Monday, March 12, 2007
GNOSTICISM IN THE JEWISH ENCYCLOPEDIA
According to the entry Gnosticism "forced itself into prominence in the first centuries of the common era." Its prominent characteristic is syncretism.
It unquestionably antedates Christianity. Magic is associated with it.
Magic...was a not unimportant part of the doctrines and manifestations of gnosticism, largely occupied Jewish thinkers. There is, in general, no circle of ideas to which elements of gnosticism have been traced, and with which the Jews were not acquainted. It is a noteworthy fact that heads of gnostic schools and founders of gnostic systems are designated as Jews by the Church Fathers. Some derive all heresies, including those of gnosticism, from Judaism....Hebrew words and names of God provide the skeleton for several gnostic systems....the principal elements of gnosticism were derived from Jewish speculation...
The terms here emphasized recur in the Talmud in the accounts of gnosis. "There is no doubt that a Jewish gnosticism existed before a Christian or a Judaeo-Christian gnosticism. As may be seen even in the apocalypses, since the second century B.C. gnostic thought was bound up with Judaism...but the relation of this Jewish gnosticism to Christian gnosticism may, perhaps, no longer be explained.
It is also highly probable that a not inconsiderable part of the earliest Jewish gnosis is still extant, though in somewhat modified form, in the mystical small midrashim that have been collected in Jellinek's "Bet ha-Midrash," and in the medieval products of the Jewish Cabala....it is undeniable that the devotees of secret science and magic in general can not be easily exterminated, though they may seem to disappear from time to time. Krochmal, and after him Joel, have already pointed out gnostic doctrines in the Zohar.
Definition and Terminology
In the gnosticism of the second century "three elements must be observed, the speculative and philosophical, the ritualistic and mystical, and the practical and ascetic...These three elements may all be traced to Jewish sources. The ritualistic and mystical emement, however, was here much less developed than in Judaeo-Christian and Christian gnosticism....These elements were, in fact, discovered only in the first half of the last century (Krochmal, Gratz), and new ones have been ascertained by more recent investigators (Joel, Friedlander, etc.); much, however, still remains to be done.
...the things above, the things below, the things that were before, and the things that shall be...
That last phrase is reminiscent of the occult philosophy "as above, so below".
A Secret Science
Origen, who lived at the same time in Palestine, also knew the "Merkabah" as a secret science...By "correct knowledge" the upper and the lower world may be put in motion. When Eleazar was discussing the thronechariot, fire came down from heaven and flamed around those present; the attending angels danced before them, like wedding-guests before the groom, and the trees intoned songs of praise...When two other scholars interpreted the Merkabah the earth shook and a rainbow appeared in the clouds, although it was summer....
When a boy read the Merkabah...before his teacher and "entered the hashmal with his knowledge"...fire came out of the hashmal...and consumed him....Gnosis is neither pure philosophy nor pure religion, but a combination of the two with magic, the latter being the dominant element, as it was the beginning of all religion and philosophy. The Bar Zoma...reminds one of the origins of gnosis.
R. Akiba explained that the mark of the accusative...before "heaven and earth" in the first verse of Genesis was used in order that the verse might not be interpreted to mean that heaven and earth created God...evidently attacking the gnostic theory according to which the supreme God is enthroned in unapproachable distance, while the world is connected with a demiurge
It may be mentioned here, in connection with these views about original hermaphroditism, that even the earlier authorities of the Talmud were acquainted with the doctrine of syzygy...
Prince of the World
The Jews of course emphatically repudiated the doctrine of the demiurge, who was identified by some Christian gnostics with the God of the Old Testament and designated as the "accursed God of the Jews," from whom all the evil in the world was derived....the monotheism of the Jews was incompatible with a demiurge of any kind.
The Sefer Yezirah
In the Sefer Yezirah, the three principal elements of the alphabet are...air...water...fire...According to this conception there are three, not four, elements, as was commonly assumed after the Arabic period....Curiously enough, the second book of "Jeu," p. 195, and the "Pistis Sophia," p. 375...refer to three kinds of baptism--with water, with fire, and with spirit. It is impossible to say to what extent the Yezirah speculations influenced the Cabala and its principal manual, the Zohar, as well as its prominent adepts, at the close of the Middle Ages and in modern times, as there are no special studies on the subject. Many gnostic elements, as, for example, the syzygy doctrine...have doubtless been preserved in the Cabala, together with magic and mysticism.
Gnosis was regarded as legitimate by Judaism, its chain of tradition is noted in the principal passage in Hagigah, Johannan b. Zakkai heading the list. Here is found the threefold division of men into hylics, psychics, and pneumatics, as among the Valentinians....There were gnostics who led an immoral life, Aher (Elisha ben Abuyah) being among these, according to legendary accounts...But there were also gnostic sects practising asceticism....