Sunday, February 16, 2014


Gnosticism (from gnostikos, "learned", from Ancient Greek: γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge) describes a collection of ancient religions that taught that people should shun the material world created by the demiurge and embrace the spiritual world.

Gnostic ideas influenced many ancient religions that teach that gnosis (variously interpreted as knowledge, enlightenment, salvation, emancipation or 'oneness with God') may be reached by practicing philanthropy to the point of personal poverty, sexual abstinence (as far as possible for hearers, completely for initiates) and diligently searching for wisdom by helping others. However, practices varied among those who were Gnostic.

In Gnosticism, the world of the demiurge is represented by the lower world, which is associated with matter, flesh, time and more particularly an imperfect, ephemeral world. The world of God is represented by the upper world, and is associated with the soul and perfection. The world of God is eternal and not part of the physical. It is impalpable, and time doesn't exist there. To rise to God, the Gnostic must reach the knowledge, which mixes philosophy, metaphysics, curiosity, culture, knowledge, and the secrets of history and the universe.


Gnosticism is primarily defined in a Christian context. In the past, some scholars thought that gnosticism predated Christianity and included pre-Christian religious beliefs and spiritual practices argued to be common to early Christianity, Neoplatonism, Hellenistic Judaism, Greco-Roman mystery religions, and Zoroastrianism (especially Zurvanism). The discussion of gnosticism changed radically with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and led to a revision of older assumptions. To date, no pre-Christian gnostic texts have been found, and gnosticism as a unique and recognizable belief system is typically considered to be a second century (or later) development.

Nature and structure

Common characteristics

Prince of this world, Satan

A common characteristic of some of these groups was the teaching that the realisation of Gnosis (esoteric or intuitive knowledge) is the way to salvation of the soul from the material world. They saw the material world as created through an intermediary being (the demiurge) rather than directly by God. In most of the systems, this demiurge (a: a Platonic subordinate deity who fashions the sensible world in the light of eternal ideas. b : a Gnostic subordinate deity who is the creator of the material world) was seen as imperfect, in others even as evil. Different gnostic schools sometimes identified the demiurge as Ahriman, El, Saklas, Samael, Satan, Yaldabaoth, or Yahweh.

Jesus is identified by some Gnostics as an embodiment of the supreme being who became incarnate to bring gnōsis to the earth, while others adamantly denied that the supreme being came in the flesh, claiming Jesus to be merely a human who attained divinity through gnosis and taught his disciples to do the same.

Among the Mandaeans, Jesus was considered a mšiha kdaba or "false messiah" who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John the Baptist. Still other traditions identify Mani and Seth, third son of Adam and Eve, as salvific (leading to salvation.) figures.

The Christian groups first called gnostic were a branch of Christianity, however Joseph Jacobs and Ludwig Blau note that much of the terminology employed is Jewish and note that this "proves at least that the principal elements of gnosticism were derived from Jewish speculation, while it does not preclude the possibility of new wine having been poured into old bottles."  The movement spread in areas controlled by the Roman Empire and Arian Goths, and the Persian Empire; it continued to develop in the Mediterranean and Middle East before and during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Conversion to Islam and the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) greatly reduced the remaining number of Gnostics throughout the Middle Ages, though a few Mandaean communities still exist. Gnostic and pseudo-gnostic ideas became influential in some of 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.

Dualism and monism

Typically, Gnostic systems are loosely described as being "dualistic" in nature, meaning that they have the view that 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 "radical dualist" systems of Manicheanism to the "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 = Absolute dualism

Radical dualism—or absolute dualism, posits two co-equal divine forces. Manichaeism conceives of two previously coexistent realms of light and darkness that 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. 

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.

Moral and ritual practice

Numerous early Christian Fathers 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 behaviour was one they themselves favoured and supported, so the Church Fathers, some modern-day Gnostic apologist presume—would be required perforce to offer support to the practices of their theological opponents. 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:
"External physical fasting is observed even among our followers, for it can be of some benefit to the soul if it is engaged on with reason (logos), whenever it is done neither by way of limiting others, nor out of habit, nor because of the day, as if it had been specially appointed for that purpose."

—Ptolemy, Letter to Flora
This extract marks a definite shift away from the position of orthodoxy, that the correct behavior for Christians is best administered and prescribed by the central authority of the Church, as transmitted through the Apostles to the Church's bishops. Instead, the internalized inclination of the individual assumes paramount importance; there is the recognition that ritualistic behavior, though well-intended, 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, and who had previously tried to buy sacramental authority of ordination from St. Peter the Apostle) 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" (Adversus Haereses).

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 eat food "offered to idols" (idol-worship), are sexually promiscuous ("immoderately given over to the desires of the flesh") and are guilty of taking wives under the pretense 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 behavior 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 endeavor becomes harder and harder to maintain, leading to the state of affairs Irenaeus criticizes.

Irenaeus also makes reference to the Valentinian practice 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 Catholic 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 practice anything whatsoever that is ungodly (irreligious) and impious ... they say that conduct is only good or evil in the eyes of man". 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 practices should not be taken at face value; nor should similar accusations of amoral libertinism. The Nag Hammadi library itself is full of passages that 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 endeavor and promises a reward for those who make the effort, and punishment for those who are negligent."


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