Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Reconstructing Practice from Texts" - Esotericism and Mysticism session at SBL

Yesterday morning I went to the fabulous first panel sponsored by the Esotericism and Mysticism in Antiquity section of the SBL (we used to be called the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism section), where the presentations were fascinating and very wide-ranging. The two I found the most interesting were April DeConick's, “'The road for souls is through the planets': The Mysteries of the Ophites Diagrammed" and Cordula Bandt's "The Tract 'On the Mystery of Letters' in Context of Late Antique Jewish, Gnostic and Christian Letter Mysticism."

Here are the abstracts:

April's paper
This paper will reexamine the Ophite Diagram presented by Origen in his treatise against Celsus (6.21-40). I will make a detailed reading of the text and argue that the Diagram is exactly what Celsus and Origen claimed it was, a map of the soul’s journey through the planets. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that the prayers correlate to a Neopythagorean ascent pattern. I will conclude with the argument that Origen has preserved for us a piece of an Ophite initiatory handbook, that is the map, prayers and seals used in the intermediate initiatory rite when the soul practiced the death journey through the heavenly realms.
 Cordula's paper
Speculations on letters play an important role within Late Antique mystical and magical tradition. Letters are regarded as smallest units of speech, but on a more esoteric level they are also understood as tools to gain spiritual progress or even influence reality. Names of angels and heavenly powers which are nonsense clusters of letters, composed by combining them according to certain rules, occur as prominent means of protection and power in early and later Jewish mysticism as well as in Gnostic texts, which are preserved in original or as quotations in polemical writings by the Church fathers. However, in orthodox Christian tradition references and responses on the symbolism of letters are rather rare, despite Christ's famous saying in the Book of Revelation "I am the Alpha and the Omega" (Rev. 1:8, 21:6, 22:13). Nevertheless, exactly this cryptic dictum inspires the remarkable tract "On the mystery of Letters" which was composed probably by a Christian monk in mid-6th century Palestine. This tract is thoroughly rooted in orthodoxy, but presents an astonishing variety of interpretations of the Greek alphabet, revealing hidden secrets by close examination of certain features of the letters like name, shape, numerical value, position in alphabet, pronunciation etc. In 2007, I published the editio princeps of this unique work, accompanied by a German translation and analysis of its content. In order to give a wider public access to this still quite little known text, I am currently preparing an English version of my book. My paper at the SBL Annual Meeting 2011 will focus on similarities between Jewish and Gnostic letter mysticism in the first centuries of the Christian era and the tract "On the mystery of letters". I will show how the author transforms rather heterodox ideas into a truly orthodox approach towards the alphabet. I will also discuss why mainstream Christianity at this time seems to be reluctant to involve into mystical letter speculations.
Bandt has also published her dissertation "On the Mystery of Letters" and the Bryn Mawr Classical Review has a very laudatory review of the book. (The title is Der Traktat "Vom Mysterium der Buchstaben," Kritischer Text mit Einführung, Übersetzung und Ammerkungen. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, 162. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007).

I'll post more about them later. In a few minutes I'm heading over for our second session, which we are doing together with the Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity section.

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