H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 22)

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The Mandeans
Part 2

[H. Detering, p. 10:]

Lidzbarski points to the frequent Mandaean interpretation of the Sea of Reeds as the “Sea of Ending.” As the following citation from the Book of John shows, the crossing of the sea (symbolized at the baptism by the water of the ‘Jordan’) is, for the Mandaeans, God’s judgment: the water causes the destruction of those who are evil, but for believers it is a bridge to the light. The gnostic savior calls out:

I am the treasure, the treasure of life. The evil ones are blind and do not see. I call them to the light, yet they bury themselves in the darkness. ‘O you evil ones,’ I call to them, ‘who are sunk in darkness, rise up and fall not into the abyss.’ I cry out to them, yet the evil ones do not hear and sink into the great Sea of Ending [= Yam Suf]. So, the Jordan is a bridge for the Uthras [the Uthra is a “divine messenger of the light” or “angel”]; it is a bridge for the Uthras but cuts off the evil ones and throws them down into the great Sea of Ending.

[RS:] Once again we see the dual nature of water: it is the destroyer of the many who are evil, but the savior of the few who are good (the Uthras). Also, the “Sea of Ending” is explained not as a geographical but as a spiritual entity (see preceding post). In Mandaism, the Suf Sea is where the evil ones sink down and also where the good are carried over to the light. For the gnostic Mandeans water = gnosis and baptism is their principal sacrament. In this context, the allegory of the Exodus is readily explained: possession of gnosis carries the few over to the light, while lack of gnosis (ignorance) drowns the many in the “Sea of Ending.”

[Detering p. 11] The exhortation goes out to believers: “Love and bear up one another, as the eyes mind the feet. Love and bear up one another, for then you will cross the great Sea of Ending.

This shows that the key to ‘crossing over’ is ethical. And here we find a great divide between certain spiritual teachings common to religious traditions on the one hand, and ‘the world’ on the other: for while the multitudes drown in a flood of ignorance, greed, and pleasure, the elect find a hidden path to survival and to ‘crossing over’ the metaphorical sea by the dictum to “love and bear up one another.” This astonishing pathway to happiness (the Buddhist nirvana, the Christian kingdom of heaven) is invisible and ironically counter-intuitive, for it runs counter to man’s universal selfish effort to make good in the world and get ahead. The ultimate religious basis for this ethical dictum is known in Indian religion as karma and in Christianity as the Golden Rule: as you do unto others, so it will be done unto you (Mt 7:12; 10:40-41; 12:36-37, etc). Only in this way does one find true, abiding joy. Dr. Detering cites two Mandean passages (p. 11) that support the foregoing:

Who cannot demonstrate alms and charity, for him no bridge is built over the rivers. Who cannot demonstrate alms and charity, for him is no passage across the sea.

Love charity and love the Sabbath, that a bridge can be built for you over the sea… A thousand thousand stand on the near shore, yet from a thousand only one crosses over, and two from two thousand. Only those who are eager and worthy of the Place of Light go across. (Lidzbarski, Johannesbuch 102f.)

Mandaism thus possesses certain core elements in common with better known religions of East and West, including the emphasis on ‘doing good.’ Less appreciated is a hidden yet also universal connection: that between ethics and gnosis. In Mandean (as also Buddhist and Christian) teaching ethics and wisdom go hand-in-hand: none gains gnosis except the one who is pure in heart (cf. Mt 5:8, etc). Related is becoming innocent as children, as Jesus so often exhorted. Ironically, becoming innocent ‘as a child’ is key to gaining a certain wisdom invisible to the world—a higher knowledge. Paradoxically, lowering oneself in the eyes of the world raises oneself in the eyes of truth. The resulting gnosis is the metaphorical bridge across water described by the Mandeans.

Dr. Detering concludes his review of gnostic interpretations of the Exodus theme with a pithy 3-stage summary:
(1) Moses liberates the people from Egypt; the waters of the Red Sea draw back (Therapeutae, Peratae)
(2) Joshua/Jesus liberates the people from Egypt and makes the Jordan flow upwards (Naassenes)
(3) Jesus comes across the Jordan into the world; the waters draw back (Testimony of Truth)

It takes no great insight to recognize a genetic relationship between the Old Testament Joshua/Jesus (2) and the Jesus of the Testimony of Truth (3). We note in the foregoing sequence that the Naassenes provide a link between Moses and Jesus. They conserved the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, but substituted Joshua/Jesus for the formerly expected Moses. (Detering, p. 12)

In the foregoing second point, the water flowing upwards symbolizes the gnostic’s reversal of ordinary behavior and activity. As I noted above, this way “is invisible and ironically counter-intuitive, for it runs counter to man’s universal selfish effort to make good in the world and get ahead.” This is the hidden meaning that originally underlay the parting of the Red/Reed Sea by Moses in Jewish scripture. I would maintain that this essentially gnostic message was already familiar to Bronze Age man. In Mesopotamian religion, for example, we find the ubiquitous symbolism of the fish swimming against the current; we find waters coming from the shoulders of Enki (the god of wisdom/gnosis) and going upwards; and we find the enigmatic fish-man, Oannes (= John), emerging from the sea to teach the sacred arts of civilization to mankind.

All this brings home to us an astonishing fact: “The early Christians called Jesus Christ the Fish” (J. M. Robertson, Pagan Christs, 1966:109). Certainly, the roots of Christianity are ancient indeed!

And those roots are gnostic.

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