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  Gnosticism (from Greek gnosis, ‘knowledge’) denotes systems of special philosophical and religious knowledge which enlighten the individual and guarantee salvation to those who attain it. In this it resembles gnana marga (‘way of knowledge’) of Brahmanic religion, though gnosticism was almost invariably a secret doctrine disclosed by a great teacher and involving a considerable element of self-knowledge. Until the Nag Hammadi MS (Coptic, 4th-5th century) was published in the last 20 years, gnosticism was known mainly from the writings of its opponents, principally the Church Fathers Irenaeus (c. 130 - 200) and Tertullian (c. 160 - 200), and fragments of non-canonical gospels. They represented an intellectual movement which challenged the theology and ethics of the Christian Church. But from the gnostic scriptures themselves, it seems that the principal appeal lay in a religious experience and in moral strength to survive a turbulent, hostile world.

There has been scholarly debate about the origins of gnosticism, but it seems to originate in Jewish and Christian depression after the fall of Jerusalem ( CE 70), its utter destruction (135) and the disappearance of the Jewish state, and in disillusion with eschatology. Hence the basic gnostic doctrine was redemption from the material world. The soul escaping from matter is reunited with the Pleruma (‘perfection’) or fullness of God (possibly also ‘fulfilment’). Elements of gnosticism can be found in Greek philosophical movements, Chasidic Judaism, Orphic cults in Babylonia and Indo-Aryan religion.

Christian Gnosticism drew some ideas from all these movements. In the writings of the Church Fathers, its founder was said to be Simon Magnus of Samaria who was alleged (Acts 8:9f) to have offered Peter money for spiritual power (hence the word ‘simony’). He rescued a woman, Helen, in Tyre, from ‘bondage’ and declared that she was Sophia, ‘Divine Wisdom’, who could similarly liberate her devotees. The Supreme Being, Simon claimed, was remote from this transitory world, but, either directly or through Sophia, sent Jesus to show the way of salvation and to defeat death. To Gnostics, Jesus was not actually human but only appeared so, as Greek gods did when they walked the Earth. The risen Christ, however, was a living presence for Gnostics, giving new revelations. These frequently took the form of Gospels allegedly by Jesus\' friends. In them Mary Magdalene is often shown as the chief interlocutor and leader of the community. This mirrors the equality women enjoyed among Gnostic sects, and the challenge they presented to the Church hierarchy as typified by Peter.

Gnostics tended to extreme asceticism (as contact with worldly things was defiling), or else they were antinomian, rejecting all morality and restraint. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, in the 4th century, repression was savage. Gnosticism resurfaced, however, in the Cathars (‘the pure’) and Albigensians of medieval France, when again the challenge was as much political as theological. Gnosticism has recently been the subject of close scrutiny by feminist theologians because of the prominent role given to women and to Divine Wisdom. EMJ

Further reading H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion.



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