H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 23)

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Resumé of the series thus far: In the foregoing posts we have seen that the Exodus theme is far deeper than a mere physical event involving a body of water. The roots of ‘crossing over’ are primordial and spiritual, ultimately involving the liminal threshold at death. For the gnostic, the crossing over was from ignorance to understanding. Such a view can only exist for those who define ‘life’ as gnosis, and ‘death’ as ignorance itself. For the gnostic, then, one can cross over from death to life even while in this body—that is, long before physical death. This is called realized eschatology, and it has apparently existed in one form or another since shamanism and even before the dawn of civilization.

Up to this point in his lengthy article, Dr. Detering has reviewed the Exodus traditions in various Western movements and religions. His conclusion, however, is negative: the traditions of ‘crossing over’ that we find in early Christianity and Gnosticism (including the Therapeutae, Simonians, Peratae, Naassenes, and Mandeans) cannot derive either from (Middle) Platonism nor from Heraclitus—the most obvious Western precursors.

This leads Detering to “the overlooked terrain of Indic and Buddhist traditions” (p. 12). And here we come to the real ground-breaking essence of his article, for Detering finds abundant grounds to propose Indic influence on early Christianity. He spends the next twenty-three pages (the second major section of his article, pp. 13 to 36) in surveying ‘crossing the water’ in Indian spirituality, and the influence of that motif on Christian origins. The field of inquiry is vast, for Indian spirituality extends from the Vedas to later (Mahayana) Buddhism—approximately three millennia.

“Crossing over” in the Upanishads: a spiritual transformation

Detering begins his treatment of Eastern spirituality with the Upanishads. Those famous writings demonstrate a view of crossing over that is remarkably similar to that held by later western gnostics:

With the silver OM as boat, [cf. Noah and the ark–RS]
He crosses the space of the heart
and arrives at the other shore,
in the innermost space
that opens to him…
and so he enters Brahman’s dwelling. (Maitri Upanishad 6.23)

The above crossing over “from the darkness… to light” is similar to the later, western gnostic view. From a gnostic perspective, as argued in prior posts, we are dealing here with man’s universal goal—with the purpose and meaning of life.

Here we read of a boat crossing water to the other shore. No physical journey is intended. The boat and the shore are figurative of an inner, spiritual journey across “the space of the heart… the innermost space.” The great inner journey (the only journey that is ultimately meaningful) is portrayed in the familiar terms of materiality. This technique is common to both East and West: expressing the unseen through the seen is found over and over in scriptures in both Indian and Gnostic scriptures.

This reaffirms my thesis in the foregoing posts that the Exodus event was originally spiritual. This despite the fact that the description in the Old Testament is laden with physical detail and is calculated to portray a physical event with very mortal consequences on the material plane. But that is the author’s intention! He has taken a pre-existing spiritual tradition and has transformed it into what is essentially a grotesque and entirely unbelievable event on the physical plane. Normative Judaism (and Christianity) would accept the physical version. But gnostics did not. They continued to venerate and to acknowledge only the spiritual journey.

Today, many scholars conclude that the gnostics secondarily allegorized the Exodus event, and that they did the same with so much else in the Old Testament as well. This, however, is backwards. As it turns out, the gnostics were faithful to the original spiritual, abstract, and allegorical content of ancient gnostic traditions. It was the writers of Jewish (and later Christian) scripture who transformed the inner spiritual journey into a narrative that takes place on the material plane. It is my view that with the Exodus crossing, the crossing of the Jordan, and the baptism of Jesus we are dealing with invented events that have no foundation in history. However, each of these events does have deep meaning if treated allegorically, that is, as representing spiritual transformation:

From not-being lead me to being,
From the darkness lead me to light,
from death lead me to immortality. (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28)

“Crossing over” in Buddhism

Detering then considers the view (p. 14) known as the “stream of becoming.” Buddhists call this samsâra, literally “perpetual wandering” (Nyanatiloka, Buddhist Dictionary). This concept, of course, is altogether negative. What of the equivalence that I have occasionally proposed on this website, namely, that the stream of water = gnosis? Elsewhere I will make the case that we witness this concept as far back in history as ‘history’ goes—that is, back to the Sumerians and even to the Indus Valley civilization. In fact, two ancient water traditions existed side by side—one positive, one negative.

The Buddhist view of water is predominantly negative. While Buddhism is a ‘gnostic’ religion (after all, its goal is ‘enlightenment’), to my knowledge nowhere is water equated with gnosis. Also, in Buddhism there is no sacrament of water immersion as we find in Christian baptism, nor is there any sacred Ganges as we find in Hinduism. There is, on the other hand, the ‘stream of becoming/samsara,’ the ‘floods of ignorance,’ of suffering, and so on. This shows that—while the concepts may be similar—we simply cannot expect uniformity of imagery from one religion to another. Nor can we impose specific technical meanings across the board.

While the imagery is very different, I maintain that basic Buddhist teachings are remarkably similar to basic teachings of later gnostic systems in the West. I have already tabulated extensive similarities between Buddhist teachings and many logia in the New Testament gospels. Those similarities between the teachings of the Buddha and of Jesus apply especially to ethical and sapiential teachings. The similarities are less applicable to the imagery of the parables, and the contrasting cultural milieux are, of course, very different in India and in Palestine.

Indeed, the similarities between the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus are so many and profound that a case can be argued that western gnostic systems emerged historically out of Buddhism. The core Buddhist concept of karma is especially well represented in Jesus’ teachings. But we also find in Buddhism teachings of the narrow way, the way of innocence, chastity, sacrifice, the uselessness of riches, unattachment, spirituality over materiality, realized eschatology, etc. Often overlooked is perhaps the most astonishing similarity: the founders of both religions were homeless, itinerant, male preachers. What a coincidence! Finally, in both religions is a pronounced emphasis on gnosis: ‘seeking and finding’ hidden truth.

Historically, too, multiple pathways exist for Buddhism to have influenced Christianity. King Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to the West already c. 250 BCE. We know Buddhists were in Egypt from that time forward—they may well have been the ‘gymnosophists’ alluded to in some ancient texts. (On early Buddhism in the West, see discussion here.) Later, overland routes from India brought ‘Mahayana’ strains of Buddhism westward.

As in Christianity and other world religions, Buddhism is a layered, complex amalgamation of influences that took shape over many centuries. The concept of samsâra was indigenous to Indian thought from primordial times, and Buddhism assimilated the ‘stream of becoming’ from Hinduism and Vedic spirituality. The same can be said for allegorically crossing a body of water ‘to the other shore.’ This, too, was old (as we see in the above excerpt).

Conceptually speaking, we must be careful to distinguish water and crossing over water. While water could allegorically be positive or negative (gnosis/destruction), crossing over water is almost always an allegory for liberation or conquest of ‘death.’ Detering points out (p. 15) that Jainism knows the tirthankara (“the one who crosses over”). In Buddhism, specific meanings attach to crossing over: the attainment of understanding/gnosis (moksha, liberation) and the ceasing/extinguishing of passion (nirvana). Both these concepts appear in the following Buddhist verse:

The follower of the Awakened One
well understands desires,
how they arise and how they cease.
Self-controlled and aware,
Yearnings’ end he can clearly see
He thirsts no more
and is truly set free. [Ittivutaka 3.1.3, emphases added.]

In Buddhism, yearnings/desires are the stream of becoming (Detering, p. 16). One crosses over by controlling, mastering, and ridding oneself of desire—by cooling oneself down, as it were. In turn, the only way to master desire is to understand it. In Buddhism, to understand and master desire is to understand and master life itself. This specifically Buddhist view seems to have migrated to the West before the turn of the era and seeded what we know as Gnosticism—with its ascetic, encratite, and world-denying themes.

Detering confirms the above with the following words (p. 18): “Only through the aid of saving knowledge concerning the origin and the end of wish and desire is it possible to cross the stream.” In illustration, he cites from the Buddhist Anguttara Nikaya (“Collection of Sayings by Number”):

     Brethren, these four persons are found in the world. What four? The one who goes with the stream, the one who goes against the stream, the one who stands firm, and the one who has crossed over, has gone beyond, who stands on dry land—a brahmin.
     And of what sort, brethren, is the person who goes with the stream? Here in the world, brethren, one indulges his passions and does wrong deeds…
     … And of what sort, brethren, is the person who has crossed over and gone to the far shore, a brahmin who stands on dry land? He it is who, with the destruction of the taints in this very life, enters and dwells in the spotless liberation of mind—liberation by wisdom—having by direct knowledge realized [liberation] for himself. (A.N. IV.5)

Crossing over… destruction of the taints… liberation by wisdom… Is this not gnosticism?

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website www.NazarethMyth.info.

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