Saturday, December 16, 2017

How Dog Breeding is Like the Creation of the Four Canonical Gospels

That however, which is now investigated is the tetrad ... So far therefore as it is called animal itself, it is the monad of the nature of all animals, intellectual, vital, and corporeal; but so far as it comprehends at the same time the male and female nature, it is a duad; for these subsist in an appropriate manner in all the orders of animals, in one way in the gods, in another in daemons, and in another in mortals; but so far as from this duad, it gives subsistence to the four ideas of animals in itself, it is a tetrad; for the fourfold fabrication of things proceeds according to these ideas, and the first productive cause of wholes is the tetrad. Plato therefore teaching this tetradic power of the paradigm, and the most unical ideas of mundane natures, says, that they are four, comprehended in one animal itself. For there is one idea there, animal itself; and there is also a duad, viz. the female and the male ... [t]here is also a tetrad; and as far as to this, intelligible forms proceed into other productive principles according to a different number ... For there the tetrad subsists proceeding from the intelligible monad, and filling the demiurgic decad. For "divine number," according to the Pythagorean hymn upon it, "proceeds from the retreats of the undecaying monad, till it arrives at the divine tetrad, which produces the mother of all things, the universal recipient, venerable, placing a boundary about all things, undeviating and unwearied, which both immortal gods and earth-born men call the sacred decad." [Proclus on the Plato of Timaeus]
'Have you read the gospels?' It sounds on the surface like there are many witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ.  At least, that's what you think until you dig a little deeper.  Most scholars, people who have spent a long time studying these sources, have concluded that the gospels of Matthew and Luke derive their origins from the gospel of Mark.

Of course given the fact that scholars are a mostly reserved lot, they present this evidence in a humdrum manner.  They try and frame the situation as one of 'borrowing' rather than really what is or what it would be called if one of their students named 'Matthew' or 'Luke' submitted a paper which as many verbatim or near verbatim sounding passages from a paper they already submitted paper from another student named Mark - namely plagiarism.

Scholars tend to get caught up in the microcosmic relationship between these forgeries rather than what I take to be the much more fascinating situation in the 'big picture.'  Why were the two forgeries, the close-to-original source material and another gospel which bears very little resemblance to the other three, bundled together as the single true gospel of the Christian religion?  It is by far one of the most bizarre things that ever happened in the history of literature.

It makes sense that the Harry Potter series would be bundled as a 'one narrative.' The same holds true of any number of other authors who take a main character and tell his story in a chronological or near chronological series of books.  But why would Matthew, Mark and Luke have been bundled together given their obvious bond in forgery?

Perhaps the simple answer is that as forgeries they often record near verbatim accounts of the same incidents.  Having more than one record clearly helps reinforce that there is one underlying truth - even if this effect was accomplished through literary copying.  You see new mothers and infatuated lovers showing their friends picture after picture of the same person even if it was from the same camera taken at the same time and on the same day.

The Gospel of Luke quite clearly makes explicit that he has in his possession earlier literary reports that he used to manufacture his narrative.  Nevertheless it does seem odd that - at least to me - that we have ended up canonizing a bundled truth like our four canonical gospels.  We rarely end up with four winners standing together on a podium at the Olympics.  It would seem strange for a woman to profess her love for four men as 'her only' beloveds.

We have come to expect what we might call a 'monarchian' truth in the real world.

In most religions then it is - one God, one book and one individual who knows the truth and saves the world.  In Christianity you have the one God and the one savior but in the end what appears to be a secondary or derivative collection of witnesses to the greatness of that story.  Why wasn't Matthew satisfied with Mark's account?  Why did he feel free to add to his predecessor's story?  The standard answer is that Mark was too short and Matthew and Luke wanted to 'fill in the gaps' which they saw in his information.  I don't find that answer very satisfactory for a number of reasons, most obviously that they filled their books with a lot of rubbish.

The most obvious example of this tendency to add unreliable bits of information is the birth narrative.  Sure we want to know more about Jesus's background but he clearly wasn't born through a Virgin Birth.  Another plainly useless addition to the Markan narrative is the conclusion.  There never has a resurrection and the addition of plainly incredible stories like this to the original narrative only serves to question the reliability of the other less spectacular bits of information added to the derivative gospels.

On the one hand the fact Matthew and Luke wanted to add wholly nonsensical stories involving angels and other supernatural things makes it unlikely that any reasonable person should want to bundle them together with Mark.  Nevertheless the gospel of Mark on its own - with its rather sudden opening and closing narratives - hardly justifies the creation of a new religion.  To that end once you explain that who Jesus was and what happened to him when he died, you pave the way for a ritualized veneration of this remarkable individual.

Yet as satisfying as this explanation it doesn't completely explain why it took exactly four gospels to complete the Christian religion.  Why if the literary critics of the Church wanted a new beginning and ending didn't they simply expand Mark and canonize the longer new gospel?  Clearly early Christians used and liked so-called 'gospel harmonies.'  What about a canonical set of four often contradictory gospels as source material for a single 'patchwork' narrative seemed preferable to the Fathers of the Catholic Church?

It is only when you start thinking about the question of why four should be preferable to one that you end up in some rather unexpected places - answers that make you question traditional assumptions about why the canonical gospels were published as a set.  For while 'one' is a holy number - it is, as the modern song suggests, the loneliest number.  Ancient mystics noted that one was not a productive number.  Productivity begins with a binary pair and so one leads to two and two can lead either to three, by addition, and four by multiplication.  And since multiplication was understood to be embodiment of productivity, four was in many ways considered to be the most sacred of numbers.

Before I hear the uninformed moan about the 'useless' nature of such 'speculation' the facts are that we have to first acknowledge that the first individual to mention the sanctity of the canon of four gospels also report the pervasiveness of the veneration of the number four in pre-existent Christian communities.  Indeed Irenaeus, long before he unveils his 'holy four' collection goes out of his way to tell us that the 'heretics' imagine that there was a cosmic significance to the number four.  The Cosmic Four our sprang forth out of the Holy One after the speculation of the ancient philosopher Pythagoras.

Indeed it wasn't just the earliest Christians but the even earlier Jews of Alexandria and elsewhere likely who saw deep significance in numerology.  The Pentateuch was filled with numerological significance because the universe itself was coded with numbers.  There were numbers in heaven not merely in terms of the layers in heaven - seven - but also in the very fabric of creation.

So the question becomes is it a coincidence that Irenaeus, while reporting to us that all those who came before him understood a Cosmic Four or 'Tetrad' in heaven goes on to add that - oh by the way, the correct number of gospels is four too.  This question has never before been asked or at least examined in any sustained manner.  Nevertheless if you look carefully at his wording as he unveils his Literary Four or quarternion, he looks to the cosmos to justify its correctness.  There are four winds, four corners of the map, four beings around the chariot of the Creator - so should there be four gospels.

Indeed he goes one step further and uses the very Cosmic Four, the Tetrad, as an effective tool against those who believe in the 'hocus pocus' of the Cosmic Tetrad.  He speaks the language of the very gnostics he criticizes.  There are four types of heretics - the Ebionites, Adoptionists, Marcionites and Valentinians each of which 'miraculously' conform to the preordained correctness of the four canonical gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).  This can't be coincidence, he declares, presumably alluding to the fact that God knew ahead of time that there would be four principal heresies which Irenaeus's dutifully collected in his tome Against the False Gnostics.

But if Irenaeus manufactured a treatise which recognized the correctness of the Four, what exactly is admonishing the 'false gnostics' for doing?  The overly simplistic answer that is sometimes current among scholars of early Christianity is that Irenaeus was suggesting that knowledge about God is absolutely impossible outside a rigidly defined creed.  This is not what Irenaeus believed.  Indeed there are numerous points in his book where Irenaeus 'lets out' that he is a mystic - for instance when he faults the gnostics for using the Greek name of Jesus to venerate the ogdoad.

The truth is that the name Jesus has to be preserved in Hebrew, he declares.  There is a mystery here in that each letter is an acronym for a phrase from the Pentateuch. Unfortunately for those of us trying to make sense of Irenaeus what he wrote after making this unusual point is now lost to us or better preserved in a fragmentary form - the scribes that came after him simply couldn't follow his argument because they didn't speak or write in Hebrew.  So we are left with a bunch of literary gibberish every time Irenaeus profess the superiority of Hebrew in the surviving Latin translation.

Yet the underlying distinction is made - even if it is rarely appreciated.  Irenaeus's isn't saying that it is heresy to speculate about numbers.  Irenaeus does this all the time and thinks it to be 'cool.'  His main beef is that the false gnostics engage in numerology based on the Greek text of the Bible which 'isn't cool' as Greek is not a holy language while the mother tongue of the ancient Israelites is.

To this end, it must be declared that when Irenaeus criticized the 'false gnostics' he was doing so on the basis that their speculations were modern inventions of individuals working in a profane language - Greek.  The first gospel was according him, the gospel of Matthew, it was originally written not surprisingly in Hebrew.  As such it should not at all be surprising that when he looks to the reason why the correct number of gospels was pre-ordained to be four, he mostly draws from examples four in the Hebrew scriptures.  Of course it was common 'scientific' knowledge at the time that the 'four elements,' the stoicheia as they were called in Greek - air, water, fire and earth - were the building blocks of all things.  So too was it with his four canonical gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In other words, it is not at all incredible to suggest that Irenaeus would have set out to create or build a canon of four gospels which together were 'the holy gospel' because of a pre-existent notion in Christianity that four was a sacred number.  At its most basic the followers of a 'false gnostic' named Mark simply said in the Jewish fashion that numbers were code to the universe and a Cosmic Four - the Tetrad - existed in heaven.  Yet there were Valentinians who argued that in fact there were two Tetrads that made a cosmic eight.  Irenaeus didn't like one group who emphasized the number eight so he spent time criticizing these men.  Similarly there was another group who argued that gospel told the story of the formation of Jesus Christ as a coming together of four elements after Jesus's baptism.  He didn't care too much for them either.

Yet the fact that there were so many groups and individuals who were obsessed with the number four before the unveiling of Irenaeus's gospel of four it makes it very difficult to argue against the idea that he conformed the shape of his canon to the very enemies he claimed to despised.  As such, it is a misrepresentation to argue that Catholicism, the tradition associated with Irenaeus was a complete break from the gnostic past.  Indeed it is was undeniable that when the Greek text of the Pentateuch describes Moses's encounter with the divinity they present him as a gnostic.  Irenaeus's emphasizing the existence of 'false gnostics' in the modern age necessarily assumed that there were also 'true gnostics' lurking in the past.  The world had just lost its way and were now following charlatans pretending to be heirs of a glorious past.

So then we arrive at a most preposterous conclusion about the formation of the Catholic canon.  Irenaeus presented Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a kind of cosmic literary DNA - stoicheia if you will - the air, water, earth and fire - of all the other gospels which were floating around the world causing havoc in the Church.  The way Irenaeus speaks about these texts and their relation to the false gnostics before him makes it clear that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John hadn't yet been known to the world in their true, idealized form.  They were in the hands of individual heretics as individual texts, the Ebionites using a bastardized copy of Matthew, the Adoptionists a poor copy of Mark, the Marcionites Luke and so on.  But now at the dawn - or perhaps the close - of an extended period of glory for the Church, Irenaeus had isolated the pure isotope of each of the four textual stoicheia and presented it to the Christian community in its pure, idealized form.

I know this is difficult for people to wrap their heads around because - quite frankly - it is so artificial and so obtuse.  Nevertheless I think that the great minds of the study of early Christianity assume a 'natural' or innocent origin to the canonical set.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are still envisioned as having 'grown' in an idealized 'literary garden of Eden' where devoted and sincere Christians plucked them out of their native soil in Italy, Greece or wherever they imagine these texts to have been cultivated.

Irenaeus stood very much in the stream of Middle Platonism.  To argue that all the heretics were 'influenced by Plato' and Irenaeus wasn't is simply foolish.  The truth is much more complex than that.  I would argue that Irenaeus wasn't as much preserving for us 'natural' texts but breeding idealized ones for us in the manner of the Platonic guardians in the Republic.  Just as Plato knew that the horses were bred and the idealized horse was realized through breeding so too were the true texts of the gospel rescued through a similar literary process.  Plato thinks that the principles which are observed in breeding animals should also be observed in breeding human beings. Hence he applies the terminology of the former to the latter.  Irenaeus, I would argue, applied Platonism to rescuing the gospel from the 'false gnostics.' 

Irenaeus never speaks of any group that faithfully preserved the four canonical gospels before him.  He speaks of the Roman church faithfully preserving an apostolic succession list for their community and nothing more. There is no pedigree for this 'pure set' after initiating his discussion of modern Christianity with a portrait of a world in shambles.  The texts just appear - almost from his own imagination - and then the sudden appearance of the idealized texts are used to combat the individual reference to 'passages' within the set collection by the 'false gnostics' who preceded him.  Irenaeus shines a light into a dark world like Diogenes, but the newness of the lantern he holds is what makes his appearance revolutionary.

I get tired of naive assumptions of modern scholarship about the origins of the canonical gospels.  They imagine the Church Fathers to be the precursors of the modern academic mostly because of their own lack of imagination.  With the danger of sounding disrespectful I can only present a personal story to demonstrate a similar lack of understanding of my own.

I remember when I got my first dog - a white (of course) Bichon Frise - that I assumed that her ancestors were white because that color helped them survive in the snowy mountain tops which must have been their original home.  Stupid me, dog breeding is the practice of mating selected dogs with the intent to maintain or produce specific qualities and characteristics.  This breeding relies on the science of genetics, so the breeder with a knowledge of canine genetics, health, and the intended use for the dogs attempts to breed suitable dogs.  As such Bichons were white simply because they were intended characteristics on the part of the original breeders.

Yet the assumptions of scholars with the respect to the canonical gospels is similarly naive.  We assume but Irenaeus never says, that he 'found' the canonical four.  The reason it is assumed that he stumbled upon them is because this is how texts are discovered by modern academics.  But Irenaeus wasn't a modern academic.  There is absolutely no evidence that he discovered or faithfully preserved a pre-existent collection.  In fact all signs point the other way.  Justin Martyr, a man he clearly portrays himself as following, used a single long 'gospel harmony' and not the canonical four.  Irenaeus doesn't even try to explain - or 'correct' - the discrepancy.

To this end, there is no proof either way, how it was that the canonical gospels came into the world.  But since Christ came miraculously, the same possibility should be extended to canonical four.  It seems entirely plausible that Irenaeus bred them as a set of four because 'fourness' was deemed or perceived to be a desirable characteristic.  Irenaeus wasn't practicing philology but husbandry when he isolated Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Already we see him decry 'additions' and 'subtractions' made to what we might call the 'gene pool' of each of the four stoicheia.  There should be no surprise to find out that he just turned around the process of what we might call the 'mongrelization' of the gospels.  This is after all the true sense or meaning of 'adultery' in the Ten Commandments.

Selective breeding was certainly practiced by the Romans and ancient societies before them.  Indeed Plato must have known this when he spoke about the 'horseness' of horses and the like. Perfect horses weren't understood to spring up from the mud of creation.  Ideal horses were bred which is why the Republic describes the guardians actively involving themselves in selective breeding.

As an 11th century Persian treatise notes "[t]he agriculturist selects his corn, letting grow as much as he requires, and tearing out the remainder.  The forester leaves those branches which he perceives to be excellent, whilst he cuts away all others. The bees kill those of their kind who only eat, but do not work in their beehive." This is how one gets back to the idealized 'form' behind 'that which emerges from the mud.'  This is what husbandry entails, this is certainly how Irenaeus arrived as his primal Tetrad of the gospel.

Irenaeus's purposes have always been misunderstood and so the attempt to reconcile the synoptics with a natural 'source' (Q) or with themselves is so misguided.  Irenaeus wasn't engaged in philology as much as husbandry.  As a neo-Platonist he was attempting to isolate the cosmic stoicheia behind all the mongrel gospels that were in the hands of the 'false gnostics.'  He by nature must have claimed to be the true gnostic, guiding the lost sheep through the valley of darkness.  Since the consensus seemed to be that a Primal Four existed before the world and the gospel was created so Irenaeus supposed to isolate a canonical set of four - the ideal primordial four - by pattern established by Plato in the Republic.

How was this accomplished?  The general understanding is already preserved in Against the False Gnostics.  All we need to do is add water.  As Irenaeus supposed that the 'false gnostics' used the art of the popular 'Homeocentones' to breed their literary monstrosities his methodology must have simply been to reverse the uncontrolled breeding process. Why else does Irenaeus - and later Tertullian from Irenaeus - take pains to argue that the false gnostics mischievously 'rearranged' the proper order?  The same accusation is found in Papias. The gospel 'sayings' are like stones which can be rearranged in different contexts in order to different meanings.  All Irenaeus had to do was 'isolate' the individual stones and return them back to their original context of the 'great mosaic' intended by the Creator.

Of course this was an inexact science.  Of course we can't take this effort very seriously.  He stood in a long line of pseudo-scientists and so-called polymaths which continues down to this day.  But we can't allow ourselves to keep perpetuating the party line that we operate under the assumption that the gospels developed as a result of natural selection - nature here meaning 'naive' or innocent patterns of textual development.  All signs point to the fact that when Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were bundled together it was a result of deliberate or 'unnatural' selection.  Someone - undoubtedly Irenaeus - wanted to find or isolate a tetrad of stoicheia behind the plethora of 'false gospels' ravaging the Christian world.  The result was the canonical four as a wholly unnatural, idealized literary typology.

The fourness of the canonical set was like the 'cuteness' of any modern breed - it was a desired rather than an unintentional consequence of the overall 'canonizational' effort.  The fourness was established from the outset and carried out to make a convincing end product.  The Christian world already believed in fourness and Irenaeus was going to give it to them.  It was the most natural outcome in the process of the commodification of Holy Writ.  Just as the gnostics like Valentinus expanded an incredible array of 'aeonic powers' in heaven from a primal 'Tetrad' and Mark words within words and sounds deriving from the same Cosmic Four, Irenaeus isolate our canonical gospels as a primal literary tetrad.

There is much we will never know about this possibility.  All that we know is that the pre-existent veneration of the holy 'fourness' must have assisted the reception of the fourfold gospel.  Why else was it 'fourfold'?  The apparent incompatibility of Irenaeus with such 'mystical mumbo jumbo' might  lead us to suspect that the entire construct was something of a literary Trojan Horse.  In other words, by dressing up his 'correction' of previous gospels in the adornment of 'fourness' the Church Father disguised his creation of new literary stoicheia.  It was the by a false 'fourness' that the naive and unsuspecting false gnostics were overcome as the new collection was designed to settle ongoing doctrinal disputes which had been ravaging the Church since the beginning.

But we should never forget, in order to attain eventual ecumenical union, Irenaeus still had to bow down before the altar of fourness.  Alongside the Tetrad of Valentinus and the Tetrad of Mark and a countless arrange of other 'false gnostics' was the 'true Tetrad' of the true gnostic Irenaeus.

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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