Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On the Possibility of Correspondences between Clement and Gregory Thaumaturgus (i.e. 'Theodore') Surviving From Antiquity

There is no doubt that 'Theodore' of Clement of Alexandria's letter to Theodore fame could be anyone. 'Theodore' was a popular name in antiquity for both pagans, Jews and Christians. Nevertheless as much of the scholarship in the humanities is speculative in nature, it is worth considering for a moment how and why the addressee of this letter might be Gregory of Pontus (a.k.a. Thaumaturgus or the 'Wonder-worker') and why other scholars before us haven't even considered this possibility.

The starting point for any discussion which involves a chronology of early Christian figures before Nicea is unfortunately the Church History of Eusebius. The reason why say 'unfortunately' of course is because modern scholarship has an uncontrolled obsession with pretending to develop almost 'minute by minute' accounts of where and when things happened and Eusebius's early Christian chronology is generally assumed to be full of inaccuracies and at best dates events to regnal years of Emperors and bishops (which can be as long as twenty or thirty years in many cases).

So it is that when Eusebius makes a reference to something - let's say a reference in a letter of Alexander of Jerusalem in the library at Caesarea to a 'Clement the presbyter' visiting Antioch after the death of its bishop Serapion - scholars begin an amazingly vague process of dating this event by the death of the Emperor who Eusebius tells us elsewhere ruled while Serapion was bishop of Antioch. To this end, (a) 'Clement the presbyter' is assumed by Eusebius to be Clement of Alexandria (b) the death of Serapion is assigned by scholars to the very last year of Septimius Severus i.e. 211 CE and (c) it assumed that Clement arrived in the very same year.

While it may well be true that all of these targets lined up and were hit by the same arrow any one of these assumption might be incorrect and thus our missile might ultimately 'miss' in one critical respect. For instance, Clement the presbyter might not have been Clement of Alexandria, Serapion might have died long before the last year of Severus's reign or Clement might have only arrived a few years into the reign of his successor.

This is the difficulty with reading books on the subject of Clement, Origen or 'Theodore' (i.e. 'Gregory Thaumaturgus') carelessly. Every author who has attempted to reconstruct a history of the period has essentially decided to build a house on the worst of foundations. I would argue that anyone who has attempted to write a definitive history of this period must necessarily have a capacity for self-delusion or perhaps a need to convince themselves and others that a definitive history of a most perplexing and unknowable period can in fact be solved and made knowable. In any event, we have to acknowledge right at the outset that all the existing reconstructions of 'what happened' and 'when they happened' are necessarily about as accurate as getting the facts of a crime from a delusional schizophrenic.

Clement, Origen and Theodore were all real, historical people. There can be no doubting that. Clement lived before Origen, and Origen before Theodore. Theodore was by far the most popular of the three, Origen the most detested. In later reconstructions of the life of Gregory Thaumaturgus (a.k.a. 'Theodore') Origen's presence is almost completely expunged save for a passing reference in a single, disparaging sentence. When Theodore tells us about Origen in his own words, the sentiment is completely different. Origen becomes nothing short of a vessel of personal salvation, a second Christ.

While no surviving witness has made any allusion or intimation of a correspondence between the elder Clement and the youthful Theodore the Mar Saba letter does make reference to such a framework. The question now is in identifying this Theodore. Just as the aforementioned letter from Alexander of Jerusalem is the last known historical 'act' of Clement (assuming again that Eusebius is correct in identifying its 'Clement the presbyter' with Clement of Alexandria) a follow up citation of another letter of the same Alexander becomes the only witness for the death of Clement. Yet this letter can only be dated to some period before the death of the writer (i.e. Alexander d. 251 CE). As such the only determining factor for whether letters between Gregory and Clement could have existed is limited only to the date of the death of the Alexandrian.

Since we don't even know when or where Clement was born determining a reasonable expectation for his death is almost impossible to accomplish with any degree of certainty. Julius Africanus only says that it was in the Commodian period that Clement first made a name for himself. As such we can assume perhaps that he was 30 or 40 by the middle of the Commodian period i.e. 180 - 192 CE. This is perhaps why the traditional dating of Clement's death is assigned to a rough date of 220 CE. In other words, that he was born c. 150 and that his life roughly corresponded to an 'average life expectancy' of seventy years.

Even with this rough dating and Robertson and Donaldson's rough dating of the birth of Theodore (a.k.a. Gregory Thaumaturgus) to 205 CE a correspondence between he and Clement is certainly possible. Theodore tells us quite explicitly that he came to Origen in Caesarea at fourteen years of age:

For then it was that I was brought over first to the word of salvation and truth, in what manner I cannot tell, by constraint rather than by voluntary choice. For what power of decision had I then, who was but fourteen years of age? [Oration for Origen 5]

We know that Clement of Alexandria had a rather sizable collection of letters preserved at the Mar Saba library at least until the eighth century. While we have no idea who the addressees of any of these letters were, one must assume that these people were Christians of the same circle known to Clement, Origen and Gregory. Alexander of Jerusalem might well have been addressee, Origen might well have been addressee so too 'Theodore' (a.k.a. Gregory Thaumaturgus).

Of course we can't prove that Clement wrote to Alexander but given the love and devotion that Alexander speaks of in his letters there should be no doubt that at several junctures in Clement's life written correspondences were established between the two men. And while Eusebius does not mention this collection of letters of Clement, and only establishes that Origen was Clement's student by means of a letter of Alexander to Origen, a letter to Origen from Clement is also a reasonable assumption despite the apparent ignorance of Eusebius of any letters of Clement. The same thing can be said of a letter of Theodore to Clement and a response from Clement to Theodore. It all depends on our determination of the birth of Theodore and the death of Clement and these things are wholly movable goalposts.

As wealthy and educated converts to the new religion, Gregory Thaumaturgus and Clement were clearly a minority in early Christianity. If Clement was still living while Gregory was being initiated into the mysteries which were effectively transplanted from Alexandria to Jerusalem, it would seem only natural that he would have written a letter to Clement to ask him to clarify whispers and rumors he heard about a 'mystic' or 'secret gospel of Mark' in Alexandria. Perhaps Clement was residing in Egypt when the original letter was written. Who knows.

It is certainly still possible that Theodore was just some unknown figure of the same name. Nevertheless attaching a 'face' or a person to a name is a useful - and indeed enjoyable - diversion. In my nest post I will go through signs from the Oration for Origen that indeed Gregory was initiated into a mystery in Palestine that bears some striking resemblances to what is described in the Mar Saba letter ...

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