The BBC and HBO recently aired the final episodes of the TV show His Dark Materials, based on the books of the same name by Philip Pullman, a self-described Church of England Atheist. When I first read the His Dark Materials trilogy 20 years ago, I knew the books were deemed as heretical. I read them as anti-church and having a different theology from Christianity. I hadn’t realised at the time that they hark back to an older heresy with roots in Judaism, Jewish Christianity and Greek philosophy.
In the first and second centuries CE, there were a wide variety of Christian theologies and groups living their lives based on them. Christianity in the 1st century was still part of Judaism, but the parting of ways was underway. Most early Christian sects would later be called heretical by proto-orthodox church fathers. Heretical groups included Marcionites, Simionites and Ophites and Cainites, usually named after their founders. Many of these groups were Gnostic.
Gnosticism (lit. Knowledge) usually referred to groups who believed they had secret mystical knowledge that they would pass on to their initiates. These sects had wildly different ideas about God, Gods or Supreme Powers. By way of example, Marcion, the founder of an extremely popular form of Christianity, deemed the God of the Hebrew Bible as the ‘evil creator’ that was responsible for all the suffering in the world, while Jesus was the incarnation of the superior benevolent saviour God, sent to bring salvation to the world. Two powers in heaven was one popular model among many.
In Pullman’s world, the creator God and Jesus are not mentioned, but their motifs are hinted at. The Authority is a kind of unknowable creator God who does not appear to be active in the world. The ruler of the age (another Gnostic idea) is discovered to be the Angel Metatron, who is an evil god sending the dead into perpetual purgatory, using his agents of the earth to suppress ‘dust’ which is the spiritual matter of the universe which seems to represent free will and love. Lord Asriel (father of the protagonist) goes to war against the powers. Although he seems to have no morality, he manages to pull together an army from the various worlds to fight Metatron. Meanwhile, the central character Lyra/Eve, is motivated by a generic ‘good’ but doesn’t seem to have much of a plan. She and her companion Will accidentally repair the multiverse by falling in love, she is the new Eve, but this time around, ‘the fall’ of Eve is a good thing.
Gnostic groups were often founded by Jewish Christians who were highly Hellenized. However, Jewish mystical texts provide an underpinning to both Gnosticism and Pullman’s Metatron character. In one of the final episodes of the TV series, Metatron is identified as Enoch who is explained to be a man who had been made divine and then turned into the angel Metatron.
In the Bible, Enoch was a minor pre-flood figure. He is only mentioned briefly: He ‘Walked with God’ and ‘God took him’ (Genesis 5:22–24). Jewish authors as far back as 200 BCE took this biblical passage and created an extended narrative about him which was compiled in the book 1 Enoch. This book didn’t make it into the biblical canon but was popular with Jews for hundreds of years. It fell out of popularity in Jewish circles and we now only have later Christian manuscript copies.
In 1 Enoch, the titular figure is taken up to heaven and made chief of the archangels, an attendant to the Throne of God, where he was taught the secrets of the universe and executed God’s commands. A later book, 3 Enoch, aka Sefer Hechalot (written 2nd-5th century CE), is a rabbinic writing which repeats much of the lore of 1st Enoch and identifies him as the Angel Metatron, it even calls him the Lesser YHVH a hint at Gnostic ideas in Rabbinic thought. Pullman seemingly is aware of this text.
The well-known story of ‘four who enter the Pardes’ has Rabi Elisha Ben Avuyah (aka Acher) becoming a heretic because of a mystical experience. The Talmud expands on this earlier midrash and explains that when Elisha Ben Avuyah entered the Pardes (a mystical journey), he saw the Angel Metatron sitting by the Throne of heaven.
As recounted in the Babylonian Talmud Chagiga 15a:
Elisha Ben Avuyah saw Metatron, who had permission to sit and write the merits of Israel. He said, “There is a tradition: in heaven, there is no sitting, no copying, no turning one’s back, and no tiredness [among the angels, yet Metatron was sitting]. Maybe– Heaven Forbid!– there are two powers.”
They took Metatron out, and gave him sixty lashes of fire. They said to him, “What is your reason, that when you saw him, you did not stand before him?” He had permission to erase the merits of Acher. A heavenly voice went out and said, “Return, rebellious children (Jeremiah 3:14)-‘ except for Acher.””
The fact that the Babylonian Talmud is still warning against Gnostic thought sometime around the 4-5th century suggests that these ideas were still popular in Jewish circles and had survived the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. This entire theological genre may be an example of Judeo-Christianity, a term often used anachronistically today but historically has some merit.
Pullman may well be aware of this Midrash as it clearly places Metatron as a ‘second power’ in heaven in a way strikingly similar to that of his villain in His Dark Materials.