Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Hastily Written (But Profoundly Significant) New Eighth Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ

It is unusual to consider northern Turkey to be an important place in the development of early Christianity.  Most of us have heard about the role that Jerusalem, Alexandria or Rome played in the story of the Church. Yet the isolated Roman province of Pontus on the southern shores of the Black Sea may take credit as being the place that the mystical tradition of Christianity was ultimately redefined.  Already at the dawn of the third century we hear reports about a radical dualist named Marcion coming from this region.  Yet far more important - and less generally unrecognized - is the fact that Alexandrian mysticism was brought to the easternmost part of the province in the early to mid third century by a rich youth named Gregory also called Theodore, the Wonder Worker and simply 'the Great.'

Gregory came to Caesarea as the great Alexandrian teacher Origen was settling there after being essentially chased out of Egypt.  He completed his studies of Christian mysticism and then settled back to his hometown of Caesarea in Pontus with a 'spiritual brother' named Athenodoros who was constantly at his side. Indeed Basil of Caesarea, a grandson of a woman he converted during his time on the episcopal throne later references his memory in the following terms "But where shall I rank the great Gregory, and the words uttered by him? Shall we not place among Apostles and Prophets a man who walked by the same Spirit as they; who never through all his days diverged from the footprints of the saints; who maintained, as long as he lived, the exact principles of evangelical citizenship? ... He too by Christ's mighty name commanded even rivers to change their course, and caused a lake, which afforded a ground of quarrel to some covetous brethren, to dry up. Moreover his predictions of things to come were such as in no wise to fall short of those of the great prophets. To recount all his wonderful works in detail would be too long a task. By the superabundance of gifts, wrought in him by the Spirit in all power and in signs and in marvels, he was styled a second Moses by the very enemies of the Church. Thus in all that he through grace accomplished, alike byword and deed, a light seemed ever to be shining, token of the heavenly power from the unseen which followed him."

The cult that grew around Gregory is quite unique.  His real name was Theodore and he may well have used this name when he signed the decree to condemn the heretic Paul of Samosata in 269 CE.  Yet owing to the efforts of Basil and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory aka Theodore became one of the greatest saints in the early Church.  It is almost impossible to separate facts from fiction in the legendary accounts.  All that is clear is that Gregory was taken to be a new Moses for the people of Pontus.  He also seems to have undergone a ritual union with an angel described at length in the work of his name sake Gregory of Nyssa, the Life of Moses.

Gregory of Nyssa's purpose for writing this work was to argue that the life of Moses was a blueprint for how to become virtuous.  According to the premise of the Life of Moses in order to equal Moses's greatness one would have to follow in his footsteps - even down to his mystical union with his brother-angel. Gregory understands Aaron the brother of Moses not to be a human at all but a brother-angel - a spiritual being who gave him great powers. We know from the biblical story that Aaron's first appearance is is as a helper to Moses: when God directs Moses to speak out on behalf of his people against Pharoah and the oppression in Egypt, Moses protests that he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” afraid that no one will listen to him (Ex 4.10). Moses persists, pleading that God send another, and God replies: “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? ... He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as a God for him” (4.15-16)

As the biblical narrative relates, Moses and Aaron indeed end up working together to accomplish God's plan, Aaron accompanying Moses to speak to Pharaoh and even speaking Moses' words to the others among the Hebrew slaves (Ex 5.1,4.29). At a moment when Moses felt unsure of his abilities, Aaron was provided as a gift from God, one who might strengthen him and, if necessary, help him speak.  To illumine the “more figurative spiritual sense” of the story, Gregory links the brotherly cooperation between Moses and Aaron to the tradition regarding the angel who will assist virtuous men.  Gregory emphasizes the authority and antiquity of the tradition but refuses to identify this figure with Jesus (even though this is entirely obvious when we see the rival is the Devil).

It is enough to cite the whole passage at length and note that it fits perfectly what we have already seen in Samaritan and Jewish sources:

We must return to the sequence in Scripture so that brotherly assistance might come out to meet us as we draw near ... For the one who has been lifted to the greatest virtue of soul by long training and supernatural illumination on the mountain, it is a friendly and peaceful encounter that takes place when his brother is brought by God to meet him. If this historical incident is taken in a more figurative spiritual sense, it will be found useful for our purpose.

For truly the assistance which God gives to our nature is provided to those who correctly live the life of virtue. This assistance was already there at our birth, but it is manifested and made known whenever we apply ourselves to diligent training in the higher life and strip ourselves for the more vigorous contests. So as not to interpret the figures by our own figure, I shall set forth my understanding about this more plainly.

There is a doctrine (which derives its trustworthiness from the tradition of the fathers) which says that after our nature fell into sin God did not disregard our fall and withhold his providence. No, on the one hand, he appointed an an angel with an incorporeal nature to help in the life of each person and, on the other hand, he also appointed the corruptor who, by an evil and maleficent demon, afflicts the life of man and contrives against our nature.

Because man finds himself between these two who have contrary purposes for him, it is in his power to make the one prevail over the other. While the good angel by rational demonstration shows the benefits of virtue which are seen in hope by those who live aright, his opponent show the material pleasures in which there is no hope of future benefits, but which are present, visible, can be partaken of, and enslave the senses of those who do not exercise their intellect.

If then one should withdraw from those who seduce him to evil and by the use of his reason turn to the better, putting evil behind him, it is as if he places his own soul, like a mirror, face to face with the hope of good things, with the result that the images and impressions of virtue, as it is shown to him by God, and imprinted in the purity of his soul. Then his brother brings him assistance and joins him,for the angel, who in a way is a brother to the rational and intellectual part of man's soul, appears, as I have said, and stands by us whenever we approach the Pharaoh.

If, while trying to parallel completely the historical account to the sequence of such intellectual contemplation, someone should somehow discover something in the account which does not coincide with our understanding, he should not reject the whole enterprise. He should always keep in mind our discussion's goal, to which we are looking while we relate these details. We have already said in our prologue that the lives of honored men would be set forth as a pattern of virtue for those who come after them.

Those who emulate their lives, however, cannot experience the identical literal events. For how could one again find the people multiplying during their sojourn in Egypt? And how again find the tyrant who enslaves the people and bears hostility to male offspring and allows the feminine and weaker to grow in numbers? And how again find all the other things which Scripture includes? Because therefore it has been shown to be impossible to imitate the marvels of these blessed men in these exact events, one might substitute a moral teaching for the literal sequence in those things which admit of such an approach. In this way those who have been striving toward virtue may find aid in living the virtuous life.

If the events require dropping from the literal account anything written which is foreign to the sequence of elevated understanding, we pass over this on the grounds that it is useless and unprofitable to our purpose, the guidance to virtue at such points.

I say these things concerning the interpretation of Aaron in order to anticipate the objection which will arise from what follows in the narrative. For someone will say that there is no doubt that the angel does share kinship with the soul in its intellectual and incorporeal aspects, that it already existed before our creation, and that it is allied with those engaged in the fight against the Adversary, but that it is not right to see Aaron, who led the Israelites in the worship of idols, as a type of the angel.

To him we shall reply, passing over the sequence, with the point already made, that what falls outside our purpose is not to overthrow the agreement which exists elsewhere. Moreover, both words, "brother" and "angel," are alike applicable in meaning ... Moses, who had been strengthened by the shining light and had acquired such a brother as an ally and supporter, boldly delivered to the people the words of freedom, brought to their remembrance the nobility of their fathers, and gave his judgment how they could escape from their wretched labor of brick making.

What then does the history teach us by this? That he who has not equipped himself by this kind of spiritual training to instruct the multitude must not presume to speak among the people. For you see how, while he was still young and had not yet matured to so lofty a degree of virtue, two men who were quarreling did not consider his peaceful advice worth accepting, yet now he addresses tens of thousands in the same way. The history of all but cries out to you not to be presumptuous in giving advice to your hearers in your teaching unless the ability for this has been perfected in you by a long and exacting training such as Moses had.

The reason this entire section is cited is that it confirms every aspect of our developing thesis.  Not only were the third and fourth chapters of Exodus critical for the understanding of the meaning of Christianity, Gregory of Nyssa confirms that the conjunction of Moses and Aaron represents something of great mystical significance.

For those who have a great deal of familiarity with the writings of Clement of Alexandria it is impossible not to be reminded of his favorite gospel saying 'see your brother, see your God.'  Indeed Gregory tells us that Moses is the student of virtue and Moses 'the angel' who completes his perfection through union.  There are two spiritual powers that have control of a man.  Just as Moses must fight the Devil to see the true God, the good angel (= Jesus) makes himself manifest to Moses after his struggle with the bad angel (= the Devil).  This bears an uncanny resemblance to what we know about an early Patristic interest in a rite called apolytrosis or 'redemption.'  There were heretical and orthodox variations of this doctrine in the second century but it basically assumes the 'purchase' of the initiate from one heavenly power to another, usually from Jesus to the Devil.

The discussion develops from a chronological study of the order of the material in Exodus.  Gregory announces in no uncertain terms that this is a 'doctrine which comes from the Fathers - at the very least meaning the leading Alexandrian Fathers Philo, Clement and Origen.  But this list certainly also includes Gregory (a.k.a 'Theodore') who was historically responsible for preserving the secret doctrines of the Alexandrian Church in this far away province and transferring them to his namesake Gregory, his brother Basil and Basil's spiritual brother Gregory of Nazianzus:

Our guide in virtue commands someone who “borrow” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason. Those who treasured up for themselves such wealth handed it over to Moses as he was working on the tent of mystery, each on making his personal contribution to the construction of the holy places. It is possible to see this happening even now.

For many bring to the Church of God their profane learning as a kind of gift:  Such a man was the great Basil, who acquired the Egyptian wealth in every respect during his youth and dedicated this wealth to God for the adornment of the Church, the true tabernacle. When those who already look to virtue and follow the lawgiver in life have left the borders of the Egyptians’ dominion behind, the assaults of temptations in some way pursue them and bring on distress and fears and threats of death. When frightened by these things, those newly established in the faith lose all hope for what is good.

But if Moses or some leader of the people like him happens along, he will counsel them against fear and will strengthen their downcast minds with the hope of divine help. This help will not come unless the heart of the leader speaks with God. Many of those who occupy a position of leadership are concerned only with outward appearances; of those hidden things which are observed only by God they have hardly a thought. But in the case of Moses it was not so. While he exhorted the Israelites to be of good courage, he did cry out, although outwardly making no sound to God, as God himself bears witness. The Scripture teaches us, I think, that the voice which is melodious and ascends to God's hearing is not the cry made with the organs of speech but the meditation sent up from a pure conscience.

To the one who finds himself in these circumstances the brother appears limited in the help he renders for the great struggles — I mean that brother who met Moses as he was going down to Egypt at the divine bidding, whom Scripture has understood as being in the ranks of angels. Then occurred the manifestation of the divine nature which manifests itself in the way that one is capable of receiving. What we hear from the history to have happened, then, we understand from contemplation of the Word always to happen. Whenever someone flees Egypt and, after getting outside its borders, is terrified by the assaults of temptation, the guide produces unexpected salvation from on high. Whenever the enemy with his army surrounds the one being pursued, the guide is forced to make the sea passable for him.

In this crossing the cloud served as guide. Those before us interpreted the cloud well as the grace of the Holy Spirit, who guides toward the Good those who are worthy. Whoever follows him passes through the water, since the guide makes a way through it for him.

This passage in particular helps shatter the 'theoretical' aspect of the example of Moses.  Basil is only the most recent example of individuals who have 'become like Moses' a perfect leader.  Gregory certainly also has his namesake Gregory also known as Theodore in mind.  When the bishop of Nyssa makes reference to the brother-making rite again - i.e. Aaron who is established "in the rank of angels" - it is clearly connected this time with some sort of baptism rite ("passing through the water (with) the guide making a way through it for him").

So it was that we have established what at first seemed to be mere fanciful poetry - i.e.the consistent likening of pairs of men as reincarnations of Moses and Aaron is just fanciful poetry. We have yet to breakthrough to the intimacy of this relationship in 'real time' - that is among the members of the early Church, because quite frankly we never get any detailed biographical information about any of the early Church Fathers. It gets so bad for instance that while Eusebius tells us that Clement was Origen's original teacher in Alexandria, neither man mentions the other in his writings.  It is only when we scrutinize the circle of Origen and the existence of a letter from a certain Gregory called 'Theodore' praising Origen for allowing him to be initiated into the mysteries of Alexandria while in exile in Caesarea, Palestine that we finally get something of a breakthrough.

Of course the reason for this opportunity is that the mystical 'brother assembly' that Gregory aka Theodore established in Caesarea, Pontus continued into the fourth century.  His namesake Gregory, his brother Basil and Basil's other spiritual brother Gregory maintained a clandestine association with this original mysticism even though much of it had to be approached only indirectly or through whispers.  Indeed most curious of all is the apparent chance encounter between Origen two men named Gregory and Athenodorus and who are later called 'brothers' in the third century.  Were Gregory and Athenodorus blood brothers or - as we now suspect - brother's manufactured according to the mystery rite associated with Moses and Aaron in the writings of Gregory a.k.a. Theodore's namesake, the fourth century bishop of Nyssa?

We happen to have surprisingly little information regarding the relationship between Gregory and Athenodorus and most of it is contradictory.  As noted Gregory established an Origenist fiefdom in the eastern province of Pontus which served as an inspiration for fourth and fifth century Church Fathers. Gregory (a.k.a. 'Theodore') tells the story of his encounter with Origen in a panegyric he wrote for his teacher in the middle of the third century. Gregory tells us that he came from a rich family but that his father died when he was young. The actual details of Gregory's life become confused through an industry of apocryphal legends developed by a fourth century circle of like named 'Gregories' (Gregory of Nysa, his brother Basil of Caesarea and his 'spiritual' brother Gregory of Nazianzus). If we still with what survives from the hand of our Gregory, his encounter with Origen was prompted by a desire of his mother to get an education for her son. Gregory tells us that she decided that "I should attend also a teacher of public speaking, in the hope that I too should become a public speaker." 

This teacher apparently made the fateful decision to send Gregory and Gregory alone (there is no mention of him even having a 'brother') to gain "instruction in the Roman tongue" to further his career as a lawyer. If we look carefully in this section there is no mention of a sibling accompanying Gregory on his journey out of Pontus: "And that man took up this charge zealously with me; and I, on my side, gave myself to it— more, however, to gratify the man, than as being myself an admirer of the study. And when he got me as his pupil, he began to teach me with all enthusiasm ... I was becoming well instructed in these laws, at once bonds, as it were, were cast upon my movements, and cause and occasion for my journeying to these parts arose from the city Berytus, which is a city not far distant from this territory, somewhat Latinized, and credited with being a school for these legal studies. And this revered man [Origen] coming from Egypt, from the city of Alexandria, where previously he happened to have his home, was moved by other circumstances to change his residence to this place, as if with the express object of meeting us." 

The story of the fateful meeting between Gregory and Origen just as suddenly introduces the Alexandrian philosopher as it does the mention of a second person - a well-known male figure that Gregory met in Bertyus while attending the ancient equivalent of 'law school.' As Michael Slusser, a recent English translator of the Panyrgetic notes "it seems unnecessary to connect the frequent use of the first person plural in the Address with Eusebius's assertion that Athenodorus, a brother of Gregory, also studied with Origen, and to make them mutually dependent on each other. 'We' in the Address occurs where a brother can hardly be meant, and the singular sometimes appears where one would expect a brother to be explicitly included, had one been present. (eg, Address 5.55, "the remarkable dispensation by which I came to this man"; 5.56, "my mother . . . my parents"; 5.62, "I became a student of these very laws"; 5.65, "my sister's husband"; 16.185—89. 76.") Moreover another scholar, Richard Valantasis, suggests the list of possibilities include "fellow students, or the audience at the presumed presentation of the speech, or a combination of all of these."

The most likely scenario seems to be that Gregory did not have a brother but only came into a spiritual fraternal relationship within the circle of Origen at Caesarea - perhaps he and his friend Athenodorus left together from Berytus. Gregory of Nyssa presents the possibility that the 'we' as Firmilianus the bishop of Caesarea whom Eusebius says helped settle Origen in Caesarea. Yet the emphasis seems rather to avoid direct mention of Origen who is wholly ignored in the treatise. If it is impossible to assume that Gregory himself actually studied in Berytus and Caesarea with a blood brother, then Athenodorus must have been established as his brother after his initiation into the Alexandrian ex-patriots in Caesarea.

In other words, Gregory and Athendorus had undergone a secret brother-making rite in the Agape. Eusebius describes the historical situation as follows "[a]mong these Theodore, the same that was distinguished among the bishops of our day under the name of Gregory, and his brother Athenodorus, we know to have been especially celebrated. Finding them deeply interested in Greek and Roman learning, he infused into them a love of philosophy, and led them to exchange their old zeal for the study of divinity. Remaining with him five years, they made such progress in divine things, that although they were still young, both of them were honored with a bishopric in the churches of Pontus."

Indeed this unusual situation where two men presided together over all the churches of Pontus is very odd. Eusebius repeats the formula over and over again in his Church History "the brothers Gregory and Athenodorus, pastors of the churches in Pontus." We learn from Gregory of Nyssa that his namesake received a most informal consecration by the previous bishop - he just waves his hands in the air when Gregory was still far away. Yet it is Gregory of Nyssa's repeated identification of our Gregory as a 'second Moses' because of his initiation into this neo-Alexandrian community that is so important for our thesis.  As he notes:

But since he had set his mind on how the soul might be perfected by virtue, he devoted his entire life to this with zeal, and allowing himself to say good-bye to life's affairs he became in our parts another Moses, rivalling him outright with wonderous deeds. Both left this agitated and beset life, Moses and Gregory each in his own time going off by himself, until to each the reward of the pure life was manifested by a theophany. But it is said that Moses had a wife along with philosophy, while Gregory made virtue his only consort. So although they both had the same aim, for each of them departed from the crowd with the purpose of penetrating the divine mysteries with the pure eye of the soul, someone who knows how to size up virtue is entitled to judge which of them was marked more by the passionless life: the one who stooped to the legitimate and permissible participation in pleasures, or the one who transcended even that and gave no opening into his life to material attachment.

It should be obvious that the comparison between Gregory and Moses is not quite accurate. It would properly be stated that Moses had a wife and appeared in public with his brother Aaron while Gregory presided over the churches of Pontus seated beside a 'brother' who was not a blood relative.

Indeed we need only go back to his traditional epithet 'the wonder-worker' or Thaumaturgus, this developed as a conscious effort to imitate Moses. "For just as the word says that Moses, having left the world of appearances and calmed his soul within the invisible shrines (for this is what "the darkness" stands for), learned the divine mysteries, and in person instructed the whole people in the knowledge of God, the same dispensation is to be seen in the case of this Great One [Gregory]. He had not some visible mountain of earth but the pinnacle of ardent desire for the true teachings; for darkness, the vision which others could not comprehend; for writing-tablet, the soul; for the letters graven on the stone tablets, the voice of the one he saw; through all of which both he and those initiated by him enjoyed a manifestation of the mysteries." Clearly then the description of Gregory's miracles which follow are often consciously lifted from the original account of Exodus. At one point in the legendary material, Gregory even parts a large body of water.  The description of the death of Gregory was obviously molded after the mysterious circumstances of the account of the end of the leader of the nation of Israel.

Yet this understanding, as correct as it is, misses the deeper point.  According to Gregory of Nyssa's own theology Gregory (a.k.a. 'Theodore') took part in ritual adelphopoiesis with his 'brother' Athenodorus.  The were made into brothers according to an ancient Alexandrian rite that dates back at least as far as Clement of Alexandria and more likely was established by the evangelist Mark himself.  The reason scholars have had such a difficulty seeing this thread weaving its way through the four hundred years of history in the early Church is because Origen, Gregory/Theodore, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea, Rufinus of Aquila, Jerome and countless others were doing their best to obscure the simple truth of this tradition.  It was all based on the understanding that Moses and Aaron had established the original brother-making ritual. As noted several times already, the gospel was rooted in the Book of Exodus and many of its secrets were too controversial to be allowed to openly be disseminated in the new era of Imperial Christianity.


Bye folks I am taking a week of vacation.  Will publish the ninth chapter in a week. 


[7] such were Moses and Aaron, of whom it is said that they were brothers. Such are the Prophets and Apostles, brothers in teaching, brothers in spirit. So in us are the interior man and the exterior man brothers: if they are of one mind  So in us are the interior man and the exterior man brothers: if they are of one mind.' Peter and Paul are truly brothers by blood also; since one faith makes them true brothers, by the Communion of a special Blood- May I presume to say they are also twin brothers, whom their Mother, through one confession, as from a fertile womb brought forth into the kingdom of heaven.[7]

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