From Qumran to the Gnostics

I have been describing the emergence of some key ideas of sectarian Judaism that continue into Christianity, and to some extent in Rabbinic Judaism. My argument is that the era in which those ideas appear, roughly the last two centuries BC, is one of the most creative and influential in Western religious thought.

Many of these continuities are obvious from Gnosticism. When we read the account of early Gnostic thinkers, as reported in the Christian writer Irenaeus c. 175 AD, we see so many themes that would have been instantly familiar to sectarian Jewish predecessors.

I am nervous about raising some of these arguments, as they have such a long and disreputable history in scholarship, with excessive claims about Jesus and John the Baptist being Essenes, and over-reaching Essene-Gnostic linkages. As far back as 1875, J. B. Lightfoot commented, sagely, that

It has become a common practice with a certain class of writers to call Essenism to their aid in accounting for any distinctive features of Christianity, which they are unable to explain in any other way. Wherever some external power is needed to solve a perplexity, here is the deus ex machina whose aid they most readily invoke. Constant repetition is sure to produce its effect, and probably not a few persons, who want either the leisure or the opportunity to investigate the subject for themselves, have a lurking suspicion that the Founder of Christianity may have been an Essene, or at all events that Christianity was largely indebted to Essenism for its doctrinal and ethical teaching.

I am not arguing that these Jewish predecessors were “proto-Gnostics” or even Jewish Gnostics, but rather they had created a vocabulary for so many later movements.

I offer a couple of examples here.

In the very influential 1 Enoch (late third century BC) we hear a great deal about the power of the angels, good and evil, with the fallen angels exercising power over the world. Angelic speculations were also central to the Dead Sea sect. The idea of an evil angel ruling the world was quite familiar.

In the second century AD, angels played a central role in all schools of Gnostic thought. According to Irenaeus, Simon Magus claimed to have been incarnated because the angels ruling the world exercised their power badly, with each struggling for supremacy. His successor Menander likewise instructed how to overcome the angels who had made the world.

In the early second century AD, Menander’s own successor Saturninus of Antioch headed the Syrian school of Gnostic thought. According to Irenaeus, “The world, again, and all things therein, were made by a certain company of seven angels. Man, too, was the workmanship of angels, a shining image bursting forth below from the presence of the supreme power.”

Of Saturninus, Irenaeus writes that “This heretic was the first to affirm that two kinds of men were formed by the angels, the one wicked, and the other good. And since the demons assist the most wicked, the Savior came for the destruction of evil men and of the demons, but for the salvation of the good.” Like the emphasis on angels, this division into evil and good races would have been thoroughly familiar to the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Other parallels abound, for instance in the interest in astrology, and the common emphasis on predestination.

To put these parallels in context, the Essenes were a major force in Jewish society up to the Jewish War of the 60s AD, and the Fall of the Temple. The Qumran settlement fell around the same time, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were concealed, say around 70. Although Menander is difficult to date too precisely, he seems to have been working in Antioch in the last quarter of the century, no more than a decade or two after those events in the Judean desert. A short time after that, we see similar parallels in the Gnostic school emerging in Alexandria.

Both in Antioch and Alexandria, connections of some sort are highly likely.


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  • MesKalamDug

    It seems to me that what is missing in the record is any discussion of what “angels” are. It has long seemed likely to many people that Abraham’s visitor was God himself rather than a messenger. But many other people felt that that was
    impossible. The Old Hebrews had no trouble visualizing God appearing as a discrete entity but after Isaiah this became harder and harder. They already had
    the concept of God’s court (which is, I fear, nothing but a white-washed version
    of the assembly of gods (as in Ugarit and on Olympos)). So God’s courtiers, who
    once had been gods themselves, became angels.

    This annoys a hard-core unitarian like me. Either angels are still gods in their own
    right or they are not separate entities and a visit from any angel is a visit ffrom God. I think the parallel to the Catholic cult of saints is suggestive but I wont go there.

    The basic error of gnostic thinking seems to me to be the notion of decomposing God. Or might I say deconstructing?

    (As you might have already guessed I am not a trinitarian – I conside the Trinity a gnostic error.)