I have read with great interest Chaver Evgueni's discussion of Nathan of Gaza's "Treatise on the Dragons". I do believe that this treatise is most significant to anyone wishing to understand the Sabbatean myth and its roots, and Evgueni is be commended for initiating this discussion.
I have a few comments to add to this discussion:
1. Following Scholem, Evgueni has described the process of creation as stemming from the dialectical struggle between two aspects of the Absolute, i.e., the Light of En-Sof and the thoughtless lights. However, if you read the original Hebrew text of the "Dragons" carefully, you will norice that the two-light dichotomy is not mentioned in this composition at all! Nathan of Gaza has introduced this dialectical dichotomy much later in his thought, in "The Book of Creation" (Sefer Ha-Beria). Scholem has actually commited an anachronism when he interpreted the myth presented in "The Treatise on the Dragons" (composed in 1666) in light of Nathan's later development, such as "The Book of Creation" (composed in 1670).
[All these issues I have discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation, "The Mystery of Faith in the Writings of Nathan of Gaza" (Submitted to the Senate of the Hebrew University, December 1993 - Hebrew. The English abstract can be found on this URL: http://www.multimania.com/jec/abstheslqayam1.htm. Being an abstract, it does not contain this specific point which I have just pointed out. However, you can find there a discussion of the Mystery of Faith in the Treatise on the Dragons, as well as in Nathan of Gaza's other writings.]
The point is, that at this phase in Nathan of Gaza's thought, dualism does not originate in the Absolute, but is created out of Emanation. It is not to be found inside En-Sof itself, but is produced within the Tehiru space. It was only some years later, in the Book of Creation, that Nathan has dared to push the dualism as far as the Absolute itself. The Book of Creation was the composition in which he presented the double-light dualism. In his ealier work, of which The Treatise on the Dragon is a part, Nathan of Gaza presented a conception of a Monist Godhead, out of which a restricted cosmic dualism is derived. In his later thought, the summit of which is The Book of Creation, Nathan of Gaza presented a conception of dualism within the Godhead itself, making it a major principle of creation, and presenting it as existing as high as En-Sof.
Unfortunately, the Book of Creation, a true pinnacle of the Prophet of Gaza's thought, was never printed, and can only be found in manuscripts. Scholem's own "Mystical Messiah" discusses this composition very little, and proposes almost nothing at all to analyze it -- in contrast to his intensive treatment of The Treatise on the Dragons.
2. As for Nathan of Gaza's sources for his portrayal of the Holy Serpent: Evgueni, following Scholem, has suggested as a parallel the Ophyte Gnostic myth. Indeed, Gnostic sources are the most important ones to undertanding Nathan of Gaza's thought in this treatise. Moreover, I would not reject out of hand the possibility of direct influence. More on the conception of serpent in Gnostic thought can be found in "Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism", by Kurt Rudolph (available at amazon.com).
To the Gnostic sources I would also add the following mystical Jewish sources as major sources of influence (this is by no means an exhaustive list):
B. Another source of Early Kabbalh, Sefer Ha-Zohar, "The Book of Splendor", part II, 33a - 36b. It gives a fascinating portrayal of the struggle between the First Mystical Messiah - namely, Moses - and Pharaoh's Serpents. Nathan's "Treatise on the Dragons" was actually composed as a commentary on this discussion in the Zohar.
C. In Late Kabbalah -- Lurianic Kabbalah (16th century) -- Rabbi Josheph ibn Tabbul, a major disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria, who has written an essay called "The Treatise on the Dragons", and which has influenced Nathan of Gaza. This essay has not been printed and is available only in manuscripts (in Hebrew).
I forsee the continuing of this discussion in following the Serpent's role in dynamic and depth psychology, in myth, in thought, in religion, in culture - both East and West.
from a post to the DONMEH
Sunday, 29 Nov 1998
page historypage uploaded 9 December 1998