H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 20)

→ Table of Contents

The Odes of Solomon
Conclusion: The theology of immanence

The two prior posts have briefly considered the Odes of Solomon, a ‘Christian hymnbook’ dating to the early second century CE. My discussion took its point de départ from Dr. Detering’s observation that Ode 39 knows dual outcomes of the Exodus: “Crossing the water is the judgment—it represents salvation for believers, but destruction for unbelievers” (pp. 8–9). We have seen that this dual outcome is very ancient and goes back to the Flood. Its equivocal nature allowed gnostics to interpret water as salvation (gnosis) for those who possess understanding, and as doom for those who do not.

I proposed in a prior post that the early second century CE, when the Odes were penned, was a particularly critical period in Christian formation. Those decades witnessed the invention of Jesus of Nazareth, and also the beginning of a momentous transition in thinking—from the savior as a spiritual entity (gnosis) to the Savior as a unique God-man. I have called these Stage I and Stage III Christology. (On these stages, see here.) It appears to me that the Odes belong to the intermediate Stage II: “the spirit indwells a saint, producing a spirit imbued prophet.”

The Odes of Solomon are a unique window offering a view on the very cusp of emergent catholicism (Stage III). From our distant vantage point, we today might suppose that the Odes of Solomon reflect two worlds, two christologies in basic opposition, each struggling for hegemony: the Stage I salvation by gnosis vs. the Stage III salvation by “the Man who humbled himself but was exalted because of His own righteousness” (Ode 41:12). But there is no need to suppose that the Odist was schizophrenic, believing one thing on one page and another thing on the next. Nor is it necessary to posit multiple authors (unlikely—see Lattke 2009:5). Passages such as 16:1 indeed suggest a single writer to me. My view is that the apparent diversity of content to a modern reader simply reflects the complex era in which the Odist lived, and the time of transition in which the Odes were composed.

In my view, the Odist betrays a deep and fertile gnostic background (Lattke 2009:13)—attested by interest in gnosis/understanding/knowledge, ascent motifs, asceticism, imagery of the bridal chamber, and so on. It is not possible to deny his gnosticism simply because there is no emanation theory, no demiurge, and no earmarks of florid gnostic mythology. Ever since the 1966 Colloquium of Messina, gnosticism (broadly: the search for and acquisition of hidden gnosis) has been misdefined in terms of a later (post-Valentinian) cosmological system. The Odes predate Valentinus and the development of a florid gnostic cosmology—yet they are still ‘gnostic.’

For the Odist, the search for hidden gnosis (which is a broad definition of gnosticism) is seen in the investigation of “that which is invisible” (16:8; cf. 7:13). This is quite compatible with the affirmation of both the Creator and the creation (16:9 ff). In other words, we cannot force modern categories upon the Odist.

In earlier gnosticism (Stage I) man is the prime mover, while in later Catholicism (Stage III) God is the prime mover. Agency moves from man to God as we progress from gnosticism to Catholicity. The Odist is somewhere in the middle of that progression (Stage II): gnosis is still necessary, but now it is not achieved by man but is given by God. Other signs of oncoming Catholicity are that the Odist professes faith (28:3; 29:6; 34:6) and he is open to the Gentiles (10:5-6; 29:8).

Up until the mid-second century (that is, until the invention of Jesus of Nazareth)—the primary conception was of a saving, mobile, spiritual entity available to all. That entity was sometimes called “Jesus” (Gospel of Nicodemus), but sometimes “Messiah” or the “Word” (Odes of Solomon). The Odist does not use the name Jesus even once. For the Odist, the Word of God indwelled a prophet of history, who was the ‘Anointed One’ (Messiah). The Messiah, in turn, has shown everyone the way to salvation. That way is to emulate the Messiah and to incorporate the Word of God so that we, too, can become Christ’s—‘Anointed Ones’ (cf. GPh 67:27).

The Mystery Religions

This theology of the indwelling spirit (Christological Stage II) was the common theology of antiquity before the invention of Jesus of Nazareth (= Stage III). Consider the so-called Mystery Religions, wherein the goal of the proselyte was precisely to fuse with divinity. In the words of one scholar, “the proper outcome is rebirth as a divine being” (Reitzenstein). In the Mysteries, the way to such rebirth/fusion was through hidden knowledge. When one examines the use of the “Word” in the Odes of Solomon, one sees much in common with the Mysteries: the Word increases gnosis; it dwells in man; it grants understanding of all and grants knowledge of the Lord; and it searches out what is invisible (12:3,12,13; 16:8).

Reunification with the divine was also the heart of Orphism:

The Orphics moralized this myth into a symbol of man’s composite nature, consisting of the evil, or Titanic, elements and the divine or Dionysiac elements. From the former man must, through self-renunciation, liberate himself and return to God, with whose life he may be united. The body is the tomb of the soul; salvation consists in rescuing the divine, Dionysiac, spark rom the enveloping evil matter, and so securing escape from the round of reincarnation to which the soul is subject. (S. Angus, The Mystery Religions, 1975:46).

Reunification with the divine, evil matter, renunciation… This all sounds very much like gnosticism! But we are speaking of a ‘mystery religion.’ Likewise, in the Hermetic writings, we read: “This is the good end for those who have attained knowledge, namely, Deification” (Poimandres I.26). Both Mystery Religions and Hermeticism long predated the so-called Gnosticism of the second century CE—that date considered to be the incipience of Gnosticism, according to the Colloquium of Messina. In fact, Christian Gnosticism emerged out of the Mysteries:

The Mystery Religions were systems of Gnosis akin, and forming a stage to, those movements to which the name of Gnosticism became attached. They professed to satisfy the desire for the knowledge of God which became pronounced from at least the second century BC and increased in intensity until the acme of syncretism in the third and fourth centuries of our era. The Mysteries brought men into contact with that god ‘who wishes to be known and is known to his own.’ (Angus, op. cit. 52.)
The mysteries were secret religious groups composed of individuals who decided, through personal choice, to be initiated into the profound realities of one deity or another. Unlike the official religions, in which a person was expected to show outward, public allegiance to the local gods of the polis or the state, the mysteries emphasized an inwardness and privacy of worship within closed groups. The person who chose to be initiated joined an association of people united in their quest for personal salvation. (M. Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries, 1987:4)

All this could also apply to the Odes of Solomon, which are private, inward expressions of “profound realities” of the divine. In the Odes, the link between God and man is the Word, also called the Spirit of the Lord (3:10 etc). The Word/Spirit indwelling man can also be termed “pneumatic adoptionist” theology, a phrase that has been used in relation to another major work contemporary with the Odes, namely, the Shepherd of Hermas:

The easiest way to understand these verses [Similitude V.6.5-8] is to see them as teaching a pneumatic adoptionist Christology: the pre-existent Holy Spirit, by coming to dwell in the historical, non-pre-existent person of Jesus, constituted him as holy (v. 5) and subsequently exalted him to heaven (v. 6)… (C. Osiek, Commentary on the Shepherd of Hermas, Fortress: 1999:36.)

What I am getting at in all these citations is that a common theology existed before Jesus of Nazareth, a theology of fusion with the divine. That theology has many guises, some Christian and some non-Christian. However, labels like “Gnosticism” and “Mystery Religions” are not helpful in understanding the true genesis of Christianity out of a popular spirituality, one based in hidden gnosis and personal salvation through fusion with the divine.

We moderns are offended by the notion of ‘becoming Divine.’ One reason is that we have an exalted conception of the Divine that did not obtain in antiquity (except among the Jews). We have forgotten that the Divine infuses everything—including man. Indeed, a god could even take human form. In Euripedes’ play The Bacchae (V BCE), “Dionysos, son of Zeus and Semele, reveals himself as ‘a god incognito, disguised as man'” (Meyer 66). Euhemerus taught that the gods were originally humans. Fusion with the Divine was essentially the realization of one’s true nature, which is spiritual and not material. This divinization was common language even to Christian writers of late antiquity:

‘If anyone knows himself he shall know God, and by knowing God he shall be made like unto Him;’ and again, ‘that man with whom the Logos dwells… is made like God and is beautiful… that man becomes God, for God so wills it’; and ‘the Logos of God became man that from man you might learn how man may become God,’ Further, that the true [Christian] Gnostic ‘has already become God.’ (Citations from writings by Clement of Alexandria, cited with references at Angus, op. cit. p. 106.)

Indeed, “In Chapter 12 of the Exhortation to the Greeks Clement presents Christianity as a mystery religion, with ‘truly sacred mysteries’ that offer pure light and a vision of the one God” (Meyer 243).

Paul, the Fourth Gospel

The reader will of course be aware that the onset of Paulinism is generally dated to the mid-first century CE. This traditional dating is potentially valid, but only if we admit a radical reversal: ‘Paul’ predated Jesus of Nazareth! The Paul-Jesus sequence is entirely understandable if one approaches the epistles with an open mind. They have no knowledge of the Nazarene, of the wonder-worker, or even of the preacher/teacher from Galilee. They know a spiritual Jesus (see below). Thus, the Pauline epistles belong to my Stage II Christology. They may date as late as the first decades of II CE—the same time the Odes were written—or they may date somewhat earlier.

According to the content of the epistles, Paul espouses the religion of divine immanence (Stage II)—as seen in his frequent expressions “in Christ,” “in the Spirit,” and “Christ in you.” He writes: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14), “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20), “Christ will be honored in my body” (Phil 1:20), “If then you have been raised with Christ… your life is hid with Christ in God… you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:1-4), et multi.

In the Fourth Gospel, also, it is not difficult to find evidence of divine immanence:

[Chp. 14]… I will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also… He who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do… [The Paraclete] dwells with you and will be in you… In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you… If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him…
[Chp. 15]… Abide in me, and I in you… He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit… If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will…
[Chp. 17] … all mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them… Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one… I do not pray for these only but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us… I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one,… Fther, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am… that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

In passing, mention can be made of another mystery religion, Mithraism, that knew a ceremony “so reminiscent of the Christian ‘Lord’s Supper’ that it proved an embarrassment to the Christian apologist Justin Martyr” (Meyer 8). There is no space here to investigate the ‘rock’ from which Mithras was born, its relation to ‘Peter,’ to the rock upon which the Church was based (Mt 16:8), and to Simon Magus as the ‘Standing One.’ (On my theory that Simon Magus –> Peter, see here.)

The Odist has absolutely no knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. “Jesus” is not mentioned once in the Odes. There are no biographical details of the prophet from Galilee, details that will soon be filled in by the evangelists (in the decade of the 140s?). At most, a case can be made that the Odist has a vague idea of the cross/crucifixion, and perhaps of the baptism—but little more. This cautions us against conservative editions of the Odes such as that by Charlesworth (1977), which is an “eclectic” edition (Lattke) that presumes knowledge of the canonical gospels and offers editorial additions such as “Christ speaks”, “the Odist speaks,” etc.

In isolation, it is possible to point out ‘gnostic-sounding’ passages from the Odes, as well as Catholic-sounding passages. Admittedly, it is difficult to conceive that one poet could write from both points of view. Once again, however, this is to look at the Odist in the hindsight of history, a history in which the two paths diverged and eventually came into complete and diametric opposition. But that is our vantage point! In the early second century, the paths had not yet separated. The Odes of Solomon themselves are proof of this. Thus, we must be wary of applying later categories to early texts such as the Odes, categories such as “gnostic” and “Catholic” that did not yet exist.

The truth is that virtually everyone was “gnostic” until mid-II CE. With the notable exception of Judaism (Yahweh worship), there really was no other spirituality.

Dr. Detering’s recent article on the Odes

The 22-page German article has been recently uploaded to Academia.edu and is entitled “Amatoria carmina studiose discunt”–Basilides und die Oden Salomos (Tr: “They eagerly learn love poems”—Basilides and the Odes of Solomon). The Latin phrase is from a comment on a tract by Augustine and refers to followers of Basilides. In his article, Detering argues in detail that Basilides authored the Odes. While I haven’t researched this issue in detail, I find Detering’s arguments entirely cogent. I wish here merely to comment on one point. On p. 14 of his article, Detering considers the enigmatic term “middle” that appears in a couple of Odes:

You who leads me down from the height and up from the deeps,
and you who gathers those that are in the middle and joins them to me.
You who scatters my enemies and my adversaries… (Ode 22:1-3. Lattke.)

Draw water for yourselves from the living spring of the Lord…
Because it issues from the lips of the Lord,
And from the heart of the Lord is its name.
And it came unbounded and unseen,
And until it was set in the middle they knew it not.
Blessed are they who have drunk from it,
And have found rest by it. (Ode 30:1, 5-7. Charlesworth/Lattke.)

Scholars have long been mystified at the meaning of “the middle” in these passages. However, someone familiar with Buddhism will immediately suggest that the Odist is referencing the Middle Way, an important concept in Buddhism. The Middle Way refers to the Noble Eightfold Path “which, by avoiding the two extremes of sensual lust and self-torment, leads to enlightenment and deliverance from suffering” (Nyanatiloka). In this Buddhist sense we can understand the first citation above from the Odes: the Lord leads “me down from the height and up from the deeps”—that is, into the Middle Way. In the second citation, water (i.e. gnosis) is “set in the middle”—that is, gnosis is found only on the Noble Eightfold Path.

 Previous               Next →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *