Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Thoughts on Justin’s Book of Baruch

Ancient of Days (1794)
by William Blake (Wikipedia)
Hippolytus of Rome called it the worst of the heresies, yet the Book of Baruch, attributed to a gnostic leader named Justin, remains virtually unknown today. Until perhaps the next big ancient manuscript find, the text only exists in part, preserved in the Refutation of All Heresies.* Containing material obviously borrowed from the Old Testament, many scholars view it as an example of primitive Jewish Gnosticism with some later Hellenistic and Christian influences. Yet, when I read it, it seemed more fundamentally Greek, appearing to illustrate the superiority of “platonic love.”

By “platonic love,” I don’t mean amour platonique, the kind of non-sexual close friendships homeschoolers believe they can have with the opposite sex. I’m referring to amour platonicien, the pederastic master-student relationship idealized in Plato’s Symposium and other works. Although I am admittedly neither a scholar of gnosticism nor Greek philosophy, I thought that it would be an interesting exercise to look into this matter. For that reason, my point of comparison for this text is not any passage or teaching in the Bible, but opinions expressed in Plato’s Symposium, although not all necessarily held by the philosopher personally.

To begin: The Book of Baruch is essentially a creation and redemption myth, designed to enlighten its readers as to the mysteries behind Justin’s cosmology. Unlike the dyadic gnostic stories, the Justinian one introduces a trio of deities: the almighty Good, decidedly gendered as male, and two creator demiurges, one male (Elohim) and one female (Edem or Israel). These demiurges we might denominate “Father Sky” and “Mother Earth,” and each displays both gender and sexual characteristics. It is their lustful sexual union that brings about heavenly beings, mankind, and animals.

While later Gnosticisms would style the male creator god as hopelessly evil, Justin allows his to be redeemed. When the proud Elohim ventures into the heavens, he discovers Good, and is humbled. He then abandons Edem and their creation to devote himself entirely to the service of this almighty Good. The rest of the story tells of how revengeful Edem uses her angels to torment mankind, while Elohim is obliged to send, through his angel Baruch, familiar figures such as Moses, the prophets, Jesus, and even Hercules – yes, you read that correctly – to turn the people back to Good.

The connection that I believe exists to Plato’s Symposium lies with the way relationships are presented in the text. Elohim leaves his earthly sensuous relationship with his wife for a vastly superior one with his enlightened teacher. The male-male bond is intellectual and focused on achieving wisdom and virtue (i.e., “good” in the most literal sense). It is the ideal eros, represented by Aphrodite Urania (“Heavenly Aphrodite”), directing its participants’ attention to the divine. In contrast, Edem is decidedly ignorant and bestial in nature. Elohim’s love with her aims not for honorable goals but for bodily pleasures, which one could expect from Aphrodite Pandemos (“Common Aphrodite”), who represents vulgar, bisexual love.

While the union between Elohim and Edem originates out of lust and gives birth to the physical creation, we can imagine that the union of Good and Elohim would reproduce the same great intangible qualities expected of couples among the Athenian intelligentsia. To be fair, there’s no indication that Good and Elohim consummate a “chaste” erotic relationship, as the men and youths of Plato’s day were expected to do. [Update: In fact, the Book of Baruch apparently outright condemns pederasty, or even homosexuality in general, when discussing the serpent Naas leading Adam and Eve astray. However, I hope my readers recognize that my hypothesis concerns a spiritual male-male union, rather than sexual one.] In addition, the Symposium speaks of developing the soul (in contrast to the body) while Justin speaks of saving the spirit by abandoning the body and soul. However, despite these differences in the details, I believe that the Book of Baruch depicts and celebrates something akin to a particular Hellenistic ideal of love. I hope that I’ve made at least an opening case for further investigation.

*For the Book of Baruch, I have relied on the constructed text provided in Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer’s The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. The available material is taken from Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies, Books V and X, which can be found online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and The Gnostic Society Library.