Book Note: The Greatest Mirror (by Andrei Orlov)

Greatest Mirror.jpg

I received a beautiful book in the mail this week by Andrei Orlov, The Greatest Mirror: Heavenly Counterparts in the Jewish Pseudepigrapha (SUNY).  While the idea of a heavenly double—an angelic twin of an earthbound human—is found in Christian, Manichaean, Islamic, and Kabbalistic traditions, scholars have been less familiar with this imagery in early Jewish writings.  In fact, most scholars have traced the lineage of these ideas to Greco-Roman and Iranian sources. But in his new book, Andrei A. Orlov shows that heavenly twin imagery drew in large part from early Jewish writings. The Jewish pseudepigrapha—books from the Second Temple period that were attributed to biblical figures but excluded from the Hebrew Bible—contain accounts of heavenly twins in the form of spirits, images, faces, children, mirrors, and angels of the Presence. Orlov provides a comprehensive analysis of these traditions in their full historical and interpretive complexity. He focuses on heavenly alter egos of Enoch, Moses, Jacob, Joseph, and Aseneth in often neglected books, including Animal Apocalypse, Book of the Watchers, 2 Enoch, Ladder of Jacob, and Joseph and Aseneth, some of which are preserved solely in the Slavonic language.

Book Note: Cognitive Science and the New Testament (István Czachesz)

Finally we have a introductory "textbook" that covers the main tenets of the cognitive science of religion as they are applied to the field of New Testament and early Christianity.  Czachesz argues that the human component with its mental and cultural constraints is essential to augment traditional biblical exegesis or even to change the conventional focus of biblical exegesis. 

Whenever I have spoken about this, I have talked about the missing link in biblical studies: the human factor.  That is, biblical exegesis has traditionally forfeited understanding the ways in which humans process information and make sense of the world through their bodies, their brains, their memories, and their emotions.  All of these impact the shape and character of the texts people write, and thus our understanding of these texts as historians. 

Czachesz further suggests that we are dinosaurs if we think that we can continue to operate as scholars by ignoring science and the scientific method.  He thinks that cognitive approaches help us to integrate scientific thinking (experimental research; computer modeling; naturalistic explanations) with our study of early Christianity.  He applauds the payoff, suggesting that the naturalistic explanations and materialistic mechanisms, some experimentally based, provide a securer foundation for our historical analyses than traditional methods have allowed.

István’s approach is to divide his subject (religion in the New Testament) into cognitive areas, after first giving a three chapter overview of the standard theories in the cognitive study of religion and the anatomy of the brain. 

He begins by asking what studies on memory and transmission of ideas and practices can do for us as biblical scholars.  After covering the standard analyses of memory and emotion, and how minds process and structure information, he argues that early Christian literature reflects these processes, here referring to studies of the passion narratives and martyrdom stories in the canonical and apocryphal gospels and acts, the sermon on the mount, and the synoptic problem. 

Second he covers ritual, with a nod toward some psychological models on compulsive behavior.  He discusses in this chapter baptism, communal meals, and prayer, in terms of cost benefits, modes of religiosity, efficacy and magical agency. 

Third, he takes on the intersection of magic and miracle in the Jesus stories, arguing that cognitive approaches can help us see these as two subjects that are interrelated phenomena.  He does so by applying studies on superstitious conditioning, mental intuitions about the mechanisms and effects of magic in terms of agency and contagion, and the attractiveness of miracle stories as counterintuitive.  He applies these cognitive insights to Paul’s magical practices in Ephesus according to the Book of Acts. 

Fourth, he covers what cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind have been saying about religious experience and altered states of consciousness, everything from subjectivity to cultural contexts, from the lobes of the brain theory, to extreme religious experience.  He applies these studies to the phenomena of speaking in tongues at Corinth, and the tour of heaven in the Ascension of Isaiah. 

Fifth, he looks at studies of morality and its origins in the domains of neurobiology, social cognition, group behavior, and moral emotions.  He argues that biblical morality is not an artifact created by theologians and philosophers, but rather it is an aspect of human cognition and behavior.  The application in this chapter is more broadly conceived in terms of religion, and less in terms of specific test cases within the New Testament. 

Sixth, he turns to social networks and computer models to explain the spread of early Christianity.

István’s book is the one that I wish I had a few years ago when I taught a course I designed on Cognitive Science of Religion and biblical studies called The Bible and the Brain.  I set up the course with similar thematic sections and then biblical applications.  So I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to familiarize themselves with Cognitive Science and Religion and biblical studies, or who wants to create a course on it.  It is a perfect learning and teaching tool.

Book Note: Fakes, Forgeries, and Fictions (Tony Burke, ed.)

Professor Burke's newest edited volume came my way today: Fakes, Forgeries, and Fictions: Writing Ancient and Modern Christian Apocrypha.  It represents the proceedings from the 2015 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium. 

The book collects excellent papers from Bart Erhman, Periluigi Piovanelli, Stanley Porter, Brent Landau, Scott Brown, Pamela Mullins Reaves, Gregory Peter Fewster, Anne Moore, Timothy Pettipiece, Brandon Hawk, Tony Burke, Bradley Rice, Eric M. Vanden Eykel, Caroline Schroeder, James McGrath, Mark Goodacre, and Janet Spittler.

The articles address questions that have long dogged scholars.  Are apocryphal Christian texts fakes or forgeries? Were they intentionally written to deceive Christians?  Do they contain facts or fictions?  Why were they composed?

The answers in this volume are as varied as the stories themselves, from intentional fakes meant to deceive like the fragment known as the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, to honest attempts to capture ongoing religious revelation like the Revelation of the Magi. 

Texts covered include Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Paul, Revelation of the Magi, Secret Gospel of Mark, Letter of Peter to Philip, apocryphal Corinthians, Secret Book of John, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Life of Saint Issa, Gospel of Jesus' Wife, and miscellaneous early Christian papyri.

I think that this volume is a valuable contribution to how we understand authorship of ancient Christian texts, whether we define them as fakes or the real deal.

Finally, the Cambridge Handbook on Western Mysticism and Esotericism is published

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

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.

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. 

John's Gospel and Intimations of Apocalyptic, edited by Catrin Williams and Christopher Rowland

In July, four years ago (wow has it been that long ago?) a number of us met at Bangor University to discuss new directions in research on the Gospel of John and apocalypticism.  The conference was in response to John Aston's book Understanding the Fourth Gospel, and the fact that the apocalyptic dimensions had not received the kind of study that Aston suggested would be valuable.  How is the text pervaded with themes concerning the apocalyptic or revelation?  How does the Johannine narrative offer intimations of another world, another reality, without a direct theophany typical of so many apocalypses (p. ix)?

I dealt with centuries of mistranslations of John 8:44 and argue in my contribution to this book that this text reveals a long-kept secret that the early Johannine community believed that the devil had a Father who is the Jewish biblical god.  This god is not Jesus' Father.   "Why are the Heavens Closed? The Johannine Revelation of the Father in the Catholic-Gnostic Debate."  I also examine 1 John and show that this letter is written to domesticate the early community's original understanding of John 8:44.  This understanding of the Gospel of John forms now the basis of my understanding of Johannine Christianity, and will resurface in my chapter on the fourth gospel (John and the Dark Cosmos) in my book The Ancient New Age.

If you are interested in the Gospel of John and its intersection with revelation, this volume contains some really "new" ideas and I highly recommend it. 

Authors and Table of Contents:

  • Christopher Rowland and Catrin Williams, Introduction
  • John Ashton, Intimations of Apocalyptic: Looking Back and Looking Forward
  • Benjamin Reynolds, John and the Jewish Apocalypses: Rethinking the Genre of John's Gospel
  • Ian Boxall, From the Apocalypse of John to the Johannine "Apocalypse in Reverse": Intimations of Apocalyptic and the Quest for a Relationship
  • Jörg Frey, God's Dwelling on Earth: 'Shekhina-Theology' in Revelation 21 and in the Gospel of John
  • Catrin Williams, Unveiling Revelation: The Spirit-Paraclete and Apocalyptic Disclosure in the Gospel of John
  • Christopher Rowland, 'Intimations of Apocalyptic': The Perspective of the History of Interpretation
  • April DeConick, Why are the Heavens Closed? The Johannine Revelation of the Father
  • Jutta Leonhardt-Balzer, The Ruler of the World, Antichrists and Pseudo-Prophets: Johannine Variations on an Apocalyptic Motif
  • Loren Stuckenbruck, Evil in Johannine and Apocalyptic Perspective: Petition for Protection in John 17
  • Judith Lieu, Text and Authority in John and Apocalyptic
  • Robert G. Hall, The Reader as Apocalyptist in the Gospel of John
  • Robin Griffith-Jones, Apocalyptic Mystagogy: Rebirth-from-above in the Reception of John's Gospel
  • Adela Yarbro Collins, Epilogue


Cognitive Round Up: Why God Won't Go Away

As I have written before, as a historian I have become disenchanted with traditional approaches which perceive history to be what happened due to particular linear causes and effects, almost entirely social in nature.  So I have begun rewiring my historical approach so that it views history as something made to explain the present.  History emerges within a cognitive and cultural network, and therefore is reflective of local cultural affairs as well as universal ways of thinking.  I call this approach, Cognitive Historicism.

I have begun to read seriously materials written about the cognitive end of things.  So every so often I will be posting a book note featuring these cognitive readings.  Hopefully they will inspire you to start reading in this direction.

Today I start with Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, and Vince Rause, Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (Ballantine Books: New York 2002).  The authors are brain researchers who have conducted now-famous experiments using SPECT camera photography to map brain changes in meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns who engage in repetitive rituals and meditation to achieve self-transcendent and unitary experiences.  These authors argue that religious experience, especially the transcendent state of Absolute Unitary Being, is not a hallucination or a delusion.  It is the result of the normal operations of the brain when sensory information to the operation association area is interrupted and the area becomes deafferented, when it is forced to operate on little or no information.  This results in the softening of the boundaries of the self and opens the door of the mind to unitary states of consciousness.

These authors do not understand their observations to lead to reductionism: that religious experience is only imagined because God is a figment of the firing of our neurons.  Instead they argue that all of our experiences, whether it is the experience of eating a piece of pie or encountering God, are all in our minds.   And this doesn’t mean that they aren’t real.  Tracing spiritual experience to neurological behavior does not disprove its realness.  There simply is no other way for us to experience anything except through the brain’s neural pathways (36-37). They write, “If God does indeed exist, the only place he can manifest his existence would in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain” (53).

Do the mystics experience something real that is outside material existence?  Science and common sense has always said no.  But the inquiry of these authors has led them to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the realness of something divine (140-140).  They draw this conclusion based on how they understand the brain’s ability to differentiate between things that are real and not real (143) and the reality of both our external objective world and our inner subjective sense what is real (144).  While they began their research with the assumption that all that is really real is material, they found that all perceptions exist in our minds, whether physical or otherwise (146).  If we are to dismiss spiritual experience as mere neurological activities, we must also distrust all of our own brain’s conceptions of the material world.  If we trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual experience is a fiction that is only in the mind (146-147).

Comparing Religions, by Jeffrey Kripal

Click book cover to purchase at Amazon

Click book cover to purchase at Amazon

Are you looking for a new book to teach world religions and the comparative study of religions?  Then I recommend checking out Jeffrey Kripal's new textbook just published by Wiley.  Comparing Religions is not the usual presentation of the world's religions in their own trenches, chapter by chapter, although Professor Kripal does cover the main dimensions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Sikhism, and Confucianism.

Rather this book breaks out of the trenches and begins with a serious discussion of what the comparative process is (or should be).  Then it proceeds to talk about the stuff of religion that really makes up religion but which we rarely talk about.  Think stories and mythic performances, the Super Natural in a scientific world, charisma and miracle, consciousness and soul bodies, the religious imagination and the paranormal, sex and transgression, exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism, reductionism, religion and violence, religion and human evolution.  And you can begin to imagine this book.

Professor Kripal is at his very best in this exceptional introduction to the study of religion. After a self-reflexive journey through the religious realms of myth, ritual, nature, science, sex, charisma, soul, salvation, and the imagination and its paranormal powers, we are guided to put it all back together with an eye to religious tolerance, freedom, and pluralism. This book is the red pill. Ingest it and you will be enlightened.

Book Note: Histories of the Hidden God (DeConick and Adamson)

Click to find book on Amazon

Very excited about this new edited volume in the Gnostica Series published by Acumen.  This volume came out of a very special conference that we held here at Rice in April 2010.  At Rice we have a wonderful program we call GEM (Gnosticism, Esotericism, and Mysticism) which is an approach to religious literature and practices that takes seriously the marginalized and forbidden, what I like to call the "edges of religion".  We think it is essential to understand and incorporate the edges of religion into our histories and analyses of religion, rather than focus only on what became over time the center of religious traditions and the authoritative literature.

So the book comes out of the first international GEM conference. 

Histories of the Hidden God: Concealment and Revelation in Western Gnostic, Esoteric, and Mystical Traditions


edited by myself and Grant Adamson.

The papers deal with the fact that even though Western religious traditions typically portray God as a humanlike creator, lawgiver, and king, both accessible and actively present in history, there is another concurrent tradition that God hides.  This has led to a tension in the traditions.  It is the Gnostic and the mystic who capitalize on the hidden and hiding God.  It is the sage and the artist who try to make accessible to humans the God who is secreted away.  This book explores the secret God from antiquity to the present day.  The book is organized around three themes: the concealment of the hidden God; the human quest for the hidden God; and revelations of the hidden God.

In this book I have published one of my papers on the Gospel of John and Gnostic origins: "Who is hiding in the Gospel of John?  Reconceptualizing Johannine theology and the roots of Gnosticism."

Book Note: Practicing Gnosis (eds. April DeConick, Gregory Shaw and John Turner)

I  promised to get some book notes out this week, and lo and behold, it is already Friday and I haven't had a chance to get to my blog until now.

Click here to go to Amazon

The big news for me is that the festschrift that we have been putting together for Professor Birger A. Pearson has been published by Brill.  Gregory Shaw, John Turner and I have been gathering contributions and editing this project for two years, and it feels so wonderful to see the book published in honor of such a great scholar in the field of early Christian studies and Gnosticism.

Although I was not a graduate student of Professor Pearson, I have always considered myself his student, so essential has been his research to my own.  When I was new to the field in the late 80s and early 90s, his work on Gnosticism helped to orient me and inspire me, especially his classic pieces on Philo, the Jewish nature of Gnosticism, and its Egyptian roots.  So it is with great pleasure that I joined forces with Greg Shaw and John Turner to honor Professor Pearson.

We choose to create a volume around a specific theme, Gnostic rituals and practices, because there is such a gap in our knowledge when it comes to what the Gnostics were actually doing and why they were doing it.  While the book is not comprehensive - how could it be? - we were able to cover five main areas of practice in the volume: initiatory, recurrent, therapeutic, ecstatic, and philosophic practices.

This is the volume in which I have published my paper on the

Ophian Diagram

, and I am particularly proud of it because I believe that I have actually solved its mystery.

List of articles:

<!-- /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:"MS 明朝"; mso-font-charset:78; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-536870145 1791491579 18 0 131231 0;} @font-face {font-family:"MS 明朝"; mso-font-charset:78; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-536870145 1791491579 18 0 131231 0;} @font-face {font-family:Cambria; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-536870145 1073743103 0 0 415 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-unhide:no; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS 明朝"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;} .MsoChpDefault {mso-style-type:export-only; mso-default-props:yes; font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS 明朝"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;} @page WordSection1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.WordSection1 {page:WordSection1;}


Initiatory Practices

April D. DeConick, The Road for the Souls is through the Planets: The Mysteries of the Ophians Mapped

Roger Beck, Ecstatic Religion in the Roman Cult of Mithras

Bas van Os, Gospel of Philip as Gnostic Initiatory Discourse

Elliot Wolfson, Becoming Invisible: Rending the Veil and the Hermeneutic of Secrecy in the Gospel of Philip

Erin Evans, Ritual in the Second Book of Jeu

Nicola Denzey Lewis, Death on the Nile: Egyptian Codices, Gnosticism, and Early Christian Books of the Dead

Recurrent Pratices

Einar Thomassen, Going to Church with the Valentinians

Madeleine Scopello, Practicing ‘Repentance’ on the Path to Gnosis in Exegesis on the Soul

Edward Butler, Opening the Way of Writing: Semiotic Metaphysics in the Book of Thoth

Fernando Bermejo Rubio, “I Worship and Glorify”: Manichaean Liturgy and Piety in Kellis’ Prayer of the Emanations

Jason BeDuhn, The Manichaean Weekly Confessional Ritual

Jorunn Buckley, Ritual Ingenuity in the Mandaean Scroll of Exalted Kingship

Therapeutic Practices

Naomi Janowitz, Natural, Magical, Scientific or Religious? A Guide to Theories of Healing

Grant Adamson, Astrological Medicine in Gnostic Traditions

Marvin Meyer, The Persistence of Ritual in the Magical Book of Mary and the Angels: P. Heid. Inv. Kopt. 685

Rebecca Lesses, Image and Word: Performative Ritual and Material Culture in the Aramaic Incantation Bowls

Ecstatic Practices

John D. Turner, From Baptismal Vision to Mystical Union with the One: The Case of the Sethian Gnostics

Niclas Förster, Marcosian Rituals for Prophecy and Apolytrosis

James Davila, Ritual Praxis in the Hekhalot Literature

Philosophic Practices

Zeke Mazur, The Platonizing Sethian Gnostic Interpretation of Plato’s Sophist

Michael Williams, Did Plotinus’ “Friends” Still Go to Church? Communal Rituals and Ascent Apocalypses

Kevin Corrigan, The Meaning of “One”: Plurality and Unity in Plotinus and Later Neoplatonism

Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Platonist’s Luminous Body

Book Note: Heavenly Priesthood in the Apocalypse of Adam

I have several new books that have come across my desk recently, but not enough time to get notices out to you about them.  I will try to catch up over the next week or so.

Let's get started with the beautiful new volume written by Andrei Orlov, Professor of Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at Marquette University.  The book is called

Heavenly Priesthood in the Apocalypse of Abraham

and it is published by Cambridge University Press


Professor Orlov continues his exploration of apocalypticism and mysticism in this book, arguing that soon after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the Apocalypse of Abraham was written in order to demonstrate that the true place of worship is heaven (not Jerusalem).  It depicts Abraham as the primary example of an initiate of the celestial priesthood.   Orlov focuses his analysis on the scapegoat ritual, which is the central rite of the story.  It is reinterpreted within an eschatological context.  Orlov thinks that this reinterpretation represents a transition from Jewish apocalyptic thought to the symbols of early Jewish mysticism.

Congratulations to Professor Orlov for the publication of another superb study of early Jewish and Christian mysticism, following up his other recent study,

Dark Mirrors


Book Note: Who Do People Say That I Am? (Vernon K. Robbins)

There is a fantastic new book just published that covers Jesus and the gospels, canonical as well as extracanonical.  Vernon Robbins,

Who Do People Say I Am? Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity


Professor Robbins' book is the best there is on the market in my opinion.  I highly recommend it to you, especially if you are looking for a book to teach this subject.

Robbins sets the more commonly known representations of Jesus in the Bible alongside lesser-well-known portraits of him found in texts like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas, and the Acts of John.  He does this, not simply as a rehash of general knowledge, but applying all of his years of accumulated knowledge of orality, rhetoric, cognition and the social fabric of Christianity to the material.  You are face-to-face with Robbins the veteran professor sharing generously his knowledge.

The book is very accessible in terms of style and yet very careful in terms of historical detail.  A perfect match for the non-specialist reader, and specialists from other areas of New Testament study who want to get a handle on the extracanonical material.

Who was Paul really?

I have been making quite a bit of good progress on

The Gnostic New Age

book.  I just finished chapter 4 on the Gospel of John and the letters of John called "The Dark Cosmos."  It was thrilling to write this chapter and finally get down my reading of the Fourth Gospel and its Gnostic predisposition.  Yes.  I really find in the fabric of that text Gnostic spirituality merging with Jewish scriptures and nascent Christianity. It is not just later Gnostic interpretation imposed on an orthodox gospel.  It is there in the soul of the Gospel.

My next chapter is on Paul, so I am now immersed in Pauline literature and just got the chance to read James Tabor's newest book on the subject,

Paul and Jesus

.  The Paul that Tabor speaks about (and his relationship to the Jerusalem church and other apostles) dovetails nicely with the ways that I have come to understand Paul over the years.

I remember as a young woman really disliking Paul.  What I didn't know then is that what I disliked was not Paul but Luther's Paul.  That is when I discovered Paul the mystic.  I read Albert Schweitzer's book and then Alan Segal's book, both on Paul the mystic.  Suddenly Paul made sense to me.  But he wasn't anyone that contemporary Christians could relate to.  What he was saying was way out there.  Undomesticated.  Wild.  He was a visionary who realized union with Christ whom he saw as the manifestation of God.  He developed rituals that helped democratize this experience so that all converts could similarly be united.

One of the features that I really like about Tabor's book is that he starts from the position that Paul was a mystic.  Tabor then breaks down Paul's message into five understandable chunks.  This makes Paul the mystic more accessible rather than wild.  Tabor's book is written around these chunks:

  • The resurrection body is a new spiritual body that believers attain.
  • Baptism gives the believer the Christ/Holy Spirit with unites with his/her own spirit and makes him/her a child of God, part of a new genus of Spirit-beings who will inherit God's Kingdom.
  • The believer achieves a mystical union with Christ due to this Spirit infusion, a gradual process that is transformative involving also the sacred meal where Christ is taken within as food.
  • The world is in the last throes of its existence, and life would soon be transformed. 
  • Paul turned his back on the Torah and abandoned Judaism, replacing it with the new Torah of Christ.

Of course as I am thinking about Paul the mystic, I am also wondering about Paul the Gnostic.  Have we worked so hard over the centuries to domesticate Paul that we have lost touch with his Gnostic aspects too, like with the Fourth Gospel?  Anyway, these are my thoughts right now as I am in the reading and thinking phases of writing this chapter.

Book Note: Introduction to "Gnosticism" (Denzey Lewis)

I was delighted yesterday when Nicola Denzey's new textbook on Gnosticism arrived in my office mailbox.  I had the pleasure of reading the book while it was in preparation, and I am excited to see it finally in print.  The book covers all the main issues of the Nag Hammadi literature and will be a perfect compliment to the Nag Hammadi Library if you are considering teaching a course on this literature, or if you are studying the Nag Hammadi texts independently.  The textbook clearly is designed from Denzey's experience teaching a course on Nag Hammadi literature over many years, so it focuses around the main schools of Gnostics that are represented in the Nag Hammadi library, plus a discussion of the other Nag Hammadi texts like the Gospel of Thomas and the Hermetic literature.  The book contains maps, diagrams, timelines, and photos to illustrate the text.  At the end of each chapter are "Questions to Consider", "Key Terms" and "For Further Reading."

Book Note: Revelations by Elaine Pagel

Elaine Pagels has published a new book on Revelation and revelations in early Christianity.  There was a terrific review of it in

The New Yorker

by Adam Gopnik


I must confess that if Mr. Gopnik ever needs a book to review, I would be completely beside myself with joy if he were to review one of mine.  Wow can he write!  Give him a raise!

There is another review of the book in

The Washington Post



Book Note: Esotericism and the Academy (Wouter J. Hanegraaff)

This is just a quick note to let you know that Hanegraaff's newest book on esotericism has been published by Cambridge.  The book studies the Academy's marginalization of esotericism in the modern era. Hanegraaff puts forward a convincing argument that esotericism has had an incredible impact on western thought since the Renaissance, and the time has come to acknowledge and study this.  It is about time!

Wouter J. Hanegraaff, 

Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture

The Table of Contents:

<!-- /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:Cambria; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:Cambria; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} -->

Introduction: Hic sunt dracones
1. The History of Truth: Recovering Ancient Wisdom
Competing Macrohistories – Platonic Orientalism – The Christian Apologists – The Wise Man from
the East: Gemistos Plethon – The Platonic Theologian: Marsilio Ficino – Secret Moses: Giovanni Pico
della Mirandola and Christian Kabbalah – The Universal Catholic: Agostino Steuco – The End of a
2. The History of Error: Exorcizing Paganism
Against the Pagans – Against the Fathers – The Anti‐Apologist: Jacob Thomasius – The
Heresiologist: Ehregott Daniel Colberg – The Pietist Reaction – The Birth of Religionism: Gottfried
Arnold –Enlightenment and Eclipse – The Historian: Jacob Brucker – The Parting of the Ways
3. The Error of History: Imagining the Occult
Tainted Terminologies 1: Superstition – Tainted Terminologies 2: Magic – Tainted Terminologies 3:
Occult – Alchemy between Science and Religion – The Organization of Secrecy – The Occult
Marketplace – Elemental Fiction – Compendia of Rejected Knowledge – Secret Traditions and
Hidden Histories – The Waste Land
4. The Truth of History: Entering the Academy
Magnetic Historiography: German Romantic Mesmerism and Evolutionism – The Archetype of
Eranos: Carl Gustav Jung and the Western Unconscious – Eranos and Religionism: Scholem, Corbin,
Eliade – The Return of the Historians: From Peuckert and Thorndike to Frances Yates – Antoine
Faivre and Western Esotericism – Esotericism in the Academy
Conclusion: Restoring Memory

Here is the publisher's description:

Academics tend to look on 'esoteric', 'occult' or 'magical' beliefs with contempt, but are usually ignorant about the religious and philosophical traditions to which these terms refer, or their relevance to intellectual history. Wouter Hanegraaff tells the neglected story of how intellectuals since the Renaissance have tried to come to terms with a cluster of 'pagan' ideas from late antiquity that challenged the foundations of biblical religion and Greek rationality. Expelled from the academy on the basis of Protestant and Enlightenment polemics, these traditions have come to be perceived as the Other by which academics define their identity to the present day. Hanegraaff grounds his discussion in a meticulous study of primary and secondary sources, taking the reader on an exciting intellectual voyage from the fifteenth century to the present day and asking what implications the forgotten history of exclusion has for established textbook narratives of religion, philosophy and science.

Book Note: Dark Mirrors by Andrei A. Orlov

Andrei Orlov presents us with a new book on a wicked subject: the origins and development of the demons Azazel and Satanael in early Judaism and Christianity. 

I remember when, a few years ago, Professor Orlov was working on the temptation narratives in the gospels and presented a paper in the New Testament Mysticism Project on Satan.  He noted that the narrative of Satan was an upside down version of patterns of ascent of heroes in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  I recall how this insight was met with enthusiasm among the group, and it appears to have become the impetus for Professor Orlov to explore this symmetry more fully.  Now he gives us the results of that exploration in a wonderful book just published by SUNY.  It is called

Dark Mirrors: Azazel and Satanael in Early Jewish Demonology

The book takes up the correspondence of inverse symmetry, when the antagonist or protagonist of the story takes the place of his opponent by acquiring peculiar attributes and conditions of his counterpart. He notes that in the Book of the Watchers, the fallen angels and the hero Enoch mirror each other in the exchange of offices, roles, attributes, and even wardrobes (5).  Professor Orlov traces this pattern in two traditions, one involving Satan as the source of evil, the other Azazel.  His study plays close attention to the sacerdotal dimension of this demonology, showing that the peculiar transformations of the adversaries have cultic signficance within the liturgical settings of the Jewish tradition (7).

The book is written along these chapter lines:

1: "The Likeness of Heaven": Kavod of Azazel in the Apocalypse of Abraham
2: Eschatological Yom Kippur in the Apocalypse of Abraham: The Scapegoat Ritual
3: The Garment of Azazel in the Apocalypse of Abraham
4: The Watchers of Satanael: The Fallen Angels Traditions in 2 Slavonic Enoch
5: Satan and the Visionary: Apocalyptic Roles of the Adversary in the Temptation Narrative of the Gospel of Matthew
6: The Flooded Arboretums: The Garden Traditions in the Slavonic Version of 3 Baruch and the Book of Giants

It is wonderful to see this book come into being from its glowing inception during our seminar to its book form.  And wow! SUNY finally made a gorgeous cover.

I leave you with a verse that opens his book, which leaves me to ponder the power of the deep and dark which the Gnostics I study also knew:

Come and see: There are chariots of the left in the mystery of the Other Side and chariots of the right in the mystery of the supernal Holiness, and they match one another...

(Zohar I.211b).

Book Note: The Apocryphal Gospels (Ehrman and Plese)

Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Plese (eds.),

The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). 

This is a brand new book and an incredibly useful one at that.  A big "THANKS" to Ehrman and Plese for putting this book together!

It is a collection of apocryphal gospels (Infancy Gospels; Ministry Gospels; Sayings Gospels; Passion, Resurrection and Post-Resurrection Gospels).  The book does not include the Coptic gospels from Nag Hammadi or the Berlin Codex, with the exceptions of the Gospels of Thomas and Mary.  The editors also have included the Gospel of Judas from the Tchacos Codex, but the translation is based only on the Kasser-Wurst critical edition.  So it does not yet take into account Ohio fragments whose translation and photographs have been released by Wurst on his website


. So this translation (like all of them that have been published so far, including my own) needs to be corrected and updated already.

What is great about the volume?  The primary language texts are on the face pages, with translations on the opposite pages.  There are brief introductions to each text, which help orient the readers to some of the main issues for each text. 

There are very few footnotes on critical textual issues, however, so this will not replace the critical editions for researchers.  But it will be very handy to have all these primary texts in one neat handbook for quick reference and use in graduate courses. 

My main criticism is that the bibliographies are uneven and too selective.  They target certain resources, while leaving out other crucial materials on these texts.  This means that the bibliographies are so selective that they are not targeted for the public or for graduate students and researchers who appear to be the volume's targeted audience.  I wonder why the bibliographies are so selective, given that this is a volume of 611 pages, and the bibliographical pages usually take up less than half a page with lots of white space left.  Another page of bibliography on each of the gospels would have made the volume that much better and would have added very little in terms of additional pages.