Centrality of Dionysus

When traveling around the sites and museums of Rome, I was struck with how common Dionysus was.  At one point, I actually stopped taking pictures of him!  I kept remarking to Wade and Alexander how Dionysus was everywhere, more so than any of the other gods and goddesses.  Was his cult that popular?

It wasn't until I viewed the mosaic floors kept in the National Museum of Rome near Termini that I had an epiphany.  His popularity did not have to do with his mystery cult, although I imagine that it had a good number of followers.  Who wouldn't want to get drunk and run around the woods with your friends in a wild frenzy?

His popularity in images and statues had to do with the dining room.  If there was a dining room, and it was decorated, Dionysus, the god of wine and inebriation, was there because he owned the party.  He was the god of the dining room, dinner parties, and bashes.  He was the god of a good time.

The Sun Rules in Eight Photos

Another thing that rang loudly for me on this visit to Rome is just how influential the Sun was for the ancient people.  My research over the last five years has made me keenly aware of the importance of astrology to the ancients.  It informed their entire worldview from birth and the casting of the horoscope to death when they met their fates.  The descent of the soul into the body moved through the Zodiac houses, and its ascent to the stellar afterlife too.  And in the midst of it all is the Sun, running its course along the ecliptic through all the houses.  The master of all.

The Sun was deified everywhere, from Aten in Egypt to Apollo in Greece to Mithras in Rome.   Even Jesus took on solar qualities in early Catholicism, and maybe even the virgin Mary too.

The Sun is the creator, the giver of life, without which we cannot live.  The Sun is conceived by the ancients to be sovereign power and judge because he ruled the sky by day, and at night when he sank below the horizon, he ruled the underworld.  Because he is light and light-giver, he is perceived to be the illuminator, the source of wisdom and enlightenment.  Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, is the ultimate god for the ancients.

In the first photo, Sol Invictus himself is carved into this dedication stone.  Notice the moon and stars and the face of the priest who made the offering in fulfillment of a vow to safeguard the emperors.  This is from the late second century in Rome. 

Second is beautiful Isis, whose crown is the sun disk with crescent moon and horns.  This statue is from the late second century, from Villa Grandi.  It was displayed at the National Museum at Rome by the Diocletian Baths.

The third, one of the few surviving inscriptions from Egypt containing the outlawed name of the solar deity Aten.  It is from Karnak, but housed now in the Egyptian Museum in Turin.

Then fourth, we have Mithras, the Unconquerable Sun, slaying the bull.  This sculpture comes from the fourth century and was displayed at the National Museum at Rome by the Diocletian Baths.

Fifth is a lovely craved sculpture of Mithras the Sun god from Ostia Antica, found in the Mithraeum of Planta Pedis, late second century.

Sixth, notice the crowning of Mary Queen of Heaven.  Behind smiles the Sun.  This was in a special exhibit in Florence at the Academy.  Even in Christianity, the power of the Sun God shines through.

Seventh, what about the Bernini Fountain in front of the Spanish Steps?  Surely this is reminiscent of the solar bark the Egyptian's believed the soul took to ascend through the skies and ride through the underworld!  It is even placed at the bottom of a staircase, like the stairway to heaven.

Finally, Michelangelo's Moses whose radiant face of "rays" (a luminous transformation following his interaction with YHWH) was mistranslated as "horns" in the Vulgate.  Why the mistake?  The Hebrew "keren" can mean either "radiated light" or "grew horns". 

More on Flavia Sophe

I have had some inquiries about Flavia Sophe.  So I thought I would point you to an absolutely outstanding article that was just published by Greg Synder on this tombstone.  "The Discovery and Interpretation of the Flavia Sophe Inscription: New Results" in the journal Vigiliae Christianae 68 (2014) 1-59.  If this tombstone interests you, you will want to read this piece.  It should be available at any university library.  He discusses in detail the discovery in Via Latina and its probable second century date, as well as a thorough Valentinian interpretation of the poem.

Economy of Death

I thought it would be fun to journal a little about some important things I learned while on this trip to Italy.  During my week at the Enoch Seminar in Gazzada (just outside Milan) we journeyed to the newly opened Egyptian Museum in Turin.  It is said to be one of the top museums of Egyptian artifacts in the world.  It did not disappoint. 

While touring the museum, I came to the full realization that the ancient Egyptian economy was based on death.  The Egyptians didn't just bury their dead, they gave them everything they needed to live in the afterlife.  So their tombs were filled with everyday objects that were costly.  Even piles of manure to fuel their stoves.  Even miniature servants in the forms of statues.  Exquisite jars to carry their organs.  Painted boxes to contain their toiletries.  Game boards to keep them occupied.

These tomb goods were not just for the Pharaoh, but for anyone who could afford them.  Books of the dead were penned on papyrus and placed in the tomb, or scripted on the fronts, backs and insides of their coffins, leading the deceased along the proper path to the underworld.  These books weren't just copies of some standard book, but put together for each individual Egyptian who selected the prayers, spells, and enchantments that were written down and illustrated especially for their tomb.  The cost to have a priest do this must have been great indeed.

When we think about accumulating goods today, it is nothing when compared to accumulating what would have been necessary to put in the tomb of a deceased Egyptian.  It would have been a second set of goods, one better than what you had during your life.  An extravagant hope chest of sorts.

All of these goods were placed alongside the coffin complete with painted eyes to look out upon the goods, with satisfaction that they were living even better in the afterlife than they had before they died.

Pilgrimmage to Rome

Most people who pilgrimage to Rome do so to see the Vatican and the wonderful old churches throughout the city.  So my pilgrimage was a little different this summer, a kind of treasure hunt to experience the ancient relics that have become so meaningful to my study of the first two centuries of early Christianity, including the various Gnostic groups.  Here are candid shots of my journey to the mystery hot spots of antiquity.

Relic One: After a week of touring, we finally found the tombstone of Sophe Flavia in one of the four National Museums in Rome.  It is right across the street from Termini station, on the top floor of the museum.  Wade flagged it down with a yell, "Here it is!"  I was so thrilled (and relieved) to have finally found it and see it with my own eyes.  It is lovely.  This is the front of it.  Sophe was a Valentinian Gnostic Christian and it commemorates her death as a sacred marriage.  It was written by her husband.  The front reads (my translation):

"Sophe, my dear sister and bride, you yearn for the light of the Father.  You have been anointed with immortal holy oil in the baths of Christ.  You have sought eagerly to gaze upon the divine faces of the aeons, upon the great angel of the great counsel, the true Son. You have gone to the bridal chamber and ascended to the house of the Father."

To my knowledge, this is the earliest Christian artifact known.  It dates to the late second century from Rome.  It is Gnostic.

Relic Two: Here I am in the Mithraeum in Ostia Antica below the Mithraic baths.  I have been told that there are 15 Mithraeum in Ostia but we only found four in the time we had and with the maps we had.  Why so many?  Ostia, just outside of Rome, was a defensive port city with many soldiers.  The population of soldiers meant that the MIthras mysteries were popular here since they were an exclusive club for soldiers wishing to become the unconquerable Sun. 

The first time we went to this spot, we were on top where there was eventually built a Christian basilica (the sacred place always remains while the gods change).  We were so hot and tired tramping around with no success at finding the Mithraeum that was supposed to be there, so we took a lunch break.  After lunch we went back and found an underground chamber beneath the old church.  Mithras/Perseus is slaying Taurus.  The original statue stands in the Ostia Museum.  My understanding is that in front of the statue lay a mirror on the stone pillar.  When the sun streamed through the skylight, it hit the mirror and bounced up onto the face of Mithras, illuminating it like the Sun.  Wow.  Incredible.

Relic Three: Pompeii was hot and steamy.  The train ride from Naples out to the ancient site was long and packed.  We were like sardines packed into the back of the train.  We spent the day wandering around Pompeii being totally amazed at the size of the city.  It is huge.  We probably could have spent three days there to see everything. 

Of course the place I wanted to see the most was the Villa of Mysteries which is way on the far end of the city, almost out in the suburbs of ancient Pompeii.  And I wasn't disappointed.  The villa was amazing.  Very intact.  And the frescos are the originals.  They were not moved to the Napolini Archaeological Museum with the rest of Pompeii's frescoes.  So here I am in complete ecstasy in front of the dining room that sports the frescoes of scenes from the initiation ceremonies of the mysteries of Dionysus, which included everything from recitation from sacred books, to music and dance, to dramatic reenactment of the myth, to revelation of the phallis, and sacred marriage.  At least that is what I saw on the walls of that old gorgeous dining room.



Relic Four:  We made it to the Priscilla Catacomb because there are some very old Christian frescoes there, one of a woman standing with her arms outstretched in prayer posture.  This image was unbelievable, much better preserved in real life than in any photo I have ever seen of it.  Seeing the real thing, I am not so sure that we should interpret it as a woman priest, as some have been wont to do. 

It looks to me like a panel depicting the life of the deceased woman, her marriage (and role as wife) and her child (and her role as mother), while she stands devoted in prayer to God.  We were taken to see several other fantastic frescoes including the earliest depiction of the virgin Mary holding Jesus.  The frescoes throughout the catacomb were very consistent and repetitive, suggesting to me that there must have been a shop where the Christians went to purchase the scenes they wanted painted on their relatives' tombs.  Popular were the story of Jonah being spit out of the mouth of the whale, Jesus as the good shepherd, and Jesus raising Lazarus. 

Finding Jesus and the Gospel of Judas

The annual publication from the School of Humanities at Rice University, HUMANITAS: THE MEANING OF BEING HUMAN, just came out.  There is a featured article in it on my adventures on the CNN set of the FINDING JESUS film.  I took a photo of the article because it is not on line yet.  I see back issues in pdf on line, but not the 2015 magazine.

The story is meaningful to me because it contains my reminiscences of filming in Geneva and seeing the Gospel of Judas for the first time. Hope it is clear enough to read.

Book Note: Divine Scapegoats by Andrei Orlov

Andrei sent me his most recent book on Jewish mysticism in the Apocalypse of Abraham.  The cover is gorgeous, a Blakean painting that is so apropos for the subject: the mirrored relationship between the heavenly and the demonic.  Think the two sides of the same coin.  The maintenance of demonic through the imitation of divinity.

Andrei A. Orlov, Divine Scapegoats: Demonic Mimesis in Early Jewish Mysticism (Albany: SUNY, 2015) 352 pages, ISBN13: 978-1-4384-5583-9
Divine Scapegoats is a wide-ranging exploration of the parallels between the heavenly and the demonic in early Jewish apocalyptical accounts. In these materials, antagonists often mirror features of angelic figures, and even those of the Deity himself, an inverse correspondence that implies a belief that the demonic realm is maintained by imitating divine reality. Andrei A. Orlov examines the sacerdotal, messianic, and creational aspects of this mimetic imagery, focusing primarily on two texts from the Slavonic pseudepigrapha: 2 Enoch and the Apocalypse of Abraham. These two works are part of a very special cluster of Jewish apocalyptic texts that exhibit features not only of the apocalyptic worldview but also of the symbolic universe of early Jewish mysticism. The Yom Kippur ritual in the Apocalypse of Abraham, the divine light and darkness of 2 Enoch, and the similarity of mimetic motifs to later developments in the Zohar are of particular importance in Orlov’s consideration.

Early Christian Controversies Conference

I just put together the poster for the research conference that has come out of the seminar I taught this semester on Early Christian Controversies.  We are looking forward to sharing our work.  I will be opening the conference with a paper I developed this semester called Traumatic Mysteries: Modes of Mysticism Among the Early Christians.  Franklin Trammell will be delivering his Rockwell Post-Doctoral Lecture, The Shepherd of Hermas and the Jerusalem Church.  Our Keynote Address will be delivered by Kelley Coblentz Bautch (St. Edward's University, Austin), Eve and the Feminine Mystique/Mystic.  Join us if you can.

Highlights from Gnostic CounterCultures Conference

I just posted HERE some photo highlights of the Gnostic CounterCultures conference that we hosted at Rice on March 26-28.  It was the most wonderful conference I have ever taken part in.  The papers were outstanding and the energy high.  Thank you all who attended and made this such a terrific and memorable event.  If you missed it, Miguel Connor created a live blog of the event, so check out his highlights HERE.  We will be publishing the papers.  I am aiming for next year.

 Conference Members, photo courtesy of Benjamin Brochstein

Conference Members, photo courtesy of Benjamin Brochstein

A beautiful Easter in Memory of Her

The performance 2015 of Easter in Memory of Her at Christ Church Cathedral was stunningly beautiful.  I don't think there was a dry eye in the congregation including my own.  The women soloists were outstanding yet again.  Every time I see this performance I am taken to the cross. It has become my Easter.

 Crew for Easter in Memory of Her 2015

Crew for Easter in Memory of Her 2015

Interview about the making of Easter in Memory of Her

Listen to internet radio with Teresa Maron on BlogTalkRadio

I was just interviewed for the audio-blog "Joyful Journeys" by Teresa Maron about the making of Easter in Memory of Her.  To listen, you can tune in on your computer at any time HERE

There is a 7-minute introduction with a GEM OF WISDOM offered by co-host Lauren Santerre.  Then Teresa asks me about my inspiration for the Easter play and and its future as a new tradition. 

Join us on Holy Saturday, April 4, at 4 pm, Christ Church Cathedral for an innovative Easter pageant that is becoming a Houston tradition.

Easter in Memory of Her 2015

 Mary the Mother, Easter in Memory of Her

Mary the Mother, Easter in Memory of Her

The Houston Chronicle did a very nice feature of the upcoming event, Easter In Memory of Her, on Holy Saturday at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston.  You might recall that this is an event that I wrote three years ago with Reverend Betty Adams to remember Jesus through the eyes of the women who were at his cross.  It has been set to an original music score and this is the third year in a row that it is being performed in the traditionally silent time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. 

"Easter in Memory of Her" is an innovative musical performance and meditation that imagines the thoughts and prayers of Mary the Mother, the woman at the well, the woman with nard, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene as they remember their times with Jesus and endure the sorrow of the cross.

Performance starts at 4 pm, April 4th, 1117 Texas Ave. at Fannin in downtown Houston.   Please join us.

CNN, Finding Jesus, Gospel of Judas

I had hoped to be able to link to a streamed version of CNN's broadcast on the Gospel of Judas which aired Sunday evening.  But I have not had any luck discovering a link.  We went over to a friend's house to watch the episode (admitting we don't have cable).  It was the first time that I saw the episode so I was curious what they would do with the two days of filming that I alone was involved in.  We ate a fine dinner and sat back and enjoyed the show.

 A screen shot from CNN New Day Weekend, Sunday March 15, 2015

A screen shot from CNN New Day Weekend, Sunday March 15, 2015

For all of those who have been writing me, yes, there is much more to the Gospel of Judas then was put into the film (all these details are in my book, The Thirteenth Apostle, and on the rest of the footage they shot in Geneva but didn't use in the film itself). 

The analysis of the Gospel of Judas runs deep and has very significant ramifications for our understanding of early Christianity.  The person of Judas is only one issue and it is rather small compared to what else the Gospel of Judas tells us. 

My take away from the Gospel of Judas is that Christian Gnostics were a big part of the Christian movement and had developed sophisticated forms of Christianity that were at odds (even violently) with catholic or apostolic Christianity (precursor to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy).  The Gnostics who wrote the Gospel of Judas thought that the concept of Jesus' death as a sacrifice to God for the atonement of sins was horrid.  Absolutely and fundamentally wrong. 

These Gnostics thought that sacrifice to gods of any kind was sacrifice to demons.  So they were criticizing the catholics of their time for their central doctrine (atonement) and practice (eucharist or communion meal when Jesus' body and blood were sacrificed on the church altar weekly and eaten).  The demon Judas was responsible for this horrific act and the twelve disciples were responsible for teaching Christians to believe that this demonic act was really for the worship of God.  The Gnostics thought the true God hated sacrifices.

Whatever else we might take away from the Gospel of Judas, this I know.  The doctrine that Jesus' death was a good thing for humankind, a sacrifice that God wanted to atone for the sins of humankind, was not universal among the early Christians.  Some of them abhorred it.

New Day Weekend Interview: Gospel of Judas

Another early morning Sunday.  I went to Video Houston to be patched into CNN New Day Weekend edition.  While staring at a blue light ring around the lens of a camera, I spoke with Christi Paul about Judas' betrayal and the lost Gospel of Judas.  Here is a link to the interview.

CNN Special on the Gospel of Judas

Last October, I traveled to Geneva to the Bodmer Library where the Gospel of Judas is housed.  My purpose?  To take part in the filming of a new documentary about the recovery, conservation and interpretation of the Gospel of Judas. 

It was an absolute thrill to see the Gospel of Judas firsthand, rather than on my computer in photographs.  The manuscript, although grossly damaged, was quite beautiful in its script and legibility.  I was surprised given all the rumors I had heard about its physical state. 

The filming was exhausting but very productive.  I was asked to take the audience through the Coptic text and explain what I think is going on with its translation and interpretation.  Aside from my contribution, there is also comment from Elaine Pagels, Nicola Denzey-Lewis, and Stephen Emmel.  The series consultants are Mark Goodacre, Joshua Garroway, and Candida Moss.

The film is finished.  It will air on March 15th on CNN at 9 pm.  It is the third film in a 6-part series on ancient relics associated with Jesus.  “Finding Jesus. Faith. Fact. Forgery.”  The series blends science and archaeology to examine six Christian relics.  To retell “the greatest story ever told” using state-of-the-art scientific techniques and archaeological research, the series covers the Shroud of Turin, True Cross relics, the Gospel of Judas, John the Baptist relics, the ossuary of James Jesus’ brother, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  The first in the series premiers on March 1.  A companion book to the film, Finding Jesus. Faith. Fact. Forgery, written by David Gibson and Michael McKinley, will be released on February 24.

Sad News: Professor Borg passed away yesterday

I am so saddened to hear that Professor Borg passed away yesterday.  He was one of my heroes early on when he first started publishing his trade books.  I was so honored last fall to meet him for lunch when he came to Houston to speak at the Christ Church Cathedral. If found him to be a kind and soft-spoken person with a powerful message of love for all.

If you have never read his books, try Reading the Bible Again For the First Time.  It is a book I always assign my undergraduates who enroll in my introduction to biblical studies course.

He was inspirational with his message of a liberal Christianity of the heart.  He will be missed.  A tribute to him can be found in the Religious News Service.

Rasimus writes a book review on Apocalypse of An Alien God

Tuomas Rasimus has just published a book review on Dylan Burns, Apocalypse of An Alien God.  It is a well-written piece meant for the general public, so it is very accessible and gives a current state of affairs in terms of scholars' thinking about Gnosticism. 

I agree with Burns and Rasimus, that the Gnostic impulse reflects revelatory traditions frequently found in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought, although I don't confine this impulse to Sethian literature.  While Sethians were Gnostics, not all Gnostics were Sethians.

Here is the link to the book review published in Marginalia, Los Angeles Review of Books.

Book Note: The Open Mind (edited by Jonathan Knight and Kevin Sullivan)

A new edited volume has come out in the Library of New Testament Studies from T&T Clark.  It is a Festschrift for Professor Christopher Rowland (Emertius, Oxford University) put together by his students and friends.  The book is appropriately titled The Open Mind

Chris' work was mind-opening for me years ago when I first read his fabulous book The Open Heaven and then his follow up Christian Origins.  His books were revelations to me, putting me inside of apocalypticism and mysticism in ways I had never thought about before. 

Chris showed me that mysticism is the vertical form of apocalypticism, while eschatology the horizonal.  One dealt with the revelation of God in the present, via direct immediate experience.  The other dealt with the revelation of God at death and the end of time.  This simple breakdown ended up forming the basic structure of my understanding of the ancient mind, and has remained in place for me for the last twenty-five years, informing almost everything I have ever written.

Contributors to the volume include myself, Vicente Dobroruka, Jonathan Draper, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Paul Foster, Charles Gieschen, Andrew Gregory, Jonathan Knight, Philip Munoa, Tobias Nicklas, Andrei Orlov, J.W. Rogerson, and Kevin Sullivan.  Topics range from my own discussion of the cognitive basis for the "universal" structure of ascent narratives to antecedents for angelic incarnations to cosmic mysteries in the Didache

This book is a lovely tribute to the work of a giant in our field, and shows how deeply he has inspired us. 

Weekly Apocryphote: June 8-14

Awaken your divine nature to God.  Strengthen your soul (to be) without evil...Seek what is permanent, what is not generated.  The Father of everything summons you...You have not come to suffer.  Rather you have come to escape from what binds you.  Release yourself, and what has bound you will be undone.  Save yourself, so that what is (in you) may be saved...Why are you hesitating?  Turn around when you are sought.  When you are summoned, listen.

Zostrianos 130.19-131.19; translation is mine