Roots of Gnosticism

Aspects of Gnosticism were present from the earliest beginnings of the Christian faith and spread rapidly throughout Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere in the Near East. It developed into a coherent system of thought during the second through the fourth centuries. Gnosticism likely predated Christianity and borrowed ideas and themes from Greek philosophy (especially Plato) and Judaism, syncretizing or merging them with ancient myths and Christian stories. Biblical historians believe that Gnosticism, as a growing movement, originated in the Hebrew-Christian environment because many names, ideas, and idiomatic expressions that occur in Gnostic writings have Semitic origins.

Scholars are quick to point out that within so-called ancient Gnostic materials are religious ideas that are not necessarily the same or in agreement with each other or with tenets of Christianity. There were certainly Gnostic Christians. It would be incorrect to say that the Gnostics were a single group of people in a specific locale, with one religious doctrine, one view of God, one concept of creation and cosmology. Scholar Bart D. Ehrman, who studies the scriptures and faiths of the ancient world and who chairs the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, asserts that it might make sense to place the origins of Gnostic Christianity inside of Judaism.

For their differences, one thing remained constant about the Gnostics. Regardless of the cultural lenses they peered through, they were spiritual seekers. They sought to acquire knowledge about spiritual beliefs in order to further their understanding of all things divine. They believed that matter was essentially the deterioration of spirit. Through inner intuitive knowledge of the transcendent unknowable God, their souls became liberated. The quest for that special knowledge was the central purpose of life. They sought not the spiritual teachings for the masses (though they were interested in them), but rather secret wisdom from their own inner insights. The Gnostics presented their ideas and beliefs through mythological stories, treatises, gospels, letters, books, acts, sayings, hymns, and other texts much as the Christians did. But unlike the Christian literature, little of the Gnostic tradition survived — that is, until the discovery of a treasure trove of Gnostic writings in a cave near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in the spring of 1945. The material has since been translated and published, both in book form as The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson, and on the Internet at The Gnostics loved myth and storytelling and so it is not surprising that their creation myth puts the forces of light and darkness in perpetual struggle. But their tales use terms that you may not have heard, so before delving too deeply into Gnostic ideas, it may be helpful to know the meaning of words the Gnostics used to tell their stories.

  • Aeons: God's essence goes through emanations that spontaneously expand into pairs of male and female entities that the Gnostics call Aeons. Gnostics believe that these eternal beings emanating themselves from the Godhead in successive generations result in destabilizing the primordial cosmos.

  • Archon: The term approximates the meaning of “ruler” in Greek, and the Gnostics believe the archons are rulers that serve the Demiurge. Some call them angels or demons, but they do the work of keeping the divine sparks ensnared in the material world and can create obstacles to prevent the soul from unfettering itself and ascending to the Pleroma.

  • Demiurge: In Gnostic theology, the Demiurge is the malevolent creator god, craftsman or architect of the physical world that is fundamentally flawed and evil and that imprisons the sparks of the Divine. Other names for the Demiurge are Yaldabaoth (Greek, “Father of Chaos”), Sakla (“Foolish One”), and Samael.

  • Docetism: Docetism (from the Greek, meaning “to seem”) infers that neither Jesus' physical body nor his crucifixion were real (they only seemed real). The Gnostics believed that Jesus, an eternal spiritual being, alternatively known as an Avatar, emanated from the Godhead, and therefore could not come in flesh and could not die.

  • Dualism: Dualism is the idea that two things that are fundamentally different and often opposing each other — for example, mind/body, heaven/earth, darkness/light, good/evil, and physical/spiritual. Dualistic ideas permeated Gnostic beliefs.

  • Gnosis: An important term central to Gnostic theology, gnosis means “knowing.” In an expansion of the meaning of that term, gnosis has long been understood as an inner experiential knowing of spiritual things, mystical truths. The Gnostics gained the secret knowledge from Jesus that, according to some Gnostic beliefs, he did not reveal to the church.

  • Pleroma: Pleroma derives from the Greek, meaning “fullness, whole, completion,” and refers to the totality of the spiritual universe and all that is Divine. In other words, the Pleroma is the “real” spiritual world where the Godhead and God's powers express through an army of gods (the Aeons) as opposed to the “unreal” or shadow universe that is the physical world.

  • Sophia: Sophia (“wisdom”) represents both the spirit and the feminine side of God. Sophia is a redeemer figure like Jesus, an Aeon who illuminates the way, through the gift of gnosis, for lost souls (divine sparks) to return to the Pleroma.

The Gnostics depict creation as having two main realms. The first is a dark (materialistic) world, full of malevolent forces, including its creator the Demiurge (akin to Satan in Christian theology) and its fellow rulers known as archons. The other is the realm of Light, presided over by the supreme, transcendent God and spiritual emanations of the Divine known as Aeons.

Integral to all Gnostic thinking was the idea that the divine fragment or spark from the realm of Light (a synonym for God) dwells in each human. The spark, in a virginal state of purity, became trapped in the realm of matter or darkness (material world) where it suffered. Only when it returns to the realm of Light through gnosis (inner knowledge) will it be free. There it will dwell while others remain trapped in the dark, evil materialistic world. Aeons like Sophia (the embodiment of wisdom) and Jesus (the embodiment of the Savior) bring secret teachings to help those trapped find their way back to the Light.

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