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.


Drastic Plastic said...

Would you say something about why losing the category "magic" (and placing all magical texts into the category "religion") is helpful?

You see, I would have thought, in general terms, that reducing the number of descriptive terms and broadening their meaning was unhelpful? -- almost the reverse of what we seek to do when we analyse and categorise, which is to create categories for them?

It is undoubtedly true that some religion can be classified as witchcraft or theurgy, of course.

Jared Calaway said...

Great question.

Firstly, I do not think magic is a descriptive term; it is a second-order, or analytic category. While in the past, there has been a lot of theorization of the boundary between "magic" and "religion," it turns out that much of the discussion reinforces polemical views: what I do is religion; what others do is superstition or magic. The same is true, at least until the modern period, of terms of "witch" and "witchcraft." Theurgy, however, might be a little different in this regard. That clearly weakens these terms' usefulness as an analytic category and clearly demonstrates that it is not a first-order term.

Even if one dismisses that and speaks of it as a neutral second-order category, then it is simply unhelpful. Firstly, there is nothing that would make this not the province of religion, but rather a type of religion or perhaps a way of being religious. These are ritualized actions that call upon a deity for a particular purpose--something that could describe most religions! That is, if there is a relationship between religion and magic, it is not one of opposition, but magic as a sub-type of religion more broadly.

This leads to another issue. Again, ritualized actions used to invoke a deity for a particular purpose is also what people do in prayer, worship services, and sacrificial systems that we typically label as religion. Looking at Christianity, much of these texts resemble NT accounts of Jesus healing (especially when he puts mud on the eyes of a blind man to make him see) or exorcism.

As such, I think it is best to consider these simply religious practices just as we would consider sacrifice, prayer, exorcism, healing, etc. They may be religious practices of a particular type, but I don't think the people who engaged in them saw them as opposed to religion as such, but as a means in participating in the economy of the sacred.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this lucid overview!
You'll probably be aware that the "I am God NN/divine element" formula is the key device in ancient Egyptian theurgy from times immemorial, which is the likeliest origin of the PG/DM "I am" formulae. I remember Gerard Mussies touched upon the topic from a Hellenistic point of view, in particular the Isis aretologies.

Henry Stadhouders, Utrecht University

kmafli said...

Thanks for the post! While Early Christianity and its environs are not what I normally read on, your post was thought provoking.

It is interesting, at any place in time, that we as a people adapt our available knowledge to fit the culture that we are in and our understanding of the cosmos.

It is as good reminder as we try to find an understanding of the Bible that puts its context in the original cultures, and not our own.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the post! While Early Christianity and its environs are not what I normally read on, your post was thought provoking.

It is interesting, at any place in time, that we as a people adapt our available knowledge to fit the culture that we are in and our understanding of the cosmos.

It is a good reminder as we try to find an understanding of the Bible that puts its context in the original cultures, and not our own.

Jared Calaway said...

Henry. I am aware that these formulas are extraordinarily old, yet I find them striking each time I see them as they are continually adapted to altering circumstances in Hellenistic and Roman antiquity.

"kmalfi"--thanks for your comment, which succinctly states one thing that underlies a great deal of what I hope to elucidate.