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.
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.
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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