Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Fourth Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ

In Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth’ Bart Ehrman sums up what is for him the clinching argument in favor of Jesus being a historical person – “every single source that mentions Jesus up until the eighteenth century assumes that [Jesus] actually existed.” It would seem to settle the issue of Jesus’s historicity once and for all. The majority of religious scholars certainly believe that Jesus was an actual person of the flesh. What more is there to contest? In fact Ehrman implies that to doubt the existence of Jesus is akin to rejecting evidence for the Holocaust or thinking the world is flat. Who would want to be put in that circle of people?

Nevertheless we should take a careful look at the people deciding on the identity of Jesus. Let’s face it these are middle aged white people, most of whom happen to be men. These Anglo-American academics pretty much come from the same Protestant background as Bart Ehrman. What they call ‘rational discourse’ pretty much boils down to common sense. And in the end it ‘just makes more sense’ to believe that Jesus was a man who was so dearly loved his followers transformed him into a god.

These assumptions are of course Protestant assumptions through and through. The fact that Protestants suppose at times that they are the only grownups in the room with respect to believers of other Christian faiths does not make them right - it just makes them appear smug. The facts remain that the first people to organize a canon of Christian scripture did so according to the belief that Jesus was all divine. There is simply no way of getting around this fact.

Indeed, if we are going take this challenge seriously we should take a second look at the original question raised by Ehrman. A man of such talents should be well aware of the etymological implications of his book’s central question ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ The word ‘existence’ does not simply denote that something has ‘being’ but quite specifically that it ‘came into being’ at a certain point in history and will also go away at another point in history. This is the real implications of the term ‘existence’ which Ehrman seems to ignore.

It is very difficult to properly apply the specific term ‘existence’ or existentia to God. Jewish mystics from the earliest period have thus went out of their way to avoid speaking of the ultimate source for all things as having ‘existence.’ The Hebrew terminology reserved for the ultimate God of the universe is eino which means in fact - ‘not being.’ For the truly pious Jesus God does not exist. God is not a thing, a being, a noun. It does not exist, as existence is defined, for It takes up no space and is not bound by time. Jewish mystics often refer to It as Ein Sof, which means Endlessness. Ein Sof cannot be conceptualized in any way. Indeed when we start to really investigate the divinity of Jesus in earnest we will likely find ourselves uttering the wily enigmas of President Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearing - “it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.”

The important point for our investigation is that we have found in Clement of Alexandria a person who did not believe that Jesus was a historical man. Indeed Clement clearly and unmistakably speaks about Jesus as being present in various narratives in the Pentateuch. Our Jesus was ‘there’ with Abraham promising his descendants their reward. Our Jesus was ‘there’ when Jacob had his vision of the divine presence on the ladder. Our Jesus was ‘there’ with Moses in the burning bush. Indeed to Ehrman’s point, if you were to define Jesus’s ‘existence’ merely by his presumed physical birth and his alleged supernatural death, you’d have no one outside of America agreeing to this definition.

Indeed Clement knew that the real name of Jesus was used in the Greek translation of the burning bush narrative - he is ‘the Being’ or ho on. These mythical truth preserved from the ancient mysteries of Alexandria do not figure into Ehrman’s book because they are not a part of the fabric of his religious experience. They are utterly alien to those who, like Ehrman, grew up in a thoroughly demystified Protestant culture. Nevertheless as we shall soon see, our silly inherited religious beliefs have nothing to do with the ‘eighteen hundred years’ of Christian thought to which Ehrman makes his original appeal.

Indeed Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski in his book Clement of Alexandria on Trial notes that “the person that appeared 'in flesh' as Jesus, was a lesser (τὸν ἥττονα) being, a sort of power of God (δύναμίς τις τοῦ θεοῦ), which in turn became a human mind (νοῦς γενόμενος) and penetrated or inhabited the hearts of men such as the prophets.” Indeed we can take that one step further. The reality is that Clement did not believe that Jesus was human being at all but that he was the simply that divine power who visited the prophets and had now returned to humanity to bring them the gift of divinity. This is the very purpose for which the ‘Secret Gospel of Mark’ was written.

So it is that in order for us to understand the Jesus of the ancient Alexandrian Church we have to stop speaking of him as having any ‘existence’ at all. We may only refer to him as ‘the Being.’ Indeed when we look at the living mystery religion which still takes place in the ancient and specifically non-American churches of the world we can see Jesus’s essence as the Being played out each Sunday. They sing ‘taste and see that the Lord is sweet’ as they partake in his essence. They receive his likeness of God at baptism. This is all Jesus ever was for Christianity. Jesus the man who only lives in actual history - the Jesus of Bart Ehrman - is a modern myth that has no place in the true traditions of the Church.

Indeed it is only with the discovery of Clement’s letter at the Mar Saba document that we get a glimpse not only of how the early Alexandrian Church viewed Jesus but also how they demonized the ‘heretics’ who held that Jesus was only a man. These ‘man-lovers’ were identified as the ‘carnal’ in the writings of Plato and St. Paul. Indeed the very embodiment of this error was identified by the Carpocratians. This sect may have used Secret Mark but they who interpreted it ‘according to human expectations (doxas)’ and ‘the expectation (doxa) of the flesh.’

What does Clement mean by this Greek term doxa or ‘expectation’? As we will demonstrate in this chapter, he is specifically telling us that Plato and St Paul teach that those like the Carpocratians were guilty of refashioning Jesus the god into a ‘corruptible man’ because they themselves were carnal ‘man-lovers’ – i.e. that they were unable to control their homosexual urges.

Of course not even Bart Ehrman’s most hostile critic would accuse him of only being able to see Jesus as a man because he was a closeted gay man. Yet this is the import of Clement of Alexandria’s argument in the Letter to Theodore. He reports that the Carpocratian interpretation of a particularly significant passage in Secret Mark was that it depicted ‘naked man with naked man’ – that is Jesus and a chosen disciple united in love. Yet Clement condemns that understanding and attributes the error of the Carpocratians as resulting from their carnality. The real Jesus of the Alexandrian mysteries was not a man but God. Those who claimed otherwise were merely falling away from the truth, wandering from “the narrow road of the commandments into a boundless abyss of the carnal and bodily sins.”

How can this understanding put forward by Clement of Alexandria be explained? We have to begin with the origin of the Carpocratian sect. It is one of the many curiosities of the Alexandrian tradition. Clement seems absolutely obsessed with the Carpocratians while his student Origen can confidently say that he never met a Carpocratian. How is this possible? Scholars of course take it all in stride. After all, in the boring world of Patristic scholarship this orgy-partaking group of homosexuals certainly liven things up. It is perhaps for this reason that the Carpocratians get a pass from many academics. Yet those really interested in the truth have to ask the question - how can we explain the sudden disappearance of the Carpocratians? Or perhaps better yet – was there ever a Carpocratian sect?

At least a few scholars have inferred that Carpocratians never existed. Yet this should hardly be surprising. After all it was for science that the Carpocratians found their way into the heretical compendiums of the third and fourth centuries. These books were written to scare the living daylights out of people. The Carpocratians represent nothing more than a caricature of ‘the kind of people’ who used Secret Mark. It is as simple as that. Indeed one can make a convincing case that Clement’s interest in this group had less to do with actually familiarity with sect members as it did answering popular contemporary misconceptions about Christians.

The myth of the Carpocratians epitomizes the fabulous nature of most reports about heretical groups. The facts are that all scholars know that most of our knowledge about ‘alternative forms’ of Christianity in the ancient world is simply unreliable. It is about as certain as developing an understanding of post-modern America from watching episodes of the Simpsons. The derision the famous Dutch New Testament scholar Daniel Plooij heaps upon the fourth century ‘heresiologist’ Epiphanius of Salamis seems particularly appropriate criticism for all his predecessors – “he combines all kinds of notices, rumors, and calumnies into abracadabra often completely incomprehensible."

The only reason that we have some hope of figuring our way through the ancient literary labyrinth associated with the Carpocratians is that we have Celsus of Rome to guide our efforts. Celsus was a pagan who wrote a profoundly influential anti-Christian treatise called the True Word in the middle of the second century. He happens to have mentioned a group called ‘the Harpocratians of Salome’ which certainly represents the germinal seed from which Clement’s ‘Carpocratians’ developed. Yet Clement clearly used another source too, a strange but ubiquitous Christian chronicle called the Memoirs which were written under a corrupt form of the name of Josephus (= Hegesippus).

Celsus’s report about the ‘Harpocratians’ certainly made its way into these Memoirs and Clement makes reference to reading the text at the beginning of one of his works. Clement was also very familiar with Celsus’s anti-Christian polemic. The important thing for us to remember is that these are not two independent reports about the same sect but instead represent little more than a surprisingly bad game of Chinese whispers. It isn’t just that the original name of the group gets mangled. The author of the Memoirs seems to have attempted to embellish Celsus’s original report with plenty of sex, drugs and magic.

So why does Clement go along with the existence of the Carpocratians? The Carpocratians clearly a caricature of the Alexandrian Christianity transplanted on to Roman soil. Everything about the description suggests an Egyptian origin for the group down to Clement explanation for how ‘Carpocrates’ the founder of the sect got his hand on the gospel:

since the foul demons are always devising destruction for the race of men, Carpocrates, instructed by them and using deceitful arts, so enslaved a certain presbyter of the church in Alexandria that he got from him a copy of the secret Gospel, which he both interpreted according to his blasphemous and carnal doxa and, moreover, polluted, mixing with the spotless and holy words utterly shameless lies. From this mixture is drawn off the teaching of the Carpocratians.

Clement presents the idea that Carpocrates used magic to obtain his copy of the secret gospel of Mark. This is clearly a tactical decision on Clement’s part. How does one explain why the Alexandrian gospel was in the hands of heretics? They forced us to give it to them.

The use of magical spells and incantations by this sect was already witnessed by the Memoirs and likely also appeared in Celsus’s original report. Yet we have to begin by acknowledging that this is more lies. Clement was too smart to believe that someone used magic to obtain a copy of the gospel. In order to make sense of Clement’s account we will have to engage in a little ‘reading between the lines.’ Many have wondered, what it was that Theodore originally asked Clement? No one has come up with a satisfactory answer other than it must on some level have had something to do with ‘what’s this I hear about another gospel of Mark in Alexandria?’

It shall be our assumption that Theodore didn’t specifically ask about Carpocratians per se. Whoever had given Theodore information about this gospel and its secret ritual involving ‘naked man with naked man’ was simply an Alexandrian or someone who had lived at Alexandria long enough to come into contact with Secret Mark. Clement’s answer drew from the myth of the Carpocratians as told by both Celsus and Hegesippus; it was a way of discounting whatever Theodore’s original source told him about the gospel and the tradition of Alexandria.

It has already been noted that Celsus’s identification of the ‘Harpocratians of Salome’ sounds like a sect associated with the Secret Gospel of Mark. Salome only appears in the Gospel of Mark and Secret Mark only expanded that interest in her. Moreover, it should also be said that already at the time Celsus and Hegesippus were writing the sect was said to be engaged in some sort of licentious or specifically homosexual initiation rite. Clement wrote the Letter to Theodore with this literary framework in mind.

Yet many scholars have found themselves utterly distracted by the whole question of a ‘gay church’ and a ‘gay gospel’ that they have failed to notice some of the deeper subtleties of Clement’s original argument. Clement, with his masterful command of the rhetoric cleverly intimates to his friend Theodore how it was that this group went astray with its interpretation of Secret Mark. Many people haven’t noticed it before because of the particularly cryptic manner in which Clement of Alexandria writes. However it should be noted that Clement’s real point is to explain how these heretics fell away from ‘the truth’ – i.e. of accepting Jesus as a god – to embrace the ‘lie’ of seeing him only as a man. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, God gave them up to their shameful lusts.

There is a skillful art to writing like a Church Father. It is very difficult to describe the style of writing to someone who has never struggled through this genre of literature. It is an understatement to say that Clement’s books are densely written. All the Church Fathers write in such a way that requires the readers to have memorized – or use Google search to know - all the key passages of the Bible and related literature. Yet Clement goes one step further and layers an unrivaled familiarity with the writings of Plato and other great philosophers, historians and rhetoricians of the Greeks. The kinds of people Clement must have been intimate with were seriously smart people.

It was because Clement interpreted the canon of New Testament writings by means of Jewish scripture and Greek philosophy that makes him such a difficult read. There just aren’t that many smart people around any longer. Clement also can’t be simply read in ‘one direction.’ The words on the page only tell half the story. The smart people that read his work already knew the context of any single line of scripture, any single line of Greek philosophy that he might cite at any given moment and because of this he deliberately left many things unsaid. He merely needed to utter a cluster of sentences and many of his readers would immediately ‘get’ what he was saying.

Pretty much everyone in the Church at the turn of the third century had read the caricature of the Carpocratians in the Memoirs. While the original work is now lost, Rev. Hugh J. Lawlor, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Dublin has demonstrated the Memoirs is often preserved verbatim in that fourth century heretical compendium of Epiphanius mentioned earlier. Here is the original account made reference to sexuality of the Carpocratians:

perform everything unspeakable and unlawful, which is not right to mention, and every kind of homosexual act and carnal intercourse with women, with every member of the body. They perform all magic, sorcery and idolatry, and say that this is the discharge of their debts in the body, so that they will not be charged with anything further or required to do anything else

If you read this account you can begin to see what Clement is talking about in the Letter to Theodore when he references the Carpocratians in the most disparaging ways. Yet we have yet to answer the most basic question - how could a homosexual rite have developed in early Christianity? Isn’t Christianity pretty specific about the crime of sodomy and same sex attraction?

Many readers might be surprised to learn how many times in Clement’s writings the topic of sexuality and homosexuality are addressed in particular. The conversation is so lively in many places that the translators simply wouldn’t translate it into English. Of course much of the stuff is really silly – Clement claims for instance that Moses prohibited the Israelites from eating hares because they had too much sex. We are also told that the hare also apparently only has bowel movements once a year “and has as many anuses as years it has lived.” Indeed Clement shocking concludes the prohibition against eating the hare in the Pentateuch is really a condemnation of pederasty

As strange as it might seem to readers, Clement’s silly discussions about the physiology of animals actually lead us to the Promised Land. We can actually begin to understand his attitude towards the Carpocratians by taking the time to read his views on the sexual habits of hyenas. Yes, you heard it right. The Carpocratians are understood to act like copulating hyenas. Indeed after spending a long time dispelling the myth that hyenas are hermaphrodites he says that:

because the hyena is of all animals the most sensual (σαρκικὴ), there is a knob of flesh underneath its tail, in front of the anus, closely resembling the female sex organ in shape. It is not a passage, I mean it serves no useful purpose, opening neither into the womb nor into the intestines. It has only a good-sized opening to permit an ineffective sexual act when the vagina is preparing for childbirth and is impenetrable. This [opening] is a characteristic of both male and female hyena, because of hyperactive abnormal sexuality; the male lies with the male so that it rarely approaches the female. For that reason, births are infrequent among hyenas, because they so freely sow their seed contrary to nature.

The reality is that some of what Clement says here is completely erroneous. Yet his observation are borne out by real science. Male hyenas have actually been proven to be highly sexual. One must guess that this must have been fairly obvious to outsiders. Nevertheless science has actually shown that what Clement thinks he saw here – an ‘extra hole’ created by nature to allow the horny hyenas hump is actually something of misunderstanding.

It turns out that certain alpha female hyenas receive so much extra hormones that it also causes female reproductive organs to grow quite a bit. Her clitoris, which contains the birthing canal, protrudes seven inches from her body. Researchers say that one must imagine giving birth through a penis. Because of the female's awkward genitalia, successful mating for hyenas is tricky to pull off. It takes careful positioning for the male to crouch behind her and somehow get his penis to point up and backwards to enter her clitoris. Moreover since the sons of alpha females are born hyper-aggressive, they start trying to mount females at just a few months old, giving them a better shot at sealing the deal later in life.

In order to understand Clement of Alexandria we need to imagine him watching these proceedings up close - close enough to have figured out that these hanging things were male members but a new ‘opening’ that developed on their hind portions – and developing an important theological idea related to the Bible. Probably to everyone’s surprise he relates the mating habits of hyenas to the contemporary male interest in having sex with young boys. He says in the line which immediately follows our last citation:

This is the reason, I believe, that Plato, in excoriating pederasty in Phaedrus, terms it bestiality and says that these libertines who have so surrendered to pleasure, "taking the bit in their own mouths, like brutish beasts rush on to enjoy and beget.” Such godless people "God has given over," the apostle says, "to shameful lusts. For the women change their natural use to that which is against nature, and in like manner the men, also, having abandoned the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men doing strange things, and receiving in themselves the fitting recompense for their perversity.”

The modern reader of course has no idea how Clement got to this idea or where he is going with it. Yet his ancient readership was certainly familiar with both texts and immediately saw what he was getting after just reading the words on the page.

Clement isn’t really interested in hares and hyenas. He is really engaging in a discussion about libertines – the very people being condemned in the Letter to Theodore. Yet it is critically significant to see that he filters his discussion through Plato and St. Paul. He is about to tell his reader that sexual nature leads to the change of both an individuals’ physiognomy and the perception of the world around him. The hyena’s ‘fleshly’ (σαρκικὴ) nature which in turn led to a ‘good size opening’ appeared on its body to allow for penetration by other males – “nature, in her diversity, has added this additional organ to accomodate their excessive sexual activity. Therefore, it is large enough for the service of the lusting organs, but its opening is obstructed within.” The same thing we will eventually be told with respect to the libertine Christians like the commonly identified ‘Carpocratians’ – the heretics fleshly nature led to his inability to behold God as God and ultimately caused Jesus to appear in flesh for them.

Clement’s citation of the passage from the Phaedrus is critical here to understand how Clement thinks the Carpocratians fell from the truth to see the divine God Jesus in fleshly form. Of course the ideas that are expressed in Plato will likely sound rather bizarre to modern ears. Plato lived in a culture which tolerated pederasty and so he could bring forward a vision of heavenly redemption through the sublimation of erotic desires for boys. As the philosopher notes:

My discourse has shown that this is, of all inspirations, the best and of the highest origin to him who has it or who shares in it, and that he who loves the beautiful, partaking in this madness, is called a lover. For, as has been said, every soul of man has by the law of nature beheld the realities, otherwise it would not have entered into a human being, but it is not easy for all souls to gain from earthly things a recollection of those realities, either for those which had but a brief view of them at that earlier time, or for those which, after falling to earth, were so unfortunate as to be turned toward unrighteousness through some evil communications and to have forgotten the holy sights they once saw.

Few then are left which retain an adequate recollection of them; but these when they see here any likeness of the things of that other world, are stricken with amazement and can no longer control themselves; but they do not understand their condition, because they do not clearly perceive.

Now in the earthly copies of justice and temperance and the other ideas which are precious to souls there is no light, but only a few, approaching the images through the darkling organs of sense, behold in them the nature of that which they imitate, and these few do this with difficulty. But at that former time they saw beauty shining in brightness, when, with a blessed company—we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god—they saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called the most blessed of mysteries, which we celebrated in a state of perfection, when we were without experience of the evils which awaited us in the time to come, being permitted as initiates to the sight of perfect and simple and calm and happy apparitions, which we saw in the pure light, being ourselves pure and not entombed in this which we carry about with us and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster in its shell.

So much, then, in honor of memory, on account of which I have now spoken at some length, through yearning for the joys of that other time. But beauty, as I said before, shone in brilliance among those visions; and since we came to earth we have found it shining most clearly through the clearest of our senses; for sight is the sharpest of the physical senses, though wisdom is not seen by it, for wisdom would arouse terrible love, if such a clear image of it were granted as would come through sight, and the same is true of the other lovely realities; but beauty alone has this privilege, and therefore it is most clearly seen and loveliest.

Now he who is not newly initiated, or has been corrupted, does not quickly rise from this world to that other world and to absolute beauty when he sees its namesake here, and so he does not revere it when he looks upon it, but gives himself up to pleasure and like a beast proceeds to lust and begetting; he makes licence his companion and is not afraid or ashamed to pursue pleasure in violation of nature.

But he who is newly initiated, who beheld many of those realities, when he sees a godlike face or form which is a good image of beauty, shudders at first, and something of the old awe comes over him, then, as he gazes, he reveres the beautiful one as a god, and if he did not fear to be thought stark mad, he would offer sacrifice to his beloved as to an idol or a god.

And as he looks upon him, a reaction from his shuddering comes over him, with sweat and unwonted heat; for as the effluence of beauty enters him through the eyes, he is warmed; the effluence moistens the germ of the feathers, and as he grows warm, the parts from which the feathers grow, which were before hard and choked, and prevented the feathers from sprouting, become soft, and as the nourishment streams upon him, the quills of the feathers swell and begin to grow from the roots over all the form of the soul; for it was once all feathered.

Now in this process the whole soul throbs and palpitates, and as in those who are cutting teeth there is an irritation and discomfort in the gums, when the teeth begin to grow, just so the soul suffers when the growth of the feathers begins; it is feverish and is uncomfortable and itches when they begin to grow. Then when it gazes upon the beauty of the boy and receives the particles which flow thence to it (for which reason they are called yearning),1 it is moistened and warmed, ceases from its pain and is filled with joy; but when it is alone and grows dry, the mouths of the passages in which the feathers begin to grow become dry and close up, shutting in the sprouting feathers, and the sprouts within, shut in with the yearning, throb like pulsing arteries, and each sprout pricks the passage in which it is, so that the whole soul, stung in every part, rages with pain; and then again, remembering the beautiful one, it rejoices.

So, because of these two mingled sensations, it is greatly troubled by its strange condition; it is perplexed and maddened, and in its madness it cannot sleep at night or stay in any one place by day, but it is filled with longing and hastens wherever it hopes to see the beautiful one. And when it sees him and is bathed with the waters of yearning, the passages that were sealed are opened, the soul has respite from the stings and is eased of its pain, and this pleasure which it enjoys is the sweetest of pleasures at the time.

Therefore the soul will not, if it can help it, be left alone by the beautiful one, but esteems him above all others, forgets for him mother and brothers and all friends, neglects property and cares not for its loss, and despising all the customs and proprieties in which it formerly took pride, it is ready to be a slave and to sleep wherever it is allowed, as near as possible to the beloved; for it not only reveres him who possesses beauty, but finds in him the only healer of its greatest woes.

Now this condition, fair boy, about which I am speaking, is called Love by men, but when you hear what the gods call it, perhaps because of your youth you will laugh. But some of the Homeridae, I believe, repeat two verses on Love from the spurious poems of Homer, one of which is very outrageous and not perfectly metrical. They sing them as follows:

““Mortals call him winged Love, but the immortals call him The winged One, because he must needs grow wings.”

You may believe this, or not; but the condition of lovers and the cause of it are just as I have said.

It is necessary to cite what is perhaps an exceedingly long section from the Phaedrus owing t the fact that it is so utterly critical to have the reader become familiar with something that Clement and his readership knew as well as breathing air. This understanding was not only the basis to Clement’s understanding of heavenly redemption but also that of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish exegete who profoundly influenced Clement and the whole of the Alexandrian Church.

Already in 1916, over two generations before the discovery of the Letter to Theodore Charles W Butterworth the great translator of early Alexandrian texts observed that Clement “uses the language of Plato as unconsciously as he uses that of the Scriptures; and it need hardly be said that when he writes under these two influences he is at his very best." While Clement’s analysis of the gospel often derives from Plato and Platonic ideas we should be careful to note however what material Clement cites from Secret Mark does not actually demonstrates any connection to the Phaedrus and other related passages from the writings of Plato.

However Clement and the other Alexandrians made clear to point out that the gospel hid its deepest truth. One needed an oral tradition – truth speaking viva voce or by ‘living voice’ – to unlock its keys. Yet this wasn’t always true with respect to the gospel of Mark. The pagan critic Celsus consistently accuses the gospel writer himself of stealing ideas from Plato. He goes so far as to say that at least some of the material in Mark chapter 10 was appropriated from the ancient Greek philosopher. Irenaeus of Rome seems to make the same connection while identifying the four gospels with the four living creatures of the vision of Ezekiel. He says that the gospel of Mark was like the fourth and last creature in that book:

"the fourth was like a flying eagle," pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated … Mark commences with the prophetical spirit coming down from on high to men, saying, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Esaias the prophet,"--pointing to the winged aspect of the Gospel; and on this account he made a compendious and cursory narrative, for such is the prophetical character … For the living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord. For this reason were four principal covenants given to the human race: one, prior to the deluge, under Adam; the second, that after the deluge, under Noah; the third, the giving of the law, under Moses; the fourth, that which renovates man, and sums up all things in itself by means of the Gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom.

The idea that Mark the final gospel, has wings which bear humanity into heaven is an image unmistakably connected with the same revelation of the Phaedrus which was so important to Clement. Yet Irenaeus only makes a generic reference to the ‘winged’ nature of the gospel. He never says that there was a ‘secret’ text or indeed that Mark wrote two gospels, like Clement tells us in the Letter to Theodore.

It is nevertheless eye-opening to see how obvious the appropriations from the Phaedrus are by the gospel writer. Celsus mentions a few, and Clement tacitly seems to acknowledge some of them. Yet here is a side by side comparison of perhaps the most obvious parallel. Mark writes:

Peter began to say to Him, Lo, we have left all and followed Thee. And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall leave what is his own, parents, and brethren, and possessions, for My sake and the Gospel's, shall receive an hundred-fold now in this world, lands, and possessions, and house, and brethren, with persecutions; and in the world to come is life everlasting. But many that are first shall be last, and the last first."

But Plato said long before him that the lover of divine beauty:

esteems him above all others, forgets for him mother and brothers and all friends, neglects property and cares not for its loss, and despising all the customs and proprieties in which it formerly took pride, it is ready to be a slave and to sleep wherever it is allowed, as near as possible to the beloved; for it not only reveres him who possesses beauty, but finds in him the only healer of its greatest woes

There can be no arguing with the idea that Mark was familiar with the writing of Plato. Celsus’s point stands as one of the most important insights into the sources which were employed by the original gospel writer in his narrative.

The fact that Secret Mark does not make explicit reference to these mystical ideas from the Phaedrus does not mean it wasn’t part of the evangelist’s original design. Both Clement and Irenaeus tell us that that the Alexandrian tradition passed on secret teachings viva voce – by word of mouth. Strangely, Clement’s habit is to give us hints of the secret exegesis but not the references from the mystic gospel. In any event, Clement demonstrates the Alexandrian Church’s indebtedness to Plato in a famous homily on this same material from the gospel of Mark:

Therefore on hearing those words, the blessed Peter, the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first of the disciples, for whom alone and Himself the Saviour paid tribute, quickly seized and comprehended the saying. And what does he say? "Lo, we have left all and followed Thee? Now if by all he means his own property, he boasts of leaving four oboli perhaps in all, and forgets to show the kingdom of heaven to be their recompense. But if, casting away what we were now speaking of, the old mental possessions and soul diseases, they follow in the Master's footsteps, this now joins them to those who are to be enrolled in the heavens. For it is thus that one truly follows the Saviour, by aiming at sinlessness and at His perfection, and adorning and composing the soul before it as a mirror, and arranging everything in all respects similarly.

It is difficult not to read this understanding as if it points to the lost portion of gospel of Mark referenced in the Letter to Theodore. A disciple who ‘follows the Savior’ is said to aim at ‘sinlessness,’ ‘perfection’ and transforming himself into the very image of divinity embodied in Jesus.

Moreover, the way Clement speaks about Peter here would suggest that he should be a prime candidate to be the unnamed disciple of the narrative. Nevertheless there is one main difficulty we will have to address. Clement, undoubtedly making reference to the familiar canonical gospel of Mark, says in effect that Peter had no money. The resurrected youth of Secret Mark is explicit said to have been ‘rich.’ Yet this is not an insurmountable difficulty. The Secret Mark passage is goes out of its way to be cryptic and mythical in character. The manner in which Jesus just stumbles upon an already dead disciple does not seem to be historical. Morton Smith certainly treated it as such. Nevertheless, as he later noted in the work he developed for public consumption, there is a deliberate connection made here with the Pauline concept of being baptized into death.

We will leave these issues for the time being and go back to our original point about the Carpocratians in the Letter to Theodore. Clement is telling us that Christians are perfected by seeing the divine doxa and ultimately refashion themselves after Jesus’s likeness. In due course we will explain to our readers that this has always been a ‘brother making’ ritual. For the moment though it is enough to reinforce that even to this day the Orthodox Church understands this experience that is given to Christian through baptism to be the equivalent to what happened to Moses on mount Sinai – he saw the divine doxa and came away with light shining from his very being.

Yet Clement makes clear that there are some people who are simply too carnal by nature for this vision of beauty. A group of ‘perverts,’ the Carpocratians, are said to have fallen from the truth of the gospel. The reasons for this fall were already known to Plato in the Phaedrus:

he who is not newly initiated, or has been corrupted, does not quickly rise from this world to that other world and to absolute beauty when he sees its namesake here, and so he does not revere it when he looks upon it, but gives himself up to pleasure and like a beast proceeds to lust and begetting; he makes licence his companion and is not afraid or ashamed to pursue pleasure in violation of nature. But he who is newly initiated, who beheld many of those realities, when he sees a godlike face or form which is a good image of beauty, shudders at first, and something of the old awe comes over him, then, as he gazes, he reveres the beautiful one as a god, and if he did not fear to be thought stark mad, he would offer sacrifice to his beloved as to an idol or a god.

Clement made reference to this section of the Phaedrus in his discussion of the mating habits of hyenas, but we should begin to see by now that he is only superficially making reference to actually beasts in the wild. These so-called “libertines who have so surrendered to pleasure, ‘taking the bit in their own mouths, like brutish beasts rush on to enjoy and beget” are one and the same with the group identified as the Carpocratians in to Theodore.

Most scholars would simply stop there and simply show how well the ideas of the Letter to Theodore fit within the known writings of Clement of Alexandria. Yet there is something far more important which should not be missed. The parallels that exist with the ideas of the Phaedrus make it absolutely clear that the repeated allusion to ‘sensual libertines’ actually represents a disguised reference to ‘those who made Jesus into a man of the flesh.’ In other words, he’s not really talking about horny hyenas, nor is he really talking about horny heretics but rather the ‘horniness’ itself is really a disguised way of saying ‘those who were so fleshly’ they mistook the divine doxa to be something ‘after the flesh.’

This is of course an interesting theory, but the reader would be well served to ask – how do we know it is true? We can be certain that this was the very way Clement adapted the material from the Phaedrus into Christianity by taking note of his unusual interpretation of the famous condemnation of homosexuality in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans. Even though the Acts of the Apostles says Paul was a Pharisee, Clement seems to be getting his information for an apostle deeply immersed in Platonic mysticism from some other source. This should not be surprising given that at another place in his writing Clement declares “the Apostle Paul will show [this same thing] saying: “Take also the Hellenic books, read the Sibyl, how it is shown that God is one, and how the future is indicated. And taking Hystaspes, read, and you will find much more luminously and distinctly the Son of God described, and how many kings shall draw up their forces against Christ, hating Him and those that bear His name, and His faithful ones, and His patience, and His coming.”

This passage of course does not appear anywhere in our canonical writings of the apostle Paul but it illustrates the fact that Clement could not have believed that Paul was a Pharisee. Instead Clement believed that the famous discussion of God abandoning carnal souls and causing them to become homosexual showed Paul to have read the ideas in the Phaedrus:

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and changed the glory of God into the likeness of corruptible man, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator. Because of this God has given over to shameful lusts. For the women change their natural use to that which is against nature, and in like manner the men, also, having abandoned the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men doing strange things, and receiving in themselves the fitting recompense for their perversity.

While these words have traditionally been used by the Church to terrify those who happen to fall under the spell of attraction to people of the same sex, Clement clearly and unmistakably takes these words to pertain to idolatry and the tendency of carnal people to believe that god is also ‘of the flesh.’ Indeed if we pay careful attention to Clement’s Exhortation (Protrepticus) to the Heathen, Butterworth again notes that the structure of the entire text is developed from the Phaedrus – “the Protrepticus is a short work, occupying in space not more than one-twelfth of Clement's extant writings, while the Phaedrus is even smaller in proportion to the whole of Plato. It is remarkable that so much inter-connexion should be found in so small a field.”

The point then is that within this work which has been identified as being wholly devoted to the Phaedrus, Clement employs Romans 1:21 – 25 as if it ‘fit’ with the program. The Protrepticus basically explains how humanity fell into ‘man-worship’ owing to its inherently carnal nature. Indeed Butterworth notes at one point that Clement was “quick to notice the similarity between the lover who loved for what he could get, and daemons who pretended to be saviours but were really destroyers of human life.” The Greeks as a whole fell away from the ‘spiritual’ heavenly vision of Phaedrus or in the words of Paul from Romans – “because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and changed the glory of God into the likeness of corruptible man, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator.”

Now it is important to note that our received text has been expanded from Clement’s early Alexandrian canon. A Catholic editor has come along since the end of the second century and altered the line “they changed the glory (doxa) of God into the likeness of corruptible man” into our “exchanged the glory (doxa) of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” Why would someone have carried out such an emendation? Paul wasn’t originally taking issue with homosexuality per se. His point was to say that fleshly people are so filled with lusts that they refashioned Jesus after their own expectations (doxas). In other words, this is the very point made by Clement in to Theodore.

Neither Paul nor Clement believed that Jesus was a real human being of the flesh. They apparently believed who developed such theories were likened to the perverts of the Phaedrus, who who fell from the divine vision of beauty because they were filled with σαρκικὴν. Of course, all of this leaves us in a difficulty to explain Ehrman’s fixation with the claim that Jesus could only have been a physical person. Would Clement have accused the North Carolina professor of being a sinner? It is difficult to say. Yet in one of the greatest ironies of life, Ehrman made this very intimation about the discoverer of the Mar Saba document.

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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