Book Note | Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century CE

by Peter Morris in

Heidi Marx-Wolf. Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority: Platonists, Priests, and Gnostics in the Third Century CE. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

In her book Spiritual Taxonomies and Ritual Authority, Heidi Marx-Wolf provides a close reading and comparison of Origen, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and (to a lesser degree) Plotinus in order to accomplish two goals. Marx-Wolf demonstrates that these Platonist thinkers were closely connected despite the fact that one is a Christian and the other three are non-Christian. To this end, she reads these Platonists not in terms of different social or religious affiliations, but in terms of a shared paideia (2-3). She contends that this common formation explains elements of their thought that might otherwise be “surprising” such as Porphyry’s rejection of animal sacrifice. Second, Marx-Wolf attempts to demonstrate that these authors were also closely connected, albeit it competitively, with other groups such as “Gnostics,” priests, and other ritual practitioners with whom they vied for authority (9-10). The effect of these two main moves, and perhaps operating as a kind of meta-goal of the work, is the furthering of a new model of the third century’s intellectual and social environment that is dynamic and fluid rather than stunted and anemic (4). Marx-Wolf consistently assails notions of “fixed” or “rigid” boundaries defining religious group identities in the third century. She believes that there is a far more stable and impermeable division between Christians and non-Christians in the 4th century, but that it is anachronistic to imagine a similar boundary in earlier periods. Instead, she argues that the different thinkers she considers should be seen as emerging from a common milieu that allowed for regular interaction. 

In chapter 1 Marx-Wolf traces controversy surrounding blood sacrifice and the ontological status of demons (13-37). Porphyry’s rejection of blood sacrifice is the ostensibly surprising fact that drives this chapter. Porphyry argues that the “gods” who desire blood sacrifices are demons who have deluded humans into giving them the blood and smoke they desire (15-18). Marx-Wolf make the case that Porphyry may have gotten this idea from Origen’s lost work “Concerning Daemons,” since (following Elizabeth Digeser) these two thinkers likely knew each other and even studied together (22-23). According to Marx-Wolf, then, Porphyry’s “Christian” position is only surprising if we assume that “Christian” is a relatively fixed category in the third century. Indeed, in this chapter she argues that Origen and Porphyry represent complementary positions over-against the “pagan” Iamblichus who finds blood sacrifice to still be an acceptable form of piety (31-34).

Chapter 2 seeks to explain the spiritual systems, or “taxonomies,” created by Porphyry, Origen, and Iamblichus (38-70). Marx-Wolf shows how each of these thinkers constructed intricate hierarchies that placed various spirits, demons, archons, and gods in an overall scheme. This project not only corresponded to a general philosophical impulse for categorization and explanation, but it also operated to circumscribe local and popular beliefs about spirits (69-79). Marx-Wolf argues that there was a fundamental tension in this project. The variety of popular beliefs resisted this kind of tidy categorization and thus there are inconsistencies and tensions in the taxonomies. Nevertheless, the attempt to order the beliefs and practices of non-intellectual “regular” people suggests that these thinkers’ work was meant for a wider audience than is often assumed. These taxonomies helped position their authors as spiritual experts, a point to which she returns in the final chapter.

Yet, it was not merely other Platonists and “folk” religion that inspired these spiritual taxonomies, it was also competition with the “Gnostics,” a group Marx-Wolf refers to as “the missing link” (71-99). She believes that the kind of cosmological speculation of works such as the Apocryphon of John provided the impetus and inspiration for the taxonomic work of 2nd and 3rd century Platonists (87-93). This was not only a matter of “borrowing.” Marx-Wolf argues that certain “extreme” positions can only be understood as responses to the doctrines of “gnostic” myths. For instance, she makes the case that Origen’s controversial doctrine of apokatastasis, namely that all rational beings will ultimately be restored to their original unity with God, is likely a response to “Gnostic” doctrines about the different ends and origins of various kinds of souls (77). Likewise, Plotinus and Porphyry, though vehemently denouncing the “Gnostics,” were actually influenced by texts such as Zostrianos in their descriptions and explanations of various emanational strata (98). Thus, the spiritual taxonomies of these philosophers should be seen as responses to the elaborate taxonomies of “gnostic” myths.

The final chapter seeks to illuminate the contact of Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus with priests and other ritual-experts (100-125). The taxonomies that these thinkers developed were not merely speculative and explanatory, they corresponded to normative accounts of ritual activity. Thus, the taxonomic discourse served to elevate certain kinds of rituals that were meant to control or placate different spiritual beings and to denigrate others. More particularly, by reading the Hermetic literature and the so-called Greek magical papyri, Marx-Wolf argues that these third century Platonists sought to challenge and appropriate the authority of priests and other ritual practitioners. Even Iamblichus, who argues that blood sacrifice has a legitimate place, still downgrades its significance (109-112) and positions himself over these lower ritual figures. In the place of these priests, Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus set themselves up as “high-priests” who have sole authority to admit others into the presence of the “highest God” (125).

The conclusion of Marx-Wolf’s monograph connects these third century intellectual elites with their episcopal counterparts in the fourth and fifth centuries (126-131). Marx-Wolf believes the role these earlier figures played as experts and authorities on demons and other spiritual beings created a pattern that was a central strategy of legitimization for later church leaders (127). Using Ambrose and John Chrysostom as examples, Marx-Wolf argues that even these later figures were involved in constructing taxonomies that would establish and legitimize priestly authority. Though these later bishops held more significant and overt political power, Marx-Wolf argues that there was some precedent in the political aspirations and opinions of the third century Platonists considered in her book (129-131).

Heidi Marx-Wolf’s book opens up interesting new ways of reading both these particular figures and the third century more generally. By emphasizing the common milieu of thinkers such as Origen and Porphyry, similarities are both more understandable and more easily recognizable. Seeing them not only as participants in a common Platonic intellectual environment, but also as competitors with common intellectual underpinnings possesses explanatory value where their thought converges. The parallel of philosophers and priests also seems fruitful and mutually illuminating. This correlation provides an explanation for the turn toward theurgic practice and the concern with sacrifice among Neo-Platonists. These figures were involved in negotiations over cultic practices that funded their diverse cosmological speculations. In a similar way, Marx-Wolf’s approach to texts of the Nag Hammadi library, and the communities that produced them, as a “missing link” in the history of philosophy and theology demands more close readings of these texts perhaps by specialists who have previously ignored them. Finally, Marx-Wolf’s book provides a partial corrective to flat narratives of the so-called crisis of the third century. Marx-Wolf’s sensitive readings demonstrate that—whatever difficulties and hardships existed in the third century—it was also a time of creativity and ingenuity. 

Peter Morris is a Ph.D. student in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at the University of Virginia
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