Sunday 11 June 2023

432) How three Jewish scholars may have been motivated by personal bias.


Gershom Scholem studying the Zohar in his Sukka in 1925


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Michael Brenner,[1] shows how three Jewish scholars, Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891), Moriz Friedländer (1844-1919) and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) developed three different approaches to the emergence of Gnosticism (an early form of mysticism). Brenner shows, however, that each may have been motivated to some degree by personal bias. 


Gnosticism is usually defined as emerging from around the first century CE among early Jewish and Christian mystical sects that broke away from the nascent orthodoxies that were developing in both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. Formal Christianity was in its very early stages and rabbinic Judaism was also moving into a ‘formal’ phase with the beginning of the Mishanic period (from 10-210 CE) when rabbinic teachings were first being put to writing. These groups of Gnostic mystics emphasized personal spiritual knowledge over the proto-orthodox teachings, traditions, and authority of their respective developing religious institutions. 

It is difficult to define Gnosticism exactly. On one level, it deals with a form of dualism between two energies and Godheads. One is good the other is evil. One is the main G-d, and the other is a Demiurge, or ‘worker god’ who created the physical world. Some see elements and principles of Gnosticism beginning to inspire a new form of Jewish mysticism where G-d and the spiritual world are divided into hierarchies, realms, forces and energies. Some aspects of Jewish mysticism spoke of ‘levels’ of G-d with the more sublime levels not relating at all to the physical universe. This invited a more rationalist response which counterclaimed that the mystical worldview was an affront to pure monotheism. The Jewish connection to Gnosticism and particularly the claim of its influence on later Kabbalah is a fiercely debated issue. 

Whichever way one chooses to view Gnosticism, it was quite a dramatic theosophy. Hans Jonas describes it as follows: 

"A Gnosticism without a fallen god, without benighted [unenlightened][2] creator and sinister creation, without akin soul, cosmic captivity and acosmic salvation, without the self-redeeming of the Deity - in short: a Gnosis without divine tragedy will not meet specifications.”[3] 

We will briefly examine how three scholars interpreted Gnosticism within contexts that may have suited their different outlooks. 

1) Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891)

Heinrich Graetz, the most important Jewish historian of the nineteenth century, often gets viewed in a rather negative light and is sometimes associated with more leftist Judaism. However, Graetz was a student of R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch and even stayed in his home while he was studying. Graetz took a pro-Orthodox stance in his support of the Orthodox rabbi, Gedalia Tiktin, who, in 1838, participated in what became known as the “Tiktin-Geiger debate” with his interlocutor Abraham Geiger who was advocating a new Reform Judaism. 

Being a historian, Graetz saw parallels between what he knew of Gnosticism and what he feared as the dangers of Reform. He regarded both ancient Gnosticism and modern Reform as a threat to pure Judaism. Just as Gnosticism threatened to subsume Judaism in the first century with its mysticism, Abraham Geiger was similarly presenting the same threats in the nineteen century, not with mysticism but with his reforms. Graetz wrote: 

“The gnostic and antignostic movements within Judaism constitute an exact mirror image of the present time” (cited in Brener 1999:47). 

And just like R. Akiva (50-135 CE), during the first and second centuries, fought against the Gnostics to preserve the traditional values of Judaism, so too Graetz, considering himself a modern-day R. Akiva, was deeply opposed to any reform to Judaism. Graetz equated the Talmudic story of the four rabbis who entered the Pardes (Orchard) – to entering the Gnosis, with only R. Akiva emerging unscathed.[4] Thus R. Akiva had to acquire knowledge of Gnosticism in order to counter it. 

When Graetz wrote his dissertation, he maintained that R. Akiva had been the author of the Sefer Yetzirah, and that it was “an anti-Gnostic polemic using Gnostic language” (Brenner 1999:49). He later revised this view and claimed instead that the Sefer Yetzirah was written in Gaonic times (589-1038 CE). Either way, Graetz believed he had to fight the heresy of Reform like R. Akiva fought the heresy of Gnosticism. 

Perhaps to justify this position, Graetz claimed that Gnosticism had no historical or theological relationship to Judaism whatsoever. Jewish mysticism was not influenced by Gnosticism as Scholem was later to suggest. Judaism and Gnosticism were, according to Graetz, incompatible and irreconcilable. Gnosticism was simply an earlier manifestation, or historical parallel to an attempt at reforming Judaism through mysticism, as the later Reform movement endeavored to do through modernisation. 

2) Moriz Friedländer (1844-1919)

Although Graetz had flatly denied a Jewish component to Gnosticism, this question became one of the most contentious issues in later scholarship. Moriz Friedländer was the next to deal with this matter. Friedländer claimed Gnosticism directly emerged out of Judaism. It had begun in Alexandria and was the product of Helenised Jews. 

But instead of turning Gnosticism into a Jewish enemy as Graetz did, Friedländer saw it as a historical parallel worthy of emulation. Friedländer maintained it was time to break out of an exilic mode and for Judaism to become more universal, if not a universal religion. Friedländer, therefore, claimed that Gnosticism, which adopted a universal theology, was indeed connected to Judaism. In fact, he believed it emerged out of an original form of Judaism, which was later corrupted by the Pharisees who became the Rabbis. He had found a basis for this position in the writings of Philo of Alexandria. In his view, Gnosticism was wholly Jewish and in no way connected to early Christianity. It was an authentic Jewish universal model whose hour had come again, this time, during the modern era. 

Friedländer claimed that although Gnosticism began in Alexandria, it became so popular that it soon spread to Palestine, enjoying widespread Jewish acceptance. He found what he considered a Talmudic support for this view where mystical teachings were restricted to small groups of people.[5] The reason why it was restricted was that this popular original Jewish Gnosticism had soon become corrupted. Friedländer writes that the Jews had originally followed: 

“the original traditions, which had been transplanted from the times of the prophets and were widespread in the time of the Maccabees, while the traditions of the Pharisees [in Palestine] were the more recent ones, which had been artificially implanted into the law by a now dominant nationalism.”[6] 

Brenner (1999:51) explains: 

“Friedländer called upon his Jewish contemporaries to return to the older and ‘genuine’ Judaism he saw embodied in the world of Hellenistic culture that was under the influence of Gnostic ideas.” 

Friedländer persisted in his view on a Jewish provenance to Gnosticism. During his day, most scholars disagreed with him pointing to the possible origins in the “East,” which was Iran and Babylon. However, since the 1950s, based on the discovery of old Coptic texts in Egypt, scholars have been reviving’s views of the Jewish origins of Gnosticism, albeit in more sophisticated ways. 

3) Gershom Scholem (1897-1982)

Gershom Scholem adopted a different approach, also perhaps reflective of his personal weltanschauung. 

During the time of the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah movement, an organisation was formed to study the history and theology of the Jews in an academic environment. It was called the  Wissenschaft des Judentums. The Wissenschaft, however, could not accept that Gnosticism had even been a part of Judaism. The Wissenschaft was looking to uplift the image of Jews and show that academic Jews fitted into modern scientific society. They emphasised, for example, the rationalism of Maimonides and were reluctant to overstate too much of an affinity to mysticism which they would have regarded as Jewish superstition. In a sense, they tried to rewrite and revise Judaism accentuating what they saw as a more historically accurate and rationalist past. 

In keeping with their aims and objectives, the Wissenschaft was disinclined to entertain the notion that Gnosticism was ever an intrinsic element of Judaism. The Wissenschaft also wanted to promote and emphasise the powerful notion of monotheism that Judaism had given to the world and Gnosticism flew in the face of that assertion. 

But Gershom Scholem had parted ways with the approach of the Wissenschaft that had been popular in Germany where he had grown up. Brenner describes Scholem as the “rebellious son” of the Wissenschaft. Scholem was reluctant to define an ”essence” of Judaism as the Wissenschaft was wont to do. Instead, he wanted to show that many influences played their part in the windy road of Jewish history and particularly Jewish theology. Jewish theology, in his view,  was multifaceted, and by its very nature, had dipped, into many cultures and belief systems. Scholem, therefore, whether intentionally or otherwise, embraced the idea that Jewish mysticism was rooted in Gnosticism. Jewish mysticism was developed, Scholem maintained, by “Jewish Gnostics,” and Gnosticism was not removed or separated from Judaism. 

In 1965, Scholem attended a conference at Dartmouth where he famously is to have said that three terms could be used interchangeably: "Jewish Gnosticism," "Jewish Esotericism" or "Merkavah Mysticism.” (Merkavah literature was the more ancient form of Jewish mysticism before the Zohar which was first published in around 1290.) 

However, by drawing Gnosticism into a definition of early Jewish mysticism, one creates a fundamental problem: 

“If one accepts a strict dualism as the basic premise of Gnosticism and at the same time monotheism as the basic definition of normative Judaism, one cannot argue for Gnostic streams within normative Judaism. To solve this dilemma, one must either define the Jewish Gnostics as heretics or modify the dualistic element in the definition of Gnosticism” (Brenner 1999:56). 

Graetz, as we have seen, chose to define Gnostics as the enemy and defined it as a heresy that had to be countered and opposed. Graetz had effectively weaponised Gnosticism as a means to battle the emerging Reform movement in Germany. 

Friedländer chose to view Gnosticism as a positive universalist force within Judaism. He also related it to the Reform movement but rather than battle against it, he wanted to adopt its universalism. 

Scholem chose to equate Gnosticism with Merkavah mysticism and he placed it "near the center of rabbinic Judaism, not on its fringes.” Gnosticism was part of Judaism. But Scholem is even more outspoken on this. He writes: 

"The truth of the matter is that in many respects I was not radical enough."[7] 

Scholem goes on to claim that the roots of what he called Jewish Gnosticism went back at least to Mishnaic times. Technically though, Scholem did claim that Gnosticism was intrinsically a Jewish movement but rather "that, initially, Jewish esoteric tradition absorbed Hellenistic elements.” Still, Gnosticism was, in his view, the source of Jewish mysticism. 

Thus, Scholem developed a theory that directly opposed that of the Wissenschaft. 

All three scholars had, it seems, used Gnosticism as a means of furthering their own agendas and theological and political worldviews. 


Assuming Brenner is correct in his attributing these three views to the personal biases of each of these writers, it is a little disconcerting to see academics presenting views based on their worldviews and not, as one would expect, solely on empirical information. Still, I think there is an important lesson to be learned here. No matter how great the scholar of history or theology may be, no one owns history or theology.

These are such deep issues that, of necessity, are tremendously nuanced. 

I know that some scholars of history are reluctant to speak glibly of ancient “influences.” This is because no matter how well one might research a matter in the past, one did not actually see it or experience it personally to fully understand all the facts and details. This means that the only way to get the best picture is to take all well-researched views into account. In this sense, three views – although confusing and disconcerting are better than one.

[1] Brener, M., 1999, Gnosis and History: Polemics of German-Jewish Identity from Graetz to Scholem.

[2] Square brackets are mine.

[3] The Bible in Modern Scholarship, ed. J. P. Hyatt (Nashville: Abingdon, 1965) 293.

[4] b. Chagiga 14b.

[5] j. Chagiga 11a.

[6] Friedlander, Die religibsen Bewegungen innerhalb des Judentums im Zeitalter Jesu (Berlin: Reimer, 1905) vi.

[7]Gershom Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1960, 8.

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