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Gnosticism

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 Recent writings by some writers like Dan Brown, have given a false idea of Christian belief.  They have tried to make a mockery of Christ and the history by pretending to be writing fiction, based on certain literature that was prevalent at the time, when Gnostics were an important part of the North African landscape.  To better understand the period, one can read what follows, and read more at New Advent.org in the article on Gnosticism

The doctrine of salvation by knowledge. This definition, based on the etymology of the word (gnosis "knowledge", gnostikos, "good at knowing"), is correct as far as it goes, but it gives only one, though perhaps the predominant, characteristic of Gnostic systems of thought. Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the soul attains its proper end by obedience of mind and will to the Supreme Power, i.e. by faith and works, it is markedly peculiar to Gnosticism that it places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics were "people who knew", and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know. A more complete and historical definition of Gnosticism would be:

A collective name for a large number of greatly-varying and pantheistic-idealistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian Era down to the fifth century, and which, while borrowing the phraseology and some of the tenets of the chief religions of the day, and especially of Christianity, held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour.

However unsatisfactory this definition may be, the obscurity, multiplicity, and wild confusion of Gnostic systems will hardly allow of another. Many scholars, moreover, would hold that every attempt to give a generic description of Gnostic sects is labour lost.

Origin

The beginnings of Gnosticism have long been a matter of controversy and are still largely a subject of research. The more these origins are studied, the farther they seem to recede in the past.

Whereas formerly Gnosticism was considered mostly a corruption of Christianity, it now seems clear that the first traces of Gnostic systems can be discerned some centuries before the Christian Era. Its Eastern origin was already maintained by Gieseler and Neander; F. Ch. Bauer (1831) and Lassen (1858) sought to prove its relation to the religions of India; Lipsius (1860) pointed to Syria and Phoenicia as its home, and Hilgenfeld (1884) thought it was connected with later Mazdeism. Joel (1880), Weingarten (1881), Koffmane (1881), Anrich (1894), and Wobbermin (1896) sought to account for the rise of Gnosticism by the influence of Greek Platonic philosophy and the Greek mysteries, while Harnack described it as "acute Hellenization of Christianity".

For the past twenty-five years, however, the trend of scholarship has steadily moved towards proving the pre-Christian Oriental origins of Gnosticism. At the Fifth Congress of Orientalists (Berlin, 1882) Kessler brought out the connection between Gnosis and the Babylonian religion. By this latter name, however, he meant not the original religion of Babylonia, but the syncretistic religion which arose after the conquest of Cyrus. The same idea is brought out in his "Mani" seven years later. In the same year F.W. Brandt published his "Mandiäische Religion". This Mandaean religion is so unmistakably a form of Gnosticism that it seems beyond doubt that Gnosticism existed independent of, and anterior to, Christianity.

In more recent years (1897) Wilhelm Anz pointed out the close similarity between Babylonian astrology and the Gnostic theories of the Hebdomad and Ogdoad. Though in many instances speculations on the Babylonian Astrallehre have gone beyond all sober scholarship, yet in this particular instance the inferences made by Anz seem sound and reliable. Researches in the same direction were continued and instituted on a wider scale by W. Bousset, in 1907, and led to carefully ascertained results. In 1898 the attempt was made by M. Friedländer to trace Gnosticism in pre-Christian Judaism. His opinion that the Rabbinic term Minnim designated not Christians, as was commonly believed, but Antinomian Gnostics, has not found universal acceptance. In fact, E. Schürer brought sufficient proof to show that Minnim is the exact Armaean dialectic equivalent for ethne. Nevertheless Friedländer's essay retains its value in tracing strong antinomian tendencies with Gnostic colouring on Jewish soil.

Not a few scholars have laboured to find the source of Gnostic theories on Hellenistic and, specifically, Alexandrian soil. In 1880 Joel sought to prove that the germ of all Gnostic theories was to be found in Plato. Though this may be dismissed as an exaggeration, some Greek influence on the birth, but especially on the growth, of Gnosticism cannot be denied. In Trismegistic literature, as pointed out by Reitzenstein (Poimandres, 1904), we find much that is strangely akin to Gnosticism. Its Egyptian origin was defended by E. Amélineau, in 1887, and illustrated by A. Dietrich, in 1891 (Abraxas Studien) and 1903 (Mithrasliturgie). The relation of Plotinus's philosophy to Gnosticism was brought out by C. Schmidt in 1901. That Alexandrian thought had some share at least in the development of Christian Gnosticism is clear from the fact that the bulk of Gnostic literature which we possess comes to us from Egyptian (Coptic) sources. That this share was not a predominant one is, however, acknowledged by O. Gruppe in his "Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte" (1902). It is true that the Greek mysteries, as G. Anrich pointed out in 1894, had much in common with esoteric Gnosticism; but there remains the further question, in how far these Greek mysteries, as they are known to us, were the genuine product of Greek thought, and not much rather due to the overpowering influence of Orientalism.

Although the origins of Gnosticism are still largely enveloped in obscurity, so much light has been shed on the problem by the combined labours of many scholars that it is possible to give the following tentative solution: Although Gnosticism may at first sight appear a mere thoughtless syncretism of well nigh all religious systems in antiquity, it has in reality one deep root-principle, which assimilated in every soil what is needed for its life and growth; this principle is philosophical and religious pessimism.

The Gnostics, it is true, borrowed their terminology almost entirely from existing religions, but they only used it to illustrate their great idea of the essential evil of this present existence and the duty to escape it by the help of magic spells and a superhuman Saviour. Whatever they borrowed, this pessimism they did not borrow — not from Greek thought, which was a joyous acknowledgment of and homage to the beautiful and noble in this world, with a studied disregard of the element of sorrow; not from Egyptian thought, which did not allow its elaborate speculations on retribution and judgment in the netherworld to cast a gloom on this present existence, but considered the universe created or evolved under the presiding wisdom of Thoth; not from Iranian thought, which held to the absolute supremacy of Ahura Mazda and only allowed Ahriman a subordinate share in the creation, or rather counter-creation, of the world; not from Indian Brahminic thought, which was Pantheism pure and simple, or God dwelling in, nay identified with, the universe, rather than the Universe existing as the contradictory of God; not, lastly, from Semitic thought, for Semitic religions were strangely reticent as to the fate of the soul after death, and saw all practical wisdom in the worship of Baal, or Marduk, or Assur, or Hadad, that they might live long on this earth.

This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence — this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought. It has the same parent-soil as Buddhism; but Buddhism is ethical, it endeavours to obtain its end by the extinction of all desire; Gnosticism is pseudo-intellectual, and trusts exclusively to magical knowledge. Moreover, Gnosticism, placed in other historical surroundings, developed from the first on other lines than Buddhism.

When Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 B.C., two great worlds of thought met, and syncretism in religion, as far as we know it, began. Iranian thought began to mix with the ancient civilization of Babylon. The idea of the great struggle between evil and good, ever continuing in this universe, is the parent idea of Mazdeism, or Iranian dualism. This, and the imagined existence of numberless intermediate spirits, angels and devas, are the conviction which overcame the contentedness of Semitism.

On the other hand, the unshakable trust in astrology, the persuasion that the planetary system had a fatalistic influence on this world's affairs, stood its ground on the soil of Chaldea. The greatness of the Seven — the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn — the sacred Hebdomad, symbolized for millenniums by the staged towers of Babylonia, remained undiminished. They ceased, indeed, to be worshipped as deities, but they remained archontes and dynameis, rules and powers whose almost irresistible force was dreaded by man. Practically, they were changed from gods to devas, or evil spirits. The religions of the invaders and of the invaded effected a compromise: the astral faith of Babylon was true, but beyond the Hebodomad was the infinite light in the Ogdoad, and every human soul had to pass the adverse influence of the god or gods of the Hebdomad before it could ascend to the only good God beyond. This ascent of the soul through the planetary spheres to the heaven beyond (an idea not unknown even to ancient Babylonian speculations) began to be conceived as a struggle with adverse powers, and became the first and predominant idea in Gnosticism.

The second great component of Gnostic thought is magic, properly so called, i.e. the power ex opere operato of weird names, sounds, gestures, and actions, as also the mixture of elements to produce effects totally disproportionate to the cause. These magic formulae, which caused laughter and disgust to outsiders, are not a later and accidental corruption, but an essential part of Gnosticism, for they are found in all forms of Christian Gnosticism and likewise in Mandaeism. No Gnosis was essentially complete without the knowledge of the formulae, which, once pronounced, were the undoing of the higher hostile powers. Magic is the original sin of Gnosticism, nor is it difficult to guess whence it is inherited. To a certain extent it formed part of every pagan religion, especially the ancient mysteries, yet the thousands of magic tablets unearthed is Assyria and Babylonia show us where the rankest growth of magic was to be found. Moreover, the terms and names of earliest of Gnosticism bear an unmistakable similarity to Semitic sounds and words.

Gnosticism came early into contact with Judaism, and it betrays a knowledge of the Old Testament, if only to reject it or borrow a few names from it. Considering the strong, well-organized, and highly-cultured Jewish colonies in the Euphrates valley, this early contact with Judaism is perfectly natural. Perhaps the Gnostic idea of a Redeemer is not unconnected with Jewish Messianic hopes. But from the first the Gnostic conception of a Saviour is more superhuman than that of popular Judaism; their Manda d'Haye, or Soter, is some immediate manifestation of the Deity, a Light-King, an Æon (Aion), and an emanation of the good God.

When Gnosticism came in touch with Christianity, which must have happened almost immediately on its appearance, Gnosticism threw herself with strange rapidity into Christian forms of thought, borrowed its nomenclature, acknowledged Jesus as Saviour of the world, simulated its sacraments, pretended to be an esoteric revelation of Christ and His Apostles, flooded the world with apocryphal Gospels, and Acts, and Apocalypses, to substantiate its claim. As Christianity grew within and without the Roman Empire, Gnosticism spread as a fungus at its root, and claimed to be the only true form of Christianity, unfit, indeed, for the vulgar crowd, but set apart for the gifted and the elect. So rank was its poisonous growth that there seemed danger of its stifling Christianity altogether, and the earliest Fathers devoted their energies to uprooting it. Though in reality the spirit of Gnosticism is utterly alien to that of Christianity, it then seemed to the unwary merely a modification or refinement thereof. When domiciled on Greek soil, Gnosticism, slightly changing its barbarous and Seminitic terminology and giving its "emanatons" and "syzygies" Greek names, sounded somewhat like neo-Platonism, thought it was strongly repudiated by Plotinus. In Egypt the national worship left its mark more on Gnostic practice than on its theories.

In dealing with the origins of Gnosticism, one might be tempted to mention Manichaeism, as a number of Gnostic ideas seem to be borrowed from Manichaeism, where they are obviously at home. This, however, would hardly be correct. Manichaeism, as historically connected with Mani, its founder, could not have arisen much earlier than A.D. 250, when Gnosticism was already in rapid decline. Manichaeism, however, in many of its elements dates back far beyond its commonly accepted founder; but then it is a parallel development with the Gnosis, rather than one of its sources. Sometimes Manichaeism is even classed as a form of Gnosticism and styled Parsee Gnosis, as distinguished from Syrian and Egyptian Gnosis. This classification, however, ignores the fact that the two systems, though they have the doctrine of the evil of matter in common, start from different principles, Manichaeism from dualism, while Gnosticism, as an idealistic Pantheism, proceeds from the conception of matter as a gradual deterioration of the Godhead.

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