Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Acts of Thomas and the Early Gnostic Rituals of ἀπολύτρωσις

I have always believed that the name Adonai was always something more than a mere 'title' of the Jewish God. There is just too much evidence from hostile traditions that Adonai was the name given in the Alexandrian tradition at least to the Most High God. Yahweh or kurios (κύριος) was originally conceived by Philo as a hypostasis of δεσπότης which in turn is the Greek word usually reserved for Adonai.

Philo understood δεσπότης to be the name of the Most High god would include Philo, Moses 1.201 and the idea that the Jews were understood to have a master and slave relationship with their god which is the implication of δεσπότης (see Philo, Heir 22-23). Caligula wanted the Jews to address him in the manner they addressed their god and so we see Philo speaks about reverence for the emperor as “ Master and Benefactor and Saviour and the like (δεσπότην κα εÛεργέτην κα σωτ ρα)” (Flaccus 126).

Hellenistic prayers interestingly often have the person petitioning the deity with δεσπότης or some such variant (Karl Rengstorf, “δεσπότης,” TDNT 2.44-45.) It also happens to be Josephus's favorite title for praying to God: “Lord (δεσποτα) of all the ages and Creator of universal being. . .confirm these promises” (Ant 1.272; see also 4.40; 5.41; 11.64; 11.162; 20.90).

Some writers used it in combination with other benefactor terms, thus softening its hard edges. Christian usage, however, generally connotes divine benevolence and power. For example, Simeon prays after blessing Jesus, “Lord (δέσποτα), now let your servant depart in peace. . .for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29; see Acts 4:24). The clearest use of the benevolent connotation of this name occurs in 1 Clement: “Let us learn that in generation after generation the Master (δεσπότης) has given a place of repentance to those who turn to him” (7:5); and “Through Noah the Master (δεσπότης) saved the living creatures which entered in concord into the Ark (9:4; see also 11:1; 36:2).

An argument can be made that the Jews of the first century period imagined δεσπότης as a divinity higher than κύριος (and thus Adonai = אהיה אשר אהיה as a being higher than the power identified by the Tetragrammaton) isn't just theoretical. It is the basis to kabbalah throughout the ages.

It is worth noting then that the Acts of Thomas begins with a preservation of the ancient Christian concept of ἀπολύτρωσις from δεσπότης i.e. Adonai the Jewish God.

Slavery from as a religious concept presents itself in different forms in the cultural environment of the Acts of Thomas. That a deity owns his or her adherents as slaves appears in various forms in this context. According to the traditional Jewish view expressed in the book of Leviticus, the Jewish God owns the members of Israel as slaves: 'For to me the sons of Israel are slaves. They are my slaves whom I brought out of Egypt, I the Lord your God' [Lev 25.55]. This traditional Israelite interpretation of one's belonging to its δεσπότης might have been the source of the frequent use of expressions as 'slave of Christ' in the language of Paul and the Pauline literature. [cf. Rom 1:11, Gal 1:10, Col 4:10, but the Apostle also emphasizes that Christians are 'sons' rather than 'slaves' of God] At least two alternatives have been suggested as the basis of the Pauline usage. One is the idea that a deity buys a slave to set him or her free (an idea attested by the inscriptions in the wall of the temple of Apollo at Delphi). [cf. 1 Corinthians 6:20 and 7:23] and the other one is the notion that the initiates of a mystery cult are (at least during the initiation period) the slaves of the deity. [Combes, Slavery 68 - 94]

Whatever the origin of the Christian usage of the master and slave metaphor may have been, the Acts of Thomas uses it in a uses it in a different way than the above-mentioned religious systems. It is most a unique development of the ἀπολύτρωσις rituals of the various early sects of Christianity. The basic difference is, namely, that Jesus neither buys nor owns Thomas, but sells him to someone else. The traditional Christian usage appears in the in the story when Abbanes asks Thomas, 'Is this your master?' and Thomas answers, 'Yes, this is my Lord'. Thomas, however, does not repeat the merchant's word δεσπότης, but says κύριος, the more usual title of Jesus. Although both words can refer to an actual Although both words can refer to an actual slave-owner, the use of two different expressions, of which the second is the usual title of Jesus, indicates that there is an element of cheat in the situation. This 'cheating' consists of an unusual application of the slave metaphor in the text, and Thomas falls prey to this theological innovation. The reinterpretation of the slave metaphor consists of two elements. Firstly, the social status of Christians did not change because they regarded themselves as 'slaves of Christ'. The ATh, however, translates the sociological metaphor 'slave of Christ' into sociological reality. Secondly, the very purpose of being Christ's slave was not to be the slave of someone else. [both aspects are discussed in 1 Corinthians 7:17 - 24] In both respects, Jesus breaks the rules of the game, giving a radically new interpretation to the slave metaphor.

In antiquity, selling free people into slavery was a usual practice. Poor parents often sold the children whom they could not nourish.[Aelian Historical Miscellany 2.7] Free persons from the lower class sold themselves in the hope of a more secure existence.[Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 15,23] The commission episode of the Acts of Thomas presents. Jesus as a manstealer or kidnapper, who sells the free man Thomas as a slave. The analysis of Thomas' selling into slavery, his function as a craftsman receives a crucial importance. This is emphasised already in the commission episode itself, when on Abbanes' inquiry Thomas enumerates the things he can fabricate: 'Of wood ploughs, yokes, scales, boats, oars for boats, masts, and disks, and from stone columns and temples and royal palaces.'

The concept should now be clear enough to initiated readers. Thomas is the man made after the image of the demiurge (δημιουργός) a term which originally meant 'craftsman.' He is mystically 'purchased' from the ownership of one master to another according to the rituals of ἀπολύτρωσις common to the earliest Christian mysteries. Our next step is to look deeper in the Patristic literature to gain a deeper insight into these rituals.

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