Gnosticism Definition & Explanation
Gnosticism is a label scholars gave other Christian groups which differed hugely from the form of Christianity that we know today. It arose at the same time as orthodox Christianity while Gnostic Christianity is often misunderstood. It is a strange, mystical and very diverse belief system that is based on the belief in gnosis. The term “Gnosticism” derives from the Greek word gnosis, meaning knowledge. Gnostics thought that they had access to a higher knowledge than what was available to the average person. Gnosticism is a philosophical and religious system that emerged in the second century AD. Gnosticism per se is very diverse with huge theological and philosophical differences.
Best expressed by a sentence by Dr Ismo Dunderberg.
Thus Gnosticism as a category creates a misleading impression of a relatively unitarian movement.
That’s why scholars today speak of varieties of early Christianity instead of using the label Gnosticism. For the sake of arguing I will use Gnosticism for the non-orthodox groups of Christianity.
Jesus the Gnostic
Despite their differences, some aspects of Gnostic Christianity may have been drawn from ideas found in early versions of Christianity. For example, the idea that salvation comes not through faith in Jesus Christ but through knowledge is similar to that of the Gnostics. However, there are also significant differences between the different forms we call Gnosticism and early Orthodox Christianity. For example, the early Christians believed that Jesus was the only way to enter the divine realm fundamentally differs from the gnostic teaching that salvation can be found elsewhere. The gnostic faith also emphasised salvation through knowledge of hidden truths and purification from sin.
The Quest for Salvation
Gnostics believed that salvation came not through faith in Jesus Christ but rather by finding secret knowledge which Jesus has thought. They believed salvation could only be found by separating yourself from the material world and gaining access to the divine realm. This knowledge could be found through gnosis (Greek for “knowledge”), which referred to an insight into spiritual truths beyond what was revealed in scripture.
Gnostics taught that there are many paths to salvation and that everyone has a unique understanding of the gospel. Some Gnostics even claimed that Jesus didn’t exist at all and that salvation can be found elsewhere.
Some key beliefs of the Gnostics include:
- There is one true God who is beyond creation
- Gnostics believed in direct revelation from God, instead of scripture being interpreted by church fathers – Gnostics emphasised knowledge over faith -Gnostics regarded Jesus as a teacher who presented incomplete information about salvation
The resurrection of Jesus is a problem
For the various gnostic authors, the resurrection of Jesus is an issue as the whole point of gnostic beliefs was to escape the material world and escape the human body. That Jesus was crucified and raised from death, can’t be accepted by the many Gnostics groups. They are eager to set the divine spirit free and leave the material world behind. For them, this life is more like an illusion, the real life is hiding somewhere in the unknown.
Various gnostic Christianities
The various gnostic sects had alternate views on the world often even in opposition with each other and sometimes the line of theologic understanding was merging or even overlapping. They influenced each other over a couple of hundreds of years until certain Christianities got extinct and their scripts got burned by the orthodoxy or fell apart over time in libraries or tombs. I will write in this post about four of the main Gnostic belief systems and try to explain their theology.
The Sethians were one of many ancient Gnostic Christianities which rose in the Mediterranean world around the time of nascent Christianity.
The Sethian Christians believed to be the seed of Seth, the third offspring of the connection between the “first” human Adam and his wife Eve. Seth was the pure son of this alliance between them as the Sethians believed Yaldabaoth had sex with Eve against her will and it resulted in other errors of Yaldabaoth which were Cain and Abel.
Sethian beliefs were heavily influenced by Judaism and Platonism, providing a synthesis of Jewish and Greek thought with their distinct interpretation of cosmic creation. The Sentians named themself as an honour to the 3rd son of Adam and Eve who was called Seth. One literately masterpiece is the 2nd Treatise of the Great Seth.
Sethianism was present in the Mediterranean and had a strong impact on the Thomasines, the Basilideans and the Valentinians.
Sethianism took a completely different approach to other Christian nominations or variants of Judaism. It had a huge impact on other Christian groups who followed after them. One good example of such distinguished views is the Gospel of Judas, in which Judas is the one and true disciple of Jesus.
Other Sethian gospels are:
- The Apocryphon of John
- The Thought of Norea
- The Trimorphic Protennoia
- The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians
The gnostic myth is a complex construct which turned basic constructs of mainstream Christianity upside down. The world of the divine is vast and filled with Aeons and their relationship with each other, which filled our first terminology:
Before the creation of this physical reality (which takes place outside of time, before and after has no meaning in this example) the complex pleroma and its many divine aeons existed in harmony, the so-called Entirety. The Entirety or sometimes called the “Fullness” is basically a place outside of time and space. The Gnostics inherited the conception of god and the divine from antiquity and philosophy. The Gnostics think of the Entirety as stable and supreme.
The Great Invisible Spirit
This is the absolute and ultimate, true god. It is everything. It is the divine entirety, it is pure and worth worshipping. It is the one true god. It is everything, it existed before time, and it is the true, one god. It is not possible to comprehend what it is. It has nothing above it. In the Gnostic myth, their highest god had a few names like The One / Monad, the father of the Entirety or the invisible Spirit. It is completely unknowable, it can’t be described or understood in any way and yet it is the source of everything and indeed the reality in which everything happens. Which can be read in more detail in the secret book of John. The Invisible Spirit is a kind of intellect, not understandable to ourselves, it thinks about itself and in the process of thinking, god is devolved into the complex world in its entirety.
It is the Sethian paradise or universe. The divine space of all or the all mighty divine, wise, powerful and true god.
According to the Gnostics, even the Pleroma itself is not immune to desire or passion. The material realm negates all passion and raises innocent human “sparks” back up to the Pleroma which we find in the Apocryphon of John, one of the scripts from the Nag Hammadi library.
Aeons in Gnosticism
Aeons (from the Greek aion, meaning “eternal”) are thoughts or divine lights named after certain attributes (which we would associate with human credits) from the great invisible spirit.
Aeons have many similarities to Judaeo-Christian angels, including roles as servants and emanations of God. In addition, certain Gnostic angels, such as Armozel, are also Aeons. Every Aeon has another Aeon that completes it, they exist in female-male pairs. Every Aeon has its male counterpart and vice versa. The Sethians compare this pairing with the complementary nature of humanity as it should express two natures of the same reality. Which Aeon is male or female is determined by the gender in the Greek language.
The Aeons that make up the entirety result from the Invisible Spirit’s knowledge or thought of itself. They are its thinking or its intellect, in all its complexity. They form also a spiritual realm, the equivalent of Plato’s realm of ideal forms. (…) … for the Gnostics, the entirety that he aeons constitute is truly real and eternal; the material world is a flawed imitation of the entirety and destined to perish.
The lower Aeons
The first four lower originate Aeons created from Forethought, which he requested permission from the invisible spirit to bring these divine lights into being are:
- Prior acquaintance
- Eternal life
Later on, other smaller Aeons came into existence like word, perception, intelligence, and piece. The last aeon is named Wisdom or Sophia.
Barbelo / Forethought
The Barbelo or Forethought is the first Aeon which appears from the great invisible spirit or is sometimes called the second principle. We know how the Forethought came into existence from the secret book of John. The Barbelo is also called the room or the womb of the entirety, as the room of the whole, the Barbelo begins the multiplication of gods thoughts which results in Aeons.
Forethought is the first power that preceded everything. It came from the mind of the invisible spirit. The Barbelo is considered female. She is the great power and a mirror of the invisible virgin spirit. She is the first thought! A universal womb, that came before everything else.
The Secret Book of John
Self-Originate or Christ
The self-originate (in greek Autogenes) or Christ serves as a link between the Barbelo and the rest of the Aeons. The Christ makes up the entirety and he is described as the ruler of the rest of the Aeons.
How was the Self-Originate created?
The Invisible Spirit gazes at the Barbelo, through this gaze gets in the Barbelo a luminous spark and a new Aeon is created called the divine originate.
Around the self-Originate are four luminaries.
Eleleth is containing archetypal humans like Adam, Eve and their son Seth and their daughter Norea.
From these four luminaries, all the other Aeons originate.
It is very hard to grasp, it is a very complicated system and the different Gnostic texts give distinguish accounts of the divine realm.
Three-member divine family
It is formed from God the father, Barbelo the mother and Christ the son. This trinity lies in the heart of the Gnostic idea of God.
Sophia, the goddess of wisdom and the Aeon, most far away from the great invisible spirit and has a very important role to play in the myth.
The entirety was disturbed because Sophia desired to act on her own without the will of the invisible spirit and the consent of her male counterpart – as we know Aeons come in pairs and they do things together.
Sophia was made a female Aeon because the greek word for Sophia is a feminine noun. The female part of wisdom wanted to think a thought and because she is an Aeon of the invisible spirit she is possessing divine powers. Her thinking must have been fertile. It would create another god-like being. On the other side because wisdom acted in autonomy without her consort. The divine being she produced was evil, ugly and flawed and misshapen – a kind of a freak so to speak. An error caused by a divine being, Sophia was ashamed of herself for what she has done. She tried to push her ugly thought outside of the realm so nobody could see what she has caused. She called her disgusting being Yaldabaoth.
Gnostics Sethians believed in a dualistic cosmology in which the material world was created by an inferior god, the Demiurge or Yaldabaoth (usually illustrated with a snake body and a lion head) who was opposed by a higher god. The name Yaldabaoth comes properly from Aramaic and means the gatherer of armies.
Yaldabaoth or the lion-faced is the offspring of Sophia (Wisdom). He supposedly creates Adam and Eve because he wants to be worshipped by humans. He is also a jealous and evil god, he raped Eve and this resulted in Cain and Abel who later had their own issues which fictionally resulted in the murder of Abel. The Gnostics recognised that the god of the old testament was a jealous being like as Exodus 20:5 expressed. The theme of being envious is told through the creation story. Cain had the same issue as YHWH or the lion-faced in Gnostic Sethian myth.
The Demiurges were said to be imperfect and hindered by their egoism. They sought to create a perfect world but ended up creating something that was not good. Gnostics saw the material world as a prison from which humans must escape to gain eternal salvation.
Was in Sethianism also the first human.
She was raped by Yaldabaoth which resulted in Caine and Abel.
Seth is the 3rd son of Adam and Eve. The Gnostics believed that it is the true and pure son between Adam and Eve. He is the real first human.
Norea is the sister of Seth and the daughter of Adam and Eve. The evil Yaldabaoth is trying to rape her as he did with Eve.
In the Valentinians Christian theology, there are many different types of reality
- Physical reality
- Cosmic Reality
- Spiritual Reality
Valentinus the founder of the Valentinian movement was born around the year 100 AD in Phrebonis in the Nile delta and received his education in Alexandria around 110 – 130 AD. He probably came into contact with Basilides (he created his take on Christianity, more below) while he was living in the city Alexander the Great founded. Valentinus spent some time in Rome after leaving Alexandria, where he became well-known and successful as a teacher. He had a good chance of being elected Bishop of Rome according to Tertullian. Although he lost the election to be a bishop of Rom, Valentinus’ teachings influenced Christianity greatly and, as a result, Gnosticism has been very popular for the next three centuries. Valentinus used his intellect and had a big part in forming the Christian doctrine. He used the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle to raise Christian thinking to another level.
Valentinus’s theology, which emphasized the divinity of the soul and its ascent to union with God, was similar to that of classical Sophia myths. His school, represented most significantly by his star pupil Ptolemy, came to develop a highly complex anthropological myth that must have grown out of a simpler model provided by Valentinus himself.
According to the church fathers like Irenaeus, Valentinus was considering a heretic. That said heretic meant something else in this time. He was so dangerous because his teaching were in many ways very similar to orthodoxy but different and this fine lines were very important to this church father.
At Nag Hammadi we have also found a text which seems to come from the Valentinians like the Gospel of Truth.
I will expand on Valentinians more in the future, don’t miss out on it by subscribing to the Newsletter…
Basilides was a Gnostic leader who preached in Alexandria, Egypt, he was strongly influenced by Plato’s teachings and combined the classical school of thought of the great Greek philosopher with Jewish and early Christian teachings. He taught the dualistic theology of spiritual realities with a unique take on the origin of the world and what part humans took in it. His pupils expanded his dogma into a religious movement which we call now the Basilideans.
Basilides taught that the demiurge, or God of the Old Testament, created the material world but did not originate the soul or mind. The soul was created by Sophia, a divine spirit emanating from the Godhead. The material world was sustained by a spiritual power known as pneuma. The demiurge manipulated this power to create objects and beings to sustain itself.
Basilides also preached a form of gnostic monotheism which put him at odds with orthodox Christianity. He saw Jesus as a great teacher who had liberated humanity from the tyranny of the demiurge but did not incarnate as a full human being. For Basilides, Jesus’ mission was to lead humanity back to its true spiritual home – within the divine realm.
The followers of the Basilidean Christian faith believed that Sophia is the true creator of the cosmos and that she was expelled from the divine realm by the demiurge. They consider Adam and Eve to be spiritual prototypes of humanity and believe that their act of disobedience can help lead humans to enlightenment. Basilideans also believe in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, many of whom are depicted as anthropomorphic animals or abstract concepts.
In recent years scholars debate if the Thomasines can be “classified” as Gnostic or if they should get their Christian label. The reason for that is that Thomasine’s lack the typical Gnostic myth story of Yaldabaoth, the story of Seth and other classic Gnostic features but they also share the opinion of gaining knowledge as a key to entering the kingdom of god. It seems they focused also on wisdom and mainly on the sayings of Jesus Christ, like in the Gospel of Thomas. The Thomasine’s believed the kingdom of god is inside you and can be reached by yourself which is in contrast to orthodoxy who members thought about a doom day or apocalypse of humankind where they get judged.
Gnostic versus Orthodox Christianity
Gnosticism is a set of teachings that emphasise the importance of knowledge and enlightenment. Gnostic access the higher level of knowledge and find the hidden meaning of the sacred text to find the key to the Pleroma and merge with the entity.
This differs from the traditional Christian faith which is based on salvation from sin or original sin which can be traced back to Adam’s story and eating an Apple from the tree in paradise which YHWY has prohibited doing. Orthodox Christians justify their ideology and the forgiveness of sin in the belief in god (Paul).
Gnosticism spread through the Hellenistic world and was accepted by some early Christian thinkers, but was eventually denounced as a heresy. One church father who spoke harshly of the Gnostics was Epiphanius of Cyprus. He wrote a book called the Panarion, in it, he labelled the Gnostics as heretics. Mainly as many views of them were completely the opposite. Like the God of the old bible is an evil being who created matter out of imperfection and was jealous and an egoistic, selfish mistake. Created by an error from Sophia. Another difference in theology was Judas Iscariot was the good guy. Not hard to imagine that this was a thorn in the eye of the orthodoxy.
Christianity in itself was not just one string coming from Judaism which had itself many different sects.
The many different Gnostic groups retained a significant following for four or even five centuries until they went extinct. After the emperor, Constantine made orthodox Christianity the main religion in the empire. The reasons are still debatable. It could be because his mother was an orthodox Christian and/or a Bishops had a network of influence on their “flock” it was easier to collect taxes. The empire was under huge financial pressure at that time. Hard to say what Constantine’s motives were, but the today-known Jesus movement became the dominant faith. Many gnostic Christianities were pushed out of the empire, mainly because their beliefs were considered heresy. The different Gnostic groups were seeking refuge in Persia and Saudi Arabia. In the Arabic peninsula, they influenced the development of Islam.
Julian Augustus the son of Constantine half brother took the Roman empire over in 360 AD and tried to reverse Christianity being the state religion. His reign was short only 3 years and this wasn’t accomplished.
There is still a substantial debate among scholars about the origins of Gnosticism, the evidence for it in the first century like with even orthodox Christianity is short or even non-existent. We rely on quotations from historians and they just side-noted it mainly years later vaguely.
Gnosticism in Orthodoxy
The orthodox bishop Clement of Alexandria was not rejecting Gnosis, he himself believed in it but an orthodox version of it. He blames the other Christianities to teach the “false” knowledge of god. Later Origin, one of the great theologians of orthodoxy expanded on this form of teaching. He got, later on, declared a heretic but this judgement was then taken back in later times.
Gnosticism the Summary
Gnostic Christianity was very diverse and leaned on the platonic worldview. It developed over centuries and died out in later times. The Gnostic understood that the perspective of orthodoxy on major moral issues has its flaws, like many humans dying in a flood, and the childish behaviour of a god who seems to be jealous of other “false” gods, approving slavery, to name a few. The Gnostics tried to make sense of the hostile, hard world in which they were living. They could only explain the world by combining greek platonism with Christian/Jewish prospects and developing their mythology around it. In fact, some scholars are considering that Gnosticism originated in Judaism first because Philo, so great philosopher of Judaism, who lived at the same time as Paul, was already seeing parts of the Old Testament as problematic and because he was also influenced by Greek philosophy he tried to create a new theology around it. Thanks to our findings of the last century we know now, how diverse the Christian faith in the first four centuries was. Hopefully, we can discover more findings but we will not be able to determine what the original Jesus and his teaching were if he is not an imaginal figure like many of the dying and rising gods of the centuries around the year cero. The lack of archaeological evidence of the first two centuries makes this search almost impossible. The journey of finding the truth is nevertheless fascinating.