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Founder: Unknown

Gnosticism is a philosophical and religious movement which started in pre-Christian times. The term is derived from the Greek word gnosis which means "knowledge". Gnostics claimed to have secret knowledge about God, humanity and the rest of the universe of which the general population was unaware. It became one of the three main belief systems within 1st century Christianity, and was noted for its:

  • novel beliefs about Gods, the Bible and the world which differed from those of other Christian groups

  • tolerance of different religious beliefs within and outside of Gnosticism

  • lack of discrimination against women

Gnosticism consisted of many syncretistic belief systems which combined elements taken from Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Syrian pagan religions, from astrology, and from Judaism and Christianity.

Little is known about the rituals, organizational structure and practices of the ancient Gnostics. Almost all Gnostic texts were destroyed during various campaigns to suppress the movement. Although some of their religious writings survive, there is little information about how the groups actually functioned. Historians believe that:

  • Many Gnostics were probably solitary practitioners. Others were members of mainline Christian congregations, probably forming a clique within each church.

  • There was no consensus on a "canon of Gnostic scripture." Many books were circulated in different versions; various schools within the movement had their own preferred rendition.

  • Many Gnostic texts were written by (or attributed to) women. Mary Magdalene played an important role in many Gnostic writings, often being second only to Jesus in status. They used both female and male images for the Supreme God.

  • Some groups poured a substance over the head of a member when they were dead or dying, and recited certain ritual phrases. This was intended to help the individual's soul ascend through the dangerous heavens of the Archons towards the Supreme God.

  • Some Gnostic groups had a ritual in which new members were baptized saying: "In the name of the Father unknown to all, in the Truth, Mother of All, in the One who came down upon Jesus, in the union, redemption and communion of powers."

  • Sexual expression seems to have been suppressed in some Gnostic groups; members were expected to remain celibate. In others, ritual sex magic appears to have been practiced.

Ancient Gnostic Leaders

Simon Magus: He was one of the earliest Gnostics He was skilled in the arts of magic. He interpreted the Garden of Eden, exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea as allegories.

Marcion: (85-160 A.D.) He organized a series of Gnostic congregations in the eastern Mediterranean which survived into the 3rd century A.D.. He wrote a book called Antitheses which earned him excommunication by the Christian leaders of Rome. He rejected the institution of marriage. He believed that the Demiurge arranged Jesus' persecution and crucifixion. But the death of Christ on the cross was only a hallucination, since Jesus did not have a physical body.

Valentinus: He was born in Egypt, traveled to Rome about 140 A.D. and then moved to Cyprus. He was the founder of perhaps the largest and most influential school of Gnosticism which lasted until it was suppressed in the 4th century A.D.. He taught that groups of Aeons made up the "pleroma" (fullness) of the high god. One group, the Ogoad are called: Depth, Silence, Mind, Truth, Word, Life, Man and Church. Another group was the Decad (10) and Dodecad (12). The last of the Docecad was Wisdom, also called Sophia.

Carpocrates: (circa 140 A.D.); He taught reincarnation. An individual had to live many lives and adsorb a full range of experiences before being able to return to God. They practiced free sexuality. They believed that Jesus was the son of Joseph.

Cult Beliefs:

  • They believed that they alone truly understood Christ's message, and that other streams of thought within Christianity had misinterpreted Jesus' mission and sayings.

  • They believe that knowledge has a redeeming and liberating function that helps the individual break free of bondage to the world.

  • They believe the Supreme Father god or Supreme god of Truth is remote from human affairs; he is unknowable and undetectable by human senses. She/he created a series of supernatural but finite beings called Aeons. One of these was Sophia, a virgin, who in turn gave birth to an defective, inferior creator-god, also known as the Demiurge (public craftsman). This lower god created the earth and its life forms. This is the God of the Old Testament, a deity who was viewed as fundamentally evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in compassion and prone to genocide. The Demiurge "thinks that he is supreme. His pride and incompetence have resulted in the sorry state of the world as we know it, and in the blind and ignorant condition of most of mankind."

  • They believe in the duality of spirit and body: Spirit is of divine origin and good; the body is inherently earthly and evil. Gnostics were hostile to the physical world, to matter and the human body. But they believed that trapped within some people's bodies were the sparks of divinity or seeds of light that were supplied to humanity by Sophia.

  • The believe a person attains salvation by learning secret knowledge of their spiritual essence: a divine spark of light or spirit. They then have the opportunity to escape from the prison of their bodies at death. Their soul can ascend to be reunited with the Supreme God at the time of their death. Gnostics divided humanity into three groups:

    1. the spiritual, who would be saved irrespective of their behavior while on earth

    2. the soulish, who could be saved if they followed the Gnostic path

    3. the carnal who are hopelessly lost

  • They did not look upon the world as having been created perfectly and then having degenerated as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. Rather the world was seen as being evil at the time of its origin, having been created by an inferior God.

  • Some Gnostic sects honored the snake. They did not view the snake as a seducer who led the Adam and Eve into sinful behavior. Rather, they saw the snake as a liberator who brought knowledge to Adam and Eve by convincing them to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and thus to become fully human.

  • The role of the redeemer in Gnostic belief is heavily debated at this time. Gnostics seem to have looked upon Christ as a revealer or liberator, rather than a savior or judge. His purpose was to spread knowledge which would free individuals from the Demiurge's control and allow them to return to their spiritual home with the Supreme God at death. Some Gnostic groups promoted Docetism, the belief that Christ was pure spirit and only had a phantom body; Jesus just appeared to be human to his followers. They reasoned that a true emissary from the Supreme God could not have been overcome by the evil of the world, and to have suffered and died. Some Gnostics believed that Christ's resurrection occurred at or before Jesus' death on the cross. They defined his resurrection as occurring when his spirit was liberated from his body.

  • The Universe: This is divided into three kingdoms:

    1. The "Earthly Cosmos": The earth is the center of the universe, and is composed of the world that we know of and an underworld. It is surrounded by air and by 7 concentric heavenly spheres: one for each of the Moon, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. (Although the planet Uranus is visible to the naked eye, it was not recognized as a planet in ancient times.) Beyond Saturn resides Leviathan, a snake coiled in a single circle, devouring its own tail. Within these spheres live demonic, tyrannical entities called Archons. Beyond them lies Paradise which contains the "Tree of Life", the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil", and the flaming, turning sword of Genesis 3:24. Beyond Paradise was the sphere of the fixed stars, divided into the 12 signs of the zodiac.

    2. The "Intermediate Kingdom is composed of an inner blue circle of darkness and an outer yellow ring of light. Within these rings is a sphere which is the realm of Sophia.

    3. The "Kingdom of God" consists of two spheres: an outer one of the unknowable Supreme God, and inner ring of the Son.


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