When writing about Gnosticism it is very difficult to present an objective view of this system of belief or its participants. The reason for this is that there are very few exhibits of first hand copies of their writings. These writings were burned by the orthodox Christians from the first century onward. Gnosticism was considered heretical and Gnostics heretics. So, until the find of Nag Hammadi in 1945 little was known of Gnosticism and the Gnostics except from the writings of their adversaries.
One of the main things which separated the Gnostics from orthodox Christians was the mysticism of their beliefs. It began with their views of God and creation. They viewed the One which they called the true God as having a feminine part which was the Spirit. In accord, they also held that Jesus came from God and the Spirit to form the Trinity.
In the Gnostic version of creation of the world the Spirit of God is referred to as the Wisdom of God or Sophia who is also a feminine creative force. It seems she wished to give birth to a creature like herself. She did so without the permission of her partner. She was able to do this by the power within her. The fruit of her desire was something imperfect and different from her in appearance. She was ashamed of it, threw it outside of the heavenly realm and hid it in a cloud so none of the Immortals would see it. According to the Gnostics this horrible child became the one they called the Demiurge. Unbeknown to him his mother gave him some of her power which contained the Spirit. The Demiurge thought the power which his mother gave him was his own, and with it he started creating the physical world. In doing this the Gnostics believed the Demiurge entrapped the Spirit in matter. They viewed the Demiurge as being the Christian God, the creator, basing their belief on the statement, “I am God, and there is no one besides me.”
Also, the Gnostic differed with the orthodox Christians on two other major issues: the salvation of man and the person of Jesus. They disagreed with the theory that man was sinful by nature, but believed man erred through ignorance; by knowledge man could correct his ways and gain salvation. The special knowledge which the Gnostics subscribed to was known as “gnois.” Gnois was not a logical type of knowledge as one might gain in the study of mathematics or chemistry, but it was an intuitive or reflexive type of knowledge which comes from the study of man’s inner self or soul. Any other knowledge did not concern the Gnostics. They called this gnois illuminated Logos because they believed it led to man’s salvation.
For them the principle teacher of gnois was Jesus; a special person who did not come from the Demiurge but had come directly from God and the Holy Spirit. The Gnostics claimed Jesus taught them secret knowledge which he did not share with the general congregation of the Church. This sort of claim did not set too well with the Church at a time when it was striving to gain strength and power. Another point concerning Jesus which caused discord was that the Gnostics did not accept that Jesus was born of a virgin. Holding that Jesus specially came from God and the Spirit, they said he entered a body brought about by sexual intercourse between Mary and Joseph. Many Gnostics scoffed at the idea of a virgin birth which other Christians held.
Within this gnois, or secret teaching, were beliefs for escaping the clutches of the Demiurge. Since it was held that the Demiurge had entrapped the Spirit in matter, especially in man, through creation, it was therefore believed that not to prolong or propagate life was the best way to ultimately free the Spirit. Such a belief led to a schism among the Gnostic community. The majority formed sects practicing almost total monasticism, while a minority had sects which practiced libertinism. Where marriage was permitted within the monastic sects, sexual intercourse was absolutely forbidden. Many types of sexual acts and perversions were permitted in the libertine sects. One, the Ophites — a name which honored the snake or serpent — was known for its love feasts. The purpose of all the sects on both sides of the schism was the same, to liberate the Spirit by stopping the propagation of life. The Gnostics took Jesus’ answer to his disciple Solame’s question, “How long will death reign?” literally when he responded, “As long as you women bear children.” Also to disobey the laws of the Demiurge, who was evil himself, was justified to the Gnostics. Therefore, to them the Demiurge not only represented the Christian God, he represented the Devil as well.
But these nihilism beliefs embodied within Gnosticism tended to be overshadowed by other teaching of the Gnostic Jesus, and these teachings still permeate modern Gnostic teachings. These teachings concern the inner self. According to Gnosticism Jesus showed much concern for the knowledge of inner truth, or “know thyself.” He wanted his disciples to be seekers and seers. In the work “Pistis Sophia” he instructed them, “Do not leave off searching day and night.” He warned that inner truth would bring turmoil, but with the turmoil would come astonishment.” He explained further, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will become astonished, and he will rule over all things.”
From “Dialogue of the Savior” there is another quote attributed to Jesus: Silvanus, the teacher, says, “…Bring in your guide and your teacher. The mind is the guide, but reason is the teacher…Live according to the mind…Acquire strength, for the mind is strong…Enlighten the mind…Light the lamp within you.”
The preceding passages are samples which show the differences between Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity. Gnosticism is more of an introspective teaching or philosophy to live by. It is quite different to say Jesus talked of the mind as being a light which serves as a personal guide than to quote him as saying, “Do not hide your light under a basket.” In the latter quote he seems to be directing the disciples to use their spirituality and influence to persuade and direct others which the Church has done for many years.
To follow this further, one thinks that Jesus is saying one finds happiness within oneself. Within the Gnostic Gospels there are passages leading to such a conclusion. When his disciples asked when the new world or kingdom would come Jesus is to have said in the Gospel of Thomas: “…Rather the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, then you will dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty.”
In another passage when describing the kingdom Jesus said, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it…the Kingdom of the Father is spread out on the earth, but men do not see it.”
Within the teachings of Gnosticism the Kingdom of God seemed to represent an alternation of consciousness rather than a physical coming future event. “…Say, then, from the heart that you are the perfect day, and dwell in the light that does not fail…For you are the understanding that is drawn forth…”
Again when Jesus saw infants being nursed by their mothers he said, “These infants being suckled are like those entering the Kingdom.” And the disciples asked, “Shall we, then, as little children, enter the Kingdom?” He answered them, “When you make two one, and when you make the inside the outside and the outside the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and female one and the same…then you will enter (the Kingdom).”
When reading of Gnosticism and its various teachings, except for its nihilism aspect, one might get the impression that one was reading Greek philosophy. The concept of “Know Thyself” is definitely Platonic. It is not surprising that Gnosticism contains much Platonism because many of the Gnostics were Hellenistic by birth and nature. Just as it is not surprising that Gnosticism incorporated its believers’ ancient teachings, it is no more surprising that the spirit of Gnosticism is still present. In an age when the attitudes of self-awakening and self-knowledge are very much in the consciousnesses of people it is no wonder Gnostic teachings are being reexamined. Large groups of people feel alienated from the Christian God. They feel even more alienated from the Christian Church. Many have turned to the pre-Christian dieties and nature for sources of their spiritual and religious experiences. Gnosticism can be one of these sources because is makes man feel worthy of himself and his Diety. A.G.H.
Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Nigg, Walter, The Heretics, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962
Meyer, Melvin W., translator, The Secret Teachings of Jesus: The Four Gnostic Gospels, New York: Random House, 1984