Christians Should Humbly Learn From The Mosaic Tradition

Christians Should Humbly Learn From The Mosaic Tradition May 31, 2017

St. Anthony the Great. Cretan School [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
St. Anthony the Great. Cretan School [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The brethren came to Abba Anthony and laid before him a passage from Leviticus. The old man went out into the desert, secretly followed by Abba Ammonas, who knew that this was his custom. Abba Anthony went a long way off and stood there praying, crying in a loud voice, “God, send Moses, to make me understand this saying.” Then there came a voice speaking with him. Abba Ammonas said that although he heard the voice speaking with him, he could not understand what it said.[1]

Rabbinic tradition suggested that Moses once was given a vision of the future: he saw Rabbi Akiva teaching various students how to interpret and understand the Torah.  Akiva was able to deduce all kinds of hidden meanings from the text. Even the way the letter were written, Akiva believed, could be interpreted by one properly trained to understand some of the more esotetic teachings in the Torah.  Moses was confused; he did not understand all the esoteric teachings and how they were being deduced by Akiva, and yet, despite this, he was pleased with what he had heard. He felt assured that what he was doing was of value, and that he should continue to do what he was doing, that by following the duty God gave to him, he would establish a long-lasting tradition which could and would inspire humanity for millennia. Christian teaching on the Transfiguration of Christ appears to come from a similar kind of tradition. Moses, with Elijah, were seen with Jesus on Mount Tabor. In both situations, Moses was recognized as a great, holy figure, and yet his understanding of what he wrote down, through the direction of God, was incomplete: what would be revealed later would transcend him and his comprehension. Both Jews and Christians alike wanted to justify their tradition as the continuation and fulfillment of what Moses started. They wanted to indicate that they were the true successors or heirs of Moses, that what they believed and taught flowed from, and developed to perfection, what was started by Moses himself.

While Moses transcended by those who came after him, he was regarded as one of the greatest prophets of God, and was not without great understanding of his own. He had encountered God; he had ascended into the presence of YHWH and through it, proclaimed the truth. He went to the darkness of God and brought from it a light to shine upon the nations, the light of the Torah, and Christians and Jews alike realized that his understanding of what he wrote transcended what most men and women would ever attain in life. He had been granted more than an ordinary level of insight upon the truth. While he did not know all that was hidden in what he wrote, all the secret, esoteric teachings which could be discovered hidden within the Torah, he knew many such secrets, and for the ordinary person, Moses’ knowledge and wisdom would be able to help them understand what he wrote, if they could ever find a way to talk with him.

Anthony, who was able to encounter God, who was able to receive great wisdom without study, nonetheless found himself limited when dealing with texts of Scripture. While we do not know exactly how literate he was, and there are debates which will probably never be answered in relation to that detail of his life, it is clear, he was not a Biblical scholar. He knew truths of the Christian faith; he knew mystical truths which had not been recorded in the Bible but which Christians like him could and did experience; he was able, in part, to relate texts to the Christian truths. But he knew that he could not answer detailed questions which could be raised about particular texts in Scripture. He knew the truth of the Christian faith without needing to read, but he did not have the scholarly knowledge and understanding to explain exoteric and esoteric interpretations of Scripture. This is why when someone would come to him wanting to know the meaning of Scripture, especially if he is asked about a difficult text such as comes out of Leviticus with its intricate laws, he might have been able to give a cursory explanation which almost anyone with basic Christian knowledge could have given, but by himself he could do no more than that. And yet, since he was inclined to help all those who came to him, he felt it his duty to give more than a simplistic answer.  Therefore, as this saying indicates, he would go off on a retreat, pray, meditate, ask God for guidance, wait in silence, and then if and when he felt he received the understanding he sought, he could then give it to others.

This saying represents one such time in which Anthony was given a difficult Scriptural text to interpret. One of his disciples, indeed, perhaps the one who could be said to be his chief disciple, Ammonas, secretly followed him on his retreat to see what happened. Accordingly, he heard Anthony request God for help, and not just any kind of help, but help from Moses himself. Instead of showing Anthony as being superior to Moses, with a superior understanding of the text than Moses, we see Anthony willingly humble himself and receive the greater truth from Moses. Ammonas indicated that he had heard Anthony speaking to someone; we are to assume it was Moses. Ammonas did not understand what was being said, but he knew Anthony was being given guidance.

Ammonas, whose writings in his letters indicates himself to be a rather charismatic, indeed, spirit-filled disciple of Anthony, found himself unable to understand what Anthony heard.  It is, in some ways, ironic. Anthony did not understand a text from Leviticus and so he needed help; the help itself, however, was not able to be understood by Ammonas, his disciple. We do not know what Anthony learned, nor how he elucidated what he learned, but we can see a hierarchy of understanding forming, in which Anthony was great, but Moses was greater, and Moses, despite the way Christians sometimes undermine him and his legacy, was raised by the way Anthony looked up to him. Moses’s greatness was assured by Anthony the Christian monk, so that Anthony was shown to be under Moses’ direction instead of supplanting it with the Christian faith.

What makes this saying rather unique is this: instead of making Moses humble himself to his successors, as a way of indicating transmission of his authority to them, it reminds its audience of Moses’ closeness with God and that the Jewish tradition which he represented should not be undermined. Moses is lifted up, and his wisdom and understanding of the truth is shown to be what helps Anthony.  Likewise, it could and should be of help to all of us to this day.  We need to return to Moses in a similar way. We need to take him at his word. We need to take the tradition which follows from him seriously.  We might not be hearing him speak, we might not be guided by him in as direct a fashion as is suggested by this story, but we do not need to be. The humility of Anthony is what is key, and this we can follow. Even though we receive greater things than Moses did thanks to the time in which we live, after the advent of Christ, this does not mean we ourselves possess a greater understanding or experience with God than Moses.  We have to remember that Moses and all he offered must remain with us. Moses must be recognized not only as a spiritual brother with us, but as an elder brother whose wisdom and understanding will transcend us because of his great holiness which few can ever attain. Instead of looking to undermine him, let us remember his wisdom and promote it, so that we do not lose out of the truth which he knew.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 7.


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