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 18.104.22.168. 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!