Thursday, September 27, 2018

Still searching

This is a scholarly and somewhat difficult book about Christian esotericism and mysticism. The author believes that early (New Testament) Christianity had an esoteric message, while admitting that this is almost impossible to demonstrate in any coherent scholarly fashion. He regards his articles as drafts or “Vorarbeiten” to a more thoroughgoing analysis of the subject, which still remains to be written.

In contrast to many others, Stroumsa believes that the background to Christian esotericism isn't the pagan mystery religions, but rather secret Jewish traditions. These traditions can (perhaps) be gleaned from the Dead Sea Scrolls, or from later Jewish “Merkabah” mysticism, which the author believes may be much older than hitherto suspected. In one article, he speculates that knowledge of God's secret name was central to esoteric Christianity, an idea that sounds Jewish. I think Stroumsa also suspects that the Kabbalah may be older than many imagine. He points out that both Clement of Alexandria and Origen had Jewish teachers. These were the “Gnosticizing” or “Platonizing” Church Fathers. Clement was familiar with a Secret Gospel of Mark, while Origen believed in reincarnation and was familiar with Jews who did the same. The later Kabbalists also believed in reincarnation. Of course, both Clement and Origen were late compared to Jesus or the apostles, so their allegorical interpretations of the Gospels don't directly tell us anything about NT esotericism, even apart from the fact that the Secret Gospel of Mark (mostly) remains a secret…

Esotericism became associated with Gnostics and other “heretics”, making the idea of a secret tradition suspect from the perspective of emerging orthodoxy. Also, the “official” Church had a populist appeal which put it at odds with elite pagan intellectuals, and therefore also with esotericists of various shades, since esotericism implied a form of elitism. When the author wrote the first edition of this book, he believed that esotericism pretty much died with Augustine, who explicitly repudiated it. Augustine didn't deny that some Christians were more spiritually advanced than others, but this didn't imply a secret message, but rather a deepened understanding of truths publicly revealed to everyone. Augustine also disconnected mysticism from esotericism. In an introduction to the second edition, Stroumsa writes that he may be wrong on this point, and that esotericism may have survived among Christian monks and hermits, both “heretics” and mainline ones. He recommends the works of Istvan Perczel and Alexander Golitzin on this point. Will check!

Hardly easy reading on the bus, but could be somewhat useful, especially the chapters on Clement and Origen. Four stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment