Gnosticism in Modern Scholarship

Gnosis 02 This is the third in a series of four articles exploring the phenomenon of Gnosis or Gnosticism from a “Non-Voegelinian Perspective.” Eric Voegelin (1901-1986) in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and elsewhere used the term “Gnosticism” to refer to the “closed” or ideological-totalitarian systems that, for him, expressed the essence of modernity. Voegelin was a critic of modernity, just as he was a critic of the ideological-totalitarian systems, and in his usage the term Gnosticism (taking it out of quotation-marks) always carried a strong pejorative connotation. In Voegelin’s view, as expressed especially in the multi-volume study Order and History (1957-1965), Gnosticism sought to triumph but failed to do so in Antiquity, but then emerged anew in the early modern period to become the dominant Weltanschauung of the later centuries. Voegelin did not mean – as some took him to mean – that specific Gnostic doctrines, surviving in latency during the Medieval Period, then sprang back to life in all their details; rather, Voegelin argued that the difficulty of coming to terms with the “tension” (the perceived imperfection or even hostility) of existence inclined some people to deny existence by constructing an elaborate “second reality.”

The “second reality” eliminates, by various gestures of denial, anything inimical to the maladjusted ego in the real world. The “second reality” is a flight from reality – a fugue. The real world persists, which means that the advocates of the “second reality” find themselves in perpetual conflict, both rhetorical and psychological, with existence. Ideology, for Voegelin, is a magical gesture aimed at altering the structure of reality through unanimous declaration; the requirement for unanimity means that the Gnostic polity must quash all dissenting voices.

Voegelin did not evoke the topic of Gnosticism in a vacuum. The scholarship of Gnosis goes back to various students of G.W.F. Hegel, particularly to Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose pioneering study, Die Christliche Gnosis (Christian Gnosis, 1835), remains a touchstone. Nevertheless, the take-off of Gnostic scholarship happened in the Twentieth Century. A pivotal work appeared in The Gnostic Religion (1958), by Hans Jonas (1903-1993), reissued in a revised text in 1963, 1991, and 2001. With Kurt Rudolph (born 1929), whose Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism appeared in 1977, Jonas was a dominant presence in the field right up to his death. More recently, the names of Giovanni Filoramo (born 1945) and Yuri Stoyanov (born 1961) have become obligatory references. So has that of Michel Tardieu (born 1938) for his succinct book, Manichaeism (1981; English version 2008). It should be emphasized that Voegelin was never a primary scholar of Gnosticism. Jonas, Rudolph, and Filoramo, with whom the present essay deals, were and are primary scholars of Gnosticism. Their objectivity distinguishes them from well-known others (J. M. Robinson, for example, and Elaine Pagels) whose interest in Gnosticism is rather more advocative than rigorous.

Jonas, Hans

I. Baur was a student of Hegel. Hans Jonas studied philosophy under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and theology under Rudolf Bultmann. Jonas was particularly associated with Heidegger until 1933, when Heidegger’s suddenly candid Nazi sympathies and Jonas’ Jewish affiliation not only brutally alienated the student from the teacher but also sent the student (doctorate incomplete) into exile to England and thence (1934) to what was still called Palestine. Jonas joined the British Army and returned to Germany in 1945 as a soldier on the victorious side. After the war, the ex-soldier taught in Canada. Coming to the USA, he joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York, in 1955. In later life, Jonas wrote two books – The Phenomenon of Life (1966) and The Imperative of Responsibility (1979) – that influenced the direction of environmentalism and its offshoot in so-called “green politics.” Conservative readers will feel a shudder of aversion, perhaps, in the divulgence of these latter phases of the Jonas biography, but they should bracket the response. Jonas’ magnum opus remains his Gnostic Religion, a book indispensable for an understanding of Gnosis in its Late Antique context and beyond. The book served that function for Voegelin, who knew it and studied it and who incorporated much of its thesis into the fourth (and at the time seemingly the final) volume of Order and History, his Ecumenic Age (1965).

Jonas described himself as an Existentialist, a label that Heidegger always disavowed. Jonas approached Gnosis, through the phenomenological method, from a discernible Existentialist perspective. Like Baur, approaching his topic with respect, Jonas took the Gnostic documents seriously, seeing in them the expressions of an anguished consciousness grappling with the problems of a disintegrating civilization, in which the resources of Tradition had become decreasingly accessible. “We can imagine,” Jonas writes, “with what feelings gnostic men must have looked up to the starry sky.” Among such men “the Music of the Spheres was no longer heard,” but rather the brilliant silence of the sky struck them as “evil.”

For Jonas the context of Gnosticism is the late, markedly religious phase of Hellenism. The first phase of Hellenism announced itself in Alexander of Macedon’s prodigious conquests and the establishment, in their wake, of the Diadochic Kingdoms. Greek language and Greek high culture became a universal medium of discourse in a great swath of geography from Greece itself right through Persia to Central Asia. The second phase of Hellenism occurred as the local traditions began to react to the new dispensation imposed through conquest from above. Jonas tends to couch his understanding of this new Greek-speaking Orient in dialectical terms: The lingua franca and its related thinking constituted together the unity of a “cosmopolitan secular culture”; the submerged local cultures constituted the multiplicity, in which, in order to articulate itself, each peculiar worldview adopted the standard Hellenic parole of “man as such” with its accompanying techniques of rhetoric and logic. But the conquered societies were not themselves rational or secular societies, on the Greek model; they were religious societies or temple polities that articulated their local worldviews as myth rather than discourse.

Mithras Kills the Bull

In the train of three centuries, in Jonas’ summary, the varieties of local religiosity, while interacting with Orphism and Platonism, gradually transformed the Greek-speaking Orient into “a pagan religious culture,” stemming from “profoundly un-Greek sources.” Gnosticism, like Judaism and Christianity, represents one element in this composite matrix of eclectic notions derived from diverse ethnic sources, which react on one another in a myriad of ways, but there were many others: Mithraism, the Astarte and Isis cults, Astrology, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism – even Stoicism had eastern roots.

By the beginning of the Third Century AD, this dialectical transformation of secularity into religiosity had reached its terminal form. “Traditional dualism,” Jonas writes, “traditional astrological fatalism, traditional monotheism were all drawn into it, yet with such a peculiarly new twist to them that in the present setting they subserved the presentation of a novel spiritual principle.” This new soul-idea proved, itself, to be sufficiently powerful to overcome the patchwork of peculiar systems, each related to a locality, and to express itself with remarkable conceptual homogeneity despite a proliferation of peculiar nomenclature. The same new soul-idea finds a most radical and representative articulation in what Jonas calls the “dualistic transcendent religion of salvation” for which the main label is Gnosis. This Greek word, Gnosis, which was formerly current in philosophy, now takes on a meaning vastly different from its normative, rational usage.

Gnosticism, then, is a theory of two hostile forces in the contest of which the enlightened spirit perceives its stake – nothing less than redemption from the world and ensconcement in godhood. Knowledge, redefined, plays a role in this drama. “Gnosis meant pre-eminently knowledge of God,” Jonas writes; “and from what we have said about the radical transcendence of the deity [in the emerging conception] it follows that ‘knowledge of God’ is the knowledge of something naturally unknowable and therefore itself not a natural condition.” Gnosis concerns “secrets of salvation,” reception of which “is itself… a modification of the human condition,” an “event in the soul” that “transforms the knower himself by making him a partaker in the divine existence.”

In Jonas’ formula, “the cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and the world, and correspondingly that of man and the world.” Jonas allows the consensus that such radical dualism has its source in Iranian cosmology, a notion going back to the work of Franz Cumont (1868 – 1947). That consensus, however, is mere genealogy, which interests Jonas much less than the ramping-up of the ontological dichotomy in the Late Antique doctrines. In Gnosticism, as Jonas describes it, “the deity is absolutely transmundane,” and really not knowable in mundane terms, at all – not, that is, an object of Platonic or Aristotelian “theoria.” By contrast, “the world is the work of lowly powers which though they may mediately be descended from Him do not know the true God and obstruct the knowledge of him in the cosmos over which they rule.” Adding this qualification, Jonas duly notes the incorporation in Gnostic cosmology, always under its imperative of antithetical revaluation, of elements from Iranian, Babylonian, Syrian, and Egyptian theology. Under this revaluation of traditional, local theologies, all gods below the transmundane God become demonic: “Their tyrannical world-rule is called heimarmene, universal Fate, a concept taken over from astrology but now tinged with the gnostic anti-cosmic spirit.”

We recall that in Platonic cosmology, as it takes form in the dialogue Timaeus, the orderliness of the universe is entirely benevolent, offering itself as an imitable model to those who are willing to study it and to translate its terms into their earthly, political correspondences. This gesture, modeling the earthy life on the heavenly round, reproduces the gesture of the Demiurge in creating the universe. The Demiurge consulted the Ideas or Forms before he turned his transforming art to the shaping of the primordial material that supplied his handicraft. Finite boundaries enclose the classical cosmos, but the individual never feels the cosmic finitude as an oppressive limit. The classical cosmos is transparent; it does not glare implacable at its inhabitants or pose insoluble riddles.

The term “anti-cosmic” thus plays a central role in Jonas’ analysis of the Gnostic worldview. Jonas writes: “For the world as a whole, vast as it appears to its inhabitants, we have thus the visual image of an enclosed cell – what Marcion contemptuously called haec cellula creatoris – into which or out of which life may move.” We remark the difference between this image of opacity and the classical image of transparency. Governed by the Archons, or lower, demonic gods, “the universe… is like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the scene of man’s life.” Every aspect of existence becomes demonized in the Gnostic re-conception of them. Thus all known extension, whether geographical or celestial, becomes a labyrinth in which the souls of the elect wander in a type of exiled; time, for the elect subject, becomes an agony of postponement, an immensity of aeons (in the purely chronological sense) that must play out before the transmundane deity abolishes the world. Again, in Jonas’ resumption, “darkness has embodied its whole essence and power in this world, which now therefore is the world of darkness.”

Opposite to this world is the “Pleroma,” the divine, immaterial realm existing transcendentally apart from and beyond this world, from which material existence descended or fell as the result, not of a creative and benevolent act, but rather by malicious negligence leading to a spiritual catastrophe. Drawing on the Valentinian Gospel of Truth, Jonas tells how: “In the invisible and nameless heights there was a perfect Aeon pre-existent. His name is Fore-Beginning, Forefather, and Abyss… Through immeasurable eternities he remained in profoundest repose.” The term Pleroma (“Fullness”) refers to the total self-sufficiency of the “Forefather” in the realm of light, which is (counter-intuitively and paradoxically) identical with Him. The Forefather emanates other perfect beings to dwell with Him, to be in Him, to contemplate Him, and to glorify Him. One, Sophia, thinking to imitate the Forefather, attempts emanations of her own.

Sophia’s superbia resulted in what the deluded think of as creation. Gnosis, however, reveals Sophia’s deed to be an aborted mockery of the Pleroma. Sparks from the luminous realm, atoms of the Forefather Himself, have become imprisoned in the abortion. Jonas writes, “This is one of the fundamental symbols of Gnosticism: a pre-cosmic fall of part of the divine principle underlies the genesis of the world and of human existence.” Now Third-Century Paganism had its own ideas of salvation, among which was the one that speculated how the soul of the good person might find its reward beyond the tomb by rising among the stars, there to dwell eternally. Gnosticism, as Jonas describes it, stands strongly at odds with such a belief, which, by its frame of reference, it must regard as a lie and a swindle.

Jonas Gnostic Religion

II. Jonas stresses that although Gnosticism appropriates the language of philosophy and although the authors of the Gnostic tracts demonstrate a system-building talent that results in something that often resembles philosophy, nevertheless Gnosticism remains non- and more especially anti-philosophical. Jonas remarks on the Gnostic usage of the rhetorical-analytic device called allegoresis. One can follow the drawing of allegorical affinities between rational discourse, on the one hand, and mythic or symbolic discourse, on the other, back to Plato. The technique gained currency, however, not in the immediate post-Classical period but in the last, transitional sub-phase of secular Hellenism. A key figure in the validation of allegoresis is Philo Judaeus (20 BC – 50 AD), the Alexandrian rabbi and Platonic philosopher who sought to demonstrate the compatibility of Mosaic revelation, as codified in the Old Testament, with Platonic doctrine, as articulated in the dialogues. Philo interpreted symbols in the Old Testament as metaphors of Plato’s rational theology. As a result, Jonas writes: “The myth, however freely [it was] handled, was never contradicted nor were its own values controverted.” Jonas adds that, “The system of scriptural allegory evolved in [Philo’s] school was bequeathed as a model to the early Fathers of the Church,” and “here again the purpose is that of integration and synthesis.”

Gnostic allegoresis functions otherwise: “Instead of taking over the value system of the traditional myth, it proves the deeper ‘knowledge’ by reversing the roles of good and evil, sublime and base, blessed and accursed, to be found in the original.” An entire Gnostic sect named itself after the serpent in Genesis – in Greek, they were the Ophites and in Aramaic the Naassenes. Since it is the serpent,” Jonas writes, “that persuades Adam and Eve to taste of the fruit of knowledge and thereby to disobey their Creator, [the serpent] came in a whole group of systems to represent the ‘pneumatic’ principle from beyond counteracting the designs of the Demiurge, and thus could become as much a symbol of the powers of redemption as the biblical God had been degraded to a symbol of cosmic oppression.” A Gnostic sect, the Peratae, “did not even shrink from regarding the historical Jesus as a particular incarnation of ‘the general serpent,’ i.e., the serpent from Paradise understood as a principle.” The Peratae reinterpreted Cain antithetically. Abel, being favored by God, and God being for the Gnostics a false and wicked God, Cain is obviously a heroic opponent of wickedness. “Perhaps we should speak in such cases,” writes Jonas, “not of allegory at all, but of a form of polemics, that is, not of an exegesis of an original text, but of its tendentious rewriting.”

Jonas judges that, for Gnosticism, “the negative evaluation of the cosmos is fundamental.” One of the most valuable and daring parts of The Gnostic Religion is the suite of chapters devoted to the contrasting images of the cosmos in Greek and Gnostic thinking, culminating in an Epilogue, written for the book’s republication in the mid-1960s, on “Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism.” The Greek and Gnostic images of the cosmos are ideas that imply specific consequences in human behavior and in the structure of society that differ as much as the images, or ideas, themselves. As Jonas reminds his readers, the word cosmos, in its normative usage, carries a wide range of positive connotations, which together sum up a relation of the subject to its existence against the universal backdrop. Jonas writes, “Cosmos means ‘order’ in general, whether of the world or household, of a commonwealth or a life.” A bit later in the discussion: “The universe was considered to be the perfect exemplar of order, and at the same time the cause of all order in particulars,” as for example in the independent polis, or city-state. Jonas quotes Cicero to the effect that, “man was born to contemplate the cosmos and to imitate it,” a precept that “establishes the connection between cosmology and ethics.” Akshobya in seinem šstlichen Paradies mit Lichtkreuz // Hans-Joachim Klimkeit: Das Kreuzessymbol in der zentralasiatischen Religionsbewegung. In: Zeitschrift fŸr Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 31 (1979), Abb. 8 Cicero’s notion, with its obvious relation to the other forms of classical cosmology such as Plato’s, has ancient roots going back into the Stone Age. Agricultural societies naturally orient themselves by the stars and constellations; they see the order written in the heavens as intimately connected with the existential order, by the maintenance of which they live or die. It is important to recall the millennial character of these ideas and their centrality to the social order. Gnosticism rebels against customs and perceptions so long-standing that their origins must be nearly the same as consciousness itself. That is how radical the Gnostic revaluation of the cosmos is. It is to Jonas’ credit that he brings such fairness to his examination of Gnostic anti-cosmicism. Jonas points out that beginning with Alexander, significant changes had come about in the region of the empires.

Jonas thus takes care to point out that Alexander’s conquests and the establishment of the Diadochic Kingdoms brought about an upheaval in the existential situation of the enlightened individual. That individual was no longer unambiguously the citizen of an independent city-state, living in something like a face-to-face community, but rather the subject, in the disestablished sense, of a kingdom-by-conquest or empire. It is not only Gnosticism that registers this change of condition. In Stoicism, which responds to the new situation, the phrase “to play one’s part” becomes prominent. As Jonas remarks, “a role played is substituted for a real function performed.” The older precept of the union of Anthropos and Cosmos became afflicted by a “fictitious element in the construction.” As the suspicion grew that “the part was insignificant to the whole,” the belief in the cosmos as something meaningful entered a phase of “strained fervor.”

The Gnostics, Jonas writes, seized on this rift in the old world-picture in an ingenious – and prototypically antithetic and invidious – way: “In retaining this name [cosmos] for the world, the Gnostics retained the idea of order as the main characteristic of what they were intent on deprecating. Indeed, instead of denying to the world the attribute of order… they turned this very attribute from one of praise into one of opprobrium, and in the process if anything increased the emphasis on it.” The positive elements of hierarchy and regularity in the old idea become “rigid and inimical order, tyrannical and evil law” in the new idea. For the Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Stoic schools the cosmos was itself, if not quite a god, then divine. But for Gnosticism the cosmos becomes “devoid of meaning and goodness, alien to the purposes of man… an order empty of divinity.”

In his Epilogue, Jonas, having completed his “Existential reading of Gnosticism,” undertakes what he calls his “Gnostic reading of Existentialism.” I construe this Epilogue as a response to Voegelin, given its date and supplementary character. Much of modern thinking, Jonas argues, especially the strain of so-called Existentialism exemplified in the work of writers like Heidegger and Sartre, expresses a type of revulsion against existence – tending to nihilism – that strikingly resembles ancient Gnosticism. One difference is that Gnosticism in its ancient context “was never admitted to the respectable company of… philosophic tradition,” whereas modern nihilism might be said to dominate discourse in every chapter of society. As in antiquity, “the disruption between man and total reality is at the bottom of nihilism” which constitutes a “dualism without metaphysics.”

Rudolph, Kurt

III. If anyone were Jonas’ successor it would be Kurt Rudolph although Rudolph is not so lively a writer as Jonas; Rudolph adheres to an academic style of presentation, but the result is admirable. Like Jonas, Rudolph emphasizes the radical dualism of the general Gnostic worldview, including its vision of an absolutely transmundane deity: “The gnostic idea of God is… not only the product of a dualism hostile to the world, but it is at the same also a consequence of the esoteric conception of knowledge”; and “dualism dominates the whole of gnostic cosmology.” In Gnosticism according to Rudolph: “The world of the creator is subordinated to a world which lies before it in space and time – and at the same time is thereby devaluated; its origin is to be explained from a disharmony which somehow enters in at the margin of the upper world.” Rudolph, like Jonas, remarks the eclecticism of the Gnostic system-builders. The systems “are built together out of older mythological material,” giving “an impression of artificiality.” Gnostic discourse “attaches itself in the main to older religious imagery,” writes Rudolph, and it “prospers on the soil of ‘host religions.’” Thus Gnosticism “can… be described as parasitic.” It is the case that “Gnosticism strictly speaking has no tradition of its own but only a borrowed one.” The borrowing, however, always conforms to radical reversal of the original evaluation.

The “parasitic” character of Gnosticism, as remarked by both Rudolph and Jonas, explains the importance that the Gnostic writers placed on the idea of their own originality. A colloquial way of putting the standard Gnostic claim would resemble the phrase, “yes, but we thought of it first – and they stole it from us.” Another translation into ordinary language of a standard Gnostic thesis would resemble the phrase, “yes, but this is how it really happened.” The two rhetorical poses work together to make out the actual original, whether it is Plato’s Timaeus or one of the Four Gospels, as a forgery or a swindle – or at best a corrupt version of a suppressed and only just now recovered real, honest-to-God original. That Islam exhibits this tendency and that the Koran makes just such a claim about Hebrew and Christian Scripture suggest that the Koranic creed belongs to the Gnostic genre of religions. Cyril Glass, writing in The New Encyclopedia of Islam (2000), asserts that, “In the Muslim view, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the Divine nature of Jesus, and other points of difference from Islam, are deviations from what they believe Jesus’ true revelations to have been.” Therefore, Glass continues, Jesus’ message, as Muslims see it, “could not have been anything other than Islam as they know it.” This view is consistent with the case for the Monophysite and Sabellian origins of Islam.

The many cultic offshoots of Christianity that sprang up in New York State’s “Burned Over” District in the middle third of the Nineteenth Century also tend to exhibit the traits of parasitism on already existing and longstanding doctrines and traditions – and aggressive, trumping competitiveness with those same doctrines and traditions. The obvious, but by no means the only, example is The Book of Mormon. A less obvious example, extraneous to the “Burned Over” District but spiritually akin to that District’s apocalypse is the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which commits the consciously Gnostic gesture of denying the Divinity of Jesus, thereby demoting him to just another prophet, while seeking to ground itself in “Orphic” originality. Emerson, contemporaneously with Marx, liked to turn things on their heads. In Nature (1836), Emerson denounces the historical inheritance as sepulchral; and he preaches a kind of liberation from the tonnage of the centuries. Rudolph draws historical parallels with great reluctance compared to Jonas, but his own words prompt his readers to draw them.

Manichaean Priests

On Gnostic anthropology, Rudolph observes the division of humanity into three “races” or genera – the “pneumatics,” who possess a “Soul” or “Self” and thereby are saved; the “psychics,” who possess a “Spirit” on the animal-level, with whom the “pneumatics” may collaborate; and the “hylics,” who are entirely of matter and are doomed to perish with the material realm when the pervasion of knowledge among those who can receive it abolishes the offense against the Pleroma. Rudolph writes: “All three have originated in succession, but they are united in the one first man; they form the three constituents of every man [and] the one which in each case predominates determines the type of man to which one belongs… Only pneumatics are gnostics and capable of redemption.” According to Rudolph, the intermediate status of the psychics “does not signify any weakening of the dualistic principle, but its consistent application in changed situation,” in which missionary appeals to orthodox communities had come to seem either desirable or necessary to the Gnostic communities in their struggle for public sympathy.

For Jonas allegoresis plays a central role in Gnostic discourse. Rudolph follows Jonas. Rudolph identifies an instance of allegoresis in the Gnostic “Anthropos-Myth.” Gnostic system-builders reinterpreted the story of Adam this way: “The Body of Adam is moulded by the creator and his angels… from the elements… Since, however, he has no real life in him, he is equipped by the highest being in a secret or mediated fashion with the divine spirit, i.e., the pneuma substance, which exalts him above the creator God and bestows on him the capacity for redemption.” Adam stands as the prototype of the pneumatics. Rudolph remarks that, “redemption consists in the awakening of Adam to the knowledge of his true origin and the worthlessness of the Demiurge.” This “Anthropos-Myth” replicates the duality of the two worlds in microcosm in the constitution of the Primal Man.

In its survey of the chief Gnostic documents, drawing heavily on the Nag Hammadi cache, Rudolph’s Gnosis tends to duplicate Jonas. Writing at a later date than Jonas, however, Rudolph had access to additional material either undiscovered or unpublished until the 1970s. Of particular interest are Rudolph’s treatments of the Uighur and Tocharian branches of Gnosticism, more specifically, Manichaeism; and his comments on Mandaean Gnosticism, the only certifiable Gnostic cult to survive from Late Antiquity continuously into the present day. Whereas in the West Gnosticism had largely died out by the time of the Gothic kingdoms, in the East, in Byzantium, and farther afield in the territories of the Persian Empire, Gnosticism enjoyed a long Late-Antique denouement. Especially in Central Asia, Gnosticism took the particular form of the doctrine originating in the perfervid religious imagination of a single figure. This was Mani (216-276), who, in the Gnostic pattern established by Simon Magus, presented himself as prophet and savior.

Manichaeism enjoyed toleration in Persia under Shapur I (reigned 240 – 270) and his successor Hormizd I (reigned 270 – 271); but Hormizd’s successor Bahram I (reigned 273-276) sided with the Zoroastrian clergy, jailed Mani, and proscribed the religion. Mani’s talent for missionary organization insured that his movement would survive these setbacks. It did so in North Africa, Italy, and Gaul for two centuries; and in areas east of Persia for much longer. The Uighur Khanate, which dominated Central Asia in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries, made Manichaeism the state religion, while supporting missionaries as far away as China. The successor-states were also pronouncedly Manichaean. Writes Rudolph: “Mani… did not regard himself as a philosopher but [as] a gnostic theosophist and prophet [who] saw his task as fusing the religious tradition of the Orient of his time into a universal religion of the salvation of man.” Mani’s “dualism of spirit and body, light and darkness,” resonated with Zoroastrianism, elements of which it incorporated, and with many of the ethnic religions of the steppes. After the death of Shapur, Mani’s royal patron, the new religion came into conflict with Zoroastrianism and suffered a period of persecution during which Mani himself became a victim.

There would be a Gnostic resurgence in Europe in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, in the forms of the Paulician and Bogomil Sects, mainly a Balkan phenomenon, and Catharism, in Southern France and parts of Italy. There is some reason to connect these movements with Manichaeism although the precise genealogy of their doctrines cannot be known with certainty. In respect of Catharism, the structure of the cult, with the elect, the auditors, and a laity, seems to reproduce that of Manichaeism. Steven Runciman put it as follows in The Medieval Manichee (1947): “Man, to escape from the vileness of his body, must seek to make himself spirit as far as may be. This is done by a gnosis, an experience that is usually won by an initiation ceremony,” from which “a class of initiates arises, a spiritual aristocracy.”

To return to Rudolph – his book reproduces graphic material from the illuminated manuscripts of the Central Asian Manichaeans, who belong chronologically to the Medieval Period to the limited degree that that term applies to their geographical region. We see the white-robed elect instructing the laity and copying the scriptures. The books specify the commandments of the faith, including the enjoinment of “any doubt of [the] religion,” and, for the laity, the requirement of “the indefatigable care of the elect.” This Turkic and Tocharian literature from as late as the Thirteenth Century confirms in detail Saint Augustine’s depiction of the Manichaean illuminati in his Confessions. Augustine explains the dietary requirements of the elect, that they consumed vegetarian food supposed to contain a high proportion of the particles of light from the Pleroma that were trapped in matter. So too among the Uighur elect, the preferred table consisted of “plants with a high content of light, such as cucumbers and melons, wheat bread and… water or fruit juice.”

Rudolph’s section on the Mandaeans, lately of southern Iraq but largely driven into exile since Gulf War II (many Mandaeans now live in the USA), bears the title, “A Relic.” Given their geographical situation, a Manichaean origin of the Mandaean religion seems likely although the Mandaeans do not identify themselves as Manichaeans. As Rudolph affirms, the word manda means “knowledge.” The Mandaeans are by self-designation “knowers,” whose rich literature reproduces the full range of eschatological motifs articulated in the Nag Hammadi cache as well as in the Manichaean scriptures. Like the Elchasaites, in whose religious dispensation Mani began life, the Mandaeans are Baptists who, rejecting Christ, yet revere John the Baptist. The Mandaean religion, like Manichaeism, is dualistic in the sense of depicting existence as the battleground between a good deity of the light and an evil deity of the darkness, with the latter temporarily holding the world in his grasp.

Filoramo, Giovanni

IV. Before switching to Giovanni Filoramo it will be worth quoting one of Rudolph’s concluding statements, from the section of Gnosis devoted to “Consequences of Gnosis.” Rudolph refers to “the more or less conscious, sometimes even amateurish, reception of gnostic ideas and fragments of systems in modern syncretistic-theosophic sects.” Assessing the ambiguities, Rudolph writes: “It is difficult to prove continuity in any detail, as the connecting links are often ‘subterranean’ channels, or else the relationships are based on reconstructions of the history of ideas which have been undertaken especially in the history of philosophy.” Rudolph then mentions – and the reader will detect some sympathy in the remark – Baur’s Christliche Gnosis (1835), which “treats, in accordance with its theme, not only of the anti-gnostic representatives of the early Christian ‘philosophy of religion,’ but also exhaustively of the ‘ancient Gnosis and later philosophy of religion,’ dealing with Jakob Böhme, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and especially Hegel, as its heirs.” As in the case of certain remarks by Jonas, one has the strong suspicion, concerning these words, that they address obliquely Voegelin’s thesis, which is, in part, based on Baur’s study.

Rudolph tends to withhold evaluation, taking a purely descriptive or scientific approach to his topic. Filoramo, like Jonas, is more apt to make an evaluation and to guess at motives, but this is not to assess A History of Gnosticism as anything but objective. In a chapter called “The Gnostic Imagination,” Filoramo explores the meaning of Gnosis and sketches in the psychology that the term implies. “Gnosis,” Filoramo writes, “is the ‘redemption of the interior man,’ that is, the purification of the spiritual being and at the same time knowledge of the Whole.” Referring to The Gospel of Truth, with its explanation of “the call from above,” Filoramo remarks that in the Gnostic texts, the term Gnosis “has become synonymous with epignosis, recognition of one’s own true reality,” which he glosses as “the ontological self that constitutes and is the basis of reality” of “the interior man.”

In responding to the call – in recognizing himself – the Gnostic affirms that his subjective sense of belonging to a minority of the elect is actually the same as objective reality. The Gnostic accesses the secret knowledge through the grace, as it were, of divine revelation. But, as Filoramo notes, “from the Gnostic point of view, revelation is possible only because within the Gnostic there somehow pre-exists a disposition, a capacity, a potential fitted for testing and getting to know that particular reality.” Filoramo hesitates to go so far, but the thesis that Gnostic election is no more than an auto-probative claim of moral superiority belongs to his definition of Gnosis. The opportunity for mischief obviously conditions the Gnostic claim. Filoramo does link Gnosticism with the increasing prominence in Late Antiquity of the hyperanthropos or superman. The pattern goes back to Alexander, whose developing egomania included the idea of his godhead, possibly as an incarnation of Dionysus. It continued in the charisma of magus-types like Simon and Apollonius and in the delusions of one or two emperors; but it was a larger phenomenon.


The basic Gnostic myth implies that the elect person is a god: When the catastrophe occurred in the Pleroma, sparks of godhead became imprisoned in the world of matter. The elect enjoy their ontological difference from others by possessing such a spark as their soul. Posing the question, “Isn’t the Gnostic saved by nature,” Filoramo answers with another question – “Isn’t it precisely the awareness of this eternally preordained salvation that makes possible [Gnosticism’s] ambivalent ethics [of] an ascetism that seeks to cancel out the very root of our desires and a depraved antinomianism that mocks the laws of this world and its rulers?”

“Perhaps Jonas was right,” Filoramo opines, “to emphasize the anarchic and nihilistic character of a naturally rebellious ethic in search of a metaphysical liberty, which exists absolutely, [and] in itself.” Yet, as Filoramo reminds readers in his closing remarks, the personal side of Gnosticism, in distinction to its doctrinal side, remains only sketchily filled in: “If modern enquiry were possible, it would be… interesting to know how self-aware the average Gnostic was.” Filoramo guesses generously that his “average Gnostic” was simply someone in quest of the divine, a not ignoble disposition. The objection arises automatically, once given the doctrine. The whole of Late Antiquity was in quest of the divine and the Gnostics, even at their zenith, were a minority although an influential one. It is not simply that the Gnostic goes in search of divinity that differentiates him from everyone else; it is that he already knows where to find divinity – within himself. Indeed, the Gnostic himself is divine.

We can call on Saint Augustine for support in the contention that the Gnostic claim of superiority requires no special intelligence for its allure to be effective. In the Confessions, Augustine rehearses the story of Faustus, a lecturer, who enjoyed renown in the Gnostic community. His reputation held Faustus out to be an extraordinary wise and learned man who could answer any questions that an auditor – a kind of Gnostic-in-waiting – might pose concerning obscurities of the doctrine. When Augustine finally met and spoke with Faustus, he experienced keen disappointment. Faustus, although a nice person, knew very little. He exhibited particular deficiency in scientific knowledge and in logic. At most he could respond to inquiries with memorized answers that might or might not be pertinent to the examiner. One might sum him up, following Augustine’s description, as a dullard in service for the cause.

Gnosticism remains radically different from both the emerging Christianity of Late Antiquity and the lingering Paganism of the same age in respect to its adjustment to existence. Christians and Pagans find ways to reconcile themselves to the order of being. Christians and Pagans find nourishment in the structure of existence. For Gnostics, the material world – existence – is toxic and God stands radically alien to its realm. For pagans, God everywhere interpenetrates nature while for Christians, God, despite being transmundane, God contrives to descend into the material world through incarnation so as to communicate in the flesh with those who seek him. For Christians, inheriting the Jewish view, God is also the benevolent Creator of a world that is, itself, good, over which God places humanity in stewardship. Christian heresiologists and pagan denouncers of Gnosticism converged in condemning the Gnostics for their body-execration and world-revilement. One Pagan, Plutarch, wrote that the body was a temple of god. Plutarch’s philosophical grandfather Plato asserted that the body was the macrocosmic analogue of the organismic cosmos. Being is good, Plato affirmed. All is one, Plotinus added.

Scholarship rediscovered Gnosticism early in the Nineteenth Century. The mid-Twentieth Century saw the heyday of that scholarship. Curiosity about Gnosticism persists and grows. Novelist Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003) is not scholarship, but the success, including screen adaptation, of the book witnesses the popular interest in Gnosticism of recent years. It is precisely as an antinomian symbol that Gnosticism makes its appeal in the context of liberal mass entertainment, even where the term is not used. In the previous essay to this one, I argued that the Gnostic myth is a variety of scapegoat-myth. The Da Vinci Code is also a scapegoat-myth, making use of the latent anti-Christian sentiment in liberalism to focus reader-resentment on figures that represent normative religion (the Catholic Church and some of its lay orders), and in raising as its heroes the ancient Gnostics and their medieval Paulician and Cathar descendants.

A proliferating modern literature concerns the fictitious bloodline of Christ, who, according to the story, escaped crucifixion, espoused Mary Magdalene, and found asylum from his persecutors in Southern Gaul. The offspring of Jesus became the Merovingian royals. Possession of this “blood” functions in the same way as the possession of the “spark” does in the various Gnostic discourses, to mark out the possessor as ontologically superior to other people, and perhaps more than human, even divine. It is Runciman’s “spiritual aristocracy,” self-elected. As in the case of the Gnostic texts themselves, the very arbitrariness of the confabulations makes them alluring; they startle and dismay and invite the concession that “no one could make this up.” These theories have found advocates in Barbara Thiering (Jesus the Man, 1990) and the trio of Baigent, Lee, and Lincoln (Holy Blood, Holy Grail, 1982). The currency of such theories suggests that the impulses generative of the Gnostic view, especially the requirement of many people for a second reality, remain in place.

Midwich Cuckoos

Afterthoughts 2015: I have added a few paragraphs and extended a few others, but otherwise I have left the essay more or less unchanged from its original form when it appeared a few years ago at The Brussels Journal. If I undertook to rewrite it thoroughly, which I have not, I might put greater emphasis than in the standing version on the objective character of the studies carried out and written up by Jonas, Rudolph, and Filoramo. Indeed on revisiting them, I am struck even more than on previous occasions by the calmness and dispassion of their endeavors. The original over-title of the four essays (this one being third in the sequence) was “Gnosticism from a non-Voegelinian perspective,” which now strikes me as a bit awkward, which is why I have dropped it. The reason for that over-title, however, was a good one. Voegelin criticizes Gnosticism aggressively. To understand Voegelin’s critique, readers first need an objective sense of the Gnostic phenomenon – and this is given more than adequately by the three scholars covered in the essay. I would like, then, to return to Jonas’ characterization of the spiritual experience from which the Gnostic conviction grows. I will do the same with Filoramo. In addition, I would like to cite remarks by E. R. Dodds (1893 – 1979) on the topic of Late-Antique religiosity as a response to an increasing level of alienation or “anxiety” in the Imperial centuries.

Dodds, E. R.Jonas added the Epilogue to the third edition (English, 1963) of The Gnostic Religion. The Epilogue carries the subtitle, “Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism.” Jonas opens with the declaration that his venture in comparison is purely “experimental.” He admits that his juxtapositions will likely befall most readers as arbitrary, at first blush. Existentialism, after all, is “of our own day, conceptual, sophisticated, and eminently ‘modern’ in more than the chronological sense”; while Gnosticism is of “a misty past, mythological, crude – something of a freak even in its own time.” Nevertheless, as Jonas puts it, “My contention is that the two have something in common, and that this ‘something’ is such that its elaboration… may result in a reciprocal illumination of both.” This suspicion of a reciprocally illuminative relation grew on Jonas gradually over the decades of his study in both fields: “When… I turned to the study of Gnosticism… I found that the viewpoints… I had acquired in the school of Heidegger enabled me to see aspects of gnostic thought that had been missed before.” Jonas continues, “The extended discourse with ancient nihilism proved – to me at least – a help in discerning and placing the meaning of modern nihilism.”

More than that, Jonas began to suspect that Existentialism served so well in the analysis of modern problems because it issued, a symptom, from those problems. This thought presented itself only as a suspicion, but, as Jonas intuited it, a type of suspicion worth pursuing. Jonas’ framework is admirably non-dogmatic and tentative. Readers should approach its discoveries respectfully. Jonas remarks, for example, on a little-notice historical parallelism: Late Antiquity, like the Modern Period, steadily re-modeled its cosmology in the direction from organism and freedom to mechanism and fatality. From the organismic cosmos of the Timaeus, the Late-Antique centuries move towards the increasingly clockwork-like Ptolemaic system. Under this change, the influence of the heavens becomes something like an implacable decree – a “Fatum,” to follow Jonas’ descriptive word-choice.

Let us mindfully attend Jonas’ argument a bit further: Rather than being an image of a lawful and purposeful cosmos, the machine-model, on the contrary, begins to suggest something else. If it were the case that, as the modern mentality sees it, “the universe does not reveal the creator’s purpose by the pattern of its order, nor his goodness by the abundance of created things, nor his wisdom by their fitness, nor his perfection by the beauty of the whole – but reveals solely his power by its magnitude, its spatial and temporal immensity”; then so would it have been in Antiquity. Likewise if in Antiquity, “extension, or the quantitative, [were] the one essential attribute left to the world,” then of necessity to the extent that “the world has anything at all to tell of the divine, it [would do] so through this property”; and so would it be again in the Modern Period. In either case, “what magnitude can tell of is power.” Where power is the absolute principle, the only value is “mastery.”

Spiritual Battery

Jonas indeed sees this reduction of the universe, under the modern perception, to power as one of the sources of emergent nihilism. Bringing this thesis to the question of Existentialism, Jonas writes: “The essence of existentialism is a certain dualism, an estrangement between man and the world… A cosmic nihilism would be the condition in which some of the characteristic traits of existentialism might evolve.” What enables Jonas to formulate his hypothesis is his study of history: “There is one situation… where – on a level untouched by anything resembling modern scientific thought – that condition [‘acosmic nihilism’] has been realized and lived out with all the vehemence of a cataclysmic event. That is the gnostic movement.” When the ego views reality only as the “mindlessness” of an implacable force then that same ego must regard the laws of nature or Natural Law as repugnant. That ego becomes obsessed with the problem of how to extricate himself from his hopelessness, or rather, as he experiences it, the perverse unwillingness of reality to heed his wishes. Power being the only possible response to power under this perception, the ego reaches the stage of an active (but really, reactive) “gnostic antinomianism.” The ego now wills against necessity. Jonas quotes Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre in evidence as exemplars of the condition of total alienation expressing itself as “the subversion of nomos.”

The title of Irish classicist E. R. Dodds’ book Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (1963 – first delivered as a lecture-series) already suggests its relevance to the present topic or congeries of topics, not least because, in alluding to W. H. Auden’s 1947 poem “The Age of Anxiety,” it hints at a parallelism linking Late Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. Like Jonas, Dodds, in examining the considerable and disparate documentation of his chosen period of study of “Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine,” detected a theme of cosmic alienation and pessimism. Late Antiquity inherited from the classical world the dichotomy of heaven and earth, which, while distinguishable, were not entirely separable: They constituted, indeed, the cosmic unity. “As time went on,” Dodds writes, “this traditional antithesis between the celestial world and the terrestrial was more and more heavily emphasized and it was increasingly used to point a moral.” What was that moral? According to Dodds, it was the thesis of terrestrial meaninglessness. We see this thesis first, not in explicitly religious writing, but in intellectual satire, such as that of Lucian in his Icaromennipus. The same thesis soon acquires a specifically religious expression, most acutely in Gnosticism.

When terrestrial life devolves to an impression of ineluctable wretchedness, the notion that the world is the creation of a benevolent creator acquires the flavor of a contradiction. Dodds writes: “Where we find the visible cosmos set in opposition to God, the opposing principle may be described in any or all of three ways: (1) as Matter or ‘Darkness,’ conceived as a substance not created by God and resistant to his will; (2) as Fate, whose agents are the planetary demons… or finally (3) as a personal evil principle, the lord of this world and in some versions its creator.” In the last, we recognize the Valentinian myth, according to which this world is the secondary creation of a jealous copycat sub-creator, the Demiurge, or Yaldabaoth.

Dodds points out that at least two of the three anti-cosmic themes crop up in passages of canonical Scripture. As Dodds is trying, for admirable reasons, not to take sides but only accurately to assess, he omits to comment except occasionally and in passing on the essential difference between these themes, as they dominate in Gnostic discourse, and as they appear in fleeting contexts in Scripture. In respect of imperfection, the Gnostic’s attitude is one of indignation and impatience; the Gnostic identifies his resentment over the ontological quality of limitation as a trespass against his integrity by an actively hostile and unjust agency. The Gnostic, as Twenty-First Century people say, is “offended” – by reality. The Pagan or Christian, on the other hand, takes to heart the Logos or the Good Word; he adjusts himself to reality, waiting patiently for the total making-good of imperfection, whose advent, however, is indefinitely delayed. Therefore the Pagan or Christian waits, but while he waits, he lives. The Pagan or Christian also carefully remarks his own moral imperfections, concerning which he can blame no one save himself, while their rectification need suffer no delay. The Pagan or Christian lives in an interval; he is not a social-justice warrior looking for a swift and definitive victory over evil, with legislative validation and penalties for non-conformance in the aftermath.

Faith, in the Pagan or Christian sense, implies waiting and hoping. In Thessalonians Paul says that men must “wait for [God’s] son to come from heaven.” There is no schedule for the Second Coming, but men must live in “hope.” That same “hope” indeed requires deferral; it draws nourishment from the tension in deferral, indefinite deferral. Stoics also have an eschatology, but here again the moral individual must accommodate himself to what is, as in the famous dictum of Epictetus: “Some things are in our control and others not.” Gnostics actively agitate for Apocalypse Now through the swift annihilation of the cosmic torture-house and the re-establishment of “Fullness”; should anyone advise the Gnostic to exercise patience, he will feel redoubled the offense that he already takes in the persistence of reality. Similarly Pagans and Christians acknowledge epistemological humility: They “see as through a glass darkly”; but the Gnostic knows that he knows with godlike certainty.

Filoramo devotes a chapter to “The Gnostic Imagination,” in which he undertakes something like a phenomenology of the radical dualist mentality. Once the investigator pares away the layers of baroque syncretism that encrust the manifestation of the common Gnostic myth, one discovers a basic story: “The fate of the divine spark present in humanity and its fall into a hostile world of shadows, where it forgets its true home, while unconsciously longing to return there; its wanderings and hopes, and the eventual arrival of a Saviour who will reveal its true origin and thus enable it to regain consciousness of its essential alienation from this world of shadows.” Taken that far one can feel sympathy, which Filoramo certainly does. In the case of the central term Gnosis, however, Filoramo points to the “profound transformation” of its earlier, ordinary meaning in Gnostic usage. The word now denotes “a form of meta-rational knowledge, which is the gift of the divinity and has in it the power to save the one who achieves it.” For the Gnostic, as Filoramo writes, knowing is the same as becoming, “to be transformed through enlightenment into the actual object of knowledge.”

Filoramo takes seriously the charges of indecency made against some of the Gnostic sects, not only by the Christian heresiologists, but indeed by other Gnostics. He thus credits the famous autobiographical account by Epiphanius of Salamis (310 – 403) concerning his sojourn among one group of Alexandrian Gnostics, not as indicting Gnosticism generically but as illustrating how the doctrine of pre-salvation, through possession of the spark, made Gnostic morality ambiguous. “Isn’t it precisely the awareness of this eternally preordained salvation,” he poses, “that makes possible [the] two extremes: an asceticism that seeks to cancel out the very root of our desires and a depraved antinomianism that mocks the laws of this world and its rulers?” Filoramo leaves his question-mark unanswered, but the implication is apparent enough: Gnosticism predisposes the individual not to adjust sanely to the conditions of reality but to embrace extreme practices that are effectively in rebellion against the normative order of things.

Antony's Temptation

Filoramo’s analysis of the Gnostic meaning of Gnosis might be the most succinct and impressive single observation in the scholarship of the topic. The Gnostic becomes the thing that he knows. In modern parlance, the Gnostic “identifies” with an ideal image of himself, which he then claims to be – and he expects others to acknowledge his claim and all of the perquisites that would go with his imagined station. That, incidentally, is how Gustave Flaubert represented Gnosticism in his magnum opus The Temptation of Saint Antony (authoritative version, 1874). Several Gnostic figures appear before the Saint in the course of Flaubert’s book-length theater-of-the-mind, including Mani and Valentine. Mani tells Antony that “animals, in procreation, imprison [the spark] in flesh – Therefore, avoid women! Or rather, ensure that they are not fertile.” Valentine raves that “the world is the work of a delirious God.” But, he says, “One day, Acharamoth, reaching the highest region, will unite herself to the Saviour; the fire hidden in the world will annihilate all matter, will devour its own self, and men changed into pure spirits will wed angels.”

Flaubert’s Gnostics are intoxicated by the complexities and minutiae of their systems, the knowledge of which they flaunt before the Saint. They are experts – but they are also magicians, rehearsing the formula that will transform the base metal of existence into the gold of utopia. The plain sense of Scripture leaves the Gnostic unsatisfied. He must make an allegory of it, the more elaborate, and the less comprehensible by any outsider; the better it will be, as he sees it.

34 thoughts on “Gnosticism in Modern Scholarship

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  3. “No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

    (Moby Dick, Chapter 41)

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  5. Dear Thomas,

    A perhaps interesting note: while it is only Voegelinites / conservatives who think the majority of modern, liberal etc. thinkers are Gnostic, Hegel is actually seen as a Joachimite (of Fiore) even by the mainstream, the relationship there is clearly recognized and not merely analogical.

    • Dear Shenpen:

      I wouldn’t ascribe to Voegelin the position that the majority of modern thinkers are Gnostic but rather that the prevailing tenor of modern thought is Gnostic. The difference is perhaps subtle but it is important nevertheless. A tiny minority of Gnostic elites articulate the formulas that define the “second reality.” Many people beyond the inner elite circle accept these formulas and use them, and the formulas then define the way that they perceive – or misperceive – reality; but it is not necessary for the many to be original thinkers or even thinkers.

      Voegelin argued, in The New Science of Politics (1952), that Joachim’s Tripartite Tractatus marked the resurgence of Gnosticism; in Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (1963), Voegelin drew parallels between Joachim’s Tractatus and Hegel’s Phenomenology. The “Third Realm” or “Third Age” is an important element in Late-Antique and again in Late-Medieval mystical and philosophical speculation. Joachim’s three ages anticipate the three phases of Hegel’s dialectic. We recall that for Joachim there is no age after the Third Age and that for Hegel the action of the dialectic comes to an end with the publication of the Phenomenology.

      Incidentally, Joachim’s writings date from the same period as the Paulician, Bogomil, and Cathar episodes of Medieval religious history. Joachim’s writings participate in the agitation of their era.

      Thank you for commenting on the article.


  6. Hello Thomas, I thought there are some additional ideas to expand on from the fourth to last paragraph. Being an object of knowledge implies a claim to be an immanent cause, thus the inference to also becoming the cause and object of truth. Is that not the essence of the original lie, to know – create a new moral reality independent of God?

    • And thus to obviate God or annihilate him by the gesture; or, in the modern formula, “to prove” God’s non-existence (already a confusion of terms) by imitating Him. In the Heidegger-Sartre version of Existentialism, this auto-apotheotic status is called “authenticity.” As Obama said just after his 2008 electoral victory, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

  7. I intend to delve into orthodox apocalypse first. On hand: R. H. Charles’s translation of the Book of Enoch (Dover paperback), John J. Collins’s The Apocalyptic Imagination (Eerdmans pb), Jean Danielou’s The Theology of Jewish Christianity (old Regnery hardcover), Austin Farrer’s A Rebirth of Images (SUNY paperback), other things on the Book of Revelation. For the translation of Revelation/The Apocalypse of St. John itself, I propose to use the ESV translation (the Lutheran Study Bible, published by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) and probably to consult other translations, including Farrer’s own in his book. I have a commentary on Revelation published by the traditional Orthodox house St. Herman of Alaska Press.

    It seemed to me that it would be good to work with these materials before I engage with Gnosticism in a lengthy project. I have on hand for that the study by Rudolph.

  8. “This was such a common practice, I’m surprised there’s so many who’ve never encountered it.

    Sir Isaac Newton showed the probable origin (monk and monastery) of the 3 witnesses of 1 John 5:7. It wasn’t quoted in Greek until the 13th Century. He (Newton) also showed the change in Timothy 3:16 (again showing the probable author: Gregory Nyssen). Erasmus knew it was not original – which is why it isn’t in the earliest Greek translations made from the “Textus Receptus”.

    The reference to Mt. Agar (Galatians 4:25) was a marginal note, later incorporated into the text.. a practice that Jerome observed when his own marginal note was inserted into the next copy of his own Psalter!

    The woman taken in adultry (pericope adulterae) is first quoted in the late 4th Century, probably shortly after it was composed.

    The birth narratives were added probably around 130, which explains why they contradict so completely. Both stories were based on different sections of Josephus (written in the mid 90s and generally available within a few decades).

    Justin needed to use Isaiah 1:16 to justify the practice of water baptism (in the 150s) instead of using Matthew 28:19 – which hadn’t been added to his copy yet. He was probably using the same copy Eusebius used – Eusebius quotes this verse about 20 times and never includes the command to be baptized!

    The reason should be obvious: Christianity started as a Gnostic religion, but a faction grew who thought of Jesus as a physical person. That group became the “orthodox” we know today. In fact, it was the Gnostics who first proposed the idea of a physical redeemer teaching the way of redemption.

    This manuscript in this video is part of a long lineage of documents that were altered here and there as the doctrines morphed into what we see today.”

    ( Comment on this video: )

    Thoughts on this?

    • Basing my intuition on my studies in the topic, I would guess, along with Jonas and the others, that Gnosticism begins well before Christianity, in the Eastern reaction to, or rejection of, philosophy, especially Platonic philosophy, in the aftermath of Alexander’s campaigns. Among the earliest Christians, who were really Jewish followers of the Rabbi Jesus, many adopted ideas and dispositions that would qualify as Gnostic. The Essenes are an example. Others held to a more humble, less philosophical view that was also less prone to involve itself in intellectual rivalry with competing doctrines. What became Orthodoxy would stem largely from the latter. It is nevertheless true that Gnostic traits show up in early – and later – chapters of Christianity.

  9. Some examples of the pervasiveness of gnosticism in modern atheistic discourses:

    Benjamin Cain, ‘Cosmic Existentialism’:

    “When we wonder about the point of life in general and we realize that science’s deflationary view of the world renders the question itself nostalgic, we should look closer at what the technoscientific enterprise is both demonstrating and accomplishing. Nature is palpably divine, albeit freakishly mindless in its staggering creativity, and our counter-creations continue the work done by the anomalous, organic processes in our bodies, namely the production of precious bastions that breathe life and purpose and value into our true god’s sprawling, undying carcass. We want our purpose in life to derive from the nature of reality, not to be a matter of mere taste. That derivation happens with or without the traditional God. If the premier twenty-first century religion is bound to be pantheistic, that is, atheistic and scientifically informed, its practitioners will trust in the sacredness of the technoscientific project to replace the inhuman wilderness that’s forced on them, with an alternative world that embodies their uncanny ideals. We ought to attempt to slay the cosmic dragon so that its strangely gratuitous and impersonal system will stand opposed somewhere for at least some fleeting moment in the unfathomable vastness of space and time.” (

    David Roden, ‘posthuman speculation’:

    (in one of his more humoristic set of articles)

    “If you think about it, the only upside to the existence of a God is that He could, in principle, be killed. He’s devised a universe in which most creatures die pointless, tortuous deaths after disappointing their Dads. The scales of suffering need to be balanced.

    Payback’s a bitch. She’s been a long time coming. And forget that little trifle in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. As Borges’ commentator in “Three Versions of Judas” remarks, an afternoon on a cross hardly cuts it. That is, unless Christ, like Judas, was damned and still suffering in some benighted pocket of His own creation.

    That’s an admittedly satisfying prospect, but even this doesn’t really get God off the hook; just shows His sadism (and masochism) to be infinitely more messed up than mine or yours. Dear reader, the only solution to immanent theology is Annihilation.

    Admittedly, this is not sophisticated theology we’re talking here. We’re assuming that God belongs to the category of beings rather than some bullshit “ground” of same or hyperbolically transcendent posit of Negative Theology. F— that. He’s gotta hurt. He’s gotta be properly messed up before the coup de grâce.’

    “Christ didn’t die alone. We all die with him. Most in a long fever dreams of medicalised torment, as our minds dis-arrange screaming and bodies rot. If we’re lucky we die quickly and alone – without becoming pornographic spectacles for our “loved ones”. Else we may have to endure the torrid intimacy of their concern, smile, be brave and help them through it, just so they can delectate on the meaning of it all. Well f— that! Cohle asserted that he lacked “the constitution for suicide” but that [skite]-eating attitude just brings you more suffering, or worse, inevitable capitulation: to His terms (Yeah, looking at you TD finale). The bent rules of this squalid antechamber to Hell.

    Well, what goes around, comes around, inhabitants of Cancer Planet. Bestir yourselves, slough off your zombie insouciance an f—–g kill god!”


    • Nikolaos: It is difficult to discern in the above comment what is a quotation from a source and what is your interpolation, especially in the section following the attribution to David Roden. I have elided the iterations of the f-word. Insofar as you can clarify the issue, I will be grateful.

  10. Kristor writes: “How were the Essenes Gnostic? From what I have read, they were the opposite. But maybe I’ve missed something.”

    I was thinking swiftly, so please don’t hold me to it. One of the interpretations of the name Essene is that it derives from the Hebrew Hasidim, or “Pious Ones.” The Essenes have also been connected by some writers with the Kabbalah tradition, which is a Jewish form of Gnosticism. But my remark was not scholarly; it was merely off the cuff.


    • I had not ever thought of Kabbalah as essentially Gnostic, either – as, i.e., essentially either anti-mundane or anti-YHWH. Like Neo-Platonism – or Christianity, Judaism, or pretty much *any* set of doctrines – Kabbalah can be turned in a Gnostic direction, but it is not itself inherently Gnostic. So far as I know, anyway, being myself no great scholar of the subject, but as with everything only an amateur – so that *nothing* I write is quite scholarly, properly speaking.

      • Kabbalah is definitely the Jewish branch of Gnosticism. It replicates the Christian-Gnostic Myth point by point and insists on the efficacy of secret knowledge among an elite.

      • I can’t see how Kabbalah replicates the Gnostic creation myth. That may be a lacuna on my part, of course. But Kabbalah certainly does not repudiate the OT YHWH, or argue that he or his creation are evil, or make escape from mundane being its spiritual goal. It does not hate the world, but loves it and seeks its salvation. As to secret knowledge, degrees of gnosis (small g) are a feature of most religions. Jesus recognized them in Matthew 13:10-17. Origen and Clement both followed him in this. So degrees of gnosis (small g) are not Gnostic distinctives, the way that anti-cosmism is.

        But again, maybe I’m missing something.

  11. The main Kabbalistic myth, that of the Shevira, or “Bursting of the Vessels,” is identical with the Gnostic myth of the Catastrophe in the Pleroma, as narrated, for example, in the Pistis Sophia, right down to the parallelism of the Kabbalistic Shekhina and the Gnostic Sophia. In Lurianic Kabbalism, God is unable to redeem Creation: An elite of men must do it – the ones who self-identify as embodying the sparks from the “Bursting of the Vessels.” It is true that the element of God-hatred is missing from Kabbalism, but the notion of an elite few that is ontologically capable of rising to a godlike level of spirituality, whereas others ontologically are not, is present. (How do these men recognize one another? They just do.) Kabbalism strikes me as more than a case of gnosis with a small g, but no one is obliged to follow me in this evaluation.

    As you know, Origen has an ambiguous reputation in the Church. He is definitely a Mystic, with some traits that we must honestly recognize as Gnostic – or, if you prefer – Gnosticizing. In the great Venn Diagram of things, the circle of Mysticism undoubtedly overlaps the circle of Gnosticism. The case for exempting Origen – and here let us add Clement – from the label of Gnostic is that neither excludes anyone on principle from Mystic Union or Ecstasy. The semi-literate wine-seller who beats his wife is probably not a prime candidate for Union or Ecstasy, but the event can’t be ruled out in advance. In Gnosticism, the event is ruled out in advance.

    In a purely subjective way, I put plenty of value in Origen, whom I read with pleasure. I read The Gospel of Truth and the Pistis Sophia with less pleasure than Origen gives me, but with no less fascination – and not without sympathy. I think that we should do whatever we can to overthrow the Gnostocracy, but I also think that we should be sympathetic to Gnosticism. The world is a difficult place in which to be, which is why Gnosis is so attractive compared to waiting indefinitely for the Second Coming and being a good person whether Rectification comes in one’s lifetime or not.

    I come back to my Venn Diagram. Parts of reality are blurred with one another and when we wander in fog it is perhaps best to reserve judgment concerning where we are.

    PS. One of Origen’s theses is that of the Apokatastasis. According to this thesis, which has always been rejected by Orthodoxy, at the End of Time, God will redeem everyone and everything, including Satan himself. It is ironic that this thesis is one of the theses that has placed Origen on the margins because it is just about the least Gnostic thesis that one could formulate.

    • Interesting. Luria is of course very far removed in time from either the Essenes of Qumran or the Merkavah mystics of the last few centuries BC and the first few AD. But this is very far from saying that his innovations to the ancient tradition of Kabbalah are at war with it. It is very far from saying that he is very far from them in spirit or doctrine.

      He argues that God could not redeem Creation, but rather that the Atonement would need to be accomplished by Perfect Men. After the Fall there was of course no such thing in the system of Nature. The Incarnation was the solution. The Perfect Man was God; in and by his Godhood could his Manhood be Perfected, and thus suffice to effect cosmic healing, the tikkun olam.

      This is all quite orthodox. God could not redeem man from on high, hey presto, with no motion arising from man himself; for the very defect crying out for repair was an act of man, that had to be compensated by an act of man. God had not after all alienated himself from man, but vice versa. It was not therefore God who had to move toward man, but vice versa. If God had waved a magic wand and redeemed man with no motion on man’s part, then the redemption would not have been of the Fallen Man, but rather his demolition and replacement with something better.

      Man then had to move back toward God. But as finite to begin with, and what is worse Fallen, he had not the ontological capacity to bridge the infinite abyss that yawns between Infinite Perfection and finite defect. So God had to become a man, who could then bridge that gap.

      It is interesting to me also that Luria preaches that redemption must be accomplished, not by a Perfect Man, but by perfect men. The Passion, NB, was just the beginning of cosmic redemption. Men consecrated to Christ and adopted as his sons would thereafter have to make up with their own sufferings and perfections what was lacking for the redemption of the cosmos in the sacrifice of Christ. This is no more than to say that they would have to join themselves to the Body of Christ (this is the First Commandment of Christ’s Summary of the Law). The Redemption of which Christ was the van would have to spread through the whole created order, and that through the customary causal channels (albeit aided by the Holy Spirit)(is any creature ever unaided by the Holy Spirit?). This is no more than to say that men would have to go ahead and be redeemed if men were ever to be redeemed; and that only such men as went ahead and accepted redemption would ever be redeemed.

      The Passion then – in God’s designation of John as the son of the Mother of God – and Pentecost initiated the Church of the Saints, the Elect of the House of the Lord and adopted sons of God, of whom Christ is Head and First Fruits. It is the Church who is to be the vessel of redemption for man and, implicitly, his world (man and his world being an integral causal system). So in orthodox Christianity too we see that the perfected saints – the Church – are crucial to the world’s redemption.

      Some men on the other hand do not accept redemption. They refuse to join their bodies to the Body of God. They thereby render themselves ontologically incapable of salvation. If you will not to be redeemed, you will not be redeemed. What could be more straightforward? Such are the reprobate, predestined in eternal divine omniscience to damnation from before all worlds. So are there sheep and goats. Had God forced the reprobate to repentance, the repentance would never have been theirs to begin with, nor would they themselves therefore ever have been redeemed, but rather only their simulacra.

      As vessel the Church is feminine, like Mary, and the Temple, like the Shekinah and like Sophia, and as our bodies are to us.

      The cells of the Church are her saints: us. How are we to recognize each other? Well, how do we recognize *anything at all*? How, that is, do we *just see* what something is? In what do the Aristotelian anagnoresis and the Platonic anamnesis consist? How do we know, for example, that a triangle is a triangle? This may be one of those axiomatic questions – like, “what is causation?” – that is so basic that it cannot be explained except to say that it is what it is.

      How do I know that a mountain is sublime, or a pile of dung disgusting? How do I tell that someone is holy? Or, how do I tell that someone is evil? Yes, we can list characteristics of each sort of man, or heap; but these are all ascertained ex post, after the fact of our recognition of sublimity or putridity, of sanctity or profanity.

      We cannot say how an actual triangle expresses the form of triangularity except insofar as we have already recognized that it does so. The recognition is prior to the analysis thereof. The recognition is basic, one day tells its tale to another, that hears; so is their sound gone out into all lands, though their voices are not heard. I.e., the language is spoken and understood, and there is re-cognition and appropriate coordination of events, even when no one comes in after the fact to analyze its meaning. The analysis of the act of being supervenes upon the act of being.

      Neither Shekinah nor Sophia are heterodox, as nor either are Temple, Mary, Queen, Church, Jerusalem, Burning Bush, Tabernacle, Pillar of Fire or of Cloud, Rainbow, Tree, Altar. It is rather only their Gnostic depravations that are heterodox. The Gnostics needed real matter to work upon, the genuine article. You can’t ruin something that isn’t there to begin with. The Gnostics denigrate Sophia; this should hardly surprise us, since they despise YHWH himself. Meanwhile in the ancient seat of the Holy Roman Empire the Church consecrated her greatest cathedral to Hagia Sophia.

      As for the bursting of the vessels, the Shevirat HaKelim is not some sort of insult perpetrated against the Ain Sof by a wayward wicked deity – as if the Infinite could somehow be mocked – but rather an ontological result of the incapacity of the finite vessels of creaturely actuality to accommodate the infinite light and energy of God. It was not, i.e., a depravation of the life of God, or of his acts, but a straightforward consequence thereof – not necessary, to be sure, but qua possibility, and therefore a risk logically implicit in his act of creation. To make finite beings is to risk that they shall Fall. But it is not to make them Fall. Their Fall is theirs, or it is no Fall in the first place, but only God’s will and act.

      With Christianity and Judaism, then, Kabbalah locates the culpability for man’s Fallen predicament, not in Sophia, nor in YHWH, but squarely in man himself. That Satan had already Fallen and poisoned this gorgeous Paradise that nevertheless still speaks to us of Heaven, and then deceived man, is neither here nor there. We did not inherit our Fall ineluctably from Satan and his, as we do from Adam; for Lucifer is of quite another world than we. Man could just as easily have Fallen on his own, without any prodding from a wayward seraph. Did the vessels first shatter among the angels? If they had not, then they might just as well have shattered among the men.

  12. Girard points out that the difference between the Oedipus Myth and the Passion is infinitesimal, but that it is the infinitesimal difference that counts. We could say the same thing about Gnosticism and Orthodoxy: It is the difference, however small, that counts.

  13. On Recognitions: Let’s forget Cabala for an interstice – its merits or demerits seem to me to be extraneous to a more important issue. That issue is when do we legitimately recognize something as what it is or what it claims to be?

    Let’s recur to the triangle. I recognize a triangle because the concept “triangle” is a basic constituent of reality; a triangle could be nothing else but a triangle. I recognize Mary as a woman – to a comforting degree of certainty – in a fraction of a second; presumably she recognizes me as a man in the same way. I cannot recognize Mary as an English-speaker, however, until she speaks English. This need not take more than two or three seconds, but it is not so certain, until it has happened, as her being a woman – even insofar as, in a social context, I have a hunch that she is an English-speaker. Suppose someone tells me: Mary is a consistently excellent cook. The problem is different. I can only recognize Mary as a consistently excellent cook over time by consistently experiencing her excellent cooking.

    Mary can undergo extensive surgery to make herself appear as a man, but this never obliges me to recognize her as a man, even though the surgeon has done a better job on her than he has done on Bruce Jenner. Bruce and Mary might vehemently and vocally claim to recognize one another as people who have transformed themselves from their birth-sex to the opposite sex. This not only does not oblige me to recognize them as such; it is an ontologically dubious statement, the inalterableness of male and female being basic constituents of reality.

    Suppose I say that I recognize Dick, Harry, Dewey, and Margaret as Ph.D.-holders in Comparative Literature. This recognition must have a basis, as must my recognition of Mary as a consistently excellent cook. I disdain to recognize Dick, Harry, Dewey, and Margaret as Ph.D.-holders in Comparative Literature merely on their claim to be such. I demand proof. There is a difference nevertheless. In my acquaintance with Mary, she might have been a consistently excellent cook from 1970 to 2000, but after 2000 she might have lost her touch, so that she was no longer a consistently excellent cook. Dick might leave teaching to go into banking, Harry to become a White Hunter, Dewey an Orthodox Priest, and Margaret a submarine commander, but all four would still be Ph.D.-holders in Comparative Literature. They might even remain essentially Ph.D.-holders in Comparative Literature, should their switching of jobs have been due to necessity rather than a change of preference. In a conversation, never having met one another before, they would be able to discover that they are Ph.D.-holders in Comparative Literature and in principle they would be able to confirm it.

    Suppose now that I claim to be a genius, or Napoleon, or the Second Coming. This is radically different from the implicit ontological claim of the triangle to be a triangle. Given the unlikelihood that I am a genius, Napoleon, or the Second Coming, it is concomitantly unlikely that intellectually competent people will recognize me as one or the other, no matter the insistence of my self-recognition. It is hardly beyond the realm of possibility, even so, that I might run into other people whom I could persuade to accept my recognition about myself, or who perhaps have similar recognitions about themselves and are looking for company. We might form a club, in which our principal activities are recognizing one another as geniuses, avatars of Napoleon, or plural manifestations of the Second Coming and publishing our mutual self-recognition. Asked by an outsider how we achieve this recognition, we answer, “We just do.”

    This “We Just Do” is adequate in the case of recognizing a triangle, but it is glaringly inadequate in the case of recognizing genius (whatever that is), or an avatar of Napoleon, or the plural manifestations of the Second Coming. People recognizing one another under that kind of claim are therefore different (in humor, is it, in credulity, or in modesty?) from people who recognize one another, swiftly or by enduring acquaintance, as men or women, English-speakers, consistently excellent cooks, charitable individuals, or, let us say, saints. Indeed, actual saints probably recognize themselves as wretched sinners rather than saints, and would be horrified by the ascription. On that basis, let modesty step out of the parentheses. Modesty is an important principle that puts the foregoing examples in a clearer light.

    Granted that Mary is a consistently excellent cook – she probably would never characterize herself that way. She might admit to being a dedicated wife and mother who tries to give her family the best possible meals. Ph.D.-holders in anything similarly do not parade around with banners across their chests proclaiming the fact; and any who did would mark themselves off as having become essentially something other than Ph.D.-holders – they would be inadvertently self-identifying as monsters of insecurity and just plain obnoxious, in judging whom their possession of Ph.D’s would now be irrelevant.

    The terms recognition and gnosis are probably distantly related, and when I mention the fact, it will become obvious where I am going. What enables us to recognize a Gnostic claim of mutual recognition as dubious is, firstly if not solely, its immodesty compared with normative claims. As soon as the Gnostic publicly recognizes himself as such, that is, as an exceptionally spiritual person, a saint, putting his self-recognition in a formal claim, he has in fact written the Q.E.D. to the syllogism that disqualifies him from being an exceptionally spiritual person, a saint. He has demonstrated that he is essentially something else – a lunatic or a cult-leader. A Gnostic is like a Ph.D.-holder with a banner across his chest proclaiming the fact. Avoid him!

    May I invoke the Ecology of Knowledge? It belongs to the Ecology of Knowledge that modesty is an inextricable criterion of epistemology. Some types of recognition remain within the bounds of modesty while others exceed it and some others exceed it grossly. It follows, as it seems to me, that we must judge each claim of “We Just Do” carefully because in some instances (we all recognize a triangle when we see it) it is incontrovertible but in others (a group recognizes itself as a sanctified and plenipotentiary elite) is it so dubious as to constitute presumptive disproof of itself.

    • This again is interesting. I was just yesterday reading up on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and learned that there are two classes of them: the anointed, and hoi polloi. Who is anointed, and how does one tell? The anointed announce it. Everyone else goes along with such announcements. There’s no reason not to; no earthly good accrues to the anointed, from what I read.

      I’m not sure that anything I have said about recognizing holiness really disagrees with what you have said. Indeed, I think it probably does not. Certainly there are different sorts of tells for different sorts of objects of knowledge. How do we tell that a man is holy? We might list the criteria, and such a list might be quite helpful in testing our future apprehensions of holiness. But at the end of the day it seems to me that we simply *feel* his holiness. Would we ever bother to examine the character of a man against our list of holiness tells if we did not have already the strong feeling that he was indeed holy? The Vatican does not bother to begin determining whether a man is a saint whom no one has noticed for his saintliness.

      Take Simon Magus or Apollonius of Tyana. These were guys with really massive popular reputations for – well, not saintliness, exactly, but at any rate tremendous spiritual authority. Superficially, there were lots of indications that these were seriously enlightened dudes. A careful analysis of their acts indicates that they were probably hucksters who had learned to shuck the mystical jive, expertly, from reading up in the right books on or by the right sorts of men. But no one would undertake such an analysis in the first place who was not at least a bit convinced that there was something to them, on the basis of prior, less examined experiences.

      I’m not sure about the modesty criterion. Ordinarily, of course, it holds up with tremendous reliability. In my firm we emphasize to each other that, while it is true that we are ethical, honest, and loyal to our clients, it would be marketing death for us ever to be heard saying anything of the sort. No one who is upright needs to bruit it about, or would ever even want to. Such bruition is a dead giveaway, a contra-indicator. E.g., “Honest Jim’s Used Cars.” A bad idea.

      Then again, Jesus went about claiming to be YHWH. That’s why they killed him: blasphemous immodesty, that might unpunished bring down fire from Heaven upon the Jews. From that perspective, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, and indeed the Judean mob, were doing the only sensible thing they could do, the *obviously correct* thing. This is the profoundly tragic aspect of the Passion story. Deeply, deeply painful for all involved, as each played his ineluctable role in the inexorable logic of the thing, but resolving at the very end into a higher, more basic, and more stable synthesis.

      The modesty criterion works very well, then, until it doesn’t.

      • I believe that Jesus more often called himself the Son of Man than the Son of God. Even if it were fifty-fifty, it would support my intuition.

        Rationally, “it is better that one man die than that the whole people should perish” is inarguable – rationally, but not morally.

        Read the episode in Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius where Philostratus deals with the plague in Ephesus, and then let’s discuss whether Apollonius was a holy man or not. (Let us stipulate in advance that Apollonius was a master manipulator of the sacred.)

      • To trigger the response to blasphemy, all that was needed was for Jesus to assert his divinity once. The penalty for this blasphemy was death. He did it a number of times, identifying himself with the great I AM. When he did it in the Temple precincts, the instant response of the Jews who heard him was to reach down where they stood for stones to kill him on the spot (John 8:56-59).

        I’m not clear though on how Jesus’ modesty or lack thereof would either support or undercut your intuition about the modesty test for sanctity. I think it is correct, for all men who are not perfect – who are not, i.e., God. Indeed, one of the tells for sanctity is the subject’s humility about his own sanctity.

        But never mind all that, here’s a different question: are Gnostics even interested in sanctity? It seems not; they want gnosis. Therein I suppose is the nub of their error, practically speaking: they are barking up the wrong tree. If you seek first God, you get all other good things, including gnosis. Seeking anything less, you get less even than you seek.

  14. I would say that Jesus – who was God, after all – was so modest that he submitted to human judgment on the Cross. Insofar as one is God, that is the ultimate modesty. Dionysus immediately killed those who tried to kill him or even just thwart him – or who annoyed him, perhaps merely by existing; and when, as an infant, Dionysus was killed by the Titans, he killed them right back. Jesus said of his murderers, “They know not what they do” and arranged that even the most wicked, should he repent, might be saved. Big difference, and not just in modesty!

    Stoning, the primordial form of sacrifice, still abundantly familiar in the Muslim world, is not only a punishment – it is a method (1) of community-organization (2) by making gods. (Even if the priests had stoned Jesus before he made his way to the Cross, his murderers would not have made him a god, because he was already God. Jesus everywhere thwarts the sacred.)

    Jesus famously prevented a stoning.

    This is where Philostratus on Apollonius becomes relevant: Called to address an outburst of “plague” in Ephesus, Apollonius gathered the community together in the civic theater, a place dedicated to Dionysus; there he pointed out an old beggar, well known to the Ephesians, whom they regarded as unobnoxious. Apollonius declared that the beggar was a demon in disguise and told the Ephesians that by stoning him, they would drive out the “plague.” They were extremely reluctant, but eventually he egged them on until the deed was done. When the pile of stones was removed, according to the story, the beggar had transformed into a monstrous creature like a Molossian hound. The Ephesians immediately set up a statue of “The Averting God” (Hercules) whereupon all symptoms of the “plague” vanished. Apollonius was the veritable Al Sharpton, or maybe the Mike Nifong, of his age.

    What secret knowledge did this ancient possess? (I paraphrase the Rosicrucian Society advertisements in the old magazines.) He knew instinctively – maybe even consciously – how community-organization works. Christianity labors relentlessly to publish that secret, the concealed script that makes victims and then disguises the acts in the wondrous metamorphoses of myth. (Miraculously, after George Zimmerman killed him in self-defense, the God of Trayvianity transformed from a fierce-looking, blinged-out thug back into a cute eleven-year-old elementary-school pupil. The artists almost invariably represent Dionysus as a chubby, smiling boy whose cheeks his grandmother would like to pinch.)

    • This is a fantastic comment, Tom, which I wish you would flesh out as a blog post. There is a lot to unpack from the notion that Christianity subverts the myth of sacrifice (by fulfilling it actually, once and for all). “Jesus everywhere thwarts the sacred:” great line! That’s what happens to the numinous when the Nomen himself shows up, no?

      Absolutely correct that Jesus was not being immodest in admitting that he is God, but rather merely accurate. But from the perspective of those among his audience who were not already convinced of his divinity, his frank admission must naturally have appeared blasphemous in the highest degree. This is why I call the Passion story a tragedy: all the actors (with the possible exception of Judas (although even he seems to have been motivated by zealous patriotism)) are caught in the inexorable logic of it by their duty to their Laws. Not Herod, I suppose; he mostly seems to have shrugged and hurried Jesus along so that he could get back to drinking.

      • Pilate also, like Herod, held nothing personally against Jesus although Pilate was slightly more interested in Jesus than Herod was. You will recall from Scripture that Herod and Pilate were fierce enemies – until Jesus died on the Cross. And then Herod and Pilate were reconciled. They drank wine together and feasted. Chesterton characterizes Pilates’s irony, “What is truth,” as the essentially Gnostic statement: Disregarding the Person-of-Persons in front of him to request a verbal formula.

  15. Tragedy = Goat-Song = Scapegoat. It would like to keep itself a BIG SECRET, but it is not. It has been “outed.”

    I have sympathy for the Snake, Oedipus, Judas, and Pilate, who was not a bad man, but merely a man. Ecce Homo.

    Pilate has a modern cult-following, you will have noticed. It consists of the masochistic, mainly female, adherents of the Pilates physical workout regimen. This recognition only just occurred to me. Those women, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, and perhaps inspired by Pilate’s wife, are enduring their Purgatorial torments to free Pilate from Purgatory. All hope is not lost.


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