A letter by the gnostic Valentinus preserved among the letters of Basil of Caesarea?

I have received an email from Nathan Porter, who has an article due out in Vigiliae Christianae, “A Newly Identified Letter of Valentinus on Jesus’s Digestive System: Ps.-Basil of Caesarea’s ep. 366”.  Thankfully the article is available at Academia.edu here.

It seems that Basil of Caesarea’s Epistula 366 (De continentia) is verbally identical, in places, with portions of Clement of Alexandria’s Stromateis  The latter contains a quotation from a lost letter of the gnostic heresiarch Valentinus to Agathopous.  This the author gives as:

Valentinus, in his letter to Agathopous, says, “Enduring everything, he was continent. Jesus worked divinity: he ate and drank in his own way, not expelling his food. For so great was the power of continence in him that his food did not corrupt in him, since he himself could not be corrupted.”

The Basil passage is:

For if death comes from corruption, and immortality comes from the absence of corruption, Jesus worked divinity, not mortality. He ate and drank in his own way, not expelling his food. So great a power was continence in him that his food did not corrupt in him, since he himself could not be corrupted.

The author suggests that De Continentia is in fact the very same as the lost letter of Valentinus.  The actual idea is indeed heretical, in a docetic way, because such a Christ is not fully man.

The article is very detailed, very well argued, and certainly deserves publication, and professional responses.   I can only give a hasty comment here on a couple of points.

My only concern is that the type of argumentation employed can produce false positives rather easily.  Two passages of text, of any real length, which appear in different works by different authors but which are worded identically, cannot possibly be independent.  We may not know what the connection is, but there must be a connection somehow.  In this case we are not dealing with a long passage of identical wording.  Instead we are dealing with a few words and an idea in a couple of sentences.  That’s risky territory. We’re all accustomed to parallelomania, where a “parallel” proves connection, indeed derivation, and any two things can be made to look the same if we squint hard enough.  We have no “control” search, in which we check whether the method produces demonstrably false results (or does not).  How indeed would we construct one?  But I recall an example, in a different context, of just such a failure which I discussed here.   The false positive is always a risk, with such small amounts of data.

To his credit, the author seems to be aware of this, and quite rightly tries to address this using other material from the two texts, arguing that it is unlikely that the relatively well-structured argument of De Continentia is produced by reading Clement’s Stromateis and reorganising it.  He makes a good case for this; but I do wonder whether it’s true.

Mr Porter also seems aware of the context in Basil’s writings, and he discusses how De Continentia would fit into the patristic world for which it was written.  This is well done indeed.  However I don’t think that there is any need to suppose that someone intended to transmit a letter of Valentinus to the future by hiding it under Basil’s name, as we know that the Apollinarists were forced to do.  No gnostic felt bound by the teachings of his master, and the disciples of Valentinus each embroidered their own system.  By the fourth century AD, did the name of Valentinus mean much, even to the remaining Valentinians?  In manuscript collections of material, chance plays a large part.  Possibly somebody just liked the line of argument, oblivious of its origin, or it was scholia in the margin, or whatever.

All the same, it’s a fine article.  Worth a read!


2 thoughts on “A letter by the gnostic Valentinus preserved among the letters of Basil of Caesarea?

  1. I am deeply honored that you read the article and saw fit to post about it. This feels to me like the scholarly equivalent of getting a spot on one’s favorite talk show. I am also very grateful for your detailed feedback. I hope you won’t mind if I offer a few friendly rejoinders here.

    While the argument begins with the brief quotation by Clement that you mention, my case is not based on these few sentences alone. As I point out, several passages of Ps-Basil are paralleled in Clement, with varying degrees of verbal correspondence. I provide a detailed synopsis of both works to make this point.

    I am aware of the possibility of a false positive, and I thus do not rely primarily on literary parallels. I offer multiple lines of evidence. The first, which you mention, is that the quotation of Valentinus given by Clement coheres very poorly with its literary and theological context in the Stromateis but very well with that of Ps-Basil. This accords with what we know of Clement’s citation practices. Annewies van den Hoek has shown that Clement’s literary borrowings often result in borrowed passages becoming unintelligible in their new contexts. By contrast, Ps-Basil displays a marked unity and few signs of copying.

    I also pointed out several syntactical and grammatical errors found in Clement that are not found in Ps-Basil, as well as some logical confusion in Clement’s argumentation that is absent from Ps-Basil. To give just one example, Stählin corrects Strom. 59.2 to read ἐγκράτειά ἐστιν… κυριεύειν λογισμῶν τῶν πονηρῶν, where the mss. instead has λογισμῷ. The correction is appropriate, as the dative form makes no sense at all (“Continence is… to rule by the thought of evil things” vs “Continence is to rule evil thoughts”). Ps-Basil, however, already has the genitive rather than the dative. All this fits very well with the well-known sloppiness of Clement’s quotation practices.

    There are also some interesting cases of “mixing and matching,” as I called them. There is a section of Ps-Basil that parallels two different passages in Clement (StrA and StrB, as I designated them), but follows StrA more closely than StrB. If Ps-Basil were excerpting from Clement, then he would have drawn primarily from StrA. Yet StrB is closer to Ps-Basil in one minor way: like Ps-Basil, it has ὅσα ἐπιθυμεῖ, whereas StrA has ἃ ἐπιθυμεῖ. If Ps-Basil were excerpting from Clement, he inexplicably drew ὅσα from StrB while borrowing the rest of his material from StrA. It is far simpler to think that Clement, slapdash copyist that he was, copied the passage differently in two places.

    I additionally noted theological and terminological parallels with Valentinian and “Gnostic” theology in Ps-Basil, including what is possibly a Valentinian notion of spiritual embodiment and a reference to Charis as God’s consort. There are also some close verbal parallels with certain parts of The Gospel of Truth, if one accepts that work’s attribution to Valentinus.

    As far as the patristic context goes, it’s certainly true that it is not necessary to think that someone intentionally hid the letter under Basil’s name; there are other ways that a letter of Valentinus could have found its way into Basil’s corpus. I was merely suggesting a possible scenario for its transmission. I argue in the article that the Aphthartodocest controversy, which relied precisely on quotations from Basil regarding Jesus’s digestive system, would provide a plausible context for the letter’s addition to Basil’s corpus.

    Again, it is a real honor that you read and commented on my paper. I am deeply grateful for the feedback, and for your blogging in general, and I look forward to responses from others.

  2. Thank you Mr. Pearse for bringing this article to attention. And thank you Mr. Porter for such an cogent, in-depth response.

    I read and research the history of the first through seventh centuries AD and while theology isn’t necesarily the focus of my efforts, you can’t exactly escape the theological disputes and declarations that had an impact outside the Christianity at the time. From the 30,000 foot view, I think that the uncovering or parsing-out indications of writings that proponents of the nascent orthodoxy found so objectionable helps provide some more context to the way that people of the era understood or thought about the growing religious movement.

    Thank you both for your efforts.

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