Monday, November 20, 2006

The Round Dance--text and commentary

(This is my expansion of a printed explanation of the Round Dance ritual enacted every Good Friday in the Gnostic Church of Portland. That brochure was also written by me, rewriting an earlier version by Linda Phelps, and in turn edited by Rev. Steve Marshall. This new revision incorporates things I have learned in the 5 or 6 years since the handout, mainly having to do with the Conclusion to the Dance. The wording and order of the Hymn is that used in our ritual.)

The Round Dance of the Savior

To each and all it is given to dance.
Whoever does not dance does not know
What is coming to pass.

The Background of the Dance

The “Round Dance of the Savior,” a sacred dance ritual from the ancient Acts of John, is one of the most remarkable texts of the early Christian Gnostic movement. It relates how after the Last Supper Jesus gathered his disciples into a circle around him. Then he began to sing a hymn and to dance.

Whether Jesus actually danced with his disciples we do not know. The New Testament says only that they sang a hymn (Matt.26:30). But we know from the Jewish philosopher Philo that Jewish mystical groups at that time did use such dances in their liturgy. The text itself is ancient. Extensive quotations from the Round Dance appear in St. Augustine (letter 237, early 5th century).. Clement of Alexandria paraphrased another section of the Acts of John in the 2nd century, which is when scholars usually date the bulk of the text. However the Round Dance text as we know it may be later, and parts of it earlier, than the rest..

This sacred ritual reveals the “passion,” which Jesus later tells John, “I would have called a Mystery.” What is this mystery? In the text John relates that, as he sat in a cave grieving during the crucifixion, Jesus suddenly appeared to him in a vision and explained to him the paradox of human suffering—that while the mortal being suffers, the divine being within transcends suffering. Jesus also revealed that the true meaning of his suffering is manifest in the dance rather than in the dark tragedy of the crucifixion. Suffering leads us to the divine by showing us the limitations of our mortal being or ego. The Dancing Savior is thus a unique image in which agony and ecstasy, the cosmic process and its transcendence, are united in a characteristicaly Gnostic conjunction of opposites.

Translations of the text may be found in M.R. James, New Testament Apocrypha (sections 94-96), G.R.S Mead, The Hymn of Jesus, in Fragments of a Faith Forgotten; Max Pulver, “Jesus’ Round Dance and Crucifixion,” in Joseph Campbell, ed., The Mysteries; Dr. Stephan Hoeller, Jung and the Lost Gospels; and K. Schaeferdink, New Testament Apocrypha, Schneemelcher and Wilson, ed. Other commentary is in C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 12, pp. 273ff, and Elaine Pagels, “To the Universe belongs the dancer,” Parabola 4:2.

(Mead's full translation and commentary is at James' translation is at I myself have trouble reaching this second one by clicking on the link; but I can get there if I cut and paste the web address into my browser.)

At the heart of the dance is an initiatory sequence whereby the human soul becomes restored to the divine. The Sequence has the form of a dialogue between a candidate for initiation and an initiator. Yet in the text Jesus seems to have both roles. Classical scholar Max Pulver offers an explanation: “The Gnostic redeemer must himself be redeemed. He must be wounded in a mystery and he must wound his adept (disciple) who must repeat the acts and suffering of his god in the mystery action in order to achieve union with him, deification.”

The Sequence, according to Jesus’s explanation following the Dance, suggests the process by which the human soul gains entry to the realm of God the Father by following Him, the Living Word of God. What did this mean? By “Father” the Gnostics meant something so transcendent that it is beyond thought and language. The realm of the Father/Mother” is for humans one of metaphor, paradox, and mystery. “Word,” on the other hand, “Logos” in the original Greek, in non-sacred contexts often appears as “-logy” at the end of words, meaning “study of,” as in “biology,” “theology,” etc. A more general definition, applying to a person as well as an abstraction, might be “That which communicates consciousness.”

Psychologically, the Gnostic “Father” corresponds to Jung’s concept of the progressive unconscious, that part of the unconscious that moves one forward, resolving inner contradictions. “Word,” then, corresponds to the process of “making the unconscious conscious,” in metaphor and ritual. Thereby the ego discovers a realm beyond its own.

Ego-consciousness sees everything in terms of ego-concerns (power, knowledge, life, love, goodness, etc.), and other people as other egos. The ego even sees God in this way, as literally an infinite ego. But when the ego is confounded and humbled—crucified—by consciousness of its limitations and contradictions, then it may also be open to an Other that is new and revitalizing, yet has a paradoxical quality that the ego continues to process. Preparatory concepts, images, and movements can ease the way. This is the role of the Round Dance.


Now before he was taken by the lawless Jews, who also were governed by the lawless serpent, he gathered us together and said: Before I am delivered up unto them let us sing a hymn to the Father, and so go forth to that which lieth before us. He bade us therefore make as it were a ring, holding one another's hands, and himself standing in the midst he said: "Answer Amen unto me." He began, then, to sing a hymn and to say:

Glory to thee, Father.

And we, going about in a ring, answered him: Amen.

Glory to thee, Word:
Glory to thee, Grace. Amen.

Glory to thee, Spirit:
Glory to thee, Holy One

Glory to thy glory. Amen.

We praise thee, O Father;
We give thanks to thee, O Light,
In whom darkness
dwelleth not. Amen.
Now wherefore we give thanks, I say:

I would play on the pipes:
Dance all of you!
I would mourn, Lament all of you.
The eight dance(s) with us,
The twelve above lead(s) the dance.
The whole on high is a dance.
He who danceth not knoweth not
What is being done. Amen.


Lawless serpent:
Mead: "that which hands souls over to the bodies of death." Hence the "lawless Jews" for Mead would be the "ranking priests" of Jn. 18:30, who handed Jesus over to be crucified, and who in Jn. are said to be "children of the devil.".

Pipes: According to Pulver, Jesus is the mystery-god, playing the tune for the mystical dance. Pagels cites a parallel with Matt.11:16f: “We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

Grace: Spouse or feminine aspect of the Highest God. Cf. Jn. 1:17 "And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace."

The Eight:. (1) Pulver: The lord of the eight heavens, containing the planets and fixed stars. Hearing the Word, they all become forces of freedom instead of enslavement. (2) In Irenaeus’s paraphrase of Ptolemy: the lower Sophia. (3) The eight eldest Powers in the Pleroma, the Fullness beyond the stars.(4) In Jewish law, the eighth day of life is the day of circumcision, the day of consecration..

The Twelve above: (1) The group of the twelve youngest Powers in the Pleroma. (2) The Zodiac. (3) In Rev. 12:1, the twelve stars in the crown of the "woman clothed by the sun." The twelve below, of course, are the apostles, and also the twelve tribes of Israel..

The whole on high is a dance: Other translations: “To each and all it is given to dance” (Schaeferdink); “To the Universe belongs the dancer” (Pagels). To capture some of the ambiguity of the line, perhaps one should recite two versions, one after the other, e.g.: “To each and all it is given to dance; the whole on high is a dance,” followed by the gender-neutral “One who does not dance does not know what is coming to pass.”

Initiatory Sequence

I would be redeemed.
And I would redeem. Amen.
I would be released.
And I would release. Amen.
I would be wounded.
And I would wound. Amen.
I would be born.
And I would bear. Amen.
I would be consumed.
And I would consume. Amen.
I would hear.
And I would be heard. Amen
I would understand.
And I’d be understood. Amen
I would be cleansed.
And I would cleanse. Amen.
I would flee.
And I’d have thee stay. Amen.
I would be robed.
And I would robe thee. Amen
I would be at-oned.
And I would at-one. Amen.
I have no dwellings.
And I have dwellings. Amen.
I have no place.
And I have places. Amen.
I have no temple.
And I have temples. Amen.


Mead:: the human soul desires unity with its Higher Self, and a ceasing from the agitation and anxiety of the mind. Pulver:the soul seeks unity with the Father. Both Mead and Pulver, and Shieferdink all use the word "saved" in their translations, rather than "redeemed." Jn 12:47: "I have not come to judge the world, but to save it." (The word "redeem" and its derivataives do not appear in the Gospel of John. In the Bible the word "redeem" is used in two ways: narrowly, to mean paying a debt or ransom, and broadly, to raise one's status to its rightful place, e.g. Job 10:25, "I know that my redeemer lives.")

Released: Mead: The soul desires releasing from the bonds of fate. Pulver: The release is from the power of matter and the stars.Jn 8: 32: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

Wounded: Mead: the piercing ray of the Higher Self enters the heart and the lower self receives radiance of the Higher Self. Pulver: the light is from the Father to Jesus and from Jesus as Word to the disciples. Matt. 10:34: “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” Jn. 19:34: "One of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side."

Born: Mead: self-birth or the mystery of the Virgin Birth. Pulver: we are begotten into a new life by the Word. Jn 3:3: "Except a man be born again, he canot see the kingdom of God."

Consumed: Mead: the soul must allow its own “self-will” to be “eaten” so that it may become part of the greater consciousness. Pulver: the soul “would eat” and so receive sustenance from the Divine. Jn 6:57: "As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me."

Hear: Mead: hearing is considered a greater act than seeing. Pulver: the soul hears the Logos, the Creative Word of God. Jn 14:24: "The word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father's which sent me."

Understand: Mead: the soul needs stability in order for consciousness to pierce through to the greater. Pulver: only one who understands the meaning of one’s action (or passion) can understand its essence. Jn. 13:7: "What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter."

Cleansed: Mead: baptised in the Living Waters. Pulver: cleansed of the taint of matter, and of the marks left on the soul by the planetary powers, or archons, who would rule us..Jn: 13:8: "If I wash thee not, thou has no part with me."

Flee, Stay: Pulver: Jesus and the mystes (disciple) would rise up to the Father, yet also remain with those below.Jn. 14:18: "I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you."

Robed:. Pulver: the soul would have its “garment of light,” that of the essential or higher world. Jn. 19:23: "Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments."

At-Oned:. Mead: the soul abandons with joy its separateness and is freed. Pulver: It is the union of the mystes with the mystery god. Jn. 14:2: "I go to prepare a place for you."

No Dwelling, No Place, No Temple:
Mead: the soul no longer has its little cosmos but now has the All. Pulver: the soul leaves its physical body but remains in the body of the mystes (disciple). Cf. Jn 14:2: "My Father's house has many mansions." Jn. 17:16: "They are not of this world, even as I am not of this world." Jn 2:19: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."


I am a lamp to thee who seest me!
I am a mirror to thee who understandeth me!
I am a door to thee who knockest at me!
I am a way to thee, a wayfarer!

And the Lord said:
Now answer to my dancing!
See thyself in me who speaks:
And seeing what I do,
keep silence on my mysteries.

Understand by your dancing what I do;
for the suffering of man
that I am to suffer is yours.
Ye could not understand your suffering
Were I not sent as the Logos by the Father.
Ye saw me suffering, and seeing,
Ye were not unresponsive,
But ye were moved entirely.
Ye were moved to be wise.

O man, thou hast me for a couch,
Rest thou upon me.
Who am I, thou shalt know when I depart.
What I am seen to be, that I am not.
But what I am, thou shalt see
When thou comest unto me.

If thou hadst known how to suffer,
thou wouldst have power not to suffer.
Know then how to suffer,
and thou hast the power to put an end to suffering.
That which thou knowest not, I will teach thee.
I am thy God, not the betrayer’s.
I would be kept in union with holy souls.
In me know thou the word of wisdom.

But if thou wouldst know what I was,
I am the Logos who did dance all things,
and was not ashamed at all.
It was I who danced.
Say therefore again, as ye understand all:
Glory to thee Father!
Glory to thee Word!
Glory to thee Holy Spirit! Amen.


Lamp, door, way: Schaeferdink (New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. II, 1966) points out that these are images familiar from other works attributed to John: Rev. 21:23; Jn. 10:9; Jn. 14:6. Clement of Alexandria, quoting from something similar to another part of the Acts of John, said in the 2nd century that his source was a secret oral tradition associated with the disciple John. Mirror: Another familiar image, as in Paul's “Now we see through a glass darkly,” where “glass” is an old word for “mirror.”

If thou hadst known how to suffer,/ thou wouldst have power not to suffer./ Know then how to suffer,/ and thou hast the power to put an end to suffering: Pulver’s translation: “If thou understoodest suffering, thou wouldst have nonsuffering. See through suffering, and thou wilt have nonsuffering.” In other words, if you understand the meaning of your suffering, you will be able to get beyond the immediate pain toward that which lies beyond it. In that sense “knowing how to suffer” would be to suffer with understanding of its meaning, and threby going beyond that suffering. Another sense of “knowing how to suffer” suggested by the context of the Round Dance might be to view suffering as a dance or other artistic expression, as art also is a way of transcending unmediated experience.

Thy God: Jesus affirms his unity with the Father, as in Jn 1:1, “…the Word was God.” Betrayer’s: probably from the Greek verb paradidom, in Jn. applied to three persons or groups: (1) Judas, (2) the “ranking priests” among the Judeans, and (3) Pontius Pilate. The verb is typically translated as “betray” when applied to Judas (e.g. Jn. 13:21), but “hand over” or “deliver up” when applied to the priests (Jn. 18:30) and Pilate (Jn. 19:16). In the Round Dance prologue, James translates the verb as “deliver up“ even in reference to Judas's act (see above). Mead says the “betrayer's god” is the “lawless serpent” of the Round Dance prologue, said there to be the god of the “lawless Jews.” Along this line, Jn. 8:44 has Jesus say earlier, of the Jewish authorities who want him dead, “You are of your father the devil.” Then they say that Jesus is possessed by a demon (Jn 8:48, 8:52). Word of wisdom: Jesus declares his connection to Sophia, the Hochma of the Old Testament. Similarly, John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” parallels Proverbs 8:22, in which Wisdom says, “The Lord possessed me from the beginning.”

I am the Logos who did dance all things, and was not ashamed at all. It was I who danced: Augustine’s version of this line (in Epistle 237), translated from his Latin: “By the word I mocked at all things, and I was not mocked at all. I exulted.” The Greek word translated as “did dance” and “mocked” literally means “played like a child, danced, or made sport of.” The word translated as “danced” and “exulted” is literally “leaped.” The point may be that Christ is laughing at worldly things in favor of something far more precious, or that he is reminding us that he has been speaking in riddles, playfully, yet with a serious point.

The "all things" that Jesus mocks may include the crucifixion itself. In the next section of the Acts of John, Jesus appears to John on a cross of light in a cave. He expalins that he is not the one "upon the stake," that is, "the wooden cross which thou wilt see when thou goest down thither."" Coming out of the cave, John says , "And when I went thither, I laughed at them all," meaning those who are misinterpreting his message. Along this line, some second century Western manuscripts (Codex Bezae, some Old Latin mss., and a quotation in Porphyry) quote Jesus's last words on the cross in Mark as "My God, My God, why have you mocked me?" (Ehrman 1993, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. 144f), as opposed to "...forsaken me?".(This change mistranslates the version in Aramaic that in Mark precedes the Greek.) If "God" here is taken as the divine aspect of Jesus (as more explicitly in the Gospel of Peter, "My Power, O Power, you have left me" and in the Gospel of Philip's interpretation of "forsaken" as "divided from"), the version with "mocked" complements the Jesus of the Acts of John. With this change, moreover, the Old Testament reference becomes not Ps. 22:1, but rather Ps. 2:4: "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision." The change brings his suffering to an even higher level: if Jesus is mocked even by God, that elevates his human dignity all the more. His standing firm, true to his teachings, testifies to the depth of his convictions and his stalwartness against even this provocation to abandon his faith..Yet it does no more than this: he is still not the dying god whose death in itself provides salvation, for the godly part was not crucified at all.

Augustine seized upon the words he quoted, about Jesus mocking all things, to declare the whole text a fabrication by heretics: “In whose speech are we to have faith, in whose promise are we to put hope, if by a word Christ has made sport of all things?” he argued. The Western Church must have done a thorough job of burning every copy of the Round Dance in its domain, for nothing remained but brief quotations and citations. In the Eastern Church, however, it hung on. The Nicean Council of 761 finally ordered the burning of all copies. Even then it somehow survived. In the 19th century the version we know of the Round Dance was found in Vienna, in the so-called “Codex C” of the Acts of John, itself copied in 1324 from an earlier manuscript (Schaeferdink 1966). Comparison of the text with the quotations in Augustine and the Nicean Council verify its accuracy.


Post a Comment

<< Home