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". It is pronounced with a silent "G" (NO-sis). 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. The movement and its literature were essentially wiped out by the end of the 5th century CE by heresy hunters from mainline Christianity. Its beliefs are currently experiencing a rebirth throughout the world. The counter-cult movement and some other Christian ministries disseminate a great deal of misinformation about the movement (10,11,12)
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. They constituted one of the three main branches of early Christianity: the other two being:
the remnants of the Jewish Christian sect which was created by Jesus' disciples, and
the churches started by St. Paul, that were eventually to grow and develop into "mainline" Christianity by the end of the third century.
By the second century CE, many very different Christian-Gnostic sects had formed within the Roman Empire at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Some Gnostics worked within Jewish Christian and mainline Christian groups, and greatly influenced their beliefs from within. Others formed separate communities. Still others were solitary practitioners.
As mainline Christianity grew in strength and organization, Gnostic sects came under increasing pressure and persecution. They almost disappeared by the 6th century. The only group to have survived into modern times is the Mandaean sect of Iraq and Iran. This group has about 15,000 members (one source says 1,500), and can trace their history continuously back to the original Gnostic movement.
Many new emerging religions in the West have adopted ancient Gnostic beliefs and practices.
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 CE) He organized a series of Gnostic congregations in the eastern Mediterranean which survived into the 3rd century CE. 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 CE 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 CE. 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 CE); 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.
Interaction of Gnosticism and Early Mainline Christianity
Some Gnostic beliefs and leaders may have infiltrated mainline Christianity and influenced the Authors of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)
Some theologians believe that the Carpocratian Gnostics were the target of Jude's attack about "...certain men" who " have secretly slipped in among you,". The book of Jude, Verses 4 to 19, deals mainly with these infiltrators.
Simon Magus, an early Gnostic, may have been the Simon mentioned in Acts 8:9-24. Simon believed in Jesus and was baptized with a group of other believers. But none had received the Holy Spirit until Peter and John placed their hands on the new converts. Simon asked for the laying on of the apostles' hands and even offered money. Peter refused, because Simon's heart was not right with God.
Matthew 4:8-9 describes how Satan took Jesus to a very high mountain and offered him all of the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would only bow down and worship him. This passage has always been difficult to understand, because it implies that the world belonged to the Devil and was his to give away to Christ. But the passage matches Gnostic belief very closely.
Books You Might Enjoy:
Anonymous - The Mysticism Of Masonry
Walter Begley - Biblia Cabalistica
Wouter Hanegraaff - Dictionary Of Gnosis And Western Esotericism
John White - Toward Homo Noeticus