Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Gnostic Easter

The Gnostic view of the resurrection, as we might expect, differs markedly from the orthodox position. The Nicene Creed states that Jesus ‘suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again’. This resurrection is bodily, which will one day be experienced by all, as the Creed states ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead’. The Gnostic text known as the Treatise on the Resurrection, however, regards the Resurrection as something that is not physical at all, something ‘which is better than the flesh’. As with Paul’s interpretation of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, which was written to offer the only true understanding of it, so the Nag Hammadi Treatise was likewise written to a Gnostic who did not know what to believe. The anonymous author tells his recipient, a man named Rheginos, that the resurrection is a necessary experience for the Gnostic believer to undergo, but it is a raising from the death of ordinary consciousness to the life of gnosis:

"What, then, is the resurrection?... It is the truth which stands firm. It is the revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into newness."

The Gospel of Philip is quite explicit about what the resurrection actually is:

"Those who say that the Lord died first and then rose up are in error, for he rose up first and then died. If one does not first attain the resurrection he will not die."

The idea is reiterated later in the gospel, making it clear that the resurrection happens before death, not after it:

"Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error. If they do not first receive the resurrection while they live, when they die they will receive nothing."

from The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The (un-)Harrowing of Hell

The idea of a fleshy Jesus being crucified while the real Jesus laughs would be more than enough to have the Church Fathers reaching for their smelling salts; it completely subverts orthodox doctrine. Subversion, however, was not the Gnostic intention. Rather, they held that the crucifixion – like the rest of Jesus’ ministry and teaching – can only really be understood through paradox, poetry and startling images. The concept of the laughing Jesus is perhaps best understood this way.

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy point out that, while the world is full of beauty, it is also full of suffering and death. The way to free oneself is through gnosis (which they term ‘lucid living’), which in turn enables one to both rise above suffering and empathise with those who are experiencing it: '…when we live lucidly we find ourselves loving all and suffering willingly with all. This is the state of gnosis symbolised by the sublime figure of the laughing Jesus.'

from The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics


Friday, April 18, 2014

A Gnostic Good Friday

Following the Round Dance comes a section [in the Acts of John] known as the Revelation of the Mystery of the Cross.When Jesus is crucified, the disciples ‘fled all ways’, with John hiding in a cave on the Mount of Olives.While he is there, Jesus appears to him and shows him a cross made of light around which a multitude stands. The cross is the Word which unites all things and only when people hearken to it will all the light particles scattered within humanity be gathered back together again and be taken up. Jesus also tells John that he is not ‘he who is upon the cross’ at Calvary, reflecting the common Gnostic belief that Jesus was a divine being, not a human one.

Furthermore, Jesus informs John that:

‘You hear that I suffered, yet I suffered not; that I suffered not, yet I did suffer; that I was pierced, yet I was not wounded; hanged, and I was not hanged, that blood flowed from me, yet it did not flow.’

The Nag Hammadi Apocalypse of Peter takes the image of a Christ who does not suffer during the crucifixion one stage further, portraying Jesus as ‘glad and laughing on the tree’. Jesus explains to Peter that:

‘He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him, and look at me.'

from The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Dancing

The Acts of John, a Greek version of which was discovered at
Oxyrhynchus in the 1890s, could have been composed some time
in the second century,with some traditions holding that the Gnostic
chronicler Leucius Charinus was its author, although this attribution
isn’t certain. Leucius was said to have been a young disciple of
the aged St John, from whom he received secret teachings and
stories about Jesus. The Acts of John is an account of the activities
of the apostle in Asia Minor some time after the crucifixion, its most
celebrated passage being the so-called ‘Round Dance of the Cross’.
This scene takes the form of a sermon delivered by John to a crowd
of people, probably in Ephesus, where much of the Acts of John
takes place. John recounts the events of the night before Jesus was
arrested. In canonical accounts, Jesus prays in the Garden of
Gethsemane, but in the Acts of John, he instead commands them
to dance and respond with an ‘Amen’ to his praises to God:

He then began to sing a hymn, and to say:
‘Glory be to you, Father!’
And we circling him said, ‘Amen’
‘Glory be to you,Word! Glory be to you, Grace!’
‘Amen’ […]
We praise you, O Father.We give thanks to you, light, in whom
darkness does not abide.’

As the disciples continue to respond to Jesus, he begins to dance and
instructs them to do the same:

‘The whole universe takes part in the dancing.’
‘He who does not dance, does not know what is being done.’

Jesus’ hymn now becomes a series of paradoxes, stating that he will
flee and stay, adorn and be adorned, unite and be united.The hymn
ends with some beautiful mystical statements:

‘I am a lamp to you who see me.’
‘I am a mirror to you who perceive.’
‘I am a door to you who knock on me.’
‘I am a way to you, wayfarer.’

Jesus then encourages the disciples to understand the dance by
seeing him within themselves, which echoes the Gospel of Philip’s
statement that those who have achieved gnosis are ‘no longer a
Christian, but Christ,’ and also the Gospel of Thomas, in which
Jesus declares:

‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me.
I myself shall become that person,
and the hidden things will be revealed to that one.'

The similarity with the mystery schools is made explicit in the very
next line, in which Jesus enjoins the disciples to ‘keep silence about
my mysteries!’ Jesus explains that, through the mystery of the
suffering that he is about to undergo, the disciples will have the
chance to become moved and, in doing so, will be ‘moved to become
wise…Learn suffering and you shall have the power not to suffer.’

from The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Appearance at Edinburgh International Science Festival

I'm appearing at the Edinburgh International Science Festival today. A description of the proceedings:

Who is best placed to write about science for the general public – scientists, who know what they’re talking about; or writers, who know how to express ideas clearly and readably? Our panel of distinguished authors have written books about botany, chemistry, alchemy and scientific history and biography. Join them for a conversation about knowing and communicating. Are they scientists, or writers, or both? Hosted by Stranger Than Fiction, Edinburgh’s only organisation devoted to writers of non-fiction.

And from Stranger Than Fiction's website, written by STF kingpin Colin Salter:

Stranger Than Fiction‘s public debut is only three weeks away now. As already announced, we are hosting a discussion about science writing at the EISF this year, appropriately in the Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre. The event, “Who Should Write about Science?”, is at 5.30pm on Tuesday 15th April 2014. The panel consists of:

Sean Martin, whose proposal for his current project A Short History of Disease we discussed at STF a few months ago

James McCarthy, whose piece on botanical fieldwork you may remember from STF in January

Barbara Melville, writer in residence at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine

Mhairi Stewart, a molecular parasitologist and expert in public engagement with science.

For my sins I’ll be in the chair trying to keep track of the conversation. I hope you can come along, enjoy the debate and join in the Q&A session at the end.

More info, tickets, etc, here:

You can find out more about Stranger Than Fiction here.

As Colin mentioned, I am working on a book entitled A Short History of Disease (a vague sequel to my earlier The Black Death). This should be out this time next year - stayed tuned for more details. So most of my contribution today will be relating to matters medical.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mediaeval Ghosts in Edinburgh

I'll be giving a paper on mediaeval ghost stories this Saturday in Edinburgh. Details are:

Traditional Cosmology Society Day Conference
Saturday, 12 April
School of Scottish Studies
27 George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LD
Day conference on ‘Ghosts’ from 10 am to 5 pm.
Conference fee for TCS members £1; others £2.
Students free.
Opening speaker: Professor Mirjam Mencej, Royal Society of Edinburgh Exchange Fellow from Slovenia. The Annual General Meeting of the Traditional Cosmology Society will take place at 12.30 pm.

9.30 -10.20 Mirjam Mencej "The Rise, Spread and Decline of Ghost Stories Attached to the Building of the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Ljubljana"
10.20-10.50 Mariah Hudec "The Trial of Margaret Lang: Fairies and the Dead in Early Modern Scotland".
11.10-12 Joy Fraser  " 'Locked in a graveyard at night with an active poltergeist': Legend, Performance and Belief on the City of the Dead Ghost Tour, Edinburgh"
12-12.30 Lewis Hurst “Punch Lines in Ghost Stories and Jokes: A Common Mechanism”
12.30 AGM of the Traditional Cosmology Society
2-2.50 Willem  de Blécourt “Enacting  Ghosts, or: How to Make the Invisible Visible”
2.50-3.20 Martha McGill  “The Laird of Coul’s Ghost: An Eighteenth-century Scottish Story”
3.40-4.10 Sean Martin “The Walking Dead: Supernatural Encounters in Mediaeval England”
4.10-5 Lynn Holden “Ghosts in Love”

5-6 Reception
All welcome.