Is Gnosticism an Anti-Semitic Religion?
According to the Gospel of Philip, ignorance is the greatest of sins, the “Mother of all evil.” When looking at the eroding psyche and spine of western civilization in the 21st century, it’s hard not to see that the Gnostics had a point; as an example, in the last few years, the internet has democratized ignorance and not much else. Ignorance leads to misconception, and misconception leads to rank delusion. The Archons rejoice.
I’ve argued here and in the podcast that the Gnostic sensibility is direly necessary today. No one weaponized delusion-destroying better than the ancient heretics, no one in history stood up with more fervor against the gods of this world and their slaves in the establishment—in the highest heavens all the way to lowest church or civic center.
So it makes sense that Orthodoxy would and still does spend an inordinate amount of energy promoting misconceptions about Gnosticism—beginning with the church fathers 2000 years ago and present today, for example, in the form of some right-wing article brimming with neo-Voegelin bile.
One of the chief misconceptions about the Gnosticism is that it’s anti-Semitic. This is due in large part to some Gnostic writings caricaturing of the Old Testament God and the Mosaic Law.
The charge of anti-Semitism has been leveled against Gnosticism for a while on the internet, in social media, forums, and blogs. Some have gone as far as saying Philip K. Dick was a shill for anti-Semite Gnosticism. Godwin’s Law (or at least its spirit) is sometimes invoked, and suddenly Hitler is a Gnostic! In a debate with Elaine Pagels, conservative scholar Ben Witherington III claimed that one of the characteristics of the Gnostics was being “anti-Semitic.”
It’s codswallop. All of it, Rey and Flynn.
Especially when you quest to the origins of Gnosticism, which also reveals the startling reality of both Judaism and Christianity during the Roman imperial period.
The Jewish origins of Gnosticism
There is a reasonable case to be made that the Gnostics started out as dissatisfied Jews who rejected the Second Temple culture during or before the times of Christ (just as Dead Sea Scrolls community did). In my book, Voices of Gnosticism, Birger Pearson refers to the Gnostics as “heretical Jews.” In the same work, John Turner explains that primordial Gnosticism shifted away from conventional Judean religiosity in the middle of the first century and it “definitely intersects with Christianity; you might say that it becomes Christianized.”
Kinda like Paul himself.
I guess you could make a right-wing argument that the Gnostics were self-hating Jews, but that’s contention is barely worth a shekel. It should be noted that beyond esteemed scholars of early Christianity, both Pearson and Turner are original translators of the Nag Hammadi library. That’s worth the price of admission to watching a Messiah overturn some tables in a corrupt temple…
Another esteemed scholar, Robert Price, explained to me an apt analogy for the Jewish origins of Gnosticism. It’s centered on Vatican II. Many Catholics were virulent in their reaction to Vatican II, publicly and loudly polemical. That doesn’t mean they rejected Roman Catholicism. No, in actuality they saw themselves as the authentic Roman Catholics while Rome had lost its way. This type of reaction is how the first Gnostics (Sethians, Simonians, Ophites, etc.) possibly saw Jerusalem and the Second Temple culture perhaps before or early Common Era.
The Judeo-Christian Origins of Gnosticism
Of course, the pre-Christian origins of the Gnostics is still debated. And it might be a complete straw man when understanding the ethos of Gnosticism, as argued by scholars Dylan Burns and April DeConick.
In both our interview and his book Apocalypse of the Alien God, Burns maintains that the Gnostics came out of the Judeo-Christian matrix, a malleable stew of decentralized theology and customs that likely existed before the birth of Jesus. As an example, Margaret Barker demonstrates in her groundbreaking book, The Great Angel, that Judaism was still very much polytheistic in the first century. Moreover, most academics know today that Christianity was far from consolidated until perhaps the third or fourth century CE.
In other words, during the times of the Gnostics, Judaism and Christianity were in a state of hybridity and flux, constantly absorbing characteristics from one other (and the surrounding Pagan religions). Therefore, Gnosticism didn’t arise from an established religious background but was one of many manifestations of the Judeo-Christian matrix.
As Burns explains:
So, the pre-Christian origins of Gnosticism is a bit of a red herring and one of the downsides of it is that it led scholars to put Judaism in to an entirely different category from Gnosticism. Where actually many of our Gnostic sources seem to come from some kind of netherworld or border territory between Judaism and Christianity where the Judeo-Christian identities were still being negotiated in a lot of diverse and different ways and we can see what’s going on in these Gnostic sources much more easily if we actually do read them next to our ancient Jewish sources, especially the (unheard) and Apocrypha and of course the Apocalypses.
But Gnosticism did revolt against Judaism, which is a point DeConick makes her latest book, The Gnostic New Age. Gnosticism rebelled against all religions. She argues that Gnosticism was more of a metaphysical orientation or a new form of spirituality than an organized movement, arising as a reaction to all traditional religious models of the Roman Empire. The Gnostics rejected the dominant obedience and covenant forms of worship, opting for an ecstatic/shamanistic model where human and divine could become united (and lower gods would be discarded, a very controversial view in those times, even for the Mystery Religions like the cult of Dionysus).
As DeConick writes in her book:
Ancient Gnostic movements and religions reoriented the focus of religion from the welfare of the gods to the health and well-being of humans, who were not meant to submit to the gods of this world but to vanquish them.
Nothing personal, Jehovah.
The process of Gnostic thought possibly began with Egyptian Hermeticists in Alexandria and then spread to the Judeo-Christian matrix in the area. Finding out exactly when this shift in religious thinking began is like finding out the origins of knitting; in other words, the concept was always there in some latent form until it was public enough and later labeled retroactively by historians.
To wit, Judaism never existed as is generally taught during the Roman imperial period. There was only that malleable stew. Gnosticism rebuffed all older forms of Judaism only by default, being a new form of theological thinking.
Kinda like the author of the Gospel of John.
Eventually, Gnosticism would rebuff all other Greco-Roman faiths as it gained an identity. This is pretty standard in the history for new sectarians.
What the Gnostics writings say about their origins
Lastly, we can simply look at the Gnostic texts for any alleged anti-Semitism. Regardless of what was written against Yahweh or Israel, the authors of the Gnostic gospels were heavily immersed in the Torah in order to find revelatory insights. Gnostic texts accept the authority of certain Jewish patriarchs and prophets, are enamored by Old Testament exemplars like Seth, Solomon, and Melchizedek. As Professor David Brakke explained in our interview:
The prevailing hypothesis among scholars right now is that Gnostics emerged as a kind of disaffected Greek-speaking Jews. Somehow you’ve got to have a Jewish element because these are people so obsessed with Genesis. It’s hard to imagine that some non-Jewish Pagan person decided to pick up Genesis and decided to create a whole mythology just around that book.
I should mention that Brakke maintains that the Gnostics were Christian from the get-go. Nonetheless, their reverence for Jewish scripture is far from some David Duke-ing. Sure, the Gnostics were radical in their interpretation, but imaginative exegesis is actually a very Jewish pursuit. As Brakke further states, both Gnostics and Christians started out as heretical Jews merely by their devotion to Jesus Christ and breaking away from the Second Temple culture, even if they kept their devotion for Jewish scripture.
I can’t really say anything more, besides mentioning again the dangers of that gravest of sins in the Gospel of Phillip—which has sadly caused much misery to Jews throughout history. Ignorance can turn into genocide at the drop of a bishop’s hat. Recorded anti-Semitism is found in mainstream Christianity and not in any Gnostic faction. The Gnostics have certainly been victims of genocide, taken to the brink of extinction (the Mandaeans) or taken to extinction itself (the Manichaeans).
If Gnosticism was ever a threat due to its teachings, it was to Christianity. This is heavily attested by the church fathers and later on in the Inquisition (which in truth began against the Cathars and later moved to other minorities like Jews, Pagans, and women). These days, orthodox Christianity is succumbing by the weight of its own ignorance—witnessed by so many scandals and plunging membership—and thus it might be a good time to take heed to the Gospel of Philip.
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