Schisms and Sects
Written by: Marc A. Krell
In both early Judaism and Christianity, we see attempts by the religious authorities to construct theological boundaries around a common enemy, gnosticism. This Hellenistic school of thought was based on the Greek word gnosis or esoteric knowledge of the cosmos that was only available to a select group of spiritual seekers. The gnostics sought to attribute the origins of evil in the material world to the wicked creator god Yaldabaoth that emanated from the mother goddess Sophia when she went against the wishes of the transcendent "Spirit."
There was clearly a tension between the dualistic, polytheistic beliefs of the gnostics and the early rabbinic and Christian mystical seekers. In the Christian version of this myth, The Apocryphon of John, Christ is sent down from the transcendent realm of heaven to remind people of their heavenly origin, yet only his followers who possess this gnosis and separate themselves from the evil material world can be saved from darkness. They can only return to the divine light of the transcendent God by following Christ back up through the different heavenly regions to the infinite realm. In the rabbinic community, Jewish mystics drew upon elements of the gnostic myth to describe divine characteristics, the ongoing revelation of God to humanity, and the path on which humans may ascend to God, while attempting to remain within monotheistic parameters.
Both Jewish and Christian religious authorities branded the gnostics as heretics, yet their comprehensive critiques of gnostic teachings belie the pervasiveness of gnostic ideas within the leadership of their own communities. Just as the 2nd-century Church Father Irenaeus must have been familiar with Christian gnostic teachings in order to refute them in Against Heresies, the rabbis indicated their familiarity with Jewish gnosticism in their polemics against it. In the Talmudic tractate Hagigah, the rabbis laid out the parameters for acceptable cosmological speculation, and in the process shed light on the very mystical schools they set out to debunk.
In both of these sources, the rabbis set out to circumscribe the mystical study of Maaseh Bereshit, "The Work of Creation" in the first chapter of Genesis, that involved speculation of the universe. They restricted not only the subject of study but limited who may study it by arguing that one must not study with more than two people the heavens above, the demonic world below, the origins of the cosmos before the world was created, and the messianic destiny of the universe after the period of this-worldly existence is over. Yet they went even further when addressing the mystical study of the Maaseh Merkavah, "The Work of the Chariot," based on the vision of God's chariot or throne in Ezekiel chapter 1. Because it involved delving into the very essence of God, the rabbis argued that one can only study it with one other person, and that person must be a sage who is old and wise enough to understand such mysteries.