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April 23, 2012 7:44 PM   Subscribe

What is Gnostic Christianity?

I am at an almost complete loss as to what it is. Is it a practice? Is it a sect of Christianity? Is it simply a collection of writings, or the foundations of the early church? Is it even still around? I keep on seeing it referred to in various books I'm currently reading, but most information on it seems vague, contradictory, or confusing. Can someone CLEARLY explain what Gnostic Christianity is? Thanks.
posted by Philipschall to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's a historical sect -- or maybe movement is the right word.

It's definitely not still around, except maybe among a couple of hippies somewhere. And even they would be adopting some bastardized form based on the Gnostic Gospels and new age spiritualism. There are no Christian practitioners who are religious descendents of the Gnostics in the way that, for example, the Methodists are religious descendents of John Wesley. It's just way, way too long ago.

My understanding (from Catholic high school, so potentially biased) is that Gnosticism was a heresy.

From Wikipedia:

the teaching that the realisation of Gnosis (esoteric or intuitive knowledge), is the way to salvation of the soul from the material world. They saw the material world as created through an intermediary being (demiurge) rather than directly by God. In most of the systems, this demiurge was seen as imperfect, in others even as evil.

That's what I know about it, in an extreme nutshell. The main thrust is that it centered around esoteric knowledge and held the material world as flawed and thus not created by God.
posted by Sara C. at 7:53 PM on April 23, 2012

The term Gnostic Christianity refers to a historical type of Christianity which referenced non-canonical texts and had a separate hierarchical system to the classical Christian church. It emphasized the importance of wisdom/insight (often personified as Sophia) in gaining the kingdom of heaven. It was considered extremely heretical by the church of Augustine et al, and so we know very little about it. There are a few small communities remaining, but most were wiped out in Europe during the Albigensian/Cathar Crusade. One good resource for a version of Gnostic Christianity is the book Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

Does that help?
posted by dalzell at 7:55 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

As far as I understand Gnostic Christianity was a sort of collection of disparate groups of somewhat related viewpoints regarding the nature of Christ and God. Since there was no singular gnosticism it's hard to pin down precisely what constitutes gnosticism.

One of the tenets that I believe is universal is that knowledge of the divine is essential to salvation. Each individual has their own "spark" of the divine inside of them that they must work to spiritually attain awareness of.

Many sects believed that the the traditional creator deity was not actually god, but a created being himself. He's known as the demiurge. This is the entity that told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, lest they become as gods. They saw the demiurge as a being who demanded satiation of his desire for worship and enslavement of humanity to this lower "truth". They believed that there was a higher reality and the true God can be attained by looking within.

Different sects of gnosticism believed different things (and at times, I believe contradictory things).

Because they believe that the material world is a sort of prison which the spirit (the spark I mentioned above) is imprisoned, at least some sects taught that Jesus was never truly incarnated in the flesh, for if he was, he was tainted by the material. Or something like that, it's been a while. Some believe that since he was pure spirit, he couldn't actually be crucified, and so his death was more an illusion of some sort.

I think the reason some of the info is vague, contradictory and confusing is due to the fact that sometimes these sects themselves were at odds with each other, to say nothing of their "hereticism" against the more orthodox branches of the church.
posted by symbioid at 8:00 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Woops, "(and at times, I believe, contradictory things)" -- though to be fair, I do sometimes believe contradictory things.
posted by symbioid at 8:03 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're understandably confused, because the term "gnostic" has been used within Christian theology as an other-identifier and a self-identifier in many different ways in the past 1800 years.

The term "Gnostic" was applied to the theology of the second-century Roman religious figure Valentinus by his contemporary Irenaeus in a book called On Heresy. Irenaeus's contention was that Valentinus's claims of having a special "knowledge" tradition--relying on internal and intuitive revelation--were heretical, as the knowledge necessary to salvation was completely represented in the scriptures and teachings of the Christian church. Some of Irenaeus's objections (which were picked up and amplified by the even more influential Tertullian) may have stemmed from Roman Christians' wish to differentiate themselves from the "mystery religions" that had come to dominate the Roman civic religion by that time.

The first use of the word "Gnostic" in English was in a Renaissance text discussing the Book of Revelation's specific detailing of what the Revelations author saw as heresies in certain Greek cities.

In the 19th century, the "Higher Criticism" movement took an historical, philological, and anthropological approach to studies of the Christian scriptures and Christian religious history. In that work, many scholars retrospectively defined movements as disparate as the Cathars, the Bogomils, and the Essenes as "gnostic" on the basis of their common tenet that salvation comes through internal revelation, and that the path to that revelation can be reached not through orthodox teaching, but through an esoteric knowledge tradition.

Later in the 19th century, several groups adopted "Gnostic" as a self-descriptor and created theologies, bodies of sacred texts, and worship practice based on the histories of the past traditions that had been labeled by scholars as "gnostic".
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:06 PM on April 23, 2012 [12 favorites]

So, yeah, it is something people practice (in several different and often competing worship traditions) today, based on their reconstructions of past worship traditions that were labeled as "gnostic" first by orthodox theologians identifying heresies, and then by scholars of religious history identifying commonalities among esoteric movements in Christianity.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:10 PM on April 23, 2012

This is the one book you want to read.

Gnosticism is a modern word which describes a large number of different religious movements from 2000 years ago when religion was hugely important in peoples' everyday lives and simultaneously all up in a tizzy. Modern "Gnostics" are almost all not continuous with those movements. The most prominent example is Stephen Hoeller who has proposed William Blake, Carl Jung, and Philip K. Dick as gnostics in some sort of a line but as near as I can tell he is totally wrong.

Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels is another excellent book, but please be aware that more than 95% of the books you will come across regarding this topic are utter crap.
posted by bukvich at 8:33 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Gospel of John is considered to have some gnostic elements ... the bits that were compatible with (what became) mainstream Christianity got absorbed into the faith that way.

But yeah, gnostic sects rely on gnosis, or special, secret, esoteric, or interior revelation, that's not available to everyone, but typically only to an individual, a charismatic sect leader and his followers, or similar.

Much of the information we have on early gnostic groups is vague, contradictory, or confusing, so that sounds about right. It doesn't really describe one clear sect, but many various sets of beliefs during the roiling debates that became early Christianity.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:37 PM on April 23, 2012

The Wikipedia link to Gnosticism answers your question well enough but muddies up the waters in an overly complex and probably unavoidable way.

I think you're looking for basic facts. I'll try not to screw it up by over simplifying (Mefite Bible Scholars, correct me gently).

The Gnostics were a bunch of guys who thought they were Christians until some other Christians told them they weren't.

Gnostic Christians were some of the earliest Christians, as early as 2 A.D.

Gnostic Christianity is heavily influenced by Hellenic ideas and mythologies.

You probably can't point to one historic group of heretic Christians and say, "Those guys were The Gnostics," because by the time Gnosticism was defined it encompassed many different heretical groups with some commonalities.

The word gnostic refers to gnosis in Greek, meaning knowledge. Early Gnostic Christians believed that there existed a secret knowledge of God that could be obtained, leading to salvation.

There's some other stuff about celestial hierarchy and some sort of "under god" or demiurge as described above. And some other stuff about Sophia (wisdom, Greek) and the making of a big celestial mistake resulting in the need for creation. -Disclaimer: That last bit is totally from my foggy memory of a college class I mostly skipped.

Elaine Pagels wrote probably the most accessible and respected text on the Gnostic texts.
posted by dchrssyr at 8:45 PM on April 23, 2012

Seconding bukvich's recommendations of the Jonas and Pagels books as by far the best on the topic.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:47 PM on April 23, 2012

oops. I meant 2nd century A.D. NOT 2 A.D. What a silly mistake.
posted by dchrssyr at 8:51 PM on April 23, 2012

Best answer: MA student specializing in Jewish-Christian relations in late antiquity (think pre-Islam) here, so I'm ignored the 18th century creation of lodges and New Religious Movements calling themselves "gnostic":

Gnosticism is one hell of a kettle of fish, and is easily the hardest thing to deal with in works I use. It's gotten to the point that whenever I read a work by a religions studies scholar who drops in a reference to gnosticism in a work otherwise not at all concerned with it, I groan and vent to my colleagues, one of whom is a specialist in the "gnostic" elements of the Nag Hammadi texts. In fact, there is a growing movement of scholars who argue that the term "gnosticism" is as distorting a term as "pagan" (there were no unified set of "pagans," and generalizing over what was essentially the entire world is a fool's errand). Many are now arguing that "gnosticism" didn't exist then, and doesn't exist now as a useful term of study.

The simplest way to describe it would be "anyone considered by the Church Fathers* or any other heresiologist** to place something above either God or Jesus in the divine hierarchy, or to otherwise be somehow corrupted." "Gnostics" usually claimed to have some occult*** gnosos (knowledge) that provided a unique understanding of the Old Testament and of Jesus' role in history/the cosmos (as the New Testament did not have a set canon yet****, but except for the deuterocanonical books, everyone agreed about the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible, at least so far).

The common definition usually involves some sort of definition of a unique hierarchical structure with a so-called demiurge (subordinate God, either God or Jesus, and his archons [servants]) who is evil and created the world to cause pain, with a 'higher' god (the One) that could be found/entered into unity with through gnosos (knowledge), the highest form of 'salvation.' Gnostics are often divided into two main "sects": Valentinian and Sethian (which may have been Christianized from Jewish origins, but then again, maybe not).

But let me quote Karen L. King in her great book, What is Gnosticism, for what is more-or-less my opinion on the matter:
Why is it so hard to define Gnosticism? The problem, I argue, is that a rhetorical term has been confused with a historical entity. There was and is no such thing as Gnosticism, if we mean by that some kind of ancient religious entity with a single origin and a distinct set of characteristics. Gnosticism is, rather, a term invented in the early modern period***** to aid in defining the borders of normative Christianity. [...] Gnosticism has been constructed as largely as the heretical other in relation to diverse and fluctuating understandings of orthodox****** Christianity."
OK, this doesn't seem to mean anything. So let's explain it.

You're the leader of a new group, the Huffalumps. There are two ways of defining yourself: "we do this," or "we don't do what they do," where "they" could be pagans, or Jews, or foreigners, or Gnostics (the "others"). By defining yourself, you creative the normative standards for your group: what kinds of behaviour are expected, what kinds of behaviour are prohibited. Your normative vision lasts as long as you (and your successors) have the power to enforce it, and it will probably change subtly over time, and change violently from time to time. Lack of ideological flexibility is usually a death knell; see also, the Shakers. But you need to make it seem like your changes were always what you wanted, thus to constant appeals to the Bible and to the Church Fathers when changing things up. By doing so, you say "the people who came before went astray; we are returning to the TRUE Huffalump beliefs." It's really nifty if you have a perpetual punching bag around to use as an 'other' whenever you change the rules like this: "we still aren't THEM" (the Jews, the Gnostics, the pagans, whatever).

So, you have this broad definition iwth a lot of component parts, and as a result, no scholar can agree what gnosticism means You have people on my side of the coin (and Karen King's), arguing it's a distorting term; you have people who apply it to any non-canonical text with a hint of the strange about it. For instance, the biggest debate about the Gospel of Thomas is whether or not it's gnostic, with pro-gnostics saying it seems to be making reference to hidden knowledge, and anti-gnostics arguing that that's too broad a criteria to use to label something "gnostic."

So. Gnosticism. The worst term to define, ever. The reason it often seems contradictory to you is that it is very likely that every person you see discussing it is using it differently, and sometimes vastly differently. Are they focusing on the hidden knowledge, or the corrupt world? God being debased, or knowledge as the ultimate good/god? The modern religious movements, or the stuff discussed by Irenaeus? Sethian, or Valentinian?

It's not like docetism, a nice, easy-to-define heresy (that Jesus' physical body was an illusion, or that he did not suffer on the cross but his earthly 'host' did). It is a HUGE, complex, complicated set of texts and contexts, from many times and places. Even worse, no one can agree what texts (if any) are "gnostic,"and what type of 'gnostic' they are.

That said, here's a nice little intro to Sethian gnosticism. Because you deserve a little guidance, here.

*This is a referant to a specific list of people, with some people being "maybes" or "kindas."
**Person who lists and discusses heresies, and why they are heretical. The most famous one is, without a doubt, Iranaeus of Lyon (then Lugdunnum), who is also a Church Father.
***Secret, only given to initiates, hidden
****This took until the 4th and 5th century CE.
*****Early modern usually means "sometime after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses up in 1520, but not so late that we're into the Enlightenment," and no one agrees on the specifics beyond that. This is also where I quibble, as I'd argue the Iranaeus engaged in this construction of normative Christianity by defining the 'other,' but eh.
******"Orthodox" doesn't mean, here, "those people who are kinda like Catholics except in the East," but rather the true meaning of "orthodox": "right belief," anyone who has the power to declare that they're right about this point of theology and you're wrong.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:01 PM on April 23, 2012 [29 favorites]

Gnosticism isn't a sect or religion, it is a set of pre-church Christian beliefs. This was back when being a Christian just meant you were a member of some group that worshipped Christ. There was no canon, no central church that claimed authority over scripture. When the Roman church consolidated power, anyone who held opposing views to the interpretation of scripture was seemed a heretic and their beliefs were effectively squashed out of existence.

So "gnostic" is often a hazy catch-all term for anything related to early Christian beliefs ranging from non-canonical books to platonism.
posted by deathpanels at 9:06 PM on April 23, 2012

flibbertigibbet has most definitely got it. I'd add by way of what I hope is clarification that the way the terms "gnosticism" and "gnostic" are generally used by practicing Christians who more-or-less know what they're talking about is that it refers to a melange of early heretical beliefs which didn't necessarily have much to do with each other in terms of organic or institutional connection yet which tended to share certain conceptual elements including a de-emphasis on the physicality of the Incarnation, an emphasis on "occult" knowledge (in the technical sense), and a fascination with applying Platonic concepts of urge/demiurge to the Trinity.

The tricky part here, and the part which drives careful historians and theologians bonkers, is that two groups which might both be called "Gnostic" under the above definition might have neither anything to do with each other socially or intellectually or even have existed in the same time and place. Further, even two groups which shared an emphasis on occult knowledge might have radically different ideas about the content, origin, and process of that knowledge. It's not as if the Gnostics were appealing to some particular intellectual tradition of so-called "occult" knowledge. Indeed, the Christian objection to that was as much with the fact that the knowledge in question was supposedly only accessible to a few as to any particular claim contained therein. IN any case, "Gnosticism" far less clear term than, say, Montanism or Pelagianism, both of which were associated with particular people in particular places at particular times. Gnosticism, on the other hand, in what can only be described as delicious irony, is a lot fuzzier.

So, in short, there were a bunch of groups that have been fairly called "Gnostic," but the term has indeed been used as a simple pejorative. It does resist precise definition. But as a sort of catch-all term for a certain permanent tendency in Christianity to resolve certain intellectual difficulties by de-emphasizing or even vilifying the physical world and the Incarnation, it's not without its uses.
posted by valkyryn at 5:50 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

If this is wrong, I've no doubt I'll be corrected, so here we go.

Some of the earliest Christians were certainly "gnostic"; one of the reasons we know this is because of how much time the apostle Paul spends yelling at people who are trying to discover the hidden wisdom inside of the teachings of the Way of Jesus.

So, there were people who "understand Jesus on a much deeper level then you" almost from the beginning, but they were also fought by the apostolic church almost immediately. (The first fourth of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is largely devoted to responding to "gnostic" voices in the church at Corinth). My impression is that they were not exactly considered heretics at first, just missing the point.
posted by Poppa Bear at 7:16 AM on April 24, 2012

Oh, and one other thing: the suppression of Gnosticism by the early church wasn't really a "Roman" thing, because the Eastern and Western churches weren't that far apart yet. Indeed, the first ecumenical counsel wasn't until about 325, over a century after Irenaeus identified certain Gnostic ideas as heretical. The Greek and Latin churches didn't really start to drift apart until the fourth and fifth centuries, and language had as much to do with it as anything. For example, certain Greek terms used to describe the Trinity mean something quite different when translated into Latin and vice versa. There are other terms which can be translated two ways, one of which is heretical and the other isn't. And there are still other terms which refer to the same concepts but, when translated, refer to different concepts. It was really quite a mess, and there's an argument going about scholarly circles that if the churches had just gotten past their vocabulary differences that things might have worked out.

But this all happened long after the orthodox church as a whole was pretty sure that Gnosticism was no good. For example, Irenaeus is considered a saint in both Eastern and Western churches. Gnosticism was one of if not the earliest set of heresies, and describing the church's attempt to suppress it as "Roman" is anachronistic.
posted by valkyryn at 7:31 AM on April 24, 2012

describing the church's attempt to suppress it as "Roman" is anachronistic

If you're taking issue with my comment, Irenaeus's book was very focused on heretical groups in the city and environs of Rome. I didn't mean "Roman" as part of the not-in-existence-at-that-era Rome v. Byzantium dichotomy, but as "a phenomenon centered in the city of Rome." The campaign against Valentinus was an issue both within the early Christian church and within Rome as a polity.

But if my word choice implied a Western v. Eastern rite issue, which as you so accurately point out is totally anachronistic for that time, I am sorry to have been misleading and appreciate the clarification. Words fail me all the time, but it is hard to post interpretive dances to the Internet.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:17 AM on April 24, 2012

Since people are recommending the Pagels book, before or after burrowing into it as a trustworthy critical reference you should read this brief review by Paul Mankowski, S.J., called "The Pagels Imposture." I haven't seen a response to the charges in this article yet.

flibbertigibbet is correct in large part: depends on who's using it. Is it college sophomore who just saw Stigmata after a huge bong rip, or is it the pope (see here, para. 37)?
posted by resurrexit at 2:32 PM on April 24, 2012

resurrexit is correct in stating that you should take Pagels with a strong grain of salt, and I would put Ehrman in that category, as well (although his blog is worth checking out, which is why I linked it). They both have a tendency to sensationalize, at the expense of edification. (That said, I still strongly recommend Ehrman's intro to the New Testament as being possibly the best one out there, in terms of teaching you about the texts, the [likely] social contexts, and the critical methods of analysis). Unfortunately, nuance is often highly correlated with "mind-numbing inaccessibility," unless you're as interested in the topic as I am. (I love Daniel Boyarin's work on Jewish-Christian relations, but when I was on the only person interested in late antiquity in a graduate seminar where he was assigned as reading... well... I was the only person who managed to read the book, with everyone else giving up shortly after the introduction. And that was my second read-through. Because I love him.)

Instead, I would recommend that you read Karen King's book What is Gnosticism?, Williams' Rethinking "Gnosticism" (less accessible than King's work, but more radical, and will go a long way to explaining your question as he spends a lot of the book talking about how the term is used), and if you want a collection of the "gnostic" texts translated, Martin Meyer's The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus is fine. But if you read King or Williams, please do read Pagels so you get a fuller appreciation of the arguments, and so you can choose for yourself.

For a collection of articles, the very cheap--and brand-spankin' new--journal Gnostic is available for sale (I linked you to issue 3).
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:06 PM on April 24, 2012

Pagels's choice not to respond to Mankowski's allegations doesn't mean they are accurate.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:07 PM on April 24, 2012

Jewish literary critic Harold Bloom calls himself a gnostic. It appears that he means by it belief in a fallen, finite god.
posted by goethean at 11:36 AM on May 1, 2012

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