Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Moses and Greco-Egyptian Practices: Contextualizing the Christian Moses

In an earlier post, I had noted Moses' importance in Greco-Egyptian magic, riffing off of a statement that John Gager made.  I wrote:
The Moses of the magical papyri provides another piece of the puzzle of what Jews, Christians, and others on the ground thought, what they did, and, again, reasons for his exaltation and, just as often, suppression.  It is a clear example, here, of exaltation.  I wonder, what Christians did with this view of Moses as magician?  Does his exaltation here mirror his exaltation in contemporary Christian sources of the mid-second to fourth centuries?  How does it compare with contemporary Egyptian Christian sources of different opposing parties of the hierarchy, the monks, and the traditions of Nag Hammadi?  Indeed, it is fascinating territory into which the magical Moses takes us.  It is a messy, difficult terrain, but ultimately a fruitful one.
In this post, I would like to delve a little deeper in the Moses of the Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri: a Moses to be emulated; a Moses who belongs to an environment where his name had value and influence even beyond Jewish and Christian circles, and whose experiences upon the mountain provided a model to emulate as you, too, could call upon and see God on the mount.

The Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri that date from the first four centuries of the common era are prime exemplars of the religious fluidity of borrowing and exchange of religious ideas and practices to the point that one can no longer identify the religious identity of the author, audience, or immediate context of the documents.  One finds native Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian notions mingled and recombined into a religious dynamic that we have, with our paucity of language and imagination, labeled “magic.”  In the Greek and Demotic spells that comprise much of this literature (which have parallels in Hebrew, such as in the “Sword of Moses”), Jewish elements loom quite large. 
For the most part, the Jewish elements are limited to contributions in a series of nomina sacra to call upon various gods or various aspects/names of the same god.  One can almost find a spell at random and see names of Iao (Yahweh in Greek), Michael, Gabriel, Adonai, Sabaoth, etc.  Usually, Iao (Yahweh) is equated with Zeus (e.g., PGM I..300; III.212; XII.263-268 is especially telling).   It is not always clear whether the spell-caster thinks Iao (Yahweh), Adonai (Lord), and Sabaoth (Hosts) are the same deity fully equated, separate functions of that deity, or separate deities completely.  Moreover, these names typically are used to call upon another God (or the same god by a different name), such as Apollo (PGM I.298-328), and/or Helios (sometimes equated with Apollo, sometimes not) (PGM III.198ff).
Interestingly, the Jewish and Christian names are strongly associated with exorcism (PGM IV.1227-64; IV.3007-86):  “Hail, God of Abraham; hail, God of Isaac; hail, God of Jacob; Jesus Chrestos, the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Father, who is above the Seven, who is within the Seven.  Bring Iao Sabaoth; may your power issue forth from him, NN, until you drive away this unclean daimon Satan, who is in him” (IV.1231-1239).  This, indeed, mirrors a great deal of the NT, where the name of Jesus was used to exorcise (you could almost pick a chapter of Acts at random).
Sometimes the practitioner will take on the personality or identity of an ancestor or even a god in order to call upon the deity or angel they seek.  For example, calling upon the sun, one says, “I am Adam the forefather; my name is Adam.  Perform for me the NN deed, because I conjure you by the god IAO, by the god Abaoth, by the god Adonai, by the god Michael…” (PGM II.145-149).  Perhaps the most interesting example comes from a series of “I am “ statements that resemble the Gospel of John or Thunder:  Perfect Mind:  “I am an outflow of blood from the tomb of the great One [between] the palm trees; I am the faith found in men, and am he who declares the holy names, who [is] always alike, who came forth from the abyss.  I am CHRATES who came forth from the eye [of the sun].  I am the god whom no one sees or rashly names….” (PGM XII.227-230).  The passage continues in the same manner, equating the speaker with Krates, Helios, Aphrodites, Kronos, the Mother of the Gods, Osiris, Isis, etc. 
            Most interesting, however, is the attribution of spells and incantations to particular figures.  The most prominent in Greco-Roman Egypt would seem to be Hermes Trismegistus in the collections of Hermetica; nonetheless, a competing tradition ascribes a great deal of instruction in these arts to Jewish figures.  For example, there is the charm of Solomon to produce a state of ecstatic seizure (PGM IV.850-929; cf. the seal of Solomon in PGM IV.3040-45). 
But Moses is peerless, except for perhaps Hermes.  Many treatises are associated with Moses and the revelation of the divine name to him—it is the name that gives him his power.  There is the Diadem of Moses, which includes an invisibility spell, but is mostly directed as a love spell (PGM VII.619-27).  The most famous, however, are the lengthy collection of spells known as the “Eighth Book of Moses” (PGM XIII.1-343; XIII.343-646) and “The Tenth Book of Moses.”  Interestingly, these spells suggest that Moses and Hermes Trismegistus may be rivals—or, more likely, that different schools (or perhaps “Lodges”) competed with one using Hermes Trismegistus as mediator and another using Moses (see PGM XIII.15 on Hermes Trismegistus as the plagiarizer of Moses; on the “Lodge” concept, see R. van der Broek, “Religious Practices in the Hermetic ‘Lodge’:  New Light from Nag Hammadi” in From Poimandres to Jacob Böhme)—though, oddly given the history of competitive religious historiography, there is a positive reference to the Egyptian priest Manetho, who, in his own writings, excoriated the Jews and Moses in particular (see PGM XIII.23).
            There are a few points of importance for the study of Moses’ visions in the Magical Papyri.  Firstly, Moses’ moment on Sinai as well as the revelation of the divine name to Moses becomes paradigmatic for any practitioner.  The Books of Moses have the same strange ambivalence found in the Bible (but also elsewhere in Late Antiquity) of the impossibility and possibility of seeing God.  That is God cannot be seen, but the spell-caster is trying to see God—or at least God in some manifest form.  
I call on you, who are greater than all, the creator of all, you, the self-begotten, who see all and are not seen.  For you gave Helios the glory and all the power, Selene [the privilege] to wax and wane and have fixed courses, yet you took nothing from the earlier-born darkness, but apportioned things so that they should be equal.  For when you appeared, both order arose and light appeared.  All things are subject to you, whose true form none of the gods can see; who change into all forms.  You are invisible, Aion of Aion. 
            I call upon you, to appear to me in a good form....
            Come, lord, faultless and unflawed, who pollute no place, for I have been initiated into your name.  (PGM XIII.64-73, 90-91; cf. XIII.570-585, 621).
Moses’ God is equated, as elsewhere, with the high God.  This is the unseen seer; the uncontained container (PGM XIII.139).  This is the monad.  Helios has God’s glory—which might be an interesting combination of the Jewish tradition of the Glory as the visible fiery aspect of God (e.g., Ezekiel 1).  This being is what gives light to these celestial bodies—themselves Gods.  God’s true form, however, is unknown, unseen.  Yet, God does have form:  all forms.  God is polymorphic, adaptable (much like Jesus is in many Gnostic works; e.g., Gospel of Philip).  In this invocation, moreover, the speaker calls upon God both in the names given to God in various languages, but also because he has been initiated into the name—as Moses had been in Exodus 3:14. 
Moreover, there is much interest in the Eighth Book to call upon God as the creator God:  creative power is ultimate power.  There are two versions of the Eighth Book, and each has a cosmogony of seven parts (although with eight pairs awkwardly fit within this scheme—something that, it seems, tries to cram the eight-part Memphite Theogony into the seven-part Jewish cosmogony but using names of Greek deities/powers who look over each day (PGM XIII.162-205; XIII.472-564).  Like in Genesis, God creates through utterance, but unlike Genesis, this utterance is in the form of laughter—God laughs and it is.  I am not sure why.  Jesus laughs in some of the non-canonical gospels—most famously now the Gospel of Judas—but it is derisive laughter rather than creative laughter.
Through these incantations, one channels the power of the creator in order to invoke some of the powers of creation, to the point of identifying with the creator (which, it seems, by implication, Moses did too when he received the divine name and went on Sinai):  
To make Helios appear:  Say toward the East, “I am he on the two cherubim, between the two natures, heaven and earth, sun and moon, light and darkness, night and day, rivers and sea.  Appear to me, O archangel of those subject to the cosmos, ruler Helios, set in authority under the One and Only Himself.  The eternal and Only orders you.”  Say the Name.  (PGM XIII.255-259; cf. 335-340).
By being initiated into the Name, by invoking the Name, one takes on the power associated with that Name, becoming the rider of the cherubim, between the cherubim, as God is in the Bible (Exodus 25; Ezekiel 1; and a splattering of Psalms) identifying with the secret Name of the Monad. 
The Tenth Book also is more directly concerned with attaining a vision (PGM XIII.734-1077).  Much like the Eighth Book, through invoking the unutterable Name (764) one channels God’s own self:  “For you are I, and I, you” (795). 
Yet again, it is also about recapturing Sinai.  In the Demotic Papyri, the speaker calls himself the servant of the great God, “he who gives light exceedingly, the companion of flame, he is whose mouth is never extinguished, the great god who is seated in flame, he who is in the midst of the flame which is in the lake of heaven, in whose hand is the greatness and the power of the god:  reveal yourself to me here today in the manner of the form of revealing yourself to Moses which you made upon the mountain, before which you had already created darkness and light” (PDM 125-132).  One seeks a revelation of God (the fiery God) just as God revealed himself and information to Moses on Sinai.  Just like ancient Jews sought to do, just as some Christians would also do, these Greco-Egyptian individuals sought to recapture and reenact the revelation of God to Moses on Sinai. 
While in this last passage, one implicitly identifies with Moses:  as Moses as the great servant of God who, thereby, was allowed to see the very form of God (Num. 12:8), so too one could, as a servant of God, invoke God as Moses did.  At one point, the practitioner explicitly takes on the identity and person of Moses, just as he does Adam in another spell:  “I am Moses your prophet to whom you have transmitted your mysteries celebrated by Israel; you have revealed the most and the dry and all nourishment; hear me.  I am the messenger of Pharaoh Osonnophris; this is your true name which has been transmitted to the prophets of Israel” (PGM V.109-116).  This is, again, in order to exorcise and to control demons. 
Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain was an important event not just for Jews and Christians, who used Moses’ visions (affirming them or denying them for various purposes, and even seeking to experience Sinai for themselves), but for others seeking a divine encounter.  These texts demonstrate a fluid religious environment, a situation where the rank-and-file do not necessarily fit neat and tidy self-identifying definitions of Jewish versus Christian versus Greek versus Egyptia.  It is a situation that might be representative of other places around the Mediterranean, where we do not have the same level of evidence for non-elite religious practices, and maybe not.  Nonetheless, while Christian bishops and others used Moses, and Moses’ authority, as a means to crystallize religious boundaries and to establish their own authority; others, it appears, used Moses as the magus par excellence, used him to borrow from and polemicize against competitors (the Hermetics?).  He was invoked as a common exemplar, whose authority circulated beyond Jewish and Christian sub-cultures, becoming a cross-religious figure.  By acting as Moses did, one could even call oneself Moses, identify with him to call down God upon the mountain and to have a vision of the invisible.

Monday, June 25, 2012

God and the Senses (4): Augustine's "Beauty so old and so new"

The qualities of religious experience mirror those of poetry--and, indeed, some of the best accounts of religious experience are related through poetry (think of St. John of the Cross); as one bends and bursts beyond the typical conventions of language, so does the other.  The most engaging poetry pulls at all five senses.  So too, the expression of religious experience.  I realize that what follows may not be technically be poetry in the sense of ancient meter and verse (though it has some of those things!), but one could easily consider it "prose poetry."  Indeed, St. Augustine of Hippo, trained as a rhetor and as a professor of rhetoric, was a master of style, and his Confessions is a masterwork on many levels including its means of expression. 
Late have I loved you,
Beauty so old and so new:
Late have I loved you.

And see, you were within
And I was within the external world
And sought you there,
And in my unlovely state
I plunged into those lovely created things
which you made
The lovely things kept me far from you
Though if they did not have their existence in you
They had no existence at all.

You called and cried out loud
And shattered my deafness
You were radiant and resplendent,
You put to flight my blindness.
You were fragrant,
And I drew in my breath and now pant after you.
I tasted you,
And I feel but hunger and thirst for you.
You touched me,
And I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours. 
(Augustine, Confessions X.xxvii (38); trans. Chadwick) 
Henry Chadwick, the translator, writes concerning this passage:  "Augustine's Latin in this chapter is a work of high art, with rhymes and poetic rhythms not reproducible in translation.  He is fusing imagery from the Song of Solomon with Neoplatonic reflection on Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, and simultaneously summarizing the central themes of the Confessions" (p. 201 n. 25).  The reader can, indeed, sense the searching of the female lover searching for her lover from the Song of Songs in the first sentence, the search that, indeed, stands at the heart of the Confessions as a whole as the soul searches for God, the Beauty so old and so new, before the foundations of the world and yet ever new and renewing the soul.  It is a search one can sense in the opening of Augustine's search:  "our heart is restless until it rests in you" (I.i (1)).  It is the journey of the wandering, erring, and restless soul through astrology, Manichaeanism, Neoplatonism to Christianity; from infancy to adolescence to early maturity to full maturity; from wordless signs to grammar to stories and literature to rhetoric to the Word.  Religious wandering mirror the stages of life and the acquisition of language.

The rising from beautiful things to the Beauty so old and so new, or Beauty in itself, is reminiscent of Plato--and, indeed, much of the ascending qualities I just mentioned with wandering, seem to be modeled on Plato's masterpiece the Symposium (for a full discussion, see Phillip Cary's Augustine's Invention of the Inner Self).

But the reason I have placed this in my "God and the Senses" series is the last bit.  It again resounds with the Song of Songs and the attainment of the goal of one's spiritual ascent of love in the Symposium.  And, as a good piece of poetry (or poetic prose) that mirrors Augustine's spiritual expression, it engages all five senses (cf. Confessions X.vi (8)).  Augustine, however, does not just saw that he hears, sees, smells, touches, and tastes God.  Instead, he compares his earlier life to a complete anesthesia.  Finding his divine lover is like hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching all for the first time.  God shatters his deafness; and drives away blindness.  As I have mentioned in earlier posts, moreover, the greatest experiences of intimacy are NOT expressed as vision or hearing.  While vision and hearing are the most common expressions of proximity to God, many authors reserve the far more intimate senses of smell, taste, and touch for the highest expressions of drawing near to God.  It makes a great deal of sense.  One can see and hear from a distance.  Humans, at least, must be closer to smell something.  But tasting and touching are the most intimate expressions that exist for humans.  Augustine, I think, orders his sensual account quite purposely in an ascending order:  first one hears, and one gets a first encounter, but one that is still distant.  Secondly, one can see, a vision crystallizes in one's newly opened eyes, but it is still not a full experience.  Smell, indeed, may be an evanescent quality; yet, it also denotes a greater proximity.  Smell, moreover, has the added quality of being totally encompassing.  One can be saturated with it from without and from within:  it surrounds you, and yet, as Augustine writes, "I drew in my breath and now pant after you."  Here the language again turns erotic--as if the references to the Song of Songs were not enough.  Panting after God as lover.  Tasting has a dual quality.  It heightens the sensuality, the intimacy, the eroticism.  For a Christian, moreover, it would recall the Eucharist, where one feels the divine substance in one's mouth, one tastes the body of Christ, touching the body with one's tongue.  As one pants, one also hungers and thirsts.  This highly erotically charged moment has been primed since the beginning of the search.  Note his sexual language at the beginning of the account:  "How shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord?  Surely when I call on him, I am calling on him to come into me.  But what place is there in me where my God can enter me?" (I.ii. (2)).  After hearing, then seeing, then smelling, and even tasting, after searching, after heightening each sense, the divine lover finally touches, and with a touch sets one's entire being on fire.  One burns, seeking consummation:  peace and rest.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Beauty of Moses according to Josephus

            Continuing my pursuit of ancient quirks, I want to discuss the strange first-century interest in Moses’ beauty.  I have discussed it in Hebrews 11 and Acts 7, in Philo of Alexandria’s recounting, and now that other prominent first century Jewish writer: Josephus.
Josephus picks up on this broader first-century promotion of the fine physique of Moses, but there are some major alterations, dislocations, and expansions. 
            To briefly recap, previous traditions directly relate Moses’ beauty at birth as the reason why his parents, particularly his mother, decided to save him from infanticide.  Although Acts 7:20 merely notes that Moses at birth “was beautiful (ἀστεῖος) before God,” Hebrews 11:23 reasons that, “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful (ἀστεῖον).”  Both build upon the reasoning found in the LXX Exod. 2:2:  “Seeing that he [Moses] was beautiful (ἀστεῖον) they sheltered/covered him for three months." 
Philo readily exploits the LXX rendering of Moses as ἀστεῖος (Exod. 2:2).  He uses it exegetically to explain why his parents saved him—and other parents did no such thing—and why Pharoah’s daughter took an instant liking to him:  it all came down to his appearance (Vita Mosis 1:9, 15, 18-19).  In this case, it is further amplified with synonyms of beauty and nobility as well as made “greater goodliness/beauty.”  Moreover, it mirrors Moses’ overall advanced status: it is not just of body, but of mind.  Philo, however, pushes the terminology further, looking to its Stoic resonances, when speaking of the Moses-mind:  the mind that emulates Moses’ beauty/goodliness (Confusion fo Tongues 106).  Using a term that literally means “of the city” allows Philo to transition smoothly into Moses’ virtues as a cosmopolitan, one for whom the entire cosmos is his “city.”  Moreover, as something beyond a physical quality, it interlinks with Moses’ prophetic abilities:  it is the mind of the greatest purity and, thereby, the mind that can commune with the divine (On Mating with Preliminary Studies 132).
            While every other tradition in the first century relates his beauty to his parents’ decision to save him from infanticide, Josephus does not.  In fact, Josephus totally omits this section and, instead, explains his survival to a vision vouchsafed to his father, Amram, that his child would be the great liberator (Ant. 2.205-216).  This dream-visions, interestingly, resemble the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke than even the Exodus account.  Even while Josephus completely drops this original account of Moses’ beauty as found in Exodus and other first-century accounts, he does, in fact, promote and enhance Moses’ beautiful appearance in ways partly reminiscent of Philo, but others that appear more singular to Josephus’s telling. 
            Firstly, like Philo, Moses’ appearance is the reason why the king’s daughter (here: Thermutis) falls in love with baby Moses:  “at the sight of the little child, [she] was enchanged by its size (μεγέθους) and beauty (κάλλους)” (Ant. 2.224; trans. Whitaker).  Josephus, moreover, does not use the same terminology as Philo, who sought to emphasize its Stoic “cosmopolitan” meanings, turning instead to a more general term for “beauty.”  One might note also the concern for telling us about Moses’ size:  he is large for his age, another prodigious element to his appearance.  These two elements—his size and his beauty—are repeated.  As a toddler, he was again quite tall and beautiful (κάλλος, εὐμορφίας):  he increased in mind and in body.  In fact, Josephus writes, that people were so amazed, astonished at his abnormal beauty that they would stare! (Ant. 2:230-231).  This is, as Philo also states, becomes the reason she adopts him:  that is, both state Moses’ beauty—though using different terms—as the reasoning for a two-part process whereby Moses’ daughter is enamored enough to pull him out of the water and subsequently actually adopt him. 
            Finally, Josephus reiterates Moses’ appearance when Pharaoh’s daughter presents Moses to Pharaoh.  She recounts to him how she found him, and, giving the reason why he should be made her son and, therefore, heir to the throne of Egypt, she notes his beauty once again, but with a little twist:  he is a child of divine appearance (μορφῆ τε θεῖον καὶ φρονήματι) (Ant. 2.232).  This “divine form” is perhaps the closest one gets to Acts 7:20’s “beautiful to God.”  It may be significant that “divine form” is put into the mouth of the Egyptian for two reasons.  Firstly, it keeps Josephus from attributing a divine quality to Moses directly or by a Jew (although Josephus does call him a “man of God” or “divine man” (θεῖον ἄνδρα), but there just to his wisdom in the making of the Tabernacle and the priestly garments that have symbolic relations to the cosmos—as they also do in Philo’s account).  Secondly, keeping in mind that Josephus often has an apologetic edge to his portrayal of Moses against many circulating negative evaluations (think of Manetho), he can state that Moses’ beauty is something attested by others as well. 
            Overall, while Josephus has a tendency to mute Moses’ more supernatural qualities, particularly his visionary abilities, and prefers not to recount anything miraculous, Josephus uses the occasion of Moses’ appearance as a chance for aggrandizement above all others, but that is perhaps a bit more controlled.  The expansion of Moses’ beauty compared to the biblical account, its multiple reiterations of being beautiful, great and tall, and of divine form almost compensate for the losses we find elsewhere.  It promotes Moses above all others, but seeks not to overstep, remain at least believable to his Roman readers.  Nonetheless, he has shifted the terminology of beauty from ἀστεῖος to κάλλος, losing the more "urbane" and "cosmopolitan" associations the term had gained among the Stoics.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Antiquitopia's Five Year Blog-o-versary

Today (June 13) marks five years that I have been blogging.  My inaugural post marked the beginning of my dissertation writing--in June of 2007 I would have been working on my proposal.  2007 was an interesting year.  I went to Italy, and now realizing that it has been five years think I should go back soon!  In the fall of 2007 I met my wife.  Much has changed over the years.  Last year my academic adviser, Alan Segal, passed away.  He saw me to completion, but will never see the book that comes from my research.  There are some continuities.  I am still living with the project that I proposed then, although extraordinarily transformed from proposal to dissertation and transformed greatly again from dissertation to monograph.  I am now thinking of developing my next major project.  I have a lot of the interests I noted then:
The name of my blog reflects a combination of interests. I study antiquity, but I am also fascinated by the construction of ideal alternate realities, usually referred to as heaven or utopia, alongside their inverse, hell or dystopia. I am particularly interested in how these constructions of heaven and hell interface with claims of religious experiences, such as with religious visions and auditions and so forth. So, welcome to antiquitopia, a "no place" in time--whether it is utopic or dystopic, of course, depends upon your perspective.
After about 850 or so posts, my interests have included this, but also spread broader and deeper (as anyone who scrolls my labels might see).  I taught Literature of the Humanities for two years at Columbia University, which was an extraordinary experience, allowing me to develop a broader literary framework, closer readings of my own works through connections made in others , and strongly influencing my own readings of the Bible (it is amazing how one's reading of the Bible improves when reading such great works from Homer to Montaigne and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf).  I have taught further at Illinois Wesleyan University for two years, courses ranging from the Religions of the World to Bible. 

I still, however, have an interest in these idealized utopic or dystopic realities and religious experiences, but anyone who been keeping up with this blog lately will see have these have developed and how, in some ways, I have been seeking a thick description of the social implications of these claims and counter-claims, suppression and affirmation, of vision--as in my new project of the Christian Moses.  How, moreover, I have come to feel that visions are not enough to discuss religious experience--how my "God and the Senses" series has been promoting a fuller understanding of how religious experience engages all five senses.

"Sinning in the Hebrew Bible" by Alan Segal

Columbia University Press just emailed me to inform me, to my great pleasure, that Alan Segal's book, Sinning in the Hebrew Bible:  How Its Worst Stories Speak for Its Truth, has been posthumously published.

I was Alan's TA for his Hebrew Bible class (a few times) where he developed many of the ideas found in this book.  He had been mulling these stories long before I started graduate school, however.  It has had ripples beyond his own classes:  his focus on the seedier elements of the Bible has influenced how I teach the Bible in my introductory classes.  I remember our discussions, either over lunch or visiting his home in New Jersey, on how he was going to frame this book--though I never read the manuscript itself.  He passed away while it was in the final stages of publication, but now it finally sees the light of day.

Here is the blurb from CUP's webpage:
Stories of rape, murder, adultery, and conquest raise crucial issues in the Hebrew Bible, and their interpretation helps societies form their religious and moral beliefs. From the sacrifice of Isaac to the adultery of David, narratives of sin engender vivid analysis and debate, powering the myths that form the basis of the religious covenant, or the relationship between a people and their God.

Rereading these stories in their different forms and varying contexts, Alan F. Segal demonstrates the significance of sinning throughout history and today. Drawing on literary and historical theory, as well as research in the social sciences, he explores the motivation for creating sin stories, their prevalence in the Hebrew Bible, and their possible meaning to Israelite readers and listeners. After introducing the basics of his approach and outlining several hermeneutical concepts, Segal conducts seven linked studies of specific narratives, using character and text to clarify problematic terms such as “myth,” “typology,” and “orality.” Following the reappearance and reinterpretation of these narratives in later compositions, he proves their lasting power in the mythology of Israel and the encapsulation of universal, perennially relevant themes. Segal ultimately positions the Hebrew Bible as a foundational moral text and a history book, offering uncommon insights into the dating of biblical events and the intentions of biblical authors.

Moses' Divine Visions in Josephus: Suppression and Exception

            I have been contextualizing treatments of Moses in the first to fourth centuries CE, particularly pertaining to his visions in early Christian sources (see my discussion here):  particularly how those visions are alternatively highlighted, expanded, or suppressed and diminished in the sources--and why?  In order to do this, however, it is important to see what the earliest Christians' contemporaries were doing with Moses, how they were using his visions, promoting or suppressing them.  While the earliest Christians, represented in the NT, largely suppressed Moses' visionary abilities, later Christians sought to affirm and even expand them.  Many Jewish (and don't forget Samaritan) trends in the first to fourth centuries also sought to expand what Moses saw and heard on the mount.  Josephus, however, proves to be more exceptional in this regard.
           Josephus, much like Philo, presents Moses as the greatest and best in basically all things (e.g., Ant. 2.229); however, unlike Philo, he overall downplays the miraculous and supernal as much as possible.  While Philo strongly emphasizes Moses’ visions at the burning bush and on the mountain when entering the dark cloud and seeing the “pattern” of the Tabernacle, Josephus removes nearly all visual references, turning instead to the stereotypical Deuteronomic emphasis on audition.  Indeed, while the biblical account is ambivalent about whether Moses did (Num. 12:8) or did not (Exod. 33:20) see God, while Philo strongly promotes Moses’ visionary abilities (through the eye of the mind), Josephus completely falls on the side of not seeing.  There are, however, a few exceptional moments, momentary glimpses where Josephus sometimes slips into visual language or allows indirect visual indicators of the divine presence.
            Let’s compare, for a moment, Philo’s and Josephus’s handling of the burning bush.  Firstly, in the biblical account, the angel of the LORD “appeared” to Moses, Moses saw the bush, but, realizing God was in the bush, he looked away “for he was afraid to look at God” (Exod 3:2-6).  There is the typical elision of the angel of the LORD and God as found in other theophanic passages, but the passage leaves the question of whether Moses could have seen God if he just looked.  Again, other passage will alternatively affirm or deny Moses’ ability to see God.  Philo handles this as a very interesting, but subtle vision:
In the midst of the flame was a form (μορφή) of the fairest beauty, unlike any visible object (τῶν ὁρατῶν ἐμφερὴς οὐδενί), an image supremely divine in appearance (θεοειδέστατον ἄγαλμα), refulgent with a light brighter than the light of fire.  It might be supposed that this was the image of Him that is (εἰκόνα τοῦ ὄντος εἶναι); but let us rather call it an angel or herald, since, with a silence that spoke more clearly than speech, it employed as it were the miracle of sight to herald future events. (Vita Mosis 1.66; see context in 1.65-70)
In this passage, Philo claims that Moses saw something quite astounding:  “a form of the fairest beauty,” “an image supremely divine in appearance.”  It is something unlike anything else of this world.  Whatever he saw, it was supernal; it was beyond.  It was superlative.  It was, as he says, “supremely divine.”  Did he see God?  Or, since Philo reserves “God” for one of God’s qualities, one might ask, did Moses see “the one who is” or the “self-existent one”?  Philo cannot grant this, not with visible appearance at least.  So he at least entertains a step removal of seeing the “image” of the one who is.  He grants its possibility, but does not consider it the best reading.  Instead, this most divine appearance is more of an angelic herald of things to come, a symbolic vision.  What follows is the allegory of fire and the bush, the bush consumes the fire rather than vice versa, as the Hebrews will consume those who are consuming them.  Philo, therefore, grants that Moses saw something quite special, but prefers to claim it is a step away from the divine—Moses would later “see” that in an intellectual vision when he enters the dark cloud where God is on Sinai (e.g., Vita Mosis 1.158; Post. 14; Gig. 54; Mut. 2-9, esp. 7). 
            Compare, for a moment, Josephus Ant. 2.264-269.  In his rendering, Moses encounters an “amazing prodigy” (2.265), of the bramble-bush being aflame, but remaining green with blooms intact.  Moses is further amazed when the bush speaks to him, telling him to “withdraw as far as might be from the flame, to be content with what he, as a man of virtue sprung from illustrious ancestors, had seen, but to pry no further” (2.267).  Throughout, Josephus emphasizes that Moses speaks with “the voice.”  Whereas Philo offered a compilation of visual terms, heightening the moment with an exalted divine presence, even if partially removed since Philo prefers intelligent vision of the mind rather than bodily vision, Josephus downplays the specter.  While Moses receives an amazing glimpse into a mysterious occurrence, he downplays the visual imagery, even making the presence of God/the Angel of the Lord a little more indirect in the passage than even in the biblical version.  Indeed, instead of Moses looking away, fearing to glimpse God, the voice tells him to pry no further—this is all he is going to get in terms of a vision.
            Even at Sinai where Philo repeatedly emphasizes that Moses, finally saw God plainly (with the mind), Josephus largely omits visual registers unless they are indirect.  For example, there are some visual cues, but they are left to the meteorological impact of the presence of God on the mountain (rather than a direct vision of God).  Indeed, Josephus retains the theophanic elements of a cloud, tempest, thunder, and lightning descending upon Sinai (3.79-80), even though, he suspects, his Roman readers won’t believe a word of it (3.81-82).  Otherwise, however, it is all auditory.  Moses prepares to ascend the mountain (and just a mountain, not into the immaterial realities as in Philo or heaven as in apocalyptic traditions) to “converse with God” (3.75).  Josephus presents this in two ascents.  Moses goes up and then comes down for the first one (3.75-87).  Interestingly, the episode is retold entirely from the perspective of an Israelite at the base of the mountain.  Josephus avoids a direct description of Moses’ encounter with God.  Instead, one hears second hand from Moses what happened: 
Τῷ θε γρ ες ψιν λθν κροατς φθάρτου φωνς γενόμη:  οτως κείν το γένοθς μν κα τς τοτου μέλει διαμονς.

For I have been admitted into a sight of God, I have become a hearer of an incorruptible voice:  such care has he for our race and for its endurance.  (adapted from Whittaker). 
The language of entering into a sight of God is rather strange.  It leaves much to the reader’s interpretation of what seeing has occurred.  There is a visual element to this, although it is rather muted compared to Philo.  He does not directly say that Moses saw God.  A sight of God could be Moses seeing God; or it could mean that Moses came within God’s sight.  This might, indeed, be what is inferred from the language of “entering” or “coming into.”  Perhaps Whiston was correct to treat it as a more generic “presence.”  Nonetheless, the event does not make him a “seer” but a “hearer.”  Afterwards, God speaks to all of the people the ten commandments (3.89-90). 
            Moses goes up again, Josephus completely omits the golden calf incident, and then Moses comes down.  For each occurrence, Josephus completely downplays the tradition of Moses’ glorious face—instead of people being amazed of his glorious face, they are joyous at his “appearance,” here seemingly meaning the fact he came back.  Instead of Moses seeing the pattern of the Tabernacle at this point (something about which Philo makes a lot of hay; see LegAll. 3.102; Vita Mosis 2.71-146, esp. 74-76), Josephus writes that God told Moses that he desires (βούλεται) a Tabernacle.  While Josephus spends a great deal of time on the instructions for building the Tabernacle (3.102-150), the priestly garments (3.151-187), and the purification and consecration of the sacred objects and people (3.188-223), during all of this Josephus omits visual language.  By contrast, Exodus emphasizes the visual registers, that this is something Moses sees and is not just hears (Exod. 25:9, 40; 26:30; 27:8). 
            While Moses’ visual encounters with the divine and divine revelations are largely dropped in favor of aural ones, there are some hidden gems.  Perhaps like “entering into a vision of God,” there are some other visual slips and cues.  One place where Josephus appears to slip from his acoustic emphasis on the divine voice is when he discusses how Moses knew what the Cherubim looked like.  The problem is that the Cherubim are of a “form” unlike any earthly creature any human has seen.  So how did Moses know what they looked like?  Especially since all of his encounters have been auditory?  Josephus writes,
Μωυσῆς δέ φησι τῷ θρόνῳ τοῦ θεοῦ προστυπεῖς ἑωρακέναι.

Moses said he saw them on God’s throne. (Ant. 3.137).
When did Moses see God’s throne in Josephus’s account?  Indeed, it almost sounds like Josephus is alluding to a merkavah vision of some sort, perhaps with Ezekiel 1 in mind?  The reference, to be sure, is extraordinarily subtle, couched in a long and tedious description of all of the Tabernacle’s furnishings; in other words, it is very easy to skim right over without noticing it.  Nonetheless, oddly for Josephus, he alludes to a visual encounter that goes beyond what is found in the biblical account of Moses.  In the biblical story, Moses saw a vision, although sans throne, that resembles the imagery and language of Ezekiel 1 in Exod. 24:9-11.  Moreover, when Moses enters the dark cloud where God is, he saw the “appearance of the glory of the LORD” (Exod. 24:17) much like Ezekiel’s “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (Ezekiel 1:28).  [Indeed, the entire priestly account of the vision of the Tabernacle and what occurs afterward in issuing cultic instructions strongly resembles a great deal of Ezekiel 1 and 40-48; and Leviticus 17-26 sounds much like Ezekiel 20-22.  There are clear contacts.]  Moses, moreover, sees the mercy-seat with the Cherubim in the vision of the “pattern of the Tabernacle” (Exod. 25:17-22).  Whatever the precise reference for Josephus, he claims, as he does not elsewhere, that Moses saw the very throne of God.  Josephus has barely hinted that Moses saw anything before this except a flaming bush and that strangely worded “entering a vision of God.” 
            There is a reference to the divine nimbus, moreover, when God enters the sanctuary. 
While heaven was serene, over the tabernacle alone darkness descended, enveloping it in a cloud not so profound and dense as might be attributed to a winter storm, nor yet so tenuous that the eye could perceive a thing through it; but a delicious dew was distilled therefrom, revealing God’s presence to those who both desired it and believed in it. (Ant. 3.202-203; trans. Whitaker). 
One can sense, especially in the last line, an apologetic edge to this admission of at least one visual sight of God; or, at least, means by which God’s presence was made known.  Perhaps this works somewhat on par with the fiery theophany on Sinai:  using the elements to denote the divine presence in the form of dew and, not quite the dense, dark cloud of the Bible, but a fog.  Indeed, Josephus does not seem to apologize so much at hearing God, but any visual cue he does.
            One final case is perhaps the most fascinating visual indicator of the divine presence in Josephus:  the high priest’s shoulder:
Of those stones which, as I said before, the high priest wore upon his shoulders—they were sardonyxes, and I deem it superfluous to indicate the nature of jewels known to all—it came about, whenever God assisted at the sacred ceremonies, that the one that was buckled on the right shoulder began to shine, a light glancing from it, visible to the most distant, of which the stone had before betrayed no trace. (Ant. 3.214-219; trans. Whitaker)
Therefore, the people ultimately receive three visual indicators of the divine presence:  a thunderstorm on Sinai, a fog and dew entering the tent, and the gleam of light from a gem on the high priest’s right shoulder.  Excepting the high priest’s shoulder, Josephus is quite reticent, embarrassed even, and definitely apologetic about the incident.  These are, moreover, largely presented as indirect.  That is, people do not directly see God, but see the indicators of the divine presence—at least in the roundabout language Josephus uses in these incidents.  There are some subtle allusions for Moses’ visionary experiences, nonetheless.  Moses enters a vision of God—whatever that means.  And Moses, curiously, in an off-handed remark, saw the divine throne.  Otherwise, places in the Bible and in Josephus’s contemporaries that exalted Moses’ visionary abilities are suppressed. 

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Moses the Magician

I have been fascinated with the traditions of Moses in the first to fourth centuries CE lately.  In connection with my "Christian Moses" project, I have been reading up on how his reputation developed in contemporary sources.  For this, there are many important scholarly works, but perhaps one of the most helpful ones in considering his broader significance in the ancient world is John Gager's Moses in Greco-Roman Paganism.  Of any figure from the Jewish tradition, Moses was the best-known to outsiders.  And while many erudite Greeks and Romans (and Egyptians) tended to refer to Moses as a lawgiver (usually as one inferior to Plato, among others), perhaps the most widespread view of Moses was that of a magician.  He is invoked among the Greek and Demotic magical papyri as an authority--sometimes works are written in his name (such as the much under-studied Eighth Book of Moses) or his name is invoked in surviving amulets because it was thought to have power in itself!  Hebrew terms and names for God (and angels) are all over the Magical Papyri (Iao, Sabaoth, Michael, etc.).  This tradition seems to derive out of general knowledge of two episodes in the Hebrew tradition:  the revelation of God's true name to Moses (Exodus 3) and Moses' competition with the Egyptian magicians (Exodus 7)--which are often considered interrelated insofar as Moses gained his abilities through the power endowed through knowledge of the divine name.  Gager writes:
On the whole...the Moses of the magical documents is a figure unto himself.  Here he emerges as an inspired prophet, endowed with divine wisdom and power, whose very name guaranteed the efficacy of magical charms and provided protection against hostile forms of the cosmos....  Jewish tradition and Egyptian syncretism agreed that Moses possessed a higher knowledge of the divine than most mortals.  For advocates of the magical arts, whether Jewish or not, the essence of this revealed gnosis was Moses' knowledge and transmission of the divine name, not the tenets of the law as in the Jewish scriptures and much of rabbinic Judaism, not his knowledge of the future as in some circles of Jewish apocalypticism.  The revelation of the divine name to Moses was also regarded as an important event within Judaism, and because of its immediate relevance for magic this particular event was commemorated in the papyri more often and more emphatically than any other events associated with the life of Moses. (p. 160)   
I find a couple further things of interest (for my own work at least).  Firstly, Moses is also invoked as a means to gain such knowledge (gnosis) through the revelation of the deity.  And we know they work because Moses did it!  These ritual means tend to draw the deity down as Moses drew the deity down to Horeb/Sinai.  Thus, many of these papyri seek to recreate a revelatory moment like Sinai (something Jews and Christians sought to do through liturgy, as I argued in my dissertation and forthcoming monograph).  Secondly, these works often claim that these books (like the Eighth Book of Moses) and other more oral traditions of hymns included in these works were revealed to Moses on Sinai, justifying their efficacy.  Concurrently, both Jews and Christians were justifying their interpretations and relatively novel legal discussions and community formations by saying that they were revealed to Moses on the mountain--thus, the revelatory moment has a broader interest.  Thirdly, many of the magical traditions surrounding Moses have parallels in the Hermetica.  In an Egyptian environment of Late Antiquity, it appears to be a competitive appropriation and repackaging of traditions--indeed there are some documents that explicitly state that Hermes Trismegistus stole his ideas from Moses.  Were there Egyptian practitioners vying with one another; some claiming Hermes, others Moses as the ultimate mediator to the Monad?  Finally, especially in the Eighth Book of Moses, part of the revelation that mingles with chants, charms, etc., are cosmogonies that resemble in many ways the cosmogonies found at Nag Hammadi.  Moses rarely shows up at Nag Hammadi and related literature (something I want to write about in connection with my Christian Moses project), there are clear ties between Nag Hammadi, native Egyptian Theogonies, Greco-Roman ones, and the Hermetical cosmologies.  It appears that the Eighth Book of Moses belongs to this matrix, providing a precedent or, perhaps as in the Hermetical literature, a competitive alternative.  The Moses of the magical papyri provides another piece of the puzzle of what Jews, Christians, and others on the ground thought, what they did, and, again, reasons for his exaltation and, just as often, suppression.  It is a clear example, here, of exaltation.  I wonder, what Christians did with this view of Moses as magician?  Does his exaltation here mirror his exaltation in contemporary Christian sources of the mid-second to fourth centuries?  How does it compare with contemporary Egyptian Christian sources of different opposing parties of the hierarchy, the monks, and the traditions of Nag Hammadi?  Indeed, it is fascinating territory into which the magical Moses takes us.  It is a messy, difficult terrain, but ultimately a fruitful one.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

From Tolerance to Hospitality

Tolerance, particularly religious tolerance, is often touted as one of the achievements of modern secular societies, such as in the U.S.  It, however, also involves an assumption of power:  who gets to tolerate whom?  The one who tolerates is in a different position than the one tolerated.  Perhaps we can think of something as mutual toleration as something equivalent to peaceful coexistence.  This alignment is, perhaps, the best one may get in some times and places.  But, if one seeks mutual respect, then something more active than toleration and coexistence is necessary.  To prevent stereotyping and caricatures of people who worship differently than you do, then something more active is necessary.  In a Huffington Post article, Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare of the National Cathedral, suggests that what can unite us is the ancient activity, persistent social custom of hospitality:
Unlike some political options taken to address the poor treatment of minority groups, hospitality refuses the fantasy of neutral ground and instead emphasizes how friend, stranger and even enemy can hold things in common even in contested spaces and places. To host a meal or discussion with a stranger situates action and discourse in a common location with joint recognition. Hospitality is neither a construction of friendliness nor is it an appeal to holier-than-thou toleration. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, the notion of the stranger was not only a designation for outsiders, but also part of a communal identity for a people who were strangers themselves in Egypt and Babylon. "You shall love the stranger as yourself," God says in Leviticus.

Among Christians, hospitality has an equally firm divine mandate. Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew, "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me," along with the central symbolic action of sharing a meal, equates making room for the vulnerable with welcoming the presence of God. The recourse in Islam to the virtues of ʾIbrāhīm (Abraham) as the exemplar of hospitality, a friend of God and a host of many guests, only elevates the importance of mutual encounter between host and guest.
In many places throughout the world, toleration would, indeed, be an improvement.  But with the instability of governments where, oftentimes, minority communities are made into scapegoats for a nation's woes, earlier tolerance itself becomes precarious.  Is the ancient tradition of hospitality--even towards one's enemies--the solution?  I'm not sure, but it is definitely worth considering.  Indeed, as a similar article a few years ago suggested, one can remain true to one's own tradition while learning from others'.

On Creative Historiography

There has been seemingly increased discussions of what unites the humanities and the sciences.  One area that seems to unite different branches of knowledge is creativity, as well as a sense of wonder.  In a more limited scope, the ancient historian Robin Lane Fox reflects on the limits and potentials of creativity in historiography versus fiction.  In his Travelling Heroes, he begins with what looks like the basic assumptions of those writing fiction versus those writing history:
Novelists, surely, need to imagine, whereas earthbound historians have only to collect as mundane information as survives. (p. 4)
 Yet he begins to break down this dichotomy of data gathering versus creative imagination, showing the constraints in fiction and the role of the imagination in history-writing:
Yet novelists become constrained by their own creations and by the need for them to be coherent as they develop.  Historians must amass and collect but they then have freedoms too.  It is for them to assess the credentials of what survives, to pose questions which some of it helps to answer, and to check that there is not other evidence which tells against their answer and which cannot be explained. (ibid.)
While the role of assessing evidence may seem tedious, the art of asking questions does, in fact, involve a great deal of imagination, seeking to ask the questions that will make the most sense of the evidence, but also make the back-and-forth of question-and-answer engaging for the contemporary reader.  The question is the catalyst, however, that unleashes much greater creative energy:
As they reconstruct a life, a practice or a social group, their sources control their image of it, but they also need to imagine what lies beyond their surface, the significant absences and latent forces.  When they imagine these absentees they need to think how life would have been beyond their own particular lives.  "I wish I was here, or I wish I was there...":  these thoughts also flash in minds which have travelled far among evidence for other times and places. (ibid.)
This definitely an important observation coming from an eminent ancient historian because of the nature of ancient evidence.  Reading absences is tricky, yet a persistent necessity.  We see peaks of icebergs and know that the major evidence remains submerged, latent.  We work with scraps and pieces, nothing even close to a coherent picture arises from the evidence alone.  That picture derives from historians peeking under the surface into the abyss of the unknown, seeking to imagine ancient life from its surviving detritus (often quite literally) of literary and archaeological remains.  Whether novelists, historians, or members of other branches of knowledge, we all balance our limiting constraints (coherence, evidence) with free imagination to pose questions to our world and seek answers.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Importance of Silence

I just read this interview with Trappist monks just outside of Montreal on silence.  This paragraph caught my eye:

Are all your actions done in total silence? How do monks coordinate work? There must be a small amount of words that are absolutely necessary to get through a day?
Father B: No, not all work is done in silence, though we try to keep a silent atmosphere whatever we do, even common work. We talk to convey necessary information; the point is to get to the point and stick to the point and the capacity for that varies from person to person. The ideal isn't to see who keeps the strictest silence but for all to help maintain a silent atmosphere.

This says on one level that silence is in our lives to create an ambience of recollection so I'll remember and honor God's presence. On another level, silence reminds me that the misuse of words, the abuse of language can also be the sinful abuse of people; silence for us means not talking, more than not making noise… On yet another level, silence means listening. We follow the Rule of St. Benedict and the first word of that Rule is "Listen." That's the great ethical element of silence: to check my words and listen to another point of view. I'll never have any real peace should my sense of well-being depend on soundless peace. When I can learn the patience of receiving, in an unthreatened way, what I'd rather not hear, then I can have a real measure of peace in any situation.
For more on Trappist silence, you can read just about any of the works by Thomas Merton.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Terry Eagleton on Sensitive Reading

I just read an interesting interview with Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton.  It covers a multitude of topics of interest, and several elements caught my eye in a general way concerning politics, religion, and culture (by the way, his discussion of the failed modern surrogates of religion is quite interesting).  But one that caught my attention in a specific way that has quite practical implications:
How do you feel about current literary criticism? You were an episode in the history of literary criticism yourself, in a sort of transition phase from Leavisism to the present day…
I’ve got a book coming out called something banal like How To Study Literature because I fear that literary criticism, at least as I knew it and was taught it, is almost as dead on its feet as clog dancing. That is to say, all of the things that I would have been taught at Cambridge—close analysis of language, responsiveness to literary form, a sense of moral seriousness—all of which could have negative corollaries… I just don’t see that any more. Somewhere along the line that sensitivity to language which I value enormously got lost. I didn’t really know about this because I had moved up in the echelons of academia and I wasn’t close enough to the undergraduate ground as it were to be aware of this. But when I got to Manchester [Eagleton began teaching at the University of Manchester in 2001], I was appalled by the way that people could be very smart about the context of a poem, but had no idea about how to talk about it as a poem. Whereas even if one did that badly or indifferently, it was still something one automatically did, in my day. This book coming out next year is really an attempt to put literary criticism as I see it back on the agenda. And to talk about questions of things like value, what’s good, what’s bad, form, theme, language, imagery, and so on.
I agree; it is a lost art.  I tend to find that most of my students aren't used to it; haven't done it; and so I always try to incorporate it in my assignments.  It is how I start every new project--reading very closely, sensitively, and then bringing in broader and broader contexts.  I remember as a TA for the historian, Robert Somerville, we would periodically give an entire class a quiz in which they would have to read closely a passage from a primary source dealing with Christian history, break it down first and then place it in its social, historical, and theological contexts.  This was often what I spent nearly a year doing when teaching Literature of the Humanities.  I remember one of the best classes I ever taught was a two-hour session where we did not venture beyond Genesis 1:1-2:3.  We read it closely, analyzed the language, looked at how different verbs were being used, repetition, variation in repetition (there is a lot more variance than people typically discuss), its architecture and broader organizational patterns, before turning to broader ideological implications (gender, etc.), and contextual issues of Sitz im Leben and historical context.  It is something I bring into my Bible classes.  My second exam (we have three) is always for them to read a passage of about fifteen lines, and struggle with that passage, discussing its language, imagery, form/structure/organization, themes, and then arguing why those elements, put back together, are significant in context.  They struggle at first, because they are not used to it, but I get some quite stunning analyses by the end.  I remember taking a class with Seth Schwartz, historian of ancient Judaism, where he said that you can't just read a text, but you have to be aware of and clear concerning how you are reading a text.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Moses' Beauty (again) according to Philo

            As I am reading Philo for reading his discussions of Moses’ visions, I cannot but help return to this strange little obsession of mine with Moses’ “beauty” (ἀστεῖος).  In a previous post (from February--wow how time flies), I discussed the terminology and usage in the New Testament (Acts 7 and Hebrews 11).  There I had some helpful comments, and I have looked up how this little verse in Exod 2:2 has been re-interpreted by Rabbis, Josephus, and, here Philo.  It is time to put this into a little bit of context.  

            Naturally, one turns to Philo’s Life of Moses, although the terminology appears elsewhere.   In this work it appears in the following passages:

Now, the child from his birth had an appearance of more than ordinary goodliness (ἀστειοτέραν), so that his parents as long as they could actually set at nought the proclamations of the despot (1.9; trans.Colson LCL)

Compare this with: 
Therefore, surveying him from head to foot, she [the Pharaoh’s daughter] approved of his beauty (εὐμορφίαν) and fine condition, and seeing him weeping took pity on him, for her heart was now moved to feel for him as a mother for her own child (1.15).

And again:
As he grew and thrived without a break, and was weaned at an earlier date than they had reckoned, his mother and nurse in one brought him to her from whom she had received him, since he had ceased to need an infant’s milk.  He was noble and goodly (ἀστεῖον) to look upon; and the princess, seeing him so advanced beyond his age, conceived for him an even greater fondness than before, and took him for her son…. (1.18-19)

In the Life of Moses at least, Moses’ beauty, signaled primarily by ἀστειοτέρον and ἀστεῖον, although with some synonymous terminology, serves the purpose to explain why he was saved by his parents and why Pharoah’s daughter was so willing to take him in.  Nonetheless, we see some adjustments made:  it is not just for his birth, but an ongoing trait of his advanced status.  His physical “beauty” mirrors his general physical and, later, educational advancement.  The other adjustment is that, unlike the LXX and the New Testament, he does not just have “beauty” or “goodliness,” but is “more” so, signaling at his birth his superlative, and, for Philo, unique stature. 

            Moses’ beauty, or goodliness as Colson translates it, appears in other treatises as well. 

On the other hand the mind called Moses, that goodly plant, given the name of goodly (ἀστεῖος) at his very birth, who in virtue of his larger citizenship took the world for his township and country (ὁ τὸν κόσμον ὡς ἄστυ καὶ πατρίδα), weeps bitterly in the days when he is imprisoned in the ark of the body bedaubed as with “asphalt-pitch,” which thinks to receive and contain, as with cement, impressions of all that is presented through sense.  He weeps for his captivity, pressed sore by his yearning for a nature that knows no body.  (Confusion of Tongues 106; Trans. Colson and Whitaker, LCL)

Moses, here, stands for a type of mind—one that contrasts with the Noah-mind.  Both were put in arks of asphalt and pitch (that is, the body).  The Noah-mind, when the world presses in, find the body a source of strength; the Moses-mind, the higher mind, finds it oppressive, recognizing the body cannot give real safety; the body is mutable upon the waves of life's seas, but the highest mind of the most virtuous is stable.  The mind-type (Moses) is, again, ἀστεῖος, and finally Philo plays his hand.  He uses it to transition smoothly into Moses (and the minds who emulate him) as cosmopolitan (world citizen)—the world is his city, his ἄστυ. 
            Finally, the term shows up again in the amusingly titled On Mating with Preliminary Studies 132:

This is Moses, the mind of purest quality, the truly “goodly” (ὁ ἀστεῖος ὄντος), who, with a wisdom given by divine inspiration, received the art of legislation and prophecy alike, who being of the tribe of Levi, both on the father’s and the mother’s side, has a double link with truth.

As with On the Confusion of Tongues, Moses being ἀστεῖος is no longer just about physical appearance, but of quality of mind.  But this passage takes it even a step further:  it is linked with Moses’ ability to receive the revelation of the divine legislation; it ties, in fact, three out of the four roles he would have according to the Life of Moses (law-giver, prophet, and high priest—assuming that is the point of emphasizing his link with Levi—the only thing missing is him as philosopher-king).  The link between his beauty/goodliness and his prophetic abilities would reappear in Rabbinic sources as well.
            Philo readily exploits the LXX rendering of Moses as ἀστεῖος (Exod. 2:2).  He uses it exegetically to explain why his parents saved him—and other parents did no such thing—and why Pharoah’s daughter took an instant liking to him:  it all came down to his appearance.  In this case, it is further amplified with synonyms of beauty and nobility as well as made “greater goodliness/beauty.”  Moreover, it mirrors Moses’ overall advanced status: it is not just of body, but of mind.  Philo pushes the terminology further, looking to its Stoic resonances, when speaking of the Moses-mind:  the mind that emulates Moses’ beauty/goodliness.  Using a term that literally means “of the city” allows Philo to transition smoothly into Moses’ virtues as a cosmopolitan, one for whom the entire cosmos is his “city.”  Moreover, as something beyond a physical quality, it interlinks with Moses’ prophetic abilities:  it is the mind of the greatest purity and, thereby, the mind that can commune with the divine.

Book Note: Ascent of Christian Law by John Anthony McGuckin

I just saw that the newest book by John Anthony McGuckin, Ascent of Christian Law:  Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization, has come out.  McGuckin was one of my mentors in graduate school.  I took a couple classes with him on Byzantine Christianity.  His hobby horses have lately been concerned with Symeon the New Theologian and translating mystical liturgies.  He is especially known for his intellectual biography of Gregory of Nazianzus.  Although in the past decade he has had an explosion in publication output, I was still a little surprised when I discovered a couple years ago that he was researching a book on Byzantine canon law. 

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This little book is some form of answer. It is a
book on law and legal thought as it emerged in its
formative ages of the Christian past; it asks what the
ancient writers and theorists did with law and legal
thought. It is part history, part philosophy, and more
than anything else an introduction to issues of law and
legal adjudication in the Patristic and Byzantine eras.
 I have put it in my cart.

Seeing Speech, or God and the Senses (3): Synesthetic Visions of the Divine in Philo

While working on Christian hermeneutic mobilizations of Moses’ divine visions (or lack thereof), I am indulging myself by reading quite a lot of Philo's writings.  Philo was extraordinarily interested in the intellectual, contemplative vision of God, seeing with the mind’s eye rather than the bodily one.  Therefore, there is so much one could say about how Philo conceives of the possibilities and limitations of divine vision and how they relate to his most exemplary visionary, Moses, whom he refers to as the greatest and most perfect man who ever lived (Life of Moses 1.1), the most beloved of God (Migration of Abraham 67; On the Confusion of tongues 95-97), and the friend of God (Heir of Divine Things 21).  There are astounding discussions of Moses’ visions, especially concerning the burning bush (astounding for its rather unexpected reticence), Moses’ entrance into the darkness where God was, and Moses’ vision of archetypal reality (the “pattern of the Tabernacle”).  There are extensive discussions of Moses and the elders ascending the mount and seeing God (from Exod. 24) as well. Philo does not hold back to calling Moses "God," and gives him many of the same characteristics of the "Logos" (both, by the way, are archetypal high priests).
            These discussions are real gems that often have implications well beyond the passage itself, bits and pieces taken up again elsewhere in the treatise or in other treatises; they are overlapping discourses that one could spend a lifetime unraveling.   As usual, however, I am fascinated by things Philo says in passing.   Little things catch my attention and I want to unravel them.  One such remark is his discussion of synesthetic visions:  that is, seeing the divine voice (Given this instance of synesthesia, I am going to cross reference this discussion with my "God and the Senses" series).  Referring to Exod. 20:18 LXX—“all the people saw the voice”—Philo writes,
Now, a certain man, setting at nought this ordinance [about the Sabbath], though the echoes of the divine commands about the sacredness of the seventh day were ringing in his ears, commands promulgated by God no through His prophet but by a voice which, strange paradox, was visible and aroused the eyes rather than the ears of the bystanders, went forth through the midst of the camp to gather firewood, knowing that all were resting in their tents. (Life of Moses 2.213; trans. Colson LCL)
The point of the passage is to describe how the death penalty came about for abrogating the Sabbath command.  This ordinance is heightened by the fact that it is, according to Philo, given without the typical intermediary (Moses), but directly by the voice of God.  Yet, in a strange case of synesthesia, the divine voice is seen and not heard.  Although, as I have tried to show in other posts (see "God and the Senses" tag) that a fuller understanding of human-divine contact employs language from all of the senses, Philo distinctly privileges seeing over hearing (as do the Rabbis; see Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Bahodesh, 2).  Those who hear are “Jacob,” but those who see are “Israel” (pick up a treatise nearly at random, and you’ll see Philo discussing at some point “Israel” and seeing).  He is interpreting a peculiar translation in the LXX of seeing the voice, but does so to heighten the importance of the Sabbath command.  He does not, however, reflect here on the paradox of seeing sound. 
That he does, however, in Migration of Abraham 47-53.  It is too long to quote in full, but there are some important points to quote at length:
For what life is better than the contemplative life, or more appropriate to a rational being?  For this reason, whereas the voice of mortal beings is judged by hearing, the sacred oracles intimate that the words of God are seen as light is seen; for we are told that “all the people saw the Voice” (Exod. 20:18), not that they heard it.  (Migration of Abraham 47; trans. Colson and Whitaker LCL)
Before proceeding to Philo’s explanation of seeing the divine voice, resolving the paradox, we have to understand why he brings it up at all.  Opening with the rhetorical question of what life is greater than the contemplative life—the answer is “none”—he proceeds to the foundational moment at Sinai.  All of the people at Sinai who see the divine voice are, in this way, prototypical contemplatives:  those who do not just hear, but who see the divine things.  Contemplating through the eye of the mind divine speech (which Philo does continually through commentary; his meditations on the Bible are themselves visual contemplations of the divine voice) is the way to ecstasy (see Migration of Abraham 34-35), the heights of ascend and divine sight.  See as Moses did; and, if not that advanced, as the Israelites did.  This is in contrast to Rabbinic discussions which saw the event as unique—that general would see the divine in a way that not even Isaiah or Ezekiel would (MRI, Shirta, 3; Bahodesh, 9; see further Deuteronomy Rabbah 7:8; cf. Numbers Rabbah 12:4).  Philo continues to explain this paradox of seeing divine speech:
For what was happening was not an impact on air made by the organs of mouth and tongue, but virtue shining with intense brilliance, wholly resembling the fountain of reason, and this is also indicated elsewhere on this wise:  “Ye have seen that I have spoken to you out of Heaven” (Exod. 20:22 LXX), not “ye heard,” for the same cause as before.  In one place the writer distinguishes things heard from things seen and hearing from sight, saying, “Ye heard a voice of words, and saw no similitude but only a voice” (Deut. 4:12 LXX), making a very subtle distinction, for the voice dividing itself into noun and verb and the parts of speech in general he naturally spoke of as “audible,” for it comes to the test of hearing:  but the voice or sound that was not that of verbs and nouns but of God, seen by the eye of the soul, he rightly represents as “visible.”…  This shews that words spoken by God are interpreted by the power of sight residing in the soul, whereas those which are divided up among the various parts of speech appeal to hearing. (Migration of Abraham 47b-49)
Philo explains the paradox of seeing speech by calling upon a couple things at once:  (1) the distinction between human and divine and (2) what exactly does the seeing.  Firstly, human speech is divided up into different parts of speech by vocal organs operating upon the air.  Throughout his writings, Philo is careful not to confuse human and divine qualities.  God does not have a mouth, so to speak, or organs of speech in the bodily sense.  Human speech is sequential and divided; the implication is the divine speech is a unity and, therefore, synchronic.  As he concludes:
The truth is that our sound-producer is not similar to the Divine organ of voice; for ours mingles with air and betakes itself to the place akin to it, the ears; but the divine is an organ of pure and unalloyed speech, too subtle for the hearing to catch it, but visible to the soul which is single in virtue of its keenness of sight. (52)
Secondly, bodily eyes cannot see the divine in Philo; the soul’s or Mind’s (the highest part of the soul) is what sees the divine.  There is also a hint of this in this passage.  In the intervening passage that I did not quote, Philo speaks of how things to be sensed and interpreted by the mind, as he says here, are attracted to those places “akin to it.”  So perfumes waft to the nose; savours to the tongue; etc.  Likewise, the divine voice is interpreted by the place most akin to it, which, oddly, is not the ears, but being a pure thing is interpreted by that “organ” of purity (if, indeed, it has been kept pure and virtuous), the soul.  The rational soul doesn’t smell, hear, taste, or touch; it “sees.” As Philo elsewhere waxes rhapsodic when the “voice of God came” to Moses:  “It suggests a loud, sonorous, continual appeal, pitches so as to spread abroad throughout the soul, whereby no part shall be left to which its right instruction has not penetrated, but all are filled from end to end with sound learning” (Heir of Divine Things 67).

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Christian Moses: Moses the Seer and Christian Authority

In a previous post, I laid out a preliminary hypothesis of why Christians were increasingly appropriating Moses' visions on Mount Sinai and to what ends:  asking the questions of "what did early Christians say Moses saw on the mountain?" and "why does it matter?"; that is, exegesis and its social implications.  I want to elaborate that working hypothesis a little bit, with the understanding that it is a working hypothesis--a general guide to my research and something that will, most likely, change as I accumulate more sources.  

Whenever I have noted to others that early Christian authors make Moses a proto-Christian or that, according to early Christian literature, that in his visions he foresees Christ or, somehow, more directly encounters Christ, the inevitable response is “of course they do.”  But I think an important dimension is often overlooked in this response:  that by making Moses not just a proto-Christian seer, but, being the prophet par excellence, he is being offered as the ideal Christians should emulate.  Still….of course….they do…  In this response, however, he will not just be co-opted as the ideal Christian, but as the ideal Christian leader; he is mobilized exegetically, especially his visions upon the mountain.  His sexual abstention to see God is invoked by Christian monastics, and, as the episcopacy increasingly is taken over by monks, it too would invoke the example of Moses for their own practices and the powers and authority that accrues to them through those practices laid down by Moses.  In his actual ascent upon the mountain to mediate between God and the people, Moses enters into the dark cloud and see the “pattern of the Tabernacle,” allowing him to see, enter, and comprehend the very essence of all things, whether God (dark cloud) or cosmos (“pattern”):  by seeing the very form of God (Num. 12:8), he becomes the ideal for the Chrisitan seer.  He is not just any Christian seer, but those at the height of the hierarchy (literally speaking).  Noting Moses’ unique status, they claim it for their own to now stand between God/Christ and the people/church.  Co-opting Moses’ visionary abilities, they highlight those abilities even greater than their more ambivalent Christian predecessors in a double-move to reinforce their own authority.  Building upon trends in the New Testament, this occurs in three interrelated maneuvers that lead to a fourth post-New Testament claim:
1.     Jesus as prophet like Moses; Moses as proto-Christ (this is all over the place, but most often in Gospels, most patently in Matthew; see also Acts).  Jesus picks up on Moses’ intermediary role, as one who gives and interprets God’s covenant, and stands between God and the people.  In a way, this justifies Jesus' authority and provides continuity.
2.      Moses the visionary who sees and does not see.  In NT, Moses does not see God; no one sees God, but the Son (except in Hebrews 11).  Once denying all access to God except through son, and concurrently noting that Moses received law through angels; then Moses is demoted as Christ is promoted, even as Moses is praised as an exemplary prophet who foreshadows Christ throughout.  Moses' visions are suppressed in order to promote Christ as greater.
3.     If Moses and Christ are not always fully models of each other, we also have concurrent traditions of Moses as proto-Christian (the flip side are that Christians can emulate Moses).  Moses can foresee Christ (either through interpretation of law, or literally).  He also acts as Christians ought to act (Hebrews).  His “proto-Christian” status is especially highlighted in Hebrews, but, interestingly, Hebrews who carefully delineates the differences between Moses and Christ as servant and Son respectively restores Moses’ visionary abilities in ways not found in other NT texts.  Having already claimed that the Son was greater in chapter 3 (citing the same verse in Numbers that claims Moses was ideal seer), Moses could then see the invisible God in chapter 11 and endure suffering for Christ.
4.     Especially as we move in the post-NT period, we find a reaffirmation and reassertion (and sometimes amplification) of Moses’ visionary abilities among those who would be considered orthodox in later years (interestingly, not so much among, for example, Gnostic works), but now it is not that he sees God, but sees Christ (something that might lie behind the affirmation in Hebrews, but it left implicit at best there).  This happens in multiple ways:  he foresees Christ; he literally sees Christ (and anytime anyone claims to see God, they see Christ pre-incarnate); and the weird thing on the mountain where Moses’ ascent to Mt Sinai and Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain is the same event (not a foreshadowing, not a typology, but the same event), bending the laws of space and time.  Once Moses is the seer of Christ, he can be set up as the model of a mediator between God and people again, but no longer God and Israel, but Christ and the Church.  Thereby, he becomes the perfect model for early Christian leaders, who mediate between God and the people.  In this way, he is not just co-opted as a proto-Christian; as an analogy, or even as an exemplary model to follow (although he is all of these):  he is the justification for Christian clerical authority—they can invoke him as a proto-mediator of whom they are now the current iterations.  Once this fourth piece is in place, the exegetical mobilizations explode--even to the point that his role "as god" (Exod. 7:1) will be reaffirmed!