23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Gnosticism (from the Ancient Greek: “knowledge,” “having knowledge”) is a concept that unites many religious movements of late antiquity.

The idea of the philosophy concerns the dualistic understanding of the world: the existence of God, which is the supreme good force sympathizing with humanity, and Demiurge, which is God’s opposite.

The concept of “Gnosticism” was introduced by the scientist Henry More in the 17th century. However,Epiphanius of Salamis can be called the founder of Gnosticism. In 375, he coined the term “heresy” with the word “Gnostics”.

Terms reflecting the essence of gnosticism

Gnosis is the basic concept meaning secret knowledge and human understanding of divine nature available only to the enlightened.

Representatives of Gnosticism used other concepts also:

  1. According to the concept of the ancient philosopher Valentin, aeons are the starting point from which the Truth and the Mind emanate. The latter created Logos and Life, from which the first Man was born.
  2. Archons are the spirits that rule the world. They are the creators of the cosmos, as well as the feelings and emotions of man. People are “hostages” of the matter created by Archons.
  3. Abraxas is a deity that dominates Heaven and Aeons. It embodies the synthesis of World, Time and Space. The creature has the body of a man with snakes instead of legs and the head of a rooster.
  4. Demiurg is a key figure of Gnosticism. It is a deity that creates a material part of the world, more efficiently than the First God. He puts the soul in the shell of the body, so he is unable to understand compassion and love. He is the “evil” beginning. His incompleteness is the cause of the sinfulness and imperfection of the world.
  5. Pleroma which is a system of celestial entities (Aeons). Proponents of Gnosticism believe that Jesus Christ was an aeon that passed secret knowledge to people for reunification with Pleroma.
  6. Sophia is the twelfth (last) female aeon that closes Pleroma. It is believed that her sadness and other negative emotions created the soul and matter. Sophia gave birth to Demiurg.

The basics of Gnosticism were formed as a result of the influence of ancient philosophical schools (especially Platoean and Neopythagorean movements), on Judaism and Eastern religions. The deification of Isis and related ordinances also influenced the formation of pre-Christian Gnosticism.

The sense of the gnostic esoteric teaching

Gnostics believed that they had sacred knowledge about the Universe, humanity and God, which was not available to ordinary people. It was believed that salvation could be achieved not through faith but through Knowledge, which is understood through intuition.

Also, the essence of Gnosticism is:

  • the idea of Pleroma, from which unwanted aeons are banished
  • the philosophy of Demiurg, the creator of the Universe ruled by Archons (his servants)
  • Docetism which rejects the reality of the matter

The basic principle of Gnosticism, Dualism (the opposite of spirit and matter), is at the core of the faith. The world is in the evil that could not be created by God. Therefore, it was believed that the world was created by an evil force—Demiurg (who has a different meaning from the smithing god of Plato). The Supreme God lives high in heaven. Out of pity, he sends angels to people and the angels help people to escape from Demiurg’s rule.

In Gnosticism, God and the material world can reconcile and reunite the sources of absoluteness and relativity, as well as infinity and limitation.

A true Gnostic is a “chosen” person living in the “illusory world” of secret knowledge. Jesus Christ, as one of the enlightened forces, can atone for the sins of the lower material world. However, his call is followed only by spiritual personalities called “pneumatics.” “Psychics”, the opposite to “pneumatics”, can achieve only faith, not true knowledge. People having only material interests which do not go beyond feelings are called “somatics.”

Movements in gnosticism

Movements in gnosticism

Gnosticism as a religion existed at the turn of Christianity and paganism. On the one hand, the doctrine tried to come into contact with the church and Christian revelation, and on the other with pagan thought and ancient Greek philosophy.

Pagan Gnosticism was typical of the pre-Christian period. Since then, fragments of cosmogonic texts and hymns of mystical worship and literature of representatives of hermetic philosophy have been preserved. The gnoseological theory of the origin of the world is also found in Latin and more than 40 Arabic texts of the 1st century.

Unlike paganism, Jewish Gnosticism is characterized by asceticism and long contemplation, but not without a magical basis. Its representatives were divided into two movements of Gnosticism.

The therapeutae

These are monastic communities that adhere to deep asceticism. They consisted of Jews of the Egyptian diaspora. The Therapeutae led secluded, contemplative and pious lives not far from Alexandria. They did not need possessions because they spent all their time studying the scriptures and fasting.

Monks euphemistically interpreted the Old Testament. The Torah was perceived as a living being whose body was literal, and the soul illustrated the secret meaning of words. In their activities, the monks tried to combine different spiritual concepts. The monotheistic Judaism common to the Jewish people and the late philosophy of Ancient Greece, were characterized by an ethical orientation and adaptation of elements of Eastern religions.

The Therapeutae denied the institution of marriage and family, adhering to strict asceticism.

The essenes

Information about these communities dates back from the end of the 2nd century BC to the end of the 1st century. The Gnostic teaching was built on Judaism. But it also had features that characterized paganism, such as:

  • Sun worship
  • adherence to asceticism and celibacy
  • ordinances of initiation and food
  • denial of anointing
  • knowing the secret names of angels
  • preaching the dualism of the human nature
  • performing a special washing ritual
  • highlighting a special group of people for predicting the future — mediums
  • denial of slavery
  • taking oaths

The Gnostic nature of the teaching was manifested by preaching the idea of salvation and the duality of human nature. Thus, everyone was obliged to adhere to asceticism, observe the community hierarchy and period of obedience, and make social vows upon joining.

Due to the extraordinary views of Gnostics on the emergence of the world, they had a strong influence upon the course of the religious life of that era. Gnosticism is a philosophy that has become an attempt to bring faith and science closer together by methods that often have no real evidence.