H. Detering, “The Gnostic Meaning of the Exodus”—A commentary (Pt. 21)

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The Mandeans
Part 1
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[H. Detering:]

[P. 9] With the Mandeans we also encounter the allegorical-gnostic interpretation of the Exodus theme. This sect originated on the eastern border between Palestine and Syria. Apparently it was genetically closely related to early Christian baptist sects. The Mandeans viewed the Exodus in a way quite similar to that already discussed. Mark Lidzbarski, the devoted translator of Mandean texts, observed: “The allegorical and eschatological interpretation of the Exodus from Egypt [by the Mandeans] goes back to Alexandrian hermeneutic: the city’s fleshpots, the view of existence as material and sensual, the Exodus as flight from this hylic world to a more spiritual plane, and the Red Sea as border between the two realms. In the Red Sea the evil find their demise, only the devout cross over. These conceptions are mirrored in Mandean literature.” (M. Lidzbarski, Das Johannesbuch Der Mandäer, 1915:21; cf. pp. 60, 90, 105, 203, 239.)

Detering adds: “Lidzbarski points to the frequent Mandean interpretation of the Sea of Reeds as the ‘Sea of Ending.’” That some gnostics in late antiquity interpreted the “Red Sea” as “Sea of Ending” is a critical point. In the Hebrew Old Testament, Moses crosses the Yam Suf, literally “Sea of Ending” or “Sea of the End” (yam = “sea,” and suf = “end”—BDB 5490). Astonishingly, this is almost always translated “Red Sea” (BDB 5488)—an arbitrary geographical interpretation that entirely ignores the clearly allegorical, original meaning of Yam Suf.

The geographical meaning is obviously artificial, for the Hebrew word suf (samekh-vav-peh) has only two attested meanings, neither geographical: [a] “end, ending”; and [b] “reed” (cf. Ex 2:3, 5). The former meaning is by far the most common, while “reed” is questionably based on the Egyptian loan word twfi, “reed” (BDB 5488). Neither [a] nor [b] fit the Red Sea, which is hardly known as a “Sea of Ending” or as a “Sea of Reeds.” The only explanation is that the Pentateuchal authors desired to counter a pre-existing tradition, namely, that the Israelites crossed over spiritually to a better world. Why was this unacceptable? Because only the physical interpretation allowed the formation of a chosen people, allowed conquest of a promised land, and empowered the Jewish people in the material sense.

“Sea of Ending” is a curious phrase to our ears. When we recognize that water was an ancient symbol for gnosis, then the original (pre-scriptural) meaning of the Exodus emerges: in the Bronze and Iron Ages, crossing over water symbolized the end of this world (of ignorance) and entrance into a transcendent world of understanding. These connotations must have been quite familiar to the authors of the Pentateuch, for they evidently suppressed the old gnostic interpretation, the only one that fits the words Yam Suf. As so often happens in religion, profound abstractions full of meaning become cheapened and interpreted in a banal, mundane way. Making the Sea of the Ending into a plain geographic entity is a little like calling gold a mere metal, or calling a diamond a mere rock. Similarly, ‘Crossing the Sea of the Ending’ has profound connotations: crossing over death and passing beyond finite limits. But what of crossing the Red Sea? Is that not merely crossing a body of water? Jewish scripture, then, abandoned an exalted spiritual interpretation in favor of a prosaic geographical interpretation. It exchanged a diamond for a rock.

Little noted are the Syriac/Aramaic meanings of suf(a) [samekh-pe-aleph]. Those meanings must be considered when discussing Christian origins, for by the turn of the era Aramaic had long supplanted Hebrew as the lingua franca in Palestine. In addition to “end,” the Aramaic meanings include “shore of the sea, bank of a river, brim, edge” (Payne Smith 385). The Aramaic completely changes the complexion of the Exodus, for the gnostic meaning comes clearly to the fore: suf as the “other side” beyond ignorance, materiality, and finiteness—suf as the sacred place of gnosis beyond every limit. Significantly, the Aramaic usage prefigures a phrase often found in the Gospel of Mark: eis to peran, “to the other side.”

The Mandeans retained the spiritual meaning

The Mandeans did not employ the foregoing linguistic gymnastics. In Mandaism, Yam Suf never means the Red Sea but retains its ancient meaning: Sea of Ending (Mandaic Dict. 323). The Mandeans knew two meanings: the great ocean of destruction (cf. the Flood), and an end to “this hylic world” and entrance into “a more spiritual plane” (from Lidzbarski’s words above).

We read in the Mandaic Book of John (chp. 59): “Whoever is not enlightened and instructed by me [the Messenger of Light] is cut off from the light and falls into the great Sea of Ending [Yama rba dSuf].” For the Mandeans it was not merely “Egyptians” who were lost—all who are unenlightened are lost in the great Sea of Ending.

Of interest also is another Mandaic phrase: Yoma d-suf, “the day of the end,” i.e., Judgment Day. The phrase often occurs in the Mandaic Book of John (see Mandaic Dict. 190). In Semitic languages “day” (yom/yoma) and “sea” (yam/yama) are quite similar—even identical when the vowels are not written (“defective” vs. “plene” spelling). This gives rise to possible confusion and the possibility for wordplay. Both meanings actually fit the Exodus account: for the Egyptians armies following Moses, the crossing of the Yam Suf (Sea of Ending) was also the day of judgment/destruction, Yom Suf. For gnostics, too, the spiritual crossing was a judgment and occurred at baptism—that is, in the water of gnosis. Gnostics interpreted the Exodus as the event when the Israelites went over to “the other side”—in gnostic terminology, they were “saved.” In these senses, Yom Suf and Yam Suf are interchangeable. We perceive here also a link between the Exodus/crossing over and baptism/enlightenment.

For gnostics, the Exodus event was the epochal passage through death ‘to the other side.’ It was deeply personal, not corporate. It had nothing to do with a people crossing a body of water, but was an inner transformation. Already in Old Testament times, however, the personal dimension is suppressed and the Israelites under Moses merely cross a body of water.

When we look forward many centuries we also find an esoteric Islamic movement whose members call themselves Sufi. Scholars are entirely undecided on the etymology of this name. Though none has proposed a relation to “end” as discussed in the preceding paragraphs, I do so here. After all, not only has Sufism many gnostic traits in common with the Mandeans and other baptist sects, but Sufi theology has been summarized as “the transcending of ordinary limitations” (Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi, 1969:14). Can it be a coincidence that crossing over, “transcending,” and otherwise bringing an end to “ordinary limitations” is precisely the meaning of suf and also of Sufi ?

Without wishing to venture too far afield, it can be noted that the goal of Buddhism also is an “ending,” a cessation. Nirvana, after all, derives from nir (“out”) + vaa (“blow”), i.e., to blow out, to cease blowing, to become extinguished. All-in-all, it appears that the Exodus event originally marked a universal theme in religion—that of cessation of the mundane, of transcendence, and of ‘crossing over to the other side.’

Ever-present gnosticism

Considerations such as those above allow one to pierce through the bewildering plethora of names used by the puthujjana—a Buddhist term meaning the worldly common folk. Academics, rabbis, and casuists make their living by splitting hairs and parsing intellectual chaff, the better to argue with one another ad nauseam and thus perpetuate the guild, sell books, and make reputations. So, here I include most biblical scholars among the puthujjana—they know literally hundreds of distinct religions, sects, factions, orthodoxies and heresies, yet they fail to see the direct line, the simple impulse common to peoples, eras, and continents everywhere: man wishes to understand his condition. He will always have a simple, naive, and perennial question: “What is this all about?” That question has been humbly asked (and answered) by great prophets, even as it was asked long, long ago by Paleolithic man. It is asked today and will continue to be asked by those who reflect on what it means to be alive and to be human. The gnostic would say that the understanding that comes from asking—and answering—that simple question is man’s final purpose, his ultimate journey, his being—life itself.

What I am getting at in these paragraphs is that the roots of gnosticism are ancient and probably primordial. Ultimately, those roots are private, not corporate. And there is the rub: the gnostic quest—though vital to everyone’s inner happiness (according to the gnostic)—is useless to priesthoods and organized religions of every kind. No church can exist where everyone is self-sufficiently seeking on his/her own terms, and focussed inwardly. Gnosticism removes every need for priest, deacon, and sacrament.

Thus gnosticism defeats all attempts to organize. It dissolves the religious group, replacing the centralized authority with a thousand points of light. The socially corrosive aspect of gnosticism was recognized long ago. As a result, gnosticism has perennially been inimical to every faith that seeks to amass power, to gain converts, and to manifest itself on the material rather than the spiritual plane.

Time and again in history we witness churches and organized religions soon adopting an adversarial stance toward gnosticism. It is calculating and self-serving, for each gnostic necessarily represents one less convert. The gnostic is also the ultimate competition, claiming the high ground of that which is, immediately apprehended, with no need of a creed or belief system.

The irony is that most religions probably had gnostic beginnings. They began as an authentic search for truth/understanding on a strictly personal level. In time, however, like-minded seekers of greater or lesser sincerity came together and the nucleus of a corporate religion was born. Once this happens, the focus quickly moves from an inner search to considerations of gaining converts and amassing influence. In its growing lust for power, every church, sect, and priesthood metaphorically assassinates its gnostic parents. In sum, such is the inevitable devolution of man’s religions—past, present, and future—from a private spiritual quest to public adherence to codes, commandments, and cant. What was inner becomes outer. The Exodus changes from a universal saga of transcendence to crossing a body of water.

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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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