Gnosticism is a term originated in the 18th century and is derived from the Greek gnůsis, meaning 'knowledge' and gnůstes, meaning 'knower' both of which are used in ancient sources. It is traditionally applied to a body of heretical teaching encountered by the Messianic Community (Church) in the first two centuries. It is, however, now widely applied also to those forms of helenistic religion, both pre- and post-Christian, which display features similar to those heresies, and sometimes to any form of religion in which dualism and the possession of knowledge are important. In the latter respect it alas functions as the label for an ill-defined category in history of religions research and is best not used in that fashion in our view.
The modern classification is in danger of becoming too broad and variable to be of much use, however, and rightly remains under heavy critcism. But since the term 'Gnostic' is by common consent applied to certain Christian heresies, these serve as a better index to its characteristic features and are those used by Messianic Evangelicals. Despite huge differences in intellectual and moral content, and in proximity to central Christianity, it is possible to trace in them a common fund of ideas. Their enemies, the 'Church Fathers', provide the main evidence, but they freely quote Gnostic writings, and the discoveries at Chenoboskion suggest that the 'Fathers', while trenchant, were not ill-informed.
The Gnostic keynote was knowledge: the possession of secrets which would ultimately serve the soul's union with Elohim (God). The end of knowledge was thus salvation, comprehending purification and immortality, and it was set in a conceptual framework of contemporary philosophy, mythology, or astrology, different elements prevailing in different systems. In this Elohim's (God's) entire separation from matter (conceived, according to Greek dogma, as inherently evil) was assumed, and the drama of redemption enacted within a complex of intermediary beings. The soul of salvable man was regarded as a spark of divinity imprisoned in the body: redemption, the soul's escape from corporeal defilement, and its absorption into its Source.
Almost every cardinal Christian/Messianic doctrine was revised by such thinking. The Gnostic mythological setting of redemption has no point of contact with the Tanakh (Old Testament - which was rejected or ignored), and diminished the significance of the historic facts of the ministry, death and resurrection of Yah'shua (Jesus). Indeed, the view of Elohim (God) and of man which it implied often led to the denial of the reality of Messiah's sufferings and sometimes of the incarnation itself. Creation was an accident, a mistake, even the malevolent act of an inferior, lower elohim, antigod or Demiurge, who enslaved his creation with time, laws and lust. The Gnostic attempted to 'transcend' his material limitations by returning to the highest and true Elohim (God) in the highest heaven (pleroma), a return achieved by the individual's receptive experience of knowledge (gnosis) which informed him of his true spiritual nature and origins in the highest heaven, his tragic fall into matter (hylť) and eventual restoration with the true Elohim (God).
Resurrection and judgment were interpreted to refine this bad creation's 'crudities'. Sin became a defilement which could be sloughed off like a snake changing skins: the Messianic Community (Church) was replaced by a club of illuminati ('illuminated ones') possessing secrets hidden from the unsavable multitude, and even from those uninitiated (conventional, bible-orientated Christians/Messianics) who claimed the same Redeemer. Ethics centred on maintaining purity, involving in many cases the denial of sex and other bodily appetites (asceticism), in others (from the same premises) the practice of unrestrained indulgence (libertinism), its very opposite. The Gnostic 'system', if one can even really speak of one, has always been made up of internal contradictions owing to the slapstick way different religious traditions have historically been merged together.
Syncretism and accommodation are of the essence of Gnosticism. The debt - often very indirect - to Greek philosophy is obvious. Yet Gnosticism is more than "the acute hellenisation of Christianity" (Harnack). Before the coming of Messiah, Oriental mysticism, asceticism and astrology entered a Greco-Roman world hag-ridden by the fear of death, and there came about what Gilbert Murray called 'The Failure of Nerve' (Five Stages of Greek Religion: 1923, chapter 4). Confident rationalism (not unlike modern scientific-based rationalism) gave way to the quest for salvation (not unlike modern occultism). Indeed, we see in Gnosticism a familiar repeating cycle of rebellion against Yahweh vi‚, first, intellectualism, leading to occultic (satanic) mysticism following intellectualism's failure to 'deliver'. The thought-forms which characterise many of the Christian heresies are observable in some pre-Christian hellenistic religion.
It has been suggested that Gnostic religious thought emerged from Greek and Oriental elements under the influence, as stimulant or transmitter, of corrupt Dispersion Judaism and support for this view has been drawn from the Chenoboskion documents (cv. R.M.Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity: 1959). Certainly this may have been one element. It is worth noticing that most of the Gnostic-type teachings mentioned in the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) have Judaic elements, that the early Christian/Messianic congregations were often the heirs of Dispersion (Talmudic/Rabbinical) synagogues (the Gnostic influence in Judaism being acquired during Babylonian exile from the paganism in which the exiles were immersed), and that the 'Fathers' see the heresies almost as a succession from Simon Magus (Acts 8:9ff.).
Heresiologists (those exposing heresy) span the 2nd through the 5th centuries AD, beginning with Justin Martyr (d. 165), the influential Irenaeus of Lyon (d. 200), Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), Tertullian (d. 225), Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235), Origen (d. 254), Epiphanius of Salamis (4. 403), Augustine (d. 430 - a one-time Manichean) and Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. 466). The reports of these heresiologists, exposing the several Gnostic trends in their time, describe how the heretics deviate from the Emet (Truth) under demonic influence, and they all show that as far as the Messianic Community (Church) was concerned, the sources of the heresy were either through Talmudic/Rabbinical Judaism (Justin & Irenaeus), Greek philosophy (Hippolytus & Clement), or a variety of Greek and Jewish sectarian sources (Epiphanius).
The heresiologists paint a picture of the existence of discreete religious movements (often called 'schools'). Basilides of Alexandria (d. ~150) and his student Isodore began a successful movement which existed until the 4th century, though confined to Egypt. Valentinius of Alexandria and Rome (d. ~175) saw his teaching explode on the international scene during his own lifetime with the development of distinct Eastern and Western Valentinian traditions. Some of his students became influential figures in Valentinian Christian history, most notably Ptolemy, Heracleon, and Markus. Valentinian Gnosticism has seen a re-emergence in the 20th century which is detailed in some of the articles in this sub-site, especially as a development of Mormonism which is a modern form of Gnosticism, salvational knowledge being acquired therein vi‚ its esoteric Freemasonry-derived temple rituals. Marcion of Sinope (d. ~160) also built a successful international movement with students like Apelles (d. ~200) which endured until the 4th centuiry in the West (a target of Constantine's state persecution) but even longer in the East, where Arab authors still referred to the Marcionites in the 10th century.
Modern liberal scholars often falsely view Christianity as appropriating and re-interpreting a basic Gnostic Redeemer-Myth (e.g. Bultmann) but there is no evidence that such a myth was an integral part of pre-Christian Gnostic thought - nor are the Mandaean documents or their modern descendants particularly relevant for primitive Palestinian 'baptist' sects, since they have had such strong later influences.
C. Gnosticism and the Messianic Scriptures
The 'Colossian heresy' combined philosophical speculations, astral powers, references to angelic intermediaries, pagan food taboos and ascetic practices with Talmudic Judaistic borrowings (Col.2:8-23). The pastoral Epistles denounce preaching compounded of mythology and genealogies (1 Tim.1:4ff.) and marked by strongent asceticism (1 Tim.4:3ff.), "Jewish fables" (Tit.1:14ff.), spiritualisation of the resurrection (2 Tim.2:18) and pernicious moral accompaniments (2 Tim.3:5-7) - the whole falsely called Gnosis (1 Tim.6:20). The cancerous heresy refuted in the Johannine Epistles denied Messiah's humanity (1 Jn.4:3; 2 Jn.7). Of false teachers in Asia the Gnostic-sounding phrase "the deep things of Satan" is used (Rev.2:24, NRSV).
Some of the less satisfactory features of Corinthian congregational life reflect terms and concepts developed in Gnosticism: the delight in Gnosis (1 Cor.8:1; 13:8) and wisdom (1 Cor.17:1ff.); the dangerous liberalism of some in sexual matters, whereas others questioned even marriage (1 Cor.6:13ff.; 7) and denied the fact of the resurrection (1 Cor.15:12). These are only symptoms - certainly they do not (at face value) constitute a system, but they show the soil in which the Gnostic systems grew so luxuriantly. And Paul in reply can adopt Gnostic vocabulary and disinfect it (1 Cor.2:6ff.), just as he can revolutionise the Gnostic idea of a pleroma of intermediary beings by declaring that the whole pleroma (the divine totality of divine powers) is in Messiah (Col.1:19).
The letters of Ignatius of Antioch (d. ~115) and Polycarm of Smyrna (d. ~165) likewise continued exposing and opposing Gnostic influences in the immediate post-apostolic period.
Such depredations, characteristic of the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament), upon contemporary religious terminology achieve mental contact with those reared in it without surrendering anything to non-biblical thought. The framework of Messianic Scriptural (New Testament) thought - whether of election, or knowledge of Elohim (God), or the Logos (Davar, Miltha, Word), or the Redeemer - is provided by the Tanakh (Old Testament) revelation, wherever the terminology may come from. Gnosticism, with its Greek, Oriental and Talmudic/Rabbinical Jewish elements, whether viewed as a world-religion or simply as a tendency consisting of a diverse, complex assortment of competing religious movements (reminiscent of the broad 'New Age Movement' of our own time), remained pagan. It attached itself parasitically to Christianity/ Messianism (as it does in various forms of 'New Age Christianity' today), and took definite shapes from feeding on it parasite-fashion. At best it was a desire for Christian/Messianic ends in a pagan way.
The Gospel of Truth, from the Gnostic Nag Hammadi library, is a perfect illustration of this parasitism, and shows a man holding, through Christian tradition, to a Cross for which his system had small place. But then (as now) the Gnostic would have to choose between the Besorah (Gospel) and Manichaeism, as the two are no more compatible than oil and water, however vigorously shaken to give the appearance of a natural synthesis. Satan attempts syncretism of the Besorah (Gospel) with pagan religion, thus paganising it; Yahweh is in the business of clearly separating them, which is the function and calling of Christian/Messianic apologists such as ourselves.
Manichaeism is perhaps the archetypal religion of Gnostic syncretism. Founded by Mani, who was born in Mesopotamia in 216 AD, Manichaeism emerged out of a blending of Zoroastrianism (Fire worship), Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy and numerous ancient indigenous religious traditions present in western Iran (Persia) in the earthly 3rd century AD. Like Muhammed, Mani considered himself "the seal of the prophets" who brought the final, supreme divine revelation. Manichaeism, like the modern Bah'ai faith, views all previous revelations (like those of Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha and/or Yah'shua/Jesus) to have been only partial revelations. One deficiency of these other revelations, according to Mani, was their provincialism. Manichaeism, in contrast, professes to proclaim a complete, universal revelation which will unite all people and be practiced in all lands - i.e. a One World Religion - and represents a blending of two Gnostic streams - Syrian and Egyptian - or dualistic and pantheistic Gnosticism, respectively. Its adherants were to traverse the world propagating Mani's teachings which would have been accurately copied and translated into a locally understandable language.
Manichaeism's two most basic tenets were:
According to Mani's system, in the beginning (past time) the eternal principles of good/light and evil/darkness existed separately. Present time began when representatives of the kingdom of darkness invaded the kingdom of light. This epoch was seen as a process of regathering the elements of light that were scattered, or captured, during the invasion of darkness and the reseparation of these elements from those of darkness. The final epoch will be preceded by apocalyptic events and will witness a last, great battle between the forces of light and darkness. Following this battle, a final judgment will be rendered. The good/righteous will be gathered into the kingdom of light, whereas the evil/wicked will be consigned to a bottomless pit which will be permanently sealed. The elements in this system borrowed from the Bible are obvious. The cosmos will then burn for 1,468 years, for some reason.
- 1. The two eternal principles; and
- 2. The division of time into three epochs.
Gnosticism was one the earliest challenges to Biblical Christianity, teaching that salvation is by knowledge and not by emunah (faith). It has experienced a resurgence as Christianity has gone into decline in the West, appealing to every carnal taste of unredeemed man. It is at its most deceptive and dangerous when it is couched in biblical language to make it appear authentic by linguistic association. All religions that teach that salvation is by knowledge and works is, in the broadest sense, Gnosticism, and therefore false.