Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism: 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Last week my copy of Gnosticism in Corinth by Walter Schmithals arrived in the mail and the first thing that hit my attention about it was a discussion in the “Introduction A” chapter of pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism. This looks interesting for the obvious reason that it just might throw some light on one particular interpretation of the New Testament epistles — that they know only a spiritual Christ who bears no relation to the Jesus of the Gospels.

Schmithals’ is always a densely packed read so I know I need to step out of character and be patient and read this slowly. And since I know I’m not the only one interested in this I have decided to take the time to type up blog notes as I go through this section. (I sometimes freely copy phrases of the translated Schmithals in what follows.) This topic is new to me and understanding gnostic thought is not easy. I welcome feedback about any mistakes or misunderstandings in what follows.

One interesting remark by Schmithals reminded me of the question of Paul’s knowledge of details of a Christ myth. He writes:

In general one may say that an excess of mythological speculation is always a sign of diminishing existential tension — and conversely . . .  (pp. 29-30)

Food for thought here, I think, about the question of the emerging mythological details that accrued around the Christ Jesus as the years progressed.

Schmithals describes what he sees as a pr-Christian system of Jewish Gnosticism.

He begins with a discussion of the thought system of Simon (Simon Magus in Acts) as described by Hippolytus. This surprised me since other scholars (e.g. Birger Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism) dismiss the account of Hippolytus as a description of a much later — very post-Christian — development of Simon’s thought. But Schmithals does present a number of reasons to think that what Hippolytus is depicting is, rather, very early — pre-Christian — Jewish Gnosticism. (I am sure Pearson has read Schmithal’s works so I would like to read his responses. If anyone can point to his or other reviews I’d be grateful.)

Schmithals then describes similar Jewish Gnostic systems that he sees as related to the thought-world of the Simonians and shows how they embraced a Christ idea that is quite unlike the concept of Christ in the later (very Christian) Gnostic thought. Schmithals shows the way the Jewish Christ was reinterpreted to identify the Primal Man, or the Great Power that generated all.

It is difficult not to see overlaps here with passages in the Pauline letters. (But Schmithals clearly distinguishes Paul’s thought from that of this early Gnosticism.)

I don’t know if I will finish all of Schmithal’s discussion in a few blog posts but I can at least start with good intentions.

What Schmithals means by Gnosticism

Schmithals explains how he is using the term “Gnosticism”. He uses the term to refer to

that religious movement which teaches man to understand himself as a piece of divine substance. Although he has fallen, through a disastrous fate, into captivity to an alien world and its demonic rulers, he may be certain of liberation from that captivity because he possesses the awareness of his inalienable divine being.

The major motifs in which this Gnosticism is objectified are:

  1. a cosmological dualism, whether of an original or of a derived kind;
  2. the myth of the fall of the light-substance into the power of the evil forces, i.e., the primal man myth;
  3. the presence of the knowledge of this human essence and destiny, i.e., the redemption.

The following concepts, among others, through which the mythological motifs are shown to be related to the existence of man, correspond to these major motifs:

  1. Light-darkness; good-evil; life-death; from above-from below; spirit-flesh; God-world;
  2. Anxiety; wandering; “thrownness”; captivity; sleep; drunkenness;
  3. Call; wisdom; illumination; knowledge; salvation; redemption; resurrection; ηδη τελειος; freedom. (p. 30)

To expand a little on what is meant by the primal man myth, Schmithals is speaking of the (pre-Gnostic) myth that all individuals are parts of the one heavenly figure. These individual entities were overpowered by evil forces hostile to God, were put into bodies and robbed of all earlier memories about their origins.

Schmithals will argue how the Jewish title of Christ could have been attributed to this pre-Christian Gnostic Primal Man.

A System of Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism

Schmithals describes what he sees as a pr-Christian system of Jewish Gnosticism. He begins with a discussion of the thought system of Simon (Simon Magus in Acts) as described by Hippolytus. What Schmithals will argue is not that the “Great Revelation” that was said to have been written by Simon and that was so important to his followers was itself pre-Christian, but that the thought system of the Simonions was itself pre-Christian. What Hippolytus says is incompatible with the accounts of others like Irenaeus and Justin. Schmithals will later argue that these accounts describe a later form of Simonian thought that was influenced by Christianity.

But first, to address the thought system itself. It is necessary to understand this before we can grasp his later arguments that it is a pre-Christian system.

Simon says

A translation of Hippolytus’s explanation of the Gnosticism of Simon is in Book 6 of Refutatio.

The central figure

The central figure in this Gnostic myth is ό έστώς, στάς, στησόμενος — he who stood, stands, and will stand.

This figure is usually called η μεγάλη δύναμις — the great power; or ὴ άπέραντος δύναμις — the infinite power.

The names themselves reflect the destiny of God, of man and of the world.

The source of all becoming

The one who was, who stood (έστώς), the “unbegotten, incomparable and infinite Power”, rests in itself “above.”

But this Power found no joy in this, so it set in motion the process of becoming. This unbegotten Power thus became the source of all becoming — beginning with the coming into being of the world itself.

This Power that generates all becoming is compared with the fire that is the root of the universe. The Power sets in motion a process that will continue to generate, grow, increase forever.

The fire and tree comparisons

Fire is the root element of the universe, and fire has two parts to it: the outer visible part and the inner invisible component.

The world that is “thus begotten”, like this elemental fire, consists of a “twofold nature”. That is, the world is partly visible and partly invisible.

The visible part can be compared to the trunk of a tree; the invisible part to the tree’s fruit.

The point of these comparisons is to register that the visible part of the world — and all that is in the world — does not exist for its own sake. It exists for the sake of the invisible part.

In the stream of waters, in man, a house

That invisible part is the Power — δύναμις — itself.

That same Power is the one who Stands — στάς. As the one who had stood, it remained in itself ‘above’.

But as the one who stands it stands ‘below’ — and stands below “in the stream of waters, begotten in the image.” “In the stream of waters” is a metaphor for “in man”.

In the “Great Revelation” it is explained that Paradise is a metaphor for the womb, and the four rivers flowing from Paradise in Genesis represent the veins and arteries surrounding the womb.

And “this man begotten of blood” is “a house, and in it dwells the unlimited Dynamis which he calls the root of the universe.”

Begotten in the image

This Power, δύναμις, as the Standing one, στάς, is “begotten in the image”.

But this power in the person now is only potential power, not actual power. The one who stood dwells in the one now standing, but only as a potential power and not in actual power.

What is needed for this potential power to be liberated and be nothing inferior to the infinite Power itself is the Logos coming in the form of a Great Revelation. The Logos, as the Announcement/Revelation, enters the understanding of man and the potential power is thereby “stamped as an image”. This is the image of the infinite Power (also called the Spirit).

Thus stamped as an image it now is “one and the same in essence, power, greatness, and perfection with the unbegotten and infinite Power and in no way is inferior to that unbegotten, incomparable, and unlimited Power.”

The power of the one who stands which is stamped as an image thus will stand above as the one who will stand with the blessed, unlimited Power.

The Call

The process of the call or proclamation coming to the understanding of man by the Logos is delineated in more granular detail.

The world that comes to be is structured in six roots, or the elemental fire that produces the world produces these six aspects that also dwell in man. The six roots come as three pairs and are extracted from the Genesis Creation story.
These are:

  1. Mind — Intelligence  (Heaven — Earth)
  2. Voice — Name  (Sun — Moon)
  3. Reasoning — Reflection  (Air — Water)

The seventh power is the Logos, he who stood, stands and will stand, and this Logos, on looking at the first of the begotten powers, Heaven and Earth, declared: “Hear, O heaven, and give ear, O earth, because the Lord has spoken. I have brought forth children, and exalted them; and these have rejected me.” The Voice-Name pair represents the process of the calling, and the Reasoning-Reflection the answering of the call.  (I have filled out some of this from Hippolytus and it is not all detailed by Schmithals in this section.)

The meaning of the whole world process

This is apparently the meaning of the whole world process, that in the process of becoming, the one Power, “divided above and below,”* “enlarges itself” . . . in that it “begets itself,” “seeks itself, finds itself, its own mother, its own father, its own sister, its own spouse, its own daughter, its own son, mother, father, one, Root of the All. (p. 38)

  • [c.f. the one who stood above but stands now below, with the one who stood in the one who stands in potentiality, not actuality]

One who is now small will then become great.

Then a significant point to note when comparing this system with other Gnostic systems:

Hence the unlimited Dynamis [Power] is placed in every man as potentiality; this system knows nothing of a distinction between Pneumatics and hylics.

So the end of becoming is not part of this system. The Logos abides forever and forever will be changing those who stand into the actuality of those who will stand. “Begetting may not and will not cease”, as is shown in an allegorical exposition of Genesis 3:24 — otherwise the “great power” in man that now dwells as potentiality will be destroyed.

Note, also, that in this system there is no redeemer descending from heaven to instruct ignorant mankind. There is no mythological redeemer figure here. There is no “redemption” either if redemption means that those to be saved have fallen into some horrible condition as a result of a great catastrophe. Humans are not held bound by god-hating evil forces.

The Spirit, the unlimited Power, is itself fully in the dual nature of the cosmos as potentiality. What exalts humans is enlightenment about the meaning of becoming. And mankind must actively participate in this calling enlightenment. The enlightenment comes by the Word.

But this is leading now into the next stage of Schmithals’ argument.

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Neil Godfrey

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