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The Myth of a Descending/Ascending redeemer

The Myth of a Descending/Ascending redeemer

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Published by Zavier Mainyu
In spite of its popularity, the contention that the Christian conception of Jesus as a descending-ascending saviour figure was derived from the gnostic redeemer myth faces serious problems.

Three are widely noted; another needs attention. (I) The sources from which our knowledge of the gnostic myth comes are late: e.g. the Naassene hymn, the hymn of the Pearl, the Mandean materials, the Manichean evidence, the accounts in the church fathers, and the Nag Hammadi documents. Sources from Chenoboskion like the Paraphrase of Shem, the Apocalypse of Adam, and the Second Logos of the Great Seth do contain a myth of a redeemer that is only superficially christianized. Hence the gnostics may not have derived their myth from Christians. It does not follow, however, either that Christians got it from gnostics or that it is pre-Christian. (2) A redeemer myth is not essential to gnosticism. Though gnosticism may contain a redeemer myth (e.g. the Naassene hymn), it may exist without one. In Carpocrates' system, for example, Jesus' soul remembered what it had seen in its circuit with the unbegotten God. The Ophites in Origen's Against Celsus know of no descending-ascending redeemer. They look to an earthly being who fetches gnosis from heaven. In Poimandres, the writer is the recipient of a vision in rapture. He then teaches the way of salvation.

Indeed, the proto-gnosticism of Paul's opponents in I Corinthians apparently did not contain a redeemer myth. Such evidence demands that a distinction be drawn between two issues: (a) whether or not there was a pre-Christian gnosticism, and (b) whether or not there was a pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth. Since a redeemer myth is not constitutive for gnosticism, the existence of a pre-Christian gnosis is no guarantee for the presence of a gnostic redeemer myth. (3) In the Christian sources where the gnostic myth has been assumed to be influential (e.g. the Fourth Gospel), there is no ontological identity between Christ and the believers as in gnosticism. There is, in the Christian writings, no pre-existence of the soul or redeemed redeemer. Given these difficulties, why the attractiveness of the gnostic hypothesis?
In spite of its popularity, the contention that the Christian conception of Jesus as a descending-ascending saviour figure was derived from the gnostic redeemer myth faces serious problems.

Three are widely noted; another needs attention. (I) The sources from which our knowledge of the gnostic myth comes are late: e.g. the Naassene hymn, the hymn of the Pearl, the Mandean materials, the Manichean evidence, the accounts in the church fathers, and the Nag Hammadi documents. Sources from Chenoboskion like the Paraphrase of Shem, the Apocalypse of Adam, and the Second Logos of the Great Seth do contain a myth of a redeemer that is only superficially christianized. Hence the gnostics may not have derived their myth from Christians. It does not follow, however, either that Christians got it from gnostics or that it is pre-Christian. (2) A redeemer myth is not essential to gnosticism. Though gnosticism may contain a redeemer myth (e.g. the Naassene hymn), it may exist without one. In Carpocrates' system, for example, Jesus' soul remembered what it had seen in its circuit with the unbegotten God. The Ophites in Origen's Against Celsus know of no descending-ascending redeemer. They look to an earthly being who fetches gnosis from heaven. In Poimandres, the writer is the recipient of a vision in rapture. He then teaches the way of salvation.

Indeed, the proto-gnosticism of Paul's opponents in I Corinthians apparently did not contain a redeemer myth. Such evidence demands that a distinction be drawn between two issues: (a) whether or not there was a pre-Christian gnosticism, and (b) whether or not there was a pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth. Since a redeemer myth is not constitutive for gnosticism, the existence of a pre-Christian gnosis is no guarantee for the presence of a gnostic redeemer myth. (3) In the Christian sources where the gnostic myth has been assumed to be influential (e.g. the Fourth Gospel), there is no ontological identity between Christ and the believers as in gnosticism. There is, in the Christian writings, no pre-existence of the soul or redeemed redeemer. Given these difficulties, why the attractiveness of the gnostic hypothesis?

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Published by: Zavier Mainyu on Aug 01, 2014
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The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity
Charles H. Talbert
New Testament Studies / Volume 22 / Issue 04 / July 1976, pp 418 - 440DOI: 10.1017/S0028688500010109, Published online: 05 February 2009
Link to this article:
http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0028688500010109
How to cite this article:
Charles H. Talbert (1976). The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity. New Testament Studies, 22, pp 418-440 doi:10.1017/S0028688500010109
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Mew
 Test.
 Stud,
 aa, pp. 418-439
CHARLES H. TALBERT
THE MYTH OF ADESCENDING-ASCENDING REDEEMERIN MEDITERRANEAN ANTIQUITY
In spite of its popularity, the contention that the Christian conception ofJesus as a descending-ascending saviour figure was derived from the gnosticredeemer myth faces serious problems.
1
 Three are widely noted; anotherneeds attention. (1) The sources from which our knowledge of the gnosticmyth comes are late
 :
2
 e.g. the Naassene hymn, the hymn of the Pearl, theMandean materials, the Manichean evidence, the accounts in the churchfathers, and the Nag Hammadi documents. Sources from Chenoboskion likethe Paraphrase of Shem,
3
 the Apocalypse of Adam,
4
 and the Second Logosof the Great Seth
5
 do contain a myth of a redeemer that is only superficiallychristianized. Hence the gnostics may not have derived their myth fromChristians. It does not follow, however, either that Christians got it fromgnostics or that it is pre-Christian.
6
 (2) A redeemer myth is not essential tognosticism.
7
 Though gnosticism may contain a redeemer myth (e.g. theNaassene hymn), it may exist without one. In Carpocrates' system, forexample, Jesus' soul remembered what it had seen in its circuit with theunbegotten God.
8
 The Ophites in Origen's
 Against Celsus
 know of nodescending-ascending redeemer. They look to an earthly being who fetchesgnosis from heaven.
9
 In
 Poimandres,
 the writer is the recipient of a vision inrapture. He then teaches the way of salvation. Indeed, the proto-gnosticismof Paul's opponents in I Corinthians apparently did not contain a redeemer
1
 The view is closely connected with the name of Rudolf Bultmann,
 Das Evangelium des Johannes
(16th ed. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck
 &
 Ruprecht,
 1959), pp.
 8-g,
 also
 p.
 8 n. 9;
 R.G.G.,
 3rd ed. in, 847;
Theology
 of
 the Mew Testament
 (New York: Scribner's, 1955),
 11,
 6,
 12-13,
 66.
a
 Attempts to find a gnostic anthropos figure in Philo have failed. Cf. A. J. M. Wedderburn,'Philo's heavenly man ',
 Nov.T.
 xv (1973), 301-26.
8
 Frederik Wisse, 'The Redeemer figure in the Paraphrase of Shem',
 Nov.T.
 xir (1970), 130-40.
4
 George W. MacRae, 'The Coptic Gnostic Apocalypse of Adam',
 Hey.J.
 vi (1965), 27-35;J. M. Robinson, 'The Coptic Gnostic Library Today',
 N.T.S.
 xn (1968), 377.
6
 J. A. Gibbons, 'A Commentary on the Second Logos of the Great Seth', Ph.D. Dissertation,
Yale,
 1972.
6
 One can agree with J. M. Robinson, 'World in Modern Theology and in New TestamentTheology', in
 Soli Deo Gloria
 (ed.
 J. McD. Richards; Richmond: John Knox, 1968), p. 104, that thegnostic redeemer myth is not in origin a perversion of christology. It does not follow, however, thatchristology is thereby an appropriation of the gnostic myth.
7
 W. Schmithals,
 The
 Office
 of
 Apostle
 in
 the Early Church
 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1969), p. 116;A. Grillmeier,
 Christ
 in
 Christian Tradition
 (London: Mowbray, 1965), p. 98. In addition to thegroups mentioned in the text, Grillmeier refers to the Nicolaitans, the Archontics, and the Antitactae.
8
 Irenaeus,
 Against
 Heresies,
 1. 25. 1-6.
 Against Celsus,
 7. 8-9.
 
Downloaded: 03 Feb 2013IP address: 134.219.227.29
THE DESCENDING-ASCENDING REDEEMER 419
myth.
1
 Such evidence demands that
 a
 distinction
 be
 drawn between two
issues:
 (a)
 whether or not there was a pre-Christian
 gnosticism,
 and
 (b)
 whetheror not there was
 a
 pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth. Since
 a
 redeemermyth is not constitutive for gnosticism, the existence of a pre-Christian gnosisis
 no
 guarantee
 for
 the presence
 of a
 gnostic redeemer myth.
2
 (3) In the
Christian sources where the gnostic myth has been assumed to be influential
(e.g.
 the Fourth Gospel), there is no ontological identity between Christ andthe believers
 as in
 gnosticism. There is,
 in
 the Christian writings,
 no
 pre-existence of the soul or redeemed redeemer.
3
 Given these difficulties, why theattractiveness of the gnostic hypothesis?The pattern of descent-ascent in the gnostic redeemer myth ' has been andremains
 the
 strongest support
 for the
 hypothesis' that early Christianchristology is connected with gnostic mythology.* (4) Generally overlooked isthe fact that myths of descending-ascending redeemers are found elsewherein
 the
 Mediterranean world prior
 to and
 parallel with
 the
 origins
 of
Christianity.
 If
 so, then
 the
 strongest support
 for the
 gnostic hypothesiscollapses and the question deserves re-examination.The existence of the Greco-Roman mythology is not as well known to NTscholars as that of gnosticism but is instructive none the less. For example, inhis
 Metamorphoses
 (7
 C.E.)
 Ovid tells of the visit of Jupiter and Mercury in theguise of mortals, seeking
 a
 place for rest, but finding
 it
 only
 in
 the humblehome
 of
 old Baucis
 and
 Philemon.
 The
 gods save
 the
 couple from
 the
destruction
 of
 the neighbourhood by water and grant them not only theirprayer that they would
 not be
 separated
 by
 death
 but
 also
 a
 type
 of
 im-mortality by changing them into intertwining trees near the gods' temple.
5
Acts xiv. 8-18 shows that this myth of descending-ascending gods was knownto Christians
 in
 the first century. Tacitus,
 in
 his
 Histories
 (published
 in
 thereign
 of
 Trajan, 98-117
 C.E.),
 tells
 of
 the origin
 of
 the Serapis cult
 in
Ptolemaic times. A young man of more than human size appeared to Soterand instructed him
 to
 send
 to
 Pontus and fetch his statue. The god told
1
 W. Schmithals,
 Gnosticism in Corinth
 (Nashville: Abingdon,
 1971),
 pp.
 138-41,
 seems to have thebetter of the argument against U. Wilckens,
 Weisheit und Torheit
 (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1959).
* Carsten
 Colpe,
 Die
 religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Darstellung
 und Kritik
 ihres
 Bildes
 vom gnostischen
Erlosermythus
 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961); 'New Testament and Gnostic Christo-logy',
 in
 Religions
 in
 Antiquity
 (ed. J. Neusner; Leiden: Brill, 1968), pp. 227-42; H. M. Schenke,
Der Gott
 Mensch
in der Gnosis
 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck
 
Ruprecht, 1962). Since J. M. Robinson'snegative review
 of
 Colpe's book
 {J.B.L.
 LXXXI
 [1962], 287-9), scholarly opinion has seemed
 to
confirm Colpe's and Schenke's conclusions. E. Kasemann's shift is indicative ('The Problem of
 a
New Testament Theology',
 N.T.S.
 xix [1973], 238). W. Pannenberg,
 Jesus
 -
 God and
 Man
 (Phila-delphia: Westminster, 1968), p.
 151,
 sums up the situation: 'After Carsten Colpe's book.. .it mustbe considered very questionable whether
 in
 the pre-Christian period there had been
 a
 completeredeemer myth that was then merely transferred
 to
 Jesus.'
8
 Wayne Meeks, 'The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism',
 J.B.L.
 XCI (1972), 44, 68;Schuyler Brown,
 a
 review of Der
 Vater, der mich gesandt
 hat
 by Juan Peter Miranda,
 C.B.Q..
 xxxvi(1974), 421-2. This objection has usually been answered by saying that John was demythologizingthe gnostic myth.
4
 Wayne Meeks,
 The Prophet-King
 (Leiden: Brill, 1967), p. 297.
6
 Metamorphoses,
 8.
 626-721.

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