Sunday, September 9, 2012

Chapter Fourteen of Naked With Naked

Morton Smith never succeeded in solving perhaps the most fundamental mystery related to the Mar Saba document. He never identified who 'Theodore' was, the addressee of the correspondence. It is because of this fact perhaps that the material has never been placed in anything resembling its original historical context. Indeed after hundreds of pages of analysis all Smith can only conclude that this 'Theodore' might pretty much be anyone. The closest he gets to saying anything definitive about the addressee is that he was probably living in Palestine. This is significant as Smith notes not only did Clement study in Palestine under a teacher of Jewish ancestry but "Clement was also a friend of a subsequent bishop of Jerusalem to whom he dedicated a book against Judaizing heretics or Jews. He may have had other connections in the city."

There isn't much to Morton Smith's train of thought here. He supposed that because the letter is preserved at the Mar Saba library there may well be an underlying connection between this Theodore and the Jerusalem see. The Mar Saba monastery was always under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Jerusalem. As Smith himself noted, there was known to be a collection of letters attributed to Clement of Alexandria in the monastery's library at least as late as the ninth century. Morton Smith works this evidence in two directions in his study. On the one hand he floats the idea that the Letter to Theodore must have been a fragment from that lost collection of letters. On the other hand he works the evidence in the other direction to hypothesize that the letter was written to or by someone living in the environs of see of Jerusalem.

It should also be noted that when Eusebius developed his Church History he presented letters of Origen drawn from the libraries of Jerusalem and Caesarea Maritima. Caesarea was the home of a large library of books with many Alexandrian Christian authors. Caesarea was traditionally independent from the authority of the bishop of Jerusalem and Eusebius was Caesarea's most famous bishop. While the two cities enjoyed a close relationship in the period before Eusebius's reign, there was bitter strife in the age that followed. With so many pilgrims flooding its gates to catch a glimpse of the many important landmarks, it is not surprising to witness the see of Jerusalem demanding that Caesarea should be placed under its jurisdiction. The various bishops of Caesarea resisted these efforts. But by about the fifth century or so the see of Caesarea Maritima was subordinated to the the Jerusalem church.

A number of scholars have pondered the considered connection between the Letter to Theodore and the great library at Caesarea. The original letters might either have been copied or physically moved to the monastery at Mar Saba from this library or the one established earlier by bishop Alexander at Jerusalem. What makes Caesarea so intriguing is the fact that we have already Theodore (= Gregory Thaumaturgus) was united to another man in this city with Origen of Alexandria presiding over the ceremony. Whatever mystical rite was used to yoke Theodore and Athenodorus together, this was not a recent invention of Origen. It was was of Alexandrian origin and the catechetical instruction which prepared the two men was what had been already established within the Church of St Mark. We’ve already seen that these events are referenced in the Panygeric for Origen or as the text is often known - the Letter of Theodore to Origen.

So in 1958 Smith discovers the Letter of Clement to Theodore which is a correspondence between Clement of Alexandria and Theodore of Pontus. Yet long before this, scholars already had in their possession a letter of Theodore to Origen and furthermore a Letter of Origen to Theodore. It will be our contention that the letter was written before the letter of Theodore to Origen - in other words before his initiation period had even been completed. In order to begin to see how this all fits together we have start again from the very beginning of the recently discovered correspondence and work our way to the reference about 'secret Mark' at its very conclusion.

The Mar Saba letter opens with Clement commending Theodore for having 'silenced' or 'shut' of the 'unspeakable teachings of the Carpocratians. No one has ever satisfactorily explained what Theodore was being congratulated for. It presumably has something to do with rejecting an unfavorable or incorrect understanding about what went on in an Alexandrian initiation ritual. Clement goes on to cite material from the canonical Epistle of Jude in which 'Jude' condemns the corrupting of the primitive Eucharist ritual called the Agape or 'love feast.’

This ‘Jude’ or Judas has always been presumed to be a bishop or high ranking figure in the apostolic Jerusalem church. It is ironic then that Clement was later a guest of Alexander the bishop of Jerusalem. In any event, by citing the Letter of Jude one can speculate that he is deliberately making reference to a similar contemporary situation with respect to the heretical 'Carpocratian' sect corrupting an Alexandrian 'love ritual.' Jude is likely made to be Judas the brother of Jacob, the first bishop of the see. In the same way as Clement is now serving at the leisure of Alexander, the current bishop of the city, criticizing a very similar group in the contemporary age.

The evidence from the letter suggests that Theodore is a catechumen. He is writing to Clement asking essentially 'what comes next' in his initiation process. He has heard something about a same sex union rite which follows after baptism. He has also come into contact with a report about a secret gospel. Now Clement, likely writing from Jerusalem, uses the epistle to Jude to answer Theodore’s query. The point of the citation is to say that there has been an age old problem with sexual libertines. There have always attempts to misrepresent and corrupt the original love ritual established by the apostles. What is being reported to him is really an age old threat to the stability of the Church which can only be fought through actually going through the initiation process.

The heretics – the Carpocratians - claim to be free from the constraints of the Law of Moses. They also 'boasted' of their possessing great and profound knowledge. Yet rather than completely denying the heretics claims Clement argues instead that the group is 'somewhat' or mostly incorrect with respect to their interpretation. This statement on its own should cause us to pause and take a second look at the details of his commentary. By implication Clement is also acknowledging that at least ‘some’ of what they say about this secret Gospel of Mark also happens to be true. Yet more significantly Clement advises Theodore to be careful with that understanding because the heretics have ultimately taken things out of context.

This is a consistent feature of Clement's critique of the Carpocratian exegesis throughout his known writings. They apparently held some gospel in common with the Alexandrian community but the heretics misinterpret or misapply the contents of this secret text. Why the confusion? As Irenaeus himself reports these traditions did not believe the gospel openly revealed its truths. The true understanding of the narrative begins with coming into contact with the secrets which are only passed orally or by word of mouth.

This is the underlying context of Theodore's original Letter to Clement. While we know longer know the contents of the correspondence Theodore, it is apparent that the original letter was an inquiry about 'what came next' after the completion of his initiation with Origen. Theodore was hoping Clement might shed some light on the process. Theodore likely heard something about a 'secret gospel' or 'another gospel of Mark' – that it was superior or ‘more spiritual’ thatn the Law of Moses, the Jewish holy writings and likely also the familiar 'gospel according to Mark.' Indeed one of the principle reasons Clement went on to divulge detailed information about this 'secret' gospel of Mark – a practice previously forbidden - was to demonstrate that the Carpocratian exegesis was false. The actual contents of the secret gospel did not support the 'naked man with naked man' allusion which Theodore originally brought to his attention in the letter which preceded this correspondence.

A discussion follows about the existence of two canonical gospels which we saw witnessed in the writings from the early Roman community. The only real difference here is that in Alexandria is that instead of one gospel being associated with the authority of Peter and another with Paul, we find the Egyptian Church divided the two gospels according to a division of apostolic authority associated with Peter and Mark. According to Clement, Mark wrote two gospels - one on behalf of Peter and another principally on his own authority. The Roman Church seems to have known a parallel situation with respect to Paul and Peter, the former writing a simple account for ‘believers’ and a 'hidden wisdom' for those who are perfect.

Whatever tradition we are looking at, it would seem that from the beginning there was a short ‘original’ gospel identified with Peter and a longer gospel identified with Paul or Mark. Our Patristic sources also make frequent reference to the idea that the gospel of Peter was somehow understood to be 'under the Law' whereas the gospel associated of Paul was written according to a superior divine authority unknown to the Jews before Christ's advent. Clement makes specific reference to the idea in his other writings as well as the Letter to Theodore. As one scholar puts it "the audience of the longer Gospel is not catechumens who are preparing for baptism but baptized Christians involved in advanced theological instruction, the goal of which is gnosis (knowledge)."

The key thing for us to keep our eyes on is the existence of at least part of a correspondence between Clement and Theodore. It is clearly in keeping with what one might expect from a catechumen and a Church elder. Clement’s exhortation "to deny the existence of the secret gospel on oath" is easily explained by the identification of ‘Theodore’ as Gregory Thaumaturgus. The same pattern of ritual secrecy can be demonstrated in Origen’s correspondence with this same figure. Here too we see Origen maintaining a framework of mystery cannot help but hint at the answers. Why the difficulties for both men? It is because Theodore is extremely wealthy and such ‘men of means’ were greatly prized in the community.

We can liken the situation to a rock star like George Harrison visiting with the Indian guru, Maharashi. The Alexandrian expatriate community as a whole seems to have been eager to show special favor to prominent individuals like Theodore. After all rich patrons were hard to come by. The same situation has always been present in religious communities - the wealthy get special treatment from the authorities dependent on their money. There is nothing at all in the surviving writings of Gregory Thaumaturgus which demonstrate any intellectual brilliance. His lofty status was almost entirely related to the fact that he was a 'rich man' coming over to the faith.

It can't be coincidence that Clement consistently cultivates a policy of 'special treatment' for the rich. Indeed his famous treatise Can the Rich Man Be Saved takes this flattery of the rich to new heights. Similarly we have already seen that Clement was willing to change the rules about married priests in order to accommodate the new and extremely unlearned bishop Demetrius. So it is that Clement demonstrates time and again that the rich, powerful and well connected operate on a different playing field. He is certainly not the first or last Christian theologian to eagerly embrace this cynical worldview.

We should note once again that when Clement decides to reveal to Theodore the exact words of the secret gospel he does with the specific purpose of disproving certain claims that have been about the material by the Carpocratians. The 'naked man with naked man' business most obviously but there may have been others at the point we lose contact with the original text. We should expect that Origen had already told Clement how serious Theodore was about his studies.

As such he must have felt comfortable revealing the presence of an otherwise unknown story inserted after Mark 10:34 in the publicly circulating copies of gospel of Mark:

And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.

While many detractors have argued the what is presented here is stands totally outside what one might call 'normative Christianity,' all that we have seen so far about the early Church suggests otherwise.

This material perfectly fits what we have just seen with respect to the initiation which united Theodore and Athenodorus and moreover Basil and Gregory a century later. Moreover most early Christian references assume the catechumen to embody the concept of 'the living dead' in some form - some even have them wear grave-clothes to their baptism. As the famous scholar A N Wilson notes the narrative is secret Mark is merely claiming that "the ritual has been translated into an event, a 'sign' [where] the catechumen in his grave-clothes becomes an actual dead man in grave-clothes, coming forth to be initiated into the Baptism of Spirit, Baptism of Eternal Life."

Clement takes special care to reassure Theodore that the ritual he is about to partake is apostolic. In other words he goes out of his way to argue that the same sex union found in the secret gospel of Mark did not directly reference a naked man with another naked man.' While he apparently cites the exact words of the narrative he refrains from divulging the exact nature of the mystery associated with it. Yet it is important to see that Clement goes out of his way to reference Mark himself as establishing the gospel and the mystery associated with it in order to reinforce the apostolic character of the rite. Already in the writings of Irenaeus we see the intimation that the ‘Mark’ associated with each was not an apostle or a disciple but a later heretic.

Identifying Theodore as Gregory Thaumaturgus is important because it helps provide a historical context for the original inquiry which prompted this letter. ‘Theoodre’ after all was being initiated by Clement’s student Origen hundreds of miles from Alexandria. Every metaphor, every allusion in Clement's Letter to Theodore reinforces makes reference to the rite of baptism of catechumen. For instance just before Clement explains that Mark wrote the gospel for the newly baptized he makes reference to a saying that has puzzled many critics of the discovery - "for the true things, being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor." Salt was given to the catechumens in Rome and north Africa before baptism. The specific idea that salt became 'corrupted' from mixing with heretics or idolaters is preserved in the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus, who as we noticed frequently borrowed from the writings of this Theodore.

Once we connect 'Theodore' here to 'Gregory Thaumaturgus' we can begin to incorporate similar concepts which survive from the correspondances of Origen and Theodore. Origen's Letter to Theodore has also been preserved for us by the Cappadocian fathers and appears in the thirteenth chapter of their Philocalia (a kind of literary 'greatest hits package' of things laid down by Origen). The original text was likely found in a lost part of the third century martyr Pamphilus's Apology for Origen which drew from material at the library of Caesarea. As John Anthony McGuckin notes in the Westminster Handbook on Origen, "Origen's Address to Theodore is the first of the large surviving epistle. Theodore is generally understood to be his disciple, a young man studying with him in Caesarea, who subsequently became a leading missionary of the Cappadocian church under the name of Gregory Thaumaturgus."

It is pretty much assumed by everyone that Theodore "assumed the name Gregory at his baptism; it can be presumed also that Origen arranged this at Caesarea." Since we actually know a great deal about the manner in which the catechumen were initiated in Caesarea we can at least theoretically provide a contextual framework for the context of Clement's writing to the same Theodore. To this end the process of initiation at Caesarea was undoubtedly a direct appropriation from the established traditions of baptizing the catechumens in Alexandria. No serious scholarship has ever questioned this underlying relationship.

To this end understanding of what went on at Caesarea under Origen's watch helps us understand the context of Clement’s Letter to Theodore. The standard understanding of what went on at Caesarea was established by Pierre Nautin of the University of Paris and his detailed examination of the various homilies of Origen on the books of the Old Testament but especially the Homilies on Psalms. Yet in recent times a group of scholars discover the Greek originals to these same homilies which previously were only known through inaccurate Latin translations. The discovery has effectively overturned most of Nautin's claims.

The only thing that appears to hold up with respect to Nautin's original analysis is the idea that homilies represent some sort of catechetical instruction developed after Origen was already sixty years of age. According to Nautin the gospel was not completely revealed to these initiates. Instead their instruction was almost completely based on the Old Testament which was read over the course of a year or many years following a general pattern witnessed in Judaism. Yet his claim that they were also were also excluded from the reading the Gospel has come under some scrutiny.

Both Clement's and Origen's Letter to Theodore suggests that a gospel - undoubtedly a publicly circulating text - was certainly read to catechumens. What was kept secret from them was a mystic text undoubtedly originally written by St Mark at Alexandria. In the Clement's letter to Theodore this is made explicit. As Morton Smith put a secret gospel was hidden so "that catechumens may be left without full information—not to say misinformed—in order to protect their faith." Yet the same pattern can be demonstrated to have also been present in the correspondences between Origen and the same Theodore.

As we have already noted, Clement and Origen were both corresponding with a Theodore who would become know to future generations as Gregory the Wonder Worker. This man would be likened by future generations as a second Moses and whose initiation 'in darkness' was likened to the theophany described in the book of Exodus. Both Clement and Origen were corresponding with Gregory while he was still a catechumen – i.e. when he was called Theodore. So it is not surprising that we find signs both in Clement and Origen's letters to the same Theodore that he was a catechumen. As McGuckin notes Origen's "letter encourages Theodore to continue his studies day by day, through the assiduous reading of the divine Scriptures” this in order to be thought worthy to attain knowledge of a ‘secret wisdom.’

As already noted Origen’s catechetical instruction included books of the Old Testament, the public gospel and the various letters of the apostle. The 'secret gospel' or 'secret wisdom' which Origen references is something else entirely. As we see from Origen's letter he says:

do you, then, my lord and my son, chiefly give heed to the reading of the Divine Scriptures; do give heed. For we need great attention when we read the Divine writings, that we may not speak or form notions about them rashly. And as you give heed to reading the Divine volume with a faithful anticipation well pleasing to God, knock at its closed doors and it shall be opened unto you by the porter, of whom Jesus said, "To him the porter openeth." And as you give heed to the Divine reading, seek, in the right way and with an unfaltering faith in God, that which is hidden from the many, the mind (nous) of the Divine writings [emphasis mine]. Be not content, however, with knocking and seeking; for prayer is the most necessary qualification for the understanding of Divine things, and the Saviour urged us to this when He said, not only, Knock and it shall be opened, Seek and ye shall find, but also, Ask and it shall be given unto you."

The key to the understanding here is the line "that which is hidden from the many, the mind (nous) of the Divine writings (ton kekrummenon tois pollois noun twn theiwn grammaton)." This is an obvious paraphrase of perhaps the most important passage in the entire collection of Pauline writings - the second chapter of the first letter to Corinthians.

As we shall see, this material is consistently understood by the Alexandrian tradition as Paul acknowledging that he laid down two teachings - even two gospels. The important point here is for us to understand that Origen in his Letter to Theodore to be saying the exact same thing as Clement. "And as you give heed to the Divine reading, seek, in the right way and with an unfaltering faith in God, that which is hidden from the many,the mind (nous) of the Divine writings" is a clear reference to the existence of the secret gospel. According to the Alexandrian interpretation the apostle wrote two gospels, a publicly circulating text that just told the story of Jesus crucifixion and another built on that text as a foundation which is the 'mind of Christ.' (1 Corinthians 2:16) In a very similar way Clement makes reference to Paul as the apostle who "teaches that knowledge, which is the perfection of faith, goes beyond catechetical instruction, in accordance with the magnitude of the Lord's teaching and the rule of the Church." In each case a secret knowledge which is perfection is explicitly identified as that which "goes beyond" mere "catechetical instruction".

All of these ideas of course ultimately derive from the discussion at the beginning of the second chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians in our New Testament canon with Paul announcing first that:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.(1 Corinthians 2:1 - 5)

Yet the same apostle acknowledges in what immediately follows in the letter that:

we do, however, speak a wisdom among the perfect, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began." (1 Cor 1.6 -7)

As we have already seen this second passage was always taken by gnostics in the sense of meaning 'another gospel' separate from that of Peter and the apostles and made secret and reserved for those who are being perfected.

We have already noted that the Marcionites themselves likely identified our apostle 'Paul' as Mark. This is clear from the implications of Hippolytus's testimony and has been already developed into remarkably similar argument by the early twentieth century German theologian Hermann Raschke. This hidden 'wisdom' of Paul must be identified with secret Mark and not surprisingly we find that Clement of Alexandria interprets the material in a very similar manner to Origen - namely that the apostle's 'former' gospel was simply about Jesus being crucified and then a 'secret wisdom' (= secret gospel) was revealed, formerly hidden (apokekrumenen) from the knowledge of the catechumen.

You don't have to be an expert in ancient Greek to see that this all necessarily fits together in Origen's Letter to Theodore. Paul's original use of apokekrumenen (1 Cor 2.7) becomes Origen's kekrumenon in his correspondence with Theodore. So too his reference to his "mind of the divine writings" is derived from Paul's "mind of Christ" which immediately follows. As such Origen's address to Theodore presents exactly the same message as Clement's Letter to Theodore. He references a 'secret writing' or 'secret wisdom' which is only revealed to the initiated which was written by the same man who wrote the publicly circulating gospel. The only difference again is that Origen expresses the ideas in terms of the writings of Paul while Clement in his correspondence with Theodore explicitly references an apocryphal tradition related to the person of Mark.

As such we should see once again that a detailed examination of Clement and Origen's letters to Theodore hints at the idea that Mark was Paul. Not only were both men paired with Peter in the early tradition, they were both specifically subordinated to Peter's authority by the third century Roman tradition. The point then is that it cannot be ignored any longer that Clement and Origen are saying the exact same thing to same Theodore. They just happen to be taking slightly different paths to arrive at the same point.

Origen references to the material in 1 Corinthians chapter 2 to hint at the existence of a secret wisdom text which Theodore will receive upon the completion of his initiation. In Clement's case - perhaps owing to the fact that he was not actively involved in instructing Theodore - he makes the very same point identifying the apostle as Mark:

As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected.

One could devote an entire volume to the misunderstood Marcionite paradigm and its influence over the Alexandrian Church. Origen's patron Ambrose after all was a repentant Marcionite. It is likely that Theodore and Gregory Nazianzus after him came from a neo-Marcionite culture in Pontus. It would seem as if the heretical culture was eventually accommodated to the normative teaching associated with Rome in the third century.

Indeed Origen says something in the recently discovered Greek texts of his Homilies on Psalms that is worth quoting here which goes to the heart of this paradigm. Undoubtedly writing some time after 235 CE he makes reference to the previous age when the Alexandrian gospel and its secret doctrines were originally promulgated by a number of different heretical schools:

We know this by experience that in our early age the heresies were flourishing and many seemed to be those who assembled around them. All those who were eager for the teachings of Christ lacking clever teachers in the Church, because of such famine imitated those in a famine eat human flesh. They separated thus from the healthy doctrine and attached themselves to every possible teaching and united themselves in schools. Yet when the grace of God radiated a more abundant teaching, day after day the heresies broke up and their supposed secret doctrines were brought to light and denounced as being blasphemies and impious and godless words.

Origen speaks only recently of sufficiently 'clever' teachers who managed to accommodate the original Alexandrian doctrine to the new orthodoxy emerging out of Rome. He was clearly one such teacher, Clement may possibly have been another.

Nevertheless the understanding that the same ‘Theodore’ is behind both sets of correspondences from these towering Alexandrian figures is the ultimate breakthrough with respect to the Mar Saba discovery. Whereas in the case of Morton Smith we could not find an elusive ‘man in the shadows’ with respect to Clement and Origen, Gregory Thaumaturgus perfectly fits the bill. It wasn’t just that he was a beautiful youth who perfectly resembled the figure in the secret gospel, he is known to have gone on to assume the role of a second Moses – a messianic figure who led the community through perhaps its darkest period.

Origen’s frequent reference to the idea of ‘the soul of Jonathan being knit to the soul of David’ is essential here. For while 1 Samuel 18:1 - 5 is certainly an expression of same sex attraction, the messianic implications of the reference are usually misunderstood by contemporary scholarship. The anointed one in this section of the Book of Samuel isn’t David yet. He is simply an ordinary man. King Saul is described throughout the section as God’s anointed and Jonathan – ‘his son’ - is his legitimate heir. It is only by David uniting himself to Christ, the Son that he himself assumes messianic authority. The very same thing was true for Theodore – he only became ‘Gregory the wonderworker’ after he completed his sacred Alexandrian initiation.

The censored section in 1 Samuel chapter 18 concludes ‘and he (= Jonathan) loved him (= David) as himself.’ This teaching is at the heart of Clement’s Alexandrian mysticism. It is the teaching at the heart of the secret gospel. As Eric Osborne notes in his respected book on Clement of Alexandria “There is reciprocal love between the father and men. Jesus says that God the father himself loves them because they have loved the son, and indeed he loves men as he loves his only son, (Jn 16:27; 17:23). It is for us to return this love of God as he guides us in love to the life which is best. Following his likeness, we are to do the works of our master, and bring to fulfilment what scripture says about our creation in his image and likeness. Here Clement's concept of the reciprocity which obtains between father and son is extended to the second ellipse of the reciprocity between God and the believer. Our relationship to God is one of reciprocal love. We return his love and in returning that love we grow in his likeness.” He who has ears, let him hear.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.