Daily Archives: 2018-12-07 11:48:56 UTC

An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

This post is a follow up from Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness. I may come to see this attempt to compare the structures of the myths as a sad misadventure but till then, let’s see what happens.

Detail from the Santa Maria sarcophagus (late second century?). Was Jesus depicted as a child because the myth declared him to be a child at this point or is he depicted as a child to merely symbolize the beginning of a new life beside the aged John the Baptist representing the old?

We begin with the “gnostic myth” of the advent of an illuminator or saviour figure that was announced by the second kingdom:

1. A prophet is said to be the beginning of the saviour figure who is presented as a child.

2. A bird takes the saviour to a mountain, presumably a wilderness setting

3. The bird nourishes the child saviour in the mountain

4. Presumably after the child has become an adult an angel appears to declare the saviour figure now has power and glory

5. The figure comes to the water.

The image below attempts to illustrate that particular structure. (For the understanding of coming “upon” water as an expression relating to power and submission see the previous post.)

Next, look at a similar myth in the Book of Revelation, though we will simplify it for starters. This structure is illustrated in the middle column.

1. The prophet John is writing, or announcing, the advent of the child saviour figure from the time he is born.

2. An angelic voice declares that great power and glory has now come into being, presumably a proleptic announcement concerning the child. (The mother and child are separated; the mother will be a proxy for those who follow the saviour-child).

3. A bird (eagle) carries the mother of the child to the wilderness

4. The woman is nourished and cared for in the wilderness (by….?)

5. The water of chaos, a flood, attempts to destroy the woman but she is protected by the wilderness earth.

The larger structure is essentially the same as the gnostic myth but the middle two steps are reversed. This reversal appears to be a function of the splitting of the child from its mother (and rest of her seed).

The structure the previous two myths is completely inverted with the Gospel of Mark. Coming to the water or facing the water is now moved to the beginning, along with the prophet, and is no longer the culmination of the story. In this gospel the water has become a symbol of baptism which is a figure of the death of the old man (as per Paul). In the Gospel of Mark we have the narrative bookended by narratives of death and emergence from death, first symbolically in the water, then finally through the cross.

1. The prophet announces the advent of the man saviour.

2. The saviour figure comes to the water and as he emerges from it.

3. The saviour figure is addressed as a sacrificial victim — the inverse of the power and glory we saw in the other two myths. For “my beloved son” as a signal of a son to be sacrificed see Jon Levenson’s studies on the Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. But the power and glory is still latent because the saviour figure is still the son of God.

4. The spirit (identified as a bird, in this case the dove) drives or propels the saviour figure into the wilderness.

5. The saviour figure is nourished by angels in the wilderness. (Matthew and Luke add the mountain.)

The angels and the bird take on inverted meanings. The angels feed and nourish the saviour in the wilderness, thus doing enough merely to keep him alive after his long fast and encounter with Satan. There is no roaring declaration of the saviour being imbued with power and glory.

The bird has changed from an eagle to a dove. The eagle had the power to rescue and carry a person in flight. The dove drives the saviour figure into the wilderness but has already come to him at the moment he is declared to be the beloved son (for sacrifice).

The Gospel of Mark may be thought of as inverting the rival myths of a messiah or saviour coming with great power. The water has become a means of symbolic death and birth as a “beloved son” destined to be sacrificed.

The earlier myth of power is not completely displaced, however. We see the saviour figure in the wilderness nourishing his followers by the thousands; he then ascendes a mountain before returning to walk upon the water to his disciples. Several details of this narrative indicate it is to be understood as a theophany, or perhaps even originally a post-resurrection appearance. The myth of power is not completely replaced but it is supplemented by an inverted form of the myth to take place first.


Further Evidence of a Pre-Christian Concept of a Suffering Davidic Messiah


It is commonly recognized that the Gospels depict Jesus’ crucifixion as an ironic royal enthronement.

We know the evidence for this statement: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem; the riddle of Psalm 110 over the messiah being David’s Lord; the parable of the pounds; the dressing up of Jesus in royal garb; the ironical mocking of Jesus as a messiah and king when he is on the cross; and the Gospel of Mark’s ironical Roman triumph  and mock acclamation of Jesus as emperor. Some have questioned whether pre-Christian Jews ever contemplated the idea of a messiah who suffers. I have posted some of the reasons we have to think that some Jews did speculate on the possibility of a suffering messiah and this post will be one more addition to that archive.

The point is not so much that David is the paradigmatic example of a “righteous sufferer” so much as he is the “righteous suffering king.”
William Hole. David fleeing from Jerusalem, cursed by Shimei. Wikipedia Commons

I recently posted an excerpt from Martin Goodman’s discussion of Second Temple Jewish beliefs about a coming messiah:

In some Jewish texts the central figure in these events of the last days is called the Messiah, ‘the anointed.’ Some texts, like the Psalms of Solomon, describe the Messiah as a human figure, descended from David:

Behold, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to reign over your servant Israel in the time which you did foresee, O God. Gird him with strength to destroy unrighteous rulers, and purge Jerusalem from the nations who trample her down to destruction … And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the anointed Lord. [Psalms of Solomon 17:21-22, 32]

Interestingly another scholar, Joshua Jipp, has pointed out that that messianic Psalm of Solomon is based on our canonical Psalm 2 which speaks of a suffering messiah.

One may ask if there are any specific examples of pre-Christian messianic appropriation of the psalms. Psalms of Solomon 17 and 18 use Psalm 2 in their description of a coming Davidic Messiah. Moreover, one could describe Ps. Sol. 17:21-32 as a midrash on Psalm 2. For example, the coming Davidic figure is depicted as bringing forth punishment ἐν ῥάβδῳσ ιδηρᾷ (“by an iron rod”; Ps. Sol. 17:24), an exact replication of Ps 2:9.

The vocabulary of Ps 2:9 of σκεῦος κεραμέως συντρίψεις αὐτούς (“you will crush them into pieces as a potter’s vessel”) is echoed in Ps. Sol. 17:23b-24a with ὡς σκεύη κεραμέως . . . συντρῖψαι.

The use of Psalm 2 by Psalms of Solomon, therefore, provides further evidence of the eschatological and messianic nature of Psalm 2.

Perhaps most important, however, is the psalms’ frequent depiction of a Davidic figure, under intense duress and persecuted by his enemies. While suffering and hostility at the hands of one’s enemies are potentially common to all humanity, it is King David who is portrayed as the righteous, royal sufferer par excellence (Pss 7:4; 69:4; 109:3). His enemies surround him to mock and afflict him (e.g., Psalms 22; 69; 89). David’s plight frequently brings him to the point of despair, wondering if God has abandoned and forsaken him, giving him over to death and Hades (Pss 22:14-18; 38:5-8; 69:16-20). Yet despite his sufferings and persecution, David maintains his fidelity and hope in God. In the Davidic psalms one finds the paradoxical combination of kingship and righteous suffering. The point is not so much that David is the paradigmatic example of a “righteous sufferer” so much as he is the “righteous suffering king.”21 This anomaly, namely, that David, God’s anointed one, undergoes persecution and suffering, has great importance for Luke’s conception of Jesus, the suffering Anointed One.

21 In other words, though the psalms’ characterization of David as a “righteous” sufferer is extremely significant, it is his royalty and kingship that are crucial for Luke’s appropriation of the Davidic psalms. 

(Jipp, 258f)

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So this is why so many bosses are jerks, and other depressing thoughts for the day

From The bad news on human nature, in 10 findings from psychology by Christian Jarrett

A few excerpts:

We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits. The American personality psychologist Dan McAdams recently concluded that the US President Donald Trump’s overt aggression and insults have a ‘primal appeal’, and that his ‘incendiary Tweets’ are like the ‘charging displays’ of an alpha male chimp, ‘designed to intimidate’. If McAdams’s assessment is true, it would fit into a wider pattern – the finding that psychopathic traits are more common than average among leaders. Take the survey of financial leaders in New York that found they scored highly on psychopathic traits but lower than average in emotional intelligence. A meta-analysis published this summer concluded that there is indeed a modest but significant link between higher trait psychopathy and gaining leadership positions, which is important since psychopathy also correlates with poorer leadership.

Another one of the ten says we are moral hypocrites. I know that’s true. I’m one myself. I like to think I’m a vegetarian for ethical reasons but I continue to eat fish.

This one is so depressing. I have spent most of my adult life believing in the power of education, only to learn it probably only has an effect on those who want to be better anyway.

We are blinkered and dogmatic. If people were rational and open-minded, then the straightforward way to correct someone’s false beliefs would be to present them with some relevant facts. However a classic study from 1979 showed the futility of this approach – participants who believed strongly for or against the death penalty completely ignored facts that undermined their position, actually doubling-down on their initial view. This seems co occur in part because we see opposing facts as undermining our sense of identity. It doesn’t help that many of us are overconfident about how much we understand things and that, when we believe our opinions are superior to others, this deters us from seeking out further relevant knowledge.

And do be careful not to tread on any ants from now on because they have feelings too, you know …. Bee-brained (Are insects ‘philosophical zombies’ with no inner life? Close attention to their behaviours and moods suggests otherwise).

And if you thought things really are getting worse it’s not simply concept creep either. The world really is going the way of the tediously saintly young. So says Matt Ridley whose books I once found happily enlightening.

That’s enough wallowing in misery for one weekend.