Gnosticism is a religious trend in the ancient Mediterranean world that emphasized knowledge as the means by which people are saved. The name comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. The people who follow this trend are called “Gnostics.”
Gnosticism has been viewed as a uniquely Christian heresy. But the movement actually extends beyond CHRISTIANITY. It is also often independent of Christianity. Therefore many in the 20th century considered Gnosticism a religion in itself. In important ways, however, Gnosticism is not a single religion but a trend in thought. In that way it resembles FEMINISM in the late 20th century. There have been feminist movements within many religions. Some feminists have also cultivated an independent GODDESS worship because they have found traditional religions unsatisfying. Similarly, there have been Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Gnostics as well as independent gnostic religions, for example, MANICHAEISM and Mandaeism.
Scholars do not agree on where or how Gnosticism began. Some have argued that it was inspired by Persian myths, for example, the myth of the savior who must ﬁ rst save himself. Others have suggested that Gnosticism grew from Jewish and Greek roots.
Some of the earliest Christians found Gnosticism attractive. According to many scholars, the people against whom PAUL argued in his NEW TESTAMENT letters included Gnostics. In the second century C.E. important teachers of Gnosticism emerged within the context of Christianity: Marcion, Basilides, and Valentinus. The ancestors of the Orthodox and Catholic churches rejected them.
In the late third century Christians began to settle in the desert of Egypt as MONKS AND NUNS. Gnostics found that environment attractive, too, perhaps because there they could avoid attacks from Christians. In the fourth century monks living near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, made copies of important Gnostic writings. These writings, called the Nag Hammadi Codices, were discovered in 1945. They are the most important source for the knowledge of Gnosticism today.
Also in the third century the Persian prophet Mani claimed to make perfect the revelations that had been given to ZARATHUSTRA, the BUDDHA, and JESUS. His preaching began the religion of Manichaeism. Many consider Manichaeism to be the Gnostic world religion. At one time it stretched from the Atlantic coast of Spain and Morocco to the Paciﬁ c coast of China.
In the late fourth century C.E. Christianity became the ofﬁ cial religion of the Roman Empire. Gnosticism became illegal, and the government and the church sought to eradicate it. Nevertheless, throughout European history various movements seem to have revived Gnosticism. Examples are the Cathari and the Bogomils in the Middle Ages. In Asia Gnosticism survived much longer.
Some Gnostic groups still exist today. The best known are the Mandaeans. They live in southeastern Iraq and southwestern Iran. Mandaean priests baptize their followers weekly. They claim this practice derives from their founder, John the Baptist. The Mandaeans have also preserved sacred scriptures and teachings that have Gnostic characteristics.
The name Gnosticism presupposes a teaching in which people are saved by knowledge. But the knowledge that saves is not the knowledge one can get from studying, say, physics or chemistry. The saving knowledge is knowledge of the hidden truths about the universe and human beings and their relations to the highest GOD. This knowledge, like God itself, is inaccessible to ordinary human experience. In most Gnostic systems it is revealed by an emissary from the otherwise unknown God. For Christian Gnostics that emissary is Jesus.
Gnostic knowledge tends to be esoteric knowledge. That is, it is secret knowledge revealed only to the initiated. There was never any centralized authority in Gnosticism, and unlike Christians Gnostics did not meet in council to determine which teachings were acceptable and which were not. As a result, Gnostic teachings vary considerably. Two general topics, however, recur: the origins of the world and human beings, and the progress of SALVATION.
Most Gnostic teachings on the origins of the world and human beings were dualistic. Such teachings say that the world and its inhabitants arose from the mixing of two opposed principles: light-goodness and darknessEVIL. The Apocryphon of John, found in the Nag Hammadi Codices, provides a good example. According to it, the unknown God and his spouse gave rise to the spiritual world. One of his creations, Sophia (“wisdom”), produced a monstrous demiurge who created the material world. Identiﬁ ed with the god of the Jews, this demiurge claimed that he alone was god. Human beings result from a mingling of the spirit of the unknown God with material reality.
Gnostics tend to conceive of human beings, then, as composite beings who combine elements of light and goodness with elements of darkness and evil. They generally conceive of salvation as the separation of the elements of light and goodness and their return to their original home, the realm of the unknown God. Some Gnostic writings detail the ascent of the soul through the various planetary spheres back to its original home. Indeed, some writings provide elaborate spells that the adepts should use as they make their way from one sphere to the next.
Gnosticism is responsible for many features of Christianity. These features developed as the ancestors of the Orthodox and Catholic churches tried to refute Gnosticism. For example, many Gnostics favored a view of Jesus as a divine messenger who only appeared to be human. Orthodox and Catholic Christians insisted that Jesus was in fact human. The Gnostic Marcion rejected the Hebrew B IBLE and accepted a new scripture made up of Luke’s gospel and Paul’s letters. In response other Christians insisted that the Hebrew Bible—the “Old Testament”—was still valid; they also began to form their own “New Testament.”
On a more positive note, Gnosticism inﬂ uenced important elements of European culture during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Gnostic view of the world appears, for example, in the poetry of the greatest German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). The movement known as THEOSOPHY sees itself as continuing the ancient Gnostic teachings. Gnosticism also fascinated Carl Gustav JUNG, one of the founders of modern psychology.