Sacred Texts  Evil  Index  Previous  Next 

p. 137


Gnostic Societies and Congregations.

THE TRANSITION from the Old to the New Testament is an age of unrest. The Jews had become familiar with the civilisation of Assyria and Babylonia, and enjoyed friendly relations with the Persians. But the intercourse and general exchange of thought among the nations of Western Asia became more extended and grew livelier since Alexander the Great's time, for now Greek as well as Indian views mixed and produced a powerful fermentation in the religious beliefs of the people. We may fairly assume that the doctrines of the Hindu reached Syria in vague and frequently self-contradictory forms, but they were new and attractive, and apt to revolutionise the traditional ethics of the people. Formerly procreation of children was regarded as a duty and the acquisition of wealth as a blessing, now it became known that there were also people who sought salvation in absolute chastity and poverty. The highest morality of the monks of India was no longer the strength of maintaining oneself in the struggle for existence, but the surrender of all strife and a radical renunciation of self.

p. 138

There are especially three ideas which dominated the whole movement and acted as a leaven in the dough: the idea of the spirituality of the soul, the hope of the soul's escape from bodily existence, and the method of obtaining this liberation by wisdom (σοφία) or enlightenment (γνῶσις).

The realisation of the Gnostic ideal was called πληρῶμα or fulfilment, which was either expected by the soul's attainment of salvation after the fashion of the Buddhist Nirvana, or for the whole world through the appearance of a savior--a messiah.

The spirit of the times showed itself in the foundation of various religious societies, which originated somewhat after the fashion of the modern theosophical movements. There were bands of students of the new problems in almost all larger cities, who investigated the doctrines of salvation and immortality, and in addition there were enthusiasts who tried to apply the new principles in practical life. The former called themselves μαϑηταί, learners or disciples, the latter holy ones (ἅγιοι), or healers (θεραπευταί, therapeutae). 1

With regard to the problem of evil, the most peculiar sect were the Gnostics of Syria whom the Church fathers called serpent-worshippers or Ophites, because on becoming acquainted with the Biblical books they regarded Yahveh, the demiurge or author of this visible and material world, as an evil deity while the serpent

p. 139

with his promise of giving knowledge or gnosis to man, appeared to them as a messenger of the true and good God. This God of goodness, they declared, was unlike Yahveh free of passions and full of love and mercy. He was, as Irenæus informs us, triune, being at once the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The Father is the prototype of man, an idea which is carried out in the Cabala as the Adam Kadmon; the Son is the eternal reason or comprehension (Ἒννοια), and the Spirit is the female principle of spiritual generation.

Click to view

THE CHRISTIAN TRINITY, GOD FATHER, SON, AND HOLY GHOST. (Old German School. Reproduced from Muther.)

Similar ideas concerning the triune Godhead and the salvation from evil are reported of other sects and especially of Simon Magus who is mentioned in the Acts as having been baptised by St. Peter and condemned for his opinion that the Holy Ghost could be bought with money.

We know of sects in Judæa the Nazarenes, the Sabians 1 or Baptisers, the Essenes, and the Ebionites, which were born of the same seeking spirit of the age. But we must bear in mind that the members of these societies

p. 140

belonged exclusively to the poorer class of society and formed a third party which was quite distinct from the orthodox Pharisees and the liberal Sadducees. 1 They are to us of importance, however, because from their midst proceeded the man who was destined to become the standard bearer of a new faith and the representative incarnation of the new religion--Jesus of Nazareth.

The Apocrypha of the Old Testament.

The literature of this period was no longer received into the canon of the Old Testament and is therefore in spite of many good qualities even to the present day regarded as apocryphal.

p. 141

The new world-conception which emphasised the contrast between body and soul developed a new moral ideal; and the conception of evil underwent the same subtle changes as the conception of goodness. Since the lower classes began to make their influence felt, it is natural that in the Apocryphal Books of the Old Testament

Click to view

(After Schnorr von Carolsfeld.)

the conception of Satan grew more mythological and at the same time more dualistic. He developed into an independent demon of evil, and now, perhaps under the influence of Persian views, the adversary of man became the adversary of God himself.

In the story of Tobit (150 B. C.) an evil spirit called Asmodi plays an important part. His name which in its

p. 142

original form is Aeshma Daeva, indicates a Persian origin. He tries to prevent Sarah's marriage, because he is in love with her himself. In the Talmud, Asmodi develops into the demon of lust.

Very valuable books among the Apocrypha are the book of Daniel and the two books of Esdras; but the noblest thoughts are mixed with Judaistic chauvinism and bitter hatred of the Gentile nations.

Esdras anticipates the general eschatology as well as many smaller details of the Christian doctrines in a more definite shape than any other author of the period. He even proclaims (2 Esdras, vii. 28) the name of the Saviour whom the Lord calls "my son Jesus." 1

Esdras mentions two abysmal beings, Enoch and Leviathan, but they do not take any part in the production of evil. He might as well have omitted to mention them. In the name of God, an angel explains to him the origin of evil as follows in a simile which reminds us of both the Buddhist parable of the city of Nirvana and Christ's Sermon on the Mount:

"A city is builded, and set upon a broad field, and is full of all good things: The entrance thereof is narrow, and is set in a dangerous place to fall, like as if there were a fire on the right hand, and on the left a deep water: And one only path between them both, even between the fire and the water, so small that there could but one man go there at once. If this city now were given unto man for an inheritance, if he never shall pass the danger set before it, how shall he receive this inheritance?'

"And I said, 'It is so, Lord.'

"Then said he unto me, Even so also is Israel's portion.

p. 143

[paragraph continues] Because for their sakes I made the world: and when Adam transgressed my statutes, then was decreed that now is done. Then were the entrances of this world made narrow, full of sorrow and travail; they are but few and evil, full of peril and very painful. For the entrances of the elder world were wide and sure, and brought immortal fruit. If then they that live labor not to enter these strait and painful things, they can never receive those that are laid up for them.'" (2 Esdras, vii, 6-14.)

A peculiarly interesting apocryphal work is ascribed to the patriarch Enoch.

The book of Enoch undertakes to explain in allegorical form God's plan of the world's history. The book is not yet Christian but shows many traces of doctrines professed by the sects which appeared at the beginning of the Christian era as competitors of Christianity.

While Enoch's demonology smacks of the religious myths of the Gentiles, his ideas of salvation from evil betray Gnostic tendencies.

We read, for example, in Chapter 42:

"Wisdom came to live among men and found no dwelling-place. Then she returned home and took her seat among the angels."

We read of the Messiah, commonly designated "the son of a woman," sometimes "the son of man," and once "the son of God," that he existed from the beginning:

"Ere the sun and the signs [in the zodiac] were made, ere the stars of the heavens were created, his name was pronounced before the Lord of the spirits. Before the creation of the world he was chosen and hidden before Him [God], and before Him he will be from eternity to eternity."

p. 144


Click to view

(After H. F., an Unknown Old-German master.)
Preserving the gnostic Trinity-ideal of God father, God mother, and God son.


p. 145

"All the secrets of wisdom will flow from the thoughts of his mouth, for the Lord of the spirits has given wisdom unto him and has glorified him. In him liveth the spirit of wisdom, and the spirit of Him who giveth comprehension, and the spirit of the doctrine and of the power, and the spirit of all those who are justified and are now sleeping. And He will judge all hidden things, and no one will speak trifling words before Him, for He is chosen before the Lord of the spirits. He is powerful in all secrets of justification, and injustice has no place before Him."

And God says of the sons of the earth:

"I and my son shall unite ourselves with them for ever and aye in the paths of righteousness for all their lives."

The spiritualistic views in the Book of Enoch, especially the supernatural personality of the Messiah, are not peculiarly Christian, but Essenic or Gnostic, standing even in contradiction to the idea that the Messiah would become flesh and live among men as a real man.

It is a pity that we do not possess the original, but only an Ethiopian version of the Book of Enoch, which has been translated into German by Dr. A. Dillmann, for it is of great interest to the historian. It breathes the spirit of a Judaistic Gnosticism, and it is probable that the original Book of Enoch was written in the year 110 B. C. by a Jew of the Pharisee party. 1

The Book of Wisdom and the Gnostic Trinity Idea.

The Book of Wisdom, a product of Alexandrian Judaism, showing traces of both Greek and Eastern influences, speaks of the Devil as having through envy introduced death into the world. We read:

p. 146


Click to view

(After Pietro Berrettini. Reproduced from Il Vaticano, plate xx.)


p. 147

"God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity; nevertheless, through envy of the Devil came death into the world, and they that do hold of his side do find it."

The Wisdom literature shows many traces of Indian influence. The very word wisdom, or sophia, seems to

Click to view

(Japanese wood carving; Musée Guimet.)

be a translation of the term bodhi. At the same time, the trinity idea begins to take root in the Jewish mind, the oldest form of it being moulded after the pattern of the family, which consists of father, mother, and child. The Wisdom books represent the relation of Sophia to God as his spouse and the Messiah as their son. Many Gnostics used the terms Sophia, Pneuma, and Logos as names for

p. 148

the second person of the Deity, who represented the divine motherhood of the God-man. But during the first period of the development of the Christian Church, the ideal of a God-mother was abandoned, the Logos was identified with God the Son, who now became the second person of the Trinity; and the name Pneuma or spirit was alone retained for the third person. The Gnostic Trinity-conception, however, left its trace in the Christian apocrypha, for in "the Gospel according to the Hebrews" Christ spoke of the Holy Ghost as his mother. 1

Click to view

(By Ambrogio Fossano, called Borgognone. Formerly in the S. Simpliciano at Milan, now at the Brera. After Lübke.)

The Trinity idea is of a very ancient origin. We encounter it in the religion of Babylon (see p. 40), in Brahmanism (see p. 75), and in Buddhism. The Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, called the three jewels, representing (1) Buddha the teacher, (2) the Buddhist religion or the good law, and (3) the Buddhist brotherhood or Church. The Trinity doctrine is not contained in the New Testament, all

p. 149

the passages which seem to involve it being spurious; but it forms an integral part of almost all Gnostic systems, where it either appears as three abstract principles, or as the family relation of Father, Mother, and Child, viewed as one.

Click to view

From the Iconographie Chrétienne. (Reproduced from Bastian's Ethnol. Bilderbuch, plate xvii.)

The Trinity idea of God as a divine unity of Father, Mother, and Christ-child was retained among the Oriental Christians to the days of the rise of Mohammedanism. The Koran knows as yet nothing of the spiritualised Trinity conception of the Western Church, but represents the Christian Trinity as consisting of God, Christ, and Mary. And this Gnostic Trinity-conception is a natural ideal which in the further development of Christianity proved strong enough to influence the Roman Catholic Church in her devotion to Mary, the mother of Christ, whose personality was sometimes superadded to the Trinity, and sometimes even suffered to replace the Holy Ghost.

The more abstract form of the Trinity, emphasising it as a triunity, found its artistic expression in pictures

p. 150

of God as possessed of three faces. The most striking among these productions is an old oil painting which was discovered by a German artist at Salerno and published for the first time in Die Gartenlaube (1882, No. 47). The four eyes in their meditative attitude make a weird impression on the spectator, the three elongated noses show a freedom from sensuality, the brown hair and beard indicate strength, the broad forehead wisdom.

Click to view

Byzantine style of Lower Italy, probably of the XIII. century. Sketched by the artist of the Gartenlaube in an inn at Salerno from the original painting which has been sold in the mean time to an Englishman.

A Modern Gnostic.

Jacob Böhme's philosophy is, in this connexion, of interest because it represents a revival of the spirit of Gnosticism in its best and most typical form. It may serve as a substitute to characterise by way of example the modes of thought of the ancient Gnostic systems and their comprehension of the problem of evil.

Jacob Böhme was a German mystic, born in 1575 at Alt-Seidenberg near Görlitz in Silesia. Like David he was in his childhood a shepherd. Having served from his fourteenth year as a shoemaker's apprentice and being

p. 151

Click to view


affiliated with the shoemaker guild, he established himself as a master shoemaker in Görlitz in 1599. Later on in his life he changed his trade for that of a glover. His books circulated during his life-time in manuscript-form only, but even this sufficed to make his name known beyond the limits of his native town. He died on Sunday, November 17th, 1624, at his home in Görlitz, much admired by his friends and persecuted by some narrow-minded enemies who showed their malice even after his death by defacing the monument of the deceased philosopher. The best evidence, however, of his genius and the recognition which his honest aspirations found among his fellow citizens appears in the fact that the son of the Rev. Gregorius Richter, the pastor primarius of Görlitz and the bitterest antagonist of Jacob Böhme, edited a collection of extracts from his writings, which were afterwards published complete at Amsterdam in the year 1682.

The similarity of Jacob Böhme's speculations to Gnosticism is apparent, but the coincidence is almost

p. 152

spontaneous. His education was very limited, and he was only superficially familiar with the theories of Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, 1493-1541), Kaspar Schwenkfeld (1490-1561), and Valentin Weigel (1533-1588). His own system is original with him. It is mainly due to a reflection on the Bible, which he read with a deeply religious spirit but preserving at the same time great independence of thought.

Click to view

Illustrating the three principles which pervade life, consisting of the principles of Good and Evil as unfolded in Time.

Jacob Böhme conceives God as the unfathomable ground of existence, as the Ungrund. His biographer in the Encyclopædia Britannica, says of his philosophy:

"Nature rises out of Him, we sink into Him.... The same view when offered in the colder logic of Spinoza, is sometimes set aside as atheistical.

"Translating Böhme's thought out of the uncouth dialect of material symbols (as to which one doubts sometimes whether he means them as concrete instances, or as pictorial illustrations, or as a more memoria technica) we find that Böhme conceives of the correlation of two triads of forces. Each triad consists of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis, and the two are connected by an important link. In the hidden life of the Godhead, which is at once Nichts and Alles, exists the original triad, viz., Attraction, Diffusion, and their resultant, the Agony of the unmanifested Godhead. The transition is made; by an act of will the divine Spirit comes to Light; and immediately the manifested life appears in the triad of Love, Expression,

p. 153

and their resultant Visible Variety. As the action of contraries and their resultant are explained the relations of soul, body, and spirit, of good, evil, and free will; of the spheres of the angels, of Lucifer, and of this world.

"It is a more difficult problem to account on this philosophy for the introduction of evil. . . . Evil is a direct outcome of the primary principle of divine manifestation-it is the wrath side of God."

Click to view

Frontispiece of Jacob Böhme's book on the subject 1 and illustrating his religious philosophy

The problem of the idea of evil is very prominent in Jacob Böhme's philosophy, and has found a monistic solution. Without identifying good and evil, he arrives at the conclusion that the existence of evil is intrinsically necessary and unavoidable; it is ultimately rooted in the nature of God himself. The yearning for self-realisation constitutes a suffering in God himself, and in the act of revealing himself his will manifests both the bright and the dark aspect of life.

Jacob Böhme anticipates Schopenhauer. He says, in his book on "The Threefold Life of Man," p. 56: 1

p. 154

"For all things stand in the will, and in the will they are conducted. If I do not conceive a will to walk, my body remaineth at a stand-still. Therefore my will beareth me, and if I have no desire for [moving to] some place, there is no will in me. But if I desire something else, it is of the essence the will.

"The eternal word is the eternal will."--Ibid., p. 17.

Materiality and sensuality are identified with sin, and sin begins not with the actual fall but with lusting, sleep being a symptom of this condition.

"Before his sleep Adam was in the form of an angel, but after his sleep he had flesh and blood, and there was a clod of the ground in his flesh."--Die drey Principien, p. 221.

With all his gnostic tendencies Jacob Böhme is not a dualist but a monist. The duality of life viewed under the aspect of a higher unity constitutes a trinity whose three principles are represented in the frontispiece of Jacob Böhme's book on the subject 1 as two overlapping spheres which by meeting produce a third domain. There is an eternal goodness, and there is an eternal badness, and there is an eternal mixture of both. The eternal goodness contains the divine spirit and all the angels. But the sphere of badness is no less eternal. It is in its ultimate constitution the materiality of the world. The original Adam (a kind of Platonic prototype of man) was spiritual: his fall begins with his falling to sleep (p. 124), the result of carnal desire which changes his nature and leads to the creation of the woman to tempt him.

But Jacob Böhme is not a dualist, for he conceives of the three spheres as being one. He says in his book on The Threefold Life of Man, p. 16:

p. 155

"We remind the God-loving and seeking reader to recognise this of God. He should not concentrate his mind and senses to seek the pure Godhead in loneliness, high above the stars, as living solely in the heavens.... No, the pure Godhead is everywhere, entirely present in all places and ends. There is everywhere the birth of the Holy Trinity in one Being, and the angelic world reaches unto all the ends wherever thou mayest think; even into the middle of the earth, stones, and rocks; consequently also into Hell; briefly, the empire of the wrath of God is also everywhere."

Jacob Böhme does not believe in the letter but in the spirit of the Bible; and although he is counted a mystic, the illumination which he seeks is as sober as you can expect of a man of his culture. He freely utilises the Scriptures, but urges good Christians to seek the key to the problems of existence deeper. He says: "No one can come to God except through the Holy Ghost," and by the "Holy Ghost" he understands this spiritual illumination of heart and mind. He says (ibid., 15-16):

"Search for the ground of nature. Thus you will comprehend all things. And do not madly go for the mere letter of the histories, nor make any blind laws according to your own imaginings wherewith you persecute one another. In this you are blinder than the heathen. Search for the heart and spirit of the Scriptures that the spirit may be born in you, and that the center of the Divine Love may be unlocked in you. Thus you may recognise God and speak of him rightly. For out of the histories merely, no one shall call himself a master, cogniser, and knower of the Divine essence, but out of the Holy Ghost which appeareth in another principium in the center of man's life, and only to him who searches rightly and seriously."

Jacob Böhme condenses his philosophy in his explanation of the frontispiece of his Threefold Life, where he says:

p. 156

"Every work indicates by its form, essence, and character, the wisdom and virtue of its maker. Now if we contemplate the grandly marvellous edifice of the visible heaven and earth, consider their motions, inquire into their efficiencies and forces, and judge of the differences of the bodies of the creature, how they are hard and soft, gross and subtile, dark and radiant, opaque and pellucid, heavy and light: we shall at once discover the twofold mother of the revelation of God, viz., darkness and light which have breathed themselves out of all their forces and sealed miracles and form themselves together with the firmament, the stars, the elements, and all the visible conceivable creatures, where life and death, goodness and evil are at once in each thing. That is the third of the two hidden lives and it is called time contending with vanity. . . .

"Thus this world standeth in the mixed life of time between light and darkness as a genuine mirror of the two, in which the marvels of eternity are revealed in the form of time through the Word, as John announces. All things were made by it, and without it was not anything made that was made."

The Gnostic movement and especially its Jewish phase, manifesting itself in sectarian life and in the post-canonical literature, is of greater importance than is generally admitted, for it prepared the way for Christianity. Many Christian dogmas, such as the bodily resurrection of the dead, the Messiah as the soul of man, the approach of the day of judgment, are in the Old Testament Apocrypha, as it were, tentatively pronounced. A comprehensive formulation of the new religious ideals begins to be needed; and the people find at last in Jesus of Nazareth a leader whose powerful personality affords a centre around which the fermenting innovations can crystallise into an organised institution, the Christian Church, destined to become a new and most influential factor in the history of the world.


138:1 Philo explains the name "therapeutae" also as "worshippers." The genuineness of Philo's book De vita contemplativa and with it the very existence of the therapeutae has been doubted by p. E. Lucius, whose views, however, are thoroughly refuted by Fred. C. Conybeare, Philo About the Contemplative Life (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1895)

139:1 St. John the Baptist was a Sabian. The name is derived from צָבָע (tsabha). to baptise.

140:1 The word Essenes, or Essees (in Greek Ἐσσηνοί and Ἐσσαῖοι {Greek E?ssai~oi}, in Latin Esseni), is derived by Ewald from הַץָז preserver, guardian, a rabbinical term, because they called themselves "watchers, guardians, servants of God." Others derive the word from אָסָא (to heal). Both derivations would remind one of the Therapeutae. The root חָסָה (to fly, to take refuge) seems to be quite probable, philologically considered, especially as the word is used in the sense in which the Buddhist takes refuge in the Dharma, illustrated in such phrases as חַסָה בַּ יהוה (to take refuge in God), Psalms ii. 12; v. 15; vii. 2; xxv. 20; xxxi. 2; xxxvii 40, etc. A fourth derivation is from חָסָר (to be pious, to be enthusiastic, to be zealous in love). Philo says they are called "Essenes" on account of their holiness (παρὰ τὴν ὁσιότητα) and uses the term ὅσιοι, i. e., ''the saints," or "the holy ones," as a synonym for Essenes. This hint, however, is of little avail, as it would suit almost any one of the various derivations.

The word Ebionites אֶבְיזנִים means the poor.

The early Christians seem to have been most closely allied with the Nazarenes, for as early as in the year 54 of our era (see Harnack's Chronologie, p. 237) St. Paul was accused by the Jewish authorities of being a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. (Acts, xxiv. 5.)

The name Ναζωραϊοι (sometimes Ναζαρηνοί) has nothing to do with the name of the town of Nazareth (Ναζαρέϑ), which was presumably written with a צ (Tsaddi) or sharp ts sound. The name Nazareth is nowhere mentioned in its original Aramaic form, and occurs only in the New Testament whence it made its way into the patristic literature of later Christianity. Neither must the name Nazarene be confounded with Nazarite ןָזִיר an abstainer, who as a visible sign of his vow let his hair grow, but both words may have been derived from the same root ןָזַר, the former in the sense of ''Separatist." The Niphel of the verb means ''to separate oneself from others; to abstain. to vow, to devote oneself to."

142:1 The passage is of course subject to the suspicion of being a later interpolation.

145:1 See Dillmann, Das Buch Henoch, p. xliv.

148:1 Hieron. adv. Pelag. III., 2.

153:1 Hohe und teife Gründe von dem Dreyfachen Leben des Menschen nach dem Geheimnüss der drey Principien göttlicher Offenbahrung. Geschrieben nach göttlicher Erleuchtung, Amsterdam, 1682.

154:1 Beschreibung der drey Principien göttlichen Wesens. Amsterdam, 1682.

Next: Early Christianity