H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 16)

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Note: Dr. Detering’s writing (as well as summary of his writing) is in brown. My commentary is in black text.
An insightful study of the Naassenes, written for the layperson, is M. H. Gaffney’s Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes
(Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2004).—R.S.

The Naassenes

On pp. 5-7 of his article, Dr. Detering considers the views of the Naassenes. Our main source for this sect is the fifth book of Hippolytus’ Refutation of all Heresies. The Church Father offers an extensive but hardly clear treatment. From one sentence to the next he brings forward the Greek mystery religions, the Genesis story, the ‘giants,’ Egyptian gods, and obscure names such as the Corybantes, Curetes, Cabiri, etc. That the Naassenes had ties with all these makes them very imposing indeed. And, I dare say, given the extensive treatment of Hippolytus, they must have seemed very important (or threatening) to him, at least. I suppose one could parse Hippolytus sentence-by-sentence and produce a 500 page tome on what he does or does not say about the Naassenes (has it been done?). Here, I just offer some comments relative to Dr. Detering’s observations, with the caveat that Hippolytus has many interesting things to say about the Naassenes that do merit fairly extensive consideration.

Detering writes: “Hippolytus first reports that [the Naassenes] designated themselves as ‘Gnostics’ and that they claimed “alone to know the depths of wisdom'” (Ref. 5.1). Hippolytus notes that their name derives from the Hebrew nahash (nun-het-shin), “serpent.”

[RS:] This shows that the Naassenes were a gnostic sect drawn from Judaism. Their veneration of the serpent—an age-old gnostic symbol—links the Naassenes with ancient Levantine religion going back to the Bronze Age. Hippolytus (Ref. 5.5) cites a psalm of the Naassenes, given here with added formatting:

The Naassene Psalm

[a] The world’s producing law was primal mind,
And next was first-born’s outpoured chaos; and third, the soul received its law of toil.
[b] Encircled, therefore, with an acqueous form, with care overpowered it succumbs to death.
Now holding sway, it eyes the light, and now it weeps on misery flung; now it mourns, now it thrills with joy;
now it wails, now it hears its doom; now it hears its doom, now it dies, and now it leaves us, never to return.
It, hapless straying, treads the maze of ills.
But Jesus said, Father, behold, A strife of ills across the earth wanders far from Your breath; But man seeks to shun bitter chaos, And knows not how to pass through.
[c] On this account, O Father, send me; Bearing seals, I will descend; Through ages whole I’ll sweep, all mysteries I’ll unravel, and forms of gods I’ll show; And secrets of the saintly path, styled “Gnosis,” I’ll impart.
          (The G.R.S. Mead translation is here.)

The psalm depicts the wandering soul that, “hapless straying, treads the maze of ills.” This is very Indic. It reflects the concept of samsara, a Sanskrit word going back to Vedic times that means “wandering” or “world”, with the connotation of cyclic, circuitous change. The view that life is suffering is particularly Buddhist. Dukkha (“discontent”, “suffering”) is one of the three primary characteristics of existence in Buddhist metaphysics. This view is remarkably close to that expressed in the Naassene Psalm, particularly in part [b] above.

Detering points out that, in the Naassene Psalm, the savior Jesus is a pre-existent figure, showing that the concept of the savior’s pre-existence was already a fact in fairly early Christian times. (Hippolytus was writing c. 200 CE.) As regards the Exodus motif, for the Naassenes the sea symbolizes the earthly material realm, as opposed to the “Heavenly Jerusalem” as “Mother of the Living” (Ref. 5.2).

[RS:] A previous post noted the gnostic emphasis on the direction of water flow: the downward (natural) flow represents materiality and destruction; the upward flow (contrary to nature) represents spirituality and liberation. Accordingly, the upward flow is miraculous—or, at least, quite beyond ordinary comprehension. Hippolytus describes the difference in water direction for the Naassene:

This, he says, is ocean, “generation of gods and generation of men” ever whirled round by the eddies of water, at one time upwards, at another time downwards. But he says there ensues a generation of men when the ocean flows downwards; but when upwards to the wall and fortress and the cliff of Luecas, a generation of gods takes place. (Ref. 5.2)

Thus, the downwards flow = the “generation of men,” while the upwards flow = the “generation of gods.” The above passage continues quite revealingly: “This [i.e., the generation of gods] is that which has been written: ‘I said, Ye are gods, and all children of the highest.’” Here the Naassene asserts the great gnostic hubris: man becomes god—in potential, design, and purpose. Ultimately, man’s ignorance of this keeps him back. ‘Man to god’, or ‘man into god’ (apotheosis)—this is the gnostic Way, as asserted by the Naassenes.

For the Naassene, the transition from man to god is also the transition/passage across the Jordan ‘to the other side.’ That passage, or crossing, can only be accomplished if the water is made to flow in contrary direction: ‘upwards.’ This is all mythological gobbledy-gook until we understand some of the Naassene terminology. Hippolytus explains it in the following passage:

This, he says, is the great Jordan which, flowing on (here) below, and preventing the children of Israel from departing out of Egypt–I mean from terrestrial intercourse, for Egypt is with them the body,–Jesus drove back, and made it flow upwards.

Let’s unpack the above sentence. Firstly, “Egypt” = “terrestrial intercourse”, i.e. sexual relations. In other words, the flight of the Israelites out of Egypt was a flight away from sexual relations. This view is known as ‘encratite.’ It was shared by most gnostic groups of antiquity.
Secondly, Jesus “drove back” the water of the Jordan and made it flow upwards. In other words, Jesus is the hero who reversed the natural course of the Jordan and showed that it could be done. He showed the way and bears emulation. His ‘way’ involved a renunciation of “terrestrial intercourse,” i.e., of sexual relations. This is Naassene theology in a nutshell.

Dr. Detering points out (p. 6) that this “Jesus” is none other than the Joshua of the Old Testament. He cites the now-familiar passage from the Book of Joshua:

14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. 15 Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16 the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea,[a] were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan. (Josh 3:14-17)

[RS:] No doubt the Naassenes interpreted the Israelite crossing of the Jordan in an encratite way for, as we have seen above, in the Naassene view the water ‘standing still’ = abandoning sexuality. More astonishing, however, is that the OT author of the Book of Joshua (writing, according to Gmirkin, c. 270 BCE) must have already known such an encratite theology, for he could only have been reacting against already existing proto-gnosticism. What we know of (a) Mt. Hermon’s ancient significance as home of the gods and of the enlightened being (Atrahasis), (b) the Jordan as that sacred mountain’s primary river, (c) the symbolism of water, and (d) the stones in the midst of the river—all of these signal that the narrative of the Jordan crossing rests securely on a proto-gnostic basis. In other words, the encratite theology described above must have existed already in early III BCE. Furthermore, the OT writer knew that theology but papered it over. The Book of Joshua suppresses an older proto-gnostic worldview.

In all this I am not proposing that the Naassenes predated the turn of the era. What I am suggesting here is more broad: that gnosticism itself was far earlier than ‘Christian Gnosticism.’ We may consider the Naassenes as merely one group that inherited an ancient esoteric tradition of encratite gnosticism. The study of Indic (Mohenjo-Daro, Vedic, Upanishadic), Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Elamite, Babylonian) and Syrian (Baalbek, Ugarit, Mari) religions all bear out the existence of such an encratite theology and symbolic system. Once, long ago, that theology was normative. With the advance of civilization in the Iron Age, however, it became more and more ‘esoteric.’ Once, religion involved the transformation of man into god through extraordinary effort leading to gnosis. This religion involved personal liberation through (among other things) sexual continence. Vestiges of that older religion of divine transformation endured in the so-called “Mystery Religions” of Greek and Roman times. They also survive in aspects of Christian asceticism.
The gnostic sought to destroy sexuality—“the works of the female” (Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians)—and to destroy duality and gender itself. God was hermaphrodite, and the true disciple was like a pre-pubescent and asexual child (the prelapsarian Adam) who disrobes without shame (GTh 21). In gnostic parlance, male and female no longer exist. The enlightened person is not male or female: s/he is “complete”—either a hermaphrodite (both sexes), or an emasculated Attis figure (neither sex). The Gospel of Thomas sums up this theology in a few words:

Jesus said: “And if you make the male and the female one, so that the male is no longer male and the female no longer female… then you will enter the Kingdom.” (GTh 27)

It appear, then, that the Gospel of Thomas teaches Naassene theology. Support for this comes from logion 12 and from Hippolytus, both of which mention James the Just. Hippolytus tells us (Ref. V.2 and X.5) that the Naassenes received their tenets from James via ‘Mariamne.’ In the Gospel of Thomas we read:

The disciples said to Jesus, “We know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?”
Jesus said to them, “Wherever you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being” (GTh 12).

Those are strong words, and they place the Naassenes under suspicion of being identical with those responsible for the Gospel of Thomas. Because James the Just is known to the tradition as the head of the Jerusalem Church—the first Christian Church—we arrive at the very interesting proposition that the earliest Christians were none other than gnostic Naassenes. Those early Christians are also denominated ‘Ebionites.’ Suddenly, all gets murky very quickly, as one realizes that earliest Christianity was ultra-heretical and that the ‘tradition’ surrounding Jesus of Nazareth came much later

Interesting, indeed!

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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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