H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 3)

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Note: Dr. Detering’s original writing (translated) is in brown. My commentary is in black.
Page numbers (in brackets) may change, as the English translation has not yet been published.

A commentary on Dr. Hermann Detering’s

“The Gnostic meaning of the Exodus
and the beginning of the Joshua/Jesus Cult” (2017)

Abstract by Dr. Detering of the entire article:

In a gnostic interpretation, the Exodus motif has strong affinities with Buddhist-Indian conceptions. An investigation of where and when the thought systems of East and West converge—in this case, Hebrew scripture and Jewish tradition on the one hand, Buddhist and Indian spirituality on the other—leads to the Therapeutae, described by Philo of Alexandria in his De Vita Contemplativa. The Therapeutae were, in all probability, Jewish Buddhists/Buddhist Jews. Their central mysterium consisted of a nocturnal celebration of the Exodus, which they regarded as a passing over from the the sensual-material realm ( = Egypt) to the rational-spiritual realm ( = the wilderness/Holy Land). Strongly rooted in Jewish tradition, the Therapeutae venerated Moses above all, while closely related gnostic Christian groups such as the Peratae and Naasenes perpetuated traditions centered on Moses’ successor, Joshua. For these latter groups, Joshua/Jesus was the counterpart of Moses. The old cult of Moses was superseded and surpassed by the new, gnostic-Christian cult of Joshua-Jesus.

1a. The Gnostic interpretation of the Exodus: the Therapeutae

[Detering writes, p. 1] The departure of the Israelite people out of Egypt, described in the Book of Exodus (13:17–14:31), is an oft-repeated and central motif in the Old Testament (Deut 26:5ff, Ps 114:1ff, Isa 14:16, et multi)… Within Israelite orthodoxy, the Exodus was viewed as an explicitly historical event. Nevertheless, an allegorical interpretation first appeared in Alexandria and quite outside Jewish orthodoxy. According to Philo, the first century C.E. Jewish religious philosopher, Egypt is “the body,” the place of “passions which excite the body,” and of vice. Similarly, the Jordan is for Philo a symbol for tribulation. As regards Jacob’s statement, “For in my staff did I pass over this Jordan” (Gen 32:10), Philo explains:

Jordan means descent. And of the lower, and earthly, and perishable nature, vice and passion are component parts; and the mind of the ascetic passes over them in the course of its education. For it is too low a notion to explain his saying literally; as if it meant that he crossed the river, holding his staff in his hand. [Legum II.89; Scholer translation.]

For all this, Philo delineates only the general contrast between the sensual-material sphere (= Egypt/Jordan) and the mental-spiritual sphere ( = wilderness).

COMMENTARY—Water, water everywhere… (R. Salm)
We will take a brief hiatus from the exciting Buddhist-Christian connections signaled in the preceding post, including that of early Christian Nazoraeans “setting themselves ablaze.” Dr. Detering engages with Buddhism in his article, and we will return to that critical issue by and by. In this post, however, I begin a systematic response to Detering’s article.
The opening paragraphs above cover a lot of territory, and I’ll devote this and the next post to commenting on them. At the outset, let’s be clear that Detering is discussing allegory as used around the turn of the era, particularly in Alexandria, Egypt. Thus, he writes above: “an allegorical interpretation first appeared in Alexandria and quite outside Jewish orthodoxy.” An interesting thing about allegory is that common terms have associations that are, in fact, not common at all. So, Philo writes above: Egypt is “the body” and “Jordan means descent.” (In fact, “Jordan” in Hebrew does literally mean “descent”—more on this below.) In other words, we are dealing with a sort of code, and without any accompanying explanation, allegorical writing can be quite cryptic (cf. The Revelation of John). Philo famously indulged in allegory, but he usually ‘explains’ the code as he goes along for the benefit of his readers. Origen and many Church Fathers do the same. But the gnostics often did not explain their terms. They prided themselves in ‘knowing the code,’ in being apart—hence the intentionally cryptic nature of so many of their texts, which are truly “esoteric” (requiring special or privy knowledge).
In this article Detering focusses on the Exodus, and ‘getting to the other side’ plays a crucial, central role in the discussion. After all, the Exodus is a passage across (or through) water: the Israelites were successful in passing from one side to the other side of a body of flowing water, while the Egyptians were not. As discussed in Pt. 1 of this series, ‘reaching the other shore’ is common in both Buddhism and Christianity. It figuratively describes transcendence—ultimately, the transcendence of ‘death.’
For the gnostic, ignorance is death. It is no coincidence that the word “ignorance” occurs over and over in the Philosophumena’s (one of our main sources of information on gnostic sects) discussion of the Peratae, whose name loosely means “Those Who Belong to the Other Side.” Detering will discuss this sect later in his article. In relation to the Exodus, then, those Egyptians who died in the water died in ‘ignorance.’ This is part of the allegorical schema used by the Peratae. If we go one step further, then water = ‘ignorance.’
So, Philo views the “Jordan” as a place of tribulation, while the Peratae view water as “ignorance.” Detering discusses the views of both in his article, and also of an aspect of Buddhism where the metaphorical river is a place of disaster ‘to be crossed.’ All of these negative views of water are consistent with the allegory of crossing over, of transcendence.
Nevertheless, another tradition exists in Buddhism, as also in Gnosticism, where water is metaphorically good. The positive view, indeed, leads directly to the Christian sacrament of baptism, and it is critical that we understand it. The positive view is able to exist side-by-side with the negative view because they express the same thing in slightly different ways. In the scenario of crossing the river, the other shore is the goal (gnosis) and the river itself (water) is an impediment (variously: life, materiality, carnality, desire, ignorance). However, the conceptual background of baptism derives from a different scenario, one in which water is itself symbolic of gnosis. In this scenario, the metaphorical goal is to dip into or immerse in water. What I am getting at is that both scenarios are found in the ancient texts, and both are correct.
In this article, Dr. Detering focusses on the negative view of ‘water.’ He begins with Philo, above, and will proceed to consider the Peratae, Buddhism, and so on. This is all correct as far as it goes, but I believe it is insufficient. In this commentary I will be adding a contrasting view of water—one that is fundamental to understanding Christian origins.

Two kneeling, naked, and shaven priests of Elam engage in a holy water ceremony in a temple, dated to XII BCE. One priest offers water to the other. Note the great vessel of water to the right. Such vessels were widespread in Bronze and Iron Age temples throughout the Levant (cf. the ‘brazen sea’ in Solomon’s temple, 1 Kgs 7:23-26).

It may come as a surprise to the reader that something as benign as the allegorical interpretation of ‘water’ could have any real importance. However, when we recognize that Jesus begins his ministry at his baptism (Mk 1:9 ff), then we must acknowledge the importance of immersion in water for the evangelists and for the early Jesus-followers. All the various Christian traditions—orthodox and heterodox—agree that baptism marks an end to the old and the beginning of something wonderful and new. It is a spiritual rebirth. Normative Christianity will define that rebirth (being “born again”) as having “faith” in Jesus, the Son of God. For the Gnostics however, the surviving texts reveal that baptism is something very different: the passage from ignorance to gnosis. That is the gnostic rebirth. From a gnostic viewpoint, then, dipping into water = being reborn = finding gnosis.
One inference from the above—if we take it seriously—is that the canonical gospels rest on a previously-existing gnostic substratum.
The Gnostic view of baptism is also evident in surviving snippets of Jewish-Christian gospel tradition. For example, a bright light (a universal symbol of wisdom) attends Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of the Ebionites and in the Diatessaron. Gnostic texts sometimes contrast the ‘man of darkness’ (= before baptism) with the ‘man of light’ (= post-baptism). Thomas 24 contrasts the enlightened person (= who has ‘light’) with one who is ignorant (= lives in darkness). It reads: “There is light within a man of light, and it lights up the whole world. If it does not shine, it is darkness.” In the hardly known Two Books of Jeu (discovered in Upper Egypt), Jesus is equated with light and illuminating gnosis: “Lord Jesus, you living one, whose goodness is spread abroad on those who have found his wisdom [sophia] and his form in which he shines—O Light, that is in the light that has illumined our heart until we received the light of life—O true Word [logos], which through gnosis teaches us the hidden knowledge of the Lord Jesus, the living one” (see NTA 1991.I:371–72).
The Gospel of John makes much use of ‘light’ imagery. There, we read: “*I* am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (GJn 8:12). The Fourth Gospel effectively hijacks the entire gnostic concept of enlightenment by redefining the spiritual ‘Jesus’ as the god-man from Nazareth.

Materialism vs. Gnosticism

The Christian sacrament of baptism did not appear full blown around the turn of the era. The sacred view of water has a long prehistory going back even to the dawn of civilization. That prehistory, however, is more or less in esoteric/minority traditions, for the dominant priesthoods of every age were rarely gnostic. Indeed, they repudiated gnosticism. Thus we find, again and again, a metaphorical disparagement of not only water, but of the related gnostic symbols. In the Old Testament, Leviathan (the great water ‘dragon’) fights (and ever fails) against Yahweh. In Ugaritic literature, the deity Yam (“Sea”) fights (and fails) against Baal. And in Mesopotamia, the water god Enki was replaced by his son, the sky god Marduk.
The negative depiction of water/water deities ultimately signals the repudiation of gnosticism. This is why we encounter opposing views of ‘water’ from one ancient religious text to another. A few texts were pro-gnostic, while many more texts were anti-gnostic. In a sense, ‘water’ is at the heart of an ancient religious culture war, one between gnosticism and materiality, between peaceable water gods (espousing the way of gnosis) and sky/thunder gods (espousing the way of manifest power). We can trace this religious warfare though just about every century from the Bronze Age to Late Antiquity.

Oannes, the fish-man.
Note the streams of water at left.

For the positive evaluation of water, one need only recall the long lost figure of Oannes (“John”), the half-man/half-fish who emerges out of the water to teach the arts and sciences to early Mesopotamia. Then, too, Enki—the divine friend of mankind—was a water god. His ‘home’ was the Abzu (literally: “deep/lower water”), imagined as the underworld ocean. From the earliest times—even before history—wisdom resided below (cf. the Paleolithic cave paintings), and to gain wisdom involved a descent to water. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “Jordan” derives from the root YRD, “descend” (more on this significant datum in a later post). Enki’s underworld and watery home was symbolized in Bronze and Iron Age temples by means of a great metal cauldron holding sacred water—also known as the “Apsu/Abzu.” According to the OT, one such cauldron was even in the Temple of Solomon. All this validates an old and enduring religious tradition centered on the sacredness of water, a theme that long predates Judaism.

A reconstruction of the brazen sea (Abzu) in Solomon’s Temple.

It is my contention that gnosticism is as old as religion itself. It is opposed, ultimately, by materialism. Of the two traditions, the gnostic seems to always come first—and is invariably defeated at the hands of one or another ‘majority’ religion with an organized priesthood, creator god(s), and state power. History bears this out time and time again.
In my view, the greatest religious teachers of the past (among whom I include Zoroaster, Buddha, and Yeshu ha-Notsri) were gnostic figures. Nevertheless, the ‘churches’ that derived from their teachings are priesthoods whose aim is to make themselves indispensable. So, the original teaching of “seek and find” becomes “follow us, believe what we tell you.” The metamorphosis from seeking to believing is a universal stage in religion. Christianity may be a textbook case of one religion moving away from gnosis and to ‘belief’ at the same time that a priesthood was forming: the second century CE. It is a necessary betrayal, for otherwise priesthoods would have no success among the masses. After all, the way of gnosticism is simply too difficult for ordinary people and hardly a message to insure success in ‘the world.’ The gnostic way is even odious, for it demands breaking attachments to things physical, calming desires, and (by and large) repudiating pleasure itself. Most people would object: All this is in return for what? The gnostic will reply simply: It is in return for understanding.

And He said, “The man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of small fish. Among them the wise fisherman found a fine large fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish without difficulty. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Gospel of Thomas 8; par. Mt 13:47–50; 45–46.)

So, dipping into water, or reaching the other shore—both metaphors signal transcendence of ‘death’ and, in a gnostic context, the acquisition of hidden gnosis. Philo was clearly outside this gnostic tradition, as the citation above of Dr. Detering reveals. Philo belonged to the normative Jewish tradition that he intensively allegorized. It appears, however, that the Therapeutae may have belonged to the other tradition—the ‘gnostic.’ We will examine Detering’s views on the enigmatic Therapeutae—and their possible link to Buddhism—in subsequent posts.

Highlights of this post:

• both positive and negative views of water coexisted and opposed each other in pre-Christian mythology
• in many (proto-)gnostic traditions, water was a symbol of gnosis
• the negative depiction of water and water deities marks the repudiation of gnosticism
• the canonical gospels rest on a previously-existing gnostic substratum.

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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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