Gnosticism

Gnosticism is a blanket term that covers a large number of diverse and shifting beliefs, some pre-Christian, that spread and mutated in the first century and beyond.

One common feature is the belief in a special or secret knowledge (gnosis) that set its believers apart from others. As such, it particularly appealed to the well-educated or other elites. It was clearly influenced by similar concepts held by mystery cults.

Another is some level of dualistic belief that divides the universe into spirit and matter, the former good and the latter bad, or just irrelevant.

All held that the soul must ascend out of this material world through various planetary spheres and spiritual creatures by means of secret passwords or other charms, to attain unification with the divine spirit.

A redeemer was necessary, who was usually Christ, but his role and nature

Moonrise by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich, 1822

Friedrich painted the scene as a symbol of the Gnostic principle of dualism represented by the two boats, two men, and two women. The rocks represent the "inner ground of being" while the moon represents the "reflected light of awareness."

Moonrise by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich, 1822

Friedrich painted the scene as a symbol of the Gnostic principle of dualism represented by the two boats, two men, and two women. The rocks represent the "inner ground of being" while the moon represents the "reflected light of awareness."

varied greatly. Many of those who accepted Christ did not accept his corporeal nature.

The earliest manifestations of Gnostic beliefs were in the communities that St. Paul himself planted.

At Corinth, some believed that they, unlike other Christians, held a wisdom and knowledge so great that they had already achieved perfection. They held that the physical was nothing and the spiritual everything, thus they were free to live and indulge as they pleased, relying on the sacraments to provide them with spiritual sustenance.

At Colossae, some held that angelic powers that were connected to astrological bodies needed to be consulted and worshiped.

Gnostic beliefs could keep their adherents from the danger of martyrdom. Because other gods did not exist, they argued, why avoid eating food sacrificed to them?

St. Paul addressed this, agreeing with the argument but pointing out that eating this food might lead others, less well informed, to judge that the other gods did exist and thereby leading them away from Christ (1 Cor. 8).

Their insistence on the evil nature or irrelevance of the natural world led to divergent approaches to it.

Some believed that asceticism, mortification, and celibacy were necessary because this would reduce connections to the natural world and avoid enslaving more souls.

Others believed that people should engage in whatever practices they chose, without restrictions, because this world was unimportant or depraved.

Some of these were turning the agape into wild parties (Jude 1:3-16).

Gnostic dualism led some sects to conclude that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the father of Jesus in the New Testament. The Old Testament God of the Jews was foolish or evil, while the New Testament God of Jesus was good and loving.

Complicating this was the New Testament insistence on the continuity between the prophecies of the Old Testament and their fulfillment in the New Testament.

Gnostic Symbol

This symbol contains elements from Judaism (the Star of David) and Christianity (a cross, a Knight's Templar cross, and triangles representing the Divine Triune). There is also an Ouroboros, or "tail-devourer," a symbol of eternal life that is a bittersweet meditation on human life.

Marcion, the Gnostic bishop of Sinope, concluded in the second century that the New Testament must have been corrupted by Judaizers and set about rewriting it.

Others, like those who followed Valentinus, accepted the Old Testament as allegory. They, however, insisted that Christ had given secret knowledge to his apostles, who passed it down to the elites like them.

This began a spate of new "Gnostic Gospels" claiming to be superior to established Scripture and frequently containing alleged secret sayings of Jesus (one example: the Gospel of Thomas).

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