Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why We Can Be Certain that the Alexandrian Tradition Had a Mystic Gospel

I think Scott Brown has done a great service to remind us that the phrase τὸ μυστικὸν εὐαγγέλιον does not necessarily identify the holy text of Alexandria as a 'secret gospel.' It is unfortunate that people refer to the text this way merely because of the decisions of its original English translator Morton Smith. Scott Brown has tirelessly demonstrated in his Mark's Other Gospel that the correct meaning was something else - viz. that the preferred gospel of the Alexandrian community was identified as a 'mystic' text. Yet what exactly is a 'mystic gospel'?

In everyday English there is no clear explanation to the terminology. There was a Julia Roberts movie a while back called 'Mystic Pizza.' Most people merely suppose that 'mystic' has some vague relationship with mysticism and the occult.

Scott Brown writes in the preface that "a 'mystic gospel' is not a concealed gospel but a gospel that contains concealed meanings." That's getting better, of course. But I don't feel even that does justice to the terminology. Brown's discussion is totally grounded in its consistent attempt to demonstrate the implausibility of the forgery position with respect to the Letter to Theodore. The lay reader of the next generation might not be as interested in hearing why Stephen Carlson's thesis should be ignored. They simply want to understand what it all means - i.e. our ability to put the 'mystic gospel' in some historical context in early Christianity.

Brown spends many pages demonstrating that Clement of Alexandria used the term mystikon quite frequently. Yet the reader might walk away from this demonstration with the idea that the term was strictly limited to Clement. The reality is that mystikon is a common - almost banal - description of all things pertaining to the liturgy.

Mystikon would later become something akin the use of 'awesome' in Middle America.

To be certain the terminology quite certainly retained the "richer sense" (p. 62) that Brown identifies in the writings of Clement. Yet I want to make clear that the very terminology here so perfectly fits the early Christian milieu it is hard to believe that we don't already know why the text was so-called.

Brown does acknowledge the applicability of the core meaning of mystikon - viz. 'of' or 'pertaining to the mysteries.' Yet I think it is important to stress that there is an underlying connotation of the terminology which is already used in association with the liturgy - i.e. that mystikon is applied to situations where meaning is held back and reserved for subsequent instruction.

Let's use the Divine Liturgy of the Greek Orthodox tradition which ultimately developed from John Chrysostom. It is here we see the same terminology appears in the communion prayers which are silently recited by those prepared to receive the holy Mysteries after the priest has prepared the bread and water. We are told the people sing:

I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. I also believe that this is truly Your pure Body and that this is truly Your precious Blood. Therefore, I pray to You, have mercy upon me, and forgive my transgressions, voluntary and involuntary, in word and deed, known and unknown. And make me worthy without condemnation to partake of Your pure Mysteries for the forgiveness of sins and for life eternal. Amen.

How shall I, who am unworthy, enter into the splendor of Your saints? If I dare to enter into the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me, since it is not a wedding garment; and being bound up, I shall be cast out by the angels. In Your love, Lord, cleanse my soul and save me.

Loving Master, Lord Jesus Christ, my God, let not these holy Gifts be to my condemnation because of my unworthiness, but for the cleansing and sanctification of soul and body and the pledge of the future life and kingdom. It is good for me to cling to God and to place in Him the hope of my salvation.

Receive me today, Son of God, as a partaker of Your mystic Supper [Τοῦ δείπνου σου τοῦ μυστικοῦ, σήμερον Υἱὲ Θεοῦ κοινωνόν με παράλαβε] I will not reveal Your mystery to Your adversaries. Nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to You: Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.

Again what is am suggesting here is that we can use the Divine Liturgy and the sources it depended on to determine the original meaning of the term τὸ μυστικὸν εὐαγγέλιον to mean something more than a 'gospel with concealed meanings' but rather a gospel whose meanings were intentionally held back and reserved for subsequent instruction.  

This concept of the Eucharist as τοῦ Μυστικοῦ Δείπνου is critical to understand the ritual context of the reading of the Alexandrian gospel of Mark.  We agree with Brown against Smith that the Egyptian Church should be understood to be physically hiding the text, but rather - in the very example of the 'mystic supper' presenting something intentionally ambiguous and reserving the explanation of these cryptic passages to oral instruction administered by an approved teacher.

I think the proper parallel is to be found in Chrysostom's explanation of the 'mystic supper' in his Homilies.  The final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples is itself a close parallel for τὸ μυστικὸν εὐαγγέλιον.  As Chrysostom notes:

He that hath partaken of a bodily meal, it would seem, has thought it an indignity after receiving material food, to come to the hearing of the divine oracles. But not rightly do they think thus. For if this were improper, Christ would not have gone through His large and long discourses after that mystic supper; and if this had been unsuitable, He would not, when He had fed the multitude in the desert, have communicated His discourses to them after that meal. For (if one must say something startling on this point), the hearing of the divine oracles at that time is especially profitable. [On the Statues 9]

Therefore also the Jews, whilst they were in bondage to work in clay and the brick-making, when they saw Moses come to them, were not able to give heed to his words, by reason of their failure of spirit, and their affliction. And what marvel is it that faint-hearted men have felt this, when we find that the Disciples also fell into the same infirmity. For after that mystic Supper, when Christ took them apart and discoursed with them, the disciples at first asked Him more than once, "Whither goest Thou?" But when He had told them what evils they should in a little while afterwards encounter, the wars, and the persecutions, and the universal enmity, the stripes, the prisons, the tribunals, the appearance before magistrates; then, their souls oppressed as by a heavy burthen with the dread of the things He had spoken, and with the sadness of these approaching events, remained henceforth in a state of stupor. Christ, therefore, perceiving their consternation, reproved it by saying, "I go to My Father, and no one among you asketh Me, Whither goest Thou? But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your hearts." For this reason also we were silent for some time past, awaiting the present opportunity. [ibid 11]

The point I am trying make of course is that Jesus last meal with his disciples is immediately followed by deeper instruction in the same way as the original gospel of Alexandria 'held back' on the full revelation of its deeper truths - viz. they are 'mystic' not only in the fact that they conceal something greater but that this truth is revealed immediately following the manifestation of the barest kernel (i.e. the 'outer shell' of mere symbolism).

Indeed we can take this one step further. The description of how Mark wrote τὸ μυστικὸν εὐαγγέλιον in to Theodore so perfectly fits - not only what Chrysostom says about τοῦ Μυστικοῦ Δείπνου - but with Irenaeus's report about a similar tendency among heretics to hold that some knowledge lay 'beyond the written word of the gospel' which was transmitted viva voce. Let's look at the passage in to Thedoore again. Clement says that:

he yet 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 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.

Again, what is being said here is that is something held back from literal meaning which appears on the page. I would argue that the only reason Clement makes reference to 'something more' not being revealed explicitly in the Alexandrian gospel is because it is explained later by 'living voice' as Irenaeus reports in his near contemporary testimony in Against Heresies Book Three:

When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, "But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world." [AH 3.2.1]

Already Robert McQueen Grant sees the underlying connection between the passage in Irenaeus and the Letter to Theodore. The only point I want to make is that no one yet has fully understood the interrelationship between the term 'mystikon' in to Theodore and Irenaeus's critique cited here.

The 'mystic gospel' is so called by Clement because there is something more which was held back by Mark which was to be expounded by the Alexandrian presbyters to the catechumen. The very same idea is referenced in Chyrostom's use of 'mystic supper' - i.e. the meal followed by a spiritual discourse. Irenaeus attacks the heretics for this very understanding but scholars simply assume he is talking about our canonical gospels.  This is now proven wrong by to Theodore.  Irenaeus is making specific reference to heretical gospels which were deliberately constructed in this ambiguous manner - i.e. presenting obscure narratives like the resurrection of the rich youth - if only to allow the instructors in Alexandria to 'follow up' with fuller discourses.

Irenaeus is not saying that the heretics share the same gospels with the orthodox but rather they have constructed a false gospel which 'leaves out' explicit reference to the most sacred truths and which are supposed to revealed only by 'living voice.' For Irenaeus's gospels there is no 'sacred meaning' held back. What you see is what you get.  At ever turn he denies that the 'true gospel' of the Catholic tradition have any esoteric truths beyond the literal meaning of the text.  His radical new understanding of the gospel was sharply at odds with Clement, Origen and the Alexandrian tradition and perhaps deliberately so.

Email with comments or questions.

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