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New Testament Studies

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The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity

Charles H. Talbert

In spite of its popularity, the contention that the Christian conception of Jesus as a descending-ascending saviour figure was derived from the gnostic redeemer myth faces serious problems. Three are widely noted; another needs attention. (I) The sources from which our knowledge of the gnostic myth comes are late: e.g. the Naassene hymn, the hymn of the Pearl, the Mandean materials, the Manichean evidence, the accounts in the church fathers, and the Nag Hammadi documents. Sources from Chenoboskion like the Paraphrase of Shem, the Apocalypse of Adam, and the Second Logos of the Great Seth do contain a myth of a redeemer that is only superficially christianized. Hence the gnostics may not have derived their myth from Christians. It does not follow, however, either that Christians got it from gnostics or that it is pre-Christian. (2) A redeemer myth is not essential to gnosticism. Though gnosticism may contain a redeemer myth (e.g. the Naassene hymn), it may exist without one. In Carpocrates' system, for example, Jesus' soul remembered what it had seen in its circuit with the unbegotten God. The Ophites in Origen's Against Celsus know of no descending-ascending redeemer. They look to an earthly being who fetches gnosis from heaven. In Poimandres, the writer is the recipient of a vision in rapture. He then teaches the way of salvation. Indeed, the proto-gnosticism of Paul's opponents in I Corinthians apparently did not contain a redeemer myth. Such evidence demands that a distinction be drawn between two issues: (a) whether or not there was a pre-Christian gnosticism, and (b) whether or not there was a pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth. Since a redeemer myth is not constitutive for gnosticism, the existence of a pre-Christian gnosis is no guarantee for the presence of a gnostic redeemer myth. (3) In the Christian sources where the gnostic myth has been assumed to be influential (e.g. the Fourth Gospel), there is no ontological identity between Christ and the believers as in gnosticism. There is, in the Christian writings, no pre-existence of the soul or redeemed redeemer. Given these difficulties, why the attractiveness of the gnostic hypothesis?