Friday, December 12, 2008

Apocalypse of Gabriel at the Houston Museum of Natural History

The Houston Museum of Natural History has just opened an exhibit called "The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story." At the last minute, the Museum was able to get the Apocalypse of Gabriel stone. So it is here down the street from me. I have some more updates about interpretation and authentification, but I do not have time to post that now. Will return to the subject soon. I promise.

French Edition of The Thirteenth Apostle

My thanks to Michel Valensi of "Éditions de l'éclat" who has published a French translation of The Thirteenth Apostle (Le treizième apôtre). The translation was made by Gilles Firmin to whom I wish also to extend my thanks. This edition was able to take into account a series of revisions, a second preface, and one new chapter, "Judas the Star," although I had not knowledge of the Judas gem at the time I submitted this material to be translated. So the gem chapter will become available in the forthcoming March revised English edition, along with all the other revisions that made it into the French edition.

Apocryphote of the Day: 12-12-08

"Peace be with you from peace, love from love, grace from grace, faith from faith, life from holy life!"

Apocryphon of James 1.1-7 (Valentinian? text from Nag Hammadi)

Commentary: a post for the second week of advent - Peace.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New article on Valentinian sex

An article that I wrote several years ago has finally been published in a new volume on Western Esotericism. The title of the article is "Conceiving Spirits: The Mystery of Valentinian Sex." It is found in Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Jeffrey J. Kripal (eds.), Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism (Leiden: Brill, 2008) pp. 23-48. By the way, this is a Brill hardcover, so it is a library book unless you have $200 to drop on one volume!

I conclude in my contribution to the volume that the Valentinians believed that the end of the world and the entrance into the Pleromic Bridal Chamber would correct what Adam had perpetuated in the beginning, that is the dispersion of the spirit in immature form within the corrupted soul. Since Adam had procreated from his material aspect, he had been acting from carnality, from lust. Therefore the child he bore, Cain, had a soul inclined toward evil, one whose spiritual seed was easily overcome by the presence of powerful demons and passions. The conception of Abel, on the other hand, was believed to have taken place in such a way that he acquired a soul with a spiritual seed which was able to respond positively rather than negatively, to live righteously (as a member of the Christian church) and be redeemed. Seth's soul was endowed with an elect seed because his conception was marked by Adam's spiritual aspect, when he raised his soul to the heights of heaven as he lovingly embraced Eve. This form of lovemaking was considered by the Valentinians to be sacred, and would lead to their own redemption as well as God's.

I argue in this article that the Valentinians were not opposed to eros as long as it was not lust, that they distinguished between lovemaking and hedonism. Although they were opposed to carnality, they were not opposed to sexual pleasure between married partners. For them, sex was understood as a delightful and sacred experience when the souls of the married partners mingled with the heavenly powers, resulting in the conception of a spiritually superior child, one that would be morally-inclined and redeemable, if not elect.

This is a long way away from Augustine's reproach for eros and his notion that sex should ideally be no more than a handshake.

What would our society be like if the Valentinian understanding of sex had become our model, rather than the Augustinian?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Apocryphote of the Day: 12-9-08

Jesus said, "The world is a bridge. Cross this bridge but do not build upon it."

'Abdallah ibn Qutayba 'Uyun 2.328 (The Muslim Jesus)

Christ Pantocrator, c. 1200, Cefalu, Sicily.

I was surprised too

As a follow-up to my post last night, I want to stress that I was very surprised by the results of my experimental exercises. I had been taught as a form critic and a source critic and a redaction critic in university. So these were my standards, and I thought that their conclusions were reasonable given our evidence. So I set up my experimental exercises with the expectation that I would see some distinction in the memory distortions that occurred in the different media modes of transmission (OO, OW, WO, WW).

When I didn't, it struck me hard how much our field makes up theories with little to no hard evidence to support them. And then we go about using those theories as our assumption base and creating more theories on top of them. The only thing that we go on is the seat of our pants, and any reasonable scenario appears arguable and convincing. We tell ourselves it is okay because we cannot recreate the ancient world to study, and continue along our merry way. At least this has been my own personal experience.

But what happens when we compare the results of our modern day experiments to the texts we have and we discover comparable memory distortions, when human memory appears to be the big factor? In this case, the position that needs to justify itself is the one that continues to plead that we don't have the ancient people to study.

I want to emphasize that my sample was small and only was a pilot exercise. More testing needs to be done. To do this, I really need to set up a lab at Rice, and to do this is going to require money and a big time commitment on my part. I still have an entire data set from my earlier experiment sitting on my shelf in which I tested for secondary orality. This data is waiting to be collated and analyzed, but I haven't been able to get around to it yet. In this case, I asked the subjects to memorize the mustard seed parable from Mark. On a set date, I tested them on their memory of the parable by asking them to record it. Then I asked them to listen to a different version of the mustard seed parable. I then asked them after a period of 45 minutes (so we would be dealing with long-term memory instead of immediate recall) to record the version that they had heard. I have no idea yet regarding the results, because I haven't had the time to do the data analysis yet.

These experiments taught me more than I can even convey in writing, but they required a level of organization and computation and rigor which was taxing for me. I got little else done that year which was frustrating since my real academic interest is intellectual history. At the moment, I am trying to handle the new Coptic codex which contains the Gospel of Judas, and so any return to this type of cognitive classroom is going to have to wait for me. But I encourage my colleagues to consult cognitive psychologists at their universities and begin their own testing. Be open to what might happen, and do not be afraid to share what you learn. The way to move the field forward is to try new things and see what we can see. If nothing happens of importance, oh well. But if we learn something, doors might open to us that otherwise would remain closed.

Monday, December 8, 2008

human memory is THE factor

I appreciate Mark Goodacre's response to my recent posts. But I must insist that experimentation makes a difference - a huge difference - in what we can and can't know, and what we can and can't argue. On this see the good post by N.T. Wrong (who seems to be consistently right - when will we know your ID?).

Take for example Professor Bartlett's experiments which were created not as laboratory experiments, but as real life tests of human memory. He asked subjects to read a story three times. Then at varying intervals he asked his subjects to write the story down. He noted specific alterations (what we call today memory distortions) to the materials. These alterations are specific and consistent. I found the same ones, and I did not have access to his experiments until after I had run my own and was writing up my analyses. This was another shock to my system.

What is fascinating is that originally I wanted to track the differences in media environments. So I had divided my subjects into five groups: oral-to-oral (OO=heard saying and orated reproduction); oral-to-written (OW=heard saying and wrote down reproduction); written-to-oral (WO=read saying and orated reproduction); written-to-written (WW=read saying and wrote down reproduction); and sources-retained (SR=read saying and wrote down reproduction but retained written "original"). In other words, I had four media environments in which composition and recall relied entirely on human memory, while one media environment allowed my subjects to consult a written source. I was confident that I would discover all sorts of differences in the first four mixed media reproductions and was ready to track them.

Much to my surprise, the differences in these four media environments were not present at all in long-term memory reproductions. In other words, in the four the media modes that relied on human memory for transmission, there was no difference in how the material looked after it was transmitted. The material underwent the same type of changes at the same rates. The differences occurred only when the written source was retained and the subjects could consult it.

In other words, from the reproductions themselves made by my subjects it was impossible to deduce whether the subject heard the saying or read the saying, wrote it down or orated it, as long as this was done from memory and not from consultation of a written source. The factor for distortion in transmission was NOT the media environment - it was dependence on human memory.

So how can we tell if the author of Thomas' parable of the Wheat and Tares was dependent on Matthew? If we are dealing with literary dependence through consultation of Matthew's text, we would expect either near verbatim reproduction or paraphrase according to the results of my experimental exercises - and we have neither of these. This is too complicated for me to go into here, so please have a read of my article and the results which I charted.

If the author of Thomas' parable was remembering Matthew's version, then the only way to know that it is Matthew's version and not some other is to detect a significant amount of Matthean development of the parable in Thomas' version. It becomes difficult at this point to detect exactly what is Matthew's development, since the concept of ONE originating parable cannot exist in an oral-rhetorical culture.

I REALLY caution all of us on this point, because I discovered in another experimental exercise that I didn't publish (yet?) that when you have twenty-five versions of a parable in front of you that all look similar, if you ask how these twenty-five versions came about, you are tempted to try to build a family-tree based on similarities in some versions. But what I'm finding is that people make the same adjustments to versions INDEPENDENTLY of each other, and these adjustments are due to the way in which our memories work, and cultural and linguistic phenomena within a given generation of people. So the twenty-five versions may be all independent versions with no relationship to each other except that all persons were present to hear a version orated (and in fact were in the case of my experimental exercise). I admit being quite shocked about this, and seeing form criticism fail miserably before my very eyes.

But if we examine the Thomasine parable carefully we see that we do not have significant commonalities with Matthean secondary developments (="rationalization" or "idiosyncrisies" as Bartlett would have phrased it). The verses that appear to me to reflect Matthew's theological interests - the dialogue of the enemy in vvs. 27-28 and the accumulated proverb in v. 30 - are not found in Thomas' version. But Thomas' version represents a condensed form of the parable, although it is impossible to conclude that this originating form is a memory of Matthew's version or some other version available to the person who composed Thomas' version (which still, based on studies of oral composition, has the characteristics of an orally-composed text).

SBL Memories 3: Become more scientific

I promised to expand on points 3 and 4 of my last post, which I would like to do today. Mainly I want to respond to the persistent comment that because we can't experiment with ancient people, we can't learn anything valuable and shouldn't bother experimenting or relying on modern psych literature.

Although it is certainly true that we do not have ancient people to use in our experiments, the conclusion that we can't learn anything valuable and shouldn't bother experimenting or relying on psych literature is not a justifiable conclusion. What it amounts to is an excuse to keep us all in the dark about the impact human memory had on the Jesus traditions and how materials were actually composed in a world in which literacy was so low that an oral consciousness even dominated the written word and scribal practices.

Why do we want to be kept in the dark? Because it allows us to conclude whatever we want to from our ancient sources, with no justification beyond that it might sound good to us? This way we can keep the red letter edition of our bibles and we can write assuredly who the historical Jesus was?

But the facts are these. The only way that we have the actual verbatim words of Jesus is if someone followed him around and recorded in writing immediately everything he said with 100% accuracy, and then this document was copied with no errors into other documents. Or if someone with a very good short term memory spoke immediately what he had heard to the next person who also had a very good short term memory and so forth until it was written down with 100% accuracy. Since neither of these processes are likely, we can forget the red letter editions, and we can forget knowing what he said verbatim or who the historical Jesus was beyond the broader strokes.

What about trained discipleship, where Jesus was the teacher teaching his disciples to memorize his words? For those who like this model, it must be kept in mind that such training, if it existed (which I seriously doubt in the case of the Jesus movement since this is nowhere found in our Christian sources) was not about verbatim memory. It was about remembering the central teaching and a few words, and reconstructing from memory the best one could. The ancient people knew that their memories, even trained, were not that accurate. This is why the rabbis had all kinds of magical spells to try to improve their memory of the Torah! Our notion of memorizing is based on our knowledge of literacy, where we have texts that we can read over and over and over again, test our memory of it for accuracy, and keep working on it like this until we get it into our long-term memories. But this is not the way of the ancient world, where most memory work had to be done orally with little to no reference to written words. What one can remember in this type of learning environment is very different from the literate "memorizing" we all think about today.

In order to know how this process worked and how it might have affected the composition of our texts, it is essential in my experience to experiment and to read in cognitive psychology which tells us how human memory operates and affects the transmission process. When we compare the results of this knowledge with what we see in our texts, it is really quite amazing what we can learn about the ancient people processes.

Let me give an example that I mentioned too in the SBL session. Professor Goodacre points out that on several occasions Thomas fails to narrate the middle part of a given parable, making the ending almost unintelligible. He uses the Parable of the Wheat and Tares as a clear example of this. He concludes that this clumsiness comes from Thomas’ familiarity with the Synoptic stories, when he rushes to retell the familiar story, rather like someone who can’t tell a good joke, he rushes ahead to the punchline and leaves out the middle.

What is the evidence that writers who have a literary document in front of them from which they are copying ever leave out the middle because they are rushed? Just based on logic, I would think that literary copying would be otherwise. That the copyist would be more careful to preserve the material he is using, that he is working slowly, that he can stop and go back and double check, and that he can erase and correct. Such is not the case, however, when an author is relying on human memory, when he cannot double check a written source. Even more so for the author who is composing orally, when in fact he really is like a teller of jokes who forgets the middle to rush to the end, and who cannot stop and redo it, or erase what he has just said because he is speaking, not writing, as he composes. But this is just my logic, it is not based on any scientific data.

So what about scientific data? What experiments have been done that might help us? The subject of memory distortion is its own field of study within cognitive psychology, but most studies on errors of commission generally try to explain why memory distorts rather than how it distorts. Although there has been related work done in the field of cognitive psychology on the instability and stability of human memory, the only experiments conducted that might help with the questions we have about literary dependence is the work of McIver and Carroll (JBL 2002, Applied Cognitive Psychology 2004). So I went after a grant and set up my own pilot experimental exercises with the help of Professor Jean Pretz, a cognitive psychologist at Illinois Wesleyan University where I was a professor at that time. I have just published the results in Tom Thatcher’s volume, Jesus, the Voice, and the Text, "Human Memory and the Sayings of Jesus: Contemporary Experimental Exercises in the Transmission of Jesus Traditions," so I refer you to that article for all the supporting data. I want to emphasize that the results are based on only forty-four subjects and my goal was only to run a short pilot – to test the waters and see if my results warranted further experimentation on a larger-scale that would be able to generate more-significant statistical data. Even though these findings should be tested further, the results are in line with the results of other studies conducted by psychologists who study human memory.

One of these relates directly to Professor Goodacre’s example. In my experimental exercises, I asked different groups of students to transmit proverbs, parables, and miracles stories in different media environments. I found that the traditions that relied on human memory for transmission suffered drastic condensation and remodeling, even to the point of becoming nonsense. The psychological experiments of Professor Bartlett in the 1930s proved this as well (Remembering, Cambridge, 1932). Whenever a person was asked to recount from memory a story, and it was written down, the narrative was denuded to an undecorated tale. Bartlett noticed that only the main points were left, the central motifs.

This is not to say that details weren’t added. They were, and when this happened, they usually were features more contemporary or idiosyncratic, representing the view, and as Bartlett called it, the rationalization of the tradent. Even so, moderate expansion was not the norm in any of the memory environments that I studied. But it was the norm for the words to be condensed into something more easy to recall.

Data from my own experimental exercises not only support Bartlett here, but further suggest that the lost of details happens mostly in the middle of the reproductions just as we see in Thomas 57. I might add further that the entire saying displays the characteristics of an orally transmitted parable. It commonalities with Matthew’s version amount to a few memory trigger words like “good seed”, “enemy came,” “pull out the wheat,” “harvest” and “burned.” Although the general message of the parable is maintained across the versions, the details and presentations are strikingly different. Thomas’ version has been abridged over the years of its oral performance to the point that the antecedent “them” has been lost. Matthew’s version has been expanded during its transmission so that it contains secondary features that appear to reflect the theological interests of Matthew, such as the dialogue about the “enemy” in vvs. 27 and 28 and the accumulated proverb in v. 30. Both versions suggest that each author received something older, yet exactly what that older version was is impossible to determine. The reason for this is that in the oral sphere we can have no single originating version from which we can create a family-tree of dependent versions.

Let me know if you want to hear more about this subject. I will gladly post on it. But this particular post is getting too long for a blog.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

SBL Memories 2: Dating our sources

On Saturday afternoon, the new consultation on the Cross and Diversity in early Christianity held a session on dating sources. Mark Goodacre and Simon Gathercole gave key note papers. I responded to Goodacre and Stephen Patterson to Gathercole. The room was packed. People were hanging out the doorways, and people were even sitting behind me when I was speaking at the podium. Conclusion: the room was too small for a discussion that many wanted to be a part of.

My sense was that this was a panel that really brought out how divided the academy is in terms of method and assumptions. It showed me just how much we are in a time of transition, when the older models are being seriously questioned and yet we don't have anything better in place yet. I tried to emphasize three major shifts in the field that I think must be taken very seriously:

1. What are we to do with the extra-canonical materials? My approach is to understand three phases of writing among early Christians. I would place these documents in these phases, which means that there is substantial material to work with in the pre-70 CE period, informing us mostly about Jerusalem and Antiochean Christianity and the conflicts that were taking place. I am still not convinced that the provenance of Q is Galilee. It appears Antiochean to me:
First-level bearers of tradition. Pre-70 CE. The early missions when letter writing was important, as well as instruction manuals and catechisms of Jesus’ words. Here I would place Paul’s letters, the letter of James, the Didache, at least two versions of Quelle, and the early written book of Thomas that I call the Kernel Thomas.

Second-level creators of foundation stories. 70-100 CE. The death of the eyewitnesses and the destruction of the Temple prompted this generation of Christians to rewrite their memories and revise their received traditions. In this period, the synoptic gospels and John, Gospel of the Hebrews, Acts, deutro-Pauline letters, Revelation, P. Egerton 2 (?), Hebrews (?),

Third-level developers of formative theology and ecclesiology. 100-135 CE. This generation of writers was focused on formative theology, ecclesiology and interactions with other communities (whether peaceful or aggressive). 1 Clement, Johannine letters, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, Pastoral Pauline letters, commentaries of Basilides (lost), writings of Valentinus (fragments), Shepherd of Hermas, writings of Marcion (lost), letters of Ignatius and Polycarp, Papias’ books (fragments), Hegesippus (fragments), Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Ebionites, Letter of Barnabas, Gospel of Peter.
2. New developments in textual criticism and scribal practices are demonstrating that the eceletic text we call the critical edition is NOT a first century text, and is NOT what the early Christians wrote or were reading or hearing read. We have created a manuscript of the “Bible” which we treat as if it were a first-century document. The Nestle-Aland edition is not an ancient manuscript. Its committee readings to do represent any manuscript that ever existed in the ancient world. Yet our forefathers worked with this as our received critical text and made all sorts of theories about literary relationships between texts based on comparing Nestle-Aland readings internally and externally to other texts. And this approach continues today without even the slightest pause.

But honestly when we are dealing with issues of literary dependence and basing our conclusions on “same” words here and there, shouldn’t we be more than a little concerned that we don’t have much in terms of manuscripts prior to the third century? And those which we do have vary substantially, even versions of the same text.

This sort of variation is typical of rhetorical societies where scribal practices have developed out of oral consciousness. Add to this that we know the early Christians were quite comfortable altering texts to fit their needs, and complaining loudly about other Christians whom they thought were doing so too.

This suggests that we have two big hurdles: we don’t have the first-century texts, and we don’t have stable texts until relatively late, and some would argue, if ever. So for the future of literary dependence arguments to succeed, scholars are going to have to figure out how to take into account our vast manuscript tradition and what the existence of all these variants actually means in terms of ancient composition and transmission of documents.

3. We need to understand how ancient people actually composed their texts, how they operated within the rhetorical environment. What part does human memory play in this process? I will try to post separately an expansion on this issue.

4. We need to start testing our theories by setting up scientific experiments, or at the very least, reading cognitive psychology literature beyond a few college textbooks. Because human memory is a factor in the transmission of materials in rhetorical environments, it behooves us to know how the human memory works and how its effects might be reflected in the various versions of sayings of Jesus that we find in the literature. I'll try to post a separate post on this as well.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More on the Judas Gem

I wish I had time to address all of your questions, but I have to get the revisions of the Thirteenth Apostle to my publisher by Friday. So briefly:

1. The gem is green jasper, like the Brummer gem that Josè mentioned. The lion-headed god is the same image as found on the Brummer gem, and on many many gems from the ancient world with names of the astral god including IAO, Abrasax, Chnoubis, Michael, etc. On the Judas gem, he holds a medusa-head on display. So the gem is likely a protective or aggressive magic gem. There are two cartouches with identical inscriptions on the front. They appear to me to be palindromes. Within them are hidden anagrams for the names Michael and Elieli, both angels associated with Ialdabaoth in Gnostic traditions. There are also a series of magical characters which represent various stellar and planetary signs. On the back, centered and alone appears the inscription "IOUDAS". The iconography of the god on the front suggests a 1st or 2nd c. date from a Greco-Egyptian workshop. The inscriptions on front and back are made by the same hand, so Judas was not added at a later date by someone else. I imagine that it was either mounted in a ring or in a pendant, although the mount does not survive as far as I know.

2. The Mithras leoncephaline god is another example of this same astral lord that I have been talking about. The best books on the subject are Howard Jackson, The Lion Becomes Man, and David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries. This astral lord goes by many names among the ancient people. Some Gnostics called him Ialdabaoth, Saklas, Samael, Nebruel, Michael, Elieli, and Judas. Other ancient people called him IAO, Chnoubis, Abrasax. We don't know the name of the Mithraic version, although he seems to have been a very fierce and terrifying god. This astral god was feared by the ancient people because he controlled the universe. He ruled it and our fates. He usually has a leonine head or a cock-head, solar rays, and also serpentine form. He is the pole serpent, the one who controls (or is) the axis of the universe. My student Franklin Trammell is making a complete study of the pole serpent now for his dissertation, so perhaps I can encourage him to write a short guest post on the subject.

3. I am so discouraged that the hero Judas has made it into the Sunday school catechisms already. This was one of my main fears, and why I so quickly published my book. The NGS is so influencial. People take the Society's claims as true. This business if very sad to me because the public has been misled, and I see no honest attempt to correct this misperception. The more I study this document, the more evidence amasses that Judas remains a demon. The Gnostics took the canonical gospels at face value - that Satan entered him (John 14:27). Who was Satan in the Christian tradition? He was the "ruler of the world" according to the Gospel of John. It is not such a big leap for the Gnostics to have called this ruler Samael (Satan's alternative name in Judaism) and Ialdabaoth (the magical name for the astral ruler), and to have said that this is the figure that Judas became. This is just ancient logic. Nothing more.

Horner on-line

My student Mike Heyes found a link to Horner's Coptic New Testament on-line. Vols. 1 and 2 aren't scanned yet, but this is great to be able to have internet access to most of the volumes. This set is extremely difficult to find except in select libraries, and it is the only "critical" edition that I know about, although it needs updating desperately to take into account new manuscripts. I am putting a link to this on my sidebar under Internet Resources.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Apocryphote of the Day: 12-1-08

Grant (me) what no angel has seen nor archon heard, and what has not entered the human heart. (Grant me) the angelic which came into existence, and what originally was fashioned by the God of the soul, since I have faith and hope...For yours is the power and the glory and the praise and the greatness forever and ever. Amen. In peace. Christ is holy.

Prayer of Paul A.25-B.10 (Valentinian prayer)

Commentary: I post this prayer in celebration of the first week of advent which reminds us that the Christmas story is about "hope."