A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Original Gnostics

An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge
An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge

Gnosticism arose in the 1st Century AD in the crossroads of the Roman Empire and the second most important city, after Rome itself; Alexandria. With a population of around half-a-million inhabitants, it was one of the biggest cities built before the Industrial Revolution. Home of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the Great Library, the largest library of the ancient world, Alexandria was an important centre of Hellenistic culture, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as being home to the highest urban population of Jews in the Empire (and therefore the world).

Into this mix was added the emergence of a Jewish breakaway sect, the first Christians. Various other Jewish apocalyptic groups had also sprung up in the aftermath of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Combine all the above with a dash of Persian Zurvanism and you have the ingredients for the syncretic religion of Gnosticism.

Although calling Gnosticism a religion is in itself problematic as a survey of the numerous sects and cults with their bewildering array of competing mythologies and theologies will quickly attest. However there are certain key concepts and figures that re-appear frequently in Gnosticism;

  • Gnosis (knowledge) could only be gained through direct, revelatory experience
  • God, being perfect, had no need to create and therefore did not fashion the world. God dwelt in the pleroma (a term borrowed from Plato), where in his overflowing richness he emanated aeons who in turn emanated (in male/female pairs) further aeons, each one a little further away from the pleroma, until we get to Sophia.
  • Sophia emanated, on her own, the Demiurge, also called Yaldabaoth, Samael (The Blind God), Satanel, etc. The Demiurge was monstrous (frequently portrayed as having the head of a lion and the body of a serpent) and so Sophia hid him away. The Demiurge was unaware of the existence of the God in the pleroma and his emanations including Sophia, and in his blind ignorance and arrogance created the material universe.
  • Matter is, in a certain sense, illusory and inherently evil.
  • To help him in his task of creation the Demiurge made the archons to rule the material universe.
  • God in the pleroma saw the flawed universe that the Demiurge had created and taking pity upon humanity, planted a divine spark inside us, to help us transcend the material world and reach towards the pleroma.
  • In Christian Gnosticism Jesus is sent by God in the pleroma (certainly not the Demiurge, who wants humanity to remain trapped in his creation) to help achieve gnosis
  • The identification of the God of the Old Testament with the Demiurge.
  • Making heroes out of the villains of the Old Testament (and later the New Testament, as per the Gospel of Judas). Hence Eve, with the aid of the serpent, takes the first step towards gnosis by disobeying the Demiurge and tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This is only a partial list, each teacher and sect expanded and refined the core concepts. Also the responses and ethical doctrines varied wildly; many Gnostic sects were notably ascetic, refraining from sexual intercourse (especially reproductive sex) and espousing vegetarianism, while other, more libertine Gnostics sects engaged in sexual sacramentalism and a belief in gnosis through sin (as sin against the Demiurge was actually a virtue).

The 2nd Century AD was the heyday for Gnosticism with many important teachers contributing to its spread beyond Alexandria. However its heterodoxy couldn’t compete against the increasingly organised, centralised and powerful Christian Church that declared it subversive inversion of canonical texts and its identification of Jehovah with an evil Demiurge, heretical. Gnosticism also faced opposition from the schools of Neo-Platonism who attacked the Gnostics wild invention of Byzantine genealogies of emanations, aeons and archons.

By the 4th Century AD it seemed like Gnosticism was little more than a footnote in the history of the Early Church. However it had only gone underground and would erupt later as Catharism, the subject of the next post.

 

31 thoughts on “A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Original Gnostics

  1. I really like the way you paint a picture. It’s so plastic and a true joy to read. And I think, as we live in such a material and stupid world we all could use a good portion of good ole gnosticism… Thank you as always, can’t wait to read the next part.

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  2. This is so complex. So many steps removed from perfection before the material universe is created. And yet, outside the living world, it functions so well. So they believed in personal revelation to achieve gnosis? Very different from religions with a prophet or divine mediator to intercede between god and men. This is fascinating. Looking forward to more.

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    1. Gnosis could only be achieved through revelation….the sects varied on whether it was available to anyone or just the elect. It is very complex. Our soul belongs to the pleroma but is trapped in a material body. It didn’t have a rigid hierarchy and women could become priests.
      Don’t worry plenty more to follow!

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      1. And does that soul return to the pleroma upon death, or is it dependent upon gnosis? As in being rewarded for achieving gnosis or falling short and not making it in. And if I am getting ahead of the story, I will wait!

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      2. Think of the repercussions of gnostic thought on ideas of live after death. Yes you are getting ahead of the story but it is nice to know that everyone wants me to put spoilers in the comments. The post on the Cathars will answer some questions.

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  3. Also, to be honest, learning about a whole new religious concept that seems hell bent (sic) on turning everything on its head with no evidence other than human invention, is symbolic of how crazy all religions are. Intellectuals trying to keep the masses guessing instead of getting emancipated.

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    1. I think you are being a little unfair on the Gnostics. At the time the Roman Empire would have been mainly pagan, they saw themselves as philosophers and interpreted the Old Testament in such a way. They were very egalitarian for the time and I am sure they would argue that they were trying to bring about an emancipation from a body that would decay and die while living in a world of sorrow and woe. But yes, their invention was very wild.

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      1. Well that would be one of my points, there is not much new under the sun, although people constantly think that their revelation/epiphany is completely original. Also what happens when people have sufficient material well being what kind of freedom do we strive for…spiritual needs can be as urgent as material needs.

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  4. Thank-you, fascinating times indeed! The so called tenets of basic Christianity practically always gave me an allergic reaction from a young age. As did smug cheerful Christians! But I found the Gnostics interesting although I know little about them.
    This might be off topic, but recently I was recommended to read 2 high level channelled books on that Essene family of incredible beings by Claire Heartsong. They are “Anna, Grandmother of Jesus” and follow up “Anna of the Magdalenes.”
    They are a fascinating insight into the presented history of the times and the possibility of Christ’s many educational studies including tantric and the Druidic and Egyptian mystery schools, and I was very grateful to see the proper representation of the women involved in the drama of those times.
    Years ago I became fascinated by the story of the Cathars after reading the psychiatrist Arthur Guirdham’s accounts of supposedly group reincarnation histories of that time.

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    1. Thank you Heron, I thought you might find the idea and subject interesting. The Essenes probably contributed to the early stages of Jewish Gnosticism (before it was became Christian Gnosticism, a short phrase but an important one, later Judaism would play a part in the development of Gnosticism within Western Ecoterism but more about that later). Stayed tuned for the post about the Cathars!

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  5. Fascinating! I have read some of the Gnostic gospels and I noticed they can be plugged into many different philosophies. It is an interesting parallel that Gnosticism has the Demiurge that apparently became more powerful than Sofia, and traditional Christianity has Lucifer, who tried to become more powerful than God.

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    1. The Demiurge is unaware of Sophia, as he is unaware of God. His power is entirely confined to the material universe, a ersatz place that contains nothing of the pleroma. Sophia is of the pleroma, though she is the furthest emanation away from God. The idea of the Devil is a complex one in Gnosticism, the next post on the Cathars will show one strand of thought. Glad you are finding it fascinating.

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      1. Oh yes, I love this kind of stuff! You don;t see too many people knowledgeable or willing to discuss Gnosticism. I remember when the Gospel of Judas was revealed there was a bit of interest, but that faded. I suspect the ideas were too radical for most people.

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      2. The ideas are radical and disturbing. As for the interest, well the whole point of the series of posts is that Gnostic ideas have become embedded in popular culture and political thinking on the extremes that has steadily moved into the mainstream. Hope I can pull it off, bear with me on this one Christine.

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      3. Of course you’ll pull it off! These are great ideas. Radical and disturbing… yes, maybe. But it is better to be woke than not woke. The problem is so many folk are not ready. The truth is hard, and to paraphrase Nicholson — many cannot handle the truth.

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