The great Hellenist the Apostle Paul
Jewish Origins of Gnosticism
Pearson, Birger 1990 Gnosticism, Judaism and Egyptian Christianity
Fortress Press, Minneapolis ISBN 0-8006-3104-8
Friedlander Revisited: Alexandrian Judaism and Gnostic Origins
In many fields of human endeavor it sometimes happens that a person sets
forth seemingly outlandish theories; the work is dismissed lightly, or perhaps
ponderously refuted, and then lies unnoticed by the next generation. At
last, however, someone takes notice of what had been proposed many years
before, and the earlier work turns out to be exceedingly useful when looked
at with new evidence and by a different generation.
For example, Alfred Wegener, in a book entitled The Origin of Continents and Oceans, published in 1915, put forward the thesis that South America once lay alongside Africa, but that in a process of many eons the two continents drifted far away from each other, having been split apart by forces generated beneath the earth's crust.
He went on to observe that all of the earth's continents have shifted and broken apart over vast spaces of time, and are still in the process of drifting. Wegener was laughed out of court by the geologists of his day, and died in 1930 surrounded by incredulity and derision. Now, as we all know, the theory of continental drift has become almost an orthodoxy.'
The field of the history of religions also has its Wegeners, and scholars
whose interests lie in the complex history of the religions of the Hellenistic-Roman
world are well advised to look into the work of bygone eras of scholarship
for 'new' light on current areas of interest.
Much is currently being written on the question of the origins of Gnosticism and the relationship of Gnosticism to Judaism. It seems to me useful, for the purpose of further discussion, to exhume from the dust of many decades some interesting and provocative ideas set forth by Moritz Friedlander, whose theses did not meet with the approval of his contemporaries, but which may very well be taken more seriously now.
In a book entitled Der vorchristliche jiidische Gnosticismus, Friedldnder put forth the thesis that Gnosticism is a pre-Christian phenomenon which originated in antinomian circles in the Jewish community of Alexandria.
This Gnosticism, against which Philo attacks, came early to Palestine;
and the rabbinic polemics against the Minim are directed specifically at
Christian Gnosticism is simply a secondary version of the older Gnosticism' which attached itself to the emergent Christian sect and appropriated for itself the figure of Jesus Christ.
Friedlander's thesis is worth considering in some detail. In this article I first want to set forth his main arguments, concentrating especially on what he derives from his reading of Philo. Then I shall comment briefly on the issues he raised from the vantage point of modern scholarship and on the basis of materials unknown to Friedlander and his generation that we now have at our disposal.
It should be mentioned that Friedlander did not write in a vacuum; others had for many years and even decades written on Gnosticism, and specifically on the relationship of Gnosticism to Judaism. Two of the most important of these are H. Graetz and M. Joel. But Friedladnder was the first, to my knowledge, to suggest that Gnosticism originated in Judaism.
Friedlander begins his discussion by referring to the cultural and religious
situation in the Jewish Diaspora prior to the time of Jesus. It was a situation
in which the 'new wine' of Hellenistic culture and philosophy was being
put into the 'old wineskins' of Jewish religion.
The allegorical method of scripture interpretation was one of the manifestations of this trend. The Mosaic law was being interpreted allegorically by Jews who had imbibed of Greek philosophy, and the Law was taken to be a 'revelation' of 'divine philosophy.'
Indeed, since Moses was more ancient than the Greek philosophers, it was natural to suggest that the latter had learned from the former. Philo is a good example of this trend, but he had forerunners, such as Aristobulus, Pseudo-Aristeas, and Pseudo-Solomon.
The allegorical interpretation of the Law must have led to divisions in Diaspora Judaism between 'conservative' Jews who observed the letter of the Law and 'philosophizers' who regarded the letter of the Law as peripheral. Such a division is not merely a hypothetical reconstruction, but is well documented in historical sources. Eusebius specifically speaks of two parties in Diaspora Judaism whose differences are precisely delineated along the lines here suggested .
Philo himself provides clear evidence of such divisions.
A key text in Friedlander's argument is On the Migration of Abraham 86-93,
which Friedlander quotes in full.
In this text, wherein Philo polemicizes against allegorists who neglect the letter of the Law and derive from it only spiritual truths, we have reflected a full-blown schism in the Diaspora. An 'antinomian' party of Jews is referred to here.
They differ from the Therapeutae, the Palestinian Essenes, and Philo himself not so much in their use of allegory, but precisely in their antinon tendencies.
A number of Jewish sects are known to us from antiquity whose views were
suspect in the eyes of law-abiding Jews, Friedlander continues. Among these
are the 'Sibyllists' known to Origen, probably identical to the 'pious ones'
referred to in the Sibylline Oracles, book 4.
Justin Martyr refers to some pre-Christian sects among the Jews , at least one of which, the 'Hellenians,' is surely a reference to a Diaspora group. Hegesippus derives all Christian heresies from pre-Christian Jewish heresies.
According to him the Gnostic heresy reared its ugly head in the church soon after the death of the apostles. The implication of Hegesippus's statement is that 'false' gnosis was already extant in apostolic times, but the powerful influence of the apostles kept it from blossoming in the church.
The origin of this 'false gnosis,' if we consider the testimony of Hegesippus, is found in pre-Christian Judaism. The view of some later fathers that heresy is necessarily later than orthodoxy is obviously tendentious (9-17).
Friedlander goes on to set forth the daring hypothesis that such 'Christian'
heresies as those of the Ophites, the Cainites, and the Sethians, as well
as the Melchizedekians, are the progeny of the radical antinomians against
whom Philo had polemicized.
According to the oldest patristic accounts, the Ophites-who according to some accounts are closely associated with the Sethians -were antinomian and venerated the serpent as the revealer of gnosis and as an incantation of the divine Wisdom.
Reflected in these ideas is the Alexandrian-Jewish doctrine of the divine dynamis. Philo and other Alexandrian Jews regarded Sophia as a divine dynamis. The Ophites simply took up this doctrine and interpreted it in a heretical fashion.
The Cainites venerated Cain as the divine power, rejected all moral conventions,
and rejected the Law along with its God. And what, asks Friedlander, is
'Christian' about that?
The Alexandrian school provides the most plausible link for the origin of this heresy. Indeed, the Cainite sect was already well known to Philo. Friedlander quotes in this connection On the Posterity and Exile of Cain.
In this text 'Cain' is a symbol of heresy, and the specifics of the heresy represented by him are such that one can only conclude that Philo is arguing against a philosophizing sect characterized not only by constructing myths contrary to the truth, but by gross antinomianism.
Philo speaks against these heretics precisely as Irenaeus speaks against the Gnostics. There can be no doubt that the heretics combated by Philo are the forerunners of the Christian Gnostics later combated by the church fathers.
The Sethians shared in the errors of the Ophites and Cainites, teaching that the world was created by angels and not by the highest God. The dynamis from on high came down into Seth after Abel's death, according to the Sethians, and many held Seth to be the Messiah.
Ophites, Caanites, and Sethians all derive from the Jewish Diaspore.
Their members were recruited from the Jewish radicals known to us from Philo,
and from philosophically oriented proselytes who had attached themselves
to the synagogues. Indeed, Filastrius numbers the Ophites, Caanites, and
Sethians among the sects that flourished in Judaism 'before the advent of
It is obvious that these sects could not have originated from within Christianity, from the very fact that their chief doctrines are derived from the Old Testament rather than from the New. The divine power was seen by them to reside in the Old Testament figures of the serpent, Cain, and other such biblical personages as were not freed to the Law.
These Old Testament figures were adhered to even after the Gnostics came into contact with Christianity. Their origin, in short, is traceable to the situation in Alexandrian Judaism wherein allegorical exposition of the Law flourished, and wherein antinomianism also developed. Friedlander turns next to the Melchizedekians. This group held Melchizedek to be a 'great Power', a being higher than the Messiah, a 'Son of God' who occupied a place among the heavenly angels. Such a belief cannot have originated in Christianity.
The figure of Melchizedek, of course, is derived from the Old Testament, and becomes for antinomian Alexandrian Jews a powerful symbol of Law-free religion. When the Melchizedekians came into contact with Christianity, Jesus was incorporated into their system, but his position was below that of Melchizedek. As Jesus is an advocate for humans, so also is Melchizedek an advocate for the angels.
The Alexandrian origin of Melchizedekianism is also demonstrated with
reference to Philo himself, for whom Melchizedek is not only a heavenly
being but identified with the Logos.
Philo nevertheless stresses in his version of the Melchizedek mystery that there is no other God beside God Most High, and he is One. That in this passage a polemic is directed against antinomian heretics is shown also with reference to the 'Ammonites' and 'Moabites' who are excluded from the divine congregation.
The Alexandrian author of the Epistle to the Hebrews obviously knew of the Melchizedek mystery, Friedlander continues, and indeed presents a modified Melchizedekianism to his erstwhile co religionists, trying to prove to them that Jesus is indeed superior to Melchizedek. In Heb. 7:3 the Melchizedek mystery is qualified with the phrase [greek].
Friedlander distinguishes the Melchizedekians from the Ophites and Caanites, suggesting that the former were not so aggressive in their antinon-danism as the latter. He even suggests that Melchizedekianism is the one form of pre-Christian Gnosticism that qualifies best as the point of departure for Christian Gnosticism.
On the origin of pre-Christian Jewish Gnosticism, Friedlander summarizes
his position by stating that it began with the 'Hellenization of Judaism
in the Diaspora."o Gnosticism served as the medium by which Judaism
should become a world religion.
It remained orthodox so long as the Law was observed, as is the case with Philo, and became heretical when the letter of the Law was rejected, as was the case with the radicals' combated by Philo.
In the second half of the monograph Friedlander discusses further the
content of gnosis and its propagation among the Jews of Palestine. The chief
content of the oldest gnosis consists of cosmogonical and theosophical speculation;
the means by which an amalgamation of the old religion with newer philosophical
ideas was achieved was allegory.
This characteristic of Gnosis-evident in the oldest known Gnostic sect, the Ophites-is found also among the most ancient Mishnah teachers under the designations maseh bresit (the 'work of Creation') and maseh merkabah (the work of the Chariot).
That cosmogonic and theosophical speculations had taken a heretical turn very early in Palestine is demonstrated, according to Friedlander, by the following Mishnah, which is referred to as a tradition of the sages by the first-century rabbi, Yohanan ben Zakkai:
The laws of incest may not be expounded to three persons, nor the Story
of Creation before two persons, nor the subject of the Chariot before one
person alone unless he be a Sage and comprehends of his own knowledge.
Whoever puts his mind to these four matters it were better for him if he had not come into the world-what is above? What is below? What is beyond? What is in the opposite beyond? And whosoever has no regard for the honor of his Creator it were better for him had he not come into the world.
Clearly reflected in this Mishnah, and severely condemned, is the antinomian
Gnostic differentiation between the highest God and an inferior Creator.
But one finds a polemic against such obscene esoterica, Friedlander suggests,
already in the second half of the second pre-Christian century in Sir. 3:21-24,
a passage actually quoted in the Talmud later in an anti-Gnostic polemic.
Heretical gnosis reached Palestine at least by the early first century.
'Gnostic' mystical doctrines were tolerated and fostered by some in orthodox circles, so long as 'the honor of the Father in Heaven' was served and the unity of God maintained. Thus a distinction was made between 'true' gnosis and 'false' gnosis, the latter characterized by arrogance over against God.
The Palestinian distinction between true and false gnosis is matched by, and preceded by, a similar distinction in the Alexandrian Diaspora. Philo distinguishes between the true and the false gnosis by stating that the true is characterized by following God, and is typified by righteous Abel, while the false, typified by Cain, is characterized by ascribing all things to the human mind (Sacr. 2), and by self-love, rejection of the truth, and godlessness.
Friedlander suggests further that the dependence of Palestinian esoteric
speculation upon Alexandrian Judaism can be shown with reference to Philo,
both with respect to the practice of reserving the higher gnosis to the
initiated, and with respect to actual content. Several passages in Philo
are cited in this connection.
In these Alexandrian speculations we have the sources of the Palestinian mysteries of the maseh bresit and the maseh merkebah. These speculations, if not pursued by such pious worthies as Philo or R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, could easily lead to heresy. Philo describes this kind of heresy very appropriately when he refers to the 'self-loving and godless mind which regards itself as equal to God' .
Friedlander contends that heretical Gnosticism was an important factor in Palestine already in the time of Jesus . The most influential variety of heretical Gnosticism was Ophitism, transplanted in Palestine from the Diaspore. The Talmud refers to the Gnostic heretics as minim, and the Gnostic heresy itself as minat, terms that cannot be taken-as is sometimes done-to refer to Christians and Christianity.
A concrete illustration of the relationship-that is, identity-between the Ophites described by the Christian fathers, who interpreted heretically the Old Testament and cursed the God of the Jews, and the Minim opposed by the rabbis, is the Midrash wherein it is stated that the world was created with a bet (referring to the opening letter of the Torah) instead of an 'alep because bet connotes 'blessing' and alep 'cursing' lest the Minim find justification in their blasphemous suggestion that the world was created with the language of cursing .
Friedlander goes on to give detailed expositions of Talmudic aggadoth
referring to Minim, arguing that these refer specifically to Gnostics. For
example, the story of R. Jonathan's disciple who ran away to the Minim in
Capernaum is a clear reference to antinomian Ophites who practiced free
Such libertinism as practiced by the Gnostic Minim is decried by R. Jonathan with the exclamation, 'Is this the way for Jews to behave!' (ibid.). Free love is attributed by the Christian fathers to the Carpocrafian and Caanite branches of Ophitic Gnosticism; and Philo's polemic against the antinomian allegorists reflects the same practice among these Gnostics.
Further evidence concerning the Ophite Gnostics in Palestine, according
to Friedlander, is afforded by the prescription in the Talmud that the gily6nim
and the 'Books of the Minim' are not to be saved from the fire but are to
be burnt in their place, along with the 'azkarbt (divine names) occurring
in them. Contrary to some Talmudists gilyonim cannot refer to Christian
'gospels,' which of course do not contain 'azkarbt.
The gilyonim are 'tablets' and refer specifically to the 'Ophite diagram' described by Celsus and Origen. The great hatred of the Minim displayed in the Talmudic reference by R. Tarfon and R. Ishmael is perfectly understandable when it is seen that the Minim are Ophites and their diagram, containing their heretical use of the divine names and their own heretical speculations on maseh bresit and maseh merkabah are referred to under the Hebrew term gilyon.
Such heretics are to be hated with 'perfect hatred' (Ps. 139:22), for they sow 'wrath between Israel and their Father in Heaven'. The hatred of the rabbis is matched only by that of the church fathers who polemicized against the same heretics.
After further discussion of the Gnostics referred to in rabbinic literature-with special attention paid to the arch-heretic Elisha ben Abuya (Aher)-and various Gnostic elements in Talmudic doctrines, Friedidnder concludes that 'jiidische Alexandrinismus' constitutes the root from which Palestinian Gnosticism sprang.
So far as ethics is concerned, Friedlinder continues, the Alexandrian
Jewish tendency toward the mortification of the flesh in the interests of
higher gnosis could lead either to strict asceticism or to libertinism.
This point is given specificity with reference to the Gnostic concept of
the 'destruction of the womb' .
That this concept is directly dependent upon 'Jewish Alexandrianism' is evident from Philo, who in a very striking passage discusses how the body, to which we are bound, should be dealt with. In an involved allegory upon Deut. 23:12f. Philo makes the point that the soul, for the sake of knowledge, should disregard the flesh, and allow reason to act as a shovel and cover up all unseemly passions.
'The lover of pleasure moves upon the belly, but the perfect man flushes out the entire belly' . Whereas Philo derives from the Alexandrian Jewish depreciation of the body and its passions a strong ascetic tendency, the Caanites drew the opposite conclusions and taught that the bodily nature could be destroyed only by partaking of the passions of the flesh.
Philo polemicizes against such a party in the remarks he makes following the passage just referred to, in an allegory on Gen. 3:14. Similar Gnostics were found in Palestine.13 Those whom Philo encountered in his time were the 'fathers and grandfathers' of the Caanites decried by Irenaeus.
Friedlander refers, finally, to the arrogant predestination of the Gnostics, and derives this, too, from 'Jewish Alexandrianism.' The Gnostics referred to themselves as 'spiritual by nature' , an idea derived from the Jewish-Alexandrian view exemplified by Philo when he says that God produces good natures among men by grace, without giving reasons, and produces also faulty natures among others.
COMMENTS ON FRIEDLANDER'S ARGUMENTS
I have presented Friedldnder's arguments as fully as space would permit,
for I believe that Friedlander deserves to be heard again. I do not suggest
that we should accept uncritically everything that he wrote on the subject
of the Jewish origins of Gnosticism.
For example, we can still agree with the protest raised by E. Schurer in his review of Friedlander's book in 1899 against the all-encompassing view adopted by Friedlander on the meaning of the terms min and minut; for, to be sure, Christians are sometimes referred to in rabbinic literature under these terms, as Schiirer rightly points out.
On the other hand, subsequent attempts to interpret all occurrences of these terms as references to Jewish Christianity, as is done by R. T. Herford, fall to the ground in face of the facts. There were heretical Jewish Gnostics in Palestine, and they were referred to as Minim.
It may also be the case that Friedlander's interpretation of gilyonim (see above) goes beyond the evidence, though something like the Ophite diagram was apparently known to the Palestinian rabbis, as M. Joel had pointed out even before Friedlander.
In short, the specificity of the polemics directed in Talmud and Midrash against heresy makes crystal clear that Jewish Gnostics did exist in Palestine, and that from at least the early second century on, if not earlier, they posed a great threat in many Jewish circles.
The basic questions that arise from Friedlander's work, as I see the
matter, are: (1) Can the Philonic passages used by Friedlander to prove
the existence of Gnostic sects in Alexandria in Philo's time bear the weight
that is made to hang on them?
Or, to put it another way, were there actually Gnostic heretics in the Alexandrian Jewish Diaspore? (2) Did Gnosticism derive originally from Alexandrian Judaism?
To the first point, it has been argued against Friedldnder that Philo's
references to allegorizers who regard the observance of the Law as peripheral
(esp. Migr. 86-93) are not clear indicators of the presence of Gnosticism.
This is, of course, true.
Although 'antinomianism' and esoteric interpretation of Scripture are hallmarks of Gnosticism, there are more specific aspects of Gnosticism that distinguish it from non-Gnostic varieties of 'antinomianism' and Scripture allegorization.
Indeed, Friedldnder's case could have been strengthened considerably had he referred to yet another class of antinomians in Alexandria, who apparently not only rejected the ritual laws, but did not even bother to resort to allegory in their denunciation of the 'objectionable' portions of Scripture. Such a class of 'antinomian' Jews is clearly referred to by Philo in On the Confusion of Tongues, a passage that was overlooked by Friedlander:
Those who are disgusted with their ancestral institutions and are always
taking pains to criticize and find fault with the laws use these and similar
passages (Gen. 11:1-9) as excuses for their godlessness. These impious people
say, 'Do you still regard with solemnity the commandments as though they
contained the canons of truth itself?
Look, your so-called holy books also contain myths such as those you ridicule whenever you hear them recited by others. Indeed, what is the need to collect the numerous examples scattered throughout the Law, as we might if we had the leisure to press the charges, when we need only remind you of those examples that are ready to hand?' (au. trans.)
The text goes on to set forth the comparisons made by the scoffers between the story of the Tower of Babel and similar myths found in Homer and the mythographers. The point to be made here is that Philo was acquainted not only with 'allegorizing' antinomian Jews, but with impious Jews who had rejected their ancestral traditions outright.
Without making a judgment as to whether or not the people referred to in this passage are Gnostics, I would nevertheless like to point out that there are examples of Gnostic literature wherein the literal sense of the biblical text is taken at face value, and no recourse to allegory is necessary for the Gnostic point to be made. The question is: Did Philo know of Jewish apostates who could also be identified as Gnostics?
If one could find in Philo some clear examples of polemics directed against specifically 'Gnostic' theologoumena-against Gnostic teachings concerning the inferior Den-durge, for example-then FriedlAnder's case for the existence of Jewish Gnostics in Alexandria could be made virtually airtight.
In an early 'Ophite' Gnostic midrash embedded in the third tractate of Codex IX from Nag Hammadi, which I have treated extensively elsewhere, the following passage occurs (47.14-48.7):
But of what sort is this God? First [he] maliciously refused Adam from
eating of the tree of knowledge. And secondly he said, 'Adam, where are
you?' God does not have foreknowledge; (otherwise), would he not know from
the beginning? [And] afterwards he said, 'Let us cast him [out] of this
place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever.' Surely he has
shown himself to be a malicious grudger.
And what kind of a God is this? For great is the blindness of those who read, and they did not know him. And he said, 'I am the jealous God; I will bring the sins of the fathers upon the children until three (and) four generations.'
In this passage the Gnostic affirmation of the 'envy' of the Demiurge
revolves around three texts in Scripture: Gen. 2:17; 3:22; and Exod. 20:5.
Does Philo know of the Gnostic interpretation of any or all of these passages
in the Torah?
Indeed, he may be countering such an interpretation of Gen. 3:22 in Questions and Answers on Genesis 1.55 when he says of this passage, 'There is neither doubt nor envy in God.'2,' Thereupon he enters into a lengthy explanation of the passage in which he demonstrates to his satisfaction that such an idea must be excluded.
The Gnostic interpretation of Exod. 20:52-7 may be alluded to, and Gnostics are possibly referred to, when Philo says, in the context of his discussion of the First Commandment in On the Decalogue 63:
Some again, seized with a loud-mouthed frenzy, publish abroad samples of their deep-seated impiety and attempt to blaspheme the Godhead, and when they whet the edge of their evil-speaking tongue they do so in the wish to grieve the pious who feel at once the inroad of a soitow indescrib able and inconsolable, which passing through the ears wastes as with fire the whole soul.
With this we may compare the general statement Philo makes about apostates in On the Special Laws (1.54), again in the context of a discussion of God and his commandments, and consider the possibility that Gnostic apostates are in his mind:
But if any members of the nation [he means the nation of Israel, as over against the Gentiles] betray the honor due to the One they should suffer the utmost penalties. They have abandoned their most vital duty, their service in the ranks of piety and religion, have chosen darkness in preference to the brightest light and blindfolded the mind which had the power of keen vision.
This passage immediately calls to mind the anti-Gnostic statement from the Mishnah cited above, 'and whosoever has no regard for the honor of his Creator, it were better for him had he not come into the world.'
It has been argued against Friedlander that he went beyond the evidence in seeing specific Gnostic sects-Ophites, Sethians, Caanites, Melchizedekians-reflected in Philo.28 In fact, Friedldnder's discussion deals mainly with 'Melchizedekians' and with 'Caanites,' whom he identified, along with the 'Sethians,' as branches of the 'Ophite' group. It may be useful to make some observations on these points, to see if his case will stand up under scrutiny.
With respect to the 'Caanites,' I would suggest that Friedlander assumed
too much when judging the reliability of the patristic descriptions. Indeed,
the numerous Gnostic texts that have been uncovered since Friedlander's
day, especially the Nag Hammadi Library, are calling into question the classification
systems used by the heresiologists of the church.
It may be doubted, for example, that a sect called the 'Caanites' ever existed. I might tentatively suggest that the designation 'Caanite' derived originally from the tendency on the part of Jewish interpreters of scripture to see in the figure of Cain a prototype and progenitor of heresy.
The designation 'Caanite' ultimately came to be thought of by the church fathers as a particular branch of heresy, and the Gnostic sect of the 'Caanites' was thereupon invented, becoming a standard part of the heresiological catalogs.
That 'Cain' was interpreted as a prototype of heresy among scripture interpreters of Palestine from an early date can be illustrated with reference to the Palestinian Targums, to which Friedlander did not refer. In a striking hagga(Lc expansion of Gen. 4:8, the story of Cain and Abel, the recently published Targum Neophiti contains the following passage:
Cain spoke to Abel his brother, Come, let us both go out to the field.
And when they had both gone out to the field Cain answered and said to Abel,
I know that the world was not created by love, that it is not governed according
to the fruit of good deeds and that there is favor in Judgment. Therefore
your offering was accepted from you with delight.
Abel answered and said to Cain, I see that the world was created by love and is governed according to the fruit of good deeds. Because my deeds were better than yours my offering was accepted from me with delight but your offering was not accepted from you with delight.
Cain answered and said to Abel, There is no Judgment, there is no Judge, there is no other world, there is no gift of good reward for the just and no punishment for the wicked.
Although 'Cain' has been interpreted in this passage as a representative
of 'Sadducean' heresy, the affirmations put into the mouth of Cain could
also be seen as representing 'Gnostic' heresy. The first statement, especially,
is susceptible of this interpretation, that the world was not created in
love; but the other statements, too, are found in connection with Gnosticism
as, for example, in the account of Simon Magus in the Pseudo-Clementine
It is also useful to observe in this connection that the affirmations here associated with 'Cain' are attributed to the arch-heretic Elisha ben Abuya J.Hag. 2.1), and it can hardly be doubted any longer that Elisha ben Abuya (Aher) was a Gnostic heretic .
If, now, we raise the question as to whether 'Cain' functions in Philo also as a type of Gnostic heresy, at least in some cases, the evidence that emerges from an investigation of the texts is not unimpressive. Unlike Friedlander, however, we do not posit the existence of a specifically 'Caanite' sect in Alexandria.
There is, first of all, a parallel in Philo to the haggadic expansion
of Gen. 4:8 that we have encountered in the Targums, in that a theological
argument between Cain and Abel is associated with the interpretation of
Gen. 4:8 presented by Philo.36 The passage is The Worse Attacks the Better
1-2, 32-48. Cain is represented here as attempting to gain the mastery over
Abel with recourse to 'plausible sophistries' (Quod. Det. 1).
Whereas Abel represents a 'God-loving creed' Cain represents a 'self-loving' doctrine (Quod. Det. 32), a doctrine that manifests itself in a life devoid of virtue (Quod. Det. 34; cf. Friedlander, 20). This theme is reiterated and amplified throughout the rest of the tractate.
In On the Posterity and Exile of Cain 52-53 (quoted in full and commented upon by Friedlander, 21ff.), Cain again represents disputatiousness and the invention of plausible myths contrary to truth, which results in a life of impiety, self-love, arrogance, false doctrine, ignorance of real wisdom, lawlessness, and so on. Friedlander certainly has a point in seeing here a reference to Gnostic opponents of Philo, for the mode of argument is similar to that of the heresiologists in their struggle with the Gnostics of the second century and later.
In On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 2f. and 71 Cain represents a philosophy'
in which all things are ascribed to the human mind, whereas Abel represents
a philosophy that is subservient to God.
Cain's .philosophy' is also labeled 'foolish opinion' , 'folly', , and 'madness'. In the latter passage 'Cain' is regarded as the ancestor of Protagoras's famous dictum that 'man is the measure of all things,' a notion that could very easily be attributed, in a certain sense, to Gnostics. Finally, Philo's interpretation of Cain's voluntary exile from the presence of God could be seen easily enough as paradigmatic of Jewish heresy.
These and other passages relating to Cain in Philo serve to strengthen FriedlAnder's case for the existence of heretical Gnosticism in Alexandria in the early first century (if not before).
A few remarks are in order with respect to Friedlander's contention that
the 'Melchizedekian' Gnostic sect was known to Philo, and took its origins
in Alexandria. His main sources for this contention are Epiphanius , the
Epistle to the Hebrews, and Philo. From the fourth-century bishop-heresiologist
Friedlander derives his basic information on the Melchizedekian sect.
From Hebrews, which he takes (possibly correctly) as an Alexandrian product, and from Philo, Friedlander derives his information on the existence of Jewish speculation on the figure of Melchizedek in pre-Christian Alexandrian Judaism. He has been rightly criticized for extrapolating from the earlier texts a full-blown Gnostic sect.
There are now some additional documents, unknown to Friedlander, that shed further light on this problem-one fragmentary text from the Nag Hammadi Coptic Gnostic Library and one fragmentary text from Qumran.
The former is a 'Melchizedekian' document (CG IX,I) in which the figure of Melchizedek is featured as a heavenly redemption figure and an angelic warrior against the evil archons. Jesus Christ also appears in this text, and in a very interesting anti-docetic passage the reality of Jesus' human nature is stressed. The text from Qumran (11Q Melch) also presents Melchizedek as a heavenly redemption figure, and there are some striking parallels between the Qumran and the Nag Hammadi texts.
The evidence of these new documents, when laid alongside our prior information,
suggests the following tentative conclusion: (1) Insofar as one can speak
of a Gnostic sect of 'Melchizedekians,' one is dealing with a Christian
group in whose speculations the figure of Jesus plays an important role.
(2) Their views of Melchizedek develop out of Jewish speculations and traditions
surrounding this Old Testament figure. (3)
Such speculations existed both in the Alexandrian Diaspora (Philo and, perhaps, Hebrews) and in Palestine, among the Essenes particularly. (4) There is no concrete evidence for the existence of a pre-Christian Jewish Gnostic sect of 'Melchizedekians,' though the existence of such a sect cannot be ruled out categorically.
Friedlander's main contention, that a pre-Christian Jewish Gnosticism
existed in Alexandria, has been seen to be rather plausible. Have we also
discovered the origins of Gnosticism? The evidence continues to mount that
Gnosticism is not, in its origins, a Christian heresy, but that it is, in
fact, a Jewish heresy.
Friedlander's arguments tracing the origins of Gnosticism to a Hellenized Judaism are very strong indeed, and are bolstered with every passing year by newly discovered or newly studied texts, the Nag Hammadi Coptic Gnostic Library providing the bulk of this evidence. It is really only a minor question, then, as to whether the Gnostic heresy originated among Hellenized Jews of Alexandria, or among Hellenized Jews of Palestine or Syria.
The qualification 'Hellenized' is important, for Gnosticism can only
be accounted for in a highly syncretistic milieu. Of course, it is no longer
possible (if it ever was!) to make a rigid distinction between Hellenistic
and Palestinian Judaism, for Hellenization was a very important factor in
Palestine as well as in the Diaspora.
As an example of the Hellenistic ingredient in Gnosticism one can point to the obviously Platonic (or, as some prefer, Middle-Platonic) elements of its mythology. But this is an element that could flourish as well in Palestine or Syria as in Alexandria. One could argue similarly on the basis of other Hellenistic aspects of Gnosticism, for example, its eclectic character.
It is usually taken for granted that Gnosticism appeared primarily as
an intellectual movement. Wisdom circles are frequently referred to as the
milieus in which it developed. In this connection, too, one can refer to
the philosophical eclecticism of the Jewish wisdom circles of the Hellenistic-Roman
period, as well as the growth of a 'skeptical' outlook.
But the rise of Gnosticism should also be seen as a response not only to a syncretistic conflict-mixture of 'traditions' and 'ideas' but also to the concrete circumstances of history, to social and political conditions.
This is one aspect of the problem that Friedldnder completely overlooked, but which to my mind is absolutely basic to a proper understanding of Gnostic intentionality as well as the question of Gnostic origins.
Judaism, as a religion that takes history seriously, and that also has
a marked tendency in the direction of messianism, provides ipso facto a
context in which, given the critical circumstances of history, an attitude
of revolt could easily develop.
There is a strong case to be made for the view that ancient Gnosticism developed, in large part, from a disappointed messianism, or rather as a transmuted messianism. Jewish history is not without parallels to this phenomenon, as G. Scholem's studies of the Sabbatian movement attest.
Such a transmuted messianism, for the ancient period, is better understood as arising in the national homeland, that is, in Palestine itself, rather than in the Diaspora. But this is a very tentative judgment.
To conclude: Although much of the detail of Friedlander's argument is open to question, he has been vindicated in his basic contention, that Gnosticism is a pre-Christian phenomenon that developed on Jewish soil.
*See his remarkable essay, 'Redemption Through Sin,' in The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1971) 78-141. Cf. also his remarks on ancient heretical Gnosticism in Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1965) 9. In this context he also expresses, guardedly, an appreciation for Friedlander's work. In a letter to me, Scholem stated his belief that the Gnostic revolt did indeed arise from within Judaism.
- Taking a Closer Look at Gnosticism and Christianity
- Alexander, the Jews, and Hellenism
- More on Alexander the Great, the Jews, and Hellenism
- Hellenistic Period After Alexander
- Alexandrian Philosophy and Judaism
- Religious Syncretism
- Platonism and Christianity
- Demiurge Creator of the World
- Allegorical Interpretation
- Gnosticism Mainpage
- Who are the Cathers?
- The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
- Jewish Origins of Gnosticism
- Gnostic Terms
- The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
- The Genesis Factor
- Christian Fundamentalists view of Gnosticism
- Impact of Gnosticism on Christianity
- Gnostic Apocalypse of Adam
- Gnostic Apocryphon of John
- Gnostic Hypostasis of the Archons
- Gnostic Gospel of Thomas
- Gnostic Thought of Norea
- Gnosticism - Ancient and Modern
- The Gospel of Philip
- The Gospel of Truth
- Hyam Maccoby (The Mythmaker)was mostly right
- Marcion's Church Not Really Gnostic?
- Saint Augustine