The Secret Tradition, Part 8: The Loss of the Tradition and the Disciplina Arcani

By August 6, 2014

The secret ritual that Jesus used to initiate his followers, argues Morton Smith, may have been “limited to a few, shut away from the rest by special requirements, and at last quietly forgotten.”[1]  Both Morton Smith and Scott Brown argue that Clement of Alexandria may have taken Secret Mark with him when he fled Alexandria during the Severus persecution of 200 CE.[2]  Origen who was a teenager at the time of the persecution and who may have been Clement’s pupil, says nothing of Secret Mark and had a very different notion of the secret tradition than did Clement.  For Origen, the secret teachings were found hidden in the scriptures—one just had to know how to find them—rather then being a secret initiation.[3]  Since Origen was a teenager when Clement left, he likely would have been too young to be initiated before Clement left, and if Clement took the letter with him, perhaps the higher initiation was no longer performed in Alexandria after Clement left.[4]

Furthermore, in the second century, sectarian groups that moderns label Gnostics, claimed to have access to higher secret oral teachings from Jesus.  As a result, there was “a devaluation of oral traditions,” says Guy Stomousa.  “This devaluation was apparently the result of a conscious effort to prevent the exploitation of secret traditions, which could hardly be controlled by the hierarchy.” “Since Christian intellectuals, such as Irenaeus,” argues Stromousa, “were fighting Gnosticism with all available weapons, this predilection entailed the imperious necessity for them to deny the existence of esoteric traditions within ‘orthodox’ Christianity.”[5]  Bernard McGinn argues, “The most important effect that Gnosticism had on the subsequent history of Christian mysticism was to make esotericism of any sort suspect.”[6]

Nevertheless, notions of a secret initiation persisted.  Stromousa cites Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–395) saying that like Moses “the public appoints someone able to become initiated in the divine secret, and then trusts him when he reports to them.  Gregory adds, however, that ‘nowadays, this is not observed anymore in many churches.’”[7]  Furthermore, many of the fathers claimed that many aspects of the baptismal and Eucharist liturgies derived from a secret tradition.  In Basil the Great’s (329-379) De Spiritu Sancto, he cites a number of practices that the church performed that are not found in the scriptures, such as the sign of the cross, praying facing East, consecrating baptismal water, and baptizing three times.

And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learned the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents.

Basil even likened this secrecy to Moses’s tabernacle: “What was the meaning of the mighty Moses in not making all the parts of the tabernacle open to every one? The profane he stationed without the sacred barriers; the first courts he conceded to the purer; the Levites alone he judged worthy of being servants of the Deity.”[8] This notion of liturgical practices come from a secret tradition was labeled the disciplina arcani in the early modern period.

The baptismal liturgy had a number of similarities to the temple liturgies of the apocalypses.  The baptismal initiate would remove his or her old clothes, be anointed, get baptized, and receive a garment that he or she would wear for seven days.[9]  Furthermore, the Eucharist was secret in the early church: only the baptized were allowed to watch.

Augustine, in particular, worked to eliminate any notions of an esoteric doctrine for particular Christians, argues Stromousa.  In his Sermons on the Gospel of John, Augustine warned against curiositas, the desire to know more than God would have us know.  One can learn God’s higher truths, but one should not take short cuts by means of wicked teachers and their secret teachings.  For Augustine, mystery meant sacrament.  Argues Stromousa, “In its metaphorical use, then, musterion came to mean exactly the opposite of its original meaning: it is the outward expression of the divine depth, which remains unattainable.”[10]

Protestants, who followed Augustine on many points, argued that the disciplina arcai was a later corruption that Christians adopted from the rites of the Greek mysteries.[11]


[1] Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 283.

[2] Smith, Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, 283; Scott G. Brown, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery (Waterloo, Can.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005), 176-78.

[3] Jean Danielou, Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture, trans. John Austin Baker (London: Darton, Logman and Todd, 1973), 465-466.

[4] Brown, Mark’s Other Gospel, 178.

[5] Guy G. Stromousa, Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism 2d ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 85, 6.

[6] Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism, vol 1 of The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 99.

[7] Stromousa, Hidden Wisdom, 156, citing Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 2. 160-161.

[8] Basil, De Spiritu Sancto, chapter 27.

[9] “Baptism,” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, ed. Everett Gerguson (New York: Garland, 1990); “Alb,” Catholic Encyclopedia.

[10] Stromousa, Hidden Wisdom, 134-43, 163.

[11] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 99.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. The shift from oral to codified instruction is an interesting parallel to the first 100 years of Mormonism.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 6, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

  2. Interesting J. I guess ritual acts are best explained through demonstration rather than writing.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 6, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

  3. I cannot really see any reason for the need to suppose that Clement of Alexandria would have taken Secret Mark with him when he fled Alexandria during the Severus persecution of 200 CE, since I see no reason why he could not have written the letter while still at Alexandria. There is no time-stamp in the letter and no need to suppose any particular location for this Theodoros to whom Clement was addressing his letter.

    You should by the way get hold of Robert Conner’s new book on Secret Mark when it becomes available: The “Secret” Gospel of Mark: Morton Smith, Clement of Alexandria, and Four Decades of Academic Burlesque. I haven’t read it yet, but there he argues for the story not being a baptismal ritual. I have myself never bought Morton Smith’s suggestion that the story describes a baptismal ritual. For me that story is more symbolic.

    Comment by Roger Viklund — August 7, 2014 @ 3:30 am

  4. Thanks, Roger.

    I agree with Scott Brown that it’s a higher teaching beyond baptism but as I argued in a previous post, the language that Clement uses makes it sound like a ritual, particularly Clement’s line, “being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries.” Brown’s description of the higher teaching also makes it sound like a ritual, particularly the act of putting on ritual clothing and moving between chambers to represent the ascent. So I agree with Brown that it is not a baptism ritual, but, to me, it sounds like Clement is describing a different kind of ritual.

    I think the point that Smith and Brown make about the possibility of Clement taking Secret Mark with him is the fact that it seems to go missing at some point. One way or another, there did seem to be a loss of esoteric teachings as described by Stromousa and McGinn.

    And thanks for the book recommendation.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 7, 2014 @ 11:24 am

  5. There couldn’t possibly be just one copy of Secret Mark available in Alexandria (they couldn’t really risk that being lost for some reason). And then the Carpocratians had copies of their distorted version. So whether Clement had or did not have a copy of the Gospel which he could take with him is of minor importance for the fact that the Gospel somehow got lost. That is probably due to Christianity being conformed and that scriptures not authorized vanished, mostly due to them not being copied, but also due to destruction. I mean, there must at some point have been many (tens or hundreds) of copies of the Gospel of Thomas, yet no one survived and it was only rediscovered in modern times.

    I mostly agree with Scott, but find no useful clue to where and when during Clement’s lifetime he wrote the letter to Theodoros – apart from that fact that Clement must have reached some position in the Church before Theodoros would have asked him and he also would have known and had access to the gospel.

    Comment by Roger Viklund — August 7, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

  6. I see your point about multiple copies, but still see as being viable Scott’s point about differences between Origen and Clement on esotericism and the possibility that Origen was not initiated before Clement left.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 7, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

  7. Hi again!

    I think Scott was defending the letter’s authenticity as people were saying that Clement couldn’t have been in Alexandria when he wrote it and then couldn’t have had access to it. But that is pure speculation. There is no way (at present) by which we can discern from which location Clement wrote the letter and there are many, many possibilities since we only have incomplete knowledge of his whereabouts. So, any objections to the letter’s authenticity by suggestions that Clement couldn’t have had access to the letter are based on no relevant information at all and are basically unfounded. There are so many possibilities and no safe information. Accordingly there is no need to defend a hypothetical scenario which says that he had left Alexandria by suggesting that he could have taken the letter with him when there really is nothing that says that he couldn’t have written the letter from Alexandria. Why defend an unfounded hypothesis with another unfounded hypothesis?

    And if one really presumes that the gospel was meant only for initiates, then the fact that Origen shows no knowledge of it (if that’s really what he’s doing?) doesn’t mean anything. He could of course have been fully aware of it but never written anything about it, since it wasn’t meant that “ordinary” people would know about it. I mean, assuming that Clement’s letter is genuine, we only have this letter found in the twentieth century, that confirms Clement’s knowledge of the gospel.

    Comment by Roger Viklund — August 8, 2014 @ 2:09 am

  8. Good points, Roger.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 8, 2014 @ 8:35 am


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