Tag Archives: Jacob Needleman


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sorcerers by Jacob Needleman.

Needleman Sorcerers

Author Needleman is not known for his fiction, but rather his popularizing efforts on religion and philosophy, as well as academic work in the same fields. Sorcerers was his first novel, and the substance would mark it as young adult literature–a short, digestible coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old protagonist–but the packaging seems to be directed to an adult audience. The story is concerned with magic of at least three kinds: the stage magic of the illusionist’s craft, the magic of supernatural power, and the magic of spiritual realization. 

There is certainly an autobiographical component: Needleman has put his central character Elliot Appleman in the 1950s Philadelphia where the author himself grew up, but the supernatural elements of the story suggest that it is quite fictional. Thaumaturgical characters with names like Irene Angel and Max Falkoner lend it the sense of allegorical fable, which the naturalistic setting helps to ameliorate. 

Needleman’s works are often informed by his embrace of the teachings originating with G. I. Gurdjieff, and that seems to be the case here as well. In particular, the lessons that Elliot receives from Max are concerned with using disciplined bodily movement to break free of psychic automatism, and the ethic emphasized is one of conscience and awakening. But the presentation of these ideas is free of sectarian baggage, and the same story might be read as a Thelemic parable, with a focus on gradual initiation and True Will.

The narrative highlights of Sorcerers are distinctly initiatory in character. There is a quite affective (and effective!) ceremony of Elliot’s induction into the Sorcerer’s Apprentices club for teenage stage magicians. His private instruction from the adult magicians Blake and Falkoner is also a combination of transformative ritual and spiritual filiation. The climax and denouement in the book’s fourth part could be read as a single event in which various characters are undergoing different initiations peculiar to their own grades. 

Unusually, but not inappropriately, the story ends with a benediction on the reader.

The Gospel of Philip

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Gnosis of Sacred Union by Jean-Yves Leloup, trans Joseph Rowe, and foreword by Jacob Needleman.

LeLoup Needleman The Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip is from the large and important Codex II of the Nag Hammadi Library, and it consists of mystical pronouncements having to do with salvation and the Christian sacraments, notably the nymphon (“bridal chamber”). This edition is one of a set of ancient Gnostic scriptures in double translation being issued by the Inner Traditions imprint; they are translated from the Coptic into French by Orthodox theologian Jean-Yves LeLoup, and in this case Englished by Joseph Rowe. I have previously read and appreciated Leloup’s treatment of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. As in that case, the translated text is printed in parallel with a typeset version of the Coptic original. The sequence of the contents is different than I have seen in other editions of the Gospel of Philip, but it evidently follows the first translation by H.M. Schenke (1960). Leloup provides reference to the original codex pagination, and also supplies a division into 127 numbered logia (“sayings”) that may be original here.

Again, consistent with the presentation in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the English edition of Leloup’s Gospel of Philip features a foreword by American scholar of religions Jacob Needleman. While I had found Needleman’s contribution in the Mary volume to be a bit credulous and underwhelming, I found him more restrained and effective in his remarks leading into Philip.

In Leloup’s thirty-page interpretive introduction, he is at pains to present the Gospel of Philip as standing in a mutually illuminating dialogue with the gospels of the biblical canon, rather than a heretical deviation or more authentic alternative. His reading (followed by Needleman) is that the nymphon is a mystically enhanced approach to the conjugal act of human sex. To arrive at this perspective, Leloup draws on more recent kabbalistic materials, including Abulafian doctrines, as interpreted by Charles Mopsik. Leloup reads a number of logia as enjoining what I would characterize as magical eugenics.

This understanding is at variance with an interpretation of the Gospel of Philip I have previously encountered in the work of Kurt Rudolph, who took the nymphon to be the site of “the union of the gnostic with his ‘angel image’.” I think the translation provided by Leloup can equally support either reading. Furthermore, I think that both readings are likely to be of value to esoteric practitioners of my own neo-gnostic stripe.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Mary Magdalene by Jean-Yves Leloup, translated by Joseph Rowe, with a foreword by Jacob Needleman.

The gospel of Mary Magdalene was discovered in the late 19th century as part of the Berlin Codex; it is not part of the later Nag Hammadi finds, although they may have stoked interest in it. Translators and readers in the first few decades after its discovery tended to pass over it in favor of the Pistis Sophia. The text itself is brief and amply intriguing. Perhaps a third of the book-in-hand consists of front matter and the nine surviving pages of the Gospel. This English edition includes the original Coptic on facing pages, almost as an ornamental touch, since the book is clearly addressed more to a popular than to an academic audience. The remaining two-thirds of the volume provide a decidedly modern commentary on the text, by its translator into French, Jean-Yves Leloup.

As appetizing as I found the ancient text, I was actually a little put off by the front matter. Jacob Needleman, whom I have read with enjoyment in more scholarly contexts, effuses in his foreword about “the way that is offered by all the spiritual traditions of the world.” (vi) English editors Tresemer and Cannon provide a preface called “Who Is Mary Magdalene?” in which they exhibit various sorts of credulity, including praise for the “meticulous research” in Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail. (x, n.)

But Leloup’s commentary is worth reading, and on the evidence of his notes, French-to-English translator Joseph Rowe has done a capable and thoughtful job. I was not entirely sympathetic to Leloup’s perspective: his being-based metaphysic, his emphasis on deity as “creator,” and even his borderline monism were all features I could live without. Still, he artfully invokes Corbin’s mundus imaginalis, and his final pages exhort the reader to self-overcoming in a way I could not help but admire. Most surprisingly, he offered philologically-informed readings of the great Abrahamic “mountaintop” dicta, i.e. the Decalogue of Mount Sinai and the Beatitudes of Mount Eremos, that I found palatable as a Thelemite.

The ancient text has a tone rather comparable to the Gospel of Thomas. I can imagine both Christian and Thelemic neo-Gnostics putting it to good use. [via]

Understanding the New Religions

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Understanding the New Religions edited by Jacob Needleman and George Baker.

Jacob Needleman George Baker Understanding the New Religions

This volume is largely the product of a conference on new religions undertaken by the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley in 1977 to inaugurate its program for the “Study of New Religious Movements in America.” Needleman and Baker represent the program as its directors, while the twenty-odd further contributors are scholars of religion, theology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and history from institutions across the country. This venue appears to have been a principal epicenter of the first effort to advance the “NRM” label (abbreviated thus nowhere in the volume) in contradistinction to the pejorative “cult”—an effort which sometimes smacks of euphemism when writers focus on controversy regarding the allegedly threatening or ethically problematic aspects of “new religions.” (In particular, J. Stillson Judah’s paper on deprogramming is evidently a reaction to the counter-cult movement of the 1970s.) Needleman, in contrast to the title of both the book and the GTU program, refers to the “new religions movement,” as though there were a basic unity among the phenomena treated, other than the level and quality of provocation that they afford to both secularism and “traditional” or establishment religion.

Many of the papers collected in Understanding the New Religions more directly approach this question of an underlying unity, with answers that are by no means conclusive. Barbara Hargrove discusses the extent to which various new religions present diametrically opposed features, which she groups under the labels of “integrative” and “transformative.” (A less even-handed treatment might call them reactionary and progressive, respectively.) She suggests that the simultaneous development of both types during the 1970s indicates a basic bankruptcy in preexisting religious forms as an outcome of secularization and individualization of religion. So in her study, the locus of the single “problem” turns out to reside in the religious establishment rather than among the new religions which have arisen as responses. Similarly, Theodore Roszak on “Ethics, Ecstasy, and the Study of New Religions” sees the new religions as a response to the spiritual void and despair in modern culture, but he indicates that they share a common remedy in the reintroduction of ecstatic awareness into religious life. (This particular paper seems to be a “think piece,” with no source citations and a huge, barely grounded metanarrative. For all that I like his rhetorical style and sympathize with his soaring final pages, I question whether Roszak’s generalizations about new religions are empirically sound.)

One approach to the unity or disunity of new religions is the historical, which is offered by Robert S. Ellwood, among others. Ellwood advocates the diachronic emphasis in examining new religions, and like most who look at these religions in that manner, he concludes that “new” is something of a misnomer, preferring “emergent” in his case. And yet while he can point to the diachronic continuity of individual religions, he is skeptical of the sort of synchronic theories evident in Hargrove and Roszak, which are traceable to the original framings by Weber and Troeltsch. In part, this disagreement of theory seems to stem from diverging preferences for historical or sociological methods. Sydney Ahlstrom’s contribution, written after his Religious History of the American People, casts “newness” in terms of centuries, by describing the “extraordinary pluralism” and “unremitting fecundity” in American religion as a “venerable tradition” in its own right. (19) In a similar vein, Sheldon Ernst evokes a gradually expanding “range of the new” over the course of American religious history, with a pluralist dynamic as the cause of the overall trend. (44) Joseph P. Chinnici, on the other hand, points to the persistence of the Protestant declination narrative in Ahlstrom’s account, and contrasts it with a perspective which rejects not only the original coherence of “Protestant America” but the presumed unity of medieval Catholicism. Harvey Cox’s paper on “Deep Structures in the Study of New Religions” straddles the diachronic and synchronic by pointing to a set of recurrent myths used to characterize deviant and minority religions throughout Western history.

Place, rather than time, forms another analytic category for authors trying to characterize new religions. Ahlstrom notes, and John Dillenberger emphasizes, the extent to which California provides a raised dais for new religious phenomena. Such a focus is consistent with the extent to which imported Asian religions are seen as an essential dimension of the new religions in America. Charles Prebish offers a set of “Reflections on the Transmission of Buddhism to America,” in which he makes a plea for distinguishing between faddish neo-Buddhism and “honest Buddhism” (172) in the US, acknowledging in both cases their relationship to the American context, but suggesting that the element of exoticism highlighted in the former reduces its value and viability. In Mark Juergensmeyer’s case study of Radhasoami, on the other hand, he points to the “trans-national” character of the religion as one of its key strengths, and he notes the effective disinterest of adherents in exotic culture as such. On a related note, Robert Wuthnow advances the condition of international polity or “world order” as a determinant of the activity of religious movements, a theoretical principle which is then applied by Dick Anthony and Thomas L. Robbins in their paper on the Unification Church and its regard for ethical “ambiguity” in the diplomatic and strategic situation of the United States.

Unlike some of the other themes and problems treated in this book, race and gender are regrettably sequestered off into a token paper for each. Neither paper is especially helpful on its own terms, although either (and the editorial arrangement of both) could be used as an indicator of the state of the field in the late 1970s. Archie Smith, Jr. is perfectly correct in his criticisms that a) the “new religions” investigated tend to neglect developments in African-American religion, and b) a proper understanding of new religions in the US should account for differences in appeal across racial boundaries, but he takes no concrete steps in either of these directions. Emily Culpepper’s paper on “The Spiritual Movement of Radical Feminist Consciousness” is laden with quaint “gynergy” and admits to being a piece of evangelism, rather than scholarship. (“My concern is to spread the word among women….” p. 221) Its presentation of feminist witchcraft is, alas, an instance of misleading propaganda in those points where it is offered as accurate history.

Needleman’s preface and Baker’s final paper frame the volume in terms of puzzles regarding teaching about new religions. Robert Bellah suggests that the discipline of religious studies, by providing a pluralistic context for the teaching of religion—and not merely teaching about religion—has begun to constitute itself as a new religion, seriously engaging religious symbol systems (what Needleman calls “contemplative ideas” on p. xiv) while operating outside the received institutions of religious authority. These pedagogical concerns also shade into discussions regarding theories and methods of research. Walter Capps, while providing support for Bellah’s claim regarding the properly religious aspect of the discipline, points out that different theoretical premises are required in order to study new religions as dynamic social phenomena, distinct from the Enlightenment concept of religions as codified traditions. Richardson, Stewart and Simmonds’ paper on “Researching a Fundamentalist Commune” proposes that ethnographers in the field can benefit from a greater level of personal candor and reciprocity in interacting with their subjects. Langdon Gilkey’s paper offers the most overtly theological treatment in the volume, actually deploying the word “pagan” (albeit in scare quotes, on p. 137) to characterize the destabilizing influences that engender new religious movements, and suggesting that they are part of a dialectic which will historically clarify the will of the Christian God. [via]

The Book of Daniel

The Book of Daniel: Philosophy of History or Eschatological Fiction? by Walter C Cambra, a 1993 thesis, approved by Jacob Needleman and Donald Provence, has arrived at the Reading Room courtesy of the author.

Walter C Cambra The Book of Daniel

“This thesis attempts to demonstrate that the canonical Book of Daniel is an example of what Friedrich Nietzsche refers to as a text based upon a morality of resentment. Furthermore, this thesis argues that many symbols in the Book of Daniel are based upon material that has an historical milieu originating in the sixth century B.C. and which was incorporated into the redacted text of the second century B.C. producing a new eschatological scheme.”

The Gnostic

You may be interested in Voices of Gnosticism and The Gnostic: A Magazine of Gnosticism, Western Esotericism and Spirituality put out by Bardic Press. I saw several issues of The Gnostic at the Esoteric Book Conference and thought they were well done. I regret not picking them up at the time, but they are available still.


Voices of Gnosticism

“For several years, Miguel Conner has engaged the most prominent writers and scholars on Gnosticism and early Christianity on Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio. These interviews with 13 leading scholars represent one of the best ways to get to know ancient Gnosticism, the movement that has inspired Dan Brown, Philip Pullman, Philip K. Dick and The Matrix movies. Read what the best minds have to say about the Gnostic sects, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, Mary Magdalene, heresy, the origins of Gnosticism, and the original teachings of Jesus.

Elaine Pagels · Marvin Meyer · Bart Ehrman · Bruce Chilton · Stevan Davies · David Fideler · Birger Pearson · John Turner · Einar Thomassen · Jason BeDuhn · Karen King · Jane Schaberg · April DeConick”


The Gnostic 1

“The first issue of a tri-annual journal on Gnosticism in all its forms. Featuring interviews with Alan Moore and Sethian Gnostic expert John Turner; a complete translation of the Gospel of Judas; Tim Freke on The Gospel of the Second Coming; articles on William Burroughs, Philip K.Dick, the Alternative Judas, Gnosticism and Magic; columns, book reviews and more.”


The Gnostic 2

“The second issue of The Gnostic: A Journal of Gnosticism, Western Esotericism and Spirituality. Featuring an interview with Colin Wilson and an indepth examination of his ideas on the occult. An interview with Tessa Dick, widow of Philip K Dick, plus an excerpt from her memoir and Anthony Peake’s analysis of Dick’s precognitive abilities. An interview with noted scholar April DeConick on the Gospel of John. The Gnosticism of the TV series The Prisoner. Kimetikos, Jeremy Puma’s Gnostic practice. Tony Blake’s meetings with remarkable people including J.G. Bennett, David Bohm and Idries Shah. Articles on asceticism, the symbolism of the Bible, resurrection, Schrodinger’s Gun, a short story by Andrew Phillip Smith. Extensive book reviews, original art and more.”


The Gnostic 3

“The third issue of The Gnostic: A Journal of Gnosticism, Western Esotericism and Spirituality. Featuring a cover by C.G. Jung, Lance Owens on Jung’s Red Book. Interviews with David Tibet of Current 93, Jacob Needleman and Zohar expert Daniel C. Matt. Articles on Gnostic anime, Robert Graves, Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Luke, William Blake, deja vu, coincidence, a ten page comic, reviews and much more.”


The Gnostic 4

“The fourth issue of The Gnostic: A Journal of Gnosticism, Western Esotericism and Spirituality. Alan Moore’s Fossil Angels, an investigation into the contemporary occult scene. Interviews with Stephan Hoeller and Miguel Conner. Anthony Peake on the Quantum Pleroma. Sean Martin tells a Gnostic sci-fi tale. Robert M.Price on the Gnostic Gospel of John. Bill Darlison on the zodiac in the Gospel of Mark. Gnostic influences on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The plight of the Mandaeans. The gematria of Marcus the Magician. The Gospel of Thomas, a translation and Fourth Way interpretation. Gnostic politics. John Cowper Powys. The complete text of the Gnosis of the Light–a book within a magazine! Egyptian cat mummies and more. And we review enough books to fill a whole shelf. Cover and interior illustrations by Laurence Caruana.”