Gnostics and the Old Testament
By James M. West. Copyright © May
26, 2008; revised
It’s quite common today to hear people say
that the “Gnostics” rejected the Old Testament. This popular opinion is
bolstered by some of the biggest names in modern scholarship and theology. Dr.
Adolph von Harnack expressed this opinion in his magisterial treatise The
History of Dogma (
“Gnosticism was a great danger for Christianity. If Christian theology had succumbed to this temptation, the particular character of Christianity would have been lost. Its unique basis in the person of Jesus would have become meaningless. The Old Testament would have disappeared, and with it the historical picture of the Christ.” (Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, Harper & Row, NY, pg. 36f. emphasis added.)
In the context of Tillich’s words I now want to raise the issue that I want to discuss: Did the Gnostics really reject the Old Testament; is it really that simple?
Now certainly I will not be so bold as to insinuate that sirs Harnack and Tillich are wrong. I’m not saying they’re wrong; but I do believe that this is all a matter of perspective. I see the opinions of Harnack and Tillich as being based on a limited theological perspective. They see the Gnostics as rejecting the Old Testament because the Gnostics in fact rejected the system of theology that “orthodox” Christians project into the Old Testament. From this perspective one could say that the Gnostics rejected the Old Testament. But then again there are different perspectives from which this issue can be defined. The reality is that to simply say that the Gnostics rejected the Old Testament is to state a simple opinion on a complex issue on the basis of one narrow perspective. From another perspective the argument can also be made that the Gnostics did not simply reject the Old Testament. This fact becomes obvious when one realizes the extent to which the ‘OT’ was used in Gnostic tradition. In the bigger picture, outside of “orthodox” considerations, the Gnostics did not simply reject the Old Testament. What they did do was project an entirely different system of theology, and interpretation, into the texts.
The only heretical leader who can be said, without question, to have rejected the Old Testament is Marcion of Pontus (c. 90–160). Marcion is well-known to historians for the following precedent: He developed the first known “canon” of Christian scripture, which was comprised of Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Luke. Marcion edited and arranged these documents into a book of scripture in order to replace the Old Testament and to ban the latter from the Christian religion (A. Harnack, Marcion, ET: The Labyrinth Press, pg. 57; B. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pg. 107; New Catholic Enc., Canon NT., vol. 3, pg. 30, Marcion, vol. 9, pg. 143).
The popular notion that the Gnostics rejected the Old Testament is probably based in many instances on a confusion of Gnostic tradition with Marcionite tradition; when in fact these two traditions have radical differences. Marcion saw the Old Testament simply as Jehovah’s death warrant for all of mankind; whereas the Gnostics saw the Old Testament as a concealed record of Sophia’s plan for salvation. The Gnostic view appears most dramatically in this quote from Irenaeus regarding the Ophites:
“[T]hey maintain that Sophia herself has also spoken many things through [the prophets] regarding the first Anthropos (Man), and concerning the Christ who is above, thus admonishing and reminding men of the incorruptible light, the first Anthropos, and of the descent of Christ. The [other] powers being terrified by these things, and marveling at the novelty of those things which were announced by the prophets, [Sophia] brought it about by means of Ialdabaoth (who knew not what he did), that emissions of two men took place, the one from the barren Elizabeth, and the other from the Virgin Mary.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.30.11.)
In this passage it is obvious that the Ophites traced the revelation of the Savior back to Old Testament prophecy. Moreover these prophecies are attributed to the spirit of Sophia, and not Jehovah (or the “Son” or “Logos”) as “orthodox” theologians insist. Also, the Gnostics do not deny that the savior was prophesied in the Old Testament. What the Gnostics actually say is that the Savior was prophesied in the context of an occult spiritual economy, and that this hidden economy cannot be discerned through the traditional monotheistic mandate that has been imposed on the OT by Pharisees and “orthodox” Christians (see below).
Irenaeus’s description of the Ophite system also shows an example of the radically different theological structure that Gnostics often projected into the Old Testament. He describes the Ophites as dividing up the OT godhead into seven different entities (names in italics) each speaking through their own prophets.
“Moreover, they distribute the prophets in the following manner:
Moses, Joshua, Amos, and Habakkuk, belonged to Ialdabaoth (i.e. the Creator);
Samuel, Nathan, and Jonah, and Micah, to Iao;
Elijah, Joel, and Zechariah to Sabaoth;
Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel, to Adonai;
Tobias and Haggai to Eloi;
Michaiah and Nahum to Oreus;
Esdras and Zephaniah to Astanphaeus.
Each one of these, then, glorifies his own father and God, and they maintain that Sophia, herself, has also spoken many things through them…” (Ibid.)
Irenaeus here describes a pattern which is reflected throughout the Nag Hammadi Library, where the Gnostics divide the OT godhead into an organization of Seven, with Sophia being the hidden power above (e.g. NHC: Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World).
Irenaeus also confirms that the
Valentinians likewise view Sophia as the hidden power above the Creator and as
a source of Old Testament prophecy: “This mother they also call Ogdoad, Sophia,
Notice that in the passage above that Irenaeus states that “Lord” is one of the names that the Gnostics used for Sophia. This goes back to the idea that some utterances of the biblical prophets were actually the expressions of Sophia, which appear under the name of the “Lord” in scripture (LXX: Kurios). Irenaeus does not offer any detailed analysis of how these interpretations were worked out. But he does state the basic underlying principle: “They divide the prophecies, maintaining that one portion was uttered by the Mother, a second by her seed, and a third by the Demiurge.” (Ibid. 1.7.3.)
And regarding Sophia’s seed Irenaeus also reports: “They maintain that those who possess the seed of Achamoth (Sophia) are superior to the rest…and they declare that many things were spoken by this seed to the prophets…” (Ibid.)
In the above passage Irenaeus refers to the doctrine that Sophia Achamoth distributed her seed among mankind, and that the biblical prophets possessed this seed and were able to speak of spiritual truths. Irenaeus writes further of this arrangement that “The Demiurge, while ignorant of those things which are higher than himself, was indeed excited by those things which were announced through the prophets, but treated them with contempt… He thus remained ignorant until the appearing of the Lord…” (Ibid. 1.7.4)
What Irenaeus describes in the above passages is the alternative theology and system of interpretation that the Gnostics (various sects) projected into the Old Testament. Irenaeus’s report above shows that the Gnostics did not believe that all prophetic utterances could be reconciled with Jehovah (i.e. the Demiurge), and that some part of the body of prophecy was derived from a higher source.
I believe personally that the Gnostics developed this system of interpretation for the following reason: the Old Testament does not contain a single uniform system of theology. This fact is admitted in modern scholarship; and it has been noticed that Judaism resolves this problem by focusing on “orthopraxy” (correct practice) rather than debating the scriptures (e.g. A. Harnack, Marcion, pg. 10, A. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven, pg. x). Thus rabbinical tradition simply states its theology as a dogma (monotheism) without attempting to actually organize the scriptures into a consistent system. In contrast, Jewish heretics and Gnostics developed varying systems by which the theology of the Old Testament could be organized, and its theological integrity preserved. The underlying reality is that these schools were working to resolve the problem in that the OT contains conflicting theological elements and language (see also R. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, pg. 56ff.).
The Gnostics did not view the Old Testament as flawed and contradictory as many skeptics did (including Marcion). What the Gnostics did was discard the doctrine of monotheism, and they proceeded with the notion that different theological principles were speaking in the diverse texts. Typically the Gnostics saw in the OT the inspirations of three different principles. As Irenaeus reports above, the Valentinians divided the divine utterances and prophecies between Sophia, the seed, and the Demiurge. The Ophites (described above) divided those prophecies between Sophia, Yaldabaoth and his angels. Other Gnostic systems, viz. of Saturninus and the Naassenes (as reported by Hippolytus) attributed some part of the Old Testament to Satan. In both of the latter schools the institution of marriage and procreation are attributed to Satan (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.24.2., Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 5:2; R. Grant, ibid., pg. 17). In theory this implies that these schools divided the Bible into the three main essences that all Gnostic systems embrace in varying ways: i.e. that the universe is divided into three essences and realities: the Spiritual, the Natural (Soul) and the Material. Each reality has its own God: Sophia is the God of the Spiritual level and she is a proxy for the unknown Father above (Pleroma). The Demiurge is the God of the Natural level, and he is judicial by nature, but not good; and has no capacity for spiritual virtue. Satan is the God of the material level and the flesh (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.5.4., Tertullian, Against Valentinians, 15, 22). This three-fold system is also manifest in three races of Humans: the spiritual, the natural, and the material (Tripartite Tractate, 118:15ff., Irenaeus, ibid., 1.7.5., Tertullian, ibid., 26, 29, Hippolytus, ibid., 5:1).
Irenaeus attributed the theology I have described to the Valentinians as their basic concept of the universe (ibid, 1.5.4.). But Irenaeus also affirms that they did not project this directly into the Bible, thus refusing to admit that there was any material element in scripture. This fact is also confirmed by the Valentinian teacher Ptolemy in his Letter to Flora. In this letter Ptolemy actually discusses the contradictions of the Law of Moses, and he rejects the proposition of other Gnostic schools that the Lawgiver of the Old Testament is evil (B. Layton, Gnostic Scriptures, pg. 308). Ptolemy’s statements refer to the historic reality that the Valentinians, on one side, and the Saturnilians and Sethians on the other, disagreed on the nature of the Demiurge. The latter schools believed that the Demiurge, whom they called “Yaldaboath”, was evil by nature, whereas the Valentinians maintained that the Demiurge was neutral, being just, but not good. The latter schools believed that Yaldabaoth was the source of both the just and evil elements in the Old Testament, whereas Ptolemy argued that these elements came from Moses and the elders who added their own statutes to the Law (B. Layton, ibid., pg. 309f.). Ptolemy also maintained that all the rituals and sacrifices of the Mosaic Law were an image of the Pleroma when these were practiced spiritually (ibid. pg. 312).
A brief point I will also mention, for its irony, is that the Clementine Homilies portray “Peter”, in his opposition to Simon Magus, as conceding the point that the “wicked one” added certain things to the Law of Moses. In Homily 2:38, Peter is quoted as explaining this concept to his disciple Clement:
“For the Scriptures have had joined to them many falsehoods against God… The prophet Moses having by the order of God delivered the Law, with the explanations, to certain chosen men, some seventy in number, in order that they might instruct the people… But after a while the written Law had certain falsehoods added to it contrary to the Law of God, who made the heaven and the earth, and all things in them; the wicked one having dared to work this for some righteous purpose.” (Homily 2:38; emphasis added)
Peter then gives a list of falsehoods about God which have been added to the scriptures by the wicked one:
“Wherefore, far he it from us to believe that the Lord of all, who made the heaven and the earth, and all things that are in them, shares His government with others (Dt. 32:8–9, Job 1:12), or that He lies (Ex. 6:3, Gen. 22:14). For if He lies, then who speaks truth? Or that He makes experiments as in ignorance (Gen. 2:19); for then who foreknows? And if He deliberates, and changes His purpose (Gen. 2:18), who is perfect in understanding and permanent in design? If He envies, who is above rivalry? (Ex. 20:3–5) If He hardens hearts, who makes wise? (Ex. 7:2–3) If He makes blind and deaf, who has given sight and hearing? (Is. 6:10) If He commits pilfering, who administers justice? If He mocks, who is sincere? If He is weak, who is omnipotent? If He is unjust, who is just? If He makes evil things, who shall make good things? (Is. 45:7, Prov. 16:4) If He does evil, who shall do good? (Homily ; scriptural citations added)
In the above passage we can get an idea of the biblical passages and ideas that “Peter” believed were from the “wicked one.”
Historians believe that the Clementines are based on a Jewish Christian tradition of Peter which opposes Gnosticism as symbolized by Simon Magus. Some historians believe in turn that Simon is really Paul; but this issue will have to wait for a future article. The point to be noted here is that this passage is an example of where some ancient theologians were willing to attribute some part of the Old Testament to the devil; not so as to condemn the OT, but in order to preserve its consistency. In the same time period (second century) the Gnostics were doing the same thing: attributing some parts of the OT to Sophia, to the Demiurge, or to the devil (Yaldabaoth).
Let us now look at some simple examples from the Old Testament which would have led Gnostics to abandon the creed of monotheism, in favor of other solutions. Let’s compare the following passages:
“For I desired mercy and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”
Psalm of David 40:6,
“Sacrifice and sin offering you did not desire; my ears you have opened: burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.”
Now let’s compare Numbers 28:1, where the “Lord” commands Moses:
“And the Lord spake to Moses saying, Command the children of Israel and say to them, My offering, and my bread for my sacrifices made by fire, for a sweet savour unto me, shall ye observe to offer unto me in due season.”
And also, Leviticus –38,
is the law of the burnt offering, the meat offering, and of the sin offering,
and of the trespass offering, and of the consecrations, and of the sacrifice of
the peace offerings; which the Lord commanded in
The question is can the passages above be reconciled theologically? Obviously the passages from Psalms and Hosea refer to a “Lord” that did not require, nor desire, burnt offerings. Yet we know that the Law of Moses is specific on this matter, as the latter passages show. And indeed in Numbers 28 the “Lord” even expresses his desire for the “sweet savour” of the sacrifices made by fire.
I offer the theory here that this is where the Gnostics saw Sophia. Sophia is the “Lord” either speaking or being spoken of in Hosea 6:6 and Psalms 40:6. I believe it is highly probable that Irenaeus and other Catholic theologians omitted these kinds of examples from their polemics because they would have been too difficult to explain away. Moreover let us also remember Tertullian’s “prescription” on the matter: “…our treatise has rather taken up a general position against heresies, showing that they must all be refuted on definite, equitable, and necessary rules without any comparison with the Scriptures” (Prescription Against Heretics, 44; emphasis added). Tertullian was willing to admit that many Gnostic arguments from the scriptures were unassailable, and that the only solution was to remove those scriptures from the debate (ibid., 15, 19, 39).
So why exactly did the Gnostics choose Sophia as the spiritual voice of the Old Testament? One important reason is that Sophia is actually in the Old Testament. She appears as the allegorical “wisdom” figure in the book of Proverbs and in the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon. (The latter book is included only in the ancient Greek translation of the OT, viz. the LXX, which is the manuscript that the ancient Gnostics used.) Among Judeo-Christian readers the “wisdom” allegories are strictly that: an allegory. But among the Gnostics “wisdom” (=Sophia in Greek) became a symbol of the occult spiritual economy that was concealed in the OT.
For the Gnostics the presence of “Sophia” in the Old Testament represented an enigma that needed to be explained. In Proverbs 8 and 9 we can find some enigmatic passages that undoubtedly contributed to the Gnostic theosophy. For example, when Wisdom states that she was with the Lord even before creation, the question naturally arose as to why her presence was not mentioned in Genesis? In Gnostic myth the answer was consigned to the spiritual ignorance of the Demiurge. He had no knowledge of his mother! – and he proclaimed in ignorance of the Father: I am the Lord, there is no God besides me. And when Wisdom proclaimed, in Proverbs 8:22f., that “The Lord possessed me in the beginning…” and also “I was set from everlasting, from the beginning…”, this actually referred to when the Savior descended from the Pleroma to rectify Sophia’s miscarriage. The Gnostics could draw this conclusion because there was no mention of wisdom in the Genesis creation account. Hence Proverbs 8 revealed the origin of Sophia!
And then in Proverbs 9:1, the Gnostics discovered evidence of Wisdom’s superiority to the biblical Creator. In this passage Wisdom is said to have built a house for herself, and to have set up “seven pillars.” In Gnostic myth the seven pillars symbolize the work and domain of the Demiurge, who at the direction of his mother constructed the material cosmos which is dominated by the seven celestial planets or powers. These are the seven heavens of Hellenistic mythology, and which the Gnostics call the Hebdomad. The Gnostics often identified the Demiurge with the god of the 7th heaven viz. Saturn. Saturn was honored by pagans on the same day that the Jews observed the Sabbath of the Creator. Wisdom’s house was said to be in the ogdoad; which is the number eight in Greek, and which signified the eighth heaven and intermediate realm between the natural universe and the Pleroma.
For Gnostic readers, Wisdom’s preeminence over the Creator can also be construed from language in the Wisdom of Solomon. And indeed, in Wisdom 10:1, we can find language which can be construed to mean that Wisdom actually created the Creator! In this passage we read: “She (Aute) preserved the first-formed father of the world (kosmou), that was created alone, and brought him out of his fall, and gave him the power to rule all things.” For the orthodox reader this passage would have to refer to Adam, whom Wisdom has saved from the consequences of his sin, and has enabled Adam’s descendents to rule over the creation, etc. But for the Gnostic reader, this passage means that Wisdom created the soul of the Demiurge from the formless natural substance which was his primeval state. She then gave him the power to create the cosmos (kosmou) and “gave him the power to rule all things.” Hence the Demiurge is the “first-formed father of the cosmos.” 
Wisdom chapter 10 also contains other language
and themes which inspired the Gnostic theologians. In this passage Wisdom is
described as the hidden hand in the history of the Old Testament; and she is
depicted as the saviour who preserves the righteous ones from wickedness, and
from the wrath of the Lord. And indeed we may infer from this that if anything
good happens in the OT, it is because of Wisdom, not the Lord. As an example,
in Wisdom 10:4 we learn that Wisdom
was actually responsible for preserving the Human race (via Noah) from the
flood. Obviously this does not match the story in Genesis chapter 6, where the Lord God (Kurios ho Theos) is expressly described as interacting with Noah,
and arranging for his survival. And in Wisdom
10:6 we also learn that Wisdom was responsible for saving
The Wisdom of Solomon also established the biblical precedent for a female figure who functions as the hidden hand of mercy in the OT. Wisdom and the biblical God of Wrath are actually separate entities and virtues. There is the Lord-God, and then there is Wisdom. (In Catholic theology Wisdom and the Lord-God have been combined into the preexistent Son; which represents their efforts to account for the diverse theological elements and allegories. Hence, they’re all Jesus.)
Orthodox tradition has made every effort to portray the Gnostic Sophia figure as a figment of pagan theology. But the reality is that Sophia has her roots in the Old Testament. Indeed she is part of the spiritual soil of the OT. Irenaeus affirms, in spite of himself, that Sophia spoke through the prophets of the Savior who was to come. According to Irenaeus both the Ophites and Valentinians affirm this. The spiritual economy of the Savior is made clear in Irenaeus’s description of the Valentinian doctrine of Christ.
“There are also some who maintain that [the Demiurge] also produced Christ as his own proper son, but of an animal nature, and that mention was made of him by the prophets. This Christ passed through Mary just as water flows through a tube; and there descended upon him in the form of a dove at the time of his baptism, that Saviour who belonged to the Pleroma, and was formed by the combined efforts of all its inhabitants. In him there existed also that spiritual seed which proceeded from Achamoth…of that which is spiritual, in so far as He was from Achamoth; of that which is animal, as being from the Demiurge by a special dispensation, inasmuch as He was formed [corporeally] with unspeakable skill; and of the Saviour, as respects that dove which descended upon Him. He also continued free from all suffering…” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.7.2. Please note that the word “animal” used above is a variation of the word “natural” as denoting something that is of the Soul in substance.)
In this passage we can see clearly that the Gnostics did not deny or reject the Old Testament; nor did they deny the Savior who was prophesied in its pages. What the Gnostics did was project a different theological paradigm into scripture. This allowed them to explain the biblical paradoxes, and the presence of “wisdom” and also to explain those peculiar utterances of Jesus where he referred to an unknown Father, as in Matthew , Luke , John , etc. (See my article Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, II for more details.)
Moreover, it’s possible that some New
Testament writers had some form of this Sophia doctrine. Supposedly Jesus
himself was said to have mentioned Sophia by name. Thus we read in Luke , “But wisdom (he sophia) is justified from all her
children (teknon autes)” (cf. Mt.
). And in Galatians Paul referred to the “
Were these writers alluding to a hidden Sophia doctrine?
The last issue we must cover is the role of the biblical creation account (or accounts) in Gnostic theology. The basic Gnostic explanation for the origin of the cosmos and man depends on Genesis. But again, the Gnostics read this account in a different light.
Before we get into why the Gnostics read Genesis the way they did, we must first get into the basic problem in that the Genesis account is an enigma. The simple reality is that Genesis actually contains two accounts of creation and two accounts of the creation of man. Moreover, these diverse accounts carry theological implications. (See also R. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, pg. 59f.).
First let me lay out the problems. Genesis 1:1–2:3 and 2:4–25 contain irreconcilable accounts. In the first account, an unnamed “God” (LXX: Theos) creates the cosmos in six days. He creates man “male and female” () and creates “every tree” for them to eat (); and He declares that everything is “good.” ()
In the second account, a god named “Jehovah” or “Lord” (Kurios) made the “earth and the heavens” in one day (2:4) and Adam was created alone from the dust of the ground (2:7). The Lord decided that this was “not good” and the first woman was created from his rib (–23). Jehovah also tells Adam not to eat from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (2:16–17) Note that in the second account the Creator cannot declare that everything he created was “good.”
Again, these accounts contain irreconcilable elements. In the first account everything that is created is good; whereas in the second account, that which is “not good” is implicit in Adam’s solitude and in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. No evil is mentioned or implicit in the first account; whereas in the second account the existence of evil is revealed. The two accounts also describe what may be reasonably understood to be two different Gods. In Genesis 1 an unnamed God creates the cosmos which is wholly good; whereas in Genesis 2 the cosmos is created by the “Lord” with the element of evil, and the capacity for division and conflict. In Genesis man is created whole “male and female” whereas in Genesis 2:7 man is created alone from the dust–and the woman is created later. It also appears that the “Lord” decided to create the woman in order to correct the mistake in that Adam was created alone and male, without a counterpart.
In ancient times the enigmas I describe
were noticed by Jewish theologians and later by the Gnostics. In the Jewish
community an outstanding example is Philo Judaeus, the Hellenistic Jewish
“For God, because he is God, understood in advance that a beautiful copy would not come into existence apart from a beautiful model. … Therefore…he marked out the intelligible cosmos, so that he could use it as an incorporeal and most god-like paradigm and so produce the corporeal cosmos, a younger likeness of an older model…” (Philo, On the Creation., ) 
Philo also believed that there were two Gods in the Bible; and that these two gods were manifestations of a higher transcendent supreme Being. Philo describes this concept as a vision of a theological trinity:
“There are three different classes of human dispositions, each of which has received as its portion one of the aforesaid visions. The best of them has received that vision which is in the centre, the sight of the truly living God. The one which is next best has received that which is on the right hand, the sight of the beneficent power which has the name of God (Theos, Gn. 1:1f.). And the third has the sight of that which is on the left hand, the governing power, which is called lord ” (Kurios, Gn. 2:4f.).
“…and the beings on each side are those most ancient powers which are always close to the living God, one of which is called his creative power, and the other his royal power. And the creative power is God [Theos], for it is by this that he made and arranged the universe; and the royal power is the Lord [Kurios], for it is fitting that the Creator should lord it over and govern the creature. Therefore, the middle person of the three, being attended by each of his powers as by body-guards, presents to the mind… a vision at one time of one being, and at another time of three...” (On Abraham, 121f., 124)
Philo’s unnamed “God” and the “Lord” obviously correspond to the two God’s in Genesis 1 and 2. The unnamed God is the Creator, and the “Lord” is the governor and logos (see below).
Here now is Philo’s doctrine of the two creations of man as found in his treatise Questions and Answers on Genesis, 1:4,
Q: “What is the man who was created? (Gen. 2:7) And how is that man distinguished who was made after the image of God?” (Gen. 1:27)
A: “This man was created as perceptible to the senses…but he who in respect of his form is intellectual and incorporeal, is the similitude of the archetypal model as to appearance, he is the form of the principle character…the logos of God, the first beginning of all things, the original species or archetypal idea…”
Philo believed that the scriptures made a distinction between the man who was created in the “image of God” and the man who was created from dust.
To summarize: the theological implications of Genesis, for Philo, are as follows: 1) The two creations in Genesis reflect the Platonic idea of the invisible archetype and the material copy. 2) The supreme Being is manifest in two forms in scripture, either as the Creative power (“God”), or the governing power (“Lord”). 3) Philo believes that two races of men were created, one incorporeal and the other corporeal. 4) Philo believes that God appears in three forms to men according to their dispositions. The most virtuous of men will have the vision of the supreme Being. Others who are still of a relatively benign disposition will see the biblical Creator (“God”). And the third class of men will see God as the heavy handed ruler (cf. On Dreams, 1:230, 234–237; see my article On God and Justice).
Here is Philo’s message to the third class of men who can only know God according to his governing power:
“And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labor earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born Logos (Word), the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority [Lord], and the name of God, and the Logos, and man according to God’s image…” (On the Confusion of Tongues, 146. Emphasis added.)
In Philo’s concepts we can see the origins of the Gnostic trinity and the three-fold nature of Mankind. In Philo it is obvious how these concepts were developed as ways to explain the paradoxes of scripture, or what we would call contradictions today. Rather than admit, for example, that Genesis contains to conflicting creation accounts, and two conflicting theologies, Philo resorted to the dualism of Plato in order to account for everything. In this way Philo rescued the Bible and preserved its integrity. The Gnostics did the same thing.
Another Jewish theologian whose theology is
shaped by paradoxes is
The clue regarding the two creations of man appears in 1 Corinthians 15:45–50. Here Paul makes a distinction between two types of men. There is the “man of the earth” who bears the “image of the earthy.” And then there is there is the heavenly man and “they who bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor. –48). An important point to be noted is that Paul nowhere affirms the doctrine of “original sin” as explained by later “orthodox” theologians. Paul never affirms that man was created in the image of God and fell (W. Bousset, Kyrios Christos, pg. 447). What Paul actually says is that the “first man Adam was made a living soul; and the last Adam was made a quickening spirit … The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven.” In 2 Corinthians 4:4 Paul refers specifically to Christ as the “image of God”; but nowhere does Paul ever refer to Adam or his descendents as having been created in the image of God.
The astounding implications of Paul’s words is that he did not believe that Adam was created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Instead, Paul believed that Adam’s creation was reported in the second account in Gen. 2:7. Hence Adam was created from the dust of the ground, and was “earthy” in nature. This evidence shows that Paul believed that Adam was sinful because of his “earthy” nature, and that this earthy nature was the reason that “by one man, sin entered the world.” (Rom. ) Again, there is no evidence that Paul taught any doctrine resembling “original sin” and the Fall of Man. The evidence in Paul’s writings indicates that Adam sinned because it was in his “earthy” nature to sin, and that he was created that way from the beginning.
The theological implication of this is that Paul did not believe that Adam was created by the supreme Being, and that Paul made a distinction between the God of Genesis 1, and the Lord Jehovah of Genesis 2, who created Adam from the dust. This leaves the door open to the prospect that Paul actually believed that Adam was created from the dust by a lesser god, and that this lesser god was also identical with the Lawgiver (see below).
That Paul made a distinction between two
gods, God and the Lord (Theos and ho Kurios), may in turn explain
Paul’s theology in 2 Corinthians –4:4
and 4:4–6. I examined this passage in detail in my article
“If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. … For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the gnosis of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:3–4, 6)
Most Christians ignore the deeper meaning of 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6 because they assume that Paul sees only one God in scripture. But in reality that simple theory cannot explain what Paul says, or the dichotomy that Paul establishes between Exodus 34 and Genesis 1. I propose that this dichotomy is based on a distinction that Paul made between “God” in Genesis 1 and the accounts of the “Lord” in Genesis 2 and Exodus 34. Today scholars divide these passages under the theory of the Documentary Hypothesis, which divides these passages into separate categories designated as J, E, P & D. J identifies those elements that refer to Jehovah or Lord (Adonai or Kurios) and E refers to Elohim, which both the Septuagint and modern English translaters render as “God” (Theos). Both Paul and Philo made these distinctions in their own ways.
In Paul’s words it is obvious that he acknowledges the God of Genesis 1:1 as the God who “commanded the light to shine out of darkness” (2 Cor. 4:6). Whereas Paul refuses to admit the divinity of the Lawgiver (the “Lord”) in Exodus 34. This in turn is consistent with Paul’s denial in Galatians 3:19 that the Law was given by God. Paul declares instead that the Law was “ordained by angels.”
The astounding implications of all these passages is that Paul did not subscribe to any traditional notion of the monarchy of God in scripture. If I am correct, and I believe I am, then Paul’s rejection of the monarchy of God represents a major historical precedent which helped to lay the foundation of Gnostic thought.
Moving on to the later Gnostics; their concepts of Creation were based on Genesis. This can be clearly seen in the Apocryphon of John, the Hypostasis of the Archons and On the Origin of the World. What these texts do is tell the story that is concealed in Genesis. For example, in the Apocryphon of John Adam is described as being created as an Hermaphrodite (NHC: 15:1–5); which represents the first creation of man in Genesis . But when Adam fails to please his creators, they cast him into the material realm, and divide him into two: male and female (Gen. 2:7, 22; cf. NHC: 19–23). This is the secret reading of the first two chapters of Genesis as revealed in the Apocryphon of John. The theological implications are as follows. The God of Genesis 1 is Yaldabaoth, who creates the Hermaphrodite in the “image of God” that was revealed to him from above. The Hermaphrodite man receives Sophia’s power and defies Yaldabaoth and is cast down by the latter into materiality; into the garden. There, Sophia leads Adam to defy Yaldabaoth yet again.
In the Apocryphon of John it is evident that this creation story is patterned after the two Genesis accounts, and explains their (supposed) relationship. Moreover the Apocryphon affirms the testimony of Irenaeus that the Old Testament in general is a concealed record of the struggle between Yaldabaoth-Jehovah and Sophia. This was how the writer of the Apocryphon accounted for both the good (Sophia) and bad (Yaldabaoth) elements in the Old Testament, and the hidden struggle between these principles.
Whether or not Paul would have agreed with the Apocryphon on every detail is an open question. But Paul and the writer of the Apocryphon both share the common view that there is no simple monarchy of god in the Bible. (See my article Was Jesus sent by the Lawgiver? for more details regarding Paul’s rejection of monarchy.)
The lesson here overall is that the Old Testament has many important lessons to teach, if it is read in the right way. Orthodox Christians insist on believing that there is only “one God” in scripture. Sometimes this God is good, or just, and at other times this god says and does the most terrible things. When read in the right way, the Old Testament is an image of what God is, and what God is not. This dichotomy appears right away in Genesis 1 and 2. Not everything in the Old Testament is from a Godly source. Paul understood this in his own way, and this was why he declared that the Law was “ordained by angels” and not God (Gal. ). Knowing the difference is one of the keys to gnosis. The Old Testament can help the aspiring Gnostic to discover that key.
For the Gnostics these conflicting elements in the Old Testament are a green light to find the truth, to find Sophia, and the plan for redemption, and the occult economy, that are concealed in scripture. If you have noticed the dichotomy between Genesis 1 and 2 then you are well on your way, if you have not found Sophia already. –jw
1] My quotes from the Wisdom of Solomon are from the Greek/English translation by Sir Lancelot Brenton; Septuagint with Apocrypha, Hendrickson Publishers.
2] All quotes from Philo are from the English translation by Charles D. Yonge (1812–1891). http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/philo.html
E-mail Jim West: email@example.com