I’m pleased to publish three posts by guest blogger David Litwa, one of the most prolific scholars of New Testament and Early Christianity over the past ten years.  David was a graduate student at Duke some years ago and took a couple of my PhD seminars over at UNC.  He is now at Boston College.  (See:  M. David Litwa – School of Theology and Ministry – Boston College (bc.edu)

Each of these posts is a tantalizing introduction to a (different) book he has written for a general audience.  This one starts off with a blast!  Let us know what you think!

******************************

 

It is the only Christian group in antiquity to be accused of homosexual sex, of worshipping a snake, and of attending the mysteries of the Great Mother (Cybele). They worshiped God as Human, explored the Phrygian deity Attis as a manifestation of Jesus, and directly called themselves “gnostics.” They are known through a gossamer thread of tradition, a report preserved only in a worm-eaten medieval manuscript tucked away on Mount Athos, where no woman has stepped, apparently, for over a thousand years.

I refer to the mysterious group called “Naassenes.”

The Naassene report is an explosion of imagery, a cornucopia of intertextuality, a thrilling and sometimes infuriating venture into Christian allegory. Now for almost two hundred years, readers have been overwhelmed, impressed, confused, and surprised by this text—a text so jam-packed with data it offers new vistas on every encounter. Classicists will find here a range of poetic and literary allusions to Greco-Roman authors. Philosophers will find an idiosyncratic fusion of Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotelian tenets. Students of early Christianity will discover combinations of Synoptic verses seamlessly mixed with Johannine and Pauline tags. Literary theorists can approach this text to understand its notion of allegory, intertextuality, and etymology. Students of the mystery cults will find sacred hymns, words, and stories often related nowhere else. The Naassene discourse affords a feast to feed a whole range of readers.

The Naassenes: Exploring an Early Christian Identity is the first ever comprehensive historical presentation of Naassenes myths, rites, hymns, and beliefs written for a popular audience. The story begins with the discovery of a manuscript entitled Refutation of All Heresies, attributed to an “anti-pope” in early third-century Rome. In this manuscript was discovered the only copy of transcripts from eight otherwise unknown Christian groups, first among them the “Naassenes” (or Snake People).

In The Naassenes, the original Naassene “sermon” is reconstructed and translated into English for the first time. It serves as the basis for the following chapters focusing on (1) Who were the Naassenes and where did they come from? (2) How can we distinguish what the Naassenes wrote from the​ critic who copied down their words? (3) What did the Naassenes believe about God, Jesus, humankind, and salvation? (4) What did the Naassenes read as scripture and did they canonize Greek mythology? (5) Did the Naassenes worship Christ as a snake or otherwise engage in snake-handling rituals? (6) What were the rites of the Naassenes and how did they differ from other churches at the time? (7) What were the Naassene hymns, and what can we tell from what survives of them? (8) Were Naassenes homosexuals and what did the mean by “the mystery of blessed pleasure?” (9) Were the Naassenes Christians and did they preserve traditions about Jesus more authentic than what we possess today?

The Naassenes are represented by a single, nameless preacher and religious entrepreneur. This Preacher, who revealed great “mysteries” to others, is himself an enigma. Part sophist and part philosopher, the Preacher was an Alexandrian polymath who could cite a range of poets and philosophers including Anacreon, Aristotle, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Homer, and so on. He—or she—knew cultural and religious lore stemming from diverse places like Syria, Libya, Samothrace, and Phrygia.

The Preacher’s library included books from the Mosaic law and the Hebrew prophets, along with a few gospels—perhaps a gospel harmony—and letters of Paul. Also on the shelves were volumes now classified as “apocryphal”: gospels attributed to Thomas, James and Mariamme, the Gospel according to the Egyptians, and the Ascension of Isaiah. The Preacher had a penchant for books relating foreign mythology—the Phrygian Attis, the Syrian Adonis, the Egyptian Isis, and so forth. By displaying a seamless fusion of Hellenic and Christian erudition, the Preacher advertised a wide-ranging expertise. Expertise at his level indicates that he had attained the heights of Hellenic education.The Naassenes present nothing less than a new kind of Christianity.

Naassenes were “gnostics” insofar they claimed “to know (ginōskein) the depths.” Paul of Tarsus implicitly claimed to know “the depths of God” in 1 Corinthians 2:10-12 inasmuch as he possessed the Spirit. Paul also hymned the “depth” of God’s riches—to which he had apparent access—in Romans 11:33.  The Preacher did claim to have gnosis (in the sense of secret and enlightened wisdom), and he spoke to perfected (or initiated) “gnostics.” Probably, then, the Preacher spoke to an actual group of Christian knowers.

The structure of the group probably included persons of greater perceived holiness (those who made more ascetic commitments). Naassenes were likened to castrated priests of Cybele. This point does not prove that they worshiped the Great Mother as their personal goddess. What it does indicate is that at least some members of the group practiced celibacy. The Preacher advocated spiritual sex, a “mystery of blessed pleasure” in which bodiless minds (coded as “male”) had intercourse with other minds. In such intercourse, dying flesh and mortal generation was left far behind.

The Naassenes present nothing less than a new kind of Christianity. It is still commonly believed that conversion to Christianity demands a complete break with one’s religious past. Typically, when a Hellene became a Christian, the sacred lore of the gods became myths and fiction; the veneration of cult statues became idolatry; attendance at religious festivals became fellowship with demons, and mystery cults became public pollutions. The Preacher is the only second-century Christian theologian who presents a theory about how to completely integrate Hellenic religion into the structure of Christian thought and spirituality.

The Preacher’s discourse helps to break down common stereotypes about Christianity being an exclusive religion from the start, a cult which played a zero-sum game with truth and hereticalized those who disagreed. In the modern world of cultural crisscrossing, the Naassene discourse stands as an important witness to a kind of Christianity which ought no longer be marginalized in the study of Christian history: an open, free-thinking, cosmopolitan type of Christianity that has, since the faith’s first beginnings, and in every generation, never lacked a witness.

The Naassenes is joined by a companion course, which you can access here: https://bc-6561.freshlearn.com/Naassenes

———-

Dr. M. David Litwa (MDiv, Emory University; ThM, Duke University; PhD, University of Virginia, 2013) is a scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions with a focus on the New Testament and early Christianity.

Over $2 Million Donated to Charity!

We have two goals at Ehrman Blog. One is to increase your knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity. The other is to raise money for charity! In fact, in 2022, we raised over $360,000 for the charities below.

Become a Member Today!

Share Bart’s Post on These Platforms

14 Comments

  1. TomTerrific June 11, 2024 at 9:17 am

    Very nice. Thanks, Dr. Litwa.

  2. kt June 11, 2024 at 4:54 pm

    Than you for a facinating post!

    Showing the Naassenes to life, as a vibrant, intellectually curious group that mixed traditional religious elements with new Christian ideas is really a refreshing thought to me and gives me depth to my understanding of early Christian history. Your reconstruction of the Naassene sermon and the insights into their rituals and beliefs are for me eye-opening. The idea of them being “gnostics” who claimed to know the “depths” really makes sense, especially when you link it to Paul’s writings. It’s like they were exploring spiritual knowledge in ways that mainstream groups weren’t.

    Something that struck me when I read your post was that the Naassenes might have used techniques and substances to achieve altered states of consciousness. (also suggested by late biblical scholar Dr. John Turner). These methods could have significantly influenced their spiritual experiences and worldview. It is my understanding that even Platon and other used substances and possible “kykeon”, a psychoactive drink, which was likely used during the Eleusinian Mysteries to gain profound insights/higher philosophical knowledge. Similarly, Hippocrates mentioned the use of mandrake in medicinal practices, which had hallucinogenic properties. Aditionally, Hindu practices often use meditation techniques, like breath control, mantras, drinking “Soma” in Vedic Traditions, to reach higher states of awareness. These practices which was in use were intended to transcend ordinary consciousness and achieve spiritual enlightenment. Using simlar methods, the Naassenes could have deepened their visionary insights and mystical experiences, leading to a more personal and profound understanding of their faith.
    These used substances (perhaps even other techiques) could also affect the Pineal Gland (the “seat of the soul, which R. Descartes called it),,,,,,,,,,,or (possible???) the 6th church in the Revelation ?? at least according to me , which is known for its role in regulating psychological states and is often linked to spiritual experiences due to its production of melatonin and potentially DMT.

    Well who knows,,,,,and whatever influenced them would indeed be interesting to Carl G. Jung and his followers. I will just say I appreciated this post!

  3. Palaestinus June 11, 2024 at 4:58 pm

    Part sophist, part philosopher and full religious charlatan playing with snakes of the 2nd century AD you wrote? Hey, this guy must be Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Ἀβωνοτειχίτης!!! He was chased down by Lucian of Samosata (an Epicurean, Cynic, and my favorite author!) as well as the Christians – I guess they hated the mix of Christian and Hellenic culture more than anything.

    Perhaps he was a student of Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Ἀβωνοτειχίτης, considering that the latter was not from Alexandreia, and did not really hide his name, but a fraud like him could grasp very easily that a country bumpkin from Abonoteihos would not be as much persuasive as a cosmopolitan from Alexandreia. Anyway, in case he was a different fraud, that would put him at the very end of the 2nd century AD.

    Bart, is there any chance of those Appalachian snake handlers you have mentioned at times, to be descended from Macedonia? The plot thickens, now I can see that the apostles’ immunity to snake bites goes all the way back to Πολυξένη playing with snakes while telling her son that his father was Zeus… So this is the relation between the Hellenic and Christian religions you preach while cruising…

  4. Serene June 11, 2024 at 6:46 pm

    Hi David! What do you think of Naassenes possibly being wild offshoots of people reviving Ebla henotheism, maybe in relationship to Nasiriyah and Essenes?

    Especially after Nabonidus excavates and translates ancient cuneiform. A lot of that resembles “gnosis”.

    It’s in Ebla where prominent gods have dual genders or switch genders.

    It’s in Ebla where there’s posthumous deification with Mother Earth being the womb for rebirth.

    There’s snakes in the positive sense in their henotheism, too.

    They begin deifying and immortalizing living royalty through an annual renewal ritual. Once Narram-Sin conquers Ebla in the Nasiriyah Stele — and also is attested to perform the acts of a savior — he deifies himself as a Living God.

    Ebla incorporates the Akkadian Ea as Hayya and their popular theophorics become ea and ya. While their divinized royal household’s personal god is Isharra, which Narram-Sin invokes in another inscription.

    Isharra becomes Usharra in Hittite inscriptions. So I thiiiiiink, maybe this deity gender-swaps as the male Dushara, the private royal household god of divinized kings in Nabataea. Nabataea has the most commonalities with Ebla, I think.

    Maybe freshwater rituals are the link for gnostics

  5. balivi June 12, 2024 at 10:56 am

    Hi Mr. Litwa!

    I once had a conversation with Bart, who told me that the word Christ means messiah, an anointed messiah from God.
    I didn’t quite understand it then, but now I say that the word Christ originally means anointed. Not messiah, but anointed. Just anointed. It means something a little different. Because there can be not only one Christ/anointed, but many. Anyone can be Christ/Anointed One. You just need to know how to understand it. Because I think that the term Jesus is not used in the Pauline letters, but only the Son and only the Christ/anointed one. They won’t accept that from me.
    My question is: If Ecclesiastes used Isaiah’s ascension and Paul’s epistles in the middle of the second century, why is it certain that Paul does not use this writing?
    Thanks for the reply!

    • BDEhrman June 13, 2024 at 11:54 am

      Paul does use the name Jesus on a number of occasoin. And Ecclesiastes does not have any close connectsion with the Ascension of Iseah or Paul. It was written at least two centuries earlier.

  6. balivi June 13, 2024 at 12:44 pm

    “The Naassenes are represented by a single, nameless preacher and religious entrepreneur. This Preacher, who revealed great “mysteries” to others, is himself an enigma. Part sophist and part philosopher, the Preacher was an Alexandrian polymath who could cite a range of poets and philosophers including Anacreon, Aristotle, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Homer, and so on. He—or she—knew cultural and religious lore stemming from diverse places like Syria, Libya, Samothrace, and Phrygia.”

    Sorry!

  7. balivi June 13, 2024 at 12:47 pm

    “The Preacher’s library included books from the Mosaic law and the Hebrew prophets, along with a few gospels—perhaps a gospel harmony—and letters of Paul.”

  8. Serene June 13, 2024 at 2:07 pm

    To inform my Q, an insight I just had is The Holy Spirit is female gendered per the Vatican, and she enters into Jesus and then specific others.

    I perceive the Naasseenes as adapting (by necessity distorting) original teachings into their existing beliefs; but this works if the spirit is Ishtar.

    Ishtar is Venus in the Triad of Stars: https://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1908PA…..16..403M

    •a Father God (who also has a material body in Kings-Of-Kings)

    •his Holy Son (who also has a material body as a Vassal King)

    •his Holy Daughter (who does not have a material body, and so is a “Holy Spirit”)

    This Holy Triad is stamped high over all other gods by ‘living God’ Nabonidus on a cliff on the other side of the Jordan. in Sela — the Sela important to the Book of Isaiah.

    Because Venus is the same star appearing in two different ways (genderless), male Attis is “bright morning star” and female Ishtar “bright evening star.” This tradition existed in Ebla, the Akkadian Empire, and pre-Islamic Arabia.

    The first “Living God” Narram-Sin invokes the “bright morning star” in appointing rulers.

    Once you have the code key of Akkadian Ebla, the Book of Revelation unzips.

  9. IOguy June 14, 2024 at 2:40 pm

    Why are you scholars so dishonest? The Naassarenes weren’t Christians at all. Christians were people who had been dead under the law and its curse, had transitioned out of the old covenant and were restored to eternal life (a restored relationship with their god) via Christ’s new covenant (Rom 11:26-27, Heb 8:8). They were descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel who were being gathered into Christ before the end of the age of the old covenant religious system and temple community. That’s not the Nassarenes, or people today.

    Some were referred to as gentiles because they had stopped being Torah observant and had stopped practicing circumcision. Whether circumcised Jews or uncircumcised Israelites (gentiles), they were told to remain in the same condition they were called (1 Corinthians 7:18-20) because the time of the end of the age of the old covenant religious system and temple community was near. That in a nutshell is what the entire New Testament is about.

    After the need for the gospel ended in AD70, Greek so-called ‘church fathers’ misappropriated bits and pieces of ancient Israel’s redemptive narrative and adapted it to their Greek culture, creating a new, faux version of Christianity.

    • BDEhrman June 16, 2024 at 11:03 am

      I keep wondering: why am I so dishonest??

    • Serene June 19, 2024 at 4:31 pm

      The idea that Jesus’ Gentile mission is only for the Lost Tribes is an interesting one. Revelation seems to discuss the whole world?

      Revelation 11:14

      …”The kingdom of the world has become
      the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
      and he will reign for ever and ever.”

      “Forever and ever” and other phrases and symbols in Revelation seem to be straight from Sumero-Akkadian.

      It’s their traditions that are foundational to humanity’s written record, and not originally Egyptian ones — like circumcision.

      Are there any texts where ‘Lost Tribes’ discontinue Abrahamic circumcision? It was practiced by Abrahamic Arabs in that geography.

      Jesus paternal ancestry may simply outrank an Egyptian Living God. The Living God tradition starts with Sumerians, was formalized by Akkadians, and erased by Babylonians. It persisted in Aram and finally Egypt until revived by Nabonidus, who excavates back to Sumerian cuneiform and claims it. Alexander the Great claims Son of God, then Ptolemies claim Theos.

      Naassene beliefs seem to overlap with Alexander the Great, who untied the Phrygian temple knot. Cassius Dio made snakes and Mother Earth to be a big part of his mother Olympia’s rituals.

      • IOguy June 20, 2024 at 8:43 am

        In the famous John 3:16 and many other scriptures the Greek word “kosmos” (world) was not the entire planet. It was the covenant world of Israel. Kosmos simply means constitution, orderly arrangement or government. It refers to an ordered system. In early Greek literature, kosmos was used to refer to establishing cultures or building cities. So when John made statements like: “For God so loved the kosmos”, “Look, the lamb who came to take away the sin of the kosmos” and “the kosmos was passing away”, he was not referring to the entire globe. He was speaking about Israel and its old covenant system, structure and culture. The same with Rev 11:15. The kingdom was of the covenant world, not the entire planet.

  10. IOguy June 16, 2024 at 11:19 am

    I don’t know. You have the information. You have the means to share it. But you still assume that gentiles were always non-Israelites and you promote this whacky idea that Christianity was an unending linear, uninterrupted belief system that involved everyone everywhere… but that’s not what 1st century Christians believed.

Leave A Comment