Monday, November 28, 2022

Mysticism and the Jesus of John's Gospel

I have previously defined mysticism briefly as "the experience of mystical union or direct communion with God."1 In other words, it is an experience in which an individual becomes one with God, or unites with God. Recently I found the following definition on the internet:

In modern times, "mysticism" has acquired a limited definition, with broad applications, as meaning the aim at the "union with the Absolute, the Infinite, or God". This limited definition has been applied to a wide range of religious traditions and practices, valuing "mystical experience" as a key element of mysticism.2

Becoming “one with God” would seem to be a claim that one has become “divinized,” or simply stated: one has become absorbed in God. Is that even possible? Through history, however, there have been those that believed it to be possible. One finds such statements in ancient texts as the Corpus Hermeticum (1,25-26), and Plotinus, for example, said that the goal of humanity “was not to be sinless but to be God” (Enneads, I.6,1-3). Porphyry, his student, claimed that Plotinus had achieved union with God four times during his time with Plotinus and even Porphyry claimed to have achieved it once.3 In philosophy it is known as henosis (becoming one with the one).4

In the modern Orthodox Christian Church, the stated goal of salvation is becoming one with God.5 For a brief discussion of the pervasiveness of union with God in the Christian devotional classics, see the brief discussion in Georgia Harkness, Mysticism. Its Meaning & Message.6

            Against this all too brief background I note several statements by Jesus in the Gospel of John suggesting that the author portrayed Jesus as a mystic who was conscious of being one with God. The plain language of the statements themselves are clearly mystical, but critical New Testament scholarship has generally not taken them to be such.7 There are two levels of mystical statements; in the first Jesus speaks of himself and God and a second level in which he speaks of himself, God, and the disciple. The union of the Father and the “son” are reflected in statements made by others at the beginning and ending of the gospel. At the beginning the narrator describes the “Word” (generally it is assumed Jesus is the Word) as being both opposite God and as being God (The word is Theos, God, and not theios, divine): “The Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And a second statement by the narrator describing Jesus (from the critical Greek text) as: “the only God in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). And at the end of the gospel Philip’s confession about Jesus: “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). These two statements form a basis for understanding the statements below as mystical.

            In the first level of statements Jesus claimed union with the father: “I and the Father, we are one” (John 10:30; see also for similar statements: 14:10-11; 17:21-22). In the second level of statements Jesus brought the disciple into mystical union with himself and the Father: “On that day you shall know that I am in my Father, and you are in me and I am in you” (John 14:20; see also 15:4-7; 17;21, 23, 26).

            Is the author of the Gospel of John a mystic? The English New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd had problems with the term mystic and wrote:

If the mystic is one whose religious life is expressed in ecstasy, or one who experiences an impersonal absorption in the divine, then one is right to deny this description to the author of the gospel (Dodd, p. 198).

Nevertheless, Dodd avers that John was not using stereotypical language then in vogue, but clearly using language evocative of mysticism. Dodd surveys the passages in John that suggest “union with God” and chides the German scholar, Walter Bauer, for shying away from the term “mystic” and instead describing the author of John as opting for a “conception of the Christian life” akin to a “kind of legalism.” Dodd himself affirms that the author of John opened up for believers a situation in which faith permitted them to dwell in God and God in them, but opines “whether this should be called ‘mysticism’ I do not know” (Dodd, p. 198). His problem with the term is the ecstasy associated with it.8

            Clearly John uses the language of mysticism, but there is no evidence for ecstatic visions or other mystical retreats from the world to be found in John. Does this suggest John reflects a kind of intellectual “mysticism” (if such is even possible), as Dodd seemed to think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University



3Porphyry, “Life of Plotinus,” 23: in A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus, Porphyry on Plotinus; Enead I (Cambridge/London: Harvard, 1966; revised 1989), 69.


5Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, 1964), 236-37. For the quotations, see C. Hedrick, “On Becoming God,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, Tuesday July 4, 2017:

6Georgia Harkness, Mysticism. Its Meaning & Message (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973), 20-24.

7For example, see C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: University Press), 187-200; Raymond Brown does not even raise the subject of mysticism in connection with John’s language: The Gospel of John (2 vols.; AB 29; New York: Doubleday, 1966, 1970). Ernest Haenchen sees no hint of mysticism in these verses: A Commentary on the Gospel of John (2 vols.; Hermenia; Fortress, 1984), 2.50. He even translates Theos (God) in John 1:1 as if it were theios (divine).

8See Rev 1:9-20 as an example of an ecstatic vision; for definition see

Sunday, November 13, 2022

How do Divine Beings Procreate?

I suppose the short answer is: “anyway they wish!” The question in the title may seem silly to some, but I find it to be a serious question that has largely gone unnoticed, as far as I am aware.1 First some disclaimers. Divinities are not beings, since they have no existence in time and space, as rocks and people do. If any characterization is appropriate, divinities are spirit, if they are at all. If they are spirits, they are not existing in time and space. By spirit I mean to suggest that they are wholly other than the beings, creatures, and things of this universe. In one sense they are eternals; even if they fall out of fashion, they are still there waiting to be rediscovered. Personally, I have no independent knowledge of the nature and character of spirits, I only know what I have been told by others and what I have read. And that includes information as to how they procreate.

As it turns out, literary evidence exists for examining what people thought concerning the origin of divinities in western religious traditions. The Gods of the ancient Greeks, for example, were generally thought to procreate on a human model, by means of a male and female of the divine species, or with human partners, but the fertile imagination of the Greeks devised even more novel ways for how their Gods procreated.2 The “birth” of Aphrodite, for example, was a kind of spontaneous generation: one tradition of her birth was that “she rose naked from the foam of the sea.”3 There are stories about the “sperm” of the Gods as well. The Goddess Athene was set upon by the God Hephaestus. As she tore herself away, Hephaestus ejaculated on her thigh a little above her knee. She wiped it off with a piece of wool and threw it away. The wool with sperm fell on Mother Earth and impregnated her. Erichthonius was born as a result.4 So Greek Gods were known to reproduce by means of sperm, and people were also quite aware that human births occurred from the pairing of the male sperm with matter provided by the female.5

The story of Onan (who spilled his sperm on the ground, Gen 38:7-10), rather than father a child (in levirate marriage) with his brother’s wife (Tamar), suggests that the issue in the story was the identity of the child in the family as the son of Er. Hence, in the final analysis inheritance was the issue: the recognition of the child as the son of the dead brother (Er).

In the Christian tradition Matthew (1:18-23) and Luke (1:26-35) imagined that Yahweh, the ancient Israelite God, procreated by a human female, as did the ancient Greek Gods on occasion. Paul also appears to think that Jesus was born naturally, for he was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). Only in Matthew and Luke is Mary referred to as “virgin” (Parthenos), a term that applies to the period before she became pregnant. Her description as virgin can only apply before her pregnancy—that is, prior to her divine encounter (Matt 1:18, 20).6 In Matthew, Mary’s pregnancy was from a holy spirit (an attribute of God).7 In Luke (Luke 1:34-35), Mary’s pregnancy was going to happen in the future from holy spirit and power of the Most-High (Luke 1:35).8 There must be some connection between the deity, the woman, and the child for him to be acknowledged as the child of the deity. Aristotle associates both these terms (spirit and power) with the process of human procreation.9 For Matthew and Luke spirit and power are attributes of God. Because of the way Matthew and Luke narrate Jesus’ generation (birth through a woman), it is reasonable to suppose that conception might have involved a kind of spiritual “sperm” (so to speak). At least, the author of first John appears to believe that God used spiritual “sperm” in producing the children of God:

Those born of God do not commit sin, because his sperm [sperma] remains in him, and he is not able to sin because he has been born of God (1 John 3:9).

The question boils down to this: what did Matthew and Luke think occurred in the generation of Jesus? Not being a mind reader of paper characters in a text, I have no idea. But the historical context and the way they describe Jesus’ birth suggests that spiritual “sperm” is a likely possibility, if not a probability.

The author of the Gospel of John has no birth narrative, but the narrative speculates that the origin of the Word is lost in the fog of “the beginning” (John 1:1-5, 9-14).10 The Word is both distinguishable from deity and yet identified with deity (John 1:1). The Word comes to be in flesh (John 1:14; cf. Phil 2:7); that is, he was not born so there is no issue of “sperm,” spiritual or otherwise.

What is lost or gained in considering the question? I personally think nothing is lost but that something may be gained. It fills out the image of the human model of procreation Matthew and Luke chose to use. The spiritual “sperm” inseminating Mary and producing the child was holy Spirit (Matt 1:18) or holy spirit and power (Luke 1:35), or so Matthew and Luke must have reasoned and wanted (or allowed) the reader to think.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1One welcome exception willing to peel back the mystery of Matthew and Luke’s myth of origins is Robert Miller’s, Born Divine. The Births of Jesus &the Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003).

2See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (2 vols in 1; George Braziller, 1959). Hesiod, The Theogony:

3Graves, The Greek Myths, 1.49; 11.

4Graves, Greek Myths, 1.96-97.

5Aristotle, Generation of Animals, 1.xviii; Peck, Aristotle: Generation of Animals (Loeb), 71-89; see also Richard Smith, “Sex Education in Gnostic Schools” in Karen King, ed., Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1988), 345-60; and

6Matthew does not narrate this event; in Matthew it occurred prior to Matt 1:18, 20.

7Robert J. Miller argues that “Matthew’s use of ‘begotten by the holy spirit’ does not imply a virginal conception”; that is, it does not rule out human sperm. See Miller’s conclusion: “Did Matthew Believe in the Virgin Birth?” The Fourth R 21.6 (November-December 2008), 7-8, 26. Luke, on the other hand, reports “that Jesus was born in the manner of pagan sons of God, the offspring of a human mother and divine father. . .” (p. 26). In both cases insemination would have happened by spiritual “sperm.” Miller notes, however, that Luke is “cautious to describe God’s role in a non-physical way” (p. 4). On the other hand, it appears to me that Luke’s language is mildly evocative of a sexual encounter; in Luke 1:35: “a holy spirit will come over you and the power of the Most-High will overshadow you. For a more complete discussion of the issues involved see Miller’s book Born Divine.

8Luke does not narrate this event; in Luke it occurred somewhere between Luke 1:34-35 and 2:1, off stage as it were.

9Aristotle associates dunamis (power) and pneuma (sprit) as being involved in the process of the generation of animals. Dunamis is the physical substance in the semen by which impregnation is effected (p. lii). Pneuma is a substance used as the instrument in the generation of offspring (p. liii). See Peck’s introduction in Generation of Animals, xlix-lix.

10Unlike the “Word,” whose origin at the beginning is not described, Lady Wisdom was specifically described as being created at the beginning (Prov 8:22-31).