Date: Fri, 27 Feb 1998 14:45:21 -0500 From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: email@example.com 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, Yuri. -------- HIDDEN WISDOM: ESOTERIC TRADITIONS AND THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, by Guy G. Stroumsa, E. J. Brill, 1996. 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 him, 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. 34) 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 SECRETES DES APOTRES, p. 211), ...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: 11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. 12 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! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 6: 1 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, 2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 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 mature. Stroumsa also cites Heb 7:1ff, the Melchizedek passages, in this regard. These were of course some of the favourites of the later gnostics. 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 Eusebius): For I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of the living and surviving voice. (p. 85) 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, ...it 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 book: 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. 44) 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. (Michael A. Williams, RETHINKING "GNOSTICISM": AN ARGUMENT FOR DISMANTLING A DUBIOUS CATEGORY, 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 this. 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. Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto -=O=- Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away -=O=- Philip K. DickClick here to go one level up in the directory.