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.