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Gnosticism: A History and Overview

by Gjorgjievski Borce


Until about 50 years ago it was very hard to state some definite facts about the Gnostics and their beliefs since we had very few examples of first hand copies of their writings. The orthodox Christians eagerly burned all of the Gnostics writings as soon as they became the dominant sect while Gnosticism automatically became heretical, and Gnostics heretics. Until the find of Nag Hammadi in 1945 the little that was known of Gnosticism and the Gnostics was from the writings of their enemies. However, after the find of Nag Hammadi we were able to study the Gnostic writings in their original form, and to form a more precise picture of their teachings.

One of the main factors which separated the Gnostics from orthodox Christians (by Orthodox I mean all of the today's Christian delineations. In that time the orthodox were the so called Pistic Christians, which propagated that direct experience of God was impossible) was the mysticism of their beliefs. It started with their views of God and creation and ended with the person of Christ. They viewed the One (the wholeness of God), which they called the true God, as having a feminine part that was the Spirit. In accord, they also held that Jesus came from God and the Spirit to form the Trinity.

In the Gnostic version of Genesis (i.e. in their version of the creation of the world) the Spirit of God is referred to as the Wisdom of God or Sophia who is also a feminine creative force. The Gnostics teach that she wished to give birth to a creature like herself. She did so without the permission of God - the Father. The result was something imperfect and different from her in appearance and so, She, being ashamed of it, threw it outside of the heaven and hid it in a cloud so none of the Immortals would see it. According to the Gnostics this horrible child became the one they called the Demiurge. Unbeknown to him his mother gave him some of her power which contained the Spirit. The Demiurge thought the power that his mother gave him was his own, and with it he started creating the physical world. In doing this the Gnostics believed the Demiurge entrapped the Spirit in matter. They taught that this Demiurge was in fact Yehovah from the old testament, and they found their proof in one of the ten commandments which says, ...I am God, and there is no one besides me.... This was one of the reasons they were fiercely prosecuted by the Pistic Christians, which were quite comfortable with hierarchies and absolute control of the ruler, in heaven, and on Earth.

The other issue in which Gnostics disagreed with the orthodox Christians, and which was a real outrage for them was the person of Jesus. For them Jesus was a special person who did not come from the Demiurge but had come directly from God and the Holy Spirit. The Gnostics claimed Jesus taught them secret knowledge which he did not share with the general congregation of the Church. This sort of claim was not accepted too well by the official Catholic Church at a time when it was striving to gain strength and power. Furthermore, it was considered threat to their ascension and monopoly.

The Gnostics also disagreed on the point that man was sinful by nature, but believed man erred through ignorance. By knowledge, they said, man could correct his ways and gain salvation. The special knowledge, which the Gnostics subscribed to, was known as ...gnosis.... Gnosis was not a logical type of knowledge as one might gain in the study of the empirical sciences or by reading books, but it was an intuitive or reflexive type of knowledge that comes from the study of man's inner self or soul. It is very close to the Hinduistic definition of Meditation, which claims that by concentration on mans inner nature one can reach the full knowledge of God, since we all have the spark of God within us. Any other knowledge did not matter the Gnostics, and they had no interest in studying it. They called this gnosis, the inner knowledge that they valued above all, the illuminated Logos because they believed it led to man's salvation.

Another important point concerning Jesus which caused discord was that the Gnostics did not accept that Jesus was born of a virgin. Claiming that Jesus came from God and the Spirit, they said he entered a body brought about by sexual intercourse between Mary and Joseph. They did not need any complicated theories to explain how could Mary give birth to Jesus, have many other children and still remain a virgin, because they did not want to incorporate in their teachings the numerous pagan virgin cults which the power-hungry Catholic church was more than ready to assimilate. They had their path to the salvation without that. Most of the Gnostics scoffed at the idea of an Immaculate Conception which other Christians held.

Early History of Gnosticism

As early as AD 38, James, Peter and Thomas in Antioch, Asia Minor, founded the Church of Antioch. This church taught a doctrine that had a lot in common with the Gnostic teachings. The other current in Christianity, the Pistic Christianity, taught that the salvation could only be achieved by fate, and not by any other means. They were especially against the Gnostic claim that salvation can be achieved by knowledge alone. In AD 64, Pistic (as opposed to Gnostic) Christianity began growing very fast when Nero began throwing Christians to the lions in the arena. Roman courts offered Christians to denounce their religion and go free. The Pistics refused and died for it. The Gnostics were horrified by very thought of it. Their comrades were committing suicide by walking willingly into the mouths of lions.

The Gnostics respected honesty and sincerity, but they respected life much more, and they knew that by dying in the arenas they wont achieve anything besides that there will be less people with a chance of achieving salvation, which, according to the Gnostics, could be achieve by the inner knowledge (Gnosis), and not only by fate. They became hated and despised by Pistics for refusing to die with them. One reaction that the Gnostics did not predict was how these willing suicides affected the masses. The arena made converts by the droves, and it was Pistic Christians that they sought out to learn more about this powerful religion, so the number of the Pistic Christians grew exponentially.

Since the foundation of the Catholic Church, which finally fortified Pistic Christianity as orthodox and the only genuine one, the institution of the papacy was built on the doctrine of being the successors of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome, who was supposedly the first bishop there. History, however, does not show Peter to have been in Rome, or to have ever been a bishop, anywhere. The new church tended to absorb all the other religions present in the Roman Empire and convert as many people as possible. An effective unification of all of Rome's religions had to, not only include the major deities of those religions, but it also had to place them in a position subordinate to the over-god, who was to pull them all together, and to grant him the higher authority. The use of crosses, as symbols, was almost non-existent before. This was generally regarded as a violation of the second commandment, and the reminder of Christ's suffering was usually deemed inappropriate. The Pistic Christianity had also its doubts about the ability of the women to be saved. A vote was cast at the council to decide whether women had souls (since the poor things were made from a single male rib after all). The women won by only one vote. Among early Christians, however, which for the most part shared the Gnostic beliefs, it was the women, as much as the men, who had visions and were accepted for that ability. The Church of Antioch left the council in disgust. As a consequence, it was persecuted as far away as Malabar, India.

The new Catholic Church was virtually Christian in name only. Early Christians, and not Gnostics alone, were committed pacifists. They refused to enter the military, or any kind of government work. After the Nicean Council, this changed, such that within 60 years almost every soldier and civil servant was a Christian. The traditional Christian virtues of love, tolerance and forgiveness were quickly put under the proverbial carpet, and they remained only in words, while the deeds showed something completely different. One of the founders of the Church, according to the Catholic teachings, Constantine, actually was converted only on his deathbed. ...Saint... Eusebius, who was a heretic, entered his chambers, sprinkled holy water on him, and declared him baptized. Constantine, ruthless as he was, had put a stop to the persecution of Christians, but his successors began the persecution of Gnostics in earnest. Emperors Valens and Valentinian were such ruthless butchers that in comparison even Caligula looks like a compassionate soul.

Gnostics and Jesus Christ

There are some evidences that suggest that Gnosticism (their basic concepts and beliefs) existed much more before Christianity. There are traces of it in Judaism, some of the variations of the Egyptian religions, and even so far as the Buddhism in the Far East. However, what we reefer today as Gnosticism is the Christian Gnosticism and within their teachings Jesus Christ had a central place. Even though most of them denied Jesus' real humanity and his actual, physical death. Some historians believe that the early so-called Docetic teaching, that Jesus was not a man but a spiritual being associated with the Logos, who could adopt any form, was based on the apparent contradiction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Jesus' earthly life was so largely one of humiliation that it seemed the simplest way out was to deny the reality of his earthly life altogether.

The Pistic current within the Christianity, which came to be dominant later, rejected the Gnostic view that Jesus was only apparently physical but in reality a spiritual being, insisting that he, like the rest of humanity, was born, lived in a family, became hungry and tired, suffered and died. They even went so far as to insist that he rose bodily from the dead, and made this a dogma, so anyone who disbelieved was automatically proclaimed a heretic. The orthodox tradition implicitly affirms bodily experience as the central fact of human life, while the Gnostics viewed the material world and physical life as nearly wholly evil and as an obstacle to salvation. This was something that the later orthodox Christianity could not allow to exist, since now the bishops and the high church officials held great wealth in land and money, so the Gnostic teachings were prosecuted with all means.

At the end, the conflict between Gnosticism and what later became orthodoxy eventually centered on the dispute about the bodily nature of Jesus. The orthodox insisted that a belief in the historical Jesus was essential for one's salvation, while the Gnostics, on the other hand, either denied those so-called historical facts or considered them irrelevant to their salvation. If we want to understand better why the bodily resurrection was so important for the orthodox Christians, we have to look at the social and political consequences of the supposed bodily resurrection of Jesus. The difference may not strike us now as very important, but for early Christianity it was essential. We have to take into account that traditionally all church authority derived from someone who had actually witnessed the resurrection. It was Peter who, according to Orthodox tradition, was the first witness, although both Mark and Luke mentioned Mary Magdalena as the first one, but since the Pistic Christians had their doubts about the spirituality of the woman, Peter remained the first witness in the church tradition. Therefore, Peter was the rightful founder of the church and passed on this authority to his successors. The belief is so basic to Catholic theology that no differing view could be tolerated without endangering the legitimacy of the entire clerical hierarchy from the Pope down to the ordinary priest. The Gnostics, therefore, were one of the most dangerous heretics, since they didn't attack only Gods kingdom in Heaven, but also the gold-plated palaces of the Pope and his Cardinals on Earth..

If we take a look at those Gnostic texts that discuss Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection display a variety of views that, nevertheless, reveal some common themes. Jesus in the First Apocalypse of James consoles James: ...Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no harm.... In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus says, ...I did not die in reality, but in appearance.... Those error and blindness.... saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was rejoicing in the height over all.... And I was laughing at their ignorance....

The possibility of resurrection is enthusiastically affirmed in the Treatise on the Resurrection: ...Do not think the resurrection is an illusion. It is no illusion, but it is truth! Indeed, it is more fitting to say that the world is an illusion rather than the resurrection.... Yet, the nature of the post-resurrection appearances differs from the biblical accounts. Jesus is disclosed through spiritual visions rather than physical circumstances. The resurrected Jesus for the Gnostics is the spiritual Revealer who imparts secret wisdom to the selected few. The tone and content of Luke's account of Jesus' resurrection appearances is a great distance from Gnostic accounts: ...After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God... (Acts 1:3).

As in many modern New Age teachings, the Gnostics tended to divide Jesus from the Christ. For Valentinus, Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism and left before his death on the cross. Much of the burden of the treatise Against Heresies, written by the early Orthodox Christian theologian Irenaeus, was to affirm that Jesus was, is, and always will be, the Christ. He says: ...The Gospel...knew no other son of man but Him who was of Mary, who also suffered; and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion; but Him who was born it knew as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that this same suffered and rose again.... Irenaeus goes on to quote John's affirmation that ...Jesus is the Christ... (John 20:31) against the notion that Jesus and Christ were ...formed of two different substances,... as the Gnostics taught. In dealing with the idea that Christ did not suffer on the cross for sin, Irenaeus argues that Christ never would have exhorted His disciples to take up the cross if He in fact was not to suffer on it Himself, but fly away from it.

For Irenaeus (a disciple of Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of the apostle John), the suffering of Jesus the Christ was of vital importance, and a fact that cannot be disputed. It was indispensable to the apostolic ...rule of faith... that Jesus Christ suffered on the cross to bring salvation to His people. In Irenaeus' mind, there was no divine spark in the human heart to rekindle; self-knowledge was not equal to God-knowledge, and Gnostics were dangerous Heretics for claiming such things. In his understanding humans were stuck in sin and required a God to be sacrificed for the forgiveness of their sins. Because was not possible that the man...who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself,... the Son brought salvation by ...descending from the Father, becoming incarnate, stooping low, even to death, and consummating the arranged plan of our salvation....

Polycarp's mentor, the apostle John, said: ...This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us... (John 3:16); and ...This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins... (4:10). The Gnostic Jesus is predominantly a dispenser of cosmic wisdom who discourses on abstruse themes like the spirit's fall into matter. Jesus Christ certainly taught theology, but he dealt with the problem of pain and suffering in a far different way. He suffered for us, rather than escaping the cross or lecturing on the vanity of the body.

The Basic Beliefs of the Gnostics

Gnosticism within itself contained many sects that sometimes drastically differed in their practices, ranging from ascetic to orgiastic, but if we take a look at their teachings we may be able to fin few main pillars on which most of them agreed. These would include:

  1. The Godhead, which as in Hinduism and theosophy, is eternal, infinite, and absolute. It is, in fact, beyond the range of human thought. Silence can best express it. He or It does not create in the Biblical sense, making something out of nothing, but he emanates from himself manifestations as reflections, and among those emanations is the creator of earth and material things, known as the Demiurge and usually identified with the Old Testament Jehovah, the God of Israel. Jehovah, according to the Gnostics, is said to have created an imperfect, even evil, world and he is ignorant of the existence of the real Godhead, believing himself to be the absolute ruler of the universe. So while the God of the Old Testament was rejected as the lower deity who created the wholly evil phenomenal world, it was Jesus the Christ who revealed the High God, the Father within. Jesus was the Logos, the power that existed before anything was being created, and even before Yehovah was created.
  2. Man is a mixture of spirit and matter but has a spark of the Highest - the Pleroma. For man to be saved he must be freed from his bondage to the visible world and its rulers, the planetary spirits. The means of his salvation is gnosis, a mystical, spiritual enlightenment for the initiated, which brings them into contact with the realm of spiritual realities. This process is described in the Nag Hammadi text called The Gospel of Truth, which contains a powerful statement on the human condition as an emptiness, ignorance, and dereliction to be healed by the saving revelation of Christ. Many Gnostics insisted that ignorance, not sin in the orthodox Christian meaning, is what involves mankind in suffering, and they denied that man is sinful by nature. Most Gnostics believed that man must wake up, must become aware of his condition and the possibility of his release.

We can find in Many Gnostic treatises that the ultimate reality or godhead is beyond any conceptual apprehension. Any hope of contacting this reality, a spark of which is lodged within the Gnostic and with any other person, must be filtered through numerous intermediary beings of a lesser stature than the godhead itself. In the Gospel of the Egyptians, the ultimate reality is said to be the ...unrevealable, unmarked, ageless, unproclaimable Father....

Three powers are said to emanate from Him: ...They are the Father, the Mother, (and) the Son, from the living silence.... The text speaks of giving praise to ...the great invisible Spirit... who is ...the silence of silent silence.... In the Sophia of Jesus Christ, Jesus is asked by Matthew, ...Lord...teach us the truth,... to which Jesus says, ...He Who Is, is ineffable.... Although Jesus seems to indicate that he reveals the ineffable, he says concerning the ultimate, ...He is unnamable.... he is ever incomprehensible....

We can already see the dividing point between the New Testament and the Gnostic documents is growing be wider and wider. Although the biblical Jesus had enough common sense not to run around shouting, ...I am God! I am God!... the entire contour of His ministry points to Him as God in the flesh. He says, ...He who has seen me has seen the Father... (John 14:9). The prologue to John's gospel says that the beginning was the Word (Logos)... and that ...the Word was with God and was God... (John 1:1). John did not say, ...In the beginning was the silence of the silent silence... or ...the ineffable.... Gnostics disregarded the passages that speak about the corpuscularity of Jesus as non-important, and claimed that God is ineffable and beyond human comprehension.

We can see in the writings of Irenaeus that he encountered these Gnostic invocations of the ineffable. He quotes a Valentinian Gnostic teacher who explained the ...primary Tetrad... (fourfold emanation from ultimate reality): ...There is a certain Proarch who existed before all things, surpassing all thought, speech, and nomenclature... whom he called Monotes (unity). Along with this power there is another power called Hentotes (oneness) who, along with Monotes produced intelligent, unbegotten, and undivided being, which beginning language terms Monad.... Another entity called Hen (One) rounds out the primal union. Of course, Irenaus ridicules this concept and again proclaims the Gnostics as dangerous heretics.

Gnosticism and Jung

Gnosticism would have probably remained forgotten in history as one of the many unsuccessful Christian Heresies if there was not for one person: Karl Gustav Jung. Jung found in the teachings of Gnosticism proofs of his own theories and suppositions, and elevated it to a level of psychical reality. Jung's theory of archetypes when applied to the Microcosm (Man) gives us insights into the workings of the human subconscious and the dynamics of the forces that animate it, when applied to the Macrocosm (Universe) it does the same for the God-forms. We can say that this theory is a revival of the ancient Gnostic teachings, expressed with the language of the modern world.

One of the most interesting concepts in Jungs theory is his description of good and evil and their sources, forming with that his view of morality. Jung, viewing morality in terms that were precisely the opposite of Freud's, nevertheless arrived at precisely the same end. For Freud, good and evil devolve into mere constructs that arise out of man's morally neutral biosocial nature - the cognitive derivatives of animal pleasure and animal pain-and are hence, as absolutes, illusory. Jung disagrees with Freudian reduction of all the urges within man to mere biological reflections. For Jung, good and evil evolve into two equal, balanced, cosmic principles that belong together in one comprehensive synthesis represented in the ...Self,... and in their union they are transcended.

Thorough all of his writings Jung explicitly identified depth psychology, especially his own, as heir to the Gnostic tradition, especially in what he considered its superiority over Christianity in its handling of the problem of evil: ...In the ancient world the Gnostics, whose arguments were very much influenced by psychic experience, tackled the problem of evil on a much broader basis than the Church Fathers....

Already in the early 1950s, Jung, by psychologizing the Spirit and identifying matter with the feminine, had already incorporated into his conception of the Godhead both matter and evil. This is the dominant theme of his major work, Aion, especially the chapter entitled ...Christ, a Symbol of the Self...:

There can be no doubt that the original Christian conception of the imago Dei embodied in Christ meant an all-embracing totality that even includes the animal side of man. Nevertheless the Christ-symbol lacks wholeness in the modern psychological sense, since it does not include the dark side of things but specifically excludes it in the form of a Luciferian opponent.

The "original" Christ figure Jung therein develops is exclusively symbolic, ahistorical, and congruent with Gnostic representations. For the individual illumined by this Christ, "the original state of oneness with the God-image is restored" and brings about "an integration, a bridging of the split in the personality caused by the instincts striving apart in mutually contradictory directions". Jung's historical overview of subsequent Christian centuries set forth in Aion captures the essence of the large-scale historical dynamic:

A factor that no one has reckoned with, however, is the fatality inherent in the Christian disposition itself, which leads inevitably to a reversal of its spirit- not through the obscure workings of chance, but in accordance with psychological law. The ideal of spiritually striving for the heights was doomed to clash with the materialistic earth-bound passion to conquer matter and master the world. This change became visible at the time of the "Renaissance". The word means "rebirth", and it referred to the renewal of the antique spirit. We know today that this spirit was chiefly a mask; it was not the spirit of antiquity that was reborn, but the spirit of medieval Christianity that underwent strange pagan transformations, exchanging the heavenly goal for an earthly one. . . . The subsequent developments that led to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution have produced a world-wide situation today that can only be called "antichrist" in a sense that confirms the early Christian anticipation of the "end of time". It is as if, with the coming of Christ, opposites that were latent till then had become manifest, or as if a pendulum had swung violently to one side and were now carrying out the complementary movement in the opposite direction. No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.

Most of the New Age traditions that developed during the XX century have Jungian view of Gnosticism, and have incorporated in their teachings the ancient Gnostic concepts expressed through the language of Jungian analytical Psychology. Jung himself has always ascribed great value to the symbols, calling them psychological machines for converting energy. He himself has being noted for wearing a ring with Gnostic symbols all of his life. He said for that ring that its symbols (after a few changes he made to make them more Christian) are in complete conformity with his inner self. (NB Images of Gnostic, Kameas, amulets and symbols are placed within this paper.)

Modern Gnosticism

Mostly because of the Jungian restatement in psychological terms Gnosticism is experiencing something of a revival in the XX century. The magazine Gnosis (which has also its own web site), a "journal of western inner traditions," began publication in 1985 with a circulation of 2,500. As of September 1990, it achieved a circulation of 11,000. Gnosis regularly runs articles on Gnosticism and Gnostic themes such as "Valentinus: A Gnostic for All Seasons". It is also interesting that they have topic of the issue in every number that explores in depth some part of the Western Spiritual Tradition, usually closely connected with Gnosticism. Also there is increasing number of Gnostic Churches around the world, which all claim to be the original successors of the ancient gnostics. In Palo Alto, California, priestess Bishop Rosamonde Miller officiates the weekly gatherings of Ecclesia Gnostica Mytseriorum (Church of Gnostic Mysteries), as she has done for the last eleven years. The chapel holds forty to sixty participants each Sunday and includes Gnostic readings in its liturgy. Miller says she knows of twelve organizationally unrelated Gnostic churches throughout the world. Stephan Hoeller, a frequent contributor to Gnosis, who since 1967 has been a bishop of Ecclesia Gnostica in Los Angeles, notes that "Gnostic churches have sprung up in recent years in increasing numbers". He refers to an established tradition of "wandering bishops" who retain allegiance to the symbolic and ritual form of orthodox Christianity while reinterpreting its essential content. But the real challenge of Gnosticism is not so much organizational as intellectual. Gnosticism in its various forms has often appealed to the alienated intellectuals who yearn for spiritual experience outside the bounds of the ordinary.

Many Esoteric societies and cults have drunk from the source of Gnosticism even before Jung explained it in scientific terms. Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, who founded Theosophy in 1875, viewed the Gnostics as precursors of modern occult movements and hailed them for preserving an inner teaching lost to orthodoxy. Theosophy and its various spin-offs - such as Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy, Alice Bailey's Arcane School, Guy and Edna Ballard's I Am movement, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant - all draw water from this same well; so do various other esoteric groups, such as the Rosicrucians. These groups share an emphasis on esoteric teaching, the hidden divinity of humanity, and contact with nonmaterial higher beings called masters or adepts. The famous order of Golden Dawn has also incorporated many Gnostic concepts in its teachings and the most (in)famous member of the Order, Aliester Crowley, has founded a church Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica as the outer form of his order Argentum Astrum.

And at the end of this short overview of Gnosticism maybe we can say that the Gnostic teaching today are spreading through the world as a consequence of the global awakening of the modern man. The advances in Science have by far outnumbered any advance in Spirit, and the modern man has a growing feeling of emptiness within it. Because of that he seeks outside of the boundaries of the society for a teaching that can show him his place within the world. Among many other ancient teachings brought to the light after many years of anonymity Gnosticism (or Neo Gnosticism) proved to be one of the strongest succeeding to infiltrate its teachings in almost every Esoteric current. And what will the future bring, we can only guess.

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