Preliminary Remarks on the Analysis of Internal Evidence in Basil Letter 8 for Evagrian Authorship and Dating, with reference to the Theological Orations of St Gregory the Theologian
In the Greek manuscript tradition, the letter entitled To the Caesareans, apologia concerning his departure is ascribed to St Basil the Great and given in his collected correspondence as Letter 8. However, because of the existence in the Syriac manuscript tradition of a very early manuscript containing the letter in Syriac translation, which manuscript ascribes the letter to Evagrius Ponticus, and because of the style and content of the Letter, the letter has relatively recently been assigned to Evagrius.
Why should we be interested in Basil Letter 8 if it is by the hand of Evagrius?
In his recent book, Evagrius Ponticus, Dr. Augustine Casiday writes: ‘In the light of how trenchantly orthodox Evagrius is shown to have been by [Basil Letter 8] … it seems far more sensible to begin our attempts to understand his admittedly obscure writings from the presumption of his Cappadocian orthodoxy than to work backward from the presumption of Origenist heresy.’
The arguments that Dr Casiday presents are very close to what we were written by Fr Gabriel Bunge, to whom Dr Casiday’s book is dedicated.
We are therefore examining a major support of what we would like to call the ‘Bungean narrative’. To what extent can we be sure that Basil Letter 8 was written by Evagrius in Constantinople at the feet of St Gregory and that all the concepts expressed in the Letter are perfectly orthodox, so that Basil Letter 8 would provide us with a template to interpret the Kephalaia Gnostica and other works of Evagrius in a way different from the template of heresy provided by the posthumous condemnations of Evagrius, especially the Anathemas Against Origenism of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod?
In view of time limitations on the presentation of this paper, we will proceed in summary fashion.
One of the things we shall do is compare Basil Letter 8 to the Theological Orations of St Gregory the Theologian.
If Letter 8 is by Evagrius, its natural setting would be Evagrius’ sojourn in
Let us turn to the text of Basil Letter 8.
Basil Letter 8 is not a homogeneous text. There are passages in it, one very long, which summarize the mystical theology of the mature Evagrius. Moreover, it can be shown that the long passage is in all likelihood an interpolation and that other such passages very well may be.
In the Letter, the first part, about 5% of the Letter, is an apologia for someone’s absence to study theology and philosophy with ‘Gregory’, evidently St Gregory the Theologian. 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 permission of the other party to continue as he is. Section 1 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 note about one’s personal situation.
The Letter then abruptly begins 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 begins to teach in an authoritative tone. Let us call this Section 2: from the end of Section 1 to the end of the Letter.
There is no further reference in Section 2 to 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.
Let us now compare Section 1 to the Letter’s conclusion. 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 presenting himself as a student in need of leave to continue his studies. In the conclusion, however, the author refers not to his situation with Gregory but to the examination of the ‘word concerning the Holy Trinity’, enjoining his readers to make the most of his discussion because he will ‘demand interest on these things’—surely the words of a teacher with his students. The difference in tone is obvious.
The core of Section 2 is scriptural exegesis: commentary explaining in an apparently orthodox way a chain of Scripture passages used by the Arians to oppose the divinity of the Word and the Holy Spirit. This core has much in common with St Gregory’s Theological Orations. It also has a number of striking differences.
However, in ¶6  we find:
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….
The author then proceeds to give a very long, dense and polished allegorical exegesis why Jesus was ignorant of the day and hour of the Last Judgement. The style is more sophisticated than that of the preceding part of Section 2, and certainly more sophisticated than that of Section 1. Let us call this ‘Passage A of Section 2’.
Passage A is difficult to summarize but depends on the notion that the Kingdom of the Christ is natural contemplation while the Kingdom of the Father is the immaterial contemplation of the Divinity, coupled with the notion that Jesus’ ignorance is ontological because ontologically his Kingdom has only to do with natural contemplation, whereas ontologically the immaterial contemplation of the Divinity pertains to the Kingdom of the Father.
The return from Passage A to the remainder of Section 2 is a very abrupt return to the train of thought that ended with the beginning of Passage A. However if Passage A is elided, along with the sentence just before it, then the Letter reads much more naturally. Let us call the result of eliding Passage A the ‘reconstructed Letter’.
As one can see by comparing the reconstructed Letter with Passage A, there is a great difference in tone, sophistication and content between the reconstructed Letter and Passage A. The reconstructed Letter is a straightforward commentary on Scripture defending the divinity of the Word. Passage A, however, is a very sophisticated presentation of mature Evagrian doctrine. In the reconstructed Letter Jesus’ ignorance is feigned, whereas in Passage A it is ontological. The reconstructed Letter, moreover, has much in common with Theological Oration 4—although there are important differences.
Given this difference in tone and content between the reconstructed Letter and Passage A, and given the unnatural transitions into and out of Passage A, we would like to treat Passage A as an interpolation into the original text of Section 2. That would give us at least two layers of text in Section 2: the original commentary on Scripture, and Passage A, the interpolated presentation of mature Evagrian doctrine.
Did Evagrius in a revision in
We do not know. There is no reference in ancient authors to the Letter giving fragments of it the way we have ancient fragments attesting to the content of the Kephalaia Gnostica. So while the Letter entered into the Syriac manuscript tradition quite early under the name of Evagrius, we have no idea what happened before that—from the time of the composition of the Letter to the time of its entry into the Greek and Syriac manuscript traditions.
Moreover, and this is very important, we have no written record that St Gregory the Theologian ever read the Letter; and if he did, in what form; and, if so, what he thought of it.
In general, we can hypothesize three distinct layers to the Letter, with distinct differences in tone:
Layer 1 is Section 1, a brief apologia for someone’s absence to study with ‘Gregory’.
Layer 2 comprises those parts of Section 2 that are a straightforward commentary on a chain of Scripture passages along the lines of the
Layer 3 comprises a series of interpolations into Section 2 that present mature Evagrian doctrine, including additional, more Evagrian, interpretations of the Scripture passages that form the backbone of Layer 2. Layer 3 would include, as a major part, Passage A discussed above. Layer 3 would also include the conclusion to the Letter at the end of Section 2. In some cases, Layer 3 addresses issues that are addressed both in Layer 2 and in St Gregory’s Theological Orations.
Let us return to Passage A. To our ear it sounds like Evagrius wrote it but with several reservations.
First, the author of Passage A uses the Greek word epinoia a number of times, but with different meanings, so that for each instance of the word the reader or translator has to find the right sense in context. While we have not been able to come up with unequivocal conclusions about the use of epinoia in Basil Letter 8, it is clear that questions are possible about the stylistic consistency of the Letter with other known works of Evagrius.
To continue, the author of passage A emphasizes the recognition of God in second natural contemplation in the ‘operations of the Creator, and in the beginning [the mind] understands these from the results’. In the other works of Evagrius, Evagrius does not discuss the role in second natural contemplation of the ‘operations’ and ‘results’ of God in Creation. When discussing second natural contemplation in his other works, Evagrius discusses the ‘reasons’ of created objects.
It is clear from a passage of the Theological Orations that St Gregory is familiar with this concept of the reasons of created objects, although he does not dwell on it.
A case can be made that the author of passage A is not Evagrius: he is not using words as the late Evagrius used them. There is clearly a difference in Passage A from the way that Evagrius normally writes.
Finally, more generally, some of the passages that constitute Layer 3 of the Letter are imprecise as concerns the stages of Evagrian contemplation. For example, there seems to be some confusion in the mind of the author of the conclusion of Letter 8 about the nature of the presence of the Holy Trinity in Creation. The author begins by referring to the ‘reason concerning the Holy Trinity’ in a discursive way and very soon proceeds to discuss how the ‘reason concerning the Holy Trinity’ is mixed into natural contemplation, ‘if indeed from the beauty of creatures the Generator is proportionately seen’.
It might be wondered if the Letter’s problems with diction constitute immature foreshadowings of a later, more mature mystical doctrine. It seems to us, no. The presentation of mystical doctrine in Layer 3 of the Letter is quite sophisticated and definite, as if the author knows the system quite well, not as if he is about to think it through. It is just that the author of Layer 3 understands the Evagrian system a little differently from Evagrius in the genuine works that we know of Evagrius, and perhaps in a somewhat less mystically accomplished way.
Moreover, when compared to the Theological Orations, the presentation in Basil Letter 8 of the stages of contemplation is far more articulated and definite than we would expect from a student of St Gregory writing within a year of the Orations.
This passage of Letter 8, for example, outlines the whole mystical ascent as delineated by the mature Evagrius:
For ‘flesh and blood’ he called his whole mystical sojourn; and he made known the teaching constituted from praktiki, physiki and theologiki….
To suggest that this particular passage was written by Evagrius before he left
Let us now compare the content of Passage A to the Theological Orations.
Let us consider a passage from Theological Orations 2. The seeker ascends
Let us now see how the author of Passage A handles the same theme.
7  The holy disciples of our Saviour, coming beyond [natural] contemplation as it is possible to men, and having been purified by the word, seek the end, and desire to know the final blessedness, of which very thing our Lord declared both the angels and himself to be ignorant. On the one hand, he called ‘day’ the exact apprehension of the conceptions of God; on the other hand, ‘hour’ the contemplation of the Monad and Unity, the notification of which things he granted only to the Father. …  If, therefore, whatever God is, is said to be known by God of himself and that which he is not, not to be known—then our Lord, according to the notion of the Incarnation and the grosser teaching, is not the final object of desire; and therefore our Saviour did not know the end and the final blessedness. ‘But neither the angels know,’ he said—that is, neither the contemplation which is in them nor the reasons of their ministries are the final object of desire. For the knowledge of these things is gross in comparison with the ‘person to person’. The Father alone knows, he says, because [the Father] is indeed the end and the final blessedness. For when we know God no longer in mirrors, neither by means of alien things, but we come forth to him as to ‘only’ and ‘one’, then we will see the final end. For they say that the Kingdom of Christ is all the knowledge that is implicated in material [objects] and that the Kingdom of the God and Father is the immaterial contemplation, and, as one might say, the contemplation of the very Divinity.
The most obvious difference is the treatment by St Gregory of God who is the goal as the Trinity. The author of Passage A, on the other hand, has a somewhat more Neoplatonic view that treats the Monad and Unity, identified with the Father, as the goal. The words we have translated ‘Monad’ and ‘Unity’ are technical terms in Neoplatonic philosophy used by Proclus for the highest aspect of the Godhead.
In Passage A, the
St Gregory makes no such distinctions in the passage summarized here, or anywhere else in the Theological Orations, and indeed rejects the notion that there is an end to the
St Gregory speaks of seeing the hind parts of God, that which the divine David calls the ‘magnificence’ which is to be found in the creatures, just as we see the reflections of the sun upon the waters. The author of Passage A on the other hand is explicit that when we proceed beyond seeing God in mirrors, or by means of alien things, ‘but we come forth to him as to “only” and “one”, then we will see the final end’.
St Gregory is diffident about the possibility of Man’s knowing the nature of God. The author of Passage A, however, is quite explicit that the contemplation of the very Divinity is the goal, a goal which is attainable.
It is as if the author of Passage A is relegating St Gregory the Theologian to the rank of beginner. That is hardly consistent with his being a student of St Gregory writing a year before St Gregory spoke the Theological Orations and expecting St Gregory to review his Letter before he sends it to the brethren back home.
The author of Passage A states that seen from the point of view of the Incarnation and the grosser teaching, ‘our Lord’—Jesus Christ—is not the end and the goal of the mystical ascent, but seen from the point of view of the Word, he is.
St Gregory makes no such distinctions.
If Evagrius wrote Passage A a year before St Gregory wrote the Theological Orations, how is it that he is making these distinctions? How is it that St Gregory accepted these distinctions as being genuinely orthodox without adopting them in his own Orations?
From a Christological point of view, just what does the author of Passage A mean concerning how we view ‘our Lord’ in regard to the end and goal of the mystical ascent? If we take into consideration Chapter IV, 18 of the Kephalaia Gnostica, then one interpretation is that the author is saying the same thing here: the Christ as seen from the point of view of the created mind which, united to the Word of God, took on human flesh for the salvation of men is not the final object of desire; but the Word to which that mind called the Christ is united is the final object of desire. The natural explanation is that the author of Passage A is advancing a different Christology from St Gregory, a Christology developed at great length in Evagrius’ late works, especially the Kephalaia Gnostica.
A detailed reflection on the Theological Orations of St Gregory in comparison with Passage A indicates that Passage A was not written under the watchful eye of St Gregory. If Passage A is by Evagrius it was written much later, when he was working on works such as the Kephalaia Gnostica.
There are a number of apparent allusions in Basil Letter 8 to the mature system of the Kephalaia Gnostica that time constraints prevent us from discussing.
Fr Gabriel Bunge and Dr Casiday take the position that since Basil Letter 8 was written under the eye of St Gregory the Theologian in
It does not seem to us methodologically sound to impose on Evagrius the a priori template of orthodoxy.
The issue is this: Should we assume, on the basis of his early association with St Gregory and St Basil, that Evagrius is orthodox and give him the benefit of the doubt in interpreting such passages as this of Basil Letter 8, and then continue with that orthodox interpretation into the Kephalaia Gnostica, denying the a posteriori template that the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod supposedly put on the Kephalaia Gnostica?
One can see that a key element in the establishment of the School of Bunge’s interpretation of Evagrius is precisely to remove the possibility of interpreting Evagrius on the basis of the Kephalaia Gnostica—‘it is too difficult a work’—while simultaneously establishing that Basil Letter 8 is an unequivocally orthodox work written by Evagrius under the watchful eye of St Gregory the Theologian, a work that is to be used as an orthodox template to re-interpret Evagrius as an orthodox thinker.
However, since we have no documentary evidence that St Gregory approved of Basil Letter 8 in the form we now have it, we can use the doctrines found in the Kephalaia Gnostica—much more clearly than either Fr Gabriel or Dr Casiday care to admit—to shed light on the meaning of passages of Letter 8, and even to raise the possibility that some passages of the letter, expressive of mature Evagrian doctrine as found in the Kephalaia Gnostica, are in fact late interpolations in the letter, perhaps by Evagrius, perhaps by one of his circle.
It cannot be asserted that the author’s reasoning is inherently orthodox both in the Letter and throughout his life, and must be presumed to be orthodox, because of Evagrius’ early association with St Basil the Great and St Gregory the Theologian. People change over the course of their life, for the better or for the worse.
It is useful to consider Evagrius the person at the time he was with St Gregory the Theologian in
This history is simply not consistent with Evagius' having articulated an advanced mystical system before he left Constantinople, a mystical system that on the face of it is more advanced than the mystical doctrine being advanced in the same period by his teacher, St Gregory the Theologian. Hence, we have to consider whether the passages of Basil Letter 8 expressive of advanced mystical doctrine were written later than Constantinople, after Evagrius had spent some time in asceticism in Egypt, whether by him or by one of his circle.
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 Migne 32 cols. 245C – 268B. All quotations from Basil Letter 8 are from our own translation, given at http://timiosprodromos5.blogspot.com/. Fr Gabriel Bunge calls this letter ‘Epistula Fidei’. Our title To the Caesareans, apologia concerning his departure is taken from the manuscript.
 Casiday p. 30.
 Personal communication,
 These Anathemas were discovered in the 17th Century by Peter Lambeck, the Librarian of Vienna, and since then have been the subject of much scholarly controversy as to their genuineness as Acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod.
 SC 250 p. 14.
 ¶1  – 1 
 ¶2  to ¶12 .
 Basil Letter 8 ¶1 .
 Basil Letter 8 ¶12 .
 This passage ends at ¶7 , giving us a unitary passage from ¶6  to ¶7 .
 Basil Letter 8 ¶7 .)
 After the elision, the text of the reconstructed Letter reads as follows:
For you, he is even ignorant of the hour and the day of the Judgement; and further, nothing escapes the notice of true Wisdom; all things came to be through it. Neither, then, has any man ever been ignorant of what he has done. But this he manages for the sake of your infirmity, so that neither might sinners fall into despondency at the shortness of the delay, there not remaining a time of repentance; nor again might those desert who for a long time are giving battle with the opposed power, on account of the length of time. He therefore manages both by means of the feigned ignorance; for the one, cutting short the time on account of the good struggle; for the other, storing up a season of repentance on account of the sins. (Basil Letter 8 ¶6 .)
8  Again, by means of the wise Solomon in Proverbs he is created. For he says: ‘The Lord created me.’ And the beginning of the evangelical ways he is called, leading us towards the Kingdom of the Heavens—not a creation according to substance, but having become a way according to dispensation. For ‘to have become’ and ‘to be created’ make known the same thing. (Basil Letter 8 ¶8 .)
 It does seem that when he left
 Basil Letter 8 ¶7 .
 He is called ‘Wisdom’ as the science (episteme) of divine and human things, for how would he who has made [all things] be ignorant of the reasons (logoi) of the things he has made? (SC 250 Oration 28 (= Theological Oration 2) 30, 15 – 16, pp. 268.)
 Basil Letter 8 ¶4 .
 SC 250 Oration 28 (= Theological Oration 2) 6, 19 – 26, p. 112.
 Cf. also KG III, 72 and KG IV, 21.