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Re: the division of the soul

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  • Peter Novak
    The Gospel of Thomas cannot be understood in isolation, but must be seen as an element, and to some degree as a product, of its environment. The binary soul
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 13, 2004
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      The Gospel of Thomas cannot be understood in isolation, but must be seen as
      an element, and to some degree as a product, of its environment. The binary
      soul doctrine (BSD), which I believe to be the key to unlocking the meaning
      of GTh, was a widespread theological concept in the Roman Empire at the time
      of Christianity's birth, familiar in Judaic, Egyptian, and Greek thought.

      The mentality of ancient Egypt revolved around a dualistic perspective
      similar to China's Yin and Yang philosophy. Egypt's thoughts were dominated
      by the idea of united opposites; all reality, they thought, even including
      the human soul, was comprised of equal-but- opposite components that were
      dancing together in a delicate yet tense balance. Even their language
      reflected this underlying assumption; not only was everything always either
      male or female, Yin or Yang, but their language often used a special
      grammatical structure called 'the dual voice'. For instance, they called
      Egypt "The Two Lands", their universe was called "The Dual Realities" or
      "The Two Truths", they called their netherworld "The Great Double House",
      their gods dwelt in "The Lake of Double Fire", and their afterdeath judgment
      took place in "The Hall of Double Truth". This 'dual voice' did not simply
      refer to two things, or even two halves of one thing; it referred to an
      integrated binary unit, two which are one, simultaneously separate and
      united, each part distinct on its own, yet incomplete without its
      equal-but-opposite, complimentary partner.

      Just as Egypt perceived everything else as being composed of two parts, so
      too they distinguished two parts within the human soul as well. These two
      souls embraced together within the person's heart during life, but split
      apart from one another at death. Although Egypt named nine different aspects
      of the self in all, only two of these, the ba and the ka, were thought to
      survive physical death and so could properly be called 'soul' as the term is
      understood today. If and when these two parts of the soul successfully
      reunited with each other on the other side of death's door, they were then
      called the person's akh. The akh does not seem to have been an additional,
      third soul that one also secretly possessed; rather, it was an entirely new
      kind of soul one could potentially become - the whole that was formed by the
      ka-ba union - a whole that was far greater than the mere sum of its parts.
      The akh doesn't seem to have existed at all prior to death, and after death,
      it merely had a chance of becoming fully functional, or "perfected", but
      only if all went well with the ka-ba union. The symbol for the akh was a
      stork, a bird often seen wading in the marshlands of the Nile,
      simultaneously at home in the air and on the land, a perfect symbol for the
      integration of diverse elements.

      Similarly, when we peer back into the dimmest, most distant traces of the
      ancient civilization of the Greeks, we discover the binary soul doctrine
      already in full flower there as well. In Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Greece's
      oldest literary texts, two distinct types of souls are distinguished - the
      psuche and the thumos. To the Homeric Greeks, a person was only fully human
      when body, thumos and psuche were all functioning together as a cohesive,
      integrated whole. Thought to be free, unencumbered, and immortal, the psuche
      held the spark of life, and while it could not exit the body without causing
      the death of the individual, it was thought to be able to reincarnate. And
      while it was not thought to possess any feelings or emotions, it was thought
      to be the center of all abstract intellectual thought. The other soul, the
      thumos, possessed one's feelings, emotions, needs, and urges.

      Death shattered this unity in two stages. First, the two souls first
      detached in unison from the body when its functions ceased, and shortly
      thereafter, they separated from one another as well, which was the event
      called the 'second death'. One soul disappeared into the air while the
      other soul, transformed into a shadowy replica of the living person,
      descended into Hades. There, these phantoms of the dead continued to exist,
      but it was a flavorless, unhappy, and dismal netherworld, and their thoughts
      were confused and oblivious. The souls of the dead are portrayed as being
      extremely weak and barely conscious in Hades, but able to gain enough
      strength and presence of mind to temporarily think, move, and speak if they
      were somehow able to acquire a little sustenance from the living. Homer's
      hero Odysseus, for example, makes a special offering in order to attract the
      souls of the dead. Any soul having access to the offering could then hold a
      rational conversation with Odysseus for a few moments, but without
      sustenance all the other wraiths of the dead remained without reason and

      Much the same perspective also held sway in Israel. At the time the Old
      Testament was being written, there were two primary soul concepts in
      Judaism. Like Egypt and Greece, ancient Israel also held that people are
      comprised of two spiritual elements - a ruah and a nefesh. In the Hebrew
      text of the Old Testament, the word nefesh appears 451 times, being
      translated each time as 'soul', and the word ruah appears 271 times, being
      translated each time as 'spirit' . Like the left-brain conscious mind, the
      ruah was active, strong, conscious, intelligent, and communicated with
      words. It was immortal, pre-existing the person's birth and surviving his
      death unharmed, always "returning to god who gave it". But the nefesh, which
      embodied one's emotions, memories, and sense of self-identity, was
      vulnerable and could be greatly harmed by death, becoming trapped in a weak
      and feebleminded state in She'ol, a dark, underground, dreamlike
      netherworld. A third concept also existed, but it was used far less often,
      and this rarely-used term overlapped both those two primary concepts. The
      neshamah, which appears only three times in the Old Testament, is translated
      both as 'soul' and 'spirit', suggesting that the ancient Hebrews may have
      seen this rarely-mentioned soul element as the union of nefesh and ruah,
      paralleling their close neighbor Egypt's concept of the akh being the union
      of the ba and ka souls. Besides these three terms, no other Old Testament
      word is usually translated as 'soul' or 'spirit'. More recent Judaic
      thought has raised the number of soul-elements to five; today's Kabbalistic
      teachings hold that people possess no less than five distinct 'souls',
      adding new soul concepts named Hayyah and Yehidah. Even so, these modern
      teachings still hold that death brings a soul-division, with the nefesh
      splitting away from the ruah. Interestingly, although Christianity and
      Judaism both started out sharing this binary soul concept, they thereafter
      took opposite approaches. Judaism increased the number of their soul
      concepts from two to five, while Christianity reduced the number of their
      soul concepts from two to one, eventually thinking that soul and spirit were
      one and the same thing.

      By the time Christianity arrived on the scene, Greek ideas about a two-part
      soul comprised of psuche and thumos had saturated the entire Mediterranean
      area. Those Greek cultural ideas were the soil in which Christianity arose.
      And while most Christians today assume that the terms soul and spirit are
      synonyms, Christianity was originally in accord with Greek thought on this
      issue, distinguishing between these two parts of the self just as
      unequivocally as the rest of the Hellenized world. Further agreeing with the
      Greek model, one New Testament passage reveals that it was openly taught in
      the early days of the church that the soul and spirit were capable of
      dividing from each another:

      The word of God is living and active
      and more powerful than any two-edged sword,
      and cuts so deeply it divides the soul from the spirit.
      - Hebrews 4:12

      We can be fairly sure that the early Christian church continued to more or
      less openly subscribe to some form of the binary soul doctrine at least into
      the fourth century. While addressing the Apollinarius controversy during the
      2nd Ecumenical Council of 381 AD, the church again accepted and re-approved
      (albeit implicitly) the dogma that human beings are comprised of three
      parts: body, soul, and spirit. (Henry R. Percival, ed., "The Seven
      Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church", Vol XIV of Nicene and Post
      Nicene Fathers, snd series, edd. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, repr.
      Edinburgh: T&T Clark; Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988.) However,
      when the 4th Ecumenical Council rolled around 500 years later, the church
      made an explicit about-face on this point, bluntly declaring:

      "Though the old and new Testament teach that a man or woman has one rational
      and intellectual soul, and all the fathers and doctors of the church, who
      are spokesmen of God, express the same opinion, some have descended to such
      a depth of irreligion, through paying attention to the speculations of evil
      people, that they shamelessly teach as a dogma that a human being has two
      souls, and keep trying to prove their heresy by irrational means using a
      wisdom that has been made foolishness. Therefore this holy and universal
      synod is hastening to uproot this wicked theory now growing like some
      loathsome form of weed."
      - 11th Canon, 4th Ecumenical Council

      Perhaps without intending to, however, the above statement no less bluntly
      declared that the BSD managed to survive inside Christianity for eight full
      centuries, apparently finding the intellectual culture of the church a
      consistently warm and nurturing home in which to grow. Indeed, this doctrine
      was thriving in the church even as late as 869 AD, having become so popular
      and widely accepted by that time that it seemed to be "growing like a weed."

      In addition, a number of modern archaeological discoveries have provided
      seemingly unimpeachable proof that the BSD played a more central role in
      early Christianity than it does in today's church. The 'Gnostic Gospels', a
      nearly 2000-year old cache of lost and forgotten Christian scriptures
      unearthed in Nag Hammadi Egypt in 1945, reveal that early church teachings
      once credited supreme relevance to the distinction and interaction between
      the soul and the spirit. These lost works return again and again to the
      issue of division, mysteriously insisting that Jesus somehow divided into
      two halves when He died on the cross (Gospel of Philip 68:26-29), that all
      people are in danger of such a division (Gospel of Thomas 11), that the
      division of the soul and spirit was the origin of death (Exegesis on the
      Soul 133:4-9), and that "making the two one" is the key to achieving eternal
      life (Gospel of Thomas 22). Yet another early Christian work, The Gospel
      of Mary, was unearthed in 1896 after also having been lost for nearly 2000
      years. And again, just like the Nag Hammadi scriptures, The Gospel of Mary
      also seems to reflect the binary soul doctrine (BSD):

      "Peter said to Mary : "Sister, we know that the Teacher loved you
      differently from other women. Tell us whatever you remember of any words he
      told you which we have not yet heard." Mary said to them: "I will now speak
      to you of that which has not been given to you to hear. I had a vision of
      the Teacher, and I said to him: 'Lord, I see you now in this vision.' And he
      answered: 'You are blessed, for the sight of me does not disturb you. There
      where is the nous, lies the treasure.' Then I said to him: 'Lord, when
      someone meets you in a moment of vision, is it through the soul that they
      see, or is it through the spirit?' The Teacher answered: 'It is neither
      through the soul nor the spirit, but the nous between the two which sees the

      Nous, of course, is the ancient Greek term often translated as 'intellect'
      or 'mind'. Its use here clearly shows that at least one branch of early
      Christian anthropology included a BSD system of two primary souls with a
      third element in-between them. This inclusion within The Gospel of Mary is
      especially important, for, when considered alongside similar passages found
      within the Nag Hammadi scriptures, it shows that the BSD was not a minor,
      little-known, or insignificant stream of thought within early Christian
      theology. One of the most disturbing criticisms of the gnostic branch of the
      early church was that it had no clearly defined or agreed-upon theology,
      that its literature was just a hodgepodge of disconnected assertions, that
      anyone was free to make up anything they wished. But on the contrary, here
      we find that the same theme - the BSD - can be found in a number of
      different early gnostic scriptures. It seems in fact to be a common thread
      that may have connected the whole movement.

      Many now-unfamiliar gospels and scriptures were widely read and accepted as
      authentic in the early church. Although only four gospels ultimately made it
      into the approved canon of the Bible, far more than that were written by the
      early fathers of the church :

      "Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been
      accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from
      the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word."
      - Luke 1: 1-2

      There seem to have been two fairly distinct bodies of teachings circulating
      in early Christianity :

      "And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him
      concerning the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the
      secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in
      parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear
      but not understand."
      - Mark 4:10-12

      Gnostic scriptures such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the
      Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip were widely read, shared,
      circulated, approved, and honored by first-, second-, and even
      third-century Christians. Only in the fourth century, only when all
      first-hand eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry had been dead and gone for more
      than 150 years, did the authorities of the church conclude that they knew
      better than those who had personally seen Jesus in the flesh, and also
      better than the generation who had been taught by those eyewitnesses, and
      so, in the fourth century, the authorities of the church decided to condemn
      and destroy all gnostic literature.

      The Gospel of Thomas is a unique document in that it claims in its opening
      passage to contain a single theme, and that all of its passages point back
      to and reflect that theme. I contend that the BSD is that theme. In GTh,
      many passages openly condemn division and duality as a state that must be
      overcome (GTh 11, 22, 47, 48, 61, 72, & 105), while others celebrate
      singleness and wholeness as the more desirable state (GTh 16, 22, 48, 49,
      61, &106) . Like the Egyptians 100 miles to their West, and the Greek
      culture that surrounded and penetrated early Christian society, the early
      Christians also perceived division and duality as bad, and singleness,
      solitariness, and wholeness as good. I believe that this similarity can
      best be understood within the context of the BSD.

      It is furthermore my contention that the whole of GTh is built upon this
      same theme, and my work (in progress) along those lines can be examined at

      Examining GTh, and Christianity itself, from the perspective of the BSD
      brings out some very interesting issues. By apparently returning the "text"
      of Christianity to the "context" in which it arose, it introduces some new
      insights both about Christianity and about the BSD as well. It suggests that
      Christianity represented a new development and breakthrough in the worldview
      of the BSD (rather than a rejection or denial of that worldview), a
      development which cannot be properly understood outside of the context of
      the BSD. Prior to Christ, the BSD suggests, the only way to achieve
      'eternal life' was the way of wholeness and integrity, uniting one's own two
      souls into a single solitary unit, a singularity, as had been the religious
      goals of Egypt, China, and other BSD cultures (Egypt sought to unite the ba
      and ka souls together into the akh, China sought to unite the hun and p'o
      souls into the "immortal fetus". Achieving that singularity was thought to
      guarantee one's eternal life).

      In that pre-Christian worldview, one had to personally achieve that
      soul-spirit union (which was often described in terms very similar to
      Buddhism's 'Enlightenment') prior to his own death in order to have a chance
      to survive death. But with the advent of Christianity, a new option was seen
      to arise, making it possible to hope for eternal life even if he or she did
      not achieve that enlightening soul-spirit union prior to his own death.

      Thus, there were then, for the first time in history, not just one, but TWO
      paths to eternal life, one path through personal integrity, uniting one's
      two souls together in order to prevent them from dividing apart at death,
      and the other path through faith in Christ and the hope that He would
      resurrect one's soul from the dead at a later date. In the first scenario,
      one would not "taste death" at all, i.e., one's self would not disintegrate
      apart into fragments at death ("He who lives and believes in me will NEVER
      die"), while in the second scenario, one would still die, i.e., one's self
      would still disintegrate at death, but it would be reconstituted again at a
      later date ("He who believes in me will live, even though he dies").

      In the beginning of Christianity, it seems, BOTH these options were taught,
      but quickly the church fractured apart, with one half, the Gnostic church,
      teaching the 'old school' way of integrity, and the other half, the Roman
      church, teaching the new path of faith. And since the first, older path of
      personal wholeness and integrity made it unnecessary to rely on the church's
      promise of a future resurrection, it threatened the church's efforts to
      solidify its political authority, and so all references to that older BSD
      path, including all the gnostic scriptures, were summarily condemned and
      destroyed. Thus, the Roman church sought to delete all references to the
      binary soul doctrine from history, and very nearly succeeded.

      And so, with very few exceptions, most people today see the terms soul and
      spirit as interchangeable terms.

      - Peter Novak
      How divided are you already?
      Find out now at http://www.divisiontheory.com
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