Friday, September 9, 2011

Morton Smith is Wrong About the Salt Metaphor in the Letter to Theodore

I have never been happy with Morton Smith's interpretation of the text. His knowledge and feel for the Greek language was impeccable. Yet this is letter presents several unusual difficulties - the most obvious that it is only one half of an ongoing dialogue with a certain 'Theodore.' The problem here is that we don't know what Theodore originally wrote to Clement about. In other words, we lack the context for many of Clement's statements. As a result Morton Smith can have the greatest command of Greek, yet fail in his effort to ultimately know what Clement is talking about.

Case in point - this important statement about the seasoning of salt translated by Morton Smith as:

Now of the things they keep saying (θρυλουμένων) 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. For the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor.

Smith makes clear in his Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark that θρυλουμένων here is 'contemptuous.'  Yet I think his interpretation otherwise is completely off the mark.  Let me explain what I mean by that.

My original major in university was psychology.  I look at Smith and I see a man struggling with the whole problem of 'Secret Mark' and its relationship with canonical Mark almost from the moment he discovers the manuscript.  It is an obsession shared by many who take an interest in this text.  So naturally Smith frames the meaning of the passage in similar terms to his own interest in the document.  Alluding to the salt reference Smith writes in  Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark:

The text here is closer to Lk., which differs from Mt. by beginning ἐὰν δὲ καὶ Behind the choice of this proverb probably lies not only recollection of the context of these Gospel passages (and Mk. 9.50), which declare corrupted Christians fit only to be cast out, but also the recollection of Jeremiah 28.17 (LXX) (= 10.14 Heb) ... which made the verse particularly appropriate for use against gnostics who had corrupted the Scriptures [emphasis mine] (p. 23)

I don't think the 'salt becoming useless' is being used by Clement to reference 'corrupted scriptures.'  This again is Smith's obsession, not Clement's.  Clement takes for granted the existence of his Alexandrian text of Mark and has to make careful allusions to its contents.  He is criticizing the Carpocratian understanding which is developed from 'the divinely inspired' gospel (= Mark) but he never quite spells out what exactly they are corrupting.

The proper way to have tackled the problem of what Clement means by the salt reference shared by Luke 14:34, Matthew 5:13 and Mark 9:50 is to see how the passage was used by early Christian authors.  The difficulty, as Morton Smith notes in his book, is that no ancient witness seems to spell out what 'salt becoming useless' means.  Clement never explains the passage, nor his successor Origen.  The closest Smith can get is to note that Clement cites 'ye are the salt of the earth' in a similar way in the Stromateis.

Yet if Smith had access to the wonders of modern technology he would realize that there was in fact one third century reference which I think settles what Clement meant by the saying.  It appears in a document from 258 CE - the Seventh Council of Carthage on the Rebaptism of Heretics and in my opinion it confirms what should have been obvious from the beginning - the 'salt becoming useless' is a baptism reference.  We read in the Council of Carthage organized to restore the sanctity of Christian baptism:

Lucius of Castra Galbae said: Since the Lord in His Gospel said, You are the salt of the earth: but if the salt should have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out of doors, and to be trodden under foot of men.  And again, after His resurrection, sending His apostles, He gave them charge, saying, All power is given unto me, in heaven and in earth. Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Since, therefore, it is manifest that heretics— that is, the enemies of Christ— have not the sound confession of the sacrament; moreover, that schismatics cannot season others with spiritual wisdom, since they themselves, by departing from the Church, which is one, having lost the savour, have become contrary to it—let it be done as it is written, The house of those that are contrary to the law owes a cleansing. And it is a consequence that those who, having been baptized by people who are contrary to the Church, are polluted, must first be cleansed, and then at length be baptized.

In other words, I will argue that the 'salt becoming useless' is a rejection of the Carpocratian understanding of baptism from the Gospel of Mark rather than a generic reference to their corrupting of scripture.  This must have been the original point made by Theodore - i.e. that the Carpocratians said something about baptism from the gospel of Mark which prompted him to write to Clement and now the Alexandrian has taken the time to respond.

The reason that this shouldn't be surprising to anyone is that we have a reference to the gospel salt metaphor and the Gospel of Mark in the very same sentence.  It can't be coincidental that according to Baarda's reconstruction of this section that a reference to baptism - a 'baptism of fire' - appears directly alongside the salt saying:

Everyone will be baptized with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?

Of course unimaginative scholars have long noted that Clement's citation in to Theodore more closely resembles Luke than Mark here.  Yet as Morton Smith notes in Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, Clement's gospel of Mark chapter 10 in Quis Dives Salvetur often times resembles Matthew or Luke more closely than canonical Mark.  We must infer in my opinion that Clement is citing from a text of the gospel of Mark which (a) retained Baarda's reconstruction and then (b) followed it up with a salt saying more like what appears in Luke and Matthew.  In other words something like - "everyone will be baptized with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, even the salt becomes useless."

The underlying connection between corrupting baptism and salt becoming useless must have been so strong for Clement that he made reference to the saying in his attack against the Carpocratians.  It is worth noting that he keeps coming back to the baptism theme throughout the discussion in to Theodore.  In the next place he discusses Mark 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.

This is a baptism reference no less than Mark leaving:

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.

So too the allusion to Theodore originally asking about:

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

The point is that the letter is clearly all about the understanding of baptism which properly develops from the 'divinely inspired Gospel of Mark' and because the Carpocratian text does not involve fire baptism in my opinion Clement concludes that "when they put forward their falsifications, should one concede that it is Mark’s mystic Gospel, but should even deny it on oath."

It should be noted that 'oath taking' was an important part of the Roman institutionalized form of baptism that was being imposed in Alexandria in the third century.  Dionysius the Patriarch at the very same time that the Council of Carthage was being read says that at least some Alexandrians felt uncomfortable with the oath taking exercise and refused to be rebaptized because of the 'foreigness' of the ritual.  I cannot believe that the two uses of the salt saying are unrelated.  The Anonymous Treatise on Baptism makes specific reference to fire baptism as prompting the rebaptism of heretics.  I think that the Letter to Theodore represents a snapshot of the Alexandrian reaction against the imposition of Roman baptism customs with their oath swearing in Egypt and north Africa.  The use of the salt metaphor is clearly related.

I also suspect 'the Carpocratians' here have some reference to the Romans (the only Carpocratians we ever hear about with any certainty are those related to Marcellina of Rome).  Yet I will forego developing this understanding for the moment.

I think it more important to conclude with the important understanding that the reference in the Letter to Theodore is very much a condescending reference to the vulgar baptism ritual associated with the Roman gospel of Mark.  I would translate the passage:

Now of the things they keep chattering about (θρυλουμένων) 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. For the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor. 

It is important to keep our eye on the word θρυλουμένων.  Here is some context - θρυλέω means "make a confused noise, chatter, babble." θρύλημα means "common talk, by-word." θρυλητός means "generally talked of" θρῦλος "noise as of many voices, murmur.

Here is some more context.  A brief poem by Michael Cho­ni­ates, the under­rated Arch­bishop of Athens at the time of the 4th Cru­sade.  Wil­am­owitz lists him along with his teacher Eustathius as princes over and against the cer­tainly over­rated Tzetzes. This poem laments the state to which Athens had fallen by the time of his bishopric.

ρως Ἀθηνῶν τῶν πάλαι θρυλουμένων
ἔγραψε ταῦτα ταῖς σκιαῖς προσαθύρων
καὶ τοῦ πόθου τὸ θάλπον ὑπαναψύχων.

A love of that chat­ter­ing Athens of old
wrote these verses, play­ing in the shad­ows
and lit­tle by lit­tle sooth­ing the sting of its longing.

The par­tici­ple θρυλουμένων may be taken to mean ‘talked about’ or ‘chat­ter­ing amongst itself."  The word con­veys the idea of a place being filled with voices? Michael will go on to lament the loss of ora­tors and modes of pub­lic life, and we know that he was mor­ti­fied to find that the natives no longer under­stood the ancient dialect. The shad­ows, I think, are a nice touch. They pre­fig­ure the image he will cre­ate, the images he evokes, and the ruins of the past both in lit­er­a­ture and in the dilap­i­dated remains that sur­round him in the city.

Clement's use of the term in Stromata Book Six is also interesting when he distinguishes the true state of impassibility attained by the elect with other holy men from other Christian sects:

But the Gnostic does not share either in those affections that are commonly celebrated as good []

ἀλλ' οὐδὲ ἐκείνων τῶν θρυλουμένων ἀγαθῶν,

The understanding of baptism developed by the Carpocratians is clearly a 'common one' - i.e. vulgar one.  I wonder whether we can go so far as to say that it is the baptism of John found in the common or vulgar Gospel of Mark which appears in our surviving New Testament canon.

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