Gnosticism is a philosophical and religious movement which started in pre-Christian times. The name is derived from the Greek word "gnosis" which literally means "knowledge." However, the English words "Insight" and "enlightenment" capture more of the meaning of "gnosis." It is pronounced with a silent "G" (NO-sis). Gnosticism is not factual, intellectual, rational knowledge, such as is involved in mathematics and physics; that would have been more accurately represented by the Greek world "episteme." Rather, Gnosticism involves the relational or experiential knowledge of God and of the divine or spiritual nature within us. A visitor to this web site wrote: "...we believe that gnosis-knowledge requires ultimate transcendence of the merely intellectual to be actualized." 1
Gnostics believe that they have secret knowledge about God, humanity and the rest of the universe of which the general population was unaware. It became one of the three main belief systems within 1st century Christianity, and was noted for four factors by which differed from the two other branches of Christianity:
Novel beliefs about Gods, the Bible and the world which differed from those of other Christian groups.
Tolerance of different religious beliefs within and outside of Gnosticism.
Lack of discrimination against women. Although Jesus treated women as equals, and Paul mostly did the same, the other Christian belief systems started to oppress women in later generations.
A belief that salvation is achieved through relational and experiential knowledge. In the words of The contemporary Gnostic Apostolic Church, humanity needs to be awakened and brought "to a realisation of his true nature. Mankind is moving towards the Omega Point, the Great day when all must graduate or fall. This day is also the Day of Judgment in that only those who have entered the Path of Transfiguration and are being reborn can return to the Treasury of Light." 2
The movement and its literature were essentially wiped out before the end of the 5th century CE by Catholic heresy hunters and the Roman Army. Its beliefs are currently experiencing a rebirth throughout the world, triggered in part by the discovery of an ancient Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in the 1940s, and the finding of the Gospel of Judas at El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s.
Gnosticism consisted of many syncretistic belief systems which combined elements taken from Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Syrian pagan religions, from astrology, and from Judaism and Christianity. They constituted one of the three main branches of early Christianity: the other two being:
The remnants of the Jewish Christian sect which was founded by Jesus' disciples after his execution and centered in Jerusalem, and
The churches started by Paul, that were eventually to grow and develop into "mainline" Christianity by the end of the third century.
By the second century CE, many very different Christian-Gnostic sects had formed within the Roman Empire at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Some Gnostics worked within Jewish Christian and mainline Christian groups, and greatly influenced their beliefs from within. Others formed separate communities. Still others were solitary practitioners.
There does not seem to have been much formal organization among the Gnostics during the early centuries of the Christian movement. As mainline Christianity grew in strength and organization, Gnostic sects came under increasing pressure, oppression and persecution. They almost disappeared by the 6th century. The only group to have survived continuously from the 1st century CE into modern times is the Mandaean sect of Iraq and Iran. This group has about 15,000 members (one source says 1,500), and can trace their history continuously back to the original Gnostic movement.
Many new emerging religions in the West have adopted some ancient Gnostic beliefs and practices. By far, the most successful of these is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the LDS or Mormon church, centered in Salt Lake City, UT.
The Gnostic faith is undergoing a resurgence in the 21st century, primarily in Western countries. The counter-cult movement and some other Christian ministries disseminate a great deal of misinformation about the movement.
Sources of ancient Gnostic information:
Until recently, only a few pieces of Gnostic literature were known to exist. These included Shepherd of Men, Asclepius, Codex Askewianus, Codex Brucianus, Gospel of Mary, Secret Gospel of John, Odes of Solomon and the Hymn of the Pearl. Knowledge about this movement had been inferred mainly from extensive attacks that were made on Gnosticism by Christian heresiologists (writers against heresy) of the second and early third century. These included Irenaeus (130? - 200? CE), Clement of Alexandria (145? - 213?), Tertullian (160? - 225?) and Hippolytus (170? - 236). Unfortunately, the heresy hunters appear to have been not particularly accurate or objective in their analysis of Gnosticism.
In 1945, Mohammed Ali es_Samman, a Muslim camel driver from El Qasr in Egypt, went with his brother to a cliff near Nag Hummadi, a village in Northern Egypt. They were digging for nitrate-rich earth that they could use for fertilizer. They came across a large clay jar buried in the ground. They were undecided whether to open it. They feared that it might contain an evil spirit; but they also suspected that it might contain gold or other material of great value. It turns out that their second guess was closer to the truth: the jar contained a library of Gnostic material of immeasurable value. 13 volumes survive, comprising 51 different works on 1153 pages. 6 were copies of works that were already known; 6 others were duplicated within the library, and 41 were new, previously unknown works. Included were The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Treatise on the Resurrection, Gospel of Philip, Wisdom of Jesus Christ, Revelation of James, Letter of Peter to Philip, On the Origin of the World and other writings. Of these, the Gospel of Thomas is considered the most important. It was a collection of the sayings of Jesus which were recorded very early in the Christian era. A later Gnostic author edited the Gospel. Some liberal theologians rank it equal in importance to the four Gospels of the Christian Scriptures.
The works had originally been written in Greek during the second and third centuries CE. The Nag Hummadi copies had been translated into the Coptic language during the early 4th century CE, and apparently buried circa 365 CE. Some Gnostic texts were non-Christian; others were originally non-Christian but had Christian elements added; others were entirely Christian documents. Some recycled paper was used to reinforce the leather bindings of the books. They were found to contain dated letters and business documents from the middle of the 4th century. The books appear to have been hidden for safe-keeping during a religious purge by the mainline Christian church.
The texts passed through the hands of a number of mysterious middlemen, and finally were consolidated and stored in the Coptic Museum of Cairo. Publication was delayed by the Suez Crisis, the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, and petty debates among scholars. The most important book, the Gospel of Thomas, was finally translated into English during the late 1960's; the remaining books were translated during the following ten years. In many ways, this find reveals much more about the early history of Christianity than do the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Nag Hummadi find revealed that there was a broad range of beliefs among the various independent Gnostic systems or schools. However, the following points are believed to be generally accurate throughout the movement:
Their Role: They believed that they alone truly understood Christ's message, and that other streams of thought within Christianity had misinterpreted Jesus' mission and sayings.
Gnosis: Knowledge to them was not an intellectual exercise; it was not a passive understanding of some aspect of spirituality. Rather, knowledge had a redeeming and liberating function that helped the individual break free of bondage to the world.
Deity: The Supreme Father God or Supreme God of Truth is remote from human affairs; he is unknowable and undetectable by human senses. She/he created a series of supernatural but finite beings called Aeons. One of these was Sophia, a virgin, who in turn gave birth to an defective, inferior Creator-God, also known as the Demiurge. (Demiurge means "public craftsman" in Greek.) This lower God is sometimes called Yaldabaoth or Ialdabaoth Jaldabaoth -- from Aramaic words meaning "begetter of the Heavens." This is Jehovah, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). He is portrayed as the creator of the earth and its life forms. He is viewed by Gnostics as fundamentally evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in compassion, and prone to genocide. The Demiurge "thinks that he is supreme. His pride and incompetence have resulted in the sorry state of the world as we know it, and in the blind and ignorant condition of most of mankind."
Duality of spirit and body: Spirit is of divine origin and good; the body is inherently earthly and evil. Gnostics were hostile to the physical world, to matter and the human body. But they believed that trapped within some people's bodies were the sparks of divinity or seeds of light that were supplied to humanity by Sophia.
Salvation: A person attains salvation by learning secret knowledge of their spiritual essence: a divine spark of light or spirit. They then have the opportunity to escape from the prison of their bodies at death. Their soul can ascend to be reunited with the Supreme God at the time of their death. Gnostics divided humanity into three groups:
The spiritual, who would be saved irrespective of their behavior while on earth.
The Soulish, who could be saved if they followed the Gnostic path.
The carnal who are hopelessly lost.
Evil: They did not look upon the world as having been created perfectly and then having degenerated as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. Rather the world was seen as being evil at the time of its origin, because it had been created by an inferior God.
Snake Symbol: Some Gnostic sects honored the snake. They did not view the snake as a seducer who led the first couple into sinful behavior. Rather, they saw him/it as a liberator who brought knowledge to Adam and Eve by convincing them to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and thus to become fully human.
Christ: The role of the redeemer in Gnostic belief is heavily debated at this time. Gnostics seem to have looked upon Christ as a revealer or liberator, rather than a savior or judge. His purpose was to spread knowledge which would free individuals from the Demiurge's control and allow them to return to their spiritual home with the Supreme God at death. Some Gnostic groups promoted Docetism, the belief that Christ was pure spirit and only had a phantom body; Jesus just appeared to be human to his followers. They reasoned that a true emissary from the Supreme God could not have been overcome by the evil of the world, and to have suffered and died. These beliefs were considered heresy by many non-Gnostic Christians. Some Gnostics believed that Christ's resurrection occurred at or before Jesus' death on the cross. They defined his resurrection as occurring when his spirit was liberated from his body. Many Gnostics believed that Jesus had both male and female disciples.
The Universe: This is divided into three kingdoms:
The "Earthly Cosmos": The earth is the center of the universe, and is composed of the world that we know of and an underworld. It is surrounded by air and by 7 concentric heavenly spheres: one for each of the Moon, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. (Although the planet Uranus is visible to the naked eye, it was not recognized as a planet in ancient times.) Beyond Saturn resides Leviathan, a snake coiled in a single circle, devouring its own tail. Within these spheres live demonic, tyrannical entities called Archons. Beyond them lies Paradise which contains the "Tree of Life", the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil", and the flaming, turning sword of Genesis 3:24. Beyond Paradise was the sphere of the fixed stars, divided into the 12 signs of the zodiac.
The "Intermediate Kingdom is composed of an inner blue circle of darkness and an outer yellow ring of light. Within these rings is a sphere which is the realm of Sophia.
The "Kingdom of God" consists of two spheres: an outer one of the unknowable Supreme God, and inner ring of the Son.
The Gnostic Church and its Branches
The two principal branches of the Gnostic Church are the French and the English. Of these, the French is the older and more widely disseminated. Long before there was a country named France, Gnostics were already present in that land. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (c.a. 180 A.D.) was so troubled by the presence of Gnostics in his diocese that he devoted volumes of diatribes to combat them. Gnostic groups of various kinds flourished in France throughout history, the best known and most numerous being the Cathar Church in the Middle Ages. French crusaders also came into contact with Gnostic groups in the Middle East and brought their teachings back to the French homeland, where these teachings were cultivated by generations of French devotees of the Gnosis in secret. This seems to have been the case with the Knights Templar, who, not unlike the Cathar Gnostics, were cruelly exterminated by the unholy alliance of the French crown and papacy.
French history from the Middle Ages to the present is characterized by an oscillation between Roman Catholic and anti Roman Catholic tendencies in cultural life and in the body politic. The cruel massacre of the Cathars and of the Templars created a wide spread and long lasting resentment against the Roman Catholic Church, which resentment was extended to the Bourbon monarchy as well. Every time the hold of the Roman Catholic Church weakened on the government of France, Gnostic and gnosticizing religious bodies emerged from hiding, only to be suppressed eventually by another clerical government. One of these incidents of emergence occurred in the late Nineteenth Century, when Jules-Benoit Doinel du Val Michel (Tau Valentin II), inspired by spiritual influences that appeared to have been of Cathar origin founded the French Gnostic Church, which by way of its various branches and under several names has functioned ever since. Primarily by way of its Haitian extension, this church came to establish itself in the United States as well, particularly within the last few decades.
Gnostic interest in the English speaking countries was initially restricted to secular avenues. The rise of the Theosophical Society in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century brought some considerable attention to focus on the Gnostics. Madame Blavatsky in her writings extolled the Gnostics as her kindred spirits and her pupil, G.R.S. Mead became the best known and most accurate as well as most sympathetic translator of Gnostic scriptures of his time. While there was certainly some contact between the French Gnostics and the gnostically inclined British and American Theosophists, (Jules Doinel received his revelation concerning the founding of the Gnostic Church at the residence of the prominent British Theosophist, Lady Caithness), another half a century elapsed before the English Gnostic ecclesiastical transmission was to have its beginning. At the halfway point of the Twentieth Century, the Australian born British Gnostic, Richard, Duc de Palatine felt inspired to become a pioneer of sacramental Gnosticism for Britain and the United States. (De Palatine was born with the name Powell, but legally changed his name). Having been consecrated as a bishop by the well known British independent Catholic prelate, Hugh George de Wilmott Newman, de Palatine proceeded to establish a sacramental Gnostic church both in England and in the United States. Bishop Palatine was acquainted with several French Gnostic bishops, and received encouragement and inspiration from them. The present writer, after serving for about a decade as a priest under Bishop Palatine, was consecrated in 1967 as regionary bishop for America by him, and has represented the Gnostic tradition ever since as senior holder of the English Gnostic transmission.
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