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2.3.2 Gnosticism

Gnosticism as a Christian heresy

Gnosticism has been described as a Christian Heresy based on a travesty of Christian doctrines, corrupted by magic, loaded with an impossible weight of mythology and crazy thinking. The Gnostic believes that he or she is a spiritual being, “of one substance with the father”. For what the Literalist Christian says of Christ, the Gnostic is free to say of himself. By this they do not denigrate Jesus but they believe that they have discovered the proper dignity of man: that a Gnostic is an elevated being. Gnostics define Literalist believers as “hylic”, that is “material beings” who have no divine light within them. For the Gnostics, the divine light has been imprisoned within the material world, it wishes to be reunited with the Father, and it must be returned where it belongs. To acquire Gnosis (knowledge of where one comes from, into what one has been thrown and where one is going) is to become part of the great cosmic rescue plan. The Gnostic Jesus comes from the spiritual world within and above, appearing to those who are awake. To those who are not awake, who do not have Gnosis, He is only an image made of flesh, and flesh is part of the material world and without life. To the Gnostics, the material world is an image and they are no longer subject to its control. The Gnostic is not part of the universal Catholic Church since he believes that he has a universe within himself. He believes that he is going to the source, and is not interested in the Church and his priests acting as middleman between him and God. The Gnostic distinguishes between the Living Jesus who walked in Palestine and the eternal figure of Jesus who appears as “Light” before Paul on his way to Damascus. The Gnostic believes that Jesus is not interested in the affairs of this world unless they have a direct spiritual bearing. Their Jesus, a spiritual being, only gives information about the spiritual world and the ways to reach it.

This information is described as “occult or hidden knowledge”. For the Gnostic there is no end to personal knowledge or Gnosis of “realities behind the appearances”, whereas the Catholic Church offers a well-defined and limited body of scriptures, universally accepted and accessible to all members of the church alike who, in principle, do not have, and are even forbidden, to read anything else on the subject of religion. The Gnostic believes that at death, his soul would ascent beyond the earth to the source of Light within the Plemora of the father. One would like to know if the living Jesus ever said any of the things attributed to him in the Gnostic texts? In other words, was Jesus’ real message a Gnostic one? It is now believed by many people that even to fully understand the New Testament, one has to be a Gnostic. By this it is meant that the New Testament can be read in two ways. The “faithful people” only see the outer sense of the New Testament’s content, whereas the Gnostics are able to understand the hidden stories hidden into it. In other words, the Gnostics understand the inner sense of the document since they have the power to interpret scripture according to their own experience of the Divine. To the Christian Gnostics, Jesus existed within the Gnostic’s own Being, while his own being existed within the “Light”. Being a child of the “Light” He, in potential or in fact, was Divine. The Christian Gnostics believed that Jesus had revealed the Gnostic’s true self and that was “the root, which is I, the merciful one”. In conclusion, the answer to the question, “Was Jesus’ message Gnostic?” the answer is, “Yes, if you are Gnostic.”

The Gnostic movement, seen as a threat to the Catholic Church, disappeared quite suddenly from the history of the Christian Church. It is true that due to Iranaeus’ work, the Church had the doctrinal justifications needed to expel the Gnostics from their congregations. The bishops, whose authority had been put in doubt by the Gnostics, were always ready to help. As a result, when Gnosticism was expelled from the existing Christian Church organisation, it did not find the necessary resources to create an alternative long-lasting structure. This was probably due to the fact that Gnosticism was not ideologically suited to do this. Gnostics considered themselves the “elect” who, by definition, are very few. Out of the Christian Church, they could only hope to create, at best, some kind of clubs, but certainly not a church.

From the Christian point of view, the most notorious Gnostic was Simon Magus. The apostle Philip, going to preach in Samaria, met him in this country where he was teaching successfully the local people while proclaiming that he was the Messiah. He was accompanied by a woman named Helena, an ex-prostitute that he had redeemed as he said that he would redeem all his followers. From this we learn that the Bible acknowledges that Gnosticism was taught at the time of the Apostles. Later Christian writers gave Magus more importance and regarded him as the father of all heresy, a good teacher and the author or inspirer of a large Simonian literature. It took a long time for the Christian Church to find its way, its doctrine, and its “literalist” creed. The canon was defined in the 2d century, and the final list of the “recognised” Christian literature was decided at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Until then what constituted orthodoxy was unclear; there were many other non-canonical gospels as the first verse of Luke’s gospel and the last one of John’s imply. The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection; in other words, they relate events, which, according to the authors occurred in historical time. The Literalist Christian Church decided in 325 that their content was historically and literally true, and that the members of the Church had to accept to believe them completely. The non-canonical gospels, on the other hand, contain little narrative and they limit themselves to relate Jesus’ teachings, sayings, and responses to his followers’ questions, as their authors understood them to be. Many of these are enigmatic or equivocal since the Jesus of these gospels is the teacher of the Gnosis, of the knowledge that leads to enlightenment.

That Jesus did convey some secret teachings is evident from Mark and Matthew’s gospels. Both of them report that Jesus taught things to his disciples that he did not intend to tell the masses to whom he spoke only in parables (Matthew 13:11). The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, in particular the Gospel of Thomas, might give us the esoteric teachings of Jesus. It is easy to understand why the Church Fathers included only the narrative Gospels in the canon and rejected those dealing with Jesus’ esoteric teachings. They wanted to create a universal church and a religion that everybody could understand. The Gnostics, on the other hand, did not accept authority that would not lead to Gnosis, and those who had already reached it would not submit to any spiritual authority beside that of God himself. Gnostics had teachers who practised initiation rituals, but they did not claim any authority over their followers and disciples.

The Gnostic problem in early Christianity

Gnosticism, although finally rejected by Christianity as heretical, played a major part in the formation of Christian theology during the first three centuries AD. When St. Paul arrived in Greece he believed that he was divinely appointed to bring Christianity to the non-Jewish people of the Roman Empire. However, his new faith was not well received by the Greek intellectuals, especially the resurrection dogma. Whereas the Jews, with their Semitic tradition, accepted resurrection easily as a condition for their belief in life after death, the Greek could not accept this concept. The Greek believed that the immortal ethereal soul (psyche) was imprisoned in the material body (Soma) and, at the time of death, the soul alone had the possibility to escape the material body. St. Paul soon realised that he had to adapt his teaching if he wanted to attract the Greek and other non-Jews to Christianity. To present Jesus to the Greeks, Romans, etc. as the Jewish Messiah would mean nothing to these people. But when he presented Jesus as the Divine Saviour of mankind, the concept was better received after he explained why salvation was needed. For the Jews, salvation meant freedom from foreign oppression, but not by the sacrificial death of the Messiah. To the others St. Paul defined the need for salvation as resulting from the Fall and Sin of Adam. To make his doctrine more acceptable he had to use concepts derived from other religious traditions of his time. St. Paul was able to do this due in large part to his background. Paul was a Jew born in Tarsus, a Hellenid city of Cilicia, he acquired the Roman citizenship, and he spoke and wrote Greek.

Four or many other Gospels

There are hundred of Christian Gospels and not only the four retained by the Literalist Christians. All claims the apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels, including the authors when known, to be mythological. In consequence only the four included in the New Testament claim to be direct account of Jesus’ life written by his disciples. However these four gospels do not agree between themselves on what happened.
– The genealogies given by Matthew and Luke to show that Jesus is from the line of David, as the promised Messiah should are completely different.

– These genealogies state that Joseph is Jesus’ father. Heir author also say that Joseph is not the father and that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was a virgin and God is his father.

– Mark does not mention Bethlehem, the virgin birth or that Jesus’ family descend from David.

– Luke tells us that Jesus was born at the time of the census of Quirinius in 6AD and, for Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod who died in 4BC. There is a contradiction there.

– The cleaning of the Temple, according to John, took place at the beginning of Jesus’ story while Matthew put it at the end.

– According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus was tried and sentenced by the Jewish priests of the Sanhedrin. According to John, Jesus does not appear before the Sanhedrin.

– The Gospels say that Jesus was crucified but St Paul is certain that he was hung on a gibbet and Peter saw him hung on a tree”.

And these are only examples, so we can conclude that the Gospels cannot be the “divine words of God” -as God is certainly not confused- but the work of human beings. Initially, the gospels had not named authors; they were anonymous documents, written in Greek, each of them was the sacred book of a Christian sect. The name of their authors was added later on. They were modified, edited, and adapted to new requirements over time as the study of many old manuscripts has shown. However, they are still inconsistencies between them as we have seen. This could perhaps explain why the Catholic Church, for centuries, prohibited anyone who was not a priest to read the New Testament. This changed with the Reformation.

The Acts of the Apostles, the Letters of Paul, James, Peter, John and Jude and the Revelation of John hardly mention Jesus. But they deal a lot with the Apostles. The Gospels, on the contrary, say very little about the Apostles beside their names, and there are also many contradictions. According to the Literalist Church history, the Apostles played important roles after Jesus’ resurrection in establishing the Church. However Acts only mention the names of nine of them and concentrate on three of them, especially on Peter and Paul (who was not even one of them). Acts is not a good record of the events. The Letters said to have been written by the Apostles Peter, James and John cannot help us either; modern science has shown us that they are forgeries written later on to defeat heresy. St Paul is a historical person but some of his latest letters, the Pastorals, are also forgeries of the second century AD that contradict his first ones. His first letters have been written before 70AD, that is before the Gospels and they are the earliest Christian documents. Paul does not say anything about a historical Jesus, being interested in the crucified and resurrected Christ which importance is mystical. He does not mention Pilate, John the Baptist, the Lord Prayer, the miracles and events attributed to the historical Jesus, or Jerusalem, and he does not link his mystical Jesus to any specific time or place. Paul himself said that he did not meet any man known as Jesus or his Apostles, and he added that he did not get his authority from anyone. In other words, St Paul’s Christ is mythological.

The only evidences available suggest that the New Testament is not a historical history of actual events but the history of the evolution of the Christian myth that can be described as follow:

– The Letters of Paul (about 50AD) describe Jesus as a mystical dying and resurrecting godman.

– The Gospel of Mark (70-110AD) gives Jesus’ myth a first historical and geographical base. Its first version did not mention a resurrected Jesus; this was added later.

– The Gospels of Matthew and Luke (90-135AD) and some details about Jesus’ birth and resurrection and the story is made more beautiful.

– The Gospel of John (about 120AD) develops the Christian theology.

– The Acts of the Apostles (150-177AD) introduces Jesus’ disciples.

– Letters of the Apostles (177-220AD) were forged by the Literalists to fight the Gnostics who did not believe that Jesus Christ was made of flesh.

Strange enough the Gnostic Gospels start where Mark’s original gospel ends. They do not mention the events of Jesus’ life but mainly his secret teachings after his resurrection. In the Gnostics’ view, Mark’s Gospel was dealing with the Outer Mysteries for the use of Christian spiritual beginners. The Gnostic Gospels, on the other hand, were dealing with the Inner Mysteries; they led the initiates from the Literal story to the true Mysteries to the mystical experience of their own death and resurrection, and their identification with the Christ.

St Paul, Gnostic or Literalist Christian?
St Paul influenced Christianity as nobody else before and after. The 13 letters attributed to him and included in the New Testament represent 25% of the Bible and The Acts of the Apostles deals mostly with him.

Paul is described by the Literalists as fighting the heretical Gnostics who, however, see him as one of them, frequently quote him, often describing him as the founder of their groups (for instance the Paulicians who lasted until the 10th century AD). The Gnostics believe that he taught “Pneumatic” initiations and that he initiated a few of them into the “Deeper Mysteries” of Christianity, a secret doctrine of God.

Was Paul a Gnostic? It is a fact that modern technique has shown that 6 of the 13 letters attributed to him are forgeries made in the second half of the 2d century AD.

– The three “Pastoral” Epistles (Epistles to Timothy I, Timothy II and Titus).

– Letter to the Colossians.

– Letter to the Ephesians.

– II Thessalonians.

These six letters are the only ones attacking Gnosticism, and strongly defending and advocating Literalism Christianity. Strange enough too, was the fact that his other 7 letters were described as heretical by the Christian Bishops in the early 2d century. And it is true that they show Gnostic and Pagan influences. Paul was a Jew who was born in Tarsus, Asia Minor, an important centre of Pagan philosophy; he was educated in the Greek culture, he wrote in Greek, and his ministry took place in Pagan cities that had adopted Greek culture.

Jesus, as seen by Paul, was the mystical dying and resurrecting Godman of the Gnostics and not the historical man of the Literalists. It is only in his “Letter to Timothy” that Paul describes Jesus as a living creature; but this letter is a forgery.

The Literalists tried to show that Paul believed in the Second Coming when the dead would come back from their graves in their physical bodies. The truth is that he saw resurrection as a spiritual event that can happen all the time, and he went as far as saying that “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”. For him, Jesus’ passion is a permanent mystical real event and, each initiate Christian who shares in Jesus’ death and resurrection dies to their lower self, and resurrect as the Christ or Logos. Paul’s Jesus is not a historical man, but a symbol of the Universal Daemon of whom we are part.

The Gnostics taught that the Jesus story is in two parts:

– It is an introduction for Psychic Christians initiated in the Outer mysteries.

– It is also a mystical allegory for Pneumatic Christians initiated in the Inner Mysteries.

For the Gnostics, Paul’s Letters encode secret teachings that only the initiated can understand while the non-initiated can only see the literal meaning of the text. Like the Gnostics, Paul teaches that the Mysteries of Jesus replace the Jewish God Jehovah’s Laws, that Jesus has given the Jews a new Covenant with God. He does not preach moral servitude to the law but spiritual freedom through Gnosis.

Paul pro-Gnostic letters oppose the fraction within the early Christian Church, known as pro-Jewish Christians, who believe that the Church should maintain the old Jewish custom of circumcision and follow the Law of Jehovah. Paul does not agree with them. Their disagreement is over the relation between Christians and old Jewish traditions, and if Christianity should be open to non-Jews. At Paul’s time, the battle within the Christian Church was mainly between Christian groups with different views on their relations with Judaism, and not between Gnostics and Literalists. These more traditional Jewish Christians were mainly located in Jerusalem, and there is no evidence that Jesus’ Apostles were part of it.

Gnostic Documents and Thoughts

– Poimandres
A very important Gnostic writing, the “Poimandres”, explains how the soul can find its way out of the physical body to return to its proper place with God. How the ethereal immortal soul of man was bound in the material mortal body was an issue common to many religions of that time. According to the Poimandres, Anthropos, the Archetypal Man, descended on the earth where he cohabited with Phusis (Nature) to produce mankind. This explains the duality of human nature: Man is mortal due to Phusis (Nature) but he contains an immortal element, his soul, due to Anthropos. His condition was not hopeless, as Man could understand his own true nature through Gnosis. Moreover if he lived according to this knowledge, at death his soul could be set free from her mortal prison and ascent to reach union with God, the final goal of those who had Gnosis. Gnosticism was a difficult problem for the early Church as, despite its esoteric concepts and bizarre imagery, it was very popular and presented a real danger to the early Christian Church although Christianity was deeply influenced by the Gnostic and hermetic doctrines.

– Nag Hammadi documents
The discoveries in 1945 of old Hebrew scrolls in some caves on the shores of the Dead Sea as well as in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, brought some direct knowledge of Gnosticism. Most of these documents were of Greek origin and translated in Coptic; they describe Jewish life and thought in the first century AD. They were probably written about 350 to 400 AD but the original from which they were copied were, of course, older, possibly from the 2d century AD. By their nature it is obvious that they were from the library of a Christian Gnostic Community.

– Ptolemy
According to Ptolemy, the aeons or archetypes make up the pleroma, the design of reality. There are 8 principal aeons that produce two subgroups of 10 and 12 minor aeons. The 8 main aeons form 4 pairs of fundamental syzygies, each of them is formed by a male aeon representing the ousia or essence of the syzygy and a female aeon representing the hypostasis or appearance of the syzygy.

The Christian Gnostic path of self-knowledge is the process of returning up the ladder of the four archetypal syzygies. This is, at the same time, an inner and an outer journey of transformation. Inside we increase our understanding of “ourselves” and outside we increase our understanding of others until we finally understand all the levels of existence.

– As uninitiated hylics we are aware of ourselves and others, but only as bodies in the physical cosmos. This produces the eidolon or ego.

– As psychic initiates we understand that the body and the physical cosmos are our “outer” world. We then start to explore the “inner” world of ideas and imagination, seeing ourselves as embodied souls, not only conscious bodies.

– As pneumatic initiates we understand that the inner and outer worlds are the totality of our experience. We are neither the body nor the soul; we are the witness that experiences both.

The realisation of Gnosis is the healing of the primal syzygy. True Gnostics know that the knower and the known are one, that they are the Mystery of God. There is no self and other, no subject and object as all is One. With reaching Gnosis we are not separate anymore from the others or of anything, but at One in the Mystery.

Gnostic and the World

The Gnostics saw the world in a different light. They believed that their perception and experience of it was timeless. Their Being, this self beyond the world, was only temporarily attached to their gross bodies. This awareness, this gnosis, this ability to move from the material world to the source of that “light” which they believed illuminated them, this familiarity with the “Living Jesus” gave them a privileged access to the Divine mind. This allowed some of their writers to say that their work was “God-written”.

Gnosticism Ancient and Modern

Religions agree that man and the world are imperfect but they differ on how to change him. Religious myths are talking about a time when man, God, and nature coexisting in peace and harmony; later man disrupted this idyllic state. Gnostics, on the other hand, said that the world was imperfect from the start and that God, the Creator, was responsible for it. Few people today would admit that they are Gnostics, but Gnosticism did not disappear completely in the first centuries AD, as the Literalist Christians would like us to believe. On the opposite many people have always been active Gnostics including many of the greatest people of the western culture such as Blake, Goethe, Hesse, Jung, Melville, Voltaire and Yeats and many others.

Schools of Christian Gnostics

In the first half of the 1t century AD, there were already three different schools of Christian Gnosticism – the Simonians, Paulists and Ebionites. That suggests that Christianity, in one form or the other, had existed for some time. These three schools were divided in their relationship with the traditional Jewish religion. The Simonians rejected all links with Judaism; the Paulists also wanted to sever all links with Judaism, but they were less radical and saw Christianity as fulfilling and surpassing Judaism; the Ebionites saw Christianity as a Jewish cult, and wanted Christians to follow the Jewish rules and customs. They were, in fact, different wings of early Christianity. These three schools were practising a different Christianity of what we know today. Christian Literalism, which is the base of most forms of modern Christianity, only appeared in the middle of the second century AD.


This Gnostic school was created by Simon the Magus, an early first century Samaritan. He is known as the father of “Christian Gnosticism”. The Literalist version of Christianity has Jesus dying in Jerusalem and from this we assume that Christianity was only a Jewish cult. In fact, many early Christian were Samaritans like Simon. There is no evidence that they linked their Christ myth to Judaism. At the beginning of the first century AD there were more Samaritans than Jews. Their religious tradition was also based on the Books of Moses. They opposed the Jewish Temple cult based in Jerusalem. Simon is believed to have been the most important disciples of John the Baptist. After John’s death, Dositheus replaced him and Simon followed him, both Samaritan Gnostics linked to the Essenes. Simon described himself as a “Christ”, his followers saw him as the “Great Power” made human or the male aspect of the Mystery of God. He always travelled with a female spiritual partner, Helen, seen as the embodiment of the Goddess. Simon and his followers opposed the Jewish Literalists’ personification of God as the Pagan Gnostics disagreed with the Literalist Pagans’ personification of their Gods. For the Gnostics, God is the Great Mystery, the source and essence of all that is. In other words, God is an idea.


Paul is the more revered Christians by later Gnostics. He is the most important inspiration for two schools of Gnosticism of the 2d century AD, those of Marcion and Valentinus. Paulician Gnostics ran the seven churches built by Paul in Greece and Asia Minor. They survived until the 10th century AD and inspired the Bogomils and Cathars.

– Marcion, initially a Simonian, created his own school with Paul at the centre stage as the “Great Messenger”.

– Valentinus always said that he received the secret teachings of Paul via his master, Theudas. On this base he founded his own school of Gnosticism that lasted until the 5th century AD when the Literalist Roman Church closed it.

Paul was so important in early Christianity that the Christian Literalists of the end of the 2d century AD could not condemn him as a heretic. They transformed him into a Literalist by forging some “Letters” attributed to him that made him anti-Gnostic, whereas his real writings make him clearly a Gnostic. Paul’s teachings must be seen at two levels; to the psychics, the first level of initiation, he talked like a Literalist; however, to the pneumatics, those who have gone through initiation, he revealed the real secrets of Christianity in addition to teach them to be aware of the “Christ within”, the one “consciousness of God”. Paul used the same language as the Essenes and this shows that he was in some ways linked to them too. Paul’s Christianity was well accepted by the Gentiles but not by the Jews.


They are also known as “Poor Ones”. Being based in Jerusalem, they wanted Christian Gnosticism to keep its ties to traditional Jewish religion. They believed that Christianity was only for the Jews, and that if Gentiles wanted to join they would have to be circumcised and obey all the Laws of Moses. Paul criticised them and their doctrine. Ebionite Christianity being a Jewish sect made few recruits outside the Jewish community but it survived a few hundred years and influenced Islam. As they were based in Jerusalem, the Christian Literalists, later on, said that they were the original disciples of the historical Jesus. However, even in the 2d century AD when the Christian Literalist Melito of Sardis went to Jerusalem to find the descendants of the original disciples, he only found Gnostic Ebionites.

Gnostics’ Behaviour

Free spirits

What we know about the first Gnostic Christians is through the writings of the later Literalists. Even so, they appear to be eclectic, egalitarians, and rebellious free spirits who attack Jewish Literalists in a provocative way; the exceptions were the more conservative groups such as the Ebionites. Some schools reworked Jewish mythology describing the good ones as bad and the bad as good but other took a less provocative approach. For them the Literalist stage was one step through which the initiates had to pass on the way to Gnosis.


Christian Gnostics were eclectics. The Naassene School taught that there was only one system underlying the mythology of all religions. Their initiates were also initiated in the Pagan Mysteries of the Great Mother. The great Pagan poet Homer was their prophet, and they considered that their Jewish Godman Jesus was another mythical faces of the Pagan Godman known by different people as Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Pan, Bacchus, etc. In other words, the Son of God was known by many different names. The Sethian school of Christianity adapted the Pagan Mysteries of Orpheus and, in Alexandria, some Christians practised the local Pagan Mysteries of the Godman Serapis, and studied Pythagorean mathematics and astrology in the first half of the 2d century AD.

At Nag Hammadi, alongside Gnostic Gospels, one also found some of Plato’s works as well as some others attributed to the mythical Egyptian sage Hermes Trimegistus. In other words, Christian and Platonic Gnosticism were very close. Gnostics were eclectic because they understood that different spiritual traditions used different languages to indicate, as far s possible, their way to reach Gnosis taking into consideration the fact that the Absolute Truth cannot be expressed in words. The Literalists, on the contrary, are slaves of their own words, and they confuse the message with its meaning.


Christian Gnostics were radicals who preached liberty, equality, and fraternity centuries before the French Revolution. Gnostic tradition had always been idealistic in politics and in philosophy, and they were always the proponents of social utopia. Pythagoreans lived in egalitarian communities where properties were held in common and women were treated as equal. The Stoics lived in communities of equals living in harmony with the divine order of things. Christian Gnostics followed their hearts and rejected any external authority. They had no ecclesiastical hierarchy like the Literalists, but cast lots to select their leaders.


Gnostics chose to ignore the social norms of their time. Some, as the Cainites, practised ascetic abstinence while the Carpocratians adopted libertine indulgence. The Carpocratians saw sexuality as the celebration of the union of God with the Goddess, and they were known for sometime practising sacramental nudity in their churches and even ritual intercourses. The Literalists were shocked by these practises. It is true that some schools practised them but this was not the general rule, and most Gnostics were not immoral; liberal Gnostics said however that moral laws are unnecessary social conventions because Man is good by nature especially when they have reached Gnosis.

The Major Schools of Gnostic Thought


All that is known about Valentinus is that he was born in Egypt around 100 AD, that he taught in Rome from about 135 to 150, and that he went back to Alexandria where he died around 150. He was a Christian philosopher who also wrote poetry. Valentinians said that they followed the Christian creed but with many reservations; their main sins, according to Tertullian, were pride and presumption. Valentinus taught that the Literalist Christian teaching was too simple and basic, and aimed only to keep the people subject to the Demiurge. The Valentinian definition of the One God was not exactly the same as that of the literalists, and they refused to recognise the bishops and priests’ right to be the only ones to speak in His Name.


Marcion was a rich ship owner of Pontus on the Black Sea, and also a Bishop. He was excommunicated from the Roman Church for his heretic beliefs. He was in Rome between about 150 to 160 AD. He had a large following and by the end of the 2d century there were many Marcionite churches in the Greco-Roman world with an ecclesiastical hierarchy, a canon of accepted scriptures and form of worship, and rituals similar to those of what became later the Catholic Church. The Marcionite influence lasted until the 5th century and was an important challenge to the Literalist Church. The Marcionite Church was fundamentally Gnostic and recognised two gods:

– The creator and ruler of the world, the Demiurge.

– A “Hidden” and transcendent god, unknown and unknowable in the world because he had no part in the creation, who offers human beings liberation from the god of creation through his son, Jesus Chris. But this is only an act of grace.

This dualism was absolute and the two gods were not thought to be related, or connected. The Marcionite had their own gospel, the Gospel of Paul, but no copy survived and there is no evidence that Paul wrote it.


Basilides is believed to be the authors of esoteric writings as well as responsible for the disclosures of secret traditions intended for initiates and disciples. Basilides required full dedication from his disciples as well as a five-year period of silence before being accepted.


These Gnostics worshiped Cain and Judas, a murderer and a betrayer. Like Marcion, these Gnostics believed that the Jewish God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, was a minor deity, “the God of Generation”, as opposed to the superior “God of Enlightenment and Wisdom”. The Gospel of Judas was one of the main Cainite books.


According to Irenaeus the members of this movement believed that the souls could not get free of the material world until they had committed every bad deed there is in the world, although some souls could be saved in one life. This amoral conduct was justified by the fact that the inferior deity imposed the moral laws.

– The Gnostic Religions

Very few Christian Gnostics, with the exception of Marcion, thought of creating a religion out of their practices and beliefs. Gnosticism was unsuitable to enter into any kind of religious organisation since no organisation could provide Gnosis. However, it is generally agreed that the Mandaean and Manichaean faiths, that organised themselves in churches, were Gnostic.

a.The Mandaean religion

This religion took its name from the Aramaic word “Manda”, meaning “knowledge”, and Mandaean means Gnostic. This religion started in pre-Christian times and its mythology and theology were based on the Iranian Gnostic distinction between the world of Light -governed by a Supreme Being beyond knowledge- and the world of Darkness -governed by a King of Darkness, a descendant from Rùhå, himself descendant, but opposed, to the realm of Light. The Supreme Being created celestial beings and spheres, each one more degraded that the previous one, ending with the god Ptahil, creator of the world of man. The King of Darkness created his own cosmic spheres inhabited by malign and diabolical creatures. The Mandaean religion was purely Gnostic in its mythology and theology, but it became an independent creed.

b.The Manichaean Religion

Mani, born in Babylon in 216 AD, the founder of the Manichaean religion, probably lived 21 years in a Mandaean community that put great emphasis on baptism. He had a vision at the age of twelve that he would later on found a new religion. Following a second vision at the age of twenty-five, he left the Mandaean community with his father and two disciples and started preached the religion that had been revealed to him. Manichaeism was the most successful Gnostic religion. It did not limit its appeal to a restricted number of initiates, did not present itself as a Christian variant, and did not have any esoteric doctrine. Mani regarded his precursors to be Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus but only because they too had received a divine revelation, even if only a limited version of the Truth that, him alone, had received in full. The concept of Manichaeism is simple in its framework but has a complex mythology. It is much more dualistic than the Valentinian and Basilidian doctrines. According to Mani, dualism was part of his religion’s foundations, in the co-existence of the two opposed principles of Light and darkness, and in the corresponding moral concepts of good and evil. Mani created his version of the Gnostic cosmic drama of the divine fall, exile, and redemption on this simple and absolute dualistic concept. The Manichaeans saw the liberation of the Primal man as the symbol of their own possible future liberation from the Darkness. The Cosmos was created as a closed system imprisoning the powers of Darkness. The soul that has been imprisoned in matter may go through a process of purification. Mani’s myth described the Earth as being made by the bodies of the defeated Archons, while the Sun and the Moon are part of the Kingdom of Light after being taken out of the Darkness. These celestial bodies act as vehicles to carry Light upward as it is separated from Darkness. To do this work of separation, God, at the request of the Mother of Life, the Primal Man, and the Living Spirit, create a fourth god, the Messenger. This God takes first the male and female forms of the Archons who lust for Him and, in the confusion resulting from their passion, they release the Light of the Five Luminous Gods that they had absorbed. At the same time, the Archons release a dark substance -sin- that has to be separated from the liberated Light by the Messenger and the Angels of Light before they can send it above. The dark impurities, or sins, are sent back to earth where the vegetable world is made from it. The animal world, on the other hand, is made of abortions from the Daughters of darkness in their lust for the Messenger. The Ruler of Darkness, seeing that he looses part of the Light he had captured, assembles the remaining Light left to him, and produces two forms similar to the divine image. Those two beings, Adam and Eve, the children of demons, contain all the captive light which is subsequently more and more diluted from one generation of their children to the other, making it difficult for the Messenger to recover it. In summary, according to the Manichaeans, man is modelled on a divine being by devils, and is made of their substance. His procreation is the work of the Arch-Devil. However, man is the focus of the cosmic drama over whom Light and Darkness fight, since Light depends on him for its restoration and Darkness for its survival. In the Manichaean myths, Jesus is the Messenger’s messenger, the agent for the recovery of light. Jesus is sent to convince Adam to eat from “the Tree of Knowledge” so that he discovers his true self and understand the nature of things. Initially Adam listens to Jesus, but soon enough he falls to Eve’s seductions -enhanced by devils. In this way the reproductive process is starting, and Jesus is obliged to deal with the whole human race until the last soul is saved and Darkness has succumbed. Manichaeism did not prevail mainly because of the repressive efficiency and ruthlessness of the Literalist Church. It was really too sublime, nihilistic, uncompromising and demanding, and too complicated for the normal people. In other words it was too Gnostic to be the base for a universal church of long appeal.

c. The Marcionite religion

The basis of Marcionite theology was that there were two cosmic gods. A vain and angry creator god who demanded and ruthlessly exacted justice, had created the material world of which man, body and soul, was a part. This was a change from the usual Gnostic thesis that only man’s body is part of creation, that his soul is a spark from the true but unknown superior God, and that the world creator is a demonic power. The other god, according to Marcion, was completely ineffable and bore no intrinsic relation to the created universe at all. Out of goodness, he had sent his son Jesus Christ to save man from the material world and bring him back home. In contrast to the typical Gnostic claim to a revelatory gnosis, Marcion and his followers saw faith in the effect of Christ’s act. They practiced asceticism to restrict contact with the creator’s world while looking forward to eventual salvation in the realm of the extra-worldly God. They admitted women to the priesthood and bishopric. The Marcionites were considered the most dangerous of the Gnostics by the established church. When Polycarp met Marcion at Rome, he is said to have identified Marcion as “the firstborn of Satan.” Marcion is also well known for his treatment of Scripture. He rejected the Old Testament as the work of the creator God, but he did not deny its efficacy for those who did not believe in Christ. He also rejected attempts to harmonize Jewish biblical traditions with Christian ones. He accepted as authentic all of the Pauline Letters and the Gospel According to Luke after being expurgated of all their Jewish elements. His treatment of Christian literature forced the early church to define an unique canon of theologically acceptable texts out of the mass of unorganized material.

The Legacy of Gnosticism

The Roman Catholic Church had clearly defeated Gnosticism and the Manichaean religion by the 6th century AD. However some traces of Gnosticism survived until the 15th century. Among the many surviving sects, the more important are:
– The Paulicianism movement started in the early 7th century in Armenia. It thrived in the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire for about three centuries, and was a threat to the Byzantine Orthodox Church. It had an ecclesiastical order, it founded churches, and had powerful political and military support. This religion taught a dualism based on the conflict between the creator God, the ruler of the physical and material world, and the true God, Lord of the invisible and future world.

– Bogomil created a nationalist movement that revolted against the imported Byzantine orthodoxy and its materialistic clergy. He preached a return to the original Christian doctrine based on ascetic life, abstinence from all but simple foods, and from marriage and procreation. Bogomilism spread to the Balkan and the coasts of Asia Minor in the 11th and 12th centuries, and to Russia in the 14th century.

– Catharism is seen as a popular reaction of the common people against the rich Roman Catholic clergy of the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe. It has been strongly influenced by Bogomilism that was very well implanted in the North of Italy in the 11th century, and from there it spread to Languedoc.

– Hermeticism and Gnosticism have some similarities, but there are also many differences. Both of them went through a revival in the Renaissance that, after all, was seen as the emergence from the “Dark Ages” of ignorance and dogma. Hermetic revival started in 1460 when the ruler of Florence, Cosimo de Medici, bought part of the Corpus Hermeticum Gnostic document, including the Poimandres, and had them translated from Greek to Latin. The concept of the Divine man of the Poimandres influenced the philosophers of that time and Pico della Mirandola in particular.

The Gnostic Revival

The 18th century Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire praised Gnosticism and professed to believe in it. However only a few of them could be described as such.

– William Blake, the so-called “Light of Reason”, was one of the best poets of his time although few people really understood him. According to him, “Nature is the Work of the Devil” and this meant the whole creation.

– In Faust, Goethe tells us the story of the medieval scholar-magus who is tired and impatient with the constraints and simple satisfactions of life. Faust asks the Devil to help him have a satisfactory life on earth in exchange for serving him in the afterlife. Goethe has the usual Gnostic dualistic view of man. He also was a critic of the Christian Church.

– Hermann Melville, the author of “Moby Dick” described his work as “a wicked book and a book of secrets”. Melville used the usual Gnostic tools of allegory, ambiguity, and irony to reveal and conceal his meaning.

– Existentialism originates from the work of the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and from the German Friedrich Nietzche although some traces of it are found in the books of the 18th century French writer, Blaise Pascal. Pascal was the first to mention the consequences of the Copernican Cosmology, the fact that the earth was not the centre of the universe but only a small part of the physical world that the universe was indifferent to the existence of Man. Pascal recommended to believe in God as there was nothing to loose if he did not exist and much to get if he did. Existentialists, like the Gnostics, regarded the material world with repugnance. The best-known existentialist of the 20th century was the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Even if no existentialist acknowledged Gnosticism as a source or influence on their views there is no doubt that this movement is in line with what the Gnostics have always thought and said.

– W.B.Yeats was well thought off in esoteric literature and many of the poems he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s include Gnostic ideas

– In the same way some work by Hermann Hesse have Gnostic themes and characters that are Gnostic.

– Lawrence Durell too introduced Gnostic themes into his novels.

– Carl Jung wrote the Seven Sermons of the Dead and other mystical unpublished texts at the beginning of his career. Jung described the attainment of Gnosis, of psychic wholeness, as “individuation”. The Pleroma he said, like Basilides did before, is at the same time emptiness and fullness, nothing and everything, nowhere and everywhere, devoid of qualities yet containing all qualities. The created world is separate from the Pleroma although the Pleroma is in it too but the created world is the differentiated world, as distinct from the world of sameness of the Pleroma. Man discriminates qualities in the Pleroma that are really projections from his own being. Differentiation between light and dark, energy and matter, time and space, good and evil, the beautiful and the ugly, are cancelled out in the Pleroma.

The end of Gnosticism

Some Gnostic congregations remained alive for some time but they had to go in hiding to be able to survive. Many Gnostics joined the prophet Mani’s attempt to create a universal religion based on Gnostic and dualistic lines. The Dualists see all realities as being a conflict between the opposing principles of “Light” and “Darkness”, spirit and matter. Mani had his first vision in about 240 AD near Baghdad in modern-day Iraq and he saw himself as the “Apostle of Light”. His religion had Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Gnostic influences. It was very successful but it was also the object of much persecution; it lasted, at least in Asia, until the 13th century.