Gershom Scholem: Conclusion, Ineffable God: The Jewish (rather than Platonic) Roots of Gnosticism

Gershom Scholem
Gershom Scholem

This is a series on the relationship between Greek philosophy and gnostic literature. To start with the first post, please go here.

Here are my concluding thoughts on the extent to which Platonism influenced gnosticism and, secondarily, whether Judaism is actually the more likely origin.

Famed Jewish historian Gershom Scholem argued for a link between early gnosticism, Merkabah mysticism and 12th century Kabbalah (as a revival of previously suppressed or lost Jewish mysticism). Scholem explains that the subject derives from the first chapter of Ezekiel in Mishnah Chagigah 2:1 and was used by rabbis to explain a complex of speculations on visions associated with the Throne of Glory and the chariot (merkavah) of God. Although the word merkavah/merkabah does not appear in Ezekiel, the mystical journeys associated with the word derive from Ezekiel’s vision and subsequent close study of the text. The word “merkabah” first appeared in 1 Chronicles 28:18 and was first associated with mysticism in Ben Sira 49:8. Scholem says that merkabah speculation appears in Qumran texts and became an esoteric tradition in Pharisaic and Tannaitic circles, developing literature describing extremely dangerous ascension rituals (Gershom Scholem, “Merkabah Mysticism”, Encyclopaedia Judaica).

In his lecture “Merkabah Mysticism and Jewish Gnosticism” (published in Major Trends), Scholem argues that Jewish mysticism originated in first century BCE Palestine (represented by apocalyptic literature such as the Book of Enoch), developing into the “classical period” of fourth to sixth century CE (Merkabah speculation by known teachers in the Mishnah), and the late and post-Talmudic period, which also records such mystical inquiries. The fourteenth chapter of the Ethiopic Book of Enoch provides the oldest description of a throne vision, which, according to Scholem, in early throne-mysticism parallels the pleroma or “fullness” of heavenly beings witnessed in later Hermetic and gnostic literature. Merkabah literature provides details of mystics who approached the throne and described the anthropomorphic “body”/”glory”/”kabōd” of God in absurdly excessive details, reciting magical names as a defense from the desolating angels. Descriptions of the kabōd are paralleled in second and third century gnostic, Greek and Coptic texts as well as in sectarian texts fascinated with the “primordial Adam,” a broad array of texts influenced by Jewish mysticism.

For Scholem, the text that provides a bridge between Merkabah, gnostic and Kabbalah literature is the Sefer Yetsirah, which contains letter and number mysticism, cosmological and cosmogonic speculation, esoteric names and incantations. Scholem dates it between the third and sixth centuries, with later interpolations, its core reflecting the terminology and style of Merkabah. Scholem says Merkabah literature attempted to remain relevant to rabbinical Judaism, yet sometimes resulted in pure speculation about magic. In purest form, he says, the literature was only concerned with a fixed gaze “on God and his aura, the radiant sphere of the Merkabah, to the exclusion of everything else.”

We may argue against aspects of Scholem’s theory, of course (and many have, though few effectively). For instance, even though apocalyptic literature provided the foundation for Merkabah literature, Scholem sees no reason to connect the Qumran texts to gnosticism. The possibility of this connection should be explored, however, as the starkly dualistic Qumran texts were written by an isolated, elitist community who considered themselves the “elect”, just as Sethian gnostic texts characterize their audience; and the Dead Sea Scrolls also characterize salvation according to a secret knowledge received by revelation. And, finally, although Merkabah and many gnostic texts describe similar ascension journeys (often requiring knowledge of secret names to bypass archons or angels who guard the gates), Merkabah mystics ascend in this lifetime in order to obtain and retrieve secret knowledge, whereas gnostics may receive gnosis only through revelation, and the ascension is final, a return of the soul (or “divine spark”) to its source. Both these variations of heavenly ascent could have been influenced by Platonic or Enochic literature.

Even so, it was Scholem who popularized the idea that gnostic literature may have developed among Palestinian Jews, and the idea is attractive. The Mishnah prohibits teaching the Creation story to more than one student at a time, and Ezekiel is prohibited to even the one student, unless he is a sage. (C.R.A. Morray-Jones, “Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12:1-12), 1993). Understandably, Scholem presents the image of Merkabah mystics as highly educated and deeply devout individuals who, in secret and with the aid of a few chosen students, purifies himself and performs a ritual that takes place over several days. Reading Apocryphon of John, it is easy to imagine its authors were highly trained, well-read, deeply devout sages, informing initiates of their “chosen” status to share in a mythology that may help explain their salvation and the state of the world. Attractive as this “secret school” theory may be, however, we have no proof of it in gnostic literature. The literary parallels are difficult to deny, however.

In his Ancient Gnosticism, Birger A. Pearson argues that negative theology in Apocryphon of John could have developed from “contemporary Platonist philosophy” without “recourse to Judaism”, the elements of “Gnostic dualism and Gnostic notions of God’s transcendence” unquestionably influenced by Platonism (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 105). This ignores the fact that gnostic dualism went further than any Platonist in condemning the material world as “evil” or a “mistake” (among ancient texts, most closely aligned with the worldview of the Dead Sea Scrolls), and gnostic literature was written as pseudepigraphy, sermons, homilies and gospels, often rewriting Biblical narratives such as the Creation story (and elevating important Biblical figures, such as Seth), using Aramaic and Hebrew loan words among its Greek and completely uninterested in ethical responsibilities to the State, a traditional Platonic ideal. More to the point, as I have demonstrated, gnostic literature, for all its variety, relies on the concept of an ineffable deity, and knowledge of that god is very limited, only accessible through revelation.

This is a Jewish tradition.

Knowledge, gnosis or acquaintance inaccessible to human faculties is antithetical to systems of Greek philosophy, however often gnostic texts may have adopted the terms, language and concepts that were readily available throughout the Roman Empire in late antiquity. As demonstrated by the exegetical work of Philo, the ineffability of God is a theological perspective easily derived from interpretations of Jewish religious traditions (and likely common conversations among elite Jewish scholars of the time), and reappropriation of Greek philosophical terms for theological inquiry was a common effect of syncretism in the Empire.

While Greek thought certainly influenced gnostic texts, the syncretistic nature of Platonist philosophy in the second century obscures the modes of transmission. As I stated in the introduction, “gnosticism” covers a broad area of texts, history and geography, undermining any effort to clearly define it. Likewise, prior to 70 CE, Palestinian Judaism was quite diverse and interactions “between Palestine and the Diaspora were constant and the meeting with Hellenism was common in both” (Termini, “Philo’s Thought”, 96), as attested by surviving Palestinian Jewish fragments of “history, ethnography, poetry, and philosophy” written “in distinctly Greek genres”, dating back to the mid-third century BCE (Carl R. Holladay, Fragments From Hellenistic Jewish Authors Volume I: Historians, 4). It is clear that trade and travel in the Greco-Roman world contributed to the diversity of thought in Middle Platonism characterized by Carabine as “syncretism which was by no means always deliberate” (Carabine, The Unknown God, 52), an attempt on her part to preserve the purity of the Platonic system.

Jewish thinkers like Philo and Numenius used Platonic ideas in theological settings. Apocryphon of John, like other gnostic, Christian and Jewish texts, adopted philosophical terms for the authority and meaning attached to them, yet divorced them from their original contexts and, in the case of gnostics at least, altered them for “soteriological, not dialectic” uses (Gedaliahu A. G. Stroumsa, Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology, 3).

Because of the close relationship between Greek philosophy and theological interpretations of it, however, Carabine says “the insistence to be found in some Gnostic tracts on the transcendence and unknowability of God cannot have failed to have had an impact on the theological development of Platonism in the second century” (Carabine, The Unknown God, 84), a clear admission that gnostic trends were more likely to have influenced Plotinus than Middle Platonism shaped gnosticism. This may be why Plotinus, who has been criticized by scholars for incorporating “oriental” sources, wrote his Against the Gnostics: in order to develop a Platonic version of ineffability, he had to distance it from similar theological systems that employed Platonic terminology.

In the end, the concepts of unnamability, ineffability and incomprehensibility in Apocryphon of John can be found in Philo in the first century but are not found in Platonic thought until the third century or, in any systemized way, not in Christianity until Pseudo-Dionysius in the fifth century. Therefore, based on the evidence at hand, I argue that solely Jewish sources for these ideas are far more likely. Singularly gnostic thought in Apocryphon of John is characterized by terms of unknowability in a theological system, its purpose categorically opposed to the Platonic concern for knowable categories in a system of human thought. By more clearly defining the religious and cultural character of the Nag Hammadi texts, perhaps it is possible to move toward a more accurate definition of gnosticism that fully appreciates its importance in Late Antiquity.

At the very least, one important question I have raised in this conclusion needs to be investigated: how closely are the Nag Hammadi texts related to the Dead Sea Scrolls?



Adam, James. The Republic of Plato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, digital version, 2009.

Carabine, Deirdre. The Unknown God. Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Press, 1995.

Holladay, Carl R. Fragments From Hellenistic Jewish Authors Volume I: Historians. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983.

Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Morray-Jones, C.R.A. “Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12:1-12), 1993.

Pearson, Birger A. Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Radice, Roberto. “Philo’s Theology and Theory of Creation”, The Cambridge Companion to Philo, ed. Adam Kamesar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Schwartz, Daniel R. “Philo, His Family, and His Times”, The Cambridge Companion to Philo, ed. Adam Kamesar. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Scholem, Gershom. “Merkabah Mysticism”, Encyclopaedia Judaica.

Segal, Alan F. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012.

Stroumsa, Gedaliahu A. G. Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology. NHS 24; Leiden: Brill, 1984.

Termini, Cristina. “Philo’s Thought within the Context of Middle Judaism,” The Cambridge Companion to Philo, ed. Adam Kamesar. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.



6 thoughts on “Gershom Scholem: Conclusion, Ineffable God: The Jewish (rather than Platonic) Roots of Gnosticism

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  1. An excellent effort full of useful information. A bit uneven in places closer to the beginning, but the detail work is spot on and the conclusion solid.

    Just some stray thoughts. First, on ascension and gnosis. I wonder how much of the ascension rituals (passing through gates, uttering names of angels to get through) came from the Egyptian religion. The distinction between ascension and gnosis (the former being active, the latter more passive) would be interesting to trace inasmuch as such a division shows itself in gnostic literature.

    Second, on gnosis itself: I wonder how much of a split is in gnosis itself between gnosis-through-revelation (heavenly beings descend or one ascends to greet them) and gnosis-through-wisdom and initiation (for lack of a better term). When I read the Gospel of Thomas, for example, though it is framed as another set of secret words or oracles meant for a special elect, it seems that all the ‘sayings’ of Jesus are intended to frustrate and upend one’s orientation and privileged place in a system of signifiers. GoT is very much preoccupied with this Zen-like task (first is last, hidden will be revealed, one worth more than the many, etc.). One is really tempted to think that through such an unmooring, some kind of gnosis-concept – an encounter with an undifferentiated fullness or pleroma – was at work.

    In any case, you make a great argument that Philo was more a Hebrew Platonist and less a Platonic Hebrew. A similar, parallel line of thought is in Margaret Barker (“The Great Angel”) who de-emphasizes the Hellenic influence on Christianity, seeing its essential themes already present in Judaism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I absolutely agree with your assessment of GoT (and other texts, such as Acts of Thomas and Gospel of Mary could fall into that description as well). There is so much to be explored, which is one aspect of gnosticism I really enjoy. I like to think there are “levels” of instruction and different mythologies serve different purposes, but it’s also highly likely the Thomasine literature developed independently in Syria and made it to Egypt after Sethian texts were already fully developed. I appreciate your feedback.


      1. That’s interesting. If there is a kind of separation between the Syrian and Egyptian gnosticisms, I wonder if the Syrian might reflect a more direct Buddhist influence. Gnosis as passive reception might come more out of a slightly Buddhist milieu, whereas gnosis as ascension might show more Egyptian influence. Cheers.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, and there were Buddhist missionaries in the region before the turn of the era, supposedly. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find evidence connecting Syrian and Egyptian gnosticism to Buddhism?

        I also wanted to respond to your earlier “uneven” comment. I’m not a paid blogger and sometimes I rush to meet my own deadlines. That’s not an excuse, and I’m not offended by your comment, I’m just sorry I wasn’t able to hit the mark this time! Cheers!


  2. No worries at all. It’s a bit cheeky to call an otherwise excellent piece ‘uneven’. But I feel uneasy offering pure praise – and thought that on account of the superior content in these articles, you might have overlooked it. I have no doubt that should you ever decide to revise these, they’ll be first-rate with the extra few minutes to improve.

    As for Buddhism, I was shocked to learn recently just how much cross-contamination there was between Buddhism and early Greece. So much so that one wonders if the whole phenomenon of Greek philosophy didn’t owe really to the encounter with early Buddhists.

    The Wikipedia article on Greco-Buddhism is all right for novices to the subject. It seems to me that if Buddhists were having an effect on Greece, and we know that later they were in Alexandria, it seems like they would have had an effect on Syria and Palestine as well.

    Again – great article. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just looked up the Margaret Barker book and I can say that other scholars I have read suggest something similar, including Alan Segal’s “Two Powers in Heaven”, which I cited. Two powers theory goes a long way to explaining Simon Magus, Marcion, Basilides and Christian and gnostic cosmologies from a Jewish origin.


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