Gnosticism can be considered collective name for a large number of greatly varying and pantheistic-dualistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian era down to the fifth century. It became a dangerous corruption of Christianity, even or because its first traces can be found some centuries before the Christian era. That Alexandrian thought had some share at least in the development of Christian Gnosticism is clear from the fact that the bulk of Gnostic literature which we possess comes to us from Egyptian (Coptic) sources. Sometimes Manichaeism is even classified as a form of Gnosticism and styled Parsee Gnosis, as distinguished from Syrian and Egyptian Gnosis. Though they have the doctrine of the evil of matter in common, Manichaeism starts from dualism, while Gnosticism is mainly heavily allegorical Pantheism.
Gnostic groups were so many and different flavors, mostly alike but not quite the same. However, there were certain core markers. In gnosticism, the spiritual world was full of deep secrets. Matter was evil or unreal or at best disgusting, and spirit was good. There was one superior and many semi creatures which formed a hierarchy. Some spirits were more ‘good’ than others, and part of the task was to keep these spiritual superiors happy. A few people (that is, psychic) were learning about and evolving toward the spiritual world envolving th the spiritual man — the pneumatic Gnostic. A follower’s task was to stay focused on spiritual things and to ignore or not value those sarkic (earthly, hignorant, uninitiated), who lacked such ‘knowledge’ or ‘consciousness’. The meaning of Christian writings (including some of their leaders and pagan writings but not including most of the Old Testament) was turned upside down by way of allegory.
The Gnostic “gospels” include books such as the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Truth, and Dialogue of the Savior, and were written in the late second century AD. Most of these writings were found 1961 at Nag Hammadi, which was a religious library. For the most part, these ‘gnostic gospels’ are not stories told about Jesus, or reports about his life. They’re not about him giving grace, or being up close and personal with people. The Gnostics’ writings deal with Jesus’ death hardly at all. The Jesus portrayed by the gnostics gives out spiritual sayings or responds to questions, mostly left alone without a context. There’s not much of a setting – it’s as if no life was lived behind the sayings. The Gnostic Jesus has little about him that marks him as a Jew save for some apocalyptic symbolism. This could not be more unlike the Synoptic Gospels, which show Jesus at synagogue and at the Temple and in prayer, turning to the Hebrew holy books, as one would expect from the Jew he was. For a gnostic, God would never be contaminated with humanity. Thus, of course, they had to re-translate Jesus: he was a human who had developed the highest level of contacts in the spirit world. His body either became, or always was, an illusion. Gnostic were – if they talked about Jesus – of course Eboinites.
It is difficult in a few lines to sketch this Gnosticism, which grew into a great danger for the Church in the second century but let’s try:
Gnosis puts that is knowledge into the place of faith.
Gnosis means knowledge and the essence of this movement lies in the word which furnished its name To the Gnostic the great question was not, “What must I do to be saved?” In the very knowledge of these was redemption as the Gnostic understood it. Thus, by combining with the ideas original to Christianity the most various elements, such as Greek philosophy, Jewish theology, and ancient Oriental theosophy, great systems of speculative thought were constructed, all with the object of displaying the process of the world’s development.
Gnosticism is thinly disguised Pantheism (and a subtile form of polytheism).
In the beginning was the Depth; the Fullness of Being, first Cause. According to this development, from a pantheistic First Cause emanates a series of beings called Aeons, beings of Light, of which each in succession as it recedes from the First Cause is also less perfect than the preceding. Together with the source from which they emanate they form the Pleroma. Pleroma is simply the soul’s ascent, in Babylonian astrology as Wilhelm Anz (Ursprung des Gnosticismus, 1897) pointed out. Gnostic eschatology, consisting in the soul’s struggle with hostile Aeons in its attempt to reach the Pleroma, is a close parallel of the soul’s ascent, in Babylonian astrology, through the realms of the seven planets to anu.
Gnostic depressing and imperfect world.
Gnostic world is imperfect and depressing. Gnosticism presents a distinction between the highest, unknowable God and the demiurge, “creator” of the material. The transition from the immaterial to the material, from the noumenal to the sensible, is brought about by a flaw, or a passion, or a sin, in one of the Aeon. There are many different myths about the creation some including also Sophia. In any case the last and lowest spirit (Aeon) – the demiurge – comes into contact with matter, which from all eternity has stood opposed to the divine Light— as Darkness, on-existence, and all that is the reverse of divine. From this contact, from the mingling of the Light with Matter, the visible world comes into being, in which a portion of spiritual being, of Light, is held captive by matter and combined with it. Redemption is the liberation of this captive Light from the fetters of matter, the dissolution of this union, and the restoration of the original order of things. This redemption has been accomplished by Christ.
Gnostic salvation is a cosmic process.
Gnostic salvation is not merely individual redemption of each human soul; it is a cosmic process. It is the return of all things to what they were before the flaw in the sphere of the Aeons brought matter. This last tenet bears testimony to the connection of Gnosticism with Christianity, in contrast to many similar heathen systems, but of course what the Gnostics call redemption is something entirely different from that to which the Scriptures give the same name. Gnostic redemption is not deliverance from sin, but the restoration of cosmic order, and so Christ is to them, not the Savior who brings salvation and forgiveness of sin; Gnostic salvation is not merely individual redemption of each human soul; it is a cosmic process. It is the return of all things to what they were before the flaw in the sphere of the Aeons brought matter.
Some important Gnostic spirits.
The Gnostics differentiate between the Supreme God, or God the Father, and the imperfect maker. The Demiurge became often the personification of the power of evil in consequence all law also became intrinsically evil. The speculations on Primeval Man (Protanthropos, Adam) also occupy a prominent place in several Gnostic systems. According to the Sophia myth, matter is a fruit of her sin. Sophia plays an important role in Valentinian, but is completely absent in Basilica’s system. Sophia seems to represent the supreme female principle, as for instance in the Ptolemaic system.
Gnosticism denies Jesus having really assumed a human nature.
There is no place in the Gnostic system for the creation, or for the incarnation. Only in appearance did he become man, and his whole life on earth, especially his passion and death, were all an illusion. The Gnostics were thorough Docetism, that is, they treated the whole manifestation of Christ as only a semblance. The events which brought salvation were not facts to them, but remained only as symbols, and the substance of Christianity was evaporated into speculative ideas.
Gnosticism concept of human – the divine spark
Gnosticism taught generally that matter was evil, and as has been said the creation of a lesser spirit(called the Demiurge, after Plato). But human bodies, although their matter is evil, contained within them a divine spark that fell from the good, true God. Knowledge (gnosis) enables the divine spark to return to the true God from whence it came. For Christians all evil in the world comes from the human sin – Omne bonum a Deo, omne malum ab homini. Gnostics come up with a simple and different answer, but complicated implementation why the world is imperfect – the Creator is, that’s why.
Monism and Dualism in Gnosticism
Religious monism has two forms: atheism and pantheism. Both deny that there is a transcendent deity. Pantheism sees a deity that is immanent to the world and nature – like Taoism- and on which the world completely depends. Everything is god. This is main concept in but Dualism is als found in Gnostics. Dualism is a system which would explain the universe as the outcome of two eternally opposed and coexisting principles, conceived as good and evil, light and darkness, or some other form of conflicting powers or signify the ordinary view that the existing universe contains two radically distinct kinds of being or substance — matter and spirit, body and mind.
Typically, Gnostic systems are loosely described as being “dualistic” and “monistic” in nature:
- Radical Dualism — or absolute Dualism which posits two co-equal divine forces. Manichaeism conceives of two previously coexistent realms of light and darkness e.g. the Mandaean creation myth.
- Mitigated Dualism — where one of the two principles is in some way inferior to the other.
- 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.
- One entity Dualism. Abraxas is a conception of God that incorporates both Good and Evil in one entity. The origins of the God Abraxas are mysterious though it is believed the concept existed in ancient Egypt, later adopted by Jewish mystics and the Gnostic Christians. 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. This may have come from one of his his patient, the famous writer Hermann Hesse wo wrote in „Demian”: „… unser Gott heißt Abraxas, und er ist Gott und Satan, er hat die lichte und die dunkle Welt in sich …”
Christian philosophy, however, expounded with minor differences by theologians and philosophers from St. Augustine downwards, holds generally that physical evil is the result of the necessary limitations of finite created beings and a consequence of the creation of beings possessed of free wills and is tolerated by God but not a positive entity.
As Gnosticism possessed no central authority for either doctrine or discipline; considered as a whole it had no organization similar to the vast organization of the Catholic Church. It was but a large conglomeration of sects, of which Marcionites alone attempted in some way to rival the constitution of the Church, and even Marcionites had no unity. No other classification of these sects is possible than that according to their main trend of thought. We can therefore distinguish:
- Syrian or Semitic;
This school represents the oldest phase of Gnosticism, as Western Asia was the birthplace of the movement. Dositheus, Simon Magus, Menander, Cerinthus, Cerdo, Saturninus Justin, the Bardesanites, Severians, Ebionites, Encratites, Ophites, Naassenes, the Gnostics of the “Acts of Thomas”, the Sethians, the Peratae, the Cainites may be said to belong to this school. Later in Christianity , Antioch became the center of the Nestorians which was declared a Christian heresy and Alexandria was the stronger and primary enemy of the Antioch school.
- Hellenistic or Alexandrian;
These systems were more abstract, and philosophical, and self-consistent than the Syrian. The Semitic nomenclature was almost entirely replaced by Greek names. The cosmologist problem had outgrown all proportions, the ethical side was less prominent, asceticism less strictly enforced. The two great thinkers of this school were Basilides and Valentinus. Again later in Christianity, Alexandria became the center of Monophysitism which was declared a Christian heresy leading to an 200 year struggle.
- Dualistic Gnostics
The system of Marcion distinguished between the God of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament, as between two eternal principles.
- Antinomian Gnostics.
As a moral law was given by the God of the Jews, and opposition to the God of the Jews was a duty, the breaking of the moral law was encouraged.
The deadly embrace.
I have already attributed Gnosticism an all-embracing breadth. Gnosticism knew how to utilize every mental product of the age. Elements, oriental and occidental, in a curious medley, philosophy and popular superstition, all averse collected and used as materials for the building of Gnostic systems. The myths of the heathen may be found side by side with the Gospel histories, which were only myths to the Gnostic. One proof-text is taken from the Bible, and the next from Homer or Hesiod, and both alike are used by an allegorical exegesis to support the ready-made creations of the author’s fancy – breadth enough too, in morality, no trembling fear of pollution, no anxious care. It was no fiction inspired by the hatred of heresy, when the Gnostics were said to be very lax in their adhesion to the laws of morality.
Many of them expressly permitted flight from persecution. Gnosticism extended far and wide in the second century. There was something very imposing in those mighty systems, which embraced heaven and earth. How plain and meager was in comparison seemed simple Christianity. There is something remarkably attractive in the breadth and liberality of Gnosticism, no wonder it is resurfacing even today.
Gnostics seemed completely to have reconciled Christianity with culture. Even noble souls might be captivated by the hope of winning the world over to Christianity in this way, while the multitude was attracted by the dealing in mysteries with which the Gnostic sects fortified themselves, by offering mighty spells and amulets, thus appealing to the popular taste. Finally, some were no doubt drawn in by the fact that less strictness of life was required, and that they could thus be Christians without suffering martyrdom. But the victory of Gnosticism would have been the ruin of Christianity. Christianity would have split into a hundred sects, its line of division from Heathenism would have been erased, its inmost essence would have been lost, and instead of producing something really new, it would have become only an element of the melting mass, an additional ingredient in the fermenting chaos of religions which characterized the fight of the different heresies.
The Church fought as for its life.
The Church fought as for its life with all the forms of the false Gnosis and heresy. Over against the mighty systems of the Gnostics, the Church stood, in sober earnestness and childlike faith, on the simple Christian doctrine of the apostles. This was to be sought in the churches founded by the apostles themselves, where they had defined the faith in their preaching. Tradition was appealed to against the heretics, but in truth with the same end in view which the brightest had in going back to the scriptures, in order to oppose a corrupted tradition. For then the church was in direct possession of an unadulterated tradition, from which the doctrine preached by the apostles could be known with certainty. At this time the Church began to make a trustworthy collection of the apostolic writings, and, on the basis of both scripture and tradition, held with the greatest tenacity to the historical facts as the basis of true Christianity, parrying every attempt to transform them into semblances or symbols. These facts were condensed, on the basis of scripture, into a short rule of faith, and this, whose perfected expression in the “Apostles’ Creed” is still our rule of faith, was set up as a firm breakwater against the flood of Gnostic speculation.
The empire strikes back.
In it, over against the Gnostic scheme of Aeons emanating from the First Cause, the Church acknowledged after struggling more to the divine or the human side with clear simplicity and crisp definition the concept of Trinity in Pope Leos creed. In opposition to Gnostic idealism, the Church avowed its faith in the real historical facts, that the Son of God truly became man, was born of the Virgin Mary, was truly crucified and died, truly rose again. Thus the Church rescued Christianity (See the review of Jesus Wars).
Only to be caught a few hundred years again later in a state of exhaustion from another Ebionite system originating of a no-mans land desert.
Historia Mundi Volume IV, Lehnen Verlag,
Die Kirche zur Zeit der Apostel und Märtyrer
Phillip Jenkins, “Jesus Wars” Harper, 2010
R. M. Grant Gnosticism and Early Christianity
C.G. Jung, Aion Untersuchungen zur Symbolgeschichte
O. G Neugebauer, The exact scinece in antiqitity
John North, Cosmos, an illustrated history of astronomy and cosmology
Abraxas (or Abrasax); The letters of this word add up to 365. Basilidian claimed Abraxas as their supreme god, and said that Jesus Christ was only a phantom sent to earth by him. The older Mythologists placed him among the number of Egyptian gods, and demonologists have described him as a demon, with the head of a king and with serpents forming his feet. Under the pen name Basilides, Jung uses the name Abraxas to refer to illusory reality in his neo-Gnostic text “The Seven Sermons to the Dead” he wrote in 1916 after he had received intense psychic experiences in a crisis.
Aeon; These are the emanations from first cause, the Father. The word not only refers to the “worlds” of emanation, but to the personalities as well. Sophia, Logos, and the other high principles are aeons.
Agape; Unconditional love. A love that stems from the ability of the initiate to see the divine spark in all life.
Agnosia; The state of not having insight or Gnosis. Agnostiker 😉
Allogenes; Means “alien”. The existance of spiritual force in the material realm is “alien” to it. This includes both aeons, such as the Logos, as well as the Gnostic him/her self.
Anthropos; “Man”. This is the cosmic human as well as the philosophical form of the regular human.
Antinomianism; While this word literally refers to the belief that legal precepts are no longer applicable to a “saved” individual, for Gnostics like Carpocrates and Corinthuse.
Apochryphon; “Secret Book”. The notion of secrecy was important for a wide variety of reasons. Thus the development of the “secret writings” amongst the Gnostics.
Archon; “Ruler”. Refers to the creators and governing forces in the material world. The Demiurge and his angels.
Arete; Means “virtue”. In Platonic ideal it is a reference to the importance of meaning above technical skill (techne).
Autogenes; “Self Generated” is a reference to the first Aeon or the guiding light (Barbelos the first aeon androgynous connotation).
Boule; the “will” of God which in turn leads to the word (Logos) of God.
Bythos; the “Void”. Its the “primal ground” and the pre-beginning forefather.
Chrestos; “Friendly” Is a play on the word Christ (anointed). Both refer to the Logos.
Demiurge; The “Craftsman” or creator of the material world. Usually viewed in a negative fashion. If nothing else, the material is less than the spirit so that the creator is lower than the prime source.
Docetism; From the root word “image”. This is a theological premise that states that Christ’s actions on the earth (including the “passion”) is illusory.
Ennoia; Means “thought” Sophia in her high form Barbelo is the first thought (so she is the first Aeon and the last one as well). Creation happens in the triad of thought, word, action.
Epinoia; Means “insight” as it comes from the higher connections of spirit. I can be translated as “wisdom” in the modern sense of the word. Without it one cannot gain Gnosis.
Eros; This is the love that comes from the desire to reunite. It is a passion contrast with agape which is compassion). Eros originates when the Demiurge sees “light Adam” or the primal man (see Anthropos).
Esaldaios; This is the name that the Naasenes used for the Demiurge.
Gnosis; While the literal translation for this word is “knowledge”, it’s meaning is closer to “insight” or, to use a more modern concept, “enlightenment”. Rather than purely an intellectual understanding then, it is a “knowledge of the heart” (which is not meant to imply mere emotionalism) or wisdom. It is the complete comprehension that comes from both rational and intuited means.
Gnosticism; the word was created by modern scholors to refer to the sects of the Late Antiquities that shared a similar cosmology and soteriology. More recently the definition has been widened in some circles to mean any form of mysticism or esotericism. However, this has largely happened as a result of ignorance as to the technical purpose of the term.
Hebdomas; The kingdom of the “Seven”, referring to the spheres of the planets and thus the Archons and heimarene.
Heimarene; Literally “destiny”. Hylics are controlled by the spheres of the stars, which represent different base drives. Destiny does not apply to the pneumatic, who has broken past such connections.
Hylic; “of matter” This level of thinking (one of the three aspects of existance) deals with the lowest portion of human nature. The world and the instinctual drives with no sublimation.
Logos; often translated as “word”, it’s true meaning is much more multifunctional (a better translation would be “reason”). The Logos is the light that gives Gnosis via communication. It is the Christ (not to be confused with Jesus). First there was a thought, then the word. We pass on knowledge in this world through words. It is something that gives us guidance by “seeing” or a certain amount of comprehension.
Metennoia; This is the “change of mind” or perspective that happens to the initiate.
Nous; “Mind”, The soul, which is not the same as the pneuma or spirit. It is the part of the anima that gives us conciousness. The anima as a whole gives life (or literally movement.. “animates”) to our bodies.
Hebdomas (7). It is the realm of the Demiurgos , as well as usually being the realm of the zodiac (dodecon).
Ouroboros; This trademark image of the serpent biting it’s own tail is meant to imply infinity. Or, possibly, eternally being stuck in the material cycle.
Paraklete; “Comforter”. This is a familiar word used for the Holy Spirit or for the Logos.
Pleroma; The word means “fullness”. It refers to all existence beyond matter but not including Bythos who is beyond it. In other words it is the world of the Aeons, the heavens or spiritual universe.
Pneumatic; One who identifies with the spirit (pneuma) as opposed to the material world (hylic) or the intellect alone (psychic). The pneuma is the spark (spinther) that came from and is drawn to reunite with the Father. One who awakens it within the self does it through gnosis.
Poimandres; “Good Shepard” This is a reference to the first androgynous emanation which guides us back. A Hermetic (rather than Gnostic) term that is basically a Sophia and a Logos.
Prunikus; “Whore” Sophia is sometimes referred to as “Pistis Sophia Prunikus”. The fallen Sophia.
Psychic; This level of thinking is the one right above “hylic”. It’s drive is the intellect, or normal understanding of the mind.
Saklas; Literally means “fool”.
Samael; The word “Samael” means “blind god” and is another name for the Demiurge.
Sarkic; “Fleshly”. Same as “hylic” – unitiated.
Sophia; Means “wisdom”. Like the Logos this is a primal form. While the Logos is personified as male, Sophia is female. Logos has a direct and intellectual basis for guidance, Sophia is inspirational (sometimes even sensual). The basic idea is comparable to the Shekinah, or “Holy Spirit”.
Soter; “Savior” is a name for the Logos.
Spinther; The “spark” or “splinter” that is awakened with Gnosis is the spirit (not the same as soul see “nous”), which is a piece of the divine source. Also see “pneumatic”.
Syncretism; Syncretism is the interworking of two or more cultural perspectives into one system. Gnosticism grew from syncretism. It is patchwork religion, a picking and choosing according to taste, without the internal framework of a genuine understanding of function.
Yaldabaoth (Ialdabaoth Jaldabaoth); From the Aramaic, meaning “begetter of the Heavens”. A name for the Demiurge.
Zoe; Means “Life” and is usually equated with “Eve” which means the same thing. This is essentially the fallen Sophia.