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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


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, 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 (c.344 – 399), and because of the style and content of the Letter, the letter has relatively recently been ascribed to Evagrius Ponticus.

We would have liked to discuss the 1923 papers of Bousset[2] and Melcher[3] that established the Evagrian provenance of Basil Letter 8. Given our greater knowledge today of the Evagrian corpus, we think that an analysis is necessary whether Letter 8 is to be treated as a unitary text written solely by Evagrius. While, yes, the ideas and vocabulary of Basil Letter 8 are more Evagrian than Basilian, our better knowledge today of the trajectory of Evagrius’ thought enables us to consider whether the Letter is perhaps a composite work; whether Evagrius or another hand added to the Letter after its original composition; and perhaps even whether the Letter is substantially by one of Evagrius’ circle and not by him personally. We hope to fill this lacuna in our investigation at a later time and post the result on the Internet where we have been posting the various drafts of our translation of Basil Letter 8 and our introduction to it, on which this paper is based.[4]

Why should we be interested in Basil Letter 8 if it is by the hand of Evagrius?

In his recent Evagrius Ponticus, Dr. Augustine Casiday writes: ‘In the light of how trenchantly orthodox Evagrius is shown to have been by his letter On the Faith [= 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.’[5]

Fr. Gabriel Bunge wrote to us much the same thing. He took the position that since Basil Letter 8 was written by Evagrius under the eyes of St Gregory the Theologian in Constantinople, all the concepts expressed in Letter 8 are orthodox.[6] In his view, we cannot use an interpretation of the Kephalaia Gnostica that yields a heterodox Evagrius; instead, we must use the fact that Basil Letter 8 is orthodox to interpret the Evagrian corpus in an orthodox way. This is what Dr Casiday, whose book is dedicated to Fr Gabriel, calls ‘the presumption of Evagrius’ orthodoxy’.

Essentially what we are doing, then, is looking more carefully at this support of what we would like to call the ‘Bungean narrative’: to what extent can we be sure that Basil Letter 8 was indeed written by Evagrius in Constantinople at the feet of St Gregory and that all the concepts expressed in it are perfectly orthodox, so that Basil Letter 8 provides 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, usually attributed by scholars since the 19th Century to the Fifth Ecumenical Synod?

In view of time limitations on the presentation of this paper, we will proceed in a summary fashion. Interested readers are referred to the Web Page already referenced for a more detailed discussion of the same material, along with our own translation of Basil Letter 8.

We will proceed in several ways. We will look at the dating of Basil Letter 8 on the basis of what is known of Evagrius’ life; we will look at the philology of Letter 8; we will compare passages of the Letter to the Theological Orations of St Gregory the Theologian; and we will consider whether the ideas expressed in the Letter are consistent with their having been expressed by Evagrius in Constantinople, given what we know of Evagrius’ spiritual condition at the time he left Constantinople.

Why would we be interested in St Gregory’s Theological Orations? If Letter 8 is indeed by Evagrius, its natural setting would be his sojourn in Constantinople with St Gregory the Theologian, when he became St Gregory the Theologian’s Archdeacon. St Gregory the Theologian was in Constantinople during the period 379 to 381. After St Gregory left Constantinople in 381, Evagrius never saw him again. Hence, Letter 8 would fall into this period. Fr Gabriel dated the letter for us to 381.[7] The dating 379 to 381 appears to reflect a more or less reasoned scholarly consensus.

We know that the Theological Orations were spoken by St Gregory in Constantinople during this period, probably within a year of when Evagrius would have composed Letter 8. Hence, if the Letter is indeed by the hand of Evagrius, it would have been written at the feet of St Gregory very close to the time that St Gregory spoke the Theological Orations. Where the two texts discuss similar issues—and they do—comparing them should be a fruitful check on the theory that Evagrius wrote the whole letter under the eye of St Gregory and that St Gregory approved it.

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.[8] However, given the 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 the 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 ‘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 the morning after a monitory dream and travelled to Jerusalem by boat, a journey of some weeks. After a period in Jerusalem of what Palladius describes as a worldly life, he was sick in bed, again in Jerusalem, for some 6 months before he accepted to be tonsured a monk.[9] He was tonsured a monk in Jerusalem on Easter Day, April 9th, 383.[10] Hence, the very latest he could have left Constantinople would have been about September 1st, 382. Moreover, about the beginning of October, winter storms begin in the Northern Aegean which make a voyage to Palestine problematical and it is doubtful that a sea-captain would have wanted to start a voyage after the beginning of the Indiction on September 1st. In addition, according to Palladius, Evagrius was able to leave Constantinople the very next day after his monitory dream, which would suggest that it was still high sailing season—unless Divine Providence were 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 Basil Letter 8 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 thought to be the death of St Basil the Great, which occurred on January 1st, 379, and there is no other candidate for a startling event in this period of Evagrius’ life, 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.

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 already been in Constantinople for some months when he wrote the Letter. Moreover, since the Letter is a reply to a demand that the author return, presumably to Cappadocia, there would have had to be some time for word to reach Cappadocia where Evagrius was, and for a letter demanding his return to be composed and sent to him. However, given the tone of the author of the Letter 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 had 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.

Fr Gabriel Bunge’s date of 381 for the Letter 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 of the Letter 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 period.

The Letter makes no mention whatever 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 the 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 any specific city or to any specific date.

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,[11] that he return, was based on his being a reader in their jurisdiction: perhaps they were senior members of the Church to which he belonged as a reader.

Dr Casiday has Evagrius tonsured a monk by St Basil the Great.[12] While we do not believe this,[13] 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 issue, the canons would in any event have codified existing good practice: there was no time at which 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.[14] 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,[15] 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 Letter 8 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 and 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. Out of the goodness of their hearts, the group granted him a complete release, which allowed St Gregory later to proceed 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 date of composition of Letter 8 is quite an important issue for we will want to compare the content of Letter 8 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.[16] It would be convenient if Letter 8 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 this matter, however, there is no evidence whatsoever. However, if the dramatic event in Evagrius’ life were St Basil’s death, then our reasoning indicates that the Letter would have been written between mid- and late 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 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 might already have been composing the Orations, if only in his mind’s eye. 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 would have written Letter 8. The significance of this is that Letter 8 and the Orations cover common ground, so that the issue of who learned what from whom is very important in any 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.

[1] Migne 32 cols. 245C – 268B. We have translated the edition of Courtonne, as given in Basil 1 pp. 180 – 95. All quotations from Basil Letter 8 are from our own translation, given at the Web Page cited in fn. 4. Fr Gabriel Bunge calls this letter ‘Epistula Fidei’. Our title To the Caesareans, apologia concerning his departure is taken from the manuscript.

[2] Bousset.

[3] Melcher.

[4] See http://timiosprodromos5.blogspot.com/.

[5] Casiday p. 30.

[6] Personal Communication, 9 November, 2005. We are summarizing our understanding of what Fr Gabriel wrote to us. But this point of view is also to be found in Casiday. It should be pointed out that the narrative that Casiday presents is very close to what we were written by Fr Gabriel. The only substantive difference is in the handling of the Anathemas Against Origenism, where in his work Dr. Casiday skirts around the issue whether they were issued by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod, and the issue of their validity or otherwise as pronouncements of an Ecumenical Synod.

[7] Ibid.

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

[9] Migne 34 col. 1193 D.

[10] Casiday p. 9.

[11] Under the assumption that Evagrius wrote the Letter in its entirety.

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

[13] We will discuss our reasoning in detail in another forum. However, in brief, there is just no evidence in the early Greek sources of Basil tonsuring Evagrius–not even in Palladius who would have mentioned it to buttress his master's reputation. The first reference is many years after Evagrius’ death in a Syriac source, where the Syriac source clearly treats Evagrius as a saint. Moreover, why would Evagrius himself not mention it in his later works when he refers to Basil? After all, he speaks of Gregory of his teacher. Why would he not speak of Basil as the one who made him a monk, rather than only as the ‘Pillar of the Church’? Moreover, since Evagrius is attested by Palladius as having been tonsured in Jerusalem, a case would have to be made that this was a re-tonsure. That is just not a practice attested anywhere that we know of in the period in question. The practice today of multiple tonsures through multiple degrees of monasticism is not attested in antiquity. The small schema was introduced hundreds of years after Evagrius’ time. And the practice of re-tonsuring a monastic to the same degree is unheard of even today—although we understand that in the Roman Catholic Church a monastic who changes congregations might again go through a novitiate and then be tonsured anew as a member of his or her new congregation (but surely it would not be considered that his previous vows were no longer binding merely because he had left his original congregation). Since the theology of the tonsure is based on the theology of the irrevocable vow to God (the treatment of the vow as a vow not to God but to the congregation is a fairly recent Roman Catholic innovation), it is theologically absurd to re-tonsure: the vow exists and is valid and binding even after a person puts off the habit and lives as a layman. In that case it is a matter of repentance and of living up to the existing vow. Hence, the normal response to the errant monastic has always been a call for his or her return to the fulfilment of his or her vows, not a call for his or her re-tonsure to the same vows.

[14] Ibid. p. 8.

[15] Migne 34 col. 1188 C.

[16] SC 250 p. 14.