The Last Day is here. Oh, sorry, I mean the last day is here. The Last Day may be a future Enoch Seminar conference, but this is the final day of the 2020 online one on Evil. The recap session started off with Archie Wright highlighting terminology and insider vs. outsider language as particularly important. The super-human element in some systems of thought when it comes to evil, and the names used, are noteworthy. Belial comes up a lot, and yet even so should not be assumed to be “the same” even if the same name is used (as Loren Stuckenbruck emphasizes in one of his books). Possible future topics for Enoch Seminars that were proposed include the Book of Revelation; Revelation and Inspiration; Philo of Alexandria and the Jewish Diaspora; Haggadic Literature; Christology and Angelology; Gnostic Literature; Church Fathers; Samaritans; and many others. Gabriele Boccaccini highlighted the interest in evil in the Enochic literature that is shared with New Testament literature, which came up in one of the early Enoch Seminar meetings. There is a need for a parallel discussion of the righteous when discussing evil and sin. The relationship between focus on eschatology and hope for a final solution to evil, and present everyday life in the here and now, is also something that connects them. Benjamin Reynolds mentioned how rich the discussion in the Chat on Zoom was. Unfortunately it is hard if not impossible to keep up with that while also chairing a session or presenting). He highlighted Paula Fredriksen’s points about Christology and how it requires evil enemies as part of its framework, and Adele Reinhartz’s proposal that the Gospel of John is more interested in cosmological evil than moral evil. Her point, that John saw Satan entering Judas as the moment the cosmological story and the historical intersect, and the act of seeing cosmological evil in the mundane, was particularly striking and thought-provoking. Lorenzo DiTomasso highlighted the plan to assemble a conference volume. He then noted the ways we use worldview in talking about these ancient authors, and the trajectory towards increased interest in metaphysical evil over time. The social function of evil in groups’ self-definition, and real and potential enemies of the group both within and outside, are important in understanding apocalypticism and other worldviews. I was happy to see Edmondo Lupieri suggest that a whole conference on Mandaeism would be useful and appropriate! Larry Schiffman says (by way of a joke) that the earliest person said to be named in conjunction with his circumcision ceremony is John the Baptist, and the earliest person said to be called to read the prophets in the synagogue is Jesus. But the serious point is that Christian sources are important for the study of Judaism. Christianity is an example of a form of Judaism that was willing to promote particular beings (both good and evil) to large-scale roles and statuses. John Collins noted the decline in attention to John’s Gospel’s relationship to the two spirits idea. We are too inclined to connect it with Qumran specifically, whereas Collins thinks he could have gotten it from elsewhere. Adele Reinhartz said there is still discussion of this, but less in connection with direct borrowing from one source or other group. But when it comes to imagery such as light and darkness, this can be derived from nature independently, being part of everyone’s life to an even greater extent before electric lighting came into the picture. Deborah Forger raised the question of how concepts of divinity relate to a group’s thinking about evil. She mentioned divinity existing on a gradation, with Jews distinguished from others by sacrifice, mentioning my work (see The Only True God). Miryam Brand highlighted the importance of thinking about how documents are grouped together, and how we can best prepare to study them without erasing differences between them.
Hector Patmore began the next session by shifting the attention away from “demonic superheroes” to the question of what ancient Jews thought demons looked like, and whether there is continuity between second temple and rabbinic literature on this matter. But first, a demon needs to be defined: a harmful supernatural entity who are ontologically distinct from those they afflict. It is also important to keep in mind that rabbinic literature is diverse (as is second temple literature). Patmore also emphasized the need to avoid parallelomania. He proposed as one possibility that demons might have been thought to be invisible (although not necessarily formless). Ancient sources mention exorcists commanding demons to perform some action as they depart to show they have done so, which would be unnecessary if they were visible. A second possibility is that their appearance is like that of angels. However, since we do not have a good sense of how Jews in the second temple period thought angels looked, this helps little. They appear in human form at times, but whether that is their “natural form” is a different question. A third option is that they were male and female. Lilith as female, shaddim and shaddot as male and female, are indicative of this possibility. The demon that afflicts Sarah in the Book of Tobit and other instances suggest sexual attraction to a human being in a manner that is understood to involve gender. (He left the mechanics of how this might function to the audience’s imagination.) Patmore mentioned the incantation bowls as well as texts from Qumran that also connect with this. In some later sources there may be evidence for demons having zoomorphic forms. An additional possibility is that some or all of the above are forms demons can take to achieve their nefarious aims, none of which is their “natural form.” Next Steven Fraade took us through study of some texts together rather than reading a paper. A midrash (Mekhilta of R. Ishmael) treats the passive verb in the mention of Enosh as indicating that his contemporaries began to attribute the name of Yahweh to other things, i.e. to commit idolatry. The Damascus Document refers to the “degeneration of the generations,” i.e. that evil doesn’t come into the world in one fell swoop but gradually over time, and involved groups rather than just individuals. Some sources focus on God’s withdrawal from the world, also discussing whether that is a cause or result of evil in the world. There are also depictions of Adam and Satan each trying to blame the other for evil, and of the divine image persisting in humanity only to the generation of Enosh. The discussion of genuflection is also interesting: they raised the question of why that gesture is appropriate before human authorities yet inappropriate before statues. Paul Mandel spoke next about the presence or lack of mention/focus on resurrection and an age to come in different sources and periods. He led us through a close look at some passages from Genesis Rabbah in particular but also other midrashim. At one point there is discussion of whether it is God or righteous humans that deal with evil deeds and evildoers, whether by more than counterbalancing their wrongdoing with their own righteousness or through other means. A story of Alexander of Macedon’s visit to Qazia is very interesting, providing a concrete example of the wicked being spared because of others (in that case sheep!) There are multiple this-worldly “solutions” to the problem of evil. Daniel Boyarin mentioned “satanic verses” in the title of his paper but largely skipped the topic, providing one quick example of Satan depicted as not a cosmic power, connected with the story of Job. He asked us to imagine Satan singing along with Nina Simone, “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” For R. Levi, Satan is not a cosmic explanation of evil. The story of Job is retold in a way that explores responsibility for evil in relation to the evil instinct (יֵצֶר הַרַע) in humans. There is widespread recognition in the Rabbinic tradition as a whole that the impulse that includes envy and sexual desire is crucial to positive aspects of human life. There are texts which turn a cosmic Satan into a comic Satan, in a manner that can be compared to the way some second temple texts turn hated emperors into converts to Judaism. The respondents in this session were Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Ronit Nikolsky, and Mika Ahuvia. Rosen-Zvi mentioned the “division of labor” between forces internal and external to humans when it comes to evil. There is continuity and change in the configuration, but not really any new players. He noted the incursion of the configuration found in Stoicism which has a material monism but ethical dualism. Nikolsky emphasized how these linguistic expressions are understood better in light of the study of cognition, which clarifies how humans make sense of experiences in the world and allows diverse experiences to be tied together. We externalize evil, whether as a concept or in personalized form. Even those ancient authors with whom we converse most frequently, focusing on their ideas, carry with them a wider worldview and lived experience that we are prone to ignore but ought to take into account. There is also a need to move away from focusing so much on the Bavli in Jewish studies, which allows one “official” corpus to dominate how Judaism in Late Antiquity is understood. She liked Daniel Boyarin’s description of the yetzer hara as “the fate that can be fought.” She mentioned additional examples of Satan as trickster in Jewish literature, following Esau on his hunting trip and assisting Noah in planting a vineyard. How far can one go for a good laugh? Further in story than in theology. Jonathan Kaplan was the first discussant of the session, and highlighted the way even using the terminology of “the fall” brings a problematic later reinterpretation of the Adam and Eve story into things. Tor Leif Elgvin was next and offered some categorizations of how God is related (or kept away from) blame for evil, especially cosmological evil. Gabriele Boccaccini then mentioned our neglect of IV Ezra in the discussion thus far.
The next session was the one in which I presented. Jason BeDuhn presented first on the demiurgical solution to the problem of evil, which drew heavily on earlier myths. This approach blamed evil on the creator(s), but there was still disagreement on when precisely the “tipping point” was when things went wrong. “Where is evil?” becomes a more important question as a result than “Whence evil?” A shared earlier myth is being adapted as different answers are offered. One end of the spectrum is that of Sethian Gnosticism. Sometimes the tipping point comes about as late as the giving of the Torah by angels, although we do not have that complete myth expressed in our sources by which to really discuss the details. (I would note the similarity with something found in Mandaeism, with the connection between Adonai the demiurge and Torah.) Some such as the Enochic approach focused on Genesis 6 are not demiurgical in the full sense, since the tipping point is subsequent to the completion of creation. I liked the way he referred to the demiurgical view as involving a “manufacturing flaw.” There is a connection between Rabbinic and Manichaean perspectives inasmuch as the involvement of other figures in making humans is especially important. This explains the compromised moral state of humans alone among living things in this world. It is a misrepresentation to say that Gnosticism reverses the view of others. On the contrary, Gnosticism is right at home among the demiurgical tradition, even if on one end of its spectrum. This was the predominant form of solution to the problem of evil in early Judaism and Christianity. Some objected to the disorderliness of the cosmos and unruliness of angels that are supposed to be God’s helpers, making them more malevolent, simplifying the cosmos in the process. Many figures nonetheless remain profoundly ambiguous, not simply good or evil. Angels are creation’s “middle management” and they mismanage in some way. Alberto Camplani presented next, his first time in the Enoch Seminar, on Marcion. He emphasized the need to get beyond von Harnack, who had neither the Dead Sea Scrolls nor various other important primary sources available to him. Marcion took up Paul’s view of evil and radicalized it. Camplani looked at the impact of Marcionism in a Syriac context in particular. Comparing Marcion with other figures of the second century (Justin Martyr, Valentinius, etc.) helps us get a better sense of his distinctiveness and what he shared in common with widely held views in his time. Marcion is incomprehensible without second temple Judaism. Marcion differs from Gnostics in not connecting the creator to that superior “stranger God.” The sinners of the Jewish scriptures will be saved because they did not serve the creator god, while Abraham will not. Many traditions are shaped by reaction against Marcion. He concluded with examples of reaction and response to Marcion. I presented next and you can hear a recording of my presentation on YouTube. I adapted it, weaving in more reference to things said throughout the conference that I couldn’t incorporate when I first wrote and recorded it. I didn’t take notes on my own presentation for obvious reasons. April DeConick responded first, and started by saying that my paper prompted her to think about the different ways the groups engaged with scripture, noting their proposal of alternatives to sacrifice (making me think of John the Baptist and his immersion as an example, which influences Mandaeism and Sethianism) as well as suggestion that the scriptures might not reflect the truth in entirety. She wonders whether we might not have to say that the Deuteronomistic revolution failed. She appreciated Jason BeDuhn’s spectrum of demiurgy, yet also worries this reinscribes Irenaeus’ perspective, which was based on texts and teachers and critique thereof. DeConick has sought to focus elsewhere. There is a network of diverse and in some ways unique transcendental movements, and the demiurgic tradition is not the only one. Valentinianism posited an ignorant rather than malevolent demiurge, with evil ultimately being blamed on the supreme God’s emanation. Some say that nothing that seems evil to us is truly evil. There is great variety. Nicola Denzey Lewis spoke next, noting the vast space and time surveyed in the three main papers. As scholars of religion we pull out common threads from such fabrics, and there were some that jumped out at her. She responded to my paper first, noting that philosophical monism doesn’t necessarily cause the problem of evil the way an anthropomorphic monotheism does. Bringing BeDuhn’s paper into view, she noted that there is a huge epistemic shift as malevolent forces move from being responsible for evil as creators, to beings that introduce it later by tempting and in other ways. Lewis also noted the lack of attention to gender in our presentations, which features prominently when Sophia creates on her own in an act that breaks with gender binaries in the divine emanations up to that point. She noted the focus on Jewish theological discussions pertaining to monotheism as a common focus, and also asked what the various parties viewed in the world around them as evil. Dylan Burns spoke next and noted a commonality between BeDuhn’s and my own paper despite our varied focuses and starting points, one that he finds persuasive: the “dualism” in Gnosticism is not an innovation but a conservative element. He also emphasized the importance of Alexandrian exegetical tradition. He wonders whether Marcion too might preserve some elements that seem like radical innovations and yet might in fact be conservative preservation of earlier tradition. We do not have evidence of Marcion’s knowledge of Enochic texts, whereas Manichaean and Sethian sources do show knowledge of that tradition. There are shockingly few studies of the archons themselves, perhaps because of their similarity to angels. But the term is significantly different, and may have this connotation: “Do not trust the heavenly magistrates. They’re a problem, not a solution, to what ails us.” In some literature Satan may be an archon and induce sin without participating in creation (demiurgy). The figures, prooftexts, and terms differ and we should track their changing use over time. Karen King spoke next, discussing the reasons for her objections to the term “Gnosticism” (with the -ism at the end). We sometimes fail to see the problems that we have created through our own terminology and categorizations. The diversity of the materials must always be recognized. The demiurgical focus is not the only way things were or could be configured. She tried to get us to shift from talking of groups to see commonalities as a literary phenomenon (without connecting those with groups). The Apocryphon of John is interacting with the Timaeus, Genesis, Wisdom literature, the Watcher traditions, and the Gospel of John, reading them together. The Apocryphon of John (unlike Philo who distinguishes the two creation accounts) gives the creation account twice, with Sophia early on and then Sophia Eve appearing later on. The demiurgic figure is a lion-faced serpent, and that connects with the serpent in Genesis. (One thing I skipped exploring in my paper as I read it was the question of this connects with the pre-exilic role of Nehushtan, depicted as a serpent entwined on a pole. I also now wonder whether the Mandaean drabsha (banner on a crossbeam) might also have a connection. Philippe Therrien spoke next, asking us to consider how we compare Gnostic texts and their influence on one another as well as on other literature. Can we deduce social groups from texts? Several people mentioned problems they have with the idea of “Jewish Gnosticism” (I might prefer, in light of my proposal, to say “Israelite Gnosticism”). Next Miryam Brand emphasized that the Law is not generally a problem in second temple Judaism, but is in fact a solution to the problem of sin. Paul seems to be the only one who takes the idea that the Law is not enough to eliminate sin so far as to claim that the Law actually causes sin. Larry Schiffman argued against the idea of Jewish Gnosticism. Giovanni Bazzana also spoke, before at the end we circled back to the presenters. Jason BeDuhn spoke about how the demiurgical tradition itself is unremarkable, the go-to solution for 75% of groups. Irenaeus and Tertullian represent a minority view trying to purge this element. Alberto Camplani went next, discussing the idea of Abraham’s bosom and paradise in Marcion and others. I mentioned some things that already appear in side notes I made in this blog post and so won’t repeat them here. But I also noted the points of similarity and difference between texts with respect to the use of comical mockery and satire in the interest of religious polemic. Mandaean sources mock Jesus, Adonai, and Spirit. Rabbinic sources poke fun at Satan. There is a tradition that connects with the Deuteronomistic History (Elijah vs. the prophets of Ba’al) and Deutero-Isaiah. The god or angelic being another group emphasizes is denigrated and made fun of. I think this deserves study, and given my penchant for puns, I’ll suggest we might call this subect “mockotheism.” Let me also clarify, in response to something Larry Schiffman said in the chat during my session, that I don’t envisage there having been a “Gnostic Synagogue” anywhere. What I envisage is there being places where communities as a whole initially continued pre-exilic religious traditions, and as the newer views and practices connected with Torah came to dominate, continued them as an esoteric tradition. Whether they held gatherings of their own and what those were like I don’t think we can say. But I see these views, like those of the earliest Christians, as existing as part of the diversity within synagogues at least for a time.
In the recap session, we agreed that this event exceeded all expectations. Lorenzo DiTomasso got things started with a focus on our limited vocabulary and the diverse service to which terms (e.g. “devil”) are put. The way cosmological and protological matters related to evil are treated have present-day, real world consequences. If the creation itself is inherently flawed, we approach life differently than if creation is good but being twisted. Depicting female figures in particular roles in the process has consequences. Miryam Brand emphasized how we speak of “evil” even when we are talking about different things. The same can be said about “apocalyptic”: is it a genre, a worldview, both, other things as well? Brand mentioned Baumgarten’s willingness to say that it is ridiculous how some presumed that there would be an eschatological resolution which would be in their favor. Celsus and the Rabbis confront these topics but do not have the same groups as their primary focus. She emphasized the distinction between “lumpers” and “splitters” among academics, and asked whether we can find a way to preserve the important contribution of both. Kelley Coblentz Bautch dug into some of the specific contributions of specific academics over these days, showing impressive recollection and/or notetaking in the details she mentioned with very precise recognition of those who contributed the points in question. John Collins followed Bautch’s summary with questions, noting to begin with the variety of things people consider “evil.” He also asked whether there was something in the Hellenistic era that changed people’s perception of the world. Ben Sira and apocalyptic works express interest in evil and its source, and so this is a broader interest in that era. We could use a few more Classicists in this group. Gabriele Boccaccini said that we may need to talk about the “origin of the origin of evil,” in other words, when interest in this topic comes to the fore. Apocalypticism does not espouse a single unified view of the origin of evil. He noted the way his students who are Christians and Jews either do or do not read the “Devil” into the story about the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Larry Schiffman made a joke about how good the food was during the conference. Mine was delicious, too, but hopefully everyone reading this is aware that we held the conference via Zoom and so were not eating meals together. More seriously, he emphasized the important contribution of this conference and of the Enoch Seminar makes in providing perspectives from other fields besides our own. We cannot explain the phenomena we study on our own because the ancient world is complex in ways that go beyond our specific areas of expertise. On the other hand, there are data about the ancient social context that we cannot know, as they go beyond the evidence provided by texts and other artifacts that have come down to us. We should not create churches out of Gospels, or J, E, P, and D communities. He suspects that views of evil probably crossed lines in ways that not every subject did. He drew comparisons between ancient and modern people with respect to wondering whom to blame in the case of a particular disaster: is it the military’s failure to build a dam wall, global warming, or something else? The ancients had similar disagreements. Daniel Boyarin challenged me on continuing to use “Gnosticism” as a term that many find problematic. He went on to challenge the ways we use “second-temple Judaism,” “apocalyptic,” and many other terms. I suspect that we all agree to at least some extent. The inability to agree on terminology, including even “religion,” cannot be allowed to keep us from speaking, but we do need to wrestle with these things constantly. In my own case, Mandaeism makes reference to the lightworld revealer Manda d-Hayye, whose name is usually understood to denote “Knowledge of Life,” and so in the case of Mandaeism at least “Gnosticism” seems as though it wouldn’t be inappropriate. On the other hand, “Mandaean” is itself a term that isn’t consistently used as a self-designation by the group that we apply it to. Karen King asked why it is that we focused this conference on “evil.” Sure, the ancient texts are interested in it, but there is more to it than that. How do their perspectives contribute to broader conversations in the contemporary world about evil? Giovanni Bazzana noted the lack of representation in the conference of those who work on what we might call “magic,” which wrestles with the practical challenges of evil. Many mentioned it, yet there weren’t participants or papers focused on that. Lester Grabbe mentioned how many important things happened in the Persian period, which is sometimes neglected in favor of focus on the Hellenistic age. Grabbe thinks the fallen angel tradition may precede Genesis 6 and the Persian period rather than being a result from Genesis. He mentioned an article by Birger Pearson from the 1980s arguing that Gnosticism originated within a Jewish context. Edmondo Lupieri emphasized how reality resists our taxonomies and refuses to fit our boxes. He thinks there were non-Christian forms of Gnosticism, and encouraged the Enoch Seminar to focus attention on the question. John Kampen encouraged us to talk about social and political contexts as much as we talk about literary contexts. Albert Baumgarten sought to answer Karen King’s question by highlighting that evil is part of our ongoing experience, even though our mythological framework is different, and that attracts us to the topic. For him, the most important part of participation is the chance to meet, be enriched by, and learn from young scholars, as someone now a decade into retirement. Encouraging the next generation to work in these areas and on these topics is an important part of what the Enoch Seminar does.
Gabriele Boccaccini rounded things off with the sobering thought that going forward things will never be the same again as they once were. We have experienced how rich an online conference can be and how it gives a greater number of participants access. We will not simply go back to the way we traditionally did things. We ended with many words of thanks and expressions of appreciation. As hopefully you can tell from my blog posts even if you didn’t participate, this was a truly wonderful and rewarding conference, everything one hopes an academic conference will be and much more. I hope if you’ve read my recaps/reports about it you’ve found them helpful and interesting. And if you attended the conference and we’re not already connected, or if you are a fellow academic at whatever stage in your career who works on things that you can tell I’m also interested in, please do get in touch. Another great thing about the internet is that it doesn’t only make conferences possible, but allows us to share our perspectives and knowledge more easily in between conferences as well.