Forbidden Gospels, the Gnostic Jesus, and My Encounter with Dr. James Charlesworth

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by world-renowned biblical scholar Dr. James Charlesworth, Professor of NT Language and Literature at Princeton. Charlesworth was joined by Dr. Lee McDonald (Acadia Divinity College) at the beautiful Lanier Theological Library for an evening of discussions around the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the canonization process, and more. I knew I would enjoy Charlesworth’s lecture, entitled “The Theological Value of the ‘Rejected Texts’ and the Dead Sea Scrolls for Understanding Jesus,” but for me the event took an unexpected turn.  By the end of the evening, I may have even shone a bit of light on an area of “orthodoxy” which Charlesworth and others might rather keep out of view.


Dr. James Charlesworth

First, I should say that Dr. Charlesworth is an extraordinary scholar whose work has been rather valuable to me.  I, like many others, have especially enjoyed his two famous volumes of OT Pseudepigrapha.  Charlesworth is a Trinitarian, however, and a Methodist minister, and I couldn’t disagree with him more regarding the interpretation of the NT’s theology, eschatology, etc.  But I appreciate a great deal of his historical work related to the DSS and the nature of Scripture.  He’s also a highly entertaining speaker.

In the most captivating segment of his lecture, Charlesworth listed several books which he believes should not be added to the current canon of the NT.  Then, he provided several books which he thought we should add to our Bibles, perhaps as an appendix.  Among the works which Charlesworth believes we should reject, he listed 1) The Gospel of Peter; 2) The Acts of John; and 3) The Gospel of Judas.  His reasons were as follows:

1)      The Gospel of Peter is to be rejected as it is obviously “fantasy.”  Charlesworth naturally mentioned the infamous episode in which Jesus’ cross begins to walk around.

2)      The Acts of John is to be rejected because of its docetic Christology, in which Jesus did not really suffer and die.

3)      The Gospel of Judas is also to be rejected, but I don’t recall Charlesworth giving clear reasons why, other than the fact that Judas did not really write it.  But one must assume Charlesworth has other more valid reasons in mind.

Codex_Tchacos_p33 - Gospel of Judas - First page

NHC, Codex Tchacos; the first page of The Gospel of Judas

Charlesworth’s rejection of “Gnostic” works like the Acts of John and the Gospel of Judas was not surprising to me.  Orthodox Trinitarians almost always rapidly dismiss such expressions of Christianity as damnable heresy.  But when Charlesworth subsequently listed both The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Truth among the works which we should add to the Bible, I admit I was taken aback.  Both The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Truth are widely recognized as works of Christian Gnosticism, and these he labeled writings that will help you grow.  Evidently, for Charlesworth, some Gnostic texts should be tossed, while others should not only be used, but should even be inducted into the biblical canon. Of course, Charlesworth left out any mention of Gnosticism that evening.  But I wondered if anyone else in the audience had noticed any of this?

During the Q&A session, someone did ask why Charlesworth would want to include the infamous Gospel of Thomas since it teaches that women must become men to be saved.  Their question had referred, of course, to the last and most famous logion of GThomas:

“Shimon Kefa said to them, ‘Miryam should leave us.  Females are not worthy of life.’  Yeshua said, ‘Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so she too may become a living spirit resembling you males.  For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’ ” (Gospel of Thomas, 114; trans. Meyer and Barnstone).

Charlesworth’s response to this question was simply to explain the saying.  He assured everyone that this was no misogynistic teaching, rather that it meant that all of mankind was to return to its Edenic state before God removed Adam’s rib: an androgynous being containing both male and female.  Of course, Charlesworth’s interpretation has more to do with the gender transformation in saying 22 than in saying 114.[1]  Regardless, Charlesworth ultimately claimed that GThomas contains some early sayings traditions of Jesus worth adding to our Bibles.

20170304_175009After the lectures, I and a few friends left the chapel and headed to the library for the reception.  We stood in a quiet corner, perusing one of the private collections, oddly enough locating Charlesworth’s books among the many volumes.  We discussed the lectures, and felt it a shame that we didn’t get a chance to speak with Dr. Charlesworth, to ask him about Gnostic Christianity.  But suddenly, a voice behind us caught our attention: “Are you gentlemen here for autographs?”  I turned around to see Charlesworth walking towards us.  “No,” I said, walking to meet him, “But I do have a question.” 

I first told him that we were Biblical Unitarians, that we held to a “Socinian” Christology.  He didn’t bat an eye at this, so I continued with my question (*Note: the following quotations are from memory*):

“Doctor, I recently wrote a book concerning the influence of Gnosticism on Christology in the early centuries of the Church.  This evening you referenced several of the Nag Hammadi texts, and rejected some of them from the canon.  However, you said that the Gospel of Truth should be included, perhaps as an appendix to our Bibles.  Do you agree that this text was written by Valentinian Gnostics, or even by Valentinus himself?”

“Oh, Valentinus,” he said without hesitation, “I believe it was written by Valentinus.”

“Good,” I replied, “I agree with that.  But what sort of benefits do you think such a Gnostic work offers Christians today?”

His answer surprised me.  “Joy,” he said.  “Definitely the joy.”

I knew he was referencing the opening of the Gospel of Truth:

“The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father…” (Gospel of Truth, 1; trans. Robert M. Grant)

In essence, Charlesworth was saying that what Christ did should bring us joy, and that he “wants that in his Bible.”

But this was a bit strange to me.  Wasn’t there plenty of Christian joy in the core NT writings?  Couldn’t we also find joy in the other Gnostic writings Charlesworth had rejected in his lecture?  And wasn’t there enough questionable material in The Gospel of Truth to override our attraction to the sense of “joy” expressed within it?  Valentinus was, and still is, considered a dangerous heretic, an arch-heretic in fact, by every orthodox and proto-orthodox writer of the Church; Valentinus even taught a modified form of the Gnostic Demiurge doctrine, that the god who created our world was imperfect and was not the highest God.  Needless to say, I was surprised, and intrigued, that the work of such a theologian was being recommended by an orthodox minister for inclusion in the canon.  I pressed further: “But this text you are recommending is certainly representative of Gnostic Christianity, isn’t it?”

“Early Gnostic,” he said quickly.  “It’s early.  Not the late stuff, the late stuff is no good.  But the early…”

“But this is Valentinus,” I said.  “He is later; he deliberately catholicized the radical Sethian and Ophite types of Christianity and brought Gnosticism more in line with proto-orthodoxy.  Even in his Gospel of Truth we clearly find Gnosticism: the Son was sent down from the Pleroma to save humanity from ignorance—Gnosis of the indescribable Father is what saves us and returns us to the Pleroma…”

He said something along the lines of knowledge (gnosis) is a funny thing in the NT, in John, and in the Gnostic writings…” and trailed off.  He then proceeded to recommend one of his books to me (on the basis of my mention of the Ophites) and turned to sign autographs for several fans who’d discovered him in our corner.

At that moment, I remembered a prominent line from Charlesworth’s lecture: “Jesus is the canon.”  This had originally been said in the sense that “whatever Jesus thinks should be canonical.”  But the statement “Jesus is the canon” struck me differently in that instant: for Charlesworth, it might be a text’s Christology which largely determines its acceptability for Christian use.  For example, Charlesworth had rejected the Gnostic book The Acts of John on the grounds of its illusory, docetic Christology, and for its shuffling away from the suffering of the cross.  But the Valentinian Gnostic Christology, a dual-nature theory in which the Savior does have a body capable of suffering… could this sort of Gnostic Jesus be acceptable to Charlesworth?

In my book The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma (2016), I considered at length the Gnostic background of orthodox theological development.  In Chapter 3, I examined the Eastern and Western schools of Valentinian Gnosticism, and how closely their Christologies parallel what is today considered catholic dogma.  On pp. 101-102 I took notice of the following observation from Kurt Rudolph:

“The early Christian fathers, foremost Irenaeus and Tertullian, strove hard to find forms which make intelligible, in a non-Gnostic sense the prevailing division of the one Jesus Christ.  Strictly speaking they did not succeed.  Already [German historian Adolf] Harnack was forced to say, ‘Who can maintain that the Church ever overcame the Gnostic doctrine of the two natures or the Valentinian Docetism?’  Even the later councils of the Church which discussed the Christological problem in complicated, and nowadays hardly intelligible, definitions did not manage to do this; the unity of the Church foundered precisely on this… It has often been forgotten that Gnostic theologians saw Christ as ‘consubstantial’ (homoousios) with the Father, before ecclesiastical theology established this as a principle, in order to preserve his full divinity.”[2]

Cross-of-JesusToday, those who hold to the dual-nature Christology of orthodoxy are often compelled on the one hand to reject Gnostic texts which either eliminate or equivocate on the crucifixion of Jesus.  But on the other hand, their own Christology forces the same question which the Gnostics were trying to resolve: how can we say that Jesus is by nature a spiritual being, even God, and affirm that he died on the cross?  The Valentinian schools had tried to solve the problem of Christ’s deity by saying that the Son suffered in his human nature only, or that a distinct human person in the Savior perished.  But when orthodox Trinitarians similarly assign the destruction of the cross to the “human nature” of the Son, have they not also moved to preserve the person of the Son from the cross like the Valentinians?

It must be difficult for someone as well-informed as Charlesworth to outright reject Valentinianism when its Christology is fundamentally so close to the elemental principles which motivate his own orthodox vision of Jesus.  Rejection is difficult, at least, on purely Christological grounds; as one Trinitarian scholar recently admitted, “in its more moderate form [Gnostic Christology] is very difficult to differentiate from orthodox Christology…”[3]  Could more-or-less orthodox thinking about the person of Christ as God-in-the-flesh be what really counts for Charlesworth, despite whatever else an ancient book or theologian might say?

Not surprisingly, it took only a few moments for Charlesworth to become tired of our conversation; it was apparent that he didn’t want to talk about the relationship between Christian Gnosticism and orthodoxy any longer.  He began to shuffle away without another word, so I quickly thanked him for his time and for his earlier lecture.  But as he walked away, I couldn’t help but think that I had shone a little light on a dark corner.  Indeed, when I had pointed out that The Gospel of Truth was decidedly Gnostic, and that Charlesworth was essentially proposing adding Gnostic teaching to our New Testament, his response had been only to assure me that it was “early Gnosticteaching (which is not really true). It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that because Charlesworth rejects some Gnostic books on Christological grounds, but accepts the Valentinian Gospel of Truth, that in Valentinus he must detect a Christological compatibility with his Trinitarianism, and evidently enough compatibility to warrant adding Valentinus’ teaching to our Bibles.  But how might Charlesworth justify Valentinus’ demiurgical teaching?  Or his Pleromatic cosmogony and anthropology?  Does he think these are compatible with orthodoxy?  If not, then why nominate The Gospel of Truth for inclusion, and recommend it to Christians as a “writing that will help you grow”?


NHC, Codex VI

Later that evening I thought about another problem with Charlesworth’s recommendations for the canon.  On the one hand he had rejected The Acts of John explicitly because it undermines the suffering of Christ.  But a closer examination of The Acts of John reveals an uncanny affinity with the orthodox Christology that Charlesworth is looking to protect.

In section 101 of The Acts of John, the Gnostic Jesus says:

“Nothing, therefore, of the things which they will say of me have I suffered: nay, that suffering also which I showed unto thee and the rest in the dance, I will that it be called a mystery… Thou hearest that I suffered, yet I did not suffer; that I suffered not, yet did I suffer… what they say of me, that befell me not, but what they say not, that did I suffer” (The Acts of John, 101).

Charlesworth had said he rejected The Acts of John because it says that Jesus didn’t suffer.  However, in the above quotation, we have not a complete elimination of the suffering of Jesus—there is still a form of suffering experienced.  We are not to reconcile the antimony here, rather Christ’s suffering-without-suffering is to be called, as the Gnostic Jesus says, “a mystery.”

This is, of course, the same basic position of orthodoxy regarding the suffering of the Son.  The orthodox St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his contest with the Nestorians, mandated that it was not only the human nature which was crucified, but the Logos himself.  His conclusion was that the Son “suffered impassibly.”  In other words, that Jesus suffered-without-suffering.  Evangelical Wayne Grudem concurs that the orthodox Christ “somehow tasted something of what it was like to go through death.  The person of Christ experienced death.”[4]   Likewise, Gnostic scholar David Brons explains that in the Valentinian Christology, the divine person “endured only the emotional sufferings of grief.”[5]  Thus the “suffering” of both the Gnostic and orthodox Christs is a kind of simulation, and a simulation which both the Gnostics and the orthodox claim was efficacious and somehow real.  As Trinitarian scholars have confessed, “The impassible suffering of the Logos in the flesh strains, to be sure, the limits of our understanding.”[6]  So how are we to approach such a problem?  Evidently with (blind) faith, with a reckless embrace of the “mystery.”  As was said at the lectures at LTL that evening, either by Charlesworth or by McDonald (I do not recall which), “we may never understand” the death of Jesus.  However, the New Testament (as it stands) makes it clear that Christian salvation hinges on a real belief in the death of Jesus; not in the death of God’s abstract “human nature,” but in “the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10).

I continue to locate a surprisingly deep affinity between the Gnostic and orthodox ideas about Christ, despite the fact that the orthodox regularly label the Gnostics Christological heretics.  Ultimately, my encounter with Dr. Charlesworth has encouraged me to continue to explore Christianity’s ancient encounter with Gnosis; I am increasingly convinced that this was one of the most important events in the history of the Christian religion, and certainly one of the most neglected.  What will we find as we continue to shine a light on that foggy period?  Perhaps a better, more faithful, and less Gnostic way to read the New Testament?  Such should always be the aim of any Christian who really cares about the tradition of the Apostles.




[1] “Yeshua said to them, ‘When you make the two into one… and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female… then you will enter the kingdom” (GThomas, 22; trans. Barnstone and Meyer).

[2] Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 372, emphasis added.

[3] Daniel R. Streett, They Went Out From Us: The Identity of the Opponents in First John (De Gruyter, 2011), p. 54.

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 556.

[5] David Brons, “The Role of Jesus in Valentianism,” The Gnostic Society Library. Web.

[6] James F. Keating, Thomas Joseph White, Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 257.

Dr. Dustin Smith on the Embodiment of Wisdom

dustinsmithDr. Dustin Smith has recently released two videos regarding the portrayal of God’s wisdom in Jewish literature, and how it relates to the famous prologue of the Fourth Gospel.  I’ve found Smith’s work especially accommodating to my own position on John 1:1-14, and I believe his evidence is worth considering.

As I laid out in my recent book, my argument is that John’s usage of Logos, far from being a novel (Trinitarian) revelation about a personally pre-existent Messiah, has its background in the LXX and Jewish Wisdom literature.  I have never been convinced of the “memra” reading of the prologue inspired by the Aramaic Targums; I find it unnecessary to link John to the Targums when we already know he was familiar with the LXX.  Furthermore, his prologue’s affinity with Jewish Wisdom literature is quite clear, and Smith’s new exploration of this particular connection is quite revealing.

Image result for lady wisdomIn Smith’s first video, [found here] he demonstrates that in the OT book of Proverbs God’s wisdom, initially personified as “Lady Wisdom” in chapter 8, is later embodied in the “ideal woman” (popularly known as the ‘Proverbs 31 Woman’).  In essence, every woman whose life models the ideal woman could be said to be an embodiment of Lady Wisdom, God’s personified attribute which he employed in creation.  Smith then links Proverb’s human embodiment (read: incarnation) of a personified attribute with the prologue of the Gospel of John.

Image result for israelite high priestIn Smith’s second video, [found here]  he demonstrates that in The Wisdom of Sirach the historical high priest Simon (219-196 BCE) is likewise portrayed as the embodiment of God’s Wisdom; the writer of Sirach takes the attributes of Lady Wisdom in Ch. 24 and lauds Simon for those same attributes in Ch. 50.  This point about Wisdom being embodied in Simon was one that I recently brought out in my book (pp. 479-481).  However, I hadn’t recognized what Smith is now drawing out of Proverbs, and Smith’s work provides even more powerful support for the argument that John’s prologue depicts the embodiment of an impersonal attribute, God’s logos (Wisdom/Torah).

In Ch. 14 of my book, I provide an introduction to these ideas which might lay a good foundation for approaching Smith’s new evidence in Proverbs:

In Jewish wisdom literature, God’s logos (word), God’s wisdom, and God’s Torah are used virtually interchangeably.  While in Proverbs we read that “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (3:19), in rabbinical sources we read that “God consulted the Torah and created the world” (Genesis Rabba 1:1).  In the 1st-2nd century BCE book Wisdom of Sirach, a work ostensibly alluded to by Jesus and his disciples,[1] God’s wisdom is equated with the Torah, the law handed down to Moses at Sinai:

“Sirach 24 is the most familiar place where wisdom and Torah are identified.  The first 22 verses parallel the long hymn in Proverbs 8 as well as Proverbs 1:20-33; Job 28 and Wisdom 6-10… The second major section (verses 23-29), identifies wisdom with “the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us…” ” (v. 23).[2]

In verse 8 of Sirach 24 we read: “Then the Creator of all gave me his command, and my Creator chose the spot for my tent.  He said, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling, in Israel your inheritance.’ ”  The idea of God’s wisdom or Torah coming down and making a tent among Israel should seem familiar.  In John 1:14 we read that God’s word “became flesh and dwelt among us,” or literally: “pitched a tent among us.”  With the equation of God’s word, God’s wisdom, and God’s Torah, along with the idea that it can be spoken of as coming down and dwelling among us, we have laid a non-metaphysical foundation for John’s logos.  This picture is further realized by the fact that Jewish circles in the centuries preceding and following Jesus’ ministry even spoke of this word as “becoming flesh” or being personified in a living rabbi.  In Sirach 50:1-21, the historical Jew Simon ben Onias is treated as an embodiment of wisdom, without literal pre-existence.[3]  Could the historical Jew Jesus also be seen as embodying wisdom without literal pre-existence?  Jacob Neusner reveals how the Jerusalem Talmud, a reflection on second century rabbinical thought, portrayed Jewish teachers as the “incarnation” of God’s word or Torah:

“The reason that the Torah was made flesh was that the Torah was the source of salvation.  When the sage was transformed into a salvific figure through his mastery of the Torah, it was an easy step to regard the sage as the living Torah.” [4]

Philo himself appears to exhibit very similar thinking: in his Life of Moses I, Philo says that Moses was the embodiment or personification of Torah.  Since “Moses was also destined to be the lawgiver of his nation, he was himself… a living and reasonable law” (Life of Moses I 28:162).  Regarding Moses as king, Philo again writes that “the king is a living law” (Life of Moses II, 4).  Because Moses had been designated as the conduit through which God’s word, wisdom, and Torah would be delivered (See Ex 4:12; 15, Deut 18:18), Moses was himself a seen as an embodiment of that divine word, wisdom, and Torah.  He was called “the law-giving Word” because he himself received “divine communication.”[5]

How might all of this be helpful for understanding John 1:1?  At the beginning of part two, we reviewed how Paul, John’s contemporary, understood that Jesus had come to represent God’s wisdom to the disciples: “Christ Jesus… has become to us the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:30).  God’s wisdom, Torah, or word is not, then, a pre-existing divine person who later took on an abstract human nature.  It is the man Jesus who became God’s wisdom.  He was a living personification of that principle.  Indeed, God’s wisdom/word dwelled in Jesus; he was the conduit through which God’s own word would be delivered (Jn 3:34; 8:28).  As we read from Dunn previously:

“[Paul] presented the Lordship of Christ within the context of Jewish monotheism and Christ as one whom Christians now see to embody and mediate that power of God which created and sustains the world… he sees Jesus not as a pre-existent divine being, but as a man, a Jew, whose God is the one God, and yet who so embodied God’s creative power and saving wisdom… that he can be identified as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” “[6]

Indeed, for the early Christians, Jesus was “not simply the fulfillment of the Mosaic Torah but also the embodiment of the wisdom of God seen in the revelation of the created order itself.”[7]  And so Paul says that Jesus is himself “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).  And likewise, John says in his prologue that God’s word (or wisdom) “became flesh”—was embodied or personified—in the living man Jesus Christ (1:14).

As Professor Colin Brown at Fuller once said, “To read John 1:1 as if it said, ‘In the beginning was the Son’ is patently wrong.”[8]  Indeed, there is something else entirely happening in GJohn’s prologue which can only be observed in light of Jewish history and literature.  I believe, in fact, that there is even more going on here than a Christian appeal to Wisdom tradition.  My upcoming research project is indeed very much concerned with the Fourth Gospel and the historical context in which it was written.  But that’s for another time.

Until then, do yourself a favor and check out Dr. Smith’s videos here and here.  And be sure to visit his blog at Dustin Martyr for more updates related to these topics.




[1] Compare Matt 6:19-20 with Sirach 29:11; Matt 7:16, 20 with Sirach 27:6; Matt 11:28 with Sirach 51:27; James 1:19 with Sirach 5:11; Matt 7:16-20 with Sirach 27:6; Matt 6:12 with Sirach 28:2.

[2] Ryan O’Dowd, The Wisdom of Torah: Epistemology in Deuteronomy and the Wisdom Literature (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009), p. 177.

[3] Simon J. Gathercole, The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), p. 197.

[4] Jacob Neusner, The Incarnation of God: The Character of Divinity in Formative Judaism (Binghamton: Global Academic Publishing, 2001 [1998]), p. 202.  The incarnation of Torah as a sage, says Neusner, “is represented by the claim that a sage himself was equivalent to a scroll of Torah—a material, legal comparison, not merely a symbolic metaphor.  Here are expressions of that conception in the Talmud of the Land of Israel: ‘He who sees a disciple of a sage who has died is as if he sees a scroll of the Torah that has been burned’ ” (Ibid., p. 203).

[5] O. W. Holmes, “Competing Concepts of the Cosmos in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Phenomenology and the Human Positioning in the Cosmos (London: Springer, 2012), p. 57.

[6] Dunn, Christology in the Making (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988)p. 211.

[7] Daniel L. Akin, A Theology for the Church (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), p. 109, emphasis added.

[8] Colin Brown, Ex Auditu, Vol. 7, p. 89.


Ancient Lit. SpotLight #1: The Suda

The Ancient Lit. SpotLight series is designed to introduce works of Judaism, Christianity, paganism, and Gnosticism to a wider audience, in hopes of increasing awareness of the religious and philosophical thought of the ancient Mediterranean world.

With the above goal in mind, there are few texts better to begin our exploration with than the Suda.





Description of the text:

The Suda (or Souda; Greek: Σοῦδα) is a massive 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia featuring a staggering 31,000+ entries.  The encyclopedia draws from a variety of sources including the records of Christian historians, and a host of ancient works now considered lost.  In reality, the text is partly an encyclopedia, and partly a grammatical dictionary; it provides not only valuable information on historical personalities, but on the definitions and etymological pedigree of ancient words.  Because of this, the Suda now provides unparalleled access to the ancient Mediterranean world.

Dating and Authorship:

Information about the compilation of the Suda is scarce.  Eustathius (c. 1115-1195 CE), Archbishop of Thessalonica, made much use of the work; it therefore dates to sometime before his quotations.  On the other hand, due to the contents of the entries regarding the reigns of emperors, we can date the compilation of the Suda to sometime after the year 975 CE.  Eustathius erroneously attributed the text to the pen of one “Suidas”, after mistaking the name of the encyclopedia for an author.  The name “Suidas” likely stems from the Greek word “souda” which translates to “stronghold.”  Due to the emphasis on biblical topics, most have concluded the writer was a Christian of some sort.

Content and Points of Interest:

The entries of the Suda are organized alphabetically.  Some entries are enhanced by pictures or diagrams, while others exhibit only a few lines of the most condense and essential information about a subject.  The Suda is especially helpful in bringing to light information about the political world of the Eastern empire through the tenth century.  Two major historical sources which the text relies upon have been identified: the encyclopedia of emperor Constantine VII (compiled during his reign 912-959 CE), and the writings of John of Antioch (429-441 CE).  While many of the Suda’s entries contain suspect or demonstrably unreliable information, they are often our only sources on some ancient figures.

In 1499, Demetrius Chalcondylas published the Greek text of the Suda as the Lexicon Graecum.  This was the largest one-volume Greek text published in 15th century.  One can view a digital reproduction of this Greek text here.
lexicon-graecum-latin  lexicon-graecum-latin2

In 1998, even before the founding of Wikipedia (2001), an online collaboration project was launched to translate the Suda into English for the first time.  Organized by the Stoa Consortium for Electronic Publication in the Humanities, the project required a careful submission and vetting process.  Finally, in August 2014, the Stoa Consortium announced that the last of the 31,000+ entries had been translated.  The result was a freely accessible, and completely searchable, English edition of the Suda online, which can be accessed here.  The project not only opened the Suda to a wider audience, but demonstrated the power of technology in scholarly collaboration.


Suda Online: Byzantine Lexicography (

The history of the Suda Online project (

Digital facsimilie of the Demetrius Chalcondylas’ Lexicon Graecum (

Images and notes on the three copies of the Lexicon Graecum housed at the University of Glasgow (



Artapanus and the Egyptian Moses: Jewish Syncretism in Alexandria

In the study of historical Gnostic religions, one is inevitably drawn towards the period of Graeco-Egyptian syncretism occurring in the wake of Alexander’s Egyptian conquest (c. 300 BCE).  My upcoming (and currently under-wraps) research project has been especially dependent upon such study.  One surprising element I have regularly encountered in this research is the participation of the Jews in both religious and historical Graeco-Egyptian synthesis.

Ancient Alexandria

Nowhere was the relationship between the Jews and the Graeco-Egyptian world more prominent than in the matchless city of Alexandria, which for centuries housed a significant and influential Jewish quarter.  According to Josephus, Jews were already living in that city during Alexander’s lifetime (d. 323 BCE), but it is certain they were at least forming a significant population by the opening of the third century BCE.

Relations between the Jews and the Alexandrian government were decent, save for a few small clashes.  Jewish relations with the Greek citizens of Alexandria deteriorated into bloodshed, however, beneath the rule of the Romans, who crushed a Jewish rebellion in that city to the tune of 50,000 Jews (c. 116 CE).  But before this, in the age of the Ptolemies (323-30 BCE), many Alexandrian Jews had little difficulty acclimating themselves, both in culture and religion, to the Graeco-Egyptian world.

Image result for alexandrian jew

Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE- 50 CE)

It is within this philosophical and cultural melting-pot that such Jews as Philo (25 BCE-50 CE) achieved a dramatic synthesis between Judaism, Middle Platonism, and Stoicism.  The Jewish philosopher Aristobulous, working more than a century before Philo, had already claimed that Greeks like Orpheus and Musaeus had been dependent on Moses, and on the Torah, for their own doctrines.  These sort of speculations were evidently well-known by both Jewish and Gentile philosophers, and continued to be made in the following centuries.  Some Greeks, looking to establish the universality of Plato’s truth, themselves drew near to such ideas—thus the famous line of Numenius (fl. 2nd century CE): “What is Plato but Moses speaking Attic Greek?”[1]  Of course, the idea that the Greeks were especially dependent on Moses was a Jewish tendency.

While Hellenistic Judaism’s prominent relationship with Greek philosophy is today widely discussed, its relationship with acutely Egyptian thought has been far less visible.  Philo himself detested Egyptian religion and sought to distance his fusion of Judaism and Greek philosophy from Egypt’s naïve polytheism.  But other Hellenistic Jews looked to incorporate both the Greek and the Egyptian worlds into Jewish religion and history.

Image result for moses

Moses, Library of Congress

This spirit was most visibly captured in the work of Jewish historian Artapanus, who probably lived in Alexandria around the late second century BCE, beneath the rule of Ptolemy IV.  Artapanus’ work focused largely on promoting the exploits of the Jewish patriarchs in the land of Egypt: he portrayed biblical figures like Abraham and Joseph as the originators of various aspects of Egyptian culture, such as astrology, religion, and weapon-making.[2]  In Artapanus’ time, age was a valuable thing in a competitive religious milieu, and there was a constant jockeying for chronological authority.  Thus, similar to Aristobulous, Artapanus said that Moses had first taught Orpheus, the mythological father of the Greek culture whose later cult greatly influenced the Hellenistic philosophers. 

Image result for egyptian godsAccording to Artapanus, Moses had also divided Egypt into 36 nomes (territories) and assigned to each the worship of a different Egyptian god.  Coming from a Jew, this sort of claim featuring the central Jewish prophet’s tolerance of Egyptian polytheism is striking.  Niehoff writes that “in complete contrast to Philo, Artapanus did not abhor Egyptian religion, but subordinated it to his own tradition, thus suggesting a deep congeniality between the two.”[3]  But why, according to Aratapaus, did Moses assign the nomes of Egypt to “cats, dogs, and ibises”?  Evidently, “he did all these things for the sake of keeping the monarchy stable for [the king] Chenephres, for prior to this time the masses were disorganized and they would sometimes depose, sometimes install rulers, often the same person, but sometimes others.”[4]  Here we find a largely political motivation, but this is not meant to downplay the real religious significance of Moses’ alleged acts.  As John Barclay writes, “Moses in the palace of the king (Exodus 2:10) is for [Artapanus] a symbol of the integration of Jewish and Egyptian culture”;[5] the Egyptian Moses was the real intersection between the Jewish and Egyptian religious worlds. 

An interesting parallel to the idea that Moses divided up the land up among the Egyptian gods might be found in the Hebrew OT, in Deuteronomy 32:8.  As Michael Heiser convincingly demonstrates, this text should read, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.”[6]  In Heiser’s view, which emphasizes the ancient Israelite belief in “the divine council/assembly” of lesser divine entities,[7] Deut 32:8 represents a dividing of the land between lesser gods. 


Moses murders the Egyptian

But how was Artapanus to deal with the story of the Exodus, and the blatant rejection of Egypt in the Israelite religion and history?  In Exodus, Moses even kills an Egyptian, abandons Egypt, and flees to join his own people—how could this fit with Artapanus’ mission?   Artapanus was thus compelled to rework the story of Moses’ murder of the Egyptian into a thrilling assassination plot hatched by a jealous king.  Moses’ violence was now a brave self-defense; Artapanus’ Moses does not abandon Egypt, but is forced to flee.  As Barclay observes, “Artapanus has managed to use Exod. 2.10-15 to produce a faultless Moses, as fully integrated into Egyptian life and culture as Artapanus himself.[8]

Interestingly, it is probable that another motivation for Artapanus’ work involved the refutation of pagan claims about Moses.  For example, the Egyptian priest Manetho (fl. 3rd century BCE) had slandered Moses as a charlatan and religious imposter (Josephus also works to refute these claims).[9]  Manetho had said that Moses was an Egyptian, and a leprous, crippled priest working in the pagan temples of Egypt, who fell away and taught atheism to the Jews (atheism in this case being the denial of the Egyptian gods).  It is probable, then, that Artapanus works against these claims by portraying Moses as not only comfortable with the gods but as authoritatively establishing the whole religious order in Egypt.

Image result for hermes trismegistus

The ibis-headed Thoth

Another interesting feature of Artapanus’ work is his ultimate identification of Moses with the Egyptian god Thoth.  It is this Thoth-Moses, he says, who was responsible for not only first revealing philosophy to the Hellenistic world,[10] but for first translating the elusive Egyptian hieroglyphics into Greek.  As many linguists have observed, language plays an influential and possibly determinative role in the establishment of culture;[11] Thus we might say that Artapanus’ Moses acts as a melting point for not only divergent religions, but for the entire way of life of the Greek, Jewish, and Egyptian peoples.  In the end, this Thoth-Moses was, according to Artapanus, so revered that he was “deemed worthy of godlike honor by the priests and called Hermes, on account of the interpretation of the sacred letters.”[12]   And here we find yet another interesting convergence: Moses is equated with both the Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek god Hermes.

The historical combination of Thoth and Hermes was an easy-to-achieve synthesis: both were gods of wisdom, invention, and divine messages.  This particular fusion predated the work of Artapanus, and was a fascination of Greek settlers in Egypt, and one of the grandest products of their tendency to mix gods in the Ptolemaic kingdom (a practice perhaps initiated by Ptolemy I himself, pushing his Serpais cult to unify his disparate peoples).  The long-standing combination of Thoth and Hermes would also provide the basis for the rise of the legendary prophet Hermes Trismegistus, who played the central figure of the later pagan Gnostic movement known as Hermeticism (a movement which now occupies much of my current study).

Ultimately, both the Egyptian Thoth and the Greek Hermes, being the conductors of divine Image result for mosesmessages from heaven, naturally fit with the Moses persona: Moses was the great oracle and mediator between the biblical God and the Jews, and was himself an author and co-author with God, and one who even brought down messages inscribed by God’s own hand from Sinai.

While most studies of Jewish Alexandrian syncretism revolve around the fascination of figures like Philo with Greek philosophy, there is yet another world of Jewish syncretism traveling towards Egypt.  This is perhaps an even more surprising direction, given the difficult history of the Jews with that people, and the readiness of Jews to look down on Egyptian religion.  But in the work of Artapanus we find a flexible Hellenistic Judaism looking to join in religious and historical assimilation with Egypt.  Interestingly, the endeavor to recognize harmony between the biblical religion and the Egyptian world would not cease with Jews like Artapanus, but would live on in the efforts of some of the most influential fourth century Church Fathers.  But the Christian harmony with Graeco-Egyptian syncretism is a discussion for another day…



[1] Numenius of Apamea quoted in Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 122.150.4.

[2] John J. Collins, “Artapanus,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1983), pp. 889-903.

[3] Niehoff, p. 73.

[4] Eusebius’ account of Artapanus in Praep. Ev. 9.27.5.

[5] John M.G. Barclay, “Manipulating Moses: Exodus 2:10-15 in Egyptian Judaism and the New Testament,” Text as Pretext: Essays in Honor of Robert Davidson (Bloomsbury Pub., 1992), p.  33.

[6] Michael S. Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God” Bibliotheca Sacra, 158 (Jan-March 2001), pp. 52-74.

[7] The idea that there is a divine assembly of deities governing the world, sometimes beneath the authority of a supreme God, is a widespread belief in the ancient world and can be located in the religions of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Hebrews.  Biblical passages like 1 Kings 22:19-23 surely refer to such a belief.  Some also interpret passages like Psalm 82:1-6 along these lines.

[8] Barclay, p. 34.

[9] Daniel Jeremy Silver, Images of Moses (Basic Books, 1982), p. 58; see Josephus’ Against Apion for his refutations of critics like Manetho, Lysimachus, Chaeremon, Apion, Posidonius, and Apollonius Molon.

[10] Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, p. 23.

[11] The popular Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as Linguistic relativity, holds that one’s language influences or even determines one’s worldview.

[12] Eusebius recalling Artapanus, Praep. Evang., IX, 27, 6, emphasis added.

Visit to LTL

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the now seven-year-old Lanier Theological Library (LTL), a 17,000 sq. ft biblical research library in Houston.  The library features over 85,000 titles in the fields of Church History, Dead Sea Scrolls research, Egyptology, Theology, Biblical languages, and more.  It is also home to several interesting artifacts, including a DSS fragment.


Below are a few photographs I took during my visit:


The LTL is actually a private library, built on the family property of Houston lawyer Mark Lanier, the founder of the famous Lanier Law Firm.  The grounds are also home to a replica of a 500 CE Byzantine chapel, where various scholars and public figures have lectured, including Larry Hurtado, D.A. Carson, N.T. Wright, and even Justice Antonin Scalia.

I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming lecture on the value of the Apocrypha by James Charlesworth, which I’ll be attending in March.

The LTL is also home to the private collections of many scholars; I found myself spending most of my time browsing the collection of Alan Segal (particularly the Hermetica-related works), but was most impressed by the collection of Abraham Malamat (professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem).  In light of my current studies, the many volumes on Egyptology are what caught my eye the most; since no books can be checked out from the library (as it is private), I’ll doubtless be scheduling many future visits.

Below is a photograph of the original DSS fragment featured at the library (from Amos 7:17-8:1):


Line 1: Your wife [will become a prostitute] in the city, [and your sons and yo]ur [daughters] will fall by the swor[d], and [your] la[nd with a line]…
Line 2: will be measured. You will d[i]e in an unclean land and Isra[el will certainly go into exile]…
Line 3: [away from its land. Thus] YHWH showed me: [a ba]sk[et of summer fruit. And he said]…

Overall, I was very impressed with the library’s collection and the grounds; looking forward to returning in March for Charlesworth, whose lecture I will doubtless blog about.

Webinar & Book Give-A-Way

Last night I had the opportunity to give a webinar on my new book The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma.  The extensive discussion was graciously hosted by Restoration Fellowship, and featured appearances by Sir Anthony F. Buzzard, and Carlos Xavier (Restoration Fellowship); Dr. Joe Martin (President, Atlanta Bible College); Pastor Robin Todd (Washington Church of God, Scattered Brethren Network); and more.

Topics discussed included: early Jewish-Christianity, the early controversy with Christian Gnosticism and its effects on Christology, the development of Trinitarian orthodoxy, the influence of the Roman state on the conciliar creeds, and the religion of the historical Jesus.  Other topics entertained included dogmatism within modern evangelicalism, and why the study of these historical and theological matters is important for the Christian faith and life.

See the video below, or click here.

And just in time for Christmas… we will be giving away some free copies of my book!  Just log in to Amazon at the url below, and enter for a chance to win:

If you aren’t one of the lucky winners, you can still grab a copy for yourself or as a gift for the holidays here.

Image result for christmas present


Audio Interview: A Discussion on My Book, and on Pagan and Gnostic Influences on Orthodox Theology



This week I joined Sean Finnegan again for another interview on the excellent Restitutio podcast.

In this interview, Finnegan and I discuss my new book, The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma.

You’ll hear about the books’ content and fundamental arguments, and a conversation on how historical pagan and Gnostic thinking influenced the development of orthodox Christian doctrine.  From there, Sean and I consider an alternative way of interacting with the New Testament which doesn’t rely on the philosophies which undergird the creedal, state-sanctioned Christianity which emerged out of the turmoil of the fourth century CE.

Click below for the audio stream and download page:

Restitutio 9: “Pagan Influences on the Development of the Trinity”


You can get your copy of the book here.


Audio Interview: A Restorationist Discovers the God of Jesus

This past week I had the honor of being interviewed for the Restitutio podcast.

restitutio is a website hosted by Sean Finnegan, pastor at Living Hope Community Church in New York.  The weekly podcast features topics related to biblical study and historical Christianity, and the site hosts a wealth of articles, videos, and audio teachings exploring the biblical unitarian understanding of the Bible.

I count myself very blessed to know Mr. Finnegan and his work.  His material was very helpful to me early on in my studies, and I was happy to finally meet Sean this past year at the 25th Annual Theological Conference in Atlanta, GA, where he gave a wonderful presentation on Atonement Theories.

This week’s podcast is an interview with me regarding my spiritual journey out of mainstream evangelicalism, and my discovery of the theology of the historical Jesus.  The next interview will be about my recent book.

Click below for the audio stream and download page:

Restitutio: “A Restorationist Discovers the God of Jesus”



Plotinus Among the Gnostics: The Neoplatonic Trinity in the Late Third Century

NeoplatonismMost Christians today seem woefully unaware of the important religious interchange which gave rise to their most beloved church doctrines.  Hardly noticed are the historians who have challenged the common, whitewashed Church history perpetuated by mainstream evangelicalism, which has ever sought to paint such ecclesiastical standards at the doctrine of the Trinity (or at least the fourth-and-fifth-century creeds which are said to describe it) as not only fundamental to the Christian faith, but arrived at via the Scriptures alone (in other words, apart from pagan philosophy).  Unbeknownst to many, however, without the necessary backdrop of Platonic, Stoic, and Christian Gnostic thought, the Trinitarian theology now so widely viewed as the “Christian distinctive” would be impossible.

But just how did the “orthodox” Christians ever come to view the biblical God as “three hypostases and one ousia,” and as a scheme which featured the mysterious procession (emanation) of one hypostases from another, outside of time?  Understanding the complex relationship between the competing academic groups in the latter half of the third century will prove increasingly helpful in understanding how these radical Christian developments were possible by the fourth century.  In this post we will be focusing specifically on the triadic concepts found in early Neoplatonism.  Because of Neoplatonism’s inarguable significance for the Church Fathers who eventually laid down orthodox theology, we must consider that philosophical movement’s own divine triad, how it developed, and whether or not there are substantial enough affinities with later Christianity to suspect any influence.


Plotinus (d. 270 CE), the so-called founder of Neoplatonism, had not only envisioned a triad of the One, the Intellect (Nous), and the Soul, but even posited that “the latter two mysteriously emanate from the One.”[1]  Plotinus described this triad as three “hypostases” (to him, the underlying substances of existence).  One of Plotinus’ most pertinent ideas was the concept of “emanation” as an explanation of the relationship between the principles of the triad.  He utilized the analogy of the sun which emanates light without diminishing itself; in this way God expressed the logos, whom Plotinus identified with the Demiurge, and from that logos “proceeded” the World-Soul.[2]  Here, surprisingly, the exact phraseology of the pagans is readily located in the Catholic creeds, as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE states that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father [and the Son].”[3]  But how was this thinking first taken up in Neoplatonism before it was transmitted into Christian orthodoxy?


Earlier forerunners of Neoplatonism like Numenius (2nd century) had offered an account of “three Gods,” but they had been static principles.  However, as John D. Turner reveals: “a number of Gnostic thinkers were developing schemes by which a hierarchy of transcendental beings emanated from a single source by a process of dynamic emanation.”[4]  Turner continues: “Although Plotinus has often been credited with being the first major philosopher to elaborate such a scheme, it is clear that similar models of dynamic emanation are beginning to develop in Gnostic thought, some of which chronologically precedes Plotinus.[5]

Because of Plotinus’ pointed and voluminous writings against the Gnostics (he wrote an entire book against them), scholars have long considered Plotinian and Gnostic thought to be diametrically opposed.  But today scholars are beginning to emphasize the “fundamental similarities” between them.[6]

Plotinus taught in Rome from 244-269 CE, and upon arriving in that city he had immediately found himself surrounded, not by traditional Platonists, but by “Platonizing Gnostics,” whom he held to be corrupters of Plato’s original doctrines.[7]  Around 265, Plotinus was loudly condemning teachers who were misleading his own students, and by the time of his school’s closing, dear friends of Plotinus had “fallen under the spell of the rival doctrine.”[8]  Indeed, many Gnostic texts are said to have circulated in Plotinus’ school, including the Sethian treatises and the Nag Hammadi texts Zostrianos (favored by the orthodox Christian Marius Victorinus) and the Allogenes.

Apocryphon of John (NHC)

Despite his great contest with the Gnostics, Plotinus appears to have followed in the pattern of Gnosticizing Christians like Clement of Alexandria; he publicly denounced the Gnostics while simultaneously borrowing from them.  The most important texts that Plotinus drew from were the Valentinian Tripartite Tractate and the Sethian Apocryphon of John (both found among the Nag Hammadi texts).  In the Tripartite Tractate, the supreme principle, the Father, generates the Son when the Father first thinks of himself.[9]  The Father and Son are viewed as one and the same, and their existence is described as a “self-generation.”[10]  Likewise in the Sethian texts, when the “Invisible Spirit” thinks of himself, he emanates the second intellectual principle, the “Barbelo” or the “First Thought.”  As scholars confirm, the Sethian Barbelo “corresponds to Numenius’ Second Mind.”[11]  In the same way, the later Plotinus says that “Mind” is generated by the self-contemplation of the “One.”[12]  Regarding the retention of properties, in the Tripartite Tractate we find that the Father is in no way diminished by his generation of the Son.[13]  Likewise in Plotinus the One is not diminished by the production of the Mind.[14]  As Turner concludes:

In sum, Gnostic sources such as the Sethian Platonizing treatises and the Tripartite Tractate may have had a decisive influence on some of the most distinctive features and images of Plotinus’ thinking.  In fact, not only was Gnostic thought a genuine forerunner of, and “Platonic” competitor with, some of those features of Platonic interpretation habitually thought to be distinctively Neoplatonic, such as the Being-Life-Mind triad, but also major features of Plotinus’ thought, not only because these ideas were part of a shared milieu, but also because Plotinus was involved in a dialogue with them for virtually the whole of his writing career.[15]

This information confirms that the problem of Gnostic infiltration was not confined to Christianity.  Gnosticism proved a major theological force in the late Roman Empire for far longer and on a far broader scale than popular Christian histories have allowed.  The religion of Plato was as much a victim of this exploitation as the religion of Jesus: in either case we can hardly distinguish, in the later forms of those faiths, the practical differences between many of their principles and those of the dreaded mystics they condemned.

Ultimately, the subtle Gnosticizing of Neoplatonism bears repercussions for Christianity.  There is an easily discerned harmony between the Neoplatonic philosophy and the writings of important Christian (and former Manichaean Gnostic) Augustine, who happily “discovered” the Christian Trinity in Plotinus’ works.[16]  Likewise other post-Nicene theologians, like Cyril of Alexandria (376-444 CE), “tells us himself, for example, that he discerns a Christian view of God not only in some of Plato, but also in Plotinus.”[17]  For these Christian doctors, the preceding labors of the pagans continuously provided a fertile soil where Christians might sow the subjects of the New Testament and reap an innovative and exciting blend of Jewish faith and Greek intuition.  In truth, without the pagan, Gnostic world, their own biblical interpretations would never have been possible.



[1] Dale Tuggy, “Trinity,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014. Web. 14 December 2014.

[2] James Wilberding, Plotinus‘ Cosmology: A Study of Ennead II.1 (40): Text, Translation, and Commentary (New York: OUP, 2006), p. 81.

[3] The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, 381 CE, emphasis added.  The controversial “Filioque” addition, championed by Augustine, is represented in brackets.

[4] John D. Turner, “Plotinus and the Gnostics: Opposed Heirs of Plato,” The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 58, emphasis added.

[5] Ibid., p. 53, emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., p. 52.

[7] “The Platonizing Gnostics have turned out to be genuinely innovative interpreters of ancient philosophical traditions, and had a far greater degree of intellectual agency with respect to contemporaneous academic philosophy than is usually supposed.  Right alongside Plotinus, these Gnostic interpreters were reading and commenting upon the very same texts as he did.  They were activist contemplatives who were spreading a doctrine of salvation that competed with Plotinus’ own” (Ibid., p. 53).

[8] Ibid.  See also Plotinus, Enneads II, 9, 10:3-6.

[9] “In Valentinian thought, at the beginning of the Tripartite Tractate, the ineffable Father has a thought of himself, which is the Son (Tripartite Tractate 56:16-57:3), and in Clement of Alexandria’s account of the Valentinian system of Theodotus, the Unknown Father is said to emit the second principle, the Monogenes-Son, ‘as if knowing himself.’  Similarly, in both Eugnostos the Blessed and its nearly identical but Christianized version, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the divine Forefather sees himself ‘within himself as in a mirror,’ and the resultant image is the second principle, the Self-Father.  In Hippolytus of Rome’s account of Simonian doctrine, the pre-existent first principle abides in absolute unity, but gives rise to an intellectual principle through self-manifestation: ‘manifesting himself to himself, the one who stood became the second’ ” (Turner, p. 54).

[10] Tripartite Tractate, 56, 1.

[11] Gerard Bechtle, “The Question of Being and the Dating of the Anonymous Parmenides Commentary,” Ancient Philosophy, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2000), n. 74.

[12] Plotinus, Enneads, 5, 1; 7, 1-6.

[13] “But he is [as] he is, [for he is] a spring that is not diminished by the water flowing from it” (Tripartite Tractate, 60, 1-15).

[14] “It itself flows forth, so to speak, as if from a spring.  Imagine a spring that has no other origin; it gives itself to all the rivers, yet is never used up by the rivers” (Plotinus, Enneads, 3, 8; 10, 3-14).

[15] Ibid., pp. 62-63.

[16] Augustine, City of God, Book 10, Ch. 23.

[17] Roy Kearsley, “The Impact of Greek Concepts of God on the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria,” Tyndale Bulletin, 43, 2 (Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1992), p. 309.

The Woman of Blood: The Gnostic Exegesis of the Gospels


In my last blog I provided an introduction to the Nag Hammadi codices, the so-called Christian “Gnostics”, and what evidence of early diversity within Christianity might mean for “orthodox” interpretations of Church history.  This post will offer a brief introduction to the Gnostic worldview through the unique way in which some of these Christians interpreted the Gospels.

First, what do we mean by “Gnosticism”?  Today the term describes a fluid category of spiritual traditions developing in the mid to late first century CE which emphasized the acquisition of gnosis, or secret knowledge of the divine, in order to achieve salvation.  While the movement was not exclusive to Christianity, it is best known by its manifestation in various Christian groups deemed “heretical” by the great proto-orthodox polemicists of the second and third centuries.

Irenaeus (130-202 CE), bishop of Lyon, was one such writer deeply concerned by the rising popularity of Gnostic Christianity.  Groups like the Sethians and the Valentinians took center stage in Irenaeus’ lengthy assault on Gnosticism titled On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, also known as Against Heresies.  Irenaeus had borrowed his title from a Pauline warning about “knowledge (gnosis) falsely so-called” (1 Tim 6:20); the bishop obviously believed the Gnostic interpretation was putting the Church in grave danger.  Evidently Gnostic teaching was, on the surface, similar enough to his own that it might go un-detected by the novice; the Gnostic distinctives were being revealed when the initiate was in too deep.  Thus Irenaeus set out to both publicly expose and condemn their mysterious interpretations in great detail.  Though supremely concerned with building a case against Gnostic Christianity as a corruption of his own faith, which he labeled “orthodox” or “catholic”, his assessment still lends valuable insight into the Gnostic hermeneutic.

Coptic text of the Apocryphon of John, written before 180 CE.

From Irenaeus’ account we learn that Gnostic exegesis is, first and foremost, highly speculative.  Their methods may have found motivation in midrashic exercises taking place in Hellenistic Jewish circles in the first century CE.  The famed Apocryphon of John, found among the Nag Hammadi texts and representative of the so-called “Sethian” form of Christian Gnosticism, certainly evidences a strong link with Jewish sensibilities.  In this work, which was known by Irenaeus in 180 CE, we find a dramatic retelling of Genesis, a portrait of human origins and human salvation radically different than that presented by either the traditionalist Jews or the proto-orthodox Christians.  This cosmological narrative would provide the basic mythological framework facilitating the theological, soteriological, and exegetical characteristics of most Christian sects which can be confidently approached with the “Gnostic” label.

According to the myth, the god who created this world, the god of the Old Testament, is not the highest god.  He is in fact a Demiurge, a lower entity, sometimes ignorant, sometimes vengeful, and ultimately responsible for trapping human souls in material bodies.  The true God is a transcendent and unknowable being, the Invisible Spirit (often characterized as a great and immovable “Father”).  Within him (within his “Pleroma” or “fullness”) exists a descending hierarchy of distinct powers or “aeons”; they are modes of God’s being, or personalities, each embodying God’s divine attributes.  Each of these aeons is paired with another of the opposite gender which acts as its mate or consort (the “gender” of each is determined by the grammatical gender of their Greek name).

In the myth, the twelfth of these entities, the “female” Sophia (Wisdom), tragically went astray: she tried to look toward the Father, to know him on her own without the consent of her “male” consort.  In Sophia’s deviant passion, which ultimately turned into fear and shame, she inadvertently created another being outside of God.  This unfortunate offspring became the Demiurge, the wicked god of the OT, the creator of our material world (a poor imitation of the heavenly Pleroma).  The Demiurge also created his own angels and eventually human beings who have imprisoned within them a portion of the true God’s divine essence.  After this tragedy, the fallen Sophia strayed to the brink of the Pleroma, and her power began to flow out of her, nearly dissolving her completely.  Thus the Father sent other aeons to rescue her from the brink of the Pleroma, and the leading power on this rescue mission was the aeon “Christ.”  After the heavenly Christ saved Sophia with the help of other powerful aeons named Aletheia (Truth) and Horos (Border), God then moved to also rescue the human beings trapped in the Demiurge’s world.  The Father accomplished this by sending Jesus in the form of a human being to the earth in order to impart gnosis to humanity.  Through the acquisition of gnosis, man is able to realize the divine essence within him, permitting him to return to the harmony of the Pleroma (like Sophia) upon leaving the body.

These twin pictures of salvation (one heavenly, that of Sophia, and one earthly, that of mankind) provide an essential lens for the Gnostic exegesis of the Gospels.  For the Gnostics, the tale of Jesus’ earthly ministry is pregnant with the story of Sophia’s fall and redemption; the Gospel texts themselves are a sort of code which exhibits a deeper and more spiritually important message about the divine happenings in the Pleroma.  This secret truth is not revealed to all, of course, but to those worthy or capable of bearing it; for the Gnostic initiate, this information is only mystically and parabolically visible.

For example, the existence of the thirty “aeons” in God (literally: “spaces or cycles of time”) is revealed by the thirty years Jesus lived on the earth before his public ministry.  For evidence of the twelve primary aeons, one could point to the frequent occurrence of the number twelve in the Gospels: the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles, Jesus’ age of twelve years when he disputed with the teachers of the law, and so on.  For proof that it was the twelfth aeon which suffered passion, one could look to the disturbance of Judas, the twelfth apostle, who according to the Gnostics brought about Jesus’ suffering in the twelfth month of the year (the school described by Irenaeus held that Jesus preached for only one year after his baptism).  One could also cite the woman who had suffered twelve years of bleeding.  This last episode in particular, related in all three of the Synoptic accounts, provides a wonderful example of the creative and surprising way in which the Gnostics handled the Gospel texts.  According to Irenaeus, the Gnostics saw the story about the bleeding woman as a spiritual reflection of the passion and dramatic rescue of Sophia by the agents of the Pleroma (Against Heresies, I, 3, 3).

Let us first examine the text in Mark 5:25-34:

the woman of blood(25) A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, (26) and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse— (27) after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind Him and touched His cloak. (28) For she thought, “If I just touch His garments, I will get well.” (29) Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. (30) Immediately Jesus, perceiving in Himself that the power proceeding from Him had gone forth, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My garments?” (31) And His disciples said to Him, “You see the crowd pressing in on You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” (32) And He looked around to see the woman who had done this. (33) But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. (34) And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”

For the Gnostics, when Christ said “Who touched my garment?” he was mystically revealing the following parallel to his disciples:

The earthly woman had reached the twelfth year of her sufferings, and in her despair she had stretched forth towards the Son, her life bleeding out into the world.  So too had the heavenly Sophia, full of passion and grief, stretched out and bled her essence into the Pleroma.  If the earthly woman had not touched the border of Jesus’ garment, the hemorrhaging would have continued.  Likewise Sophia’s suffering would not have ceased if she had not touched the aeon Aletheia, called “the garment” of the Son, who enabled her rescue by the power of the aeon named Horos, the “limit” or “border.”  This Horos was intimately connected with the heavenly Christ, and as Irenaeus explains, Horos “has two faculties: the one of supporting and the other of separating.”  The power traveling through the hem of the earthly Jesus’ garment had “cut off” the flow of blood from the woman, just as the aeon Horos had “separated” the flow of passion from Sophia and “supported” her in divine reconciliation.

This interpretation boldly reflected a prevalent theme in biblical literature: the passionate straying and ultimate redemption of the female.  In the book of Genesis‘ Edenic narrative, we find that Eve, apart from her male consort, had sought to gain “knowledge” (gnosis) by eating of the Tree of Knowledge.   This passion spread and ultimately engulfed Adam, leaving them in need of divine rescue.  A consequence of this straying was pain in childbirth and the suppression of female passion (Gen 3:16b).  We may find echoes of this in Sophia’s passion, which had yielded an amorphous child who apparently owed his incomplete form to a lack of male participation.  Sophia’s passion had to be “limited” and ultimately “separated” from her by the power of a male aeon Horos, under the direction of the male Christ.  In the Synoptic story of the bleeding woman, we might also take the woman’s endless menstruation as a side-effect of a lack of male participation.  Here it may be important to note that while some have thought to classify Gnostic attitudes toward women as especially misogynistic (usually through an overdrawn reading of the Gospel of Thomas), a regular theme in Gnostic teaching is the necessity of unity between male and female: the female may be the first to stray (like Eve in the Garden), but responsibility for harmony lies on both male and female (the Primal Man in both Christian and pagan Gnostic traditions often is, like the ultimate God he reflects, androgynous, both male and female).  In the Gnostic world, even the transcendent Father is found acting in conjunction with the female aeon Sige, the womb of the Pleroma, though at times he stands alone as the Invisible Spirit, being the ingenerate first principle and prime cause of the Pleroma.

Ultimately, the secret story of Sophia and the Pleromatic Christ nestled within the Gospels was said to be discernable only to those who had embarked on the path of gnosis.  But sidelined Christians like the Valentinians were not the only ones to engage in such speculative exegesis.  Gnosis-inclined “proto-orthodox” Christians, like Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 CE) and Origen (d. 254 CE), also employed a hermeneutic which assumed a spiritual meaning behind the text reflective of real happenings in a real spiritual world.  This affinity may provide a clue to a deeper relationship between the “Gnostic” and the emerging “catholic” Christianity of the third and fourth centuries than many have supposed.  In portions of my upcoming book I continue to explore the connection between Gnosticism and several key figures in the pre-Nicene, proto-orthodox tradition, and this exploration will remain a recurrent topic here at the Buried Deep blog.  Indeed, if we wish to ever understand how and why mainline Christianity teaches what it does today, we must regularly venture to the diverse Christian world which first produced “orthodoxy” and “heresy”, to the secret world of Gnosis.  There the Gospel texts had far more to say than what was printed, and beneath the earthly, historical Jesus which they described there lay something secret, something spiritually attainable only by the Christian mystic.  This is perhaps an  unconventional but viable starting point for approaching “orthodox” Christian theology which likewise finds, through inference and subtlety, a great mystical secret, a divine and incomprehensible reality hiding beneath the life of the historical Jesus of the Gospels.



Further Reading:

Philip Schaff, “Introductory Note to Irenaeus Against Heresies,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Against Heresies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1885).

Albert Poncelet, “St. Irenaeus,” Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910).

Michael J. Kok, The Gospel of the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Fortress Press, 2015), Ch. 6.