Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the 3rd Century CE

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MrMacSon
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Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the 3rd Century CE

Post by MrMacSon » Wed Jan 02, 2019 12:32 pm



a conversation...took place in the late classical world, a conversation about spirits, both good and malign. At times, this conversation was heated, combative even, but at other moments it was surprisingly pacific [pacifist] given the contentious nature of the subject matter and the temperaments and ideological commitments of those involved. This conversation took place across important sectarian boundaries among a group of intellectuals whom we might loosely categorize as late Roman Platonists of one variety or other. Although this group includes a wide array of intellectuals, from writers of certain Nag Hammadi texts to the producers of Greco-Egyptian ritual (or “magical”) handbooks, the central figures are Origen, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and to a lesser extent, Plotinus.

... in the late second and third centuries CE...these philosophers began to produce systematic discourses that ordered the realm of spirits in increasingly more hierarchical ways. These “spiritual taxonomies”...were part of the overall theological and philosophical writings of these thinkers and were projected onto and ordered more “local” or “popular” understandings of spirits, which, although totalizing in their own right, were less concerned with hierarchy and precise ontological and moral distinctions between different kinds of spirits. Most people in antiquity thought about and encountered gods, angels, daemons, heroes, souls of the dead, and other intermediate spirits as relatively diverse, indeterminate, unclassified, and, at times, capricious, ambiguous, and even ambivalent ...

... many of the texts found in the Nag Hammadi codices contain very complex cosmological narratives that elaborate systematic, ordered accounts of the emanation, creation, and proliferation of all kinds of spirits. Individuals and groups who read and disseminated these texts at times earned the scorn of figures such as Plotinus, Origen, and Porphyry for a number of reasons. However, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, the narratives found in these texts serve as an important missing link for understanding what motivated these intellectuals to develop their own cosmological and taxonomic discourses and to refine their thinking on the kinds of beings that populated the spiritual realm. [Chapter 3] argues that despite their critiques of various facets of the “Gnostic” worldview, Plotinus, Origen, and Porphyry drew much of their inspiration and thinking from texts such as those found in the Nag Hammadi codices and their adherents. By making this argument, this chapter is also involved in re-thinking the marginal status of these texts and the groups who used and treasured them, bringing them back into the center of late Roman conversations about spirits in philosophical circles.

Chapter 4 continues to answer the question of why these philosophers created their taxonomies when they did. Part of the answer to this question emerges when we take seriously the concern of these thinkers about proper ritual. The discourses that they constructed were one aspect of their efforts to demote and discredit ordinary priests. This chapter demonstrates that by associating these priests with the worship of lesser and even evil spirits, Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus were able to reserve the title of high priest for themselves. These thinkers used their ability to discern, locate, and delimit spirits and to interact with them to give weight to their own authority. Even Iamblichus, the champion of blood sacrifice and defender of traditional rites as part of his theurgic system, was involved in minimizing or excluding the importance of certain other ritual experts in order to establish himself as the highest authority on divine and cultic matters. In other words, the taxonomic discourses of these philosophers served as a textual basis for their claims to expertise and authority. This chapter also links their efforts to establish this kind of hieratic identity with their soteriological concerns and commitments around the question of universal salvation.


Conclusion

The third century has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly attention with respect to a few circumscribed topics: economic hardship, political up-heaval, Christian expansion and persecution. It has frequently been referred to using the language of crisis. And yet it was a century of intense, rich, and diverse conversations, all of which took place in a highly flexible, mobile, permeable social landscape. This study attempts to illuminate the bold, innovative, and entrepreneurial maneuvers of a small group of philosophers working to carve out a unique niche for themselves and their associates using a rather peculiar strategy, namely, the production of comprehensive discourses, ontological, moral, and sometimes even mythical, that ordered the realm of spirits.

The third century has often been treated as a kind of “Middle Age” of the postclassical world, a “Dark Age” mediating between Roman glory and Christian triumph. Putting aside the fact that humans don’t live according to ages and centuries, and focusing on the aforementioned intellectual richness and creativity of the decades during which Plotinus, Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus were in dialogue with each other and with a wide range of interlocutors who have tended to fade into the shadows, this study hopes to demonstrate that their conversations about spirits are critical to understanding what came before and after them.

Although when we imagine these figures, we may be inclined to see them whispering quietly among themselves in the sunny rooms or porticos of their patrons’ urban homes and extra-urban villas, murmuring about the bodies of angels and the salvation of demons, talking to no one but their most intimate associates, they themselves sought out much greater audiences, placed themselves more squarely in the center of things, and worked very hard to jostle their competitors out of the center and into the periphery, a place where many of them have stayed until rather recently.

Heidi Marx-Wolf (2006) Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E., University of Pennsylvania Press; pp. 1, 9-11.

Last edited by MrMacSon on Wed Jan 02, 2019 3:34 pm, edited 2 times in total.

robert j
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Re: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the 3rd Century CE

Post by robert j » Wed Jan 02, 2019 2:02 pm

[highlighting mine]
MrMacSon wrote:
Wed Jan 02, 2019 12:32 pm


... This study attempts to illuminate the bold, innovative, and entrepreneurial maneuvers of a small group of philosophers working to carve out a unique niche for themselves and their associates using a rather peculiar strategy, namely, the production of comprehensive discourses, onto-logical, moral, and sometimes even mythical, that ordered the realm of spirits.

Heidi Marx-Wolf (2006) Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E., University of Pennsylvania Press; pp. 1-11.

Philosophical work on that which "ordered the realm of spirits" is "sometimes even mythical"?

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Re: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the 3rd Century CE

Post by MrMacSon » Wed Jan 02, 2019 2:39 pm

robert j wrote:
Wed Jan 02, 2019 2:02 pm


... This study attempts to illuminate the bold, innovative, and entrepreneurial maneuvers of a small group of philosophers working to carve out a unique niche for themselves and their associates using a rather peculiar strategy, namely, the production of comprehensive discourses, onto-logical, moral, and sometimes even mythical, that ordered the realm of spirits.

Heidi Marx-Wolf (2006) Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century C.E., University of Pennsylvania Press; pp. 1-11.

Philosophical work on that which "ordered the realm of spirits" is "sometimes even mythical"?
There does seem to be a bit of tautology in that rather tortuous sentence, but the work is about ordering "the realm of the spirits", and even seeking to re-order or re-categorise them, hence the reference to "spiritual taxonomies". Here's more -

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Plotinus, Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus were not the only ones making...soteriological claims at the time. Given that these writers lived in a highly competitive and uncontrollably diverse world, culturally speaking, in a period when philosophical schools proliferated, opportunities for social mobility were expanding, and the religious landscape was shifting rapidly, it should come as little surprise that these thinkers had to contend with each other and with other intellectuals with diverse backgrounds and training. This study takes a closer look at the individuals or groups that these late Roman Platonists sought to malign in the course of establishing their own authority over the realm of spirits. Using the lens of spiritual taxonomy, this study explores the precise nature of this competition, demonstrating that the philosophers under consideration were, in fact, competing for the intellectual and social upper hand with two main groups, priestly experts such as those associated with the Greek magical papyri, and so- called Gnostics.

Members of both of these groups were also involved in identifying and ordering the realm of spirits and in providing the ritual means for dealing with this realm. By looking at these groups in tandem with third-century philosophers, this study demonstrates that all of them were much closer— far more inter-connected socially, educationally, and intellectually— than previously recognized. Hence, although Origen, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus give the impression that the individuals and groups they critique are clearly distinct from their own circles, these philosophers were, in fact, in direct competition for social and intellectual capital with other priests, ritual experts, and producers of taxonomic discourses.

... The tendency to classify the ritual handbooks and other artifacts published together as the Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM) as “magical” or as some problematic and degenerate subcategory of “religion” has meant that until very recently it has been difficult to entertain, much less trace, concrete connections between the priests behind these texts and contemporary philosophers and other intellectuals. A similar scholarly framework has tended to view so-called Gnostic myth and theology as either a devolved Christianity or a devolved Platonism, or both. This study rejects the decline and devolution framework, and in so doing, 'foregrounds' connections that both labels, “magical” and “Gnostic,” have tended to obscure. [pp. 2-3]

[the inverteted commas around foregrounds are mine]

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Re: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the 3rd Century CE

Post by MrMacSon » Wed Jan 02, 2019 3:03 pm

More -

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In the fourth century, one sees increasing tension between these two groups as religious boundaries become more clearly drawn and violently enforced. Yet, one of the key questions this study seeks to answer is whether in the third century, a century punctuated by sporadic, infrequent violence against Christians, religious identity was the primary category determining the positions philosophers and intellectuals took on specific ideological issues. It also asks whether the interactions across this boundary were universally or even predominantly hostile, or whether we find evidence of productive dialogic exchange and shared conceptual categories. Indeed, the spiritual taxonomies of such thinkers as Origen, Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus force us to re-think how we conceive of religious identity in late antiquity. As will become clear, the evidence indicates that religious identity, both Christian and non-Christian, was under construction in the third century. Hence, it is impossible to fit thinkers as complex as the ones under consideration here into clearly defined religious groups. This is because there is little evidence that such groups existed in the ways in which we tend to think of religious or ideological affiliation today. Hence, efforts to delineate clear, impermeable, and inflexible boundaries between such groups as Christians, Jews, Hellenes, Gnostics, and so forth are, by their nature, problematic and anachronistic.

By engaging this set of questions, this study challenges a model that has informed many late ancient studies for some time and has only recently been called into question by the work of scholars such as Miriam Taylor, Daniel Boyarin, Harold Drake, and Elizabeth DePalma Digeser. Miriam Taylor calls this model “conflict theory,” a model that sees most exchanges over religion in late antiquity through the lens of conflict and hostility between clearly defined confessional groups.

Taylor compellingly calls into question the usefulness of this model for understanding late antique Jewish Christian relations. Taylor is joined in her views by Daniel Boyarin, who argues that Christian orthodoxy and rabbinic Judaism were born at the same moment in history as a result of a protracted period of exchange and contest. Harold Drake has demonstrated that a similar delineation of boundaries took place in relations between Christians and others in the fourth century, which obscured earlier Christian efforts to emphasize points of commonality and agreement between Christians and non-Christians.

In her book A Treat to Public Piety, Digeser illuminates points of contact, influence, and agreement between Christians and non- Christians in the third century. Digeser clearly demonstrates that figures such as Plotinus, Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus were in regular and enthusiastic conversation with each other, in particular, in the informal school settings of Alexandria and Rome. Her careful excavation of evidence for the interconnections and conversations among these philosophers provides much of the important background for my study. Hence, her work serves as one starting point in my efforts to focus on what these writers and teachers had to say to each other on the topic of spiritual taxonomy.

[pp.4-5]
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DCHindley
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Re: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the 3rd Century CE

Post by DCHindley » Thu Jan 03, 2019 12:17 am

The 3rd century CE Roman world was a period of chaos and a breakdown of the unsystematic way that Romans dealt with economics (they did not seem to have a systematic set of economic laws mapped out as as we do since the 17th century), and introduction of pagan equivalents to Christian or Judean revealed religion. Neo-Platonists, especially, had their own adopted "scriptures" in the Chaldean Oracles, which was not strictly Platonic but close enough for them to be used for personal meditations. Unfortunately, only fragments survive. :thumbdown:

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Re: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the 3rd Century CE

Post by MrMacSon » Thu Jan 03, 2019 9:07 pm

DCHindley wrote:
Thu Jan 03, 2019 12:17 am
The 3rd century CE Roman world was a period of chaos and a breakdown of the unsystematic way that Romans dealt with economics (they did not seem to have a systematic set of economic laws mapped out as as we do since the 17th century), and introduction of pagan equivalents to Christian or Judean revealed religion.
Yes, the Roman Empire started going downhill from the late 2nd century. There was a surprising theological response by some emperors, resulting in what was essentially Roman monotheism for the last couple of decades of the 3rd century and the first couple of decades of the 4th: something that is surprisingly hardly ever mentioned and may have made it easier for Constantine to eventually switch his allegiance to Christianity (he didn't do so until the 3rd decade of the 4th century) ...

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Re: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the 3rd Century CE

Post by DCHindley » Fri Jan 04, 2019 7:27 am

MrMacSon wrote:
Thu Jan 03, 2019 9:07 pm
DCHindley wrote:
Thu Jan 03, 2019 12:17 am
The 3rd century CE Roman world was a period of chaos and a breakdown of the unsystematic way that Romans dealt with economics (they did not seem to have a systematic set of economic laws mapped out as as we do since the 17th century), and introduction of pagan equivalents to Christian or Judean revealed religion.
Yes, the Roman Empire started going downhill from the late 2nd century. There was a surprising theological response by some emperors, resulting in what was essentially Roman monotheism for the last couple of decades of the 3rd century and the first couple of decades of the 4th: something that is surprisingly hardly ever mentioned and may have made it easier for Constantine to eventually switch his allegiance to Christianity (he didn't do so until the 3rd decade of the 4th century) ...
IIRC, he legalized it officially once he became emperor (I forget the exact date and cannot access the detail as I am on break at work). Before then and back to 305 CE, and for varying periods in various parts of the empire (there were multiple emperors, called Augustuses and Caesars), Christianity was merely tolerated,

Break is over boss. Back to work! :banghead:

DCH

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Re: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the 3rd Century CE

Post by MrMacSon » Fri Jan 04, 2019 11:09 am

DCHindley wrote:
Fri Jan 04, 2019 7:27 am
IIRC, he [Constantine] legalized it[Christianity] officially once he became emperor (I forget the exact date and cannot access the detail as I am on break at work) ...
In February 313 AD Constantine (then emperor of the western Roman empire) and Licinius (then emperor of the east) signed a letter called The Edict of Milan that proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman Empire (including granting all persons freedom to worship whatever deity they pleased).

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