Friday, July 25, 2008

"Dualisms of Sustenance: Gnosticism and the Gospel of John"

Nag Hammadi Codices
(Image from Wikipedia)

A few days ago, I finally received the offprints for the article on John's Gospel that I published in Volume 22 (June 2008) of The Journal of Classical Studies, a scholarly journal put out by The Korean Association for the Western Ancient History and Culture.

The article is titled "Dualisms of Sustenance: Gnosticism and the Gospel of John," and for those interested in such things, here's the abstract that I provided to my wife for translation into Korean:
The article argues that John's Gospel and Gnostic texts presuppose dualisms of differing kinds and therefore that the fourth gospel is not a secretly Gnostic gospel. Gnosticism assumes a substance dualism, whereas John's Gospel assumes an ethical dualism. Nevertheless, Johannine dualism is so rigorous that it verges on Gnostic dualism, for sin has so pervaded the entirety of the world that it has tainted every part. The world's impurity thus opposes the holiness of the Johannine Jesus. For this reason, Jesus refuses worldly sustenance until the crucifixion scene, when he willingly accepts the 'corrupt' wine of vinegar offered by the world. Unlike Gnostic revealers, who either refuse sustenance entirely or are tricked into accepting it, Jesus takes the world's impurity into himself as part of his mission in cleansing it of its impure taint of sin. To establish this thesis, the article draws upon a close interpretation of Gnostic texts, Jewish texts, and the Johannine text.
Yes, that got put into Korean, for the journal has a mainly Korean scholarly readership, but my article itself is in English, as are two other articles in the June 2008 volume (the other four articles being in Korean). For any Koreans happening to read this, here's the abstract in my wife's Korean translation:
본 논문은 요한복음과 영지주의 텍스트에 깔려 있는 이원주의의 성격이 서로 다름을 밝힘으로써 요한복음이 감추어진 영지주의 복음서라는 기존의 이론에 반박한다. 영지주의는 ‘본질적’ 이원주의를 취하지만 요한복음서의 이원주의는 ‘윤리적’ 이원주의이다. 이러한 구분에도 불구하고 세상 전체에 퍼진 죄로 인해 모든 것이 타락했다는 복음서의 엄격한 이원주의는 영지주의의 이원주의에 닿아 있다. 따라서 세상의 불순성은 요한복음서 예수의 성스러움에 대립한다. 이러한 이유로 예수는 십자가에 못박히기까지 세상의 음식을 거부하고 십자가 처형의 순간에 이르러 세상이 제공하는 ‘상한’ 신 포도주를 기꺼이 받아들인다. 영지주의 칙사들이 음식을 철저히 거절하거나 혹은 속임수에 빠져 음식을 받아들이는 반면에 예수는 세상의 죄를 사하는 자신의 임무를 수행하기 위해 세상의 불순한 죄성을 자신의 것으로 받아 들인다. 본 논문은 영지주의 텍스트와 유대교 텍스트, 그리고 요한복음서의 정밀한 분석을 통해 이러한 주장을 뒷받침하고 있다.
For those with even more interest, I'll post here my paper's rather lengthy introductory remarks, which are rather general and were intended to open the way for my Korean readership to understand the significance of Gnosticism in antiquity as well as its importance for Johannine studies:
Dualisms of Sustenance: Gnosticism and the Gospel of John[1]
To clarify the argument developed in the analysis of food in John's Gospel and Gnostic texts, this article must first cover a few points on Gnosticism, many texts of which occur in Coptic, although one finds texts stretching from Spain to China and in all the various languages along the way. The abundance of Gnostic Coptic texts among an even larger body of heretical and orthodox Coptic Christian texts suggests the importance of Egyptian Christianity. Some words on this point are therefore in order. According to tradition, Egyptian Christianity was founded by St. Mark, purported author of the Gospel of Mark.[2] 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 over 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.[3] 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 (phusis) is being used in two different senses, but disambiguation of this issue is not essential for this article. At any rate, a distinct Coptic Church dates from this period.

Coptic Christianity, however, had already developed through differentiating itself linguistically. Since the first century, Greek letters had been borrowed for writing Coptic, which itself 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 the purposes of this article, 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 from the long version noted in cursive brackets (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 (truphē) 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 (trophē) 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. (Translation by Michael Waldstein and Frederik Wisse, edited and formatted by Lance Owens).[4]
The important variant is that between "delight" and "food" and may result from a confusion of the two Greek words truphē and trophē, respectively, which occur in these Coptic texts. 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.

These prefatory remarks have now prepared the way for this article's main thesis, which argues for 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. Much of the debate over the significance of food in John's Gospel has focused upon the literal versus figurative meaning of its passages on nourishment.[5] For example, scholars disagree ‐‐ often vehemently -- about how to interpret the John 6:51c-58 passage exhorting us to eat Jesus's flesh and drink his blood. Did the evangelist (or redactor) expect us to take this literally -- we should really gnaw on Jesus's flesh and guzzle his blood?[6] Or did he expect us to understand these strange words figuratively -- we should 'devour' their message of life? Rather than immediately confronting this difficult passage head‐on, I would like to look more broadly at the Johannine use of food.
And so goes the article, which turns at this juncture from its prefatory remarks on Gnosticism to the 'meat' of its argument, namely, the issue of sustenance in Gnostic texts and John's Gospel that the abstract has already summarized.

1. I presented an earlier version of this article at the 1999 AAR/SBL Conference.

2. Stephen J. Davis, The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2004), pp. 2-20.

3. Bradley P. Nystrom and David P. Nystrom, The History of Christianity: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), pp. 95a-96a.

4. 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 (Leiden: Brill, 1995).

5. On an earlier analysis of literal versus figurative meanings, see my doctoral dissertation: Horace Jeffery Hodges, "Food as Synecdoche in John's Gospel and Gnostic Texts" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1995). My attempt there and in this article is to combine the literal and figurative. Hence my use of the term "synecdoche."

6. I use these crude terms to make a point clear -- namely, that the wording in this portion of the Gospel of John is intentionally provocative. The Greek term trōgōn literally means "gnaw," and the thought of drinking blood would have been particularly abhorent to Jews (on the prohibition against drinking blood, cf., e.g., Leviticus 7:26-27).
For scholars (or anyone) who might be interested, I can provide an electronic version of the entire article.

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At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Translation is an inexact science, even from one European language into another, let alone into an Asian language.

Hats off, then, to your wife for being able to translate your passage into Korean.

Theology is never, particularly for a non-theologian, easy to read, even at the best of times, in English, so I can only hope it's no more difficult in Korean!!

At 9:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Caroline. I recall that my wife had several questions about my meaning, and some points didn't translate easily.

But she's quite accomplished, for she has her doctorate in German literature and now translates professionally from Korean into English . . . and once in a while from English into Korean.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Hodges?

Caroline wrote,"Translation is an inexact science, even from one European language into another, let alone into an Asian language.

Hats off, then, to your wife for being able to translate your passage into Korean."

She was, as your wife knows too well, quite kind. Sun-Ae didn't include the Sankey then English, in other words, didn't bother with the English to Hillbilly then Hillbilly back to English then back into the Asian. (See the previous blog entry for reference.)

"Hats off to the wife" indeed.

I hope that her undoubted "head scratching" is appropriately appreciated on her husband's behalf.

While Caroline doesn't point out all the challenges of translation to the extent the translator had to have challenged, the remainder of us appreciate where appreciation is nonetheless deserved.


At 8:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

True, JK, I have to commend my wife for her subtle but graceful and even literary translation of "Rat-Mouthed Mockercopacetickin."

I gotta hand it to my wife -- she's quite the translator.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I looked up Gnosticism on Google search, and it seems hard to pin down exactly their thinking. Essentially they think there is a good god and a bad god who created.
They feel that gnosis, or knowledge is the way to attain their view of perfection, and feel superior to us lower mortals.
In his book, Word Studies In The Greek New Testament, Kenneth Wuest
(Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans deals with the apostle John's conflict with gnostics: ....when he refers to His incarnation, he goes into careful detail as to his humanity. {A.T.} Robertson mentions the view of Westcott, that John wrote his Gospel to prove the deity of of our Lord, assuming His humanity, whereas he wrote his first epistle to prove His humanity, assuming His deity. In the words, "which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled," {1 JNO 1:1} he is maintaining the real humanity of our Lord against its denial by a certain group in the Church at that time. These were the Gnostics. There were two groups among them, both agreeing in the essential evil of matter. Both groups had their own private opinions regarding the Person of our Lord. the Docetic Gnostics denied His actual humanity. the word "docetic" comes from the Greek word dokeo, "to seem." These argued that our Lord had only a "seming body, not a real phisical body. The Cerinthian Gnostics distinguished between the man Jesus and the aeon Christ that came on Him at His baptism and left Him on the cross....{THE EXEGESIS OF I JOHN, p. 88).
Later, in dealing with I Jno 1:8 "If we say we have no sin {nature}, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us," he states, "Here John again combats the Gnostic heresy which held that we do not have any principle of sin within us, since matter is evil and the soul is not contaminated by sinful flesh. Smith, commenting on this verse says: "The heresy of Perfectionism. some might not say, with the Antinomians, that they were absolved from the obligation of the moral law, but they maintained that they were done with sin, had no more sinful propensities, committed no more sinful acts." Here we have the heresy of the eradication of the totall depraved nature during the earthly life of the Christian. The heresy of perfectionism and the eradication of the evil nature is the present day form of this problem of the indwelling sinful nature." (p. 103).
All of which would be nice, if the Gnostics were correct.
I had much rather just believe the Bible.

At 7:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, that's generally what the Gnostics taught (although there were different sorts of Gnostics), but in my view, there were not yet any real Gnostics in the time that John's Gospel was written. I agree that the fourth evangelist was reacting against docetism, but docetic views were held not only by Gnostics.

Anyway, my article was intended as another nail in the coffin for Gnostic interpretations of John's Gospel.

The fourth evangelist was no Gnostic.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There seems to be some (or much) question as to when Gnosticism actually began. I will quote three sources on Google:

The beginnings of Gnosticism have been long a matter of debate, and are still a subject of research. The more these origins are studied the farther they seem to recede in the past.........
Whereas formerly Gnosticism was considered mostly a corruption of Christianity, it now seems clear that the traces of Gnostic systems ca be discerned some centuries before the Christian era......
For he past twenty-five years however, the trend of scholarship has steadily moved towards proving the pre-Christian Oriental origins of Gnosticism,....this mandaean religion is so unmistakably a form of Gnosticism that it seems beyond doubt that Gnosticism existed independent of, and anterior to, Christianity.....
The origins of Gnosticism are still largely enveloped in obscurity...

....some scholars claim it was suppressed {2nd & 3rd centuries}, and was actually popular as early as the first century, predating Jesus Christ....

Gnosticism is a philosophical and religious movement which started in pre-Christian times....

So I suppose it depends upon which authority you rely upon {or upon which you rely,...sorry Jeff!}

Anyway, I am not a Gnostic, Illumaniti, New Ager, etc, etc...., just an uneducated hillbilly who naively believes the Bible.


At 3:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, one reason you'll find various dates for the origin of Gnosticism is that people define the term differently.

Taken literally, the term means "knowledge," so any system that emphasizes knowledge as essential to salvation can get called 'gnostic' by some scholar or other.

But if we mean a theosophical system teaching substance dualism of spirit and matter standing for the principles of good and evil, respectively, in which some spiritual substance (at times called "light") is trapped within the material realm in the bodies of human beings and must be liberated from the material realm by knowledge revealed by an envoy from the realm of spirit (or light), such knowledge being the teaching that an ignorant god created the world to trap the spiritual substance and use it for his own purposes, then this system is surely later than the first-century A.D.

Mandaeism is an interesting example of a religion that might indeed predate Christianity, but one need not read the Mandaean texts very closely to see that various layers of religious development are contained therein. The Gnostic layers are not the earliest ones; the earlier layers seem to me to present a fertility religion.

Until someone identifies a clearly Gnostic text that is clearly pre-Christian, I'll remain a skeptic about Gnostics pre-dating Christianity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I found the sampling you gave us of the article to be very interesting and I would certainly welcome a chance to read the full text.


At 7:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hirudo, if you leave your email address, I'll send you a copy. Or you could do an internet search for my full name, Horace Jeffery Hodges," along with "Milton-L," and find my email address quickly.

Jeffery Hodges

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