Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy's The Laughing Jesus: A Critique
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This the nastiest book from Skeptics I've seen for a long time and as such does not deserve a detailed review, but it's going to get one anyway, in case believers come across people who use it against them.

The book is about how fundamentalism is wrong and that it should be replaced by a revised form of gnosticism. It is so revised that I didn't recognise it: the claim is made that Jesus did not exist but instead He was the gnostics' literary mouthpiece and a combination of Jewish and pagan myths. Yes, this is the Jesus Mysteries argument again. The claim is also made (as with their previous book) that Christianity was originally gnostic and a whole section of the book is devoted to a presentation of what a '21st secular spirituality' gnosticism is all about.

This book is a "full-scale assault" against fundamentalism. In other words, Freke and Gandy are declaring war on "Literalist" religion. The book cover declares that "The time has come to end religious intolerance"(!) - a three-course meal in irony with mint sauce, this. Their purpose is to "undermine the very foundations" of Judaism and Christianity. How tolerant. (We'll leave the defense of Islam to others.)

The cover art (again controversial, it supposedly depicts humanity overcoming God by strangulation) was painted by William Blake (1757-1827), who they call a gnostic, but scholars disagree on this identification. If this book is meant to be read by fundamentalists, the cover is certainly going to put them off, if not the content. The front cover mentions their previous books, Jesus Mysteries (see here) and Jesus and the Lost Goddess (see here which we reviewed at the links and in this book Freke and Gandy resort to making some of the same errors documented in those reviews.

Robert M. Price endorses this anti-fundamentalist book, as does Larry Dossey (who works in alternative medicine) and Graham Hancock, a journalist of New Age persuasions. This alone speaks volumes about how the scholarly community views this sort of thing. I have my doubts that TLJ went through a peer review.

At the back of the book, their suggested further reading (though not a bibliography) includes revisionist archaeologists Finkelstein & Silberman together with Earl Doherty, R.M. Price, 3 books by G.A. Wells and of course, their own Jesus Mysteries and Jesus and the Lost Goddess. Add to this the numerous uses of Thomas L Thompson and Matthew Sturgis. How does this show they are applying critical thinking? There's just one mystical book offered for further study; to me this says they don't want readers looking for what scholars really think about their subject.

In the notes, the authors comment that the first part "presents an argument about historical facts" and the 2nd part is not annotated because they don't want "the reader to become distracted with unnecessary notes." Notes are distracting? Really, what was the point of Elaine Pagels' Gnostic Gospels documentation?

The basic tactics are as follows: take any source (the wilder the better) and present summary overview to conclude fundamentalists have no clue. Ignore responses, especially Orthodox or fundamentalist responses - which are treated as if they simply do not exist. Brow-beat reader, serve cold.

The main issue I take with this work is if they use the tools of the Fundamentalists themselves (i.e. reading a religious text as if the reader's paradigm applies apart from considering authorial intent and cultural context in the time it was written) then the arguments and polemic therein can be turned against itself. For example, they claim Paul is Gnostic because they (and early Gnostics) read some of his sayings that way, but if it is shown that Paul was writing in a Jewish non-Gnostic paradigm without pagan influence, then the book's thrust is misguided.

And scholarship has shown this is the case - as expected, N.T. Wright is completely avoided, as is Ben Witherington, E.P. Sanders, Ronald H. Nash etc etc etc. What sort of "powerful indictment" is an argument that is outdated before it is written?

Freke and Gandy wave this off because the book is intended to be "less-than-scholarly". On the other hand, they claim they are armed with "the latest discoveries from modern historians and archaeologists" [24] Given the poor sources they used (e.g. Phyllis Graham) and stuff from the 19th century (Harnack) and not engaging historical method this claim doesn't stand up very well.

I had to go "WHAT!" several times at the claims made; in fact I had to put the book down for three weeks because a) it was so awful and b) I just could not believe how they misused their sources (some of these issues I shall bring to the readers' attention in this review.)

There's a table comparing Gnosticism and Literalism [6-7]. Some of the claims don't make sense, for example: "Gnosticism unites us" and that Gnosticism is about "waking up from the illusion of separateness" - really, even though the thesis insists on a division from Literalism. It also claims gnostics want us "to think for ourselves" though it isn't particularly clear how this would work in a dyadic (group-oriented) culture like the world of the New Testament. There is also the accusation that Literalists teach it is important to "blindly believe" in religious dogmas.

One of the stranger claims in TLJ is they deny anyone is a Jew, Christian or Muslim [8]. One is constrained to ask what is the purpose of the confrontational first half of the book? Yet Timothy Freke proclaims on his site [Laughing Jesus video] that this is their best work.

One of the basic reasons for their anti-fundamentalist take is their philosophical worldview: they wish everyone to 'wake up' from the supposed dream of reality and realise everything is One. However, if reality involves this gnostic 'oneness', then how is this reality true? In order to prove something true one needs claim X and evidence Y that is independent of X and verifies it. In their system however X and Y are part of the whole - thus it is unfalsifiable.

The book is written for a popular audience; examples being: regarding biblical prophecy they write, "Christian Fundamentalists are increasingly apocalyptic" [20], then they cite the Left Behind series/ They also bring up the "Chinese whispers" charge - when will Skeptics learn this is irrelevant? (Perhaps Freke and Gandy would like to explain how "Chinese whispers" works in terms of Gnosticism which claimed their secret teachings were the private explanations of Jesus' teachings to the Apostles - that was primarily an oral tradition.

Given Gandy's qualification in ancient civilisation, their anachronistic comment on slavery [17] in relation to the Bible is outrageous: what is indentured servitude?

On page 22 they bring up (yet again) the common but entirely incorrect charge that Pagan libraries were burned. We aren't told which library they refer to, but vagueness is always useful when historical facts do not support your claims. On page 115 it is claimed that the great library at Alexandria was "put to the torch by by rampaging bands of black-robed monks"! This preposterous claim is of course not footnoted, compared with say, this.

On the same page they write "It is time to break the spell of the written word". Why write this book, then? Of course what they mean is, the 'spell' that it is believed that 'God writes books'. Is that what inspiration means?

TLJ is not slacking in its use of polemic. On the Word of God - they call it "eclectic, contradictory and quirky" because "careful scholarship" says so. So any scholarship that defends the fidelity of scripture is not careful? It also gets called an "unholy mess" [75], and "a bizarre and contradictory collection of texts assembled by the immoral, brutal and bigoted Hasmoneans" [49]. With accusations flying like "bigoted", it should be real easy to appeal to say, religious tolerance, and get one's views accepted in the mainstream: this is one reason why I have difficulty seeing how this variant of gnosticism will succeed today. God is a "tribal deity" and a "pompous monster" that has "unpleasant personality problems" [48, 197] We remind Mr Freke that he is a philosopher and not a psychologist. 'Literalist' Christianity is described as "absurd" and "grotesque", [157], and the devil is the God of the Jews! [64 - a rather Literalistic interpretation of John 8:44]

Other sources used, John Shelby Spong (who declares "[the Bible] offers me a God I cannot respect, much less worship"), Elaine Pagels, Gerd Ludemann, Karen Armstrong - oddly for our authors, a group of liberals who admit Jesus existed. Another source they use frequently in the Tanakh (Old Testament) section is by Matthew Sturgis - but Freke and Gandy quote from the introduction which isn't even written by Sturgis - and fail to inform the reader. [29] Another source used is professor of Old Testament Thomas L Thompson - whose book oddly has no relevant footnotes, very strange that, for a professor.

About those 'contradictions' in the Tanakh - (which they claim was created in the Maccabean period! [i.e. circa 164 B.C., pp39-40]) - if they want to engage "careful scholarship" then they can examine the following links which answer their claimed arguments: on two creation stories [43] (here) - what is really strange about this one is their use of the book edited by Torrey, The Fundamentals. (from this work arose the term "fundamentalism".) The book itself answers liberal objections to the faith that were being raised in the 19th century - including this very issue of how many creation stories there are! [Vol.1, 228-30] And our authors think that the book was written by "priests" - but this is a misdirection, as many of the authors writing in the book, such as James Orr, were professors.

Other issues raised: domestic camels are late (see here), the Yahweh/Asherah inscription (here)) and instead of argument by outrage Freke and Gandy can answer this (here) in response to their claims that God is brutal (try "merciful" instead!) Other objections (such as the early mention of the Chaldeans) can be answered generally with this argument. (here)

They also deny the existence of several patriarchs including Abraham, Moses and Joshua - was that a surprise? What is a surprise is that one of their Recommended Reads, Israel Finkelstein, is quite happy with the "House of David" inscription which our authors dispute - and comments that the existence of David is not the issue. (Bible Unearthed 129-30) Freke and Gandy also appeal to Philip R Davies' work questioning that inscription but do not say anything about responses to that published since in the Biblical Archaeological Review. Hmm, what was that about using the latest in archaeology?

Porphyry is cited as claiming to have proven that the book of Daniel was written during the Maccabean period. [38] It is only in the footnotes we're told this is a reconstruction of parts of his argument, and if Freke and Gandy still think arguments for late-dating Daniel are valid they can answer this.

We are presented with the Pagan copycat thesis again (which we took to pieces here) but all that's presented in this book is simply repeats of what we find in Jesus Mysteries regarding Mithra, Dionysus and Osiris and a collapsing down of gospel events to the supernatural ones only to make it easier to dismiss the historical Jesus as myth.

Regarding Osiris we have in this book a most excellent example of our authors using too-simplistic a presentation and I find them omitting data in order to push their claims. This one is particularly absurd - they try to compare Moses' story with Osiris [29]! Leading up to this claim, we are told that Greek stories have Dionysus "confined in a chest and thrown into the river Nile". This is supposedly a parallel to hiding Moses (via Sargon - although you won't find Moses being thrown anywhere in the Bible.) Then the funny part: They make mention of Osiris being cast into the Nile - however this happened in the story when he was DEAD - there is no parallel here, and omitting this fact only hurts their case.

If they want to claim Moses' story "has all the hallmarks of a myth" then it has to be supported with all the relevant data. We are told that Moses is not mentioned in Egyptian records - well, neither is Akhenaten. There's also the usual panic button pressing re: Moses' death.

I find it odd that Freke and Gandy play the dying Godman card in a Gnostic argument relating to Jesus because most of His wisdom which was claimed to be passed on to gnostics was given after his resurrection with little reference to his death, and I even find in the Acts of John (via Pagels' Gnostic Gospels) which specifically states the "Laughing Jesus" was not the one crucified but rather a substitute. Huh? So why make an issue out of this "dying" Godman, then? Freke and Gandy try to get around this by stating that only "some" gnostic views had this dying-and-rising Godman [56] while others didn't [160] It would have helped to provide the reader with documentation for these claims, as would sources for their claims relating the gnostics to the mystery religions. And a spiritual resurrection does not fit in a Jewish setting.

And now, the basis of the mythicist argument: the supposed non-existence of Jesus. These guys want to play table-tennis, but they want to do it without the bat, the ball, opponent and umpire. They want to pull Occam's razor over to their side but I have shown in this review that their working assumptions (the philosophical worldview) are untenable.

We are given the statement that no Roman record exists of the trial of Jesus. We do not have any trials of private persons - say, Apollonius of Tyana - shall we posit such persons did not exist either?

In this section of merely 2 1/2 pages citing no scholars or Jesus Quests since Schweitzer (but we are given the conclusions of a former nun!) we are told that none of the Roman witnesses of Tacitus, Pliny, and Suetonius "stands up to scrutiny" [58] and then they spend all of two sentences on the subject. What does "scrutiny" mean?

After a quick Remsberg impression implying that Roman authors should have mentioned Jesus but didn't, we are told that these "few fragments" are "small passages", as if size has anything to do with it - and that Christian apologists use these as proof - no, actually, it is historians who use them as evidence of Jesus and the fact that our authors have ignored said historians (even secular ones) speaks volumes to their inability to deal with the issue.

They refuse to even quote the passages they "discuss"; we're given the usual excuses that these Romans were too late to be of historical value and that all they say is that "a few Christians existed in the Roman world at this time" [ibid] - as well as dissing Tacitus' comment about Christ as a forgery. Apart from the fact that no Tacitean scholar says this sort of thing - which is why they are not listed - Tacitus states that this movement arose in Judea which is not the sort of place that Gnostic forms of Christianity would flourish in the first place. It is also said that in Pliny Christians were "trouble-makers". So why does Trajan in reply insist they are not sought after? The important point about Christian martyrs is ignored. It is also claimed this mention in Pliny is a footnote - sorry, but they didn't have footnotes back then.

Jewish witnesses: It is claimed that Philo should have mentioned Jesus without explaining why. Josephus gets 3/4 page and a single footnote, Gibbon is called a "great scholar" despite the fact he didn't finish his education. Bede has some comments as well (see entry on Gibbon here). G.A. Wells is used as a source, but his source is from 1951. We are told what Josephus didn't believe about a Messiah (regarding the "He was the Christ" interpolation in Antiquities 18) but the authors fail to tell us what he DID believe!

Phyllis Graham - the former nun - is a source used for their "Josephus is a forgery" argument: this was a hoot. Her book "The Jesus Hoax" is quite hard to get hold of; however I did get it through a rare book outlet on the Internet. Why take a book seriously that proclaims Christians do not read the New Testament and if they did they'd be "insane"? (Jesus Hoax, 111) She also claims the Fall of Man means that primitive man fell out of the trees (ibid, 118)! Why take Freke and Gandy seriously for using such a ludicrous work?

So what does Graham have to say about the Testimonium? She declares the whole paragraph is "now universally accepted as a Christian interpolation" [Jesus Hoax, 146] - sorry, this is false, even in 1974 when she wrote. Her alternate view is that the Testimonium is reworked (due to "common practice" during a supposed "power-boost in early Christianity", 189 - what? how could the early Christians, under the Roman thumb, gain any sort of power?), but she admits "I do not know if learned minds see it as I do" - well, that's the lazy way out that we caught Joseph Wheless doing. This book contains so many howlers that it is going to get its own article.

The "James, brother of Jesus" evidence in Antiquities 20 is neither mentioned nor discussed (I suppose the James ossuary is their excuse) but they have the audacity to claim that Josephus' Testimonium, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny are "the only pieces of 'evidence' that scholars have ever found to testify to the supposed life of Jesus" [59-60] - yes, why not completely ignore scholarship that identifies the James passage as more reliable than the Testimonium? (e.g. in Meier's Marginal Jew, Vol.1,57-59)

More errors: On the James Ossuary they insist that independent experts concluded that the inscription "brother of Jesus" was added in the third century, but in the footnote they claim - without documentation - that "[w]itnesses claim to have seen it in the Jerusalem antiquities market as far back as the 1970s but it was then without the second part of the inscription 'brother of Jesus'"! Which is it? They conclude that the ossuary's inscription is a forgery, on that see here.

And now we turn to Freke and Gandy's claims about Paul, whom they claim believed in a "Mythic Christ". They ask, "Why does Paul never mention an historical Jesus in his letters?" to which is answered, "Because it wasn't needed". Corinthians for example, was correspondence regarding specific spiritual issues in the church. If Paul had replied to their cry for help on the use and misuse of spiritual gifts (say) with "Well, there was this fellow Jesus in Palestine.." it wouldn't satisfy the group's need.

If they want to insist Paul was a Gnostic they can answer here which goes beyond the thesis Pagels presents even though they use her Gnostic Paul work as a source in the same chapter. If we look up Pagels' text we find she writes: "The subject is, of course, not Paul himself but 'the gnostic Paul', the figure that emerges from second-century gnostic sources", Gnostic Paul, 8-9 or "One must take care, of course, not to jump to the opposite conclusion [against the usual NT assumption that Paul is 'antignostic'] - equally unjustified and premature in terms of historical method - and accept as "historical" the gnostic claim that the apostle himself was a gnostic initiate and teacher!" ibid,9). Their use of Colossians is particularly ironic (the mystical interpretation of "Christ in you", 62) since Paul is critiquing a proto-gnostic heresy. Let Freke and Gandy be reminded that they rejected Colossians as a genuine Pauline epistle in their Jesus Mysteries on page 196, footnote 11.

If Freke and Gandy want to claim Paul never quotes Jesus [61] then they should try to deal with this:

In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink, in memory of me." (1 Corinthians 11:25)

..which of course they do not, and also it is noted that a source used in this chapter, Graham Stanton, mentions this text as evidence for the view our authors deny, in the very same section they quote him from! (Gospel Truth, 129-131, although he certainly admits to meagre evidence - that is quite different from none at all) - and Freke and Gandy have the gall to subtitle their work "Religious Lies and Gnostic Wisdom"! The shot foot needs bandaging at the local hospital.

Our authors are also incorrect about Paul dissing the Tanakh [52], he was rejecting righteousness by the Law, not the Law itself. (Philippians 3:7-9)

There are several places in the book where it would be useful to have had things mentioned in the Index, for example citations from Celsus, or the Gospel of Thomas [65] which they date to 50 AD without explanation. They also date 2 Thessalonians to the 3rd century because Gerd Ludemann says so.

Composition of the gospels: You can tell how seriously they take this when they say "basically Matthew and Luke are just Mark with extra fries" [70] or that the gospels are "sexed up documents". (But expect them to quote from Matthew in support of their gnostic argument anyway) Is there any discussion on composition of ancient documents? No, of course not.

On the dates of the gospels - TLJ makes an issue out of Justin Martyr not mentioning the names of the four gospels - to which I say: he quotes from them, as does Clement of Rome, and the Didache - isn't that sufficient?!? All kinds of arguments are rehashed that we have answered on this site throughout the book, as if their readers do not know such answers exist.

It is further claimed that Justin Martyr gives the "first evidence" of Literalist Christianity [67] - this is false, because Ignatius' letter to the Smyrneans (chapter VII, circa 110 AD) shows there were those who partook of the Lord's Supper and those who did not - the latter being Gnostics because of their worldview, presupposing that the world was created imperfectly and therefore the Son of God could not have literally partaken in it as an actual man; the remaining group being obviously Literalists who did accept Jesus Christ had come in the flesh and ate the Eucharist accordingly.

Our authors claim Peter never existed and Paul never said anything about meeting him (!) and just in case Galatians 2 is raised in objection it is asserted that this letter is merely a "clever [piece] of editorial tampering". [72] Instead of Acts of the Apostles being an accurate piece of history it is dissed as "a crude piece of anti-Gnostic propaganda forged in the late second century" [71] It is also claimed that the Acts is not mentioned by anyone prior to Irenaeus. What's the Muratorian Canon?

They try dating Mark to 135 AD [241] - but if Mark was the first gospel penned then how do our authors explain the Rylands fragment of John's Gospel which is dated to 125 AD? (on the Q/Markan hypothesis itself see here.)

It is clearly no coincidence that they have mangled the evidence for Jesus for the third time running. They call their approach "Good, well-evidenced opinions" [130]. Oh? And I've a Brooklyn bridge to sell you...

There are some factual howlers in this text, too: the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh is called a "born-again Christian" (! - on this see here, including his own testimony otherwise!)

They claim "A Christian Fundamentalist murdered John Lennon".[17] It seems, as long as you slander fundamentalism, anything goes - including facts out of the window. Mark David Chapman had abandoned the Christian faith by December, 1980. From here we read,

"At the age of 25, Chapman was probably an emotional 15 year-old. There is a phenomenon in the literature of fictional personalities. Some people come to believe that they are another fictional personage. Mark, when he turned away from Christianity, believed that the Catcher in the Rye was his bible. His decision to go from Honolulu to New York City, to hang around in Central Park, to hire a prostitute, to get a gun, was a twisted re-enactment of Holden Caulfield's coming of age in New York City. In many ways, he retraced Holden Caulfield's steps before killing the man that he had made himself believe was the ultimate "phony". He believed in some way that by killing Lennon he could stop the rock star from leading astray another generation of innocent youth."

TLJ is misleading in other, factual areas: In the second half of the book, Porphyry is described as a Gnostic [134], as is Tertullian and it is implied that Plotinus is among them as well [135]. We find at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy here:

"Plotinus, during the height of his teaching career at Rome (ca. 255 CE), composed a treatise "Against Those Who Declare the Creator of This World, and the World Itself, to be Evil," also known, simply, as "Against the Gnostics" (Ennead II.9) in which he argues for the divinity and goodness of the cosmos, and upholds the ancient Greek belief in the divinity of the stars and planets, declaring them to be our "noble brethren," and responsible only for the good things that befall humankind. Porphyry, in his Life of Plotinus, tells us that Plotinus commissioned him, along with his fellow student Amelius, to write more treatises attacking the Gnostics on points that Plotinus skipped over (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 16)."

As for Tertullian, who joined the Montanist sect later in life, here is that sect's description of Christ, given by Jerome: "[God] took flesh of the Virgin Mary, and in Christ, His Son, preached and died for us". (Epistle 41:4) How the blazes can that be gnostic?! Later on in the book they present another contrary claim: that Tertullian championed irrational faith. So, if Tertullian was a gnostic then...well I'll let the reader fill that in. For another misquotation take a look at this:

Plotinus teaches: "Those who identify the body with real being are like dreamers who mistake figments of their sleeping vision for reality" [135]

This is from the Enneads. There aren't any ellipses, even though the original quote says this:

"Thus far we have been meeting those who, on the evidence of thrust and resistance, identify body with real being and find assurance of truth in the phantasms that reach us through the senses, those, in a word, who, like dreamers, take for actualities the figments of their sleeping vision." (Enn.II 6:6) Another passage I checked at random suffered from the same problem.

But I've kept the most outrageous quote till last:

"A Christian text called The Treatise on the Resurrection...announces
'The world is an illusion. The resurrection/awakening is the revelation of reality'" and it is further claimed "In the Greek used by the original Christians the word usually translated 'resurrect' also means 'awaken'". [159]

There are so many problems with this it is hard to know where to start. The word used in the Bible for resurrection is primarily anastasis (though there is also exanastasis, which we do not expect Freke and Gandy to even begin to try to claim for their side) which means 'to stand up' e.g. rising from a seat (Thayer, Berry, Vine, Strong) and in the context it is used in the New Testament, a physical resurrection. Since this is in the Gnostic half of the book the lack of lexical sources speaks for itself.

There is the single use of egersis which is translated resurrection which does indeed mean arousing (as from sleep). This is found at Matthew 27:53 but it is in a gospel written for Jews, the idea that this can be connected to a gnostic awakening is preposterous. The Jews used sleep as a metaphor for the period between a person's death and their physical resurrection at the end of time and the coming out of tombs reflects Christ's own resurrection. Another Greek word is anistemi - a related term which means 'to awake' but is not the primary term used in e.g. Paul's letters. So the claim is at best misleading.

Regarding the quote from the Treatise on the Resurrection, it needs ellipses again as there is at least an entire sentence missing. And finally, the Treatise clearly admits the existence of Jesus ("How did the Lord proclaim things while he existed in flesh and after he had revealed himself as Son of God?") - rather odd to use this work to support their argument! I will admit that the Greek term anastasis has a figurative meaning (a moral recovery of spiritual truth), yet this raises an interesting question: Are those who misuse even gnostic texts like shown here, truly awake? Surely it is a moral issue to abuse texts.

Sometimes I don't understand what our authors are trying to say, and it isn't just because I'm not a gnostic. Example: "People resort to law only when human efforts to be fair and just have broken down" and "Twenty-first century spirituality needs to teach that external coercion won't make us good" [202]. In this context would Timothy Freke please explain why he intends to take Christian ministers to court over religious intolerance? (source, Tim's Journal 13 May 2005, timothyfreke.com) Another question I have relates to the meaning of the 'if you see Jesus on the road, kill him' quote on page 203, as a Western variant suggested in relation to a Zen saying. I realise this isn't meant to be taken literally, but really, what has this got to do with tolerance? Finally, introducing selfishness as part of their 'secular spirituality' while complaining about the world's problems is simply silly and self-refuting.

I suspect the real reason why there are no notes in the 2nd half of the book, is to try to prevent the reader from checking up on them. And so, once again: Freke and Gandy have hopped, skipped and jumped over hard data because it is hard and because it is data. Perhaps the best thing about this book is its clear demonstration that gnosticism goes beyond reason - their misuse of sources makes that point very well. To claim Jesus is the gnostics' literary mouthpiece is, in this context, self-refuting. Some of the comments made in the Islam section could easily land Freke and Gandy in hot water (not that we want that of course, it's always fun to read their Gnostic Gnonsense). Is there anything nice I can say about this book? Yes, it's printed on quality paper.

Maybe even skeptics will see through the lunacy presented in The Laughing Jesus. As Graham Stanton asks, "Who wants to be a gnostic anyway?". Gentlemen, obscurity awaits.