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Gregory of Nyssa's Tabernacle Imagery in Its Jewish and Christian Contexts$

Ann Conway-Jones

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780198715399

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198715399.001.0001

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(p.241) Appendix Translation of Life of Moses 1.46–56, 61; 2.162–201

(p.241) Appendix Translation of Life of Moses 1.46–56, 61; 2.162–201

Gregory of Nyssa's Tabernacle Imagery in Its Jewish and Christian Contexts
Oxford University Press

This is a new translation of the main passages in Life of Moses dealing with the darkness on Mount Sinai and the tabernacle not made with hands. There already exists an excellent translation of Life of Moses by Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, published as part of ‘The Classics of Western Spirituality’ series, which has been used for citations from the rest of Gregory’s treatise. This translation too aims ‘to stay as close to the Greek text as English style permits’.1 However, for the purposes of studying Gregory’s tabernacle imagery, two specific improvements have been made. Firstly, Gregory’s terminology for the constituent parts of the tabernacle and for the priestly vestments has been translated as accurately and consistently as possible. So ϰαταπέτασμα‎ is always rendered ‘veil’, παραπέτασμα‎ ‘hanging’, and αὐλαία‎ ‘curtain’. Or, to take another example, ποδήρης‎ is translated ‘full-length robe’, χιτών‎ ‘tunic’, and ὑποδύτης‎ ‘undergarment’. This will then enable a comparison with LXX terminology, which Gregory sometimes follows and from which he sometimes deviates. Secondly, Gregory’s biblical quotations are translated as given. Malherbe and Ferguson usually give his scriptural citations according to the Jerusalem Bible, which leads to potential misunderstandings. For the key verse of Exodus 20:21 in 2.164, they have ‘Moses approached the dark cloud where God was’. ‘Dark cloud’ is a translation of the Hebrew לפרע‎; the LXX and Gregory simply have γνόϕος‎ ‘darkness’. More confusingly, in 2.191, where Gregory quotes LXX Psalm 38:12, which refers to a spider, despite amending the Jerusalem Bible translation of Psalm 39:11, Malherbe and Ferguson leave its reference to a moth (a translation of the Hebrew שׁע‎). Since Gregory is talking about respinning one’s bodily nature to make it as light as the thread of a spider’s web, a proof text referring to a moth makes little sense. Other than in the case of these two specific strategies, the variations between this translation and Malherbe and Ferguson’s simply reflect the range of possibilities open to the translator. There are a number of places where Gregory’s syntax is highly complex, not to say obscure, and a measure of conjecture is needed. Daniélou’s translation into French has also been consulted, although, as Malherbe and Ferguson remark, it ‘is often loose in relation to the Greek text’.2

There are two editions of Gregory’s Greek text: Jean’s Daniélou’s in Sources Chrétiennes 1bis, and Herbert Musurillo’s in GNO 7,1. This translation is divided up according to Daniélou’s paragraph numbers, with the page numbers from Musurillo added in square brackets. Where the editions diverge, Musurillo’s text has been followed.

I am extremely grateful to Stuart Hall, experienced translator of Gregory of Nyssa, who went over my draft with a fine toothcomb. He made several corrections, and suggested many improvements. The quality of the translation has been greatly enhanced by his work. Gillian Clark helped me untangle a knotty puzzle about the hem of the (p.242) high priest’s robe. Needless to say, I take full responsibility for the errors and infelicities which remain.

Life of Moses 1.46–56, 61

46. [22] Therefore once he was alone, having been stripped of the people’s dread as of a burden, [Moses] then boldly approached the darkness itself and found himself inside the invisible realities, where he was no longer discernible to those watching. Stealing into the secret place of the divine mystical initiation, there, unseen, he was with the invisible. He teaches, I think, by the things he did, that whoever intends to be with God must go beyond all appearances and, lifting up his mind to the invisible and incomprehensible as to a mountain peak, must believe that the divine is there where the understanding cannot reach.

47. Once there he receives divine commandments. These were a lesson in virtue, of which the paramount principle therefore was true religion, and to have fitting notions about the divine nature, given that it transcends all knowable concepts and models, and cannot be likened to any known thing. And he was ordered neither to look for the comprehensible when it comes to notions about the divine, nor to liken the nature transcending everything to what can be known by understanding; but rather, while believing that it exists, to leave unexamined questions of kind, quantity, origin, and mode of being, as beyond reach.

48. The Word also adds what are [23] correct ways of behaving, giving the instruction with both general and specific laws. For the law which destroys all injustice is general, namely that one must behave lovingly towards one’s compatriot. When this is carried out, it will certainly follow in consequence that no evil will be done by anyone against their neighbour. Among the particular laws, the honour due to parents was stated explicitly, and a list of forbidden transgressions was enumerated.

49. Having been first purified in mind by these laws, as it were, he was led to the more perfect mystical initiation, suddenly being shown a certain tabernacle by divine power. The tabernacle was a shrine, possessing beauty in indescribable variety: entrances, pillars, and hangings; a table, lamps,3 and an incense altar; an altar and a mercy seat; and the secret and inaccessible core of the holy spaces. So that the wonder might not escape the memory, and might be shown to those below, he was counselled to transmit the beauty and arrangement of all these things not merely in writing, but by reproducing that immaterial creation in a material construction, obtaining the brightest and most radiant materials found on earth. Among these the most abundant was gold, overlaid around the pillars. Taken together with the gold was silver, which in itself beautified the capitals and bases of the pillars, so that, it seems to me, by the variation of colour at each end, the gold when looked upon might glitter more brightly. There were also places where [24] bronze was considered useful, forming the head and base for silver columns.

50. The veils and hangings and the covering round the shrine, and the canopy spread to fit over the pillars—all were completed, each out of the right material, thanks to skilful weaving.4 The dye of these woven textiles was blue and purple and fiery scarlet (p.243) red,5 alongside the brightness of flax, with its natural and unrefined look. For some linen was obtained, and for others hair, according to the function of the textiles. There were also places where the redness of skins contributed to the elegance of the structure.

51. After his descent from the mountain Moses, through his assistants, constructed these things according to the pattern of creation shown to him.6 But whilst still in that shrine not made with hands, he received rules on how the priest should be made resplendent by his apparel when setting foot in the secret spaces, the Word having decreed every detail of both inner and visible garments.

52. The pre-eminent garment of the attire was not the hidden but the visible: shoulder pieces woven of various colours,7 the same as used in the veil’s manufacture, with the addition of gold thread. There were clasps on either side to secure the shoulder pieces, tightly encircling emeralds with gold. The decorative quality of these stones was due to their natural radiance—a certain green glow emanated from them—but the wonder of the engravings was due to art. This was not [25] the art of carving out engravings which represent idols, instead the beauty came from the names of the patriarchs inscribed on the stones, six on each.

53. There were little shields hanging down on the front side of these shoulder pieces; and plaited cords, which were interlaced through each other crosswise in a net-like pattern, suspended on each side from the clasp above the shields, in order, it seems to me, that the elegance of the plaiting might be more conspicuous, set off by the background.

54. There was that ornament wrought of gold positioned in front of the chest, in which were fastened stones of various kinds equal in number to the patriarchs.8 They were arranged in four rows, three stones on each, and they exhibited the names of the tribes which were written on them. Beneath the shoulder pieces was the undergarment, stretching from neck to toes, which was suitably embellished with ornamental tassels. The bottom hem was made beautiful not only by variegated woven fabric, but also by gold ornaments.9 These were golden bells and small pomegranates, distributed alternately along the hem.

(p.244) 55. The headband, moreover, was all blue, and over the forehead was a thin plate made of pure gold inscribed with unutterable letters. There was a girdle gathering up the loose folds of the garment, and something decorous for the hidden parts, and everything that educates symbolically, under the guise of clothing, about priestly virtue.

56. Once he had been educated in these and other such things by the ineffable teaching of God, all the while enclosed by that impenetrable darkness, and [26] having become greater than himself with the help of mystical knowledge, he emerged again from the darkness and descended to his people in order to share with them the wonders shown to him in the theophany, to hand over the laws, and to establish for the people the temple and the priesthood according to the pattern shown to him on the mountain.

61. [27] Thus he pitched the tabernacle for them and delivered the laws, establishing the priesthood according to the teaching which came to him from God. And after he had furnished all these things in a material creation, according to the divine guidance—the tabernacle, the entrances, the whole interior, the incense altar, the altar, the lampstand, the hangings, the veils, the mercy seat inside the secret spaces, the attire of the priesthood, the sweet oil, the various sacrificial rites, the purifications, the thank-offerings, rites to avert evil, the propitiations for offences—having arranged everything therein in the right way, he aroused against himself envy, that congenital sickness in human nature, among those close to him.

Life of Moses 2.162–201

162. [86] What does it mean that Moses found himself inside the darkness and thus saw God in it? For what is now recorded seems somehow contrary to the first theophany; for the divine is then perceived in light, but now in darkness. Let us not consider this out of tune with the ascending series of thoughts we have been contemplating. For the Word teaches us by this that religious knowledge at first appears as light to those in whom it springs up. Therefore the opposite of piety is thought to be obscurity; and the escape from obscurity comes with participation in the light. But as the mind advances, and through an ever greater and more perfect attentiveness comes to envisage an understanding of all existence, the nearer it draws to contemplation, the [87] more it sees that the divine nature is not to be contemplated.

163. For leaving behind everything visible, not only what the senses grasp but also what the mind seems to see, he yearns to go ever further in, until, thanks to the mind’s curiosity, he slips into the unseen and incomprehensible, and there sees God. For in this is the true knowledge of what is sought, and in this is the seeing which consists in not seeing, that what is sought transcends all knowledge, cut off on all sides by incomprehensibility, as by a kind of darkness. That is why the sublime John, who has been in this radiant darkness, says, ‘No one has ever seen God’,10 affirming by this negation that the knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only to human beings but also to any intelligent nature.

(p.245) 164. When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in darkness, that is, that he had come to know that the divine, by nature, is that which is beyond all knowledge and apprehension. For it says, ‘Moses entered into the darkness where God was’.11 What God? He who ‘made obscurity his hideaway’,12 as David says, who was initiated into ineffable mysteries in the same secret place.

165. Once there, he was taught again by the Word what previously the darkness had instilled, in order, I think, that the doctrine on this matter might be made firmer for us through the testimony of the divine voice. The divine [88] word first forbids that human beings liken the divine to anything known, since every concept which derives from a recognizable image by whatever thought process, and by speculation on the divine nature, fashions an idol of God, and does not proclaim God.

166. Religious virtue is divided into two: into the divine and the correct ordering of behaviour—for purity of life is also a part of piety. Having first learnt what it is necessary to know about God—to know that nothing about him can be realized from things known by human apprehension—he was then taught the other kind of virtue, learning the pursuits by which the virtuous life is accomplished.

167. After this he finds himself in the tabernacle not made with hands. Who will follow one who travels through such places, and elevates his mind so high, who as he goes on from peak to peak becomes, through the ascent of the heights, ever higher than before? First he leaves behind the foot of the mountain, separated out from all those unsuited for the ascent. Then as he rises to the summit of the ascent he hears the sounds of the trumpets. At these he steals into the invisible secret place of divine knowledge. And he does not stay there, but carries on to the tabernacle not made with hands. For there the one who is elevated through such ascents truly arrives at the limit.

168. The heavenly trumpet seems to me to become in another sense a teacher for the one who listens, of the access to that which is not made with hands. For the [89] wondrous design of the heavens proclaims the wisdom revealed in all that exists, along with the great glory of God made manifest through visible phenomena, as it is said, ‘the heavens proclaim the glory of God’.13 This [design] by the clarity and sonority of its teaching becomes a loud trumpet, as one of the prophets says, ‘the heavens trumpeted from above’.14

169. The purified person, whose heart’s hearing is keen, welcomes this sound—I am speaking of the growth into knowledge of divine power which comes from the contemplation of all existing things—and, led by it, slips mentally into the place where God is. This is called ‘darkness’ by Scripture, which means, as already said, the unknown and unseen. Once there, he sees that tabernacle not made with hands, which he shows to those below using a material reproduction.

170. What then is that tabernacle not made with hands, which was shown to Moses on the mountain, and which he was commanded to look upon as an archetype, so that he might present the wonder not made with hands by means of a handmade structure? For it says, ‘See, you shall make everything according to the type shown to you on the mountain.’15 There were golden pillars fixed into silver bases and adorned with similar silver heads; yet other pillars with heads and bases made of bronze, but with silver between the extremities; and the interior of all these was wood not prone to rot, while visibly [90] the radiance of such materials shone out all around.

(p.246) 171. Likewise, there was an ark gleaming with pure gold, and the gold layer was again underpinned by wood not prone to decay. In addition there was a lampstand with a single base stem which divided into seven branches at the top, holding up an equal number of lights on the branches. The lampstand was made of gold, neither of hollow construction nor underpinned by wood. In addition to these were an altar and a mercy seat and the beings called cherubim, by whose wings the ark was overshadowed. All these were gold: not just presenting a superficially shiny appearance, but the same all the way through, with the material reaching into the depths.

172. Near these were variegated veils, lovingly crafted of woven fabric, the different colours intertwined with each other to produce the elegance of the weave. By these were separated that part of the tabernacle which was visible and accessible to some of those conducting ceremonies from that which was secret and inaccessible. The name of the front space was ‘holy’ and the space kept hidden ‘holy of holies’. In addition there were washbasins and braziers; the outer covering of curtains, hairy hides, and skins coloured red; and much else that is set out in the Word. Yet what word could apprehend the precise details?

173. Of what things not made with hands are these imitations? And what [91] benefit does the material reproduction of the things seen there by Moses bring to those viewing it? It seems good to me to leave the precise word on these things to those who through the Spirit have the power to search the depths of God,16 if indeed there be anyone able to speak ‘mysteries in the Spirit’,17 as the apostle says. Our speculative suggestions on the matter set before us we refer to the readers’ judgement, to be deemed worthless or acceptable, as the mind of the competent judge shall determine.

174. Paul partially disclosed the secret meaning of these things, and therefore, taking a little clue from his words, we say that Moses was educated beforehand by a type in the mystery of the tabernacle which encloses everything. This would be Christ, ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’,18 which in its own nature is not made by hands, yet allows itself to be physically fashioned when this tabernacle needs to be pitched among us, so that, in a certain way, the same is both unfashioned and fashioned: uncreated in pre-existence, but becoming created in accordance with this material composition.

175. Perhaps these words will not seem obscure to those who have received the mystery of our faith accurately. For there is one out of us all who both existed before the ages and came into being at the end of the ages, who did not need a temporal becoming—for how could that which was before all times and ages need a temporal [92] beginning?—yet who, for our sakes, because we had been led astray from true existence by evil counsel, undertook to become like us, in order to draw back into being once again that which had become outside being. This is the Only-begotten God, who encloses everything within himself, yet pitched his own tabernacle among us.

176. If so great a good is named ‘tabernacle’, let the lover of Christ not be dismayed, as if the expression’s literal sense could diminish the splendour of the nature of God. For neither is any other name worthy of the nature of the one designated, but all alike have fallen short of accurate designation, both those considered trivial and those in which it is assumed that lofty concepts are to be seen.

177. But just as all the other names, in keeping with what is being designated, are spoken reverently as an indication of divine power—such as physician, shepherd, (p.247) protector, bread, vine, way, door, abode, water, rock, spring, and whatever others are stated of him—so, using a designation fitting to God, he is called by the term ‘tabernacle’. For the power which encloses all existence, in whom ‘dwells the whole fullness of divinity’,19 the common shelter of all, enclosing everything within himself, is rightly called ‘tabernacle’.

178. The vision must have conformed to the name, with each perceived element leading to the contemplation of a concept fitting to God. Since, therefore, the great apostle says that the veil of the lower tabernacle is the flesh [of Christ],20 because, I suppose, it consists of a blend of colours, that is, of the four elements—he himself probably experienced a vision of [93] this tabernacle in the supercelestial secret places, he to whom through the Spirit the mysteries of paradise were revealed21—it would be good, by paying attention to the partial interpretation, to harmonize the whole understanding of the tabernacle with this part.

179. The elucidation of the tabernacle’s symbolism may come to us through the very words of the apostle. For he says somewhere about the Only-begotten, who, we have perceived, corresponds to the tabernacle, that ‘in him all things were created, visible and invisible, whether thrones or authorities or principalities or dominions’ or powers.22 Surely then the pillars bright with silver and plated with gold, the carrying-poles and rings, and those cherubim, covering the ark with their wings, and all the other elements which the description of the tabernacle’s construction contains, if one examines them by looking to things above, are the supercosmic powers, which are contemplated in the tabernacle, and which undergird everything in keeping with the divine will.

180. There are found our true carrying-poles, ‘sent forth to serve for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation’,23 which are inserted, as though through rings, through the souls of us who are being saved, and thereby carry those lying on the earth up to the height of virtue. In saying that the cherubim cover with their wings the mysteries lying in the ark of the covenant, the Word confirms the interpretation of the tabernacle we have given. For [94] we have learnt that this is the name of the powers envisaged around the divine nature, as Isaiah and Ezekiel observed. That the ark of the covenant is covered by wings should not be a surprise to our ears. For also in Isaiah the same symbolic understanding of the wings is spoken by the prophet. For the same thing is called ‘ark of the covenant’ in one place, and ‘face’ in the other; and in the one it is the ark which is covered by wings, and in the other it is the face; as though what is being apprehended in both cases is the one symbolic representation, so it seems to me, of the impossibility of understanding ineffable things.

181. And should you hear about lamps being held up by many branches stemming from one lampstand, so that ample intense light is projected all around, you would not be wrong to interpret them as the varied sparks of the Spirit shining conspicuously in this tabernacle; as Isaiah says, when he divides into seven the lights of the Spirit.24

182. The mercy seat, I think, needs no interpretation, since the apostle exposed what is hidden when he said, ‘whom God put forward as a mercy seat’ for our souls.25 Hearing ‘altar’ and ‘incense altar’, I understand the adoration by heavenly beings, which is continuously performed in this tabernacle. For he says that not only the tongues of those ‘on earth’ and ‘under the earth’, but also of ‘heavenly beings’, offer praise to the (p.248) Origin of all things.26 This is the sacrifice pleasing to God, the ‘fruit of lips’,27 as the [95] apostle says, and the fragrance of prayers.

183. If skin dipped in red dye and woven hairs are seen among these, the continuity of interpretation will not thus be prevented. For he who, with prophetic eyes, finds himself to have the vision of divine things, will behold there foreordained the saving passion, which is indicated by both elements mentioned: the redness representing blood, and the hair death. For hair on the body is without sensation, therefore it rightly becomes a symbol of death.

184. Whenever, therefore, the prophet looks to the tabernacle above, he sees these concepts by means of its components. If one should contemplate the tabernacle below, then, seeing that the church is called Christ by Paul in many places,28 it would be good to consider these terms to refer to the servants of the divine mystery, the apostles, teachers, and prophets,29 whom the Word indeed calls ‘pillars’ of the church.30 For not only Peter and James and John are pillars of the church, nor was John the Baptist the only ‘burning lamp’,31 but all those who themselves support the church and become ‘luminaries’,32 by their own works are called ‘pillars’ and ‘lamps’. ‘You are the light of the world’ says the Lord to the apostles.33 And again, the divine apostle exhorts others to be pillars, saying, ‘Be steadfast and immovable.’34 He built Timothy into a good pillar, making him, [96] as he says in his own words, ‘a pillar and foundation of the truth’.35

185. In this tabernacle both a ‘sacrifice of praise’36 and an incense of prayer are seen being offered continually at daybreak and at nightfall. Great David also allows us to understand these things, directing the incense of prayer as ‘a fragrant offering’37 to God and performing the sacrifice by the stretching out of hands.38 Anyone hearing of the washbasins will no doubt understand them as those who wash away the defilement of sins with sacramental water. John was a washbasin, washing in the Jordan with the baptism of repentance; Peter was a washbasin, leading three thousand down into the water at the same time;39 Philip was the washbasin of Candace’s man;40 as are all those who administer the grace to all partaking of the gift.

186. As to the curtains, which by being joined to one another encircle the tabernacle, someone suggesting that they are the loving and peaceful unity of the believers would not be far from the mark. For such is David’s interpretation, when he says, ‘he who made your borders peace’.41

187. The reddened skin and hairy hides, which contribute to the decoration of the tabernacle, may be interpreted respectively as the death of sinful flesh (of which the reddened skin is a symbol) and the severe life of self-control, by which the [97] tabernacle of the church is especially beautified. For skins which in themselves do not naturally have the power of life become flushed by the dipping in red dye, which teaches that the grace which flourishes through the Spirit is only found in people who make themselves dead to sin. Whether chaste modesty is signified by the Word with the dipping in red dye, I leave for whoever wishes to judge. The intertwining of hairs, which produces a rough and rigid fabric, alludes to this severe self-control which reduces (p.249) habitual passions. The life of virginity demonstrates all such things in itself, pummelling the flesh of those who live this way.42

188. If the interior, which is called the holy of holies, is not accessible to the multitude, let us not consider this out of tune with the sequence of ideas. For the truth of all existence is truly a holy matter, a holy of holies, incomprehensible and unapproachable for the multitude. Since it is set in the secret and ineffable spaces of the tabernacle of mystery, the understanding of realities beyond apprehension must not be meddled with, for we believe that what is sought exists, and yet is not set before the eyes of all, but remains ineffable in the secret spaces of the mind.

189. Having been educated in these and other such things through the vision of the tabernacle, that eye of Moses’ soul, purified and elevated by such sights, is led up again to the peak of other thoughts, [98] as he is educated in the apparel of the priesthood. This consists of the undergarment; the overgarment; that breastpiece, sparkling with the varied glints of precious stones; the headband and on it the thin plate; the breeches; the pomegranates; the bells; then over and above all these the ‘oracle’, the ‘disclosure’, and, contemplated in both, the ‘truth’; the shoulder pieces holding these together on each side, with the names of the patriarchs secured to them.

190. Most people are prevented from correctly understanding these by the very names of the clothing. For what sort of name for bodily attire is ‘disclosure’ or ‘oracle’ or ‘truth’? These clearly show that it is not this perceptible clothing that is described for us by the history, but a certain adornment of the soul woven by virtuous pursuits.

191. The dye of the full-length robe is blue. Certain of those who have previously examined the Word say that the dye signifies the air. Whether such vivid colour resembles the colour of the air, I cannot affirm exactly. I do not, however, set the Word aside. For the thought tends towards the interpretation related to virtue, in that it requires one who intends to become a priest of God to bring his own body to the sacrifice and become an unslain victim, in a ‘living sacrifice’ and ‘rational service’.43 He should not damage the soul with the thick and fleshy clothing of ordinary living, but by purity of life should make [99] all his pursuits as delicate as the thread of a spider’s web, and come close to that which ascends and is light and airy. He should respin this bodily nature, in order that when we hear the last trumpet, and are found weightless and light in responding to the voice of the one who urges us on, we may be carried on high through the air together with the Lord,44 with no weight dragging us back to earth. For the one who, following the advice of the psalmist, ‘has melted his soul like a spider’s web’,45 has put on that airy tunic which reaches from the head to the extremities of the feet. For the law does not intend virtue to be truncated.

192. The golden bells vibrating around the pomegranates are the sparkle of noble feats. For there are two pursuits through which virtue is acquired: faith as regards the divine, and conscience as regards life. These pomegranates and bells the great Paul bestows upon Timothy’s garment, saying that he must have ‘faith and a good conscience’.46 So, on the one hand, let faith ring out loud and clear by the proclamation of the holy Trinity, and, on the other, let life im itate the nature of the pomegranate’s fruit.

193. For the outside of this is inedible, covered as it is in a hard and bitter case; but the inside is delightful to look at, with its intricate and orderly arrangement of seeds, (p.250) and even more delightful to taste, gratifying the senses. The bitter philosophical life, which is hard to accept and disagreeable to the senses, is yet full of good hopes, and ripens in its own time. When the time comes for [100] our vine-dresser47 to open up the pomegranate of life and reveal the beauty of hidden things, then the enjoyment of those partaking in their own fruit will be sweet. For the divine Apostle also says somewhere that ‘for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant (that is the impression on first encountering the pomegranate), later it yields the peaceful fruit’.48 This is the sweetness of the food inside.

194. The law also directs that this tunic be tasselled.49 The tassels are spherical ornaments attached to it for the sake of decoration, not need. We learn from these that virtue is not to be measured by commandment alone, but that we should find something for ourselves, through original invention, so that extra decoration might be added to the garment. So it was with Paul, who wove his own beautiful tassels into the commandments. Whereas the law directs that ‘those attending the altar receive a share from the altar’ and ‘those proclaiming the gospel make their living’ from it,50 he makes the gospel ‘free of charge’,51 undergoing hunger, thirst, and nakedness.52 These are the tassels, which by their addition adorn the tunic of the commandments.

195. Then two pieces of cloth are set over the full-length robe, coming down from the shoulders as far as the chest and the back; [101] they are joined to each other by two clasps, one on each shoulder. The clasps are stones carrying the names of the patriarchs, six inscribed on each. The weave of the cloths is variegated. Blue is woven with purple, the redness of scarlet mixed with flax. Into all these is interspersed gold thread, so that out of these various dyes a single blended elegance radiates from the fabric.

196. From this elegance through variety we learn that the higher elements of the clothing, those which particularly decorate the heart, are a fusion of many different virtues. The blue is woven with the purple. For royalty is partnered by purity of life. Scarlet mingles with flax, because the radiance and purity of life somehow grow naturally together with the blush of modesty. The gold shining among these colours alludes to the treasure laid up for such a life. The patriarchs written on the shoulder pieces contribute in no small way to such an embellishment for us. Human life is enriched all the more by the models of goodness received from the past.

197. Moreover, there is another decoration set over the decoration provided by these cloths: golden shields hanging from each of the shoulder pieces, themselves holding up a golden object of rectangular shape brightened by twelve stones [102] fixed in rows. There are four rows, each holding three stones. Among these not one was found to be the same as another, but each was embellished by its own particular radiance.

198. Such then is the design of the decoration. As to meaning, that of the shields hanging from the shoulders alludes to the double nature of the armour against the adversary, so that since, as was said earlier, virtue succeeds in two ways—through faith and a good conscience in this life—one is made safe on both sides by the shields’ protection, remaining unwounded by such darts, ‘by means of the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left’.53

199. That rectangular adornment attached to the shields on both sides, on which are the stones engraved with patriarchal name of the tribes, becomes a covering for the (p.251) heart. The Word teaches us through this design that the one who drives away the evil archer with these two shields will adorn his own soul with all the virtues of the patriarchs, each shining on the cloth of virtue in its own way. May the rectangular shape be a sign to you of steadfastness in the good. For such a shape is hard to alter, fixed firm thanks to the right-angled corners based on the straight sides.

200. The straps by which these ornaments are tied to the arms seem to me [103] to supply a principle for the higher life: it is necessary to unite practical philosophy with the work of contemplation. The heart therefore becomes a symbol of contemplation and the arms a symbol of works.

201. The head adorned with the diadem intimates the crown laid up for those who have lived well. It is adorned by the inscription on the thin golden plate with unutterable lettering. Whoever wears an array like this does not put on sandals, so as not to be weighed down for the race and hindered by the covering of dead skins, according to the meaning arrived at in contemplating the mountain. How then could the sandal be intended as a decoration for the foot when it is thrown away at the first mystical initiation as an impediment to the ascent?54 (p.252)


(1) Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 23.

(2) Malherbe and Ferguson, The Life of Moses, 22.

(3) Musurillo has lamps (λύχνοι‎), Daniélou lampstand (λυχνία‎).

(4) Gregory’s terminology does not conform to the LXX, but it seems likely that by ‘veils’ (ϰαταπετάσματα‎) he is referring to the material dividing off the holy of holies, talked of in the singular in the LXX (Exod. 26:31); by ‘hangings’ (παραπετάσματα‎) he is referring to the fabric at the entrance to the tent, which the LXX refers to both as ἐπίσπαστρον‎ and ϰαταπέτασμα‎ (Exod. 26:36–37); by ‘covering’ (περίβολος‎) he means the ten coloured inner curtains surrounding the tabernacle (Exod. 26:1–6, cf. Mos. 2.84); and by ‘canopy’ (ὄροϕος‎) he is referring to the skins covering the inner curtains (Exod. 26:7–14).

(5) Gregory’s construction (τὸ πυραυγὲς τοῦ ϰοϰϰοβαϕοῦς ἐρυθήματος‎) reflects the ‘double scarlet’ (ϰόϰϰινον διπλοῦν‎) of LXX Exod. 25:4, itself a misunderstanding of the Hebrew ינשׁ תעלות‎.

(6) τὸ ... τῆς δημιουργίας ὑπόδειγμα‎ could simply mean ‘the design for manufacture’; but it seems likely that Gregory is playing on words, and making reference to the cosmological symbolism of the tabernacle.

(7) The MT (Exod. 28:6–7) talks of an ephod (דופא‎) and two shoulder pieces (תפתכ‎). The LXX translates the first as shoulder piece (ἐπωμίς‎) in the singular, and the second by the same word in the plural (ἐπωμίδες‎). Gregory conflates the two, and only refers to the plural ‘shoulder pieces’. From Life of Moses 2.195 it is clear that he thought of the ephod as being made of two pieces of cloth (δύο πέπλοι‎). To add to the confusion, however, in 2.189 he refers both to the overgarment (έπενδύτης‎), presumably the ephod, and to the shoulder pieces.

(8) Gregory is referring to the breastpiece (ןשׁח‎; περιστήθιον‎ Exod. 28:4, λόγιον / λογεῖον‎ 28:15).

(9) Gregory seems to be conflating two different undergarments: the tunic, which the MT describes as ‘chequered’ (ץבשׁת תנתכ‎) and the LXX as ‘tasselled’ (χιτών ϰοσυμβωτόν‎), and the robe (ליעמ‎), which the LXX specifies reaches to the feet (ποδήρης‎ 28:4, ὑποδύτης ποδήρης‎ 28:27). In the MT (Exod. 28:33–34) there are two kinds of ornament on the bottom of the robe: pomegranates made of blue, purple, and scarlet, and golden bells. The LXX (Exod. 28:29–30) has three kinds of ornament: golden pomegranates, bells, and pomegranates made of blue, purple, scarlet, and linen. These fabric pomegranates are also referred to as ‘flower-work’ (ἄνθινον‎), translated ‘blossom’ by NETS. Since Gregory conflates the two garments, he equates the tassels (ϰόσυμβοι‎) of the tunic with the variegated fabric pomegranates of the robe.

(10) John 1:18.

(11) Exod. 20:21.

(12) LXX Ps. 17:12.

(13) LXX Ps. 18:2.

(14) This is not an accurate quotation from a biblical prophet.

(15) Exod. 25:40.

(16) Cf. 1 Cor. 2:10.

(17) 1 Cor. 14:2.

(18) 1 Cor. 1:24.

(19) Col. 2:9.

(20) Heb. 10:20.

(21) Cf. 2 Cor. 12:4.

(22) Col. 1:16, with a slight change of order, and the addition of ‘powers’.

(23) Heb. 1:14.

(24) Cf. LXX Isa. 11:2–3.

(25) Rom. 3:25.

(26) Phil. 3:10–11.

(27) τὸ ϰάρπωμα τῶν χειλέων‎,‎ cf. Heb. 13:15 ϰαρπὸν χειλέων‎.

(28) Rom. 12:4–5; 1 Cor. 12:12–13; Eph. 1:22–23.

(29) Cf. 1 Cor. 12:28.

(30) Gal. 2:9.

(31) John 5:35.

(32) Phil. 2:15.

(33) Matt. 5:14.

(34) 1 Cor. 15:58.

(35) 1 Tim. 3:15.

(36) Heb. 13:15.

(37) Eph. 5:2; Phil. 4:18.

(38) Cf. LXX Ps. 140:2.

(39) Acts 2:41.

(40) Acts 8:27–39.

(41) LXX Ps. 147:3.

(42) Cf. 1 Cor. 9:27.

(43) Rom. 12:1.

(44) Cf. 1 Thess. 4:17.

(45) LXX Ps. 38:12.

(46) 1 Tim. 1:19.

(47) Cf. John 15:1.

(48) Heb. 12:11.

(49) See n. 9.

(50) 1 Cor. 9:13–14.

(51) 1 Cor. 9:18.

(52) Cf. 1 Cor. 4:11.

(53) 1 Cor. 6:7. The Greek syntax of this paragraph is unclear.

(54) Exod. 3:5.