Gnosticism - Ancient and Modern
Gnosticism is a philosophical and religious movement which started in
pre-Christian times. The term is derived from the Greek word gnosis which
means "knowledge". It is pronounced with a silent "G" (NO-sis). Gnostics
claimed to have secret knowledge about God, mankind and the rest of the
universe of which the general population was unaware.
The movement and its literature were essentially wiped out by the end of the 5th century CE by heresy hunters from mainline Christianity. Its beliefs are currently experiencing a rebirth throughout the world. The counter-cult movement and some other Christian ministries disseminate a great deal of misinformation about the movement
Gnosticism consisted of many syncretistic belief systems which combined elements taken from Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Syrian pagan religions, from astrology, and from Judaism and Christianity. They constituted one of the three main branches of early Christianity: the other two being: the remnants of the Jewish Christian sect which was created by Jesus' disciples, and the churches started by St. Paul, that were eventually to grow and develop into "mainline" Christianity by the end of the third century.
By the second century CE, many very different Christian-Gnostic sects had
formed within the Roman Empire at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.
Some Gnostics worked within Jewish Christian and mainline Christian
groups, and greatly influenced their beliefs from within. Others formed
Many new emerging religions in the West have adopted ancient Gnostic beliefs and practices.
Sources of Ancient Gnostic Information
Until recently, only a few pieces of Gnostic literature were known to
exist. These included Shepherd of Men, Asclepius, Codex Askewianus, Codex
Brucianus, Gospel of Mary, Secret Gospel of John, Odes of Solomon and the
Hymn of the Pearl.
In 1945, Mohammed Ali es_Samman, a camel driver from El Qasr in Egypt, went with his brother to a cliff near Nag Hummadi, a village in Northern Egypt. They were digging for nitrate-rich earth that they could use for fertilizer. They came across a large clay jar buried in the ground. They were undecided whether to open it. They feared that it might contain an evil spirit; but they also suspected that it might contain gold or other material of great value.
It turns out that their second guess was closer to the truth: the jar contained a library of Gnostic material of unmeasurable value. 13 volumes survive, comprising 51 different works on 1153 pages. 6 were copies of works that were already known; 6 others were duplicated within the library, and 41 were new, previously unknown works. Included were The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Treatise on the Resurrection, Gospel of Philip, Wisdom of Jesus Christ, Revelation of James, Letter of Peter to Philip, On the Origin of the World and other writings.
Of these, the Gospel of Thomas is considered the most important. It was a collection of the sayings of Jesus which were recorded very early in the Christian era. A later Gnostic author edited the Gospel. Some liberal theologians rank it equal in importance to the 4 Gospels of the Christian Scriptures.
The works had originally been written in Greek during the second and third centuries CE. The Nag Hummadi copies had been translated into the Coptic language during the early 4th century CE, and apparently buried circa 365 CE. Some Gnostic texts were non-Christian; others were originally non-Christian but had Christian elements added; others were entirely Christian documents.
Some recycled paper was used to reinforce the leather bindings of the books. They were found to contain dated letters and business documents from the middle of the 4th century. The books may have been hidden for save-keeping during a religious purge.
The texts passed through the hands of a number of mysterious middlemen,
and finally were consolidated and stored in the Coptic Museum of Cairo.
Publication was delayed by the Suez Crisis, the Arab-Israeli war of 1967,
and petty debates among scholars.
The Nag Hummadi find revealed that there was a broad range of beliefs
among the various independent Gnostic systems or schools. The However, the
following points are believed to be generally accurate throughout the
movement: Their Role: They believed that they alone truly understood
Christ's message, and that other streams of thought within
Christianity had misinterpreted Jesus' mission and sayings.
Deity: The Supreme Father God or Supreme God of Truth is remote from human affairs; he is unknowable and undetectable by human senses. She/he created a series of supernatural but finite beings called Aeons. One of these was Sophia, a virgin, who in turn gave birth to an defective, inferior Creator-God, also known as the Demiurge. (Demiurge means "public craftsman" in Greek.)
This lower God created the earth and its life forms. This is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), a deity who was viewed as fundamentally evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in compassion and prone to genocide. The Demiurge "thinks that he is supreme. His pride and incompetence have resulted in the sorry state of the world as we know it, and in the blind and ignorant condition of most of mankind."
Duality of spirit and body: Spirit is of divine origin and good; the body is inherently earthly and evil. Gnostics were hostile to the physical world, to matter and the human body. But they believed that trapped within some people's bodies were the sparks of divinity or seeds of light that were supplied to mankind by Sophia.
Salvation: A person attains salvation by learning secret knowledge of their spiritual essence: a divine spark of light or spirit. They then have the opportunity to escape from the prison of their bodies at death. Their soul can ascend to be reunited with the Supreme God at the time of their death. Gnostics divided humanity into three groups: the spiritual, who would be saved irrespective of their behavior while on earth the Soulish, who could be saved if they followed the Gnostic path the carnal who are hopelessly lost.
Evil: They did not look upon the world as having been created perfectly and then having degenerated as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. Rather the world was seen as being evil at the time of its origin, having been created by an inferior God.
Snake Symbol: Some Gnostic sects honored the snake. They did not view the snake as a seducer who led the first couple into sinful behavior. Rather, they saw him as a liberator who brought knowledge to Adam and Eve by convincing them to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and thus to become fully human.
Christ: The role of the redeemer in Gnostic belief is heavily debated at this time. Gnostics seem to have looked upon Christ as a revealer or liberator, rather than a savior or judge. His purpose was to spread knowledge which would free individuals from the Demiurge's control and allow them to return to their spiritual home with the Supreme God at death.
Some Gnostic groups promoted
Docetism, the belief that Christ was pure spirit and only had a
phantom body; Jesus just appeared to be human to his followers. They
reasoned that a true emissary from the Supreme God could not have
been overcome by the evil of the world, and to have suffered and
The Universe: This is divided into three kingdoms:
The "Earthly Cosmos": The earth is the center of the universe, and
is composed of the world that we know of and an underworld. It is
surrounded by air and by 7 concentric heavenly spheres: one for
each of the Moon, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
The "Intermediate Kingdom is composed of an inner blue circle of darkness and an outer yellow ring of light. Within these rings is a sphere which is the realm of Sophia. The "Kingdom of God" consists of two spheres: an outer one of the unknowable Supreme God, and inner ring of the Son.
Little is known about the rituals, organizational structure and practices of the ancient Gnostics. Almost all Gnostic texts were destroyed during various campaigns to suppress the movement. Although some of their religious writings survive, there is little information about how the groups actually functioned.
Religious historians believe that: Many Gnostics were probably solitary practitioners. Others were members of mainline Christian congregations, probably forming a clique within each church.
There was no consensus on a "canon of Gnostic scripture." Many books were circulated in different versions; various schools within the movement had their own preferred rendition.
Many Gnostic texts were written by (or attributed to) women. Mary Magdelene played an important role in many Gnostic writings, often being second only to Jesus in status. They used both female and male images for the Supreme God. Theologians speculate that they probably treated women members as equal (or of almost equal status) to men in their communities.
Some groups poured a substance over the head of a member when they were dead or dying, and recited certain ritual phrases. This was intended to help the individual's soul ascend through the dangerous heavens of the Archons towards the Supreme God.
Some Gnostic groups had a ritual in which new members were baptized saying: "In the name of the Father unknown to all, in the Truth, Mother of All, in the One who came down upon Jesus, in the union, redemption and communion of powers."
Sexual expression seems to have been suppressed in some Gnostic groups; members were expected to remain celibate. In others, ritual sex magic appears to have been practiced.
Ancient Gnostic Leaders
Simon Magus: He was one of the earliest Gnostics He was skilled in the arts of magic. He interpreted the Garden of Eden, exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea as allegories.
Marcion: (85-160 CE) He organized a series of Gnostic congregations
in the eastern Mediterranean which survived into the 3rd century CE.
He wrote a book called Antitheses which earned him excommunication
by the Christian leaders of Rome.
Valentinus: He was born in Egypt, traveled to Rome about 140 CE and
then moved to Cyprus. He was the founder of perhaps the largest and
most influential school of Gnosticism which lasted until it was
suppressed in the 4th century CE. He taught that groups of Aeons
made up the "pleroma (fullness) of the High God.
Carpocrates: (circa 140 CE); He taught reincarnation. An individual had to live many lives and adsorb a full range of experiences before being able to return to God. They practiced free sexuality. They believed that Jesus was the son of Joseph.
Interaction of Gnosticism and Early Mainline Christianity
Some Gnostic beliefs and leaders may have infiltrated mainline Christianity and influenced the authors of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) Some theologians believe that the Carpocratian Gnostics were the target of Jude's attack about "...certain men" who " have secretly slipped in among you,". The book of Jude, Verses 4 to 19, deals mainly with these infiltrators.
Simon Magus, an early Gnostic, may have been the Simon mentioned in Acts 8:9-24. Simon believed in Jesus and was baptized with a group of other believers. But none had received the Holy Spirit until Peter and John placed their hands on the new converts. Simon asked for the laying on of the apostles' hands and even offered money. Peter refused, because Simon's heart was not right with God.
Matthew 4:8-9 describes how Satan took Jesus to a very high mountain and offered him all of the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would only bow down and worship him. This passage has always been difficult to understand, because it implies that the world belonged to the Devil and was his to give away to Christ. But the passage matches Gnostic belief very closely.
ReferencesJoscelyn Godwin, "Mystery Religions of the Ancient World", (1981), P. 84
C.S. Clifton, "Encyclopeia of Heresies and Heretics", ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara CA, (1992)
G. Filoramo, "A History of Gnosticism, Basil Blackwood Ltd, Oxford UK (1991)
R.W. Funk, et al, "The Five Gospels", Macmillan, New York, (1993) I. Hexham, "Concise Dictionary of Religion", Downers Grove, IL, (1993), P. 92
Stuart Holroyd, "The Elements of Gnosticism", Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK, (1994)
H.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult", (1993), P. 111
E. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels", London (1980) Kurt Rudolph, "Gnosis: The nature and History of Gnosticism", Harper, San Francisco, (1987)
An interpretation of ancient Gnosticism from a conservative Christian perspective by the Christian Research Institute is at: http://www.wherry.com/~gbisaga/CRJ0040A.html
The Gnostic Friends Network has a list of "Links to 23 Selected Anti-GnosticSites" at: http://www.enemies.com/visitor/badlinks.html The Gnosis Site has an essay: "Sites that Slander Gnosticism" at: http://www.teleport.com/~jhjensen/gnosis/slander.htm
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