The Beginning of Wisdom

The Beginning of Wisdom February 13, 2015

I have been posting on the subject of Gnosticism and its origins.

By the early second century AD, Gnosticism was clearly in evidence as part the early Christian movement, but its history before that date is obscure. Undoubtedly it drew from multiple sources and influences, including Greek philosophical ideas and terminology, but we do not have to look far outside the Jewish world for most of its basic themes. Quite apart from Hellenistic influences, those building blocks appeared within various schools of Jewish thought in the two or three centuries before the Christian era, and remarkably little construction was needed to complete the Gnostic end-product.

In that era, we can trace the rise of several ideas critical to the later Gnostic synthesis. The idea of a Satanic figure, a Belial, had become prominent, with the suggestion that (as in the New Testament), he was the lord of this world. The sect that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls was not Gnostic, but they preached a stern Dualism, a conflict between the Children of Light and Children of Darkness, both of whom were predestined to that status before they were born. Putting those elements together, it was not a great leap to suggesting that the Children of Light were somehow exiled in a world ruled by Belial. But how might such a dreadful situation have begun?

This extremely creative era also sought explanations for the origins of human evil. Particularly popular was the tale of the descent of the angelic Watchers in Genesis 6, which associated these demonic creatures with the foundation of human culture and civilization. If we have not yet arrived at the Gnostic explanation, that the material world is under the sway of an inferior deity, that conclusion is not far off.

Quite apart from the focus on good and evil, light and darkness, many Jewish thinkers became intensely interested in the figure of wisdom. Wisdom as an idea had been a literary theme for centuries, but from around the time of Sirach (200BC), Wisdom was not only exalted but personified, to be portrayed almost as a near-divine figure, through whom God created the world. Whether or not particular authors meant that as more than a metaphor is not clear, but readers could easily take the texts in that sense.

By the time of the Wisdom of Solomon, from the first century BC, we read that

For [Wisdom] is a breath of the power of God,

and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;

therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.

For she is a reflection of eternal light,

a spotless mirror of the working of God,

and an image of his goodness  (7.25-26)

This sounds very much like Wisdom as a figure in contemporary Greek philosophy, an intermediary between the unchangeable transcendent Monad, the One, and the material creation. It is also densely packed with what sound like technical terms from contemporary Platonism.

Nor is the passage far from the vision of God’s creative Logos in the Gospel of John. Writing about the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, James H. Charlesworth remarks that “God’s word is seen first as the word of God, then the word from God, and finally, perhaps in only a very few circles, as ‘the Word’.”

Putting those ideas together, imagine Jewish thinkers around Jesus’s time, seeing themselves as the Children of Light, in cosmic warfare with the forces of Darkness. Worse, they know that darkness rules this world. In seeking an explanation for this reality, they turn to the creation story. God himself cannot have fallen into sin or darkness, but perhaps his handmaiden did, and that catastrophe was a kind of Fall, which could only be restored by an anointed Redeemer.

I am assembling that package of ideas out of pure imagination, and I can point to no group of texts that prove its existence. What I am suggesting is that a large part of Gnosticism could, hypothetically, have been constructed without wandering too far outside Judaism as it existed, in its very diverse and sectarian forms, during the first century AD.

Of course, Greek elements also had a direct influence, as I will discuss in my next post.



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