The Testimony of Truth 70.1-30

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The release of demons when the Romans entered the Jerusalem Temple

2nd CE to 3d CE
Christian and Gnostic
Literary genre: 
Rhetorical treatise and Sermon
Title of work: 
The Testimony of Truth

The Testimony of Truth is a Christian, so-called “Gnostic” text found as the third tractate in Nag Hammadi Codex IX. The title has been given to the work by modern commentators on the basis of its content, as it does not appear in the manuscript itself. The text is very badly damaged in parts, and so it is possible that a title was once present at the end of the tractate, which is now lost (the best-preserved sections of the document are in its first half; the last pages are completely lost). The tractate’s essential purpose is to present its “truth” over and against other Christian “heresies” which the author critiques. The author begins by offering a homily which deals with various themes and denounces the false doctrines of other Christian groups (29.6-45.6). Firstly, the Law of Genesis 1:28 and 2:24, which requires marriage and procreation is rejected, and instead strict asceticism is promoted. Secondly, those who seek out martyrdom are criticised (an attitude which we see in other so-called “Gnostic” texts also). Thirdly, the resurrection is reinterpreted in terms of spiritual gnosis (knowledge), with those who preach bodily/physical resurrection denounced. The call to encratism and virginity is then reemphasised, before the homiletic section finally turning to the enlightened individual who gains salvation through gnosis of him/herself and God (for this structure, see Birger Pearson, “Introduction,” p. 448-449). The next section of the tractate (45.6-74.30) is made up of varied material, including a discussion of Jesus’s virginal birth; a Midrash on the serpent from Genesis 3, who is seen in a positive light as the holder of soteriological knowledge; a comparison of Christ and Adam, with the former credited as a life-giver and the latter representing death; and a polemical attack on particular “heretics,” some of whom are named—Valentinus, Basilides, Isidorus, etc. Frederick Wisse and Klaus Koschorke have both argued that the author took this polemical section from an anti-heretical work by another Christian author, however, this has been refuted by Pearson (Wisse, “The Nag Hammadi Library,” p. 208; Koschorke, Die polemik der Gnostiker, p. 157; Pearson, Nag Hammadi Codices IX and X, p. 108).

The tractate is arguably somewhat Johannine in its use of certain terminology, such as a “Son of Man” Christology, and the New Testament is utilised quite extensively. However, non-canonical material is also drawn upon. The Hebrew Bible is also of importance in the text, with both the Midrash on the serpent and the Midrash on David and Solomon in the present extract being particularly poignant. Despite Valentinus being named specifically as a holder of false doctrine, many scholars have argued nonetheless for a significant inspiration of Valentinian thought in the text, with the author likely coming from Alexandria. It seems, however, that this author rejected certain elements of the various different Christian schools which surrounded him, even if he took influence from them. Certain scholars (see, for example, Pearson, “Introduction,” p. 449) have tried to identify the author specifically with Julius Cassianus, whom Clement of Alexandria tells us has left the school of Vaentinus and gone on to promote strict encratism and forbid marriage and sexual intercourse. However, this is far from certain. The most we can really say with any confidence is that the author likely stemmed from Alexandria at the very end of the second or beginning of the third century CE.

The text quoted above offers a Midrash on the building of the Jerusalem Temple by King David and his son Solomon (the Jewish haggadah claims that David dug the foundation of the Temple; Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 11a), whom it is emphasised was born through adultery (for the author of this text, any kind of sexual relationship was rejected, and so a child born through adultery would arguably be the ultimate defilement). It is claimed that both David and Solomon had demons dwelling within them, which they imprisoned in the Temple in water jars once it had been completely built (in the Jewish haggadah, see, for instance, the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 107a for David as an idol worshipper; that Solomon was assisted by demons in his building of the Temple is attested in the haggadah, and his power over demons is a common theme in Jewish literature; see, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 68ab, Exodus Rabbah 52.4; Numbers Rabbah 11.3; Pesiqta Rabbati 6.7). We find variations of the legend of the demons and the water jars in numerous different sources, such as the Testament of Solomon 25). When the Romans entered the Temple (Pompey first entered the Temple in 63 BCE, then Titus destroyed it in 70 CE), the water jars were discovered, and the demonic spirits escaped. The result of this was the purifying of the jars, and therefore the Temple, from these demonic beings, which went on to inhabit world. Unfortunately, the next part of the tractate is very badly damaged, with the five lines immediately after the end of our passage completely missing, and only the odd word preserved in the section following. This means that the explanation given of the “mysteries” that the author refers to are very difficult to interpret. It is therefore somewhat a matter of conjecture as to precisely how the author understands the Romans and their entering of the temple symbolically.

What is interesting, however, is that an event which desecrated the most holy place of the Jews, is actually described in part by the present Christian author as helping in one sense to purify the Temple, with the demons which had been imprisoned within it finally being released: “And the waterpots [remained] pure (thereafter).” In one sense, then, the Romans might be understood here as effectively performing a type of exorcism on the Temple, and ridding it from impurity. The ultimate destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE was a useful subject for early Christian authors who wished to express anti-Jewish polemic, and wanted to present the catastrophic event as deserved punishment for the wayward behaviour of the Jews (for example, see the Epistle of Barnabas 16.1-5, which argues that the building of the Temple itself was an example of the Jews’ attempt to harness God in a manmade structure, bordering on idolatry). For such writers, the shameful brutality shown by the Romans to the Jewish people is presented as something almost necessary, to abolish the sins which the Temple represented. No such argument relating to the punishment of the Jews is present here, however, and the widespread release of demons across the earth can hardly be viewed as something positive. We must therefore reserve firm judgement regarding the author’s precise position on the relationship between Rome and the Jews, as with the explanation of the symbolism above missing from the manuscript it is difficult to say for certain.

Bibliographical references: 
Giversen, Søren, “Solomon und die Dämonen” , in Essays on the Nag Hammadi Texts in Honour of Pahor Labib (ed. Martin Krause; Leiden: Brill, 1975), 16-21
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The Testimony of Truth 70.1-30
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Mon, 04/16/2018 - 14:43
Visited: Sat, 09/19/2020 - 10:35

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