Jaroslav Pelikan has said that ‘The most important heresies in the early church were those that have been grouped under the name “Gnostic”.’ (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (1975), p. 81) He also noted the problem of defining Gnosticism. The application of the term to sects that did not call themselves that and did not necessarily see themselves as having much in common is the work of modern scholarship. Gnosticism is difficult to define because it is amorphous, more a habit of mind than a clear-cut set of beliefs, shading off into similar views held by persons who could not, finally, be called gnostic. It is artificial but it is useful in pointing to a family resemblance among the sects.
The word comes from the Greek ‘gnosis,’ ‘knowledge.’ Gnosticism is the conviction that what will save us is knowledge of what we truly are and how we came to be, if only we can learn it.
Because it was amorphous and, in a way, underground, it is difficult to describe. It is useful to begin by putting it into the context of the religious landscape of the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus. It was a time of a vast and indiscriminate interest in religious doctrines, represented by many sects and movements. There were the various Jewish sects, of which Christianity in its earliest years was viewed as one. There were the official cults that provided the public ceremonial of the Greek and Roman cities, based on a pagan mythology that was taken literally only by the uneducated. There were the pagan mystery cults, open to select, and usually wealthy, initiates only after lengthy preparation. There were the philosophical schools, Platonic, Peripatetic, Cynic, Epicurean, Pythagorean, that served as the religious faith of educated pagans. There was a widespread fascination with and fear of magic and witchcraft at all levels of society. And above all there was syncretism, the willingness to mix beliefs and practices from wherever one found them without much regard to consistency, and the widespread belief that it was wisest to propitiate whatever gods, spirits or demons one happened to come across. Only the Jews and Christians insisted on keeping away from this syncretism, refusing to honour any god but God. Gnosticism borrowed several ideas from this bubbling religious soup.
First was the Greek philosophical conviction that the perfect is, by definition, unchangeable and complete, not subject to any sort of disturbance or injury. This meant that, if the perfect was to become creator of the world, which obviously is subject to change and disturbance, it had to be protected in some way from actual contact with creation. This the Gnostics accomplished by interposing buffers or shields between the perfect and the creation, represented as emanations or projections from the perfect, each one a little more subject to change and disturbance, till one was reached that could withstand contact with changeable matter.
Second, also borrowed from Greek philosophy, in this case the Platonic theory of forms, was the idea that whatever exists in this world owes its form to an unchanging prototype in a realm beyond this. For the Gnostics, this took the form of multiplying symbolical names for the entities in the realm beyond this one, to serve as prototypes for the significant things of this world.
Third, and borrowed from the mystery cults, was the idea that knowledge is available only to an elite who receive secret instruction from adepts. This was the feature that made Gnosticism so insidious as a Christian heresy. The basic ideas of Gnosticism could find a home in almost any religious community, but they would always be restricted to a small and secretive cabal within it. It is human nature to wish to be one of the elect, a recipient of secrets not available to the common herd, and this eased the way of Gnostic adepts into Christian communities. Those who were not of the elect naturally resented their presence.
With the withering away of Gnosticism over the course of the centuries, the voluminous Gnostic writings also withered away so that for a long time the only witness to their contents was found in the quotations provided by Christian writings against heresy, such as St Irenæus of Lyon’s Against All Heresies, Tertullian’s Prescription Against Heretics and St Hippolytus the Roman’s Refutation of All Heresies, all written in the period A.D. 175–235. Some people have thought that in their zeal the writers against heresy must have been exaggerating the absurdity of the Gnostic mythology. Then in recent times the uniformly dry climate of Egypt, which has preserved so many ancient texts that would have long ago perished anywhere else, gave up several papyrus documents, beginning with the Berlin Codex in 1896. The most spectacular find was made at Nag Hammadi in 1945. These were Coptic translations, dating mostly to the fourth century, of Greek Gnostic originals of the second or third centuries. They revived scholarly interest in Gnosticism and not a few scholars set themselves to learn Coptic. They demonstrated, incidentally, that the Christian writers refuting them had been, if anything, indulgent, making them sound more coherent than they were.
There is little point to setting out the Gnostic beliefs in detail but a brief sketch of the most widespread Gnostic system in the second century, and the one we are best informed about, that of Valentinus, will be useful. He was born in Egypt but, like so many other ambitious men, gravitated to Rome, where he was active around the middle of the second century. Valentinian Gnosticism showed the typical Gnostic multiplication of divine emanations, which he called æons (ages). The æons came in masculine-feminine pairs, and in typical Gnostic fashion had multiple symbolic names, mostly of no interest in themselves and only the essential ones mentioned here.
The point of origin, most perfect and therefore most abstract, featureless and inaccessible, was Bythus (depth), associated with a feminine consort, Sigê (silence). These formed the original and most secret Dyad (twoness). From the Dyad there emanated another masculine-feminine pair of æons, Nous (mind), also called Pater (father), and Aletheia (truth). With the Dyad, these formed the Tetrad, also called the Root of All Things. Nous and Aletheia were aware of their origin in the Dyad but subsequent emanations were not at first aware of this, believing the source to be Nous or Father.
From the Tetrad there emanated another pair of æons, Logos (word) and Zoe (life), and from them another pair, Anthropos (human being—the divine prototype of humanity) and Ecclesia (church—the divine prototype of the church) so that the Tetrad was now expanded to the Ogdoad. Logos and Zoe then produced a further ten æons, the Decad, while Anthropos and Ecclesia produced twelve æons, the Duodecad.
These thirty æons constituted the Pleroma, the fullness of divinity. Outside of the Pleroma there was nothing. Only the Tetrad was aware of the true origins of the Pleroma. The later emanations were not only more ignorant, but of a frailer divine substance, liable to accidents.
The last formed æon was Sophia (wisdom), whose consort was Theletos (willed). Sophia turned out to be the weak link in the cosmic chain, the æon who would unleash the events leading to our own misbegotten world. Without reference to her consort Theletos, she decided that she wanted to know what her origins were, although as a very weak and lowly æon the task was quite beyond her. Her mental struggles gave rise to an amorphous and imperfect substance of the sort that composes the soul, psychic. (For the Gnostics, the soul was no more than a container for the spiritual, of lesser value but still better than matter—which, of course, did not yet exist.) At this point, Nous intervened by creating a power, Horos, to sustain her and return her to her senses—as a member of the Tetrad, Nous could not intervene personally with an æon of the lowly Duodecad. Horos expelled from the Pleroma the amorphous psychic substance that Sophia’s struggles had generated. Nous now created another power or prototype, Christ, with a feminine counterpart the Holy Spirit, to strengthen the Pleroma and prevent accidents like Sophia’s in future.
The psychic substance separated from Sophia and expelled from the Pleroma became understandably upset at its blank existence. Christ took pity on it and conferred on it a feminine form with the name Achamoth. Meanwhile, Nous informed the other æons of their origin in Bythus. The æons now all took from themselves what was most perfect and created a divine prototype, Jesus. Jesus conferred on the psychic Achamoth a spark of the divine spiritual light of the Pleroma. Achamoth now created a being, the Demiurge, also of course psychic. The Demiurge was unaware that anything existed other than Achamoth and the psychic. In particular, he was unaware of the Pleroma and the spiritual. The Demiurge proceeded to create our universe but, being himself a lesser being and ignorant, his creation consisted mostly of worthless matter, a botch, of no value whatever. Unknown to him, however, Achamoth had smuggled in to a few elite individuals the spark of divine spirituality, while a larger number, but still not many, had received the psychic quality of the Demiurge. The majority of people were merely material, of no more value than the rest of creation.
In the Gnostic system, the man Jesus was a mere man, taken over by the prototype Jesus at his baptism. The prototype left him again before his crucifixion, since obviously the divine could not suffer any injury. The purpose of the divine Jesus was to convey to the elect possessing the spark of spirituality that they had merely to look within and develop that spark to shed the material shackles of this world and pass into the Pleroma and be united with Christ. The psychics, by asceticism and good works, could aspire to an existence as souls, free of the material, united with Achamoth but outside the Pleroma. Most of humanity were destined to annihilation along with the rest of the Demiurge’s botched creation.
There was a great deal more to it, including magical incantations by which the spirituals would rise through the hostile spheres of creation to the Pleroma, but this will suffice.
Gnosticism was an alien intrusion into Christianity, not, like the other heresies, a misinterpretation of its core beliefs. Its gospels, so called, were not the good news that God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life, but the bad news that we live in a universe that is intrinsically worthless and that salvation is restricted to a tiny minority born with spiritual or psychic gifts. The Gnostic myth was ahistorical. All the events that matter took place in a spiritual realm far removed from this world. Christianity, by contrast, like Judaism, is profoundly historical because it believes that the universe was created by a good and loving God for purposes that unfold through time. The Gnostic attitude to matter was one of contempt, while Christians believe that the world, although fallen, preserves the essential goodness that God gave it at creation and that the material and the spiritual are intertwined, not alien to each other.
Despite the insidious appeal to people’s wish to seem special, the Gnostic myth had only to be made explicit, as St Irenæus, Tertullian and St Hippolytus did, to be refuted. Gnostic conventicles within Christianity had gone their separate way by the end of the third century, some joining the new Manichæan religion. It seems that the last surviving Gnostic sect today is the tiny Mandæan community of Iraq. The word 'Mandæan' comes from the Syriac for Gnostic.