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Clement of Alexandria - The Origins of Christian Theoria

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Another Study on Oral Tradition

Guy Stroumsa published a collection of essays, Hidden Wisdom (SHR 1996), in which he investigates the existence of an oral tradition in the early Church. Stroumsa reviews a wealth of evidence drawn from the patristic writings to show a general acknowledgment of esoteric oral tradition within the Church, then discusses the disappearance of those same traditions.

In a review of Stroumsa’s work, Charles Kannengiesser complains that no evidence exists for these esoteric traditions:

The truth of the matter is that the present collection of popular essays demonstrates in perfect clarity, though unwillingly it seems, that a quest for proper esotericism in early Christianity leads nowhere. The author never tries to describe such traditions, nor does he suggest that they could be identified by noncomparative methods.... After all is said, these traditions remain so esoteric that their phantasmal existence best seems postulated only on the basis of proliferating studies about their pre-supposed ‘disappearance’.   - Journal of Religion 78

Kannengiesser is correct on some points; he claims that most studies do not give hard data showing the content of these esoteric traditions. In fact, Stroumsa admitted that to try to do so would be seen as "speculative." The very nature of the subject makes this task highly problematic: finding hard data for a tradition which is both "secret" and "oral" is difficult. Although this argument does not satisfy the need and desire for hard data, objectivity demands that in the face of solid circumstantial evidence the lack of hard data should not preclude the existence of these traditions. Stroumsa’s circumstantial evidence was not vague; he cites numerous patristic texts, from the Papias fragments to comments by Augustine, including references from Origen and Basil, all showing that some kind of esoteric oral tradition continued in the Church at least through the fourth century. Kannengiesser fails to comment on any of these texts, and says that Stroumsa’s work is "entertaining [to] the less prepared reader." Unfortunately, some of Stroumsa’s citations justify Kannengiesser’s comment (a few of his citations are erroneous), yet his overall presentation is solid. One wonders if Kannengiesser’s basic problem with this study is that which Stroumsa addresses in his introduction when he states that both Catholic and Protestant scholars view esotericism with suspicion. From the beginning, secrecy was associated with heresy by Catholics, and Protestants have shunned Catholic traditions suspecting them of being tainted with esoteric doctrines.

We have already seen in Stromateis that Clement openly reports himself to be the recipient of some kind of oral tradition. It is perhaps impossible to know for sure whether or not his claim is true, but other evidence (such as Stroumsa gives in his work) can be taken into account and seems to verify that Clement is not the only early Father to believe in this tradition. After looking at some of this evidence from other sources we will come back to Clement.

The Papias fragments represent one of the earliest recordings of this oral tradition,

...as the Presbyters who had seen John the Lord’s disciple remembered that they had heard of him, how the Lord used to teach concerning those times...[a lengthy eschatological statement about blessings from God]...And these things Papias also, who was a hearer of John and companion of Polycarp, an ancient man, testifies in writing in the fourth of his books: for there are five books compiled by him.   - Irenaeus, A.H. V.33,3-4

The eschatological content of this Papian witness is not critical for our purpose. The fact that he relates an oral teaching originating from the apostles, and that Irenaeus does not seem to discredit this report, is central to our discussion. Irenaeus reports this oral tradition here even though he argues against such a tradition elsewhere. Eusebius also reports that Papias claimed an oral tradition,

But I will not hesitate also to set down for thy benefit, along with the interpretations, all that ever I carefully learnt and carefully recalled from the elders, guaranteeing its truth....For I supposed that things out of books did not profit me so much as the utterances of a voice which liveth and abideth.   - H.E. III.39,3-4

It appears from this entry that Eusebius had some of the Papian writings in front of him; Munck argues that his disagreement with the millennial view of Papias leads Eusebius to neglect the Papian writings. This evidence shows that the Eusebian witness is not dependent upon that of Irenaeus, but is an independent one.

There is also testimony of this paradosis after Clement in Origen. In Contra Celsum, arguing against the accusation that the Christian doctrine is secret, Origen makes the following statement;

Moreover, the mystery of the resurrection, because it has not been understood, is a byword and a laughing-stock with the unbelievers. In view of this it is quite absurd to say that the doctrine is secret. The existence of certain doctrines, which are beyond those which are exoteric and do not reach the multitude, is not a peculiarity of Christian doctrine only, but is shared by the philosophers. For they had some doctrines which were exoteric and some esoteric.   - Contra Celsum I.7

It is very interesting that Origen makes this statement in the context of refuting a secret tradition, thus giving this reference an ambiguous tone (just as that of Irenaeus, see Stroumsa, p.35). Origen makes a much clearer statement on oral tradition in Contra Celsum VI.6;

Jesus, who was superior to all these men, is said to have spoken the Word of God to his disciples privately, and especially in places of retreat. But what he said has not been recorded. For it did not seem to them that ‘these matters ought to be described at some length or orally for the masses’. And, if it is not an impertinence to speak the truth about such great men, I affirm that, because they received their thoughts by the grace of God, these men saw better than Plato what truths should be committed to writing, and how they should be written, and what ought under no circumstances to be written for the multitude, and what may be spoken, and what is not of this nature.

Here Origen is arguing against the same claim of Celsus that the Christian doctrines are secret. This time rather than trying to refute Celsus (while trying to avoid the denial of oral tradition), he takes the other side of the argument. He cites the biblical examples of Ezekiel, John, and Paul in support of keeping certain teachings unwritten, then brings Jesus into the argument. "But what he said has not been recorded..." is a clear reference to some kind of oral tradition. Daniélou says that Origen’s position here is more pronounced than that of Clement,

Like Clement, Origen contrasts a higher teaching, reserved to the chosen few, with the general catechesis as expressed in the Creed. But he draws more sharply than Clement the line between the ordinary teaching given in the community and the strictly esoteric teachings reserved to the few.   - Gospel Message, p.155

We find good evidence of oral tradition prior to Clement (in Papias and Irenaeus) and after Clement (in Origen; for others see Stroumsa’s study). It makes the case for an oral tradition in Clement much more probable.

It is critical in this discussion to understand the difficulty which paradosis presented to the early Church. We have already noted in passing that both Irenaeus and Origen address this issue with some ambiguity. Oral traditions would often be tainted by the unorthodox which necessitated orthodox writings. Then the unorthodox would make claim to certain documents, forcing the Fathers to sometimes distance themselves from these documents. Irenaeus and Origen seem to be unwilling to deny such tradition, but are also wary of fully embracing it. Stroumsa reminds us that by the time of Augustine the Church had begun to deny the legitimacy of oral traditions:

It stands to reason that one of the main causes of their progressive disappearance from what came to be known as ‘mainstream’, or ‘orthodox’ Christianity is directly related to their use and abuse by Gnostics and other ‘heretics.’   - Stroumsa, p.93

The evidence of secret traditions and doctrines is well documented in the Nag Hammadi texts. The idea that the Church gradually had to distance itself from various oral traditions for protection against the Gnostics is Stroumsa’s thesis (pp.3-6), and the evidence he produces seems to make a good case. The only point which I would add to his argument is the development of the NT canon. It seems that the more standardised the written record became, the less the oral tradition was needed. This is, in fact, the context of Eusebius’ comments in HE III.25.1-7.

We now want to look more closely at Clement’s claim to a secret oral tradition. In the Clementine fragment known as the Letter to Theodore Clement makes some interesting comments which affect our understanding of oral tradition in second century Egypt. The fragment was discovered by Morton Smith in 1958 in the library of the Mar Saba monastery, a few miles outside of Jerusalem in the desert. The lengthy time between the discovery and his publication in 1973, some of his speculative interpretations of the fragment, and the fact that no other scholar has been able to see this fragment (Smith included black and white photographic plates in his 1973 publication) have all combined to make this document a controversial one. Although Smith offered strong internal evidence to show the authenticity of the fragment, the debate which followed questioned both the authenticity of the letter and the existence of a Secret Gospel of Mark, referred to in the fragment. Although the issue of authorship has not been fully satisfied, the fragment is considered by some as Clementine and appears in the 1980 Stählin edition. In the Letter to Theodore Clement is responding to questions asked of him about a secret gospel of Mark used by the heretical sect, the Carpocratians. According to Clement, this secret gospel was corrupted,

Carpocrates...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 doctrine and, moreover, polluted, mixing with the spotless and holy words utterly shameless lies. From this mixture is drawn off the teaching of the Carpocratians.   - Ltr.Theo. II, 3-10

This evidence agrees with the evidence in Irenaeus, who says of the Carpocratians,

...it is recorded in their writings, and they teach this, that Jesus, speaking privately to His disciples and apostles in mystery, persuading them to hand down these things to the worthy and to those who will be worthy...   - A.H. I.25.5

In this letter we see one of Clement’s approach to the problem of shared points with the Gnostics: he is aware of this Secret Gospel of Mark and believes it to have divine authority, but claims that the Carpocratians have added to it, thus making their copy useless. But he does not take the safe approach of rejecting the Secret Gospel of Mark; the authentic secret gospel “even yet is most carefully guarded,” says Clement, “being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.” The secret nature of this gospel is emphasised when Clement warns that “when they put forward their falsifications, one should not concede that the secret Gospel is by Mark, but should even deny it on oath.” The remainder of the letter contains Clement’s account of two pericopes which have been changed by the Carpocratians. He gives Theodore the actual reading of the Secret Gospel of Mark text, implying that it should continue to be used! This is evidence that Clement believed in an esoteric tradition, however this “secret” gospel was only part of Clement’s guarded gnosis which was to be committed to the advanced believers.

Whereas Irenaeus and Origen are wary of embracing oral tradition, Clement openly affirms an oral tradition (written, but esoteric in the case of Ltr.Theo.) belonging to the Church. In the opening chapter of Stromateis, after claiming that he learned from men who had preserved oral tradition, Clement says of Jesus:

He did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving....secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing...   - Strom. I.1.13.2-3

He clearly states that he is committing this esoteric oral tradition to writing, fearing that it would be forgotten otherwise,

For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from escape the blessed tradition....many things, I well know, have escaped us, through length of time, that have dropped away unwritten...   - Strom. I.1.12,1 and I.1.14.2

This intention of Clement is also recorded by Eusebius:

...he was compelled by his companions to commit to writing traditions that he had heard from the elders of olden time, for the benefit of those that should come after...   - H.E. VI.13.9

So we see that Clement’s esoteric tradition is both written and oral. His intention is that this now written tradition would be continued by those who follow him. Several times he outlines three goals of the gnostic; communicating this hidden gnosis occurs in all three texts. He also makes this intention clear in his opening chapter by quoting 2 Timothy 2:2 as his model, which is a call to continue oral tradition.

Clement Home Page  |  go to  -  The Minority Egyptian Tradition in Clement


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Clement of Alexandria and Christian Spirituality

Chapter 2
Origins of Christian Theoria
- introduction
- what is spirituality?
- studies on clement
- oral tradition
- oral tradition II
- minority tradition
- hidden - Stromateis
- theoria and oral tradition
- conclusions

Chapter 3
Technical Aspects of Theoria
- introduction
- apophatic theoria
- apatheia and theoria
- concept of mystery
more sections coming...
- the threefold pathway
- theoria - spirituality
- stromateis book VII
- practical spirituality
- silence, silent prayer
- egyptian christianity
- clement's theoria
- clement's influence

- CH101
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Clement of Alexandria Theology
Clement of Alexandria and Heresy
Clement of Alexandria and The Trinity
Clement of Alexandria and Contemplation
Clement of Alexandria and Prayer
Clement of Alexandria and Prayer
Clement of Alexandria Stromateis
3rd Century Fathers - Christianity
Clement of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria and Stromateis
Stromata, Miscellanies or Stromateis
Clement of Alexandria and The Instructor
Cyprian - Lapsed Christians
Third Century Christian History
The Trinity in the 3rd Century
Paidagogus - Stromateis - Miscellanies
Origen - De Principii - Principles
Paul of Samosata - Trinity
New Testament Canon, Canonized
Questions regarding Christian Issues
Third Century Christian Issues
Diocletian Persecution of Christians
Diocletian Persecutes Early Church
Novatian Baptism - Cyprian of Carthage
Early Christianity New Testament
Early Christianity Constantine and War
Important Issues in Early Christianity