Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Discussions With an Expert on Cyril of Jerusalem With Respect to a Connection with the Letter to Theodore

As my readers know I always like to consult the experts especially as I try to connect the letter of Clement of Alexandria Morton Smith discovered in the Mar Saba monastery with ancient Christian literature. I am by no means an expert on the early Church. My interest has always been those 'heretical' traditions disparaged by early Church writers. Nevertheless I think too little effort is spent trying to find a context for the Mar Saba letter. The fact that John of Damascus, a resident of Mar Saba in the eighth century references a collection of at least twenty one letters of Clement of Alexandria in the monastery is an important clue as to the importance that Clement had to the various community under the authority of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. This importance probably dates back to Alexander of Jerusalem's assembling a large library of material much of which must originally have included writers of Alexandrian origin.

In an original email that I sent the professor I noted that I had an interest "in the possible connection of Clementine ideas - from this letter but also the rest of his works - with respect to ritual nudity and the ideas contained in the Mystagogic Catecheses." I should have written "early Alexandrian" rather than merely "Clementine" ideas given that at least part of the evidence I point to includes Origen and many so-called 'Origenist' writers in the early Church. So it is that the professor asks me to clarify a few things with respect to my assertion. First and foremost he wonders:

  1. What would you include among the "Clementine ideas"?
  2. What would you cite as examples of an "emphasis on ritual nudity"?
  3. Could you be more specific about where you see that "there are obvious Alexandrian influences in the Mystagogic Catecheses and many of them may be related to Clement made" - I need to be sure about how extensive you think the influence is.

Let's start with the so-called 'Carpocratian tradition' which lies at the heart of the controversy of the Letter to Theodore. Someone has apparently told a certain Theodore about a 'mystic' or 'secret' gospel of Mark which adds a pericope after what appears in our canonical texts at Mark 10:34. This narrative makes reference to Jesus baptizing a disciple whom he loved - presumably the same youth who asks Jesus about the question regarding eternal life (Mark 10:17 - 31) - the descriptive language with respect to the disciple is almost identical as many have already noted.

According to the newly discovered narrative the youth apparently 'dies' and emerges from the tomb 'resurrected' before being initiated into the 'mysteries of divine kingship.' While no specific allusion to what went on in this initiation - no reference to anointing, water immersion or the like - there are small details in the description which I think can afford us some insight into what likely was in the contemporary Alexandrian liturgy. After all as Clement notes the evangelist Mark in his addition of new material "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 enveloped by seven (circuits)."

In other words, while Clement notes that Mark does not make direct reference to what took place during the initiation of the beloved disciple, it is clearly identified as being related to the contemporary liturgy of Alexandria. The use of term 'mystagogue' with respect to St. Mark emphasizes this as does the allusion to adyton within the seven circuits (peribolwn) of the structure of the original Alexandrian holy place for Christians (cf. Strom. 5.2 also Clement of Alexandria and his use of Philo by A van den Hoek and Esoteric Teaching in the Stromateis by A C Itter).

That ritual nudity was originally a part of whatever baptismal liturgy is clear from the original question from Theodore. Clement intimates at the beginning that Theodore has 'silenced' or 'closed the mouth' of certain Alexandrians - identified by Clement as 'Carpocratians' - that Theodore has encountered with respect to the same 'mystic' or 'secret' gospel of Mark upon which the Alexandrian liturgy was based:

Now of the things they keep saying about the divinely inspired Gospel according to Mark, some are altogether falsifications, and others, even if they do contain some true elements, nevertheless are not reported truly.

One of the questions or statements that Theodore originally made with respect to the 'mystic' or 'secret' gospel of Mark is that it made reference to ritual nudity. Clement notes:

But "naked man with naked man," and the other things about which you wrote, are not found.

Nevertheless Clement does go to great lengths to demonstrate that there is an added pericope which does allude to some sort of ritual nudity - perhaps not 'naked with naked' but nakedness nonetheless:

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 then is that the youth did not originally just 'rise from the dead' but that he also appeared after six or seven days to undergo some rite associated with divine kingship. I happen to think that there are basic similarities between this narrative and what appears in Cyril's catechetical instructions (not just the Mystagogic Catecheses but also the Catachetical Instructions) to argue for a connection. I wonder if the reason the Letter to Theodore in particular was preserved by the Jerusalem Patriarchate was because of its recognized association with the liturgy which was preserved in the city until the thirteenth century.

In any event before getting too deeply into all this speculation it is better to go back to the original question with respect to γυμνοὶ γυμνῷ 'naked with naked' and wonder what it might started as. I have long argued that the original kernel of the question raised by Theodore might be rooted in a contemporary Platonic reference to the description of the judgement of the dead in Gorgias which was known to both addressee and sender via the influential writings of Maximus of Tyre a generation earlier. First the original reference in the writings of Plato:

Next, let all of them be judged naked, for they must be judged dead; and their judge too must be naked, and dead, contemplating the soul alone by itself at the very moment each person dies, bereft of all family and leaving behind on this earth all ornament and dress, in order that the judgment may be just. [Gorgias 532d]

Now the contemporary adaptation of this formula in the writings of Maximus of Tyre:

Or do you think that a man who has been well exercised, and who has strenuously laboured with his body, would be disturbed in consequence of his garments being torn; and that he would not willingly throw them away, and deliver his body to the air, the naked to the naked (γυμνὸν γυμνῷ), the friend to the friend, and the free to the free? what else, then, do you think this skin, these bones, and this flesh are to the soul than a diurnal robe and slender and effeminate rags?

This has been aptly demonstrated by Professor Michael Trapp of King's College in a personal email to me "Clement, Origen and Jerome were all knowledgeable readers of Plato, and there’s a good chance that they all knew Plato Gorgias 523d – the idea that for effective Last Judgement the encounter must be post mortem, of naked soul judging naked soul."

What I am suggesting of course is that the Alexandrian liturgy itself was recognized by contemporary pagans to have developed from Platonism. In other words, the baptismal rite which involved allusions to 'death,' 'restanding,' nudity, water immersion and which originally involved an enthroned bishop was seen as somehow being derived from or involved outright appropriation by Mark or early Christians from the writings of Plato.

As I will demonstrate this was certainly the criticism of Celsus. Yet for the moment we need only point to the fact that Clement himself uses certain passages in the Pauline writings which suggest a similar understanding of the 'scene' developed in the contemporary Alexandrian liturgy. He says somewhere:

Truly, then, are we the children of God, who have put aside the old man, and stripped off (ἐκδυσάμενοι) the garment of wickedness, and put on the immortality of Christ; that we may become a new, holy people by regeneration, and may keep the man undefiled. [Paed 1.6]

Νήπιοι ἄρα εἰκότως οἱ παῖδες τοῦ θεοῦ οἱ τὸν μὲν παλαιὸν ἀποθέμενοι ἄνθρωπον καὶ τῆς κακίας ἐκδυσάμενοι τὸν χιτῶνα, ἐπενδυσάμενοι δὲ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν τοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἵνα καινοὶ γενόμενοι, λαὸς ἅγιος, ἀναγεννηθέντες ἀμίαντον φυλάξωμεν τὸν ἄνθρωπον καὶ νήπιοι ὦμεν ὡς βρέφος τοῦ θεοῦ κεκαθαρμένον πορνείας καὶ πονηρίας.

The citations which follow from Clement's Alexandrian recension of 2 Corinthians chapter 5 were very different from our received text and suggest to me at least that some sort of 'scene' was played out in the adyton of the church of Alexandria:

being stripped (ἐκδυσάμενοι) we shall not be found naked ... before the judgment seat of Christ.

I think that pagans were very aware of reports of what was ritually re-enacted in Alexandria Christianity and - accurately traced not only the 'liturgy' but the original gospel material on which it was based back to Plato.

Let's take a second look at Celsus's attack against the Platonic borrowings in the very scene which preceded the pericope referenced in the Letter to Theodore - i.e. Mark 10:17 - 31:

In the next place, with regard to the declaration of Jesus against rich men, when He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God," Celsus alleges that this saying manifestly proceeded from Plato, and that Jesus perverted the words of the philosopher, which were, that “it was impossible to be distinguished for goodness, and at the same time for riches." Now who is there that is capable of giving even moderate attention to affairs—not merely among the believers on Jesus, but among the rest of mankind—that would not laugh at Celsus, on hearing that Jesus, who was born and brought up among the Jews, and was supposed to be the son of Joseph the carpenter, and who had not studied literature—not merely that of the Greeks, but not even that of the Hebrews—as the truth-loving Scriptures testify regarding Him, had read Plato, and being pleased with the opinion he expressed regarding rich men, to the effect that “it was impossible to be distinguished for goodness and riches at the same time,” had perverted this, and changed it into, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God!” [Origen Contra Celsus 6.16]

It is very significant that this passage is the one which immediately precedes the additional pericope of the gospel of Mark mentioned in to Theodore. For it falls in a pattern of 'Platonic interpretation' of Mark chapter 10 that we see associated with the Carpocratians.

In the Stromata Book Three Clement argues that the Carpocratians have misread Mark 10:17 - 31 in order to justify sexual promiscuity and polygamy:

Such, I think, is the law that Carpocrates must have given for the copulations of dogs and pigs and goats. He seems to me to have misunderstood the saying of Plato in the Republic that the women of all are to be common. Plato means that the unmarried are common for those who wish to ask them, as also the theatre is open to the public for all who wish to see, but that when each one has chosen his wife, then the married woman is no longer common to all. [Strom 3.2]

A similar report about a subsect of the Carpocratians has reached Theodoret

Prodicus, a follower of Carpocrates, founded the heresy of the so-called Adamians. He added to the rules laid down by Carpocrates those of unbridled lechery. He sanctioned the communal possession of wives. For this reason not only at public banquets, with lights extinguished, did each mingle with the woman on whom he fell, but they performed such lecheries as a mystical ritual of initiation' {Haer. fab. I, 6).

of which Epiphanius also preserves another piece of the puzzle:

The Adamians are named after Adam. They imitate the naked state which was his in paradise before the sin. In accord with this they are against marriage, because Adam did not have relations with his wife before he sinned or before he was dismissed from paradise. Hence, they believe that there would not have been marriages, if no one had sinned. Accordingly, men and women assemble naked; naked they listen to the readings; naked they pray; and naked they celebrate the sacraments. For this reason they regard their church as Paradise.

I think we can use these building blocks to piece together a basic framework whereby the original Alexandrian liturgy knew of the addition to the Gospel of Mark - i.e. that a scene followed the Question of the Rich Youth (Mark 10:17 - 31) which served as the basis for the baptism liturgy and which involved ritual nudity.

The best clues for this are to go through the various references to the 'nudus nudum' formula and Mark 10:17 - 31 of Jerome:

if you will be perfect, go out with Abraham from your country and from your kindred, and go whither you know not. If you have substance, sell it and give to the poor. If you have none, then are you free from a great burden. Being yourself naked, follow a naked Christ [nudum Christum, nudus sequere]. The task is a hard one, it is great and difficult; but the reward is also great.[Letter 125]

For the present I will content myself by suggesting to your discretion that you should bear in mind the apostle's words: Are you bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife that is, seek not that binding which is contrary to loosing. He who has contracted the obligations of marriage, is bound, and he who is bound is a slave; on the other hand he who is loosed is free. Since therefore you rejoice in the freedom of Christ, since your life is better than your profession, since you are all but on the housetop of which the Saviour speaks; you ought not to come down to take your clothes, you ought not to look behind you, you ought not having put your hand to the plough, then to let it go. Rather, if you can, imitate Joseph and leave your garment in the hand of your Egyptian mistress, that naked you may follow your Lord and Saviour [ut nudus sequaris Dominum Salvatorem]. For in the gospel He says: Whosoever does not leave all that he has and bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Cast from you the burden of the things of this world, and seek not those riches which in the gospel are compared to the humps of camels. Naked and unencumbered fly up to heaven; masses of gold will but impede the wings of your virtue. I do not speak thus because I know you to be covetous, but because I have a notion that your object in remaining so long in the army is to fill that purse which the Lord has commanded you to empty. For they who have possessions and riches are bidden to sell all that they have and to give to the poor and then to follow the Saviour. Thus if your worship is rich already you ought to fulfil the command and sell your riches; or if you are still poor you ought not to amass what you will have to pay away.[Letter 145]

As for you, when you hear the Saviour's counsel: if you will be perfect, go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and come follow me, you translate his words into action; and making yourself naked to follow the naked cross [nudam crucem nudus sequems] you mount Jacob's ladder the easier for carrying nothing [Letter 58]

Once upon a time a rich young man boasted that he had fulfilled all the requirements of the law, but the Lord said to him (as we read in the gospel): One thing you lack, if you will be perfect, go your way, sell whatsoever you have, and give to the poor; and come and follow me. [Mark 10:21] He who declared that he had done all things gave way at the first onset to the power of riches. Wherefore they who are rich find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom which desires for its citizens souls that soar aloft free from all ties and hindrances. Go your way, the Lord says, and sell not a part of your substance but all that you have, and give to the poor; not to your friends or kinsfolk or relatives, not to your wife or to your children. I will even go farther and say: keep back nothing for yourself because you fear to be some day poor, lest by so doing you share the condemnation of Ananias and Sapphira; but give everything to the poor and make to yourself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness that they may receive you into everlasting habitations. Obey the Master's injunction follow me, and take the Lord of the world for your possession; that you may be able to sing with the prophet, The Lord is my portion, and like a true Levite may possess no earthly inheritance. I cannot but advise you thus if you wish to be perfect, if you desire to attain the pinnacle of the apostles' glory, if you wish to take up your cross and to follow Christ. When once you have put your hand to the plough you must not look back; when once you stand on the housetop you must think no more of your clothes within; to escape your Egyptian mistress you must abandon the cloak that belongs to this world. Even Elijah, in his quick translation to heaven could not take his mantle with him, but left in the world the garments of the world. Such conduct, you will object, is for him who would emulate the apostles, for the man who aspires to be perfect. But why should not you aspire to be perfect? Why should not you who hold a foremost place in the world hold a foremost place also in Christ's household? Is it because you have been married? [Letter 118]

But you will hear the Lord reply: “The one who is able to perform such a thing, let him do so,” “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all that you possess,” etc. In saying, “If you want to be perfect,” He does not make this burden a requirement, but allows freedom to pursue either course regarding children. Do you want to be perfect and raise yourself to the highest level of virtue? Imitate the apostles, sell everything you have, give to the poor, and follow the Lord. Separated from all creatures and stripped of everything that you own in the world, follow Him bare, with only a cross. Or, are you content not to be perfect, and to remain in the second-highest level of virtue? Then abandon everything you have, and give it to your children and parents. No one will rebuke you, if you follow this lesser way, provided that you also agree that it is fair that you defer to one whose way tends toward perfection.

You will want to tell me that such sublime virtue is for the men and apostles, but it is impossible for a refined woman, who needs a thousand things to maintain her way of life. Hear therefore what the apostle Paul says: “I do not mean that others are helped and that you are overburdened, but that, to relieve inequality, your abundance compensates for their poverty, so that your poverty is also relieved by their abundance.” That is why the Lord says in the Gospel, “Whoever has two coats, let him give to him who has none.”

Now, if we lived among the ice of Scythia and the snow of the Alps, where not only two and three coats, but even the animal-skins are scarcely sufficient protection from the harsh cold climate, would we be obliged to strip ourselves to clothe others? We must understand “coat” to mean all that is necessary to clothe us and provide what is naturally required, since we are born naked. And by “the provisions of a single day” is meant, whatever is necessary to feed ourselves. In this sense we fathom the commandment in the Gospel, “Do not worry about tomorrow,” that is, about the future, and the apostle’s statement, “While we have food and covering, we must be content.” [Letter 120]

When Nepotian laid aside his baldrick and changed his dress, he bestowed upon the poor all the pay that he had received. For he had read the words: if you will be perfect, sell that you have, and give to the poor and follow me, and again: ye cannot serve two masters, God and Mammon. He kept nothing for himself but a common tunic and cloak to cover him and to keep out the cold. [Letter 60]

I think it unnecessary to warn you against covetousness since it is the way of your family both to have riches and to despise them. The apostle too tells us that covetousness is idolatry, and to one who asked the Lord the question: Good Master what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life? He thus replied: If you will be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me. Such is the climax of complete and apostolic virtue— to sell all that one has and to distribute to the poor, and thus freed from all earthly encumbrance to fly up to the heavenly realms with Christ. [Letter 130]

They ultimately go back much further than Origen but in fact to a similar association of nudity (strangely) with Mark 10:17 - 31 in the writings of Clement:

Wherefore also the Lord says, “Sell what thou hast, and give to the poor; and come, follow me.” Follow God, naked of arrogance (γυμνὸς ἀλαζονείας), naked of fading display (γυμνὸς ἐπικήρου πομπῆς), possessed of that which is thine, which is good, what alone cannot be taken away—faith towards God, confession towards Him who suffered, beneficence towards men, which is the most precious of possessions. [Paed 3.2]

Why then command as new, as divine, as alone life-giving, what did not save those of former days? And what peculiar thing is it that the new creature (ἡ καινὴ κτισις) the Son of God intimates and teaches? It is not the outward act which others have done, but something else indicated by it, greater, more godlike, more perfect, the stripping off (γυμνῶσαι) of the passions from the soul itself and from the disposition, and the cutting up by the roots and casting out of what is alien (ἀλλότρια) to the mind. (τὸ τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτὴν καὶ τὴν διάθεσιν γυμνῶσαι τῶν ὑπόντων παθῶν καὶ πρόρριζα τὰ ἀλλότρια τῆς γνώμης ἐκτεμεῖν καὶ ἐκβαλεῖν). [Quis Dives Salvetur 10 - 12]

“Sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and come, follow Me” —that is, follow what is said by the Lord. Some say that by what “thou hast” He designated the things in the soul, of a nature not akin to it, though how these are bestowed on the poor they are not able to say.[Strom 5.5]

It might be a little overwhelming to digest all this information but the point is that without recognizing that the original core understanding of the Christian baptismal liturgy developed from a Platonizing Alexandrian source, none of my equation with the 'mystic' gospel of Mark as the source for the baptismal liturgy makes any sense. Nevertheless I have tried to demonstrate what those parallels are in a quick post I wrote the other day.

All of the mystical ideas associated with nudity found in the writings of the Carpocratians, Clement, Origen and Jerome develop ultimately from Philo's reshaping of Platonic ideas:

'And the two were naked, Adam and his wife, and were not ashamed' (Gen 2:25). 'Now the serpent was the most subtle of all the beasts that were upon the earth, which the Lord God had made' (Gen 3:1). The mind that is clothed neither in vice nor in virtue, but absolutely stripped of either, is naked, just as the soul of an infant, is bared and stripped of coverings: for these are the soul's clothes, by which it is sheltered and concealed. Goodness is the garment of the worthy soul, evil that of the worthless.

Now there are three ways in which a soul is made naked. One is when it continues without change and is barren of all vices, and has divested itself of all the passions and flung them away. ... What this means is this. The soul that loves God, having disrobed itself of the body and the objects dear to the body and fled abroad far away from these, gains a fixed and assured settlement in the perfect ordinances of virtue ... This is why the high priest shall not enter the Holy of Holies in his robe (Lev 16:l ff.), but laying aside the garment of opinions and impressions of the soul, and leaving it behind for those that love outward things and value semblance above reality, shall enter naked with no colored borders or sound of bells, to pour as a libation the blood of the soul and to offer as incense the whole mind of God our Savior and Benefactor. [Philo Allegorical Interpretation]

Here again is the appropriate passage in Plato's Gorgias:

What is to be done? I will tell you:--In the first place, I will deprive men of the foreknowledge of death, which they possess at present: this power which they have Prometheus has already received my orders to take from them: in the second place, they shall be entirely stripped before they are judged, for they shall be judged when they are dead; and the judge too shall be naked, that is to say, dead--he with his naked soul shall pierce into the other naked souls; and they shall die suddenly and be deprived of all their kindred, and leave their brave attire strewn upon the earth--conducted in this manner, the judgment will be just.

I think various Jewish ideas were layered on top of this original Platonic-Christian formula but at its core it seemed unmistakably Platonic to second and third century pagans - and perhaps rightly so.

Again to see my attempt to (quickly) connect the liturgy of Cyril to what is contained in the letter to Theodore is here.

Email with comments or questions.

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