As there has never been one clearly definable “Gnosticism”, tracing its origins and development is difficult. “Gnosis” seems to have arisen in the Mediterranean and Near East at around the same time as Christianity. As an esoteric religion which arose in the first century AD, Gnosis was centered on redemption through the revelation of humanity’s secret divine origins. The term gnosticism was coined to refer to a religious system which developed in the second and third centuries, when it was influenced by Christianity as well as Platonism.
History of Gnosticism: Pre-Christian Form (Late First and Second Century AD)
The disintegration of pagan religions and the ensuing amalgamation of different national beliefs was a process that began before the Roman emperor Alexander’s conquests. As Hellenic culture spread throughout the Empire, indigenous cultures and religions began to be reinterpreted in light of Greek thought, in effect fusing the two. By the time the Roman Empire arose, the total dissolution of national boundaries promoted further movement and blending of different races. Antioch, Alexandria, and the major cities of Asia Minor had become cosmopolitan and syncretistic. Hellenic philosophy was combining with Oriental mythology, producing new systems and cults. Gnosticism in its most essential form developed as a result of the rich syncretistic milieu of the 1st century, before the Christian era began.
1. The Influence of Hermeticism
A significant pre-Christian influence on the formation of gnosticism can be traced back to the Hermetic literature of Egypt. Hermeticism and gnosticism both emerged and developed at the same time and in the same places. Many of their key doctrines overlap, such as the concept of a totally transcendent God. Hermeticism also teaches that the human soul has its origin in God and that a return to unity with God can only be achieved through special knowledge. The Hermeticists tended to strive towards an ascetic way of life. Gnosticism seems to have been a more radicalized form of Hermeticism, with a more elaborate mythology of the divine realm (pleroma) and a view of the material world and its creator as fundamentally evil.
2. The Influence of Greek Philosophy
Gnosticism adopted a range of Greek philosophical terms and concepts in its religious texts.
Greek philosophy (such as that of Plato) proposed the existence of a higher realm of eternal unchanging perfection and truth. Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, contains his attempt to explain the origins of the order and beauty in the universe. He posits the existence of a Demiurge (Creator) as the first cause who must be supremely good in order to account for the manifest goodness we see in the universe. The created universe is seen as the realm of ever-changing Becoming, as opposed to the higher realm of unchanging Being.
Pythagoreans referred to the first cause of the universe as the Monad (the One) which gave birth to the Dyad (the Many).
Gnosticism undoubtedly borrowed many of these ideas and terms to express its mythology of the higher world of the Monad producing the Dyad, and of an evil demiurge producing our wicked world. Although much of the vocabulary and concepts of Greek philosophy are present in gnosticism, its emphasis is placed firmly upon salvation through revelation as opposed to the philosophical pursuit of understanding life in a non-religious way.
3. The Influence of Judaism
It is the general consensus of modern scholarship that the development of early gnostic mythology relied heavily upon the appropriation of Jewish traditions. The Jewish apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, as well as the writings of the Merkavah mystics, undoubtedly provided a wealth of imagery from which the gnostics drew.
The concept of Two Powers in heaven, God and his vice-regent (known as the Angel of the Lord, the Name, Wisdom, etc.) had led to a binitarian conception of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Ancient Israelites were familiar with two Yahwehs - one which was an invisible spirit and the other visible, often in human form. Jewish Christians came to see Jesus as the second, incarnate Yahweh, which may have contributed to the Rabbinic condemnation of this concept as heresy in the second century AD. There is no evidence that any of the speculations around the Two Powers concept lead to the conclusion that they were opposed to one another in a demiurgical sense. However, the Two Powers concept may have served as a counterpart for the emerging gnostic religion to assimilate and reinterpret. The problem of evil was also something Jewish theologians had wrestled with, and since the gnostics had concluded that the world was evil from the outset, then the Creator of the world must also be evil. Therefore, the gnostic interpretation of the Jewish Bible led them to conclude that Yahweh must be evil and therefore cannot be the true God.
Although the Jewish influence upon gnosticism is clear, the fundamental principles of gnostic theology stand in direct opposition to Judaism, particularly in its extreme rejection of the Jewish God. There is no evidence to suggest that the gnostic movement was a direct descendant of Judaism.
History of Gnosticism: Christian Era (Mid-Second to Early Third Century AD)
Although gnostic ideas predate Christianity, it’s most characteristic and coherent iteration as a religious system arose when it came to identify itself with Christianity. Gnosticism was able to integrate Jesus into its existing mythology, allegorizing much of his life and teachings and yet upholding his status as the definitive Savior (albeit as the one who imparts the salvific Gnosis). It is important to note that there are no gnostic works that are pre-Christian and it was not until the 2nd century AD that we see the emergence of the gnostic movement and its literature. The pre-Christian history of gnosticism is therefore considered to be the prelude for the high point of its development, as it became intimately connected to Christianity and deeply dependent upon the person of Jesus.
The nature of gnosticism was always eclectic. The Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus (early 2nd century – died c. AD 202) who wrote polemics against the various gnostic systems, tended to emphasize the conflicting doctrines in their critiques of gnosticism. The Church was concerned that in its efforts to appropriate Christianity, gnosticism and its mystical speculations threatened to dissolve the message of the New Testament. The inherent mistrust of the cosmic order led the gnostics to consider the church hierarchy as subject to the cosmic rule of the evil Archons, even though the Church at that time was an underground movement experiencing intense persecution from the Roman authorities.
It is noteworthy that none of the contemporary sources associated with the gnostic movements used the term gnosticism to identify themselves, as the term is a much later scholarly construct. The sheer variety of sources that gnostic teachers would rely upon, and their differing approaches to speculation, makes it difficult to fit every gnostic teacher into a common framework. The most prominent gnostic teachers seemed to have made their mark in the period between 130 and 190 AD; however, a definitive historical arrangement of the various sects remains elusive.
Marcion’s (c. 85 – c. 160) interpretation of the Bible had much in common with the gnostics, particularly in his concept of two distinct gods – the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. However, Marcion’s doctrine emphasized faith as opposed to gnosis for salvation and also lacked any sort of gnostic mythology. He famously rejected the entirety of the Old Testament and even compiled his own version of the New Testament, after editing and rejecting some of its books to remove any traces of the Old Testament. This challenge to the authority of the scriptures caused the early Church to respond to him by establishing the definitive New Testament canon. The Church rejected Marcion’s version as well as his heretical theology.
The most famous gnostic teacher was undoubtedly Valentinus (c. 100 – c. 160 AD). Valentinus was an Egyptian who was educated in Alexandria before settling in Rome, where he founded his school in 140. He taught a gnostic emanationist mythology, with a series of Aeons cascading out from the primal Monad to form the Pleroma. He attempted to combine Platonism with Christianity. The influence of Valantinian gnosticism led Irenaeus to write his five-volume work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), where he presents and refutes the doctrines of the Valentinians and other gnostic groups. Irenaeus appeals to reason, the Apostolic teachings, and the sayings of Jesus in his refutation of gnostic theology. His work culminates in a defense of a physical resurrection, something that gnostics could not accept because of their doctrine of the ascent of the soul out from the bondage of the material realm. As the Valentinian school developed, it remained faithful to the distinctive ideas of gnosticism.
Irenaeus also refers to the “Sethians”, a major gnostic group of the second and third centuries. This group attributed their Gnosis to Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. They exalted Seth as a key revealer of truth. The Sethians had their roots in a Hellenised form of Judaism (such as that of the philosopher Philo) and developed a docetic Christology. The diverse gnostic systems were represented throughout this period by a bewildering number of other sects, also mentioned in the writings of the Fathers.
2. Recovery of Gnostic Texts
A literary history of gnostic writings has yet to be assembled.
There are two groups of available gnostic texts: secondary and primary. Up until the 19th century, only secondary sources had been available – all of which were written by their adversaries. They were typically of a polemic nature, made up of the writings of the Fathers (such as Irenaeus and Epiphanius) as well as the critiques of Neoplatonic philosophers (such as Plotinus).
The first primary gnostic sources to be recovered were written in Coptic, which was the last stage of the Egyptian language. The first of these discovered texts was the Pistis Sophia, as part of the Codex Askewianus (after Antoninus Askew, who purchased it in London around 1750). The manuscript is dated to the middle part of the 4th century, with the original Greek text from which it was translated considered to have originated in the middle of the 3rd century, based on its strong Neoplatonist influence. A second manuscript was discovered in the 18th century, the Codex Brucianus (after James Bruce, who acquired it in Egypt in 1773). Within the manuscript were copies of two texts, The Books of Jeu and The Untitled Treatise.
Thirteen codices were discovered in 1945, containing 46 works, of which 40 were previously unknown. This collection of texts is now referred to as the Nag Hammadi Library, as they were discovered in a cave near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Not all of the discovered texts were gnostic, but of those that were, the most famous is The Gospel of Thomas. All of the gnostic texts date from the 2nd century AD onwards.
History of Gnosticism: Continued Influence
The reaction of the Church to the Christian gnosticism of the 2nd and 3rd centuries led to the formation of both the biblical canon, and the confession of faith produced at the First Council of Nicea in 325. The gnostics ultimately failed to refute the arguments made by the Christians and began to decline by the end of the second century.
Although it effectively disappeared from the Mediterranean, gnostic thought went on to influence the formation of the Kabbalah.
The recovery of ancient texts during the Renaissance led to the revival of many gnostic ideas among scholars in the West. This current has been traced throughout the development of the entire Western Esoteric tradition. The influence of gnostic ideas led to the rise of such movements as Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. Gnosticism also influenced the esotericists of the 20th century, the analytical psychology of Carl Gustav Jung, and the modern New Age Movement.
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Hanegraaf, Wouter J (2006). “Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism”.