Clement is talking about simply gaining entrance to the area that Christians gathered to worship God. Not only was the 'truth' represented here - i.e. in full view of everyone once they entered the structure - he makes clear that if the heretics entered from another 'wall' other than the one used as an entrance by the orthodox they would miss seeing where the object was. I have long argued that the 'truth' was the throne of St. Mark (so identified with the term in Psalms We know from the Acts of Peter of Alexandria that this object was in plain view of the congregation from the circumstances of the Patriarch's death.

In any event, for our present purposes it is enough to note that designates a curtain which stood on the outside of a structure sometimes acting as a door:

Aulaeum usually in the plural Aulaea (ἡ αὐλαία), a curtain, carpet, or hanging, mostly of the heavier and richer sort (τὸ μέγα καὶ ποικίλον παραπέτασμα, Cosmas Indicopl. Topog. Chr. [p. 1.260]p. 197). The name was especially applied to the tapestry worked with human and animal figures, which was early introduced from the East (Theophr. Char. 21, αὐλαίαν ἔχουσαν Πέρσας ἐνυφασμένους: Verg. G. 3.25; Ovid. Met. 3.111 ff.). The word αὐλαία is good Greek, as is shown by Theophr. l.c.; Hyperid. fr. 165 ed. Turic. = 142 Blass, οἱ ἐννέα ἄρχοντες εἱστιῶντο ἐν τῇ στοᾷ, περιφραχάμενοι τι μέρος αὐτῆς αὐλαίᾳ: Menand. fr. 720 Meineke, στυππεῖον, ἐλέφαντ̓, οἶνον, αὐλαίαν, μύρον: and the notion of Servius, that aulaeum was ab aula Attali regis, betrays the ignorance of a late grammarian (ad Georg. l.c.). He was perhaps misled by the line of Propertius, Porticus aulaeis nobilis Attalicis (2.32, 12 = 3.24, 12); where, of course, the meaning is simply “rich enough for Attalus” (cf. Hor. Od. 1.1, 12).

Such hangings were extensively used (a) in temples, to veil the statue of the divinity (Paus. 5.12.4); (b) in houses, either as coverings over doors, or as substitutes for doors, as window curtains, or again to decorate the walls of rooms, especially the triclinium or dining-room (Hor. Sat. 2.8, 54); (c) on the outside of houses, to close in the verandahs, balconies, or open galleries [domus]; (d) to stretch over colonnades, and thus form a tent (Hyperid. l.c.; Propert. l.c.). [Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890)]

Yet even more significantly Philo of Alexandria, the man Clement clearly was indebted to for his understanding of the tabernacle uses the term to describe the ten circuits of that structure:

But as he proceeds onwards he speaks also of the divine abode, the tabernacle, and its ten curtains (αὐλαία) (Ex 26.1) for, in fact, the compound edifice of entire wisdom has been assigned the perfect number, the number ten. And wisdom is the court and palace of the all governing and only absolute and independent king. Accordingly, this is his abode, discernible only by the intellect; but the world is perceptible by the outward senses; since Moses made the curtains (αὐλαία) of such things as are symbols of the four elements, for they were made of fine flax, and of hyacinthine colour, and of purple, and of scarlet, --four numbers, as I have said before. Now the fine flax is an example of the earth, for the flax grows out of the earth; and the hyacinthine colour is a symbol of the air, for it is black by nature; purple (porphyra), again, is a symbol of the water; for the cause of this dye is derived from the sea, being the shell-fish of the same name (heµ porphyra); and scarlet is a symbol of fire, for it most nearly resembles a flame. Again, that omnipotent overseer and ruler of the universe reproved the state of Egypt, when rebellious against the rein, when it was extolling with grandiloquent words the mind as an adversary of God, and bestowing on it all the ensigns of kingly authority, such as the throne, the sceptre, the diadem; and chastised it with ten stripes and severe punishment. And in the same manner, also, he promises the wise Abraham that he will work for him the overthrow and complete destruction of ten Nations (Deut 7:1) exactly, neither more nor less, and that he will give the country of those who are thus destroyed to his descendants; in every instance choosing to employ the number ten, both for praise and for blame, and also for honour and for punishment. And yet why do we mention these things? For what is more important than this is the fact, that Moses gave laws to that sacred and divine assembly in a code of ten commandments in all. And these are the commandments which are the generic heads, and roots, and principles of the infinite multitude of particular laws; being the everlasting source of all commands, and containing every imaginable injunction and prohibition to the great advantage of those who use them. (On Preliminary Studies 116,117)

The point of course is that Clement is clearly channeling this report in Stromata 5.6 where he associates the colours of the tent with the four elements. Yet more importantly it serves to confirm that when Clement is describing the 'seven circuits' in the same text - and the truth being surrounded by seven - he is necessarily acknowledging that the original church of Alexandria took the form of a desert tabernacle.

In short, it quicker resembled something you'd see at the circus than one of the impressive structures of the European Church.

All images used in this post were taken from a very useful site - http://thedeserttabernacle.blogspot.com

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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