Since this tradition is not published alone for him who perceives the magnificence of the word, it is requisite, therefore, to hide in a mystery the wisdom spoken, which the Son of God taught. . . . For it is difficult to exhibit the really pure and transparent words respecting the true light, to swinish and untrained hearers. — Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis I.xii
The Jewish Talmud relates the story of four men who entered the heavenly Orchard (Hebrew pardes or Paradise). Ben Azzai looked and died. Ben Zoma looked and lost his mind. Acher cut his plantings, while Rabbi Akiba, who entered in peace, left in peace. The story is a cautionary tale about mystical ascents in search of spiritual knowledge. Unprepared journeys were universally prohibited in the ancient Mysteries, as they were held to be dangerous not only to the initiate's psychological and physical health, but potentially harmful to others should the knowledge be misused for selfish ends. Hence the strictures of discipline and silence imposed as protections against injury and abuse — and a reason for secrecy.
The Gospel of Thomas alludes to this when Jesus tells Thomas three secret words. Asked by his fellow disciples what these are, Thomas replies, "If I tell you one of the words which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up." In the same episode (13), Jesus asks them to compare him to someone. Simon Peter describes Jesus as a righteous angel, Matthew calls him a wise philosopher, while Thomas — "intoxicated" by divine wisdom flowing from the bubbling spring — says "my mouth is wholly incapable of saying who you are like." Paul writes in the same vein about the man (himself) who was "caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (2 Cor 12:4).
References to the mysteries and hidden wisdom of God in both the New Testament and the secret gospels imply that some of Jesus' core teachings were reserved for the few, and that the overwhelming majority of faithful Christians have been largely deprived of them. Here lies a major problem concerning the essence of Christianity: Did it originally rest on an esoteric foundation similar to the ancient Mysteries? Clement of Alexandria, the late 2nd-century Church Father, clearly affirmed it did. The mysteries of the faith are not to be divulged to all, he wrote, bidding us to "receive the secret traditions of the true gnosis" taught by the Son of God (Stromateis I.xii).
Myths and parables were the public language of the ancient Mysteries; and while no detailed statements of higher teachings are available, their fundamental content was never secret. Cicero, for example, praised Athens for its many contributions to civilization, "but nothing better than those Mysteries by which we are formed and molded from a rude and savage state of humanity; and, indeed, in the Mysteries we perceive the real principles of life, and learn not only to live happily, but to die with a fairer hope" (De Legibus II.14). Their institutional forms were collegial bodies broadly structured like modern universities into undergraduate and graduate studies — called the Less and Great Mysteries — whose "curriculum" revolved around the mysteries of death and rebirth: the progressive awakening and raising of the soul to knowledge and union with the divine essence within. Paul speaks the language of initiation when he says "I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you" (Gal 4:19).
Although most churches today portray Christianity arising out of Judaism as a unique spiritual event in fulfillment of messianic prophecies, downplaying or avoiding the issue of secret knowledge, modern historians remind us of Christianity's genesis in a far more complex spiritual, philosophical, and political matrix which had been developing for centuries. In addition to normative Judaism, which itself rested on an esoteric foundation (Gentiles saw Judaism as a secret Mystery religion), the most readily identifiable elements were Jewish mysticism and apocalyptic, which prophesied spiritual renovation at the soon-to-come end of the age; Hellenism, the Greek religious and philosophical legacy spread by Alexander's conquests; and Egyptian and Oriental religions — all simmering under the influence and constraints of Roman occupation.
This historical background is indispensable to understanding the varied forms of early Christianity. The books reviewed in these articles present some of this context, while offering valuable lessons of history. Chief is the importance of primary sources: the need of first-hand knowledge of original texts and traditions insofar as this is possible, and also something of their origin, interpretation, and transmission. The Nag Hammadi library, for example, reveals how popular and scholarly opinion about Gnosticism was and continues to be skewed by the filtering and imprinting effects of the early heresiologists. Secret writings nevertheless present a special problem. The uncensored Nag Hammadi and other gnostic documents remain obscure, for most are reserved texts said to veil hidden, unutterable realities. By their own descriptions they are at best imperfect secondary sources requiring valid interpretive keys, without which uninitiated readers will see perhaps only fantastic stories and dark sayings, not the hidden logos within the myth. The Gospel of Philip, for example, alludes to this in a passage highly reminiscent of the Tao Teh Ching ("The Tao expressed in words is not the eternal Tao; nameless is the source of heaven and earth"):
Names given to worldly things are very deceptive, for they divert our thoughts from what is correct to what is incorrect. Thus one who hears the word "God" does not perceive what is correct, but what is incorrect. So also with "the Father" and "the Son" and "the Holy Spirit" and "life" and "light" and "resurrection" and "the Church" and all the rest . . .
. . . the Son would not become Father unless he wears the name of the Father. Those who have this name know it, but they do not speak it, but those who do not have [it] do not know it. — II.53-4
Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark by Marvin Meyer is an anthology of essays focusing on the Gospel of Thomas, the most well-known treatise in the Nag Hammadi collection, and on the controversial Secret Gospel of Mark discovered in 1958 at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem. A professor of Bible and Christian Studies at Chapman University, Meyer begins by introducing the reader to secret gospels and his principal themes. He provides context by referring us to Mark 4:1-20 where Jesus teaches openly in parables while privately giving their allegorical interpretation to his disciples; then to the Apocryphon (Secret Book) of James, which describes "the twelve followers all sitting together, recalling what the savior had said to each of them, whether in a hidden or an open manner, and organizing it in books." Meyer rightly questions whether the latter scenario actually happened, but both episodes highlight a demand of all sacred writings: they require interpretation, the Gospel of Thomas emphasizing — cryptically — that "whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death."
Meyer sees Thomas and Secret Mark as gospels offering two distinctive types of proclamations: Thomas a gospel of wisdom and Secret Mark a gospel of the Cross, a symbol of spiritual transformation and a call to discipleship. In the six Thomas essays, Meyer picks up the theme of seeking and finding, and treats a diversity of topics: the image of Jesus portrayed by Thomas, the relation of Thomas as a "sayings" gospel to the canonical gospels and to "Q" (the source collection of Jesus sayings incorporated by Matthew and Luke in conjunction with Mark's narrative), and commentary on other unique images meant to provoke inquiry ("Be Passersby," "Making Mary Male").
The essays on the Secret Gospel of Mark consider initiatory patterns and motifs in early Christianity and, for those who enjoy detective stories, a controversial mystery of authorship that has yet to find scholarly consensus. Suffice to say that any ancient letter or gospel signed or titled with a famous person's name needs to be critically examined for authenticity — a subject more fully treated in Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities. The story begins with Morton Smith's discovery of a 17th- or 18th-century manuscript in the Mar Saba library purporting to be a copy of a late 2nd-century letter written by Clement of Alexandria, which describes and quotes Mark's secret gospel. Smith photographed the manuscript, shared and discussed it with distinguished Clement scholars and colleagues, undertook fifteen years of laborious research and, in 1973, published his results in a 450-page volume by Harvard University Press, with photographs, transcription, translation, and a lengthy analysis of the document, its authenticity, and the historical background — concluding that Clement's letter appears to be genuine. Meyer carefully notes that while he too assumes the letter is an authentic copy of an ancient text, the actual manuscript needs to be released for scientific analysis.
First page of Clement's letter to Theodore
Clement's letter begins by commending a certain Theodore for "silencing the unspeakable teachings of the Carpocrations" — a rival group in Alexandria founded by Carpocrates, whose teachings, Clement believed, were doctrinally and morally objectionable. "Now of the things they keep saying about the divinely inspired Gospel according to Mark," he continues, "some are altogether falsifications, and others, even if they do contain some true elements, nevertheless are not reported truly. For the true things being mixed with inventions, are falsified, so that, as the saying goes, even the salt loses its savor." The letter then turns to the authorship of Mark's gospels a century earlier:
As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. But when Peter died a martyr, Mark came over to Alexandria, bringing both his own notes and those of Peter, from which he transferred to his former book the things suitable to whatever makes for progress toward knowledge [gnosis]. Thus he composed a more spiritual Gospel for the use of those who were being perfected [teleioumenon, "finished" or initiated]. Nevertheless, he yet did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord, but to the stories already written he added yet others and, moreover, brought in certain sayings of which he knew the interpretation would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils. Thus, in sum, he prepared matters, neither grudgingly nor incautiously, in my opinion, and, dying, he left his composition to the church in Alexandria, where it even yet is most carefully guarded, being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.
While surprising many people with its assertions of a private version of Mark and of the Lord's secret teachings that are not to be written or spoken, this passage is not the center of controversy. Clement scholars have always known that he openly proclaimed a secret tradition reserved for the few true gnostics, and believed Christianity to be the pure representative of God's true Mysteries which others had stolen and corrupted:
O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy whilst I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant, and seals [pledges to silence] while illuminating him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be kept safe for ever. Such are the reveries of my mysteries. If it is thy wish, be thou also initiated; . . . — Exhortation to the Heathen, xi
In Clement's view, Carpocrates was a false gnostic, a "wandering star" who, though boasting freedom, was actually a slave of servile desire. In the letter, Clement explains that Carpocrates had obtained by devious means a copy of Mark's private gospel which he then "interpreted according to his blasphemous and carnal doctrine and, moreover, polluted by mixing utterly shameless lies with the spotless and holy words." To answer Theodore's questions, Clement quotes two passages from Secret Mark, the larger excerpt depicting a variant of the Lazarus resurrection story rich with initiatory symbolism. He then specifies where in Mark the story is to be inserted (10:34), refutes Carpocrates' sexual interpolation, saying that it was never part of the original, and continues: "Now the true explanation and that which accords with the true philosophy" — and here the letter ends abruptly.
Although we lack Clement's interpretation, the story's inner meaning as a mystical ascent to God's kingdom is fairly obvious: Entering the tomb (the body), Jesus (the Christ within) raises the youth (the soul), who looked upon Jesus, "loved him" and "beseeched him that he might be with him" (divine communion). Going out of the tomb to the rich young man's house (his inner world or dwelling place), after six days (of initiatory trial) Jesus tells the youth (neaniskos, a common Greek word also meaning "servant") to come to him in the evening, naked (as a babe) but wearing a linen cloth (the burial shroud of a corpse covering naked living spirit, dual symbol of death and rebirth). During the night Jesus taught the neaniskos the mystery of the kingdom of God. "And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan" (from the sacred river's "other shore," i.e., the kingdom of God) — baptized, resurrected, and reborn spiritually.* The episode is devoid of sexual imagery and connotation; however, such stories have a mirror-like quality which reflects the mind of the perceiver — reminiscent of Rabbi Akiba and the others in the heavenly Orchard.
* In ancient Judaism the burial garment was the resurrection garment. According to a rabbinic passage, "A man is raised in the same clothes in which he is buried" (Smith, A Secret Gospel of Mark, p. 177). The prescribed ritual dress in early Christian baptisms was also a linen robe over a naked body. These symbols and rites of spiritual regeneration are explained philosophically by the Neoplatonist Plotinus:
"To attain [the Good] is for those that will take the upward path, who will set all their forces towards it, who will divest themselves of all that we have put on in our descent [into material bodies]; so, to those that approach the Holy Celebrations of the Mysteries, there are appointed purifications and the laying aside of the garments [of the soul] worn before, and the entry in nakedness [of spirit] — until passing, on the upward way, all that is other than the God [within], each in the solitude of himself shall behold that solitary-dwelling Existence, the Apart, the Unmingled, the Pure, that from which all things depend, . . . the Source of Life and of Intellection and of Being."— Enneads I.6.7
Meyer's essays consider how the initiation scene in Secret Mark integrates with canonical Mark's narrative, shedding light on other gospel episodes which also feature a linen-clad youth: the neaniskos seized at the time of Jesus' arrest who ran off naked (Mark 14:51-2); the "young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side" in Jesus' otherwise empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8); and the story of Lazarus in John 11 which, interestingly, features Thomas saying to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him" — another allusion to initiation. Meyer believes with other scholars that the Secret Mark excerpts may have belonged to an early version of "public" Mark, and were later omitted in what became the canonical version — just as the last twelve verses of Mark (16:9-20), absent in the earliest manuscripts, were added to strengthen a theological agenda. Whatever may be the actual history of the Secret Gospel of Mark, Clement's letter is nevertheless consistent with his known writings and with the symbols and initiatory patterns of the Mysteries adopted by many early churches.
The scene of Jesus conducting a nocturnal initiation has troubled many Christians, and those who reject the idea of Jesus teaching secretly often cite John 18:19-21 as their authority. When the High Priest of Jerusalem questioned him about what he taught, Jesus is said to have replied, "I have spoken openly to all the world. I have always taught in synagogue and in the temple, where all Jews congregate; I have said nothing in secret." Contradicting this, however, are all three synoptic gospels, Paul's letters, the Apostolic secret tradition affirmed by Clement in his known writings, the Jewish esoteric background, and several Christian gnostic texts. (Cf. Margaret Barker, "The Secret Tradition," Journal of Higher Criticism (2:1), 1995; online at www.marquette.edu/maqom/tradition1 and /tradition2.) Moreover, the Gospel of John — which Gregory Riley, Elaine Pagels, and other scholars believe was written partly to refute or modify teachings found in Thomas (John is the only gospel with the Doubting Thomas) — is in conflict with the Synoptics in other ways, such as reporting Jesus cleansing the Temple at the beginning of his ministry, whereas the Synoptics feature this at the end. John's statement is also in conflict with itself, for example in the episode where Jesus teaches Nicodemus secretly at night (ch. 3).
Part of the reason for these discrepancies is that during the first three centuries after Jesus, widely diverse Christian communities were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, and different groups received different traditions which taught different things. There was no monolithic church, no formally-defined New Testament, no ruling orthodoxy, and even wider disagreements about observance of Jewish law, basic theological issues such as the Resurrection and the divinity of Jesus, and about gnosis and the Christian secret tradition. Just as Paul reinterpreted and transformed the teachings of a relatively small Jewish esoteric sect into a growing Gentile movement proclaiming the risen Christ, so Irenaeus fathered an orthodoxy that became normative theology for virtually all Christians today. The story of what happened to the other groups and their texts and "how one early Christian group established itself as dominant in the religion, determining for ages to come what Christians would believe, practice, and read as sacred Scripture" is the principal subject of Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew — and the subject of our next article.
(To be continued in June/July)