Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Mystic Gospel Was So-Called Because It Presented a Wholly Symbolic Narrative

Many of my readers must be wondering why it is that I have taken such an interest in Clement's reference to a gospel which references Jesus speaking of the cup as the 'symbol of my blood.'  I have told you that the idea must go back to the existence of a 'mystic gospel' (μυστικὸν εὐαγγέλιον) referenced in the Letter to Theodore.  Yet I am sure many of you are wondering why it is that I think that.  After all, why should it make such a big difference to the discussion that Clement and many other later writers influenced by the original (and ultimately lost) Alexandrian tradition should think that the gospel originally referenced the sacraments as symbols. We know of a great number of early writers who believed this, but none of them make reference to a μυστικὸν εὐαγγέλιον.

My point however is that whenever we go back to the earliest strata of any Christian tradition we have a basic distinction between a 'simple' or 'straightforward' (= peshitta) gospel and something deeper (i.e. the Diatessaron).  According to Lobeck (Aglaophamus, 85 ff.) μυστικὸν is anything recondite, enigmatical, indirect, allegorical; in fact, what is purposely not simple, plain, and straightforward.  That the tradition used by Clement should associate the 'simple' gospel with Peter can't be accidental either.

The Marcionites have already been understood to have had the 'this is the symbol of my body' reference.  Now we have uncovered Clement using a gospel with the related saying 'this is the symbol of my blood.'  Blood is a divine 'sign' in Exodus (where it is used to prevent the angel of death from killing the firstborn children of Israel).  Yet the reason I am so interested in the notion of a gospel which seems to establish the sacraments as 'symbols' or 'signs' is that it seems to be connected with the very name Clement gives to the Alexandrian text of Mark.

Gregory of Nyssa for instance refers to "the one reality of mystical customs and symbols." [Contra Eunomium Bk 11 (PG 45, 880B)].  Everett Ferguson perfectly embodies Gregory's use of the terminology when he writes "[a]llegory deals in symbols ; and the language of mysticism is perforce symbolic. It is therefore easy to confuse allegorical and mystical discourse, although, given that allegory explains symbols, it should be possible to distinguish them. Indeed, Gregory of Nyssa is frequently taken to be a mystic in the sense Plotinus was precisely because of a failure to do so." [Personalities of the Early Church p. 365]

Yet Ferguson's discussion only opens the door for why the Alexandrian tradition must have identified its gospel as the 'mystical' one.  It emphasized the symbolic nature of Jesus's ministry.  Take for example the reference in the Letter to Theodore regarding the evangelist Mark not declaring all of Jesus’ teachings, nor did he even “hint at the mystic ones" (μυστικὰ).  Indeed what are the 'mystic' sayings of the gospel if not those which emphasized the symbolic nature of Jesus's ministry?

We have only been discussing the 'symbol' of the bread and the cup but there must have been an even more obvious example of this character - one which must have been behind Clement's citation of LGM 1 (= the narrative about the resurrected youth in the Letter to Theodore) - i.e. the symbolic nature of the death of Christ.  I just want the reader to think about how strange the story of the youth appears to us.  There is no attempt to explain the circumstances of his death. The youth has just 'died' and Jesus has to 'resurrect' him.  He may well have subsequently baptized him but for the moment we need only stick to Morton Smith's original observation about the reflection of Pauline baptismal practices.

For the moment it should be enough to cite an example from John of Damascus, an early resident of Mar Saba who may well have read the Letter to Theodore while it was still a part of the monastery's original collection of letters of Clement of Alexandria.  John has the following to say about Christian baptism as 'an image of the death of Christ':

For although the divine Apostle says : Into Christ and into His death were we baptised, he does not mean that the invocation of baptism must be in these words, but that baptism is an image of the death of Christ.

Perhaps it is still not clear what I am getting at with respect to Clement's identifying the text as a 'mystic' gospel.  Yet I think after citing how Clement elsewhere identifies Christ's death as a 'symbol' the reader will 'catch my drift.'

Back to my weekend ...

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