Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 9: Apocalypses

The TA and Sessionals strike at York continues but some classes taught by full-time faculty have resumed, including my Gnosticism course. The few weeks off led to some confusion for me on the organization of the course (see below) but I was happy to be back in class.

We continued our journey through Nicola Denzey Lewis’ textbook, covering several more of her thematic chapters. This week we read the two chapters on apocalypses. Chapter 18 of the textbook focuses on texts with “apocalypse” in their titles (the Apocalypse of Adam and the Apocalypse of Paul, but not the Apocalypse of Peter and the two apocalypses of James, which are examined in other chapters) and chapter 19 focuses on Platonic Sethian Apocalypses (Zostrianos, Allogenes, and Marsanes). I made only passing mention of the Sethian texts in the lecture, in part because I discussed them in a previous class on the development of Sethianism, but also because they are difficult texts to read due to the damage in the codices, and because they really do not fit well the definition of the apocalypse genre, which states (from the Semeia definition), “‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” The Sethian texts are identified as apocalypses by Porphyry of Tyre (Life of Plotinus 16), and they do have a few typical features of apocalypses—a heavenly journey and pseudonymity—but the journey is more a mystical ascent than a tour of the heavens, and pseudonymity is such a widespread feature in ancient literature that its presence is not significant here for genre assignmen. Porphyry calls them apocalypses simply because they contain visions; but not every revelation is an apocalypse.

But what about the texts that bear “apocalypse” in their titles? We began our look at these texts with a basic history of the development of apocalyptic literature from the pre-exilic prophets, through Ezekiel, to Daniel and 1 Enoch. I used some representative portions of the later two texts to note some of the typical features of apocalypses (animals as kingdoms, cosmic battles, ex eventu prophecy, etc.). Then we turned to the Apocalypse of Paul, an expansion, of sorts, of Paul’s declaration that he was taken up to the third heaven “and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Cor 12:2-4). In Apoc. Paul, however, Paul has more of an ascension than a heavenly journey. Surprisingly, very little in the text appears gnostic until Paul reaches the seventh heaven, where he encounters the chief archon and uses language reminiscent of Gospel of Thomas 50 to bypass him and ascend further to the tenth heaven, where Paul meets the twelve apostles and the text comes to an end. I asked the class to consider what happens next. Presumably Paul descends to resume his missionary career, and if the Gnostic who ascends is supposed to teach about his experience then the author of this text must have believed that gnostic ideas were part of Paul’s teachings.

The second text of the chapter, the Apocalypse of Adam, is more a testament than an apocalypse, though the Jewish testament literature, such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, do also feature apocalyptic elements. I let the students lead the discussion on this text since it was assigned for this week’s brief analysis. One of the main themes discussed was the prevailing view in scholarship that the text is a witness to pre-Christian, perhaps Jewish, Gnosticism. Scholars have tended to minimize anything in the text that points to Christian composition, but the students argued that the various christologies of the poetic thirteen kingdoms section are conspicuously Christian, as are some elements of the section on the coming of the illuminator—the statements that “he will perform signs and wonders in order to bring contempt upon the powers and their ruler” and “they will punish the flesh of the human on whom the holy Spirit has come.”

After the break we looked at the Apocalypse of Peter and the Letter of Peter to Philip. In class I stated that I could not remember why I had assigned these texts to this class since they are not featured in the textbook chapters on apocalypses. Looking back now, I realize I included them here because they are part of chapter 17, “Apostolic Traditions in Conflict,” which I forgot to include on the syllabus. A lesson for next time. I might also diverge from the order of chapters in the textbook and look at this material earlier in the course, since much of what I would say about Apoc. Peter is discussed in Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, which the students read a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, we quickly ran through Peter’s relevance for docetic christology (and tied this into similar material in the Second Treatise of Great Seth and what the heresiologists say about Basilides), martyrdom, and the categories of orthodoxy and heresy (the author of Apoc. Peter calls his “orthodox” opponents heretics). We finished with the Letter of Peter to Philip, a short text about which even Denzey Lewis seemed to struggle to find something meaningful to say. It is a post-resurrection discourse on the Mount of Olives in which Jesus is asked, principally, about why the apostles must suffer. After the apostles receive their answers, Peter delivers a rather orthodox-sounding creedal statement: “Our luminary Jesus [came] down and was crucified. He wore a crown of thorns, put on a purple robe, was hanged on wood, was buried in a tomb, and he rose from the dead.” But then he states that Jesus “was a stranger to this suffering” and “he did everything symbolically among us.” So are we to understand that the apostles (and future Christians) must suffer for real but Jesus did not? That seems unfair.

When I adopted the Denzey Lewis textbook for the course I committed myself to following it, for the most part, from start to finish. My struggles with the apocalypse chapters have convinced me that in future I will break from the textbook chronology and move the material to other sections of the course (e.g., the Sethian apocalypses with the other Sethian chapters, the apostolic traditions texts closer to the beginning). Fortunately these chapters are constructed in such a way that they can be moved around to suit the needs of the instructor.

We are nearing the end now of Denzey Lewis’ survey of the Nag Hammadi sources for Gnosticism. Next week we read the Nag Hammadi Hermetic texts (covered in chapter 16) and then we go out on our own for material not covered in the textbook at all: Mandaean and Manichaean literature.

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