Robert Price is an American theologian and writer. He has taught philosophy and religion at the collegiate level and is a professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and is the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus.
MC: How you doing today, Bob?
RP: Terrific! As well as can be expected under the oppression of the Archons.
MC: We’ll try to break through this veil of illusion. Many assume that the Archons were drawn out from Paul’s writings. These sort of mysterious rulers and princes that he talks about were then developed by the Gnostics. Is that basically it?
RP: That’s an oversimplification. It’s like connecting the dots and leaving out a few dots. Who knows, right? But it occurs to me that the stuff you find in the Nag Hammadi texts — a committee of cosmic creators, the different versions of the Eden story, the Testimony of Truth, On the Origin of the World, the Hypothesis of the Archons, and so on — are at least picking up on the polytheism clearly implied in Genesis. “Let us make man and behold a man has become like one of us,” and so forth. There must have been more than one divine entity involved in the whole Garden of Eden scenario.
Now, it could be that the Gnostics are speculating on who could that have been. The fact remains that this does underlie the text of Genesis: there were several entities. And so does the notion that God or a lot of gods are lying to Adam and Eve about the fruit being a deadly poison. It’s because he doesn’t want the humans to get his or their prerogatives. If you don’t like that narrative in Genesis, you have to do quite a bit of footwork to get out of that. And none of it’s convincing.
I think the Gnostics are seeing what is there. They may be giving their own names to it, but even there I wouldn’t think so because, of course, Archon is a generic term for “prince” or “ruler.” Who else would they be? This whole thing is like their spin on it.
But it’s also part of this remote Old Testament idea that there are many gods who ruled the various nations of the world. In fact, the nations were numbered — so that each one of these gods or sons of Elohim would have a nation to rule. I mean, it’s just not angels in the Old Testament but rulers of nations. Daniel mentions this kind of thing. Gabriel appears late to Daniel saying something like, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, but I had to battle the Prince of Persia.” Well, that’s the Archon of Persia, the ruling spirit. So, it seems to me they are part of the fall of the sons of God, whoever they were. They had to be these lesser gods and they mated with mortal women.
You see this stuff elaborated in Jewish apocryphal pseudepigraphical works. It was a common belief, and that was easy to harmonize with Hellenistic ideas of intermediate elemental spirits the Stoics believed in. There isn’t all that much in the fundamental conception of the Archons, their rule and all that. It was common property in the ancient world. The Pauline language seems to reflect this reality.
You could say, “Ah, these Gnostics just got it from the Ephesians” or something like that, which they do quote. But if that’s where they got it from, you have to ask: what did Ephesians get it and mean by it?
Clearly, even if you’ve never even heard of any Gnostic texts, it’s very clear you’re talking about principalities and powers, rulers of this age or this world who dominated the sons of wrath. Mostly, it’s spelled out there anyway. You’ve got the Gnostic Pleroma in Colossians. You’ve got the three categories of human beings in 1st Corinthians. And it seems to me the Pauline material is just commenting on a pre-existing tradition which the Gnostics inherited, whether before or after the Pauline epistles.
MC: Is there a name for this type of literature you find in On the Origins of the World and the Hypostasis of the Archons where they just re-interpret Genesis?
RP: Well, some of it is found in Jewish and somewhat Christianized Jewish pseudepigrapha books of Enoch, Jubilees, and so forth. They often do not have the notion of a spiritual illumination that you find in the Gnostic texts, but in a sense, it’s all apocalyptic in that it’s revelation literature. Some of the Nag Hammadi texts just take that for granted. Well, where could they have gotten it? Probably from sort of revelation also. You’ve already got the fundamentals in the Garden of Eden story, so as for the knowledge, you even have that too because the Jewish pseudepigraphical stories have the sons of God giving knowledge to the fledgling humans. They kind of spin the thing in a negative way so that they give knowledge of death-dealing weapons for men and the arts of cosmetic and seduction to women. But as Margaret Barker argues, this narrative was probably a bigger deal in ancient Israel than we would guess from something like The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which are more likely preserving a more unedited form that is taken for granted by the Canonical writers.
This genre is really part of a warp and woof of Jewish literature and comes from the same source, I think. It isn’t really a separate special bunch of books that somehow leaked into the tradition.
MC: I’ve heard fundamentalists say, “Well the Gnostic texts were anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic.” What is your answer to that?
RP: It is possible to read it that way, but I think that it’s more of a Jewish reaction to what some mystical Jews began to consider oversimplification, as well as a kind of dumbed-down editing and domestication of the stuff. It’s those who are rejecting and reviling the Archons who lied about Adam and Eve. Again, they’re getting it from the Bible in the first instance; and it seems to me that you’d have to ask who were they portraying with the image of gods who want to stymie human knowledge and progress. That’s what the old rationalist used to call priestcraft.
It’s like traditional Catholics despising Vatican II or Louis Farrakhan despising the reforms made by Warith Deen Muhammad after the death of Elijah Muhammad. It’s a partisanship for a repressed and condemned belief that was once very common — and these people are not giving up on it. So, it isn’t anti-Jewish so much as it’s against people who have emasculated what the writers consider the true Biblical religion. These guys aren’t Marcionites. In On the Origin of the World, it says that the writings of the prophets — and it seems to be the Jewish prophets — are key to the coming apocalypse. Why would you reinterpret all these Jewish sources if you were simply a Marcionite? And if you were anti-Jewish, why would you be accepting the Old Testament? It seems to me that’s just a convenient oversimplification.
MC: Going back to the nature of the Archons, basically depicted as these godly beings, cosmic bureaucrats, and bullying rapists. What is their template? Do you think the Gnostic writers saw what the Romans were doing to other cultures and just made them into celestial beings?
RP: I don’t know about that. Look at texts where the Archons lust after the spiritual Eve and she gets away by turning into a tree (apparently the Tree of Knowledge); then the Archons rape a cloudy mirage Eve. It more clearly parallels elements of Greek myth where Hera was rescued but got assaulted in her cloudy form. A simulacrum was molested by whoever it was. It also seems directly reflected with Daphne, who has to run from the lustful urges of Apollo and out-wits him by somehow becoming a tree. It may be just shared myththemes. Genesis abounds in stories parallel to ancient Greek myths.
I have a hunch that the ultimate template of the Archons as rapists is just a slight variant of an old Jewish idea that Orthodox rabbis propounded of where Cain got his evil nature. Why was he a murderer when he must be so close to the creation of God? Where did this bad element come from? As the Church Lady on SNL would say, “Could it be Satan?” He must have had satanic DNA. First John comes pretty darn close to saying that. I think that it’s again an inherited notion; and it’s trying to explain the origin of evil in humanity. Especially since later on in On the Origin of the World, they talk about how humanity is divided into these different groups, these different strata. What makes the difference between them? Well, they all have these souls that have been projected into them by the good guys, Pistis Sophia and so on. But these people, these early humans, were molested by the Archons too, though with varying degrees of success.
Therefore, the real slobs, the immoral, the evil — they are predominated by the sperm seed, the DNA of the Archons. But many of the others were immune to their influence and that explains the mix in the early church — though I think they mean the whole human race. And they’re trying to explain why in the early church congregation you have people like them, the Sethian Gnostics who know what the deal is. And other people that don’t know and would persecute them if they knew who they were. But it’s theodicy. How did we get to this intermixing of evil in a world that among souls who were planted by Pistis Sophia and so on?
It’s not completely consistent or at least I can’t follow it consistently in every place, but I suspect it’s just what the whole Gnostic thing is ultimately a theodicy. If there’s a good God way up there, how did the world get as it is? How did people get as they are? Must be the DNA from the Archons or Satan or whoever else.
Looking for politics under every bush is a kind of a theological McCarthyism. It’s really a big fad today to say that Paul had prophetic knowledge of post-colonial leftism. So, when he’s talking about Rome he really means the United States. I think that’s just typical liberal manipulation of texts to make them a ventriloquist dummy.
MC: Both On the Origin of the World and The Hypostasis of the Archons have the story of the enthronement of Sabaoth, the redeemed Archon who gets put into heaven. Is this a story that was going around or what do you know of Sabaoth?
RP: This is really one of the most striking things. Why would they redeem this one son of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge? And they kind of split him into two characters, it seems to me. In fact, they used to say Yaldabaoth is a slight garbling of Yahweh-Sabaoth – Lord of Hosts. They even bring up that derivation only with Sabaoth — that he is known as the Lord of Powers or Lord of Hosts. It’s interesting to me because they’re trying to say, “You know the creation isn’t all that bad.” They talk about Yaldabaoth as the ultimate creator, but the world we know and the heavens and all that stuff were made by Sabaoth after he was reformed. Are they kind of mitigating the pessimism of the original idea? It seems like it is since all this happened according to the will of Pistis Sophia and the ultimate Father.
This all looks like this typical re-assimilation degree by degree to the social order against which the radical movement first repudiated and differentiated themselves. Like Marcionism, it seems to be a kind of going back some steps toward the world that Gnosticism simply rejected. I wonder if that’s what’s happening here, but there are probably better interpretations out there.
MC: What’s also striking in The Hypostasis of the Archons is you don’t have a Jesus figure. In fact, you don’t even have a Seth figure. Somehow the Gnostic revealers is Eleleth and Norea. Why do you think this is?
RP: My guess has to do with where they got the idea of Norea incinerating the ark. That’s got to mean something. And apparently there were loads of Norea texts that we don’t even have that are mentioned in these texts. That always sets off my suspicions that we have a kind of compilation and harmonization of very different original versions of Gnosticism — like why are there different Sophia analogs as well? Some of them in the same texts. Why did they bother differentiating Zoe from Sophia and all that? What’s the difference between her and the spiritual Eve?
I sort of suspect maybe each of these was the analogous figure in a different form of the religion — just like all the goddesses and the Olympian Pantheon are really pretty much versions of each other. There’s not that much difference in Islam as well. Are there really three goddesses of Mecca? They’re all pretty much the same character and do the same thing; and so you wonder if groups, clans, or sects met one another as their membership perhaps was shrinking like modern congregations and said, “You know these people believe pretty much what we do though even if they use different names. What the heck, let’s put them all together!”
That was Albrecht Alt’s view of where you got the gods of the fathers in Genesis. They started as gods or totems for different groups that joined together and established a hierarchy. The Abraham people, the biggest group and moon worshippers, ended on top with the sun god Issac and other moon gods coming later in the genealogy. Then they said, “Oh, what the heck, they’re all the same, forget the sun/moon thing”.
I suspect you can see that sort of evolution-buy in in the Nag Hammadi texts which otherwise seems needlessly redundant and pointless (like listening to me). You don’t need this much of it. So why did they stuff it with all these equivalent Demiurges and so forth? I don’t know but I’m guessing that they’re just trying to get everybody’s favorite in.
MC: What about this idea of Jesus being sort of absent or as you once told me, he is just sort of tacked in the Apocryphon of John. Why was this done if these groups thought of themselves as Christian?
RP: It’s possible they felt they had to take refuge in that group, that they had to go underground. I mean, we know that in some types of Islam in times of persecution you had feigned conversion. You had Muslims and Jews feigning conversion to Catholicism to avoid persecution.
It’s possible that’s what they did. They figured the stuff that we really believed as Sethians could get into the wrong hands here, so let’s make sure we have a vestigial reference to Jesus, saying, “Well we’re kinda weird but that’s alright, it’s Christian.”
I don’t know because, as you say, you do have to explain why it is tacked on. The Apocalypse of Adam seems to be an obvious Zoroastrian text. It describes the Illuminator and how it’s really Zoroaster coming in different versions of it. Different iterations over the ages as different Persian heroes and prophets and all that. Suddenly, at the end of it, Jesus is one of them.
I’m obviously subjective, but that to me reads like somebody that converted — really converted to Christianity — but figured the whole Zoroastrian thing was like another Old Testament leading up to it, so Jesus really has a place in this. Or even in Melchizedek in the Nag Hammadi texts, that kind of looks like these are Sethians who just found they could graft their faith on to Christianity and really did believe that Jesus is a second coming of Melchizedek.
It’s just another layer added to the faith represented there; but in some of them Jesus seems just tacked on, but you could say the same thing about the Epistle of James in the Canon. Jesus is hardly there either. So who knows?
My favorite weird non-Jesus thing in the Nag Hammadi texts is the Apocalypse of Paul where there is no mention at all of Jesus — and Paul is the Gnostic Redeemer. Holy Mackerel! What is going on? I think the Nag Hammadi texts are like a fossil record of an incredibly diverse early Christianity. That is underestimated in some of the discussions of these texts. They’re even not taken seriously by those who are sympathetically interested in them; and seem to regard them as some sort of ancient science fiction novel. Maybe it’s like Dr. Doom or something.
I think Elaine Pagels is right. These were the scriptures of living religions. People believed and studied this and had a spirituality based on it. There had to have been living religions or living real Christianity, as Bart Ehrman says in Lost Christianities. Whole species of early Christianities died out or got stamped out.
MC: This is the same reason that you have such different interpretations of the serpent it seems. In the Apocryphon of John, the serpent is Yaldabaoth but in The Hypostases of the Archons and On the Origin of the World the serpent is Sophia. Didn’t Manicheans believe the serpent was actually Jesus?
RP: I think so. I do remember that Philo of Alexandria said that the name of the serpent was Eve. What? And there’s no possibility of Christian Gnostic influence. Philo was a Hellenistic philosophically oriented Jew. He wasn’t a Christian, but his claims fortify my thinking on this that Gnosticism wasn’t just some wacky brand X version of Christianity somebody cooked up in their basement. These are much more widely known important beliefs and whole families of beliefs.
MC: Doesn’t this have to do with the name in Hebrew and Aramaic of Eve and the serpent? That’s where this confusion or these interpretations came about?
RP: I’m more used to thinking of Eve as the same as the goddess Hebe from the Greeks and also Aruru, from way back in the Gilgamesh epic who was the mother of all living. But I’m not versed enough in the linguistics to know if the link between Eve and the serpent is like an opportunistic pun like most of the etymological notes in the Old Testament; or if they actually do derive from the same thing. I don’t know those languages, so it’s tough to say.
MC: Don’t some rabbis interpret it as Eve actually having sex with the serpent?
RP: That’s where we got Cain. It explicitly says this, chalks up all of the children of Adam and Eve to this in On the Origin of the World. That’s not a new notion because rabbis already said that about Cain and the sons of God, the Nephilim. It’s a very old idea.
MC: Yes, so the Gnostics were basically just rebooting old texts like everyone else.
RP: They might have had their own spin on it. They might have like all of these weird names in the Nag Hammadi text and the fact that they call them the “incorruptibility” and things like that. It’s possible that this implies they’re allegorizing somewhat. They don’t go on to explain why in any great depth. On the other hand, the whole thing is kind of like a huge puzzle — like apocalypses which ultimately come from the same source. We’re not making this easy because we’re not aiming at idiots. In fact, if you’re an idiot, good luck understanding this, just like the Book of Revelation says.
MC: I think it was Elaine Pagels that said Orthodoxy is grade school, the Gnostic texts would be grad school. This is for learned people who had a background and who were the initiated, right?
RP: That is certainly what they thought. You’ve got the kid version of it and I think there’s something to that historically. I mean, that’s why the Valentinians were members of Catholic congregations. Why would they even bother staying there if they didn’t view themselves as part of the same faith? They just wanted to keep an eye out for people that were ready to graduate too. Then they say to you that there is more to this just like Jesus with a rich young ruler when he said, “Well, you know, stage one right, the Commandments?” “Oh yeah, yeah, I’ve kept those all my life.” And he says, “Well, ok, if you would be perfect or mature.” I think that’s the Gnostic stance. There really is something to it because like Adolf von Harnack said: the lasting legacy of Gnosticism, which otherwise died out, is the pre-existent Christology that the Jesus who appeared on Earth was a manifestation of a pre-existing heavenly being. He says that must come from Gnosticism.
I think that Harnack is correct. Not only that but once you start looking through those lenses you can see that whole soteriology thing is Plan B for the psykikoi or pew potatoes, as I like to call them, that comes from the mystery religions. This is the idea of joining the Savior in his saving deed by initiation rites. This all has to be part and parcel of the mystery religions.
The Gospels, with all the miracles and all that, are typical hagiographies, similar to hero tales of the gods and demigods and so on. And so Christianity, as we know it, is a secondary or tertiary fusion of these items; and that their very existence implies there were older more sophisticated levels, especially with a Gnostic thing that we do have dumbed-down in the New Testament.
The Gnostic thing was probably the earlier, and what we have is Sunday school version, which I don’t mean to disparage because the classic Western Christian story is a great epic and much is to be learned from it. I have to admit that reading some of these Gnostics texts is almost like reading an auto repair manual.
MC: It seems The Hypostasis of the Archons is an earlier text than On the Origin of the World. The latter is a big soup. They’re throwing in heroes from different religions and so forth. And at the end of On the Origin of the World, there seems to be a universalist message, while The Hypostasis of the Archons only the root of Norea gets saved. Do you think later on they wanted to make sure everybody got saved in Alexandria?
RP: Could be because you have the same sort of thing in other apocryphal apocalypses of the apostle. Everybody is going to heaven finally. I like what Dominique Crossan says in an interview about that: “Don’t tell everybody they’re getting saved or they’ll start taking liberties.” Or like in Mahāyāna Buddhism where nobody’s getting saved till everybody’s getting saved. It seems more like the evangelistic mandate – “Gee, I sure wish everybody would be saved, let’s try to save ’em all” and merges into the idea of universal salvation whether you reach them or not.
I wouldn’t be surprised, though you do see the opposite in things like the Book of Thomas the Contender or Q. Both seem to have discernable, detachable, later strata where there is this bitter, resentful cursing of those who have not listened to the message. And so, it can go both ways: “You bastards, you didn’t accept what we said, well you asked for it, the hell with ya!” But different people have different religious sympathies, and it can go either way.
More information on Robert. This interview has been edited for clarity and context, but please find the audio version here. Much appreciation to Marvelyn for transcription assistance.
Other articles on the Archons:
Amorous Archons in Eden and Corinth
How the Archons Destroy Your Life
The Five Most Dangerous Archons in the Gnostic Gospels
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