Friday, 28 August 2015

Thomas Taylor on Paul's Letter to the Hebrews

Thomas Taylor (1758-1835) was an amazingly knowledgeable Neoplatonic scholar and had a strong grasp of the spiritual sense of this philosophy, which Blavatsky appreciated. In his Collectiana (1806),  
http://www.universaltheosophy.com/pdf-library/1806_Collectanea-or-Collections.pdf

he has an article (pp. 19-23) on a gnostic/platonic aspect of Paul's letters. Today, the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews is in doubt, although the Platonic and Gnostic elements in Paul's writings are widely recognized and were pointed out in Blavatsky's writings. I think Taylor's interpretation still holds up today.

It has lately occurred to me, that the 3d verse of Hebrews xi. is not only erroneously translated in all the modern versions of the New Testament, but that, in its true meaning, it strongly favours one of the leading dogmas of those ancient Christian heretics, the Valentinians, and shows St. Paul to have entertained opinions somewhat analogous to the Platonic theory of ideas. The passage in the original is as follows:

Πίστει νοοῦμεν κατηρτίσθαι τοὺς αἰῶνας ῥήματι θεοῦ, εἰς τὸ μὴ ἐκ φαινομένων τὸ βλεπόμενον γεγονέναι.

This, in the English version, is rendered:“Through faith we understand, that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen, were not made of things which do appear.”
 
In the first place, the worlds is evidently a forced interpretation of αἰῶνας (aeonas); and, even admitting it was not, leaves the passage very ambiguous, from the uncertainty to what worlds St. Paul alludes. If we adopt ages, which is the general sense of the word in the New Testament, we shall indeed avoid a forced and ambiguous interpretation, but we shall render the meaning of the Apostle trifling in the extreme: for as he has elsewhere told us, “that all things were framed by the word of God,” what particular faith does it require to believe, that by the same word he framed the ages?

I observe, in the second place, that according to the definition of faith, given in the first verse of this chapter, that it is “the evidence of things not seen,” it is clear, that St. Paul is speaking in this passage of something invisible. Since then αἰῶνας (aeonas) is neither worlds nor ages, what shall we say it is ? I answer, the aeones of the Valentinians: and, agreeably to this, the whole passage should be translated as follows: “By faith we understand, that the aeones were framed by the word of God, in order that things which are seen, might be gene rated from such as do not appear (i. e. from things invisible).”  Every one who is much conversant with Greek authors, must certainly be convinced, that εἰς τὸ (eis to) means in order that: and I was glad to find, that Bishop Pearson translates as I have done, the latter part of this verse.
 
Now we learn from the second book of Irenaeus against the Heretics, that according to the Valentinians, all created things are the images of the aeones, resident in the pleroma, or fullness of deity.And does it not clearly follow, from the above version, that according to St. Paul too, the aeones are the exemplars of visible, or created things? To which we may add, that this sense of the passage wonderfully accords with the assertion, that “faith is the evidence of things not seen.” For here the things which do not appear are the aeones; these, according to the Valentinians, subsisting in deity. So that from our version, St. Paul mightsay, with great propriety, that “we understand by faith, that the aeones were framed by the word of God, in order that things which are seen, might be generated from such as do not appear:” for this naturally follows from his definition of faith.

It appears likewise, that St. Paul mentions these aeones, Heb. i. ver. 2, where he asserts, “that they were produced by God through Christ.”
 
I farther add, that among these aeones of the Valentinians were nous, buthos, sige, aletheia,sophia i.e. intellect, a profundity, silence, truth, and wisdom, which, as the learned Gale well observes in his notes on Jamblichus de Mysteriis, &c. prove theirdogmas to be of Chaldaic origin. For these words perpetually occur in the fragments of the Chaldaic oracles; not to mention that the middle of the Chaldean intelligible triad, is denominated αἰῶν, aeon.
 
It will be said, perhaps, that these oracles were forged by certain heretical Christians; but this may be easily confuted by considering, that they were largely commented on by Porphyry, Jamblichus, and Proclus, who are well known to have been great enemies to the Christian religion; and that it is very unlikely, men of such uncommon learning and sagacity should have been so grossly deluded *. Besides, though these oracles were the fountains of the Valentinian dogmas, yet it will be found, by a diligent inspection, that they are repugnant in most particulars to the leading tenets of Christians of all denominations. Hence Proclus has largely shewn, in his books on Plato's Theology, that the several orders of gods men tioned in these oracles, are perfectly conformable to those delivered by Plato in various parts of his works.

I only add, that as these aeones of St. Paul, and the Valentinians, are the exemplars of the visible universe, it is evident that in this respect they are analogous to the ideas of Plato.

* That some of these oracles may be confidently ascribed to Zoroaster, and that others of them are of much less antiquity, is, I think, evident from the following considerations: in the first place, Johannes Picus, earl of Mirandula, in a letter to Ficinus, informs him, that he was in possession of the oracles of Zoroaster, in the Chaldean tongue, with a commentary on them, by certain Chaldean wise men. And that he did not speak this from mere conjecture (as Fabricius thinks, and many other learned men have thought he did) is evident, from his expressly asserting, in a letter to Urbinatus (Op. p. 256) that, after much labour, he had at length learned the Chaldean language.And still farther, he has inserted in his works, fifteen conclusions, founded on this very Chaldean manuscript, though they appear to have escaped the notice of all the critics.

In the next place, Proclus cites one of these oracles as prior, and another as posterior, to Plato. And what is still more, inwill be found, by a diligent inspection, that they are repugnant in most particulars to the leading tenets of Christians of all denominations. Hence Proclus has largely shewn, in his books on Plato's Theology, that the several orders of gods mentioned in these oracles, are perfectly conformable to those delivered by Plato in various parts of his works. I only add, that as these aeones of St. Paul, and the Valentinians, are the exemplars of the visible universe, it is evident that in this respect they are analogous to the ideas of Plato. his MSS. Scholia on the Cratylus, he says, that certain oracles respecting the intelligible and intellectual orders, were delivered by Theurgists, under the reign of Marcus Antoninus,