A Review of, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity by John Gager
Before getting to a review of this book, lets first define Antisemitism. I think we can all agree that antisemitism is a prejudicial and usually hostile attitude against the religion and/or race of Judaism.
Wikipedia defines antisemitism as:
Antisemitism (also spelled anti-Semitism or anti-semitism) is prejudice against, hatred of, or discrimination against Jews as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. A person who holds such positions is called an antisemite. Antisemitism is widely considered to be a form of racism.
Post World War II, the term has become one of the most vile and horrid concepts. It lead millions to mass murder and drove entire cultures into the evils of hatred and mass extinction. To use the word, we must be careful as it comes with so much history and depiction of horrible discrimination against Judaism.
In truth, I came to find this book as a reference on Gnosticism. In research of a Gnostic topic, this book appeared on my proverbial radar. The topic was confusing… what on earth would Gnosticism have to do with antisemitism? Curiously I began a read of the book from this vantage point and I found this book to be very similar to books pushed on me in my Christian youth… it is basically an attack on anything that isn’t part of the core philosophy it espouses.
As in this case, if you aren’t Jewish you must be an anti-semite (or perhaps better stated, if you disagree with the Torah, you are therefore labeled an antisemite by the author.) The author attempts to prove his faulty logic with some ad hominem attacks on Gnosticism, paganism and Christianity.
While true, there are anti-semites in all paths of life (religious, non-religious), we can’t simply assume that all paths not in agreement with the Torah are inherently anti Jewish. It’s the same illogical premise used by fundamentalist religions around the world: “If you aren’t for us, you’re against us.”
In the case of this book, the author may have made good points, but I got tripped up on too many of his blatant failures and demonizing of Gnostics and pagans to notice anything else in the work.
An Example to John’s lack of Evidence
Where I come from is from a varied background on religion and philosophy (having been a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Scientologist, Occultist and Gnostic – not all at the same time :p), which has allowed me wide breadth in understanding other beliefs from their own perspective. Coming from such a varied backdrop has also allowed me to see the fear and smear campaigns waged by detractors. Orthodox Judaism mocking modern Kabbalah; Christianity attacking Kabbalah/Sufism/Islam/Gnosticism, etc. Similarly, in John Gager’s work, I saw complete fabrications of Gnosticism that were created to smear the idea of Gnosticism as a valid belief system, into some anti Jewish hate campaign (which it wasn’t.)
For example, John Gager attempts to make Gnostic the evil villain without evidence and only on the basis of another’s word… Check page 168:
“…Jonas reports that this great student of Jewish mysticism saw Gnosticism as ‘the greatest case of metaphysical anti-Semitism.’ In sum, while admitting that Gnosticism reacted against Judaism wherever the two met, and while admitting that Gnosticism may have originated as a revolt against Judaism – ‘in a zone of proximity and exposure to Judaism’ — Jonas remains unconvinced that the revolutionaries were themselves Jewish.”
Where is there any evidence of Gnosticism being filled with the greatest case of “anti-Semitism?” The author offers no such evidence, he simply quotes someone else who says as much – which is paramount to me asking Falwell (the Christian Televangelist) what he thinks about Mormons and then using such a quote to disparage Mormonism – which incidentally people do… such as the yellow journalism of the Christian writer Bob Larson (who smears other religions, music and anything else he’s scared of.)
In fact, IF the author was right… we should see this antisemitism in today’s Gnostics. Perhaps the author is unaware that there has been an unbroken chain of Gnostic teachings that exist to this day: Mandaenaism
History of Gnosticism
In the case of Gnosticism, the Gnostics were persecuted into near extinction. So whom was being prejudicial? Yes, the persecution against Gnosticism was mainly flowing from the Christian church at the time. Yet I have to wonder how many of the population would have been offended by the Gnostic premise that the “god” of what is called the old testament testament today, was false (due to his cruelty) and that the True God was something else entirely. But hardly a force of the greatest “anti-Semitism,” as it didn’t drive humanity against Judaism, nor the Jewish population. The message of Gnosticism was one of internalizing one’s focus (not the outward expression of force.)
In the case of Gnosticism, the Gnostics predated Christianity and had issue with the idea of the Hebrew “god” who was angry, hateful and warmongering… they had issue with the many passages of “the Lord” saying he demanded people kill in his name and ravish the virgins they find in the towns the conquer. They saw this not as a depiction of the “source” they claimed to make contact with in their spiritual practices. They concluded that the “god” of what we call the Old Testament today, was a false god (a Demiurge) who demanded blood, sacrifice and violence… killing women caught in sexual acts… killing children who strike their parents… murdering whole cultures (or in some cases being told to save the virgins for their ‘wives’ but kill all the men and children.) Ref: Numbers 31:7-18, Deut. 20:10-14, Deut. 17:12, Exodus 22:17, Lev. 20:13, Lev. 20:27, Exodus 21:15, Lev. 20:9….
The most powerful response to John Gager’s assertions that Gnosticism is somehow responsible for Antisemitism is the case of the Mandaen’s. Mandaenaism is a Gnostic religion that predates Christianity. It formed in Mesopotamia and they are known as being Semetic in nature. They are also GNOSTIC.
The unfortunate aspect of Gnosticism, is that much of their early teachings were destroyed by those afraid of what they taught. So we learned about gnosticism from it’s enemies. However, various religious movements of Gnosticism abounded – including one that exists to this day.
The Semetic religion of Mandaenism has existed for thousands of years (predating Christianity) and still exists today. Their philosophy denied various aspects of the Torah as well as aspects of Christianity. They also were not Muslim (although they exist in areas occupied by a majority Muslim population today.
The religion of Mandaenism is Gnostic, and yet they defy the smear campaign that John Gager seems to have brought against the umbrella of Gnosticism.
Philosophy of Gnosticism
To reconcile this, Gnostics came up with a mythos that suggested the so called “god” of these passages was no more than a false ego based being that wasn’t the true God… so they called one the Demiurge (the false god) and sought the other through mystical practice.
It is not “anti-Semitism” to walk away from teachings that depict a god as warmongering and angry. That’s one’s choice to find a different God, isn’t it? Being an antisemite means being prejudicial and/or hostile to the racial/religious group of Judaism. Finding disagreement with the Torah, does not make one Antisemite.
What the Gnostics turned against was not Judaism, nor Jewish people – they turned against the idea of killing others in the name of a god… as they, like all forms of mysticism (be it Sufism, Kabbalah, Hinduism, etc.) do not see evil acts committed in this world as birthing good return. Some paths spiritualized the old testament passages (such as Kabbalah), while others dropped it entirely (such as Gnosticism.) That doesn’t mean Gnostics were Anti-Semite, any more than a mystic who drops adherence to the Koran being “anti-Muslim.” They were simply people trying to reconcile what they thought they thought they knew (experienced… i.e. Gnosis) of God with the teachings they had heard.
Other Blatant Errors
This book by John Gager suffers from a religious centric nature. The author offers little to anything of his own research – and simply quotes others. It is more like a term paper than a book… and I fail to see many of his assertions being validated with historic data.
That’s the problem with Gnosticism… there’s very little in accurate historical data. All we had (until Nag Hammadi) was testimony *against* Gnosticism from its detractors.
Even more vile is John’s agenda that he’s pushing (anti pagan… anti-gnostic, etc.):
On page 297, John compiles his notes from the previous pages where he smears Gnosticism… he writes on note #29, “I prefer this designation to Coptic-Gnostic or Christian-Gnostic; references to individual writings will use the designation CG. A number of the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi are not Gnostic at all; others are not Christian; and none of them was originally in Coptic.”
Let’s start with the easiest of points to refute… the language the Nag Hammadi scriptures were written in… John says they weren’t even written in the Coptic language. A little bit of research (i.e. Google is a nice thing to do before writing your book), would be to investigate this yourself… In fact the codecs of the Nag Hammadi library were written in Coptic… and are current housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo Egypt. A brief history of the Nag Hammadi library is that in 1946 the jar was discovered…a Coptic priest stole the documents, having seen them. Jean Doresse (historian) saw the coptic language documents and published about them in 1948. Carl Jung had possession of some of the original manuscript (all in Coptic.)
For a visual reference, please see: http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/nha/id/2229 the pates in question are in Coptic and are the papiri of the Nag Hammadi library.
- Yes, Anti-Semitism (and prejudice) existed and exists today.
- Yes, prejudice in any form, is evil.
- But, were Gnostics “the most mystical form of Anti-Semitism” to ever exist? Of course not, and he offers no evidence of that.
- Just because one refuses to believe in another’s mythology does not make them hateful or prejudicial against others. This is the fallacy.
The author doesn’t even have a grasp on historic reference (stating that the Nag Hammadi library wasn’t even written in Coptic and leaving the door open to the reader as to it’s unauthenticity) – yet the historic record shows the Nag hammadi works were written in Coptic. This goes towards the lack of credible report of John Gager’s work.
Nor (as it seems) is the author aware of the Mandaens (a pre-Christian Gnostic movement that exists to this very day.) This movement was not antisemetic… in fact they are considered Semetic in origin.
What John is trying to do, is simply smear a variety of different belief systems who (in some part) can’t speak for themselves (such as Gnosticism or perhaps paganism.) Simply not believing in a book (such as the Torah) does NOT make one an antisemite. Being prejudicial against Judaism is what makes one an antisemite. One can respect the beliefs of Judaism, and not adhere to them. One can denounce the Old Testament god as “false,” without being an antisemite. It’s the very act of discerning what is “right” and “wrong” for oneself. If I find the nature of one religion to not be to my liking, that’s fine… I may even suggest the followers are in error – yet that doesn’t mean I cause harm (or wish harm) on such people. I don’t care for the Koran, but I love Muslims. I don’t care for the Old Testament, but I respect Judaism and admire Kabbalah.
Sadly, to a little mind like John Gager’s, there’s no grey area. You either are for the Bible or you are against it… and as such he labels you with one of the most horrible titles to date, being an antisemite.