Gnosis on Gnostics

Posted on July 22, 2007. Filed under: Philosophical Crap, Theological Crap |

After a brief lesson or two delivered by me on Gnostic history, I’ve decided to write it down rather than go over it again and again…It’s simply so that I can say, “Refer to my blog,” rather than carry on for an hour or so and sound like a windbag.  This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive history of the Gnostic movement.  I neither have the room nor the patience to write a book on the matter.  This is only meant to give a very brief synopsis of the Gnostic movement, its inspirations and brief core beliefs.  I’m only going to touch upon the more ‘popular’ versions of Gnosticism (i.e. Syrio-Egyptian, Persian, etc.) because the movement was so widespread and very few of them had a central governing system.

Most people today would recognize the Gnostic movement within the history of Christian tradition.  Its contributions to early church history and even present history are well documented and much commented upon (as a matter of fact, our social behavior of shaking hands is a Gnostic tradition of identifying someone who has received the illumination).  Some scholars believe that Paul is even referring to Gnostic concepts in Ephesians 6:12 when he says “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Along with the Creator God Ialdabaoth there are seven Rulers who are termed Archons or what would be considered archangels.) There is even a Mandaean Gnostic sect still alive and well in southern Iran and Iraq.  Gnosticism is not limited to nor did it begin with the Christian Tradition.  There were ‘pagan’ and even Jewish Gnostics before the development of the Early Christian Church.  One of the more recognizable names in ‘pagan’ Gnosticism is that of Hermes Trismegistus from whom we get the hermetic tradition.  What Christianity did for Gnosticism was essentially provide a central teacher and some doctrines on salvation that easily matched up with core Gnostic ideals.

Without trying to cover all of the Gnostic creation myths (i.e. The Secret Book of John, On the Origin of the World, The Hypostasis of the Archons , The Apocalypse of Adam,  etc.) here is an attempt at giving a brief synopsis of how man came to be.  First there was the One, the Father of Light, the One sat in silence.  The One spoke the Word who was lesser than the One.  From the One and the Word came the Aeons.  There are many levels of Aeons, one begetting another, each becoming weaker and lesser than the one that came before as they move farther and farther away from the Father of Light.  All of the Aeons had a piece of the divine essence in them and they were spiritual beings.  Eventually a piece of the divine “broke off” from one of the levels of the Aeons.  This “Divine Spark” fell to the earth and became covered with mud.  All humans have the Divine Spark in them but can’t return to the Father of Light unless they gain illumination of the mind and are able to learn how to break free from this material prison (it’s very Platonic isn’t it?)

The Creation myths of the bible are sort of turned upside down by the Gnostics.  In the Judeo-Christian version of the creation story the Creator God, YHWH who is good, creates man from the dirt/dust/earth (Adam) and found man to be very good.  Woman was created second (in the second version of the creation story of Genesis) and the serpent tricks the woman into partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  In the creation stories of many Gnostic texts, YHWH (known as Ialdabaoth) is essentially evil.  He is lesser than the Father of Light and one of his evil deeds can be seen in his creation of man, his capturing of the Divine Spark in ‘dirt’.  The serpent in the stories is seen as basically a liberator.  He is the one who tries to show humanity the way to salvation (returning to the Father of Light) by convincing the woman to partake of the Tree of Knowledge (divine knowledge=salvation and a return to the Unknown Father, this is why the Creator God Ialdabaoth or YHWH does not want Adam or Eve to “eat of its fruit”).  Now Eve is seen in two different aspects depending upon which Gnostic community you follow.  The Syrio-Egyptians were generally more kind to her, after all she was the one who listened to the serpent and partook of the Tree of Knowledge trying to pave the way of salvation for all humanity.  The Persians on the other hand (like the Manicheans) looked on her more poorly as she is seen as the one who continues to trap more Divine Sparks in dirt.

For many Gnostics (not all) there was one woman with many faces.  It was extremely difficult (and in some sects absolutely impossible) for women to attain salvation.  The reason behind this was that women bore children and, just like Eve, this was seen as trapping more pieces of the Divine Spark.  The more children a woman bore, the worse off she was.  There was nothing worse than to condemn more of the Divine Spark to the imprisonment of the material.  Thusly, marriage and the procreative acts that came with it were discouraged by almost all of the Gnostic sects.  To some people it’s comical to think that you’re forming a religion that will eventually lead to the extinction of the human race.  For these folks, it wasn’t seen as something that was bad.  It meant bringing an end to the imprisonment of the Divine Spark.

To be absolutely clear, there are major differences in the different Gnostic movements.  From the Valentinians, every small bit of knowledge that is gained by a person moves that person towards illumination and closer to the divine.  Further East you have the Manicheans (whom St. Augustine belonged to for 9 years) who saw a constant battle between Light and Darkness, Knowledge and Ignorance (heavy influence from Zoroastranism).  The freeing of the Light from the Darkness is the freeing of the divine spirit caught in the material world.  There were many different sects of Gnosticism thriving in the first couple of centuries after the birth of the Christian Tradition; Sethians, Valentinians, Carpocratians (who actually advocated sexual promiscuity), Docetists, Marcionites, Manicheans, Cainites, Basilidians, Barbeloites, just to name a few.  The views of these different Gnostic Traditions were as varied as their leaders and creators.  There were some core central beliefs to all them, like the saving work of a special knowledge, the problem of the material realm, if Jesus was divine he could not have been human, if Jesus was human he had to release his divine spark just like the rest of us. 

The Valentinians were the closest to what would be considered Christian Orthodoxy (as a matter of fact Valentinus was a candidate for the election to the bishopric of Rome), the Marcionites were close to Christianity as well.  The Manicheans based much of their ideas off of Zoroastranism and even Buddhism.  The Manicheans were probably the best structured of all the sects with priests, bishops and apostles.  This may be why the Manicheans lasted longer than many of the other Gnostic sects and was the only one that actually gave the early Christian Church a run for its money.  Gnosticism took hold heavily in China where it was the official religion of the Uigar Empire before it was crushed by the invasions of Genghis Kahn.  In Southern France from the eleventh to the thirteenth century the Albigensian heresy, which was termed the “Scourge of God” by Pope Innocent III, was a rather popular movement.

These days there has been a large resurgence in Gnostic thought (with a lot of help by the vastly important discoveries of archaeologists of different Gnostic libraries and individual books, such as the discovery at Nag Hammadi in Egypt).  Some are overtly Gnostic in name and deed.  Others are overtly Gnostic only if you know what to look for.  The New Age concepts of the “God-consciousness” and “Christ-Consciousness”, the idea that we must find and release the God in ourselves are old concepts with new terminology. 

Well I hope this was short enough and concise enough.  It’s shorter than what I usually would have written on the subject and takes less time to read than it would have taken for me to tell you about it.  Granted, outside of the blogosphere, if we were actually talking about this, there would have been much more detail and many more facts (most probably trivial) but this wasn’t supposed to be comprehensive and all-encompassing.  I’ll probably follow up with some quotes from Gnostic texts.  Maybe later I’ll talk more about Ialdabaoth (YHWH), Mother Sophia, Aeons (good angels), Archons (bad angels or archangels), Ormuzd (the Primal Man), and what some think of that Ephesians 6:12 verse I quoted earlier.  I don’t want to add too much more to this now because reading a long blog is boring no matter who writes it. 


Make a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...

%d bloggers like this: