Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On Money Changers and Fire Baptism

Let's face it - most of the scholarship on the meaning of the known sayings of the gospel is pretty much disappointing, so it should come as no surprise that the same scholars completely bungle the agrapha (= the sayings from lost gospels and oral traditions). Take the oft repeated reference to 'skillful money changers' which appears in many places in the writings of Clement, Origen and other Alexandrian writers in various forms including:

"Be ye skilful money-changers rejecting some things, but retaining what is good" [γίνεσθε δὲ δόκιμοι τραπεζῖται, τὰ μὲν ἀποδοκιμάζοντες, τὸ δὲ καλὸν κατέχοντες] (Strom 1.28)

It comes almost as second nature for us to read the material as if it refers to the various sayings of Jesus - i.e. that the 'gnostic' was to select the 'true sayings' from the false ones. However a detailed examination of the writings of Clement reveals in fact that this view is completely incorrect.

Indeed I was all prepared to write a post just now demonstrating how this interpretation 'fits' with what is written in the Letter to Theodore about the 'mystic gospel' of Mark when I started to take a second look at all the references which appear in these Alexandrian authors. I realized at once that the saying actually expresses something else completely - a connection with LGM 1 (= the first addition to the Longer Gospel of Mark mentioned in the Letter to Theodore) which has not been recognized hitherto.

The saying makes implicit reference to the practice of fire baptism (reported in various Patristic writers as prevalent among the heretics cf. the Anonymous Treatise on Baptism, Irenaeus Against Heresies 1.13 etc. In order to see it properly one has to recognize how ancient coins were 'tested' in antiquity to determine whether or not they were counterfeit.

As we shall see the practice of testing silver and gold coins by immersing them in fire hot enough to melt away thin sheets of precious metal merely coated over brass coins is still used today in parts of India. For the moment it is enough to see that John Cassian (360 – 435 CE) still remembers the connection with the agraphon:

We ought always to remember that thoughts may arise in these three different ways, and try to determine discreetly the source and the author of the thoughts we find. This judgement upon their author enables us to consider how we ought to behave towards them, and so become, what the Lord commanded us to be, 'good money-changers.' The highest skill of a money-changer consists partly in testing when the gold coin is unadulterated and, as they commonly say, 'of true alloy,' and when it is not sufficiently purified by the fire; and partly in not being deceived by a cheap brass penny if it is fabricated to glitter like gold. [The Conferences of Cassian 1.20 cited in Western Asceticism By Owen Chadwick p. 209]

Of course by the time of Cassian the connection between testing coins in fire and the ascetic life was wholly allegorical. Yet we have already brought forward that this was not so in the late second and third centuries when Church Fathers intimate that heretics like Simon Magus and other legendary figures disseminated a doctrine of literally purifying their catechumen in flames.

I have noted that this practice was certainly being used in Alexandria and is the 'mystery of divine kingship' of the Letter to Theodore. The underlying reference here is the experience of Moses's enthronement. Yet before we get into all of that we should simply note that there is a well established tradition that the gospel writer was making reference to an allegory which involved the 'purity testing' of coins using fire. Jerome notes with respect to the parable of the talents in Matthew that the point of the master's discourse is to reinforce that:

you would have put my money, or silver, with the [good] bankers. For the Greek word ἀργυριον means both (silver and . It says: “The things spoken by the Lord are pure utterances, silver examined and proven by fire, purified of earth seven times. Therefore, the money and silver refer to the preaching of the Gospel and the divine words which must be given to the bankers and money-changers. These latter may refer to other teachers, for this is exactly what the apostles did in each province when they ordained priests and bishops. Or they may refer to all believers who can double the money and render it with interest. [Jerome Commentary on Matthew 25:26 - 29]

While Jerome has already divorced the meaning of the 'testing by fire' from a specific Alexandrian purification rite for initiates, it is not difficult to see that Clement still understands the saying in this way.

Before we jump into Clement's specific reference to this practice let's note how central this saying regarding the 'testing' of coins by fire to see if they are genuine or not is in the Stromateis. It appears not only many times during the course of the discussion but among the first and last things said in the book. Stromateis Book One almost opens with the words:

And now the Saviour shows Himself, out of His abundance, dispensing goods to His servants according to the ability of the recipient, that they may augment them by exercising activity, and then returning to reckon with them; when, approving of those that had increased His money [τὸ ἀργύριον αὐτοῦ], those faithful in little, and commanding them to have the charge over many things, He bade them enter into the joy of the Lord. But to him who had hid the money entrusted to him [τὸ πιστευθὲν ἀργύριον] to be given out at interest, and had given it back as he had received it, without increase, He said, "Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou oughtest to have given my money [τὸ ἀργύριόν μου] to the bankers [τραπεζίταις], and at my coming I should have received mine own." Wherefore the useless servant "shall be cast into outer darkness." "Thou, therefore, be strong," says Paul, "in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things which thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also." And again: "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." If, then, both proclaim the Word -- the one by writing, the other by speech -- are not both then to be approved, making, as they do, faith active by love? It is by one's own fault that he does not choose what is best; God is free of blame. As to the point in hand, it is the business of some to lay out the word at interest, and of others to test it, and either choose it or not. And the judgment is determined within themselves. [Strom 1.1]

The point of course is that the 'banking metaphor' is central to Clement. While the specific allusion to 'testing' the coin which has been 'lent out at interest' is not yet addressed, the reader should see be aware now that it is certainly coming.

Indeed the first sign of the mystical doctrine appears a little later in Book One where Clement begins to allude to the importance of 'testing coins' writing:

The apostle designates the doctrine which is according to the Lord, "the wisdom of God," in order to show that the true philosophy has been communicated by the Son. Further, he, who has a show of wisdom, has certain exhortations enjoined on him by the apostle: "That ye put on the new man, which after God is renewed in righteousness and true holiness. Wherefore, putting away lying, speak every man truth. Neither give place to the devil. Let him that stole, steal no more; but rather let him labour, working that which is good" (and to work is to labour in seeking the truth; for it is accompanied with rational well-doing), "that ye may have to give to him that has need," both of worldly wealth and of divine wisdom. For he wishes both that the word be taught, and that the money be put into the bank [τὰς τραπέζας τὸ ἀργύριον βάλλεσθαι], accurately tested [δεδοκιμασμένον ἀκριβῶς], to accumulate interest. [Strom 1.18]
This is followed up a little later in Book One by the clear purpose of the 'fire immersion' ritual for the various 'coins' (= initiates) viz. to be rendered pure, 'purified' or even cleansed of 'impurities':

Rightly, therefore, the Scripture, in its desire to make us such dialecticians, exhorts us: "Be ye skilful money-changers rejecting some things, but retaining what is good" [γίνεσθε δὲ δόκιμοι τραπεζῖται, τὰ μὲν ἀποδοκιμάζοντες, τὸ δὲ καλὸν κατέχοντες]. For this true dialectic is the science which analyses the objects of thought, and shows abstractly and by itself the individual substratum of existences, or the power of dividing things into genera, which descends to their most special properties, and presents each individual object to be contemplated simply such as it is. Wherefore it alone conducts to the true wisdom, which is the divine power which deals with the knowledge of entities as entities, which grasps what is perfect, and is freed from all passion; not without the Saviour, who withdraws, by the divine word, the gloom of ignorance arising from evil training, which had overspread the eye of the soul, and bestows the best of gifts,- "That we might well know or God or man." [Strom 1.28]

Again the reader has to put these statements of Clement regarding the 'purification of coins' within the greater context of allusions to Alexandrian mysteries rites which cleanse the individual of material impurities.

This becomes even clearer as we turn the page to the beginning of Book Two of the Stromateis where Clement makes even more specific reference to the connection between the testing of coins and Alexandrian purification rites:

"Lo, I make new things," saith the Word, "which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man." With a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, whatever can be seen and heard is to be apprehended, by the faith and understanding of the disciples of the Lord, who speak, hear, and act spiritually. For there is genuine coin, and other that is spurious; which no less deceives unprofessionals, that it does not the money-changers [ἀργυραμοιβούς]; who know through having learned how to separate and distinguish what has a false stamp from what is genuine. So the money-changer only says to the unprofessional man that the coin is counterfeit [κίβδηλόν]. But the reason why, only the banker's apprentice [τραπεζίτου], and he that is trained to this department, learns. [Strom 2.4]

It will be very significant in the second part of our analysis when we connect the exchange of silver coins to the annual temple tax which clearly forms the basis to resurrection narrative in Secret Mark - a theme already referenced in Mark 10:17 - 31 which clearly takes place just before the first day of the first month of the Jewish religious calendar. For the moment we need only reference the fact that it is 'silver' and 'silver changers' (ἀργυραμοιβούς) being referenced to throughout Clement's analysis (cf. also ἦν μὲν οὖν, κατὰ τὸν ἀπόστολον, πνευμάτων διακρίσεως χάρισμα, καὶ ὁ τοῦτο ἔχων διέκρινε πνεύματα, τά τε θεῖα ὄντα καὶ τὰ πονηρά, καθάπερ ἀργυραμοιβὸς τὸ νόμισμα τὸ δόκιμόν τε καὶ κίβδηλον Origen Fragment Homilies on Jeremiah).

It is enough for us to note for the moment that as we progress throughout the remainder of Clement's treatment of the saying in the Stromateis that he is not referencing the 'gnostic' sorting through and 'testing' the various sayings of Jesus in the gospel but rather undergoing a purification ritual by fire in the manner of the coins on the table of the silver changers:

For truth is immoveable; but false opinion dissolves. We choose, for instance, one purple by comparison with another purple. So that, if one confesses that he has not a heart that has been made right, he has not the table of the money-changers [τράπεζαν οὐκ ἔχει τὴν τῶν ἀργυραμοιβῶν] or the test of words [τὸ κριτήριον τῶν λόγων]. And how can he be any longer a money-changer [τραπεζίτης], who is not able to prove and distinguish spurious coin [δοκιμάσαι μὴ δυνάμενος καὶ διακρῖναι τὸ ἀκίβδηλον νόμισμα], even offhand?

Now David cried, "The righteous shall not be shaken for ever;" neither, consequently, by deceptive speech nor by erring pleasure. Whence he shall never be shaken from his own heritage. "He shall not be afraid of evil tidings; " consequently neither of unfounded calumny, nor of the false opinion around him. No more will he dread cunning words, who is capable of distinguishing them, or of answering rightly to questions asked. Such a bulwark are dialectics, that truth cannot be trampled under foot by the Sophists. "For it behoves those who praise in the holy name of the Lord," according to the prophet, "to rejoice in heart, seeking, the Lord. Seek then Him, and be strong. Seek His face continually in every way." "For, having spoken at sundry times and in divers manners," it is not in one way only that He is known.

It is, then, not by availing himself of these as virtues that our Gnostic will be deeply learned. But by using them as helps in distinguishing who is common and what is peculiar, he will admit the truth [κἀν τῷ διαστέλλειν τά τε κοινὰ καὶ τὰ ἴδια προσήσεται τὴν ἀλήθειαν] [Strom 6.10]

And again:

Further, it is said that it is on account of "those that are approved that heresies exist." [The apostle] calls "approved," either those who in reaching faith apply to the teaching of the Lord with some discrimination - as those are called skilful money-changers, who distinguish the spurious coin from the genuine by the false stamp [τοὺς δοκίμους τραπεζίτας τὸ <ἀ>κίβδηλον νόμισμα τοῦ κυρίου] - or those who have already become approved both in life and knowledge. For this reason, then, we require greater attention and consideration in order to investigate how precisely we ought to live, and what is the true piety. For it is plain that, from the very reason that truth is difficult and arduous of attainment, questions arise from which spring the heresies, savouring of self-love and vanity, of those who have not learned or apprehended truly, but only caught up a mere conceit of knowledge. With the greater care, therefore, are we to examine the real truth, which alone has for its object the true God. And the toil is followed by sweet discovery and reminiscence. [Strom 7.15]

Clearly then the 'false coins' are those who have not been sufficiently purified of the passions through the baptism of fire administered by the 'true Church' of Alexandria. It is not 'testing the sayings' reported of Jesus (which has a clear blasphemous ring to it) but rather - as Jerome notes - establishing individuals who are made of pure 'metal.'

A parallel example exists in India of a Hindu saint who had frequented the Christian churches of the region and seems to have come away with the same teaching:

Sri Ramakrishna had said to him, "Test me as the money-changers test their silver coins. Your path is not to accept me until you have tested me." And accordingly one day whilst the Master was absent from Dakshineswar, having gone to the city of Calcutta, Noren came to the Temple-garden and found the living-room of Sri Ramakrishna empty. Not even one person was present. Noren had with him a silver rupee. The thought of the Master's tapasya concerning money came suddenly to his mind. "Let me test him," thought the disciple, and taking the coin he put it in the bed of the Master, beneath the mattress. Then he went to meditate in the shadow of the Panchavati. Soon Sri Ramakrishna returned. Coming into his room he went to sit upon the bed : directly his feet approached it, he felt suddenly a contracting pain in his body and his feet were thrown backwards as if having come into contact with fire ! The Master called out in a surprised tone, "What is the matter ! What is the matter !" Noren had come into the room when the Master returned from Calcutta. Various emotions came over him when he saw the Master's body thus violently contracted — tenderness and love for him, pain at his physical agony, and a joyous blessedness that the test had come true. An attendant at once searched the bed, pulling off the coverings in his great haste, fearing that perhaps a viper had concealed itself therein. Then as the bedding dropped to the floor the muffled ring of a coin was heard. "A rupee ! How could it have gotten there?" cried the attendant. [The life of the swami Vivekananda, Volume 1 p. 331]

The point of course is that the same understanding of being tested for purity as silver coins were tested (= by fire) is here referenced in an allegorical sense. However, as we have noted in Alexandria 'Mark' (= the apostle) established rituals ridiculed by the Church Fathers which represented another baptism (= fire purification immersion) which were likened to the rites of the magi.

In places where there were no money-changers, people would not take silver coins without putting them in the fire to test whether the silver was good. [Seshayangar Srinivasa Raghavaiyangas, Memorandum of the Progress of the Madras Presidency 1893 p. 17]

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