In this post, I will give a review of a bit of my research into Gnosticism. This is a very long post (which readers of my blog are quite accustomed to!), so in order to keep in intelligible, I will work from the simple to the complex. I will begin by describing Gnosticism in a summary fashion and then work out the details in the rest of the post.
I want to clarify that the "Gnosticism" I am working out is of the sort that developed and was practiced in the early centuries B.C.E. This would include the varieties of Gnosticism that influenced (and were influenced by) the early church.
Gnosticism in a nutshell
The first thing I note is that "gnosticism" is not a very diverse category and not easily defined. So, while we list "common" characteristics of gnosticism, there will be many exceptions based on which particular group one is referring. This is true of any description of a religious or philosophical movement, but it is particularly the case for Gnosticism.
Much of the theological speculation of religions throughout the ages are centered on figuring out how to account for the brokenness of the world. Well, the answer for the ancient Gnostics was to simply say that the whole damned thing was helplessly evil, by its very nature. Gnostics developed a very radical dualism between the entire material world and the spiritual realm, and they relegated all of the material world as "evil." Often this meant developing two or more deities to account for the creation of the perfect, spiritual realm and the fallen, material world. "The world is the product of a divine tragedy, a disharmony in the realm of God, a baleful destiny in which man is entangled and from which he must be set free." (Rudolph, Gnosis, 66)
The only hope is to access the "divine spark" that is within. Connecting with the internal divinity was the process of redemption whereby one could connect with the Unknown God. This process was "gnosis," an esoteric form of knowledge that connected one with their true, spiritual self and with the Unknown God.
Hence, in Gnosticism one typically finds the most radical of dualisms: the entirety of the world and all experiences are evil. One does not (as in orthodox and mystical versions of Christianity) purify one's self from personal/individual sin via a process of connecting with God. The state of affairs is more hopeless. One must completely transcend the world and one day hope that the divine human soul will completely leave the world and transcend into the purity of the spiritual realm. The material world and the material body is a prison of the soul. This is a dualism more revolutionary than ancient Platonism or Christianity, both of whom preserved dualistic notions as central to their belief systems and practices.
Redemption and salvation is only found in death. In death, the divine soul is free to completely leave behind the evil of the material world and the material body and to ascend to the sphere of purity.
A parasitic movement
The Gnostic faith was a parasitic movement. Gnostic movements could easily spring up within any number of religious contexts, Christian or Jewish, or even within certain philosophical frameworks. But one of the things that characterized the Gnostic was that they discovered new, secret, unique, or deeper meanings within the texts and traditions of the already established movements of which they were a part. Says Perkins,
There is no simple account of the origins of Gnosticism. Traditions of esoteric and pseudo-scientific interpretation had been developing in different quarters throughout the Hellenistic period. The original interpretations may even have been more sophisticated than the versions we find embedded in mythological stories. By the time we find them in Gnostic writers, we are not dealing with direct readings of the Bible but established Gnostic traditions which are being reworked and reinterpreted . The Gnostics never take the further step achieved by both Judaism and Christianity—that of canonizing certain written embodiments of their tradition as Sacred Scripture.1
Hence, for these Gnostic traditions, “There was no gnostic ‘church’ or normative theology, no gnostic rule of faith nor any dogma of exclusive importance.”2 Also, “There was no gnostic canon of scripture, unless it was the ‘holy scriptures’ of other religions, like the Bible or Homer, which were employed and interpreted for the purpose of authorizing the gnostics’ own teachings.”3 Individuals of a Gnostic frame of mind were content merely to borrow the texts from an existing religious establishment and impress upon them deeper meaning/significance—a meaning that may have been lost somewhere along the way:
A further peculiarity of the gnostic tradition…lies in the fact that it frequently draws its material from the most varied existing traditions, attaches itself to it, and at the same time sets it in a new frame by which this material takes on a new character and a completely new significance. Gnosticism strictly speaking has no tradition of its own but only a borrowed one. Its mythology is a tradition consciously created from alien material, which it has appropriated to match its own basic conception. Considered in its own light, however, it is for Gnosticism a further confirmation of its truth, which it often traces back to a primal revelation, i.e. derives from primitive times; the knowledge of it was only temporarily extinguished or concealed.4
Gnosticism, then, is a “borrowed” tradition. Tradition is unimportant. What is important is only “gnosis” or “knowledge,” not a tradition or a text.
Gnostic characteristics in greater detail
In his classic text, Gnosis, Kurt Rudolph outlines seven principle areas that characterize the distinctives of the Gnostic movements: Gnosis, divine spark (upward, downward movement), Dualism, Cosmogony/Cosmology, Soteriology, Eschatology, Community/Cult.5 It is critical to stress and to reiterate the fact that the term “Gnostic” is a general label applied to a diverse number of individuals and communities who shared similar commonalities. This was not a monolithic movement and the following generalizations are subject, in many cases, to counterexample. As such, some scholars would even suggest that the term “Gnostic” should be done away with completely.6 Yet with these qualifications in mind it will still be helpful to use the term “Gnostic” and examine some of the general characteristics.
“Gnosticism” is a word often used to describe the phenomena and various movements of the second century.7 The use of “Gnosticism” can thus be distinguished from “gnosis,” which derives from the Greek meaning knowledge or understanding: “It is a knowledge given by revelation, which has been made available only to the elect who are capable of receiving it, and therefore has an esoteric character.”8 Gnosis is the first of Rudolph’s categories that we will analyze along with brief comment on the Gnostic conception of the divine.
Perkins describes gnosis as follows: “For the Gnostic, both God’s essence and his existence are unknown. Only gnosis overcomes the situation…These Gnostics reject the stable vision of God which the philosophic mind claims to attain.”9
Gnosis connects with the divine, and this conception of divinity is transcendent in a way that was very radical for the religious milieu of ancient religion. Perkins comments:
To a degree unparalleled by their pagan or Christian counterparts, Gnostic thinkers emphasized the radical transcendence and unknowability of the highest God. Such radical transcendence is founded on a discontinuity between God and the cosmos in which human beings find themselves....10 For the Gnostic, then, contact with the divine is mediated through the primordial revelation or through the rituals of the cult and not through its association with particular, contemporary teachers, seers or holy men.11
Perkins describes this transcendence as “radical” and unparalleled. Rudolph describes this perspective as “revolutionary.” For their contemporary counterparts, access to gods or the deity could be a relatively easy thing. But for the Gnostic, there was a gap and an enormous gulf that needed to be crossed. This, of course, is the role of gnosis. Rudolph comments further:
The gnostic conception of God is dictated by a contrast to all previously existing conceptions and so has a thoroughly revolutionary character. Certainly the terminology is indebted to contemporary philosophy…but the underlying world-denying tone cannot be mistaken. The counterpart to this highest being who can be described only in negative terms, the “unknown God”, is the revelation of his secret through intermediate beings of the elect, who are thereby enabled to attain to the “knowledge” of the (hitherto) unknown one. The gnostic idea of God is therefore not only the product of a dualism hostile to the world, but it is at the same time also a consequence of the esoteric conception of knowledge: “Gnosis” mediates the secret and leads men out of their ignorance concerning the true God.12
This leads naturally into two other aspects that pervade much of gnostic thought: that of the divine spark and a radical dualism. Within humankind is a divine spark that must be awakened or recovered. There is an upward/downward movement or structure here: the divine element and the fallen and perilous situation of man.
The world is the product of a divine tragedy, a disharmony in the realm of God, a baleful destiny in which man is entangled and from which he must be set free....13 Anthropology also is in Gnosis completely dominated by dualism. Here too a sharp line of distinction separates the bodily and psychic from the spiritual part of man. The latter is indeed even reduced to the “unworldly self”, the original divine constituent or “spark” in man which can be activated only through “knowledge” (gnosis), which is the pledge of redemption.14
There is a distinction, then, between the body and spiritual components of the human self. In some Gnostic conceptions there is a created dualism between the divine and the material. In other instances there is a gradual, downward movement from the divine to the darker, physical world of ignorance.15
But were not Platonic and other philosophical and religious systems of the day dualistic? How were the various Gnostic concepts of dualism different from Platonism. Rudolph is instructive in exploring this question. His comment here distinguishes the Gnostic dualism with Iranian Zoroastrian dualism, Platonic dualism, and Indian dualism by the “anti-cosmic” character of Gnostic dualism:
The gnostic dualism is distinguished from these above all in the one essential point, that it is “anti-cosmic”; that is, its conception includes an unequivocally negative evaluation of the visible world together with its creator; it ranks as a kingdom of evil and of darkness. The identification of “evil” and “matter”, which is not to be found in Iranian and Zoroastrian thought, occurs in Gnosis as a fundamental conception. In Greek thought also--apart from certain Orphic teachings, which however are of uncertain date--there is no such anticosmic development of the dualism of spirit and body. The Greek conception is unmistakably “procosmic”, and no less a person than Plotinus (3rd century A.D.), the leading figure of the late or Neoplatonism, defended this position over against the gnostic depreciation of the cosmos.16
Hence there is a moral element that is attached to the Gnostic dualism to be contrasted with philosophical dualistic notions on the contemporary scene. This is what Rudolph calls the anti-cosmic nature of the Gnostic dualism.
Although this dualism has a definite moral quality an important qualification must be made. Rudolph notes, “It should however be made clear that the dualism of these systems is to be seen first of all in a distinction between God and the Creator or between God and the world, not in that between God and the devil.”17 So, although there may be a moral dualism, good vs. evil, God vs. Devil, etc., for the Gnostic the dualism is first and foremost an ontological distinction between the divine/spiritual and material/physical world. Humanity is material, but within him/her resides the divine spark, which must be awakened.
The above dualism pervades Gnostic thought. We take note of it again as we continue on to Rudolph’s next categories: that of cosmogony/cosmology and anthropogony/anthropology:
The heart of the matter is that man is subordinated to the earthly sphere and hence to its powers only in part, namely in his physical existence; in another part, admittedly only a small one, he belongs to the supramundane spiritual realm. This part of man, often described as the “true” or “inner man”, “spirit” (pneuma), “soul” or “reason” (nous) is, over against the body which encloses him, in the same situation as the whole man over against the cosmos.18
Again, the radical dualism between the spiritual and the material is at work as the Gnostic develops conceptions of the cosmos and of the human being:
The verdict with regard to the earthly and visible world includes on the anthropological level a negative judgment upon the whole of bodily and psychic existence. This earthly material existence, like the world itself, is a product of the Demiurge and correspondingly is a sphere hostile to God, dominated by evil powers which are evident and active in the passions and desires. The psychic part of man is therefore represented as a product of evil powers (above all the planets) and through this man is not only the object but also the subject of the activity of such powers…Valentinus writes in one of his letters that the human heart is the abode of evil spirits who prevent its becoming pure, and instead treat it disgracefully through “unseemly desires”; it is comparable to an inn, which is full of filth and dissolute men.19
The “demiurge” is the fallen or foolish god who created the world contrary to the wishes of the Unknown or Highest God. The catastrophe that is now the physical world was counter-acted by the implanting of the divine spark by the Highest/Unknown God. In some cases Gnostic interpreters find the demiurge at work in the Genesis creation accounts. As Rudolph notes, the material world is a prison:
This view of the relation of man to the world and his imprisonment therein is however only one side. The other side is that which corresponds on the macrocosmic level to the kingdom of the “unknown God”: it is the deep and hidden relation to this higher world. Gnosis described this transcendent level in many images and expressions….In the Greek and Coptic texts the dominant concept is “spirit” (pneuma), in the relevant Hermetica “understanding” (nous), and the oriental or Semitic “soul”…Probably the most appropriate is the expression “spark” (Greek spinthēr), which occurs here and there. “Seed of light” is also found for it. In order to make use of a uniform expression scholars have become accustomed to speak of the “self” or “I”.20
The key to the cosmic dilemma in which mankind follows, then, comes back to gnosis and the divine spark: “The whole gnostic doctrine of redemption centers upon the restoration to its origin of this divine spark of light, which through fatal events has ‘fallen’ into the world, a restoration mythologically represented as an ‘ascent of the soul’.”21
Interestingly, then, the goal of this restoration results in what we might describe as a god-man, which is a somewhat unique conception in the history of religions, and again goes to the originality and revolutionary nature of Gnostic thought:
Behind this idea of the divine “Man”, who dwells both above and in the world, there is an entirely new conception of anthropology…it is not only that the (first) man, i.e. the unknown God, exists before him - the earthly man also, who is his product, is superior to him by reason of his supramundane divine relationship and substance. H. Jonas aptly says “this exaltation of “man” into a supramundane God who – if not the first – is at any rate earlier and more exalted than the Demiurge, is one of the most important aspect of gnostic mythology in the general history of religions…it indicates a new metaphysical status of man in the order of existence…” Behind this is expressed the whole revolutionary spirit of Gnosis in its rejection of the traditional values and ideas of faith…22
This brings us into a specific examination of redemption and soteriology. Rudolph comments from the Book of Thomas:
Gnosis is a religion of redemption…The word “gnosis” itself, as we have seen, has a predominantly soteriological value and in itself already clearly expresses the understanding of redemption. It is the act of self-recognition which introduces the “deliverance” from the situation encountered and guarantees man salvation…In the Book of Thomas (the Contender) Christ says at the very beginning to his “twin brother” Judas Thomas: “Examine yourself and know who you are and how you were and how you shall be…You have already come to knowledge, and you will be called “the one who knows himself”, for he who has not known himself has known nothing. But he who has known himself has already come to knowledge concerning the depth of the All.”23
Simply put, gnosis is redemption. Ignorance is darkness. The light of gnosis initiates one into redemption. However, this redemption, as one might suspect is not fully realized until death:
The process, introduced by “gnosis”, of bringing back the particles of light from darkness into the realm of light can naturally only be realised at death, when the “spirit” or “soul” (as descriptions of the divine particle of light) are separated from the body. Then begins the real liberation to which the gnosis aspires. “But when all the chosen ones lay aside the animal existence (i.e. the body) then will the light withdraw to its true beginning”, it is said the Book of Thomas the Contender....24 The gnostic is already redeemed, although the completion of the redemption is still outstanding. The laying aside of ignorance guarantees his freedom.25
The redemption from the body, then, is critical for the Gnostic, and is contrasted with the Christian idea of redemption from sin and guilt:
The gnostic redemption is a deliverance from the world and the body, not as in Christianity from sin and guilt, mainly in so far as the earthly and corporeal world as such represents the sin into which the divine soul had innocently fallen; through its involvement with the cosmic powers, however, it has become guilty, and it can be freed from this guilt only through insight and at the same time repentance.26
Continuing on this comparison with the Christian notion of redemption it is fascinating to investigate the Gnostic conception of the Christ figure and the role of the Redeemer. Rudolph finds the Gnostic teaching of Christ “remarkable”:
In order to bring the two aspects--the historical and the mythological--under a common denominator, the gnostic theologians brought about a division of the Christian redeemer into two completely separate beings, namely the earthly and transitory Jesus of Nazareth and the heavenly and eternal Christ, and thereby created one of the most remarkable pieces of gnostic teaching. In this way it was possible to appoint the Christian redeemer for several tasks in the gnostic systems.27
I note again the dualism at work within Gnostic thought. If a drastic dichotomy is drawn between the material and spiritual realm, then it follows the doctrine of Christ would split into two separate beings, or that the Christ would only “appear” to be a physical man. This is what we commonly refer to as the heresy of Docetism among Gnostic Christians:
What is meant is the idea widespread among the Christian gnostics that Christ appeared only “in semblance” (docēsei) as a man or in the flesh, and correspondingly neither suffered nor was really crucified. This conception is for Gnosis a necessary inference from its anti-cosmic dualism, according to which a clear devaluation attaches to what is earthly and bodily, and it therefore cannot enter into any serious mingling with what is spiritual and other-worldly.28
Ancient Gnosticism was a collection of loosely related beliefs that centered on a radical dualism between the material and immaterial worlds. For the Gnostic, all things material are evil and a part of the fallen world. Each soul contains (or is) a "divine spark" that allows one to connect with the Unknown God. Ultimately, true salvation only occurs when one transcends the evil of the material world and leaves the body behind.
Ancient Gnostic cosmology represents one of many approaches to interpreting the world in its brokenness, to comprehending a reality that seems so incomplete. It is one of many explanations that seek something "more real" or "more perfect" in a world beyond. Platonism and Christianity sought to connect the less perfect, fallen, or less real world with that of the eternal realm. That is, the material world could have degrees of goodness, realness, and perfection, depending on how closely the material world correlated to the immaterial world.
In Christianity, for example, one might try to connect the soul with God in order to become more pure. Or, one might seek to align the bodily actions with God's design or intention for it. Also, one might attempt to align one's morality with the moral law of God.
Though the overlap between Platonism and Christianity is well beyond the scope of this post, I think there are still good questions to consider: to what degree is it beneficial to incorporate dualism into one's theology? What kind of dualisms are healthy, true, world-affirming, and productive? What dualisms seem to be counter-productive, phobic, or escapist? Also, if one believes that God inhabits all of reality ('For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.' Acts 17), then we have reason to question whether dualisms of any kind are appropriate. Finally, in good poststructuralist style, one could question whether any dichotomy or dualism can ultimately hold.
1 Perkins, The Gnostic Dialogue: The Early Church and the Crisis of Gnosticism (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 18-19.
2 Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, Translation edited by Robert McLachlan Wilson (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1983), 53.
3 Ibid, 53.
4 Ibid, 54-55.
5 Rudolph, Gnosis, 1983.
6 See M.A. Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism” (Princeton University Press, 1996)
7 Nicholas Perrin, “Gnosticism”, in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2005), 256.
8 Rudolph, Gnosis, 55.
9 Perkins, Gnostic Dialogue, 168.
10 Ibid, 167.
11 Ibid, 11.
12 Rudolph, Gnosis, 65. (emphasis added)
13 Ibid, 66.
14 Ibid, 66.
15 The later view is the view of the majority of the texts, including the Nag Hammadi texts. See Rudolph, Gnosis, 65.
16 Rudolph, Gnosis, 60. (emphasis added)
17 Ibid, 66.
18 Ibid, 70.
19 Ibid, 88.
20 Ibid, 88.
21 Ibid, 91.
22 Ibid, 93.
23 Ibid, 113.
24 Ibid, 115.
25 Ibid, 115.
26 Ibid, 116-17.
27 Ibid, 151.
28 Ibid, 157.