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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas:"Twin" of Jesus

Son of the Leaping River

The Gnostic Apostle Thomas: Chapter 10

Bardaisan (in Greek, Bardasenes), two generations younger than Marcion, was a Syrian. He lived about 165-222. He, too, became a target of heresy-hunters. His name means Son of the Leaping River (the Daisan), and probably Edessa was his birthplace. Apparently he was well-born and well-educated, moving in the higher circles of Edessa around the king's court. The biographer of a contemporary bishop noted that in a large gathering Bardaisan was "distinguished from all others by descent and wealth." Later writers said that at one time he was a devotee of Atagartis and had pinned his first beard on the temple wall at Hierapolis. He became one of the earliest expounders of his own type of Syriac Christianity.

"Man is not just a zither"

Albiruni, the remarkable Muslim historian-scientist-philosopher who was an acute and objective observer of peoples being brought under Muslim rule in the eleventh century, noted that the Christians had a number of gospels: "Every one of the sects of Marcion, and of Bardesanes [Bardaisan], has a special Gospel" in addition to the four canonical ones and others that he mentions. If Bardaisan did indeed have a gospel of his own, it has disappeared. The Son of the Leaping River is best known from one of his few surviving works, called the Book of the Laws of Countries , or Dialogue on Fate . The text purports to have been written by a disciple, Philippus, and consists of a few questions by one Awida (also his pupil) and long discourses by Bardaisan in reply. But quite possibly it was composed by Bardaisan himself.

Bardaisan sets out to demonstrate that human beings, notwithstanding their being in many respects at the mercy of forces over which they have no control, nevertheless have a free will and can choose between right and wrong actions. "Man is not just a zither" to be played upon by others, nor "a ship which another guides." Bardaisan does not contribute anything substantial to the perennial argument about freedom and necessity, but to the modern reader the astrological detail in which he writes is likely to be engaging.

Under the heading of necessity he finds two factors, Nature and Fate, and identifies the second with the influence of the stars and planets. In his time it was taken for granted that the heavenly bodies, often regarded as gods, influenced human lives--not only as to the seasons for planting and reaping but as to an individual's position in social strata, luck in marriage and career, state of health, character and temperament.

In the Dialogue , Bardaisan is well aware of criticism that he is basically an astrologer. He admits that he once cherished the arts of the Chaldeans, but insists he no longer does so. In language that recalls the role of Sophia in some Gnostic cosmogonies, he says that the wisdom of God, the wisdom that founded the world, allowed lesser creations ("the Angels, and the Potentates, and the Governors, and the Elements, and men and animals") a share in powers over some things, but "he who has power over everything is the One."

Identifying Fate with the astral powers, Bardaisan says that under their influence "the spirits undergo changes while descending to the soul, and the souls while descending to the bodies" -- another reminder of the Gnostic myth of descent and ascent of spirit and distinction between soul-psychics and spirit-pneumatics. Fate determines whether one is rich or poor, well or ill, has a large family or is childless. But Fate has its limits. Nature, not Fate, determines that a man cannot become a father before he is fifteen, or a woman a mother before she is thirteen. It is Nature that causes men and women to unite and bear children. But it is Fate that makes marriages go sour and taints the working of Nature with impure passions.

To show the limitations on the role of astral bodies, Bardaisan recounts at length the laws and customs that various races have adopted -- usages that are determined, not by the position of the stars and planets when individuals are born, but by the choices and traditions of the societies they are born into.

Among the Kushanians, for example, (those who ousted the dynasty of Gundaphorus from Afghanistan and Punjab) the women, says Bardaisan, like to wear men's clothes with lots of gold ornaments, and ride caparisoned horses, and boss their husbands' slaves, and have intercourse with slaves and with foreigners who may pass their way. But this does not mean that they all have Venus with Mars and Jupiter in the house of Mars, in mid-heaven--the planetary configuration that produces rich and adulterous women who lord it over their husbands.

A conjunction of Mercury with Venus, in the house of Mercury, gives rise to sculptors, painters, and money-changers, or, in the house of Venus, to dancers, singers, and poets. But these planetary alignments do not produce such artists in the barbarian outskirts of the world. The Medes, who throw out their dead, even the dying, to be eaten by dogs, are not necessarily born when the Moon stands with Mars in Cancer -- the natal sign for those destined to be devoured by dogs. Among the Germans, men take handsome boys as wives, but we are not to suppose that boys so used are all born when there is a certain arrangement of Mercury, Venus, Saturn, and Mars. Jews, wherever they are, circumcise their male children on the eighth day, whether or not Mars is in the position that causes iron to spill blood.

Fate does not force races to do as they do. It is a matter of choice, or of choice congealed into habit and custom. By the same power of free will "the new people of us Christians," who may be found in every place and in all climates, do not follow the local customs that are inconsistent with Christian teaching. Astral Fate does not force them to do things that are unclean for them. Bardaisan concludes with a promise of a new world to come , when "all evil commotion shall cease, and all rebellions terminate, . . and there shall be quietness and peace, through the gift of the Lord of all existing beings."

In some of this early Christian writers found heresy, and Bardaisan was denounced for centuries. There are vestiges of the Valentinian creation myth in the Dialogue . And perhaps, while giving planetary influences only a limited role, Bardaisan pays too much attention to them. But he says that if people could not do evil, then they could not incur guilt, and the good they did would be no credit to them.

In the fourth century, the first major church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, spoke of Bardaisan admiringly as "a most able man and a highly skilled disputant in the Syriac language," and praised him for composing dialogues against the Marcionites. But he reported that the Edessan had earlier belonged to the Gnostic school of Valentinus, and although he had later condemned it, "the taint of the old heresy stuck to him to the end." The taint indeed stuck, and later church fathers in the Mediterranean world routinely accused Bardaisan of being a Valentinian, although they were very vague about just what views he held. A recent translator of the Dialogue , the Dutch scholar H.J. W. Drijvers, suggests that Valentinianism had become a convenient tag to pin on anyone accused of any heresy, as Manicheism would become in a later age.

Light and Good, Dark and Evil

Late in the fourth century, the Syriac-speaking poet-theologian Ephraim seemed to think that Bardaisan's major error was to consider Darkness one of the elements in cosmic being, along with wind, water, fire, and air:

As for the Entities that Bardaisan brought in He is to be accused because he taught That one is heavier than its fellow The one is lighter than its fellow He put the evil ones as the lower He put the good ones as the upper and Fire and Water as heavy He put Light and Wind as fine.

In this characteristically obscure hymn, Ephraim seems to suggest that Bardaisan was a forerunner of the Manicheans, adherents of a far more widespread and threatening heretical movement whom we will also shortly meet. And indeed there seems to be a straight line from Bardaisan to Mani, with both probably influenced by Zoroastrianism. Mani adopted the notion of a division between the realm of Darkness-Evil below, with the kingdom of Light-Good above. Ephraim also accused Bardaisan of denying that there is resurrection of the body: Bardaisan erred in saying that "of all Bodies to die, only the Body of our Lord rose," and that "it was souls [only] that our Lord raised up."

Bardaisan was known by his fellow Edessans as a poet and the composer of l50 psalms, which he set to music. Only fragments have survived. At one time specialists in Syriac studies were inclined to think that the two major hymns in the Acts of Judas Thomas were the work of Bardaisan, but more recent scholars disagree. (One hymn was the one Thomas chanted in Andrapolis, with only the Jewish flute-girl comprehending. The second is the "Hymn of the Pearl," or "Hymn of the Soul," discussed below.)

Fragments of his work preserved in others' writings show that Bardaisan knew a good deal about India. He knew the difference between Hindu Brahmins and Buddhist monks and gave a description of a Buddhist monastery. He mentioned Christians in other Asian lands, but is silent about any in India. He knew some of the customs of that country: "The Indians burn their dead, and the wives of the dead voluntarily offer themselves, and are burned with them." And he knew that Brahmins formed a vegetarian elite, although giving a highly romantic picture of them as entirely virtuous: they "never do anything maliciously, but always fear God."

It appears, then, that Bardaisan's chief offenses in the eyes of later orthodox commentators were that he regarded darkness, or evil, as one of the constituent elements of the cosmos, that he denied resurrection of the body, and that he gave too much weight to the role of the planets and constellations in determining human fate. He was also accused of giving Sophia-Wisdom too big a role in the creation of the cosmos and of humankind...

Bardaisan was apparently caught up in some kind of civic turmoil when the unspeakable Caracalla came to Edessa, for he went into exile in Armenia about the time that the emperor ended Edessan independence in 2l6. Yet he seems to have seen the Indians who were sent as an embassy to the Roman emperor Elagabalus. In Armenia, Bardaisan wrote a history of that country.

The Book of the Laws of Countries appeared in the latter half of the second century, well after the Gospel of Thomas (which many scholars would date a century earlier and at least as early as A.D. 140), and a few decades before the Acts of Judas Thomas (Syriac) and Apollonius of Tyana (Greek), both of which were written early in the third century. The line of development in the special tradition of Edessa and of Mesopotamia more generally, appears to be: those who wrote the Gospel of Thomas , then Bardaisan, then the writers of the Acts of Judas Thomas , then Mani. Al-Nadim, the tenth-century Muslim encyclopedist, reported that there were still, in his time, scattered communities in China and Khurasan that regarded themselves as followers of Bardaisan.

Perhaps with Bardaisan, and certainly with Mani, we reach a new form of Gnosticism in which Good and Evil are posed as roughly equal contending forces -- what Hans Jonas and Kurt Rudolph, leading expositors of Gnostic movements, call the Iranian type of gnosis.

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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.