Date: Fri, 27 Feb 1998 14:45:21 -0500
Subject: Christian secret/esoteric traditions (Stroumsa)

Esteemed Crosstalkers,

Yesterday I've already posted some quotes from Stroumsa's book. Here's my
complete review of this very interesting publication.

Best regards,



OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, by Guy G. Stroumsa, E. J. Brill,

This book is a very interesting investigation of "esoteric doctrines"
as are found in the Christian tradition. Stroumsa believes that
these go to the very roots of Christianity. This would provide some
substantiation for the thesis that the Historical Jesus may have
been teaching to his disciples a message that can be described as
"gnostic" in some sense.

Stroumsa devotes considerable space to analysing the general,
and very complex, question of whether or not Christianity can
really be considered as an "open religion", i.e. as a religion that
has no secret doctrines, or whether it should be seen as
possessing a certain esoteric core. If it is generally considered as
an "open religion" nowadays, has it always been so? Not quite,
according to Stroumsa.

As Stroumsa states in his Introduction, in general, according to

     We can detect the existence of esoteric doctrines since the
     earliest stages of Christianity, and throughout the first
     centuries. (p. 3)

This seems quite significant. 

Were there really elements of secrecy in the earliest Christian tradition? 
It seem quite certain that there were. He investigates specifically the
_cultic secrecy_ as is evident in our earliest accounts of key Christian
rituals. He deals specifically with the celebrations of the eucharist. 

According to Stroumsa, the Church Fathers often talk about the
cultic _arcana_, i.e. the fact that

     ...before the celebration of the Eucharist, the doors of the
     Church were closed to non-baptized, catechumens included.
     (p. 3)

About this secrecy as regards the eucharist celebrations we can
be quite certain.

Also, Stroumsa says this:

     The Church Fathers knew quite well that according to the
     Gospels, Jesus had taught his disciples esoteric doctrines
     which he would not disclose to the crowds. (p. 4)

And he adds,

     The idea of a _disciplina arcani_, a law imposing silence
     upon Christians with respect to their rite, has been rather well
     studied in the past century. (p. 30)

Stroumsa writes that these elements of secrecy in the Christian
tradition certainly persisted until the fourth century. He adduces, in
particular, the following witnesses,

     Let us recall some of them [i.e. these witnesses]: the
     APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTIONS mentions the sending away
     of catechumens (the _amuetoi_) and the closing of the
     church doors after the homily (II, 57). Egeria, who visited
     Jerusalem around 400 echoes these practices, to which Cyril,
     the bishop of the Holy City during the second half of the
     fourth century, also refers several times. Athanasius
     condemns the Arians, who are prepared to reproduce the
     mysteries before catechumens and pagans. A similar
     reproach is addressed to the Marcionites by Epiphanus for
     daring to show the "mysteries to the catechumens." [detailed
     citations are given by Stroumsa in the footnotes] (p. 31)

In all this, I find it highly ironic that it was apparently the "heretics"
of that time who were advocating less secrecy, while the orthodox
apologists of the period defended the need for more secrecy. One
would not have guessed about such taking of sides on this
sensitive subject then -- in light of the current rhetoric of _our
contemporary_ Christian apologists who stress how "wide open to
one and all" the Christian doctrine is, and presumably has always
been, "by its own nature". This should be an important reminder to
all historians about how our unthinking contemporary assumptions
can colour our readings of ancient Christian history.

Stroumsa also looks at other glimpses of the true nature of early
Christian customs that we can derive from our historical sources.
For example, at what Origen tells us about this. Parts of the
controversy between Origen and Celsus are cited in this
regard. In particular, Origen writes this in his reply to Celsus,

     ...the existence of certain doctrines, beyond those which are
     exoteric and which do not reach the multitude, is not peculiar
     solely to Christian doctrine, but it is shared by the
     philosophers. For they had certain exoteric doctrines and
     others were esoteric. (p. 33)

So Origen, writing early in the third century, seems quite clear on 
this subject -- something that many of our modern ecclesiastical
historians still seem slow to perceive. And Origen, above, talks not 
just about the ritual secrecy, about which so many of our historical
sources are so clear, but specifically about the _Christian doctrine_.

But, obviously, as Stroumsa puts it, "there's a manifest connection
between ritual and doctrine" (pp. 33-34). So we cannot really draw
any kind of a solid distinction in this area. The close connection
between ritual and doctrine is in particular clear in some of the
passages in Chrsysostom.

     John Chrysostom says, for example, that the presence of the
     uninitiated in the audience prevents him from speaking
     clearly and explaining the precise meaning of Scripture. (p.

And also, here's a telling testimony of St. Ambrose,

     Commenting on verse 4:12 in the SONG OF SONGS, "A
     garden locked is my own, my bride, a fountain locked, a
     sealed-up spring," Ambrose writes:

          It signifies that the mystery must be sealed by you, ...
          that it must not be divulged to those for whom it is not
          appropriate, that it must not be spread among the
          unbelievers by vain gossip. (p. 34)

And Stroumsa concludes with this,

     Christian truth must not fall into pagan hands: though not
     universal, this attitude was very common until the fifth
     century. (p. 34)

According to Stroumsa, even Irenaeus, that dedicated anti-Gnostic
warrior, who may be described as the father of Christian
orthodoxy, admits in a somewhat veiled language the existence of
certain secret oral traditions deriving from the Apostles (p. 35). 

And as to Basil, that other very influential Father of the Church,
Stroumsa writes the following,

     The existence of an oral esoteric tradition deriving from the
     Apostles is categorically affirmed during the fourth century by
     Basil the Great. (p. 35)

And now, let's come back to Alexandria, and to the second century
of Christianity. The very influential Clement of Alexandria wrote
this, as quoted by Eusebius,

     After the resurrection, the Lord transmitted the tradition of
     gnosis to James the Just, to John, and to Peter; these
     transmitted it to the other apostles, and the other apostles to
     the Seventy, of whom Barnabas was a member. (p. 37)

This seems to indicate quite clearly that the Jewish-Christians
Church in Jerusalem was in possession of certain esoteric
teachings in the second and first centuries of Christian history.

Stroumsa also looks very carefully at the dispute between Origen
and Celsus in this area of "secrecy" further on in his book (pp.
102ff). It seems, according to Stroumsa, that Origen's position has
often been misunderstood both by the pagans, and by the
Christians. In this regard, Origen seemed to have been caught
between the rock and the hard place, as it were, because he often
found himself in between the Greek philosophical and the
Christian religious traditions. As is well known, Origen often tried to
combine these two traditions in his work, and to advocate his view
that there's no fundamental difference between them; this often got
him into trouble from both sides. Such views of Origen, while
already seen with suspicion by some even during his lifetime,
became more and more "heretical" after his death, as the general
atmosphere in the Christian movement became progressively
more anti-intellectual in the "Dark Ages".

The arguments between Origen and Celsus as regards the
question of secrecy are extremely complex, and are not easy to
parse. Our natural presuppositions, as modern
commentators, will often stand in the way of appreciating where
each side really stands in this area. Nevertheless, here's an
interesting quote from Origen,

     And the Gospel so desires wise men among believers that, in
     order to exercise the understanding of the hearers, it has
     expressed certain truths in enigmatic forms, and some in the
     so-called dark sayings, some by oracles, and others by
     problems. (p. 104)

It seems that Origen here hints that in order to understand the true
meaning of such "enigmas" in the gospels, "esoteric" and private
traditions of interpretation, passed orally from teacher to student
generation after generation, are key.

There's one important question that invariably comes up in most
discussions of early Christian esotericism/gnosticism. Namely, was
"gnosticism" Christian from its beginning, or was it a Jewish tradition
even before Christianity came upon the scene? Myself, I have little
doubt that some sort of a "proto-gnosticism" was part of the Jewish
legacy that Christianity incorporated. And generally Stroumsa agrees 
on this.

Stroumsa quotes Jean Danielou (from LES TRADITIONS

     ...esoteric traditions of the Apostles are the continuation
     within Christianity of a Jewish esotericism that existed at the
     time of the Apostles. (p. 43)

Thus Stroumsa:

     There is little doubt that esoteric doctrines existed in
     Christianity too, from its earliest strata. Documentation is here
     very sparse, but by no means nonexistent. (p. 70)

Among other evidence, he also cites Heb 5:11- 6:8,

Hebrews 5:
                    We have much to say about this, but it is hard to    
                    explain because you are slow to learn.               
                    In fact, though by this time you ought to be         
                    teachers, you need someone to teach you the          
                    elementary truths of God's word all over again. You  
                    need milk, not solid food!                           
                    Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is  
                    not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.
                    But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use
                    have trained themselves to distinguish good from     
Hebrews 6:                                                                                                                                         
                    Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about
                    Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the   
                    foundation of repentance from acts that lead to      
                    death, and of faith in God,                   
                    instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands,  
                    the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  
                    And God permitting, we will do so.                

Here, the distinction is very clear between "milk", or "the basic
teachings" for the novices, and "the solid food" for the more

Stroumsa also cites Heb 7:1ff, the Melchizedek passages, in this
regard. These were of course some of the favourites of the later

Here's one more witness,

     The Syriac _Liber Graduum_, for instance, dated from the
     fourth century, insists on the two classes of Christians, the
     _just_, and the _perfect_ ones, to whom different teachings
     must be imparted. (p. 72)

And Stroumsa also cites _Kerygmata Petrou_, fragments of an
early Jewish Christian writing later incorporated into the Pseudo
Clementinian novel, in this regard. (p. 75)

As to the importance of the oral traditions in general, here's an
interesting quote from Papias of Hieropolis, (as found in

     For I did not suppose that information from books would help
     me so much as the word of the living and surviving voice. (p.

Also, Stroumsa writes this about secrecy in the ancient Jewish
tradition generally,

     Judaism had excluded non-Jews from the inner courts of the
     Temple or from private ceremonies such as the Passover
     Seder. (p. 33)

In his book, Stroumsa looks at esotericism in general. Why did so
many ancient religions, perhaps all of them, have esoteric
components? What were/are the sociological and anthropological
functions of esotericism? In this regard, Stroumsa's study provides
many interesting insights.

Here is one thought worth of consideration, should be pointed out that esotericism is inherently prone
     to instability: if the secret is disclosed, it is no longer a secret;
     if it is not divulged, it looses its power and impact, and
     eventually disappears. (p. 6)

This summarizes quite neatly the general fragility and basic
instability of all esoteric teachings. And this alone may explain why
such traditions, while they may have once flourished within
mainstream Christianity, were, at some point, pushed out of the
movement -- yet to survive nevertheless on its fringe, as they still
do among certain contemporary semi-Christian sects.

(Another interesting thought, one of many, that I found in this

     In the words of Arnaldo Momigliano, among the Greeks, the
     more one knows, the less one believes. Among the Jews, the
     more one knows, the more religious one is. (p. 33))

Stroumsa has an interesting view of how the esotericism of earliest
Christianity was eventually replaced by the mysticism of the Middle
Ages. He sees St. Augustine as standing at that crucial turning
point where this change took place, and being extremely influential
in this regard. Stroumsa talks about a certain process of
"interiorization" of esotericism apparent in Augustine:

     Augustine epitomizes this passage to a new mode of thought.
     For him, the real secrets are no longer those of God, but
     those of the individual, hidden in the depth of his or her heart,
     or soul. With him, we witness more clearly than elsewhere,
     perhaps, the link between the end of esotericism and the
     development of a new interiorization. This process of
     interiorization is _ipso facto_ a process of demotization: there
     remains no place for esoteric doctrine in such an approach.
     (p. 7)

As I understand it, essentially, for Augustine, the Sin is within us. The
complexity that the ancients saw in the universe surrounding us, the
seemingly contradictory and confusing nature of this Universe, all that
was shifted by Augustine _within_ the individual. According to Augustine,
the world was created _as perfect_ by the most perfect of all possible
Gods. The only (potential) problem there was, presumably, was that the
remarkable natural perfidy of the human being... was just too deep even
for the most perfect God to plan against? So this is how the Problem of
Sin entered into the world -- through the essential human perfidy and
proclivity to Evil.

Yes, here we can go into much more detail along the lines of that
famous ancient Pelagius vs. Augustine controversy re: the Original
Sin. But perhaps we'd better not go away so far from the main subject 
of this essay...

Stroumsa writes that at some point, after Christianity became
victorious, the pursuit of theological knowledge _per se_ came
under suspicion:

     Beginning in the fourth century, in fact, the very status of the
     _episteme_ becomes problematic. Dangerous or disquieting
     in nature, knowledge often becomes the object of
     prohibitions... (p. 44)

This is what Stroumsa says about that crucial anti-esoteric
transition in the Church that took place at that time,

     Late antiquity is no longer as interested in _the truth to
     teach_ as in _the example to give_. [italics in the original] (p.

     Rather than upon knowledge, the accent is now placed on
     soteriology. The saint offers a model of behaviour to
     everyone (the stylite, a living monument on top of a column,
     is like a symbol of an entire movement, an entire epoch), an
     _exemplum_ which anyone may imitate, rather than secret
     traditions. (p. 45)


Here's more from Stroumsa's book about the general parallels
between the esoteric doctrines as were present in the
philosophical schools of antiquity, in Judaism, and in Christianity.
This has relevance to the Historical Jesus, and to the possible
parallels between the teachings of Jesus, and those of some
philosophical schools, such as Cynic, Stoic, and the Epicurean,
having wide currency in the Hellenistic milieux of the Eastern
Mediterranean of the time.

Stroumsa writes that among the Greek philosophers the role of
what they defined as "the Truth" went beyond the strictly
philosophical realm.

     Just as much or perhaps even more than by its
     epistemological role, truth is identified by its soteriological
     function. Esotericism thus is revealed as being as much
     religious as intellectual in essence -- to a degree the
     distinction is anachronistic. (p. 28)

In particular, Stroumsa cites the Pythagoreans in this respect.

     Beyond the complexity of the traditions and the differences of
     opinion among scholars, it seems well established that the
     _akousmata_ represents oral traditions, the _hieroi logoi_,
     _ipsissima verba_ of the Master introduced by the famous
     _ephe_, "he said". It is probable that the _akousmata_,
     composed in dialogue form, reflect the survival or a primitive
     oral teaching, just as the _tetraktus_ was originally an oath of
     secrecy. (p. 28)

And he continues, as relevant in particular to Judaism,

     Whether or not Pythagorean influence was manifest in the
     formation of Essenism in Palestine is less important than to
     note, with Isidore Levi, the striking similarities between the
     manner in which the secret traditions were developed and
     protected among the Jews and among the Pythagoreans --
     even if these similarities do not imply, as Levi thought, direct
     Pythagorean influence upon Judaism. (p. 28)


Nevertheless, in spite of all the many valid analyses found 
there, I have found a number of problems in Stroumsa's
book. In particular, he could have benefited significantly from
familiarity with the very important recent book by Williams.
Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1996.) Repeatedly,
Stroumsa talks about the "gnostic dualism", "the mutation from
monotheism to dualism", "the creation of a dualist mythology" (p.
54, passim), and also about the gnostic movement as a "rebellion".

     All signs point to gnostic origins as a _hermeneutical_ revolt
     against Jewish and Christian _Weltanschauung_, and the
     creation of an alternative mythology... (p. 54)

All these views of gnosticism are critiqued soundly in Williams.

In his Introduction, Stroumsa remarks that the "esoteric traditions"
seemed to have fared better throughout the centuries, and
survived up to the present time, in Islam and in Judaism,
compared to Christianity. He does not have a ready explanation for

I hope that all the above information from Stroumsa's book will be useful
in our discussions of these and related subjects.

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto -=O=- 

Reality is that which, when you stop believing 
in it, doesn't go away -=O=- Philip K. Dick

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