Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Chapter Ten]

Branded With an F

Anything preserved in the name of Irenaeus is bound to be very confusing.  To say that the Church Father had 'very strong opinions' on matters of doctrine is a gross understatement.  There are also serious concerns about how faithfully his original lectures were preserved.  We are very fortunate however that we have access to the writings of Clement of Alexandria to guide us through the beliefs of the Markan heresy. As early as the end of the nineteenth century it was recognized that the writings of Mark the magician are cited almost verbatim in Clement's Sixth Book of the Stromata.1

More recently Bogdan Bucur, one of North America's preeminent authorities on Clement notes that "the same exegesis of Matt 18:10 occurs in Clement of Alexandria" and an earlier part of Irenaeus's report on the Markans.Bucur's explanation however is wholly implausible - namely that Clement was copying Irenaeus's account of the heresy.  There are at least fifty examples of things celebrated by Clement as 'orthodoxy' which are condemned as heresy by Irenaeus.  Many of these involve explicit reference to the heresy of Mark.  The fact that the strongest agreement exists with respect to a passage from an otherwise 'secret gospel of Mark' used by Clement and the Markans with relation to a second baptism rite makes Bucur's explanation totally unworkable.3

Much more plausible is the explanation of Roy J. Deferrari of the Catholic University of America when he writes "Clement knew and used the writings of Marcus."4   Along a similar line of thought William Smith and Henry Wace argue that a "similar use of the word [episemon] is found in Clement of Alexandria (Strom, vi. 16, p. 812) ; but this cannot be called a quite independent illustration, for on comparison of the sections just cited from Clement and from Irenaeus the coincidences are found to be such as to put it beyond doubt that Clement, in his account of the mysteries of the number 6, makes unacknowledged use of the same writings of Marcus as were employed by Irenaeus."5  Indeed the go one step further and point to Eusebius suggesting "as a way of reconciling the difference. between the evangelists as to whether onr Lord suffered at the third or the sixth hour, that a transcriber's error may have arisen from the likeness of Gamma and the Episemon, i.e. apparently r and F."

Yet can we really continue to go along with the notion that the Gospel of Mark now reads 'the third hour' instead of 'sixth hour' because of a mere 'accident'?  Isn't it more likely that the canonical Gospel of Mark was deliberately developed away from its original association with heresy?  The case of Clement's shared interest with the Markan sect with respect to the 'sixth' letter of the Greek alphabet only underscores the problem.  Mark's identity has been determined in modern scholars by what amounts to being falsified documents.  The original or true gospel of Mark has long since disappeared and so we neglect the ancient testimony to his 'Pythagorean' (= kabbalistic) interest simply because it doesn't fit what has been handed to down to us. 

It is enough to say that with respect to the mystical significance of being branded with an episemon or digamma (F) the doctrine completely transforms our understanding of the evangelist.  According to Irenaeus then this letter 'fled' from the assembly of letters in heaven only to be 'redeemed' with the coming of Jesus.  The 'disappearance' of the 'F' is attested by the fact that the episemon is not used in the Greek alphabet.  The redemption is manifest by Jesus's appearance in the world for Jesus is the original 'sixth letter' redivius.  Jesus redeems his own by having them branded with his sign.  This understanding then implies that from the very beginning of Christianity Mark understood Jesus to be centrally focused on fugitivi.

But how could this be so?  There is nothing in the gospel which seems to correspond to the idea of Jesus appealing his message to slaves.  Nevertheless it is important to note in Irenaeus's account of the Markans it is clear that their liturgy went back to an Aramaic source.  To this end the sixth letter of Hebrew alphabet is vav and there is a well establishment mystical association with this letter.   A. Dupont-Sommer in the middle of the last century discovered a thin metal place inscribed in Aramaic, in which Christ is given the name vav.There are many other representations of the vav appearing in Jesus's place in art as well as literature.6  Nevertheless there is still no apparent historical context that the earliest Christians could have found themselves branded with the sixth letter of the alphabet.  

It is important to remember that while the Hebrew alphabet retains the sixth letter almost all the words that begin with vav are foreign terms.  For instance the Latin word velum begins with a vav in Aramaic.  So too we must originally suppose for the name Vespasian when the Jews were living under his rule.It is well established that after the destruction of the temple the captured Jews were taken away as slaves. 

And now, since his soldiers were already quite tired with killing men, and yet there appeared to be a vast multitude still remaining alive, Caesar gave orders that they should kill none but those that were in arms, and opposed them, but should take the rest alive. But, together with those whom they had orders to slay, they slew the aged and the infirm; but for those that were in their flourishing age, and who might be useful to them, they drove them together into the temple, and shut them up within the walls of the court of the women; over which Caesar set one of his freed-men, as also Fronto, one of his own friends; which last was to determine every one's fate, according to his merits. So this Fronto slew all those that had been seditious and robbers, who were impeached one by another; but of the young men he chose out the tallest and most beautiful, and reserved them for the triumph; and as for the rest of the multitude that were above seventeen years old, he put them into bonds, and sent them to the Egyptian mines. 

Josephus gives the number of those that were carried captive during this war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand.  

It should be noted that those sent to the mines were first branded to ensure they would be easily recaptured if they escaped.  This is clear in a note from Suetonius from a slightly earlier period - "they were first disfigured by branding marks, and then he condemned them to the mines, to work on the roads, and to wild beast."  The idea also appears in relation to the Jews in a passage from John Chrysostom "the Emperor saw what they tried to do, cut off their ears, and left on their bodies this mark of their disobedience. He then had them led around everywhere, like runaway slaves and scoundrels, so all might see their mutilated bodies and always think twice before ever attempting such a revolt. 'Yet these things happened very long ago,' the Jews will say. But I tell you that the incident is well known to those of us who are somewhat on in years and are already old men."  

From the Jewish point of view this branding was contrary to an explicit biblical command (Leviticus, 19:28).  The same situation seems to have come up for Jews in the Hellenistic period in the document 3 Maccabees where Ptolemy IV wanted to brand them with a royal sign of recognition or 'karakter' of the kind that was impressed on the bodies of slaves and war captives.  As Aryeh Kasher note there exists a papyrus dating from the start of the Ptolemaic period "dealing with sailors marked with the royal brand and with ways of recovering them if they fled. That the men were slaves or war captives employed as royal sailors and consequently branded with the king's brand was proven by those scholars, who also recalled the testimony in 3 Maccabees (II 20). The branding was usually done with a hot iron, to criminals as well as slaves and war captives."   

If then we suppose that the captured Jews from the rebellion of 70 CE were branded with a symbol one would think that it must have been a Roman V as it was the first letter in the name Vespasian.  Vespasian after all was now the Emperor and the captives were presumably his property.  It was well established in antiquity that the letters F and V were the Latin representatives of the digamma.  The digamma, the Latin V and the Hebrew vav all originally represented the vowel W sound.  In a famous passage Dionysius of Halicarnassus  describes the digamma and explicitly declares, that it was the syllable ou written in a single letter, giving as an example in Greek Ouelia (Felia) the Latin Velia. The name Vespasian is similarly transposed into Greek i.e. 'Ouespasian.'7

To this end we may suppose that long before the persecutions of 177 CE there was a mystical understanding - undoubtedly rooted in the apostle's Letter to the Galatians - were his having been branded with the stigma of Christ was likely understood to relate to the circumstance of the Jewish revolt.8  "You see these big letters" (Galatians 6:11) and "I bear the mark of Jesus branded on my body" (Galatians 6:14)  We may argue that the implication of such branding to fugitive slaves was already recognized in the parable of the lost sheep, already branded with the same stigma, and restored to its original owner after 'wandering' or 'frisking' away.9

The idea then that Christianity begins with the reality of the surviving Jewish priesthood having been branded - and thus rendered impure by the old law of Moses.  What does this mean for the Jewish people?  Arguably Mark originally developed an interest in the symbolic value of the sixth letter as a symbol for Jesus in order to restart a 'new covenant' which discarded the old legal restrictions.  We can see this mystical interest in the sixth letter in both the report on the Markan sect in Irenaeus and the writings of Clement of Alexandria.  According to these sources the written world, the loss of the sixth letter represented a mystical principle foretelling the impending apocalypse that was to come.10  The Jews being branded with the sixth letter was reintroducing the principle which would transform the world.

We may even go so far as to suggest that the earliest Christian converts at the time of Mark were being told that by accepting this 'sixthness' on their body they were imitating what was happening in the world around them. Jesus 'the six' was coming into the world that existed for ages without him.  His return would shake up the order of the universe.  This was mystically referenced in the Gospel of Mark by his followers who are recorded as confirming the evangelist:
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 the sixth in which character He descended and was contained in the seventh, since He was the illustrious eighth and contained in Himself the entire number of the elements … 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 Mind, 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.

This very understanding among the heretical followers of Mark is again confirmed to be present in the writings of Clement of Alexandria who notes that:

the Lord, who ascended the mountain, the fourth, becomes the sixth, and is illuminated all round with spiritual light, by laying bare the power proceeding from Him, as far as those selected to see were able to behold it, by the Seventh, the Voice, proclaimed to be the Son of God; in order that they, persuaded respecting Him, might have rest; while He by His birth, which was indicated by the sixth conspicuously marked, becoming the eighth, might appear to be God in a body of flesh, by displaying His power, being numbered indeed as a man, but being concealed as to who He was. For six is reckoned in the order of numbers, but the succession of the letters acknowledges the character which is not written. In this case, in the numbers themselves, each unit is preserved in its order up to seven and eight. But in the number of the characters, Zeta becomes six and Eta seven.

The mystical underpinning to the gospel is even more evident in the important passage from Mark’s secret gospel referenced in the Letter to Theodore where Jesus baptizes the disciple he loved ‘after six days’ manifesting the very same pattern.  

Yet a careful examination of the evidence reveals that Clement’s Markan tradition inherited these very same ideas from the Jewish sectarians known to Philo of Alexandria.  Philo preserves the ideas contained in the last cited words of Clement albeit now in association with a heretical group that apparently connected the loss of the sixth letter apparently with the end of the world:

some of those persons who have (in the past) fancied that the world is everlasting (but now don't), inventing a variety of new arguments, employ also such a system of reasoning as this to establish their point: they affirm that there are four principal manners in which corruption is brought about, addition, taking away, transposition, and alteration; accordingly, the number two is by the addition of the unit corrupted so as to become the number three, and no longer remains the number two; and the number four by the taking away of the unit is corrupted so as to become the number three; again, by transposition the letter Zeta becomes the letter Eta when the parallel lines which were previously horizontal (3/4 3/4) are placed perpendicularly (1/2 1/2), and when the line which did before pass upwards, so as to connect the two is now made horizontal, and still extended between them so as to join them. And by alteration the word oinos, wine, becomes oxos, vinegar. 

So it is that Philo no less than Irenaeus is reluctant to explain the exact beliefs of the Markan heretics. Yet a careful reading of the passage reveals that it to is all about the re-integration of the 'fugitive principle' within the social order.  Someone here - apparently heretics - claim that the world is corruptible and soon to be destroyed because of the return of the number six.11

We should also pay special attention to Philo's report because it contains references to the sixth letter - i.e. F - which might escape the casual observer. He tells us for instance that wine turns into vinegar because of the transposition of their letters. Yet few people might recognize at first glance that the Greek word 'wine' once had a digamma in front of it - i.e. οἶνος or oinos was in former times spelt in Greek ϝοῖνος and pronounced woinos. This not surprisingly resembles the Latin vinum just like the Doric woikos (compare Attic oikos) or "house" is universally regarded as being related to the Latin vīcus or "village."

The same idea certainly manifested itself in the understanding that the earth would only exist in its present form for 6000 years from Creation. The Marcionites provide the clearest understanding that they associated this 6000 year with Jesus coming down from heaven during the reign of Tiberius. This superstition never entirely left Christianity - it was only postponed. There is evidence to suggest that in Alexandria the 6000 benchmark was understood to coincide with the end of the second century. The Catholic Church seems to have hit the reset button yet again so that another large scale panic occurred toward the end of the fourth century. The pattern continued well into the rule of Charlesmagne with each successive generation of 'ruling authorities' hitting the 'snooze button' before mass panic and revolution ensue.12

We suppose then that long before the persecutions of 177 CE the symbol of being branded with the sixth letter of the alphabet had great symbolic meaning.  The fact that the victims at Lugdunum and Vienne were suffering the very same cruelty at the end of Marcus Aurelius's reign only seemed to confirm what the community had long suspect - the end times were near.  Why else would God have branded us with this mystical symbol?  Rather than weaken their resolve, the brutality shown to the Christians in the Rhone valley only strengthened their belief that the Lord was establishing a sign with them.  Many believed that they needed to press on and fight even harder, right to the end in order to secure their place in the hereafter. 


5 , La doctrine gnostique de la lettre waw, Paris 1 946,
6 The Sibylline Oraclesm call the cross o^gayi? emormog, "illustrious seal", but ejuor|uoc; is also the Greek name for the letter F, which could therefore indicate Jesus "But for all mortals then, Shall there a sign be, a distinguished seal, The Wood among believers, and the horn Fondly desired, the life of pious men, But it shall be stumbling block of the world.  Giving illumination to the elect, By water in twelve springs; and there shall rule, A shepherding iron rod."

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