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Gnosticism

GNOSTICISM.

Gnosticism is a modern category used for defining a set of second-and third-century c.e. schools of thought and trends that have in common gnosis, a peculiar form of revealed knowledge that leads to salvation, having in itself both its value and its basis. In opposition to faith, gnosis takes root in the experience, generally human, of perceiving a division, a split between the self and the world, between the self and God, and between the self as a founding reality and the empirical ego. As global and absolute knowledge, gnosis aims at overcoming these dichotomies, recovering the individual's threatened integrity and restoring the lost unity of being.

Gnostic forms of knowledge leading to salvation are present in several religious traditions, theistic or not, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Hebrew kabbalah, or Islamic esoteric traditions. However, in the Gnosticism of the second century c.e. a complex historical reality occurred, characterized by specific identity features, demonstrated by the fact that the holders of gnosis called themselves gnostikoi.

The plurality of available sources, from the Nag Hammadi texts to the writings of those fathers of the church, the so-called heresiologists who fought against Gnosticism as a heresy, makes difficult a reconstruction both of its origins and its history. The use of the category "Gnosticism" has been criticized because it provides an overview that hides the complexity of ancient historical reality by imposing an alleged unity to phenomena that were very different. However, this category is a legitimate interpretative historical tool, the only one that grasps the distinctive and unifying feature of schools of thought and movements otherwise different and at times controversial.

Overview

The Nag Hammadi texts are dated no earlier than the second century c.e. The heresiological texts support this dating. The integrated study of these sources leads to an unavoidable conclusion: based on earlier texts that defended the existence of a Gnostic mytheither pre-Christian or contemporary with the origins of Christianity, and probably of Jewish originthe phenomenon of Gnosticism arose and became established during the second century c.e. in large Hellenistic cities such as Alexandria. It was linked to Scholastic forms of transmission based on esoteric background of a special knowledge, and was deeply bound with the history of the formation of Christianity as a religion.

Besides a first, less well known stage during which, according to the heresiological texts, figures such as Saturninus, Menander, Basilides and, toward the middle of the century, Marcion and Valentinus followed one another, a second stage took place in the second half of the century, mastered by the Valentinian school of thought. Through the contribution of some Nag Hammadi texts, a tradition of sage philosophy also clearly stands out, deeply influenced by the coeval Platonic schools, and audaciously reinterpreting the Christian theological heritage using the background of doctrinal myths intended to go into the mystery of God's eternal genesis as well as the bond that unites the individual Gnostic to the world of the divine fullness, the pleroma. Beside this Christian Gnostic school of thought, Nag Hammadi texts disclose the existence of a plurality of groups and deeply diversified Gnostic trends tenuously tied to the nascent Christianity of the second half of the second century.

Some scholars supposed the existence of a real Sethian group, so named by the common mythical ancestor, the Seth in Genesis (Gen. 4:25) who became, in the Gnostic myth, the celestial founder of the Gnostics, a select group of divine origin predestined to salvation despite all the attempts at subjugation by the wicked Demiurge and its archons. It is impossible to apprehend from these mythological stories, taking place in the rarefied and impenetrable atmosphere of the pleroma of divine life, precise and convincing sociological indications. Nowadays the dominant trend is to look independently into each of the different texts once attributed to the alleged Sethians, trying to reconstitute the ideology and the course of the groups who used them, by a thorough editorial analysis.

The Gnostic communities reserved a special place for women: the possession of gnosis eliminated normal power hierarchies, favoring, in an ascetic background, a spiritual equality. This explains the privileged role played in certain texts by female figures such as Mary Magdalene. However, one must not draw sociological conclusions from the role played by figures of female savers present in certain Gnostic texts.

Mythology and doctrine.

The subject of the Gnostic revelation is the ontological Self, the true spiritual reality, con-substantial with (of the same substance as) the divine. Communicated by a revealersavior and guaranteed by an esoteric tradition, this gnosis is often associated with instruction that has as a subject the communication of a mythical story. It aims at answering the questions related to existence arising from a radically pessimistic conception of the world as created by a god or a wicked demiurge in opposition to the good, absolutely transcendent Godunknown and unknowable except through Gnostic enlightenment. The Gnostic mythology narrates the events of that Gnostic god, describing his divine origin, expressing and explaining the causes for the oblivion that is his prison, and showing in the end the way back, which brings salvation.

The variegated world of Gnostic mythology is formed starting from this dualistic vision, opposing, in some ways, the pleroma, or world of light and fullness, to our world of darkness, in others, the pneuma, or spiritual reality, to the psychophysical compound created by the Demiurge. The Gnostic myths share the story that, originally, the divine world experienced a perfect fullness, which, through an "accident" within the life itself of the pleroma (in its best-known version it is represented as a mistake committed by Sophia, the last of the aeons emanated by the primordial androgyne), gave way to a world of lack and emptiness, whose master is the Demiurge.

This mythology contains a theogony narrating the unknown God's "eternal birth," which makes it possible for the Gnostic in its turn to be born again reviving his new life; a cosmogony that presents the antibiblical Gnostic version of the genesis of this cosmos, the seat of evil and prison of the Gnostic; an anthropogony, according to which the Demiurge creates the psychophysical compound into which he then (Gnostic reinterpretation of Gen. 2:7) unconsciously insufflates the spiritual principle inherited by his mother, the pleromatic Sophia; and, finally, an eschatology, according to which the world is destined to destruction and only the spiritual dimension will survive, returning then to pleroma.

Influence and global reach.

In the Western tradition of thought, Gnosticism experienced historical revivals, from Manichaeism to the medieval Catharism. Generally these were internal dualistic forms within the Christian area, which retained the cosmic pessimism and the conception of a second wicked god creator. Beginning in the Renaissance, the Christian esoteric traditions occupied the privileged place of transmission and retention of Gnostic forms of thought. Fundamental is the work of Jakob Böhme (15751624), whose theosophy, phenomenologically akin to that of Gnosticism, is marked by the absence of dualism and whose work fed the subsequent fortunes of Gnosticism. Leaving out of consideration, as devoid of historic importance, the attempts of neognostic churches to revitalize ancient Gnosticism, the next important Gnostic revival was early German Romanticism, with its insistence on totality and absolute knowledge, as well as pessimistic and nihilistic hints. It provided twentieth-century culturein forms that are sometimes difficult to investigatethemes at times tied to the pessimistic side of Gnosticism, at times to its optimistic side. These themes seem to be spread in heterogeneous sectors of our culture, from the depth psychology referring to Carl Gustav Jung (18751961), to Gnostic themes appearing in new forms of religiousness. However, a more precise identification and interpretation looks difficult, in the absence of a clear sociological basis of specific worship forms and, in general terms, because of the difficulty inherent in defining a modern Gnosticism.

See also Agnosticism ; Christianity ; Evil ; Heresy and Apostasy ; Knowledge ; Manichaeism ; Mysticism ; Myth ; Nihilism ; Philosophy of Religion ; Platonism ; Sage Philosophy ; Scholasticism .

bibliography

PRIMARY SOURCES

Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Faivre, Antoine. Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Fundamental collection of studies, with an excellent bibliography.

Filoramo, Giovanni. A History of Gnosticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

King, K. L. Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988. Exemplary study of gender.

Scholer, David M. Nag Hammadi Bibliography, 19481969. Leiden: Brill, 1971. Vol. 2: Nag Hammadi Bibliography, 19701994. Leiden: Brill, 1997.

Turner, John D., and Anne McGuire, eds. The Nag Hammadi Library after Fifty Years. Leiden, New York, and Cologne, 1997. Important critical balance.

Giovanni Filoramo

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Gnosticism

Gnosticism

Gnosticism, from the Greek "Gnosis," meaning "to know," refers to a number of different groups in the second centuryC.E. Roots of the movement are evident in the Christian New Testament writings of the first century; they drew on various Pagan, Jewish, and occult ideas current in the Mediterranean Basin. Some have seen the roots of Gnosticism in the writings of Apollonius of Tyana and the biblical magician Simon Magus, mentioned in Acts 8:9-24. However, the emergence of gnostic thinking is seen most clearly in passages such as the opening verses of the Gospel of John, Paul's epistle to the Collossians 2:18, and I John 4:1, where gnostic themes are denounced.

Among some of the Gnostics, a priesthood of the mysteries existed and these initiated priests practiced magic, astrology, incantations, exorcisms, the fashioning of charms, talismans, and amulets, of which many are in museums and special collections. These priests were viewed as heretics by the church, which in the second and third century struggled to separate itself from them. Upon gaining control of the Roman Empire, Christian leaders periodically suppressed Gnostic groups and occasionally these movements provided the ideology for revolutionary groups.

Manicheism, a later movement of Gnosticism that emphasized its dualistic tendencies, was founded by a prophet named Mani (216-276 C.E.), who was noted for his skill in astrology, medicines, and magic.

The most notable gnostic teacher was Valentinus, a second-century Alexandrian who moved to Rome around 140 C.E. He became a teacher in the church of Rome before being expelled as a heretic. He continued to teach as a rival of the church for the next two decades. His major literary production was the Gospel of Truth, known only from quote in Christian polemical writings until a copy was discovered in the Egyptian desert in the twentieth century.

Magical and Occult Element in Gnosticism

The Carpocratians, one of the Gnostic sects, seem to have derived some of their mysteries and rites from Isis worship, and used theurgic incantations, symbols, and signs. The Ophites also adapted Egyptian rites, and, as their name indicates, these included serpent symbolism, an actual serpent being the central object of their mysteries. Marcos, a disciple of Valentinus, and founder of the Marcian sect, reportedly celebrated Mass with two chalices, pouring wine from the larger into a smaller, and on pronouncing a magical formula, the vessel was filled with a liquor like blood. Other sects practiced divination and prophecy by using female somnambules. Some of the sects engaged in rituals of a sexual nature.

The Gnostic talismans were mostly engraved on gems, the color and traditional qualities of the jewel being part of its magical efficacy. They used spells and charms and mystic formulas, said to "loose fetters, to cause blindness in one's enemies, to procure dreams, to gain favor, to encompass any desire whatsoever."

In a Greek Gnostic papyrus the following spell of Agathocles for producing dreams was found:

"Take a cat, black all over, and which has been killed; prepare a writing tablet, and write the following with a solution of myrrh, and the dream which thou desirest to be sent, and put in the mouth of the cat. The text to be transcribed runs: 'Keimi, Keimi, I am the Great One, in whose mouth rests Mommom, Thoth, Nauumbre, Karikha, Kenyro, Paarmiathon, the sacred Ian icê ieu aêoi, who is above the heaven, Amekheumen, Neunana, Seunana, Ablanathanalba,' [here follow further names, then] 'Put thyself in connection with N.N. in this matter [as to the substance of the dream named] but if it is necessary then bring for me N.N. hither by thy power; lord of the whole world, fiery god, put thyself in connexion with N.N. Hear me, for I shall speak the great name, Thoth! whom each god honours, and each demon fears, by whose command every messenger performs his mission. Thy name answers to the seven (vowels) a, e, ê, i, o, u, ô, iauoeêaô oueê ôia. I named thy glorious name, the name for all needs. Put thyself in connection with N.N., Hidden One, God, with respect to this name, which Apollobex also used.'&43"

The repetition/chanting of various syllables, otherwise apparently meaningless, was always held to be of great efficacy in magical rites, either as holding the secret name of the powers invoked, or of actual power in themselves. A similar practice, japa yoga, may be found in Hinduism with the repetition of mantras.

In Atanasi's Magic Papyrus, Spell VII directs one to place the link of a chain upon a leaden plate, and having traced its outline, to write around the circumference the common Gnostic legend in Greek characters (reading both ways) continuously. Within the circle should be written the nature of what was to be prevented. The operation was called "The Ring of Hermes." The link was then to be folded up on the leaden plate, and thrown into the grave of one dead before his time, or else into a disused well. After the formula was to follow in Greek: "Pre-vent thou such and such a person from doing such and such a thing"a proof that the string of epithets all referred to the same power.

These instances might be multiplied, although much of the Gnostic teachings were lost as the gnostic lost out in the religious struggles of the era. Gnosticism was passed on through the centuries in various groups usually described as heretical groups such as the Cathars and Bogomils. It reemerged in the late Middle Ages in alchemy and the kabala. With the rise of Rosicrucianism and nineteenth-century Theosophy, it became well established in the emerging pluralistic culture and has enjoyed a new life in the New Age movement.

Many of the lost gnostic texts were recovered in 1945 in the accidental discovery of a fourth-century gnostic library in the Egyptian desert at Nag Hammadi. Many complete copies of books, such as the Gospel of Truth, previously known only from a few surviving quotes in other books, were discovered intact. This discovery has stimulated modern gnostic studies, and one book, The Gospel of Thomas, a collection of lost sayings attributed to Jesus, has been adopted as holy writ by several contemporary gnostic churches.

Sources:

Doresse, Jean. The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics. London: Hollis and Carter, 1960. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1972.

Hedrick, Charles W., and Robert Hodgson, Jr., eds. Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986.

Lacarriere, Jacques. The Gnostics. London: Peter Owen, 1977.

Mead, G. R. S. Fragments of a Faith Forgotten. London, 1931. Reprint, New York: University Books, 1964.

. Pistis Sophia; A Gnostic Miscellany. London, 1921. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.

Robinson, James, ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.

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Gnosticism

Gnosticism (nŏs´tĬsĬzəm), dualistic religious and philosophical movement of the late Hellenistic and early Christian eras. The term designates a wide assortment of sects, numerous by the 2d cent. AD; they all promised salvation through an occult knowledge that they claimed was revealed to them alone. Scholars trace these salvation religions back to such diverse sources as Jewish mysticism, Hellenistic mystery cults, Iranian religious dualism (see Zoroastrianism), and Babylonian and Egyptian mythology. The definition of gnosis [knowledge] as concern with the Eternal was already present in earlier Greek philosophy, although its connection with the later Gnostic movement is distant at best. Christian ideas were quickly incorporated into these syncretistic systems, and by the 2d cent. the largest of them, organized by Valentinus and Basilides, were a significant rival to Christianity. Much of early Christian doctrine was formulated in reaction to this movement.

Until the discovery at Nag Hammadi in Egypt of key Manichaean (1930) and Coptic Gnostic (c.1945) papyri, knowledge of Gnosticism depended on Christian sources, notably St. Irenaeus, St. Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. Among principal Gnostic writings are the Valentinian documents Pistis-Sophia and the Gospel of Truth (perhaps by Valentinus himself). Important too is the literature of the Mandaeans in modern Iraq, who are the only Gnostic sect extant. Gnostic elements are found in the Acts of Thomas, the Odes of Solomon, and other wisdom literature of the pseudepigrapha.

Some Gnostics taught that the world is ruled by evil archons, among them the deity of the Old Testament, who hold captive the spirit of humanity. The heavenly pleroma was the center of the divine life, and Jesus was interpreted as an intermediary eternal being, or aeon, sent from the pleroma to restore the lost knowledge of humanity's divine origin. Gnostics held secret formulas, which they believed would free them at death from the evil archons and restore them to their heavenly abode. See Valentinus for typical Gnostic teaching on the pleroma.

Gnosticism held that human beings consist of flesh, soul, and spirit (the divine spark), and that humanity is divided into classes representing each of these elements. The purely corporeal (hylic) lacked spirit and could never be saved; the Gnostics proper (pneumatic) bore knowingly the divine spark and their salvation was certain; and those, like the Christians, who stood in between (psychic), might attain a lesser salvation through faith. Such a doctrine may have inspired extreme asceticism (as in the Valentinian school) or extreme licentiousness (as in the sect of Caprocrates and the Ophites). The influence of Gnosticism on the later development of the Jewish kabbalah and heterodox Islamic sects such as the Ismailis is much debated.

See H. Jonas, Gnostic Religion (rev. ed. 1964); R. Haardt, Gnosis: Character and Testimony (1971); E. H. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (1979); M. W. Meyer, The Secret Teachings of Jesus (1984); B. Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (1987); J. M. Robinson and R. Smith, The Nag Hammadi Library (1988); H.-J. Klimkeit, tr., Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia (1993).

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Gnosticism

Gnosticism. A complex of religious movements, having at least some of its roots in Jewish and pagan thought but appearing in developed form as a Christian heresy in the 2nd cent. Among the systems of that time, those of Valentinus, Basilides, and (somewhat apart from the rest) Marcion are the best known.

Among points of difference from mainstream Christianity are (i) the distinction between the remote supreme Divine Being and the inferior Demiurge or creator god responsible for the imperfect and perverted material world; (ii) the importance of gnōsis (‘knowledge’) as a means of redemption for at least some people (sometimes called the pneumatikoi, ‘spiritual ones’); and (iii) a christology of Jesus as the emissary of the supreme God in docetic human form.

The Manichaeans, Mandeans, and Cathars may be in various ways descendants of the gnostics. The autobiography of C. G. Jung shows the influence of gnosticism on his thought.

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Gnosticism

Gnosticism a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin. Gnostic doctrine taught that the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis) of whom enabled the redemption of the human spirit.

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Gnosticism

Gnosticism Religious movement, embracing numerous sects, based on gnosis (Gk. ‘knowledge’). This was occult knowledge that released the spiritual part of human beings from the evil bondage of the material world. Gnosticism became widespread by the 2nd century ad.

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