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Introduction - Part 1

In the Greek manuscript tradition, To the Caesareans, apologia concerning his departure is ascribed to St Basil the Great and given in his collected correspondence as Letter 8.[1] However, largely because of the existence in the Syriac manuscript tradition of a very early manuscript which contains the letter in Syriac translation, which manuscript ascribes the letter to Evagrius Ponticus (c.344 – 399), the letter has recently been assigned to Evagrius Ponticus.

Let us look at the dating of the letter.

In the case that the letter was written by St Basil, it is thought that it would have been written about 360.[2] However, given the heavily Evagrian content of the letter, it seems to us preposterous that the letter could have been written in its entirety, as it has come down to us, by St Basil the Great.

Let us now look at the dating of the letter on the assumption that it was written by Evagrius Ponticus. Since the letter begins with an apologia for its author’s absence from an unspecified location and refers to ‘Gregory’ in such a way as to make natural an identification with St Gregory the Theologian, Evagrian authorship would date the letter to the period 379 – 381, when Evagrius went to Constantinople and became the Archdeacon of St Gregory the Theologian, after St Basil the Great’s death in 379. Evagrius would have been about 35 – 37 years old at the time of composition of the letter.

Let us look more closely at this dating. St Gregory the Theologian went to Constantinople in early 379. He left about 30 months later in mid-381. Since the letter is making a plea for the author to be left to study with St Gregory, it would have to fit into this period.

We do not know exactly when Evagrius went to Constantinople to be with St Gregory, but we have some idea when he left Constantinople for Jerusalem. He left Constantinople suddenly and travelled to Jerusalem by boat, a journey of some weeks. After a period of what Palladius describes as a worldly life, he was sick in bed in Jerusalem for some 6 months before he undertook to be tonsured a monk.[3] He was tonsured on Easter Day, April 9th, 383 in Jerusalem.[4] Hence, the latest he could have left Constantinople would have been about September 1st, 382. About the beginning of October, winter storms begin in the Northern Aegean which would have made a voyage to Palestine problematical and it is doubtful that a sea-captain would have wanted to start such a voyage after the beginning of the Indiction on September 1st. Moreover, according to Palladius Evagrius was able to leave the very next day after his revelatory dream, which would suggest that it was still high sailing season—unless Divine Providence was involved in his finding a ship. This leads us to suggest July, 382, as about the time that Evagrius left Constantinople. Let us say: mid-382. That would give him some slack for his worldly life before his illness and then some slack after his illness for his preparation for tonsure.

As concerns Evagrius’ arrival in Constantinople, if To the Caesareans… is of Evagrius in its entirety then we have the following situation: the author of the letter speaks of a sudden startling event which led him to leave for a time the place where he was (presumably Cappadocia). He then found Gregory (presumably in Constantinople) and now wishes to stay with him to study for a time. The startling event is usually considered to be the death of St Basil the Great, which occurred on January 1st, 379, and there is no other candidate for another such startling event in Evagrius’ life in this period, but, really, nothing is known about what the startling event was. Let us accept this interpretation and say that Evagrius arrived in Constantinople in the early Spring of 379, after having spent a few months with a friend—or even at home with his family—after St Basil the Great’s death.

So we can say that the letter would have had to be written in the period Spring 379 to mid-381.

However, let us refine this analysis. The letter makes a plea for the author to be left to study with St Gregory in such a way as to indicate that the author has already been studying with St Gregory for a time. That would suggest that Evagrius had been in Constantinople for some months when he wrote the letter. However, given the tone of the author and the urging of the unspecified others to whom the letter is written that the author return to them, we would think that the period of time that the author has been studying with St Gregory could not have been more than a few months: it seems unlikely that the persons in Cappadocia would have written in such a way after Evagrius had spent, say, a year of study with St Gregory—the matter would already have come to a head and been resolved. So let us say that the letter was written, if it is of Evagrius in its entirety, in mid- to late 379.

We note that Fr Gabriel Bunge dates the letter to 381,[5] but to us this seems late for the reasons already given and for the additional reason that St Gregory left Constantinople in mid-381 during the Second Ecumenical Synod. If the Synod were about to take place, or even taking place, then surely the author would have requested further time not just to study with St Gregory but also to assist him—as his Archdeacon—in the Synod. Moreover, conditions were rather unsettled in the run-up to the Synod, something that is not indicated by the letter; and it is doubtful St Gregory would have had much free time to discuss philosophy and theology with Evagrius during that time.

The letter makes no mention whatsoever of the Arian attack on St Gregory’s flock which occurred on Easter, 379. While the letter does speak of the temptations of life in the cities, it does so in a completely neutral way without making clear name of the city where the author is. There is no reference at all in the letter to disturbed conditions in Constantinople, no mention of difficult conditions of the Orthodox flock in Constantinople, of St Gregory as officially recognized Bishop of Constantinople, of the author’s service to the Church in an upcoming Ecumenical Synod. This would suggest to us that Evagrius would have written the letter in a tranquil part of the period in question, earlier, we think, rather than later in St Gregory’s sojourn in Constantinople. However, there is nothing in the letter to tie it to Constantinople at any particular time.

To continue with this, let us look at the date of the composition of the letter from the point of view of Evagrius’ ecclesiastical status. We know that he was tonsured reader by St Basil the Great, so that he would have arrived in Constantinople with at the least this minor order. The order of reader was taken quite seriously in ancient times and it is entirely possible that the claim of the parties to whom Evagrius was writing,[6] that he return, was based on his being a reader in their jurisdiction: perhaps they were the senior members of the Church to which he belonged as a reader.

Dr Casiday has Evagrius tonsured a monk by St Basil the Great.[7] While we do not believe this,[8] it should be understood that if Evagrius arrived in Constantinople already a monk, then his Bishop or Abbot back in Cappadocia would have had a very strong claim on his return, and St Gregory the Theologian would have been in a very difficult position either to keep Evagrius or to ordain him deacon, much less to make him his Archdeacon, without the written consent of Evagrius’ Bishop or Abbot. This would have been true, especially true, if St Gregory and Evagrius’ Bishop or Abbot were personally acquainted or even friends: it would have been very rude for St Gregory to ordain Evagrius at a time that he was still formally attached to another prelate who was an acquaintance or friend. While we have not studied the historical evolution of the canons of the Church on this matter, the canons would in any event have codified existing good practice: there was no time when a Bishop, even the Bishop of Constantinople, could have kept a fugitive monk and ordained him deacon, making him his Archdeacon, without the permission of the monk’s own Bishop or Abbot. But the letter says nothing about these matters, and there is extant no further letter either from St Gregory or from Evagrius which addresses these issues. Moreover, it is clear from the letter that Evagrius arrived a ‘fugitive’—a word he himself uses in agreement with the characterization of him by the persons to whom he is writing: he did not arrive with a release in his pocket.

This incidentally would militate against Evagrius’ having been invited by St Gregory to Constantinople, as Dr Casiday suggests have might been the case.[9] In such a case St Gregory would first have had to ask the permission of those under whose authority Evagrius was, and there would therefore have been no further necessity for Evagrius to write a letter for permission to stay describing himself as a ‘fugitive’.

In the case that Evagrius arrived a deacon, ordained, as Palladius claims, by St Gregory of Nyssa,[10] then there would have only been necessary the permission of Evagrius’ Bishop or Abbot for him to remain with St Gregory the Theologian. But in such a case, it would have been necessary, we think, for St Gregory the Theologian to have written for permission, not Evagrius. It would be plausible that Evagrius could write personally to his Bishop or Abbot for temporary permission to study with St Gregory, but that would not include his being made Archdeacon by St Gregory (this is a permanent position indicating that the deacon is in the permanent service of the Bishop), nor his having been left to St Nectarios by St Gregory: he would have had to return to his place in Cappadocia when St Gregory left the Throne of Constantinople.

In the case that Evagrius arrived a simple reader, then To the Caesareans… would have been written before he was ordained deacon by St Gregory and made his Archdeacon. In this case, there would have had to be a reply to the present letter from the parties in Cappadocia which granted him a complete release to remain in St Gregory’s service—even though the present letter does not request such a complete release. Otherwise, St Gregory could not have ordained Evagrius deacon without further correspondence. This reply which granted him a complete release could have occurred in any of the above scenarios. But there is no such letter known, so that the existence of such a release is pure speculation.

Moreover, there is a very serious problem: although the letter begins in a tone consistent with a plea to a Bishop or Abbot for temporary leave to study with St Gregory, it continues as a homily composed in an authoritative tone addressed to a group of friends and brothers. It boggles the mind that Evagrius would have been such a fool as to have adopted such a tone with his Bishop or Abbot. Moreover, the recipients are addressed in the plural in such a way as to suggest that they are a group; and the letter ends with an injunction that the recipients are to study and apply what has been written.

Given all of this, the most plausible scenario is this: Evagrius arrived a reader without permission. To get temporary permission to stay with St Gregory he had to write a letter to a group that had a formal claim on him but not such a strong one that St Gregory had to write. The group out of the goodness of their hearts granted him a complete release, which allowed St Gregory to proceed later with Evagrius’ ordination to the deaconate and elevation to the archdeaconate.

Hence, we think that the ecclesiastical situation of Evagrius points to a date of composition earlier rather than later in his sojourn in Constantinople.

This is quite an important issue for we will want to compare the content of To the Caesareans… with the content of St Gregory’s Theological Orations.

The Theological Orations are dated to between July and November, 380, by M. Paul Gallay, their editor.[11] It would be convenient if To the Caesareans… were written after the Theological Orations, for then we could look for the letter’s clear-cut dependence on the Orations. For we think it clear that as St Gregory’s disciple Evagrius would have been personally present at the delivery of the Orations unless something prevented him, concerning which there is no evidence whatsoever. However, if the dramatic event in Evagrius’ life was St Basil’s death, then our reasoning indicates that the letter would have been written between Spring and mid-379, a full year before the Orations were spoken.

Now it is clear that the Theological Orations were not off-the-cuff homilies: St Gregory would have thought through his positions in quite some detail before speaking them in the Orations. Hence, at the time that Evagrius would have arrived in Constantinople in the Spring of 379, St Gregory would have already been composing the Orations, if only in his mind’s eye. Therefore, it is not at all out of the question that the theological content of the Orations formed a topic of his discourse with Evagrius before Evagrius wrote To the Caesareans…. The significance of this is that To the Caesareans… and the Orations cover common ground, so that the issue of who learned what from whom is very important in the comparison of the two works.

If our reasoning is correct—and there is certainly room for the falsification of our assumptions, for example that the dramatic event was St Basil’s death—then St Gregory, if he read Evagrius’ letter, would have read it before he spoke his own Theological Orations. The significance of this will become apparent as we proceed.

Let us now turn to the textual analysis of the letter.

To the Caesareans… is not a homogeneous text. There are passages in it, one very long, which summarize Evagrius’ mature mystical theology. Moreover, it can be shown that the long passage is in all likelihood an interpolation, and that the other such passages very well may be.

Let us look at the evidence. In the letter, the first section, from ¶1 [1] – 1 [3], is an apologia for someone’s absence in order to study theology and philosophy with ‘Gregory’, evidently St Gregory the Theologian. As we pointed out, historically, in the Greek manuscript tradition, the letter has been ascribed to St Basil the Great himself. To our ear, the first section does sound like Basil. Let us call it Section 1.

The tone of Section 1 is supplicatory and pleading, as one might expect from someone who is absent without leave and must not only justify his absence but also seek the permission of the other party to continue for a time where he is. Moreover, the author refers to the ‘paternal compassions’ of the persons to whom the letter is addressed in a way consistent with a relationship of subordination.

Section 1 then closes with ‘And those things which concern us are in this wise,’ something that might be taken to be the closing line of a short letter about one’s personal situation.

The letter then abruptly commences a scriptural exegesis that advances the doctrine of the divinity first of the Son and then of the Holy Spirit. The tone changes: from pleading for a little more time together with Gregory, the letter abruptly begins to teach in an authoritative manner. Let us call this Section 2: from ¶2 [4] to ¶12 [40], the end of the letter.

There is no further reference in Section 2, even in the conclusion, to the content of Section 1, although the conclusion does refer to the text as a letter. Since there is very little transition from Section 1 to Section 2 and no further reference in Section 2 to Section 1, the two sections might be thought to be independent texts brought together in the manuscript tradition. This thought is reinforced by the fact that Section 1 constitutes about 5% of the text of the letter and Section 2 about 95%. That is consistent either with the joining of two independent texts in the manuscript tradition or with the treatment of Section 1 by the author as a mere throw-away plea for more time.

Let us now consider this passage at the beginning of the Letter:

But since, with God, we reached the goal according to our strength, finding the vessel of election and the deep well, I say, the mouth of Christ, Gregory, allow us a bit of time, a bit, I ask: for we request, not embracing the way of life in the cities—neither has the Evil One escaped our notice, he who contrives by means of such things the deception for men—but judging that concourse to be most beneficial which is with the saints. For in saying something concerning the divine dogmas, and in more often hearing, we receive the habit of contemplations, difficult to put off. And those things which concern us are in this wise.[12]

Let us compare this to the beginning of the letter’s conclusion:

And concerning the Trinity Holy and Worthy of Worship, for the present let so much be said to us. For it is not now possible to examine more extensively the reason (logos) concerning it. You, then, taking seeds from our lowliness, cultivate mature wheat since we will also demand interest on these things, as you know.[13]

The difference in tone is quite obvious. In Section 1 the author is requesting more time with Gregory because he is being benefited by saying something with Gregory concerning the divine dogmas, but in more often hearing: clearly the situation of someone who is presenting himself to his readers as a student in need of leave to continue his studies where he is rather than return home.

In the conclusion the author refers not to his situation with Gregory but to the examination of the ‘word (logos) concerning the Holy Trinity’. Moreover, he enjoins his readers to make the most of his discussion of the Holy Trinity because he will ‘demand interest on these things’—surely the words of a teacher or master with his disciples. Earlier, in justifying a certain interpretation that we will discuss below (Passage A), the author says:

For no envy lodges with us; for we have commenced this examination of the texts for the sake of neither argumentativeness or vainglory but for the benefit of the brothers, in order that the earthenware vessels that have the treasure of God might not seem to be deceived by the stone-hearted and uncircumcised men, those armed with the foolish wisdom.

Now it might be thought that the author in Constantinople is writing with courtesy to his Christian brethren back home and referring to them as ‘brothers’. But we wonder: perhaps the author is referring to monks—that is, perhaps he is writing for his brotherhood of disciples in the Cells (Kellia)? That would imply that the passage was written much later, after Evagrius had gone to Egypt.

However, there is a problem with this analysis: In analyzing the text in this way, we are, it seems, breaking up a men – de clause. Such a men – de clause is ordinarily to be taken as a sign of a unity of composition.[14] The men – de clause is found precisely here:

And [on the one hand (men)][15] those things which concern us are in this wise. 2 [4] You, then (de) [= on the other hand], O divine and most beloved friends to me, guard yourselves from the shepherds of the Philistines, lest such a one unawares block your wells and make turbid the purity of the knowledge (gnosis) which concerns the faith.

This is precisely where we want to break the letter up into Sections 1 and 2.

In our defence it should be noted that both Migne and Bunge recognize a section or paragraph break in exactly the same place[16]—hardly to be expected of a single men – de sentence. It could be thought, however, that the author is using the men – de construction to afford a transition from his brief apologia to his lengthier discussion of Trinitarian doctrine, without however intending that it constitute a single sentence.

Adding the men – de construction to stitch the passages together would have involved the addition of only two words: we might here be seeing the suture of two independent texts.

Let us go on. The core of Section 2 is scriptural exegesis: commentary explaining in an orthodox way a chain of Scripture passages used by the Arians to oppose the divinity of Christ and even of the Holy Spirit. This core has much in common with St Gregory’s Theological Orations. It also has a number of very striking differences that we will have to discuss.

To go on, however, in ¶6 [20] we find:

And let these things be said in a grosser way according to the previous introduction. Already it is necessary to examine the meaning of the text in a higher way and it is necessary to knock on the door of knowledge (gnosis), if indeed I should be able to awaken the Master of the House, him who gives the spiritual loaves to those who ask him, since they are friends and brothers whom we endeavour to feast.

The author then proceeds to give a very long, dense and polished allegorical exegesis why Jesus was ignorant of the hour and day of the Last Judgement. The style is more sophisticated than that of the preceding part of Section 2, and certainly far more sophisticated than that of Section 1. This passage ends at ¶7 [26], giving us a unitary passage from ¶6 [20] to ¶7 [26]. Let us call this Passage A of Section 2.

Passage A is difficult to summarize but essentially depends on the notion that the Kingdom of the Christ is natural contemplation (‘knowledge (gnosis) that is implicated in material [objects]’) and the Kingdom of the Father the immaterial contemplation (‘as one might say, the contemplation of the very Divinity’), coupled with the notion that Jesus’ ignorance is ontological because ontologically his Kingdom has to do only with natural contemplation, whereas ontologically the immaterial contemplation pertains to the Kingdom of the Father.

[1] Migne 32 cols. 245C – 268B. We have translated the edition of Courtonne, as given in Basil 1 pp. 180 – 95.

[2] Migne loc. cit. fn. * to the letter’s title.

[3] Migne 34 col. 1193 D.

[4] Casiday p. 9.

[5] Personal communication.

[6] Under the assumption that he wrote the letter in its entirety.

[7] Casiday pp. 204 – 205, fns. 16, 29 and 32.

[8] We will discuss our reasoning in another forum.

[9] Ibid. p. 8.

[10] Migne 34 col. 1188 C.

[11] SC 250 p. 14.

[12] ¶1 [3].

[13] ¶12 [36].

[14] We are indebted to Dr Joel Kalvesmaki of Washington, DC for pointing this out, the fact that St Basil does indeed use ‘homoousios’, and a number of other points.

[15] We ignored this men in translation.

[16] This is evident from the paragraph numbering of each.


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