Demonology: the basics of Middle Platonic beliefs as a background to early Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey


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This post completes a series on beliefs about demons that were widespread in philosophical thought at the time of the rise and early growth of Christianity. The previous two posts:

It seems strange to think of “demons” being a topic of “philosophy”, but one of the defining characteristics of “Middle Platonism” was its interest in religion. (See my earlier post, Middle Platonism: a few basics.) Other beliefs (e.g. Jewish sectarian) were extant, too, but here I am only addressing those of Middle Platonist philosophers.

John M. Dillon (The Middle Platonists) discusses the demonology of Apuleius in his De Deo Socratis (=The God of Socrates) at length because

There we find all the basic Middle Platonic doctrine on daemons set out . . . We have here, then, in the De Deo Socratis, the most complete connected version of Middle Platonic demonology extant . . . . (pp. 317, 320)

So though Apuleius was not born till about 123 CE, his writings are consistent with the thought that spanned the Middle Platonic era from the first century BCE to the second century CE, the same period relevant for the development of Christianity.

Daemons inhabit the air (only)

The first thing Dillon says about Apuleius’s view of the daemons is that it was a more accurate understanding of Plato than the view of another Middle Platonist, Albinus, a generation earlier. Albinus had misread Plato’s Timaeus by interpreting it through a pseudo-Platonic work, Epinomis. Albinus thus taught that demons inhabited not only the heavens, but the air and water as well. Plato in fact talks of the heavenly beings as gods, not daemons, and in his references to air and water he meant birds and fish, not daemons.

Apuleius understood Plato more accurately:

Apuleius sees the demons as being the proper inhabitants of air only. (p. 317)

Intermediaries are needed between humanity and divinity

Typical of Middle Platonic doctrine is the idea that nature abhors a vacuum, or more in keeping with ancient imagery, there can be no empty spaces in the universe. That is, there has to be something, some form of intermediate existences, between Man and God. These intermediaries are the daemons.

Each element has its proper inhabitant

It was believed that each element had its own proper inhabitants. Birds strictly belonged to earth rather than air, leaving daemons as the natural occupants of the air.

I quote here from the online translation (leaving Dillon aside for a moment) because the passage throws further light on the concept of the sublunar realm, so controversial among some critics of Doherty, too. Apuleius distinctly places the realm of daemons between the heights of Mount Olympus and the Moon, that is, above the earth. (Excuse the style. That’s Apuleius!)

For since there are four most known elements, nature being as it were quadrifariously separated into large parts, and there are animals appropriate to earth and fire; since Aristotle asserts, that certain peculiar animals, furnished with wings, fly in burning furnaces, and pass the whole of their life in fire [see Aristotle, in book v, ch. xix of his History of Animals], rise into existence with it, and together with it are extinguished; and, besides this, since, as we have before said, so many various stars are beheld supernally in ether, i.e. in the most clear flagrancy of fire, – since this is the case, why should nature alone suffer this fourth element, the air, which is so widely extended, to be void of every thing, and destitute of [proper] inhabitants? Are not animals, however, generated in the air; in the same manner as flame-coloured animals are generated in fire, such as are unstable in water, and such as are glebous in earth? For you may most justly say, that his opinion is false, who attributes birds to the air; since no one of them is elevated above the summit of mount Olympus, which, though it is said to be the highest of all mountains, yet the perpendicular altitude of its summit is not equal, according to geometricians, to ten stadia; but there is an immense mass of air, which extends as far as to the nearest spiral gyrations of the moon, from which ether supernally commences. What, therefore, shall we say of such a great abundance of air, which is expanded from the lowest revolutions of the moon, as far as to the highest summit of mount Olympus? Will it be destitute of its appropriate animals, and will this part of nature be without life, and debile? But, if you diligently observe, birds themselves may, with greater rectitude, be said to be terrestrial than aerial animals; for the whole of their life is always on the earth; there they procure food, and there they rest; and they only pass through that portion of the air in flying which is proximate to the earth. But, when they are weary with the rowing of their wings, the earth is to them as a port. If, therefore, reason evidently requires that proper animals must also be admitted to exist in the air, it remains that we should consider what they are, and what the species is to which they belong. They are then by no means terrene animals; for these verge downwards by their gravity. But neither are they of a fiery nature, lest they should be hastily raised on high by their heat. A certain middle nature, therefore must be fashioned for us, of a temperature adapted to the middle condition of the place, so that the disposition of the inhabitants may be conformable to the quality of the region. Let us then form in our mind and generate bodies, so constituted as neither to be so heavy as terrene, nor so light as ethereal bodies, but after a manner separated from both, or mingled from both, whether they are removed from, or are modified by, the participation of each. They will, however, be more easily conceived, if they are admitted to be mingled from both, than if they are said to be mingled with neither. These bodies of daemons, therefore, will have a little weight, in order that they may not proceed to supernal natures; and they will also have something of levity, in order that they may not be precipitated to the realms beneath.

I wish I had read this at the time of my first post on Philo and Plutarch. I’m learning bit by bit. Apuleius clearly sets the abode of the demons above the earth. The sublunar realm proper extends to, and even below, the earth, but in Middle Platonic thought demons inhabited the air between the earth and the moon. They influenced activities on the earth below, as will be seen.

The nature of daemons

Apuleius “proves” daemons are made of air of the purest quality by noting that if it were otherwise, they would rise above the air to the aether.

Apuleius writes that daemons are immortal, rational beings who are subject to hostile or compassionate feelings. They can be won over by gifts and prayers. To quote from the online translation (not from Dillon’s book):

Hence, they are influenced by pity, are indignant, solicitous, and delighted, and suffer all the mutations of the human soul; and are agitated by all the ebullitions of human thought, with a similar motion of the heart, and tempest of the mind.

Apuleius does not explicitly say that any of them are evil, but they do have their different temperaments:

Hence we may be confident, from the diverse forms of religious observance and the various types of sacrifice, that there are some among this number of divinities who like to be honoured by night or by day, openly or in secret, and with joyful or gloomy victims, ceremonies or rites, as for instance Egyptian divinities generally enjoy lamentations, while Greek ones usually prefer choral dances, and barbarian ones the noise of cymbals, drums or flutes. (See also the online translation at http://www.prometheustrust.co.uk/html/14_-_apuleius.html)

Apuleius indebted to Xenocrates via Plutarch(?)

Dillon explains that the views of Apuleius here are not ex nihilo, but inspired by the fourth century head of Plato’s Academy, Xenocrates. Apuleius apparently knew of Xenocrates’ teachings through the writings of Plutarch or another.

Plutarch writes of Xenocrates’ teachings:

. . . . in the confines, as it were, between gods and men there exist certain natures susceptible to human emotions and involuntary changes, whom it is right that we, like our fathers before us, should regard as demigods, and, calling them by that name, should reverence them.

“As an illustration of this subject, Xenocrates, the companion of Plato, employed the order of the triangles; the equilateral he compared to the nature of the gods, the scalene to that of man, and the isosceles to that of the demigods; for the first is equal in all its lines, the second unequal in all, and the third is partly equal and partly unequal, like the nature of the demigods, which has human emotions and godlike power. (From the online text of Obsolescence of Oracles)

For Xenocrates and Plutarch, the existence of “bad-luck days”, flagellation in religious festivals, human sacrifice can only be explained by the existence of evil spirits who delight in such things and must be placated:

“Regarding the rites of the Mysteries, in which it is possible to gain the clearest reflections and adumbrations of the truth about the demigods, ‘let my lips be piously sealed,’ as Herodotus says; but as for festivals and sacrifices, which may be compared with ill-omened and gloomy days, in which occur the eating of raw flesh, rending of victims, fasting, and beating of breasts, and again in many places scurrilous language at the shrines, and

Frenzy and shouting of throngs in excitement
With tumultuous tossing of heads in the air,

I should say that these acts are not performed for any god, but are soothing and appeasing rites for the averting of evil spirits. Nor is it credible that the gods demanded or welcomed the human sacrifices of ancient days, nor would kings and generals have endured giving over their children and submitting them to the preparatory rites and cutting their throats to no purpose save that they felt they were propitiating and offering satisfaction to the wrath and sullen temper of some harsh and implacable avenging deities, . . .
(From the online text of Obsolescence of Oracles)

(One begins to be reminded here of Paul’s teachings against the powers of “elemental spirits.”)

Xenocrates and Apuleius argued “that all the weird variety of religious observances was directed not at the Gods, but at satisfying the variously passionate natures of innumerable daemonic forces . . .” (p. 319)

Three types of daemon

Like Plutarch, Apuleius distinguished three types of daemon. The following is from page 319 of Dillon’s Middle Platonists.

1. The human soul itself is a daemon. (This is not to be confused with the guardian daemons.)

2. Souls that have left their bodies.

These fall into two categories: good and bad

The good (=lares) are entrusted with care of parts of the earth and even individual households (e.g. heroes such as Amphiaraus, Mopsus and Osiris)

The bad (=larvae, or malicious ghosts) who have died in sin wander over the world causing havoc where they can. The good have no need to fear them.

3. Daemons who never enter bodies. These are the most exalted type of daemon. Examples cited by Apuleius are Eros and Hypnos (Sleep) who presides over dreams. Dreams were a chief means by which Gods communicate with humanity. Included here are the guardian daemons, like the guardian demon of Socrates. These

accompany a man through life, know his inmost thoughts and most secret actions, and after death act as his advocate (or accuser) before the throne of judgment. (p. 320)

This emphasis on the spirit having intimate knowledge of the individual and a tender care for one is not found in Plato, but emerges only from this time of the Middle Platonists. The idea is also found among later Stoics from the same period, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

Dillon does not make the point (it is not part of his theme) but this illustration of a demand for a protective personally involved and caring spirit to comfort one through the misfortunes of life is surely one of several significant factors that went into the making of Christianity.

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  • GakuseiDon
    2010-09-30 17:41:27 UTC - 17:41 | Permalink

    Neil, good post. One thing to keep in mind is what they thought made up everything: the four elements. Daemons were thought to be made out of air and/or fire, so lived in the air because that was their nature. No-one thought of daemons as living in “sublunary fleshly realms” or in a “world of myth”.

    Flesh was made out of all four elements: earth, water, air and a little fire. Air and fire were thought to be “spiritual” elements, so “spiritual” creatures like demons and angels were made of air and/or fire and could fly. Earth and water were “earthy” elements, so naturally descended to the ground. On the makeup of demons:

    Tatian Address to the Greeks:

    But none of the demons possess flesh; their structure is spiritual, like that of fire or air. And only by those whom the Spirit of God dwells in and fortifies are the bodies of the demons easily seen, not at all by others…

    But some evil demons took on earth or water, an indication of their carnal and corrupt desires. Like the souls of men who, still weighed down by their carnal desires, returned to earth (and reincarnation), those evil demons could no longer live in the air under the weight. As Clement of Alexandria wrote:

    How, then, can shades and demons be still reckoned gods, being in reality unclean and impure spirits, acknowledged by all to be of an earthly and watery nature, sinking downwards by their own weight, and flitting about graves and tombs…

    Neil, you are slowly getting there. Keep going! Just keep in the back of your mind “Does this support Doherty? Is this against Doherty?” It might be that you will be able to build enough data to strongly support Doherty’s theory. I have found the opposite, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. I love this stuff, so will be interested as you look into the primary sources and scholarly secondary sources.

    • 2010-09-30 19:10:17 UTC - 19:10 | Permalink

      I think of heavenly “likeness to the son of man”, and “heavenly Jacobs” et al, and Paul’s “likeness of flesh”, and all the other concepts that have more to do with appearances and mystical existences than anything corporeal. I also think of what corporeality meant in the world of spirits at the time among Roman and Greek poets. Is the difference between us that you are thinking in literal Shylockian pounds of flesh while I am thinking in something more “in the sphere of” flesh?

      • GakuseiDon
        2010-10-01 07:37:55 UTC - 07:37 | Permalink

        Not in the sense that every time we see the work “flesh”, it must mean “physical flesh”. Paul and other writers use it in allegorical or even mystical terms, including about themselves (and obviously Paul didn’t think he himself was in the sublunary realm in the air). But there are passages which appear to show Jesus as having flesh, e.g. Heb 5:7 “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety”. (See Doherty’s response on p. 176 and especially his use of Attridge on p. 228). If Jesus had flesh, then — from what we know from ancient literature — he was on earth.

        Now, you could say that it doesn’t matter: they thought God was omnipotent. Creating a “fleshly spiritual being” in the air to be crucified should be easy. And that’s fine. But what you need to do, and what Doherty fails to do, is to identify what is consistent with ancient literature and what is not. That’s the best way to weigh up a cumulative case. Doherty weighs up oddities, but the majority are odd from our perspective. Far more relevant is whether it was odd from their perspective. I’ve found, after investigating Doherty’s theory, that the evidence from ancient literature is AGAINST Doherty, and not for him. You seem to be trying to **reconcile** Doherty against ancient literature, and not examining him. You are being an apologist for him. It would be good to see you come down one way or the other, actually come to a firm conclusion.

        BTW, I don’t think that Paul wrote “likeness of flesh”; it is “likeness of sinful flesh”. AFAICS Paul’s view is that Jesus lived a perfect life, without blemish, thus making a suitable sacrifice. So Jesus was like us — seed of David according to the flesh — but didn’t sin. God rewarded Jesus by raising him at the resurrection and adopting him as his Son, to mediate the new covenant on behalf of mankind.

        • 2010-10-01 08:19:43 UTC - 08:19 | Permalink

          I may be overlooking something at the moment, but I don’t recall where Paul indicates he understood Jesus to have “lived a perfect life” or that God rewarded him for such. (You obviously see nothing odd about the phrase ‘seed of David according to the flesh’.)

  • Paul D.
    2010-09-30 23:27:53 UTC - 23:27 | Permalink

    Is this connected to the NT phraseology “princes of the air” in reference to evil spirits?

  • maryhelena
    2010-10-01 18:05:30 UTC - 18:05 | Permalink

    I’ve been following your exchange with GDon. I do think that GDon has a point that Doherty can’t support his theory with the literature on Middle Platonism. Doherty’s idea re incarnation in the sublunar realm is Doherty’s very own idea. It is an idea that is meaningless ie even if some ancient literature was to be found to support his idea, this idea is pure imagination, an intellectual fantasy – back then and now. People do, of course, believe weird things, then and now. But ideas are easy to come by – the next visionary ready to knock down the previous one.

    Sure, ideas do have power to enlighten – as well as to enslave – the god idea being the best example! So, yes, I can see that putting Christianity down to just an idea could well offer some explanation for its growth and continual existence – but not for its genesis.

    If, as is generally viewed, Christianity is somehow a blend, a mix, of some Jewish and Hellenistic thought – then Doherty’s incarnation in a sublunar world does not reflect this mix. His view is giving too much weight to Middle Platonism (and of course adding his own ‘development’ of those ideas….) and short-changing the Jewish element. One only has to look at the OT to see that Jewish thought did not let go of historical realities. Sure, most probably people like Abraham, Moses and David did not exist historically – they are simply part of the Jewish origin story. An origin story that has used mythology in order to create the glorious beginnings of their history. History entwined with myth. History re-interpreted through a mythological lens. A means whereby something meaningful could be gleamed from their existence. A re-created past, a new identity: the power of myth to transform the lives, the existence, the historical existence, of a people.

    In other words: the idea, the myth, was linked to the historical realities, albeit historical realities that would be, for the most part, for the long ago past, not known in their specifics. All that is needed is existence itself – one just works back to ‘long ago…..’. So, the actual myth of Abraham would not correspond to a historical Abraham – but a historical core there would be – some ‘father’ of the tribe, or even two or more. What matters is that history was paramount to Jewish ideas. Existence, fleshy, bodily, existence mattered. And of course, as this historical/mythological mix developed, then known history would take it’s part in the new historical stories – history re-interpreted through a more ‘sophisticated’ prophetic lens. History, fleshly, bodily, existence is the core element of Jewish identity.

    So to get back to the Jesus story…..Whether Doherty is right or wrong re incarnation in a sublunan realm, has no relevance as far as mythicism is concerned. Questions over the historical existence of the gospel Jesus cannot be settled by appeals to Middle Platonism – or by Doherty’s developments in this connection. The historical existence of the gospel Jesus is a question for Jewish history. One can philosophize all one wants, one can join Paul on his theological flights of fantasy – but that is all pie in the sky stuff. If it’s the Jewish roots of early Christianity that we are after – then perhaps we need to get our hands dirty by digging into Jewish history. And if that means taking on Josephus – then so be it…

    • 2010-10-01 22:20:45 UTC - 22:20 | Permalink

      Hi Mary,

      The selections I have posted on have been restricted to the concept of the zone of corruptibility and habitations of demons. That’s only one small slice of what Middle Platonism was about. What is more relevant to Doherty’s thesis is that this was a period of “a seething mass of sects and salvation cults” — the phrase Doherty quotes from Dillon. The background of Jewish sectarian literature is also important, especially with its interpretations of the son of man, logos in human form as divine mediator, and wisdom. Margaret Barker has much to offer here, too, I think, with her insights into the “second god” of Jewish sectarians, and the Enochian ideas of wisdom, revelation, heavenly ascents, demons, etc.

      Doherty supports his argument not by setting Paul within the context of any one particular philosophical sect, but by reading Paul himself, and the other NT epistles against all of this background. Hebrews is as Platonic as you can get and contradicts the gospel narratives. Paul’s Second Adam likewise falls apart when forced into the gospels. Human rulers are not a threat to the good, only evil spirit powers. And the crucifixion is a mystical event, a mystery, to be revealed by the spirit. And what was prophesied in the OT was the revelation of this mystery, and the believing of it solely by hearing preachers divinely sent. And then what do we do with the Book of Revelation, which is different yet again as to the where and when of the sacrifice of Jesus. Add to this what seems to me as plain as the nose on a face — that the first gospel, Mark, is as parabolic as one can get, not historical in the least as far as I can see.

      I find Doherty has a lot more to support his case than appeal to a few specific teachings that were in common to Middle Platonic philosophy. (One reason I posted that series on demons and sublunar spheres was for my own benefit, to see what one set of literature says about it all, and also to prompt a little more awareness among a few about the same — some people refuse to even accept the notion of a “sublunar sphere” as taught by such philosophers.)

      I personally am undecided on the question — but that is largely because I simply don’t know what to do with Paul’s letters. Are they really first century by a Paul? Maybe. But what if they are second century products? And what is their relationship to Valentinianism? (I’m not persuaded by Elaine Pagel’s interpretations here.)

      We can only go back so far, and from that point we have nothing much more than speculation into the origins of the name Paul, links to traditions about Simon Magus, the names of Judas and Simon and others in the Jewish war, and all of that. But that all strikes me as too speculative to be of much use for historical reconstruction.

      • maryhelena
        2010-10-02 01:00:20 UTC - 01:00 | Permalink

        Neil, All good points – but the objection raised by GDon still stands: There is no evidence from the ancient literature to support Doherty’s theory of an incarnation within a sublunar sphere, ie a sphere above the earth and under the moon.

  • 2010-10-02 02:45:00 UTC - 02:45 | Permalink

    My disagreement with GDon is that his objection misses Doherty’s point, which is that this is a plausible picture that the NT epistles do depict against the philosophical-religious Hellenistic-Jewish mix of that day — but part of this mix involves, I think, a different understanding of “flesh” as used by Paul. I get the impression GDon is using the term as found in the gospels and “anti-docetic” (if you will) uses in the NT. I am not convinced that this usage of the term is found consistently in the epistles, and that it (along with crucifixion itself) has a mystical dimension or understanding. Jewish lit is full of bodies in all sorts of heavens as well as on earth.

    I tend to think NT epistolary use of the terms is in some ways closer to the mystical concepts in the Odes of Solomon or mysterious and ambiguous descriptions in Revelation. I see the origin of the earthly Jesus as emanating more plausibly from some of those NeoPythagorean speculative wings of Middle Platonism — from which the Valentinians emerged. There we see some half-way point between the idea of a mystical flesh and a literal human-on-earth-here-and-now fleshy body. A flesh emanation appears in the realm of the Demiurge’s physical creation to redeem lost Wisdom etc.

    I wonder if we can build on Doherty to cast the net a little wider and explore more thoroughly not just the Pauline and other NT meanings and uses of the word. But I can understand why he did not go into the Valentinians, given that they are regularly considered a much later sect.

    It is interesting the way some of the Nag Hammadi writings describe the death of Jesus. I think it’s in the Apocryphon of James that Jesus goes off to get himself crucified by the earthly powers and return, but it’s all done off-stage as if in some mysterious unreal way. And docetic sects said that though Jesus was on earth he was NOT flesh, but only appearing as such. So the logic of GDon’s argument (that there must be tidy compartments where only air can inhabit air, and only earthy matter can inhabit earth or else it would float upwards) breaks down against the reality of the the mystical and a-logical systems that were extant.

    That is not to say that there were not some early Christian sects who had views different from those we find in the NT epistles. No doubt there were, and Doherty certainly indicates this.

    • GakuseiDon
      2010-10-02 08:13:18 UTC - 08:13 | Permalink

      My disagreement with GDon is that his objection misses Doherty’s point, which is that this is a plausible picture that the NT epistles do depict against the philosophical-religious Hellenistic-Jewish mix of that day — but part of this mix involves, I think, a different understanding of “flesh” as used by Paul. I get the impression GDon is using the term as found in the gospels and “anti-docetic” (if you will) uses in the NT. I am not convinced that this usage of the term is found consistently in the epistles, and that it (along with crucifixion itself) has a mystical dimension or understanding.

      And that’s fair enough. The issue is whether you can find support in the ancient literature for such usage. My point is this: I can find support in ancient literature for my usage of “flesh”; Doherty doesn’t have support for his usage. Does that make him wrong? No! But I can say that as far as I can see the evidence we do have on this particular point is AGAINST Doherty, and not for him. And if this happens on other points as well, then Doherty’s particular theory starts to appear weak.

      As I’ve already said, you don’t appear to be investigating Doherty’s theory by looking at the ancient literature, you appear to be trying to **reconcile** his theory with it. For example, does anyone question whether they thought there were demons in the air? Does it impact on the historicity of Jesus? No. The question is whether they thought in terms of “fleshly sublunary realm incarnation”. THAT’s the point of contention, not whether airy/fiery creatures were thought to have existed between the earth and the moon, a point that no-one doubts. Read Carrier’s review of “The Jesus Puzzle”, and you will see he has a section called “The Sublunar Incarnation Theory”, in which he describes Doherty’s re-interpretation of the Incarnation as “central to Doherty’s thesis”.

      So the logic of GDon’s argument (that there must be tidy compartments where only air can inhabit air, and only earthy matter can inhabit earth or else it would float upwards) breaks down against the reality of the the mystical and a-logical systems that were extant

      Actually, that’s not far from how they thought. Earth and water were “heavy” elements, and naturally attracted to the centre of the Earth. Air and fire were “spiritual” elements, and naturally floated free from the earth or ascended upwards to the heavens. (Thus some ancient Greeks thought that the heavens were filled with fire, which is quite ironic given the Christian belief about Hell.)

      Angels and gods took on a form of “flesh” to appear on earth, e.g. to Lot and the ancient Romans. The carnal desires of corrupt spirits caused them to take on a little earth or water and thus they were earth-bound, flittering around graves and statues. Corrupt demons were prevented from rising into the true heavens by their envy and evil desires. Souls of men who were pure could rise through the air into the heavens. Other souls, in whom there were still carnal needs, floated free on death but eventually descended back to earth and into re-incarnation.

      But spirits were able to make themselves appear to people on earth, as visions or apparitions. It doesn’t “break the logic” of my argument, since my argument is based on what they themselves believed, as found in the ancient literature.

      Now, Doherty’s argument is that they believed in a “fleshly sublunar realm” or “world of myth” in which the myths of the gods were played out. As far as I know, there is no evidence for that. It is an idea foreign to Middle Platonism in particular and ancient thinking in general.

      • 2010-10-02 11:32:06 UTC - 11:32 | Permalink

        My reading of Doherty is that the world of myth is nothing more than the heavenly counterpart of the earthly things. That’s as old as the hills, certainly predating Middle Platonism. As for the “fleshly sublunar realm”, if you are suggesting that Doherty is arguing for literal flesh in an area above earth then your reading is very different from mine. He points to the same passages I have pointed to — that it is all mystical, flesh and humanity are mere “likenesses”, not the literal physical mass.

        My posts are not investigations of Doherty’s argument unless I say they are. I have posted on some areas that overlap with what he discusses, and have sometimes drawn attention to these overlaps. You say “no-one” objects to ‘sublunar realms’ of ‘spirits’ etc, but there are those who do, and McGrath even attempted to deny the plain reading of the quoted passages from Philo and Plutarch for fear they were consistent with Doherty’s argument. McGrath is only one. I have frequently come across objections to Doherty that are based on ignorance of basic concepts like these.

    • pearl
      2010-10-02 12:54:57 UTC - 12:54 | Permalink

      Neil, you bring up the concept of emanation, in which all things flow from an absolute in progressions, in descending stages of perfection, each reality proceeding from a previous one, while the absolute ‘source’ remains undiminished. And that brings to my mind the difference in the Christian doctrine of “creation” in which the universe is created ex nihilo by a self-aware god. The doctrine of emanation was highly developed in Neoplatonism (Plotinus) and Gnostic mythologies.

      It makes sense then when Bentley Layton says, regarding Valentinians, “In a certain sense the very purpose of the school was speculation, and so in the nature of things diversity was not discouraged.” (The Gnostic Scriptures, p. 267)

      Emanation systems varied, for sure. (But there wouldn’t be a need for an omnipotent god to literally “create” a “fleshly being in the air.”) He goes on to say,

      Two distinct branches seem to have emerged by the middle of the third century (see Map 5): an “Italic” or Western branch, whose founders had been Ptolemy and Heracleon, and an Eastern branch, represented initially by Theodotus and Mark. The Italic branch accepted that Jesus had been born with a body of animate essence (IrPt 1.6.1) to which the holy spirit (the “Word” of wisdom) later united at his baptism: while the Eastern one held that he had been conceived by the holy spirit and born as a body of spiritual essence (cf. GPh 55:23f).”

      So, we see both adoptionist and docetic views in Valentinian schools. Why not? It’s part of imaginative mythology with a meaning. What might seem “a-logical” to someone might seem quite logical within another’s worldview.

      Even if we consider these Valentinian writings to be the products of later sects, we still can recognize embryonic forays into the concept of emanation by Philo and in Wisdom of Solomon, for instance (as mentioned in above-linked article).

      I guess this example serves to support your idea that obviously not everything fits in tidy compartments. Paul was attractive not only to mainstream Christians, but also to their myth-oriented “heretics”.

      • 2010-10-02 14:01:09 UTC - 14:01 | Permalink

        Doherty at one place writes: “Gods, like all life, tend to reproduce.” Earlier myths had them reproducing sexually, even if that required a solitary androgynous reproducer, or an ear or thigh metaphor for a sexual organ petrifying into literalism.

        Presumably at some point it was a general loathing of this life that brought with it the idealization of the other-worldly, the immaterial, and gods began to reproduce or generate by magical thought alone.

        And rabbis long found certain verses problematic, and there is some evidence the problems predated their rabbinic time. Alan Segal (“Two Powers in Heaven”) lists these that gave rise to all sorts of speculations from the apocalyptic literature (p.184):

        • Daniel 7:9f and the speculation about the identity of the son of man;
        • the Exodus 24 theophany, possibly alongside other passages where God is pictured in the form of a man;
        • the related descriptions of the angel of YHWH who carries the divine name (including those passages where YHWH and an angel are confused):
        • scriptural verses which describe God as plural (Gen. 1:26)
  • Henk van der Gaast
    2010-10-02 18:05:10 UTC - 18:05 | Permalink

    As ever, most enjoyable. The respect of the text great enough to research shines through.

    May I be subversive once again?

    Did not Ezra curse all moabites to all generations? Its one of those thinkies.

    • 2010-10-02 18:55:43 UTC - 18:55 | Permalink

      You’ll have to explain your thinky. I’m missing the point, sorry.

  • 2010-10-06 13:28:18 UTC - 13:28 | Permalink

    I wish I could remember where I read it (Goodacre?), but recently I recall some author pointing out Mark’s use of a rather anthropomorphic verb in the calming of the storm in 4:39. Normally it’s translated as the wind “ceased” or “died down,” but ἐκόπασεν should probably be translated as “grew weary.”

    Similarly, when the Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (funny how Peter’s family, including his wife, disappeared from history) was cured, the fever “left” her. And here the verb (ἀφῆκεν) also has an anthropomorphic ring.

    Could it be that Mark perceived the world as full of spirits (daemons) that drove the wind and caused diseases, as well as those unclean spirits who took over people’s bodies?

    Finally, if the spirit (of God) “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, then was Jesus possessed by a divine spirit — one that descended upon him at the baptism, only to depart at the cry of desolation on the cross? How odd is it that Mark should use ἐκβάλλει in 1:12 to describe the spirit’s power over Jesus? It’s the same verb used when Jesus is accused in the Beelzebul controversy of casting out demons by summoning and gaining power over the prince of the demons.

    I don’t think Mark is simply being poetic in all these cases. Why shouldn’t we take him literally?

    • 2010-10-06 16:52:58 UTC - 16:52 | Permalink

      I have also read that the simple fact of Jesus shouting to the storm implies an understanding that he thought he was addressing a living sentient power. We so easily read metaphors and literary images where — as you point out — ancients were probably reading more literally.

      I also wonder about the first act of power of Jesus is the expulsion of the demon (“before its proper time of judgment”) in the synagogue — it involves shouting and convulsions. Jesus is the said to have breathed out his last (similar image of exiting, as you point out) amidst a shout and tearing of veil and other disorderly things. I realize the normal inclusio refers to the tearing of the heavens at baptism, but there seem to be a lot of resonances between the crucifixion/resurrection passage and the first three chapters of Mark.

  • 2010-10-06 17:04:16 UTC - 17:04 | Permalink

    Just one more illustration of the earlier discussion about strict rules being followed in what bodies could inhabit what spaces — several apocalypses (Enoch, Abraham, AscIsaiah immediately come to mind) describe both a flesh and blood mass (the human visionary) and a super angel from the top heaven, moving and having a look around the various heavens and their respective occupants. If we were to insist on literal and physical exactness we might imagine the heavy human falling down but being held up by the lighter superangel who should by rights float upwards — so exceptions are always made when the story requires it. We don’t read of the highest angels putting on ballast or of humans attaching themselves to hot air balloons to make their way through the various heavens.

    But this is a question I’m still trying to dig into more.

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