CHAPTER ONE. CONCEPTUAL AND RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND
To begin the task of showing how the evolving worldwide Christian Church dealt with its fundamental issues we must consider first its background: the world in which Jesus and his followers lived. Politically what we know as the Western World was united as the great Roman Empire, with one law and one militia from the Atlantic Ocean to the Levant and even past that to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Socially it was divided into tribes, villages, and contrasting regions. Similar divisions existed also in cultural life, but civilization as we know it was evolving in art, literature, and knowledge of physical sciences. The Axial age of several hundred years earlier, when the advanced ideas of philosophy and religion had appeared in Europe (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) and Western Asia (Zoroaster and Second Isaiah) as well as Southern Asia (Buddha and Mahavira) and Eastern Asia (Confucius and Lao Tsu), had enriched the repertoire of the human mind and imagination. (Plott 1963. Karl Jaspers introduced the now widely used concept of the Axial Age in the 1940s.) This intellectual (and emotional) ferment was now being spread throughout its respective areas, especially, in the West, by the Roman soldier and the commercial trader.
It had become possible for the thinking inhabitants of the Roman Empire to question local myths about gods and goddesses, to doubt stories about the personification of the forces of nature, and to look for something more intellectually satisfying. The present study is intended to show how this large scale movement was permeated and shaped by three fundamental lines of religious thinking, monotheism, dualism, gnosticism. To understand the historical development of Christianity it is important to understand these three terms.
According to a recent study of the responses of over 3,000 people of mixed religious membership (although presumably the great majority were Christians) to a questionnaire and, in addition, to interviews with 70 similar individuals, ninety-five percent of Americans are not Atheists. They are Theists, who answer in the affirmative to the question, “Do you believe in God?” (Froese and Baker 2010) It turns out, however, that their concepts of the one God are not uniform, a fact which needs some explanation.
Asked what they thought about God’s dealings with us humans, 85 percent of the total of the respondents said that the term “loving” describes God well. In addition to this conception of God, however, the 95% of respondents who were Theists gave answers that fell into four categories, which are that God is primarily:
31% authoritative, a father who acts for his children, but also punishes them.
24% benevolent, a father who comforts his children.
16% critical, a task master and disciplinarian
24% distant, an impersonal, disinterested force.
The four categories are so distinct that the authors entitled their report America’s Four Gods.
The object of the survey was to ascertain what people think about the ways God acts in our regard and not about the nature or person of God. One interview question, however, focused on God rather than on us, “Please describe God as best you can. [Is God a ‘he’ or a ‘she’? What does God look like? Can you describe God’s personality?]” Fifty-three percent of those surveyed thought that “God is a ‘cosmic force,’ and “tend to dismiss the idea that God has any physical appearance.” Still, “47% described God as ‘he,’ 33% were undecided about God’s gender, and 20% replied that God is sexless.” Eighty-one percent of the respondents thought that God works miracles. In other words, God is a spirit to a slim majority and a very powerful agent to a large majority.
All the survey questions and all the answers to them imply that God, whatever God looks like or however we should address God, is an individual, a person who acts somewhat like we do, but is truly unique, unlike any other being. This is the God of Monotheism. People of Western cultures in our times take it for granted that there is one and only one God. Polytheism, the belief that there are many gods (and goddesses), has been left behind in the march of civilization. Pantheism, which holds that everything is God, and Panentheism, which maintains that God is in everything, have appealed to many Christians as well as others throughout the centuries, but the traditional way of speaking of God in Western cultures emphasizes God’s individuality.
Much has been said and written about the nature or the person of God. God is not just very powerful, but all-powerful; not just wise, but all-knowing; not just timeless, but eternal. God created the world out of nothing; God is totally distinct from the world and yet present to all of it. These and similar concepts of strict monotheism come to us through three sources, biblical, theological, and philosophical.
The biblical source is the understanding the faithful, first Jews and then Christians, have had of the Scriptures, starting with the book of Genesis. About three and a half thousand years ago Moses rallied the Hebrew people around a most high God who cared for them and guided them to a new place, Palestine, and – unlike other Gods who were being worshipped around them – had actually created the whole world. It now seems to scholars that Moses and the ancient Hebrews scarcely realized that they had come upon monotheism in the strict sense that we use. Scholars point out that a clear understanding of their monotheism came to the Jews after their captivity in Babylon and is first recorded in the latter half of the book of the prophet Isaiah.
The second source of Christians’ conception of God is the intellectual activity of theologians, scholars of the basic Christian message and its implications. If God created the world, for instance, then one can hold that God is both outside it and is all powerful in its regard; whatever the ultimate fate of human beings might be, it is in accordance with some plan of God, and so on. It is the task of Christian theologians to explain how Jesus could be God along with his Father and the Holy Spirit, and yet there is one and only one God.. In the early centuries of the Christian Church the primary theologians were the bishops, who defined the elements of Christian doctrine in the General Councils of the Church. Since the Middle Ages the theologians have mainly been university level professors, authorities in their field.
The third avenue Christians have for thinking about the attributes and actions of their singular God is a process of reasoning from empirical data about the world. This philosophical exercise has been called Natural Theology, but it is also understood simply to be one topic of Christian Apologetics, the rational defense of the faith. Every person who, to use a venerable comparison, reasons that if a object as complicated as a watch timepiece can exist only because it was designed and made by somebody, then the world, which is immeasurably more complex than a watch, was surely designed and made by somebody. This line of reasoning, called “argument from design,” is one of the classical proofs for the existence of God. The most renowned proof for the existence of God is called the “ontological argument,” which in essence claims that since God is understood to be all-perfect, then if God did not exist, God would not be all-perfect; therefore God must exist.
Proofs for the existence of God were developed with great precision of thinking in the late Middle Ages by Christian theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. Later philosophers from Descartes to Spinoza have followed different lines of reasoning to arrive at the same conclusion. In our day theologians like John Cobb (Cobb 1965) and Wolfhart Pannenberg (Pannenberg 1990 )have proposed still other ways to arrive at knowledge about the existence, attributes, and actions of God. None of the “proofs for the existence of God” has ever succeeded in convincing all serious scholars of its validity, but they describe many attributes of God if God exists.
Americans, as shown above, believe God is loving and just, in other words, that God is good. They wrestle with the obvious presence of evil in the world, speculating on how the good God puts up with it or even causes it. Puzzling of this sort has a long history. The simple dichotomy of views on the matter is that either God causes evil along with good or there are two Gods, one Who causes good and one Who causes evil. If the former is the case, then God is to be feared and shunned as well as loved; if the latter, then most of us would prefer to avoid the God who causes evil - but can we?
At first thought, a satisfactory answer is that God causes good, whereas evil comes about by rebellion against this good God. Unfortunately for the theory of monotheism, according to which God is the source of everything, evil has to be traced back to God. Various solutions have been proposed to this dilemma. One is to limit the appellation evil to moral evil, which can be defined precisely as rebellion against God made possible by free will. Theologically this assertion can be made and believed, but philosophically one must explain how God is not the source of free will. Furthermore, the world contains a great deal of violence for which our free will is clearly not responsible, and it seems proper to speak of this as evil.
It seems conceptually simpler to suppose that there is a good God and an evil one. This, however, raises the question of how the two Gods relate to one another, and how their relationship affects the world. Evidently there is is a world-struggle between good and evil, and, we ask, which will win? Should we be optimists or pessimists? Another good God/evil God possibility which has appealed to the philosophical mind of India is that neither will win, and the struggle will go on forever. Still one more ingenious possibility is that the good God gives rise (by some process) to one or more lesser deities, Who give rise to still lesser beings, and so on down a ladder of power and goodness until evil enters at some remote level, and then we humans enter at a level still farther down from the orginal good God. Philosophically developed, this structure prevails in Neo-Platonism, and a mythical version of it is typical of Gnosticism.
The term dualism has several meanings, all of which speak of a pair of opposites of some kind. There are, for instance, philosophical meanings of the word, such as the mind-body dualism of Descartes and a general spirit/matter dualism of other philosophers and many theologians. In the present work we use the word to denote the relationship between good and evil, and, in connection with that, the relationship between a good creation and a bad one, as well as that between a good God and a bad God.
In the introduction we observed that “In general, ‘gnostics’ believe they can achieve salvation through knowing a secret.” The Gnostic is literally a “knower,” but the knowledge involved is religious. Salvation, in fact, is a religious concept; being saved is a greater achievement than merely being initiated into a group by being told its secrets. It is clear that in the early centuries of the Christian religion many people who considered themselves Christian had a gnostic point of view. It is also clear that these people and their particular congregations never coalesced to become a large scale, focused movement. Yet, they played a significant role in the Christian Church’s process of defining itself.
In one of the most recent expert expositions of Gnosticism, The Gnostic discoveries: the impact of the Nag Hammadi library, (Meyer 2005) Marvin Meyer describes Gnosticism as follows. (The separation of the clauses is mine.)
Gnostic religion is a religious tradition that emphasizes the primary place of gnosis, or mystical knowledge,
understood through aspects of wisdom, often personified wisdom,
presented in creation stories, particularly stories based on the Genesis accounts,
and interpreted by means of a variety of religious and philosophical traditions including Platonism
in order to proclaim a radically enlightened way and life of knowledge. (Meyer 2005, 42)
At the heart of Gnosticism is mystical or secret knowledge; the Gnostic becomes free from ignorance about people and the world and comes to know the truth about them. “To know” in the gnostic sense signifies more than having an intellectual grasp of the truth. Gnostic knowing involves a change in the very status of the individual, who by knowing the secrets already participates in a higher level of existence. It is this dynamism in gnostic experience that attracts people, somewhat as the experience of the Holy Spirit by Pentecostals is felt to change them.
Scholars of the history of religion used to suppose that the gnostic movement was principally a distortion of Christianity. This interpretation seemed reasonable because most of what they knew about it came from refutations of it in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Archeological findings of the mid-twentieth century, however, including invaluable treasures of gnostic and other writings, Christian and non-Christian, have added immensely to our understanding of Gnosticism. The most widely known of the findings are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which especially enriched our knowledge of the Jewish Essene sect. It is strikingly clear now, for instance, that Christian Gnosticism’s immediate parent was Judaism, which had developed an elaborate description of God’s dealings with the world that only certain Jews were allowed to know. This elite had to learn, for instance, that angels, good and bad, had more active roles than the text of the Scriptures indicate. (Grant 1966, 1-36)
More significant for our understanding of the breadth of Gnosticism is the Nag Hammadi library of hundreds of diverse Gnostic texts which were found in 1945 in Egypt. Far from being secret knowledge now, the Nag Hammadi books in translation, such as The Nag Hammadi Library, (Robinson 1990) are readily available in libraries and from book sellers. Many of these texts relate directly to Christianity, and, in fact, some, including The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Mary, have been popularized by such fiction as The Da Vinci Code. Many of them, however, derive from ancient Indo-Persian beliefs and legends which passed into Christianity by way of Judaism. Characteristic of the legends and of Gnosticism is the figure of the Demiurge, a low level God who creates our world and erroneously thinks he is the High God Who created him, the Demiurge. A great part of the ancient world, including Persians, Jews, and Greeks was familiar with the role of the Demiurge. In many traditions, the role included a rebellion against the higher God, and thus was evil, but this was not always the case. (Williams 1996, 51-53) Readers of Plato, for instance, are familiar with his mythic figure the Demiurge, who creates order in the world, and is not a rebel. Philosophically speaking Plato, like his contemporaries in the West, had no notion of creation of our world out of nothing.
Scholars of what is still being termed Gnosticism are currently tending to view it not as a unit or species of religion that existed side by side with Judaism and the dominant stream of Christianity, but as a conceptual umbrella for a number of lateral streams that mixed various ideas about secret knowledge, the demiurge, the reality of evil, and the figure of Christ. Thus it has responsibly been suggested that the term itself is inaccurate and misleading and might better be considered a category with a name something like “biblical demiurgical,” (Williams 1996, 214-219) which means that it is based on a demiurgic interpretaton of the creative work of God described in the Hebrew Scriptures.
At this point our investigation into the background of Christian orthodoxy and heterodoxy leaves the definitions of terms and begins to look at the particular religions which preceded Christianity. We enter the confusing and often misleading world of historical “influences” and “effects.” Which living pre-Christian religions had an influence on nascent Christianity or, to put it another way, contributed to the formation of Christianity?
Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, lived and taught in Persia. He may have lived close to the time of Moses, nearly three thousand years ago, but scholars generally hold it more likely that he lived much later than that, about two and one-half thousand years ago, probably in the sixth century BC, the Axial age. He is known as the founder of Dualism, but in fact he drew upon the understandings and the myths of the pre-Persian and pre-Hindu peoples to explain the origin of evil.
An acute concern about the presence of evil in the world and belief in cosmic scale warfare between good and evil was a characteristic of the ancient Indo-Iranian worldview. In the basic Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, Ahura Mazda is the principle of all good, and Ahriman, the principle of all evil. Ultimately Ahriman will be defeated and the good will reign supreme in all the world. Ahura Mazda, in his supremacy, has generally been understood to be a monotheistic God. Zoroaster’s monotheism, however, has always been accompanied by the problem of how Ahura Mazda and Ahriman relate to each other. It is clear that Ahriman’s limits are known through his ultimate defeat. (Nigosian 1993, 89) We could have wished Zoroaster to have given a clearer explanation of his monotheism in the Avesta, but, “… Zoroaster’s theological interest was subordinated to his preoccupation with the existential reality of evil, its threat to the quality of life, and the inescapability of struggle if evil was to be overcome by good.” (Pangborn 1983, 17) Humans, furthermore, are actively engaged in the cosmic struggle between good and evil through free will. (Nigosian 1993, 90-91) This struggle then in fact became a central element in the religions to the west of Persia.
Whether or not Ahura Mazda created the world as Hebrews and Christians believe God to have done does not enter into the Avesta. Later theologians, not being able to pass over in silence the question of how the world happens to exist, proposed that Ahriman and the reality of evil resulted from rebellion against Ahura Mazda, a rebellion rendered possible by free will, a power that in itself is good. Thus in the end freely willed good derived from Ahura Mazda will overcome evil. Furthermore, the Zoroastrian dualism of good and evil is not an opposition between the soul and the body; it does not equate the body with evil. And so, being positive, and not negative in its orientation, “Zoroastrianism remained essentially a life-affirming and active religion.” (Stoyanov 2000, 28)
From the sixth century BC, for more than a thousand years Zoroastrianism was the predominant, for the most part official, religion of Persia and the lands under its dominion, which at one time or another extended from Europe to China. The rise of Islam in the seventh century A.D. put an end to the world-scale dimensions of Zoroastrianism, which is found now among the small numbers of the Parsees (anciently displaced Persians) in India and in small Indian emigrant colonies such as can be found in the San Jose, California
In their Babylonian Exile the Hebrews encountered Zoroastrianism, and subsequent Judaism had strong elements of it. (Boyce 1979, 77) We must cautiously not overestimate this influence, but it is hard to avoid thinking that some elements of the Judaism and Christianity have a common source in Zoroastrianism. Such are the battles between Satan (the Adversary) and God’s good angels, the extreme opposition between heaven and hell, and the apocalyptic events at the end of the world. It is thought by many scriptural scholars that much of the Christ narrative, especially the infancy story, had its origin in Zoroastrianism. The virgin birth of a savior, the star of Bethlehem, the angels on high, and the three Wise Men from the East all echo Zoroastrian beliefs. The resurrection of the savior along with the resurrection of our own bodies and life everlasting also are reminiscent of Zoroastrianism. However that may be, Zoroastrianism was not to enter the institutional development of Christianity as a body, but rather as a stream that colored the Christian attitude toward evil and morals, especially in tandem with Gnosticism.
Two specific forms of Zoroastrianism which were to come into tangential contact with Christianity were Zurvanism and Mithraism.
In its early centuries Zoroastrianism engendered an extreme form called Zurvanism, (or Zarvanism or Zervanism) according to which Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman were brothers, born of one father, Zurvan (Time). The battle between the two powerful brothers accentuated and peersonified for us the perpetual struggle between good and evil. Thus,
… the Zervanite passages of texts [related] how the evil principle Ahriman (Ahra Mainyu in the Avesta) made an assault on the highest realms of light where the good principle, Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda) had his residence, but was repulsed and hurled back into the lowest regions of darkness, his own abode. This story of the attack of the Evil Principle before the creation of the actual world constitutes the background of the corresponding Manichaean description of the battle of the Two Principles [which did enter into a variety of Christianity]. (Widengren 1969, 181)
Furthermore, “These tendencies in Zurvanism gave rise to extreme, fatalist Zurvanite circles, whose focus on the all-pervading dominance Time-Destiny was clearly in sharp contrast to the ethos of Zoroastrianism as of free will,” (Stoyanov 2000, 47) and “Among the Gnostics, as with the Zervanists, God is transcendent, beyond human comprehension. (van Baren 1967, 67-68)
For additional information about Zurvanism, in addition to the sources on Zoroastrianism noted in the introduction, see www.cais-soas.com, the website of the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.
In Mithraism the principal divinity was the god of the Invincible Sun. The emphasis on light can be termed obsessive in spite of the fact that Mithraic ceremonial places tended to be dark, cave-like structures. When the Persian empire collapsed, in 330 B.C., this religion spread to the world that was to become Roman. Carried mainly along the East-West route of the Danube, and especially by Roman legion soldiers, it was to be found throughout the Roman Empire by the 2nd century A.D. The locations of 35 Mithraic ceremonial structures in Rome alone are known; although six of these are still accessible, only one is open to the public. Each site was, in addition to being a place of worship, also a school in which the mysteries were taught to the initiates. (The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2003, 991; and Carlo Pavia, 1998, 95-142) Despite Mithraism’s physical and chronological coexistence with early Christianity it did not appreciably influence the development of the latter.
V. ORTHODOX JUDAISM
For nearly two thousand years Christians of all varieties have considered themselves the successors and heirs to the covenant between the people of Moses and their God. The creator God who retains interest in his creation and the people, endowed with free will, who turn to or away from him are the key elements of the Judaic legacy to them as seen by Christians. There was, nevertheless, in Judaism from the sixth century B.C. on an incorporation of Persian influences, due principally to the Babylonian Captivity of 597-538 B.C. This would include some interest in astrology: “For if many Jews frowned on astrology, others, such as the Hellenistic Jewish writer Eupolemus...” approved of it. (Vermes 1975, 269) A more significant Perian influence concerned Satan. “In the Old Testament Satan has not yet become the Devil. The figure of the Devil entered Judaism from Iranian sources..." (Bultmann 1948, 217) Also, Orthodox Jews resembled the Muslims and Dualists in their attitude toward iconoclasm: “they kept no pictures, images or statues in their synagogues.” (Epstein 1959, 201)
After the return of a body of Jews to Palestine in 538 B.C. there was no temple in Jerusalem and no priest to perform the ancient sacrifices. The subsequent period, until the establishment of Roman rule in 63 BC, is known for the nationalistic fervor which, in the second century BC, produced autonomy for the Jews under their own Maccabee family. It was also a time of the production of Jewish literary works, particularly the wisdom literature, which was closely affine to the dualistic wisdom literature of Persia. These works, the Jewish Apocrypha, (writings of doubtful authorship or authenticity) which the Jews did not hold to be on a level with the Torah, were not adopted as revelation by all the Christians as they assembled their Bible, although they commanded great respect and came to be included in the Bible used by the Catholic Church. Passages in the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon) include references to the symbolism of light, to the baneful influence of matter on spirit, and to the transmigration of souls. (Goodspeed 1959, 182-195)
VI. GREEK MYSTERY CULTS
From the age of Homer to the Axial age, two to three hundred years later, Greek civilization evolved into a whole in which politics, art, and philosophy established the pattern for the future of the Western World. The Greek discovery at that time of the individual, it is argued, freed intellectual and artistic leaders from the tribe mentality, opened the question of possible individual immortality, and laid the foundation for rational inquiry by the individual observer. (For this broad statement we refer to Snell 1982, Chapter 3, “The Rise of the Individual in the Early Greek Lyric,” and Burkert 1985, Chapter VI, “Mysteries and Asceticism.” The rest of this section derives from Burkert’s same chapter except where otherwise noted.)
The mystery of Greek cults referred literally to initiation, a ceremony of acceptance into the group. Secrets were always part of the group’s story, but knowledge of the secrets as such was not supposed to save the devotees from the fate of the common folk, as did later the knowledge imparted by Gnosticism. Rather, observance of the things learned through initiation qualified the individual for a better life, even immortality.
There were various mystery cults in this period, but pertinent to our narrative is Orphism, which arose in Greece in about the sixth century B.C. and spread throughout southern Italy and Sicily. Based on the myth of Orpheus, who dared enter the underworld but was torn to pieces for his efforts, Orphism was the polar opposite to Bacchic and Dionysiac mysteries and their orgies. “A distinct dualism between the soul and the body was to become the core of the religiosity of Orphism.” (Stoyanov 2000, 28). Thus, “Only the initiated who lead a righteous life and observe a diet free from meat (vegetarianism) find salvation, while the impious are condemned to the eternal transmigration of the souls and punishments of hell.” (Rudolph 1983, 286)
Toward the end of the time between Homer and the Axial period came Pythagoras, an historic figure (unlike Orpheus) in the development of intellectual thought. Best known as a founder of mathematics, Pythagoras was also said to have been a proponent of sacred numerology. He is known to have taught the “opposition between the common, despicable world and the special, self-chosen life.” (Burkert 1985, 299) Furthermore, “The Pythagoreans share with the Orphics the view that life is trouble and punishment.” (Burkert, op cit, 303)
Pythagorean communities, which we might now term puritan, were the object of hatred in southern Italy around the year 450 BC. Some were burned and “Pythagoreans were massacred in large numbers. Civil war was no rarity in Greek cities; yet here for the first time it seems to have led to a kind of pogrom, the persecution of those who were different from others in their way of life and disposition.” (Burkert, op cit, 304).
From the time of Pythagoras and the other so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers through the Axial Age there was a shift in worldview that was critical for the evolution of religious thought in Europe. Before then the Greeks expressed in poetry the view that there was, coexistent with our world, an unseen, privileged, divine world inhabited by the gods. The Pre-Socratic philosopher/scientists, however, introduced a nuanced map of the whole world, the cosmos, according to which the earth was at the center, surrounded by celestial spheres, the lowest of which was that of the moon. Known as the Ptolemaic view, it was to prevail in Western thinking until the age of Copernicus, two thousand years later. The realm of the divine in it was beyond the outermost visible sphere, and the divine itself was a power which propelled the world, producing order in it. Educated Greeks and later, Romans, called this power God, and were aware that their understanding of it transcended the folk religion of the worship of the gods. Their God, particularly as given form by Plato, was an historical step on the way to Christian monotheism. (adapted from Burkert, 1985, 317-321)
VII. PLATO’S THOUGHT AND INFLUENCE
Born Athenian about 428 BC, Athenian until his death eighty years later, Plato asked the questions upon which Western philosophy is built. Although not associated with gnosticism, he is nevertheless sometimes called the "Patriarch of the Gnostics" because of his “strongly philosophically oriented dualism.” (Rudolph 1983, 59-60)
The dualism which Plato introduced into philosophy is that of the world of ideas or forms versus the world of appearances. The forms, beginning with the highest, that of the Good, are spiritual and real. They are the objects of our understanding. We live among the appearances, which we readily grasp; too readily, in fact, for they tend to command us and lead us to ignore the good world of the forms. The world of appearances presents itself to us under the guise of matter, but Plato’s matter is not of itself evil, as gnostic matter is. Rather, Plato’s evil, as he has Socrates explain in the dialog Phaedo, consists of our allowing our soul, which is spiritual, to be led astray by the force of matter; it lies in our thinking and actingß as if appearances were the real world. If we insist on living this way until we die, then our soul, instead of taking its place in the spiritual world of forms, is condemned to be born again as a human; we have created our own prison. In response to the question, “What is this greatest evil?” Plato has Socrates answer,
It is this,that no man’s soul can feel intense pleasure or pain in anything without also at the same time believing that the chief object of these his emotions is transparently clear and utterly real, though in fact it is not; this is especially the case with visible objects ….
Continuing to explain to his interlocutor. Cebes, the dire consequences of the deception, Socrates proceeds,
Every pain and pleasure drives as it were a rivet into the soul, pinning it down to the body and so assimilating it thereto that it believes evrything to be real which the body declares so to be. Indeed it seems to me an inevitable result of sharing the body’s beliefs and joys that the soul should adopt its habits and upbringing, and so be destined never to reach Hades in a pure condition, but always to depart with much taint of the body, and therefore to fall back again soon into another body, like a seed replanted in new soil; a fate which denies it all converse with that which is divine and pure and single of form. (Phaedo, 83, c-d, R. Hackforth’s translation)
Plato exerted enormous influence over Greek and Roman philosophers and over Christians’ theological interpretation of their faith. Platonic tenets incorporated into Christian theology began with his affirmation of a supreme good, God, and of the immateriality of the human soul. From these flowed the primacy of spiritual values over material ones and the reality of the afterlife with its rewards and punishments.
It was also possible for Christians to misinterpret Plato. One way was to confuse his Supreme Good with the personal, interactive God of Jesus. Another was to see matter not as the source of evil for us, but as evil in itself: to regard Plato as dualistic. Third was gnostic, to suppose that mere knowledge of the truth about evil could save us from its power.
Plato also has a great deal to say about the genesis of this defective and illusory world of ours in the Timaeus and the Laws as well as the Phaedo. He emphasizes the role of the demiurge, which resembles that of the gnostic demiurge, but which he extracts from popular mythology and applies to his philosophical system. It is not clear from his huge corpus of dialogs if the demiurge who is responsible for the world’s existence is really the Good, the World-soul or is a lesser power.
As a final observation in this section on the influence the Greeks had on Christianity we must not overlook the physical fact of the creation of the Hellenistic world through the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) Student of Aristotle, Alexander was a man of action rather than thought, but his conquests brought about the interpenetration of intellectual cultures, principally Greek and Persian, throughout the length and breadth of the known (to Westerners) world.
VIII. HETERODOX JUDAISM:
The Jewish sect of Essenes, and in particular the Qumran community and their famous Dead Sea Scrolls, were, in some way, precursors of the earliest Christian communities in Palestine. The Essenes lived a closely knit, ascetic community life according to ideals which resembled those that were adopted at one time or another by strict Christian communities. They shared their possessions and earnings; they provided for the sick and the aged; they generally restricted membership to mature persons who would be able to maintain sexual abstention. Cleansing with water was one of their regular daily rituals in a regime we could describe as monastic.
According to Josephus, "These Essenes reject pleasure as an evil.” Not holding matter itself to be evil, but considering it to be a prison for the soul, they believed
That bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but the souls are immortal, and continue forever...and are united to their bodies as in prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. (Josephus Flavius, War of the Jews, Book II, Ch. 8)
The Essenes did not believe in the resurrection of the body as the Pharisees did, but they believed in the immortality of the soul. They thought that man’s final state is predetermined by fate. In particular the members of the Qumran community held that “the names of the elect are fixed from all eternity." (Rabin 1975, 121) Josephus’s War of the Jews and Antiquities of the Jews and Philo of Alexandria’s, Apologia pro Judaeis and Quod omnis probus liber sit are the primary ancient sources of information on the Essenes. Since the discovery of the Qumran scrolls enormous scholarly activity with a huge bibliography has been brought to bear on the Essenes in general as well as on the Qumran community.
Another brief observation about the Essenes is that they shared some beliefs with the early Gnostics. Such are, as Kurt Rudolph points out, that “men are divided into sons of light and sons of darkness, or of wickedness. The former are initiated, or wise, or prudent, the elect; the latter are the foolish, the men of lies and of evil...The design for the world and the salvation of the elect are determined by God...Thus Qumran offers a certain link on the fringe of Judaism for the illumination of the origin of gnostic ideas.” (Rudolph 1983, 280)
The Mandaeans may have originated as a community in the northern sector of the Tigris-Euphrates region, but they have been associated with the lower end of the rivers since antiquity. Their extensive scriptures, which were written in a dialect of Aramaic, have received little attention from scholars, who are only now analyzing them sufficiently to date them. The evidence is that they were composed toward the end of the first century AD or the early part of the second, although subsequent versions reflected Christian and Islamic influences. (Haeberl 2012, 264)
Mandaean accounts of the origin of the world are Gnostic and Dualist. Particular characteristics of Mandaean belief have to do with light and with initiation into the body of believers. Light is sacred; they worship the "King of Light" in opposition to the “King of Darkness.” “The world of darkness (located in the south) stands opposite the world of light (located in the north); each is led by a ruler.” (Rudolph 1983, 357)
Initiation into the community is accomplished by a baptism of water in a ceremony “[which] consists of a threefold complete immersion in the white sacral robe, threefold ‘signing’ of the forehead with water, a threefold draught of water...and laying on of hands, all administered by the priest.” (Ibid, 361) The importance of baptism in Mandaean life corresponds to the prominence in Mandaean scriptures of John the Baptist. In one of the few Mandaean works available in English, the Doctrine of John, or the John-Book, the history and the key role of the Baptizer, John, is treated at length. (Mead 1924) In the present state of scholarship it is not clear at what historical point the teachings about John entered, although it is not necessary to suppose that they are dependent on earlier Christian or Islamic texts. (Haeberl 2012, 265)
In their baptismal ceremony the Mandaeans gave the initiate a religious name written in a special alphabet which they considered to be both magical and sacred. Each letter in it had “a power of life and light.” (Drower 1962, 240 and 244) For the ceremony the priests, in accordance with Mesopotamian custom, consulted an astrological Book of Signs of the Zodiac, “which served the priests for horoscopes and for giving of names.” (Rudolph 1983, 340)
The scant attention paid to the Mandaeans belies their historical importance, which is that they are the only Gnostic body that has persevered from antiquity to the present day. Some are to be found in New York, Detroit, San Diego, and Sweden, and Australia. (King 2003, 298) In the 1980s about 15,000 were living in their traditional home, southern Iraq. (Rudolph 1983, 343) More recently it is estimated that 5,000 still live in Iraq, and that their total world population, including refugees from Iraq in Arab countries, is about 70,000. (“Iraq’s Mandaeans ‘face extinction.’” Angus Crawford, BBC News, March 4, 2007)