Gnosticism comes from the Greek word for insight or knowing, gnosis. Unlike other forms of Christianity, which say that one’s salvation hinges on faith, Gnosticism requires adherents to seek divine knowledge.
This form of early Christian mysticism has been ruthlessly persecuted throughout the ages, but has managed to survive into the modern day. If you’ve ever been told that “the Lord works in mysterious ways” when something bad happens, and found it deeply unsatisfying, you aren’t alone.
Unfortunate events are often explained away as the will of deities, often because of a divine plan no human could possibly fathom. That’s where Gnosticism differs. Instead, it offers a simple explanation: Bad things happen because the world was created by a bad god.
What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism got its start in the first century CE, among very early Christian and Jewish groups. Unlike the prevailing church doctrine, Gnosticism believed that spiritual knowledge was more important than dogma and orthodoxy.
Nobody really knows where these beliefs originated, though some scholars credit a combination of Buddhism and Neoplatonism. All that’s really known is that these beliefs cropped up among early Judaeo-Christians.
These beliefs were denounced as heresy in the second century CE, but some continue to follow the Gnostic path to this day.
The Material Prison
The Gnostic story of the origin of the world is unique. It involves two creators — one is a superior God, the other, a lesser being called the Demiurge.
To many Gnostics, the supreme God is known as the Monad. The Monad produces entities known as aeons, and goes through stages of existence called emanations.
One emanation of the Monad is Sophia, who created the Demiurge. After its birth, the Demiurge thought it was alone. Seeking company, it created the material world and a group of archons.
Material existence is considered restrictive and “lesser than” existence in the totality of the divine. Some Gnostics view the material plane as a deliberate prison, and therefore inherently evil.
Others view it as inferior, but as good as a material existence can be. The only perfect existence is within the realm of divine light, and so humans should attempt to escape the material prison and return to the Monad.
In the Gnostic viewpoint, the ultimate goal of human existence should be to attain gnosis. Gnosis is personal knowledge of the divine spark within all humans, and the key to liberating oneself from the material prison.
This idea is what placed Gnostics in direct opposition to Judeo-Christian orthodoxy at the time, which emphasized faith as essential to salvation.
Gnosis has to be sought out. It can’t be found in the material world, which is regarded as flawed at best and evil at worst.
Instead, it must be found by meditation, asceticism and abstaining from worldly desires, spiritual seeking, and exercising one’s ability to perceive the spiritual world.
There is no real instruction book for this process — part of the foundation of Gnosticism is that gnosis is a deeply personal revelation. Seekers, therefore, have many different ways of searching for it.
The Demiurge, as mentioned briefly above, is known by many names, including El, Ahriman, Saklas, Samael, and Yaldabaoth.
It was born from Sophia and isolated outside of the pleroma — the center of divine light and being. Assuming it was completely alone, the Demiurge tried to alleviate its loneliness by creating servants called archons and the material world.
The Demiurge, sometimes syncretized with or identified as the God of the Old Testament, is the being responsible for creating the Earth and life on it.
Unfortunately, like a small child trying to recreate Michelangelo’s David with modeling clay, the material world is a poor reflection of the pleroma.
In some interpretations, the Demiurge tired of its new toy and cast it aside. In others, it actively seeks to keep humans from attaining gnosis and escaping the material world.
The Demiurge’s creator, Sophia, gave humans the ability to attain gnosis and escape.
The Monad has many emanations, and these are what make up the pleroma. Sophia is the final emanation of God, and the lowest in the pleroma.
As the lowest, this places her closest to material existence. Each emanation has a male and female counterpart, and Jesus is often regarded as the male counterpart to Sophia.
In some versions of Sophia’s story, she tries to emanate without her male counterpart, which results in the creation of the Demiurge.
When the Demiurge creates the material world out of ignorance and loneliness, it’s Sophia who intervenes and instills humanity with a divine spark that allows for salvation. Gnosis is knowledge of this divine spark.
Aeons are a name for the emanations of the Monad. The first aeon is a hermaphroditic being called Barbelo.
All acts of creation (except for the physical world and material existence) happen through Barbelo’s interactions with the Monad.
Sophia is the last and lowest aeon, and her solitary act of creation resulted in the Demiurge.
Archons are the servants of the Demiurge. While the Demiurge created the archons, the archons were essentially the builders of the physical world.
There are said to be seven of them, each corresponding to a planet, and they are tasked with keeping humans from achieving salvation and leaving the material world.
According to the Ophites, a Gnostic Christian sect, acknowledged these seven archons:
- Yaldabaoth is the first archon, the Demiurge, and corresponds to Saturn. The other six came from this entity.
- Iao, the second, corresponds to Jupiter.
- Sabaoth, the third, corresponds to Mars. He dethrones his father, Yaldabaoth.
- Astaphaios, the fourth, corresponds to Venus.
- Adonaios, the fifth, corresponds to the Sun.
- Ailoaios, the sixth, corresponds to Mercury.
- Horaios, the seventh, corresponds to the Moon.
Gnostic Bible/Nag Hammadi Scriptures
The Nag Hammadi scriptures are a collection of early Christian and Gnostic writings found in the mid 1900s near the town of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. They are thirteen leather-bound tomes written in Coptic and contain many historically and religiously significant texts — including the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas.
The contents of the Nag Hammadi scriptures vary widely. Some offer an interpretation of the story of Genesis from a gnostic viewpoint, and position the serpent in the garden of Eden as a savior who offered knowledge to humanity.
Others are dialogues with Jesus, or question-and-answer sessions between Jesus and the disciples.
The Exegesis of the Soul, found in the third codex, describes the soul as a woman who fell from grace, and who will be elevated to perfection again.
Interestingly, not all of the writings within the codices are Gnostic in origin. They also contain part of Plato’s Republic, and three Hermetic works: A Prayer of Thanksgiving, Asclepius 21–29, and The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth.
Persecution of Gnosticism
Gnosticism has been regarded by many Christians as heretical since the end of the second century.
Under the Pagan Roman Emperors, there wasn’t really much that the orthodox church could do, other than criticize Gnosticism.
When Emperor Constantine ascended in the early 300s, he created the Edict of Milan — a decree which established religious tolerance for Christians within Rome — and made it very clear that this didn’t apply to Gnostics. This gave the Catholic orthodoxy power to do more than simply criticize.
The early Catholic church was founded on the idea that humanity required a spiritual intermediary — the Pope — and that the church’s authority was infallible.
Worshippers were to have faith, both in the Savior and in the church’s authority. Gnosticism was in direct opposition to this, since gnosis was held as the only thing necessary for salvation. Gnostic communities and writings were mercilessly destroyed.
Some Gnostics managed to survive on the fringes of the eastern empire, but were still regarded as heretics. Even in the Byzantine Empire, Gnostic communities would be rounded up and deported to other areas, where officials hoped they would be either driven out or converted by their neighbors.
When the Ottoman Empire conquered the Byzantine Empire, many Gnostics chose to become Muslim.
Despite centuries of persecution, Gnosticism survives today. This is due, in part, to to one of the things that made Gnostics easy for the Catholic church to persecute — a lack of centralization.
Gnostics don’t rely on a spiritual authority, like a Pope or Bishop. In some Gnostic sects, prayers were led by groups of elders instead of priests. This means that Gnosticism doesn’t need a strong central church or lineage to survive. As long as its ideas are intact, interested seekers can find them and pursue gnosis.
In some areas, notably Iran and Iraq, an ancient form of Gnosticism called Mandaeanism continues today. There are also numerous modern Gnostic movements.
The discovery of the Bruce Codex and the Pistis Sophia in the 18th century provided new source materials to interested parties.
Madame Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, wrote extensively about Gnostic ideas. In 1890, a librarian named Jules Doinel created the Englise Gnostique in France using documents from the Cathars, a 12th-14th century Gnostic movement in southern Europe.
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi scriptures in 1945 gave modern seekers new source material to learn from. Today, The Gnostic Society and Ecclesia Gnostica continue to further Gnostic ideas and offer educational programs and resources.
Whether truth or heresy, Gnosticism offers a lot of explanations for things that people are normally asked to take on faith.
Instead of saying it’s “God’s will” when bad things happen, it points out that the world is imperfect because it was created imperfectly.
Instead of relying on an intercessor, Gnosticism asks people to take their salvation into their own hands through the pursuit of divine knowledge. Despite numerous attempts to stamp it out, Gnosticism’s ideas continue to draw new adherents to this day.