Knowing: The Gnostic Lure of Knowing It All

“According to Irenaeus, sin in its primitive form is Man’s attempt to be God.”

(Jacobsen, Anders-Christian. “The Importance of Genesis 1-3 in the Theology of Irenaeus.” Zeitschrift Für Antikes Christentum 8, no. 2 (2004): 299–316 @ 303)

A few things have converged lately for me:

  1. A sermon I preached on the nature of sin in relation to Romans 1–3. This, by the way, led to discovering the curious facts that:
    • Oscar Wilde died at 46, having in some practical ways arguably explored the meaning of sin, at least as his society understood it, as a participant in the ‘Decadent Movement’.Doriangray_Raoul Van Coneghem[Raoul Van Coneghem, 28/01/2016, Wikimedia Commons]
    • Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, his sole novel, which has long fascinated me as a story concept, seems to have been inspired by the kind of life lived by another member of the movement, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire, who also, it turns out, died at 46.
    • I am presently 46, so I had better watch how I conduct my affairs.
  2. Reading 1 Corinthians 1–2 with its deliberate antithesis of ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’. In 1 Cor. 1 Paul seeks to undercut the Corinthians’ smugness about their wisdom by showing how the gospel of Christ frustrates human expectations of wisdom. Then in 2:1–5 Paul recalls having adopted, at his previous visit to the Corinthian church, a policy of knowing nothing but “Christ and him crucified,” as if to avoid getting into a knowledge contest or encouraging that smugness. But in 2:6ff. Paul begins overtly to use a whole vocabulary associated with ‘gnosis’, e.g. ‘sophia‘, wisdom; ‘teleios‘, perfect, complete, ‘arrived’; ‘archōn‘, ruler; ‘mustērion‘, a hidden truth, and that’s just vv. 6–7. Just as familiar in gnostic discourse are the categories ‘pneumatikos‘, spiritual (v. 13) and ‘psychikos‘, natural as two different categories of persons. Paul clearly is no longer bound to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified,” because he is applying to himself and his fellow apostles the full vocabulary of spiritual enlightenment that we will see in later gnosticism, though not necessarily with the range of gnostic associations yet to come.

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A Footnote to That Sermon on Worship Music

I didn’t really admit this when I prepared and presented that sermon on worship music a couple of months ago: https://firstthreequarters.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/a-sermon-on-music-in-worship-worshipping-in-song/

Worshipping in Song Prezi Sshot

https://prezi.com/czzhib-lcf3_/worshipping-in-song/

…but I am actually pretty worried about where worship music is in my kind of evangelical Protestant churches such as I see here in Australia. The following video from the US speaks in jest, though not too biting in my view, but it puts its finger on the problem:

That is pretty well the way most worship songs sound to me – very often four-chord pop flavourless enough to avoid offending most musical tastes, in fact, really quite ‘accessible’ even on the first listen, and with words that in themselves are hard to fault. They’re correct enough in some ways as to make me wonder why I usually feel completely unmoved, in fact, disinterested. Is the problem with me? Does my heart not respond because I don’t belong with these people? Because I’m not an authentic Christian? The people around me mostly look carried away in a kind of ecstasy that I don’t feel at any time, and am certainly not feeling at the time. The first song begins, and it’s straight into a kind of euphoric state. How can a person get so high emotionally so instantly? I’m not being sarcastic or cynical. I’m mystified. Whatever train the ecstatic worshippers around me are on, I clearly didn’t catch, or else I fell off the back of it. What is wrong with me?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I hope we aren’t happy to have the show go on when the playwright has left the building. It could, I think. The band can still play even while the ship sinks. For those who relate to weather analogies (that will whittle the readership down!), is it like a cumulonimbus (a thundercloud) whose big, showy head floats on when the big, dark cloud base that generated it has long evaporated away?

Spent desert thunderstom, from http://www.stormeffects.com/images/.

Spent desert thunderstorm, from http://www.stormeffects.com/images/.

Is it all “sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Why does it all feel so empty to me?

It might be partly me, but it isn’t entirely me, I don’t think. On my recent first-time visit to Papua New Guinea with some of our college students, we spent several church services with students and families at Christian Leaders’ Training College in Banz in the highlands. And for the first time in a long time, I felt sure that the worship I was hearing was real. Similar instruments, somewhat different songs, but somehow there was something far more authentic there that I’ve been missing.

That X factor. And it sure can’t be found on X Factor, either.

Three Things I’ve Learned from Leviticus

Our pastor told us last Sunday that he was reading Leviticus and Numbers. And with all the stuff about sacrifices and so forth, he asked himself, “What can I take away from this?” Unsurprising point to reach, and our pastor’s conclusion was not a bad one: “God wants our very best!”

I too have been reading Leviticus, as part of my goal to read the Old Testament right through in the Hebrew. It has been a life-occupying surprise to find out how long that takes! I started when I first took Hebrew in 1998, and in 2015 I have a substantial portion to go. Hope I don’t die before I get the Septuagint read.

I haven’t minded reading about the sacrifices. I feel as if I’m slowly gaining a feel for the meaning of ceremonial purity and orthopraxy. But on reaching chapters 17-19, I feel as if I’ve gained a much clearer appreciation of three things:

Leviticus 17: I’ve appreciated how starkly the power of the sacrificial system was tied into the value attached to the blood of the animal. “The life of all flesh is its blood (Lev 17:14 NET Bible)” is the clear principle, and here in Leviticus, not only is blood not to be eaten, but for domestic animals at least, there is to be no such thing as ‘secular slaughter’. While a game animal or bird caught in the wild may be eaten so long as all of its blood is spilled out on the ground, the same is not true for a herd animal:

Blood guilt will be accounted to any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat inside the camp or outside the camp, (4) but has not brought it to the entrance of the Meeting Tent to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD. He has shed blood, so that man will be cut off from the midst of his people (Lev 17:3-4).

So blood is a holy thing, and as far as possible to be avoided in any ordinary animal slaughter. You may notice that by the time Deuteronomy’s sacrificial laws come along (significantly later, we are led to think), there is such as thing as ‘secular slaughter’:

If the place he chooses to locate his name is too far for you, you may slaughter any of your herd and flock he has given you just as I have stipulated; you may eat them in your villages just as you wish. (22) Like you eat the gazelle or ibex, so you may eat these; the ritually impure and pure alike may eat them. (23) However, by no means eat the blood, for the blood is life itself– you must not eat the life with the meat! (Deut 12:21-23).

It is this sanctity of blood that makes sense, within a Jewish and more general ancient world context, of the death of Christ as our New Testament authors explain it, while that death, in turn, paradoxically explains why no sacrificial system is needed any longer! The perfect sacrifice has come; there is no longer any sacrifice for sins (Heb 10:26)!

Leviticus 18, especially its initial verses, struck me as particularly programmatic for the book:

Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘I am the LORD your God! (3) You must not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you have been living, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan into which I am about to bring you; you must not walk in their statutes. (4) You must observe my regulations and you must be sure to walk in my statutes. I am the LORD your God. (5) So you must keep my statutes and my regulations; anyone who does so will live by keeping them. I am the LORD. (Lev 18:2-5 NET)

Interestingly, the remainder of the chapter is devoted to sexual ethics, particularly surrounding acceptable degrees of consanguinity. The implication seems to be that sexual ethics were lacking in the two cultures against which Israel could distinguish herself culturally and religiously, Egypt and Canaan. I had never made the connection between sexual ethics and the programmatic Pentateuchal statements about obeying Yahweh’s standards. Maybe it is important for how we understand books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy!

Leviticus 19 early on offers us an even more central statement for the meaning of the book: “You must be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2 NET). It is interesting what a mingled statement of principles follows in that chapter, combining Ten Commandments-style statements with statutes about ceremonial purity, sexual ethics, and Deuteronomy-like principles protecting the rights of the socially vulnerable. We are inclined to see these as very separate categories of life. It is interesting that being the people of the LORD involves holiness of diet, holiness of ethics, holiness of ceremony, holiness of sexual practice, Sabbath-keeping, avoidance of seances, indeed a wide range of interpenetrating spheres of life!

All that with vocabulary I don’t remember seeing elsewhere in the OT. There is interest in every corner of the Bible, read on its own terms.

Samaritan Korban Pesach Wikimedia Commons

Oh, on that vocabulary note, and so that you finally get a pic, here’s a picture of the ‘Korban Pesach’, the Passover ceremony still conducted annually by the Samaritans on old Mt. Gerizim, where this has been done for at least 3,000 years. ‘Korban’ [קָרְבָּן], ‘sacrificial offering’, is a word very distinctive of Leviticus & Numbers, which feature 78 out of its 82 OT occurrences, beginning in Lev 1:2.

Days of Creation Book Only Days Away

More thoughts about Genesis 1 shortly, but just discovered a happy sight: the listing of my forthcoming book on the Eisenbrauns website:
The Days of Creation

The Days of Creation
A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3
History of Biblical Interpretation – HBI 4
by Andrew J. Brown
Deo Publishing, Forthcoming, spring 2014
English
Paper
ISBN: 9781905679270
Your Price: $37.95
https://www.eisenbrauns.com

I know it’s real, because I just sent the index off this afternoon, the last thing needed.  Please use it, it was a lot of work!

Some tasters to come…

There Was Morning, and There Was Evening: Wistful Reflections on the Cultural Rise and Fall of an Iconic Biblical Text, the Creation Story of Genesis 1

There is light at the end of the tunnel: I have almost completed the indexing, the last stage of preparation of my first book:

The Days of Genesis: A History of Christian Interpretation of the Creation Week (Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming).

I conclude the book with three main observations from the long and complex story of the interpretation of this seminal biblical text.  I’ll spoil only one here: I find that it is the story of a trajectory, a rise and fall…meaning that Genesis 1 rises from obscurity in the consciousness of the Christian church until it, like the church itself, comes to cultural dominance in the West by about 400 CE/AD.  Then it rules the Western mind for more than 1200 years, becoming the repository for all knowledge and speculation about the world, visible and invisible.

Then as the modern era unfolds, say from 1600–1900, its dominance is steadily eroded, until the 20th century sees it largely forgotten in the West, treasured only in the special place, and at the same time (or so it feels in Australia) the cultural ghetto that is the Christian church.  I won’t try to explain the reasons for this here.  I have to leave something in the book!  But I can characterize them as a whole using a proverb spoken by Jesus:

“We played the flute for you,

and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.” (Matt. 11:17)

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be metaphysics, but it didn’t quite want to be metaphysics.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be a mystical key to reality, but it didn’t really work like that.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be an all-embracing philosophy, but it didn’t aim to be philosophy.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be history, but it wasn’t really history in the normal sense.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be science, but it wasn’t really trying to express science.

The West finally reluctantly allowed that Genesis 1 could simply be poetry, but anyone who knows how Hebrew poetry works knows plainly that Genesis 1 is not Hebrew poetry.

Genesis 1 would not dance the requested dances, and now it stands at the wall, unwanted.

An unappreciated beauty.

Creation Week as Menorah

It had its morning, its cultural high noon, and now its long sunset.

But we stand reminded that in the seventh day, when God finally gets to rest, when the world is as it should be, there is only a morning, and no evening.

Your Kingdom come.

Blasphemy Laws Ancient and Modern

Sometimes Old Testament narratives can provide striking parallels to social realities in modern traditional societies.

Reading 1 Kings 21, I find that the way Naboth can be removed as an obstacle to land acquisition by Ahab and Jezebel in ancient Israel is by means of a trumped-up blasphemy charge.  Upon the accusation of two witnesses-for-hire, “Naboth has blasphemed God and the king,” Naboth is taken outside the city and stoned to death (1 Kings 21:13).

You might remember hearing a story in the news where something similar has been done recently in a couple of traditional societies, in one case using bricks.  I recently heard a thoroughly researched presentation describing how blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been utilized at an exponentially increasing rate in the last two decades, and at the same time, hardened so that a life sentence has been ruled out as the lenient option.  On conviction, it is death alone.

Aside from the ethics of prosecuting blasphemy with death, which I would propose is already an ugly side of a theocratic society, this sort of law leaves itself open to this kind of vindictive abuse – a way to get even with or get rid of an enemy, or someone refusing to co-operate with one’s own evil plan.  Another fact that came out in the abovementioned presentation was that since the witness cannot repeat the blasphemy without incurring guilt himself or herself, all that is needed is the accusation, without further evidence.

Upright and evenhanded law is a prized possession in any society.  Let none of us take it lightly.

And where righteous law is unenforced, endangered or lost, there is comfort in this passage: “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, even yours” (1 Kings 21:19).  Only notice that this is not achieved by vengeance killing by Naboth’s family.  That way lies neverending conflict.  “”Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord” (Heb. 10:30, from Deut. 32:35).  If we choose to live by the sword, we will die by the sword (Matt. 26:52).  The way of Christ is the way of the yielded sword.

 

Once More on that Noah Movie

So I didn’t bother going to see it, and in fact got pretty tired of hearing about it, but I do find gnosticism fascinating, and had begun to figure out that there was a fair bit in the movie, e.g. the term ‘the Watchers’, which I recognised from 1 Enoch.

Here’s an informative and frustrated vent from one Dr. Brian Mattson:

http://drbrianmattson.com/journal/2014/3/31/sympathy-for-the-devil

He’s right on the money with recognising all the gnostic signs.  You can see this kind of mysticism getting going in some of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, e.g. 1 Enoch, as well as in some additions to Genesis in the Aramaic Targums.  Then the full-blown version of this good-v-evil cosmic myth, where our Creator God is put on the evil side, is found in the Nag Hammadi literature, those addressed by church fathers like Irenaeus (see article in link) and Clement of Alexandria, as well as the Kabbala.

Mattson wonders how even church leaders missed the fact that the movie was based on this long, Gnostic tradition.

But does anyone read the gnostic documents any more?  We ought to, because it keeps coming back, always with a new face.

Am I going to see the movie.  Hmmm, still not sure I could be bothered just yet.  But the gnosticism would be interesting.  Twisted and wrong, but interesting.