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Gnosticism is a mystical religious idea or philosophy rooted in the idea of secret knowledge about god and the spirit, built on the core idea that the physical world is evil and that salvation comes through gnosis. Roughly, Gnosticism refers to many different churches, groups or sects in the ancient near-east at or around the 1-3rd Century CE.
Theology and metaphysics
The language and ideas of the Gnostics demonstrate strong Platonic influence. In general, Gnostics regard the body as a mere vessel for the soul, seen as the true form of the person. For most, the soul is released only upon death, but for some (such as Jesus) the body can be shed at will. The True God is Pure Good; however, the Creator of the Earth (the imperfect or even 'evil' demiurgos, also called Adonai or rex mundi (the king of the world)) is not the True God, and material evil infiltrates all things. Disease, old age, and the process of the rotting of flesh after death exemplify the evil that exists in the earthly planes. The earth is a sculpture or model of truth.
In order to escape the pull of the flesh, it is necessary to understand the correct sequence of phrases and rituals to perform for each level of angel. As Gnosticism was, at its core, an esoteric religion, teachers would impart this information to initiates individually slowly over time, until they were ready to pursue further knowledge on their own.
Gnosticism teaches that any person can have direct knowledge of God and does not require priest, church, ritual, or scripture to obtain this relationship.[note 1] This direct connection, however, distinctly differs from the modern pagan idea of "unverifiable personal gnosis".
Gnosticism and Christianity
Traditionally, scholars knew only of the Christian Gnostics from texts written by those who saw Gnosticism as heresy. All of the scholarship done on Christian Gnosticism carried the idea that it was a rare sect who chose gnosticism, and that Gnostics at large tended to be fringe believers. However, since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other works like the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary, it has become clear that there were serious fights over which school had the true version of Jesus' teachings. Gnostic churches were far more common, more powerful, and more organized than was ever presented by the eventual dominant churches, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Works such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas show authorship in direct conflict with what was to become "the Church", and the characters who are praised in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts are demonized in Mary and Judas.
Several Gnostic groups believed the God of the Old Testament was an imposter God and that Jesus came to reveal the true God and expose the false one. This element of Gnosticism was an influence on the His Dark Materials trilogy written by Philip Pullman.
Though Christian gnosticism was clearly a large movement in the ancient near east, only a fraction of all Gnostics were Christian. Scholars have found evidence and even writings from Jewish, Greek, and Roman Gnostics.
Though it should be no surprise they didn’t survive long as a movement - the fact they considered the material world evil meant they were firmly against sexual procreation, which led to them just dying off by themselves.
A useful term?
Of late, some scholars such as Karen King have concluded that Gnosticism is such a catch-all phrase coined largely by its enemies that encompasses such a wide variety of views that the term should be dropped.
- The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism This brief summary is contained on a very long web page.
- Needless to say, this didn't sit well with priests, churches, ritualists, and those writing the "canonized" scriptures. This was one of the outstanding contributing factors to the early theological wars that ran pell-mell through Christian churches for 200 years.