Aesop and Jesus

“The Life of Aesop and the Gospels”
by Mario Andreassi
p. 164, Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel

While individually heterogeneous, the analogies so far highlighted show the similarities in narrative structures of the biographies of Aesop and Jesus. However, analogy certainly does not mean textual interdependence, but it does led to the thesis that the authors of the Life of Aesop and the Gospels aimed, where possible, to place the life of the protagonist in a literary and narrative context known to the public and variously attested in the lives of the philosophers and in the Christian aretalogies. Apart from its complex editorial genesis and notwithstanding many severe judgments in the last century, the Aesop Romance belongs within a wider and consciously literary production: it is no paradox to maintain that ‘those who wrote the Gospels were likely influenced by the same literary model that gave rise to the Life of Aesop’.

‘Aesop’, ‘Q’ and ‘Luke’
by Steve Reece

The last chapter of the gospel of Luke includes a story of the risen Christ meeting two of his disciples on their way from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus and chastising them with the poetic expression ὦ ἀνόητοι καὶ βραδεῖς τῇ καρδίᾳ ‘O foolish ones, and slow in heart’ (Luke 24.25). No commentator has ever observed that Jesus’ expression occurs verbatim, in the same iambic trimeter metre, in two poetic versions of animal fables attributed to the famous Greek fabulist Aesop. It is plausible that Luke is here, as at least twice elsewhere in his gospel, tapping into the rich tradition of Aesopic fables and proverbs that were widely known throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century ce.

The Fisherman and his Flute
from Wikipedia

Commentators have seen a likeness to the story, although only in the detail of dancing to the pipe, in Jesus’ parable of the children playing in the market-place who cry to each other, “We piped for you and you would not dance; we wept and wailed and you would not mourn” (Matthew 11.16-17, Luke 7.31-2).[8] There is an echo here too of the criticism of unresponsive behaviour found in Herodotus.

[8] Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-latin Fable 3, Brill 2003, p.20 (“The proverb in the Gospels may be compared with the fable in that it uses the same musical metaphor of dancing accompanied by flute-playing.”)

Aesop’s Fables in the Bible
by Kent West

About five-hundred and fifty years before Yeshua was born, Aesop collected and/or created many fables, one of which was “The Fisherman and His Pipe”:

There was once a fisherman who saw some fish in the sea and played on his pipe, expecting them to come out onto the land. When his hopes proved false, he took a net and used it instead, and in this way he was able to haul in a huge catch of fish. As the fish were all leaping about, the fisherman remarked, ‘I say, enough of your dancing, since you refused to dance when I played my pipe for you before!’

[…] Nearly six hundred years later Yeshua makes reference to this same fable, having probably learned it as a child:

To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance….”
Luke 7:31-32

Aesop as Context for Matthew 7:15-23
by Brandy Vencel

The passage begins with “beware of false prophets.” We must consider the entire passage in light of this introductory phrase. We are given a metaphor, in order to better understand false prophet: they are wolves which get in amongst the sheep by dressing up in sheep skin. {This is a direct reference to Aesop’s The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, but we will come back to that.} […]

What makes me so sure that this is an entire passage is its perfect parallelism with Aesop. It is said that Aesop lived around 500 years before Christ. His fables were so powerful, they were the first principle of the progymnasmata writing and rhetoric curriculum, which we know was formalized as early as 100 BC. Because Aesop was utilized not only to instruct in wisdom, but to teach writing and storytelling, and because almost every student would have had to retell Aesop’s fables, we can safely assume that this idea of a wolf in sheep’s clothing had slipped into the culture and provided a frame for discourse for at least 150 years, if not half a millenia, before Christ said these words.

Please realize that He was taking a universally known cultural story, and applying it those who would hurt His sheep.

Aesop’s tale of The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing has two parts. In the first part, the wolf has trouble getting any sheep to eat because the shepherds are so good at protecting them. The wolf’s problems are solved when he discovers a discarded sheepskin and puts it on. Almost immediately, he manages to snag a sheep for lunch. This is the fist half.

The second half takes an interesting turn. In this half, one of the shepherds decides that he’s in the mood for mutton broth for dinner, and heads out to the flock. He grabs the first sheep he finds…which just happens to be the wolf. The wolf becomes soup, not unlike the fool of Proverbs, who falls into his own pit.

Depending on your version of Aesop, you will have different morals attached {the morals were added much later}. One is: Appearances are deceptive. The other is: The evildoer often comes to harm through his own deceit. {There may be others, of which I am unaware.}

Jesus recasts the wolves as false prophets, and instructs His followers in how to pull the sheepskin off {look at the fruit}.

In the first half, Jesus covers deceptive appearances, and in the second half he covers the harm that comes to the evildoer in the end, as a result of his own choices and actions.

Just like Aesop.

Humor in the Gospels
by Terri Bednarz
pp. 208-209

Whitney Shiner (1998) gives interesting insights on humor when he compares The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark. Both of these works, the argues, were built by editing together various independent narrative episodes. These episodic narratives share common features: 1) their writing style lacks sophistication, 2) they were concise and short, and 3) their main characters persistently outwit antagonists. The main characters tended to be populist tricksters who succeed in unmasking the foibles of the elites, thus making them appear ridiculous. The tricksters target their antagonists with satirical barbs.

Shiner writes that The Life of Aesop advances its plot much more simply than the Gospel of Mark. Aesop merely outwits his antagonists in episode after episode. In hearing the stories of Aesop, one would more likely say, “Not again!” The Gospel of Mark has a more complex plot in which Jesus must repeatedly perform miracles, relate wise dicta, and outwit opponents in order to convince the audience of his ability to get the better of his antagonists. With the Markan Jesus, the hearer would more likely say, “Prove it!” Both the Markan Jesus and Aesop succeed in making their antagonists look foolish.

Shiner details other similarities in the Aesopic and Markan plots. Aesop’s rank and success increase in accord with the mounting hubris that leads to his eventual death at Delphi (Herodotus 2.136). The Markan Jesus also increases in stature, entering Jerusalem as a king (Mark 11:19-11), which also comes at great cost. Like Aesop, Jesus will meet a political death. Shiner notes another similarity: the use of divine causation. For Aesop, there is divine intervention in disputes, in posing and solving riddles, and even in his death. For the Markan Jesus, there is a divine plan that keeps unfolding until it culminates with Jesus’ death.

Shiner examines the ancient practice of intercalation, where an episode is woven into the middle of another episode. He argues that intercalation increases tension in the audience. This technique is found in both the Aesopic and Markan narratives. He gives an example from the Gospel of Mark where Peter stands in the shadows as Jesus is led into council. The audience is led to suspect that Peter follows Jesus in order to watch for an opportunity to express his bravery (Mark 14:53-54). Then Mark inserts the intercalation (14:55-65), which recounts Jesus’ courageous testimony, but then Mark jerks back to Peter where the audience hears Peter’s own bravery melt into a dramatic account of cowardliness (Mark 14:66-72). Shiner then presents an example of Aesopic intercalation. As Aesop cooks his lentil, there is an interruption in which Aesop and Xanthus engage each other in agonistic rhetoric, after which the scene of the cooking of the lentil resumes (Aesop 39, 41).

Shiner stresses that the episodic narratives and the intercalations are designed to keep the audience engaged, but not in the modern sense. Modern audiences anticipate that characters will break from their characterizations, and evolve into more complex figures. Shiner argues that this is not the case with ancient audiences, which expect characters to be static and predictable. For example, Xanthus will always be the butt of Aesop’s witty barbs. For ancient audiences, the episodic narratives do not produce tension by introducing the unexpected but by fulfilling what they anticipate will happen. In other words, the tension builds because the moment of comic recognition is delayed. Aesopic and Markan episodes and their intercalations simply postpone what the ancient audience expects will happen. They know that the antagonists will always receive Jesus’ witty or barbed riposte, or that Peter will stumble yet again, or that Aesop will once more outwit Xanthus.

Whitney Shiner, “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

Shiner (pg. 155) begins her analysis by noting that there are “two distinct ways” that the Gospels have been read. One approach, following the from critics, is to view the Gospels as a conglomeration of self-contained episodes that have been stitched together from oral tradition. The other approach is to view the Gospels as a continuous narrative. Shiner argues, however, that these approaches can be harmonized through an “extended episodic narrative.” As Shiner (pp. 155-156) explains:

“In reading the Gospels as episodic narrative, one must see the narrative as simultaneously episodes and as extended narrative. The extended narrative is built from more or less self-contained blocks. Continuity in the extended narrative is found not so much in the continuity of detail in action and characterization between episodes as in continuity in the overall impact of the episodes. To take an analogy from art, extended episodic narrative is like a mosaic.”

Shiner goes on to note that the Life of Aesop, much like the Gospels, is built around narrative episodes that are largely independent. These independent episodes, however, are organized to advance the plot of the macronarrative. As Shiner (pg. 156) explains:

“This is especially true of the most extensive section of the Life, in which Aesop repeatedly outwits his master, the philosopher Xanthus. Much of the macronarrative structure of Aesop, such as Aesop’s sale to the philosopher, his manumission, and his entering into service to Lycurgus, serve to move the narrative from one type of episode, appropriate to Aesop’s earlier situation, to a different style of episode, appropriate to the new plot situation.”

Shiner (pp. 169-174) identifies eight different narrative strategies shared between the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark that are used to weave episodes into a continuous plot:

  1. Similar episodes are repeated to develop a point […]
  2. Within the plot as a whole discrete sections are created that are, in terms of size and content, amenable to episodic development […]
  3. The discrete sections are ordered to suggest a coherent plot development from one to the other […]
  4. Sustained conflicts between the hero and another person or group are established and episodes are used to illustrate conflict […]
  5. Episodes of various lengths are presented to create variety […]
  6. Narrative within episodes is elaborated to enhance the narrative quality of the whole […]
  7. Discrete episodes are interwoven to extend narrative tension or to provide keys for interpretation […]
  8. Similar episode plots are presented at different places in the narrative to recall earlier episodes and to suggest an underlying unity of theme or plot […]

Through these narrative strategies, therefore, Shiner argues that the episodic structure of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark does not conflict with a continuous narrative. Instead, these strategies are employed to weave continuity within the narrative and a continuous plot.

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

After identifying novelistic biography as the best analogical model for the Gospels, Wills goes on to argue that the anonymous Life of Aesop makes for the best comparison. Wills (pg. 23) explains:

“The tradition of Aesop as a teller of barbed fables … is found as early as the fifth century B.C.E., and the account of his life, which circulated in multiple versions, may derive from narrative traditions that are as old. The extant versions, however, are dated to about the turn of the era, that is, roughly contemporary with the gospels…”

The process of composition described above is very similar to The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, where an anonymous editor compiles multiple earlier accounts into a single episodic narrative (which then circulates with multiple textual variations). As I explain in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” the NT Gospels are also better described as edited volumes, rather than the unique work of a single author, based on how they borrow and redact earlier materials (often verbatim), with the editor of the text remaining anonymous.

Beyond these structural observations, however, Wills also notes a number of thematic similarities between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop. As Wills (pg. 23) explains about the subject of the biography:

“Aesop is introduced in the Life as an ugly and misshapen slave who is in the beginning unable to speak. He is devoted to Isis, however, and after he shows kindness to one of the priestesses, falls into a sleep and is granted by the goddess the power of speech. This gift he uses to the utmost–he never stops talking, but with an acid wit skewers the pretensions of his new owner, a philosopher, and also the owner’s wife and fellow philosophers.”

Aesop is prominent for teaching in fables, a form of fiction quite similar to the parables used by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On this point, it is also worth noting John Dominic Crossan’s recent book on the subject, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. For his teachings, Aesop, like Jesus, runs into problems with the authorities and is executed. As Wills (pp. 23-24) explains:

“Through his cleverness he manages to help both his master and the citizens of Samos, and ultimately attains his freedom. Once free, however, he soon runs foul of the citizens of Delphi, and rebukes them with his sharp-pointed fables. They condemn him to death on a trumped-up charge, and he is executed. When a plague strikes the city, they consult an oracle of Zeus and learn that they must expiate their sin through sacrifice.”

Here, Wills draws a major parallel with the life of Jesus, namely the wrongful execution of the subject, followed by divine vindication. As Wills (pg. 28) argues:

“The relationship of blame, violent reaction, impurity, expiation, and immortality of the hero are drawn close together. Similarities to the expiatory death of Jesus can be seen here, especially if we begin to consider the latter in terms of ambivalent worship with his people, that is, to Jews, Israel, or Jerusalem.”

Wills (pg. 29) also notes that the length of the Life of Aesop is a bit longer than Mark and John, and and about the same length as Matthew and Luke. Wills points out, however, that in terms of structure the Life is more similar to Mark in John, particularly in how the text does not begin with a narrative of the subject’s birth (though Aesop is briefly said to have been born a slave in Amorium of Phrygia, without discussion of the circumstances), or his early growth and development, but is instead focused on his adult life.

 

“The Aesop Tradition”
by Lawrence M. Wills
pp. 223-224, The Historical Jesus in Context

The Aesop tradition is important for the study of the Gospels for two reasons. First, Aesop’s fables can be formally compared to Jesus’ parables. Readers will recognize in some of the fables below individual motifs that re also found in the Gospel parables, as well as the use of ideal scenes that provoke reflection, even if the point to be taken from them is quite different. Second, the Life of Aesop is roughly contemporary with the Gospels and bears some remarkable similarities. These similarities may derive from the fact that the Life and the Gospels both dramatize the life and death of the ostracized hero, told in an age of prose novels and novelistic histories. (Later Christian tradition [Acts of Peter 24; Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 3.1] even adds that Jesus was ugly, based on a reading of Isaiah 53:2.) The Life is about the same length as the Gospels, written in a relatively low style. Like the Gospels, it gives the sense of being a longer text composed of many originally independent episodes. If Jesus in the Gospels is more prophet than sage, and Aesop is more sage than prophet, the difference is minor compared with the overall similarity in structure:

  1. The protagonist has lowly beginnings but experiences a deity’s favor.
  2. The protagonist has a period of ministry with a salvific message.
  3. The protagonist is despised as a result of the message.
  4. Trumped-up charges involving blasphemy of the deity are brought forward.
  5. The protagonist is executed as a result.
  6. A cult of the protagonist is instituted.

Within some of the general similarities, we can perceive even closer parallels in the details. The Life of Aesop begins with a visitation by the goddess Isis and the bestowal of powers on Aesop, not unlike the scene of Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the Gospels with the voice from heaven. At the end of the Life there is a geographic shift from Samos to Delphi, that is, from the periphery to the center of the worship of Apollo, just as there is a shift in the Gospels from the periphery of Galilee to the center at Jerusalem. Finally, at the transition at the end of these texts from ministry to a trial and passion, the process by which this shift occurs is also similar. In both groups of texts, conflicts that are punctuated by the use of a special kind of discourse arise. and this leads directly to the trial and execution of the protagonist […]

In addition, in all three texts the charge of “blasphemy” figures heavily in the conspiracy to execute the protagonist (Life of Aesop 132; Mark 14:64; John 10:33). This is true even though the charges of blasphemy n the three cases are not clearly stated and may be quite different. In Aesop, the protagonist is accused of being a temple robber; in Mark, blasphemy is often discussed by scholars in terms of Jewish law on this subject (Leviticus 24:16), but the charge seems to focus instead on Jesus’ implication that he himself is the coming Son of Man; in John the Jewish authorities tell Jesus that the charge of blasphemy arises because “you are making yourself God.” Blasphemy should thus be seen in its literary context as the “standard” false charge that separates the wise hero from his people. It is also roughly equivalent to the false charge of impiety leveled against Socrates. In Socrates’ case the charges were corrupting the young, neglecting the gods, and introducing new ideas (Plato, Apology).

The difference in tone between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop — urgent and demanding in the case of the Gospels, broadly satirical in the case of the Life of Aesop — can be attributed to the difference in the protagonists’ message. Jesus brings the good news of God’s plan of salvation at the end time, while Aesop the Cynic sage preaches a gospel of liberation from human convention and complacency and an awareness of the true nature of things. (Some scholars would argue that this places the Life of Aesop closer in religious outlook to the sayings source Q or the Gospel of Thomas. If that is the case, then the Life of Aesop is structurally closer to one part of the Gospel tradition, and thematically closer to another.) This overall literary similarity between the Life of Aesop and the Gospels indicates that the genre “gospel’ was not as unique as some have thought, and the particular motifs of the Gospels may owe more to the general background of reverence for philosophers than has been previously acknowledged.

My Flesh Is Meat Indeed
by Meredith J. C. Warren
pp. 54-55

In addition, Berenson Maclean points out the generic compatibility found by other scholars such s Lawrence Wills between the biography of the poet-hero and the Gospel of John in particular. Wills’ study argues that the novelistic pattern of the poet-hero’s life and death, including the poet’s antagonistic relationship with both the city and a deity, makes it appropriate for comparison with John’s structure. Specifically, Wills suggests that The Life of Aesop fits the same pattern as Mark and John; for instance, all three begin at the adulthood of the main character rather than with his birth and all three involve, close to the outset, an experience from heaven. Jesus’ ambivalent relationship with the Temple and oi ioudaioi also make John’s comparison to Life of Aesop appropriate.

Nagy’s work on the hero now becomes very relevant to the discussion: “by losing his identification with a person or group and by identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity.” The expiatory understanding of Jesus’ death is apparent in early Christian works such s 1 Corinthians 15:3, Romans 3:25, 1 Corinthians 5:7, and Mark 10:45. For Wills, this further locates the early Christian understanding of Jesus in the context of the Greco-Roman hero, though he cautions that the paradigm of the hero is more variable than a single genre could contain. Gunnel Ekroth concurs with this point, saying, “a characteristic of heroes and hero cults is their heterogeneity.” Rather, for all three of the texts Wills examines, the paradigm of the hero is narrated in a way that establishes the cult even if not all the elements are present in any given text and with the reservation that there is no single paradigm that encompasses all of early Christianity’s understanding of Jesus’ life and death.

pp. 209-212

Nagy’s treatment of the Aesop tradition is significant for this study of John because in it, Nagy is careful to pint out the feedback loop present in the myth and ritual: Aesop’s death is the cause of the ritual institution he critiques while at the same time, his death in the narrative is caused by his critique. That is, everything is occurring at the level of narrative. It is this relationship that establishes the association of Aesop with Apollo. Thus Life of Aesop, too, reflects the understanding of the relationship between chosen human and god that is recorded in literature from the time of the epics to the turn of the millennium and after. In particular, the complicated cause-and-effect relationship between the antagonism, the ritual, and the divine identification found in Aesop as observed by Wills and Nagy is also found in the Greek romances. As I have illustrated above, this feedback loop of antagonism — sacrifice/cannibalism — divinity is a key manifestation of the type of relationship Nagy finds between heroes and gods in Homer’s epics. Likewise, I argue that this “antagonism in myth, symbiosis in cult” is also found in John.

Further, Wills notices similarities with the ways in which Jesus and Aesop die. In Life of Aesop, the Delphians put him to death in a way that makes him a pharmakos, a scapegoat. The act of putting a person to death is polluting, and the only way for this act to be purified is with the establishment of the hero’s cult. Wills’s outline of Jesus’ death shows the parallels between his sacrifice and the trope of heroic death in the Greco-Roman world. He points out that (likely pre-Pauline) formulas speak of Jesus or Christ as one who has died for the sins of others — in other words, as an expiation. In particular, Wills observes that the oracle uttered unwittingly by Caiaphas in John 11:50 makes a significant point of contact with the heroic death narratives, where frequently the “sacrifice of the hero is demanded or predicted by an oracle.” Caiaphas’s words, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation not perish,” make it clear to the readers (though ironically not to Caiaphas himself) that Jesus’ death is on behalf of the nation and can therefore be seen as expiatory. Jesus’ death at the request of certain factions of oi ioudaioi results in his worship by certain other factions of that same community.

Wills also observes that Jesus’ death in John occurs at the same time as sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Jerusalem temple. As I have observed earlier, John’s Gospel avoids discussion of the expected Christian rituals of baptism and Eucharist and yet maintains a concern for the practice of ritual; Nagy, too, notices this feature in the heroic epics that are the focus of his work, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The fact that John shares his concern for right ritual practice with Homer suggests that the leap from literary death to cultic concern is indigenous. Likewise, John’s location of Jesus’ death at the time of that other, ordinary expiatory sacrifice further establishes Jesus’ death in a sacrificial, and therefore heroic, context. In other words, John’s concern with right ritual practice combined with the manner and timing of Jesus’ expiatory death, as prophesied by Caiaphas, creates an image of Jesus that shares significant points with the hero of the epic and with Aesop. Jesus’ and Aesop’s manners of death are therefore comparable; in this way, Jesus can also be viewed as heroic pharmakos.

Wills also points out that there seems to be striking similarities between Aesop’s characterization and Jesus’: the travelling distributor of pithy wisdom is persecuted and eventually executed as a kin of scapegoat/pharmakos. Clearly much of Jesus’ narrative follows a very similar pattern, especially, Wills observes, if we consider Jesus’ relationship to his own community, oi ioudaioi. It is especially appropriate for the current study that Wills there quotes Nagy:

By losing his identification with a person or group and identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity. . . . In such a hero cult, god and hero are to be institutionalized as the respectively dominant and recessive members of an internal relationship.

This method of establishing such an eternal relationship can also be observed in the romance novels we have been discussing so far. In each case, the protagonists have experienced alienation from their communities. There are some differences worth articulating: whereas in the novels, the great beauty of the heroines gave them away as divine creatures, Aesop’s disfiguring ugliness is remarkable. John Winkler calls this satirical characterization of the main character the trope of the Grotesque Outsiders, one who is more capable of penetrating humanity’s veneer because of his or her marginal status. As such, this characterization marks the novel as satirical, but this, Wills is quick to point out, in no way effaces its usefulness in examining the finer points of the genre as a whole, especially since Leucippeand Cltophon might well fall into the satirical camp itself. The overarching theme of alienation and execution in both Aesop and John also plays out in the romances; Aesop’s satirical ugliness functions has a reversal of the goddesses’ beauty, but further, the trope of the outsider is clearly visible in all the examples. In short, while Wills compares just Aesop and John for his comparison, for the purposes of this project, where consumption is also a factor, it is significant that the romances also follow this narrative pattern in which the protagonists experience exile.

Paul and the Rise of the Slave
by K. Edwin Bryant
pp. 57-58

I also employ The Life of Aesop as a resource for conceptualizing how Paul’s construction of messianic life reclaimed slaves from the deadening violence imposed on conquered peoples. This investigation makes full use of Aesop as a hero who, in grotesque disguise, utters critical truths and contests the legal and political definitions imposed on slaves. Aesop is a common man’s Socrates who “cloaked his wisdom in foolishness.” We suggest that Rom 6:12-23 demonstrates how slaves of Messiah Jesus re reclaimed from the sinful domination of Empire, and subsequently illustrates how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life provides eschatological comfort to the “vanquished.” Paul’s language in Rom 6:12-23 has more in common with the theatrical representations of slavery in the mine, than with the elite philosophical discourses of wisdom. Locating Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus in the language of comedy, jest, and the mime maybe controversial. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was formulated from a grotesque perspective, in response to violence, and to facilitate an upsurge of the human spirit that challenged slaves to rise above the profane and juridical conditions imposed upon them. […]

The life of Aesop provides suggestive parallels between Aesop’s fables and Paul’s characterization of his calling as that of a slave, particularly in the ways that both resisted and contested power relationships. That Aesop is presented as a hero who is ugly, deformed, and disabled contests the Hellenic picture of wisdom and intellect. The Life of Aesop frequently portrays Aesop’s wisdom as disconcerting elite persons and challenging them as subjects. Yet, at times, Aesop is unable to transcend his grotesque appearance. On other occasions, Aesop consciously employs his wit and ingenuity to create anxiety in members of his master’s social class. The Life of Aesop is polemical in that Aesop ruptures the legal and social definitions of the slave as a subject, and annuls the impact of the power imposed upon him. Xanthus’ students marvel as to how Aesop’s intellect is greater than their professor’s. That Aesop constantly brought about a reversal of expectations indicates that the problems associated with his grotesque appearance were intermittent. Nevertheless, it would have been difficult for most slaves to subvert the continuum of power without the help of a construct like Paul’s ethic of messianic life. […]

pp. 65-66

It may be that the grotesqueness of The Life of Aesop, and the positive valuation of the slave as a subject, will infuriate the “modern bourgeois readers.” Such a reading will undoubtedly elicit scandalous remarks and reactions. In contrast to the bourgeois reactions, the staging of Aesop’s many reversals “provide the only defense, and occasional revenge, for those who routinely suffered maltreatment.” Now let us imagine the implications for slaves in Rome, if they too, had an encounter with the divine and awakened to a new way to conceptualize their existence. This analysis does not suggest that Paul’s readers had access to The Life of Aesop, but does highlight the fact that a contemporary non-Christian source portrayed slaves with the capability to transcend power relationships; one can only imagine how Roman slaves could replicate the same conditions by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus through baptism. The Life of Aesop presents a literary source contemporary with Paul that, in a similar way, challenges slaves to subvert how institutions and power structures imposed identity on slaves as subjects. Paul’s theological concept of identity formation subverts how the Empire imposed identity on subjects. Such a reading also asserts that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus resonates with aspects of the slave Aesop’s identity that had been silenced by conquest. The Life of Aesop suggests how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic identity may have facilitated a role reversal that generated the acceptance of one’s new calling as a Slave of Messiah Jesus. On the one hand, this reversal of fortune annuls the negative implications of social cohesion and formation. On the other hand, we suggest that Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life contributed to an upsurge of the human spirit.

Second, the reclamation of identity generated the courage for slaves to resist aspects of the identity that Roman rule imposed on conquered peoples. After receiving his gifts from Isis, Aesop became aware of the maltreatment of slaves and contested how the propertied class exploited the ambiguities of slavery. Aesop was also conscious of how Xanthus attempted to exploit his intellect. In ways similar to the Life of Aesop, Paul’s description of himself as a slave of Messiah Jesus facilitated an awakening of Christian identity. The final episode in The Life of Aesop reveals Aesop’s willingness to be hailed by the deity in order to thwart the attempt of the men of Delphi’s to kill him. Instead, Aesop accomplishes his own fate to prevent dying at the hands of moral slaves. That Paul describes himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus serves as an invitation to auditors who were slaves to realize their calling by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus. We posit that the grotesque perspective generated the grammar required for urban slaves to imagine an existence apart from their legal condition.

p. 76

To contest the ways that dominium ideology facilitated violence required slaves to employ a grammar of resistance that permitted them to subvert the identity that Rome sought to impose on its subjects. Our exploration of The Life of Aesop revealed a representation of a slave who possessed the intellectual prowess to negotiate, and in some ways transcend violence, and subvert how masters understood the legal and political definitions of the slave as subject. Thus, The Life of Aesop provides a helpful resource for appreciating the language of Paul’s letters, at the same time that it illustrates how slaves tried to imagine an existence apart from the identity that Rome imposed upon them. In this context, we may form an impression of how Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was understood by members of urban slave congregations. We propose that Paul crafted Rom 6:12-23 to convince Slaves of Messiah Jesus, who were restricted to conditions similar to modern ghettos, that they might awaken to a new messianic life. Thus, Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus functioned to reclaim slaves from the negative implications of subjectivity and generated a positive valuation of the slave as subject.

p. 200

Turning now to Paul, it is impressive how closely Paul’s requirements for slave participation in messianic identity parallel Aesop’s decision to take his own life rather than allowing the men of Delphi to force a meaningless death upon him. Paul’s exhortation to slaves in the “now” time signals that the only way to “rise” from the profane verdict assigned to slaves involved the willingness to share in the death of Messiah Jesus — only then can one generate a new meaning for life that transcends the imposition of Rome’s demonic rule. Paul’s repeated use of the word vuv (now, present time) in Rom 6:19, 21, and 22 confirms our exegesis of Rom 6:18-20. The process of interpelation awakened slaves to a new messianic consciousness that facilitated an awareness of how humiliation, torture, and violence were employed to reinforce the subjectivity of slaves as subjects. Thus, the positioning of “now” in Rom 6:19-23 announces an end to the domination, humiliation, and torture produced in a context of shame. Paul’s reference to the “now time” of salvation signals that slaves encountered “new ethos that had ethical and theological implications.” Roman Imperial ideology assigned slaves as weapons of wrongdoing: slaves can now participate in community with a “messianic consciousness.” Based on Paul’s use of […], we can say that slaves who participate in messianic community are able to reimagine their existence in positive ways without shame (cf. Rom 1:16).

About Canonizing Acts of Paul

I recently responded to Peter W. Dunn in a post of his about the canonical inclusion of the Acts of Paul.  He is a New Testament scholar and the Acts of Paul is apparently a major interest of his, but I’m not sure if his interest is personal or simply academic.  The post I responded to is a Press Release:

Cambridge-trained scholar calls for Extension of New Testament Canon

In recent months, Dr. Dunn has formulated new theories about the Acts of Paul which have led him to create the Committee. “Initially, I thought the Acts of Paul should be dated to the middle of the second century. But now I am leaning towards a much earlier date around the end of the first century. That is almost 100 years earlier than scholars have heretofore believed,” said Dunn. When asked who was the author of the Acts of Paul, he replied, “Well, Tertullian at the beginning of the third century (ca. 205) reported that it had been written by an Asian (modern Turkey) priest who had to step down from his job. But we have reason to believe that Tertullian may have been misinformed. A good case could be made for Timothy. The Acts of Paul never mention him by name and that is strange. Timothy would have been only about 20 when he met Paul in the 50’s. So that would make him about 70 years old at the end of the first century when the Acts of Paul were written. St. Timothy, according to tradition, became the bishop of Ephesus. This accords well with Tertullian’s claim that it was a presbyter (priest) from Asia.”

The comment I first made:

It’s somewhat arbitrary what was included as canonical. Considering that not everything in the New Testament is from the first century, I’m not sure why that would be a reason to include something. The NT canon was developed based on ideological reasons. There were many Christian texts from the first and second century that weren’t included. For example, Marcion developed the first NT canon and his version of the NT texts weren’t included.

Dunn’s response:

Benjamin: thanks so much for making a comment.

I find it hard to determine your point. Are you arguing for the Acts of Paul as part of the canon or against it? Or are you just simply pointing out that the idea of canon is pointless?

If the dominant form of Christianity that emerged from the second century determined that certain books were canonical and others were not, then it is hardly surprising that such books were chosen on ideological grounds. Why is that a problem?

Finally, your point about Marcion would counter your point that many 1st and 2nd century texts didn’t make it into the canon. Marcion’s canon was restrained to ten Pauline epistles and to an abridged Gospel of Luke, all of which are in the NT canon.

My further explanation of my original point:

The idea of a canon isn’t necessarily pointless.  It all depends on what ideology you use to base the canon on, and our defining purpose must be made very clear.

I’m not in favor of the traditional canon for various reasons.  There is no single ideology that can harmonize all of the texts as the original writers and later redactors had a variety of ideological agendas.  You can find elements of many ideologies in the New Testament.  Also, Catholic doctrine changed over the centuries and so the ideology of the heresiologists isn’t even the same as that of later Catholics.  Even heresiologists disagreed with eachother at times as early Christianity was an endless ideological war.

Harmonization requires ignoring discrepancies and accepting Catholic orthodoxy over the authority of other Christian denominations.  Not all Christians and NT scholars agree that the Catholic church is a valid representative of early Christianity.  The problem is that there never will be agreement.  The closest we can come to a scholarly consensus about what was original would be something like the Jesus Seminar, but there is no end of people who criticize that methodology.

Marcion, the originator of the NT canon, had his own ideology and to the Marcionities it was orthodoxy.  I think his ideology has priority over the ideologies of the heresiologists that came after him.

Also, his ideology makes sense to me in one particular way.  I agree with his exclusion of Jewish scriptures.  I believe Jews have the intellectual rights to their own religious texts.  As I’d prioritize Marcion’s opinions over later heresiologists, I’d prioritize Jewish opinions about Jewish scripture over that of later Christians.

As for the New Testament, the later canon did include what he included, but also included that which he excluded.  Furthermore, of the texts he included, his versions would’ve been different.  Scholars know a fair amount about Marcion’s ideology now and this should be taken into account. 

For example, Robert M. Price attempted to recreate Marcion’s canon and so that is the type of example to follow.  BTW this comes from Price’s Pre-Nicene New Testament.  His methodology is one way to create a canon and seems very fair to me.  He simply included every relevant Christian text and fragment that survived from the centuries prior to the Council of Nicea.  His introduction to this collection is a useful analysis of the issues about what is considered canonical.

Besides being the first canonizers, something important to keep in mind is that so-called heretics were also the first to quote a NT text and the first to write commentaries on an Apolstolic writing.  The first commentators of Paul and John were later considered heretics.  I believe that in considering what is canonical the earliest Christian writers should be given the most focus.  Along with Marcion, I’d include Basilides, Valentinus, Heracleon, and Ptolemy; but others could be included as well.

I further would add that the Nag Hammadi scriptures should be given a place in this discussion.  They represent a major component of early Christianity before the heresiologists took power.  Those texts represent examples of the very evidence that orthodoxy attempted to destroy and so they give insight into what was original to the Christian tradition as opposed to the later ideologies that canonical texts were forced to conform to through redaction and interpolation.

Another factor to consider is dating.  This is tricky business because there are no original surviving texts.  As I understand it, all we have are later copies of copies which have been filtered through several hands of ideology plus simple mistakes and mistranslations.  The dating determines which texts were the earliest and so which were original.  One thing that is clear is that certain canonical texts were based on other canonical texts or else both based on even earlier texts or oral traditions.  If we are canonizing based on the authenticity of the earliest tradition, then we should exclude later texts.

My criticism is based on the reality that there are just too many factors and too many opinions.  The canon was originally created through political power and later military force that suppressed and destroyed all alternatives.  We now live in a different world.  Why not simply have many canons and leave it at that?  If any person wants a particular text included or excluded, all they have to do is find someone to publish their canon which is what Christians have been doing for centuries anyhow.

I guess the question is what is your purpose.  Is your interest merely academic or personal?  If it’s merely academic, most Christians would be uninterested in your attempt to expand the canon.  Your average Christian is contented to accept whatever church authority declares canonical and I doubt church authorities would have much interest in deferring to academic scholars.  If your interest is personal in that you belong to a specific denomination, then that is between you and the authorities of that particular church.

Response to an Apologist about The Jesus Mysteries

An apologist wrote a review about the book The Jesus Mysteries by Freke and Gandy.  I normally try to avoid getting involved in discussions with apologists, but I felt like responding this time for some strange reason.  As always, I don’t actually feel like arguing about any of it.  I just wanted to show that scholarly opinion is not so clear.  I suppose it’s unlikely an apologist would consent to any significant doubt, but hopefully he won’t delete my comment so that readers of his blog may see it and make up their own mind.

http://1peter315.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/jesus-mysteries/

I have this book, but it’s been a few years since I read it.  Even though I enjoy their work, I think there are more scholarly writers out there.

“First of all, they too easily discount the evidence for the historical Jesus.  They gloss over Josephus, Paul and the Gospels, even though if this was for any other historical figure it would be plenty of evidence.”

Many scholars doubt or dismiss the mention of Jesus Christ by Josephus.  You can find those who do accept it, but there is no consensus of its authenticity.  The Wikipedia article about Josephus on Jesus does a fairly good job of showing the complexity of debate.

As for Paul and the Gospels, there are many theories.  It’s an endless debate also without concensus amongst scholars.  However, if you’re looking for more scholarly support for Freke and Gandy, then I’d advise checking out Robert M. Price and Earl Doherty.

“Secondly they artificially blend a number of gods into a composite being that no ancient person would recognize.  They claim that Jesus is a form of Osiris-Dionysus and by that they mean that they can take little bits from a dozen or so unrelated myths and see some similarity with the Gospels. ”

Actually, Osiris-Dionysus was a name of the godman that was syncretized during the Hellenistic period prior to Christianity.  Egyptian religion and Hellenism were very syncretistic, and this combining of attributes and names was very common.  If you want more scholarly support for this, then check out Christ in Egypt by D.M. Murdock.

“Thirdly, they misrepresent the role of Gnosticism.  I think they are right to see Gnosticism as playing a parellel role to the pagan mystery religions, socially if not theologically.  However, they fall into the popular trap of saying that there were numerous Christianities right from the beginning, suggesting that Gnosticism might even have been earliest, with orthodox Christianity only later emerging.”

Yes, this is speculative because so little survived from the first century, but there is support for it.  The earliest commentators on the New Testament were all Gnostics (Basilides being the earliest).  In particular, some of the earliest commentators (Marcion and Valentinus) wrote the first commentaries on the earliest NT texts (Paul). 

“The earliest Christian texts that we have (which are found in the New Testament) are in continuity with what became orthodox Christianity and in opposition to Gnosticism.  To get where they want to be, they have to make some ridiculous claims such as Paul being a Gnostic and many of the New Testament books having a late date, well into the second century.”

There are other scholars that argue that Paul never writes about a historical figure and never gives physical details.  Doherty, in particular, writes extensively about Paul.

There is a logical reason for arguing for a late dating for NT books.  As I understand, the earliest copies come from the second century.  It’s traditional to date them earlier, but there is no hard evidence from the first century.

“They are totally out of touch even with critical scholarship and their claims are far from the evidence.”

They’re not out of touch, but they present just one perspective.  Scholars show a great variety in their conclusions.

Christianity’s Early Development

I’m fascinated by the beginnings of what would later be called Christianity… and how it became something entirely different.  Partly, I’m just curious to peer behind the facade of apologetic historicizing which was created through centuries of social oppression, fear-mongering, and occasional genocide.  Still today, New Testament scholarship is strongly influenced by Christian belief.  Even a mainstream project such as the Jesus Seminar started off with the assumption that Jesus historically existed.  Few Christians (or atheists for that matter) realize how complex and inconclusive most of the evidence is.

A good place to begin with my thoughts is the time period when civilization was first forming.  The earliest city-states developed the basic elements of mythology and theology, ritual and symbolism that would make the groundwork for all later religions.  As any educated person knows, the culture eventually known as Jedaism started off pagan and borrowed much from other pagan cultures.  Monotheism first arose in Egypt and most of the Old Testament stories can be found in cultures such as the Babylonians.  The Jews likely wouldn’t have been much of a culture if they hadn’t been influenced to such an extent.  Their kingdoms wer pretty small which would probably equate to the size of what we now call a village.  The Jewish tribes were constantly fighting and slaughtering eachother They weren’t a unified nation and wouldn’t have been different than all of the other warring tribal cultures.

The Jews were an oral culture for most of their history.   Their oral traditions weren’t fully written down and collected as canonical scripture until around 450 BCE.   At one point, they had destroyed all of their copies of their scriptures during their constant tribal warfare. They had to go to the Alexandrian Library because the only copy left in the world was kept there.  That must’ve been embarassing.  As a side note, Alexandria as the center of learning also eventually became a major center of Judaism with the Jews consisting of around half of the population.  These Alexandrian Jews were Hellenized to the extreme and helped to create many of the foundational ideas of Christianity.

Anyways, this period of Jewish history in the centuries prior to Christianity includes several important factors.  This was after the Babylonian Exile and Jewish culture was coming into its own.  The Jewish Reformation had just happened.  It was a time of great change.  There were many competing Jewish sects and many claims of Messiahs.  The earliest origins of Gnosticism and Christianity can be detected in the centuries prior to the common era: Jewish philosophers, the Qumran community, Neo-Platonism, Mystery religions such as Orphism, Cynics, etc.

To give some context, the era of Jewish Reformation coincided with the Axial Age.  Cultures across the world were experiencing major religious change.  All of the great world religions arose to prominence within the following few centuries.  The later blooming of the Axial Age followed after Rome’s annexation of the land of Israel.  Oddly (or not), Judaism gained great stability by being under Roman rule.  They benefitted greatly from the economic wealth and intellectual diversity of Roman culture.  Despite its imperialism, Rome was much more open to the religions of other cultures than the Jews were themselves.  So, Jewish culture was forced into contact with other religions… in particular the solar mythologies of the Middle East and the savior god-men of the Graeco-Roman culture.  Even Far Eastern religions (such as Hinduism and Buddhism) had found their way into the Roman Empire which might explain why some Gnostic scriptures seem somewhat Buddhist in flavor.

This brings us to the first century of the Common Era, the aftermath of the Alexandrian Age.  Religious cults were forming and mixing.  There was such a confusing mess of ideas that none of them could be fully disentangled.  For instance, commentators of the time couldn’t tell the difference between Cynics and Christians.  In fact, many Cynics became Christians and brought their teachings along with them… or was the Cynic tradition one of the various early forms of Christianity.  The hypothetical Q document that is common to Matthew and Luke has strong similarities to the sayings of the Cynics.  The so-called Christians likewise inherited ideas from Orphism.  Actually, there was no clearly distinguishable religion called Christianity in the first century.  There were many groups with many scriptures.  Part of the confusion is that these groups all used similar terminology.  Certain words (such as Jesus, Christ, Son of Man, and the Word) were all commonly used prior to and during the early formation of Christianity.  Many Jews were using foreign myths and ideas in their midrashic interpretations of the Torah.

Let me get down to specifics.  The earliest known Christian writings are those of Paul and/or the scribes writing in Paul’s name.  The earliest layer of Paul’s writings show elements of both Proto-Gnosticism and Proto-Christianity.  More significantly, Paul never mentions an historical Christ.  This makes sense for the idea of a spiritual savior was a common motif, and many Jews had at this point been initiated in various Mystery religions.  The Jews were oppressed and they’d been waiting a long time for the Messiah-King to arrive.  Some Jews gave up on such worldly hopes and turned to the saving grace of gnosis. 

It’s important to note that the earliest commentators on the “Christian” scriptures were all later deemed to be Gnostics.  Of course, not all supposed Gnostics identified themselves this way as many of them were followers of Christ.  To be honest, Gnosticism and Christianity as later determined by Catholic heresiologists didn’t yet exist.  There were no heretics in early Christianity.  There was no way even to split everyone into two simple categories. 

I’ve never come across information on how the Catholic Church formed.  I’d guess that it started as a loose coalition of diverse churches.  This makes sense when one considers the definition of the term ‘catholic’.  There was no official canon at this point and there was disagreement about the degree to which the Bishop of Rome (not yet titled Pope) had authority over the other Bishops.  It’s hard to know precisely what the common beliefs were, but it’s safe to assume that they involved Paul’s teachings.  Paul was revered by both Christians and Gnostics.

One of Paul’s earliest commentators was Valentinus who had converted to Christianity and was claimed to be in the direct lineage of Paul’s teachings.  In fact, he was a respected member of the Catholic Church who was highly praised by other prominent Christians.  He held a position of authority in the Church and almost became what today would be equivalent to the Pope.  It’s unclear what happened, but he didn’t become Bishop of Rome and left the Church around 154 CE.  He was at some point designated Gnostic, but he originally desired to bridge the growing gap between the Gnostics and Christians.  He saw them both as a part of the same religion: the Inner and Outer Mysteries.  If there ever was a single original Christianity, Valentinus might’ve been one of the last representatives of it.

Sadly, Catholicism was not destined to live up to its own name.  For reasons unknown, the heresiologists gained political power.  Thus begins the tyranny that continued for way too many centuries.  The heresiologists essentially invented the term Gnostic as we now use it.  For them, it was a blanket term meaning that you weren’t a respectable Christian.  Irenaeus was particularly influential and he condemned Valentinus as a heretic.  The method in determining Gnosticism seemed to be any person or tradition, scripture or version of scripture that a Catholic politico happened to personally dislike or for some reason perceived as “threatening”.  Lists of banned scriptures were announced and what quickly followed was the destruction of scriptures once considered holy even by Christians.

Some scriptures such as that of proto-Gnostic Paul and probably Gnostic John couldn’t be banned because they were so popular.  In these cases, they were heavily redacted and harmonized with the more respectable scriptures.  Scriptures now became official documents upholding official dogma.  Once someone was accused of heresy, they couldn’t use scripture to defend themselves.

(By the way, it was sometime in the following century or so that the Nag Hammadi library was buried… probably by Coptic Christians… just to let you know that there were still some moral Christians left in the world.  It’s because of the Nag Hammadi library that we are fortunate to be able to read for ourselves the teachings of such great Gnostic Christians as Valentinus and also to read the alternative versions of the canonical scriptures.)

Overall, the heresiologists helped to consolidate the power of the Catholic Church.  For example, Irenaeus defended the Papacy as founded upon Peter.  Of course, he wouldn’t have had to defend it if it had already been a concensus belief.  As the Pauline tradition was the oldest, some early Christians had originally seen him as the founder of Christianity.  Actually, there were many scriptures claiming many founders that were written in the first couple of centuries.

Let me make an important connection here.  It was because of this oppressive trend that Catholicism was so easily assimilated into the oppressive Roman Empire’s scheme to save it’s declining power.  Catholicism had become the perfect tool for imperialism of the likes the Roman people had never seen before.  My main point here is that the heresiologists had set themselves up for this.  If Catholicism had remained a loose coalition, then there wouldn’t have been a central power that could be easily taken over.  Still, this leads to a more fundamental question: what caused the shift in the latter part of the second century?  Catholicism was open and diverse, and then in a short period of time it was something entirely different.  What undermined Valentinus’ attempt to lessen the conflict between the factions? 

Everything about Jesus Christ was antithetical to what Catholicism became.  Jesus said to give unto Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and so his followers gave the whole damned religion to Caesar… a Pagan Caesar at that.  After the First Council of Nicaea, Constantine went home and murdered his family.  Having taken control of Christianity, he didn’t convert until his deathbed.  He did this so he could continue his bloody reign and then get divine “forgiveness” at the last possible moment.  It just blows my mind.  Couldn’t the Catholics see the irony of it all?

I guess it makes sense when you consider the heresiologists decided to make their claim on the Papacy through Peter.  Let us recall what Peter did after Jesus died.  Oh yeah, he denied him three times.  Thusly, Catholicism was built upon the denial of Christ and the wisdom of Christ was bashed on the Rock of Peter.

Okay, that is enough of ridiculing traditional Christianity for the moment.  I’m just genuinely bewildered about how the decisions of a few heresiologists sets the stage for the entire history of Christianity.  How does Europe go from the intellectual and scientiific burgeoning of the Axial Age to the ignorance and backwardness of the Dark Ages?

Of course, it’s unfair to blame it all on the heresiologists.  Something was shifting in the whole culture. 

Take as an example Augustine.  Like Valentinus who was one of the last great Christians of the early era, Augustine was one of the last great Pagan thinkers during the Decline of Rome.  Why did an intellectual like him convert to a religion that lacked intellectual respectability (compared to his Pagan education)?  Before Augustine, the Catholic Church had no clear theological claims to its own authority besides mentioning Peter.  Augustine lived during a time that included the Roman Empire falling apart beneath the rule of the Roman Catholic Church and along with this Hypatia’s notorious murder by his fellow Christians.  Hypatia was an even greater Pagan thinker than Augustine had been and with her died all that was good about Roman culture.  How could he remain in such a corrupt religion 15 years after Hypatia’s murder?  How could he continue to defend such religious corruption?  Augustine thought the Roman Catholic Church was a bright light in the darkness.  Why couldn’t he see that it was the rot at the core?

At any point, the Dark Ages might’ve been prevented.  Valentinus could’ve become the Bishop of Rome.  The heresiologists and politicos could’ve been run out of the Church.  Paul’s teachings (in un-redacted form)  could’ve created the foundation of a truly spiritual Christianity.  The Church leaders during Constantine’s rule could’ve chosen moral righteousness (even if it meant persecution) rather than assenting to immoral imperialism.  Constantine himself could’ve chosen to embrace Rome’s tradition of religious diversity and openness.  Augustine could’ve devoted himself to trying to save what was remaining of Graeco-Roman culture.  Christians could’ve chosen to not kill Hypatia and instead embrace or at least be tolerant of the Paganism that their own religion was built upon.

It was a slow accumulation of generations of choices made, and at the heart of it all was that moment in time in the middle of the second century.  The future of the Christianity hung in the balance.  We can only imagine what Christianity might’ve become.

Development of Christian Mysticism

Pre-Nicene New Testament by Robert M. Price
p. 335, note about The First Epistle to the Corinthians
“Valentinians were the first to write commentaries on the Pauline letters.  Thus, along with the Marcionites, Valentinians are the earliest Pauline Christians we know of.”

His Alexandrian followers said that Valentinus was a follower of Theudas and that Theudas in turn was a follower of St. Paul of Tarsus. Valentinus said that Theudas imparted to him the secret wisdom that Paul had taught privately to his inner circle, which Paul publicly referred to in connection with his visionary encounter with the risen Christ (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Corinthians 12:2-4; Acts 9:9-10), when he received the secret teaching from him. Such esoteric teachings were becoming downplayed in Rome after the mid-2nd century.

http://www.gnosis.org/valentinus.htm

Tertullian wrote that Valentinus was a candidate for the office of bishop of Rome and that he lost the election by a rather narrow margin. This same failed orthodox church father (Tertullian himself joined the heresy of Montanism) alleges that Valentinus fell into apostasy around 175 A.D. There is much evidence indicating, however, that he was never universally condemned as a heretic in his lifetime and that he was a respected member of the Christian community until his death. He was almost certainly a priest in the mainstream church and may even have been a bishop.

It is certainly a question of some interest what the course of Christian theology might have been had Valentinus been elected to the office of bishop of Rome. His hermeneutic vision combined with his superb sense of the mythical would have probably resulted in a general flowering of the Gnosis within the very fabric of the Church of Rome, and might have created an authoritative paradigm of Gnostic Christianity that could not have been easily exorcised for centuries, if at all.
 
Like many of the greatest Gnostic teachers, Valentinus claimed to have been instructed by a direct disciple of one of Jesus’ apostles, an “apostolic man” by the name of Theodas. Tertullian also stated that Valentinus was personally acquainted with Origen, and one may speculate with some justification that his influence on this orthodox church father was considerable. The overall character of his contribution has been accurately summarized by Mead in the following manner:

The Gnosis in his hands is trying to … embrace everything, even the most dogmatic formulation of the traditions of the Master. The great popular movement and its incomprehensibilities were recognized by Valentinus as an integral part of the mighty outpouring; he laboured to weave all together, external and internal, into one piece, devoted his life to the task, and doubtless only at his death perceived that for that age he was attempting the impossible. None but the very few could ever appreciate the ideal of the man, much less understand it. (Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, p. 297)

Valentinus, the Gnostic who almost became pope, was thus the only man who could have succeeded in gaining a form of permanent positive recognition for the Gnostic approach to the message of Christ.
 
http://www.gnosis.org/library/valentinus/Faith_Knowledge.htm
 
The distinction between faith (pistis) and knowledge (gnosis) is a very important one in Valentinianism. Pistis, the Greek word for faith denotes intellectual and emotional acceptance of a proposition. To the Valentinians, faith is primarily intellectual/emotional in character and consists accepting a body of teaching as true.
 
Knowledge (gnosis) is a somewhat more complex concept. Here is the definition of gnosis given by Elaine Pagels in her book The Gnostic Gospels: “…gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (‘He knows mathematics’) and knowing through observation or experience (‘He knows me’). As the gnostics use the term, we could translate it as ‘insight’, for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself… Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level is to know God; this is the secret of gnosis.”(The Gnostic Gospels, p xviii-xix) Bentley Layton provides a similar definition in The Gnostic Scriptures: “The ancient Greek language could easily differentiate between two kinds of knowledge… One kind is propositional knowing – the knowledge that something is the case (‘I know Athens is in Greece’). Greek has several words for this kind of knowing-for example, eidenai. The other kind of knowing is personal aquaintance with an object, often a person. (‘I know Athens well’; ‘I have known Susan for many years’). In Greek the word for this is gignoskein…The corresponding Greek noun is gnosis. If for example two people have been introduced to one another, each can claim to have gnosis or aquaintance of one another. If one is introduced to God, one has gnosis of God. The ancient gnostics described salvation as a kind of gnosis or aquaintance, and the ultimate object of that aquaintance was nothing less than God” (The Gnostic Scriptures, p 9).
 
Faith corresponds to the intellectual/emotional aspect of religion while gnosis corresponds to the spiritual/experiential aspect. Valentinians linked the distinction between pistis and gnosis to the distinction they made between psyche and pneuma. The psyche (soul) was identified by them with cognitive/emotional aspect of the personality (the ego consciousness). The pneuma (spirit) was identified by them with the intuitive/unconscious level. The pyche was seen as consubstantial with the Demiurge while the pneuma was consubstantial with Sophia (and hence with God). Both the psyche and pneuma were capable of salvation. Psyche was saved through pistis while pneuma was saved through gnosis. Hence they distinguished two levels of salvation: psychic and pneumatic.
 
The psychic level of salvation was characterized by conversion (metanoia) and faith (pistis). This corresponds to receiving oral and written teachings since the psyche “requires perceptible intruction”. (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:6:1). Herakleon describes the psychic level of salvation as “believing from human testimony” (Herakleon Fragment 39). Through pistis and psychic salvation, one attained to the level of the Demiurge. In order to be saved the person had to freely chose to believe and to do good works (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:6:2). The psychic level of salvation was decisive in that it opened the person to the possibility of attaining the pneumatic level. Receiving the Valentinian tradition was only a first step towards the goal of gnosis.
 
The superior pneumatic level of salvation depends on the person having already attained to the psychic level. As the Gospel of Philip says, “No one can receive without faith” (GPhil 61:35-36) Elsewhere in the same work, the author uses an agricultural metaphor to describe this process: “Our earth in which we take root is faith. The water by which we are nourished is hope. The air by which we grow is love. And the light is aquaintance (gnosis), by which we ripen to maturity” (GPhil 79:25-32)
 
At the pneumatic level the person was reborn through spiritual resurrection and directly experienced the divine Truth through gnosis. Herakleon described this as follows: “At first men believe in the Savior because they are lead to that point by men, but when they encounter his word they no longer believe because of human testimony alone, but from the Truth itself” (Herakleon Fragment 39). Through gnosis one could participate in and experience the divine realm. Thats what the Gnostic doctrine of the resurrection refers to: spiritual rebirth through mystical experience (gnosis). One attained gnosis through the grace of God, not by choice. Psychic salvation was by choice while pneumatic salvation was by election.
 
If Elaine Pagels is correct, then the Valentinians believed that those who only attained psychic salvation would ultimately attain pneumatic salvation at the end of the world. After they died, those who had only attained psychic redemption waited with the Demiurge until the end. Then they joined those who had pneumatic redemption for the “wedding feast of all the saved” and they “all become equal and mutually recognize one another” (Excerpts of Theodotus 63:2). Then they entered the Pleroma to be joined to an angel.
 
If this is correct then the only difference between psychic salvation and pneumatic salvation is a matter of timing. One could attain pneumatic salvation now by becoming a Valentinian or wait until the end to attain it. Despite its lower value than gnosis, pistis was decisive for salvation!
 
In orthodox Christianity, pistis is an end in itself. The object of pistis is pistis itself. This easily leads to a rigid dogmatism. Salvation comes to be seen as acceptance of a specific body of dogma to the exclusion of all others. In Valentinianism and other forms of “Gnostic” Christianity, the object of pistis is gnosis. The teachings are seen as a series of metaphors that point to the higher reality of gnosis.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosticism#Monad_.28apophatic_theology.29
 
In many Gnostic systems (and heresiologies), God is known as the Monad, the One, The Absolute, Aion teleos (The Perfect Æon), Bythos (Depth or Profundity, Βυθος), Proarkhe (Before the Beginning, προαρχη), and E Arkhe (The Beginning, η αρχη). God is the high source of the pleroma, the region of light. The various emanations of God are called æons.
 
Within certain variations of Gnosticism, especially those inspired by Monoimus, the Monad was the highest God which created lesser gods, or elements (similar to æons).
 
According to Hippolytus, this view was inspired by the Pythagoreans, who called the first thing that came into existence the Monad, which begat the dyad, which begat the numbers, which begat the point, begetting lines, etc. This was also clarified in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. This teaching being largely Neopythagorean via Numenius as well.
 
This Monad is the spiritual source of everything which emanates the pleroma, and could be contrasted to the dark Demiurge (Yaldabaoth) that controls matter.
 
The Sethian cosmogony as most famously contained in the Apocryphon (‘Secret book’) of John describes an unknown God, very similar to the orthodox apophatic theology, although very different from the orthodox credal teachings that there is one such god who is identified also as creator of heaven and earth. In describing the nature of a creator god associated with Biblical texts, orthodox theologians often attempt to define God through a series of explicit positive statements, themselves universal but in the divine taken to their superlative degrees: he is omniscient, omnipotent and truly benevolent. The Sethian conception of the most hidden transcendent God is, by contrast, defined through negative theology: he is immovable, invisible, intangible, ineffable; commonly, ‘he’ is seen as being hermaphroditic, a potent symbol for being, as it were, ‘all-containing’. In the Apocryphon of John, this god is good in that it bestows goodness. After the apophatic statements, the process of the Divine in action are used to describe the effect of such a god.
 
An apophatic approach to discussing the Divine is found throughout gnosticism, Vedanta, and Platonic and Aristotelian theology as well. It is also found in some Judaic sources.
 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctrines_of_Meister_Eckhart
 
Eckhart’s philosophy, psychology and pneumatology are original and seminal. He distinguished between the psyche and the spiritual element in human beings, as did such early Gnostics as Valentinus. Valentinian spiritual seed can be compared to Eckhart’s fuenklein, scintilla animae, ground of the soul or soul-spark, which he identifies with “Imago Dei” from the Bible. This indestructible and divine element in the human being is for Eckhart (and for the major Christian mystical theology, including the concept of “synteresis” in the Eastern Orthodox tradition) only a potentiality, a latent function that needs to be nourished by virtuous living and spiritual vigilance in order to grow and expand. This differs from perfect Buddha nature in Mahayana Buddhism or Atman in the Hindu Vedanta. The “Imago Dei” is sometimes compared to the fallen Adam, exiled from Paradise, and the new Adam, potentially the final destination of soul-spark if, through classic Christian spiritual stages of purificative, contemplative and illuminative life, it comes to the unitive life where soul-spark is self-transformed into Logos.

“So I say that the aristocrat is one who derives his being, his life, and his happiness from God alone, with God and in God and not at all from his knowledge, perception, or love of God, or any such thing….This much is certain: when a man is happy, happy to the core and root of beatitude, he is no longer conscious of himself or anything else. He is conscious only of God…To be conscious of knowing God is to know about God and self. As I have just been explaining, the agent of the soul which enables one to see is one thing and the agent by which one knows that he sees is another. [2]

Here Eckhart foreshadows the phenomenological understanding (i.e. Merleau-Ponty) that our lived world is lived in a pre-reflective manner (what Husserl called the “natural attitude”). And this pre-reflective or implicit understanding is different from the “knowing” which is reflective understanding. For Eckhart, these two modes of engagement with the world are mutually exclusive.[2]

http://books.google.com/books?id=SIa0mNas_5MC 

p. 37: Of all the proposed “foreign” influences upon early Christianity and monasticism, it is perhaps gnosticism which has the strongest case.

http://www.enlightened-spirituality.org/Christianity.html
 
This was a Christianized version of the asceticism that had been developed by the Jewish sects of the Essenes in Palestine and the Therapeutae in Egypt. Pachomius pioneered Christian communal cenobitic monastic living, and, within a very short time the intensely ascetic, renunciate form of desert Christianity burgeoned, so much so that it was estimated that more people were living out in the monasteries than in the cities. It should also be known that the Desert Fathers of Christianity were, as Palladius observed, outnumbered by their female colleagues, the Desert Mothers, by a factor of two-to-one: 20,000 females, he estimated, lived in the monasteries and hermitages of the desert regions, compared to 10,000 males. (Along this line, we do well to know that women abbesses, evidently with virtual episcopal power, flourished in certain circles of Christianity until late Renaissance times; moreover, there is evidence of women bishops and priests from a very early period of Christianity, who hosted the churches and celebrated the Eucharistic sacrament.)
 
Monastic Christianity was developed further by such leading lights in the East as Gregory of Nyssa (330-95), his brother Basil (330-79) and their sister, Macrina the Younger (actual founder of Eastern monasticism), and, in the West, Martin of Tours (315-97; bishop, missionary, wonderworker, and father of monasticism in France), John Cassian (360-435), and Benedict of Nursia (480-547; the moderate, mystical father of monasticism in Italy).
 
The monasteries yielded some of the finest fruit of Christendom. Benedictine abbeys became the grand centers for learning and culture during Europe’s Dark Ages. Many saintly abbots/abbesses headed these institutions over the centuries. Most significant was the Cistercian reform led by Bernard (1090-1153), et al. (Bernard also was the main promoter of the cult of Mother Mary in the West).
 
A strong tradition of via negativa or apophatic mysticism, realizing God/Spirit prior to all images, forms and concepts, took off with pseudo-Dionysius (Denys) Areopagite, an unknown monk (likely Syrian) who, circa 500 CE, wrote seminal works of mystical theology and transcendental metaphysics synthesizing Christianity and Neoplatonism (Plotinus, Proclus, et al.) (see Dionysius’ Divine Names, Mystical Theology, and epistles; he also wrote some via positiva works: Celestial Hierarchy, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy). The next great proponent of mysticism—combining the apophatic via negativa with a very positive sense of the final “cloud-like,” “sightless” beatitude in/as the Divine was John Scotus Eriugena (c.800-c.877), “the greatest Christian mind of the early middle ages,” a towering theologian long neglected by most of Christianity. Retrieving the best ideas of the Greek Fathers, Eriugena gave European Christianity a profoundly nondual and quite rich theology of panentheism (no mere pantheism or limited theism) and the beautiful emphasis on apocatastasis, or, as Eriugena terms it, the reditus or return of all beings into/as God—even though this profound theology was appreciated by only a few great Christian mystics of the middle ages, like Meister Eckhart.
 
http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/E332.html
 
Eckhart’s importance rests, however, on his German works, for it was his striving to impart “the innermost and truest truth” not as the privilege of an exclusive circle, but for all the people. It was especially in “simple piety” but that he felt himself understood, and so, as Windelband says, he “transposed the most delicate formulations of concepts into a German form with linguistic forcefulness of a genius.” Thereby Eckhart burst the narrow bonds of medieval scholasticism and through his stress on the new birth he becomes the forerunner of a new understanding of Christianity. Not only Luther and the other reformers profited from it, but also the extra-church circles, especially the Anabaptists.
 
Eckhart became the representative of a specifically German theology, the head and center of a numerous circle of disciples, and as Ludwig Keller (p. 163) correctly says, the “originator of impulses, from which all the parties that in later centuries grew out of the Waldenses, have been more or less touched.”
 
It is very probable that Hubmaier, Haetzer, and especially Hans Denck, at least indirectly, were strongly influenced by Eckhart and German mysticism in general. This is seen in their doctrine of the freedom of the will, in their slight interest in the dogma of the Trinity, and, especially in the case of Denck, in his teaching on regeneration. There is a conspicuous relationship between Eckhart and Denck in style of writing and the entire complex of ideas. Where Eckhart speaks of “the impoverishment of the creature” and of “poverty of the soul” as a condition for entry into God, Denck uses very similar expressions when he says that we “must therefore become so spiritually poor that we feel we must of ourselves perish.” Similarity is again seen in the expressions with which on the one hand Eckhart describes the divine birth in the depths of the soul and on the other hand Denck describes the new birth of the elect of God.
 
But however related in language, style, and manner of expression, Eckhart and Denck may be, their agreement is of a merely formal nature. Factually there are very deep differences. In Eckhart the concept of God is philosophically abstract and mixed with pantheistic mysticism; in Denck it is real and concrete. In Eckhart Christ appears essentially only as the Logos, and, in so far as he reflects on the Incarnation at all, it is only as an example (Loofs, 629); in Denck Christ is the “Lord and Prince” of salvation. In Eckhart the new birth is an act of deification, almost in a Neo-Platonic ascetic sense; in Denck the new birth is preceded by a moral collapse, a “sitting in the abyss of hell”; it is the needle’s eye “through which immense camels must slip and yet cannot do it,” until God helps them, and the eye of the needle becomes for them a narrow door to life. In Eckhart moral obligations of a practical nature retreat quietistically; in Denck they are developed into full activity in the service of God for the world. In Eckhart, all is in its essence asceticism, ecstasy, mysticism; in Denck it becomes discipleship of Christ and a listening to the revelation of God in Christ, which finds its resolution in the ”inner word,” which, to be sure, has a counterpart in Eckhart’s “divine spark.”

The effects of Eckhart’s mysticism are later to be found in Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), G. W. Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), and Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Also in Gerhard Tersteegen’s (1697-1769) hymns there are echoes of Eckhart, without, however, the danger of falling prey to pantheism, which is inherent in Eckhart’s system.

In locating the authority within the individual rather than church, the mystics attempted to loose themselves from ecclesiastical power.  The seat of authority was in the individual, rather than church hierarchy.  For medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler, salvation was “the discovery of the final power and authority of the Self within one’s own self.”

Ontological union of divinity and humanity is key to the mystical understanding of revelation.  It is impossible for humanity to know the Deity without sharing the same being.  Eckart remarked, “As the masters say, to be and to have knowledge of are one and the same thing.”  For the human to know the divine being in a saving way, implied humanity on the part of the Deity and Deity on the part of humanity. 

The mystics assert that his divinity is present in humans, after the Fall, in the form of an inner spark.  It is through this remaining spark of divinity that humans are able to receive direct revelation from God.  The Anabaptists, building on the foundation laid by the mystics, believed that this divine spark also gave them inspired understanding of the written Word.  Their ontology opened the door to their epistemology.  Hans Denck, close friend of Han’s Hut, clarified:

As I now progress at the hand of the inner and outer Word, I reach the understanding that the inner voice in me is a spark of the divine spirit.  But this divine spark is darkened in many hearts.  Only he can understand the Scriptures correctly who is himself illuminated by the light of the divine Spirit.

The external divine being speaks through the divine spark within a person and provides either new revelation or illumination of the Bible. 

Hut believed that humans receive more than just a divine spark.  He stated that the divine Word, himself, must become incarnate within the individual:

The Word must be received in him with a true heart through the Holy Spirit and become flesh in us.  That happens through great terror and trembling as with Mary when she heard the will of God from the angel.  The Word must be born in us too.  That can happen only through pain, poverty, and distress inside and out, etc.  And where the Word has been born and become flesh in us so that we praise God for such a favour, our heart has found peace and we become Christ’s mothers, brother, and sister.