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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


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

Basil Letter 8 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 tone. 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 by the author of Section 1 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.[1]

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.[2]

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 stony-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.[3] The men – de clause is found precisely here:

And [on the one hand (men)][4] 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[5]—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 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.

That is the import of this excerpt from Passage A:

‘But neither the angels know,’ [Jesus] said—that is, neither the contemplation which is in them nor the reasons (logoi) of their ministries are the final object of desire.[6] For the knowledge (gnosis) of these things is gross in comparison with the ‘person to person’. The Father alone knows, he says, because he [i.e. 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 (gnosis) 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.[7]

Passage A ends as follows:

And I have thus approached the text in accordance with the second argument. If someone, then, might be able to speak in a better way or to correct our own [words], let him both speak and correct, and the Lord will repay [him] on our behalf. 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 stony-hearted and uncircumcised men, those armed with the foolish wisdom.[8]

Section 2 then continues without a break:

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.[9]

This transition 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,[10] then the text reads much more naturally.

After the elision, the text of the 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.[11]

8 [27] 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.[12]

This is a much more natural flow of the text. The tone is consistent and the chain of scriptural texts continues in a natural progression.

As one can see by comparing this constructed passage with the material quoted above from Passage A, there is a great difference in tone, sophistication and content between the constructed passage and Passage A. The constructed passage 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 constructed passage Jesus’ ignorance is feigned, whereas in the second passage it is ontological. The constructed passage, moreover, has much in common with Theological Oration 4—although there are important differences.

Given this difference in tone and content between the two passages, 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.

We do not know how the text came to be in the state it is in. Did Evagrius in a revision in Constantinople do a poor job of stitching in Passage A? Did the Letter enter into the manuscript tradition from Evagrius’ own copy of it in his archives in Egypt,[13] so that he might have edited it in later life, adding passages which summarized his mature mystical theology? Did someone else, perhaps from his circle, add the interpolation? To a letter by Evagrius? To a letter not by Evagrius? Is it really a letter by Evagrius?

We do not know. There is no reference to the Letter in ancient authors 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 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. It is strictly inferential: one, that he read the Letter; two, that he read the Letter in the form that it entered into the Greek and Syriac manuscript traditions; and, three, that he approved of the Letter in the form that we now have it. We simply do not know.

Moreover, the commonality between the Letter’s commentary on Scripture and the Theological Orations cannot even be a proof that the commentary was composed before Evagrius left Constantinople. For while we believe that Evagrius would have heard the Theological Orations in person unless something prevented him, it might also be true that he took a copy of the Orations with him to Egypt, or else obtained a copy there, so that he might have been able to refresh his memory by referring to a copy of the Orations while working on the text of his own letter in Egypt.

In general, we can hypothesize three different 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 Nicene School, with similarities to and differences from the Theological Orations of St Gregory the Theologian.

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 above. Layer 3 would also include the conclusion to the Letter at the end of Section 2. In some cases, Layer 3 addresses in a more Evagrian way issues that are also addressed in Layer 2 and that are addressed in St Gregory’s Theological Orations.

In general, the reader can spot passages in the Letter which belong to Layer 3 in two ways: First, passages which begin with a phrase, clause or sentence that indicate that the author is adding another or higher interpretation should be examined for the possibility that they are providing a second, more Evagrian interpretation of the scriptural passage under consideration.

Second, passages, even without such introductory phrases, which are written in a more dense, Evagrian style and which introduce ideas associated with Evagrius’ mature thought. In this category would fit the rather long conclusion to the Letter.

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 repeatedly throughout the passage, but with different meanings, so that for each instance of the word the reader or translator has to find the right sense in context. This is not like Evagrius: he is far more careful of his diction: in a single passage he never uses the same word with different meanings, but always uses different words for different meanings, and with great precision.

The word epinoia is not to be found in the index to Greek words in the critical editions of Logos Praktikos,[14] Peri Logismon,[15] Gnostic[16] (saved Greek fragments) and Scholia on Ecclesiastes,[17] although the related verb epinoein is once used in Peri Logismon.[18] Epinoia is used once in Scholia on Proverbs[19] and six times in four passages in Scholia on Psalms. These two last works are considered to be late works of Evagrius.

In all the works of Evagrius, epinoia is used a total of 12 times. In the comparatively short Passage A, it is used four times.

[1] Basil Letter 8 ¶1 [3].

[2] Basil Letter 8 ¶12 [36].

[3] 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.

[4] We ignored this men in translation.

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

[6] These are the two stages of first natural contemplation, the contemplation of the angels and the contemplation of their reasons. See below. In the Kephalaia Gnostica, the Kingdom of Christ spans all of natural contemplation, both first and second, whereas the Kingdom of God is the unitive contemplation of the Holy Trinity, called here the immaterial contemplation of the very Divinity.

[7] Basil Letter 8 ¶7 [22].

[8] Basil Letter 8 ¶7 [26].

[9] Basil Letter 8 ¶8 [27].

[10] The sentence just before Passage A is this:

And further, in the Gospels [Jesus] numbers himself together with those who are ignorant, on account of the infirmity, as I said, of the many; however, in the Acts of the Apostles, as discoursing separately with the perfect, he says, excluding himself: ‘It is not yours to know times and seasons which the Father has set by his own authority.’ (Basil Letter 8 ¶6 [20].)

We will discuss this sentence in a note to it in the translation.

[11] Basil Letter 8 ¶6 [19].

[12] Basil Letter 8 ¶8 [27].

[13] It does seem that when he left Constantinople, he took everything with him. See Palladius Lausiac History Chapter 86: Migne 34 col. 1193 C.

[14] SC 171 p. 752.

[15] SC 438 p. 330.

[16] SC 356 p. 198.

[17] SC 397 p. 191.

[18] Loc. cit. In the sense of ‘invent’.

[19] SC 340 p. 508.