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Gnosticism

[nos-tuh-siz-uhm]
Gnosticism (γνώσις gnōsis, knowledge) refers to a diverse, syncretistic religious movement consisting of various belief systems generally united in the teaching that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by an imperfect god, the demiurge, who is frequently identified with the Abrahamic God.

The demiurge may be depicted as an embodiment of evil, or in other instances as merely imperfect and as benevolent as its inadequacy permits. This demiurge exists alongside another remote and unknowable Supreme Being that embodies good. In order to free oneself from the inferior material world, one needs gnosis, or esoteric spiritual knowledge available to all through direct experience or knowledge (gnosis) of (this unknowable) God. Within the sects of gnosticism however only the pneumatics or psychics obtain gnosis, the hylic or Somatics though human, are doomed. Jesus of Nazareth is identified by some Gnostic sects as an embodiment of the supreme being who became incarnate to bring gnosis to the earth. In others (e.g. the Notzrim and Mandaeans) he is considered a mšiha kdaba "false messiah" who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John the Baptist.

Whereas formerly Gnosticism was considered mostly a corruption of Christianity, it now seems clear that traces of Gnostic systems can be discerned some centuries before the Christian Era. Gnosticism may have been suppressed as early as the First Century, thus predating Jesus Christ. Along with Gnosticism in the Mediterranean and Middle East before and during the Second and Third Centuries. Gnosticism became a dualistic heresy to Judaism (see Notzrim), Christianity and Hellenic philosophy in areas controlled by the Roman Empire and Arian Goths (see Huneric), and the Persian Empire. Conversion to Islam and the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) greatly reduced the remaining number of Gnostics throughout the Middle Ages, though a few isolated communities continue to exist to the present. Gnostic ideas became influential in the philosophies of various esoteric mystical movements of the late 19th and 20th Centuries in Europe and North America, including some that explicitly identify themselves as revivals or even continuations of earlier gnostic groups.

Nature and structure of Gnosticism

The main features of gnosticism

Gnostic systems are typically marked by:

  1. The notion of a remote, supreme monadic divinity - this figure is known under a variety of names, including 'Pleroma' and 'Bythos' (Greek, "deep");
  2. The introduction by emanation of further divine beings, which are nevertheless identifiable as aspects of the God from which they proceeded; the progressive emanations are often conceived metaphorically as a gradual and progressive distancing from the ultimate source, which brings about an instability in the fabric of the divine nature;
  3. The subsequent identification of the Fall of Man as an occurrence with its ultimate foundations within divinity itself, rather than as occurring either entirely or indeed partially through human agency; this stage in the divine emanation is usually enacted through the recurrent Gnostic figure of Sophia (Greek, "wisdom"), whose presence in a wide variety of Gnostic texts is indicative of her central importance;
  4. The introduction of a distinct creator god, named demiurgos in the Platonist tradition.
    Evidence exists that the conception of the demiurge derives from figures in Plato's Timaeus and Republic. In the former, the demiurge is the benevolent creator of the universe from pre-existent matter, to whose limitations he is enthralled in creating the cosmos; in the latter, the description of the leontomorphic 'desire' in Socrates' model of the psyche bears a strong resemblance to descriptions of the demiurge as being in the shape of the lion.
    Elsewhere this figure is called 'Ialdabaoth', 'Samael' (Aramaic sæmʕa-ʔel, 'blind god') or 'Saklas' (Syriac sækla, 'the foolish one'), who is sometimes ignorant of the superior God, and sometimes opposed to it; thus in the latter case he is correspondingly malevolent.
    The demiurge typically creates a group of coactors named 'Archons', who preside over the material realm and, in some cases, present obstacles to the soul seeking ascent from it;
  5. The estimation of the world, owing to the above, as flawed or a production of 'error' but nevertheless as good as its constituent material might allow. This world is typically an inferior simulacrum of a higher-level reality or consciousness. The inferiority may be compared to the technical inferiority of a painting, sculpture, or other handicraft to the thing(s) of which those crafts are supposed to be a representation. In certain other cases it is also perceived as evil and constrictive, a deliberate prison for its inhabitants;
  6. The explanation of this state through the use of a complex mythological-cosmological drama in which a divine element 'falls' into the material realm and lodges itself within certain human beings; from here, it may be returned to the divine realm through a process of awakening (leading towards salvation). The salvation of the individual thus mirrors a concurrent restoration of the divine nature; a central Gnostic innovation was to elevate individual redemption to the level of a cosmically significant event;
  7. Knowledge of a specific kind as a central factor in this process of restoration, achieved through the mediation of a redeemer figure (Christ, or, in other cases, Seth or Sophia).

The model limits itself to describing characteristics of the Syrian-Egyptian school of Gnosticism. This is for the reason that the greatest expressions of the Persian gnostic school - Manicheanism and Mandaeanism - are typically conceived of as religious traditions in their own right; indeed, the typical usage of 'Gnosticism' is to refer to the Syrian-Egyptian schools alone, while 'Manichean' describes the movements of the Persia school.

The relationship between Gnosticism and Christianity during the early first and the whole of the second century is vital in helping us to further understand the main doctrines of Gnosticism, due in part to the fact that, prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, which is discussed below, much of what we know today about gnosticism has only been preserved in the teachings of early church fathers. The age of the Gnostics was highly diverse religiously, and due to there being no fixed church authority, syncretism with pre-existing belief systems as well as new religions was often embraced. Above all, the central idea of Gnosticism (a knowledge superior to and independent of faith) made it welcome to many who were half-converted from paganism to Christianity. According to gnostics, faith was for the multitude, knowledge for the few.

Irenaeus declares (Adversus Haereses, II, 27, 1. PG, VI, 802) it subjected everything to the caprice of the individual, and made any fixed rule of faith impossible. It destroyed, as Clement puts it (Stromata., II, 3, pp. 443-4) the efficacy of Baptism (that is, it set at naught faith, the gift conferred in that sacrament). The Gnostics professed to impart a knowledge "greater and deeper" (Iren. I, 31, 2) than the ordinary doctrine of Christians. This knowledge, to those who were capable of it, was the means of redemption; indeed, in most of the Gnostics systems it was the one and sufficient passport to perfect bliss. But it kept the resemblance of Christianity for in nearly all the Gnostic systems Christ occupied a central place. Without its Christian element, it could not have entered into such close conflict with the Church; without its mythological garb, it would have missed its popularity.

The conception of Gnosticism here has in recent times come to be challenged (see below). Despite this, the understanding presented above remains the most common and is useful in aiding meaningful discussion of the phenomena that compose Gnosticism.

Dualism and monism

Typically, Gnostic systems are loosely described as being 'dualistic' in nature, meaning they had the view the world consists of or is explicable as two fundamental entities. Hans Jonas writes: "The cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and world, and correspondingly that of man and world. Within this definition, they run the gamut from the 'extreme' or 'radical dualist' systems of Manicheanism to the 'weak' or 'mitigated dualism' of classic gnostic movements; Valentinian developments arguably approach a form of monism, expressed in terms previously used in a dualistic manner.

  • Radical Dualism - or absolute Dualism which posits two co-equal divine forces. Manichaeism conceives of two previously coexistent realms of light and darkness which become embroiled in conflict, owing to the chaotic actions of the latter. Subsequently, certain elements of the light became entrapped within darkness; the purpose of material creation is to enact the slow process of extraction of these individual elements, at the end of which the kingdom of light will prevail over darkness. Manicheanism likely inherits this dualistic mythology from Zoroastrianism, in which the eternal spirit Ahura Mazda is opposed by his antithesis, Angra Mainyu; the two are engaged in a cosmic struggle, the conclusion of which will likewise see Ahura Mazda triumphant.
    The Mandaean creation myth witnesses the progressive emanations of Supreme Being of Light, with each emanation bringing about a progressive corruption resulting in the eventual emergence of Ptahil, the god of darkness who had a hand in creating and henceforward rules the material realm.
    Additionally, general Gnostic thought (specifically to be found in Iranian sects; for instance, see 'The Hymn of the Pearl') commonly included the belief that the material world corresponds to some sort of malevolent intoxication brought about by the powers of darkness to keep elements of the light trapped inside it, or literally to keep them 'in the dark', or ignorant; in a state of drunken distraction.
  • Mitigated Dualism - where one of the two principles is in some way inferior to the other. Such classical Gnostic movements as the Sethians conceived of the material world as being created by a lesser divinity than the true God that was the object of their devotion. The spiritual world is conceived of as being radically different from the material world, co-extensive with the true God, and the true home of certain enlightened members of humanity; thus, these systems were expressive of a feeling of acute alienation within the world, and their resultant aim was to allow the soul to escape the constraints presented by the physical realm.
  • Qualified Monism - where it is arguable whether or not the second entity is divine or semi-divine. Elements of Valentinian versions of Gnostic myth suggest to some that its understanding of the universe may have been monistic rather than a dualistic one: 'Valentinian gnosticism [...] differs essentially from dualism' (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospel, 1978); 'a standard element in the interpretation of Valentinianism and similar forms of Gnosticism is the recognition that they are fundamentally monistic' (William Schoedel, 'Gnostic Monism and the Gospel of Truth' in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Vol.1: The School of Valentinus, edited by Bentley Layton, E.J.Brill, Leiden, 1980). In these myths, the malevolence of the demiurge is mitigated; his creation of a flawed materiality is not due to any moral failing on his part, but due to his honest ignorance of the superior spiritual world above him. As such, Valentinians already have more cause to treat physical reality with less contempt than might a Sethian Gnostic.
    Perhaps for this reason Valentinus appears to conceive of materiality, rather than as being a separate substance from the divine, as attributable to an error of perception. Thus it follows that the Valentinian conception of the universe may be of a fundamentally monistic nature, in which all things are aspects of the divine; our ordinary view which is limited to the material realm is owing to our errors of perception, which become symbolized mythopoetically as the demiurge's act of creation.

Moral and ritual practice

The question of Gnostic morality can only be resolved by reading the claims of their contemporaries. Numerous Christian writers accused some Gnostic teachers of claiming to eschew the physical realm, while simultaneously freely indulging their physical appetites; however there is reason to question the accuracy of these claims.

Evidence in the source texts indicates Gnostic moral behaviour as being generally ascetic in basis, expressed most fluently in their sexual and dietary practice. Many monks would deprive themselves of food, water, or necessary needs for living. This presented a problem for the heresiologists writing on gnostic movements: this mode of behavior was one which they themselves favoured and supported, so the Church Fathers, it seemed, would be required perforce to offer support to the practices of their theological opponents. In order to avoid this, a common heresiological approach was to avoid the issue completely by resorting to slanderous (and, in some cases, excessive) allegations of libertinism, or to explain Gnostic asceticism as being based on incorrect interpretations of scripture, or simply duplicitous in nature. Epiphanius provides an example when he writes of the 'Archontics' 'Some of them ruin their bodies by dissipation, but others feign ostensible fasts and deceive simple people while they pride themselves with a sort of abstinence, under the disguise of monks' (Panarion, 40.1.4).

In other areas of morality, Gnostics were less rigorously ascetic, and took a more moderate approach to correct behaviour. Ptolemy's Epistle to Flora lays out a project of general asceticism in which the basis of action is the moral inclination of the individual:

This extract marks a definite shift away from the position of orthodoxy, that the correct behaviour for Christians is best administered and prescribed by the central authority of the church, as transmitted through the apostles. Instead, the internalised inclination of the individual assumes paramount importance; there is the recognition that ritualistic behaviour, though well-intentioned, possesses no significance or effectiveness unless its external prescription is matched by a personal, internal motivation.

Charges of Gnostic libertinism find their source in the works of Irenaeus. According to this writer, Simon Magus (whom he has identified as the prototypical source of Gnosticism) founded the school of moral freedom ('amoralism'). Irenaeus reports that Simon's argument was that those who put their trust in him and his consort Helen need trouble themselves no further with the biblical prophets or their moral exhortations and are free 'to do what they wish', as men are saved by his (Simon's) grace and not by their 'righteous works' (adapted from Adversus Haereses, I.23.3).

Simon is not known for any libertinistic practice, save for his curious attachment to Helen, typically reputed to be a prostitute. There is, however, clear evidence in the Testimony of Truth that followers of Simon did, in fact, get married and beget children, so a general tendency to asceticism can likewise be ruled out.

Irenaeus reports of the Valentinians, whom he characterizes as eventual inheritors of Simon, that they are lax in their dietary habits (eating food that has been 'offered to idols'), sexually promiscuous ('immoderately given over to the desires of the flesh') and guilty of taking wives under the pretence of living with them as adopted 'sisters'. In the latter case, Michael Allen Williams has argued plausibly that Irenaeus was here broadly correct in the behaviour described, but not in his apprehension of its causes. Williams argues that members of a cult might live together as 'brother' and 'sister': intimate, yet not sexually active. Over time, however, the self-denial required of such an endeavour becomes harder and harder to maintain, leading to the state of affairs Irenaeus criticizes.

Irenaeus also makes reference to the Valentinian practise of the Bridal Chamber, a ritualistic sacrament in which sexual union is seen as analogous to the activities of the paired syzygies that constitute the Valentinian Pleroma. Though it is known that Valentinus had a more relaxed approach to sexuality than much of the orthodox church (he allowed women to hold positions of ordination in his community), it is not known whether the Bridal Chamber was a ritual involving actual intercourse, or whether human sexuality is here simply being used in a metaphorical sense.

Of the Carpocratians Irenaeus makes much the same report: they 'are so abandoned in their recklessness that they claim to have in their power and be able to practise anything whatsoever that is ungodly (irreligious) and impious ... they say that conduct is only good or evil in the eyes of man' (Adversus Haereses, I.25.4). Once again a differentiation might be detected between a man's actions and the grace he has received through his adherence to a system of gnosis; whether this is due to a common sharing of such an attitude amongst Gnostic circles, or whether this is simply a blanket-charge used by Irenaeus is open to conjecture.

On the whole, it would seem that Gnostic behavior tended towards the ascetic. This said, the heresiological accusation of duplicity in such practises should not be taken at face value; nor should similar accusations of amoral libertinism. The Nag Hammadi library itself is full of passages which appear to encourage abstinence over indulgence. Fundamentally, however, gnostic movements appear to take the 'ancient schema of the two ways, which leaves the decision to do what is right to human endeavour and promises a reward for those who make the effort, and punishment for those who are negligent' (Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis:The Nature and History of Gnosticism, 262).

Major Gnostic movements and their texts

As noted above, schools of Gnosticism can be defined according to one classification system as being a member of two broad categories. These are the 'Eastern'/'Persian' school, and a 'Syrian-Egyptic' school. The former possesses more demonstrably dualist tendencies, reflecting a strong influence from the beliefs of the Persian Zoroastrians. Among the Syrian-Egyptian schools and the movements they spawned are a typically more Monist view. Notable exceptions include relatively modern movements which seem to include elements of both categories, namely: the Cathars, Bogomils, and Carpocratians which are included in their own section.

Persian Gnosticism

The Persian Schools are representative of what is believed to be among the oldest of the Gnostic thought forms. These movements are considered by most to be religions in their own right, and are not emanations from Christianity or Judaism.

  • Mandaeanism is still practiced in small numbers, in parts of southern Iraq and the Iranian province of Khuzestan. The name of the group derives from the term: Mandā d-Heyyi which roughly means "Knowledge of Life." Although the exact chronological origins of this movement are not known, John the Baptist eventually would come to be a key figure in the religion. As part of the core of their beliefs is an emphasis placed on baptism. As with Manichaeism, despite certain ties with Christianity, Mandaeans do not believe in Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed. Their beliefs and practices likewise have little overlap with the religions that manifested from those religious figures and the two should not be confused. Significant amounts of original Mandaean Scripture survive in the modern era. The primary source text is known as the Genzā Rabbā and has portions identified by some scholars as being copied as early as the 2nd century CE. There is also the Qolastā, or Canonical Book of Prayer and The Book of John the Baptist (sidra ḏ-iahia).
  • Manichaeism which represented an entire independent religious heritage, but is now mostly extinct was founded by the Prophet Mani (210-276 CE). Although most of the literature/scripture of the Manichaeins was believed lost, the discovery of an original series of documents have helped to shed new light on the subject. Now housed in Cologne Germany, the Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis contains mainly biographical information on the prophet and details on his claims and teachings. Despite connections with Jesus Christ, it is not believed that the Manichaeins in any way practiced a religion with identifiable overlap with any of the various Christian sects.

Syrian-Egyptian Gnosticism

The Syrian-Egyptian school derives much of its outlook from Platonist influences. Typically, it depicts creation in a series of emanations from a primal monadic source, finally resulting in the creation of the material universe. As a result, there is a tendency in these schools to view evil in terms of matter which is markedly inferior to goodness, evil as lacking spiritual insight and goodness, rather than to emphasize portrayals of evil as an equal force. These schools of gnosticism may be said to use the terms 'evil' and 'good' as being relative descriptive terms, as they refer to the relative plight of human existence caught between such realities and confused in its orientation, with 'evil' indicating the extremes of distance from the principle and source of goodness, without necessarily emphasizing an inherent negativity. As can be seen below, many of these movements included source material related to Christianity, with some identifying themselves as specifically Christian (albeit quite different from the so-called Orthodox or Roman Catholic forms).

Syrian-Egyptic scripture

Most of the literature from this category is known/confirmed to us in the modern age through the Library discovered at Nag Hammadi.

Later Gnosticism and Gnostic-influenced groups

  • Other schools and related movements; these are presented in chronological order:
    • Simon Magus and Marcion of Sinope both had Gnostic tendencies, but such familiar ideas that they presented were as-yet unformed; they might thus be described as pseudo- or proto-Gnostics. Both developed a sizeable following. Simon Magus' pupil Menander of Antioch could potentially be included within this grouping. Marcion is popularly labelled a gnostic, however most scholars do not consider him a gnostic at all, for example, the Encyclopædia Britannica article on Marcion clearly states: "In Marcion's own view, therefore, the founding of his church — to which he was first driven by opposition — amounts to a reformation of Christendom through a return to the gospel of Christ and to Paul; nothing was to be accepted beyond that. This of itself shows that it is a mistake to reckon Marcion among the Gnostics. A dualist he certainly was, but he was not a Gnostic - Depending of course on one's definition of 'Gnostic'."
    • Cerinthus (c 100), the founder of a heretical school with gnostic elements. Like a Gnostic, Cerinthus depicted Christ as a heavenly spirit separate from the man Jesus, and he cited the demiurge as creating the material world. Unlike the Gnostics, Cerinthus taught Christians to observe the Jewish law; his demiurge was holy, not lowly; and he taught the Second Coming. His gnosis was a secret teaching attributed to an apostle. Some scholars believe that the First Epistle of John was written as a response to Cerinthus.
    • The Ophites, so-named because they worshipped the serpent of Genesis as the bestower of knowledge.
    • The Cainites, as the term implies, worshipped Cain, as well as Esau, Korah, and the Sodomites. There is little evidence concerning the nature of this group; however, it is surmisable that they believed that indulgence in sin was the key to salvation because since the body is evil, one must defile it through immoral activity (see libertinism). The name Cainite is used as the name of a religious movement, and not in the usual Biblical sense of people descended from Cain. According to Biblical text, which is our only source of knowledge about the man Cain, all descendants of Cain perished in Noah's Flood, as only Noah's family survived, deriving from the line of Seth.
    • The Carpocratians
    • The Borborites
    • The Bogomils
    • The Paulicans
    • The Cathars (Cathari, Albigenses or Albigensians) are typically seen as being imitative of Gnosticism; whether or not the Cathari possessed direct historical influence from ancient Gnosticism is disputed. Though the basic conceptions of Gnostic cosmology are to be found in Cathar beliefs (most distinctly in their notion of a lesser, Satanic, creator god), they did not apparently place any special relevance upon knowledge (gnosis) as an effective salvific force. For the relationship between these medieval heresies and earlier Gnostic forms, see historical discussion above.

Kabbalah

Gnostic ideas found a Jewish variation in the mystical study of Kabbalah. The Kabbalists took many core Gnostic ideas and used them to dramatically reinterpret earlier Jewish sources according to this new foreign influence. See Gershom Scholem's Origins of the Kabbalah for further discussion. The Kabbalists originated in Provence which was at that time also the center of the Gnostic Cathars. It is thus believed that Cathar Gnostics persuaded Jews to Gnostic ideas, leading to the development of Kabbalah. Another influence on Kabbalah was probably that of the Muslim Ismailis. (By contrast, however, followers of Kabbalah date its origins as early as the Garden of Eden.)

Kabbalah, however, does not employ the terminology or labels of gentile Gnosticism, but grounds the same or similar concepts in the language of the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible). Nevertheless, during the time periods when Gnosticism was drawing large numbers of followers from various religions, creating Gnostic versions of those religions, many Jews also developed a mystical version of Judaism remarkably similar to Gnostic beliefs.

While Kabbalah shares several themes with Gnosticism, such as a multiplicity of heavenly levels and archetypes and the importance of mystical knowledge of these, it does not reflect the distinctive Gnostic belief that the material world and the Hebrew Bible are the work of an inferior and malevolent deity. Rather than describing Kabbalah as a form of Gnosticism, it would be more accurate to describe both Kabbalah and Gnosticism as members of a family of Neoplatonic/Neopythagorean Oriental mystical traditions, which would also include Sufism.

Important terms and concepts

Aeons

In many Gnostic systems, the various emanations of the God, who is also known by such names as the One, the Monad, Aion teleos (The Perfect Aeon), Bythos (Depth or profundity, Greek Βυθος), Proarkhe (Before the Beginning, Greek προαρχη), E Arkhe (The Beginning, Greek ἡ ἀρχή), are called aeons. This first being is also an æon and has an inner being within itself, known as Ennoia (Thought), Charis (Grace), or Sige (Greek Σιγη, Silence). The split perfect being conceives the second aeon, Caen (Power), within itself. Along with the male Caen comes the female æon Akhana (Truth, Love).

The aeons often came in male/female pairs called syzygies, and were numerous (20-30). Two of the most commonly listed æons were Jesus and Sophia. The aeons constitute the pleroma, the "region of light". The lowest regions of the pleroma are closest to the darkness; that is, the physical world.

When an æon named Sophia emanated without her partner aeon, the result was the Demiurge, or half-creator (Occasionally referred to as Ialdaboth in Gnostic texts), a creature that should never have come into existence. This creature does not belong to the pleroma, and the One emanates two savior æons, Christ and the Holy Spirit to save man from the Demiurge. Christ then took the form of the man, Jesus, in order to be able to teach man how to achieve gnosis; that is, return to the pleroma.

These systems, however, are only a sample of the various interpretations that exist. The roles of familiar beings such as Jesus Christ, Sophia, and the Demiurge usually share the same general themes between systems but may have somewhat different functions or identities ascribed to them.

Archon

In late antiquity some variants of Gnosticism used the term Archon to refer to several servants of the Demiurge, the "creator god" that stood between spiritual humanity and a transcendent God that could only be reached through gnosis. In this context they may be seen as having the roles of the angels and demons of the Old Testament.

The Orphics accepted the existence of seven archons: Iadabaoth or Ialdabaoth (who created the six others), Iao, Sabaoth, Adonaios, Elaios, Astaphanos and Horaios (Origen, Contra Celsum, VI.31). Ialdabaoth had a head of a lion, just like Mithraic Kronos (Chronos) and Vedic Narasimha, a form of Vishnu.

Abraxas/Abrasax

The Egyptian Gnostic Basilideans referred to a figure called Abraxas who was at the head of 365 spiritual beings (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, I.24); it is unclear what to make of Irenaeus' use of the term 'Archon', which may simply mean 'ruler' in this context. The role and function of Abraxas for Basilideans is not clear.

The word Abraxas was engraved on certain antique stones, called on that account Abraxas stones, which may have been used as amulets or charms by Gnostic sects. In popular culture, Abraxas is sometimes considered the name of a god who incorporated both Good and Evil (God and Demiurge) in one entity, and therefore representing the monotheistic God, singular, but (unlike, for example, the Christian God) not omni-benevolent (See Hesse's Demian, and Jung's Seven Sermons to the Dead). Opinions abound on Abraxas, who in recent centuries has been claimed to be both an Egyptian god and a demon, sometimes even being associated with the dual nature of Satan/Lucifer. The word abracadabra may be related to Abraxas.

The above information relates to interpretations of ancient amulets and to reports of Christian heresy hunters which are not always clear.

Actual ancient Gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi Library, such as the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians, refer to Abrasax as an Aeon dwelling with Sophia and other Aeons of the Spiritual Fullness in the light of the luminary Eleleth. In several texts, the luminary Eleleth is the last of the luminaries (Spiritual Lights) that come forward, and it is the Aeon Sophia, associated with Eleleth, who encounters darkness and becomes involved in the chain of events that leads to the Demiurge and Archon's rule of this world, and the salvage effort that ensues. As such, the role of Aeons of Eleleth, including Abrasax, Sophia, and others, pertains to this outer border of the Divine Fullness that encounters the ignorance of the world of Lack and interacts to rectify the error of ignorance in the world of materiality.

Words like or similar to Abraxas or Abrasax also appear in the Greek Magical Papyri. There are similarities and differences between such figures in reports about Basiledes' teaching, in the larger magical traditions of the Graeco-Roman world, in the classic ancient Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of the Egyptians, and in later magical and esoteric writings.

The Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung wrote a short Gnostic treatise in 1916 called The Seven Sermons to the Dead, which called Abraxas a God higher than the Christian God and Devil, that combines all opposites into one Being.

Demiurge

The term Demiurge refers to an entity (usually seen as evil) responsible for the creation of the physical universe and the physical aspect of humanity.

The term occurs in a number of other religious and philosophical systems, most notably Platonism. While always suggestive of a creator god, the moral judgements regarding the demiurge vary wildly, from a benign grand architect to an evil subvertor of God's will.

Like Plato, Gnosticism presents a distinction between the highest, unknowable "alien God" and the demiurgic "creator" of the material. However, in contrast to Plato, several systems of Gnostic thought present the Demiurge as antagonistic to the will of the Supreme God: his act of creation either in unconscious imitation of the divine model, and thus fundamentally flawed, or else formed with the malevolent intention of entrapping aspects of the divine in materiality. Thus, in such systems, the Demiurge acts as a solution to the problem of evil. In the Apocryphon of John (several versions of which are found in the Nag Hammadi library), the Demiurge has the name "Yaltabaoth", and proclaims himself as God:

"Now the archon who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas, and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, 'I am God and there is no other God beside me,' for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come."

Gnostic myth recounts that Sophia (Greek, literally meaning "wisdom"), the Demiurge's mother and a partial aspect of the divine Pleroma or "Fullness", desired to create something apart from the divine totality, and without the receipt of divine assent. In this abortive act of separate creation, she gave birth to the monstrous Demiurge and, being ashamed of her deed, she wrapped him in a cloud and created a throne for him within it. The Demiurge, isolated, did not behold his mother, nor anyone else, and thus concluded that only he himself existed, being ignorant of the superior levels of reality that were his birth-place.

The Gnostic myths describing these events are full of intricate nuances portraying the declination of aspects of the divine into human form; this process occurs through the agency of the Demiurge who, having stolen a portion of power from his mother, sets about a work of creation in unconscious imitation of the superior Pleromatic realm. Thus Sophia's power becomes enclosed within the material forms of humanity, themselves entrapped within the material universe: the goal of Gnostic movements was typically the awakening of this spark, which permitted a return by the subject to the superior, non-material realities which were its primal source. (See Sethian Gnosticism.)

"Samael" may equate to the Judaic Angel of Death, and corresponds to the Christian demon of that name, as well as Satan. Literally, it can mean "Blind God" or "God of the Blind" in Aramaic (Syriac sæmʕa-ʔel). Another alternative title for Yaldabaoth, "Saklas", is Aramaic for "fool" (Syriac sækla "the foolish one").

Some Gnostic philosophers identify the Demiurge with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, in opposition and contrast to the God of the New Testament. Still others equated the being with Satan. Catharism apparently inherited their idea of Satan as the creator of the evil world directly or indirectly from Gnosticism.

Gnosis

The word 'Gnosticism' is a modern construction, though based on an antiquated linguistic expression: it comes from the Greek word meaning 'knowledge', gnosis (γνῶσις). However, gnosis itself refers to a very specialised form of knowledge, deriving both from the exact meaning of the original Greek term and its usage in Platonist philosophy.

Unlike modern English, ancient Greek was capable of discerning between several different forms of knowing. These different forms may be described in English as being propositional knowledge, indicative of knowledge acquired indirectly through the reports of others or otherwise by inference (such as "I know of George Bush" or "I know Berlin is in Germany"), and empirical knowledge acquired by direct participation or acquaintance (such as "I know George Bush personally" or "I know Berlin, having visited").

Gnosis (γνῶσις) refers to knowledge of the second kind. Therefore, in a religious context, to be 'Gnostic' should be understood as being reliant not on knowledge in a general sense, but as being specially receptive to mystical or esoteric experiences of direct participation with the divine. Indeed, in most Gnostic systems the sufficient cause of salvation is this 'knowledge of' ('acquaintance with') the divine. This is commonly identified with a process of inward 'knowing' or self-exploration, comparable to that encouraged by Plotinus (ca. 205–270 AD). However, as may be seen, the term 'gnostic' also had precedent usage in several ancient philosophical traditions, which must also be weighed in considering the very subtle implications of its appellation to a set of ancient religious groups.

Monad (apophatic theology)

In many Gnostic systems (and heresiologies), God is known as the Monad, the One, The Absolute, Aion teleos (The Perfect Æon), Bythos (Depth or Profundity, Βυθος), Proarkhe (Before the Beginning, προαρχη), and E Arkhe (The Beginning, η αρχη). God is the high source of the pleroma, the region of light. The various emanations of God are called æons.

Within certain variations of Gnosticism, especially those inspired by Monoimus, the Monad was the highest God which created lesser gods, or elements (similar to æons).

According to Hippolytus, this view was inspired by the Pythagoreans, who called the first thing that came into existence the Monad, which begat the dyad, which begat the numbers, which begat the point, begetting lines, etc. This was also clarified in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. This teaching being largely Neopythagorean via Numenius as well.

This Monad is the spiritual source of everything which emanates the pleroma, and could be contrasted to the dark Demiurge (Yaldabaoth) that controls matter.

The Sethian cosmogony as most famously contained in the Apocryphon ('Secret book') of John describes an unknown God, very similar to the orthodox apophatic theology, although very different from the orthodox credal teachings that there is one such god who is identified also as creator of heaven and earth. In describing the nature of a creator god associated with Biblical texts, orthodox theologians often attempt to define God through a series of explicit positive statements, themselves universal but in the divine taken to their superlative degrees: he is omniscient, omnipotent and truly benevolent. The Sethian conception of the most hidden transcendent God is, by contrast, defined through negative theology: he is immovable, invisible, intangible, ineffable; commonly, 'he' is seen as being hermaphroditic, a potent symbol for being, as it were, 'all-containing'. In the Apocryphon of John, this god is good in that it bestows goodness. After the apophatic statements, the process of the Divine in action are used to describe the effect of such a god.

An apophatic approach to discussing the Divine is found throughout gnosticism, Vendantic hinduism, and Platonic and Aristotelian theology as well. It is also found in some Judaic sources.

Pleroma

Pleroma (Greek πληρωμα) generally refers to the totality of God's powers. The term means fullness, and is used in Christian theological contexts: both in Gnosticism generally, and in Colossians 2.9.

Gnosticism holds that the world is controlled by evil archons, one of whom is the demiurge, the deity of the Old Testament who holds the human spirit captive.

The heavenly pleroma is the center of divine life, a region of light "above" (the term is not to be understood spatially) our world, occupied by spiritual beings such as aeons (eternal beings) and sometimes archons. Jesus is interpreted as an intermediary aeon who was sent from the pleroma, with whose aid humanity can recover the lost knowledge of the divine origins of humanity. The term is thus a central element of Gnostic cosmology.

Pleroma is also used in the general Greek language and is used by the Greek Orthodox church in this general form since the word appears under the book of Colossians. Proponents of the view that Paul was actually a gnostic, such as Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, view the reference in Colossians as something that was to be interpreted in the gnostic sense.

Sophia

In Gnostic tradition, the term Sophia (Σoφíα, Greek for "wisdom") refers to the final and lowest emanation of God.

In most if not all versions of the gnostic myth, Sophia births the demiurge, who in turn brings about the creation of materiality. The positive or negative depiction of materiality thus resides a great deal on mythic depictions of Sophia's actions. She is occasionally referred to by the Hebrew equivalent of Achamoth (this is a feature of Ptolemy's version of the Valentinian gnostic myth). Jewish Gnosticism with a focus on Sophia was active by 90 .

Almost all gnostic systems of the Syrian or Egyptian type taught that the universe began with an original, unknowable God, referred to as the Parent or Bythos, as the Monad by Monoimus, or the first Aeon by still other traditions. From this initial unitary beginning, the One spontaneously emanated further Aeons, pairs of progressively 'lesser' beings in sequence. The lowest of these pairs were Sophia and Christ. The Aeons together made up the Pleroma, or fullness, of God, and thus should not be seen as distinct from the divine, but symbolic abstractions of the divine nature.

History

The development of the Syrian-Egyptian school

Bentley Layton has sketched out a relationship between the various gnostic movements in his introduction to The Gnostic Scriptures (SCM Press, London, 1987). In this model, 'Classical Gnosticism' and 'The School of Thomas' antedated and influenced the development of Valentinus, who was to found his own school of Gnosticism in both Alexandria and Rome, whom Layton called 'the great [Gnostic] reformer' and 'the focal point' of Gnostic development. While in Alexandria, where he was born, Valentinus probably would have had contact with the Gnostic teacher Basilides, and may have been influenced by him.

Valentinianism flourished throughout the early centuries of the common era: while Valentinus himself lived from ca. 100–180 AD/CE, a list of sectarians or heretics, composed in 388 AD/CE, against whom Emperor Constantine intended legislation includes Valentinus (and, presumably, his inheritors). The school is also known to have been extremely popular: several varieties of their central myth are known, and we know of 'reports from outsiders from which the intellectual liveliness of the group is evident' (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 94). It is known that Valentinus' students, in further evidence of their intellectual activity, elaborated upon the teachings and materials they received from him (though the exact extent of their changes remains unknown), for example, in the version of the Valentinian myth brought to us through Ptolemy.

Valentinianism might be described as the most elaborate and philosophically 'dense' form of the Syrian-Egyptian schools of Gnosticism, though it should be acknowledged that this in no way debarred other schools from attracting followers: Basilides' own school was popular also, and survived in Egypt until the 4th century.

Simone Petrement, in A Separate God, in arguing for a Christian origin of Gnosticism, places Valentinus after Basilides, but before the Sethians. It is her assertion that Valentinus represented a moderation of the anti-Judaism of the earlier Hellenized teachers; the demiurge, widely regarded to be a mythological depiction of the Old Testament God of the Hebrews, is depicted as more ignorant than evil. (See below.)

The development of the Persian school

An alternate heritage is offered by Kurt Rudolph in his book Gnosis: The Nature & Structure of Gnosticism (Koehler and Amelang, Leipzig, 1977), to explain the lineage of Persian Gnostic schools. The decline of Manicheism that occurred in Persia in the 5th century AD/CE was too late to prevent the spread of the movement into the east and the west. In the west, the teachings of the school moved into Syria, Northern Arabia, Egypt and North Africa (where Augustine was a member of the school from 373-382); from Syria it progressed still farther, into Palestine, Asia Minor and Armenia. There is evidence for Manicheans in Rome and Dalmatia in the 4th century, and also in Gaul and Spain. The influence of Manicheanism was attacked by imperial elects and polemical writings, but the religion remained prevalent until the 6th century, and still exerted influence in the emergence of the Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathari in the Middle Ages, until it was ultimately stamped out as a heresy by the Catholic Church.

In the east, Rudolph relates, Manicheanism was able to bloom, given that the religious monopoly position previously held by Christianity and Zoroastrianism had been broken by nascent Islam. In the early years of the Arab conquest, Manicheanism again found followers in Persia (mostly amongst educated circles), but flourished most in Central Asia, to which it had spread through Iran. Here, in 762, Manicheanism became the state religion of the Uyghur Empire.

Buddhism and Gnosticism

Early 3rd century–4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 CE from where he brought "the doctrine of the Two Principles". According to Cyril of Jerusalem, Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a "Buddha" ("He called himself Buddas" ). Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea ("becoming known and condemned"), and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of Manichaeism:

In the 3rd century, the Syrian writer and Christian Gnostic theologian Bar Daisan described his exchanges with the religious missions of holy men from India (Greek: Σαρμαναίοι, Sramanas), passing through Syria on their way to Elagabalus or another Severan dynasty Roman Emperor. His accounts were quoted by Porphyry (De abstin., iv, 17 ) and Stobaeus (Eccles., iii, 56, 141).

Finally, from the 3rd century to the 12th century, some Gnostic religions such as Manichaeism, which combined Christian, Hebrew and Buddhist influences (Mani, the founder of the religion, resided for some time in Kushan lands), spread throughout the Old World, to Gaul and Great Britain in the West, and to China in the East. Some leading Christian theologians such as Augustine of Hippo were Manichaeans before converting to orthodox Christianity. Such exchanges, many more of which may have gone unrecorded, suggest that Buddhism may have had some influence on early Christianity: "Scholars have often considered the possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity. They have drawn attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus" (Bentley, "Old World Encounters").

Influence in East Asia

Early missionaries, including Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorians, traveled and proselytized along the Silk Road east to Chang'an, the Tang Dynasty capital of China. The first introduction of Christianity, under the Chinese name Jĭngjiào (景教, literally "bright/luminous religion"), was from Nestorianism or the Assyrian Church of the East. In 635, when Nestorian missionaries arrived in Chang'an, the Emperor assigned his famous Prime Minister Fang Xuanling (房玄齡) to hold a grand welcome ceremony. Chinese Nestorianism was popular in the late 8th century, but never became a widely-practice mainstream religion in China. In 845, Emperor Wuzong of Tang ordered the Great Persecution of Buddhism, which affected other foreign religions, weakened Nestorianism and practically destroyed Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism in China.

Chinese Nestorianism revived during the 13th-14th century Yuan Dynasty, but was replaced by Roman Catholicism in 16th-17th centuries. Rudolph reported that despite the suppression, Manichean traditions are reputed to have survived until the 17th century (based on the reports of Portuguese sailors).

'Gnosticism' as a potentially flawed category

In 1966 in Messina, Italy, a conference was held concerning systems of gnosis. Among its several aims were the need to establish a program to translate the recently-acquired Nag Hammadi library (see above) and the need to arrive at an agreement concerning an accurate definition of 'Gnosticism'. This was in answer to the tendency, prevalent since the eighteenth century, to use the term 'gnostic' less as its origins implied, but rather as an interpretive category for contemporary philosophical and religious movements. For example, in 1835, New Testament scholar Ferdinand Christian Baur constructed a developmental model of Gnosticism that culminates in the religious philosophy of Hegel; one might compare literary critic Harold Bloom's recent attempts to identify Gnostic elements in contemporary American religion, or Eric Voegelin's analysis of totalitarian impulses through the interpretive lens of Gnosticism.

The 'cautious proposal' reached by the conference concerning Gnosticism is described by Markschies:

In essence, it had been decided that 'Gnosticism' would become a historically-specific term, restricted to mean the Gnostic movements prevalent in the 3rd century, while 'gnosis' would be an universal term, denoting a system of knowledge retained 'for a privileged élite.' However, this effort towards providing clarity in fact created more conceptual confusion, as the historical term 'Gnosticism' was an entirely modern construction, while the new universal term 'gnosis' was a historical term: 'something was being called "gnosticism" that the ancient theologians had called "gnosis" ... [A] concept of gnosis had been created by Messina that was almost unusable in a historical sense' (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 14-15). In antiquity, all agreed that knowledge was centrally important to life, but few were agreed as to what exactly constituted knowledge; the unitary conception that the Messina proposal presupposed did not exist.

These flaws have meant that the problems concerning an exact definition of Gnosticism persist. It remains current convention to use 'Gnosticism' in a historical sense, and 'gnosis' universally. Leaving aside the issues with the latter noted above, the usage of 'Gnosticism' to designate a category of religions in the 3rd century has recently been questioned as well. Of note is the work of Michael Allen Williams in Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for the Dismantling of a Dubious Category, in which the author examines the terms by which gnosticism as a category is defined, and then closely compares these suppositions with the contents of actual Gnostic texts (the newly-recovered Nag Hammadi library was of central importance to his thesis).

Williams argues that the conceptual foundations on which the category of Gnosticism rests are the remains of the agenda of the heresiologists. Too much emphasis has been laid on perceptions of dualism, body-and-matter hatred, and anticosmism, without these suppositions being properly tested. In essence, the interpretive definition of Gnosticism that was created by the antagonistic efforts of the heresiologists has been taken up by modern scholarship and reflected in a categorical definition, even though the means now exist to verify its accuracy. Attempting to do so, Williams contests, reveals the dubious nature of categorical 'Gnosticism', and he concludes that the term needs replacing in order to more accurately reflect those movements it comprises. Williams' observations have provoked debate; however, to date his suggested replacement term 'the Biblical demiurgical tradition' has not become widely used.

Gnosticism in modern times

A number of 19th century thinkers such as William Blake, Schopenhauer, Albert Pike, Madame Blavatsky, studied Gnostic thought extensively and were influenced by it, and even figures like Herman Melville and W. B. Yeats were more tangentially influenced. Jules Doinel "re-established" a Gnostic church in France in 1890 which altered its form as it passed through various direct successors (Fabre des Essarts as Tau Synésius and Joanny Bricaud as Tau Jean II most notably), and which, although small, is still active today.

Early 20th century thinkers who heavily studied and were influenced by Gnosticism include Carl Jung (who supported Gnosticism), Eric Voegelin (who opposed it), Jorge Luis Borges (who included it in many of his short stories), and Aleister Crowley, with figures such as Hermann Hesse being more moderatedly influenced. Rene Guenon founded the gnostic review, Le Gnose in 1909 (before moving to a more "Perennialist" position). Gnostic Thelemite organizations, such as Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and Ordo Templi Orientis, trace themselves to Crowley's thought.

The discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi library after 1945 had a huge impact on Gnosticism since World War II. Thinkers who were heavily influenced by Gnosticism in this period include Hans Jonas, Philip K. Dick and Harold Bloom, with Albert Camus and Allen Ginsberg being more moderately influenced. A number of ecclesiastical bodies which think of themselves as Gnostic have been set up or re-founded since World War II as well, including the Society of Novus Spiritus, Ecclesia Gnostica, the Thomasine Church, the Apostolic Johannite Church, the Alexandrian Gnostic Church, the North American College of Gnostic Bishops, and the International Gnostic Movement of Samael Aun Weor. Celia Green has written on Gnostic Christianity in relation to her own philosophy .

Also there are Gnostic Churches and Organisations based in the United Kingdom due to popularity of the Gnostic Scriptures since the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

See also

Footnotes

References

Books

Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Aland, Barbara (1978). Festschrift für Hans Jonas. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-58111-4.
  • Anderson, Robert A. (2006). Church of God? or the Temples of Satan - A Reference Book of Spiritual Understanding & Gnosis. TGS Publishers. ISBN 0-9786249-6-3.
  • Burstein, Dan (2006). Secrets of Mary Magdalene. CDS Books. ISBN 1-59315-205-1.
  • Freke, Timothy; Gandy, Peter (1999). The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs. Tarcher. ISBN 0-87477-950-2.
  • Freke, Timothy; Gandy, Peter (2002). Jesus and the Lost Goddess : The Secret Teachings of the Original Christians. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-00-710071-X.
  • Green, Henry (1985). Economic and Social Origins of Gnosticism. Scholars P.,U.S.. ISBN 0-89130-843-1.
  • Haardt, Robert (1967). Die Gnosis: Wesen und Zeugnisse. Otto-Müller-Verlag, Salzburg. , translated as
  • Hoeller, Stephan A. (2002). Gnosticism - New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. ISBN 0-8356-0816-6.
  • Jones, Peter (1992). The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back: An Old Heresy for the New Age. Presbyterian & Reformed. ISBN 0-87552-285-8.
  • Jonas, Hans Gnosis und spätantiker Geist vol. 2:1-2, Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie. ISBN 3-525-53841-3.
  • King, Charles William (1887). The Gnostics and Their Remains.
  • King, Karen L. (2003). What is Gnosticism?. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01071-X.
  • Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim (1993). Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia. Harper, San Francisco. ISBN 0-06-064586-5.
  • Layton, Bentley (1995). The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8006-2585-4.
  • Layton, Bentley (ed.) (1981). The Rediscovery of Gnosticism: Sethian Gnosticism. E.J. Brill.
  • Longfellow, Ki (2007). The Secret Magdalene. Random House, New York. ISBN 0-9759255-3-9.
  • Markschies, Christoph (2000). Gnosis: An Introduction. T & T Clark. ISBN 0-567-08945-2.
  • Mins, Denis (1994). Irenaeus. Geoffrey Chapman.
  • Pagels, Elaine (1979). The Gnostic Gospels. ISBN 0-679-72453-2.
  • Pagels, Elaine (1989). The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis. ISBN 1-55540-334-4.
  • Petrement, Simone (1990), A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticsim, Harper and Row ISBN 0-06-066421-5
  • Puma, Jeremy (2005). Running Towards the Bomb: Gnosticism and the End of Civilisation. Geosynchronous Lamps. ISBN 1-4116-4523-5.
  • Rudolph, Kurt (1987). Gnosis: The Nature & Structure of Gnosticism. Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-067018-5.
  • Walker, Benjamin (1990). Gnosticism: Its History and Influence. Harper Collins. ISBN 1-85274-057-4.
  • Wapnick, Kenneth (1989). Love Does Not Condemn: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil According to Platonism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and A Course in Miracles. Foundation for A Course in Miracles. ISBN 0-933291-07-8.
  • Wilberg, Peter (2003) From New Age to New Gnosis - On the Contemporary Significance of a New Gnostic Spirituality, ISBN 1-904519-07-5
  • Williams, Michael (1996). Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01127-3.

Videos

  • The Naked Truth: Exposing the Deceptions About the Origins of Modern Religions (1995).

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