Category Archives: God and Other Deities


2011-12-16

The Gnostic Gospel of John (1)

by Neil Godfrey

Recently I began a series on the pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism but have recently read a book that I think may throw more direct light on that question — The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel – Annotated and Explained by Stevan Davies. Several things about this Gnostic gospel particularly attracted my attention:

  1. The Apocryphon of John did not originate as a Christian Gnostic document; apart from a few annotations scattered in the main body itself the main Christian elements (those bits that present the work as a revelation by Jesus to his disciple John) were tagged on to the opening and closing of a much older text.
  2. A clarification explaining that there are two types of religious metaphors: those that compare the divine to social and political models on earth (God as king or father, etc) and those that compare the divine to mental or psychological processes (e.g. Buddhism, Gnosticism).
  3. A partial coherence with Walter Schmithals’ claim that Jewish Gnosticism is not strictly dualist — the material world is not a reality opposed to the higher world but in fact is not a reality at all.
  4. More complete coherence with Walter Schmithals’ that among the saving powers are Christ, Son of Man and Daveithi, a word that “possibly means ‘of David’”
  5. Coherence with Walter Schmithals with respect to the absence of an individual descending redeemer figure. Thus though there are descents they are not on the part of figures truly distinct from the one being saved.
  6. Adam was created in a “heavenly realm” before appearing in a physical and worldly Eden.
  7. Repeated emphasis that in mythology the modern mind should not expect consistent logical coherence.

Though I suspect Stevan Davies would re”coil at the suggestion there is much here that overlaps with Earl Doherty’s arguments for the Christian Christ originating as a heavenly mythical figure. Schmithals himself argues that the false apostles and gospels Paul opposed were probably teaching something like this Gnostic Gospel. Nonetheless this text does help us understand another facet of the thought-world through which Christianity as we know it eventually emerged.

Oh, one more thing. I was not really aware before reading this book that the Apocryphon of John “is the most significant and influential text of the ancient Gnostic religion”. (But then I’m way behind many others in my knowledge of Gnosticism.) So for that reason alone it is worth close attention. read more »


2010-11-17

God: Liar? Compromiser? Poet? Incompetent?

by Neil Godfrey
Bob Dylan Portrait by T.HO 2004

Image via Wikipedia

The will to believe is overpowering. And the idea of a single “God” as a real being who  epitomizes all Goodness lies at the heart of religions that can trace their historic influences back to ancient Persian Zoroastrianism, or maybe only as recently as late Mediterranean paganism when the lesser deities of the Olympian pantheon were being subsumed as mere manifestations or angelic agents of the Supreme Deity.

The efforts of modern believers to rationalize the God of their Book with pure Goodness are certainly quaint. A few of these were recently encapsulated in a theologian’s blog thus:

Many will say that the heart of the matter is whether God lied to humanity in the Bible. But that’s not the case at all. It is much easier to suggest that God accommodated the message in the Bible to what people could understand when it was written, or spoke in poetic rather than literal terms, or didn’t override the minds and understanding of the Bible’s authors when God inspired them, or perhaps didn’t even inspire the Bible at all, than to suggest that God lied and continues to lie to us through the evidence the universe itself provides. read more »


2010-10-16

Jesus Christ in Little India

by Neil Godfrey

Last night I strolled along Serangoon Road in Little India, Singapore, to see what was happening in the build-up to the Hindu Deepavali festival. Some of the photos here are from Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, others are from market displays. The last one listed here stood out as strangely “in place” as part of it all. (Clicking the images will enlarge them.)

 

read more »


2010-09-30

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

by Neil Godfrey
Apuleius

Image via Wikipedia

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. read more »


2010-09-29

Demons 101 – Early Christianity’s Middle Platonic Background

by Neil Godfrey

In my previous post I cited a “Distinguished Scholar”‘s textbook summary of Middle Platonic ideas that formed part of the background to early Christianity. I continue this post with a discussion of the philosopher who introduced ‘demonology’ into Platonic philosophical views during the century preceding that of Paul and the earliest Christians.

In an earlier post I quoted translated passages from two Middle Platonist authors given prominence by Everett Ferguson, Philo and Plutarch, that depicted their particular views of cosmology and the place of demons in the universe. That post upset some readers who appeared to take exception to the posting of evidence from primary sources that lent support to the discussion of Earl Doherty in his publications arguing that the Jesus originated as a mythical construct. A significant part of Doherty’s discussion focuses on the way certain Middle Platonic views informed the intellectual background to the New Testament epistles.

Since that post I’ve had more time to look a little more closely at one of Earl Doherty’s sources, The Middle Platonists, by John M. Dillon. read more »


2010-08-20

Two Adams, Human-Divine Mediators and Angels, and a very different view of early Judaism

by Neil Godfrey

The point of this post is to highlight, with reference to the sources, some of the less widely known beliefs among Jews around the time Christianity was emerging, and that would seem to have some resonances among Christian ideas we find in Paul and other early letters and gospels.

The Jewish world from which Christianity emerged is infinitely more complex than our traditional readings of the Old Testament and the beliefs of current Judaism. I would love to compile an outline of all its variations — or better still, find a book where this is already done. Till then, here are a few snippets that are worth keeping in mind whenever the subject of Christian origins is addressed.

  1. The human form of the Logos, God’s first-born, and Heavenly Man
  2. The Heavenly Man and the Earthly Man
  3. The human form of Wisdom
  4. The heavenly Adam
  5. Melchizedek and other vice-regents of God
  6. Divine Heavenly Patriarchs

The following is taken primarily from a chapter on Jewish sectarian texts (and from a few references in a chapter on Philo) in Alan Segal’s Two Powers in Heaven. read more »


2010-07-28

How Philo might have understood Christ in the NT epistles

by Neil Godfrey

Philo was a Jewish philosopher in Egypt who died around 50 ce. Much of his literary work was an attempt to explain Jewish beliefs in the language of Greek (or Hellenistic) philosophers.

Curiously (for us at least) he spoke of “a second God” who was a manifestation of “the High God”. This second God was the Logos.

Why is it that he speaks as if of some other god, saying that he made man after the image of God, and not that he made him after his own image? (Genesis 9:6). Very appropriately and without any falsehood was this oracular sentence uttered by God, for no mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the second deity, who is the Word [Logos] of the supreme Being (Questions on Genesis II.62)

On the face of it, this suggests that at least a significant number of Jews at the time Christianity was apparently emerging believed in “a second deity” — and if so, this would throw interesting light on the origins of Christianity with its belief in God the Father and his Son, also a deity, Jesus Christ.

The Christian belief, ever since rabbinic Judaism (after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce), has stood in stark contrast to a supposedly monolithic monotheism of Jewish belief that permits no other God being apart from the One God. Jewish beliefs before 70 ce, on the contrary, are not so clear cut. Some scholars have gone to great pains to define what precisely was meant by “monotheism” when ancient Jews appeared to simultaneously recognize companion deities or at least very high angelic powers of some sort.

One scholar, Alan F. Segal, in a famous work, Two Powers in Heaven, attempts to explain Philo’s passage by suggesting he his following the Greek philosophers who found it inconceivable that a highest and purest deity could directly interact with the mundane creatures of this world, and so required some sort of mediating manifestation of himself to do this “dirty work”.

Another scholar, Margaret Barker (The Great Angel) is not persuaded by Segal’s explanation. She believes it is far more likely that Philo took the ideas of a mediating divinity from existing Jewish beliefs and adapted or described them in terms of Greek philosophy. That is, he did not attempt to play with the facts of Jewish beliefs to make them sound palatable to Greek philosophers. He merely used philosophical language to describe Jewish beliefs.

Barker cites H. Wolfson’s 1948 two volume study on Philo as one of her supports: read more »


2010-07-19

How Literal was the Mythical World?

by Neil Godfrey
The gods of Olympus, after whom the Solar Syst...
Image via Wikipedia

Is Doherty’s view that earliest Christian belief that Christ was crucified in some heavenly realm even conceivable? Could any ancient mind plausibly think of a divinity taking on a bodily form and suffering and being exalted again — all quite apart from a literal location on earth? This post does not address such specifics. The topic is too vast for that. But it does have a more modest goal of illustrating the sorts of things that we know ancient minds certainly did think about the sorts of things that might go on “up there”.

Earlier this year I posted Ancient beliefs about heavenly realms, demons and the end of the world. A couple of responses were interesting. One or two commenters immediately took exception to plain statements that some ancients believed that the entire space between the earth and the moon is inhabited by spirits or demons of some sort. It did not seem to matter what certain ancient authors actually said. The real fear seemed to be that quoting such passages might lend some credence to Earl Doherty’s arguments that earliest Christian thinking held that Christ was a heavenly entity who was crucified in a heavenly realm.

Well, this time I’m just going to list the highlights from a small section of Doherty’s Jesus, Neither God Nor Man, one headed with the same title as this post, pp. 149-152.

His intent in this section is to “look at some examples of pictures that were presented of goings-on in the spiritual realm.” None of the following can be said to be allegory. They are written to encourage beliefs about certain realities of “what is up there”.

Ascension of Isaiah

Doherty does not repeat his detailed discussion of the Ascension of Isaiah here. But it is essential reading for anyone looking to understand ancient thought about the various stages and inhabitants between heaven and earth. R. Joseph Hoffmann also discusses the Ascension in relation to Paul’s understanding of Christ, and I quoted some of his discussion in Weaknesses of traditional anti-mythicist arguments.

1 Enoch

In the pre-Christian 1 Enoch chapter 21 we learn of a belief that certain angels are confined to fearful realms outside heaven and certainly not on earth: read more »


2010-07-18

Videos capturing gods entering humans and communicating through their blood

by Neil Godfrey

I am fascinated by other “foreign” ceremonies. They invite comparisons with the ones with which we are familiar, and help grasp a bigger picture of what “it” is all about.

My days in Singapore are numbered as I look forward to a new position back in Australia, so I was very glad when some Chinese locals went out of their way to encourage me to attend the opening ceremony celebrating the birthday of one of their gods. This one happened to be at the Aljuneid locale (suburb? district?) of Singapore. (Aljuneid also happens to be an Arab name — Arabs, especially from Yemen, have a long history of ties with Singapore, and I happen to work with one of the Aljuneid descendants here.) I asked the local Chinese who encouraged me to attend the ceremony for the name of the god, but was met with uncertainty as to how to convey something apparently uniquely Chinese in a meaningful way to me in English. So I can’t say what god(s) the following videos depict.

It seems to me that somewhere in Singapore there are temporary marquees being set up every week for the purpose of celebrating a local society’s or community’s particular god’s birthday. One night is for the opening ceremony, another for a community meal, and yet another for entertainment. (The decorative detail — its colour and intricacy — of all the paraphernalia is astonishing. Maybe I can post some photos later.)

I have the impression that the community meal is also routinely accompanied by entertainment in the form of Chinese opera. But the Chinese audiences for this, from my few experiences, are far fewer than those for the modern pop entertainment on the final night. Some of my younger Chinese work colleagues have expressed some astonishment that anyone could sit through and enjoy a Chinese opera. I do have to admit the audiences to these that I have observed are a small number from the older generation, plus me. But the community meals also come with auctions and/or raffles that seem to keep the many scores of diners happily entertained.

But last night was the first time I had the experience of witnessing the opening night ceremonies of a local god’s birthday. It was a lengthy process, two and a half hours no less, but I enclose here only two of the videos/photos I captured.

The first video depicts the moment that the god enters his human medium. If interested, you might want to fast-forward the first 50 or 60 seconds. read more »


2010-05-04

How did Jesus become a God? (or How did Christianity begin?)

by Neil Godfrey

Larry W. Hurtado (How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God?) raises some interesting points about how Christians came to worship Christ alongside God. He focuses on the role of personal revelation (hallucination?). My initial response to his book was to think that his explanation was as vacuous as saying “God did it”, and that it was not an explanation at all. Indeed, he finds it necessary to defend his explanation against other scholars who do not give it the time of day. But I have come to think there is probably more to what he is arguing than I first understood, although he would disagree with my slant.

(Hurtado’s problem is greater than mine, however, because he is seeking to explain how a historical human of recent memory was exalted to be worshiped alongside God, and I don’t think Hurtado’s explanation is sufficient to explain that. But it may well go some way towards helping explain the development of the exalted Christ concept alongside God that we find in Paul’s and other New Testament letters. Hurtado also expresses disapproval of interpreting revelatory experiences as psychopathology and downplays related personal and social crises factors.)

Hurtado asks

what might have moved Jews in touch with their religious tradition to feel free to offer to Jesus the kind of unparalleled cultic devotion that characterized early Christian religious practice? (p.198)

How exalted was Jesus Christ in early Christian thought?

Pretty high up.

God made life, the universe and everything else through Jesus, and Jesus keeps everyone alive and everything in existence now:

yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8:6)

has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; (Hebrews 1:2)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Colossians 1:15-17)

And God has ordained that everything and everyone should worship him:

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

Is there anything unusual here?

Hurtado (rightly) struggles to understand how a mere mortal should be exalted to this God-status level and worshiped alongside God. read more »


2009-10-25

Candi Ceto

by Neil Godfrey

Nearby the Candi Sukuh is a (Hindu?) temple, “Candi Ceto”, also high up in a mountain region.

Full set of photos on Flickr

Samples:

the alignment of all the pillars

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IMGP7157

I wish I knew

looking back across town

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Sukuh Temple in Java – different, embarrassing, erotic and largely unknown

by Neil Godfrey
Borobudur temple view from northeast plateau, ...

Borobudur Temple Image via Wikipedia

I was recently holidaying in central Java and one “ancient” temple I had hoped to see was Candi Sukuh. I had heard it was very different from the usual run of the mill temple complexes at Borobudur and Prambanan, which I also had to see of course, and I hoped a first hand look would help me understand a little more about the culture and people that built it, and a little more about what we (humanity) are.

Prambanan temple complex from the front gate.

Prambanan temple complex image via Wikipedia

I had not realized that there was more to Jogyakarta than Borobudur and Prambanan. There were also other smaller but no less interesting temples (candi) – Plaosan and Sewu. And nearby Solo’s Candi Sukuh was neighboured by a somewhat similar Candi Ceto. It will take me time to sort out and label the photos I took of all of these, but I have completed my Flickr set of the Sukuh photos.

Some of my labels and descriptions are really questions begging for more knowledgable persons to enlighten me to the meanings and stories behind them.

It was no easy task finding and reaching the Sukuh temple. The locals I asked at Jogyakarta seemed never to have heard of it. At one point I was told to change buses just outside the city, but there I was put on a bus that returned me to my starting point! Another generously took me on his motorcycle to what he thought was where I wanted to go, but I had to tell him he had taken me to the wrong temple. Finally I was told that the temple I wanted to see was way over in east Java towards Bali, and it was impossible to see it from Jogyakarta.

After all that I finally gave up any hope of seeing it, but a chance meeting at the Prambanan complex with an architecture student from Solo university was my lucky breakthrough. I owe Vava much — he very kindly offered to take me out to the sites on his motor cycle the next day. All I had to do was catch a train from Jogyakarta to Solo and meet him the following morning. I drove him mad with my incessant photographing, I’m sure. But he was responsible for the best part of my holiday, enabling me to see not only temple complexes too rarely seen (or even known) by outsiders, but also so much of the central Java countryside and people.

A major feature of the Candi Sukuh complex, a two meter high phallus or lingga, has been removed and placed out of public view in a back work room of the National Museum. At first I thought it might be on display in the museum, but I soon had doubts about that when I visited the museum to find it quite small and flooded throughout with classes of happily noisy and mobile young schoolchildren. But I did see it through a smudgy window to the out of bounds workroom.

Presumably Muslim sensibilities are at work here, both at the official and local levels.

But the temple does certainly raise interesting questions about our religiosity when contrasted with the far more modest and widely known temple complexes of central Java. The similarity with the Mayan structures is also remarkable.

My Candi Sukuh photos are now on Flickr. Links to Wikipedia and other information about the temple are also included there.

A few of them here –

The pyramid - how reminiscent of the Mayan structures!

Yoni again - the same

Dancing elephant-man in smithy

Three flat tortoise platforms

Scene from Sudamala story?

Someone must have really liked his head

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2009-08-28

Hungry Ghosts and Holy Ghost : cultural perspectives

by Neil Godfrey

Lately I have seen many Chinese here in Singapore offering food and joss sticks and burning “ghost money” for hungry ghosts. It’s the time of the Hungry Ghost Festival — there are other specific Singapore explanations here and here. The ghosts come out every seventh lunar month. One Chinese colleague explained to me that it is believed there are more accidents than usual in this month. That would explain why so many offerings and joss sticks are placed at road intersections and stairways. When I mentioned this to some relatives back in Australia they thought they whole idea was “crazy” or “a bit peculiar”. And so it seems to westerners. But I could not help thinking of Christian Pentecost and western celebrations commemorating the descent of the Holy Ghost and how churches also mark this day with fruit and candles, and some with babbling tongues.

So a Hungry Ghost is weird but a Holy Ghost is normal? One is superstition but the other is religious faith?

There has also been an unfortunate story of a Moslem woman in Malaysia being sentenced to caning for imbibing a drug (alcohol) in public. Another work colleague made the interesting observation that in some western countries individuals can suffer degrading treatment and even ruin through their legal systems for being caught with a different brand of drug.

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Table of food for ghosts at a food court

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Encouraging ghosts to be kind to people traversing the stairway

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Making ghosts happy where the pedestrian pathway meets the road

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Burning (offering) lots of ghost money

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Time for quiet reflection

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2009-08-18

7 predictors of belief in God; and the different reasons why “I” and “They” believe

by Neil Godfrey

Why Darwin Matters contains several sharable nuggets of dot-points findings and here’s one more. In 1998 Frank Sulloway and Michael Shermer surveyed 10,000 Americans about their beliefs in God. Here are the summaries (pp. 34-37):

The seven strongest predictors of belief in God are:

1. being raised in a religious manner
2. parent’s religiosity
3. lower levels of education
4. being female
5. a large family
6. lack of conflict with parents
7. being younger

They also asked respondents whey they believed in God and the top 5 reasons were as follows:

1. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
2. The experience of God in everyday life (20.6%)
3. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
5. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (8.2%)

But an interesting thing happened when they were asked why they thought others believed in God. What had been the mainly rational reasons for each respondent believing (concluding design required a designer, thinking about life experiences) were dropped to last and third places when asked why they thought others believed in God. Others — not themselves — were mainly thought to believe for emotional (nonrational) reasons.  Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (26.3%)

  1. Religious people have been raised to believe in God (22.4%)
  2. The experience of God in everyday life (16.2%)
  3. Just because / faith / the need to believe something (13.0%)
  4. Fear death and the unknown (9.1%)
  5. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (6.0%)

Related post — Why people do not accept evolution

Historian of science and Skeptics Society foun...

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