Gnostic Doctrine

Thursday, 10 November 2022

Gnosis of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Gnosis of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Regarding the second question—gnosis at Qumran—we can see from the evidence that the “community” lived in two different worlds, apparently simultaneously. There was a politico-religious conflict with (it was believed) an eventual historical denouement with the coming of the Era of Light, and an inner spiritual world whence they extracted their precious visions. This latter side of “Qumrani” life has proved to hold a more enduring value. 

When we think, for example, of Paul’s claim to spiritual knowledge (gnosis),72 we can be reasonably sure that he was familiar with the kinds of spiritual treasury once preserved near Qumran. While it seems that Pharisaic rabbis in this period forbade psychological introspection into the nature of one’s being, some “Qumranis” pondered deeply on what they called “the Mystery of Existence,” seeking “the Knowledge of the Secret of the Truth”: 

Also, do not take Riches from a man you do not know, lest it only add to your poverty. If (God) has ordained that you should die in [you]r poverty, so He has appointed it; but do not corrupt your spirit because of it. Then you shall lie down with the Truth, and your sinlessness will He clearly proclai[m to th]em (the recording angels). As your destiny, you will inherit [Eternal] bliss. [For] though you are Poor, do not long for anything except your own portion; and do not be swallowed up by desire, lest you backslide because of it. And if He restores you, conduct yourself honorably. And inquire among His children about the Mystery of Existence; then you will gain knowledge of the inheritance and walk in Righteousness. (4Q416, 418, plate 22, fragment 10, column 2, lines 6–11) 75 

Though you are poor, do not say “I am penniless, so I cannot seek out knowledge.” (Rather) bend your back to all discipline and through al[l Wisdo]m, purify your heart, and in the abundance of your intellectual potential, investigate the Mystery of Existence. And ponder all the Ways of Truth, and consider all the roots of Evil. (fragment 10, column 2, lines 13– 15) 

If you take a wife in your poverty, take her from among the daughter[s of . . . ] . . . (fragment 10, column 2, line 21) from the Mystery of Existence. In your companionship, go forward together. With the helpmate of your flesh . . . (fragment 10, column 2, line 22) 

Do not exchange your Holy Spirit for any Riches, because no price is worth [your Soul]. Willingly seek the face of him who has authority over your storehouse, and in his own tongue, and in his own tongue [speaks with him] . . . (4Q 416, 418, plate 22, fragment 9, column 2, line 6)

Do not forsake your Laws, and keep (secret) your Mysteries. (fragment 9, column 2, line 8) 

If He assigns His service to you . . . (don’t allow) sleep (to enter) your eyes until you have done it . . . (fragment 9, column 2, line 9) 

Do not sell your Glory for money, and do not transfer it as your inheritance, lest your bodily heirs be impoverished. (fragment 9, column 2, line 18) 

There is a striking and tantalizing fragment that Eisenman calls the “Demons of Death” from a series of what he calls “Beatitudes” (4Q 525, plate 12), a text that contains a Wisdom discourse from a teacher to his “sons” (pupils): 

[Now, hear me, all my sons, and I will speak] about that Wisdom which God gave me . . . (column 1, line 1) [For He gave the Kn]owledge of Wisdom and instruc[tion] to teach [all the sons of Truth . . . (column 1, line 2) 

Bring forth the knowledge of your inner self and in . . . meditate. (fragment 2, column 4, line 19) 76 

Darkness . . . poison . . . [all] those born [on the earth] . . . Heaven . . . (column 5, line 1) . . . 

serpents in [it, and you will] go to him, you will enter . . . there will be joy [on the day] the Mysteries of God [are revealed] for[ever] . . . (column 5, line 2) 

The problem for us in all this is that we cannot be certain about the substance of what is meant by the “Mystery of Existence” and the “inner self” of the pupil. Nevertheless, it is clear from the ecstatic and highly imaginative character of some of the new fragments that the authors of the works clearly found authentic spiritual wisdom in their meditations on God and God’s Law. They recognize that there are hidden mysteries in their “holy spirits” that can be accessed and that offer ecstatic visions of the life of God within them. 

The sense of certainty gained from these experiences, however, is always used to justify the strict Torah-consciousness of the community. This undoubtedly puts their gnosis more in the category of apocalyptic revelation than of Gnostic liberation. The “knowledge” invariably concerns the secrets of God’s heavenly places, while the Messiah invariably appears as a separate being. There is a kind of half-light about the works, in retrospect—a dawning consciousness. While the reliance on external legal formulas for understanding spiritual experiences may have proved a weakness for the community as eschatological commandos, the vein of spiritual discovery nonetheless proved to be a comforting treasure afterward. 

As stated earlier in this chapter, the apocalyptic hope eventually became almost entirely internalized. Perhaps it is at this point that we can discern the beginnings of that tree called Jewish Gnosticism, or rather the Kabbalah (especially Merkabah—that is, “chariot” or “throne” mysticism), a tradition of piety and redemption from the material world sought through inner exploration. 

Themes and language such as those found in the following fragment were to be developed by Jewish communities in the Middle East (particularly in Baghdad), to emerge in medieval Europe among certain pious Jews of Spain and the Languedoc:

Secret Wisdom and image of Knowledge and Fountain of Understanding, Fountain of Discovery and counsel of Holiness and Secret Truth, treasurehouse of Understanding from the sons of Righteousness. (From 77 “The Chariots of Glory,” 4Q 286–87, plate 21, manuscript A, fragment 1, line 6) . . . of Your Holiness and the chariots of Your Glory with their (mu)ltitudes and wheel-angels, and all [Your] Secrets, Foundations of fire, flames of Your lamp, Splendors of honor, fi[re]s of lights and miraculous brilliances, [hon]or and virtue and highness of Glory, holy Secret and pla[ce of Spl]endor and the highness of the beauty of the Fou[ntain]. (Manuscript A, fragment 1, lines 3–4) 

It may be that we see the roots of the kabbalistic tradition in the Qumran fragments published by Eisenman and Wise. However, it is as likely that the movement of Jewish gnosis—and its frequently accompanying magic—was more profitably developed in the relative safety of Babylonia, Alexandria, and Syria and in initiated circles in the Diaspora generally. Nevertheless, merely to know that some kind of Kabbalah existed historically at least as early as the first century A.D. not only is a boon to scholarship, but also gives us new tools for understanding the Jesus both of the New Testament and of the so-called Gnostic Gospels.

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