What is Gnosticism?

There were a variety of different sects and teachings that have been labelled ‘Gnostic’ throughout time. Some similar to Christianity/Judaism; others less so.

There were different competing interpretations of the Gospels and Jesus in the early days 1st/2nd/3rd century. Which ultimately culminated in the formation of the Catholic church in Rome. Which attempted to reconcile the different camps and teachings as best as possible.

Some Gnostic writings talk about ‘secret knowledge’ that only some are able to obtain. This caused suspicion and could easily seem arrogant. But some of the orthodoxical teaching talk about ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘elect’ people who have special keys etc. too…

There are lots of other points about Individualistic, Libertarian Gnostics and more Autocratic orthodoxical types I could pick on. But the major point of contention is this:

Gnostics say the Devil rules the world and is ‘the God of this world’ as opposed to the living god who is not here and has never been here. Though messengers, prophets, and a saviour have been sent here to help. The rulers here have not been given power so much as that they have taken it, fought for it, schemed for it, stole it, cheated for it, exploited others for it.
Orthodoxical types say that the rulers have been given authority by God.

Among early followers of Christ it appears there were groups who delineated themselves from the greater household of the Church by claiming not simply a belief in Christ and his message, but a “special witness” or revelatory experience of the divine.

It was this experience or gnosis that set the true follower of Christ apart, so they asserted. Stephan Hoeller explains that these Christians held a “conviction that direct, personal and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings, and, moreover, that the attainment of such knowledge must always constitute the supreme achievement of human life.”

Gnosticism as a Christian tradition was largely eradicated, its remaining teachers ostracized, and its sacred books destroyed. All that remained for students seeking to understand Gnosticism in later centuries were the denunciations and fragments preserved in the patristic heresiologies. Or at least so it seemed until the mid-twentieth century.

[The] Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library

Gnosis is not a rational, propositional, logical understanding, but a knowing acquired by experience. The Gnostics were not much interested in dogma or coherent, rational theology — a fact that makes the study of Gnosticism particularly difficult for individuals with “bookkeeper mentalities”.

We find in Gnosticism what was lacking in the centuries that followed: a belief in the efficacy of individual revelation and individual knowledge. This belief was rooted in the proud feeling of man’s affinity with the gods….

Harold Bloom suggests a second characteristic of Gnosticism that might help us conceptually circumscribe its mysterious heart. Gnosticism, says Bloom, “is a knowing, by and of an uncreated self, or self-within-the self, and [this] knowledge leads to freedom….”

9 Primary among all the revelatory perceptions a Gnostic might reach was the profound awakening that came with knowledge that something within him was uncreated. The Gnostics called this “uncreated self” the divine seed, the pearl, the spark of knowing: consciousness, intelligence, light.

There was always a paradoxical cognizance of duality in experiencing this “self-within-a-self”. How could it not be paradoxical: By all rational perception, man clearly was not God, and yet in essential truth, was Godly. This conundrum was a Gnostic mystery, and its knowing was their treasure.

The creator god, the one who claimed in evolving orthodox dogma to have made man, and to own him, the god who would have man contingent upon him, born ex nihilo by his will, was a lying demon and not God at all. Gnostics called him by many deprecatory names: “Saklas”, the fool; “Ialdebaoth”, the blind god; and “Demiurge”, the architect or lesser creative force.

Theodotus, a Gnostic teacher writing in Asia Minor between 140 and 160 C.E., explained that the sacred strength of gnosis reveals “who we were, what we have become, where we have been cast out of, where we are bound for, what we have been purified of, what generation and regeneration are.

For the Gnostics, revelation was the nature of Gnosis. Irritated by their profusion of “inspired texts” and myths, Ireneaus complains in his classic second century refutation of Gnosticism, that “…every one of them generates something new, day by day, according to his ability; for no one is deemed perfect, who does not develop…some mighty fiction.”

An Introduction to Gnosticism and The Nag Hammadi Library

According to the gnostic teacher Theodotus, writing in Asia Minor (c. 140-160), the gnostic is one has come to understand who we were, and what we have become; where we were… whither we are hastening; from what we are being released; what birth is, and what is rebirth.

Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis. Another gnostic teacher, Monoimus, says:

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.” Learn the sources of sorrow:, joy, love, hate . . .

If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.

There is . . . among the Indians a heresy of those who philosophize among the Brahmins, who live a self-sufficient life, abstaining from (eating) living creatures and all cooked food . . . They say that God is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge (gnosis) through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise.

The Gnostic Gospels

The gnostics were religious mystics who proclaimed gnosis, knowledge, as the way of salvation. To know oneself truly allowed gnostic men and women to know god directly, without any need for the mediation of rabbis, priests, bishops, imams, or other religious officials.

Religious officials, who were not pleased with such freedom and independence, condemned the gnostics as heretical and a The Gnostic Bible, edited by Barnstone and Meyerthreat to the well-being and good order of organized religion.

Gnostics sought knowledge and wisdom from many different sources, and they accepted insight wherever it could be found.

To gain knowledge of the deep things of god, gnostics read and studied diverse religious and philosophical texts. In addition to Jewish sacred literature, Christian documents, and Greco-Roman religious and philosophical texts, gnostics studied religious works from the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Zoroastrians, Muslims, and Buddhists.

All such sacred texts disclosed truths, and all were to be celebrated for their wisdom.

The transcendent deity is the source of that enlightened life and light. The meaning of the creation drama, when properly understood, is that human beings—gnostics in particular—derive their knowledge and light from the transcendent god, but through the mean-spirited actions of the demiurge, the creator of the world, they have been confined within this world. (The platonic aspects of this imagery are apparent.) Humans in this world are imprisoned, asleep, drunken, fallen, ignorant. They need to find themselves—to be freed, awakened, made sober, raised, and enlightened. In other words, they need to return to gnosis.

The role of the gnostic savior or revealer is to awaken people who are under the spell of the demiurge—not, as in the case of the Christ of the emerging orthodox church, to die for the salvation of people, to be a sacrifice for sins, or to rise from the dead on Easter.

As noted, the demiurge or creator of this world is commonly distinguished from the transcendent deity in gnostic texts. The demiurge is ignorant, tragic, megalomaniacal.

The gnosis sought by the authors of these texts is hardly ordinary knowledge. A text from the Nag Hammadi library, the Exegesis on the Soul (included in this volume), declares that the restoration of the soul to a state of wholeness “is not due to rote phrases or to professional skills or to book learning.” Indeed, mystics commonly have emphasized, in many books, that mystical knowledge cannot be attained simply by reading books. Other texts describe this sort of gnosis by listing questions that need to be addressed if one is to be enlightened by knowledge.

gnosticism is “a coherent series of characteristics that can be summarized in the idea of a divine spark in man, deriving from the divine realm, fallen into this world of fate, birth and death, and needing to be awakened by the divine counterpart of the self in order to be finally reintegrated.”

This knowledge is communicated creatively in myths, which contain themes borrowed freely from other religious traditions and which employ an elaborate series of symbols. The end result, according to Jonas, is the expression of religious dualism, dislocation, alienation—“the existing rift between God and world, world and man, spirit and flesh.”

Gnostic man is thrown into an antagonistic, anti-divine and therefore anti-human nature, modern man into an indifferent one. Only the latter case represents the absolute vacuum, the really bottomless pit.” Ancient gnostics and modern existentialists may both be nihilistic, but we modern folks, in our post-Christian world, face the more profound abyss: the uncaring abyss. For gnostics, there is light in the darkness and hope in the abyss.

An Introduction to The Gnostic Scriptures