Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Chapter After the Very Next Chapter of the Myth of Jesus Christ [Part Two]

Yet there is another dimension to the adoption of codices by Christian groups in the late first century which is rarely mentioned by early Christian scholarship - the struggle within traditional communities over the suitability of the codex for religious rituals.  While it is traditionally argued that Jews never stopped using scrolls the example of Elisha ben Abuyah couldn't have been an isolated example.  Indeed it has been suggested that Jews avoided the usage of the codex because it was so broadly used by Christians who in turn adopted the codex for the very reason of distinguishing themselves from Jews.  The standard argument goes that the more Christians sought a distinctive form for their editions of Jewish (and Christian) writings, the more insistent rabbinic tradition became that authentic texts of the Hebrew Bible preserve the scroll format.

Of course this superficial view of history which smooths over the 'difficulties' inherent in Jewish religious life after the destruction of the temple.  The beliefs of Elisha ben Abuyah likely represented a cultural 'cosmopolitanism' which was later viewed with suspicion.  The codex was certainly a new Roman innovation.  The 'heresy' of Elisha ben Abuyah was likely related to a Christian sectarian tradition.  As such it can't be mere coincidence that the innovation of the codex was connected with what rabbinic sources later referenced as 'Epicureanism' - i.e. the embrace of foreign cultural ideas.  We can see the exact same thing occurring within contemporary Samaritan society too.

There can be no doubt that conservative elements in Jewish, the Samaritan society were reluctant to adopt the codex form for the sacred Pentateuch.  The reasons were likely the same.  The scroll was the established vehicle for mediating the Torah.  Yet in the Samaritan society there is an additional wrinkle which is worth mentioning.  At some point after the destruction of the Samaritan temple (c. 110 CE) many of the sacrifices were abolished but the Torah scroll itself became a symbol of the sacrifice, the roll being ritually elevated as representative of the raising of the traditional offering.  It is unknown when this practice was adopted but one would naturally suppose it happened soon after Jewish armies sacked the Samaritan sanctuary.

The report regarding the Samaritan sectarians in particular is so interesting because it may provide us with a blurry glimpse into the arguments used by those who embraced the new technology.  The fourteenth century Samaritan chronicler provides for us the following information about one such sectarian saying:

He said that synagogues were no different from temples of idols, and if one offered something to the synagogue, it was as though he had offered it to a temple of idols. He said that the ark containing the rolled up Scroll in the synagogue is like an overdressed harlot." He ruled that every person who recites (Scripture) or prays must cover his head, and that anyone who does not do as he says is liable to (God's) curse.

This reference is very difficult to disentangle, something has been lost in transmission.  The Samaritans like their Jewish cousins, wear head coverings to religious services.  Yet interestingly there is little basis in religious law for going about with the head covered, or even for covering the head during prayer and other religious exercises. It is an outstanding example of custom assuming the authority of law.

It is difficult to know what to make of this report.  One could make the case that the original source for this information must have thought that covering one's head during the recitation of scripture was an innovation.  Yet another possibility - perhaps the right interpretation - was that this sectarian named 'Sakta' (= 'booths') was thinking expressing something similar to what appears in the Epistle to the Corinthians chapter 11.  Indeed the original Samaritan report speaks of men and women being encouraged to pray together in this sectarian group, something which was certainly very unique in contemporary culture.  It is interesting to note that the only other community that seems to have promoted this kind of sexual equality were the Therapeutae of Egypt.

It is hard not to see that the communities who seemed to have embraced the codex at an early dated weren't just 'heretics' but are more accurately identified as holding more progressive social mores or who were willing to embrace new ideas.  In the latter half of the second century writers looked back and condemned these groups for departing from established truths.  Nevertheless one can begin to see an important pattern developing insofar as the destruction of the Jewish temple may well have represented a powerful justification for those seeking to reform Israelite society.  While many certainly wept at the loss of the status quo, it must also have been viewed by many as a chance to embrace new and even better ideas from the great thinkers of the Greeks including Plato.

Could it be that the followers of Sakta had been influenced by the same forces that led to the development of Marcionitism?  While it is difficult to pin down what their actual beliefs and practices, the one thing that is hard to escape is that there seem to many points in contact with the canonical Letter to the Corinthians.  It has been argued for instance that the Marcionites believed that Paul was mandating head coverings for those who were still imperfect - i.e. who had not yet attained perfection.  Similarly the reference to synagogues being no different than temples for idols echoes the gnostic interpretation of the eighth chapter of the same letter to the Corinthians.  Yet perhaps most interesting of all is the reference to the 'ark containing the scroll' in the synagogue containing the the rolled up scroll' being likened to 'an overdressed harlot.'

It is well established in Jewish circles prior to the development of Christianity that the torah was identified as wisdom.  Perhaps the classic references in found in the Wisdom of Ben Sira in the second century before the Common Era:
All this (wisdom) is the book of the covenant of the Most High God,
 the Law which Moses commanded us as a heritage for the community of Jacob.
It overflows, like the Pishon, with wisdom,e and like the Tigris at the time of first fruits.
It runs over, like the Euphrates, with understanding, and like the Jordan at harvest time.
It floods like the Nile with instruction, like the Gihon at vintage time.
The first human being never finished comprehending wisdom, nor will the last succeed in fathoming her.
For deeper than the sea are her thoughts, and her counsels, than the great abyss.

Yet for some reason which we can no longer discern heretical groups began making reference to this 'Wisdom' as a prostitute.  The most famous example perhaps is that of personified wisdom establishing the imperfection of the created world in the gnostic myth.  However this cannot be the source of the original identification of the Torah as a harlot.

In a recent study Anne Pasquier has perhaps disentangled a related gnostic epithet for Wisdom - prounikos.   While often referenced as 'lewd' she has determined that it properly meant "undisciplined, uneducated" (from pro + neikos).  Yet the real significance for our theory is that Pasquier has recognized that this feminine figure "does not directly bring about the creation of the lower world, and she is only preparing the separation." A male figure - Ialdabaoth - is the Creator.  Pasquier's brilliance is in recognizing that the real interest in this gnostic myth is the Empedoclean term neikos (= dissension, separation) which is attributed to the evil male figure.

As Pasquier notes in the conclusion of her study, it all comes down to Empedocles and the Marcionite notion of a cosmic harmony between the two opposite forces of strife (neikos) and love:

what did the mythical character of Prouneikos incarnate for the Gnostics? Most likely, the cosmic principle of separation, source of plurality, without which there could be no life. She thereby evokes the neikos of Empedocles or of the Pythagoreans, which we find also in Apollonius Rhodius and certain Gnostics such as Marcion, according to Hippolytus's testimony. She also evokes the dyad of the Pythagoreans, which generates numbers, the source of plurality and division, and which they identify with eros and tolma, dissension and boldness. This dissension, the principle of movement. This dissension, the principle of movement, has as its function the fragmentation from the original Whole, and she is the cause of the entire creation. According to Hippolyrus, because of her, the souls have to wander and pass from one body to another.

But this dissension (neikos) exists only in her dialectical function. She is opposed to a cosmic principle of attraction, eros, philia, or philotes, depending on the texts, that brings back the beings from plurality to unity. In the gnostic text this principle is called 'harmony.'

We come back once again to the Empedoclean appropriation of early Christianity. While most scholars prefer the two-dimension dualism of Irenaeus and Tertullian, it would seem that coming to terms with the ignored mysticism of Empedocles.

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