Origins of Gnosticism

In the past, writes Rosemary Reuther in Faith and Fratricide (48-49), it’s been common to distinguish sharply between messianic Judaism and the “acute Hellenism” of Jewish apocalypticism and gnosticism. Reuther doesn’t think that works: “apocalyptic and Gnostic modes of thinking” become evident between the first and third centuries AD not only among sects like the Mandaeans and Samaritans but also in Pharisaical Judaism. 3 Enoch provides evidence of the transmutation of apoalypticism into mysticism, “as an underground esoteric tradition among some of the Rabbis themselves, until it emerged again in the medieval Kabbalah.”

The source of these gnostic strains was not Hellenism itself but the struggle against Hellenism that created a “tension . . . in the Jewish soul.” Reuther describes the dynamics:

The struggle with Hellenism “generated extraordinarily creative responses in Hellenistic, Pharisaic, and messianic movements” but it came to to “a kind of psychic breaking point where group personality seemed to lose its ability to bring conflicting elements into a total perspective and fell into vilification and diabolizing of the alienated pole of the conflict.” In the sectarian vision of some apocalyptic groups, “not only the ‘nations’ but even official Judaism was diabolized, the two becoming fused as the ‘enemy’ in the struggle for perfection that would win God’s favor.”

Out of the mixing of Jews with intellectuals of Egyptian, Syrian, and Greek background, emerged “a pervasive sense of the demonization of existing perceptible reality, including all of the religious symbols which formerly had mediated meaning to the universe . . . . The eclectic movement generated out of this experience of profound malaise in ancient culture is called ‘Gnosticism,’” which draws its symbols “from Greek philosophy, ancient Oriental religions, and the Jewish Bible.” But it turned all of these “upside down, so that what was formerly revelatory and sacred now became negative and demonic.”

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