Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mar Saba was a (Secret) Marcosian

No not that story.  I'm talking about this one - Mar Saba himself seems to have been a Marcosian or was familiar at least with the Egyptian heretical teacher 'Marcus.'  The story develops from something posted at the blog of Alin Suciu, an authority on Coptic writings who happens to run one of the best Biblical blogs on the internet.  From time to time Alin allows fellow Coptologists to post translations and articles at his site.  In the last few days he seems to have rented his space out to Anthony Alcock who this week published a translation of a text I certainly didn't know about - 'the Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet' ascribed to Mar Saba himself.

From the foreword at Alin's blog:

This is the first part of Dr. Anthony Alcock’s translation of an intriguing text, the Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet. This text is preserved in a single Copto-Arabic paper manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Here is a photograph of the manuscript (sorry for the low quality). The text has survived also in Greek (see the edition in C. Bandt, Der Traktat “Vom Mysterium der Buchstaben”: Kritischer Text mit Einführung, Übersetzung und Anmerkungen (Texte und Untersuchungen, 162; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007).

And then a little about the text itself:

Among the many scholars to have studied Huntington 393 was E. Amélineau, who pointed out that the name of the writer was not atase but apa seba. The question then presented itself: was this Sabas, who founded several monasteries in Palestine in the 5th cent. Hebbelynck believes that the Coptic is a translation from someone whose first language might have been Hebrew or Syriac, but he does not say why. On p. 12 of the text the writer refers to himself as xecnos ‘gentile’. Part Four of the text mentions the Arabic alphabet, which would make a 5th-6th cent. composition date more or less impossible. However, this part may be a later addition to an earlier composition.

What makes this text so intriguing for the rest of us is the discovery at Mar Saba of a fragment of a lost letter of Clement of Alexandria handwritten in the blank pages of an old book in the library.  All conspiracy theories attempting to pin the writing as a forgery initiated by the discoverer Morton Smith have fallen flat on their face.  So what are we left with?  We should at the very least allow for the possibility that the document is very much at home in the monastery which had deep ties with the Origenists who escaped from the Nitra desert around the time Mar Saba himself was founding the monastery.

The unfortunate facts of life are that the winners write history. So it is that the Life of Sabas (which I happen to have sitting on my lap as I write this) was written by a prominent anti-Origenist, Cyril of Scythopolis.  When the Emperor Justinian tried to clear the heretics out of the monastery which bears Sabas's name, Cyril attempted to make it seem as Sabas had nothing to do with these neo-Alexandrians.  The actual name 'Origenist' is in fact something of a misnomer.  As Panayiotis Tzamalikos recently showed in his Cassian the Sabaite, the Mar Saba monastery represented "a prolonged fruitful autumn of Late Antique Christian scholarship, who saw Hellenism as a treasured patrimony to draw on, rather than as a demon to be exorcised."  To this end 'Origenism' is something of a misnomer.  These monks represented an educated elite who were more 'Alexandrian' than simple 'Origenists.'

The difficulty has always been that because of Cyril's portrait of Sabas himself, it always seemed to scholars that this 'Origenism' developed as something of a later heresy.  It was like someone held a part and the wrong crowd came over.  This new text clearly associates the heresy of the Marcosians with Sabas.  Mark (= Marcus) if we remember, was a heretic described in some detail in the writings of Irenaeus of Rome.  Irenaeus says that Mark had a wide following.  Jerome and others identify him as specifically Egyptian.  At the core of Mark's doctrine however was a Pythagorean interest in the mystical significance of letters - something which rabbinic writers would later call 'gematria.'

The most important part of Mark's mystical interest in letters is the doctrine concerning the episemon - the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet in the earliest period of the language, but a letter which ultimately fell out of disuse.  There is a parallel mystical interest in the sixth letter in Jewish mysticism.  The number six symbolizes Creation in part because man - the crowning achievement of God's creation - and the world was established on the sixth day.  Mark himself passed forward a tradition to his disciples that there was mystical important in every place where the number six appeared in the gospel.  Jesus was crucified in the sixth hour, no less than Jesus took the disciples up to the mountain after six days, because Jesus himself was the mystical episemon (the name Iesous has six letters).

Sabas himself takes a mystical interest in the same episemon in the text translated by Alcock.  We read at the very beginning the author tell us that he received the revelation of the 'alpha and omega' one particular day:

I saw myself one evening as if I were standing on Mount Sinai, the place where the law of God came into being and the revelation of the nature of the world to Moses from God. In fear I saw the power of a ruler to which many people were singing, from whom emanates the light to become wise, as he alone knows. I heard the revelation of the letters and their nature and was taught by him and I also wrote them. The one who believes therefore what you say is wise. The one who is unbelieving will receive the portion of unbelievers and he will be judged with them on the true judgement day.
While Irenaeus's account of Mark does not specify a Sinai revelation, Moses is clearly very important to Mark who clearly had a very similar revelation.  We are told that "he has induced [his followers] to join themselves to him, as to one who is possessed of the greatest knowledge and perfection, and who has received the highest power from the invisible and ineffable regions above."

In the Irenaean account Mark - a 'teacher' of the highest order - watches as a being named 'Truth' descends from heaven and reveals to him the secrets of the letters.  In this present account Sabas speaks instead about:

The teacher, who does not need teaching teaches us about that mystery hidden since eternity, the letters of the alphabet, saying as follows. These letters are called 'elements', not because they are composed of elements as the vain pagan philosophers think (God forbid !), but, because of their form, the elements of the creation of the world are in them when they are written.

It is important to note that Mark too stresses the letters of the alphabet contain 'elements' (= stoicheia).  As Birger Pearson notes in his work on Gnosticism that:

Marcus presents his teaching as a revelation from the Tetrad in the Pleroma. What is interesting about Marcus's system is that he interprets a Valentinian myth with the use of numerology and alphabet mysticism. The Valentinian aeons are represented as elements or letters of the alphabet. (The Greek word stoicheion can mean “element” or a “letter” of the alphabet.) The primal Father “willed to make utterable that of him which was ineffable and to give form to that which was invisible,” and “opened his mouth and sent forth a word which was similar to himself." "He uttered the first word of his name, which was 'beginning' (Arche),” a word made up of four letters (Greek αρχή).[p. 169]

As we continue through Sabas's work we hear also that:

And in this alphabet, the things which are thought to be of slight importance, resided the mystery hidden from the beginning of the world. The number (= episemon) of the form which is in it teaches us the descent to earth of God the Logos from heaven, and the time when he migrated to us, and the establishment of the Church by him. And that is not all. But there is also his suffering on the Cross to save us. And through him we have become justified and received santification. And not only those upon the earth have received his grace, but also those in hell have enjoyed the presence of Christ. He went and evangelized those in captivity in that place. He rose from the dead and went up to heaven. He sent the Paraclete to us. The Gospel he preached in the whole world, and this will endure until the end.

This treasure, that is each of the letters, teaches us that Christ is a duality, that is, man and god at the same time, which means 'he is he'. And that he is a sign appearing as the 'episêmon'.And that he is life and the life-giver. He is the Lord. He is also the Ecclesiast of truth who has assembled together the holy Church of the faithful and he is immortal. He is eternal. He is the support and help. He is the beacon and the truth. He is the sanctification and the custodian of all. He is also the beginning and the end. He is the true lawgiver and all that is beautiful and all that is good. he teaches us about the word of the Trinity by means of a strange argument using remarkable letters

The very same ideas about Jesus as the episemon appear throughout Irenaeus's published comments on the sect associated with Mark.

In Against Heresies Book One we see Irenaeus's reference the concept of Jesus as the episemon, his suffering on the cross is related to the same letter/number and much more.  We read that Mark

asserts that the fruit of this arrangement and analogy has been manifested in the likeness of an image, namely, Him who, after six days, ascended into the mountain along with three others, and then became one of six (the sixth), in which character He descended and was contained in the Hebdomad, since He was the illustrious Ogdoad, and contained in Himself the entire number of the elements, which the descent of the dove (who is Alpha and Omega) made clearly manifest, when He came to be baptized; for the number of the dove is eight hundred and one. And for this reason did Moses declare that man was formed on the sixth day; and then, again, according to arrangement, it was on the sixth day, which is the preparation, that the last man appeared, for the regeneration of the first, Of this arrangement, both the beginning and the end were formed at that sixth hour, at which He was nailed to the tree. For that perfect being Nous, knowing that the number six had the power both of formation and regeneration, declared to the children of light, that regeneration which has been wrought out by Him who appeared as the Episemon in regard to that number. [1.14.6]

There are so many parallel themes in this first section of the translation alone it cannot possibly be thought to be an idle coincidence that both Sabas and the followers of Mark had this same mystical interest.

Yet there is an additional layer of profundity to the discovery insofar as a fragment of a letter of Clement of Alexandria happened to be found in the monastery over fifteen hundred years after Sabas's original foundation.  The letter itself makes specific reference to the mystical significance of the number six when the Secret Gospel of Mark tells of:

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 thaught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.

The consistency of interest between Sabas himself and this fragment discovered in his monastery only tell part of the story.  For it has long been established in scholarship that Clement of Alexandria, the teacher of Origen, was himself a Marcosian or at the very least made use of the very same Marcosian text that Irenaeus cites with such disdain throughout many chapters in Against Heresies:

"Irenaeus gives an account of [the heretic] Marcus and the Marcosians in 1.13 - 21 ... Hippolytus and Epiphanius (Haer 34) copy their accounts from Irenaeus, and probably had no direct knowledge of the works of Marcus or of his sect. Clement of Alexandria, however, knew and used his writings." [Philip Schaff note on Eusebius Church History iv.11.4]

" ... for on comparison of the sections just cited from Clement and from Irenaeus [regarding the Marcosians] the coincidences are found to be such as to put it beyond doubt that Clement in his account of the number six makes an unacknowledged use of the same [Marcosian] writing as were employed by Irenaeus." [William Smith A Dictionary of Christian Biography p. 161]

"Clement of Alexandria, himself infected with Gnosticism, actually uses Marcus number system though without acknowledgement (Strom, VI, xvi)." [Arendzen JP. Marcus. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX]

I have brought up the evidence here so many times that I hope I don't bore my readership.  What it amounts is several verbatim citations in Book Six of the Stromata of a Marcosian text cited by Irenaeus.  In addition there are citations of Marcosian saying in other works.

I noted in a previous post that one such parallel in language and mystical interest can be found in the Exhortation.  Clement here speaks about the need for grace to restore man to his original perfection:

This Jesus, who is eternal, the one great High Priest of the one God, and of His Father, prays for and exhorts men. "Hear, ye myriad tribes, rather whoever among men are endowed with reason, both barbarians and Greeks. I call on the whole race of men, whose Creator I am, by the will of the Father. Come to Me, that you may be put in your due rank under the one God and the one Word of God; and do not only have the advantage of the irrational creatures in the possession of reason; for to you of all mortals I grant the enjoyment of immortality. For I want, I want to impart to you this grace, bestowing on you the perfect boon of immortality; and I confer on you both the Word and the knowledge of God, My complete self. This am I, this God wills, this is symphony, this the harmony of the Father, this is the Son, this is Christ, this the Word of God, the arm of the Lord, the power of the universe, the will of the Father; of which things there were images of old, but not all adequate. I desire to restore you according to the original model, that ye may become also like Me. I anoint you with the ungent of faith, by which you throw off corruption, and show you the naked form of righteousness by which you ascend to God. Come to Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest to your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden light." Let us haste, let us run, my fellowmen--us, who are God-loving and God-like images of the Word. Let us haste, let us run, let us take His yoke, let us receive, to conduct us to immortality, the good charioteer of men. Let us love Christ. He led the colt with its parent; and having yoked the team of humanity to God, directs His chariot to immortality, hastening clearly to fulfil, by driving now into heaven, what He shadowed forth before by riding into Jerusalem. A spectacle most beautiful to the Father is the eternal Son crowned with victory. Let us aspire, then, after what is good; let us become God-loving men, and obtain the greatest of all things which are incapable of being harmed--God and life. [Exhort. 12]

The words of Jesus - and the sense of the passage itself - is preserved in Irenaeus under the guise of 'Marcus' who we learn from later sources was a resident of Egypt.  We read Marcus now as something of a caricature only interested in having sex with dupes of both sexes:

I am eager to make thee a partaker of my grace, since the Father of all doth continually behold thy angel before His face. Now the place of thy angel is among us: it behoves us to become one. Receive first from me and by me grace. Adorn thyself as a bride who is expecting her bridegroom, that thou mayest be what I am, and I what thou art. Establish the germ of light in thy nuptial chamber. Receive from me a spouse, and become receptive of him, while thou art received by him. Behold grace has descended upon thee; open thy mouth and prophesy." [Against Heresies 1.13.3]

Look carefully at the two opening lines again:

I want to impart to you this grace,
ἐθέλω καὶ ταύτης ὑμῖν μεταδοῦναι τῆς χάριτος

I am eager to make thee a partaker of my grace
μεταδοῦναί σοι θέλω τῆς ἐμῆς χάριτος,

The point of all of this of course is that having Sabas the founder of the monastery which bore his name associated with the very same Marcosian ideas found not only in the writings of Clement but the 'secret gospel' preserved at Mar Saba can hardly be coincidental.  Morton Smith did not know about this additional layer of connection.  It would be profoundly 'lucky' of him to know to forge a document at this particular monastery which was founded by someone associated with the very mystical doctrines found in his discovery.

Indeed as I have also long noted at this blog, the testimony of Irenaeus also makes clear that the followers of Mark (= Clement and presumably later Sabas) maintained a second baptism rite in the very place we now learn 'secret Mark' had this initiation associated with the number six.  Irenaeus notes that this rite called 'the redemption' :

It happens that their tradition respecting redemption is invisible (= secret) and incomprehensible ... [T]his class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith.  They maintain that those who have attained to perfect knowledge must of necessity be regenerated into that power which is above all. For it is otherwise impossible to find admittance within the Fullness, since this [regeneration] it is which leads them down into the depths of Depth ... And the baptism of John was proclaimed with a view to repentance, but the redemption by Jesus was brought in for the sake of perfection. And to this He refers when He says, "And I have another baptism to be baptized with, and I hasten eagerly towards it." Moreover, they affirm that the Lord added this redemption to the sons of Zebedee, when their mother asked that they might sit, the one on His right hand, and the other on His left, in His kingdom, saying, "Can ye be baptized with the baptism which I shall be baptized with?" Paul, too, they declare, has often set forth, in express terms, the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; and this was the same which is handed down by them in so varied and discordant forms. [1.21.1,2]

The saying here emboldened - the mother of John and James coming up to Jesus - is the passage which immediately precedes the 'additional narrative' found in Clement's letter in the gospel of Mark.  This testimony is reconfirmed by an anonymous testimony On Baptism which dates from the same period.

The reality is that there are multiple testimonies associated with a certain 'Mark' who was a mystagogue, who was a gnostic, who established a secret baptism rooted in a variant gospel which associated that rite with Mark chapter 10.  Even though I was roundly criticized by Birger Pearson for claiming it in my book five years ago, I still stand by my assertion that the evidence clearly points now to 'Mark the heretical mystagogue' as the author of 'secret Mark.'  Irenaeus's identification of the sect associated with Mark living on in the second century says nothing about when Mark actually lived.  The author of the Philosophumena, referencing the same material just cited says that contemporary Marcosians living in his day continue to 'deny' that they engage in such rites - the very advice that Clement gives to Theodore with respect to the secret gospel.

The idea then that both Clement and Sabas were associated with a secret tradition ultimately linked with St Mark himself is not as crazy as it sounds.  Such crypto-faiths have always existed and continue to exist to this day.  As one noted observer writes on the original material in Against Heresies:

Here then we should note that Irenaeus is not describing the founding teacher of a philosophical school (διαδοξή) but a figure comparable with Alexander the hierophant and prophet described by Lucian ... Marcus is the ἕξαρχος of a mystery cult involving an initiation rite (μυσταγωγία) ...We have, furthermore, already seen how Irenaeus attributed to Marcus a variety of followers, when in fact he was describing a variety of cults, practicing different forms of initiation such as baptism or the sacrament of the Bridalchamber, but devoted to the same quest for ἕνωσις with the spiritual and eternal order in order to obtain ἀφθαρσια. [Allen Brent, Ignatius of Antioch and the Second Sophistic p. 108]

I simply don't understand the obtuseness of scholars.  How don't all the individual piece of evidence in favor of the Letter to Theodore's authenticity added up to a likelihood of authenticity?  The answer you get from most of them - Morton Smith was a strange guy.

My response to that reckless ad hominem is - aren't you guys too old for playground gossip?  Aren't you demonstrating yourselves to be just as weird spinning your cobwebs, writing books that no one outside of your immediate circle will ever read, resisting a tide of circumstantial evidence for authenticity which is far stronger than anything to the contrary.  The letter sounds Clementine.  The gospel fragment reads Markan.  The idea of finding a 'Marcosian' text in a monastery founded by someone associated with similar 'Marcosian' doctrines is now hardly surprising.  All that remains is your intransigence.  Could it be that it all comes down to simply the basest of human emotions - jealousy?  That all Morton Smith's hard work paid off.  That he discovered something that people actually might care about, which shatters all the idiotic and hopelessly misguided works that the rest of you worked so hard to establish but have since fallen on deaf ears.

As a collective resistance effort you can continue to ignore the text with good conscience.  I am sure that many of your colleagues pat you on the back for your stubbornness.  But I tell you, some time soon - sooner than may of you may suspect - this silly 'academic boycott' of yours with respect to the greatest discovery of the last century will make you look much like the fools you really are.

UPDATE - Roger Pearse has uncovered the original French translations of the text by Hebbelynck here.  Not surprisingly the translator makes mention of Clement's interest in the episemon but not the Marcosians.

The text exists in Greek and was translated into German by De Gruyter.  Here is a review of that book http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2008/2008-08-06.html  The author makes reference to the Marcosian connection http://books.google.com/books?id=nEAaSOIRnx8C&pg=PA83&dq=%22greifen+neben+rechtgl%C3%A4ubigen%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=YPhkUZvPKaSgiAKRzoFg&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22greifen%20neben%20rechtgl%C3%A4ubigen%22&f=false as well as noting that the author is identified as a 'mystagogue.'

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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