Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Ninth Chapter of My New Book

In order to understand the Christian ideal of same-sex union we have to come to terms with the historical context for the pairing of Gregory and Athenodorus.  The third century period is a notoriously difficult era for historians to make sense of.  The Empire almost disintegrated in 235 - 284 CE and the period is usually referred as 'the Crisis of the Third Century.'  As such it is very difficult to form a reliable picture about what people were thinking, hoping and feeling during this 'crisis' simply because so very little information of a personal nature survives.

Yet at the same time there is a strange irony with respect to early Christianity.  The third century happens to also represent the first time that we get to see real Christians interacting with one another.  It is also the first period that we see strong links between the Christian leadership and the Imperial authorities, a palpable blurring of distinction between civil and religious authority epitomized by the infamous example of Paul of Samosata bishop of Antioch (260 - 270 CE).

Paul of Samosata was a powerful and influential Christian leader who happens to have been hated by just about everyone in the later period.  No one can say two good words about him because he was said to be a heretic.  Yet it is often overlooked that Paul, aside from sitting in the bishop's chair also held an important secular title - that of Procurator ducenarius.  How did this happen?  It is difficult to say.  Eusebius accuses him of being a disreputable bishop who bribed his way to a position of authority.  However it is difficult to believe that Paul was any better or worse than any other bishop in the period.

The fact that he was a procurator is very significant as the procurator's primary functions were military.  As representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes, and also had limited judicial functions. Paul was called ducenarius (= 200) because of his salary from the government which was 200,000 sesterces.

Not a single historian has ever explained how a Christian bishop could be both a religious and civil authority at the same time.  Nevertheless they are pretty much agreed about what caused Paul's career to come to a screeching halt - his support of the unsuccessful invasion of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra.  Paul of course wasn't the first or last fool to bet the farm on a horse that didn't even place.  So no one should be surprised that in the aftermath of his fateful decision there was a serious effort of his authority.  Yet the interesting thing here is that Paul fights off the challenge and actually makes an appeal to Emperor Aurelian to retain his position.

The only reason that Paul of Samosata would look to Caesar for help was because he likely got some to put him on the throne in the first place.  The fact that Aurelian is said to have deferred the decision about Paul's fate to the Roman Church in no way lessens the significance of his original appeal.  We have our first explicit reference to the Roman state meddling in the affairs of the Church.  And so we have to ask ourselves - why would they want to get involved?

The weakening Roman Empire certainly must have had a lot to do with it.  The state was desperately looking for any strategy to hold the Empire together.  The emergence of the expanded role of the bishopric into civil matters coincides with the disintegration of the secular administration.  In cities with large Christian populations like Antioch it might have seemed like a natural fit to have a Christian bishop run things.

We must imagine that the Imperial government was developing a number of strategies for the preservation of the Empire which included 'co-opting' leaders the greater Church.  If we just look at the Roman See for a moment we have already made clear that Victor had a close relationship with the Commodian regime through of Marcia.  Her influence seems also to account for the rise of future bishops Zephyrinus and Callistus.  There seems to be circumstantial evidence a relationship between Irenaeus and the household of  Septimius Severus.  Even more significant however is the role that the Syrian family of Julia Domna would play throughout the third century.

It is often forgotten that Queen Zenobia - the woman who made Paul her 'viceroy' - was herself a full blood descendant of Julia's father, Gaius Bassianus.  We have already raised suspicions that the 'Marcianus' of Irenaeus treatise Proof of the Apostolic Preaching was Julia Mamaea's husband, the procurator provinciae Syriae.  By the time his wife and son took over control of the Empire (222 - 235 CE) we see Origen appearing in the Imperial court.

When most people hear that Origen cultivated a 'friendship' with the mother of an Emperor they often don't realize how influential Mamaea really was.  She acted as a consort during the reign of her son, literally traveling alongside of him wherever he went in the Empire.  Thus it cannot be deemed as mere coincidence that the establishment of Origenist bishops in the Empire happens to coincide with the rise of a pro-Origen Imperial household.

As such it seems terribly significant also that Gregory's return to Pontus coincides with the rule of Alexander Severus and Julia Mamaea.  No one has ever explained how or why a young man, not even twenty five years of age, could have emerged as a bishop of an important city like Neocaesarea.  Yet Gregory's example isn't isolated.  There were a disproportionately large number of students of Origen in powerful positions in churches across the Empire - Firmilian of Caesarea, Alexander of Jerusalem, Theoctistus of Caesarea Maritima, Dionysius of Alexandria and these names are only the most prominent examples.

Origen must have represented something more than a mere 'teacher' in the Church in this period.  He was nothing short of an ancient precursor of an occultated Shi'i imam.  Indeed by the time of Pamphilus the martyr there is evidence of a suspicion on the part of some that Paul of Samosata might have had some relationship with Origen - perhaps even that of a student.[1]  The names of prominent Origenist bishops are not present in the condemnation of Paul of Samosata cited by Eusebius.  Eusebius spends a large amount of time in Book Six making up excuses to explain Firmilian and Dionysius absence at the Synod of Antioch.  Gregory Thaumaturgus, strangely, seems to have been a no show.[2]

It is unmistakable that doubts about Origen's orthodoxy emerge at this time and as we have just noted at least some scholars think this may be related to the fate of Paul of Samosata.  All of a sudden we see an effort to bring to light 'the dark side' of Origen's beliefs.  The writings of Methodius of Olympius only seems to point to a broader trend.  People seem to have taken a second look at the controversies with his bishop Demetrius and wondered if Origen might not have been completely honest about his beliefs.  Indeed if we look carefully Jerome clearly testifies to the involvement of the Imperial government in his flight from Alexandria - "He stands condemned by his bishop, Demetrius, only the bishops of Palestine, Arabia, Phoenicia, and Achaia dissenting. Imperial Rome consents to his condemnation, and even convenes a senate to censure him, not— as the rabid hounds who now pursue him cry— because of the novelty or heterodoxy of his doctrines, but because men could not tolerate the incomparable eloquence and knowledge which, when once he opened his lips, made others seem dumb."(Letter 33)

The Empire seems to have had trouble deciding how to co-opt Christianity.  We have offered speculative arguments about the original efforts of the household of Septimius Severus to manage the growing body of believers lead to tampering with its canon of sacred scriptures.  Yet only a few years later, in the twilight of the Empire's stability, Julia Mamaea made an effort to bring Origen, the 'leader in exile' of the ancient Christian tradition of Alexandria, into the fold.  Why this move?  Could it be that it was a desperate attempt to manage an increasingly unmanageable situation in the Empire?

The truth was that Christianity held influence over ever increasing numbers of people in the lowest ranks of society.  It was a new religion and the Empire simply couldn't let it develop as an independent culture with the greater culture.  One gets the distinct impression that Mamaea was more interested in worldly concerns than piety when she met with Origen.  Perhaps the Origenist bishops she helped install were supposed to help bring all the disparate churches under the banner of a single rule.

One could make the case that Origen offered up his school in Caesarea as something like a 'leadership academy' for future leaders within the Church.  In an age of corruption the philosophically minded Empress might have hoped that Origen's academy and its 'elementary studies' would make them more inclined to think of the greater good of society.  This term 'elementary studies' was used by Philo and Clement of Alexandria to refer to the cycle of studies as it existed in the ancient world.  According to Augustine, the term comprised seven branches of learning : grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, music, astronomy,  arithmetic and physics.  Yet the Alexandrian traditional also plainly involved something more - a secret initiation for which we have only scraps of information.

We should begin by taking a look at this statement of Origen in his First Principles written just before he left Alexandria in 215 CE in order to understand the elementary studies in the larger context of Alexandrian mystery initiations:

Wherefore, seeing that a heavenly power, or a power even from, above the heavens, urges us to worship the Creator only, let us, leaving the word of the beginning of Christ, that is, leaving elementary instruction, endeavour to press on unto perfection, that the wisdom spoken to the perfect may be spoken also to us [emphasis mine]. For He Who has this wisdom promises to speak it among the perfect, a wisdom other than the wisdom of this world and the wisdom of the ruler of this world, which is brought to nought. And this wisdom shall be plainly stamped on us, according to the revelation of the mystery which hath been kept in silence through times eternal, but now is manifested, by the Scriptures of the prophets and the appearing of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to Whom be the glory for ever. Amen." (First Principles 1.7)

When we speak about 'Origenist bishops' emerging under the reign of Julia Mamaea these are individuals who clearly 'made it all the way' through the initiation process.  Many scholars forget about this and merely speak about Gregory and Athenodorus 'completing their elementary studies and leaving for Pontus.'  Yet there was clearly a secret mystical process which came after learning the Old Testament and even the publicly revealed gospel.

In the Life of Gregory Thaumaturgus, we consistently hear this process being likened to that of Moses in the Bible - "just as Scripture says about Moses, "He was schooled in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," so also the Great One, coming through all the schooling of the Greeks and knowing by experience the weakness and incoherence of their doctrines, came to be a disciple of the gospel, and even before being initiated through the mystical and incorporeal birth, he so perfected his life that he brought no stain of sin to the baptismal cleansing."  We will examine the relationship between Gregory Thaumaturgus and Moses in our next chapter yet for the moment it should be enough to begin to explain why he seems to have been initiated as a pair - i.e. with Athenodorus.  The model was the opening chapters of Exodus where a young Moses is instructed into the art of 'wonder working' by Jesus in the burning bush and subsequently united with a brother.

Origen is unlikely to have revealed any of these mystical truths to Julia Mamaea.  All that she likely cared about was the fact that the Christian community in the Empire would be governed by philosophically minded bishops  who ensure that the Church would not abandon the Empire in its darkest hour.  It has to be noted Origen's beliefs appeal to a truth standing 'beyond the four' seem already to be at odds with the Christian adviser to the household of Septimius Severus, Irenaeus of Lyons.  When Origen says that the Christian mysteries take the initiate "beyond the elements (stoicheiwsews)" he was more specifically saying 'beyond the four' as there was an established 'scientific understanding' the world was composed of four (fire, air, earth, water, four winds etc).

The Greek philosophers and natural scientists had long established the number four as the generative principle of this world.  First Pythagoras and then Empedocles ultimately set the groundwork for Irenaeus's interest in a fourfold gospel.  In no uncertain terms Irenaeus makes the argument for the shape of the canon he appeals to same mystical number - "it is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world." (Against Heresies 3.11.8)  Irenaeus's desire to limit the canon to a symbol of the elements is part of a broader effort to limit the mystical beliefs of the Alexandrian Church.

Irenaeus over all effort was to make sure that no one within the Church appealed to an authority 'beyond this powers of ruler of this world' or as Origen puts it in his Peri Archon "this wisdom ... other than the wisdom of this world and the wisdom of the ruler of this world, which is brought to nought."  Indeed it is repeated refrain throughout Irenaeus's book - viz.  "it is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are." (Against Heresies 3.11.9)  As we have seen, the heretics 'wrongly divide the gospel into two' - the two gospels originally represented the single elementary text and the secret gospel.  Irenaeus again created the four in order to make the divided gospel go away.

We finally get a chance to see examples of Origen's hidden teachings from the period in which his bishops were sitting on thrones across the eastern Empire in the recently discovered Homilies on Psalms.  Humanity, according to Origen, was 'divided' from the very beginning - "now just prior to the world’s creation, they were one, and I don’t know what their nature was, before they were divided."[3] The mysteries of Alexandria seem to have been aimed at restoring that primal division after the manner of the uniting of Moses and Aaron in the Book of Exodus.  Yet Irenaeus's reforms seem to have been established in order to maintain the status quo - i.e. that God was wholly justified in his Creation.  The principle of four being more sacred than that of two or even one.

We learn from the same unadulterated Homily on Psalms that the Alexandrian mysteries were to facilitate a heavenly ascent where - after crossing the heavenly waters in the highest heaven - the two would again become one.[4]  While Irenaeus took over some of the mystical language from Alexandria he obsessively limited the idea of 'getting beyond the four elementary principles.'  One may argue that this had something to do with a broader attempt to isolate the Alexandrian 'super gospel' - i.e. secret Mark.  Nevertheless the end result was clearly that when scholars use Irenaeus's material to reconstruct beliefs about the 'heresies' - i.e. those whom he opposed - they get a very skewed picture.

The truth is that the Alexandrians did not reject the 'elementary principles' - the Law, the prophets, the public gospels.  They simply argued that the longer gospel of Mark was superior to what came before it, that it was the end of the process of self-perfection.  So long before Origen we read in the final book of the Stromata Clement speaking of "the commandments which God first gave" in the same breath as Greek philosophy.  They are from the same well as the gospel and more correctly "different processes of advancement through faith which leads to the perfection" of the gospel (Strom. 7.2). Similarly in book two of the same series "faith is more elementary, being as necessary to the Gnostic, as respiration to him that lives in this world is to life. And as without the four elements it is not possible to live, so neither can knowledge be attained without faith. It is then the support of truth."  (Strom 2.6)

The Alexandrian tradition consistently connects 'faith' and 'the four elements' as something distinct from 'knowledge' and the secret gospel.  This is certainly the context of both Letters to Theodore.  We needn't think of Clement's statement about Mark's gospel for Peter (= faith) and the longer text he wrote on his own in Alexandria (= knowledge).  The very beginning of the letter makes reference to  the "wandering stars" referred to in the prophecy of Jude, "who wander from the narrow way (stenes oudo) of the commandments (entolwn) into a boundless abyss of the carnal and bodily sins ... and boasting that they are free (eleuterous), they have become slaves of servile desires."  This is commonly read as some kind of statement about sexually active heretics.  The real context is the proper role of elementary studies in Christianity.

Although the specific term stoicheia (= elementary) is never used in the letter the idea is already present with his citation of the asteres planetai or 'wandering stars' from the canonical letter of Jude.  For the term stoicheia has a wide range of meaning including 'the stars' or even 'the planets.'[5]  Clement's point here is that the heretics then are the wicked stars who move from the orderly arrangement in heaven.  In the classic model of education, the student isn't just 'learning stuff' he is becoming one with the very arrangement of the universe.  Those who shrug off the necessary preliminaries for proper intellectual growth.

To this end we should be reminded that at the time Clement was writing to Theodore he was very much 'under the Law' in terms of his instruction.  As noted earlier, Origen had a very strict cycle of instruction which went through all of the books of the Old Testament.  This is why Clement is so keen to reinforce the concept of 'wandering from the narrow way of the commandments' to Theodore in his letter.  Clement was saying that even though a particular heretical group might have stolen a copy of the secret gospel, because they never received the correct preliminary instruction they find themselves unable to properly interpret the text.

Clement is again emphasizing that the initiate must first learn to obedient to the authorities, the principles of this world before going beyond to the place that Paul visited - the 'third heaven' - where he had his vision of God.[6]  Interesting also is the fact that Clement goes from a discussion of the 'wander stars' to that of 'the narrow road of the commandments.'  The 'narrow way' of course is the proper way the secret gospel through elementary studies. This can clearly be seen in yet another of his works Can the Rich Man be Saved.  Here Clement develops an explanation of Mark 10:17 - 31 where the purpose is not to completely surrender your worldly goods but merely to be "able in the midst of wealth to turn from its power ... to exercise self-command, and to seek God alone, and to breathe God and walk with God."

In other words, Clement understands that the proper education teaches the catechumen that they must strip off their material being before they seek to be united to another soul.  The heretics lacking the preliminary instructions seek to physically united themselves through carnal sexuality.  Interestingly Clement goes on to immediately say that "such a poor man" - i.e. the one who has stripped his flesh - "submits to the commandments (entolias), being free (eleutheros), unsubdued, free of disease, unwounded by wealth."  This statement in the one writing of Clement clearly echoes the terminology of his Letter to Theodore.

Indeed the same three words - 'commandments' 'freedom' and 'narrow way' - always seem to be used by Clement when dealing with the material in the middle of Mark chapter 10.  Why is this?  Once again, in the very manner we see with the writings of Origen it is all about 'freedom from the law.'  Clement only stresses that the path to liberation is best understood to be a 'narrow way' that leads to the secret gospel with its depiction of Jesus uniting himself with a disciple.  Mark's hidden text only makes explicit what is latent in the teachings of the Old Testament.

A careful reader will see that Clement hints at these very same ideas in what follows in Can the Rich Man Be Saved.  We are told that if the rich man does not gain such self-control "sooner shall a camel enter through a needle's eye, than such a rich man reach the kingdom of God."  Clement's explanation of these words from Mark chapter 10 turns upside down our inherited interpretation of the material.  Clement understands the material in Mark - chapter 10 verse 25 in a completely different way.  There is a mystery here which he can't spell out, opting instead to tell the reader to pick up a copy of Origen's classic text - "let then the camel, going through a narrow way (stenes oudo) and straight before the rich man, signify something loftier; which mystery of the Saviour is to be learned in the exposition 'On First Principles (Peri Archon) and of Theology'" (QDS 26)

Clement ends the discussion by saying essentially - if you want to know more, read this book 'On the First Principles' which we know was actually written by Origen. As Trigg notes "one can, in fact, plausibly see Origen's treatise Peri Archon (also known as On First Principles) as the fulfillment of a theological agenda Clement set forth but never, so far as we know from his surviving works, fully achieved."  Pierre Nautin considers Origen's decision to compose,  as one of his first books, a work entitled Stromateis to be the strongest single piece of evidence that he came under Clement's influence.

Indeed most studies of the Letter to Theodore, aside from failing to recognize that the two men were addressing the same 'Theodore' also fail to recognize that it is above all else a discussion of 'elementary studies.'   The letter basically provides evidence that Jesus is demonstrating that there is something more than the elementary studies associated with contemporary Judaism.  Immediately following this material in 10:17 - 31 we are told that Jesus stays with the resurrected youth and makes him wait six days before "explaining" or "teaching him the mystery of the Kingdom of God."  

This idea of Jesus "teaching ... the kingdom of God" is certainly found in other Latin text of Matthew 21:17 and even makes its way into the liturgy.  Yet Morton Smith and others failed to connect it back to the Alexandrian interest in 'elementary studies.'  "The kingdom of God" - or better yet "the kingship of God" is clearly the teaching which comes after the five or eight year apprenticeship and is responsible for ultimately turning Theodore of Pontus into 'Gregory the Wonder Worker' after his baptism.  The consistent depiction of Gregory as a second Moses is a result of his having received instruction into the kingship of God - Moses of course being the living and eternal example for Jews of the return of the king of Israel (= messiah).

So too do we see Gregory of Nyssa speak of Theodore's initiation in terms of Moses experience on mount Sinai.  "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."(Life of Gregory 32)

The point of course is that most people fail to see that we are being told in the clearest terms possible that Gregory the Wonder Worker was 'manufactured' through being taught the mystery of the kingdom of God.  This is what Origen did to him at Caesarea and so he declares in his Peri Archon - the book recommended to the reader by Clement in Can the Rich Man Be Saved - that "this wisdom shall be plainly stamped on us."   As Marvin Meyer has already recognized the six days ritual preparation before entering the mysteries on the seventh is derived from Moses's experience on Sinai (Exod 24:16) - the very same source for the reference of Gregory as Moses drawing "near to the thick darkness where God was; the thick cloud"[7]

We can finally see begin to see what lay beyond the 'elementary studies' of the Alexandrian school.  The catechumen were being prepared for leadership roles in the church emulating the example of Moses the Patriarch.  Clement and Origen were working hand in hand in terms of this instruction.  Clement passes us on to Peri Archon where indeed the existence of a more perfect gospel of Mark is clearly alluded to.  Origen writes in that section of text cited above:

let us leave the word of the beginning of Christ, that is, leaving elementary instruction, endeavour to press on unto perfection, that the wisdom spoken to the perfect may be spoken also to us.

It is amazing that no one seems to have recognized the reference to 'the logos of the arche tou christou' as the opening words of the publicly known gospel of Mark (= arche tou eugaggeliou christou).  In other words, if the publicly disseminated 'gospel of Mark' is identified as 'elementary studies' by Origen we already know that the gospel of 'perfection' (teleio) is the secret text referenced in Clement's letter to Theodore - "a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected" (teleioumenwn chresin).

Indeed all we have to do is go back again to the statement that Origen makes in his letter to Theodore that he hopes this Theodore will receive "that which is hidden from the many, the mind (nous) of the Divine writings," and see the obvious parallels to what is written in Peri Archon.  "The mind of Christ" is, as we have already noted, a reference to the 'hidden wisdom' of 1 Clement 2:16.  Indeed Peri Archon also alludes to material from chapter two of the First Letter to the Corinthians after its reference to a more perfect gospel of Mark when it says that we must leave "elementary instruction ... to press on unto perfection, that the wisdom spoken to the perfect may be spoken also to us." 

The point of course is that all of these texts - the two letters to Theodore, Can the Rich Man be Saved, On First Principles - are related because they derive from the very same period in the third century when Clement and Origen were working to establish Church leaders after the likeness of Moses.  This was the most sacred mystery of the Church.  Gregory the Wonder Worker, by his very appellation, was the greatest embodiment of this ancient ideal.  A very desperate Emperor and his mother would eventually seek to enlist this Alexandrian mystery religion to help stabilize a fragmenting world.  The circumstances of Zenobia's conquest of Egypt and the eastern half of the Empire would lead some to question that strategy and ultimately persecute the Alexandrian Church.

Nevertheless we have actually uncovered an important clue for why same-sex unions were so important to this tradition.  It was all part of a desire to establish a new generation of 'new Moses' figures in Christianity, new shepherds in the Church.  For those who wonder why so much attention was paid to the mysticism surrounding Moses's being made a brother with Aaron, the answer goes back to the fundamental sickness that was in contemporary culture.  The world was corrupt, the Empire was falling apart.  Only magical practices had the power to cleanse the sick and degenerate flesh and plant the seeds of former greatness.  The holy man couldn't remain holy for long - even with this sacred initiation - unless he had the power of love, the love of his brother, to keep him on the straight and narrow.

Thus same-sex unions weren't originally conceived as some 'reward' for the spiritually perfected.  It was absolutely fundamental to his continued function as a sublimely holy leader.  No wonder Athenodorus is always depicted as sitting beside Gregory on his throne.  Behind every good man was - at least in the Church - another great man sharing the same divine soul from the highest heavens ...


[1] J. Behr, The Nicene Faith, Part One, 57; citing R. Williams, “Damnosa haer- editas: Pamphilus' Apology and the Reputation of Origen,” in Logos: Festschrift für Luise Abramowski zum 8.Juli 1993, ed. HC Brennecke, EL Grasmück,
[2]  The argument that the 'Theodore' on the letter is Gregory is unconvincing as he already changed his name to Gregory.
[7] (Marvin Meyer Secret Gospels: essays on Thomas and the secret Gospel of Mark p. 124)
J. W. Trigg, "God's Marvelous OUumomia: Reflections of Origen's Understanding of Divine and Human Pedagogy in the Address Ascribed to Gregory [City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria - Page 163 Edward Watts - 2008 ]

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