Episode 92: Lifting the Veil: Esoteric Reading in Clement’s Stromateis

The Tabernacle, from Robert Arnauld d’Andilly’s 1683 translation of Josephus (thanks to wikipedia)

This episode gets into the thick of Clementine esotericism in action.

We have discussed the ways in which Clement frames his Stromateis as a ‘publicly esoteric’ document; we now examine the larger reading- or hermeneutic context within which Clement is working. There is the oral tradition of the early church, which raises a lot of questions, but which does really seem to have been an historical reality (of some sort). Alongside these oral teachings, however, the Scriptures themselves also have esoteric levels of meaning. And they are to be read using all the tools of esoteric hermeneutics familiar from Middle Platonist exegesis of myths and poets, plus a few new ones specially developed by esoteric Christians like Clement.

The Christian tradition is framed, however, as a continuation and culmination of the Jewish, a strategy which allows Christianity to make claims to antiquity and the gravitas which antiquity conferred in the Græco-Roman mind. And Clement frames this Jewish-Christian tradition within an even broader perennial wisdom-tradition, inclusive of the Hellenes (philosophers, poets, and even mystery cults and oracles!) and ‘the barbarians’ (notably the Egyptians, with their ‘symbolic’ temple-architecture and esoteric theology). Clement emerges as one of the greatest exponents of what we call ‘esoteric perennialism’, and the esoteric tradition he constructs is perhaps the broadest extant from antiquity.

Having outlined this ‘tradition’ in its various branches and manifestations, we turn to the incredible ways in which Clement ‘reads’ the tradition – not only texts, but architecture, cultic objects, and, well, just about any cultural production, really – can be interpreted to reveal esoteric truths. Scripture can be interpreted in the light of Egyptian sphinxes. Plato is a good place to look for the teachings of Moses. Arithmology is a ready tool for teasing cosmological truths from texts which mention numbers in any way. Esoteric pseudo-etymology can be deployed to find hidden connections. It gets esoteric, and stays that way.

Works Cited in this Episode:



  • Eclogae Propheticæ: ‘He pitched his tent in El’ with accompanying exegesis: 57.3. Esoteric paradosis of oral teachings handed down from the apostles: 11; 27.1; cf. Adumbrationes 1:1; fragments 8, 14, and 25 (ap. Eusebius H.E. 6.14.5, 6.9.2, 6.13.9).
  • Stromateis: On his teachers: I.11. Clement on the universal teaching-function of the Logos, extending even to Pythagoras, his disciples, and Plato: e.g. V.29.4; but Plato is the philosophic pupil of the Hebrews: e.g. I.10.2, referencing Laws 8.844a-b. The Hellenic poets speak esoterically, so as to spur on philosophic work: V.4.24.1–2. The Egyptian sphinxes esoteric symbols: V.31.5. Four levels of scriptural interpretation: I.179. ‘Thus one can say that both the Barbarians and the Greeks who have dealt with God have hidden the principles of things, and have transmitted truth through riddles, symbols, allegories, metaphors and other similar figures, for instance divination among the Greeks’: V.4.21.4. The Logos is the world of Forms: IV.156.1-2. The numbers as arithmological carriers of esoteric and cosmological meanings: IV.17.109.2; VI.16.138.5; VI.16.145.3; the sacred ten as symbolising the noetic realm and the highest gnôsis: II.11.51.1–2. Matter, as ‘non-being’ (μὴ ὄν), existing eternally: V.89.5-6.


  • Paul I Corinthians 13: 12: βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι᾽ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον·
  • Plato attacks the poets as corrupters of the state: Republic Book IX [But how do we reconcile this with the inspired poets of the Phædrus? Plato is always tricky ….].
  • Philo: on the tabernacle, an exegesis which definitely influenced Clement’s approach: De vita Mosis.
  • Tertullian Adv. Marc. V.1: … quae latuerit etiam sub figuris, allegoriis et aenigmatibus ….


  • G. R. Boys-Stones. Post-Hellenistic Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001 [on ‘strong authority’ in post-Hellenistic philosophy].
  • Itter 2009 (see below): on the tabernacle in Clement: pp. 39–45, 51-55, 149, 156–157.
  • Lilla 1971 (see below): Clement must have read Celsus’ The True Doctrine: p. 37.
  • R. Mortley. Mirror and 1 Cor. 13:12 in the Epistemology of Clement of Alexandria. Vigiliae Christianae, 30:109–120, 1976.
  • Stroumsa 1996b (see below): we cite pp. 92-3.

Recommended Reading:


A huge amount of work has been done on Clement’s hermeneutics (mostly, it must be said, concentrating on Christian and Jewish scripture, to the detriment of Clement’s work within the larger esoteric tradition he constructs). A good place to start is with a recent bibliography of work on Clement’s exegetical methods:

  • Jana Plátová. Comprehensive Bibliography on Clement’s Scriptural Interpretation. In Veronika Černušková and Judith Kovacs Jana Plátová, editors, Clement’s Biblical Exegesis: Proceedings of the Second Colloquium on Clement of Alexandria (Olomouc, May 29–31, 2014), volume 139 of Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, pages 38–52. Brill, Leiden, 2017.

Also of interest on Clement’s Hermeneutics:

  • Jean Daniélou. Typologie et allégorie chez clément d’alexandrie. Studia Patristica, 4: 191–211, 1961.
  • D. Dawson. Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria. University
    of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA/Oxford, 1992.
  • Hans J. Horn. Zur motivation der allegorischen schriftexegese bei Clement Alexandrinus. Hermes, 97:489–496, 1967.
  • Martin Irvine. Interpretation and the Semiotics of Allegory in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine. Semiotica, 63:33–72, 1987.
  • Andrew Itter. Esoteric Teaching in the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria. Number 97 in Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae. Texts and Studies of Early Christian Life and Learning. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2009.
  • Judith L. Kovacs. Concealment and Gnostic Exegesis: Clement of Alexandria’s Interpretation of the Tabernacle. Studia Patristica, 31:414–437, 1996.
  • Idem. Clement of Alexandria and Valentinian Exegesis in the Excerpts from Theodotus. Studia Patristica, 41:187–200, 2006.
  • Alain Le Boulluec. L’interprétation de la Bible et le ‘genre symbolique’ selon Clément d’Alexandrie. In Veronika Černušková, Judith L. Kovacs, Jana Plátová, and V. Hušek, editors, Clement’s Biblical Exegesis: Proceedings of the Second Colloquium on Clement of Alexandria (Olomouc, May 29-31, 2014), volume 139 of Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, pages 55–79, Leiden, Brill, 2017.
  • Salvatore Lilla. Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Platonism and Gnosticism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1971.
  • R. Mortley. Connaissance religieuse et herméneutique chez Clément d’Alexandrie. Brill, Leiden, 1973.
  • J. Pépin. Mythe et allégorie: les origines grecques et les contestations Judéo-Chrétiennes. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1976. 2nd ed.
  • Ilaria Ramelli. Mystérion negli Stromateis di Clemente Alessandrino: Aspetti di continuità con la tradizione allegorica greca. In Angela Maria Mazzanti, editor, In volto del misterio: Misterio e rivelazione nella cultura religiosa tardoantica, pages 83–120. Itaca Libri, Castel Bolognese, Italy, 2006.
  • Laura Rizzerio. L’accès à la transcendance divine selon Clément d’Alexandrie: Dialectique platonicienne ou expérience de “l’union chrétienne”? Revue des Études Augustiniennes, 44:159–179, 1998.
  • Manlio Simonetti. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church: A Historical Introduction to Patristic Exegesis. T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1994.
  • G. Stroumsa. Myth as Enigma: Cultural Hermeneutics in Late Antiquity. In Galit Hasan-Rokem and David Shulman, editors, Untying the Knot: On Riddles and Other Enigmatic Modes, pages 271–283. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1996a.
  • Thomas F. Torrance. The Hermeneutics of Clement of Alexandria. In Thomas F. Torrance, editor, Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics, pages 130–178. T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1995.

On the question of the esoteric paradosis through the early church:

  • E.L. Fortin. Clement of Alexandria and the Esoteric Tradition. Studia Patristica, 9:41–56, 1966 [a crucial study].
  • Lilla 1971 (see above): pp. 142–158.
  • Guy Stroumsa. Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism. Brill, Leiden, 1996b.


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