Discover more from Escaping Mass Psychosis
A short summary of Gnostic theology
When wehave mentioned Gnosticism in recent posts it has sparked some interest in the comments. This has prompted me to devote a post just to this topic, and you should be able to judge for yourself just how far gnostic doctrines differ to those of traditional Christianity (in case anyone has been left wondering why the antagonism between the two). I’ve kept it short, so “Yep, I know” is my answer to inevitable complaints about the myriad of details left out of this very brief overview.
So to start with gnosis (γνῶσις) is the Greek word for “knowledge”, or “awareness” – but not the knowledge of rationality or philosophy, but of spiritual revelation. The word is closely associated with Hellenistic esoteric cults and then of course with the Gnostics who emerged in the late first century. According to Wikipedia, “The term "Gnosticism" does not appear in ancient sources and was first coined in the 17th century by Henry More in a commentary on the seven letters of the Book of Revelation, where More used the term "Gnosticisme" to describe the heresy in Thyatira.”
Important early scriptures of gnostic thought were unearthed recently (1945) in Upper Egypt where 52 texts, know as the Nag Hammadi (from the place they were found), detail their theology. The story of the discovery of the text is worthy of a Hollywood treatment!Here’s Dr Elaine Pagels take on what happened:
In December 1945 an Arab peasant made an astonishing archeological discovery in Upper Egypt. Rumors obscured the circumstances of this find--perhaps because the discovery was accidental, and its sale on the black market illegal. For years even the identity of the discoverer remained unknown. One rumor held that he was a blood avenger; another, that he had made the find near the town of Naj 'Hammádì at the Jabal al-Tárif, a mountain honeycombed with more than 150 caves. Originally natural, some of these caves were cut and painted and used as grave sites as early as the sixth dynasty, some 4,300 years ago.
Thirty years later the discoverer himself, Muhammad 'Alí al-Sammán; told what happened. Shortly before he and his brothers avenged their father's murder in a blood feud, they had saddled their camels and gone out to the Jabal to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops. Digging around a massive boulder, they hit a red earthenware jar, almost a meter high. Muhammad 'Alí hesitated to break the jar, considering that a jinn, or spirit, might live inside. But realizing that it might also contain gold, he raised his mattock, smashed the jar, and discovered inside thirteen papyrus books, bound in leather. Returning to his home in al-Qasr, Muhammad'All dumped the books and loose papyrus leaves on the straw piled on the ground next to the oven. Muhammad's mother, 'Umm-Ahmad, admits that she burned much of the papyrus in the oven along with the straw she used to kindle the fire.
A few weeks later, as Muhammad 'Alí tells it, he and his brothers avenged their father's death by murdering Ahmed Isma'il. Their mother had warned her sons to keep their mattocks sharp: when they learned that their father's enemy was nearby, the brothersseized the opportunity, "hacked off his limbs . . . ripped out his heart, and devoured it among them, as the ultimate act of blood revenge."
Fearing that the police investigating the murder would search his house and discover the books, Muhammad 'Alí asked the priest, al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd al-Masih, to keep one or more for him. During the time that Muhammad 'Alí and his brothers were being interrogated for murder, Raghib, a local history teacher, had seen one of the books, and suspected that it had value. Having received one from al-Qummus Basiliyus, Raghib sent it to a friend in Cairo to find out its worth.
The story goes on to tell of the manuscript’s journey through the black market, some ending up confiscated by the Egyptian government and ending up in a museum, others to America, and importantly catching the attention of Professor Gilles Quispel, distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands. You can read the story here http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/Pagels-Gnostic-Gospels.html
For the contemporary Gnostic the Nag Hammadi collection (the Codex) are at the centre of this belief system and the Gnostic Society Library has a complete list with links to English translations here http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/nhlcodex.html
In a nutshell, if we were to summarise the various sects world views (for a survey of the different schools of thought https://www.gnosisforall.com/ has some good summaries), Gnosticism is salvation by revelation of secret spiritual knowledge.
Gnostic cosmology goes something like this: There exists a transcendent and unknowable God who has created (or rather emanated) divine beings known as Aeons. One of these Aeons is Christ who plays a role in redeeming humanity from its fallen state. The realm created by God, the Pleroma, is perfect but an Aeon creates an evil being – the Demiurge. This malevolent Demiurge creates our universe, our world, and us – he is identified as the God (Yahweh) of the Old Testament. Fortunately for humanity the ‘true’ God puts a spark of the divine into us – making us an immortal soul trapped within a physical body in this inferior material realm. Unfortunately, humanity has forgotten the truth of the origins of our divine spark, but through Gnosis, a revelation of spiritual knowledge can lead to the salvation of our souls, guiding us back to the divine realm.
According to Gnostic theology the true and perfect God is beyond our reach, completely transcendent above our created universe. He does manifest himself, however, though a hierarchy of beings that emanate from him. He is the “One” (Monad) from whom came the “Many” (Dyad) – which is a strange designation as ‘dyad’ in sociology means two people, or the smallest possible group, and generally refers to the relationship between therapist and client, or between a couple. This pantheistic realm comes out from the One and constitutes the perfect divine realm – seemingly it is not a created realm, it’s just the realm of the One and the Many.
This divine ream is known as the Pleroma and consists of Aeons who manifest the qualities of God and both act as intermediaries between God and humanity and enables God to be conscious of himself. The nature of God has a number of variations among Gnostic mythology but The Apocryphon (Secret) of John is agreed to be the most important book for understanding Gnostic mythology. So it is there that we will focus.
At the beginning of The Apocryphon of John the Monad is described as follows:
The Monad is a monarchy with nothing above it. It is he who exists as God and Father of everything, the invisible One who is above everything, who exists as incorruption, which is in the pure light into which no eye can look.
He is the invisible Spirit, of whom it is not right to think of him as a god, or something similar. For he is more than a god, since there is nothing above him, for no one lords it over him. For he does not exist in something inferior to him, since everything exists in him. For it is he who establishes himself. He is eternal, since he does not need anything. For he is total perfection. He did not lack anything, that he might be completed by it; rather he is always completely perfect in light. He is illimitable, since there is no one prior to him to set limits to him. He is unsearchable, since there exists no one prior to him to examine him. He is immeasurable, since there was no one prior to him to measure him. He is invisible, since no one saw him. He is eternal, since he exists eternally. He is ineffable, since no one was able to comprehend him to speak about him. He is unnameable, since there is no one prior to him to give him a name.
He is immeasurable light, which is pure, holy (and) immaculate. He is ineffable, being perfect in incorruptibility. (He is) not in perfection, nor in blessedness, nor in divinity, but he is far superior. He is not corporeal nor is he incorporeal. He is neither large nor is he small. There is no way to say, 'What is his quantity?' or, 'What is his quality?', for no one can know him. He is not someone among (other) beings, rather he is far superior. Not that he is (simply) superior, but his essence does not partake in the aeons nor in time. For he who partakes in an aeon was prepared beforehand. Time was not apportioned to him, since he does not receive anything from another, for it would be received on loan. For he who precedes someone does not lack, that he may receive from him. For rather, it is the latter that looks expectantly at him in his light.
For the perfection is majestic. He is pure, immeasurable mind. He is an aeon-giving aeon. He is life-giving life. He is a blessedness-giving blessed one. He is knowledge-giving knowledge. He is goodness-giving goodness. He is mercy and redemption-giving mercy. He is grace-giving grace, not because he possesses it, but because he gives the immeasurable, incomprehensible light. (excerpt from The Apocryphon of John, translated by Frederik Wisse).
Now I have to admit after reading a number of translations that the nature of the Monad is difficult to get my head around. And I guess that’s the point of such esoteric writing – you have to have special revelation to understand and become enlightened. Nevertheless, it does seem that the Monad manifests a living entity called Barbelo (a God-reflecting Aeon), the ‘first power’ and ‘the forethought of the All - her light shines like his light - the perfect power which is the image of the invisible, virginal Spirit who is perfect’. She is spoken of in feminine terms but is an androgynous being. Then other characteristics of the Monad are brought forth creating the ‘pentad of the aeons of the Father’:
This is the pentad of the aeons of the Father, which is the first man, the image of the invisible Spirit; it is the forethought, which Barbelo, and the thought, and the foreknowledge, and the indestructibility, and the eternal life, and the truth. This is the androgynous pentad of the aeons, which is the decad of the aeons, which is the Father.”
Seemingly the 5 (pentad) manifestations of the Father ads up to 10 (decad) when taking into account that each manifestation is androgynous (having both female and male characteristics). It’s also worth noting that Aeons (in the perfect Pleroma) not only emanate from Monad directly but they too generated other Aeons, who in tern generate others, until the Pleroma is fully occupied. This hierarchy is described as various structures of the divine mind. The final Aeon is Sophia who is supposed to be wisdom. However, in a characteristically unwise move, Sophia causes trouble in the Pleroma resulting in the birth of evil and subsequent creation of our world.
Trouble in Pleroma
Sophia (Wisdom) wanted to ‘bring forth a likeness out of herself’ the say the Father had brought forth Barbelo. She didn’t have the consent of the Father or her male consort, but she went ahead anyway…
And the Sophia of the Epinoia, being an aeon, conceived a thought from herself and the conception of the invisible Spirit and foreknowledge. She wanted to bring forth a likeness out of herself without the consent of the Spirit, - he had not approved - and without her consort, and without his consideration. And though the person of her maleness had not approved, and she had not found her agreement, and she had thought without the consent of the Spirit and the knowledge of her agreement, (yet) she brought forth. And because of the invincible power which is in her, her thought did not remain idle, and something came out of her which was imperfect and different from her appearance, because she had created it without her consort. And it was dissimilar to the likeness of its mother, for it has another form.
And when she saw (the consequences of) her desire, it changed into a form of a lion-faced serpent. And its eyes were like lightning fires which flash. She cast it away from her, outside that place, that no one of the immortal ones might see it, for she had created it in ignorance. And she surrounded it with a luminous cloud, and she placed a throne in the middle of the cloud that no one might see it except the holy Spirit who is called the mother of the living. And she called his name Yaltabaoth.
Sophia also names this Yaltabaoth (“Son of Shame”) as Saklas (“Fool”) and Samael (“Blind God”), and he is proud, arrogant, unholy, saying there is no other God but him (ignorant of where he came from). Then he’s cast out of Pleroma and he goes about setting up his own world, with his own angels, and announcing that “I am a jealous God, there is none except me!”.
This God is the Demiurge ("half-maker"), the maker of our material universe and the God of the Old Testament. The following is from a Gnostic Catechism http://gnosis.org/ecclesia/catechism.htm#Preface:
37. By what names is the Demiurge known?
In Gnostic scriptures he is called YALDABAOTH (child of chaos), SACLAS (fool) and SAMAEL (blind one). In later Gnosticizing lore he was at times identified with LUCIFER or SATAN, the prince of the powers of air.
38. Is the Demiurge evil?
He is classically regarded as flawed and foolish but not utterly evil. In medieval Gnostic traditions he became increasingly identified with evil.
39. Does the Demiurge have associates?
Yes, they are the Archons (rulers), and their desire is to rule over humans and other beings.
Now it seems that when the truth of the Father-Mother (“Man”) and their Son was explained to the Demiurge and his angels, the Demiurge gets distracted by the reflection of the heavenly Man in the waters of his creation and decides he must make man himself.
And he said to the authorities which attend him, 'Come, let us create a man according to the image of God and according to our likeness, that his image may become a light for us.' And they created by means of their respective powers in correspondence with the characteristics which were given. And each authority supplied a characteristic in the form of the image which he had seen in its natural (form). He created a being according to the likeness of the first, perfect Man. And they said, 'Let us call him Adam, that his name may become a power of light for us.'
And although the Demiurge and his 365 angels created Adam in bodily form they couldn’t bring life to it. So, because of a petition from Sophia, the great Father-Mother of All came to the rescue:
He sent, by means of the holy decree, the five lights down upon the place of the angels of the chief archon. They advised him that they should bring forth the power of the mother. And they said to Yaltabaoth, 'Blow into his face something of your spirit and his body will arise.' And he blew into his face the spirit which is the power of his mother; he did not know (this), for he exists in ignorance. And the power of the mother went out of Yaltabaoth into the natural body, which they had fashioned after the image of the one who exists from the beginning. The body moved and gained strength, and it was luminous.
But after Adam came to life the angels became jealous and cast the poor bloke down into the lowest material regions to imprison him. Not to be sidelined in this drama the Father-Mother once again step in to send Epinoia (“Thought” and the first Aeon representing the life of God), into Adam, where the spark of God remained hidden.
Then the scene in the Garden of Eden gets a bit of a different treatment than it does in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Here the prohibition to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is actually a ploy by the Demiurge to prevent Adam from knowing that he has divinity within him. The serpent tells Eve the truth about this deceit so she can be liberated from the prison the Demiurge has set up.
So the problem from then till now is not sin, but ignorance of one’s divinity. The desires of the flesh, the material world, and the Demiurge himself were all working against humanity to hide our true divine nature within. The fall is not our fault, all blame must lay at the feet of the false God, the Yahweh of the Old Testament.
Salvation According to Gnosticism
Because of the scenario just described, we are in a state of ignorance of the divinity within us unless we wake up, unless we have a revelation. Ignorance, in contrast to sin, is the problem for all humanity. Secret knowledge (gnosis) is necessary for our salvation, through teaching and a personal awakening to the revelation of who we are and what’s going on. This awakening is the awakening of the Epinoia within – she is the Savior who reveals the truth, is the way of ascent, and can bring us back to Pleroma. But if you don’t wake up this time, don’t worry, you will be reincarnated back into this material prison until you are liberated from your ignorance through gnosis. But beware, if you do get the divine revelation and then choose to reject it, there is eternal damnation for you.
One of the best known Gnostics is Valentinus (100-180 AD) who initiated a school of gnostic philosophy that seems closely aligned with the Nag Hammadi text Gospel of Truth. Here’s a portion of that text describing the Father calling those who have knowledge…
Those whose names he knew first were called last, so that the one who has knowledge is one whose name the father has pronounced. For one whose name has not been spoken is ignorant. Indeed, how shall one hear if a name has not been uttered? For whoever remains ignorant until the end is a creature of forgetfulness and will perish with it. If this is not so, why have these wretches no name, why have they no voice? Hence, whoever has knowledge is from above. If called, that person hears, replies, and turns toward him who called. That person ascends to him and knows how he is called. Having knowledge, that person does the will of him who called. That person desires to please him, finds rest, and receives a certain name. Those who thus are going to have knowledge know whence they came and whither they are going. They know it as someone who, having become intoxicated, has turned from his drunkenness and, having come to himself, has restored what is his own. (The Gospel of Truth, translated by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer).
Admittedly these are broad strokes and generalisations of gnostic theology. There is a lot of (esoteric-like) detail and complexity, much of which resembles other scriptures, including the Apocryphal books, but depart wildly from traditional Christianity. The themes are completely blasphemous for me, a Christian, who believes the God of the Old Testament (and the New), is the One and only true God and all this esotericism of the Gnostics is “another gospel”, even a “doctrine of demons” worthy of being labelled heretical (just so you know where I stand on this).
References and further reading:
Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas (2008). The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction (Published by Oxford University Press, New York)
Hanegraaf, Wouter J (2006). Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. (Published by Brill, Leiden, Netherlands)
Pagels, E. (1979). The Gnostic Gospels. (Published by Vintage Books, NY)
Gnosis For All https://www.gnosisforall.com/
The Nag Hammadi Library http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.html
The Apocryphon of John (The Secret Book of John - The Secret Revelation of John) Translated by Frederik Wisse http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/apocjn.html
The Gospel of Truth, Translated by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/got-barnstone.html
The Secret Book of John (The Apocryphon of John) Translated by Stevan Davies - http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/apocjn-davies.html
O’Brien and I are different people, for those readers still thinking it’s Winston (a pseudonym) writing under another pseudonym, and the reason O’Brien is posted under ‘guests’.
Maybe Dan Brown is working on that right now to follow up on The Da Vinci Code and other gnostic-soaked thrillers.
Posts go behind the paywall after 4 weeks - lots of time for people to make comments while retaining the archive for paying subscribers.