GNOSTICISM


GNOSTICISM, designates the beliefs held by a number of nonorthodox Christian sects flourishing in the first to second centuries C.E., which developed mystical systems of philosophy based on the gnosis (Gr. "knowledge") of God. These systems were syncretic, i.e., mixtures of pagan magic and beliefs from the Babylonian and Greek world as well as from the Jewish. Judaism made an important contribution to the conceptions and the developments of gnosticism. One way in which Jewish motifs were infused into gnosticism was through the Bible, which was holy to Christianity and likewise through other Jewish literature – in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – which was used by the Christians. The chapters on the Creation in Genesis were also of special influence. Special importance was also attributed to the account of the first man and his sin, which is interpreted by gnosticism as the downfall of the divine principle into the material world. From their negative attitude toward the world of natural existence and moral law which is meant to regulate man's behavior in this world, the gnostics came to a view of the God of Israel, the creator of the universe, as the god of evil, or an inferior god, and they strongly rejected his Law and its commandments. They interpreted the stories in the Bible in a way opposite to their meaning and intention: thus, for example, the original serpent is often seen by them as the bearer of the true "knowledge," of which God intends to deprive man; and Cain becomes a positive figure persecuted by God, etc.

Jewish influence on gnosticism is also evident in the use of names, concepts, and descriptions taken from the Hebrew or Aramaic, e.g., God, the creator of the universe, is called in some gnostic systems Yaldabaot (Yalda Bahut, according to some "the Child of Chaos"); other mythological or symbolic figures in gnosticism are Barbelo (Be-arba Eloha, "in four gods," i.e., the father, the son, the female principle in the divine, and the first man), Edem (Eden), Akhamot (ḥokhmot, "wisdom," according to Prov. 9:1); the name of the gnostic Naassene sect is derived from naḥash ("serpent"); the mysterious words "Ẓav la-ẓav ẓav la-ẓav kav la-kav kav la-kav ze'eir sham ze'eir sham" (Isa. 28:10, 13) serve as the mystical designation of the three gnostic Sefirot.

In addition to these contributions unwittingly and unintentionally made by Judaism to gnosticism, there existed in Judaism itself, at the end of the Second Temple period, emotional and intellectual attitudes which were close to the spiritual world of gnosticism. It is possible that these had a more direct influence on the emergence of gnosticism or, at least, that they served as seeds for a few of its ideas. There are indications of this in the literature of the Dead Sea Sect. Common to both gnosticism and the Dead Sea Scrolls is the view of esoteric "knowledge" as a redemptive factor, which enables a group of select people to bridge the abyss separating the human from the divine, and to rise "from a spirit perverse to an understanding of you and to stand in one company before you with the everlasting host and the spirits of knowledge, to be renewed with all things that are and with those versed in song together" (Thanksgiving Psalms, 1QH 11:13–14), and to be those "who heard the glorious voice and saw the holy angels, men whose ears are opened and hear deep things" (War Scroll, 1QM 10:11).

The literature of the sect also reflects a dualistic outlook on the world conceiving a schism between the principle of good (the light) and the principle of evil (the darkness) each with its own hosts of angels and spirits. This view, however, in contrast to its expression in gnosticism, does not step beyond the framework of Jewish belief in divine unity. Even the feeling of disgust and revulsion with man and the impurity of his material basis ("the mystery of the flesh is iniquity"; Manual of Discipline, 1QS 11:9) does not culminate in the notion of distinction between matter per se and the divine spiritual world; "For the world, albeit now and until the time of the final judgment it go sullying itself in the ways of wickedness owing to the domination of perversity" (ibid., 4:19), but God "created man to rule the world" (ibid., 3:17–18). Thus, despite a certain spiritual kinship between the writings of the sect and the world of gnosticism, the former are not records of a "gnostic Judaism," but rather reflect certain general attitudes of mind shared at that time by others including Jews, which could be the point of departure for truly gnostic speculations.

There is no explicit mention in talmudic literature of gnosticism and its history. It is possible, however, that the appellation *Minim refers in some instances to gnostics.

For the influence of gnosticism on the history of Jewish mysticism, see *Kabbalah.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

H. Graetz, Gnostizismus und Judentum (1846); C.W. King, The Gnostics and Their Remains (18722); G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (1960); Scholem, Mysticism, index; R.M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (1959); K. Schubert, in: Kairos, 3 (1961), 2–15 (Ger.); M. Friedlaender, Der vorchristliche juedische Gnostizismus (1898).

[David Flusser]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.