H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 18)

The Odes of Solomon
Part 1

[H. Detering:]
We encounter another allegorical interpretation of the Exodus motif in the Odes of Solomon. This collection of early Christian hymns apparently comes from an Alexandrian milieu in the first half of the second century. The 39th ode compares the “power of the Lord” with “raging rivers” that “send headlong those who despise Him” (v. 1). But “those who cross them in faith shall not be destroyed” (v. 5). Verse 8 follows: “Therefore, put on the name of the Most High and know Him, and you shall cross without danger; because rivers shall be obedient to you.”
A structural similarity [of Ode 39] with the aforementioned gnostic interpretations of the Exodus is unmistakeable. Crossing the water is the judgment: it represents salvation for believers, but destruction for unbelievers. [H. Detering, pp. 8–9]


Essential to understanding the Odes of Solomon is the text’s dating. Dr. Detering writes “the first half of the second century,” which indeed reflects current scholarship. M. Lattke (The Odes of Solomon, Hermeneia, 2009:10) is slightly more precise: “the first quarter of the second century.” This locates the Odes in the final pre-canonical period when ‘Jesus’ was transforming from a spiritual entity to a god-man. By mid-century I suspect that all four canonical gospels had been written—at least in their ‘first editions.’ The early second century also witnessed the writing of Secret Mark (a gnostic gospel) and the Gospel of Peter (the first Passion account). In those murky decades leading up to the Bar Kochba Revolt we are thus on the cusp of the invention of Jesus the Nazarene, Son of God and Savior of the World.

Locating the collection in early II CE also agrees with the content of the Odes. This is clear when we realize that the Odes seem to know—but only vaguely—the two most essential high points in the career of a Messiah/Christ figure who is not yet Jesus the Nazarene: the baptism and the crucifixion. The name ‘Jesus’ does not appear even once in the Odes.

Regarding the baptism, the Odist writes: “The dove flew onto the head of our lord Messiah, because he [the Messiah] was her [the dove’s] head” (24:1). Lattke predictably (and erroneously) supposes that the origin of this dove “must be sought in the Synoptics” (p. 342). This, however, is not possible according to the foregoing dating considerations. Regarding the dove, Lattke’s conclusion is more tenable: “this is the ancient motif of the dove as servant and messenger.”

As for the crucifixion, the Odes seem to imply the cross at one or two points, e.g.:

I extended my hands and approached my lord,
For the expansion of my hands is his sign.
And my extension is the common cross [Lattke: “straight wood”]
That was lifted up on the way of the Righteous One. (42:1-2; Charlesworth translation. Cf. 27:1-3; 28:17/18.)

‘Water’ once again

As cited above, Detering writes: “A structural similarity [of Ode 39] with the aforementioned gnostic interpretations of the Exodus is unmistakeable. Crossing the water is the judgment: it represents salvation for believers, but destruction for unbelievers” (pp. 8–9). The dual role of water as destroyer and savior passed, in the hands of the catholic Church, to Christ as judge at the end of time—the one who metes out universal damnation but also salvation. This figure of saving/destroying cosmic judge, however, was not new with Christianity but very old, known already in early Egyptian religion. And the dual nature of saving/destroying water too is very old, as we see in the Gilgamesh Epic’s account of the Flood. So, both religious traditions of judge and water existed more or less in parallel through the ages.

Nevertheless, the water tradition was older. When we look back to the dawn of history, we find a suspicion of the visible, of the material, and of that which is transient. (This is also very Buddhist.) The king of the gods was the water god Enki (Ea), and his home was in the underworld ocean, the Abzu. That was also the home of hidden gnosis.

The Aryan invasions of the early second millennium BCE changed everything. The material world now inspired confidence, and only that which was visible had ‘power.’ Sky gods (those active in the daytime) gained the ascendency, and the tradition of the cosmic judge was normative from about 1800 BCE onwards. Hidden wisdom lost its meaning, while lunar deities (active at night) and the old gods of water and of the underworld were denigrated.

In religious literature from the Late Bronze Age onwards the Sky and Sea are in perpetual conflict. But the sky is ever victorious: in Mesopotamia Marduk defeats Tiamat, the sea goddess; at Ugarit Baal defeats Yam (“Sea”); in Canaan Hadad defeats Lotan; and in the Bible “the spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gen 1:2) and Yahweh defeats Leviathan (Ps 74:14). Many of these mythological sea creatures are also serpents/dragons—confirming their gnostic essence (cf. Gen 3:1). Essentially, the struggle is between two incompatible and opposing views: materialism on the one hand, and gnosticism on the other. The seen vs. the unseen. The creation vs. the uncreated. The above (visible) vs. the below (invisible). Action vs. insight. Pleasure vs. understanding.

In my view, religions begin with ‘water’: as the gnostic insight (‘enlightenment’) of a prophet who teaches hidden wisdom, the emptiness of the world, and the need for understanding. This austere gnostic message, however, has always been far too elevated for the masses and does not long survive. The only exception in history that I know of is Buddhism—and even there I speak only of the Theravada school and only if it is shorn of many popular and monkish accretions (such as belief in rebirth and Abhidhammic speculations). Critically, the Theravada strain of Buddhism came to the West c. 250 BCE via Ashoka’s missionaries. In my view, that powerful contact ‘seeded’ the eventual birth of Christianity two centuries later (i.e., with the prophet Yeshu ha-Notsri, d. ca. 70 BCE).

Though a religion usually begins on the ‘water’ side of the ledger, as it gains adherents it predictably transforms from a religion of hidden gnosis to a religion of visible power—of anti-gnosis, if you will. Most religions eventually betray their roots, and that betrayal is absolutely necessary if a religion is to have wide appeal. We also see this in Christianity, and the change-over from gnosis to anti-gnosis took place precisely when the Odes of Solomon were being written—in the first quarter of the second century CE.

The original ‘Christian’ religion—until c. 150 CE—was gnostic. In that religion, ‘Jesus’ was the gnosis itself (cf. the Gospel of Thomas). It was spiritual. Then came along Jesus the Nazarene, a creator god (technically: the ‘Son’ of the creator God, ‘one with the Father,’ etc) who will come again with power as eschatological judge. Henceforth, gnostics were heretics and their manuscripts were burned. The Catholic son murdered its Gnostic father.

Ode 39, the Flood, and Buddhism

Profound parallels exist between the above gnostic interpretation of the Exodus—dating to late antiquity—and far more ancient accounts of the Flood. As Detering writes above: in Ode 39 water “represents salvation for believers, but destruction for unbelievers.” In the account of Noah, too, water plays a dual role: the Flood both destroys and saves—it destroys all of mankind, but not the righteous Noah.

In its negative aspect (and here I venture to evoke a later Buddhist perspective) water is the equivalent of ignorance (Pâli: avijjâ), the basic condition in which all sentient beings are born/come into the world. In its positive aspect, however, water is gnosis. Just as negative and positive are opposites, so also ignorance and gnosis are opposites. The Flood account figuratively captures this antithesis quite well: water destroys all of mankind while enabling the ark to survive.

Similarly in gnostic sources: if one possesses gnosis, it is salvific. But if one lacks gnosis, that lack is itself damning. A famous example of this irony is found in the Gospel of Thomas: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you will be in a state of poverty, and it is you who will be the poverty” (GTh 3).

In the Flood story, what saves Noah is not water nor even an ark—it is the knowledge that he must build an ark, and that he must do so quickly, namely, when the weather is still fine. The scene has been carefully crafted. One can imagine the ridicule from others upon seeing Noah and his family, in fine weather, engaged in building a very large boat on dry land! No doubt, the counter-intuitive nature of the scene was exactly what the creator of the story wanted. Gnosis is counter-intuitive. What the world thinks is true is actually false—and vice versa. This is gnosticism reduced to its essence, and a couplet from the Buddhist Sutta-Nipata perfectly captures the dichotomy:

What the world holds as true
The Noble Ones hold as false.
They see correctly,
With perfect insight.
What the world holds as false
The noble Ones hold as true.
They see correctly,
With perfect insight. (Sn 755)

In the Flood story, water is a benign and even salvific element—if one knows how to use it. Without the knowledge to build an ark, however, water is lethal. Everything turns on possession or lack of knowledge. This, of course, is gnosticism: ignorance is the ultimate evil, knowledge the ultimate good. Thus, the Flood story expresses a great irony: that which saves Noah, his family, and the few animals with him, at the same time kills myriads of living beings. All depends on the possession/lack of gnosis.

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