An announcement. My graduate student, Matthew Dillon will be defending his dissertation on April 18, 12-2:30 pm, 215 Humanities Building, Rice University. This event is open to the public. He has written a book called "The Heretical Revival: The Nag Hammadi Library in American Religion and Culture." Since I am one of the judges, I cannot present my opinion at this time - but only announce that it is happening.
Forbidden Gospels Blog
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Last evening, I spoke to the Friends of Fondren and the Rice community about my book, The Gnostic New Age. I spoke about why I wrote the book and why gnosticism is so vital in American culture today, even though ancient gnostic communities did not survive historically.
As I was composing my remarks, I realized that a common thread links the reason why I wrote the book and the reason why gnosticism persists in our culture. It is the transpower of the book, the power of the book to transform who we are, to change our lives in a moment.
I am reminded, for instance of St. Anthony whose life utterly changed when he heard Matthew 19:21 read aloud, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven." He was a wealthy 18-year old who went out and sold all his properties, donated his money to the poor, and left for the desert to become a hermit devoted to Jesus. I am also reminded of St. Augustine whose life transformation came at age 31 when he read the words of Paul, "Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Romans 13:13-14). He gave his money to the poor and entered the monastic life.
What is it about the direct engagement with a text that has such power to change our lives in ways that we never suspected or anticipated?
Here are my remarks from last evening.
Why did I write this book?
The Gnostic New Age is a book that really has its origins at the beginning of my own intellectual journey, which was in 1982 when I was just at the beginning of my college career. The incident was so important that I recorded it in the opening pages of my book. It represents what I like to call the transpower of the book, that is the power that books can have to transform our very identities and redirect our futures in unexpected ways.
Excerpt read from pp. 1-3.
In 1982, I was finishing my first year of college. I was enrolled in a two-year program to become a registered nurse and had been doing rounds on the oncology floor of the local hospital and in geriatrics. I was eighteen years old and any romantic notions I may have had about health care when I started school vanished with the first catheter I had to insert.
One day, to distract myself from my existential crisis, I visited the local bookstore hoping to find a good novel. But I didn’t have any luck. Back at home, my mother pulled out a book that she had been reading and handed it to me. “I bet you will like this,” she said. I glanced at the cover. The Other Gospels by Ron Cameron. Gospels that never made it into the New Testament. Unknown sayings of Jesus. Could be interesting, I thought.
That is how I read the Gospel of Thomas for the first time, in the opening pages of The Other Gospels. As I read this gospel, I encountered a Jesus who impressed me, a Jesus who was unknown in conventional Christian circles…Here, in the Gospel of Thomas was a Jesus I wanted to know more about…
What was up with this? …Why wasn’t this gospel in the New Testament? I wondered…
That is how my journey started, with the transpower of the book. I was profoundly awakened in my experience of reading an ancient text, which led me to read more books and pose more questions. Which all led eventually to my reflections in The Gnostic New Age.
What do I try to do in this book?
In scholarship, the gnostic has been deconstructed for various reasons that I will not get into here, so much so that there are scholars who argue that gnostics did not exist in antiquity as real groups of people, but were instead alternative Christians who were demonized by other Christians and turned into gnostic heretics through a mean rhetorical battle. My book pushes back on this academic narrative, since the historical evidence supports the existence of gnostics and gnostic groups in antiquity as transgressive and countercultural communities whose identities stretched over and even beyond Jewish, Christian, Grec0-Roman, Egyptian, Zoroastrian and even Buddhist boundaries. So bottomline, what I try to do in The Gnostic New Age is explain (1) who the ancient gnostics were, (2) how they thought about traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity, (3) what type of new religious movements they created, and (4) how this revolutionized religion during their time and continues to do so today in America.
The book has special merit because it targets a public audience. It is very readable for the non-specialist audience, and is innovative in its form. In order to help modern readers grasp ancient outdated concepts about gnosticism, each chapter in the book is framed by a discussion of a contemporary film that itself addresses gnostic concepts in modern terms and images.
What makes a gnostic?
I construct a model of gnosticism from the ancient sources that highlights 5 characteristics ofthe ancient gnostics. (1) the gnostic worships a transcendent God who exists beyond the gods of all the world’s religions, including the creator God of the bible. You can imagine how transgressive this message was, that Zeus, Baal, Rê, and the biblical God are not real Gods, but lesser trickster deities who should not be worshiped. (2) This real God can only be known through direct religious experience which, gnostics claim, is generated by a variety of initiatory rituals. (3) The gnostic believes that the human being is innately connected to the transcendent God, having an uncreated divine nature, which they call the spirit. (4) Gnostics find themselves in a transgressive relationship to traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity, especially in their reuse of traditional religious ideas and their interpretation of scriptures, which are flipped up side down. For instance, the snake in the story of Adam and Eve is not evil, but an enlightener. (5) Gnostics were inclusive free thinkers, drawing on knowledge and practices from a variety of religions, philosophies, and scientific theories of their era, as well as direct revelatory experiences.
This means that gnosticism is not a religion, but a religious worldview or spirituality that engages multiple religions and affiliations, and remodels them in countercultural ways, producing both religious reform movements and new religious movements. Using this model, the book explores comprehensively the variety of gnostic religious movements that arise in antiquity in way that no other book has done up to now.
Why is the gnostic still with us in American religion and culture?
The final chapter returns to the idea of the transpower of the book. If Catholicism defeated gnostic religions in antiquity, how is it that gnostic currents have become so prevalent today? Gnostics were prolific writers and their lost texts reemerged within modern culture starting in the 1800s. This rediscovery of ancient gnostic literature has resulted in the redistribution of gnostic ideas into American culture and has fed the growth of new religious movements like Theosophy, the psychological program of Carl Jung, and even the New Age movement. There was a very a productive period in scholarship following the publication of the Nag Hammadi gnostic scriptures into English in 1978, making the gnostic gospels a household phrase. The gnostic gospels were heavily marketed in the 1980s and 90s as an alternative form of Christianity for Americans disillusioned with traditional denominations, and as a critique to traditional Christianity with its judgmental Father God and concept of original sin.
Think about the hype around films like Stigmata that featured the Gospel of Thomas and the Di Vinci Code that told stories from the Gospel of Philip. This message about the recovery of a lost form of Christianity from antiquity hit home for a large number of Americans who were disillusioned and dissatisfied with the Christianity of their parents and churches that they felt had nothing spiritual to offer. There is a synergy here, a real audience for gnosticism among Americans who view themselves as free-thinkers and people who question authorities, from the church to the government. It was practically love at first sight, so that gnosticism impacted everything from traditional churches to novels to films like The Matrix and Avatar, which help us to think along transgressively gnostic lines about who we really are, where we are from, why we are here, and what our destiny might be. As long as gnostic writings are available for people to read and reflect upon, gnostic spirituality will never go away, but will continue to revolutionize religions of today and tomorrow. It is the transpower of the book.
I would like to close with a reading of one of my favorite pages in the book.
Excerpt read from pp. 282-284.
The Romans suspected that the early Christians in general were deviants, and they criticized the Christians’ religion as “new” and “superstitious”…By the early second century, the Apostolic Catholic leaders intentionally began to create a better interface between their religion and the traditional values of Rome…For the most part, this domestication did not happen among the Gnostic Christian groups, who prized the new, the revelatory, the unmediated experiences of the God beyond the gods of civic duty and the patron-client relationship. The Gnostic Christians made little claim to an ancestral past, preferring to sever the tie with Judaism and marketing their Gnostic communities by promoting a new previously Unknown God who wanted nothing whatsoever to do with traditional sacrifices and other public ceremonies. For Gnostics, the practice of religion was not about civic duty and moral obligation, but personal therapy and triumph. The human being and its needs surpassed the old gods, and indeed, overturned them and their earthly representatives. This transtheistic perspective cut across not only Judaism, but also laid to waste the Roman cult.
Gnostic groups emerge on the margins of religion within social and political landscapes that have been unkind to the people who join their communities. In the case of the ancient world, Roman colonization laid waste to native populations and native religions, creating social, political, and religious landscapes of severe marginalization.
The American historian Theodore Roszak, who coined the term counter culture, thought that it emerged when people could no longer align their moral compass and ideal visions with the direction of the society, or more simply put, when people become alienated within society’s institutional structures. Roszak defines the essence of the counterculture in psychological terms as an assault on the reality of the ego as our true identity…
Sociological studies of countercultural movements show that transgression can become for some people a flagship, a way to mobilize and revolutionize an environment that has left them powerless. These type of movements can lead to political coups and violence. But this did not happen with the Gnostics who must have known that taking up arms against Rome was futile. Instead the Gnostics turned their transgression into a celestial coup to overthrow the demonic hoard that controls our world and sets into power our kings and princes. They felt that if they could gain control of the terror at its roots by disarming the Rulers of the heavens, then their human representatives, the kings, would be sure to fall.
Even more countercultural was the Gnostic belief that the human displaced the gods. The human had crossed over the boundary that had so long separated the gods from the human. Now the human was out of place, a divine being no longer afraid of the gods, the ancestors, or the obligations of traditional rank. Gnostics were free of social and political restraints that their gods and ancestors had imposed upon them for centuries. The Romans were right. This was revolutionary and dangerous.
The Friends of the Fondren Library at Rice University have selected my book, The Gnostic New Age, to be featured at their annual Author Reception on Wednesday, 5:30 pm, in the Farnsworth Pavilion. I will be speaking briefly about my book and reading a passage that is one of my favorites. Hope you can make it.
For those of you who cannot be with us for the Gnostic Film Festival at Rice University, March 24-26, I am sharing my opening remarks and slides here on my blog. You may wish to rent the films at home and view them remotely with us. I have deeper analyses of each film in various chapters of The Gnostic New Age, if you are interested in engaging those ideas while you screen the films.
Welcome to the first every Gnostic Film Festival.
Many of you may be already asking yourselves “A Gnostic film festival?” what is that? Aren’t these science fiction and fantasy films? The short answer is, Yes they are…but, the goal of this festival isn’t about viewing these films as science fiction and fantasy adventures, but seeing them as public conduits of gnosticism, religious currents that were persecuted, and, consequently, went gone underground for two thousand years. So two big questions for us. We have to wonder why we are seeing a resurgence of gnostic ideas within modern American culture, where gnostics are celebrated as heroic rather than feared as monsters. Second, we have to wonder why it is that the science fiction and fantasy genre, and not some other genre, is so conductive to this celebration.
I began really noticing this resurgence of gnostic currents as a casual filmgoer and reader of science fiction and fantasy novels. It started to become something of a game between my husband and I, who could spot the gnostic undercurrent first. It is not that the gnostic undercurrent was in every science fiction and fantasy film we saw. It wasn’t. But when it was, it made the movie. It turned upside down our expectations. It made us sit back and think about our preconceptions about reality and what it means to be human. It made us want to question authority. It had flipped our world in some way. It had made us uncomfortable.
What is real?
Why uncomfortable? The gnostic, more than any other religious current, is transgressive. It is countercultural when it comes to interacting with conventional religions and traditional worldviews. It is this deviant religious edge that made gnostic groups in antiquity so suspicious. They generated so much suspicion among the early Christians that ancient gnostic groups were persecuted to extinction.
What made these gnostic groups so threatening to the early Christians? This is a good question and one that I wrestle with in my book, The Gnostic New Age. First of all, gnostic thinkers generated a type of spirituality that was very innovative in antiquity. Gnostics built new religious movements out of this spirituality. What made them different? Gnostics of all stripes developed religions that were oriented toward the worship of a transcendent God, a God beyond all the Gods of the traditional religions, a God beyond Zeus, beyond Baal, beyond Rê, even a God beyond YHWH the Jewish and Christian Father God of the bible who creates and rules the world. Gnostics believed that humans have been tricked into worshiping all these false Gods at the expense of knowing and worshiping the supreme God of Goodness, Love and Light, the God who transcends all, even gender. Humans, they thought, have been tricked into believing that their true selves are creatures made to serve the whims and wills of these false Gods. Even worse, these false Gods keep humans enslaved in the world the Gods created for their own benefit.
So one of the big concerns of gnostics is to try to figure out what is real? Where are we in the realms of existence? Now you might imagine that scriptures written by ancient Gnostics have some highly imaginative and speculative stories to tell. And you would be right. Gnostic mythology and stories are wildly imaginative, speculating about realities that are controlled by alien beings living in multiverses. These ancient stories are only matched by science fiction and fantasy today, which also tries to showcase possible alternative worlds, dimensions and futures of humanity. I have come to wonder whether science fiction and fantasy stories are comparable to ancient gnostic stories, in that they help us see the problems with our present world and dominant culture, and give us ways to critique and transform how we live in the world.
What is human?
There is another deep concern in gnostic writings as in science fiction films: to help us to see what it means to be human, where our boundaries are as human beings, where we might cross those boundaries or extend them and experience transformation into something bigger than we thought we were. This is something that the ancient Gnostics obsessed about. They were convinced that human beings are more than our physical bodies and our souls. They thought that human beings were born with a piece of the transcendent God buried within them. They usually call this the human spirit. But this spirit is what empowers them and makes them bigger, stronger, and better than even the false Gods who rule the world. It is what makes humans freed from the laws and rules established by these Gods.
What is the goal?
In gnostic stories, the human spirit is always portrayed as entrapped, enslaved, and subject to the authority of false Gods and rulers. The human spirit starts out in a sleep state, even unconsciousness. It came to exist within the human being through a fantastically imagined fall into the human world, where it has become trapped in a state of suffering. The goal of gnostic religions was to liberate the human spirit by awakening it ritually, and helping it return to the true world of its origin, a transcendent other world, where it would be able to reunite with the real God, the source of the human spirit, or some type of spiritual avatar or angel.
You can imagine how subversive these ideas were in the first and second centuries when gnosticism was born. The divine human. YHWH and Zeus and kings and priests to be overthrown. Real worlds beyond our own fraudulent one. These are the seeds of free-thinking and revolution. And in antiquity, they were suppressed and demonized.
So the question that begs to be answered: If Catholicism defeated gnostic religions in antiquity, how is it that gnostic currents have become so prevalent today? Here we have to thank the power of the written word. Gnostics were prolific writers and their lost texts have reemerged within modern culture starting in the 1800s. This rediscovery of ancient gnostic literature has resulted in the redistribution of gnostic ideas into American culture and has fed the growth of new religious movements like Theosophy, the psychological program of Carl Jung, and even the New Age movement. Most importantly, the huge collection of gnostic writings known as the Nag Hammadi library was found in 1945 and fully translated into English in 1978. So it is no surprise to me that the films with cutting edge gnostic themes are those produced in the 1990s, following a productive period in scholarship that made the gnostic gospels a household phrase. The gnostic gospels were heavily marketed as an alternative form of Christianity for Americans disillusioned with traditional denominations, and as a critique to traditional Christianity with its judgmental Father God and concept of original sin.
Think about the hype around films like Stigmata that featured the Gospel of Thomas and the Di Vinci Code that told stories from the Gospel of Philip. This message about the recovery of a lost form of Christianity from antiquity hit home for a large number of Americans who were disillusioned and dissatisfied with the Christianity of their parents and churches that they felt had nothing spiritual to offer. There is a synergy here, a real audience for gnosticism among Americans who view themselves as free-thinkers and people who question authorities, from the church to the government. It was practically love at first sight, and film producers used the opportunity to create some pretty awesome films that make us think about who we really are, where we are from, why we are here, and what our destiny might be.
This weekend we will be viewing six of these gnostic films: The Matrix, The Truman Show, Pleasantville, Avatar, Dark City, and Altered States. The films will be introduced by graduate students who are enrolled in my Gnosticism seminar. Following each film will be a 10-minute Q&A period also facilitated by the graduate students. To bring a close to each discussion, I will present a short reading from my book The Gnostic New Age which discusses these films in relationship to ancient gnostic ideas and practices.
I hope you are ready to meet the gnostics in these films, and to be unsettled.
You are invited to the Gnostic Film Festival at Rice Cinema, March 24-26. Admission is free! I will be doing short reading from my book, The Gnostic New Age, and the graduate students enrolled in my Gnosticism Seminar will be fielding questions from the audience following each film. We will even provide snacks! Hope to see you there.
Feels so good to hold The Gnostic New Age in my hands! A box of books just arrived at my office. So headed to a coffee shop in the village to have a read.
Please share this post. I would like to get word out that the book is available (finally!).
There is a feature on my book (coming out in September) in the Rice News this morning.
Gnosticism is a countercultural spirituality that forever changed the practice of Christianity. This is the premise of a new book by April DeConick, the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice and chair of the Department of Religion.
“The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion From Antiquity to Today,” published by Columbia University Press, will hit bookstores in September. The 392-page book has already been selected to receive a subvention award from the Figure Foundation, which very selectively supports publications, mainly in philosophy and religion.
Before gnosticism emerged in the second century, the belief was that passage to the afterlife required obedience to God and king, DeConick said. Gnosticism proposed that human beings were manifestations of the divine, unsettling the hierarchical foundations of the ancient world, she said. - See more at: http://news.rice.edu/2016/08/28/new-book-by-rices-deconick-explores-the-emergence-and-revolutionizing-role-of-gnosticism/
I have been working with two other editors, Jeff Kripal and Tony Pinn, on a 10-volume series on Religion for Macmillan. These volumes are a hybrid between a textbook and a reference book. There are only two volumes left to be published. We started this project when we were contacted in August 2014. So it is very exciting to have these volumes already published. Only two years. Really unbelievable!
My pet project was a volume called Secret Religion, and it just came out in hardcover and e-book.
I want to thank all the scholars who took out time from their schedules to write for this volume. It wouldn't be the great book it is without all of you! You were WONDERFUL to work with!
In order of their contributions: Michael Williams, Matthew Dillon, Grant Adamson, Tuomas Rasimus, Madeleine Scopello, Bas van Os, John Turner, Kevin Corrigan, Marco Pasi, Wouter Hanegraaff, Kocku von Struckrad, Claire Fanger, Hugh Urban, Dylan Burns, Erin Prophet, Henrik Bogdan, Chad Pevateaux, Jared Calaway, Jeff Kripal, Brian Ogren, Kevin Sullivan, Christopher Rowland, Kelley Coblentz-Bautch, James Davila.
It can be purchased via Macmillan or Amazon: Secret Religion.
Description: Religion: Secret Religion is part of the Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks series dedicated to the study of religion. Composed of twenty-four thematic chapters, this volume looks at the margins of religion or religious texts and traditions that are not considered authoritative by orthodox communities. The volume is broken down into three sections that correspond with different classifications of religion in the margins: gnosticism, with its focuses on knowledge of a transcendent God who is the source of life and the human spirit; esotericism, with its focus on private religion kept from the public and critical of orthodoxy; and mysticism, with its focus on immediate contact with the ultimate reality. Each classification will be explored historically and comparatively to give the reader a more rounded understanding. The volume also includes bibliographies, filmographies, images, a glossary, and a comprehensive index, all of which aid the reader in exploring this rich, rewarding, and relevant field.
I was just notified that my new book, The Gnostic New Age, has been selected to receive a subvention award from the Figure Foundation. This foundation very selectively supports publications, mainly in philosophy and religion. I am delighted. My book will be published in September.
If you are interested in reading some of the pre-publication reviews, they are available HERE.
If you are interested in the controversy over the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, the owner has been exposed by journalist Ariel Sabar in this month's Atlantic HERE. It looks like we can without reservation put this document into the forgery category now that we know about its provenance, particularly that the letter authenticating the document is itself a forgery, but also that the owner had skills, knowledge and likely even motive, to forge the document. It is a wild read all the way to the end of the article, and, Sabar is likely right to suggest that Walter Fritz may have been modeling all of this after the plot of the Da Vinci Code. Truth can sometimes be wilder than fiction.
In two days two articles have come out that I have long awaited. I began writing this article on cognitive historicism several years ago when I was leading a Mellon Seminar at Rice. Because I was working to integrate cognitive linguistics with historical methods, I was treading new ground. So it took a while. But finally after intense revision and rethinking, a version emerged that I finished last year. It is published today in the second volume of the interdisciplinary handbooks on religion (Religion: Social Religion) by MacMillan.
No kidding, I wrote a piece on early Christian mysticism for this volume eight years ago. I don't even remember what I said! But now we will know because it has been published. It looks like a wonderful volume, worth having in your library.
Description of the handbook
Mysticism and esotericism are two intimately related strands of the Western tradition. Despite their close connections, however, scholars tend to treat them separately. Whereas the study of Western mysticism enjoys a long and established history, Western esotericism is a young field. The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism examines both of these traditions together. The volume demonstrates that the roots of esotericism almost always lead back to mystical traditions, while the work of mystics was bound up with esoteric or occult preoccupations. It also shows why mysticism and esotericism must be examined together if either is to be understood fully. Including contributions by leading scholars, this volume features essays on such topics as alchemy, astrology, magic, Neoplatonism, Kabbalism, Renaissance Hermetism, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, numerology, Christian theosophy, spiritualism, and much more. This handbook serves as both a capstone of contemporary scholarship and a cornerstone of future research.
Contents and Contributors
Part I. Antiquity:
1. Ancient mysteries Charles Stein
2. Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism Joscelyn Godwin
3. Parmenides and Empedocles Jessica Elbert Decker and Matthew Mayock
4. Plato, Plotinus, and Neoplatonism Gwenaëlle Aubry
5. Hermetism and Gnosticism Roelof van den Broek
6. Early Jewish mysticism Daphna Arbel
7. Early Christian mysticism April D. Deconick
Part II. The Middle Ages:
8. Sufism William C. Chittick
9. Kabbalah Brian Ogren
10. Medieval Christian mysticism Bruce Milem
11. Hildegard of Bingen and women's mysticism Anne L. Clark
Part III. The Renaissance and Early Modernity:
12. Renaissance Hermetism Antoine Faivre
13. Christian Kabbalah Peter J. Forshaw
14. Paracelsianism Bruce T. Moran
15. Rosicrucianism Hereward Tilton
16. Jacob Boehme and Christian theosophy Glenn Alexander Magee
17. Freemasonry Jan A. M. Snoek
18. Swedenborg and Swedenborgianism Jane Williams-Hogan
19. Mesmer and animal magnetism Adam Crabtree
Part IV. The Nineteenth Century and Beyond:
20. Spiritualism Cathy Gutierrez
21. H. P. Blavatsky and theosophy Michael Gomes
22. Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy Robert McDermott
23. The Golden Dawn and the O.T.O. Egil Asprem
24. G. I. Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way Glenn Alexander Magee
25. C. G. Jung and Jungianism Gerhard Wehr
26. René Guénon and traditionalism Mark Sedgwick
27. Via Negativa in the twentieth century Arthur Versluis
28. Contemporary Paganism Chas S. Clifton
29. The new age Olav Hammer
Part V. Common Threads:
30. Alchemy Lawrence M. Principe
31. Astrology Kocku von Stuckrad
32. Gnosis Wouter J. Hanegraaff
33. Magic Wouter J. Hanegraaff
34. Mathematical esotericism Jean-Pierre Brach
35. Panpsychism Lee Irwin
36. Sexuality Hugh B. Urban
My book is becoming more and more real. I have a cover! Waiting still for the typeset proofs. It is slated to be published in September 2016.
In the meantime, I have to share the cover because I think it is so beautiful. I found an artist, Elena Ray, whose work humbles me. She devotes her art to trying to understand revelation and the transcendent. The cover of my book uses one of her pieces called "Green Circle."
Just a reminder that the SBL group Mysticism, Esotericism and Gnosticism in Antiquity (MEGA) invites SBL and AAR members to submit proposals for the San Antonio meeting.
This group is looking for papers on any theme or text related to direct knowledge of the divine or God for its open session.
Papers on the subject of amulets and inscribed religious objects are especially welcome for a special session on this topic that we are jointly holding with the Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds group.
An invited book review session is also planned with the following books featured: April D. DeConick. 2016. The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion From Antiquity to Today (Columbia University Press); Frances L. Flannery. 2015. Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism: Countering the Radical Mindset (Routledge); Andrei Orlov. 2015. Divine Scapegoats: Demonic Mimesis in Early Jewish Mysticism (SUNY).
Submit proposals via the SBL website.
The Annual Convention for the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion is almost here. We have great sessions lined up for the MEGA Group. I am particularly excited about the Cognitive Difference session, to be able to showcase and discuss how cognitive studies are making a difference to historians working in the area of early Christianity. We have another great session on shamanism, hermetism, and then a wonderful open session of papers. So much going on!
S21-115Cognitive Linguistics in Biblical Interpretation; Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity
Joint Session With: Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity, Cognitive Linguistics in Biblical Interpretation
9:00 AM to 11:45 AM
Room: 207 (Level 2) - Hilton
Theme: The Cognitive Difference
Athanasios Despotis, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, Presiding
April D. DeConick, Rice University
Up, Down, In, Out and Back Again: Sensory Motor Schema and the Ascent of the Soul (25 min)
Roger Beck, University of Toronto
The Mithraeum as a Mechanism for Getting Down from Heaven and Back Up Again (25 min)
Colleen Shantz, Toronto School of Theology
"I Do Not Understand My Actions": Some Cognitive Bases for Natural Dualisms (25 min)
Vernon K. Robbins, Emory University
The Visible and Invisible in Early Christian Literature: Imagistic Story-Lines that Run Cognitive Progressions (25 min)
Robert von Thaden, Jr., Mercyhurst College
Families, Children, and Askesis: Framing Christ-Believing Bodies (25 min)
Grant Adamson, Rice University
Christology and Cognitive Science (25 min)
Discussion (15 min)
S21-336Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity; Religious Experience in Antiquity
Joint Session With: Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity, Religious Experience in Antiquity
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 404 (Level 4) - Hilton
Theme: Revisiting Shamanism
This session is dedicated to Daniel Merkur, PhD whose scholarship on mysticism and friendship has inspired and continues to inspire us.
Celia Deutsch, Barnard College, Presiding
April D. DeConick, Rice University, Introduction (5 min)
April D. DeConick, Rice University
Shamanism and Gnostic Ritual (25 min)
James R. Davila, University of St. Andrews
Hekhalot Mysticism and Jewish Shamanism: Where Do We Stand Now? (25 min)
Jeffrey Pettis, Fordham University
Shamans in the Desert: Mark 1:12-13 Jesus and the Spirit World (25 min)
Pieter F. Craffert, University of South Africa
Shamanism as a Cross-Cultural Interpretive Tool: Jesus, Paul, and Early Christianity (25 min)
Michael Winkelman, Arizona State University, Respondent (20 min)
Discussion (25 min)
S22-136Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity; Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism
Joint Session With: Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity, Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism
9:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Room: 204 (Level 2) - Hilton
John Turner, University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Presiding
Jared C. Calaway, Illinois College
To See the Invisible One: Moses and Hermes in the Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri (20 min)
Dylan M. Burns, Freie Universität Berlin
Alchemical Metaphor in the Paraphrase of Shem (NHC VII,1) (20 min)
Marla Segol, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
Mystical Medicine: The Esoteric Genealogies of Hebrew Medical Texts (20 min)
Discussion (15 min)
M. David Litwa, University of Virginia
Self-knowledge in Monoimos and the Hermetic Corpus (20 min)
Christian H. Bull, University of Oslo
Poimandres, Kmeph, and the Laughing God: A Hermetic Scheme of Creation (20 min)
Christian Wildberg, Princeton University
The Stars of Hermes (20 min)
Discussion (15 min)
S23-233Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: 406 (Level 4) - Hilton
Theme: General Open Session
Catherine Playoust, Catholic Theological College, Presiding
Kevin Sullivan, Illinois Wesleyan University
Angelic Bodies and the Body of Christ (25 min)
William Babcock, Duke University
'Loud Snap . . . Blackness Dumped on Thetan’: Scientology and the Western Esoteric Tradition as a Comparative Model for Enochic Literature (25 min)
Paul M. Pasquesi, Marquette University
Visual and Verbal Expressions of Transformation: Olmec Were-Jaguars and Angelification in Ascension of Isaiah Compared (25 min)
Eduard Iricinschi, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
“It is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly” (Eph 12:5): The Function of Secrecy in Epiphanius’ Depiction of the Nicolaitans and the Gnostics (25 min)
Rebecca Lesses, Ithaca College
Esterah and Lilith: Mythical Women and Ascent (25 min)
Pieter G.R. de Villiers, University of the Free State
A Mystical Perspective on the Christophany in Revelation 1 (25 min)
Lautaro Lanzillotta and I have been working with the wonderful people at Brill to start a new journal. This has been a dream of mine for many years, and when I discovered that Lautaro had similar aspirations, we banded together, got many others involved, and Brill decided to give the journal a try. I want to thank everyone who has helped us along the way, to make this dream come true. Especially my thanks goes to Loes Schouten, Publishing Director at Brill.
Here is the link to the official webpage for the journal where editorial board and more information can be found: http://www.brill.com/products/journal/gnosis-journal-gnostic-studies
Our first two issues will be out in 2016. They will be a special edition of the collected papers from the Gnostic Countercultures conference that we held at Rice University in March 2015.
Here is a description of the journal.
Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies is a peer-reviewed publication devoted to the study of Gnostic religious currents from the ancient world to the modern, where ‘Gnostic’ is broadly conceived as a reference to special direct knowledge of the divine, which either transcends or transgresses conventional religious knowledge. It aims to publish academic papers on: the emergence of the Gnostic, in its many different historical and local cultural contexts; the Gnostic strands that persisted in the middle ages; and modern interpretations of Gnosticism – with the goal of establishing cross-cultural and trans-historical conversations, together with more localized historical analyses. The corpus of Gnostic materials includes (but is not restricted to) testimonies from outsiders as well as insider literature such as the Nag Hammadi collection, the Hermetica, Neo-Platonic texts, the Pistis Sophia, the books of Jeu, the Berlin and Tchacos codices, Manichaean documents, Mandaean scriptures, and contemporary Gnostic fiction/film and ‘revealed’ literature. The journal will publish the best of traditional historical and comparative scholarship while also featuring newer approaches that have received less attention in the established literature, such as cognitive science, cognitive linguistics, social memory, psychology, ethnography, sociology, and literary theory.
Please send us your submissions. And please have your library subscribe. And take out individual subscriptions. And spread the word!
Just for fun, I thought I would post some photos of a few of the statues that took us by surprise because of their size. These statues clearly were meant to be prominently displayed and to overwhelm the onlooker. And indeed, they still do! Some, like David, took our breath away. But also Hercules, Athena, and Poseidon too!
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.
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".
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.