Friday, October 05, 2007

'Ethical' Dualism of Food in The Gospel of John

Containing the Apocryphon of John
(Image from Wikipedia)

In yesterday's blog entry, Small World, concerning a query about my SBL paper from 1999, "'Ethical' Dualism of Food in The Gospel of John," I mentioned that I am "presenting an updated version this coming Saturday at a historians' seminar here in Seoul."

After the seminar's organizer had read my paper, he asked if I could provide some background since most of the historians here in Korea are unfamiliar with Gnosticism. I did so in a general introduction, and if anyone's interested in this, it can be read below:
Prefatory Remarks to "Ethical Dualism of Food"

To clarify the argument in my presentation of food in John's Gospel and Gnostic texts, I'd like to offer a few points on Gnosticism, most texts of which occur in Coptic, although we find texts stretching from Spain to China and in all the various languages along the way.

According to tradition, Egyptian Christianity was founded by St. Mark, author of the Gospel of Mark. Egyptian Christianity became a distinct branch of the Christian religion after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, differing from the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Christology. The basic disagreement centered upon the essence of Christ, which the Chalcedonians asserted was one hypostasis of two natures, i.e., full humanity and full divinity. Apparently, the Egyptian church disagreed, arguing that Christ was one nature, the Logos incarnate of full humanity and full divinity. This dispute might be merely a confusion of terms, in which nature (physis) is being used in two different senses, but I am not entirely sure. At any rate, a distinct Coptic Church dates from this period.

But Coptic Christianity had already developed through differentiating itself linguistically. Since the first century, Greek letters had been used for writing Coptic, which was a direct descendent of the language of the Pharoahs -- as my old Berkeley professor, David Larkin, used to phrase it. In its early development, Coptic supplemented its 'Greek' alphabet by borrowing several letters from Demotic but also vied with the Demotic writing system for prominence and won out as Demotic came to be used mainly for pagan religious purposes, whereas Coptic became the liturgical language of Egyptian Christianity.

For our purposes in this presentation, Coptic is mainly significant for its 'accidental' preservation of Gnostic texts, such as (but not limited to) the texts uncovered at Nag Hammadi in December 1945, a collection of codices (as opposed to scrolls) that came to be known by the somewhat grandiose title of "The Nag Hammadi Library." Two of the most famous of these codices are the Gospel of Thomas (of which some fragments also survive in Greek) and the Apocryphon of John, the former of which is perhaps more hermetic than Gnostic and the latter of which purports to reveal the Gnostic visions experienced by John the evangelist. Both texts are believed to derive from the early second century, but the codices themselves are later than that. The Apocryphon of John is a classic Gnostic text, for it describes an ontologically dualistic reality of spirit and matter in which the God of salvation rules over the realm of light and spirit and the god of ignorance rules over the realm of darkness and matter. This latter deity is the creator-god responsible for the formation of the cosmos, which he formed to trap the light, or spirit, that had fallen from above down into the material realm.

This radical dualism of substances implies that the material world is a source of impurity for the spiritual substance of light and weighs down the spirit with its material heaviness. Indeed, taking on more material substance tends to trap one ever more profoundly within the material realm, as the passage below will make clear. The quoted passage is taken from section 20 in an online edition (but sections 70-72 of the print edition) of the Apocryphon of John's short version (Berlin Codex BG 8502,2 and Nag Hammadi Codex III,1), but with variants form the long version noted in red font (Nag Hammadi Codex II,1 and Nag Hammadi Codex IV,1):
20 The Chief Ruler took him and placed him in paradise, of which he said, 'It is [a] delight for him' but really so that he might deceive him. For their delight is bitter and their beauty is licentious. Their delight is a deception and their tree is iniquity. Their fruit is an incurable poison and their promise is death to him. {For [their food was bitter and their [beauty] is licentious. Their food was a deception and their trees were [iniquity. Their fruit was an incurable poison] an[d their promise] is [death] to them.} Their tree which they planted is the tree of life.

For my part, I will teach you about the mystery of their life. It is their counterfeit spirit which dwells in them, whose purpose is to make him wander so that he does not know his perfection.

That tree is of this sort: Its root is bitter. Its branches are shadows of death. its leaves are hate and deception. Its fragrance is an ointment of evil. And its fruit is the desire for death. Its seed drinks from darkness {[an]d its seed sprouted [from] darkness.} The dwelling place of those who taste it is Hades. But the tree which they call 'knowledge of good and evil' is the Epinoia of the light. Concerning her they commanded, 'Do not taste (of it),' which means 'do not listen to her.' They issued this commandment against him so that he might not look up to his perfection and realize that he was naked of his perfection.

But as for me, I set them right so that they would eat." (edited and formatted by Lance Owens and based on the translation by Michael Waldstein and Frederik Wisse, The Apocryphon of John: Synopsis of Nag Hammadi Codices II,1;III,1; And IV,1 With BG 8502,2 (Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies), Brill Academic Pub, 1995).
The important variant is that between "delight" and "food" and may result from a confusion of the two Greek words truphe and trophe, respectively. I think that originally, a pun between the two words was at work, but wordplay or not, the passage sets up a dualism of food in the distinctly different effects rendered by eating fruit from the tree of their life (i.e., of death) or from the tree of perfect knowledge (i.e., of illuminated life). Eating from the former leads to further entrapment within the material world, but eating from the latter leads to release from the bonds of matter and escape into the realm of light.

With these prefatory remarks, we are now prepared for my paper, which argues for a a difference between the radical, ontological dualism in Gnostic texts and a moderate, ethical dualism in the Gospel of John and which looks at the synecdochal uses of food in both sorts of texts as a means of providing support for this argument.
Well, there it is in all of its flawed 'glory' -- the preface to my paper scheduled for Saturday.

Now, to finish my response to several papers that I have to comment on next week at Sogang University's International Symposium on "Death, Dying, and Spirituality," hosted by the Sogang Institute for Religion during the university's 2007 Humanities Week...

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