Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Cultural Tumult

Dialogue of the Saviour

Sayings such as those in the Gospel of Thomas attest to the fact that Jesus was a rare genius with a wildly creative, idiosyncratic vision of reality, in which apocalyptic immanence provides a shamanic gateway to the mystery of the Kingdom.

"It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all.
From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend.
Split a piece of wood, and I am there.
Lift up the stone, and you will I find me there."

In the song track Dialogue of the Saviour, I have tried to convey the rich intoxication of Yeshua’s gnostic and apocalyptic sayings interlaced with “Thunder Perfect Mind, to declare the full dimensions of this non-ordinary relationship with reality expressed by Yeshua and the femme fatale.

His gnostic sayings and the events described in the synoptic sources come together to present a disturbingly complex multi-faceted figure, engaged in a rite of passage, archetypal, not just of the Hebrew tradition, but of all the cultures which Judea and the greater Israel, as a crossroads of the Near East, had come to experience. Traditional cultural perspectives on Jesus are Jerusalem-centered, with some concessions to the Pharisaic wider community, but the Northern tradition had a different emphasis, exemplified by the sacrifical Josephic as opposed to the resplendent Davidic mashiach, and only Judea had survived the Assyrians, subjecting the Northern areas to continuing influence of diverse cultures. While there may have been a focal collision between pagan Rome and Yahwist zealots, the diversity of worship in the countryside and in the areas surrounding the Jordan led to Jesus assuming a culturally-encompassing interpretation of apocalypsis.

This cross-cultural nature of Yeshua’s mission is little recognized because, like the gnostic gospels, it runs counter to Christian concepts of Jesus as Christ, and yet it is the catalyst for his counter-cultural mission of controversy, blasphemy and insurrection and is key to the wild spread of Christianity outside the Holy Land. Outstanding and central are the disquieting sinister dimensions - chaotic transgression, whipping up emotions to the point of violence against himself, radically pretentious claims to be the soma and sangre of God, and miraculous dread unparalleled in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, whose style and purpose, many devout Jews found blasphemous and offensive.

Three illustrations suffice to state the obvious. In Luke, his mission is declared when he enters the synagogue at Nazareth and picks out the black verses of Isaiah 61 in which the reader becomes the self-anointed bridegroom messiah. But then, adding insult to injury, he claims no great miracles were performed by the prophets except to the gentiles - Naaman the Syrian and the Widow of Sidon. The crowd are moved to throw him off the cliffs, but he melts away and escapes.

In John’s account he claims to be the flesh and blood of God sine qua non:

“Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.”

From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him and the situation becomes the trigger for Jesus to preemptively cast Judas in the role of betrayer in the ensuing conflict of dark and light:

“Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?””

Jesus is renowned for outlandish miracles, beginning with the water into wine at Cana at the behest of his mother, on the epiphany of Dionysus’s festival, extending to walking on water in the Sea of Galilee, and ranging from healing the man with the withered arm on the Sabbath to infesting the herd of pigs with a horde demented spirits, so that they ran into the Sea of Galilee and drowned. Although the power of the miracles was a mirage that evaporated in his home town in Mark’s account, “And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them”, they stand as signature of Yeshua’s supernatural status. Such miracles form an account spanning the activities of Dionysus as subterranean God of wine and alternative reality and of the healing powers of Aesculapius.

References to Jesus of Nazareth in the Talmud, although few, are telling of the derogatory light in which he was viewed by traditional Rabbis. Talmudic commentators refer to Jeshu-ha-Notzri by mention of the wicked kingdom of Edom, since that was his nation, also calling him Balaam the Lame, reflecting his own oblique comment “physician heal thyself”. The Mishnah also says:

“It has been taught: On the eve of the Passover they hanged Yeshu ...
because he practised sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray”

Aretas and Shaliqat of Nabatea

Behind the Holy Land, a rich Arabian kingdom had grown up in Edom, which came to its heyday in the time of Jesus. The Nabateans and their Edomite predecessors originally worshipped the elemental Goddess al-Lat, and the ancient Lord of Seir, dhu-Shara. They had become viti-culturalists and the influence of the Greeks led to dhu-Shara assuming a Dionysian form as a man-god of Gaia, whose tragic mask conferred immortality on the wearer, and to al-Lat becoming a more iconic manifestation of the fertility Goddess. Aretas IV and Shaliqat ruled together as consorts, as declared on their coinage. In many ways a resurgent Nabatea epitomized the fertility rites performed on every high hill and under every green tree, which formed a counterpoint to apocalyptic Judaism.

The fates of Nabatea and Herodian Judea were deeply entwined. When Salome is attributed to have danced the belly dance of the seven veils – the Descent of Inanna-Ishtar – in front of Herod’’s assembled generals in a manner directly reflecting the same deadly allegory in Esther, her dance was pleasing to the eye. In response, Herod offered the traditional appeasement of up to half his kingdom to the personification of the Queen of Heaven. In return, at Herodias’s request, Salome darkly claimed the head of John the Baptist because he had accused Herod of marrying his brother’s wife. This was not just a personal jibe that could be overlooked. Herod’s generals were present because Herod’s previous wife, the Princess of Nabatea, had had to run for the cover of her home country via Machaerus on the two countries border, in fear that Herod was seeking to have her killed. In response, the Nabateans declared war on Herod’s territories, which is why Herod was ostensibly holding a war party banquet with his generals in the same castle.

Although Christian sources portray John as deferring to Jesus, the Mandeans of Southern Iraq, who appear to be a scattered remnant of the Baptist’s followers, like the Rabbis, regard Jesus as a false usurper of the messianic cloak, whose teachings are a distraction from the true path: “While John lives in Jerusalem, gaining sway over Jordan and baptising, Jesus Christ shall come to him, shall humble himself, shall receive John's baptism and shall become wise with John's wisdom. But then shall he corrupt John's sayings, pervert the Baptism of Jordan, distort the words of truth and preach fraud and malice throughout the world.”

Nevertheless John’s baptism of Jesus, again on the Dionysian epiphany, and John’s subsequent beheading become signals that incited Jesus into his own transformative mission. However, in contrast to John’s eating locusts and honey and wearing sack cloth and ashes, Jesus takes a very different path: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners! But wisdom is justified of all her children”.

Lord Adonai the Bridegroom

In the next breath, in Luke, Yeshua is anointed on his feet by a woman ‘sinner’. In Mark (and Matthew), he is again anointed by a woman but on the head with spikenard - for his burial, because of the waste in Judas’s eyes. In John it is Mary of Bethany who anoints his feet with spikenard and intimately wipes them with her own hair, the ritual again ostensibly for his burial for such excess, amid a backdrop of blasphemy in atonement – a life for Lazarus’s life.

The Christ Messiah is literally an anointed’ one, who in terms of Hebrew mashiachs, were traditionally men who ushered in a time of long-term future goodness. David and Solomon were anointed by a priest and never by a woman. We thus have to ask why Jesus is so ostentatiously anointed in the synoptics in various ways by a woman and why it is a woman who plays the sacrificial role of anointing him to his doom in a ritual betrayal.

Of course in his ostensible first reading of Isaiah 61 at Nazareth, it is not a woman, but the Lord, who hath anointed one to preach the acceptable year, but in this very passage arises another very peculiar title, that of the bridegroom, who in Isaiah is also associated as much with the bride. This ostensibly conjugal title is regarded by Christians as representing the relationship between Christ and his church in the shadow of the Song of Songs, which, despite its lasciviously sensual undertones, is acclaimed by Rabbis as the Holy of Holies, with an inner truth enshrining the love song between God and the bride Israel, desecrated in Ezekiel by the whoring ways of the bride against the groom Yaweh.

This picture of the Bridegroom exists in a state of denial of the frank dimensions of sacrificial fertility worship throughout the gospels. In Thomas, Salome asks: “Who are you, man, that you ... have come up on my couch and eaten from my table?” in response to Yeshua’s apocalyptic foreboding: “Two will rest on a bed: the one will die, and the other will live.” This passage is a clear allegory of the hieros gamos bed of a woman, and a man who is to be sacrificed.

Likewise John, while explaining that Jesus loved Marty and her sister Martha, has Jesus telling Martha, who is troubled by her domestic role, that Mary is to play “that good part”, again suggesting a hieros gamos: “But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Mark and Luke also refer to the bridegroom with sacrifical foreboding: “Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.”

Thomas echoes this in an older saying, also in the synoptics, again referring to the bridal chamber: “Jesus said, “What is the sin that I have committed, or wherein have been defeated?” But when the bridegroom leaves “the bridal chamber, then let them fast and pray.”

John alleges the Baptist’s acclamation, again acknowledging the bride: “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.”

Later passages in the synoptics continue the metaphor of the bridegroom. In Mark, the five foolish virgins, missed the midnight wedding feast with their bridegroom because they did not trim their lamps:

“And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came;
and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage:
and the door was shut.”

Luke here takes a more apocalyptic twist. The bride has now become the eschatological church in a similar sense to Ezekiel. “Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”

However Yeshua’s relationship with the women goes much deeper than allegories written years after his death by imaginative gospel writers. There are repeated accounts of the women who ministered to Jesus out of their substance. In Luke this passage also cites Mary Magdalen as associated with seven devils – the same seven galla of hell that emerge to chase Dumuzzi in the descent of Inanna and the dance of Salome: “And it came to pass afterward, that he went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalen, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.”

Why is Magdalen cited in this way as possessing the seven galla of Inana? What are the devils that Jesus is claimed to have ‘cast out’ of them? Ministering unto Jesus of their substance is both an inferred sexual reference, as is anointing with spikenard, as the Song of Songs declares, and it is an implication that the entire mission was financed by the women, as the Greek version suggsts.

In Mark’s reference we see another dimension connected with the crucifixion: “There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; (Who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.

In his hour of tribulation Jesus curses the daughters of Jerusalem but never the women of Galilee who play so a central a role in the rite of passage: “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.”

John again refers to Magdalen, as the one who discovers the risen Jesus in an apparition of the gardener, “Noli me tangere” echoing the sacrificial undertones of the Song of Songs, in which the lover had withdrawn himself and was gone from the bride who was a lily among the sacrificial thorns of her sisters.

We thus see that, not only were the women of Galilee possibly consorting with Jesus, and at the least financing the entire mission, but they also arrived en mass to witness the sacrificial performance. They seem to have played a central role in anointing him to his doom, and when the male disciples scattered like Zechariah’s sheep, they remained present, embalmed him, and were first to witness the ‘resurrection’ – all in all a closed cycle of fertility.

Also profoundly disturbing is the fact that the only married woman in the entire saga appears to be Joanna and in last hour Mary the wife of Cleophas. Mother Mary was admitted to have been unmarried and pregnant in Matthew: “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily." Likewise there is no record of Mary Magdalen, nor Mary nor Martha of Bethany, nor Salome, nor Jesus himself of having honoured the commandment to go forth and multiply - a sacred duty in the Hebrew tradition.

Nikos Kazantzakis in “The Last Temptation of Christ” illustrated this complex suggestive relationship dilemma, setting Jesus in polygynous romantic liaisons with Mary, Martha and Magdalen in terms the Catholic church found highly blasphemous, yet this has been a recurring theme around which the bloody repression of the Albigenses and the Cathars revolved – i.e. that Jesus and Magdalen were sexual partners. It was also espoused by the Free Spirit movement, in alleged orgiastic rites by their inquisitors, and woven into medieval mythologies surrounding the arrival of the Marys Salome and Jacobi with Sara-la-Kali in an oarless boat on the shores of France at Saintes Marie de la Mer.

We also know that the gnostic tradition revolves in part around the special relationship Mary Magdalen had with Jesus, expressed in the Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary and the part Mary. Martha and Salome may have played in becoming vessels of the inner path after his ‘departure’.

In John, despite some claims that the entry is a later redaction Jesus is supposed to have liberated the woman caught in adultery without blame, and in the good company of the anointing ‘sinner’ and Magdalen’s seven devils, we have a nexus of intimations that the women were in some sense sacred priestess prostitutes. The sexual metaphor is echoed in the rending of the temple veil in the pangs of Yeshua’s passing – a clear symbol of the female domain, echoing again the female wounding in the Song of Songs. This is strangely echoed in Yeshua’s ‘genealogy’ in which four ‘fallen’ women of history, Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and Ruth all figure.

When we come to Yeshua’s statements on marriage, when challenged to comment on the lawfulness of patriarchal divorce we find him citing the ‘Elhoistic genesis – “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder”, which has been used over the centuries to deny divorce. But there is a very different hidden message here - the sacred Tantric union of woman and man, extolled in both the Kabbala and the dance of Shakti and Shiva, with or without wedlock.

I have long troubled over this attitude of Jesus and distilled the dilemma into a song called Marriage in Heaven, which poses this dilemma between sacred marriage and de facto transgression, including what was not said, as much as what was, which states the paradox that has overshadowed Christian marriage down the generations pretty fairly.

Tragic mask of Dhu Shara

The True Vine

The second aspect of Jesus’ advent that is strongly reflective of the wider cultural synthesis is his assuming the Dionysian mantle of miraculous dread, tragic theatre, working under the care of female maenads, adopting the titles of True Vine, winebibber, and inciting the populace into chaotic states of controversy, both hysterically enthusiastic and violently rejecting.

Yeshua’s miracles begin in John with the marriage at Cana, the first miracle possibly from an older miracle list. This is a water-into-wine event reflecting the powers of Dionysus, and according to Uta Ranke Heinmann, on the epiphany of Dionysus’ advent. Strangely for Mary’s later disengagement with Yeshua’s mission John claims this feat is performed at his mother Mary’s request. They extend from work as a faith healer, amid fomenting controversy in the synagogues and temple by violating the Sabbath, and led on into outrageous miracles of the turbulent deep, such as claming the storm, walking on water and ruffling the waters in the pool at Bethesda. His powers waxed in the presence of excited crowds and waned in the closer scrutiny of home ground. As Uta Ranke-Heinmann wryly put it - it is not that crowds came towards Jesus because he healed them, but rather that he healed them because crowds came toward him.

Despite his quest of forgiveness, Jesus directs his energies primarily towards transformation through controversy, hysteria and social chaos, repeatedly provoking audiences in the synagogues and temple to striving to take his life. He attacks the Romans and the Herodians, insults the Pharisees and confounds his inquisitors with paradoxical answers and blasphemously pretentious claims to be the incarnate son of God. He is followed by excitable crowds and produces a sacred repast from morsels of bread and fish, while his blasphemous statements lead his own disciples to desert him. He incites demons to drive a herd of pigs into the Sea of Galilee, calms the storm, walks on water and ruffles the water in the pool at Bethsaida.

All of these associations with storms, water, pandemonium, people or animals driven to distraction, are the province of the subterranean God of altered states, not the Hebrew tradition. It is this very alien miraculous dread that Christians see as signature of Yeshua’s supernatural status as Lord of the universe, but its cultural origin, as the Rabbis noted, lies in the fertility Gods and this is why the worship of Jesus swept the pagan world and, apart from a small Jewish Christian following apparently stemming from his own family, was rejected by the Judaic tradition.

In addition Jesus specifically lays claim to be the True Vine, the winebibber and a gluttonous man, all of them characteristics of Dionysian debauchery and viticulture. At the last supper he institutes a sacred repast consisting of eating his flesh and blood just as was the soma of Dionysus. In preparing for the crucifixion, Jesus is not just envisaging and apocalyptic confrontation between dark and light and the Kingdom coming with Power, but is also carefully setting in motion the enactment of a rite of passage in the form of a Dionysian sacred tragedy in which all the dimensions of catharsis and regeneration will be set in motion together.

In “The Passover Plot” Hugh Schonfield drew attention to the care with which Jesus planned details such as the lodging for the last supper and the ass to stage the regal procession of the King under the palm fronds. All the elements of the passion, from the turning of the tables, through the betrayal, the Saturnalia, again a rite of ritual dismembering in the fertility tradition of the descent, the passing between the High Priests and their Passover crowds, Herod, Pilate and the other players from Simon of Cyrene to Bar-abbas, echo with an ornate structured plot of an ultimate ritual descent calculated to reverberate on all cultural dimensions. The rapid fading of Jesus and his removal without his bones being broken, his subsequent disappearance after careful ministering by the women only add to the mystery of the cathartic tragedy of renewal.

“You are my Mother and Brothers”

A key to the culturally discordant nature of Yeshua’s mission lies in his complex, yet highly equivocal and ambiguous relationship with his family. Mary, who at first appears to incite Jesus to play the role of the wine god, is later disclaimed, along with his siblings. In Mark, and in Thomas when his mother and brothers seek him he disowns them, calling the multitude mother and brothers instead: "Your brothers and your mother are standing outside." He said to them, "Those here who do the will of my father are my brothers and my mother. It is they who will enter the kingdom of my father."

In John, the situation is worse. His brethren do not believe in him and are disclaimed as ‘finished’ by Jesus: “His brethren therefore said unto him, 'Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world.' For neither did his brethren believe in him. Then Jesus said unto them, 'My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready.'"

Nevertheless, as we know, the Gospel of Thomas declares Yeshua’s brother James the Just to be the inheritor of the church, rather than Peter the Rock, and the desposyni, the line 'belonging to the Lord', became the progenitors of the Jewish Christian church, beginning with James. The strong Essene or Nazirite view of these family members contrasts with the diversity of teachings Jesus expressed across the gnostic and canonical accounts. James, who was himself murdered in the temple, acclaiming Jesus in power according to the church father,s is characterized by Hegesippus as elect to enter the holy of holies: “This one was holy from his mother's womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels' knees."

This contrast leads us back to John the Baptist and the contrast between John’s humility and ascetic fasting and Yeshua’s gluttonous winebibbing, consorting with prostitutes, Sabbath-breaking and outlandish claims to be the bread of heaven. It suggests that Jesus did indeed deviate from the Hebrew and Judaic traditions and went a good deal further than ‘the lost sheep of Israel’, encompassing the entire cultural swathe of catharsis, sacrifice, atonement, annihilation, and resurrection, leaving behind his more conservative family who were more attuned to the asceticism of the desert nabi than to the profligate ways of the winebibber.

Regeneration Mashiachs and Bridal Unveilings

The end result is an image of a mashiach of regeneration, reinterpreting the entire cultural context, from his inversion of Hillel’s exhortation “not to do unto others what you would not want to do unto you”, to his exemplifying the personae of every God hero from Tammuz, through Adonis to Dionysus and Aesculapius.

Probably the closest we can come to understanding the inner dimensions of this vision quest, and its intrinsic value, is, as you have so beautifully expressed, in the sayings of the Gospel of Thomas, as a twinning of the journey through the portal to the Kingdom that lies before us but men do not see it. In many ways this portal is the same portal invoked by the Upanishads, by the formless Buddhist path, and particularly by the shamanic vision quest – a natural condition which we are all the inheritors of, in which reality becomes unveiled, no longer through a glass darkly, by the personal experience of the immanent.

But there are also lessons here about what the messianic vision quest actually is as an unfolding archetypal expression of the stream of consciousness coming into the apocalyptic flood lights of a cultural high noon in the scientific age, in which all the covers are thrown off reality and we have to finally come of age in taking responsibility for our actions on planet Earth and the damage done.

The Christian church is ultimately doomed, because it has traded the regenerative living process of regeneration for the inert token of the dying and resurrected God, stranded between earth and heaven so that no other mortal being can break the deadlock of Peters keys to the pearly gates, and disrupt the rule of the church, even though the church was only to be a steward until the reappearance of the Tree of Life in the reunion of woman and man and of humanity and nature.

This opens a vista on to how transformative regeneration of the zeitgeist could be unveiled together as an egalitarian process of mutual discovery in the age of the human genome, democracy, and consciousness research. The immortal epoch is not that of the Pangs of the Messiah but of the Tree of Life with its basis in the regeneration of all life and of the living ecosystems of the planet, and in the healing of the nations in the forbidden fruit of its branches. Here is where the reflowering lies.

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