About the Book
Everybody loves a good story. Parable and metaphor are the lynch pin of much of the world's greatest literature. We use stories to understand the fundamentals of our humanity, fundamentals so deeply hidden they can otherwise remain unexpressed. The ultimate mysteries of our existence are the stuff of stories and parables: What is man? Why are we alive? How best can we face this mysterious experience we call life?
This inspirational collection of allegories and anecdotes includes seven parables of Jesus (with two little-known ones from the 'fifth' gospel, the Gospel of Thomas), an allegorical interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, and others of a gnostic character from Manichaean and Mandaean sources, the Nag Hammadi library, and New Testament apocryphal writings. Included among them is the well-known Robe of Glory. Truly a treasure trove of wisdom.
Born in 1944, John Davidson has had a lifelong interest in mysticism. Graduating in 1966 from Cambridge University with an honours degree in natural sciences, he worked for seventeen years at the University's Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics.
In 1984 he left the University to pursue independent interests, and since then has written a number of books, including a series on science and mysticism. The present book is the fifth in a series on science and mysticism. The present book is the Fifth in a series on Christian origins, following on from his ground breaking work, The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of His Original Teachings.
The Prodigal Soul is the first of three books concerned with the interpretation of ancient parables and allegories, the other two being The Divine Romance and The Song of Songs. Everybody loves a good story, especially those with a mystery or a riddle. The message of some of the greatest literature the world has known is expressed in parable or story form. These parables address the most basic needs of humanity, needs so fundamental to our existence, yet hidden so deeply within the recesses of our being, that they are generally unconscious or, at best, remain unarticulated. They concern themselves with the ultimate mysteries of our existence: What is man? Why do we live? How best can we face this mysterious experience we call life?
It seems understandable that answers to such ultimate questions must - by their very nature - always go beyond words. Faced with the Absolute, we are speechless. Yet being human, we want to hear the tale.
For the most part, we look to the great teachers of our ancient past to address these fundamental issues. This they have often done in the simplest way that we could understand - through stories that in their telling could at least hint of an understanding that cannot be caught in words. Stories that could point the way. Good stories, told around innumerable firesides, passing along from soul to soul the accumulated wisdom of mankind.
Such stories are of many types. Some, like Aesop's Fables, are simple tales in which nothing but the moral is meant to be understood. Often, the nature of the story is fantastical or mythological- involving speaking and scheming animals, for instance. Other stories are a mixture of straight narrative, explicit spiritual or moral teaching, and allegory. The early Christian Acts of Thomas and Joseph and Asenethi belong in this category, and ancient Jewish writers have understood parts of the Bible (such as the Exodus story) in this way, too. Some stories are entirely allegorical, written in a form or style in which every word or phrase is intended to convey a particular meaning through the use of symbols, images and metaphors. One of the best examples of such allegorical writing is the poem known as the Robe of Glory or the Hymn of the Soul, found embedded in the Ads of Thomas. Many Jewish and Christian mystics and philosophers throughout the ages have understood the biblical Song of Songs, as well as some of the other stories in Genesis and Exodus, to be of the same genre. A number of the parables of Jesus are also of a similar nature, like the parables of the sower, the wedding feast, and the good Samaritan.
Jesus and many other great spiritual teachers have used stories to convey their message, and The Prodigal Soul is a compilation drawn from the gospels and other early Christian and allied literature. Stories of all kinds - anecdotes, parables, allegories and others - are included in the present selection. Some are well known, others will probably be new to the reader. Among them are two seemingly authentic parables of Jesus found in the Gospel of Thomas, but absent from the canonical gospels.
The metaphors and images employed in ancient parables occur repeatedly in mystic literature. In fact, they constitute a timeless language of metaphor used by writers of many cultures, languages and times. Living Water, the Tree of Life, the Bread of Life, the Bridegroom, the Bride, marriage, the serpent, the pearl and the garment of the soul, for instance, along with many other metaphors, are all commonly encountered in the mystic literature of the ancient Middle East. Some of these even date back to Sumerian times of the third millennium BC. The Western mind, usually unfamiliar with this style of allegorical storytelling, has a tendency to take allegories literally, as with the 'Genesis creation myths. But, as we will see, that was not the way that many people of ancient times actually understood them. Nor does it appear to have been the meaning their original writer intended to convey.
The essence of all the stories in this series of three books is a spirituality that is universal in character and common to all religions. In any open-minded study of the world's mystic and sacred literature, one is inescapably impressed, not so much by their diversity as by the common threads that unite them all. It is true that if we look at the variety of human interpretations, at the external trappings of the religions that claim these writings as their own, at the differences in the linguistic or cultural modes of expression, or at any other of their more outward features, we can find differences enough. But if, dispassionately, we examine the fundamental principles being voiced, we cannot help but note that they are all, essentially, saying the same thing. They all contend that there is one God, or one ultimate Reality. They also indicate that this Reality can be found and experienced within every individual in an utterly transcendent and indescribable mystic experience.
In early Christianity, this experience was called 'gnosis' implying knowledge or experience of God. To attain this experience of salvation, the 'gnosis myth', as it has been called, always spoke of the need of a Saviour or Master. No one disputes this. It is clear that Simon Magus, Basilides, Valentinus, Bar Daisan, Mani and many other gnostic of that period all taught this basic principle. Indeed, it is probable that Jesus did so too, though with the passage of time his teachings have been greatly distorted. In modern times, this 'gnostic myth', regarded at a safe distance from across the centuries of history, has been studied critically as an interesting philosophy of long ago. But it seems to me that the essence of it is as true and relevant nowadays as it was then.
The 'gnostic myth' is the oldest story ever told - the story of the soul's separation from its eternal home with the Father, its wanderings in the labyrinth of creation, its follies and its heartaches, its eventual rescue by a divine Messenger, and its final return.
Echoes and variations of this story are found in the mythology, folklore and mystical allegories of every culture. It is a captivating tale that touches the spiritual heart, awakening memories of a peace and inner comfort long forgotten, stirring up a longing for the pure realms of being, beyond the strife and turbulence of the material universe. It is the parable of the prodigal son, the prince who awakens the sleeping beauty, or the princess who has fallen under the spell of an evil power and awaits the touch and mystic kiss of the ever youthful and life-giving prince before her release can be effected. It is the story of the good Samaritan or The Virgin, the Harlot and the Bridegroom. 2
In one way or another, this story will always be told, for souls - having long ago left their home - will never be happy in the material realms. The soul, separated from its divine Source, is ever restless, finding no peace until reunited with its divine essence.
There have always been souls who have been called to make the journey home. And there have always been divine Messengers, Sons of God, Saviours or perfect Masters who have been sent to guide such souls on their long journey homewards. Indeed, it is this divine Beloved, calling from hidden places in the inner realms of light, who awakens the soul and fills it with the desire to find God, its source of being. But at the outset, the soul does not know who it is that is beckoning - or even that it is being drawn. Like a man waking from a deep slumber, he does not know that there is someone else who is awakening him.
By its nature, a collection of stories is bound to be a pastiche of material that can be read in more or less any order, as the fancy takes the reader. This is true of the present collection. All the same, there is a thread of continuity running through these stories, one often leading to the next. Moreover, significant concepts are generally handled more completely on their first occurrence, and the stories are also grouped together in a general way according to their origins. The collection also has a denouement in the sense that the last story of all, the Robe of Glory, is a microcosm of all the stories that have gone before, drawing together many threads that may previously have seemed disparate.
In many places, I have relied upon the existence of my earlier book, The Gospel cf Jesus (1995, rev. 2004), to support the interpretation of particular metaphors. This is useful because it avoids making unsubstantiated assertions on the one hand, or burdening the text with extensive quotations on the other. Only if particularly beautiful or pertinent, or when they have not been covered in The Gospel of jesus, have I included quotations in addition to those comprising the parable or story under discussion. Likewise, the various ancient texts used are generally described more fully in The Gospel of lesus, and background details concerning them may be found there for those who are interested. Also, The Robe of Glory, The Pearl Merchant and part of Adam Gets a Letter appeared in an earlier publication, The Robe of Glory: An Ancient Parable of the Soul (1992), but have been reworked to fit the character of the present book.
Regarding translations of the various ancient texts, I have generally relied on existing translations. There are a few occasions, however, when the intended mystic meaning seems clear, but it has not been adequately conveyed. Sometimes, the simple capitalization of a word makes all the difference. God, for example, could not be expected to have manifested the creation with a human 'word'. But if we write 'Word' - meaning his creative Power or Emanation - we have a statement with which mystics throughout the ages would all agree.
In instances of this sort, I have taken the liberty of either very lightly editing the text, or of adding explanatory words in parentheses. But no editing has been done unless the meaning of the full context supports it. I have also modernized archaic English. In some cases, where a number of scholarly translations are available of some particular text, I have combined them, indicating this by a reference to the various sources consulted. Also, because of the variety of typographic styles found in the many quotations, I have standardized the layout, as well as the spelling and punctuation. The aim has always been to help convey meaning with clarity, lucidity and simplicity.
Unless otherwise noted, any significant clarifications or additions to a translation offered by myself or the original translator have been placed in round brackets, while significant conjectured words or phrases, usually provided by the original translator to fill gaps in an original, defective manuscript, appear in square brackets ([ ]). Where translations used have been edited for any of the above reasons, this is indicated by the use of if in the source reference.
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