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Gnosticism as Anti-Religion - The Negative Old Testament God

Common to almost all schools of Gnosticism were four of what one could say were moral judgments:

  1. The God of the Old Testament is evil.  He keeps the divine sparks or Spirit enslaved in matter.
  2. The cosmos is likewise evil or negative; as it is the evil god's creation
  3. The Good God is a transcendent Spiritual being, who is utterly alien to this world, and had nothing to do with its creation
  4. The Savior - whether Christ, Seth, the Thought (Ennoia) of God, or some other figure - is an emissary of the transcendent God who has descended into this lower world to confer gnosis on those able to receive it (the gnostic race).

The three latter points follow normally enough, if you accept the premise of the Gnostics that this world is bad (the anti-worldly mystical tendency).  But the first point seems rather strange.  Why should the God of the Old Testament be considered evil?

Well, there are perhaps three ways of answering this question: the psychological, the theological, and the literal. Obviously, not all these explanations were what the early Gnostic writers had in mind

Psychologically, the God of the Old Testament is the metaphor for the ego, the part of psyche that considers itself all-important, and doesn't like to face the fact the cosmos is a lot of bigger than it is, and that there is more of relevance than just its own small needs.

Theologically, the God of the Old Testament is quite like the God of the religious fundamentalist: a supernatural dictator who keeps the mind (= "spirit") enslaved with dogma, and demands absolute belief.  Anyone who doesn't believe him goes to hell (the supernatural equivalent of the concentration camp).

Literally, that is, biblically, the Old Testament God does appear to be a rather shifty character.  As one very early Gnostic writing - surviving as a fragment in the much later Nag Hammadi tractate The Testimony of Truth - explains in a commentary on the biblical God:

"He envied Adam that he should eat from the tree of knowledge.  And the fact that he said "Adam, where are you?" shows that he did not have foreknowledge.
He cast man out of the garden because he did not want him to eat from the tree of life and live forever.
He said "I am a jealous God, I will bring the sins of the fathers upon the children for three or four generations" [Exod. 20:5]
And he said "I will make their heart thick, and I will cause their mind to become blind, that they might not know nor comprehend the things that are said" [Isa. 6:10]
And all this mind you to those who believe in him and serve him!"
[John Dart, The Laughing Savior, p.63]

Significantly, the style here is typical of certain Jewish literature (the Midrash or commentary) from around the beginning of the Christian era.  The writer was familiar not only with Jewish Scriptures but also with the terminology and speculations of early Rabbinic circles.  Except that this was written from a Gnostic rather than a Jewish perspective.  What was wrong with Adam eating from the tree of knowledge?  And wasn't this God angry because he was envious of Adam's knowledge rather than because Adam had disobeyed him? [Dart, Laughing Savior, pp.63-4 (out of print)].  According to Gnostic scholar Birger Pearson this is actually a gnostic midrash utilising Jewish traditions, and dating perhaps from the first century B.C.E. of Palestine or Syria [Ibid, p.64].

The Battle for the Spiritual Light | The Gnostic Dramaturgy - Creation and Redemption

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 28 June 1998, last modified 6 June 2004