Michael Heiser’s Gnostic Heresy (Part 1)
 Heath Henning

November 12, 2020


While working on a commentary for Psalm 1, I was planing to write an excursus on the how the phrase “counsel” and “sitteth in the seat” carry a concepual parallel to Psalm 82. 

Being aware of an “angelic” interpretation of Psalm 82, I planned to study out the view to determine whether I could be persuaded that the “human rulers” position was wrong. This turned my attention to Michael Heiser. First, I read his doctorates dissertation on the topic which presented a polytheistic view of the Bible. I was confused if what he was stating was his actual opinion or if he was slanting it toward the liberal view since his doctorates was from University of Madison which is a liberal campus by secular standards. Next, I perused some of his scholarly articles published in evangelical journals and was shocked to see the same polytheistic opinion published by “conservative” evangelical journals. I finally read his book The Unseen Realm which presents his theological system as a whole which convinced me this man is teaching a neo-Gnostic heresy which is being accepted by evangelicals.

In my book Crept In Unawares: Mysticism, I wrote in the preface about Peter Jones material in distinction to my own position. I stated, “The major difference between our works is that he primarily indicates that liberal theologians are working to revive Gnosticism, while I argue Gnosticism has already infiltrated that which may be considered conservative Christianity. The Bible predicts a growing apostasy in Christianity during the end-time, not unbelieving scholars reviving an ancient heresy.”1) Dr. Heiser fulfills this prediction in that his education is from the extreme liberal persuasion and his writings are targeting conservative evangelicals. However, after reading his Gnostic theological system as presented in his book The Unseen Realm, I was shocked to realize that the apostasy has grown to the degree that evangelicals would accept blatant Gnostic views. A glance at the footnotes of any of his writings will reveal his dependence on rank liberal scholars coming from publishing companies such as Brill and Tübingen.

Heiser’s Hermeneutic

The root cause of the issue with Heiser’s theology is his interpretation method, which errs on multiple levels. First, he interprets Scripture in light of pagan literature to interject polytheism into the Bible. As Peter Jones suggested of Gnosticism, “Whenever ‘Christian’ theology looks to pagan polytheism for inspiration—as it is doing now and as it did then—it discovers a titillating variety of reading techniques, without which the Scriptures of the one, true God would be strictly unusable.”2) Indeed, this hermeneutic method reigns supreme in Heiser’s writings. One critic of Heiser has similarly commented, “Heiser has a bad hermeneutical methodology because he has a bad hermeneutic philosophy. This bad philosophy has led him to bad conclusions. There have always been Christians who have tried to come up with some unique and revolutionary interpretations. Heiser is not the first to come up with this notion of a council of gods. You can see this in Gnosticism, and Marcionism, and in other adaptations of basic Christian doctrines. I’m sure he won’t be the last.”3) Heiser responded to Howe’s criticism, stating, “I assume that the Scripture writers were communicating to people intentionally – people that lived in their day and who shared their same worldview. This assumption is in place because I’m sensitive to imposing a foreign worldview on the writers.”4)  In other words, he admits his hermeneutics is focused on imposing the pagan worldview on the Biblical authors, even though the Bible itself commanded the Israelites to not enquire into the theology of their pagan neighbors (Deuteronomy 12:29-32), and to destroy any Israelite guilty of doing so (Deuteronomy 13:6-18). One simple example of this is Heiser’s discussion of pagan deities were known to inhabit gardens and mountains which he formulates an entire theology revolving around this concept imported on the Bible.5) However, the Bible condemns this pagan practice as idolatry on “high places” (Leviticus 26:30; Numbers 22:41; 33:52; Deuteronomy 12:2; 33:29; 1 Kings 3:2; 12:31-32; 13:32-33; 15:14; 22:43; 2 Kings 12:3; 14:4; 15:4, 33; 16:4; 17:11, 32; 21:3; 23:5; Psalm 78:58; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 32:25; 48:35) and “groves” (Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3; Judges 3:7; 1 Kings 14:15; 18:19; 2 Kings 18:4; 23:14; Isaiah 17:8; 27:9) with idols under “every green tree” (Deuteronomy 12:2; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 16:4; 17:10; Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 2:20; 3:6, 13: Ezekiel 6:13). God rebukes this idolatry that Heiser thinks is valid biblical theology, “your iniquities, and the iniquities of your fathers together, saith the Lord, which have burned incense upon the mountains, and blasphemed me upon the hills” (Isaiah 65:7). Where is the logic of building a “biblical theology” by imposing pagan practices which are specifically condemned in the Bible? One of his foolish arguments for allegorizing his mountain opinion is presented in his citing of Psalm 48:1-2, stating, “As anyone who has been to Jerusalem knows, Mount Zion isn’t much of a mountain. It certainly isn’t located in the geographical north—its actually in the southern part of the country.”6) Mount Zion is on the north of the city Zion, also called Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 5:2; Psalm 135:21; 147:12; Isaiah 10:32; 30:19). He contends, “This description would be a familiar one to Israel’s pagan neighbors, particularly at Ugarit. Its actually out of their literature.”7)

Another problem with Heiser’s hermeneutic is he focuses on ambiguous text, plays fast and loose with the Hebrew language whenever he can, and when he cannot twist an interpretation of the existing grammar to fit his presupposition, he becomes the textual critic and changes the text itself or uses a different text to justify his position. Other Christian apologists have complained about Heiser’s handling of the text. “Much of Dr. Heiser’s argument with respect to the text relies on a higher critical framework that is repulsive to the traditional evangelical scholar. This makes interacting with Dr. Heiser difficult from the standpoint of finding any common ground upon which to premise discussions.”8) Giovanni Filmoramo, a Italian Gnostic scholar indicated the same issue with ancient Gnostics. “Gnostic editors manipulate the sacred text in order to make it suit their purpose… by retouching, adding a phrase or choosing a different translation.”9) In all this we find that Heiser’s theology does not come from the Biblical text itself, but is read into it from foreign pagan literature and when it does not fit the grammar, he shifts the Biblical text to allow the pagan worldview into the sacred scripture.

One of the major rules of Biblical hermeneutics is to interpret the Bible from passages that are clear and easy to understand, and do not emphasize difficult passages; and definitely do not produce an entire theological system based on a difficult passage. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe have written in their book When Critics Ask, concerning these rules basic hermeneutic principles, errors are made when “Neglecting to Interpret Difficult Passages in the Light of Clear Ones.”10) They also reference the mistake of “Basing a Teaching on an Obscure Passage.”11) Elaborating on this rule, they write,

'First, we should not build a doctrine on an obscure passage. The rule of thumb in Bible interpretation is “the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” This is called the perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture. If something is important, it will be clearly taught in Scripture and probably in more than one place. Second, when a given passage is not clear, we should never conclude that it means something that is opposed to another plain teaching of Scripture.12)'

Heiser’s theology is a perfect example of what happens when this fundamental rule is ignored. He attempts to persuade his readers that “we have layers of tradition that filter the Bible in our thinking.”13) But he filters the Bible and his theology through ancient pagan Ugaritic theology, not the Israelite religion as we all read in the Bible. He is dependent on circular reasoning to find any nuance to confirm his presupposition of this divine council. He states, “As with everything else in biblical theology, what happens in the unseen world frames the discussion [of eschatology].”14) So what frames everything in his theology is what he calls “the Deuteronomy 32 worldview”  which is his filter to read the Bible through.

He frequently uses allegorical interpretations when the text cannot be interpreted toward his view. Heiser repeatedly uses the terms “symbolic interpretation” or “supernatural interpretation” to express his allegorical hermeneutics, similar to how Origen distinguished between the physical/literal versus the spiritual/allegorical methods. He states, “Literal readings are inadequate to convey the full theological message and the entirety of the worldview context.”15) Wrong! The literal interpretation is perfectly adequate unless you are attempting to force a foreign worldview into the text like Heiser is doing. He states, “Biblical writers regularly employ conceptual metaphors in their writings and thinking. Conceptual metaphor refers to the way we use a concrete term or idea to communicate abstract ideas. If we marry ourselves to the concrete (“literal”) meaning of words, we’re going to miss the point the writer was angling for in may cases.”16) There is a validity to this point, such as Christ calling Himself the “door” (John 10:7, 9); but this does not justify the extremes of Dr. Heiser.

Heiser writes, “My task in this chapter and the next is to help you think beyond the literalness of the serpent language. If it’s true that the enemy in the garden was a supernatural being, then he wasn’t a snake.”17) He then spends two chapter to explain why he needs to allegorize away the literal interpretation. But why could it not be both, a supernatural being possessing a snake. What could Genesis 3:14 possibly mean if not taken literally? Why did all the New Testament authors express it in literal terms (2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Thessalonians 3:5; Revelation 12:9)? Why did all the early translations such as the Septuagint18) and the Peshita19) translate the word literally as “serpent?” If allegorical interpretations are not enough Heiser will revert to monkeying with the grammar. “But n–ch–sh are also the consonants of a verb. If we changed the vowel to a verbal form (recall that Hebrew originally had no vowels), we would have nochesh, which means ‘the diviner.’”20) He also suggests nachash “copper, bronze (by implication, shiney)”21) but says in a footnote, “I am not arguing that nachash should not be translated ‘serpent.’”22) But that is exactly what he is suggesting throughout the whole discussion, that the word should not be understood as a literal serpent.

The common claim of scholars that the Hebrew vowels did not exist in the original is not established as fact, and history is strongly against the slim evidence presented for such claims.23) The mere similarity of consonants in the Hebrew language is no reason to suggest various interpretations that would contradict the context of Genesis 3. “First, the word nāhāsh is almost identical to the word for ‘bronze’ of ‘copper,’ Hebrew nehōshet (q.v.). Some scholars think the words are related because of a common color of snakes (cf. our ‘copperheads’), but others think that they are only coincidentally similar.”24) Concerning the similarity of “serpent” and “divination,” Robert Alden states, “some make a connection to snakecharming. More contend that there is a similarity of hissing sounds between enchanters and serpents and hence the similarity of words.”25) Of course, this similarity could be just as coincidental, but there are word-plays on similar words in Scriptures (Ecclesiastes 10:11; Jeremiah 8:17).

Heiser does not limit his textual criticism to ignoring vowel points, but he goes as far as altering consonants to completely change words in conjunction with his “symbolic” interpretation to fit his agenda. Speaking of Armageddon, he changes M-G-D to M-‘-D making it refer to the “mountain of assembly” [har mo’ed] (Isa 14:13) and explains away the final nun of the spelling in Zech 12:11.26) This is all based on his idea that the battle takes place at Jerusalem not Megiddo, but the text only says the armies are gathered to Megiddo (Rev 16:16) with no mention of a battle waged in the area. Heiser alters the text which reads מְגִדּוֹן and Ἁρμαγεδδών to read הַר-מוֹעֵד. He claims the Hebrew consonant ayin (ע) make the sound of the letter g, but ayin is a silent consonant. He is well aware of the fact that ayin and gimel are significantly different and the use of these different Hebrew letters reflect a humongous distinction. It would seem he is depending on his readers to be ignorant of Hebrew.
This sets himself as the authority for interpretation, making anyone not him unable to understand and thus be dependent on his teachings. “The Hebrew Bible has many examples, but they are obvious only to a readers of Hebrew who is informed by the ancient worldview of the biblical writers.”27) Apparently that means these “many examples” are only obvious to him since no one other than himself is offering his bazar interpretations. I can read Hebrew and am well acquainted with the ancient worldview of the surrounding pagan nations of Israel, but nothing in Heiser’s theology is apparent to me. To remark on his self-boasting, after reading over 1,000 pages of his material, I have not seen him once referenced the most basic scholarly text to be informed by the ancient world view popularly referred to as ANET (Ancient Near Eastern Text Relating to the Old Testament).28)

He is also very selective in what he is willing to recognize and completely ignores the context that refute his presupposed theological view. He admits he uses “a few selective points of connection and issues relevant to those connection.”29) By ignoring the full counsel of God’s word in order to select only what fits his presupposed pagan worldview that he wants to force into the Scriptures, he has produced a hybrid religious opinion just as the ancient Gnostic heretics. We will assess particular points of where his major errors are in future articles. To say the very least, Dr. Michael S. Heiser falls into the category of what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” (Romans 16:17)

Follow the entire series of assessing Hieser’s theology.
Michael Heiser’s Gnostic Heresy (Part 1) is focused on Heiser’s hermeneutic method as the root of his errors but is not very expressive of his theology.
Michael Heiser’s Gnostic Heresy: Polytheism (Part 2) is dealing with why he should be considered a polytheist even if he denies the accusation. Simply put, his term “divine plurality” is what he uses as a synonym to refer to his belief in many gods.
Michael Heiser’s Gnostic Heresy: Redefining אלהים (Part 3) further elaborates his polytheistic views and refutes his arguments against being labeled a polytheist.
Michael Heiser’s Gnostic Heresy: gods or Angels (Part 4) discusses how other Bible scholars that have similar research in Second Temple Jewish literature understand this language to refer to angels, not gods.

Michael Heiser’s Gnostic Heresy: Deification (Part 5) may be the most significant assessment of Heiser’s theology and draws on the many parallels of his theological views and Gnosticism and exposes his heretical doctrine that men become gods.

Michael Heiser’s Gnostic Heresy: Paradigm passages (Part 6) [not yet available] will discuss Heiser’s paradigmatic passages to explain his errors and provide an accurate exegesis of Psalm 82; Deuteronomy 4:19-20; 32:8-9; and John 10:34.