Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Third Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ

In summer of 1958 a most interesting man made an incredible discovery. The man was Morton Smith, a first year Associate Professor of Ancient History at Columbia University. The discovery was the Letter to Theodore, a previously unknown correspondence from Clement of Alexandria, the earliest Church Father for whom we have any real information from Egypt. Smith was in the process of cataloguing the various books of an ancient monastery near Bethlehem at the behest of the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. He knew that it was a common practice for monks to hand copy manuscripts onto the unused pages of old books. He was hoping to stumble upon something noteworthy.

Then one day toward the end of his stay at the monastery, he was sitting in his cell when he began puzzling over a "text written in a tiny scrawl." The manuscript he was reading turned out to be a fragment of a letter by Clement of Alexandria. It appeared at the back of an edition of the letters of the second century Church Father Ignatius of Antioch published by Isaac Voss in 1646. As Smith later recalled it was "written over both sides of the last page (which was blank) of the original book and over half of the recto of a sheet of binders paper." He photographed the text "three times for good measure.” By the time Smith started transcribing the Byzantine script he knew he had made an amazing discovery.

The new text was identified as #65 of seventy five manuscripts catalogued at the Mar Saba monastery. In 1960 Smith published his results in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Journal Nea Sion, as well as the journal Archaeology. He also announced his find at the 1960 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. At that conference Smith presented a translation of the Clementine letter, a discussion immediately followed and the next morning he published written account of his presentation on the front page of The New York Times:

A copy of an ancient letter in Greek that ascribes a secret gospel to Mark and that narrates a miracle absent from the present Gospel of Mark was made public last night. Dr. Morton Smith associate of history at Columbia University, presented the letter at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis. He said he found the letter two years ago while studying ancient manuscripts at the monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem.

Dr. Smith also presented evidence which he said indicated the letter was originally written by Clement of Alexandria and author who wrote between 180 and 202 A.D. He generally is considered to have either created or laid the foundation of Christian theology. The letter incorporates the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead and attributes the account to St Mark. Previously the Gospel According to St John has been the only one of the four Gospels to incorporated the story of Lazarus.

The story made its way to newspapers across the world. The 1950s were an idealistic period in American history where an unsophisticated nation found itself essentially in control of the world. Teams of American scholars had already combed through the major libraries of monasteries in the region looking for lost handwritten manuscripts. The treasure trove of scrolls near Qumran by the Dead Sea had been already occurred almost a decade earlier. It was an age where almost anything seemed possible.

Morton Smith embarked on a decade of meticulous investigation into the nature of his find and he ended up writing two books on the subject - first, the voluminous and intricate scholarly analysis Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, and then The Secret Gospel, a thin and conversational popular account of the discovery and its interpretation. The first book was delivered to the Harvard University Press in 1966, but was very slow at going through the press. Smith's popular treatment, however, was released by Harper and Row in the summer of 1973 and seemed to be on bookshelves the next day. The end result was that the paperback was the first look that most scholars had of his interpretation of the text and they were utterly shocked by what his interpretation of the material.

Indeed the history associated with document has become somewhat distorted by the ‘culture wars’ of the new millennium. Almost no one had any doubts about the initial discovery. The manuscript sat on the shelves of the Mar Saba library until 1984. There was almost no dispute that it really was a letter by Clement until the monastery’s library, Kallistos Dourvas ripped the handwritten pages from the book and subsequently ‘lost’ the manuscript. What discomforted scholars in the decades after Smith’s publication of his two books was his radical approach to the original text. For many traditional scholars reading Smith’s popularized account of his discovery was like watching a gorilla play a Stradivarius violin.

The reality was that none of the ideas contained in the Letter to Theodore were radical in themselves. Our earliest Church Fathers all attest to the existence of alternative versions of the Gospel of Mark, ‘libertine sects’ who engaged in sexual depravity and the like. What seemed to frustrate traditional scholarship was Morton Smith’s ‘historical’ approach to the material. As Shawn Eyer rightly observes in his 1995 article on the discovery “Smith was working outside of the traditional school of Biblical criticism which automatically regarded all miracle accounts as mythological inventions of the early Christian communities. Instead of taking as his goal the theological deconstruction of the miracle traditions, Smith asked to what degree the miracle stories of the gospels might in fact be based upon actions of Jesus, much in the same way scholars examine the sayings traditions.”

Almost no one today would approach a newly discovered Christian text in the way Smith did. No one would ask ‘what does this tell us about Jesus?” Instead the question would simply be “what does this document tell us about the group which invented this story or myth?” Indeed scholars even in Morton Smith’s day took pride in their new found ‘criticism’ of ancient texts – or at least those texts outside of the Holy Scriptures of the Bible. As Eyer again notes “it has been typical for critical scholars of the Bible to reject any historical foundation for the ‘miracle-worker’ stories about Jesus. Because such tales would tend to rely on the supernatural, and scholars seek to understand the origins of the Bible in realistic terms, it is more plausible for the modern critic to propose reasons for which an early Christian community might have come to understand Jesus as a miracle-worker and subsequently engage in the production of mythologies depicting him in that mold … Smith held that the best explanation for the literary and historical evidence surrounding the miracles of Jesus was that Jesus himself actually performed--or meant to and was understood to have performed--magical feats.”

In other words, it was Morton Smith’s unusual combination of (a) treating Jesus as a historical figure and (b) assuming that stories outside the canonical gospels might be witnesses to historical events that rubbed scholarship the wrong way. Of course most people who study the Bible assume many of its narratives go back to real events. Morton Smith’s ‘mistake’ was that he began by approaching this text which lay outside the acceptable writings of the Church as ‘historical.’ This was a cardinal sin. One can see this criticism of the text into the new millennium. Overall, the Letter to Theodore was ‘interesting’ but nevertheless on a lower level of ‘truthfulness’ than the familiar stories from the gospel. The reason for the two tiered approach to gospel material is never explicitly given but it necessarily goes back to the assumption that the people who set up our ‘canon’ of Holy Writings ‘knew what they were doing’ when they excluded essentially ‘stupid stories’ like this resurrection narrative.

Indeed it was well established in the early literature of the Church Fathers that ‘heretics’ wrote gospels. Yet the leaders of our tradition told their readership to stay clear of other gospels not sanctioned by their authority. To this end the leaders in Rome make reference to other ‘purported’ gospels by Mark and they tell their hearers that they are dangerous and untrue. Morton Smith by taking these stories seriously was breaking the cardinal principles of Orthodoxy.

Nevertheless it should be noted in fairness to Smith that there were exceptions to this rule among the Fathers of the Church. A certain second century Christian named Papias of Hieropolis was famous for seeking out new information about Jesus from eyewitnesses and scribes. Of course the more famous Eusebius of Caesarea ridiculed Papias for being ‘stupid’ as a result of his open-mindedness. Another example of liberality in the early Church was Clement of Alexandria. It is clear from his writings known before the discovery of the Letter to Theodore that he embraced a wide plurality of sacred literature including a gospel he cryptically referenced as the ‘Gospel according to the Egyptians’ which bears many striking features in common with this ‘secret’ gospel that Mark purportedly wrote in Alexandria.

Nevertheless it should be noted that most of Morton Smith’s contemporaries felt that he wasn’t being ‘critical’ enough with respect to his discovery. By putting this forbidden text on the same level as the ‘true’ Gospel of Mark he was falling into league with those condemned by the Church Fathers. As he himself once noted after the publication of his books – ‘Thank God I have tenure!’ This state of affairs led to Morton Smith’s second great mistake with respect to the manuscript, by treating the narrative as history rather than myth he was forced to embrace the ancient view outside of Christianity that Jesus was a magician. After all, he mused, how can we account for a historical individual having all these miracles attributed to his person? The only people in history who engaged in wonderworking were magicians. As such Secret Mark must be telling us that Jesus was that kind of historical individual.

While his critics mercilessly condemned his approach to both Jesus and the discovery, it must be acknowledged that Morton Smith’s methodology was beyond reproach. There were ancient witnesses who reinforced the view that Jesus was a magician. It was New Testament scholarship that was guilty of silencing these voices in favor of the comfort of familiarity. Nevertheless it should also be acknowledged that the texts that Smith was relying upon were clearly hostile to Jesus. These were Jewish and pagan sources who became acquainted with his miracles often second hand and were actively combating the claims of believers that this proved that Jesus was divinely inspired. By embracing the enemies of Christianity again, Smith was viewed as a modern co-conspirator.

In due course, the distinction between Morton Smith and his discovery became blurred. A simple letter from a liberal Church Father became transformed into an embodiment of all the evils of liberal scholarship. The reality was that all of Morton Smith’s ‘sins’ came down to his insistence that Jesus was a historical person and that testimonials to his great deeds could be found in sources outside the canonical fold. If Smith wasn’t prejudiced by his inherited presupposition that Jesus was a real person, he wouldn’t have gotten mired in the difficulties of the text. It should also be noted all of heresies associated with a longer and variant editions of the Gospel of Mark denied Jesus’s historicity. They regarded him instead as a wholly divine being. Morton Smith simply pushed those reports away and then strangely fell victim to the very heresy condemned by Clement in the Letter to Theodore.

Clement of Alexandria has long been suspected of being a heretic. He was actually thrown out of the canon of saints for this very reason – i.e. that he secretly harbored dangerous beliefs about Jesus. There is very good reason to believe that the real Clement of history denied that Jesus was a historical person and was instead a wholly divine being. Clement’s letter to Theodore can be read as a warning against emphasizing Jesus’s material or ‘carnal’ nature.

As noted above, the only tradition that embraced the idea of Jesus the magician were the Carpocratians – the very sect condemned in Clement’s letter. The reality was that all the other early Christian traditions that were accused by Patristic witness of engaging in magic, understood Jesus to be god. Why the distinction? The Carpocratians argued that Jesus was like them, that he was a man who used magic to become divine; the other heretical sects argued that Jesus was a divine power who helped their founder Simon called ‘Magus’ to empower individuals to accomplish this great deed.

If we go back to the very beginning of Christianity we see that Jesus was frequently identified as the ‘power of God’ or the ‘great power,’ terms which are attributed to both Simon and Paul. According to this view then Jesus only seemed to be a magician to outsiders because they weren’t privy to the great secret. Jesus was really a previously unknown divine power who came to empower us to become ‘like him.’ Of course as Clement was quick to point out there was great danger in this knowledge. If we go cling to ignorant notions and assume that he was a normal human being born of a mother and father like the rest of us we fall into the errors of the Carpocratians. The proper understanding however will save us. If we embrace the views of the original followers of Simon and acknowledge was that Jesus was a god, what appeared to be ‘wonderworking’ throughout the gospel narrative will finally be revealed to be what it really is – true testimony from a supernatural being that he was in reality a wholly supernatural power.

Indeed a careful reading of our earliest Patristic sources on the heresies supports this interpretation. Irenaeus for instance accuses only Simon and his followers of practicing magic as they claimed to speak for and physically represent Jesus:

again, while they assert that they possess souls from the same sphere as Jesus, and that they are like to Him, sometimes even maintaining that they are superior; while produced, like Him, for the performance of works tending to the benefit and establishment of mankind, they are found doing nothing of the same or a like kind, nor what can in any respect be brought into comparison with them. And if they have in truth accomplished anything by means of magic, they strive deceitfully to lead foolish people astray, since they confer no real benefit or blessing on those over whom they declare that they exert [supernatural] power; but, bringing forward mere boys, and deceiving their sight, while they exhibit phantasms that instantly cease, and do not endure even a moment of time, they are proved to be like, not Jesus our Lord, but Simon the magician.

Of course when Irenaeus speaks of those who ‘possess souls from the same sphere’ as Jesus he is only imitating the original language of the heresies. For we learn elsewhere that they speak of human souls coming to ‘remember what they had seen in the sphere of the unknown god’ – i.e. a hidden power in heaven above the Creator of the world - through the mystical rites of the community.

The heretics all agreed that there was this previously unknown God who was manifest in Jesus. Yet as we noted the Carpocrates were condemned in the Letter to Theodore for putting forward a uniquely ‘carnal’ understanding of Jesus. Clement is clearly pointing to the distinguishing characteristic of this group which also shows up in the writings of Irenaeus – namely that Jesus was a real person of flesh and blood. The idea here is that if you take Jesus to be a man then the rites which these same heretics used to ‘become of the same sphere’ as him, took on a perverted character. It is no wonder then that the Carpocratians alone of all the heresies were accused of the gravest sexual impropriety in the early Church - homosexuality.

Of course if you stayed true to the original vision of Simon Magus, then Jesus was a wholly divine being who offered the world a truly spiritual union. One sees this kind of understanding continue in monastic literature to this very day. Many of the hymns which are preserved in Syriac monasteries are directed to Jesus as God. They offer up a profoundly mystic expression of love. Yet if these same words were taken outside the monastery and put into the mouth of a man singing to another man, it would either lead to a punch in the face or a night at the local Holiday Inn. The point of course is that the ritual which Irenaeus tells us Simon Magus brought to his disciples for raising them ‘to the sphere of the unknown god’ was not a rite which involved any kind of homosexuality. Nevertheless there were reports of Christians engaged in such practices. We can take these reports as being based on actual eyewitness testimony or – more likely than not – as slander which developed against a group for not believing what another community thought was ‘right belief.’ In this case, a group was being condemned for believing that Jesus was a real historical person.

The important thing to keep in mind however is that for Simon the original gospel writer – the original mythologist of Christianity – Jesus was not a human being. As the Church Fathers were quite willing to remind their hearers, Simon:

started a fabulous kind of psychopompy for his disciples, and saying, forsooth, that he was the Great Power of God, he ventured to call his prostitute companion the Holy Spirit, and he says that it was on her account also, he said, that he himself had descended, to free her from the chains they had laid upon her, and to offer to men salvation through a system of knowledge peculiar to himself. And that in his descent he had undergone transformation, so as not to be known to the Angels that manage the establishment of the world. And that he had appeared in Judæa as a man, although he was not a man, and that he had suffered, though not at all suffering, and that the Prophets were the ministers of the Angels. And he admonished those that believed on him not to pay attention to them, and not to tremble at the threats of the Law, but, as being free, to do whatever they would. For it was not by good actions, but by grace they would gain salvation.

As such, even though Jesus’s name is not mentioned directly in these accounts, the omission occurs because by the end of the gospel narrative Simon has become Jesus. He is the incarnation of the ‘great power.’ As noted before, the two have become one through some ecstatic ritual which Simon introduced to his disciples and which happens to sound ‘kinda gay’ to outsiders if Jesus is taken to be a real man.

It was into this historical minefield then that the historian Morton Smith stepped when he discovered the Letter to Theodore at the Mar Saba monastery. All of his weaknesses, both personal and professional would be exposed in subsequent years. The fact that Smith couldn’t get beyond his inherited assumptions about a ‘historical Jesus’ necessarily led to intimations that he himself was secretly gay. As silly as this argument might appear today, it strangely fits the original logic of Clement if seen from the proper perspective – anyone who has been initiated into the mysteries of the kingdom of God and clings to the notion that Jesus was a human being only does so because he is a perverted human being. In other words, that is nature is so ‘carnal’ that he can only see Jesus as being ‘of the flesh.’

Smith is by no means the only scholar to cling to the idea of a historical Jesus. Yet it was Smith who was fated to uncover a document which makes reference to truth and lies in terms of homosexual inclination. It really wouldn’t have mattered who discovered the text - that person’s reconstruction of the secret mystery rite referenced in Clement’s letter would likely conform to the ‘carnal’ interpretation of the Carpocratian Christ. Of course, this reality only makes the identity of the Carpocratians all the more intriguing. Was Clement really condemning members of an otherwise obscure sect who actually substituted orgiastic rituals in place of the true sacraments of the Alexandrian Church, or were the Carpocratians something else – even the Roman Church who wrongly believed that Jesus was a historical person?  The truth, as we have already noted, is often much stranger than fiction.

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