Monthly Archives: October 2005

Salvation according to the “modern way” in the middle ages (Reformations 10)

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As many scholars have noticed, there is a sense in which the Lutheran (German) reformation (in contrast to the Swiss reformation, for instance) emerged out of a personal struggle with the question of salvation, of how a righteous God was to have relations with sinful Luther (as Luther might put it). Important as background to Luther’s personal struggle is the traditional explanation of salvation offered by the so-called via moderna, the “modern way” (in the late middle ages), in which Luther had been trained as a scholastic (schoolman) in the university, only to reject it in his own re-discovery of Augustine.

This tradition within scholasticism emphasized the notion of a covenant between God and humans, as Alister McGrath explains (for the following, see Reformation Thought, pp. 53-61; compare Ozment, Age of Reform, 22-42, 231-39). This covenant, initiated by God alone, set up an arrangement wherein God would accept and provide salvation for humans if a person strove to “do his / her best”. In this view, God was not unfair in expecting more than what humans could do.

Scholastics who adopted the “modern way” were sometimes accused of being Pelagian. Pelagius(not to be confused with pope Pelagius) was a Christian who, in the early 400s CE, was concerned with what he perceived to be problems of moral laxity among Christians. Ultimately Pelagius had a run-in with Augustine of Hippo precisely over the question of how humans were to relate with a righteous God (i.e. salvation). On the one hand, Pelagius stressed that God had given people an ability to do what is right (otherwise his requirements would be unfair, since God created people, according to most Christians). On the other, Augustine stressed that humans could do nothing to overcome sin, as they were born inherently sinful (original sin at birth), and salvation could only be given by God as a gift, as grace (see Augustine’s On Nature and Grace, against Pelagius and On the Proceedings of Pelagius). So the university-types of the scholastic “modern way” were accused by some of being Pelagian, of being too optimistic about the abilities of humans to overcome sin and do the good works or moral behaviours that were necessary in God’s view (in this perspective).

Some among the “modern way” (in the late middle ages) responded that they were not Pelagian by using the economic analogy of the king who recalls gold coins for emergency purposes (e.g. a war). When a king recalls all gold coins, he offers lead replacement coins with the promise that, once the crisis is over, the king will ascribe the value of gold to the lead and do the exchange. Worthless lead was counted as if gold. In the same way, so these schoolmen would explain, God has made an arrangement (covenant) wherein he has decided to provide salvation by accepting the best works that humans can do (however inadequate and lead-like they may be) as if they were deserving of salvation (gold), so long as they strove to do what was right (keeping their side of the covenant).

In his own personal experience, Luther strove to do his best but continued to feel that it was never enough and he was anxious about his own personal salvation: “I was a good monk, and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. . . And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough’. . . ” (as cited by McGrath, p. 72). Luther ultimately rejected the “modern way” and much of scholasticism as a whole for a (new to him) Augustinian way in which salvation was solely an action of God with no human good works involved in the process of salvation itself.

A ghost story (from Phlegon): Bouplagos stood up from among the dead (Bou!)

Earlier I have discussed paradoxography and the second century author Phlegon, who wrote a Book of Marvels (see other entries in the ethnography sub-category ). What better day to share one of his ghost stories — with a message from beyond the grave — than today (in between giving out candy to little ghouls):

“There was a certain Bouplagos, a cavalry commander from Syria who had been held in high esteem by King Antiochos and had fallen after fighting nobly. At midday while the Romans were gathering all the enemy’s arms, Bouplagos stood up from among the dead, though he had twelve wounds, and went to the Roman camp where he proclaimed in a soft voice the following verses:

‘Stop despoiling an army gone to the land of Hades,
For already Zeus Kronides is angry beholding your ill deeds,
Wrothful at the slaughter of an army and at your doings, and
Will send a bold-hearted tribe against your land
That will put an end to your rule, and you will pay for what you have wrought’

Shaken by this utterance the [Roman] generals quickly convened the multitude and deliberated about the ghost. They decided to cremate and bury Bouplagos (who had expired immediately after his utterance), purify the camp, perform a sacrifice to Zeus Apotropaios and send a delegation to [the oracle at] Delphi to ask the god what they should do.”

Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, it is said, replied as follows:

“Restrain yourself now, Roman, and let justice abide with you,
Lest Pallas [Athena] stir up a much greater Ares [god of war] against you,
And make desolate your market-places, and you, fool, for all your effort,
Lose much wealth before reaching your land”
(Book of Marvels 3.4-6; trans. by Hansen, pp.32-33, as cited in full here).

For a medieval story appropriate to the season (about a demon), go here.

The sacraments and divisions in the reformations (Reformations 9)

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An understanding of the sacraments is essential in making sense of the reformations of the sixteenth century. The seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, marriage, extreme unction, eucharist, confession, orders) were central to the medieval concept of the church (and would continue to be central within Roman Catholicism in the wake of the Council of Trent). The official church under the leadership of the pope, the representative of Christ on earth, was the mediator between God and the people. In the view of the papacy, it was through the administration of the seven sacraments in particular that God’s grace was communicated through the church to the people.

Reformers in the early sixteenth century, including Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and those considered “radical” (Anabaptists) by others, unanimously rejected the traditional understanding of sacraments. For both the German and Swiss reformations (including the “radicals”), only baptism and the eucharist remained (and even these were not usually understood as “sacraments” in the traditional sense). Yet despite this agreement in rejecting a central aspect of medieval Christianity, the precise understanding of baptism and the eucharist remained a point of contention and division among reformation movements.

Thus, for instance, the leaders of the magisterial reformations (Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland) maintained certain medieval concepts of baptism, namely baptism of infants. Yet the Anabaptists, as their name shows (literally “re-baptizers”) felt that only the adult who could choose to follow Christ was to receive baptism. Anabaptists were executed (by Lutherans, Zwinglians, and Catholics alike) for their views, sometimes with the ironic death by drowning as in the case of Felix Mantz at Zurich (died 1526, among the first Anabaptists executed).

Divisions were also very apparent in the case of the eucharist (or communion or Lord’s supper). Despite their agreement on many other factors and despite the shared threat from Catholic (military) powers who opposed the reformation movements, Luther and Zwingli just could not agree to disagree on the precise understanding of the eucharist. On the one hand, Luther held to a view (closer to the medieval) that Christ was really present in the bread and wine based on the phrase “this is my body” (Matthew 26:26) (he nonetheless rejected the medieval explanation of this presence–the theory of transubstantiation). On the other, Zwingli understood Christ’s statement to mean that “this signifies my body” (understanding “is” in a metaphorical sense), and that Christ was not really present in the bread itself (but rather in the hearts of participants). When a meeting aimed at unifying the German and Swiss reformation movements took place in 1529 (the Colloquy of Marburg), this issue of “is” vs. “signifies” was the only factor that continued to separate these two major branches of the reformations (the German or Lutheran and the Swiss or Reformed).

For more on this topic see, for instance, Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), especially the chapter on the sacraments.

Thecla, Tertullian, and controversies over women’s leadership (NT Apocrypha 18)

Among the controversies that led to conflicts between early Christians (both authors and groups) was the role of women within the congregations. Leadership was generally undefined and varied from one Christian group to the next in the first century. As certain Christian authors and leaders (such as Ignatius and the author of the Pastoral epistles) began to seek and impose a clear definition of leadership structures (especially beginning at the turn of the second century) there was a tendency to expressly exclude women from the more important positions in the newly emerging hierarchy in some congregations.

The Acts of Paul (and Thecla) (online here) is among the sources that attest to circles of Christians (in second century Asia Minor) who continued to see an important role for women in teaching and leading. The author presents a Thecla who is extremely attentive to Paul’s preaching (which centres on celibacy in this case) and who, in the end, baptizes herself in the midst of potential martyrdom in a pool of vicious seals (sharks?): “And when she had finished her prayer she turned around and saw a large pit full of water and said, ‘Now it is time to wash myself.’ And she threw herself in saying ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on my last day'” (34). Thecla ultimately goes on to have her own mission of “teach[ing] the word of God” with the acknowledgement of Paul (41) and “enlightened many” (43), according to this narrative. (Translations from J. K. Elliott, ed. and trans., The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993].)

The positive stance of this author to women’s leadership within the Christian congregations is mirrored, in some ways, in contemporary movements in Asia Minor specifically. The so called Phrygian movement (aka Montanism) was characterized by a heavy emphasis on prophetic authority, and its main charismatic leaders were two women prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla (more on my site here in connection with the Lycos valley).

But there were opponents to this active role for women, including the author Tertullian who lived in North Africa and who, despite adopting some aspects of the Phrygian movement himself at a later point (esp. the prominence of the Spirit), openly opposed those who (most likely) used the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) to support women’s activity in baptizing converts in North Africa. Tertullian writes the followingin his treatise “On Baptism” (chapter 17; c. 200 CE):

“To round off our slight treatment of this subject it remains for me to advise you of the rules to be observed in giving and receiving baptism. The supreme right of giving it belongs to the high priest, which is the bishop: after him, to the presbyters and deacons, yet not without commission from the bishop, on account of the Church’s dignity. . . Except for that, even laymen have the right. . . But the impudence of that woman who assumed the right to teach is evidently not going to arrogate to her the right to baptize as well – unless perhaps some new serpent appears, like that original one, so that as that woman abolished baptism, some other should of her own authority confer it. But if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position. How could we believe that Paul should give a female power to teach and to baptize, when he did not allow a woman even to learn by her own right? Let them keep silence, he says, and ask their husbands at home.'” (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian’s Homily on Baptism [London: SPCK, 1964]. Online source: The Tertullian Project).


Tertullian clearly opposes the local people in North Africa who appealed to writings associated with Paul and likely Thecla (the textual evidence for the reference to Thecla is shaky) which had women baptizing and teaching. Moreover, the modern historian should not take Tertullian’s perspective (or the perspective of those who spoke against the elder in Asia) as though it was an objective description of the situation. Also problematic would be to argue from this passage (as does Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pp. 29-32) that Tertullian provides objective evidence that the author of the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) pleaded guilty to, or was found guilty of, “forgery” in some sort of official hearing (see the earlier posts on the “forgery” issue here and here). (Nor is this further evidence that writing in the name of a respected figure of the past was universally rejected, as implied by Ehrman). With both Tertullian and the opponents of the “elder” in Asia, we are witnessing one side of a many-sided struggle over how to define Christian practice within the congregations, and the figure of Paul (understood or portrayed differently) was one of the weapons in the struggle. Polemical rhetoric and accusations on any side of the struggle should not be mistaken for historical description.

For further online discussion of Thecla see, for instance, Nancy A. Carter’s site, The Acts of Thecla: A Pauline Tradition Linked to Women.

For more on Tertullian, go to the substantial Tertullian Project site.

Packard Humanities Institute Greek inscriptions online (Epigraphy 6)

As noted on Stoa, there are clear signs that the PHI Greek inscriptions (that were previously only available to researchers on CD-ROM) are going to be fully available online soon. They are still arranged by region. This will be great (if you like inscriptions, that is, which you should).

UPDATE (July 27, 2008):  The PHI website is fully functional and working well these days, but at a new address:

Thank goodness for the availability of all of these Greek inscriptions online.  It has made my life (in writing a book right now) much easier.  Thanks to Fritz Graf for noticing that I had an old dead link here.

Into the mystic: Meister Eckhart and medieval mysticism (Reformations 8)

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I say that if a man will turn away from himself and from all created things, by so much will you be made one and blessed in the spark of the soul, which has never touched either time or place. This spark rejects all created things, and wants nothing but its naked God, as he is in himself. It is not content with the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit. . . [This spark] wants to know the source of this [divine] essence, it wants to go into the simple ground, into the quiet desert, into which distinction never gazed, not the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. In the innermost part, where no one dwells, there is contentment for that light. . . ” Meister Eckhart (Sermon 48 [in German]; trans. by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, as cited below, p.198).

Getting into the mind of the medieval mystic is very difficult. Even contemporaries of figures such as Meister (Master) Eckhart (c. 1260-1327; some works online here and here) frequently were mind-boggled by what they read in the mystic’s accounts or heard in the mystic’s sermons about what union with God or the divine might entail. In some cases, the misunderstandings could result in accusations of heresy (and Eckhart was condemned by a papal bull or proclamation in 1329). So it is no wonder that we moderns find medieval mysticism, which was centred precisely on union with the divine in an immediate manner, hard to understand. Though not necessarily all mystics came into conflict with the official church, by its very nature mysticism claimed direct experience of God. This could be considered at odds with the official medieval church’s sense that there was a need for a mediator between God and humans, and that that mediator was the church under the leadership of the pope, the representative of Christ on earth.

There were varieties of mysticism, however, with some focussing on identification with the suffering Christ (e.g. Francis of Assisi) as the means to union with God, and others that took a different approach, such as the so-called Rhineland mystics. Meister (Master) Eckhart’s brand of medieval mysticism became very influential among other mystics in the lands of the Rhine valley (i.e. future Germany–there was no German nation at this time). Eckhart’s notion of union with God owed very much to neo-Platonism (Plato’s ideas as they had been expanded, developed, and later Christianized following the Middle Platonic period, which I discussed here in connection with “gnosticism”). For a discussion of Eckhart and philosophy, go here. Neo-Platonists (new-Platonists) emphasized the existence of a supreme and perfect Being (God) from whom all other things, including all heavenly beings and earthly creations, had emanated (On emanation, think of a stone being dropped in water, with the circular waves emanating out from the centre and distance from the centre being accompanied by a lessening of contact with the divine origin). Ultimately, the goal and end was return to the divine origin from which the emanations came.

Thus, for Eckhart, the Trinitarian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were emanations from the perfect “Godhead” or divine nature (the God behind God, so to speak), and all of creation (including us) are further emanations. More importantly for questions of how a human being might come to union with God, despite the fact that humans are mere creatures, each human being has a spark or light within the soul, referred to in the quotation above, which intersects with the Godhead itself. Shedding off all attachment to creatureliness was the means by which one could come into contact with, or “break through” to, the eternal part of the soul that was one with the Godhead.

See Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, trans. Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (New York: Paulist Press, 1981).

Menocchio on judgement and hell (Reformations 7)

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I have previously posted in this series on the intriguing figure of Menocchio, a peasant miller of the late sixteenth century. One of Carlo Ginzburg’s main arguments in his book (The Cheese and the Worms) is that Menocchio, although extraordinary in being literate, is nonetheless representative of an underlying peasant oral culture. This oral culture, suggests Ginzburg, remained out of the historian’s sight for centuries until this odd case of a literate peasant was combined with the atmosphere of expression and inquisition in the wake of the reformations. Finally, so the argument goes, we are able to witness some ongoing characteristics of peasant attitudes to various aspects of religious life that had remained hidden for centuries. Although the argument is difficult to refute (how do you refute an argument which says that a peasant oral culture remained hidden–it’s an argument from silence, of course), there is certainly some truth in this way of putting things.

There is a sense in which Menoccho’s attitudes regarding judgement and hell, for instance, may reflect some strands of peasant opinion and may, therefore, qualify the notion that all peasants believed in the official church line on hell (which seemed to suggest that the majority of the population would end up there). Menocchio addresses the inquisitors: “No sir, I do not believe that we can be resurrected with the body on Judgment Day. It seems impossible to me, because if we should be resurrected, bodies would fill up heaven and earth. . .” (p. 76). This is Menocchio the late-medieval Corinthian, so to speak (see 1 Corinthians 15), but there is little sign of a philosophical basis for Menocchio’s denial of the bodily resurrection.

Surely we do have clear evidence of anti-clericalism (dislike of the higher-ups in the church hierarchies) among the populous in various sources beyond Menocchio. Mennochio (perhaps along with other peasants) criticizes the notion of hell in connection with his negative attitude towards church leaders: “Preaching that men should live in peace pleases me but in preaching about hell, Paul says one thing, Peter another, so that I think it is a business, an invention of men who know more than others” (p. 76). Hell is neither here nor there, so to speak, for this peasant, and perhaps for others.

Peter vs. Simon Magus (alias Paul) in the Pseudo-Clementines (NT Apocrypha 17)

Tensions between the historical Paul and Peter (Cephas in Aramaic) are attested early on, as Paul’s retelling of an incident at Antioch suggests. There, so Paul says in his letter to followers of Christ in Galatia, Paul “opposed [Cephas] to his face” because Cephas had withdrawn from eating with uncircumcized Gentiles after “certain people” came from James, the leader of the church at Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:11-14 [NRSV]). Peter’s concern evidently centred on properly following the Jewish food laws. F.C. Baur and the Tübingen school made this opposition between Paul and Peter the key to interpreting all of early Christianity, as I have mentioned in a previous post in this series (no. 2). Although this reduction of early Christianity to these two camps (Pauline Gentile Christianity vs. Petrine Jewish Christianity) is oversimplified, there are times when the figures of Peter and Paul, as understood by later interpreters, continued to be at odds with one another.

The novelistic stories about Clement of Rome and his conversion under Peter’s direction, which are known as the Pseudo-Clementines, illustrate continuing battles that existed between some who claimed Peter as their founder (Jewish Christians, who can be associated with “Ebionites”) and others who considered Paul as most central (Gentile Christians who no longer followed the Jewish law). Previously I have discussed the notion of false passages ” in scripture that comes up in this writing. (It is important to mention that the form in which we now have this Christian novel comes from two alternate retellings of the fourth century known as the Recognitions and the Homilies, which likely reflect an earlier edition of the mid-200s, the so-called “basic document”; see the introductory material in Strecker’s translation in Schneelmelcher). The full text of both the Recognitions and the Homilies is available online here.

The author of this novel presents a Peter who emphasizes the need to follow the Jewish law and opposes another figure, his “enemy”, who does not (often called Simon the Samaritan or Magician [Magus] but sometimes clearly a cipher for Paul) . In the supposed letter from Peter to James that prefaces the novel, Peter complains that some “from among the Gentiles have rejected my lawful preaching and have preferred a lawless and absurd doctrine of the man who is my enemy. And indeed some have attempted, while I am still alive, to distort my words by interpretations of many sorts, as if I taught the dissolution of the law and, although I was of this opinion, did not express it openly. But that may God forbid! For to do such a thing means to act contrary to the law of God which was made known by Moses and was confirmed by our Lord in its everlasting continuance. For he said: ‘The heaven and earth will pass away, but one jot or one tittle shall not pass away from the law'”(Epistula Petri 2:2-5; trans. by Strecker in Schneemelcher; cf. Matthew 24:35).

Clearly, the Pseudo-Clementine literature attests to a form of Jewish Christianity (sometimes labelled “Ebionite”) which continued to practice the Jewish law and to oppose those it considered to be neglecting the law, namely the heirs of Paul and a Gentile brand of Christianity (including Marcion). There also seems to be a reference here to some portrayals of Peter which tried to lessen any conflict with Paul by presenting Peter as though he did not require obedience to the law (see, for example, the Acts of the Apostles’ portrayal of a Paul and Peter, whose speeches on inclusion of Gentiles sound very much alike). Later in the Pseudo-Clementine stories of Clement’s journey to Judea and conversion there is a disputation which takes place between Peter and one Simon Magus (the Samaritan), Peter’s “enemy”, which again sometimes clearly serves as a cipher for a “lawless” Paul who had a supposed vision of Jesus (esp. H II 16-17; H XVII 13-19). Paul’s relaxing (for Gentiles) of certain aspects of the Jewish law (including circumcision and food laws) in order to include Gentiles in the Jesus movement was the focus of controversy in Paul’s lifetime (read Galatians) and, long after, continued to arouse the response or anger of some Jewish Christians who felt themselves in continuity with Jewish figures such as Peter.

UPDATE (Oct 21): A relevant article on the fourth-century Recognitions version of the Pseudo-Clementines has appeared. Nicole Kelley argues, among other things, that the author of the Recognitions attempts to establish the authority and ultimate knowledge of Peter (via the True Prophet, Jesus) over against other claims to knowledge (especially astrology’s claims of true knowledge with respect to “fate”, but also claims of knowledge among competing forms of Christianity). And she places this assertion of Peter’s access to true knowledge within the context of religious rivalries in fourth century Syria (among Jewish Christians and followers of Marcion, Bardaisan, and others). The romance (story of Clement’s family) in particular functions in this manner: The old astrologer’s claim that “fate” determined the dissolution of Clement’s family is countered successfully by Peter’ knowledge that God’s providence, not fate, was at work. And the reunion of Clement’s family proves Peter (and the source of his knowledge, the True Prophet) right. See Nicole Kelley, “Problems of Knowledge and Authority in the Pseudo-Clementine Romance of Recognitions,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 13 (2005) 315-348 (online institutional subscription required).

Myths-ploitation film?: Satan, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Hollywood

As Jim Davila points out, there are now plans to make a hollywood film out of John Milton’s 17th century poetic Paradise Lost (book online here). Milton (1608-1674) brings together many of the biblical and post-biblical (including medieval) stories that attached to the figure of Satan or the Devil (on which see my brief comments on a conversation between Hades and Satan here). Regardless of whether this ends up being another myths-ploitation film which does very little justice to its sources (e.g. Troy), at least this will give me more to talk about in connection with modern depictions of personified evil in my “History of Satan” course (though not in time for this Winter term–oh well. As if there wasn’t enough Satan in films already). The Telegraph has a brief article on the plans for the movie here.

There are a few websites devoted to Milton, with the more scholarly one here. Also, for an interesting conference paper which looks at the themes of Paradise Lost in relation to Star Trek, go here (bet you never expected that one).

Sophia’s mistake: The Sophia of Jesus Christ and Eugnostos (NT Apocrypha 16)

The mythologies preserved in the Nag Hammadi documents can be both fascinating and bewildering to the modern reader. Many, such as The Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus Christ (usually dated to the second century CE) quite clearly express their views concerning the origins of the divine realm. Often they build on the assumptions and concepts of contemporary Platonic philosophers who elaborated on the creation of the universe in Plato’s Timaeus (online article on “Middle Platonism“; online translation of Timaeus). One of The Sophia‘s main sources, Eugnostos the Blessed, is saturated in such Platonisms (and Sophia takes them on) in presenting its insights into the five main beings which emerged from the one perfect and indescribable Good, called “God of truth” or “Forefather” by the author. (Eugnostos and The Sophia available online here — check them out for yourself).

Both Eugnostos and The Sophia then go on to innumerate the other main emanations or beings that came to constitute the perfect, spiritual realm along with the Forefather. These beings include the “Self-Father” (the image of the Forefather as if viewed in a mirror), the “Immortal Androgynous Man” (who emerges in the beam of light as the Forefather views his/her image), the “Son of Man” (who is the first-begotten–the others were not begotten), and the “Saviour” (who is “revealed” as a “great androgynous light” by the Son of Man). Each of these figures are androgynous and have their corresponding “female” portion, usually called “Sophia” (Greek for Wisdom). So far, so confused, and I won’t try and sort these out for you now (in the document it is only the Saviour who can explain the whole thing in order to bring understanding).

What I especially want to point out is what The Sophia of Jesus Christ does with this source and an important “story” which the author uses to supplement this scenario. The Sophia places the whole letter of instruction into the form of a dialogue between “the Saviour” (identified with Christ) and his disciples (Eugnostos, on the other hand, shows no signs of being “Christian”, and very little, if any, indication of being “Jewish”). Absent in Eugnostos is any elaboration on how the material realm (rather than the spiritual realm discussed above) came to be, or on who it was that created the material realm in which we humans live and on how we got here.

Enter Sophia and her mistake, referred to in The Sophia document. “Saviour” (Christ) talking here:

“All who come into the world, like a drop from the Light, are sent by him to the world of Almighty, that they may be guarded by him. And the bond of his forgetfulness bound him by the will of Sophia, that the matter might be revealed through it to the whole world in poverty concerning his (Almighty’s) arrogance and blindness and the ignorance that he was named. But I (Saviour) came from the places above by the will of the great Light. . . I have cut off the work of the robbers (powers that created or control the material realm); I have wakened that drop that was sent from Sophia, that it might bear much fruit. . . And you (disciples being addressed) were sent by the Son, who was sent that you might receive Light and remove yourselves from the forgetfulness of the authorities. . . Tread upon their (the robbers or authorities who rule the material realm) malicious intent” (Sophia of Jesus Christ 106-108; trans. D. M. Parrott in The Nag Hammadi Library in English ; explanatory notes added by me).

Here we have what does recur (in variant forms) in some other Nag Hammadi documents (such as the Apocryphon of John) and which is referred to in some heresiologists (like Irenaeus). This is a reference to the story of Sophia’s mistake in desiring, by herself and without her consort, “to bring these (authorities including Almighty, or Yaldabaoth) to existence” (114; BG 118). She created, by this mistake, the “Almighty”, the god of the Hebrew Bible, and his “robber” buddies, in this author’s view. Here the god of the Hebrew Bible is cast as the ignorant creator of the material realm (demiurge), whose work necessitated the sending of a Saviour from another God, the perfect and ineffable Forefather, to awaken and bring back the drops of the perfect spiritual realm (trapped within bodies-prisons in this material realm) to the place they belong. The Saviour came to bring the knowledge of the situation so that “they (the drops) might be joined with that Spirit and Breath. . . and might from two become one,” one with the perfect spiritual realm of the Forefather. This scenario is precisely what salvation is all about, for this author (and some others who also thought of themselves as followers of Christ).

But don’t expect to understand such mythology easily, since the documents that present it presume some previous knowledge of this way of thinking. We (moderns) can at least begin to get a sense of how different this is from some other early Christian writings where salvation instead pivots on Jesus’ death and resurrection (as in Paul’s letters, for instance).

These discussions of Nag Hammadi material (traditionally “gnosticism”) are far longer than what you want a blog entry to be and they certainly do not do justice to the topic. But what can you do?

“Gnosticism” as a scholarly category and the study of the diversity of Christianity (NT Apocrypha 15)

Early Christian writings can be used as a window into the various worldviews and practices of specific Christian authors (and sometimes provide glimpses into the groups to which a particular author belonged). One of the things we’ve been trying to do in our study of the early Christian Apocrypha and Nag Hammadi documents is to shed off any preconceived notion of what to expect (concerning the form of Christianity reflected therein) and instead begin by approaching the worldview within each writing, as best we can, on its own terms. We try to begin with a blank slate, so to speak, and we can’t assume that the key to interpreting one Nag Hammadi (“gnostic”) document, for instance, will fill in the gaps in another. Overall, we should expect that answers to our questions will not always be forthcoming due to the nature of the evidence, rather than plugging in information from some other writing to substitute for this lack of knowledge.

Some scholars (including those that introduce the writings in the Schneemelcher edition of the New Testament Apocrypha) too readily jump to the conclusion that some document is “gnostic” and then too readily assume a whole set of beliefs (and related practices) to be characteristic of that writing without any clear evidence of such within the writing itself. This does not facilitate understanding the variety of “Christianities” in writings that are traditionally categorized as “gnostic” (including some of the Apocryphal Acts and Gospels). One of the things that scholars like Michael Allen Williams and Karen L. King have now (thankfully) engrained in us is the problem with the category of “gnosticism” / “gnostic” itself, at least as it is now used. The term has come to be applied to so many writings and movements that its application often acts as a hindrance to understanding the specifics of a particular author’s worldview (and the practices implied by that worldview). It seems that application of the term sometimes acts as a substitute for trying to understand the specific and individual characteristics of a writing and the form of Christianity it may reflect. Categorizing a writing as “gnostic” and then assuming the set of beliefs and practices that have, over the years, been attached to that category may make things a lot easier, but it will not do in assessing the diversity of early Christianity (-ies). If we do continue to use the term “gnosticism” at all, we have to constantly remind ourselves of the above situation and not let the term distract us from careful analysis of the evidence we have.

Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Michael Allen Williams. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

New study on imperial cults / worship of the emperors: “Temple-wardens” (neokoroi)

Worship of the emperors is a fascinating aspect of religious life in the Roman empire. Over on BMCR, there is a review (by Kieran Hendrick) of a recent book that deals with the title “temple-warden” (neokoros) in connection with provincial imperial cults (temples devoted to worship of the emperors): Barbara Burrell, Neokoroi: Greek cities and Roman Emperors. Cincinnati Classical Studies, New Series Volume IX. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Cities throughout Asia Minor and other eastern areas of the empire proudly took on the title “temple-warden” when they came to host a provincial temple in honour of the “revered ones” (Sebastoi), the emperors or imperial family as gods. Burrell’s book gathers together and provides an overview of the evidence for this practice.

If you would like to know more about worship of the emperors in the eastern part of the empire, you can read a brief overview here on my site. Or, if you would like to read more about imperial cults at the local level within associations, read my journal article here (or this one). On the significance of these cults for John’s Apocalypse (Revelation), which speaks of “worshipping the beast”, read this. The classic study which set the stage for much recent research in this area, including my own, is Simon Price’s Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1984). That is still the place to start if you want to read a book on the subject.

Photo (above right): Head of the colossal statue of emperor Domitian (or Titus) associated with the provincial imperial cult temple at Ephesus (which made the city “twice temple warden” in the Flavian era, the late first century). Now in the Ephesus Museum (mini-photo-tour of museum here). Photo by Phil.

An early modern history blog, and the value of blogging for research

As we move our way from medieval to early modern Christianity in one of my classes, I thought I’d mention an interesting blog that focusses on the early modern period (though not on Christianity specifically). Sharon Howard (post-doctoral fellow at the U. of Wales), who also hosts the Early Modern Resources site, has her blog on Early Modern Notes.

In a recent post she discusses why she blogs as an academic, as well as the value of blogging for research (much of which rings true to me). She writes, in part,

Blogging research lets you develop the very first drafts of ideas. Bits and pieces that don’t yet amount to articles (or even conference papers), but they may well do some day. And something else, sometimes: last year I was having trouble thinking up any new ideas at all, but blogging old ideas, often attached to new sources, meant that I kept writing, if only a few hundred words a week, without having to worry about it being original or impressive. And now, because it’s all archived and easy to find, I can look back over some of that work and see potential themes, little seeds of ideas that are worth working on, start to make them grow. . . Another thing: writing for a slightly different audience than in the usual academic contexts. This is an amazing opportunity to reach out.”

I also really enjoy the broader audience thing.

UPDATE: Jim Davila and Instapundit point to an online article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on academic blogging.

Among other things, the author of the article, Henry Farrell, notes that perhaps the majority of academic bloggers “see blogging as an extension of their academic personas. Their blogs allow them not only to express personal views but also to debate ideas, swap views about their disciplines, and connect to a wider public. For these academics, blogging isn’t a hobby; it’s an integral part of their scholarly identity. They may very well be the wave of the future.”

I was recently interviewed for an article, “Academics take up blogging,” in our local Thursday Report here at Concordia U, where you can see some of my basic thoughts on academic blogging.

Menocchio on the Synoptic problem (Reformations 6)

Other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

In a previous entry in this series, I have discussed the peasant miller Menocchio who lived in the 16th century and was put on trial in the inquisitions. For those of you who study the synoptic gospels, I thought you might find his brief take on the synoptic problem and redaction criticism, so to speak, humorous and maybe a little insightful:

As for the things in the Gospels, I believe that parts of them are true and parts were made up by the Evangelists out of their heads, as we see in the passages that one tells in one way and one in another way” (Ginzburg, p. 11).

At another point in the trial, he suggested that a good portion of the New Testament writings were, in fact, made up in his own time (or just before) by devious priests and monks. Here and in other statements he reflects a peasant’s dislike for the higher-ups in the system. Don’t expect consistency from Menocchio, but do expect creative thinking and fascinating statements.

Demons and everyday life: Giving birth to monsters (Reformations 5)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

One of the more difficult things for (most) modern people to get their minds around is the medieval popular belief in demons and spirits. These malevolent, benevolent, or neutral (sometimes just a nuisance) beings permeated the air (“swarming like flies”) and were in continual interaction with people in their daily lives, at least according to the ghost and demon stories that were written down.

Among the tales documented by a German Dominican in the thirteenth century is one about a noble knight and his wife. The story goes that “demons quite often appeared to [the knight]” and on one occasion while he was away on “business”, a demon decided to appear to his wife instead:

When his wife got into bed that night, it seemed to her that her husband came to her and had realtions with her in due manner. From this, so she believed, she became pregnant. The next day her husband returned, which caused his wife to be very much amazed, and she said to him ‘Where have you come from?’ He answered, ‘From our other castle’. She said, ‘Surely you were with me last night, and had relations with me contrary to your custom.’ He answered, ‘I did not.’ Terrified and upset almost to death, the woman learned that she had given birth to three monsters at once. One monster had teeth like a hog’s, the second had a startlingly long beard, the third had one eye in its face, so reported someone who saw them. But the mother, after the birrth of these children, died”
John Shinners, ed.,
Medieval Popular Religion 1000-1500: A Reader (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1997), 217.

“So reported someone who saw them”, a common claim for many of these tales. For historians of popular religion, it is less important what grain of truth, if any, is reflected in the story (e.g. deformities at birth) than what the telling and retelling of stories such as this means about the worldviews of those living in the middle ages: evil powers are at work in the world around us and we need to beware of what havoc they can cause even in our own family’s life. The horror movie comes to life.

The Fall of the temple of Artemis according to the Acts of John (NT Apocrypha 14)

Troels’ discussions of Greek temples being converted or rededicated for use by Christians (go here) got me thinking of the portrayal of “pagan” temples in the Apocrypha. Among the more exciting is the story told in the Acts of John (about which I have posted before in connection with bed-bugs).

The apostle John is portrayed as very frustrated by the Ephesians’ refusal to convert despite the numerous miracles that were performed before their eyes. He is so frustrated that he goes to the temple of Artemis (photo of goddess here) during her festival and threatens that his God will kill them all if their goddess (demon) could not kill John (the good old test of whose god is more powerful): “You say that you have Artemis as your goddess. . . pray to her, then, that I, and I alone, may die; or if you cannot do this, then I alone will call upon my own God and because of your unbelief I will put you all to death” (39). The unbelieving crowd believes that at least this is possible and is a bit worried. To sway them further, John then prays to God, with the following results:

the altar of Artemis split into many pieces, and all the offerings laid up in the temple suddenly fell to the floor and its glory was shattered, and so were more than seven images; and half the temple fell down, so that the priest was killed at one stroke as the pillar came down. Then the assembled Ephesians cried out, ‘There is but one God, the God of John!. . . We are converted, now that we have seen your marvellous works!. . . And the people rising from the ground went running and threw down the rest of the idol temple, crying out, ‘The God of John is the only God we know; from now on we worship him, since he has had mercy upon us!'” (42-43; trans. Schneemelcher, with adaptations).

This story of the Ephesians abandoning their patron deity, Artemis (a “demon” in the perspective of this author), and assisting God in destroying their own temple in honour of the deity contrasts somewhat to another story related by the author of Acts. There the guild of silversmiths responds to Paul’s preaching that “gods made with hands are not gods” by chanting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” in the theatre for several hours (Acts 19:23-41 — you can read about that account of the silversmiths’ riot at Ephesus here). No mass conversion or destruction of temples this time.

Photo above (by Phil): Remains of the Ephesian Temple of Artemis today.