H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 24)

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Buddhism and the Odes of Solomon

Dr. Detering dedicates a large section of his article to Buddhism (pp. 14-26). While I find some of his arguments more persuasive than others, here I will only examine points that are relevant to our main subject: ‘crossing over’ in Buddhism and possible links with Christianity. In the process, I will also present material not mentioned by Detering that adds support to his main argument. The first part of the this post continues the discussion on the Odes of Solomon (pts. 18-20).

Detering (pp. 19-20) signals a short passage from the Digha Nikaya in which the Buddha and his monks miraculously cross the Ganges: “And then the Lord came to the River Ganges. And just then, the river was so full that a crow [on the lower branches] could drink out of it. And some people were looking for a boat, and some were looking for a raft, and some were binding together a raft of reeds to get to the other side. But the Lord, as swiftly as a strong man might stretch out his flexed arm or flex it again, vanished from this side of the Ganges and reappeared with his order of monks on the other shore” (DN 16.1.33; M. Walshe translation). The miracle is typically furnished with a closing teaching: “When they want to cross the sea, the lake or pond, people make a bridge or raft—the wise have crossed already.” Detering (p. 21) finds remarkable similarities between the Buddhist miracle and the 39th Ode of Solomon. I demur, however, by noting that the ode, while generally concerned with crossing “raging rivers,” has important elements not found in the Buddhist passage: the waters are made obedient, “the Lord” crosses the river on foot, and others who cross over after him adhere to his path (vss. 8, 9, 13). Nevertheless, Detering may have another interesting Buddhist passage in mind, as signaled by his footnotes—namely, the Sanskrit Catusparisatsutra. One of its sections indeed offers striking parallels to the 39th Ode, and also to the canonical crossing during the storm, Mt 14:22 ff. (See M. Lockwood, Mythicism, 2014:108-09; N. Klatt, Walking on the Water, 1990:30; J. Derrett, “Walking on Water in Christian and Buddhist Perspective,” 204.)

In the 39th ode we read that “raging rivers” obstruct the unholy but are crossed “in faith” by the elect (vss. 1-6). The Lord bridges the waters “by his word, and he walks and crosses them on foot, as his footsteps stand firm upon the waters” (vss. 9-10). Of course, one is immediately reminded of Jesus’ walking on the Sea of Galilee during the storm (Mt 14:22 ff & pars). The motif of ‘standing firm’ in water repeats in Ode 39:11, and one is also reminded of the priests standing firmly in the middle of the Jordan as all of Israel crosses over (Josh 4:17).

One wonders at the enduring scriptural emphasis placed on this rather strange motif—as if standing on water or in the middle of water (cf. baptism) had special meaning. And, indeed, previous posts in this series have suggested a meaning: standing in water was once allegorical and signified standing in gnosis.

The all-important stones taken from the middle of the Jordan River (Josh 4:3) are a perpetual memorial (v. 7) to that which endures in the middle of the river/water/gnosis. It appears that gnostics knew this standing motif well, for it colored their view of the Exodus event and also of the crossing of the Jordan. In gnosticism, stones were a symbol of the eternally enduring gnosis itself, that is, of the immortal Word of the Lord (OdeSol 10:2; 15:9) that stands firm in the turbulent waters of life.

In this light we can understand the “Standing One,” that is, Simon Magus. Simon’s genetic relationship to Simon Peter now also emerges, for Peter (“rock/stone”) is the foundation “upon which I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). Of course, in the Gospel that foundation rock is no longer gnosis but is now the invented figure of Peter, the first Pope.

The concept of standing in the middle of water apparently lies at the very roots of Christianity. I have pointed out that amad, the Aramaic term for “stand,” also means “baptize.” This astonishing overlap cannot be mere coincidence. The “Standing One” is also the “Baptizing One”! Thus, the figure of John the Baptist also must enter our discussion. Could it be that Simon Magus was a precursor both to Simon Peter and also to John the Baptist? After all, the Magus is a first century figure, while Peter and also John inhabit the canonical gospels and thus are second century figures.

According to the chronology found on this website, the Odes of Solomon belong to a pre-canonical stage. The foregoing discussion, including Buddhist influence, thus belongs to a “pre-Christianity.” This is precisely the view of Stevan Davies, who has written an important article, “The Odes of Solomon—Evidence for a Pre-Christianity.” I possess an unpublished version of his article, though I understand it appeared in revised form at the end of Davies’ 2014 book Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity. While Davies does not mention Buddhism, he concludes: “The Odes represent the Jewish religious movement out of which Christianity arose so that the Judaism of the Odes (not the specific texts of the Odes themselves) lies at the root of Pauline Christianity and Johannine Christianity…” In my own schematic framework, “the Judaism of the Odes” corresponds to Stage II Christology (the indwelling spiritual Jesus). That stage dates to I CE.

Buddhism and the gospels

In tone and content, two other passages in the vast Buddhist literature are strikingly similar to both Ode 39 and the gospel accounts of Jesus miraculously crossing the Sea of Galilee. Influence from the East seems eminently possible. The first passage I wish to signal is in the Commentary on the Anguttara Nikaya:

     Queen Anojâ, surrounded by a thousand chariots, reaching the bank of the Ganges and seeing no boat or raft brought for the king, by her own intuition concluded: “The king must have crossed by making an Act of Truth. But this Teacher was reborn not for them alone. If this Teacher be the Supremely Enlightened Buddha, may our chariots not sink into the water!”
     She caused the chariots to spring forward on the surface of the water. Of the chariots not even so much as the outer rims of the wheels was wetted. The second river also, the third river also, she crossed by the same Act of Truth. Even in the act of crossing, she saw the Teacher at the foot of the banyan tree. [E. Burlingame, Buddhist Parables, 1922:175]

This citation turns on a declaration of faith: “If this Teacher be the Supremely Enlightened Buddha, may our chariots not sink into the water!” Queen Anojâ’s faith bears fruit in her passage across the surface of the waters. Her faith is confirmed by the careful mention that she kept the Teacher ever in mind: “Even in the act of crossing, she saw the Teacher at the foot of the banyan tree.”

The above is highly reminiscent of Peter walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee (Mt 14:28-33). Peter’s faith wavers and he sinks. “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘O man of little faith, why did you doubt?’”

The Anguttara Commentary (AC, also known to Pâli scholars as the Manorathapurani) apparently dates to the time of Buddhaghosa in V CE. A leading authority, however, has noted that the AC contains much older material (O. Hinüber, Pâli Literature, 1997:112 & 121). Is it possible that the Buddhist tradition is older than the Christian version (which, as I have argued elsewhere, dates to II CE), and that the Buddhist story influenced the more complex version in the Gospel of Matthew?

Even more reminiscent of the Matthaean story is a Jataka tale. The numerous Jataka tales mix Buddhism, folklore, and magic. They were immensely popular among the people of the Indian subcontinent and probably spread far beyond strictly Buddhist circles. (In Buddhism, the Jataka tales are somewhat analogous to the very popular non-canonical Acts of the Apostles in Christian lore.) Scholarly opinion is that some Jataka tales were very early, perhaps as early as the fourth century BCE. Jataka 190 includes the following passage:

This noble disciple, we are told, possessed of faith and serenity of mind, set out one day for Jetavana monastery. At eventide he reached the bank of the river Aciravati, after the boatman had beached his boat and gone to hear the preaching of the doctrine.

Not seeing a boat, he had recourse to the practice of meditation, concentrated his thoughts on the Buddha, attained the Ecstasy of Joy, and descended into the river. His feet did not sink into the water. He walked along as though he were walking on the surface of the land until he came to mid-stream. Then he saw waves. Then the Ecstasy of Joy, the result of the concentration of his thoughts on the Buddha, became weak. Then his feet began to sink. But he concentrated his thoughts anew on the Buddha, strengthened the Ecstasy of Joy, walked on the surface of the water as before, entered Jetavana monastery, bowed to the Teacher, and sat down on one side. [Jataka 190:ii.111; in Burlingame p. 186.]

This Buddhist story has the same sequence of details as does the Matthaean story:
(a) the noble disciple/Peter has faith and walks on the water;
(b) the noble disciple sees waves/Peter sees the wind;
(c) both lose faith and sink;
(d) the noble disciple renews his faith (concentrates his thoughts) on the Buddha/Peter calls out to Jesus for help;
(e) the noble disciple walks on the water as before/Peter does not sink but is saved by Jesus;
(f) the noble disciple bows to the Teacher/Peter confesses “Truly you are the Son of God.”

The Buddhist and Christian stories ultimately deal with faith. In both the eastern and western traditions, however, a strong case can be made that the religion of faith was late and replaced the religion of personal discovery through gnosis. For example, the Gospel of Thomas is not concerned with faith but with gnosis—“find the interpretation of these sayings” (L.1). This is one clue that GTh is an early text. Later, however, ‘Paul’ is all consumed by considerations of faith, which he holds as superior to wisdom (Rom 1:22; 1 Cor 1:19-25). This suggests that either (1) Paul is relatively late, or (2) later Catholic hands have heavily redacted ‘Paul.’

In Buddhist history the way of gnosis was also supplanted by the way of faith: liberation by individual discovery (e.g. the Kalama Sutta) gave way to following the path of the Buddha. Thus, in the above story the noble disciple concentrates his thoughts on the Buddha. For him, is no longer a question of finding gnosis, but of following a founder figure.

Together with faith came the miraculous. Both are late. Again, miracles are conspicuously absent from the Gospel of Thomas. In the East, the miraculous is also absent from the Sutta Nipata, generally considered the earliest collection of Buddhist dogma.

The above parallel between the Jataka tale and the Gospel of Matthew is thus already late—both passages contain the miraculous and in both cases gnosis has been superseded by faith. We can surmise that, in its present recension, the Jataka tale is not one of the earliest of the 547 that are extant.

On his p. 21, Detering offers an astonishing quote that captures the later stage of the tradition and the inverse of the earlier theology: faith leads to gnosis! That claim would have been strenuously rejected not only by proto-gnostics in the West but also by the Buddha. Yet it well reflects a later and more modern mindset (both in the East and West)—a mindset that accompanied the birth of Christianity as the religion moved from gnosis to faith.

The gnosis → faith trajectory is rank heresy and also admitted by few scholars today. Consider the words of the Scottish indologist Berriedale Keith, who views the the Buddhist “Walking on water” simile from a late and all-too-familiar perspective:

“Faith is the root of correct knowledge [!]; man does not think out the doctrines of the Buddha by the independent light of reason; he must hear them taught and explained. Faith is the means by which man may cross the depths of the river of existence to the safety of Nirvana; the teaching of the Buddha saves him who has faith, but destroys the faithless…” (A. B. Keith, Buddhist Philosophy, 1923:34f.)

For Dr. Keith the way of gnosis never even existed. Furthermore, his words are diametrically opposed to the Buddha’s own exhortation as expressed in the Kalama Sutta and elsewhere: ‘Do not follow me. Follow your own revelations!’

We recall that water (= gnosis) symbolically both destroys and saves (as in the account of the Flood). According to Keith’s view, however, only faith in the teaching of the Buddha saves. The difference may appear slight, yet therein lies salvation or slavery. The proverbial wide way is easy—it supposes someone else has done the hard work for us. The narrow way, by contrast, is difficult—it knows that no one can save us, but that we ourselves are the source of our liberation.

Dr. Detering closes his section on Buddhism and ‘crossing over’ (p. 25) with some bold, unprecedented assertions:

In closing, we conclude that the idea of a “spiritual Exodus” doubtless was a genuine product of the Indian conceptual world and derived from it. The idea goes back from (Mahayana) Buddhism to the early Vedic literature and the Upanishads. In its developed, worked-out form it finds no complement Jewish, Greek, or Roman literature. This means that the most significant parallels to the Gnostic interpretation of the Exodus are entirely to be found in Indian and Buddhist religious traditions. The Gnostics used Old Testament models and themes, but they infused them with spiritual content from Indian and Buddhist traditions.

The deciding question now is: Where do the two lines meet—Jewish tradition/Hebrew bible on the one hand, and Buddhist/Indian spirituality on the other? At what point do they intersect?

The answer is straightforward and requires only a glance. In fact, we have already discussed the point where the two lines intersect—it is in Alexandria. More precisely, the lines intersect with that enigmatic sect discussed by Philo Judaeus: the Therapeutae on Lake Mareotis.

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