2011-12-04

Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism 5 — The Christ Title (2)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series that is archived here.

Here is my understanding of Walter Schmithals’ argument so far. (Others who have read ‘Gnosticism in Corinth‘ — Roger? — please do chime in with corrections. I have not found reading S easy and am quite open to being shown that I have forgotten or overlooked some significant aspect of his argument.)

Schmithals guiding principle appears to be that nature (or human culture) would produce a singular trajectory or evolutionary progression from a “system” which begins without a clear individualised redeemer myth (i.e. one in which a personalised redeemer descends from heaven to rescue mankind enabling them to follow him back into heaven and their true home). At the beginning the potentially saving power lies dormant in all humankind and is activated by saving knowledge (gnosis) of its origin and ultimate home. This power was part of the great power or creative force that produced all things.

Jewish influence or Jewish gnostics are said to have led to the adoption of the title of “Christ” as one of the names of this power. This adoption took only the title or term Christ and not the full conceptual embodiment of what that figure supposedly meant to Jewish thought. In this primitive gnostic thought the title Christ was thus amenable to being attached to the Primal Man or Adamus (heavenly Adam) concept.

None of the above is said to have shown any hint of Christian influence.

Christian influence subsequently led to a more individualized concept of the Christ and this also influenced the ever eclectic gnostic world. In response to Christianity Gnostic “sects” increasingly developed mythologies that placed an individualized redeemer Christ at centre stage. To make this evolutionary progression work Schmithals must argue that the account by the later Hippolytus is based on a more original form of Simonion beliefs than is the teaching and mythology about Simon we read of in the earlier Irenaeus.

This is the framework through which I understand S to be interpreting the evidence, that is, the writings of the patristics.

So back to continuing the argument of this introductory chapter to “Gnosticism in Corinth”.

The passages concerning the gnostic views of Simon, the Naassenes, the Elchasaites and Ebionites quoted from Hippolytus are said by Walter Schmithals to know only a Christ who

is found on earth generally not as one, but only in the form diffused among many ordinary men at any and all times. (p. 51 of Gnosticism in Corinth)

I take S’s interpretation tentatively for the sake of following his argument since, though plausible, it is not quite what I myself read in the online translations of Hippolytus.

Evidence of Pseudo-Clement

Schmithals writes that the above view of Christ being found in many mortals at any and all times was reshaped under Christian influences, particularly among Jewish-Christian circles, when the church’s Christ was venerated as a “the prophet” of prophetic (Moses) promise. Pseudo-Clement gives us evidence of an early example of this reshaping when he identifies the Christ as one who was incarnated in seven key individual figures in history. (Again, I am limited by my own reading to an online translation that does not explicitly support this interpretation or maybe I’m finding S obscure. This is most frustrating.)

But his point is that this concept of Christ appearing in select individuals is a later development. It is not found in the accounts that have come to us through Hippolytus nor in what S sees as the earliest passages in the Pseudo-Clementine literature. In those earlier strata the “true prophet Christ” is “present at all times, that is, in men themselves, and is revealed to those who are willing to hear.”

Schmithals wonders if we see a sign some protest by Jews responsible for the Odes of Solomon against such a gnostic view that Christ was at all times in all men.

The anointed one is in truth one, and he was known before the foundation of the world. (Od. Sol. 41:15)

Epiphanius and Rabbinic literature

S also finds remnants of the pre-Christian Christ myth in Epiphanius’s account of the Sampsaeans (Elchasaites). He cites Ephiphanius as saying that for this sect that Christ is appearing “at all times, from eternity”, beginning with his appearance in Adam. But I am not qualified to assess this claim. Another translation, the one linked above, indicates that this sect believed Christ appears “every now and then” — which is the belief S argues was a later Christian-influenced development.

Then there is the rabbinical passage that is generally considered to a polemic against Jesus Christ:

If a man says ‘I am God,’ he lies; ‘I am the Son of Man,’ he will regret it; ‘I ascend to heaven,’ he will not achieve it. (j. Taan 2.1)

According to S this makes no sense as an attack on Jesus. It is not addressed to an individual person and it assumes its target is saying these things presently. S thus believes it is an attack on Jewish Gnostics who believe they can ascend to heaven either “in spirit” in ecstatic experiences or at death.

Carpocratians

S also sees the same “redeemer-less system” in the depiction of the Carpocratians by Irenaeus. Jesus was an ordinary man in this “system” and set an example that all other Pneumatics could follow through the same means. Others, like Jesus, would be able to return to heaven through their application of the same “Power” in them. S acknowledges that this Power is not called Christ but believes “it can only have been the ‘Christ'” that lived in all Gnostics and ascended to heaven.

Marcosians

S finds the same fossils of pre Christian Christ gnosticism in the teaching of Marcus, of the Marcosians. Rather than finding here the one redeemer we learn that all gnostics are part of “the perfect power“.

The go about as redeemer apostles and attempt, by means of ecstatic productions which the church fathers scornfully called magic, to awaken the [Power] in other men, “so that you may become what I am, and I what you are” (Iren. 1.13.3), as Marcus says to his medium. It is true that in the reports about Marcus. “Christ does not directly as the title for the [Power]. The Marcosian says [“I am a son from the father”] (Iren. 1.21.5). But he could of course just as well have said, if the external proximity to Christianity had not hindered him, [“I am the christ”] as Gnostics resembling the Marcosians do . . . . according to the report of Epiphanius. . . .

This is indeed late but clear documentation for that pre-Christian Gnostic “Christology” in which Christ is not the heavenly emissary but the “man” to be found in all Pneumatics. (pp. 53-4, my formatting)

The chicken or the egg?

These later witnesses do indeed describe two types of Christologies alongside each other: the Christ who is the one individual redeemer and another in which Christ is also existing in all Pneumatics. Schmithals believes the two systems are “certainly in competition”. So which came first?

Now it is inconceivable that the Christ of Christian Gnosticism was later anthropologized. It is rather the tendency of Gnosticism, the later it is, the more to approximate the church’s Christology, that is, to place Christ as the one redeemer over against men. So at the beginning there stands the conception of Christ as the sum of the Pneumatics. Christ as the one redeemer then makes his way into Gnosticism from ecclesiastical Christianity, yet without being able ever completely to suppress the title of “Christ” for “man”; indeed, the one Christ frequently appears still to be altogether expendable even in his redeeming function. (p. 54)

Schmithals then proceeds to offer examples of this. I’ll save those for a future post. Till the next post in this series then, I cannot deny that the argument does not overpower me. It is of interest for the possibilities it raises, but these possibilities appear to me so far to be generated more solidly from the assumptions through which the evidence is interpreted than inductively from the evidence itself.

One other aspect of the argument that jars with me is Schmithals assumptions about the nature of the “Christ” concept in Judaism before Christianity. I think, actually, his argument stands to be strengthened a little by the findings of the likes of W. S. Green and T. L. Thompson that Second Temple Jewish notions of the Messiah were far broader than the commonly understood futuristic Davidic king.

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  • 2011-12-04 16:14:32 GMT+0000 - 16:14 | Permalink

    I looked at Hippolytus’s “Refutation of All Heresies”
    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/hippolytus6.html

    … and it seems to me that he denounced Simon and his ilk mostly for sorcery, not for some philosophical heresy along the lines of Gnosticism. The word “sorcery” or “sorcerers” appears seven times on that webpage, and the word “Gnosticism” does not appear at all.

    Therefore maybe the phenomenon that Shmithal was trying to understand should really be called “Pre-Christian Sorcery”, and maybe this phenomenon was quite separate from the development of Gnosticism.

    It seems to me that Simon was rather similar to a spiritualist. Simon collaborated with a woman who was possessed spiritually by an angel, and Simon claimed that he himself was possessed by a spirit. Anybody who believed such claims might pay money to Simon and to this woman in order to communicate with beings who have moved from the human world into the spirit world — with people who have died. Simon and this woman would also perform acts of sorcery as part of their scam.

    Hippolytus characterizes Simon primarily as a sorcerer, and we might suppose that the characterization was essentially correct.

    Hippolytus’s mention of the so-called “lost sheep” story might indicate the basic substance of Simon’s explanation to potential money-paying clients. Simon explained that he had found the spirit of a lost angel in the body of this woman. He called this lost angel “the lost sheep”, which apparently was a reference that was familiar enough to Hippolytus’s readers that it required no further explanation.

    The stories about Jesus Christ include the same reference to a story about a “lost sheep”. Jesus’ reference to this story indicates that it involved a shepherd who had 100 sheep, one of whom became lost, and so the shepherd left the 99 sheep to look for the one lost sheep.

    If Simon’s story indicated that finding the lost angel in the woman was like finding the lost sheep, then apparently the sheep story referred to a lost angel who was sought by an archangel who had left 99 angels to look for this one lost angel. That makes Simon into the archangel and makes the woman into the lost angel.

    Why would people believe Simon’s story and furthermore pay money to Simon? People believed him because he was able to do sorcery.

    . . .

    Here is how Hippolytus characterized Simon Magus as a sorcerer and as a magician and also as a libertine who used his tricks to satisfy his sexual passions by seducing women among his followers:

    * “This Simon being an adept in sorceries, both making a mockery of many … and partly also by the assistance of demons perpetrating his villany, attempted to deify himself. But the man was a (mere) cheat,”

    * “Simon became confessedly a god to his silly followers … We must think concerning Simon the magician …. and the sorcerer was the subject of a passion …”

    * “Those who become followers of this impostor — I mean Simon the sorcerer — indulge in similar practices, and irrationally allege the necessity of promiscuous intercourse. …. they congratulate themselves on account of this indiscriminate intercourse, asserting that this is perfect love, and employing the expressions, “holy of holies,” and “sanctify one another.” For they would have us believe that they are not overcome by the supposed vice, for that they have been redeemed. ”

    * “The disciples of this Magus celebrate magical rites and resort to incantations. And they profess to transmit both love-spells and charms, and the demons said to be senders of dreams”

    * “This Simon, deceiving many in Samaria by his sorceries … and journeying as far as Rome … deceiving many by his sorceries,”

    . . .

    Schmithals finds the same fossils of pre-Christian Christ gnosticism in the teaching of Marcus, of the Marcosians.

    Hippolytus describes Marcus as a magician, using slight-of-hand tricks. In particular, Hippolytus exposes a magic trick, using chemical reactions, that Marcus did with a couple of communion chalices:

    [quote]

    Marcus, an adept in sorcery, carrying on operations partly by sleight of hand and partly by demons, deceived many from time to time. …

    Very often, taking the Cup, as if offering up the Eucharistic prayer, and prolonging to a greater length than usual the word of invocation, he would cause the appearance of a purple, and sometimes of a red mixture, so that his dupes imagined that a certain Grace descended and communicated to the potion a blood-red potency. … Infusing secretly into the mixture some drug that possessed the power of imparting such a colour (as that alluded to above), uttering for a, considerable time nonsensical expressions, he was in the habit of waiting, in expectation that the drug, obtaining a supply of moisture, might be dissolved, and, being intermingled with the potion, might impart its colour to it. The drugs that possess the quality of furnishing this effect we have previously mentioned in the book on magicians.

    Marcus, infusing the mixture into a smaller cup, was in the habit of delivering it to a woman to offer up the Eucharistic prayer, while he himself stood by, and heldanother empty chalice larger than that. And after his female dupe had pronounced the sentence of Consecration, having received the cup from her, he proceeded to infuse its contents into the larger chalice. And pouring them frequently from one cup to the other …. And astonishing both his female dupe and those that are present, he was regarded as one performing a miracle; while the larger was being filled from the smaller chalice, in such a way as that the contents, being superabundant, flowed over.

    Whe contrivance of this juggler we have likewise explained …. Many drugs, when mingled in this way with liquid substances, are endued with the quality of yielding augmentation. … When one of these impostors previously smears, in a clandestine manner, an empty cup with any one of these drugs, and shows it to the spectators as if it contained nothing, by infusing into the contents from the other cup, and pouring them back again, the drug, as it is of a flatulent nature, is dissolved by being blended with the moist substance. And the effect of this was, that a superabundance of the mixture ensued ….

    [unquote]

    . . .

    Marcus used a concocted numerology-alphabetology system, said to be an invention of the Pathagoreans, to explain the story of the lost sheep. It seems that Marcus considered the lost sheep to be an angel who had been one of 99 angels and who had fallen away into apostasy. This lost sheep/angel was likened also to a lost coin, which a poor woman would seek endlessly.

    The being who searched for the lost sheep/angel was likened also to the letter L (Lambda), which eventually found and joined with the lost sheep/angel, resulting in the creation of the letter M.

    [quote]

    The Pythagoreans …. maintain that when an error had arisen respecting the twelfth number, the sheep skipped from the flock and wandered away; for that the apostasy took place, they say, in like manner from the decade.

    And with a similar reference to the dodecade, they speak of the piece of money which, on losing, a woman, having lit a candle, searched for diligently.

    And they make a similar application of the loss sustained in the case of the one sheep out of the ninety-nine; and adding these one into the other, they give a fabulous account of numbers. And in this way, they affirm, when the eleven is multiplied into nine, that it produces the number ninety-nine ….

    The L, situated in the eleventh of the alphabet, came down to search after the number similar to itself, in order that it might fill up the twelfth number, and that when it was discovered it was filled up, is manifest from the shape itself of the letter. For Lambda, when it attained unto, as it were, the investigation of what is similar to itself, and when it found such and snatched it away, filled up the place of the twelfth, the letter M, which is composed of two Lambdas.

    [unquote]

    All this esoteric explanation of the lost-sheep story indicates that this story played an important role in the various sorcery and magic escapades of Simon, Marcus and their ilk. The combination of this story and the magic tricks convinced gullible people that the sorcerers’ human bodies contained the holy spirits of an escaped angel and of a seeking angel.

  • pearl
    2011-12-05 04:40:43 GMT+0000 - 04:40 | Permalink

    Neil: “Till the next post in this series then, I cannot deny that the argument does not overpower me. It is of interest for the possibilities it raises, but these possibilities appear to me so far to be generated more solidly from the assumptions through which the evidence is interpreted than inductively from the evidence itself.”

    Part of dealing with complexity of Antiquity is what to make of “the evidence itself”. In this case we are reading heresiologists, who are in attack mode. How much is truth and how much is embellishment or fabrication or misrepresentation or downright misunderstanding, especially of possible esoteric ideas? When we identify some statement as reliable evidence from these heresiologies, we are already in “assumption” territory, unless we have outside corroborating evidence.

    Mike mentioned he didn’t see the word, “Gnosticism”, used by Hippolytus. And he wouldn’t be expected to. Although we’ll certainly see Hippolytus’s and Irenaeus’s use of “gnostic”, the categorical name “Gnosticism” was coined in 1669 by Henry More as a polemical term. Scholars have used the term to identify sects of Late Antiquity with some type of dualism and various disputed philosophical, cosmogenic, soteriological, and eschatological attributes. Some would like this category dismantled. I figure that is a bit premature; obviously, heresiologists identified enough features they were opposed to that are corroborated in the writings of those “heresies” they counter. But perhaps the traditional scholarly (not New Age popular) category could be a bit more pliable, in order to consider not only non-Christian, but pre-Christian ideas and roots, such as those being investigated in this series.

    Simon is certainly identified as Simon Magus. What about all those sorcery references that Mike mentions? Caveat: getting into some speculative thought here. 🙂

    Hippolytus, and no doubt we, are viewing as outsiders. Should we see Simon as some kind of fake “magician, using slight-of-hand tricks”, as proposed by Mike? Hippolytus would be pleased. It would help a proto-orthodox Christian cause to single out a clear origin of ‘heretical’ competition, which could then be reduced to a nonsensical charlatan, who nonetheless had the power to make people crazy. Future heresies would be shown to be structured upon a dangerous, wobbly, phony base. And maybe Simon was a fraud.

    Or perhaps not. Mike also mentions “esoteric explanations”, at least such as are reported by Hippolytus. If we are in the realm of esoteric thought, might we consider an early form of spiritual alchemy? This type of esoteric thought embraced not just transformation, but rather transmutation as a method of experiencing levels of reality beyond everyday reality. A mediator of some type that would first appear as an object to a subject would gradually be recognized as the subject him/herself during the process of deepening understanding. Compare ‘orthodox’ Christianity, where the object and subject generally remain separate with a separate mangod, Jesus, and a god of which humans are not a literal part, along with an institution that is retained as mediator. Simon believed in the potential “power” in all men and a process of becoming.

    Spiritual alchemy would be acceptable within a Jewish framework and indeed was. As far as a Jewish connection, interestingly, the first female Jewish author, Maria Alchemista, probably from the first century C.E., was not only the first non-fictitious alchemist of the Western world, but also appeared to consider herself a spiritual alchemist.

    “Mary’s claim that alchemistic procedures were revealed directly to her by God laid the foundation for a long tradition of alchemist esotericism.”
    http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/docLib/20100304_MariaAlchemista.pdf

    If Simon’s magical label has any truth, we might consider whether we’re seeing some kind of rudimentary, early, esoteric, spiritual alchemy. The proto-orthodox Jesus had his own, acceptable magic tricks, but they weren’t dangerous in the sense of allowing individuals literal spiritual “power” within, as a piece of god. The mainstream Christians want a mangod of history. Esotericists don’t care; they’re interested in a particular kind of individual human connection with spirit or divinity. What Irenaeus portrays is a Simon who felt he was teaching about the power as a representation of that power. He didn’t care what people called him or how he represented himself, based on cultural expectations – “the Son” or “Holy Spirit” or “Being who is the Father over all”. True or not? Egotistical nut? Or a Simon who didn’t care about such labels used by followers or outsiders who only had a superficial understanding of his message of potential “power”?

    So, how does this all jive with the gnostic severe degradation of the physical? Not all recognized ‘gnostics’ held a solely radical dualistic view of the world in all respects. Yes, we see in the end a disappearing world, but interestingly, we also see in the meantime with the Valentinians a recognized function for the body to nurture the pneumatic seed, along with the stated importance of individual resurrection in this lifetime. Is this bit softer view of the body just a Christianizing influence or are we seeing a little bit of lingering alchemical influence as part of the process? Surely, as Neil quotes Schmithals:

    Now it is inconceivable that the Christ of Christian Gnosticism was later anthropologized. It is rather the tendency of Gnosticism, the later it is, the more to approximate the church’s Christology, that is, to place Christ as the one redeemer over against men. So at the beginning there stands the conception of Christ as the sum of the Pneumatics. Christ as the one redeemer then makes his way into Gnosticism from ecclesiastical Christianity, yet without being able ever completely to suppress the title of “Christ” for “man”; indeed, the one Christ frequently appears still to be altogether expendable even in his redeeming function.

    • 2011-12-05 07:15:43 GMT+0000 - 07:15 | Permalink

      Pearl: Hippolytus, and no doubt we, are viewing as outsiders. Should we see Simon as some kind of fake “magician, using slight-of-hand tricks”, as proposed by Mike? Hippolytus would be pleased.

      According to the translator, here is what Hippolytus wrote:

      Marcus, an adept in sorcery, carrying on operations partly by sleight of hand and partly by demons, deceived many from time to time.

      and

      He [Marcus] tried to make others prophesy, partly by demons carrying on these operations, and partly by practising sleight of hand

      So, I was not putting any words into Hippolytus’s mouth when I used the expression “sleight of hand”. I do not know what Latin expression Hippolytus used, but apparently it translates as “sleight of hand”.

      Also, Hippolytus called Simon a “magician”, according to the same translation.
      http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/hippolytus6.html

      I do get your point that we should have some skepticism about whether Hippolytus was correct in saying that the people he described in his Chapter 5 really were magicians, who used sleight-of-hand tricks to make dupes believe in sorcery, but that is what his description indeed does say.

      • pearl
        2011-12-05 07:42:47 GMT+0000 - 07:42 | Permalink

        Ah, yes, point taken. However, Hippolytus might be pleased if someone believed his characterizations of a certain ilk.

    • 2011-12-05 07:22:14 GMT+0000 - 07:22 | Permalink

      Pearl: Mike mentioned he didn’t see the word, “Gnosticism”, used by Hippolytus. And he wouldn’t be expected to. Although we’ll certainly see Hippolytus’s and Irenaeus’s use of “gnostic”, the categorical name “Gnosticism” was coined in 1669 by Henry More as a polemical term. Scholars

      Let me correct myself. Hippolytus did not use any variation of the word “Gnosticism” in his Chapter 6, where he described people whom he called “sorcerers” — people like Simon Magus and Marcus.

      Hippolytus did, however, use variations of the word “Gnosticism” seven times in his Chapter 5, where he described people whom he called “Naasseni”.

      That is how the word is translated into English. I don’t know what the Latin word was that Hippolytus used.
      http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/hippolytus5.html

    • 2011-12-05 08:11:35 GMT+0000 - 08:11 | Permalink

      Pearl: … we are reading heresiologists, who are in attack mode. How much is truth and how much is embellishment or fabrication or misrepresentation or downright misunderstanding, especially of possible esoteric ideas? When we identify some statement as reliable evidence from these heresiologies, we are already in “assumption” territory, unless we have outside corroborating evidence.

      The corroborating evidence we do have is Hippolytus’s descriptions of the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Hesiod and other ancients whose writings still are extant. To the extent that Hippolytus’s descriptions of those teachings are correct, his descriptions of non-extant teachings can be assumed to be about as correct.

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