Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More great SBL sessions on mysticism

I've really been enjoying the SBL this year. Yesterday and today the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism section had excellent sessions with lots of lively discussion. Yesterday, at the Second-Century Christian Mysticism and Gnosticism session, April DeConick spoke on "Star Gates and Heavenly Places: What Were the Gnostics Doing?" She discussed a Gnostic group called the Paratics (whom I had never heard of), who were mentioned by Hippolytus. (See this selection from G.R.S. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, for his discussion of Hippolytus' account of the Paratics). Her discussion focused on the very complex picture of reality formulated by the Paratics and their beliefs about how the Gnostics will be saved upon death by traveling through the regions under the Moon, then into a region where they will encounter the hostile archons, and how they finally will be saved by traveling through the constellation Draco into the upper realm of the heavenly Father. Much of their worldview is based on ancient astrology.

The next paper was by Grant Adamson - "Fate Indelible: The Gospel of Judas as Horoscope." His abstract captures the important points of his paper:
By observing and calculating the position of the stars, ancient astrologers concerned themselves not only with predicting but also explaining ex post facto the time and manner of a native's death. Cases of violent death were of particular interest. Those astrologers who were more magically inclined sought to cheat death by calling down a god to cast their horoscope for them and erase their foul fate. Writing in the second century CE, the author of the Gospel of Judas drew on these traditions and practices in order to explain the fate of the already infamous betrayer who had facilitated the crucifixion and died violently himself. Jesus speaks as an astrologer in the Gospel of Judas, using technical astrological terms, and his predictions for Judas are grim. Judas asks Jesus for salvation, but the god explains that his fate is indelible.
Grant's paper confirmed the observations of April in her book on the Gospel of Judas (The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says), namely that the book does not depict the victory of Judas over his fate, but rather his condemnation by the Savior to be the thirteenth daimon.

This is an interpretation opposed by Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and Karen King in their books on the Gospel of Judas. For an example of this line of interpretation, see Bart Ehrman in The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot (p. 98):
Judas, even more than Jesus, is the hero of this acount. To be sure, Jesus is the divine revealer who alone knows the mysterious truths that can lead to salvation. But the Gospel is about Judas: how he received these revelations; his superiority to all the other disciples, who continued to worship the false god(s) who created this material world; and how he would ultimately transcend this world, as at the end of his life he would enter into that 'luminous cloud,' in which dwells the ultimate and true God himself."
In the second edition of the National Geographic publication of the Gospel of Judas, see pages 18-22 for a survey of the conflicting opinions.

The third paper in the session was "The Tower as Divine Body: Visions and Theurgy in the Shepherd of Hermas," presented by Franklin Trammell. The abstract of his paper reads:
Behind some of the visions and teachings in the Shepherd of Hermas lies the notion of a direct correspondence between the heart of the righteous and the androgynous divine body. This body is presented by Hermas as a sevenfold Tower that is in the process of being (re)built by (re)incorporating the feminine Ecclesia. Members of the Ecclesia, who are pure of heart, are clothed with twelve virgins and receive the seal of the Son of God, representing the female and male aspects of the body. They then affect the reintegration of this female aspect, being built into the eschatological Tower as a part of her. Hermas’ law of purity therefore plays an incredibly important theurgic role. In identifying the Tower with the Ecclesia, itself implicitly assimilated in the text to Sophia, the author portrays those who do not sin after baptism as participating in the (re)unification of pre-existent Wisdom. It is this process along with elements related to it that shares affinities with later Jewish mystical sources.
I found this talk fascinating, especially since I've never read the Shepherd of Hermas. I found particularly interesting the possible connections to Sefer ha-Bahir that he mentioned.

The last talk, by Jonathan Knight, was on the Ascension of Isaiah.
"The use of Jewish and other Mystical Traditions in the Ascension of Isaiah." The Ascension of Isaiah is an important text because it is our earliest non-canonical Christian apocalypse. I date in the decade 110-120 CE, so that its author potentially knows earlier Christian literature, although he continues to rely on the oral tradition that surfaces also in Matthew's Gospel. The text sheds light on the development of early Christian mysticism in the period roughly between the last of the New Testament documents and the rise of the Gnostic literature.

I'm fading at the moment, so I'll have to leave today's panel for now, and hope to get back to it tomorrow or the next day.

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