Sunday, January 6, 2013

Of Marcionites and Alexandrians [Part One]

I spend so much time think about this religion - you'd think I was Christian.  But then again most Christians don't spend that much time having any productive thoughts about their religion.  The same thing holds true for Jews and Muslims and members of virtually every other religion.  I mean, when you think about it - how many men think about 'what it's like being a man' or women 'being a woman'?  People tend to think about what they don't have rather than what they have.  I think Heidegger got it right when he said (and I am paraphrasing someone who is impossible to paraphrase) you only think about the hammer when it's broken.

But in this case we (or 'I') happen to be engaged in trying to consolidate several different - and seemingly antithetical - constructs.  On the one hand we have a Church Father named Clement of Alexandria.  Clement would have only passing interest for most people if it weren't for the fact that an American professor discovered a lost letter of his in the Mar Saba library.  For some reason, this discovery is controversial.  Apparently Clement couldn't have used a longer 'secret gospel' of Mark which mentioned a disciple dying, being resurrected and waking up in 'love' with Jesus.  Let's leave that standing where it is.

So on the one hand we have this 'controversial' discovery associated with Clement and then on the other we have a sect called 'the Marcionites' who are identified as having a longer gospel of Mark by at least two early Church Fathers.  Of course I think that the name 'Marcion' has something to do with Mark.  But let's not get too deeply involved with that.  The point of all my efforts is to reinforce a 'hunch' that I have that the writings of Clement and the hostile reports about the Marcionites point to some underlying common tradition.

Why do I think this?  There is no way that I can summarize in a single sentence why I suspect this 'underlying relationship.'  A lot of the evidence is circumstantial.  We are told that Origen was Clement's student, but not even Eusebius can produce anything resembling an acknowledgement from either that they knew the other.  How can that be explained?  It's not like Eusebius doesn't have the evidence in front of him.  He has a whole library full of books.  No correspondence between the two men, and yet he is more than willing to identify Ammonius Saccas as Origen's teacher, thanks to some handy testimony from the pagan philosophy Plotinus who knew Origen and his rich patron Ambrose in Tyre.

And it isn't just Plontinus.  Other traditions survive where Origen is acknowledged to have been a devoted student of an Egyptian bishop named Ammonius.  The funny thing is that Ammonius was famous in antiquity for having 'made' a Diatessaron - a gospel which seemed to harmonize various passages from the four gospels into one long narrative.  This 'Diatessaron' is related to but ultimately different from Tatian's more famous 'gospel harmony' associated with Rome and the Syrian Church.

Let's leave aside the question of how two competing 'gospel harmonies' existed side by side one another in antiquity and none of the contemporary Church Fathers - not even Irenaeus - mentions them.  Here's something more unusual.  I might have mentioned this before but if you look at Origen's Commentary on Matthew you'll see whole sections where he cites Mark, Luke and John alongside Matthew.  When I was on an airplane to California once I happened to follow Origen's citations of the four gospels in this Commentary and found that they almost always followed the order of parts of the existing Arabic Diatessaron.

What do I mean by this?  I think the 'Commentary on Matthew' was modified from an original Commentary on the Diatessaron.  Interestingly enough in Book Fifteen - a treatise that only survives in Latin and has never been fully translated into English - Origen makes one of the fullest references to the 'harmonization' which exists in the section of text that spans the 'Cursing of the Fig Tree' down to 'Zacchaeus in the Sycamore.'  In other words, he clearly acknowledges that the rich man of Mark 10:17 - 31 'dies' and goes down into Hades as the 'rich man' of the Rich Man and Dives in our Gospel of Luke (but part of the continuous harmonized narrative of the Diatessaron).

So we can't pin down Origen's relationship with Clement but we can trace his use of Diatessaron and we have multiple 'witnesses' to his being student of a man famously associated with an Alexandrian 'Diatessaron.'  While we can't pin Origen to Clement, we can identify Clement recommending people read a work called De Principiis in Quis Dives Salvatur which was probably Origen's famous treatise.  Isn't that good enough?  Maybe.  But why don't we know more about Clement.  All we really know about him is that he wrote a number of works, he was supposedly Origen's teacher (but that relationship is shrouded in secrecy) and that he ran away from persecution in Alexandria.  Epiphanius doesn't even know whether he was from Athens of Alexandria.

The only other thing that we can say with any certainty about Clement is that he too must have used this Alexandrian Diatessaron associated with Ammonius.  We know this from the pattern of references in his writings.  Interestingly also Clement never mentions Ammonius but alludes to Tatian - his Diatessaronic rival -  more than once.  Is that enough to prove anything about the relationship between any of these men?  Of course not.  But there is more information that we can layer on top of this.

When Origen left Alexandria he ultimately settled for a long period of time in Tyre (one of the reasons why the pagan Plotinus knew so much about him).  Yet in Tyre he was 'worked for' a rich 'repentant' Marcionite who basically commissioned him to write books on various subjects which seemed to be important to him and the local Church (for which he was a married deacon apparently).  What makes this relationship so odd is that it fits into a pattern of all of these men being associated with 'denying their original faith.'  Ammonius denied being a Christian of the Marcionite 'brand,' Clement speaks about having to 'deny' Mark's authorship of the 'secret gospel,' Ammonius Saccas is said by Plotinus to have 'denied' his original Christian faith and Origen, if he was a student of Clement clearly did not maintain the same beliefs, practices and canon of his original Alexandrian faith.

Indeed Origen is a strange character precisely because he seems to have been hired by Ambrose to spin bullshit.  He was making stuff up as he went along - taking Catholic texts that were basically unknown to the writings of Clement as we know have them and applying the most ridiculous allegorical interpretations of them to arrive at something of a 'compatible' interpretation of Christian mysticism as his (alleged) former master.  Why were all these Christians associated with 'denying' their original faith and Origen was made so famous basically inventive the most ridiculously implausible interpretations of a newly fixed canon of scripture?  Can't Origen then be described as yet another 'apostate' from Alexandria?

Oh there is one more thing that links all these men - they were all associated with heresy.  In Origen's case his originality and inventiveness prevented him from being identified with an existing form of 'heresy' and in Ammonius's case it is only theoretical (i.e. we know so little about him but we must assume he was a Platonizing Christian).  Clement is never charged with being a heretic of course but Photius strangely accuses his writing of heresy but assumes that treatise was written by someone else.  Nevertheless we have already mentioned Jerome's charge that Eusebius 'corrected' Clement and Origen's of any overtly heretical statements.

What about the Marcionites?  They are repeatedly described as a virulently Platonized form of Christianity.  Does that describe Clement?  Yes certainly.  What about Ammonius?  Undoubtedly.  What about Origen?  Him too but he was deliberately cultivating a disguise and Ambrose - well - he is acknowledged already as a repentant Marcionite.

Email with comments or questions.

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