Vridar

2012/01/31

The First Signs of Christianity: Couchoud continued

Couchoud thought that John the Baptist epitomized and popularized the Jewish hopes for a coming Judge from Heaven — as shown in my previous post in this series (the entire series is archived here).

Christianity was born of the travail of the days of John. The Baptist gave it two talismans with which to bind souls:

  1. the advent of the Heavenly Man in a universal cataclysm,
  2. and the rite of baptism which allowed the initiates to await, without apprehension, the Coming of the Judge.

(p. 31, my formatting)

At first the teaching spread like wildfire but without John’s name attached to it as its IP owner.

Before long the teaching became enriched with various kinds of additions. First among these additions were new names for the Heavenly Man: Lord, Christ, Jesus.

Lord as a title was derived from Psalm 110:1

The Lord said unto my Lord,

Sit thou at my right hand,

Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

To whom could this have been addressed? Surely not to the Messiah, the Son of David, waited for by the Pharisees. David would not have called his son “my Lord.” It must have been to the Son of Man who, according to the Revelation of Enoch, was placed on the throne of his glory by God Himself. (p. 31)

Since David as an inspired prophet makes it clear that the Son of Man is enthroned at the right hand of God and calls him Lord. So believers could also call the Son of Man their Lord.

(Note that the title “Son of Man” was used as a Greek expression, too. Think of Christianity as moulded very largely by Greek speakers.)

Christ, Christos, “is a somewhat barbarous translation of the Hebrew word which means consecrated by unction, Messiah.” (more…)

2011/06/11

Heavenly Visions: the foundation of Paul’s Christianity

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is an important ic...

Ladder of Divine Ascent: Image via Wikipedia

The New Testament epistles inform us that the original Gospel was a revelation from God. That means it did not originate by means of spoken tradition relayed from historical events, by word of mouth, from eyewitness or preacher to others. Rather, one might almost say that the medium itself was the message: the revelation or vision was, in a signifcant sense, the Gospel and conversion experience.

Thus Paul — thought by some scholars to be the real founder of Christianity — says that he was not taught the Gospel by men. “In Galatians 1, Paul claims that he did not receive the gospel from a human source. . . . In Galatians Paul speaks of his conversion as a revelation (apocalypse [1:12])” (Segal, 1990: 35, 36)

I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. . . . But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. (Galatians 1:12, 16) (more…)

2011/04/29

The Suffering Son Revealed in Vision?

Filed under: 2 Peter — Neil Godfrey @ 11:28 pm
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My verse for the day is 2 Peter 1:17

For he received from God the Father honour and glory when such a voice came to him from the Excellent Glory: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The author is describing a visionary experience. While most of us familiar with the Bible have probably assumed the author is referring to the Transfiguration scene in the synoptic gospels, a more attentive reading suggests that this passage is independent of the synoptic scene, and that the synoptic authors more likely created their transfiguration scenes from a tradition of visions such as we read here in 2 Peter. (My point is not to argue that particular case here, but one argument for it is available online here.)

A little while ago I was discussing Paul’s visionary experiences and comparing them with the sorts of vision we also find described in the Ascension of Isaiah. I have since created a special archive for my posts discussing visions, and this post about the vision in 2 Peter will join that archive.

The detail in 2 Peter 1:17 that has been quietly tapping away in the back of my head is the refrain: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (more…)

2011/04/01

Strengthening April DeConick’s Case that John’s Gospel Opposed Vision Mystics; and another word for John knowing Mark

Filed under: DeConick: Voices of Mystics,Gospel of John,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 11:15 pm
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In my posts last month addressing mystical visionary ascents into heaven among Second Temple Jews and early Christians, I made passing references to April DeConick’s Voices of the Mystics. In this book DeConick argues a case that the school responsible for the Fourth Gospel was writing in some form of dialogue with those following the ideology behind the Gospel of Thomas. Recall among the closing scenes in the Gospel of John that Thomas is singled out as the arch-sceptic who will not believe unless he sees. Jesus allows him to see, but then commends all Christians who believe without seeing.

I will save the details of DeConick’s argument for another post. Here I will discuss one small episode in John’s gospel that DeConick does not include in her book, but it struck me just now how potentially supportive of her thesis this detail is. It also leads to additional indications that the author of John knew the Gospel of Mark. (more…)

2011/03/12

Ascension of Isaiah as a mystic-visionary salvation myth

Filed under: Ascension of Isaiah — Neil Godfrey @ 10:31 pm
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Jesus Christ saving the souls of the damned.

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This post continues a series I have been doing on the Ascension of Isaiah: the full set of posts are archived here.

The Ascension of Isaiah describes a vision in which Isaiah

  • is taken up through the firmament above the earth
  • and then through seven heavens until he sees the Great Glory on his throne,
  • and from where he sees the Beloved of God descending through those heavens
  • to be crucified by Satan,
  • plummeting further down to Sheol, before
  • returning glorified to his former place in the highest heaven,
  • having rescued the souls of the righteous in the process.

This vision or ascent belongs to chapters 6 to 11 of the longer text; the first five chapters are sometimes referred to as the Martyrdom of Isaiah, and are widely considered to have had an independent existence before various later Christian or “proto-Christian” additions.

Earl Doherty has brought this text of the Ascension (chapters 6 to 11) to some prominence with his argument that early Christianity (or even “proto-Christianity”) began with the idea of Christ as an entirely heavenly entity, with the idea of him living a life as a human on earth being a later development of the myth. Whether one accepts Doherty’s arguments or not, the text is nonetheless of interest as an indicator of ideas among early Christians and their Jewish thought-world. The idea of a visionary ascent through the heavens to see the glory of God, and thereby be transformed and be graced with salvation, was, as I have shown in recent posts, known among certain Jewish and Christian groups around the time (and either side) of the first and second centuries. I compare the details of this vision with those others in this post. (more…)

2011/03/10

Qumran and Paul: Echoes of Mystical-Vision Salvation

One of the reasons I have been looking at the visionary ascent experiences of Jewish and Christian devotees is to expand my understanding of the nature and place of the vision of Isaiah’s ascent and all that he saw and heard in the Ascension of Isaiah. I began to look at the Ascension of Isaiah in some detail a little while back because of the use made of it by Earl Doherty in his own case for the idea of a pre-gospel Christ being entirely a spirit entity whose saving act occurred within the spirit realm and not on earth. (Paul-Louis Couchoud argued for a similar conclusion.) Before returning to the Ascension — which describes another ascent, transformation and vision, as well as a descent of a Beloved of God to be crucified by Satan — I complete here the texts I have been looking at that help flesh out the context of such visionary ideas. I conclude with similar thoughts expressed in Paul’s letters, indicating that some of the teachings found there owe something to this form of religious experience as a way to salvation. Both the Qumran and Pauline references are from April DeConick‘s Voices of the Mystics. (more…)

2011/03/06

Ascents to the Celestial Temple and Heavenly Descents, and what any of this has to do with early Christianity

Stairway to Heaven

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One of the reasons I am interested in this topic of visionary experiences is that they help flesh out a tangible environment, on the basis of concrete evidence, from which Christianity emerged. This is in contrast to the model of “oral traditions” being the roots of the canonical gospel narratives. The gospel narratives stand at an opposing polarity from the idea of salvation through a heavenly vision of the divine. April DeConick’s book, Voices of the Mystics, around which this and my previous posts are put together, argues that in the Gospel of John we find strong indications of a debate with Thomasine Christians who did uphold a central importance of the visionary experience. (Note, for example, the criticism of Thomas for believing only because he has seen.)

Enochian traditions in the Synoptic Gospels

But there is a somewhat different story and approach to visions in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  (more…)

2011/03/05

Vision Mysticism among first and second century Jews and Christians

April DeConick in Voices of the Mystics seeks to expand her readers’ knowledge of vision mysticism in early first-century Christianity, in particular arguing that the Gospel of John was written to oppose the practice as it appears to be endorsed in the Gospel of Thomas. In a recent post I discussed its apparent place in Paul’s experience. DeConick comments on the distinguishing feature of this experience among Jews:

Although the notion that the vision of a god makes one divine was Greek in origin, early Jewish mystics seemed to have welded this idea into their traditions about celestial journeys. Thus, in the Second Temple period, they taught that when one ascended into heaven and gazed on God or his enthroned bodily manifestation, the kabod or ‘Glory’, one was transformed. (p. 49)

Exceptionally righteous individuals like Moses, Ezekiel and Enoch had been transformed or glorified by their visions of God, and in the world to come all righteous were expected to be so transformed. (more…)

2011/03/03

Visions that laid a foundation for Christianity?

Engraved illustration of the "chariot vis...

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Following the publication of Alan F. Segal’s recent book, it is clear that Jewish mysticism must occupy a more central place than has previously been the case in any construction of the matrices of Paul’s experience and thought. (Morray-Jones, C. R. A. 1993, “Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12:1-12): The Jewish Mystical Background of Paul’s Apostolate. Part 1: The Jewish Sources”, The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 86, no. 2, p. 178.)

A number of scholars have suggested that mystical visionary experiences appear to have played a foundational role in the emergence of the Christian religion. (Recently I mentioned Larry Hurtado’s proposal that visionary experiences were at the heart of early Christians coming to exalt Jesus to a divine status.) If the visionary experiences initiated Paul’s missionary work, and we find indications that there were other early apostles basing their authority on similar visions, are we really very far from suggesting that Christianity itself originated in such experiences? (more…)

2011/03/02

Jewish Mysticism and Heavenly Ascent Legends and the Context of Christian Origins

Moses Comes Down from Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:25,2...

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Some of the most interesting work I read to help expand my understanding of early Christianity comes not from traditional biblical scholarship but from classical literature and Jewish studies. Here are a few new questions about the religious world from which Christianity emerged I would like to investigate. They came to mind as I read an old article (1971) in the Jewish Quarterly Review by Dr Joseph P. Schultz, Angelic Opposition to the Ascension of Moses and the Revelation of the Law. I really do need to read a lot more from specialist Jewish studies that do not directly attempt to address New Testament literature. I feel such publications are giving me an unfiltered view of the broader context of religious thought contemporaneous with our earliest Christian records.

So what on earth led me to read a 1971 article in the JQR? Blame April DeConick for that. I was following up some footnoted articles, and footnoted articles in those articles, from her Voices of the Mystics (in which she discusses the relationship of the Gospel of John to mystic forms of Christianity), and one of those led me to the 1971 article. It is all interesting stuff when read alongside some of the New Testament epistles and the Ascension of Isaiah, too. But this post confines itself to general questions arising.

Ascension themes in Mesopotamian literature (more…)

2011/02/02

Jesus crucified by demons (not on earth): The Ascension of Isaiah in brief

Filed under: Ascension of Isaiah — Neil Godfrey @ 10:57 pm
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Earl Doherty has argued that the New Testament epistles, unlike the Gospels, portray Jesus as heavenly being who was crucified by demons in heavenly places, and that it was this event that was revealed to early Christian apostles such as Paul by visionary or mystical spiritual experiences or insights into their readings of Jewish scriptures. They described the gospel that they preached as a “mystery” that had been revealed to them by the Spirit of God in what they believed were “the last days”. The crucifixion of Jesus was not an earthly event enacted by a human agencies. The New Testament books and other extra canonical writings give ample evidence for their being a wide variety of “Christianities” in the two or three centuries, but the canonical Gospel narratives and the book of Acts have so completely dominated our understanding of Christian origins that we have failed to see just how “riotously diverse” Christianity was before and even after the Gospels were written. Our canonical gospels — the orthodox narrative of Jesus — and the book of Acts were not widely known among Christian communities until the mid to later half of the second century. We know this from the testimonies of various ancient texts.

Doherty’s arguments are extensive and founded on a wide spectrum of evidence both within the New Testament writings and beyond. But there is one ancient document that appears to describe the very scenario that Doherty believes is found in writings such as the epistles of Paul and other New Testament letter-writers, in particular the Epistle to the Hebrews. This apocryphal text is The Ascension of Isaiah, which in its present form is a relatively late second century Christian document. I will discuss some details of the dating of this document in a future post, but can make it clear now that scholarly introductions to translations of this text generally acknowledge that the current complete text was made up by stitching together at least two originally separate texts, and that along the way various Christian copyists or editors have added their own Christian messages into the original.

The original layer may not have been Christian at all, but Jewish sectarian. It is not impossible that the author of the New Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews knew of the one of the original Jewish documents that became the basis of the later Ascension. Hebrews speaks of a prophet being sawn in half, and the Ascension of Isaiah is the only other text we know of that testifies to this happening to a prophet. Even apart from that possibility, the earlier (quite likely) pre-Christian text was composed in the later part of the first century.

But to cut to the chase. Here are the highlights of one of the pre-orthodox-Christian passages of what became known as The Ascension of Isaiah. (Many of us I know have read this in full from the online versions or in other books. This is for those who find ploughing through the lengthy compressed text and rambling details, especially with scholarly commentaries, hard going.)

(more…)

2010/10/01

Peter, in the Enoch tradition, commissioned to replace the High Priest?

Jesus Gives the Keys to Peter
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How do we account for Christianity growing out of Judaism yet being so unlike Judaism? Part of one possible answer lies in the recognition that there was no normative Judaism as we understand it prior to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. Noncanonical Second Temple writings such as the Book of Enoch point to the existence of Jewish sectarians who had radically different ideas about contemporary Temple practices and priesthood, cosmology, the law, wisdom, even the angelic world and Godhead prior to the rise of rabbinic Judaism following the destruction of the Temple. Margaret Barker and others have noticed quite a few distinctively Christian ideas resonating in some of these early books such as the Book of Enoch and that came to be sidelined by later Jewish rabbis. We know, of course, that the Book of Enoch is even quoted in New Testament writings.

This post continues earlier ones taken from a 1981 Journal of Biblical Literature article by George W. E. Nickelsburg, “Enoch, Levi, and Peter: Recipients of Revelation in Upper Galilee”. (Note, though, that I am not reproducing many of N’s details. This post is only a selection of the points he makes.)

It considers the details of Peter’s commissioning as the Rock of the Church in the context of narratives found in Enoch and their adaptations again later in the Testament of Levi (pre-Christian version). Peter emerges as a possible replacement to the High Priest of the Temple, which was, of course, doomed to destruction. The story of Peter and his role in the Gospel of Matthew, at least, grew out of that branch of Jewish religion that opposed the Temple practices and drew upon writings such as the Book of Enoch that did not make it into the rabbinic and later Christian orthodox canon.

I suspect the narrative was composed long after the temple’s destruction, and is an etiological tale to explain how the Church is now the new Temple and Kingdom of God with the Jews having been punished be destruction, slavery and scattering.

(more…)

2010/08/08

Galilee, where Angels fell and Jesus came; and where the Temple was condemned

In both 1 Enoch and the Gospel of Mark the location of God’s revelation is in Galilee, and especially upper Galilee in the Tel Dan region extending through Caesarea Philippi to Mount Hermon. It was outside Caesarea Philippi that Jesus was acknowledged as the Christ, and at a nearby mountain where he was transfigured.

In both books, this northern location that has long been associated with sacred sites of Jewish and pagan origin is set in opposition to the earthly and corrupt priesthood and Temple system based at Jerusalem.

It may not be insignificant that in the Hebrew scriptures, Dan (part of this region), is regularly associated with apostasy from the faith centred at the Jerusalem Temple and priesthood.

(I would not normally have thought of this region as strictly “Galilee” but I am using the term as used by George W. E. Nickelsburg in his 1981 JBL 100/4 article, “Enoch, Levi, and Peter: Recipients of Revelation in Upper Galilee”, on which this post is based.)

The Galilean setting of Enoch’s vision and the fallen angels

1 Enoch 13:7-9

7. And I went off and sat down at the waters of Dan, in the land of Dan, to the south of the west of Hermon: I read their petition till I fell asleep. 8. And behold a dream came to me, and visions fell down upon me, and I saw visions of chastisement, and a voice came bidding (me) I to tell it to the sons of heaven, and reprimand them. 9. And when I awaked, I came unto them, and they were all sitting gathered together, weeping in ’Abelsjâîl [Abel-Maîn], which is between Lebanon and Sênêsêr [Senir], with their faces covered.

So Enoch delivered his message of judgment against the fallen angels seven kilometers from Dan, at Abel beth Maacah: (more…)

2010/08/07

Rivers & Revelation: Enoch, Jesus and the Jordan River

Filed under: Enoch,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 3:38 pm
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Baptism of Christ
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Strelan’s article on the Fallen Watchers and the Disciples in Mark led me to a 1981 article by George W. E. Nickelsburg of particular interest: Enoch, Levi, and Peter: Recipients of Revelation in Upper Galilee (JBL 100/4 (1981) 575-600). I suspect Nickelsburg is touching on aspects of the Book of Enoch that ought to have major significance for the question of Christian origins, and in particular for the origin of the geographic symbolism we encounter in the Gospel of Mark. The idea that Galilee represents the place of the Kingdom of God while Jerusalem is in bondage to archons and apostasy is not original to the Gospel of Mark. Mark seems to have inherited this among a number of other ideas from those we find also in the Book of Enoch.

But here I share just one detail from this article, one that has to do with the baptism of Jesus as the means of his entry into the narrative of the gospel.

This is Nickelsburg’s sentence that caught my eye:

At the sacred place, [Enoch] sits down by the waters — traditionally a place of revelation — and reads himself into a trance in which he is conveyed into the presence of God.

Here Milik (Le Testament de Lévi, Revue Biblique, 62 (1955) 405) is referenced as citing the following:

Ezekiel 1:1

Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year . . . as I was among the captives by the River Chebar, that the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.

Daniel 10:4-7

I was by the side of the great river, that is, the Tigris. I lifted my eyes and looked, and behold, a certain man clothed in linen, whose waist was girded with gold of Uphaz! His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like torches of fire, his arms and feet like burnished bronze in colour, and the sound of his words like the voice of a multitude. And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, for the men who were with me did not see the vision; but a great terror fell upon them, so that they fled to hide themselves.

And the Enochian passage in question is

Enoch 13:7-8 (more…)

2010/08/05

The Fallen Watchers and the Disciples of Mark

Filed under: Fallen Watchers,Gospel of Mark,The Twelve — Neil Godfrey @ 3:08 pm
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Mount Hermon
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With this post I come closer to completing the series I began two months ago to share the contents of an article by Rick Strelan in the Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha 20 (1999), titled The Fallen Watchers and the Disciples in Mark. Strelan argues that the Gospel of Mark’s disciples were based on the legend of the Fallen Watchers in the Book of Enoch. Both disciples and watchers were called to have special spiritual responsibilities and callings in the presence of God or the Son of God, and that both fell through attachment to the things and ways of this world. Strelan finds a number of details in common to associate Mark’s disciples, especially Peter, with the Fallen Watchers of Enoch.

(The rest of the posts are in the Fallen Watchers category.)

My reason for posting this is simply that I found the article of interest. As I began to type notes from it to share here, a few questions about the strength of the arguments arose in my mind. I wondered if Strelan was attempting to oversell his case. Maybe that’s one reason I slowed up the pace of note-sharing. But I certainly don’t quickly discount the arguments. On a recent review of the article I noticed a few details that might be worth following up more seriously.

For example, Strelan interpreted the disciples “seeking” for Jesus (Mark 1:36) after he had gone AWOL the morning after healing Peter’s mother-in-law as “seeking with hostile intent”. I did not like this interpretation, but have since noted that the word Mark uses could well be read with ambiguity. It certainly can in other places be translated “persecute” (as well as eagerly seeking after a coveted prize.) This would justify at least the possibility that the disciples could have been seeking Jesus to “bring him back into their own house/ways/domesticity”. Now that surely sits well with what we find elsewhere throughout Mark — ambiguities. So maybe I was over hasty in dismissing Strelan’s interpretation after all.

So I am posting this now as something I find of interest, and presuming at least one or two others think of it the same way, and as an idea to be further explored and, if possible, tested.

In my last post I left off with this point:

At the foothills of Mount Hermon

The above confrontation between Jesus and Peter took place at Caesarea Philippi, which is near the foothills of Mount Hermon. An audience familiar with the book of Enoch would know that it was on Mount Hermon that the chief Watcher, Azazel, swore an oath with his 200 followers to descend to earth and marry the daughters of men.

1 Enoch 6:6

Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it.

Continuing . . . . (more…)

2010/06/07

Peter and the 12 Disciples; Satan and the Fallen Watchers

Filed under: Fallen Watchers,Gospel of Mark,The Twelve — Neil Godfrey @ 9:31 pm
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Continuing from Rick Strelan’s article notes in Fallen Watchers of Enoch and the 12 Disciples in Mark’s Gospel

I’m taking notes from Strelan’s article without much modification and only little of my own comment. Readers can decide for themselves the strength of his case, how suggestive it might be . . . .

The Gospel of Mark

Rick Strelan sees the author of the Gospel of Mark, like the authors of the pseudepigraphic and Qumran writings, being most conscious of his time being the time of a faithless generation (Mark 9:19). The Gospel begins with a call to repentance, and follows with Jesus battling against and overcoming the powers that ruled and oppressed that generation. These powers of evil were demons, and according to the Enochian legend of the Watchers, were the offspring of fallen angels and human women (Mark 3:22-27).

Like the Enochian Son of Man in Enoch, Jesus gathers angel-disciples around him and gives them authority to cast out demons and unclean spirits (3:15; 6:7). But they can only execute that authority if they are faithful (9:14-29).

The gospel is about faithless generation in a time of testing. The disciples (and Mark’s Christian audience) are tested by persecutions, cares of the world and the desire for riches (4:14-19). Jesus’ followers are commanded to Watch.

He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.” (Mark 8:12)

He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? (Mark 9:19)

And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch. (Mark 13:37)

The Watchers legend was used to condemn illicit priestly marriages. Strelan suggests the possibility that Mark had something like this in mind from the several times he does very strictly address marriage and sexual issues:

John the Baptist was executed over his condemnation of Herod’s marriage (6:14-29)

Jesus is very strict on divorce and remarriage (10:2-12)

Jesus calls his followers to stand out from “this adulterous and sinful generation” (8:38)

The sins Jesus singles out include illicit sex, adultery, and (possibly relevant for Strelan) “the evil eye” (Mark 7:21-22)

Reading the Gospel of Mark against the background of Enoch’s Watchers

Called to come after/follow behind

Peter, Andrew, James and John are the first and only disciples explicitly called to “come behind” (οπισω) Jesus. Hence they are the leaders of the band appointed to be with Jesus.

Strelan cites H. Seesemann in TDNT, V, pp. 289-92 to explain that this preposition, οπισω, is used in the Septuagint to express the relation between God and his chosen people, and implies full commitment and service to God.

Fishermen (more…)

2010/05/04

How did Jesus become a God? (or How did Christianity begin?)

Larry W. Hurtado (How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God?) raises some interesting points about how Christians came to worship Christ alongside God. He focuses on the role of personal revelation (hallucination?). My initial response to his book was to think that his explanation was as vacuous as saying “God did it”, and that it was not an explanation at all. Indeed, he finds it necessary to defend his explanation against other scholars who do not give it the time of day. But I have come to think there is probably more to what he is arguing than I first understood, although he would disagree with my slant.

(Hurtado’s problem is greater than mine, however, because he is seeking to explain how a historical human of recent memory was exalted to be worshiped alongside God, and I don’t think Hurtado’s explanation is sufficient to explain that. But it may well go some way towards helping explain the development of the exalted Christ concept alongside God that we find in Paul’s and other New Testament letters. Hurtado also expresses disapproval of interpreting revelatory experiences as psychopathology and downplays related personal and social crises factors.)

Hurtado asks

what might have moved Jews in touch with their religious tradition to feel free to offer to Jesus the kind of unparalleled cultic devotion that characterized early Christian religious practice? (p.198)

How exalted was Jesus Christ in early Christian thought?

Pretty high up.

God made life, the universe and everything else through Jesus, and Jesus keeps everyone alive and everything in existence now:

yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8:6)

has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; (Hebrews 1:2)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Colossians 1:15-17)

And God has ordained that everything and everyone should worship him:

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

Is there anything unusual here?

Hurtado (rightly) struggles to understand how a mere mortal should be exalted to this God-status level and worshiped alongside God. (more…)

2008/02/12

“Heaven above and Hell below” : a cosmos in the brain and genesis of religion?

Heaven above, Hell below, and the level of anxious humanity in between appear in one form or another across the globe. Why should this be so? In the materiality of daily life there is, after all, no evidence whatsoever of hidden spiritual realms above and below. (David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, p.144)

David Lewis-Williams, in his pioneering The Mind in the Cave, argues that the universally held beliefs of a three tiered cosmos, with spirit worlds above and below the here and now of daily life, are best explained by the wiring of the human brain, in altered states of consciousness, to generate the experience such a cosmos.

Laboratory experiments and reports from “an extremely broad range of shamanistic (and other) societies” point to this near universal concept originating in certain experiences of an altered state of consciousness.

The ubiquity of institutionalized altered states of consciousness is borne out by a survey of 488 societies included in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas. Erika Bourguignon, who carried out this survey, found that an overwhelming 437, or 90 per cent, of these societies were reported to have ‘culturally pat­terned forms of altered states of consciousness’. She concluded that ‘the capacity [necessity] to experience altered states of consciousness is a psychobiological capacity [necessity] of the species, and thus universal, its utilization, institutionalization, and patterning are, indeed, features of cultures, and thus variable.’ (p.131)

Lewis-Williams adds that the Ethnographic Atlas defined altered states of consciousness too narrowly so that sub-Saharan African societies were excluded from being counted among those who recognized the importance of altered states. The difference is that they do not create the same overt institutionalization around them as other cultures.

It seems, then, that Bourguignon’s ‘capacity’ should be changed to ‘necessity’, if the full range of altered states is recognized and the ways in which they may be institutionalized are seen as highly variable. (p.131)

Cultural bias against these altered states has led to an undervaluing in scientific studies of their significance as a valid experience of being human. These experiences of a state of consciousness frowned upon by modern western institutions have nonetheless formed a fully valid and important role in the institutions, beliefs and ways of living in other societies.

Altered states of consciousness — the genesis of religion?

Lewis-Williams: “I am not alone in emphasizing the importance of making sense of altered states of consciousness in the genesis of religion.”

Peter Furst: “It is at least possible, though certainly not provable, that the practice of shamanism . . . may have involved from the first — that is, the very beginnings of religion itself — the psychedelic potential of the natural environment.”

James McClenon: “Shamanism, the result of cultural adaptation to biologically based [altered states of consciousness], is the origin of all later religious forms.”

Weston La Barre: “All the dissociative ‘altered states of consciousness’ — hallucination, trance, possession, vision, sensory deprivation, and especially the REM-state dream — apart from their cultural contexts and symbolic content, are essentially the same psychic states found everywhere among mankind; . . . shamanism or direct contact with the supernatural in these states . . . is the de facto source of all revelatio, and ultimately of all religions.”

(All cited from The Mind in the Cave, p.135)

The spectrum of consciousness

The normal trajectory from Alert to Autistic states of consciousness, although like the light spectrum there is no clear dividing moment between any of the stages:

  1. Waking, problem-oriented thought
  2. Daydreaming
  3. Hypnagogic states
  4. Dreaming
  5. Unconsciousness

But there’s another far more intensified spectrum that leads to hallucinations. This one can be induced by sensory deprivation that leads to the compensatory release of internal imagery, certain psychopathological states and drugs.

  • meditation techniques shutting out of the environment
  • audio-diving with prolonged drumming
  • sustained rhythmic dancing
  • fatigue
  • pain
  • fasting
  • psychotropic substances
  • schizophrenia
  • temporal lobe epilepsy

The intensified trajectory that results:

1. Waking, problem-oriented thought
2. Daydreaming
3. Entoptic phenomena (see entoptic images here and also a pdf view of normal and pathological images)
4. Construal (brain attempts to decode these entoptic images by fitting them into its store of recognized images (e.g. a circle becomes an orange to one who is hungry, a breast to one sexually aroused, cup of water to one thirsty, or a bomb to one who is fearful)

between #4 and #5 there may be the experience of a swirling vortex or rotating tunnel drawing the person down into it; its walls are marked by a lattice of squares like tv screens displaying spontaneous hallucinatory images; sometimes a bright light in the centre creates this tunnel effect, with images moving into and/or away from the centre

5. Hallucinations (in any of the 5 senses) — i.e. “altered states of consciousness”

The imagery of the tunnel (between #4 and #5) is also a western construct. It can be similarly called a funnel, an alley, a cone, a corridor, a pit. In other cultures it is often seen as a hole in the ground; or as a falling through a tube; gliding down through the sea; following roots of a tree down into the ground . . .

The imagery the hallucinations #5 are largely derived from memory, and hence vary across cultures. An Inuit will see talking seals or bears; Hildegard of Bingen saw angels and strange creatures from scriptures, medieval wall paintings and illuminations. They are vivid. Not described as being “like” something, but as the real things themselves. Sometimes entoptic phenomena remain as part of the image, as geometric patterns behind or framing the images, or blending with them (e.g. a man with zig-zag legs). The hallucinator blends with the geometric and iconic imagery, sensing him or herself changing into an animal and other transformations.

The spectrum of consciousness is ‘wired’, but its content is mostly cultural. (p.126)

Shamanism

Chatacteristics of hunter-gatherer shamanism:

  • it deploys a range of institutionalized altered states of consciousness
  • the visual, aural and somatic experiences of those altered states lead to perception of a tiered alternative reality (spirit realms above and below)
  • the shamans are believed to have the powers to access this alternative reality
  • the human nervous system in certain altered states creates the illusion of dissociation from one’s body (sometimes understood as posses­sion by spirits)

These altered states are “used” for the purposes of:

  • contacting spirits
  • healing the sick
  • controlling the movements and lives of animals
  • changing the weather

Spirit helpers assist the shamans enter their altered states and perform the above duties. These helpers include:

  • various supernatural powers
  • animal-helpers and other spirits

Altered states of consciousness are not restricted to one form of trance. Some “contact the spirits” in visions and out-of-body travel in a number of states, ranging from “light trance” in which the shamans are aware of their surroundings (healing the sick, divination, etc); in ordinary dreams; and “deep trance” where they appear to lie dead while their souls travel elsewhere. Some societies place great importance on the entoptic imagery; others on the full hallucinations where contact is made with the figures they know from myths.

I’m not saying Jesus was a shaman, but that is how he appears in the gospels. Some scholars have suggested that. With those in mind it is interesting to note that Jesus is said to have spoken to spirits, healed the sick, kept wild animals at bay while in the wilderness and sent 2000 pigs hurtling into a lake, and stilled a storm and darkened the earth at his death. He began his career with the power of the spirit entering into or upon him in the form of a dove.

Brain wiring creates the upper-lower spirit world cosmos

One form of altered consciousness state is the wired neuropsychological experience of weightlessness, dissociation and the sense of one’s body being stretched out with superlong limbs. This experience is readily felt or understood to involve a sense of flight or floating — into a spirit world above.

Another form of altered consciousness state that is the wired-into-the-human-nervous-system is the experience of travel through a vortex, often accompanied by a difficulty in breathing, hearing sounds, distorted vision, weightlessness and a sense of being in another world. This experience is readily felt or understood to involve a sense of travel underground or underwater — past spirits talking or singing and into a spirit world below. Some cultures speak of entering caves through this experience, others of following the roots of a tree, or of going down animal burrows (Alice in Wonderland?).

However they are interpreted, the fundamental sensations of being underground or underwater remain universal: they are the most obvious, most logical explanations for the effects created by the behaviour of the nervous system in altered states. An ‘introcosm’ is projected onto the material world to create a cosmology. (p.146)

In sum:

Taken together the neurologically generated experiences of travelling underground and flying are, I argue, the origin of notions of a tiered cosmos.

This is, I believe, the best explanation for so universally held beliefs that have no relation to the material experience of daily life.

Such beliefs were not inferred from observations of the natural environment.

Nor did they easily and swiftly diffuse from a single geographically located origin because they made excellent sense of the world in which people lived.

Rather, they are part of the in-built experiences of the full spectrum of human consciousness.

(p.147 — formatting mine)

Beyond Paleolithic cave art

David Lewis-Williams is proposing an explanation for Paleolithic cave art. There is, of course, much more to the explanation but what is summarized here is a fundamental part of his hypothesis.

He also discusses the positioning of various artistic depictions within the caves, their relationship to natural protuberances and cavities on the cave walls (the spirits of these lay just behind those cave walls?), their inclusion of geometrical and boatlike (entoptic?) shapes, and what appear to be swarms of bees or enormous numbers of spears in some human forms (paleolithic interpretations of the experience of the stinging of the skin as one “descended through the earth”?), the bleeding noses, the phallic signs of sexual arousal (sometimes accompanying hallucinogenic states), the elongated limbs (an hallucinatory experience), the animals and humans that seem to be a mixture of different creatures in the one body (hallucinations of turning into other animals?), the overlapping of some images, and more. As I read The Mind in the Cave I felt those decorated caves taking on a Paleolithic equivalence to a cathedral in Rome. The meaning of the art in both is drenched in religious experience. The neuropsychological roots of the earlier one are more obvious and less controversially explained.

Not everyone in societies that value these alternate states of consciousness experiences them. But everyone does experience enough (dreams, entoptic images) to validate the experiences of those who do.

Moving on from Paleolithic times, we encounter the Delphic oracle and other Sybils. We know the image of the old woman at the cave mouth who communed with the god within.

So what emerges with such an explanation is a template for the earliest myths from historical times.

The legends of Orpheus, Odysseus and Aeneas and earlier Mesopotamian heroes and divinities descending into the underground abode of spirits and returning are familiar — and would appear to go back to the earliest experiences of homo sapiens’ consciousness. (Evidence suggests that Neanderthals and other pre homo sapiens hominids lacked consciousness of the extended past and future in order to experience the same.)

The concept of a human able to communicate with the spirits, to travel to and from the upper and lower places of spirits, of being possessed or infused with the power of the spirits, may well be an inevitable universal part of the way the brain of homo sapiens is wired.

And what is equally interesting to me is that such a template foreshadows the pattern of a human departing this world, appearing to die, and suffering piercings of the skin as they descended down to the underworld, before finally “returning victorious” to their bodies.

Many modern scholars have attempted to distance themselves from the “parallelism” of Sir James George Frazer (of The Golden Bough fame) by lurching with a vengeance into the embrace of Jonathan Z. Smith (Drudgery Divine, Map is not Territory, To Take Place, Imagining Religion, etc.). But as Robert M. Price has noted, and without denying the real weaknesses in Frazer’s work, Smith’s “demolition” of the apparently obvious is based on a denial of the broader conceptual notion of similar ideas. By attributing greater weight to the subsidiary culturally bound details than to the larger whole one can in effect deny the possibility of any comparison at all.

But how can one fail at least to wonder at the possibility of a template of a man who dies and returns, spirit empowered, to an even more respected and higher role from which to guide a community to health and safety, perhaps even eventually salvation from death?

Perhaps all religions with motifs of suffering, death and redemption or resurrection of some form are all essentially congenital in origin and appeal.

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2007/07/29

How Acts subverts Galatians

There are two different stories, their differences well known, of the circumstances surrounding Paul’s conversion and the later Jerusalem Conference in the New Testament.

The Two Conversions

In the Book of Acts (9:1-30) we read that

  1. Paul was persecuting the church until —
  2. Paul was struck down by a divine call on his way to Damascus,
  3. that he was baptized in Damascus by a lowly disciple (Ananias),
  4. and after some time (“many days”) he fled to Jerusalem because of Jewish persecution,
  5. His contacts in Jerusalem were limited but only on first arriving
  6. until Barnabas acted as his Janus-like gateway by taking him to the apostles
  7. who, we learn elsewhere in Acts, were led by Peter and James
  8. Brethren took him away to Caesarea and then to Tarsus to protect him from the Hellenists

In the Epistle to the Galatians (1:13-24) we read a different story.

  1. Paul used to persecute the church until —
  2. Paul says Christ revealed himself by revelation “in him”,
  3. that he then went to Arabia.
  4. Only after he had been in Arabia did he return to Damascus.
  5. After three years in Damascus he went to Jerusalem because he wanted to see Peter
  6. His contacts in Jerusalem remained limited — the Judean churches did not see Paul
  7. He met Peter (staying with him 15 days) and James only.
  8. Paul then returned to the regions of Syria and Cilicia.

One can conclude that the author of Acts did not know of the Galatians letter. But I think it more likely that the author of Acts composed a narrative polemic against the letter. Each of the differences can be accounted for as a polemical response to some point in the Galatians account. . . . (more…)

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