H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 17)

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The Testimony of Truth

On pages 7–8 of his article, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult,” Dr. Detering considers the Testimony of Truth (TT), a Christian Gnostic tractate from the Nag Hammadi Library (IX.3). This interesting work was originally written in Greek, probably around Alexandria, Egypt, c. 200 CE or a little later. Birger Pearson writes in his introduction to the tractate (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 1977:406) that “the false doctrines and practices attacked are clearly those of the catholic Christian church.” But the author of the TT is not satisfied with attacking the nascent Church. He also vilifies certain views of other gnostic sects. It is apparent that what we have here is an eclectic view authored by a sincere, intelligent writer from the Alexandria area.

The TT cites the NT at various points. When we consider that the canonical gospels (and indeed the entire NT) were first composed and assembled about the middle of II CE, then the earliest that the TT could have been written was in the second half of that century.

Detering cites a passage from the TT:

But the Son of Man came forth from imperishability, being alien to defilement. He came to the world by the Jordan river, and immediately the Jordan turned back. And John bore witness to the descent of Jesus. For he is the one who saw the power which came down upon the Jordan river; for he knew that the dominion of carnal procreation had come to an end. The Jordan river is the power of the body, that is, the sense of pleasures. The water of the Jordan is the desire for sexual intercourse. John is the archon of the womb. [TT 30.19 ff.]

The opening sentences describe (a) the coming of the Son of Man; (b) the descent of Jesus; and (c) the waters of the Jordan turning back. These three elements occur simultaneously and are in some way equivalent. Thus, we have the following equation:

the coming of the Son of Man  =  the descent of Jesus  =  the waters of the Jordan turning back

In another post we learned that, for some gnostics, ‘the waters of the Jordan turning back’ = the hidden power of gnosis. Making the appropriate substitutions in the above series, we are thus able to detect the root of a very pervasive gnostic Christian theology: the coming of the Son of Man = the hidden power of gnosis. Elsewhere in the TT (49.1 ff), the author also equates the serpent with the Christ. (From the context, it is implied that Jesus = the Christ.) Simplified, the following early equivalences emerge:

the Son of Man  =  Jesus  =  gnosis  =  the serpent

Because Jesus = gnosis, the earliest conception of the ‘baptism’ scene emerges: John is transformed by the spirit Jesus/gnosis. In this original scene there is only one person—before, during, and after: John. This is certainly the origin of the later and now-familiar scene of the baptism involving two people: Jesus (transformed into a human being) and John (transformed into ‘the baptist’ of Jesus). Another passage from the TT, unfortunately full of lacunae, hints at the original conception:

… upon the Jordan River when [the Holy Spirit] came to John at the time [John] was baptized. The Holy Spirit came down upon him as a dove… [Christ?] was born of a virgin and it took flesh [i.e., the flesh of John]. (TT 39.24 ff.)

All the names can be confidently reconstituted as above except the word “Christ” that needs to be inferred. For the author of TT “Jesus” and “Christ” are not identical, as we learn from comparing passages. Jesus (“Savior”) = the Holy Spirit of gnosis that descends upon John by the river Jordan, but Christ (“Anointed One/Messiah”) is the product of the union of (a) the spirit Jesus, and (b) the human prophet John. That cosmic union was precisely the original meaning of the baptismal scene. According to this scenario, then, John becomes the Christ at his ‘baptism’ by Jesus (gnosis).

Before proceeding, please take a moment to clearly understand the preceding paragraph, which can be confusing. We have three actors: Jesus, John, and Christ. The first is gnosis or the Holy Spirit. (In fact, “Jesus” is all the equivalencies pointed out above.) John is the only human being present at the baptismal scene. Christ is the fusion of Jesus and John, of gnosis and flesh. Thus Christ—the Messiah/Anointed One—was birthed at baptism. John was ‘reborn’ as the Christ.

All this of course is allegorical, metaphorical language, such as is familiar to so much religious literature where real and invented figures mingle in partially contrived/partially historical settings. At one point, however, the author of the TT chases away metaphor and speaks plainly—well, almost plainly. He implies that it all boils down to knowing oneself:

And those who have knowledge… the great … the resurrection … he has come to know the Son of Man, that is, he has come to know himself. This is the perfect life, that man know himself by means of the All. (TT 36.20 ff.)

So, “to know himself” is to know the Son of Man. As we saw above, however, the Son of Man = Jesus. Thus, the entire baptism scene, with all its metaphorical trappings, devolves into the Socratic dictum to “know thyself.” That is gnosis. That is receiving “Jesus.” That is, in fact, becoming “the Christ.”

The original gnostic understanding of baptism (= immersion in gnosis) obviously fell by the wayside with Mark’s astonishing boldness and creativity. Towards the middle of II CE the evangelist adapted the theology of self-transformation through gnosis, a theology with which he was evidently intimately familiar. Mark rejected the gnostic theology but adapted some of its principle elements to his new theology: faith in the god-man, Jesus the Nazarene. In the process, John—the original gnostic hero—was demoted to ‘the Baptist,’ an accessory figure. John became the mere precursor to the god-man Jesus, whom Mark invented out of whole cloth.

Mark’s boldness was breathtaking. And so was his betrayal—betrayal of the received gnostic message of self-transformation. Mark—whom tradition places in Alexandria—must himself have once been a gnostic, for the gospel under his name betrays intimate familiarity with gnostic theology, now allegorized and veiled. Incidentally, in all this we must include ‘Secret Mark,’ the (authentic) vestige of a gnostic gospel, now lost, which was an intermediary to the canonical gospel.

In chronicling the mighty adventures of Jesus the Nazarene, the Son of God and Savior of the World, Mark unashamedly wrote pseudo-history and did so with panache. Because the evangelist intends his writing to be taken as history, to be understood as actually having happened, Mark is not a novelist, nor a raconteur, nor is his gospel a diversionary read for quiet moments in the evening. Rather, his purposes are deadly serious: to awe, to convert, and therewith to gather power via a long and elaborate series of untruths. As a result, Christianity is founded on the bold and colossal lie. For all its good works (and there are many), Christianity can never exorcise the rot at its very core, simply because falsehood birthed it.

Water: a nuanced symbol

John is the only human participant in the TT’s ‘baptism’ scene. It is evident that we have here an adoptionist scenario, where the spirit Jesus comes from “imperishability” and enters into John. John “saw the power” and “knew.” In other words, John is the only person at this ‘baptismal’ scene. The event being described in the Testimony of Truth is clearly within John.

In the TT, it is noteworthy that Jesus/the Son of Man comes to the world “by” the Jordan River—Jesus is not standing “in” the Jordan, as in most conceptions of the baptism. This and other indications suggest to me that the author of the TT is not within the Simonian tradition (the “Standing One”) that we have been considering in previous posts. Also, the author of the TT has a negative view of water—contrary to the view of many other gnostics who viewed water (and the Jordan) positively as a symbol of gnosis. We have seen, for example, that “life” for the Peratae is metaphorically “immersion in water” (see here). For the Mandeans, also, water is positive—gnosis:

You living water
descend to the decaying ruin [i.e. the world],
proclaim the summons of the Life
and spread splendor over the house [i.e. the body].
Be a helper of the souls
who are being persecuted for the sake of Yawar’s name.
In you they shall gain the living baptism… [Right Ginza XV.3]

Here, it is not Jesus that descends upon John at baptism, but the “living water” (i.e. gnosis) that descends upon the world and confers “the living baptism” (i.e., enlightenment).

On the other hand, the author of the TT represents another gnostic tradition wherein water is metaphorically negative:

The Jordan river is the power of the body, that is, the senses of pleasures. The water of the Jordan is the desire for sexual intercourse. (TT 30.31)

It is clear that ‘water’ was such an important symbol in gnosticism that it lent itself to diverse and fairly complex interpretations. The Flood, the Exodus, and the crossing of the Jordan were interpreted in various ways. Sometimes ‘crossing over’ (Gk. eis to peran) was paramount, in which case the water was a barrier/‘death.’ In the cases of the Flood and the Exodus, however, water functioned both negatively and positively—it killed the many yet saved the elect (see also here and here). This equivocal view of water is reflected in many traditions, including Catholic Christianity. Thus, for Justin Martyr:

     Justin’s main point is that the waters of the Flood are a ‘symbol’ or ‘type’ (for he elsewhere uses the words interchangeably) of the waters of Baptism, in that deliverance came to Noah by being ‘borne upon the waters.’ He does not mention St. Peter’s First Epistle, but his language is clearly reminiscent of ‘few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water’ [1 Pet 3:20]. They escaped through water to the ark of safety. Alike in Justin’s exposition, and in St. Peter’s words, the waters of the Flood are taken to be, not waters of destruction (as elsewhere in Scripture) but waters of deliverance, on which the ark rode securely. (J. H. Bernard, Studia Sacra. Hodder & Stoughton, 1917:28.)

Not only could water be seen as both positive and negative, but the direction of water flow became diagnostic for some gnostics: when the water flows normally (downwards) it signifies pleasures, corruption, and ignorance—the ordinary way of the world. But when the water is made to flow upwards, then it signifies enlightenment and the dominion over pleasures. This was the gnostic terminology among the Naassenes, as discussed in the previous post.

The author of the TT focusses on the negative view of water. Nevertheless, he is true to the core gnostic message: gnosis overcomes carnality. For him, John saw “that the dominion of carnal procreation had come to an end.” This inner transformation is, in fact, the crux of every gnostic struggle. The author of the TT is even more explicit when he implies that John overcame “the desire for sexual intercourse.”

This could not be more Buddhist

All this is very Buddhist. Removing the overlay of Christian geography and names reveals core Buddhist praxis: domination of pleasure (râga) leads to understanding/enlightenment. In Buddhism, pleasure is the handmaiden of ignorance, and it is clear that the author of TT also has the antithesis pleasure/ignorance vs. understanding very much in mind:

… But as for one who is in ignorance, it is difficult for him to diminish his works of darkness which he has done. Those who have known imperishability, however, have been able to struggle against passions [read: pleasures, râgâ]… The foolish—thinking in their heart that if they confess ‘We are Christians,’ in word only but not with power, while giving themselves over to ignorance, to a human death, not knowing where they are going nor who Christ is… hasten towards the principalities and the authorities. They fall into their clutches because of the ignorance that is in them. [TT 31.7 ff.]

Reading between the lines, we recognize that the author is upset at Catholic Christians who profess Jesus the Nazarene but who do not even know “who Christ is” (namely, the spiritual Christ of gnosis). Like a good Buddhist, the author is concerned with ignorance and the passions. This is Buddhism removed from its Indic trappings and placed in a new environment, one with “principalities,” “authorities,” “Christ,” and “Christians.” Here, then, we have Eastern doctrine expressed in Western vocabulary. West has met East, and the result is something very old now dressed in something very new: Christianity.

For the author of the TT, baptism has to do with acquiring truth and renouncing the world: “But the baptism of truth is something else; it is by renunciation of the world that it is found” (TT 69.21). Compare one of many possible Buddhist verses: “Except by renouncing and forsaking all, no safety can I see for living things” (S 1.2.17).

Gnosis under assault

The 4G with their new and awesome Christ, Jesus the Nazarene, appeared about a half century before the TT. The author of the TT obviously knows the catholic texts, for he cites them. From his defensive and polemic tone, however, we can infer that the author of the TT felt under grave pressure from emerging catholicism, even under assault. But he has already lost the war! We know this because he uses the language of the catholic texts to communicate his gnostic message to his readers. This shows that the new savior, Jesus the Nazarene, was already quite popular c. 200 CE. Furthermore, in attempting to use catholic language to communicate his gnostic message, the author of the TT engaged in a sort of hybridization that is not always successful. Consider, for example, the following opaque passage:

John was begotten by the Word through a woman, Elizabeth; and Christ was begotten by the Word through a virgin, Mary. What is the meaning of this mystery? John was begotten by means of a womb worn with age, but Christ passed through a virgin’s womb. When she had conceived she gave birth to the Savior. Furthermore she was found to be a virgin again. Why then do you [pl.] err and not seek after these mysteries which were prefigured for our sake? (TT 45.6–18)

Literally, the above would eventually become Catholic doctrine (where Mary’s virginity was perpetual). C. 200 CE, however, the author of the TT was not concerned with Mary’s perpetual virginity. He was attempting to describe the nature of Christ which, for him (as we have seen above), is gnosis itself. Thus, Christ/gnosis “passed through a virgin’s womb.” This tells us that, metaphorically speaking, virginity/chastity/continence (egkrateia) gives birth to gnosis. For the author of the TT, then, Mary = virginity.

This is an somewhat desperate ‘re-definition’ of Mary, and it had no chance against the grand yet false narrative of the 4G. And so, the TT was relegated to complete obscurity, while the canonical gospels went on to conquer the world.

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Comments

H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 17) — 1 Comment

  1. The equivalence of Jesus and the serpent is also evident in the Easter-story of Luke; therein, two disciples encounter him in Emmaus, are lectured about the meaning of the messiah, and get their eyes opened after the breaking of the bread, just as occurred to Adam and Eve after eating the apple offered by the serpent in the tree of gnosis.

    In the Apocryphon of John from Nag Hammadi, the Christian manipulator is embarrassed by the equation and inserts an eagle into the story of Genesis 3 to represent Jesus.

    The intertestamental book of Ecclesiasticus 25 seems to be one of the earliest polemic reactions by normative Judaism to the gnostic equation of serpent and revealer of truth.

    TT’s birth scene is also supported in the apochryphal infancy gospel of James.

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