Monday, September 30, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Eleven]

Why the Persecution of 177 CE Failed

Christian baptism develops from the idea of Christ's image 'engraved' or 'sealed' on the initiate.  Its function is to direct the soul to become a sharer in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and therefore of making possible the sacramental work that this priesthood accomplishes.  The preferred terminology of Clement of Alexandria for this process is the Greek word charakter - which signifies to imprint, brand or print something.  In the later Church Fathers the preferred term is sphragis which means to imprint or seal something.  It is difficult to account for this difference unless as we will suggest here that the Catholic Church wanted to get away from the Markan obsession with being branded with an F.

Indeed Clement's citation of Pauline material often emphasizes Jesus as the charakter of the Father.  The text of the Letter to the Hebrews 1:3 in Alexandria declares the Son as "charakter of the glory of the Father."  As Bucur again notes from this passage "Clement of Alexandria identifies the Face of God mentioned in Matt 18:10 with Christ, the Logos; quite naturally, then, he identifies the Face of Matt 18:10 with the charakter of Heb 1:3 and the eikon (image) of Col 1:15."  In other words, while the Father can't be seen, Jesus represents his 'character.'  This can mean "figure" or "letter" but can also mean the thing impressing the figure or letter i.e. "engraver, graving tool, die, stamp or branding iron."

The reader should be aware that this is Jesus's only real purpose in early Alexandrian Christianity.  He is the one who imparts the 'character' of the Father upon human initiates.  To this end the fourth century Church Fathers of Alexandria reported that the Arians - the guardians of the traditional beliefs of St Mark - held that the Son was created as an 'instrument' (organon), in order to do the work that the Father gave him.  This understanding then of Jesus essentially being the branding iron, the one who does the work of impressing the image of the character which is hidden from the Greek alphabet - the F - explains why the Markan sect was undoubtedly able to absord the persecutions of 177 CE.  Rather than striking fear into the community, the act of branding them with the digamma only confirmed the mysteries of their secret baptism. 

The writings of Clement of Alexandria seem to confirm this understanding, criticizing those heretical martyrs 'who have rushed on death' at the end of the second century as "they banish themselves without being martyrs, even though they are punished publicly."  Why does Clement think it is not enough merely to confess a faith in Jesus Christ?  As notes immediately after the last statement:

For they do not preserve the charakter of believing martyrdom, inasmuch as they have not known the only true God, but give themselves up to a vain death, as the Gymnosophists of the Indians to useless fire. [Strom 4.4]

The point is that without being sealed with the secret baptism - the rite called 'redemption' where the charakter of the digamma is 'branded' into one's flesh - Clement does not believe that the individual can be saved.

As Clement confirms a little later, the purpose of baptism in the tradition of St Mark is to brand upon the skin the charakter of the glory of the Father:

I judge, the body as an image, by whose beauty he transports himself to the Artist, and to the true beauty; exhibiting the sacred symbol (symbolon agion), the bright charakter of righteousness to the angels that wait on the impression; I mean the unction (chrisma) of acceptance, the quality of disposition which resides in the soul that is gladdened by the communication of the Holy Spirit.

This initiation as described in the Letter to Theodore takes place behind a veil to hide "the glory to those who looked carnally" in the manner of Moses's experience on Mount Sinai.  The initiation takes place "after six days" because the charakter which is to be branded is the digamma or letter F. 

The purpose of this initiation of course is to become divine by impressing 'Jesus' onto one's person:

the individual man is branded (charakterizetai) according to the impression produced in the soul by the objects of his choice (airesetai).  Thus we say that Adam was perfect, as far as respects his formation; for none of the distinctive characteristics (charakterizonton) of the idea and form of man were wanting to him

Clement speaks of the initiate longing for - even desiring - the stauros or 'cross.'  We read in his Instructor that the initiate is the 'erastai of the horns of the unicorn' (Paed. - 17.1).  This reference has puzzled commentator for generations.  However if we look at similar passages in contemporary writers it becomes clear that the stauros was understood to have the shape of the  charakter or letter of Jesus.

Justin Martyr makes it very clear that a stauros is the pole upon which a beam is attached to nail the arms.  "Now, no one could say or prove that the horns of an unicorn represent any other fact or figure than the type which portrays the cross. For the one beam is placed upright, from which the highest extremity is raised up into a horn, when the other beam is fitted on to it, and the ends appear on both sides as horns joined on to the one horn."  He goes on to say that "the part which is fixed in the centre, on which are suspended those who are crucified, also stands out like a horn; and it also looks like a horn conjoined and fixed with the other horns."  In other words, the unicorn is the stauros - that is the main pole planted in the ground.

Irenaeus for his part imagines an X shaped object nailed onto a pole - "the very form of the cross, too, has five extremities, two in length, two in breadth, and one in the middle, on which [last] the person rests who is fixed by the nails."  Yet we should imagine that in the earliest conception the cross appeared as a staurogram.   Larry Hurtado notes that the staurogram - i.e. the combination of the Greek letters tau-rho -  creates an images of Jesus on the cross, making the staurogram the earliest Christian images of Jesus on the cross.  It was also a pre-Christian symbol being found on Herodian coins long before Christianity.

Larry Hurtado writes: “In time christograms came to be used not only in texts but as free-standing symbols of Christ or Christian faith, for example on liturgical vestments and church utensils. This was probably also true of the staurogram, tau-rho; where it would represent simply an independent symbol of Christ or Christian faith. But the earliest use of the tau-rho was as a visual reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. As such, it is the earliest surviving depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion."  Yet what we should see is that the tau-rho is not an allusion to the word “christos“.  Indeed, the letters have no relation to any terms in early Christian vocabulary.

Instead, the device (adapted from pre-Christian usage) seems to have served originally as a kind of pictographic representation of the crucified Jesus, the loop of the rho superimposed on the tau serving to depict the head of a figure on a cross.  The earliest Christians however seem to indicate that the central pole was understood as a charakter in its own right - i.e. 'the unicorn.'  As Tertullian notes - "but Christ was therein signified ... whose “horns” were to be the extremities of the cross. For even in a ship's yard— which is part of a cross— this is the name by which the extremities are called; while the central pole of the mast is a “unicorn.”  The parallel passage in Against Marcion Book Three reads "for of the antenna, which is a part of a cross, the ends are called horns; while the midway stake of the whole frame is the unicorn."

Once again we come back to the fact that Clement was really only talking about the central pole as the object of longing and desire of the gnostics.  Looking at the shape of tau-rho we see that the central beam had a 'horn' at the top (i.e. the 'loop' in a letter 'P').  But if we think of the shape three-dimensionally, the original central beam of the cross when considered as a single charakter is one and the same with the Hebrew letter vav.  Indeed there is a much easier way to get at the same understanding through Jewish sources.

When Genesis declares after Cain is thrown out of Eden that "Yahweh put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him." (Genesis 4:15)  An Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text of Genesis states the mark placed upon Cain was one of the letters of God's name YHWH placed on his face.  Genesis Rabbah, one of the earliest commentaries on this section of text with material dating back at least to the third century, says that "he made a horn grow out of his head."  This account is the most widely used explanation among the rabbinic traditions with Midrash Tanhuma saying "it is said a horn he [the Almighty] had fixed in his forehead" and having Cain's son Lamech mistake him for an animal and kill him. 

Yet the idea that it was one of the letters of the divine name and notion that it was a single horn are ultimately related to one another has been noted often times in the literature.  For the kabbalistic tradition makes clear that the letter was vav which appears as a horned letter:

the use of the unicorn's horn was symbolic. Just as the first animal to be sacrificed to God was a unicorn, so now the unicorn's horn was to be a sign that henceforth Cain's life was to be dedicated to God and was subject to His Will.  The horn is shaped like the Hebrew letter Vav, which is one of the letters in the Hebrew name for God." 

Indeed with reference to the consistent understanding of the Church Fathers that a 'horn' protruded out from the central pole of the stauros we can imagine that a skolops or 'horn' was attached to the top in order to impale the body of victim more firmly.  Not only does Gunmar Samuelsson's study of the terminology acknowledge the vagueness of the Biblical accounts, we should also remember how the speed of Jesus's death.  Pilate is surprised when he gets the news of his passing.  

The point now is that we can begin to see why the branding with the sixth letter of the alphabet in the persecutions of 177 CE had the opposite of the intended effect.  It did not frighten the Christians but apparently opened the flood gates for ambitious martyrs.   This is owing to the fact that the charakter at the heart of the redemption baptism of the Markan community was the sixth letter of the alphabet.  As the gospel of secret Mark notes:

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 thought him the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

This is likened by Clement to the seven veils that guard the Holy of Holies in the church of St Mark in Alexandria no less than the desert tabernacle of Moses.  According to the original understanding, God rested in the seventh heaven just as ancient Christians believed they were about to enter the seventh century as the calendar was turning to 6000 Anno Mundi. 

As Marvin Meyer once noted on an essay about Secret Mark six days might be understood "as symbolizing an appropriate time of preparation and purification before an experience of meeting the divine" pointing to the account of Moses on Mount Sinai.  Clement says as much in the Stromata noting that the gnostic is revelaed "as Moses, glorified in the face of the soul, as we have formerly said, the body bears the brand (charakteristikon) of the righteous soul."  He goes on to liken it to the process of dipping wool in different color pools, so the soul picks of the 'characteristic' of what it has contact with.

In the case of Moses, Clement declares that the effect of the experience on Sinai made his soul luminous owing to:

from his righteous conduct, and from his uninterrupted intercourse with God, who spoke to him, a kind of glorified hue settled on his face; so also a divine power of goodness clinging to the righteous soul in contemplation and in prophecy, and in the exercise of the function of governing, impresses on it something, as it were, of intellectual radiance, like the solar ray, as a visible sign of righteousness, uniting the soul with light, through unbroken love, which is God-bearing and God-borne. Thence assimilation to God the Saviour arises to the Gnostic, as far as permitted to human nature, he being made perfect 'as the Father who is in heaven.'

The experience of Moses - that of 'being a gnostic' and coming into contact with the character of the divinity is now being made available through the Christian community of St Mark. 

In these mysteries the soul of the righteous man, says Clement, has now been impressed with "a divine image, resembling God."  For Jesus "is the true Only-begotten, the express charakter of the glory of the universal King and Almighty Father, who impresses on the Gnostic the seal of the perfect contemplation, according to His own image; so that there is now a third divine image, made as far as possible like the Second Cause, the Essential Life, through which we live the true life; the Gnostic, as we regard him, being described as moving amid things sure and wholly immutable." This is why the secret gospel portrays a near naked disciple entering the bath with Jesus.  He needs to remove all his outer garments so as to receive the impression of his charakter in his soul like the high priest in the holy of holies of the temple or even Moses at Mount Sinai.3

Just as the two cherubs in the holy face one another "man to his brother" the idea of disciple and Jesus entering the waters echoes a consistent understanding in the writings of Clement.  Jesus will brand the initiate with his charakter.  This is understood by Clement to be echoed in many scriptures many of which are no longer in our canonical gospels.4   He is especially attracted to Hebrews 1:3 and its declaration that Jesus is "the charakter of the glory of the Father" which Clement explains as "the Son, who taught the truth respecting God, and expressed (charakterisanta) the fact that the Almighty is the one and only God and Father 'whom no man knoweth but the Son, and he to whom the Son shall reveal Him.' That God is one is intimated by those 'who seek the face of the God of Jacob;' whom being the only God, our Saviour and God characterizes (charakterizei) as the Good Father. And 'the generation of those that seek Him' is the elect race, devoted to inquiry after knowledge."

Indeed if anyone takes the time to read Clement's seven volume Stromata it will become apparent that the work itself is structured around the very veils that guard the Holy of Holies.  As A Souter explains the term Stromateis denotes "the striped or parti-coloured rug-case might, and probably often did, serve as a hanging or curtain for privacy."  Not surprisingly then in the last book in the seven volume series Clement comes closest to revealing the great mystery at the heart of the Markan community:

For by the service of what is best and most exalted, which is characterized (charakterizetai) by unity, it renders the Gnostic at once friend and son, having in truth grown "a perfect man, up to the measure of full stature."  Further, agreement in the same thing is consent. But what is the same is one. And friendship is consummated in likeness; the community lying in oneness. The Gnostic, consequently, in virtue of being a lover of the one true God, is the really perfect man and friend of God, and is placed in the rank of son. For these are names of nobility and knowledge, and perfection in the contemplation of God; which crowning step of advancement the gnostic soul receives, when it has become quite pure, reckoned worthy to behold everlastingly God Almighty, "face," it is said, "to face." For having become wholly spiritual, and having in the spiritual Church gone to what is of kindred nature, it abides in the rest of God. 

This is what is being vaguely alluded to in the secret gospel of Mark - the act of Jesus adopting his disciple as his brother and a son of the good Father.  

Perhaps the only place it is made more explicit is in the Excerpts from the writings of Theodotus which were preserved alongside those of Clement.  Here the naked experience of the high priest in the Holy of Holies is likened to Christian initiation again.  He pulls back the curtain and:

entered himself in silence (sige) with the Name branded (egrkecharagmenon) upon his heart, indicating the laying aside of the body which has become pure like the golden plate and bright through purification. . . the putting away as it were of the soul's body on which was branded (egkecharakto) the lustre of piety, by which he was recognized by the Principalities and Powers as, having put on the Name. 

This process begins with the initiate stripping himself of all his outer garments - "now he discards this body, the plate which had become light, within the rational sphere the second complete veil of the universe, at the altar of incense, that is, with the angels who are the ministers of prayers carried aloft."

Yet the nudity of the initiate priest is even more pronounced in what follows in Theodotus.  In the very next line we read:

Now the soul, made naked (gymne) by the power of him who has knowledge, as if it had become a body of the power, passes into the spiritual realm and becomes now truly rational and high priestly, so that it might now be animated, so to speak, directly by the Logos, just as the archangels became the high-priests of the angels, and the First-Created the high- priests of the archangels.

Theodotus continues to explain the process by which the soul is granted to see God 'face to face' through gnostic baptism.  He adds:

Thus, having transcended the angelic teaching and the Name taught in Scripture, it comes to the knowledge and comprehension of the facts. It is no longer a bride but has become a Logos and rests with the bridegroom together with the First-Called and First- Created, who are friends by love, sons by instruction and obedi ence, and brothers by community of origin. So that it belonged to the dispensation to wear the plate and to continue the pur suit of knowledge, but the work of power was that man becomes the bearer of God, being controlled directly by the Lord and becoming, as it were, his body.

Clement describes the same process in his Exhortation as "I become holy whilst I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant, and seals while illuminating him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be kept safe for ever."  

To this end we now know why the persecution in Lugdunum ultimately failed in its purpose to intimidate Christians.  Jesus was the 'sixth' charakter of the alphabet.  Branding Christian runaway slaves with an F to denote them as fugitivi only served to reinforce their convictions about the sanctity of their religion.  Just as Adam was created on the sixth day, Jesus was crucified in the sixth hour of the sixth day of the week.  As the early chronicler Theophilus of Edessa notes "upon the sixth day God made man, and man fell by sin ; so upon the sixth day of the sixth millenium of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world and saved man by his cross and by his resurrection."  Indeed as we have noted the living symbol of the 'sixthness' of Christ was cross with its 'unicorn' - the same mark which saved Cain from the divine wrath.  

What we shall argue now is that the persecutions of 177 CE drew the attention of the Imperial government to the secret doctrines of Christianity.  They couldn't understand why the branding of a fugitive would have such resonance within the community.  Irenaeus quickly filled in the void with an explanation which ultimately served to both marginalize the heretics and thrust his great Church founded on the firmest of 'apostolic traditions' firmly into the spotlight.  In the immediately aftermath of the events in Gaul then the transformation of Christianity from a fugitive religion to something which could be accommodated to the essentially fascist values of the Imperial court.  The fact that Irenaeus managed to pull this complete inversion of core Christian values forever reinforces his genius. 


3 Clement or the tradition of St Mark got this idea here from Philo "Now there are three ways in which a soul is made naked. One is when it continues without change and is barren of all vices, and has divested itself of all the passions and flung them away. ... What this means is this. The soul that loves God, having disrobed itself of the body and the objects dear to the body and fled abroad far away from these, gains a fixed and assured settlement in the perfect ordinances of virtue ... This is why the high priest shall not enter the Holy of Holies in his robe (Lev 16:l ff.), but laying aside the garment of opinions and impressions of the soul, and leaving it behind for those that love outward things and value semblance above reality, shall enter naked with no colored borders or sound of bells, to pour as a libation the blood of the soul and to offer as incense the whole mind of God our Savior and Benefactor.

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