Tuesday, June 25, 2013

God and the Senses (9): The Gospel of Truth

“For when they saw and heard him, he let them taste him and smell him and touch  the beloved Son” (30,23-31,35; trans. Marvin Meyer in Nag Hammadi Scriptures: International Edition). 

I have been reading a lot of the Nag Hammadi Codices lately, since many of my current research projects seem to intersect there.  While re-reading the Gospel of Truth, I found that it was full of multi-sensory language.  The Gospel of Truth, a profoundly original Valentinian homily (some even think it derives from Valentinus himself), effectively engages all five senses.  Indeed, in some ways, this one line encapsulates one’s relationship with the divine in this text: once you see and hear (initial steps), one then came come closer and taste, smell, and touch the divine, all indicating intimacy if not union.

Throughout the entire sermon, the speaker/author invokes sensory language.  There is, of course, a lot of visionary and auditory language, but there is also strong tasting/smelling and touching language as well.  Different types of senses seem to cluster around different types of ideas relating to salvation and ways of experiencing the divine.

Vision and Knowledge:  Seeing and failing to see serves primarily as a metaphor for understanding and knowledge (17,4-18,11; 28,32-30,23).  "Appearance" has ambivalent meaning: “mere appearance” can stand for the deficiency of the world (23,17-25,25), but there is also the positive appearance of truth (26,27-28,32).   Son is seen, but his name is invisible (as well as unheard, unpronounced, but uttered by whom the Name belongs) (38,6-41,3).

Hearing and Salvation:  the unutterable and unhearable name leads to issues of hearing.  There is some terminology of proclamation, but not much (19,34-21,25).  There is, again, great importance placed upon uttered and unuttered names.  Unlike the discussion of what can be uttered, this discussion is quite different.  Uttered and unuttered names (and "letters") refer to people who are called and those who are not called; hearing, therefore, serves as a metaphor for salvation.  This, in fact, sounds a lot like Paul in Romans 8:28-30.  The “letters” in this section suggest the names of those, who are called and lead to knowledge of the Father.

There is, moreover, the embodiment of the Word that was spoken (25,25-26,27)

Tasting (and Smelling):  Language of the Father:  Much of Valentinian theology surrounding the Father is basically apophatic, the via negativa.  Nonetheless, some more positive language occurs in smelling and tasting language.  Indeed, one finds in this text and throughout the Tripartite Tractate the fact that the Father is “sweet.”  Jesus is also sweet (23,17-25,25).  Smelling and tasting, in fact, are to the Gospel of Truth, the spiritual senses par excellence, far surpassing seeing and hearing:
“For the Father is sweet, and goodness is in his will.  He knows what is yours, in which you find rest.  By the fruit one knows what is yours.  For the Father’s children are his fragrance; they are from the beauty of his face.  The Father loves his fragrance and disperses it everywhere, and when it mixes with matter, it gives his fragrance to the light.  Through his quietness he makes his fragrance superior in every way to every sound.  For it is not ears that smell the fragrance, but it is the spirit that possesses the sense of smell, draws the fragrance to itself, and immerses itself in the Father’s fragrance.” (33,33-34,34; Trans. Marvin Meyer)

The superiority of smell over sound has a few advantages.  It seems to rely, firstly, upon a relationship between the concept of “spirit” and “breath,” which in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, etc., are the same word or from the same root word.  Breathing in is how you smell, and breath is spirit; therefore, smell is the sense of the spirit.  Hearing, moreover, is a response to sound; while obvious, hearing discernable sounds in communication would violate the principle that the Father is ineffable; smelling, however, is difficult to describe (except, in this case, as sweet).  It approaches ineffability in a way that hearing and seeing do not.

If one smells the Father, one tastes the “place of rest” (41,3-43,24).  Tasting is associated with the experience of salvation; and, moreover, tasting largely in biblically-derived sources seems to largely be equivalent with “experiencing” something: tasting death; tasting the heavenly gift (Hebrews), etc. 

Touching the Father’s Mouth:  Smelling is an especially intimate act, but touching is, at least in the Gospel of Truth, more so.  “Whoever loves truth, whoever touches truth, touches the Father’s mouth, because truth is the Father’s mouth.  His tongue is the Holy Spirit, and fro his tongue one will receive the Holy Spirit” (26,27ff).  While mouth and tongue connected with truth would, most of the time, be associated with hearing; in this case, it is touching.  It is more intimate; touching a mouth and tongue evokes a scene of kissing.  It, in that sense, resembles Origen’s spiritually erotic interpretation of “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (Song of Songs 1:1) as the intimate messages given between Christ and the soul, combining kissing with the conveyance of truth, perhaps a truth that surpasses discursive thought.  

In short, vision relates to knowledge and understanding; hearing relates to calling; but things that surpass understanding, things that surpass language, are best expressed in terms of smelling, tasting, and touching.  I think the most startling aspect of the Gospel of Truth is its reservation of smelling as the highest or most spiritual sense, if not the only sense that is truly spiritual.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Taking the Bible Seriously (As Literature)

There is a nice review of Robert Alter's newest installment of his translation of the Hebrew Bible in the Tablet.
In Ancient Israel, Alter has reached the part of the Bible with the most to say about history. The Pentateuch begins in myth and ends in moral exhortation; its most famous legends are precisely that, legends, which can only be accepted as true by an act of faith. Adam eating the apple, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Moses parting the Red Sea—these are not the kinds of things that can be corroborated with outside evidence. Starting with the Book of Joshua, however, Ancient Israel moves into a more recognizable world of power politics, in which the main events are wars between tribes, states, and empires, and the intrigues of kings and courtiers. Toward the end of Kings, when we read of the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian Empire and the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, we are dealing with events that also appear in extra-biblical inscriptions and documents. Somewhere along the line, the Israelites have evolved from a holy family into a political entity, with all the compromises and disappointments that entails.
Be sure to read the rest of it here, especially the bit about David.

How Did Protestants Lose the Apocrypha?

It is a few days old, but Philip Jenkins has an interesting informative post (definitely worth the read) on Protestants and "Apocrypha."