Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Unrecognized Role of Numbers 19:11,12 in the First Addition to the Longer Gospel of Mark as Preserved in the Letter to Theodore

I write quite a number of posts attempting to pinpoint examples of the existing writings of Clement of Alexandria witnessing the material preserved in the Letter to Theodore discovered by Morton Smith in the Mar Saba monastery in 1958.  All of these attempts are necessarily hit and miss affairs.  The way I view it, though, a blog is best viewed as a place where one can 'air out' new ideas and have discussions about the relative worth.  So it is that some of my identifications of 'Clementine witnesses' to Secret Mark and to Theodore work better than others.

The one I am about to bring forward to you  represents without question 'hitting the bullseye' so to speak.  I don't think even those who promote the hoax hypothesis would necessarily disagree that Clement seems to be witnessing familiarity with the newly discovered materials. Yet in order to get to this level of understanding we have to remind ourselves of the general content of the Letter to Theodore.

Clement tells his readers that Mark wrote a 'mystic' gospel bringing in:

certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.

Of course Clement claims that the Carpocratians have managed to obtain a copy of the same gospel which mentions a story about the resurrection of a youthful disciple of Jesus.

For example, after "And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem" and what follows, until "After three days he shall arise", the secret Gospel brings the following material word for word:

And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.

The point of course here is that "after six days" means "on the seventh day" just as "after two days" in Mark 14:1 can only mean "on the third day." Indeed Origen makes that explicit in his Commentary on Matthew 12.36 "Christ led the disciples up the mountain after six days to show that we must rise above our love for created things, which were made by God in six days, to enter on the seventh day into the vision of Christ's glory."

Thus the truth being said to be "covered by seven" and Jesus instructing the youth only on the seventh day have some underlying mystical relationship. Clement ultimately tells us what that is only indirectly in Stromata 4.25 and it is quite surprising and ultimately quite obvious when we stop and think about it - viz. the rules governing ritual impurity from contact with the dead.

The 'Secret Gospel' was written presumably by the evangelist himself who either was Jewish or had contact with and understanding of Jewish tradition. Thus the idea of a youth who was re-awakening from death back to life presents a very surprising legal situation. The evangelist (or presumably Jesus) has determined that even though the soul has been 'rekindled' in the body, that body was unclean:

He must also sprinkle anyone who has touched a human bone or a grave or anyone who has been killed or anyone who has died a natural death. The man who is clean is to sprinkle those who are unclean on the third and seventh days, and on the seventh day he is to purify them. Those who are being cleansed must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and that evening they will be clean. But if those who are unclean do not purify themselves, they must be cut off from the community, because they have defiled the sanctuary of the Lord. The water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on them, and they are unclean. This is a lasting ordinance for them.

Jesus 'telling him what to do' may well have involved a cleansing on the third day. We simply don't know. Nevertheless it explains immediately why the youth is told to only return on the seventh day (counting bit of the day he was resurrected as 'day one').

Once this framework is established the rest of the passage will make perfect sense to the reader. For everything referenced by Clement makes clear that he is alluding to a secret (and thus ultimately unspoken) Alexandrian rite that must have closely resembled the Marcionite 'baptism on behalf of the dead.' The scribe has made clear that Strom 4.25 is an explanation of the 'knowledge of God which leads to perfection.  He begins with a citation from Euripides where the tragedian notes that "happy he who possesses the culture of knowledge ... [and] contemplates the undecaying order of immortal nature ... attaching himself not to base deed." Clement notes that such an individual who contemplates the unseen God "live as a God among men" (θεὸν ἐν ἀνθρώποις ζήσεσθαί φησι) according to Plato.

While these concepts are not directly related in to Theodore, I don't think it would surprise anyone that 'uniting with Jesus' is the purpose of the mystery referenced in the letter. In these initiates being perfect, says Clement in what follows in Strom 4.25:

the soul, rising above the sphere of generation, is by itself apart, and dwells amidst ideas ... [and] now become as an angel, it will be with Christ, being rapt in contemplation, ever keeping in view the will of God.

Interestingly Clement cites as the gospel passage which shows this process one which Clement elsewhere identifies as referencing the resurrection of one of Jesus's disciples - Philip. Clement immediately references a significant variant Luke 9:60:

"For the dead bury their dead." (νεκροὶ γὰρ τοὺς ἑαυτῶν θάπτουσι νεκρούς) Whence Jeremiah says: "I will fill it with the earth-born dead whom mine anger has smitten."

The canonical text by contrast reads:

ἄφες τοὺς νεκροὺς θάψαι τοὺς ἑαυτῶν νεκρούς

It is interesting to note that Clement's text more closely resembles the one cited by Origen in his Homily on Luke 9.  Origen's interpretation of the saying is also very important to take note of:

For, everyone "who commits sin is born of the devil," and the evil father lives for every sinner who lives for the things of this world. But, to every one to whom the evil one has died, may the Savior say this: "Follow me."  And perhaps the need for us to hate our father"' should be understood mystically (ἀλληγορεῖται) in this way, if we are going to become worthy of Jesus. The words, "to bury the dead,'" mean, allegorically, only our own dead. For, somehow the dead bury "their own dead" in themselves (Θάπτουσι γάρ πως νεκροὶ τοὺς ἑαυτῶν νεκροὺς ἐν ἑαυτοῖς) and become their own graves and monuments.  Finally, the one who obeys Jesus leaves the dead man behind and no longer touches him. For, he knows that the one who touches a corpse is defiled.

It should be immediately obvious why Origen's discussion is very important.  He brings up something that few of us I am sure have ever considered before about this cryptic saying - i.e. the role of the Jewish purity laws with respect to the raising of the dead in this lifetime.

Those who are unfamiliar with the writings of Clement of Alexandria might wonder why anyone should associate the raising of the dead with this passage.  The reality is however that Clement of Alexandria not only clearly makes the connection between Luke 9:60 and the resurrection of the dead but specifically the resurrection of a particular disciple of Jesus.  The surprising thing here is that Clement doesn't tell us about the beliefs of his own church again but, as with the Letter to Theodore, the variant gospel narrative only emerges during the discussion of the beliefs of the heretical traditions.  Yet look carefully and you'll see that Clement doesn't dismiss the tradition:

Of the heretics we mentioned Marcion of Pontus as forbidding the use of this world's goods on the ground of opposition to the Creator. The Creator himself is thus the reason for continence, if this can be called continence; for this giant o thinks he can resist God is not continent by an act of free choice, in that he attacks the creation and the process by which n is formed. If they quote the Lord's words to Philip, "Let dead bury their dead, but do thou follow me," (Ἄφες τοὺς νεκροὺς θάψαι τοὺς ἑαυτῶν νεκρούς, σὺ δὲ ἀκολούθει μοι) they ought to consider that Philip's flesh is also formed in the same way; body is not a polluted corpse. How then could he have a body of flesh which is not a corpse? Because he rose from the tomb when the Lord killed his passions, and he began to live unto Christ. We also mentioned the blasphemous immorality of Carpocrates.

There are so many interesting things in this discussion that it is hard to know where to start and where to end. The Marcionites believe that the gospel tells the story of the resurrection of Philip from the dead.  Clement takes them to task for their exegesis of the passage - i.e. the inferences they draw from the material namely that the original creation was 'evil.'

Yet notice at once that Clement doesn't dismiss the story about the resurrection of the disciple.  Notice also that the Carpocratians are drawn in and attacked for their 'blasphemous carnality' with respect to their interpretation of the same passage.  However we should concentrate for the moment on Clement's consistent attack against the Marcionite interpretation of the dead body of the raised disciple as proving that the original creation was 'evil.' Another example is brought forward in their interpretation of Romans chapter 8:

"Because the carnal mind is enmity against God," explains the apostle: "for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed, can be. And they that are in the flesh cannot please God." And in further explanation continues, that no one may, like Marcion regard the creature as evil. "But if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness." And again: "For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us. If we suffer with Him, that we also may be glorified together as joint-heirs of Christ. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to the purpose. For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren. And whom He did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified." [Strom 5.5]

The point of course is that the Marcionite exegesis of the passage sounds suspiciously similar to what is put forward by Origen (albeit the resurrection of Philip is unmentioned).  The unmistakable situation that emerges from this discussion is that not only do the Marcionites, Carpocratians and the Alexandrian Church seem to have held a lost gospel in common but also one which 'connected' at a core level with the writings of Paul all of which - curiously - seems to support the most fundamental Marcionite understanding of the development of the New Testament.

Indeed even without knowledge of the Letter to Theodore Clement's knowledge of the Marcionite exegesis of this commonly held gospel indicates the apostle Paul seems to know of its account of the resurrection of the disciple Philip.  Yet on even more critical level the discussion shines even more intriguing light on the Pauline conception of "baptism into death" (Romans 6), death as freedom from the Law (Romans 7) and the like.  If we make our way back to our original discussion of Stromata 4.4, the material here helps us come to terms with the consistent Alexandrian connection of Luke 9:60 with a lost narrative involving the resurrection of a disciple of Jesus.  While the Carpocratians are mentioned as know of this passage, as we have just noted Clement concentrates his efforts condemning the Marcionite interpretation of the material.  We also noted that there are striking parallels between Origen's exegesis of Luke 9:60 and that of the Marcionites (perhaps owing to Origen's master Ambrosius being a 'reformed' Marcionite).

The underlying commonality of course is that both Origen and Marcionites take seriously the Jewish legal implications of the raising of the dead in this life.  Origen speaking allegorically says Jesus is declaring that the individual must bury his dead self inside of himself thus becoming a monument to the burial of the 'old man.'  Yet at the same time Jewish legal arguments are brought forward to justify the abandoning of the old self.  The dead are unclean so the newly reborn initiate must refrain from contact with it.  Clement seems to suggest the Marcionites take the argument one step further.  He claims that they infer that because of this mystical process the old creation must be judged to be 'evil.'

Whatever the case may be, it is enough to say that Numbers 19:11,12 certainly played a role in the exegesis of Luke 9:60 in both Origen and the Marcionite tradition.  Yet only when we return to our original discussion of Stromata 4.4 that the Jewish purity law with respect to the dead is explicitly brought forward.  If we go back to the place we last left the discussion Clement was discussion the 'knowledge of God' which leads to perfection and the union with God.  Yet Clement is very specific in what follows - one is united after death with Jesus rather than the Father.  For after citing Luke 9:60 he notes that while the highest God "cannot be the object of knowledge, the Son is wisdom, and knowledge, and truth, and all else that has affinity thereto."  We are told that Jesus is "susceptible of demonstration and of description and all the powers of the Spirit, becoming collectively one thing, terminate in the same point— that is, in the Son."

Why is this important?  Because it is impossible not to see that Clement is talking about the mystery of baptism being preceded by 'death' - clearly here in a ritual sense.  There can be no doubt that even though the passage isn't mentioned explicitly here, Clement has in the back of his mind the narrative of Jesus raising the dead disciple and then baptizing him.  For we see in what immediately follows our last citation Clement cautions his readers that he is about to reveal a deep mystery here about the Son of God:

He is incapable of being declared, in respect of the idea of each one of His powers. And the Son is neither simply one thing as one thing, nor many things as parts, but one thing as all things; whence also He is all things. For He is the circle of all powers rolled and united into one unity. Wherefore the Word is called the Alpha and the Omega, of whom alone the end becomes beginning, and ends again at the original beginning without any break. Wherefore also to believe in Him, and by Him, is to become a unit, being indissolubly united in Him; and to disbelieve is to be separated, disjoined, divided. [Strom. 4.25]

In other words, Clement is explaining to us in a roundabout way, that the original mystery religion of Alexandria is rooted in the idea of uniting with Jesus through baptism after death.  This becomes even clearer when we follow the discussion to what immediately follows the last citation.  Indeed it is so critical to our understanding of Secret Mark and to Theodore that we will cited the whole section which follows uninterrupted by further commentary.

Clement immediately and specifically references Numbers 19 as the basis for the ritual sacrament of baptism for the Alexandrian community.  I am amazed no one saw this either.  This is clearly connected to the Marcionite understanding about baptism and demonstrates once again that the Alexandrian Church was likely related to this heretical tradition. We read:

Wherefore thus says the Lord, Every alien son is uncircumcised in heart, and uncircumcised in flesh (that is, unclean in body and soul): there shall not enter one of the strangers into the midst of the house of Israel, but the Levites. (Ezekiel 44:9-10) He calls those that would not believe, but would disbelieve, strangers. Only those who live purely being true priests of God. Wherefore, of all the circumcised tribes, those anointed to be high priests, and kings, and prophets, were reckoned more holy. Whence He commands them not to touch dead bodies, or approach the dead; not that the body was polluted, but that sin and disobedience were incarnate, and embodied, and dead, and therefore abominable. It was only, then, when a father and mother, a son and daughter died, that the priest was allowed to enter, because these were related only by flesh and seed, to whom the priest was indebted for the immediate cause of his entrance into life.

And they purify themselves seven days, the period in which Creation was consummated. For on the seventh day the rest is celebrated; and on the eighth he brings a propitiation, as is written in Ezekiel, according to which propitiation the promise is to be received. And the perfect propitiation, I take it, is that propitious faith in the Gospel which is by the law and the prophets, and the purity which shows itself in universal obedience, with the abandonment of the things of the world; in order to that grateful surrender of the tabernacle, which results from the enjoyment of the soul. Whether, then, the time be that which through the seven periods enumerated returns to the chiefest rest, or the seven heavens, which some reckon one above the other; or whether also the fixed sphere which borders on the intellectual world be called the eighth, the expression denotes that the Gnostic ought to rise out of the sphere of creation and of sin. After these seven days, sacrifices are offered for sins. For there is still fear of change, and it touches the seventh circle. The righteous Job says: "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there;" not naked of possessions, for that were a trivial and common thing; but, as a just man, he departs naked of evil and sin, and of the unsightly shape which follows those who have led bad lives. For this was what was said, "Unless ye be converted, and become as children," pure in flesh, holy in soul by abstinence from evil deeds; showing that He would have us to be such as also He generated us from our mother -- the water. For the intent of one generation succeeding another is to immortalize by progress. "But the lamp of the wicked shall be put out." That purity in body and soul which the Gnostic partakes of, the all-wise Moses indicated, by employing repetition in describing the incorruptibility of body and of soul in the person of Rebecca, thus: "Now the virgin was fair, and man had not known her." And Rebecca, interpreted, means "glory of God;" and the glory of God is immortality. This is in reality righteousness, not to desire other things, but to be entirely the consecrated temple of the Lord. Righteousness is peace of life and a well-conditioned state, to which the Lord dismissed her when He said, "Depart into peace." For Salem is, by interpretation, peace; of which our Saviour is enrolled King, as Moses says, Melchizedek king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who gave bread and wine, furnishing consecrated food for a type of the Eucharist. And Melchizedek is interpreted "righteous king;" and the name is a synonym for righteousness and peace. Basilides however, supposes that Righteousness and her daughter Peace dwell stationed in the eighth sphere. [Stom 4.25]

I think there is so much that we could say about this material and its relationship with the Letter to Theodore and Secret Mark.  All that we can address here in this short post is what I consider to be the breakthrough with respect to Numbers 19:11,12 and the ritual formula of the resurrected youth coming only 'after six days' (= seven) for his initiation into the mysteries of the kingdom of God.

For Clement clearly connects the "dead burying themselves" (= Philip's resurrection) with Numbers 19:11which reads:

Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days.

In other words, even though Secret Mark is not explicitly mentioned there can be no doubt that Clement understood that initiates could only undergo baptism 'after six days' (μετὰ δύο ἡμέρας) owing to ritual laws of purity in Numbers.  That Morton Smith didn't see this is simply incredible.  Indeed when we turn to the pertinent section which discusses the 'after six days' reference in Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark it is utterly incredible that Smith doesn't make the connection with Numbers 19:11,12.

If we go through Smith's 1973 book we see that he cites countless Patristic witnesses to explain the 'after six days' reference in Secret Mark and its connection with early Alexandrian baptismal practices without ever connecting the 'three day' and 'seven day' periods with Numbers 19:11, 12:

Richardson wrote to me, "are the six days of the Alexandrine paschal feast (Dionysius of Alexandria, Epistle to Basilides 1 end). Cf. the transfiguration six days, Mk. 9.2, and the paschal six days of Jn. 12. 1. The earlier custom of two days is in Mk. 14.1, Didache VII. 4, and Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition XX.7; XXIX.2, and is referred to by Dionysius, loc. cit." However, Dionysius wrote of the length of the fast before the feast celebrating the resurrection, and his letter makes clear that even as to this there were variations of practice. Mk. 14. 1, μετὰ δύο ἡμέρας, supposes a three-day preparation period. Thus the story of the anointing, which it places on the first day, accords with the preparatory washing of the catechumens which Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition XX.5, sets on Maundy Thursday, to be followed by the fast on Friday and Saturday. And Hippolytus XX. 1-3 supposes that even before these three days there had been a preparatory period in which those set apart to be baptized had undergone examination, Gospel reading, and daily exorcism. A seven-day period of preparation for baptism is supposed in the Acta Thomae 26 end. John 12.1, which puts the anointing on the sixth day before Easter, probably presupposes such a period, and the importance in pre-Markan tradition of a six-day period prior to the initiatory revelation is strongly suggested by the similiarities [Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark p. 175]

Indeed the fact that Smith comes away with an 'after two days' (= three) and 'after six days" (= seven) water cleansing rituals but does not ultimately connect these with Numbers 19:11,12 is among the most amazing things about his analysis of the Mar Saba document.  Remember we are not merely offering a 'theory' about what might have been the basis of Alexandrian baptism rituals.  We have the testimony of Clement to make the point explicit - the mystery sacraments of Egypt were developed from Jewish laws of ritual purity with respect to the dead.  There can be no question now about this.

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

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