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REVIEWS

 

 

Andrew Welburn, The Beginnings of Christianity: Essene Mystery, Gnostic Revelation and the Christian Vision. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1991.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

 

Those readers who have been intrigued by Andrew Welburn's previous articles on early Christian esotericism in Novum Testamentum, Vigilae Christianae and elsewhere will have had their appetites whetted to get a look at his larger synthesis, provided in the present book. Welburn is well-read in the ancient sources, many of them largely neglected in most treatments of Christian origins, as well as in recent scholarship on those sources, much of it neglected as well. Welburn has cast his net more widely and in less-fished places because he is an adherent of the Anthroposophical creed of Rudolf Steiner. This allegiance is the root of both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the book. A passing judgment Welburn renders on the Johannine commentaries of Valentinians Heraclides and Ptolemaeus seems to apply equally to his own book: "Their exegesis admittedly involves a certain amount of special pleading for the specifically Valentinian [or Steinerian] system" (p. 264) without detracting from their great value. The Beginnings of Christianity reads too often like what it is: apologetics for the clairvoyant "spiritual research" whereby Steiner claimed to be able to read the past off the all-pervasive Akashic Records. Again and again Welburn tells us how modern exegetical and archaeological findings tend to confirm the prescient judgments of Steiner on the character of earliest Christianity.

I am frequently reminded of the efforts of apologists for Velikofsky in a different field. In both cases, the approach is to borrow from whatever scholarly theories and conclusions happen to approximate the views of the Master and to treat just these hypotheses as "the" results of scholarship, when they are no more secure than any of the other myriad of disparate theories. The field of New Testament scholarship is so vast that one will not look in vain for bits and pieces of theories which chance to coincide with opinions held by a sectarian seer on other grounds entirely. Welburn seems to wind up judging certain exe-guesses superior, even compelling, insofar as they tend or seem to corroborate the Akashic readings of Steiner: "Was the [Stoic] logos-teaching the 'mystery' to which Paul referred in the Letter to the Corinthians? The obvious possibility that it was is rendered a certainty, I believe, by two things. One is the startling exactness with which the doctrine matches Rudolf Steiner's account of the esoteric conception behind the statements in the Corinthian letters" (p. 225).

Too often the emerging shape of the esoteric Christianity Welburn "discovers" in various canonical and extracanonical texts and attributes alike to Jesus, Paul, and John (= Lazarus) seems to take its broad outline from Anthroposophy and Steiner's theory of the evolution of consciousness. From the massive ocean of early Essene, Gnostic, Mandaean, Hermetic ideas, Welburn fishes out those with the most salient relation to Steinerism and connects the dots in a way suggested by the Anthroposophical paradigm. The most flagrant case occurs in Chapter 8, "The Two Messiahs." Beginning with the Qumran doctrine of the Levitical and Davidic messiahs, Welburn works things around to the intriguing stories in the Gnostic Book of Baruch and the Pistis Sophia in which the youth Jesus merges with an angelic entity, a kind of spirit double. Welburn does not put his cards on the table, but to anyone familiar with the esoteric system of Steiner, it is apparent what he is getting at. Welburn is hinting at Steiner's breath-takingly audacious harmonization of the Matthean and Lukan nativity stories. In Steiner's The Gospel of St. Luke we learn that the two nativity stories are those of two separate children named Jesus, one the reincarnation of Zoroaster (hence the object of the Persian Magi's veneration in Matthew), the other of Solomon! The Zoroaster-Jesus then dies, freeing his spirit to enter into the body of the Solomon-Jesus!

It is clear that Steiner was himself something of a Gnostic mystagogue, a spinner of myths and creator of imaginary worlds. One reason his speculations and revelations so often coincide with bits and snippets from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices is that Steiner was familiar with scholarship on the Essenes and Gnostics based on what was already known of them in his day. He wasn't working in a vacuum. Another reason is that he was simply thinking like the ancient esotericists, about the same issues, and with the same biblical raw materials. In the same way the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and William Marrion Branham managed to rediscover mythemes in the biblical texts that ancient sectarians had found there, without knowing of these exegetical predecessors. Ioan Couliano, in his The Tree of Gnosis, argues that there need have been no genealogical link between ancient Gnostics and the medieval Cathari and Bogomils; they were just playing the same game with the same pieces.

But then this means that the paradigm of Steiner is after all potentially quite valuable in any quest to understand the way the early Christian sectarians and occultists may have viewed matters. As Welburn says early on, Steiner had an imaginative knack for envisioning the kind of living emotional, social and ritual realities that are presupposed by our ancient texts. Too often scholars are content to treat these texts as mosaic pieces to fit into a flat mural of the history of ideas, something like a picturesque but grotesque Dispensational chart. Welburn follows Steiner's lead in filling in the outlines of living people and their experiences. And here it is the mystic, the occultist, the enthusiast who may have the advantage, since it "takes one to know one."

To put this another way, Welburn has carried the paradigm of Walter Bauer (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity) a significant step further. Bauer was working his way toward the reconstruction of ancient polymorphous Christianity from an essentially orthodox mindset. He was venturing into alien territory, finding ways to detect realities that according to his own theological sensibilities should not have been there. Thus the greatness of his achievement. But now that we know how diverse the early Christianities were, it is helpful for someone like Welburn to scrutinize the evidence afresh and, unlike Bauer, from a "heretical" viewpoint. One often feels that more orthodox establishment scholars just cannot break with their theological pedigrees to take seriously that the Gospel of Philip may have to be taken as seriously as the Gospel of Mark in reconstructing earliest Christianity. If it occasionally surprises the reader of Welburn to see his simply assuming that the Gospels of Thomas and Philip actually stem from the disciples of those apostles, it should make the reader pause to ask how arbitrary it may be to accept traditional ascriptions of authorship (or at least slippery claims of "apostolicity") for canonical books.

Another factor, seriously considered by Welburn but neglected to the point of invisibility in contemporary scholarship, is the likely influence of Zoroastrianism on Gnosticism, Essenism, and the canonical New Testament books. It seems to me that mainstream scholars are far less quick to consider the extent and significance of Zoroastrian influence on the New Testament than on the Old, and that this reluctance stems from their theological presuppositions about the Old Testament as mere preparation for the New. The former they will allow to have suffered the intincture of pagan influence, while the latter they are inclined to view as pristine revelation pure and simple. Possible Buddhist influence on early Christianity, an intriguing question once taken seriously by scholars, but long since fallen from the table, is another such case.

One of the major arguments against the theory of F.C. Baur (as well as the most futile) was that his assigning of the various New Testament writings (and parts of writings) to the Petrine thesis, the Pauline antithesis, and the Catholicizing synthesis was merely a function of his dogmatic Hegelianism and represented the forcing of the data into alien molds. Insofar as Baur was a Hegelian, the most one might say is that he was thereby predisposed to be on the lookout for cases of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, a type of phenomenon common enough to have suggested to Hegel his schema in the first place. Do the New Testament writings seem to manifest Judaic, Pauline, and Catholicizing features? It seems hard to deny that they do, though post-Baur research has shown much more going on besides. But I mention this criticism of Baur to introduce a like caveat about Welburn's paradigm. It seems to me that here we are witnessing a case of isolated data being appropriated in the interest of a complex alien conceptual framework, Steiner's philosophy of the history of consciousness. Did Steiner really derive his theory from a historical induction from the early Christian textual evidence? No, obviously he had other equally significant sources. Trying to derive his system from early Christian texts as Welburn does strikes me as a burden fully as onerous as that which would be borne by a Roman Catholic who felt obliged to justify the traditions of his church by an appeal solely to the Bible, as if much or most of it had not instead derived from tradition and ecclesiastical imagination.

 

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