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Gnosticism (nŏsˈtĭsĭzəm), dualistic religious and philosophical movement of the late Hellenistic and early Christian eras. The term designates a wide assortment of sects, numerous by the 2d cent. A.D.; they all promised salvation through an occult knowledge that they claimed was revealed to them alone. Scholars trace these salvation religions back to such diverse sources as Jewish mysticism, Hellenistic mystery cults, Iranian religious dualism (see Zoroastrianism), and Babylonian and Egyptian mythology. The definition of gnosis [knowledge] as concern with the Eternal was already present in earlier Greek philosophy, although its connection with the later Gnostic movement is distant at best. Christian ideas were quickly incorporated into these syncretistic systems, and by the 2d cent. the largest of them, organized by Valentinus and Basilides, were a significant rival to Christianity. Much of early Christian doctrine was formulated in reaction to this movement.
Until the discovery at Nag Hammadi in Egypt of key Manichaean (1930) and Coptic Gnostic (c.1945) papyri, knowledge of Gnosticism depended on Christian sources, notably St. Irenaeus, St. Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. Among principal Gnostic writings are the Valentinian documents Pistis-Sophia and the Gospel of Truth (perhaps by Valentinus himself). Important too is the literature of the Mandaeans in modern Iraq, who are the only Gnostic sect extant. Gnostic elements are found in the Acts of Thomas, the Odes of Solomon, and other wisdom literature of the pseudepigrapha.
Some Gnostics taught that the world is ruled by evil archons, among them the deity of the Old Testament, who hold captive the spirit of humanity. The heavenly pleroma was the center of the divine life, and Jesus was interpreted as an intermediary eternal being, or aeon, sent from the pleroma to restore the lost knowledge of humanity's divine origin. Gnostics held secret formulas, which they believed would free them at death from the evil archons and restore them to their heavenly abode. See Valentinus for typical Gnostic teaching on the pleroma.
Gnosticism held that human beings consist of flesh, soul, and spirit (the divine spark), and that humanity is divided into classes representing each of these elements. The purely corporeal (hylic) lacked spirit and could never be saved; the Gnostics proper (pneumatic) bore knowingly the divine spark and their salvation was certain; and those, like the Christians, who stood in between (psychic), might attain a lesser salvation through faith. Such a doctrine may have inspired extreme asceticism (as in the Valentinian school) or extreme licentiousness (as in the sect of Caprocrates and the Ophites). The influence of Gnosticism on the later development of the Jewish kabbalah and heterodox Islamic sects such as the Ismailis is much debated.
See H. Jonas, Gnostic Religion (rev. ed. 1964); R. Haardt, Gnosis: Character and Testimony (1971); E. H. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (1979); M. W. Meyer, The Secret Teachings of Jesus (1984); B. Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (1987); J. M. Robinson and R. Smith, The Nag Hammadi Library (1988); H.-J. Klimkeit, tr., Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia (1993).
Gnosticism(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
The word "Gnosticism" is derived from the Greek word gnosis, which means "knowledge." A lot of contemporary controversy surrounds this word, so it is important to lay some groundwork.
First of all, Gnosticism was not an early Christian "movement," later declared to be heretical. There were many non-Christian Gnostics. And there was no "movement" because Gnosticism was an amorphous philosophy, drifting through many systems of thought. It was not a particular theology taught by a particular person. It was not systematized at all, but rather a way of understanding the world that arose from Greek, pagan, and philosophical schools, interpreted in many different ways.
Gnosticism is an attempt to explain the nature of evil and the manner of salvation from it. There are so many different interpretations that what follows is only a rough guideline.
According to Gnostics, matter is at best unreal, and at worst, evil. Humans are really spiritual entities that have been trapped or imprisoned in a body. In the beginning, the Supreme Creator made a spiritual family consisting of (according to one system) 365 beings called "eons." One of these eons fell into sin. (One system of thought says that Wisdom, a spiritual eon, tried her hand at creation. Her "abortion" turned out to be the material world. According to this way of thinking, the world is an abortion of the spirit, not a divine creation.) But because the world was created as spirit, there are still bits and pieces of spirit in it. These have been imprisoned by what is called matter, and the only way to liberate them is to know the secret gnosis, or knowledge. A spiritual being must come from the other side and awaken humans from their spiritual slumber, their dream. Their spirits are asleep and need to be reminded of their true identity.
But the way is difficult. Humans are insulated from reality by many layers of heavenly realms, each ruled by an evil power who tries to bar the way to salvation. The messenger, thought by early Christian Gnostics to be Jesus Christ, holds the key that will unlock the bars. He had the spiritual "password," so to speak, and taught it to his disciples, who passed it on to others. In other words, Jesus came to Earth to remind people who they really were and to teach them how to return to that state.
This opened a tricky theological quagmire. Christ was a heavenly messenger. Since matter, including bodies, are evil, Christ could not have had a human body. Gnostics living at the time of Jesus pointed to the fact that before returning to heaven Jesus appeared in locked rooms and seemed to be in many far removed places without needing time to travel.
Orthodox critics were appalled at this thought. The whole point of the Gospel, according to them, was that God became a man just like the rest of humankind.
Maybe Jesus did have a body, countered the Gnostics, but it was certainly not like ours. That would have put him under the same power of evil that has entrapped humankind. Gospels were written claiming that one disciple or another noticed that sometimes Jesus seemed soft and airy and at other times rock hard. He only "seemed" to be human. These theories explaining Christ's body earned the Gnostics the title Docetists, which means "to seem."
Questions about the illusory or evil nature of matter naturally led to questions of ethics. How is a person to live? What are the rules of righteousness? Some Gnostics became extreme ascetics. They felt they needed to punish the body. Others became libertines. Since the body didn't matter, they let it follow its desires.
For a hundred years the battle persisted. Eventually, because the majority of Christian theologians thought Gnosticism denied such bedrock doctrines as Creation, incarnation, and resurrection, to say nothing of ethical behavior and lifestyle, a statement of faith was formulated to lay the controversy to rest.
In about 150 CE, probably in Rome, the series of questions then called a "symbol of faith" was composed and recited to baptism candidates to distinguish Gnostic Christians from what became known as orthodox Christianity.
Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost and of Mary the virgin, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose again at the third day, living from among the dead, and ascended unto heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the quick and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh?
Anyone who said "yes" to all three questions was baptized. This was the genesis of Christianity's oldest statement of faith, the Apostles' Creed.
It was supposed to mark the end of Gnosticism, but it didn't. One of the ideas that refused to die was that of Jesus teaching a secret wisdom to his disciples. If the apostles passed on this wisdom to others, it follows that those who received such wisdom would be the leaders of the church.
Even though bishops denied any secret wisdom and church leaders denied being entrusted with the gnosis, the idea persisted among the laity. Partly as a disclaimer, to show being appointed bishop was not about secret wisdom, churches began to keep lists, showing the unbroken line of orthodox apostles to present-day bishops. Thus, apostolic succession was born and continues to this very day in Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. Second-century churches could thus show an unbroken line dating back to the time of Christ in a way Gnostics could not. This, by the way, was the beginning of the term "catholic." "Catholic" means "universal." By calling itself the Catholic, or universal, Church, early Christians were emphasizing the fact that they were the bearers of a message open to all, not just those who knew the secrets. Catholic also means "according to the whole." The message of Christ came through the complete message of all the disciples, not secret knowledge given only to one.
It is a supreme historical irony that this deliberate move to include all the apostles, this effort to become truly "catholic," would, centuries later, come to be centered on the person and authority of one disciple—the apostle Peter, considered to be the first pope.
Gnosticism has been an enemy of the church since early Christianity. One of the Gnostics’ greatest sins in the eyes of the church fathers was their belief that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.
Several cults with widely differing beliefs but all bearing the label of “Gnostic” arose in the first century, strongly competing with other versions of early Christianity. The term Gnostic is derived from the Greek gnosis, meaning “knowledge,” and the adherents of Gnosticism unabashedly declared that they “knew” from firsthand experience the truths that other beliefs had to accept on faith. Many of the Gnostic sects blended elements of Christianity with the Eleusinian mysteries, combining them with Indian, Egyptian, and Babylonian magic, bringing in aspects of the Jewish Kabbalah as well.
Nearly everything that was known about the Gnostics prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Upper Egypt in 1945 was taken from the highly prejudiced writings of such church fathers as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius, who condemned the Gnostics as heretics and devil worshippers. The Nag Hammadi library consists of twelve books called codices, plus eight leaves removed from a thirteenth book and tucked inside the front cover of the sixth. These eight leaves make up the complete text of a single work that was taken out of a volume of collected works. Each of the codices, except the tenth, consists of a collection of brief works, such as The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Gospel of Thomas, The Sophia of Jesus Christ, The Gospel of the Egyptians, and so on.
Although the Nag Hammadi library is written in Coptic, the texts were originally composed in Greek and contain many references to Egyptian sites and beliefs. And although the work is ascribed to Christian Gnostics, there are many essays within the library that do not seem to reflect very much of what is today regarded as Christian tradition. While there are references to a Gnostic Savior, his presentation does not seem to be based on the Jesus found in the New Testament. On those occasions when Jesus does appear in the texts, he often seems to be criticizing those orthodox Christians who have confused his words and his teachings. By following the true way and thus achieving transcendence, Jesus says in The Apocalypse of Peter, every believer’s “resurrection” becomes a spiritual reality.
Throughout the Nag Hammadi library there are admonitions to resist the lures and traps of trying to be content in a world that has been corrupted by evil. The world created by God is good. The evil that has permeated the world, although alien to its original design, has risen to the status of ruler. Rather than perceiving existence as a battle between God and the devil, the Gnostics envisioned a struggle between the true, most high, unknowable God and the lesser god of this earth, the “Demiurge,” whom they associated with the angry, jealous, rule-giving deity of the ancient Hebrews. All humans have the ability to awaken to the glorious realization that they have within themselves a spark of the divine. By attuning to the mystical awareness within them, they can transcend all earthly entrapments and regain their true spiritual home. Jesus was sent by the most high God as a guide to teach humans how to free themselves from the control of the Demiurge and to understand that the kingdom of God is within, a transcendental state of consciousness, rather than a future reward.
The theology of the Gnostics often utilized feminine imagery and symbology. Especially offensive to the patriarchal church fathers was the Gnostic assertion that Jesus had close women disciples as well as men. In The Gospel of Philip, it is written that the Lord loved Mary Magdalene above all the other apostles and sharply reprimanded those of his followers who objected to his open displays of affection toward her.
The first Gnostic of importance was Simon Magus, a Samaritan sorcerer, a contemporary of the apostles, who was converted to Christianity by the apostle Philip. Although he was a highly respected magus, Simon was impressed by the remarkable powers of the apostles and their ability to heal and to manifest miracles. When he saw the apostles Peter and John performing wonders, Simon offered to pay them a fee to teach him how to manifest the Holy Spirit. Peter strongly rebuked him for attempting to buy this profound spiritual gift (Acts 8:9–24). The term simony to describe the purchasing of ecclesiastic blessings has come down through the ages.
According to tradition, Simon fell back on his old ways of sorcery and began to traffic once again with demons. To prove his power, he announced to all of Rome that he would soar into the sky and ascend to heaven, just as Jesus had done. Supported by demons, Simon began to rise skyward. Peter, fearful that many innocents would be attracted to this false prophet, prayed for God to end Simon’s flight. Frightened away by the apostle’s prayers, the demons fled, and the magus crashed to the ground, breaking both legs.
The story of Simon Magus fueled the belief that a secret oral tradition existed, passed down from Jesus, that had much greater power and authority than the scriptures and epistles offered by the orthodox teachers of Christianity. The Gnostics, like the initiates of the Greek and Egyptian mysteries, sought direct experience with the divine, and they believed that this communion could be achieved by uttering secret words of wisdom that God had granted to specially enlightened teachers.
The Gnostics continued to be regarded as heretics by the church down through their spiritual descendants in the Cathars and the Knights Templar. In turn, the Gnostics considered themselves much more spiritually advanced than the larger community of Christians, whom they regarded as ignorant plodders and easily led sheep.
Gnosticism ceased to be a threat to the organized Christian church by the fourteenth century, but many of its tenets have never faded completely from the thoughts and writings of scholars and intellectuals. Elements of the various creeds of the Gnostics surfaced again in the so-called New Age movement of the twentieth century, and an impetus to study the writings of the Gnostic texts was provided by the psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961). In Jung’s opinion, Gnosticism’s depiction of the struggle between the most high God and the false god represented the turmoil that exists among various aspects of the human psyche. The most high God, in the psychologist’s interpretation, was the personal unconscious, the Demiurge was the ego (the organizing principle of consciousness), and Christ was the unified self, the complete human.
the general term designating a number of religious trends of late antiquity that employed motifs of eastern mythology, as well as a number of early Christian heresies and sects. The writings of the gnostics were destroyed by orthodox Christianity and have survived chiefly in the form of quotations in the works of Christian theologians struggling against gnosticism. In 1945-46 a large archive of gnostic texts was found in Egypt at Chenoboskion.
Gnosticism’s origins—as well as the existence of pagan or Judaic gnostic teachings separate from Christianity—are unclear. Gnostic tendencies may be discerned in Christianity in the earliest period, and they reached their highest development in the second century. In addition to being influenced by eastern religious mysteries, gnosticism assimilated a number of ideas found in the philosophy of late antiquity, particularly in Platonism and neo-Pythagoreanism.
Gnosticism is based on the concept of the soul’s fall into the lower, material world created by the Demiurge, the lower deity. In the dualistic mysticism of gnosticism matter is regarded as the sinful and evil principle, inimical to god and destined to be overcome. Fragments from the other world are scattered throughout this world, and they must be gathered and returned to their source. The redeemer is primarily Christ, but only the “spiritual people” (pneumatics) follow his call. Those who do not receive the gnostic consecration, the “people of the soul,” achieve only faith instead of true knowledge, and the “people of the flesh” never transcend the sphere of the senses. Characteristic of gnosticism is the concept of levels, or spheres, of the world, whose demonic rulers obstruct redemption.
A number of gnostics were active in the second century, including Basilides of Syria, Valentinus of Egypt, Carpocrates of Alexandria, Saturninus (or Saturnilus) of Syria, and Marcion of Pontus. Persian Manichaeanism may be considered a later form of gnosticism. Christianity overcame gnosticism in the second century; nevertheless, a clandestine gnostic tradition continued to exist until the late Middle Ages.
The influence of gnosticism may be traced in later, nonorthodox Christian mysticism—for example, in such German philosophers as J. Boehme, F. Baader, and F. W. Schelling. Unquestionably, there are points of contact between gnosticism and the ideas of anthroposophy and theosophy. Certain gnostic motifs were developed by Russian religious philosophers (Vladimir Solov’ev and his followers) and by the German philosopher L. Ziegler.
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Posnov, M. E. Gnostitsizm II v. i pobeda khristianskoi tserkvi nad nim. Kiev, 1917.
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Wilson, R. McL. The Gnostic Problem. London, 1958.
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A. F. LOSEV