Gnosticism: what is it? 67

Gnosticism, with a capital G, is a system of religious belief. It is derived from the word gnosis, the Greek for knowledge. “Gnosticism” implies the possession of a particular sort of knowledge, a kind that needs no objective proof, but exists to the knower as an absolute, incontrovertible certainty. It arises by instinct, by private experience. To Gnostics, inner certainty is the sole source and authentication of their religious belief.

Gnosis is the opposite of doubt. It eludes enquiry, defies rational argument. Science demands objective proofs and practices doubt through experiment. Gnosis neither seeks nor offers proof. In this sense, Gnosis and Science scorn each other. They are two different ways of knowing: by intuition the one, by reason the other. Many European languages (Greek-descended or Greek-influenced) recognize two different ways of “knowing” by having different words for them. In French, for instance, “connaitre” and “savoir”; in German, “kennen” and “wissen“. In “connaitre” and “kennen” the Greek root “gnosis” can be seen, as in the English word “know”. The English word, however, does for both senses: being acquainted with directly (“I know him”, “Je le connais”), and being aware of, having learnt (“I know Euclidean geometry”, “Je sais la géométrie euclidienne”).

A Gnostic system was an elaboration of instinctual belief as direct knowledge. Doctrine and practice were taught just as they are in the “revealed” religions. Some Gnostic teachers established schools of thought, their successors carrying on their teaching, though often altering details of vision or ritual. Some started in the tradition of one or another school but came to be so far at variance with the founders that they broke away and launched sects of their own, which in turn could develop into new schools and traditions.

Founders of Gnostic sects described each his own vision of heaven and earth, prescribed each his own rites. But  though they varied and became numerous, all the sects had enough in common for them to be grouped together as “Gnostic”, and the term has a set of special connotations. The name is particularly applied to a category of sects that arose in the first and second centuries CE, a few of them to last for hundreds of years; and also to sects of similar theology and practices that appeared in the Middle Ages.

Most of them shared these beliefs: –

That this world is evil: all of it, every material thing. Every flower, every tree, every blade of grass, every fruit, every stream, the land and the ocean, every bird, fish, insect, animal is evil. Every human being is base, vile, made of filth. And as an evil creation has to be the work of an evil creator, he who made and rules this world is an Evil God (or, in a minority of systems, a God who is not outright evil but yet not very nice, being a stickler for justice).

But, the Gnostic knew there is something in this world which is not evil, and that is that knowledge itself. And since an evil god can only create evil things, this knowledge cannot come from the creator of this world. There has to be another source, another god who has nothing to do with this vile world, but exists outside and beyond it, and is good. The Good God is the Primary Source, pure Being, the One. Only good can come from Him.

Yet Evil exists. How did it come into existence? To answer this question, the Gnostics chart a family tree of divine beings: a theogony. At the summit is pure Being, the Source, which is purely Good. From the Source descend “hypostases”, personified principles, beings whose degree of divinity diminishes the further they are from the Source. Each lesser being receives from the one immediately above him a portion of his divinity, and passes on a portion of what he receives to the one below him. From being to being descending, goodness diminishes with each diminishing degree of divinity. The goodness runs out before the divinity, however, and the lowest god receives none of it. He has the divine power to create, but no good to put into his creation. So what he makes is evil. He is the creator of this evil world and all that dwells therein. He is often named Ialdabaoth, and is comparable to the “demiurge” (demiurgos) of Greek philosophy: the divine artisan or smith who takes everlasting Matter and shapes it into the things of our world. In many Gnostic systems he is identified with the God of the Jews.

And yet something of the good, a miniscule spark of the Good itself, did come into human beings (or at least some of them), to remain deep within them, trapped inside their vile bodies throughout their lives on this earth until finally it is released when they die. But how did it come into human beings? It could not have come from the evil creator of this world – it was not his to give. It came, the Gnostics said, directly from the Source. It is a gift from the Highest, it belongs to Him, and to Him it will at last return, to be again one with the One. And for the time that people have to endure life in this world, by that spark they may know the good, and the layered heavens full of immortal beings, and the Supreme God Up There.

Up there the One is at a distance immeasurably remote; but within the Gnostic, He is intimately close. And the Gnostic knows that He will at last redeem – take back – the vital spark.

Did the Gnostics believe in such “redemption” for everyone? The answer to that is not easy to find. Some Gnostics knew that the minuscule spark of the divine was in all human beings. But others – an apparent majority – knew, with equal conviction, that it was the property of only a privileged few.

These few, in most systems, were the true Gnostics. They were also called Illuminati, or Pneumatics (meaning that the Spirit or Pneuma was in them).

Those who had not discovered the spark within them but might yet – being disciples of the Pneumatics, observing the rites and rules of the faith, and showing themselves to be a cut above the rest – were called Psychics (those with a Soul).

The masses of the unillumined were called the Hylics (those consisting only of Matter). Hylics were nothing but vile clay, the stuff of which this base world is made. They were of the earth earthy. This was their world, the only one to which they belonged and to which they were tied forever, in life and in death. They worshipped the God who made it. They mistakenly believed him and his creation to be good.

The Illuminati, and possibly the aspiring Psychics, held that they were strangers in this world. As long as they sojourned on earth they must remain hostile to it. The reversal of values that their creeds propounded – whatever most mortals saw as morally good being evil and vice versa – made them rebels born. As the enemies of God the Creator, it was their holy duty to defy him and scorn all his works.

Having two Gods, Gnosticism was dualistic. In most of the sects in the Roman Empire, and later in medieval Europe, the Evil God that created this world was an inferior power to the Good God. In others – chiefly those whose geographical origins lay further East, in Persian Zoroastrianism with its twin gods of Good and Evil – the Second God was equal (or nearly) in status and power to the First.

Most Gnostic sects from the second century on were Christian in the sense that they included Christ in their theogonies, as messenger or Son sent to earth by the True God, with a redemptive role to perform in the divinely decreed drama of human history. There is nothing about their creeds which makes them more or less absurd than other Christianities, including Catholicism and the Protestant denominations – or more or less than any religion whatsoever.


Jillian Becker    March 3, 2013


We have posted outlines of several Gnostic creeds and histories, and will post some more. See: How a rich shipowner affected Christianity, January 2, 2010 (on Marcion); Erotic religion, January 24, 2010 (on Carpocrates and Epiphanes); The father of all heresy, February 23, 2010 (on Simon Magus); Yezidis and Mandeans, April 4, 2010; Mani and Manicheism, May 9, 2010; Hot in the land of Hum, October 14, 2010 (on the Bugomils); Valentinus, February 14, 2011; The heretics of Languedoc, May 1, 2011 (on the Cathars).

On Zoroastrianism see Thus, more or less, spake Zarathustra, May 26, 2009.