An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

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by Neil Godfrey

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.


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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths”

  1. With these very high level comparisons I’never really sure what to make of them. One thing to think about though is how to test and validate such comparisons. And this is there so much of this type of comparative analysis goes wrong, even with stuff like comparing narratives to Josephus, etc. To really see if these comparisons are meaningful you need to also make comparisons using the same methodology and criteria to many other narratives. Now this, of course, is cumbersome and time consuming, which is why people often don’t do it, myself included, but that’s really the way to see if such comparisons have explanatory power or not.

    Perform the same analysis on 10 other myths and see what that looks like. Now, choosing the myths there is the trick, it’s how you define your sample. Ideally, we’d do the analysis on every myth and then compare, but in the interest of time 10 is probably the lowest number you could use, so you would have to choose wisely to make the comparisons relevant.

    1. I have attempted to follow Claude Levi-Strauss’s method of structural comparison that can offer a suggestion that explains the differences and similarities together. The way he analysed comparative structures of myths from the same geographical areas. It may be nothing but hot air and wasted imagination, but I’d like to at least give it a go before deciding that it is a waste of time. One cannot compare myths that lack similarities, though. One has to begin with myths that do contain the same “grammatical units” as I mentioned in another recent post.

    2. I am not aware of this sort of comparison being attempted before with the NT material. I think the result in this instance is quite conservative and predictable. We know on other grounds that Christianity’s foundation was its inversion of other narratives, Jewish and Roman.

      1. I pipe dream of mine, with my background in data analytics, is to build a model that can analyze texts and do this type of classification and comparison. The first step is the type of comparison used in plagiarism checkers, but beyond that the idea is to build models that can identify themes and catalog those themes and then do comparisons across different sets of texts, etc.

  2. As well as the notions of coming “upon” water as an expression relating to power [and submission] from the Gnostic Apocalypse or Revelation of Adam, there is the notion of luminous water from the core Gnostic text, the ‘Apocryphon (Secret Revelation/Book) of John’, a narration told by the Saviour to John –

    … this father is the One who beholds himself in the light surrounding him, which is the spring of living water, and provides all the realms. He reflects on his image everywhere, sees it in the spring of the spirit, and becomes enamored of his luminous water, for his image is in the spring of pure luminous water surrounding him.

    The father’s thought became a reality, and she who appeared in the presence of the father in shining light came forth. She is the first power who preceded everything and came forth from the father’s mind as the forethought of all. Her light shines like the father’s light; she, the perfect power, is the image of the perfect and invisible virgin spirit.

    She, the first power, the glory of Barbelo, the perfect glory among the realms, the glory of revelation, she glorified and praised the virgin spirit, for because of the spirit she had come forth.

    She is the first thought, the image of the spirit. She became the universal womb, for she precedes everything,

    the mother-father,
    the first human,
    the holy spirit,
    the triple male,
    the triple power,
    the androgynous one with three names,
    the eternal realm among the invisible beings,
    the first to come forth.

    Barbelo asked the invisible virgin spirit to give her foreknowledge, and the spirit consented …

    She asked again to be given incorruptibility, and the spirit consented …

    Barbelo asked to be given life eternal, and the invisible spirit consented …

    She asked again to be given truth, and the invisible spirit consented. Truth appeared, and they stood together and glorified the good invisible spirit and its Barbelo. Because of her they had come into being.

    This is the father’s realm of five. It is:

    the first human, the image of the invisible spirit, that is, forethought, which is Barbelo, and thought,
    along with foreknowledge,
    life eternal,

    This is the androgynous realm of five, which is the realm of ten, which is the father.

    The father gazed into Barbelo, with the pure light surrounding the invisible spirit, and its radiance. Barbelo conceived from it, and it produced a spark of light similar to the blessed light but not as great. This was the only child of the mother-father that had come forth, its only offspring, the only child of the father, the pure light …

    1. The passage you have quoted is a good example of the more philosophical, and therefore a good while later, than the rather crude mythical stories in the Apoc. Adam and especially the announcements of the 13 kingdoms. Yes, water has an ambiguous meaning — it is both destructive (recall the sea monster or Tiamat who needed to be slain) and life-giving. It is interesting to see how the Christians played with the mixed meanings.

      1. It’s certainly an elaborate philosophical portrayal of creation (and many Gnostic accounts seem to be elaborations of Genesis that often provide at least a two-god account).

        Interestingly, Meyer provides just one Jesus, at the end ie. no other reference to Jesus or Christ in the text, whereas the translation by Stevan Davies provides six Christs, but only one – the one at the end – is in a section which he has colour-coded as having been added by a Christian editor (who Davies believes ‘sought to present the text as a long dialogue between Jesus and John son of Zebedee’); and only two Christs are in passages he thinks have been added later [text in square brackets].

  3. In conventional modern, liberal sermons, it is sometimes noted that “God became man”, or a man, with Jesus. This would reverse an earlier pattern often found in history. Where various men were eventually seen as gods. Due to great works, or baptism, or anointment.

    This reversal of myths, divination, might be important. It seems that coming to water might stand for annointing, or coming to another, often higher life, or deification, divination. But Jesus loses his water in the crucifixion.

    It might be that ironically, part of Christianity therefore, is myth-busting; a reverse annointing. Where men come to see their old gods as mere men. When god becomes a man, might be the moment when we see our gods as mere men; it is an early, historicistic moment in demytholicization, disillusionment.

    Later, after historicism, we might see there is not even a minimal man behind many religions, gods.

  4. Roughly, coming to water, might mean coming to a new life, and divine status. But later many depart from water, or lose it, or are even attacked by it. Signifying the potential loss, reversal, of their earlier favored or divine status.

    The use of water to symbolize such things, would be a natural development in desert cultures. Where water was a matter of life or death.

    1. Here, as in much of religion, water seems to symbolize life. Since living things need water. And then the analagous coming and leaving, of an apparently or ostensibly godlike, life-strengthening spirit or state of mind.

      But we also see a frequent warning. That not all waters, spirits, are as good as they seem at first.

      1. Another thing about water: Heraclitus’s remark about how one can never step in the same stream twice.

        One could probably write books about that sentence (I suppose there may be many books about it). Even people naive to the comment or such books however, even those not given to (literal or figurative) reflection, probably intuitively sense the strength of the strain (the pulling apart and the holding together) inherent in the notion of the stream being the same stream and always transient. They will probably sense some power, intellectual or emotional, in this perpetual strain, a power which will add to the story for them.

        Oceans and lakes because their waves and floods and in the case of oceans their tides are somewhat similar to streams and rivers.

        So another reason why water may give power to a story or ritual.

        1. Bodies of water because of their inconstant, unpredictable movements seem alive. The movements are so complicated that they seem as if human or even superhuman. Yet the body of water is not alive. (It is actually pretty stupid. You try to make friends with it, ask it for advice when you are feeling down and you don’t get very much. Maybe you get some exercise swimming or have some fun fishing or get something to eat out of it, or cool off or warm up in it. But in reality it responds less than, say, a cat or a dog. It is not alive, at least not the water part of it. Probably lots of people have looked at bodies of water wanting answers or comfort from them and gotten nothing, at least nothing definite that wasn’t potentially within them already.)

          This contradiction between seeming alive–even more alive than humans–yet being completely dead and dumb–also gives potential power to water for employment in ritual, myth, storytelling.

          1. Thanks for your response. The reading of myth in light of the methods in art and literary interpretation, anthropology, mythography, structuralism, psychology, is often neglected in the study of Christian origins. Though the study of the Water motif is extensive. And yes, water as Changeable goes back to Parmenides or Heraclitus.

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