Episode 91: Mystagogic Patchwork: Esoteric Writing in Clement’s Stromateis

In this episode, the first of a two-parter, we begin to explore how Clement sets out to write an esoteric work of Christian Gnosis, one which hides its deeper meanings from the profane masses – and even from Christians who have not yet attained to Gnosis – while circulating in the public sphere. Expect an innovative use of literary style – a kind of intentionally-scattered presentation of the truth with interesting parallels to the ‘art of writing’ posited by Leo Strauss – evocation and appropriation of the traditional mystery-cults to Christianity, and a theory of esotericism which adopts both the Middle Platonist tropes of a graded approach to the truth through education and an anti-heretical protection of the truth from the wrong sort of Christians.

Works Cited in this Episode:


  • Clement: Pædogogos 1.1.3 on different grades of knowledge and wisdom among Christians. Cf. 3.12.97: ‘Many things are spoken in enigmas, many in parables . . . However, it does not behove me to teach about these things further, says the Instructor [παιδαγωγός]. But we need a Teacher [διδασκάλου] for the interpretation of those sacred words, to whom we must direct our steps. And now, in truth, it is time for me to cease from my pedagogy [παιδαγωγίας], and for you to listen to the Teacher [διδασκάλου]’ (trans. Bucur). God is both one and beyond the one and the monad: Paed. 1:8:71.
  • Stromateis: The Strom. a patchwork to make the reader do the work of seeking truth him/herself: IV.4.1. Cf. VI.2.1; VII.111.1. ‘Many are called, few are chosen’: V.17.4-5, citing Matt. 22:14 and Pl. Phæd. 69c; cf. I.14, on being struck with the thyrsus. Quotes Plato in support of esoteric elitism: V.19.2-3 = Pl. R. 494a; V.33.5 = Pl. Theæt. 155e; V.7.6 = Pl. Epin. 973e. On esotericism as a means to deter the spread of heresy:  I.2.20.4–21.3. God is beyond cause: VII.2:2. God is beyond noêsis: V.71.5.
  • Eusebius on the Strom: H.E. 6.13.4-8.
  • Justin Martyr on God beyond essence: Dialogue with Trypho 4:1.
  • Photius on the Strom: Bib. cod. 111.


  • Leo Strauss. Persecution and the Art of Writing. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1988. See also Idem. Exoteric Teaching. Interpretation, 14(1):51–59, Jan. 1986.

Recommended Reading:

We have quoted the translation of Ferguson for Stromateis 1-3 (John Ferguson, trans. Stromateis. Books One to Three. Number 85 in Fathers of the Church. Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1991), and the outdated, but easily available, translation of Roberts and Donaldson for the rest of the work (Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, Arthur Cleveland Coxe, and Allan Menzies. The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Second Century. Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, volume 2. Eerdmanns, Grand Rapids, MI, 1962). A scholarly English translation of the Stromateis remains a desideratum.

  • Salvatore Lilla. Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Platonism and Gnosticism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1971, pp. 144-58.
  • H.G. Marsh. The Use of Μυστήριον in Clement of Alexandria with Special Reference to his Sacramental Doctrine. The Journal of Theological Studies, 37(145):64–80, 1936.
  • Pamela L. Mullins. Text and Gnosis: The Exclusive Function of Written Instruction in Clement of Alexandria. Studia Patristica, 41:213–215, 2006.
  • Ilaria L. E. 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.
  • Christoph Riedweg. Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philon, und Klemens von Al- exandrien (Untersuchungen zur Antiken Literatur und Geschichte, 26). de Gruyter, Berlin/New York, NY, 1987.
  • 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, 1996.
  • Guy Stroumsa. Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism. Brill, Leiden, 1996.


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