Gnosticism was an esoteric religious movement, which flourished primarily during the second and third centuries CE, and for a time posed a major challenge to mainstream Christianity. Its adherents claimed to possess a secret knowledge of the divine realms and its inhabitants, and utilized a complex mythology to describe this system. This myth began with the One Unknowable God, then went on to tell of intermediary emanations. One of these emanations, Sophia (Wisdom), desired to know the Unknowable God, but since this desire was illegitimate, what came forth from this desire was an aborted deformity, a being that went forth and created the physical universe. This Creator (or Demiurge) in turn, used the newly created universe to enslave the divine sparks of God into human bodies, where they could only be redeemed by the grace of Gnosis.
Most Gnostics considered themselves to be Christians, yet there were many theological differences between them and the mainstream Christians. The Gnostics did not consider the God of the Old Testament to be the same God as taught by Jesus. The acceptance of the sacraments varied among Gnostic sects. Many of the Gnostic sects used special hymns, magical formulas and amulets in their practices. The Gnostics also admitted women equally into their clergy.
The word “Gnosis” essentially means knowledge. Beyond this simple definition there is considerable disagreement among scholars as to a more precise meaning. It may be safely stated however that the early Gnostics were not speaking of a mundane common knowledge, but rather an intuitive internally derived knowledge. The next logical question would naturally be what exactly was the nature of this secret knowledge. The nearest that we may come to answering this question would be to say that the Gnostics knew “from whence they came and to whither they were going.” In a sense, the art of obtaining Gnosis is within the realm of anamnesis, or a remembering of things divine, where the present is brought into intimate contact with the past, and the past with the present. Anamnesis would be the word used in Christ’s command: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
The Gnosis therefore imparted knowledge of the origin of things as well as the destiny of the world which the Gnostic saw as a temporary state far away from his original home. The Gnostic considers himself as a temporary resident in an alien world, in a state of spiritual drunkenness or sleep. It is only through the redeeming grace of the Gnosis that he may become sober and awakened to a higher state of consciousness, which in turn will reveal his latent spiritual potentialities.
Origins. Perhaps the greatest area of disagreement among scholars concerning Gnosticism lies in its origin. One problem with assigning a source or sources to Gnosticism is that there is no written historical record of the Gnostics, as we have in mainstream Christianity such as the Acts of the Apostles or the Church History as given by Eusebius. Possible sources would include neoplatonism, Zoroastrianism, the mystery schools of Babylon, Egypt, Chaldea, and Judaism, or any combination of these.
For those who would ascribe the origin of Gnosticism to mystical or fringe Judaism there is at the very least sufficient circumstantial evidence to support this view. Old Testament names and derivations such as Adam, Seth, Cain, Shem and Noah are frequently found in Gnostic myth and scripture. Parallels may also be made with the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament as found in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. One of the principal themes of Gnostic myth is that of Wisdom/Sophia and the manner of these myths are reminiscent of ideas expressed in the Old Testament Wisdom Literature.
Another possibility as to a source of Gnosticism would be the Essenes, a fringe sect of Judaism that flourished during the birth of Christianity, and believed by many to be the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Simon Magus, the father of Christian Gnosticism was a disciple of Dositheus who was clearly an Essene. Dositheus was known as a “Son of Zadok,” a term used by the Essenes, and lived near Damascus which was considered a habitation of exiled Essenes. He was an ascetic and had known John the Baptist. Simon later left Dositheus to form his own sect, which became a radical expression of Essene dualism.
Simon Magus. The actual events of the life and teachings of Simon Magus are surrounded by mystery, especially in light of the fact that most of the information concerning him is derived from the writings of the heresiologists. These early Church Fathers were extremely biased and at times unreliable in their anti-Gnostic writings. It is unfortunate that we do not possess a history of Gnosticism written by the Gnostics themselves. Simon was said to be an accomplished magician from Samaria and claimed for himself to be an incarnation of the “Great Power.” Hippolytus assigns to Simon a work entitled, “The Great Revelation or the Great Announcement.” In this document, Simon set the stage for the future development of Christian Gnosticism. His account describes the doctrine of the demiurge and his archons and their role in the creation of the world, the Unknowable God, the Logos, and the fall of the soul into the world and its path of redemption through the process of successive cycles of death and rebirth.
Simon was also said to have had a relationship with a former prostitute of Tyre named Helen. Simon viewed Helen as the reincarnation of the primordial Ennoia or Indwelling mind, the first conception of the Spirit of God. Simon thought that Helen had reincarnated many times in female form and was the same Helen of the Trojan War. She continued to degrade over time, until she finally became a prostitute. It was claimed that she was the lost sheep spoken of in Luke 15:16. It should also be noted that there were similar accounts in Gnostic writings concerning Jesus and his consort Mary Magdalene.
Menander. The heresiologist Irenaeus tells us that the direct successor of Simon was Menander. Menander was also a native of Samaria, however he transported his school of Gnosticism to Antioch. Irenaeus further hints at a possible link of Menander to both Paul and John, and this could very well be the case as the theological school of Menander seems to contain elements of the Pauline letters and of the Gospel of John. Menander like Simon was accused of being a magician who taught a system of magic designed to overcome the power of the angels who had created this world. Menander taught the existence of a first cause, who was an unknowable and absolutely transcendent God, who co-existed with Ennoia and from the union of these two came forth the creator angels.
As Simon identified himself with the Great Power, Menander merely equated himself with the Savior who was sent by the invisible ones to bring about the redemption of man. He taught his disciples that they could obtain resurrection and thus immortality in this life by way of baptism in the name of their founder. This is one of the first cases of the idea that resurrection and redemption could be attained while still in the body and this doctrine would predominate many later schools of the Gnosis. This also gave an indication of the importance of certain ritual practices of the early Gnostics.
Saturninus. Saturninus who was an Antiochene from Daphne succeeded Menander. Like his predecessors he taught the existence of an unknowable God who in turn was the creator of the archangels, angels, powers and dominions. His version of the creation of the world by seven angels has been recorded for us by Irenaeus.
“When a shining image appeared from the Supreme Power above, which they were not able to detain, he says, because it immediately sped back upwards, they exhorted one another, saying, ‘Let us make a man after the image and likeness.’ When this was done, he says, and their creation could not stand erect because of the powerlessness of the angels, but crept like a worm, then the power above took pity on him because he had been made in his likeness and sent a spark of life which raised the man up, equipped him with limbs and made him live.”
Saturninus describes one of the seven creator angels as the God of the Jews or the Demiurge and gives him an elevated status over the other angels. Irenaeus summarizes Saturninus’ doctrine thus, “Christ came into the world for the destruction of the God of the Jews and for the salvation of those who believe in him (Jesus).” So it is clear that he considers the God of the Jews as not only the leader of the creator angels, but also as the principal creator. The distinction is therefore made that Yahweh is not to be identified as the one true Unknowable God. With this being said, we must take into account that the reliability of the heresiologists may be questionable and that this supposed view of Saturninus toward the Old Testament God might very well be over exaggerated.
Basilides. As for the Alexandrian Gnostic teacher Basilides, we have two varying accounts from the heresiologists, one from Irenaeus, the other from Hippolytus. Although we cannot be certain as to which may be more reliable, the consensus among modern scholars would tend to lean more in the direction of Irenaeus, even though fragments of Basilides as quoted by Clement of Alexandria are often at variance with Irenaeus.
Basilides lived in the first half of the second century and was said to have received his teaching from either the Apostle Matthew or from Glaucias, a disciple of Paul. He attempted to legitimize his teachings by relating them to accounts of the life of Jesus, in a time frame in which oral tradition still retained its prestige. Basilides’ doctrine included the theory of karma and reincarnation, from which he taught that, “For just as the babe, although it has done no wrong previously, or practically committed any sin, and yet has the capacity of sin in it (from its former lives), men suffer, from their deeds in former lives; the elect soul suffers honorably through martyrdom, but souls of another nature by other appropriate punishments.”
There are hints that Basilides may have been influenced by Pythagorean, Zoroastrian and possibly other Oriental schools of thought. He imposed a period of silence for five years for his students, as was the custom in the Pythagorean School.
The Basilidians held veneration for a certain being named Abraxas whom they claimed was the ruler of the first heaven of which heavens there were no less than 365. The number 365 related not only to the days of the year, but also held special significance since the numerical value of the Greek letters in the name Abraxas equaled 365 in their summation. There have been preserved for us many amulets and invocations of Abraxas from the early centuries of the Christian era, so it becomes obvious that this name was considered to hold much power. We cannot be certain how long this school may have survived, but we do know that Epiphanes, at the end of the fourth century found Basilidian Gnostics in the general area of Memphis in Egypt.
Valentinus. Perhaps the most well known and popular of all Gnostic teachers would be Valentinus. He was born during the first quarter of the second century in Carthage of Christian parents. He received his education in Alexandria possibly under the renowned Neo-Platonic philosopher AMMONIUS SACCAS, who was also the teacher of Clement of Alexandria. He also became a disciple of the Christian teacher Theudas who had been a disciple of Saint Paul. From Theudas he learned a secret tradition that Paul allegedly taught to his inner circle. By the year 136, he moved to Rome, where it is said that he rose in fame to the point of nearly becoming the Bishop of Rome.
The Valentinian school taught that the Supreme God was incomprehensible and beyond description in any manner, in much the same way that the Jewish Kabbalists viewed the Limitless Light of Ain Soph Aur. Valentinus, like many early Gnostics, stated that the world was not directly created by God, but rather by creator angels, at least insofar as the creation of humanity was concerned. Valentinus also spoke of the demiurge or principal creator who was not equated with the one true God. The creation myth of Valentinus was similar in many ways to that of Saturninus and Basilides. The angels created Adam, however he received an essence from on high which instilled fear into the angels. Due to this fear, the angels attempted to destroy or disfigure their creation; therefore there came about a fall of Adam, or rather a degradation that his creators made him suffer through jealousy.
The pre-existence of the Christ is a basic precept of Valentinian Christology. Valentinus himself claimed to have had a vision of the Logos who appeared to him as a young child. So Valentinus, as did Paul, met the incarnating presence of Christ, and experienced the truth of the Christian Religion, rather than depending on faith based scripture reading or the authority of apostolic lineage, even though he allegedly possessed the apostolic Gnosis through Theudas. For the Valentinians it was Christ alone who was capable of liberating humanity and bestowing the Gnosis to them.
Valentinian Gnosticism became widespread over most of the civilized world including Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Rome, Gaul and Spain. The Valentinians are generally acknowledged as the authors of a number of Gnostic writings such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth and the Pistis Sophia. His most noted disciples Marcus, Heracleon and Ptolamaeus carried on the work of Valentinus.
Marcion. Marcion also lived during the first half of the second century and was born in Asia Minor on the Black Sea. He was a wealthy ship owner as well as a Bishop in the Church as was his father. Marcion was initially in good standing with the Church primarily due to his substantial financial contributions. After attending a synod in Rome in the year 144 he was excommunicated for heresy. This was most likely due to his doctrines concerning the God of the Old Testament and God as preached by Jesus. Marcion and his followers considered this expulsion as a sign to form their own Church and they therefore used this date as their founding. The Marcionite Churches spread throughout Italy, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Armenia and were still flourishing as late as the fifth century. This new Church possessed a clergy very similar to the mainstream Churches, yet made less distinction between clergy and laity. Some characteristics of the Marcionite Church were: equality between the sexes, acceptance of non-members to participate in the Eucharist and the use of a New Testament Canon organized by Marcion which included the Gospel of Luke (which Marcion believed to have been written by Paul) and ten Pauline letters. Marcionite Churches were also accredited as the first to widely utilize congregational singing and the composition of Christian Hymns.
Mani. Mani, a Persian of royal parentage lived during the third century. His father was a member of the Elkasites, a sect of proto-Mandaeans. Mani himself left the Elkasite community at age 24, under the guidance of his heavenly “twin,” in order to found not only his own Church, but also a unique religion in itself. Mani’s guide or heavenly twin was also referred to as the “Living Paraclete,” and came down and spoke to Mani. Mani gives a report of this conversation in the Kephalaia:
- He revealed to me the hidden mystery that was hidden from the worlds and the generations: the mystery of the Depth and the height: he revealed to me the mystery of the Light and the Darkness, the mystery of the conflict and the Great War which the darkness stirred up. He revealed to me how the Light overcame the Darkness by their intermingling and how in consequence was set up this world. He enlightened me on the mystery of the forming of Adam, the first man. He instructed me on the mystery of the tree of knowledge of which Adam ate, by which his eyes were made to see; the mystery of the Apostles who were sent out into the world to select the Churches (i.e., to found the religions). Thus was revealed to me by the Paraclete all that has been and that shall be, and all that the eye sees and the ear hears and the thought thinks. Through him I learned to know everything, I saw the All through him, and I became one body and one spirit with Him.
After receiving his divine guidance, Mani began missionary work in Persia and sent missionaries as far west as Alexandria and east to Afghanistan. By the year 240, Mani sailed to India and adjacent areas to today’s Baluchistan, and there converted a Buddhist King, the Turan Shah.
The doctrine of the Manichaeans was truly unique, a remarkably unified system in spite of the great diversity of its sources. It was adapted to Christian terminology in the west, to Islam in the Abbasid realm, to Buddhism in central Asia and to Taoism in China. One of the most important contributions of the Manichaeans would be that they provided a bridge of transmission of Gnostic doctrine from the second and third century Gnostic sects to such groups as the Bogomils and Cathars in the middle ages. One could safely say that there are many parallels between a Manichaean doctrine and the modern Theosophical movement.
Cathars. Although the term Cathar (Cathari, the pure) has been used by many groups, it most commonly refers to a medieval sect of Gnostics found in Italy, Germany and primarily in Southern France, which was known at the time as Occitania. They were also known as Albigensians due to the fact that many of the Cathar believers were from around the area of Albi. The Cathars who flourished from the 11th to the 14th centuries were thought to have received influence from the Bogomils, a Manichaean sect from Bulgaria, although the extent of this influence is unknown.
The Cathars rejected the Catholic Church, its clergy and sacraments. At the time, the Catholic clergy of the area had become very corrupt and the Cathars believed that any sacrament could only be valid if the clergy that administered it were pure themselves. For the Cathars, baptism by water was useless if not sacrilegious; the only real baptism was that given by the spirit, which came with the laying on of hands. Many women became priests or Perfectae in the Cathar Church, and administered the sacraments; a privilege denied them in the Catholic Church.
The Cathar clergy lived a life of austere asceticism in some ways similar to other monastic traditions, detaching themselves from the world in order to better serve God. They were obliged to undergo three periods of abstinence each year. The first of these was before Palm Sunday, the second after Whitsunday and the third before Christmas. Throughout the year they would fast on bread and water on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and at no time would they eat the meat of warm-blooded animals. The Cathar Church refused to sanctify the act of marriage and procreation, feeling that this would only imprison more souls into mundane bodies.
On March 28, 1208, Pope Innocent III issued a Bull of Anathema against the Cathars, and thus began the only crusade by the Catholic Church against other Christians. What followed was a campaign of torture, murder and genocide for twenty years until the “Pure Ones” were either all exterminated or driven into permanent exile.
The Gnostics have continued to resurface throughout the centuries through various forms and guises. Though worldly authorities have gone to great lengths to persecute the Gnostics into non-existence, the human spirit’s quest for reintegration back to its original home will always survive. We have seen the quest resurface in such manifestations as Hermeticism, Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Sufism and Kabbalah.
Along with the occult revival of the 19th century came a renewed interest in Gnosticism complete with the reconstitution of the Gnostic Church in France. This new Church of the Gnosis came about in the year 1890, when Jules Doinel, a librarian from Carcassone, was allegedly consecrated as Patriarch by Jesus and two Bogomil Bishops in a miraculous vision. This vision took place at the home of Marie, Countess of CAITHNESS, a well-known Theosophical leader in France at the time. One of the first Bishops that were subsequently consecrated by Doinel was Gerard Encausse (Papus), who had joined the Theosophical Society at age 23. On October 25, 1887, Henry S. OLCOTT personally announced the election of Papus to the newly formed General Council of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, India.
One of the greatest admirers of the Gnostic path was none other that Helena P. BLAVATSKY herself. During the year of her death, 1891, she published an excellent commentary on the ancient Gnostic writing the Pistis Sophia, which was being translated by her secretary G. R. S. Mead. HPB wrote a great deal on the Gnostics throughout her writings, and we are now fortunate to have a compilation of these writings in one volume, “H. P. Blavatsky, On the Gnostics,” compiled and annotated by H. J. Spierenburg.
HPB felt that there was an underlying unity between the esoteric traditions within all religions, and that in the case of Christianity this was represented by the Gnostics. She goes on to tell us in the Key to Theosophy that “There are six great schools of Indian Philosophy — the six principles of that unit of wisdom of which the GNOSIS, the hidden knowledge, is the seventh.”
No account of the Gnostic tradition would be complete without giving honor to G. R. S. Mead. Mead was the personal secretary to HPB in the last years of her life. He will most appropriately be remembered for his scholarly English translations and commentaries of ancient Gnostic and Hermetic texts. Mead wrote of the Gnostics not only from a scholarly point of view, but also as one who had an inner understanding of these mysteries, or one who had experienced the Gnosis himself.
In 1928, the brothers James and John Pryse, who at one time were well connected with Mead and the Theosophical Society, founded the Gnostic Society in Los Angeles. The Gnostic Society was founded with the purpose of studying Gnosticism and the Western Esoteric Tradition in general. The Gnostic Society has since been united with the Ecclesia Gnostica whose presiding Bishop, Stephan Hoeller, is a well-known lecturer and writer for the Theosophical Society today.
We are indeed coming into a renaissance of Gnostic thought in the twentieth century. To find examples of Gnostic influence we need look no farther than the science fiction of Phillip K. Dick, the art of Salvador Dali or the psychology of C. G. Jung, who went so far as to write his own Gnostic Gospel, “The Seven Sermons to the Dead,” which he wrote under the name, Basilides. In a closing note, we must remember that in a sense, Gnosticism is not a religion that can be extinguished by terror and repression, but rather it is a Tao or way that is already inherently archetypal within us all, patiently lying dormant, awaiting the day of the great awakening.
Couliano, Ioan P. The Tree of Gnosis. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992.
Hoeller, Stephan. Jung and the Lost Gospels. Wheaton: Quest, 1989.
Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.
Klimkeit, Hans Joachim. Gnosis on the Silk Road. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.
Marshall, Steven. Great Saints of the Gnosis. Los Angeles: Gnostic Press, 1995.
Merrifield, Jeff. The Perfect Heretics. Dorsett, UK: Enabler Productions, 1995.
Petrement, Simone. A Separate God. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1984.
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