Gnosticism is a label used to categorize a number of related groups and/or theological movements which taught that salvation was attained through gaining esoteric knowledge. Gnosis is the ancient Greek word for experiential knowledge. For Gnostics, gnosis is experiential knowledge of God. In other words, someone who has gnosis has experienced a mystical connection to God and had the secret knowledge of the true nature of the world revealed to them. This knowledge comes through a revealer, such as and angel (or Christ in Christian Gnostic texts) and/or teaching given by a gnostic teacher. Gnosticism is not really a religion, but rather a kind of theology.

The Gnostic Myth

In Gnostic theology, the physical, material world is an illusion compared to the real spiritual or divine world. The material world was not created by the true God, who is often called the unknowable God or the Father. He is completely transcendent, all-powerful and all-knowing. He is loving and good. This God is the like the traditional theistic God of Judaism and Christianity.

The world was created by a lesser god or angel. This lesser god is an evil version of the demiurge (Greek for Craftsman) from Platonic theology. The demiurge is an emanation from God and an intermediary between God and the world. The demiurge fashioned the physical world from preexisting matter as a copy of the heavenly, divine world.

In Gnostic texts, this lesser god is malevolent and ignorant. He is called Yaldabaoth, Samael (Aramaic for "blind god') or Saklas (Aramaic: for "the foolish one') in Gnostic writings. This evil god was born when Sophia (Greek for wisdom), another emanation of God, tried to create on her own, without her male counterpart and without permission from God. Because she created without the input from divine partner, her creation was defective (some texts describe it as a kind of cosmic abortion).

This divine abortion produces the lesser, evil god who then created the word. He makes the material world, including humans, in imitation of the divine world. When humans were created, some of them received sparks of divinity from Sophia through the lesser creator god. The divine sparks of light came from the spiritual/divine world and became trapped in the physical, material world. Human beings who are capable of achieving gnosis have the divine sparks of light from God within them.

Thus, gnosis is knowledge of the true God and the true nature of the material world. When someone has this knowledge revealed to them, they are then able to escape the material world once they die. The goal of the Gnostic is for their soul, one of the divine sparks of light, to escape from the flesh and blood body and the material world at death. The Gnostic would then ascend though the heavens to the spiritual, divine world and return to God.

Gnostic Origins

Scholars debate about whether Gnosticism had Jewish or Christian origins. Some scholars, such as Riemer Roukema and Simone Petrement believe that Gnostic theology began as a Hellenized form of early Christianity, because of the heavy influence of Middle Platonism on Gnostic mythology. They also argue that the idea that the creator is evil is incompatible with any kind Judaism. These scholars suggest the Gnostic texts that don't have Christian elements in them have had the Christian parts removed or are later than the Christian Gnostic texts.

Other scholars, such as Birger Pearson and Carl Smith, believe that Gnostic thinking began among Jews who rejected the dominant forms of Judaism of their time. These Jews thought that the real God was too good to be directly involved in the creation of the world, which was full of suffering and evil. They read the Jewish scriptures and noticed that the god being described there was jealous, capricious, and punitive. They then concluded that this creator god was not the good, loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, and holy God that they knew, but a lesser god that they associated with the demiurge (i.e. creator god) of Platonism.

Some Jews who were influenced by Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy, especially Platonism had already said that the material world could not have been created directly by the transcendent, holy God. They believed that God created the world through Wisdom (Greek: Sophia) because of the way personified wisdom was described as being involved in the creation of the world in Proverbs 8: 22-24. They believed that Wisdom was an emanation through whom God created the world. The Gnostics reinterpreted the story of the good creator Wisdom/Sophia, into the story of the fall of Wisdom/Sophia and the evil creator god Ialdabaoth.

The Gnosticism and Early Christianity

Gnostic theology was popular among some early Christians. It flourished in the second and third centuries, before Christians developed an official set of beliefs. It was viewed to be a major problem by a number of Christian leaders and teachers (e.g. the early church fathers Iraenaeus, Epiphanius, & Hippoytus), who began the theology that eventually became the official orthodox theology. Gnostic beliefs were condemned as heretical by the time of the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, which determined official Christian beliefs.

Some scholars, such as Michael Williams and Karen King argue that it is misleading to talk about Gnosticism as a category, as if it was one group or movement. They argue that the different groups and texts labeled as Gnostic are too different from each other to be described with one label or as being in category. In addition, using this category makes it seem as if gnostic texts and groups were completely separate from the forms of Judaism and Christianity that existed at the time.

Some Gnostics were in the synagogues and churches along with other Jews and Christians. One of the most important Gnostic teachers, Valentinus, almost became the bishop of Rome. Some Gnostic groups were members of churches and they also had their own separate meetings for study, in addition to regular church attendance.

Many Christian Gnostics believed that the teachings in the churches they belonged to were true at the surface level, but that Christian teachings also had a deeper, Gnostic meaning. Only the Gnostics could appreciate the deeper spiritual meaning of the scriptures and teaching in the churches. There were also Gnostic baptismal rituals that were for Gnostics who were thought to be more spiritually advanced. The regular church baptism was understood to be only the first level of baptism.

Other Gnostic groups (whether Christian, Jewish, or Pagan), had their own churches or worship and rituals. Some Gnostic texts may not have even been linked to any group.

For Further Reading

Richard Valantasis, The Beliefnet Guide to Gnosticism and Other Vanished Christianities

  • A brief description of the main kinds of Gnostic groups and theology and a few other forms of early Christianity which were eventually condemned as heretical.

Birger A. Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions And Literature
  • A survey of the different kinds of Gnostic theology, Gnostic groups, Gnostic texts, and other similar texts.

Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions
  • A collection of Gnostic and related texts with excellent introductions and notes.

Marvin Meyer & James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume
  • A collection of the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi and the other important Gnostic texts with introductions and notes.

Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library
  • A introduction to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and the other important Gnostic texts, and a survey of the most important Gnostic texts.

Pheme Perkins, Gnosticism and the New Testament
  • An introduction to Gnosticism and its relationship to the New Testament.

Riemer Roukema, Gnosis and Faith in Early Christianity: An Introduction to Gnosticism
  • An introduction to Gnosticism, the influences on its origins, and its relationship to early Christianity.

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