Jesus as Lord of the Dance

From early Christianity to medieval Nubia

Early Christian worship was diverse and frequently intense. Some aspects, such as the charisms (“spiritual gifts”) described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, might take on very different forms from meeting to meeting; others, such as baptism and the Eucharist, developed more standardized forms even as the movement spread. Yet even these core rituals encompassed radically different practices and meanings. Some groups, for example, used water rather than wine in the Eucharist, in keeping with a broader emphasis on moderation in food and abstention from sex.

Qasr-el-Wizz

A page from the Qasr el-Wizz Codex. Credit: Péter Hubai, A Megváltó a keresztről: Kopt apokrifek Núbiából (A Kasr El-Wizz kódex) (Cahiers Patristiques, Textes Coptes; Budapest: Szent István Társulat, 2006); from http://alinsuciu.com/2012/10/04/george-hughes-translation-of-a-coptic-apocryphal-manuscript-the-qasr-el-wizz-codex/ (accessed 8/7/2014).

Other ancient Christian rituals are less familiar, sometimes because they were associated with groups eventually labeled as heretical and persecuted. Thus, the ritual of the Bridal Chamber, as practiced by Valentinians, can only be reconstructed through brief and uncertain references in texts such as the Gospel of Philip.

Perhaps the most famous of these “alternative” rituals is the dance of Jesus and the apostles as portrayed in the Acts of John, a vivid and imaginative second-century description of the apostle’s missionary journey. In one section, the apostle John recalls how, on the night before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus commanded the apostles to form a circle around him, and to dance as he sang a hymn to which they responded in a series of “Amens.”

Most scholars agree that this fascinating text functioned as an etiology (a foundational narrative) for a ritual of dance. Like the Eucharist, it is instituted on Jesus’ last night with the apostles, and the event is described as a “mystery.” Because the apostles are enjoined to keep silent about their dance, and terms such as “Ogdoad” (the eighth heaven) are used in the corresponding hymn, some have argued that the ritual was “gnostic,” and that its disappearance was linked to the persecution and eventual disappearance of such groups under the Christian Roman Empire. Indeed, a clear allusion to the dance scene from the Acts of John is found in the psalms of the Manichaeans, archetypical heretics who were liable to capital punishment and the burning of their books.

“New” evidence has complicated this picture, namely the recent publication of a Coptic manuscript (see image above), dated to approximately the ninth century, containing a very similar dance scene. The manuscript was discovered in an abandoned monastery at Qasr el-Wizz—a settlement in Nobadia, the northernmost of the three medieval Christian kingdoms of Nubia—during rescue excavations in the 1960s (the site is now under Lake Nasser near the southern borders of Egypt). One of the texts, which scholars call the Dance of the Savior, features a dance similar to the one in the Acts of John. As the apostles circle around, Jesus addresses the cross in a series of short hymns, proclaiming the glory and triumph of the crucifixion.
 


 
Learn about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 

 
old-dongola-dance

Dance scene from the Monastery of Antony the Great at Old Dongola. Click for a larger view. Credit: D. Zielińska, courtesy Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology Archive.

The presence of the dance scene in a Coptic text from the Qasr el-Wizz monastery suggests that ritual dance enjoyed a place in established, orthodox Christianity, not only in medieval Nubia, where the manuscript was found, but also in late Roman Egypt, where it was originally composed. Indeed, while apocryphal texts are themselves generally associated with heresy, I have argued that many non-canonical texts such as the Dance of the Savior were produced and promoted by bishops, and employed liturgically in places like churches and martyr shrines. In the Christian Roman Empire, liturgical dancing was a part of common events such as saints’ festivals. Some polemicists saw this as an inappropriate expression of piety, uncomfortably close to pagan traditions like pantomime or Dionysian revelries. But it was also related to imperial celebrations: In 630 C.E. the emperor Heraclius is said to have danced in front of the Cross when it was returned to Jerusalem from Persian captivity, presumably in imitation of King David’s dance before the Ark of the Covenant.

The role of dance in the medieval Nubian liturgy is uncertain. The victorious cross, which is celebrated in the Dance of the Savior, was a central theme in Old Nubian literature and art; as in Roman Egypt, it was probably associated with royal authority. A painting recently discovered by a team from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology during their excavations of the Monastery of Anthony the Great at Old Dongola, capital of the central Nubian kingdom Makuria, suggests that dance played an important role there as well (see second image). Some of the dancing figures are masked, and others play musical instruments. The accompanying Old Nubian inscriptions are still being deciphered. While it is unlikely that this practice was directly related to the ancient traditions of Jesus’s dance with the apostles, apocryphal texts such as the Dance of the Savior offers legitimation for similar rituals in diverse pre-modern cultural contexts.
 


 
Learn about the Nag Hammadi codices and Gnostic Christianity in Bible History Daily.
 

 
paul-dilleyPaul Dilley is an assistant professor at the University of Iowa with a joint appointment in the departments of religious studies and classics. His research specialty is ancient Mediterranean religions, including early Christianity. His blog, www.hieroilogoi.org, covers digital resources for the religions of Late Antiquity. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCDilley.

Posted in Jesus/Historical Jesus, Post-Biblical Period.

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17 Responses

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  1. David says

    ANYthing pulled from texts outside of the Bible are grossly suspect and unworthy of serious spiritual study and consideration. If God wanted any of that He would have included it plainly.

  2. Paula says

    David, It looks like you believe in a verbal plenary inspiration; I don’t!!!!! God inspired but written by people thus influenced by cultural/historical context. I believe that it is through the works of historians, archeologists, scholars etc. that we can deepen our knowledge and understanding of the bible.

  3. Barbara says

    I agree Paula. God did not write the Bible. Man did which included all their traditions and bias.

  4. Robert says

    EVERYBODY knows that dance is too worldly for worship! And if the early church used rock and roll of the music, that makes it EVEN WORSE!

  5. Paul says

    When it comes to the liturgical ritual that is found in the Acts of John, apparently it was an actual ritual or sacrament since there are liturgical instructions. Many scholars have associated it with Valentinian Gnosticism, but many themes found in this apocryphal acts bears closer resemblance to the Sethians and their concept of an immovable race. Of course, one should not discount the influence of the Greco-Roman mystery religions. Too often scholars turn to gnosticism, when the most likely influence comes from the mystery religions. We have that with the author of Colossians who might have understood as a the great mystery religion, since he uses the language of those religions. And, his addressees clearly saw Christianity as one of the mystery religions.

  6. Don says

    Did or did not the circle dance originate and come out of Egypt? I recall reading that somewhere.

  7. Paul says

    The problem with the ritual in the Acts of John is that it was not an original part of this apocryphal acts. There are characteristics and certain words that point to a possible Egyptian origin for the Johannine acts, but there is also a strong possibility that the acts originated in Syria, and for the ritual itself, the use of the first person singular has parallels with the Syrian Odes of Solomon.

  8. Donna says

    Does it really matter. I think that music itself makes us want to move not stand still like a statue so why not dance.
    And of course it was written by man, so many mistakes in it it’d have to be, surely a god wouldn’t make mistakes, right.

  9. Laura says

    This is fascinating. Looking to ancient Hebrew rituals and dances could also shed some light on this “mystery.” Psalm 149 and 150 Hebrew wedding rituals as well.

    I do not ascribe to the idea that we “have it” as we practice today, because so much has been twisted and lost since the early church times. Nor do I propose that they did it right because they were not so far removed. However, I’m sure this is what Paul meant in Philippians when he said “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” So I prayerfully and carefully consider these things, and marvel.

  10. David says

    My take is that any text that celebrates the glory of crucifixion is post-Constantinian. Prior to that, from what I’ve read, early Christianity focused on the resurrection. I recommend Carroll’s “Constantine’s Sword”.

  11. Steven B. says

    Sounds Hasidic enough to me. Too bad most Christians don’t see the historical man as having been a Hasidic-P’rushi, like those from the House of Hillel the Elder. Sadly, my comment will only be shouted down by snide comments, but … that’s par for the course where the “faithful” are concerned. ::::heavy sigh::::

  12. ralph says

    The twelve disciples dancing around Jesus as the Sun (of) God, are representative of the twelve constellations dancing around the Sun itself.

    See ‘Cleopatra to Christ’

  13. S. says

    What is that topmost picture, the one with the Celtic knotwork?

  14. Rick says

    Were there any corresponding (even to a remote degree) Jewish liturgical/festival/etc dance rituals at the time?

  15. trixie says

    Along the lines of Stephen B. words….agreed. Where did Sufi dance come from?……no doubt Jewish ritual/celebration….all connected…..later rejected the ‘powers that were’….so much struck down and then hidden….hopefully more ‘finds’ will keep providing new info.

  16. Gary says

    Jews still drink wine at the bridal feasts. And they dance for joy, hand in hand, in circles. Where are the bride and groom? End of story, people.

  17. gregory says

    I believe the important thing is that even today, we still enter into His Courts of Praise Singing and Dancing. Certainly the ways in which worshipers do that have indeed changed and evolved over the years due to many reasons and influences. But, without a doubt, people express their Joy through singing and Dancing. And, who better to Sing praises to and Dance Jubilantly for than God !


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