The Economic and Social Origins of Gnosticism by Henry A. Green

AJHS, Director of Sephardic Studies Program

This is a book for those truly interested in understanding the genesis of proto-Gnostic thought. What does that have to do with Messianic and Christian Theology? Everything, IMO. Let me just warn you that this book is written by a scholar for scholars! It's not what I'd call light reading material. Green's theory is the best I've heard and it's well supported throughout.

In a nutshell - and in my own words - Green states that because of the change in the Ptolemaic mode of production - which shifted from state ownership to privatization - a new spirit of individualism (across the board) gave the ever entrepreneurial and already well established community of Hellenistic Jews living in Egypt the means and wherewithal to develop a "radical transformation in consciousness" - under the watchful eye of Rome, of course.

These upwardly mobile Hellenistic Jews had the leisure time to study and form an intelligentsia that - precisely because they were ashamed of their Jewish heritage, which separated them from their Greek counterparts - set them upon a course that would cause them to reinterpret their ancient writings. In short, they created a new mythos that clearly delineated them from their "uncultured" Torah observant Jewish brethren, who lived as slaves to what they felt was an oppressive ritualism and an archaic morality.

Not terribly unlike some Secular Jews (Chilonim) in our own time these Hellenistic Jews sought to demonize and marignalize the God whose Laws they no longer observed and whose Law only served to imprison them to a life of separatism, rather than a life of inclusion and full citizenship in the Hellenistic World.

Seizing upon the revolutionary aspect of mysticism they radically reinterpreted the faith of their forefathers, while appealing to the Written Law and Oral Traditions in order to justify their actions and their new mythos.

Assimilation was their primary goal and they made liberal use of the religious syncretism of the period to paint a picture of their new faith that wouldn't stigmatize them further or fan the already present flames of anti-Semitism present among the Greek population, but rather elevate them to a level of enlightened masters and apostles of a hidden knowledge, which could free the Divine Spark within man, etc. (Hello, L. Ron Hubbard!)

So, one might say that Gnosticism was born out of feelings of alienation. Of course, Green's book is far more complex than what I've covered here.

NOTE: Do we not see a parallel between the aforementioned Hellenistic Jews and the New Age movement of today?

"Embrace the Christ consciousness! Be spiritual! Free yourself from the shackles of religious dogma and doctrine! Give wing to your own inner divinity!"

Myth making is nothing new. The impulse to mysticism carries with it a revolutionary element in which the mystic yearns for a worldview and a belief system that doesn't kowtow to the established religious authority and/or its sectarian offshoots, which the disenfranchised frequently dismiss as being corrupt, greedy, hypocritical and oppressive.

Yet, there is also within the impulse to mysticism a conservative element which appeals to the established religious tradition for understanding; howbeit, through new eyes and a fresh interpretation or re-interpretation of the genesis or essence of the belief system.

To better understand this mystical impulse and its conservative and revolutionary aspects ... I strongly recommend that the reader chapter one, "Religious Authority and Mysticism," in Gershom Scholem's book, "On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism.

See also:

Henry A. Green, "Gnosis and Gnosticism: A Study in Methodology," Numen 24 (August 1977):117.

Henry A. Green, "Ritual in Valentinian Gnosticism: A Sociological Interpretation," Journal of Religious History 12.2 (1982): 109-124.

Henry A. Green, Ph.D. (St. Andrews University, 1982)

Henry A. Green has taught at the University of Miami since 1984. He received his Ph.D. from St. Andrews University (Britain) after postgraduate work in Canada, at the Sorbonne (France) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel). He is the author of four books, including Research in Action (education of at-risk populations in Israel); The Economic and Social Origins of Gnosticism (Jewish origins from a sociological perspective); Mosaic: Jewish Life in Florida; and Gesher Vakesher, Bridges and Bonds:The Life of Leon Kronish (the Israelization of American Jewry and the story of Jewish Miami) and many articles.

Professor Green is the former Director of the Judaic/Sephardic Studies Program (1984-2001) and the founding executive director of the Jewish Museum of Florida. He has served as a Visiting Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Oxford University, and the University of Toronto. Among his awards are the Canada Council, the Israel Fellowship, and the Skirball Fellowship (Oxford University, England).

Professor Green led the effort to establish first locally, and then nationally, a literacy and school readiness program (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters, HIPPY) and served as national chair (200-2003). He continues to conduct social policy research in the areas of education and health for foundations and the government.

His current research, "The Forgotten Exodus", documents the lives of Jewish refugees (approximately 1 million) from Islamic lands and parallels projects concerning Holocaust testimonies. He teaches courses on modern Israel (REL 375/JUS 375), Jewish Civilization (REL 231/JUS 231), American Jewry (REL 334/JUS 360), and spirituality and education (REL 408), a course that pioneers the concept of holistic education and includes meditation and community service.