Saturday, February 23, 2008

That Platonic Daimon again...

Every now and then when browsing on the internet, I come across discussions of "daimon" and statements that because Plato used the term to indicate "spirit" so could the Gnostics. I am rebuffed with the simple statement that "the Gnostics relied on Plato." This in fact is the exact argument that Bart Ehrman put forward during the Judas book session at the San Diego SBL. Oh, and also I am criticized because "angels" (a positive term) is used as well to describe the Archons.

I say, "Hold your horses!" (yes, I actually say this, because I'm an equestrian - and now I live in Texas!).

Let's think about this. The Gnostics had taken biblical theology to a new level by merging it with Platonic thought. But did Platonic thought (or biblical theology for that matter) look the same after the merger?

Plato had a demiurge, a creator god. Was he good or evil? He was good. And he worked hard to create the best possible world as a reflection of the world of forms. The world he created was the best that could be given the fact that it was a reflection of the higher world in the realm of matter. The soul can work to be freed from matter by pious living, and upon death, ascend back to the Good.

The Sethian Gnostics had a demiurge, Ialdabaoth. Was he good or evil. He was evil, an opponent to the high god, in a war against the high god. Because he was the one who created the world, it is a world of suffering and imprisonment. The only hope for freedom of the soul is for a redeemer to come and teach it how to get out of the cycle of imprisonment that contains it through Ialdabaoth's rule and destroy Ialdabaoth's army. No amount of righteous living is going to free the soul from the clutches of the demiurge. Only a redeemer more powerful than Ialdabaoth could do it. The redeemer comes as a spy in disguise, and ends up double-crossing the Archons, vanquishing them when he was crucified. He wins the war and saves the soul. This is NOT Plato's universe, but it is the Gnostics'.

Yes the Archons are called angels. But what kind of angels are they? They are the fallen or jealous angels who are battling the high god (cf. the fall of Satan myth, which was a myth that these Gnostics also merged with the Platonic myth). The good angels (the ones that didn't fall) are the Aeons who live beyond this cosmos. The daimons are the demons, which is another class of malicious beings created from a different substance than the angels. So in Sethian mythology the two nasty assistants to Ialdabaoth are Nebro(el) who is called a demon (daimon), and Saklas a jealous angel.

All of this is to say two things:
1. We have to be very cautious not to assume that the same word used in one tradition means exactly the same thing in another. This was the downfall of the History of Religions School, and we cannot make this same mistake twice! When a word is reappropriated (as the Gnostics did with Plato's ideas), meanings alter sometimes substantially. So what we have to do is figure out the tradition that has reappropriated the term, and how this reappropriation has been done.

2. The same word can be used in these texts to mean different things, and this wouldn't have been problematic for the audience who knew the bigger myth. Yes, Saklas may be called an angel, but he certainly wasn't one of God's good ones! Nor were any of the lesser Archons and their numerous assistants who dwelled in their heavens. They were literally called "armies" of angels (often translated "hosts"), and their enemy was the supreme God and his Son.

The conclusion remains that daimon in the Sethian context is negative. It means demon. And when you add "13" to the title (Thirteen Demon), the particular demon referenced is Ialdabaoth who dwells in the thirteenth realm. This is common Sethian mythology discussed in texts that were written in the same time period as the Gospel of Judas.


Frank McCoy said...

Two comments by Philo perhaps are relevant. The first is Som i 141, "These are called 'demons (daimonas)' by the other philosophers, but the sacred record is wont to call them 'angels (haggelous) or messengers, employing an apter title, for they both convey the biddings of the Father to his children and report the children's needs to the Father."

Here, daimons/angels are assumed to be good, but Philo does not always make this assumption--which brings us to the second statement by Philo in Gig 16-17, "So if you realize that souls (psychas) and demons (daimonas) and angels (haggelous) are but different names for the same one underlying object, you will cast from you that most grievous burden, the fear of demons or superstition. The common usage of men is to give the name of demon to bad and good demons alike, and the name of soul to good and bad souls. And so, too, you also will not go wrong if you reckon as angels, not only those who are worthy of the name, who are as ambassadors backwards and forwards between men and God and are rendered sacred and inviolate by reason of that glorious and blameless ministry, but also those who are unholy and unworthy of the title. I have as witness to my argument the words of the Psalmist, where in one of the psalms (i.e., lxxvii) we read 'He sent out upon them the anger of His wrath, wrath and anger and affliction, a mission by evil angels (haggelwn ponerwn).'"

I think this underscores two things. First, we need to interpret "daimon" and "angel" in terms of their contexts--for a daimon/angel might be good in one context, but evil in a second context. Second, in trying to understand what the Sethians meant by daimons/angels, it might be more useful to look at the works of Hellenized Jews like Philo than to look at Plato's works.

Jim Deardorff said...

It is only natural to interpret daimonas in the light of modern investigations, which would have to say that Plato and Philo, and some gnostics, were closer to the truth than are most modern religious views.

Studies of thousands of "cases of the reincarnation type", along with findings of past-life hypno-therapists, indicate the reality of the phenomenon.

The "good" daimons "go to the light" after the body dies, while the "evil" ones hang around awhile, perhaps either as ghosts or possessing another's body. The latter are amenable to being exorcised just as in certain Gospel miracles.

David said...

Does anyone know of any passage in the new Nag Hammadi Scriptures edited by Marvin Meyer wherein "daimon" is translated as anything other than demon? To my knowledge this only occurs in his translation of the Gospel of Judas. This tells me that scholars are in broad agreement that "daimon" in the context of Gnostic writings means demon. This seems to underscore Dr. DeConick's point that the Gnostics (or whatever they were) had a particular understanding of the word that is somehow distinct from Plato. Rather than appealing to Plato or Hellenistic Judaism, why don't we look at the texts that are closest in relation to the Gospel of Judas?

Also, I think that Dr. DeConick very helpfully directed our attention to the way Gnostics used Platonic thoughts in their own way. The Gnostic demiurge is quite distinct from Plato's. Even contemporary Platonists were uncomfortable with Gnostic philosophizing. We see this very clearly when Plotinus goes after Gnostics for their distortions of Plato's thought.

Jim Deardorff said...

Let me try for a link that works, to the work of Prof. Ian Stevenson's "cases of the reincarnation type." His approach, and those of later followers, is as scientific as it can get. Evidently we each possess our own "daemon," sometimes called "higher self." Hopefully, those of us who look into this research won't need to be called gnostics.

cheafam said...

Just yesterday Professor David Frankfurter gave a lecture at Harvard Divinity School on his research dealing with demons and demonology during the Christianization period of Egypt in late antiquity. The many issues involved with the word "daimon" and "pneuma" were discussed, and were pointedly brought up in a question asked by Professor Karen King.

She asked what Frankfurter might think "daimon" means in the context of a text written in the 2nd century in Greek/4th century in coptic. Everyone in the room knew exactly what she was talking about, and she even jokingly admitted so.

Professor Frankfurter hesitantly said that in the case of Judas, he'd see the term "daimon" reflecting more of a neo-platonic understandings of the term, rather than Christian/polemical uses of the term. He was quite hesitant though, and that specific issue wasn't discussed much further.

I found it very interesting, and thought I would mention it here as this is obviously a continuing discourse in which you are still involved.

For the time being, and I'd say for pretty obvious reasons, I'll keep myself anonymous. :)