And so I was caught off guard, so I read more and more of the discussions on that board, and saw ideas from esoteric Christianity, what looked to me like ideas from Rosicrucianism, being used casually. A bunch of people who all think George W. Bush was a good president, citing religious ideas that Paul Tillich might think but would figure too radical to speak? This warranted more investigation. And after a few weeks I've come to the conclusion that Morminism is genuinely cool. A truly new American religion, a blend of ingredients I've never seen before. That would be worthy of discussion in and of itself but a month ago if you would have asked me, "what would happen if a Conservative version of Helena Blavatsky had set up a mainstream church that grew to millions and thinks it's part of Evangelical Christianity"? I would have considered the question an oxymoron, not even possible enough to warrant discussion, until I looked at Brigham Young's church. I must admit I'm still getting over the idea of KJVonlyists who are to the left of Elizabeth Johnson on re-imaging God with Holy Mother(s). If you are someone who likes this blog, and haven't looked into Mormonism, I'll stop you right here and say this is religion worth looking at. It is frankly amazing that such a thing even exists much less is a church with million and millions of members, who have been in the church for 5-7 generations plus new recruits. It is shattering many of my assumptions about what is possible.
Mormons defines itself as a close cousin of Evangelical Christianity Evangelical Christianity defines itself first and foremost in terms of adherence to Protestant doctrines. Protestantism defines itself based on: its definition of scripture, faith defined by creeds, its understanding of grace within a narrow band between Luther and Calvin, a creedal understanding of Christ, and a rejection of sacramental theology. All 5 of which are contradicted by Mormon theology, and contradicted not by a little bit, either. From an evangelical standpoint 7th day Adventists, sit on the border between Christianity and heresy; Jehovah's witnesses while Christian are preaching clear cut heresies and Mormons well is just another religion.The paradox that gets beaten to death on the web is "Is Mormon Christian?" Now the average evangelical who understands something about Mormonism usually responds with some variation of, "What are you kidding?"
- Is historically accurate and is not an abuse of language.
- Is supportive of Mormon theology regarding being a restored church. It provides some genuine historical meat to what is otherwise a vague claim, making "we are the re-established, original Christian church" plausible in a genuine historical context, capable of holding up to scrutiny and scholarship.
- Is respectful of the theological objections that Catholics and Protestants express towards Mormonism by openly acknowledging their "non-normative" theology.
- Offers a plausible theory for how the distinctive aspects of the Mormon faith developed as quickly as they did, and why Mormonism diverged from "normative" Christianity as far as it did under Brigham Young.
- The Mormon church is probably over ten-times the size of all the other Hermetic churches worldwide, put together. Mainline or Evangelical Christianity are big enough that the Church of Later Day Saints could be "just another denomination" if grouped with Hermetic Christianity the Mormon church would redefine the entire group.
- Culturally they are not a fit. Hermetic Christianity has a 1000 year history of having essentially always been associated with political and/or sexual radicalism. Hermetic Christian churches further have a more limited ecclesiology, they aim to be an activity their members engage in, they make no attempt to form an inter-generational relationship guiding their lives.
- Because of (2) above, this doesn't address the core issue in terms of ecumenical dialogue, which is I suspect the main reason Mormons want to identify as Evangelical Christians. The religions themselves travel in different circles. Hermetic Christians groups in today's world along with Gnostic Christianity, form a bridge between the left end of Liberal Christianity and Neopaganism, New Age movement, Spiritualism... Its unlikely the people in those groups know who Al Mohler or John MacArthur even are, much less have a desire for their acceptance. If evangelicals came in contact with Hermetic Churches, while the counter arguments would be different, the level of hostility would likely be almost equally high.
The attraction for both sides was a well developed magick (we'll adopt the Hermetic convention of using magic for a form of stagecraft involving illusion and magick for ritual activities aimed at altering the material world through supernatural means) cult in each of the respective religions. Hermeticism became an international religion, centered in Egypt, focused on creating a synthesis between Platonic philosophy and its religious offshoots with more traditional, religious forms. To left you see pictured the Hermetic symbol, the symbol of Hermes Trismegistus, their merged God which has the the Ankh of Thoth merged with the twin snakes of Hermes. For later Hellenists, Hermes Trismegistus was the Logos who had become incarnate to teach man hidden wisdoms of the high God, including the magick healing i.e. medicine. You can see the obvious derivation with today's modern symbol for medicine, pictured to the right. I'll won't focus on the obvious symbolism of the cross but will (link) and mention in the Coptic church even today you can see Ankh crosses, hybrids between the Ankh and the cross and these go back to the 1st century.
- A long Jewish midrash, a religious biography of a messianic character constructed from the Septuagint.
- Miracles of healing including their wording a magical character (see for example Morton's Smith, Jesus the Magician for a long discussion of magick as a theme of Mark).
- An adoptionist view of Jesus, in particular a description, bird and all (Mark 1:9-11), of the Hermetic magick rite for gaining divine powers.
- The idea that the God, has secrets (the Messianic secret) openly only to the select few, a motif that hadn't appeared in Judaism to this point but was common in Hermeticism.
- A focus on baptism, common for Jewish baptismal cults.
- The Hermetic eating the god rite, eucharist, presented in a Jewish context (Mark 14:22-26).
In terms of the Epistles, we also run into some pretty clear evidence in Colossians 2:8-23:
- Col 2:8, Col 2:20 manipulation of matter through spirits, secret magick rituals;
- Col 2:11 circumcision, the importance of earthly acts to control powers, Hermeticism is not gnostic "as above is below" is the core idea of magick.
- Col 2:16-17 special ritual holidays
- Col 2:18 angel worship, a truly distinctive part of Hermetic Judaism provides the strongest evidence for the identification
- Col 2:21-23 legalism, a focus on ritual purity for the laity.
Revelations is traditional apocalyptic literature, that could have been written at almost anytime. The theology is Hermetic with an interplay between levels of heaven. For example giving birth to a heavenly savior with a dragon cast down to represent the beasts of the earth and land. It could very easily have been an earlier work recast with the Christian community recasting Jesus as God's earthly redeemer.
Hebrews presents a mythical savior as a new form of priest establishing a new type of mythical priesthood, based on a new heavenly sacrifice in his heavenly sanctuary where he acts as High Priest making ineffectual earthly sacrifices. Nope not Hermetic Judaism. Hermetic Judaism would have been an argument that earthly sacrifices are effectual because they mimic the heavenly sacrifices of the heavenly Christ in his heavenly temple, or that the earthly ones aren't close enough to actually work. Hebrews is also unavoidably early, as it predates the destruction of the temple, so this theory of origins is going to require a belief in at least one other strand of early Christianity. But in the Essenes we have obvious candidates for its original authors. And we both sides of this for James, an early version from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the later "Christianized" version which is canonical James. And that solution of the Essenes would work for Hebrews as well, an argument for community holiness and God's deliverance over what they saw as Herod's perverse temple. So for the purpose of believing in a unique early church we could have the Hermetic Judaism influencing the Essenes and then literature passing between those communities.
The pastoral epistles with their obvious 2nd century references, as well as most of the catholic epistles belong to a later phase; a community done migrating from Judaism, that has concerns over governance. The two main strands of Q: Greek cynical philosophy and Jewish apocalyptic traditions are not part of Hermetic Judaism. Matthew's theology would not have come from this group, though again the Essenes would work. Similarly Luke/Acts (and even the earlier form of Luke, The Gospel of the Lord) is not Hermetic Jewish either but I'd date this well in 2nd century. The reworking Signs into John, is hard to date with confidence but we can be assured its later than most other works in the New Testament. Hence, those remaining books present no contradiction to the theory.
Hermetic Judaism was even without any other influence already a fairly complete proto-Christianity. It could very well have represented the original church, the church that authored most of the bible. A plausible source for the sort of group a primitive Christianity could initially have emerged from. This sort of naturalistic framework for viewing the bible is fully in accord with Mormon tradition:
“The Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible from which translations have been made, are evidently very much corrupted,…the learned are under the necessity of translating from such mutilated, imperfect, and, in very many instances, contradictory copies as still exist. This uncertainty, combined with the imperfections of uninspired translators, renders the Bibles of all languages, at the present day, emphatically the words of men, intead of the pure word of God.” (Pratt, Spiritual Gifts)We will stop here and take up the rest of the argument in the 2nd half.
- What happened to pagan Hermeticism and its collapse into Catholic Christianity, Hermes Christianus.
- Hermetic Christianity, its disappearance from the ancient world and its rebirth as a religion of European aristocrats and religious radicals.
- How a religion of European aristocrats might have made contact, transformed and been reborn in a middle / lower class rural American sect run by Brigham Young.
- part2 and part3 of this series
- The ideas about Hermetic Christianity and its tie to Christian origins were first proposed by Richard Reitzenstein in Poimandres: Studien zur Griechisch-ägyptischen und frühchristlichen which unfortunately has never been translated. A good summary is found in chapter 8 of Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby. Also a more modern summary from lecture notes one by Vernon Robbins.
- Wikipedia has a nice summary / introduction to magic from that period.
- The idea that early Christians didn't in fact believe that the gospels were relating events in Palestine but viewed them mythically, like the stories of hercules, is extensively argued elsewhere. A fairly good treatment which examines references in depth is Earl Doherty's site.
- Rediscovering Ancient Christianity by C Wilfred Griggs, a historically accurate approach from BYU agreeing overall with the Walter Bauer style analysis above. The article itself even goes further in addressing theorists like David Strauss who made strong negative claims about the historicity of the bible texts.
- Fair LDS page on the diversity of early Christianity.
- Evangelical analysis of the Colossian Heresy: part1, part2, part3