This is a Greek word that means “knowledge”; it is a kind of understanding that leads to spiritual salvation. Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian, defined Gnosis as knowledge of God, and regarded all mature Christians as “Gnostics”. After Clement the Christian Church identified Gnosis with a heretical understanding of Christ’s teaching. Gnosticism spread in the Mediterranean region during early Christianity.
The Valentinian Gnostics defined Gnosis in two ways. First, they said that Gnosis is self-knowledge but it is also “the redemption of the inner spiritual man”. As a result the Gnostics believed that self-knowledge leads directly to salvation, or redemption. The orthodox Christians decided that Gnosis, defined this way, is a heretical belief as faith in God, and not only knowledge led to salvation.
The various Gnostic sects define the content of Gnosis in different ways, but all of them agree that the direct discovery of oneself is divine, as gnosis is “self knowledge as knowledge of God”. For the orthodox Christians this is heretical as the individual-self is part of God’s creation and, therefore, cannot be identified with the Creator Himself. The Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic book, states that the man who reaches Gnosis is “no longer a Christian, but a Christ”. This is again contrary to the orthodox Christian doctrine that states that Christ is unique and cannot be duplicated. Moreover Gnosticism, implicitly, is against the attempt to unify the Christian Church under the authority of the bishops. This cannot be expected from somebody who is a Christ.
The Gnostic school taught many practices involving meditation and ritual in order to bring on the experience of Gnosis. The idea that self-knowledge alone can lead to spiritual liberation is heretical to the orthodox Christians, but it is central to Buddhism that believes than the root to suffering is ignorance concerning the true nature of the self. This could mean that Buddhist monks brought Gnosis to the West from India in the first century AD, but there is no historical evidence to prove it. Many esoteric belief systems state that the true nature of the self is divine, and it can be said that the Gnostic movement had a powerful influence on spirituality in the whole world. (7)
Gnosticism came from man’s desire to know God, his secrets, and the mysteries of the creation. Gnostics start with the sacred word, the texts of the religion to which they belong, and decipher them as if they included a secret message or an esoteric meaning. Gnosticism is a kind of hermeticism, and the Gnostics believe that the religious languages and writings are made of sentences, words, images, and structure that have deeper hidden meanings that appear at first. By analysing them correctly, the word of God becomes clear.
Gnosticism aims to reach at the heart of the matter and to search for “roots” and “secrets”, and this lead to meeting evil. The Gnostics combat evil that they find in themselves and in the world. Elucidation of inner misunderstanding leads to elucidation of cosmic misunderstanding. Gnostics are not puritanical or fanatical, but they are looking for the light, which, although invisible, is always present. It is said that they try to identify themselves with God but it is not true. Gnostics only want to discover divinity within them. They believe that man is made of two principles and, to realise its potential, he must try to contribute to the triumph of God. Gnostics do not try to illuminate the mystery of God, but they seek to illuminate themselves. This illumination is not only intellectual, but it is focused on the body of the mystic who is then sanctified.
As a kind of mystical existentialism, Gnosticism is the mother of freedom and it proclaims to be the ally of creative divinity. Man needs to overcome his misunderstanding to get rid of the devil or, in other words, when men find themselves again, evil will be transcended on earth and in heaven. In short, mankind is not the source of evil although it is responsible for its existence, arrogance, and permanence. Gnosticism is the philosophical base of hermeticism. It is part of the quest for the secrets of the universe, it is elaborated in myth, it develops through symbols, and swings between love and despair. The Gnostic wants to become the “Son of God” whereas the alchemist, for instance, wants to be the “son of his own work”, and owns everything for himself alone. Initiation is an individualistic form of existentialism, and Gnosticism is its collective manifestation since the mystic is a member of a group in a community of believers. (6)
It is generally believed that the origin of Gnosticism is Pagan with some Jewish influence. It first came to life in Babylon then spread to Asia Minor and Syria. The early Gnostic books were written sometime before Christ was born, and this leads some experts to say that Christianism is a branch of Gnosticism. They say that Jesus Christ was an “Essenian initiate”, that the Essenes were Gnostics, and that the Bible is a coded text telling of the creation of the world and the coming apocalypse. Like the Manichaeans they believe that good and evil are in conflict, and their “Master of Justice” was a figure like the Gnostic Jesus, a spirit living in an illusory body. However Gnosticism, that reflects man’s physical and spiritual history, could also be compared to most religions since all of them are based on ancient beliefs.
At the beginning of the Gnostic quest the postulants are driven by terrible despair and, at the same time, by a powerful upsurge of love. Gnosticism, like initiation, is not a conversion to goodness but, rather, the transmutation of evil into good and, from despair, to solidarity with other men. Gnostics were against sharing secular power with politicians, this compromise being seen as another kind of evil. They also believed that reality passes through dreams, and that the invisible is made present through myth. In this line of thinking Satan symbolises the mystic’s lack of inner understanding, Mary his virginity, Eve his femininity and the crucifixion his sadomasochism. Souls fell from heaven and are imprisoned in matter; in this way they sanctify matter and make the visible world sensitive to the invisible. The Gnostic quest consists in taking responsibility for the fall and as a preparation for resurrection. (6)
Many ancient manuscripts have been found in this century, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, Israel, and the “Gnostic Gospels” at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. It is believed that the Templars discovered some documents too, and that they kept them secret. Modern Freemasonry has often been described as “Gnostic” but very few people understand why.
The word “Gnostic” (from the Greek word “Gnosis” or knowledge in the spiritual way) is used to day to describe documents classified as heretical by the Christian Church in the past, and outlawed as coming from other religions. This is not exactly true. Christian Gnostic documents include those with Indian, Persian, and other influence as well as those from more traditional Jewish sources. Others are clear and philosophical messages attributed to Jesus. Awareness of oneself, appreciation of nature, and natural sciences are the right way to God for the Gnostic. The Christian Gnostics saw Jesus Christ not as God but as the man who showed the way to reach Him.
Gnostic Gospels date from the same period than the New Testament, but they have been revealed to the modern general public with the publication of the fifty-two papyrus found at Nag Hammadi. These documents date from around 350-400 AD, but many are copies of manuscripts written three hundred years before. Among them was the oldest version known of the Gospel of Thomas that was bought by Professor Quispel of the Young Foundation in Zurich. The other papyrus are now the property of the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Many of the documents were unknown and had been buried 1,600 years ago at a critical time in the formation of the Roman Catholic Church that suppressed them as heretical. At that time Christianity, as we know it to day, was threatened by these Gnostic Christians, and the Orthodox Roman Catholic Church, in order to save itself, banned these heretics and destroyed their writings.
Orthodox and Gnostic Christians interpreted the resurrection of Jesus in two different and opposite ways. The Gnostics described human existence as spiritual death, and the resurrection as a moment of enlightenment that reveals the real truth. Those who understand this concept become spiritually alive, and can be resurrected immediately from death. (this is found in the “Treatise on Resurrection” and in the “Gospel of Philip”). This living resurrection is, of course, similar to the Masonic Third Degree ceremony. The Orthodox Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus’ body followed by its ascension to heaven was witnessed by his Apostles, and then closed to newcomers as His body had left the earth for heaven. As a result the leadership of the Church was restricted to the Apostles and their direct successors who, alone, had the authority to run the Church. Even today the Pope derives his authority directly from St Peter, the first among the Apostles. By accepting the resurrection as a truth, the early Church made certain to keep the religious authority for itself since no one, later on, could have direct access to Christ and be given the same power. The Gnostics called this view of the resurrection the “faith of fools” as, for them, those who believed in this physical resurrection confused a spiritual truth with a physical event. The Gnostic theory of secrets acquired through one own labour had political implications as those who claim to have seen the Lord through inner vision can claim that they have the same, or even better, authority than the apostles and their successors, the bishops, and the priests. Irenaeus the father of the Catholic theology saw it clearly in the second century. The Gnostics also claimed to have access to their own sources of apostolic tradition and, in doing so, their undermine the power of the Orthodox Church. As we can see the interpretation of the resurrection had been a source of controversy in the early Christian Church with the Orthodox believing in physical resurrection. On the opposite part of the Christian Gnostics believed only in a spiritual resurrection and the others in a living one, as do the modern Freemasons in their ceremony of the Third Degree. In this last case it is mixed with a murder and the recovery and burial of the dead body of Hiram Abif. There are many other examples of a direct connection between the Gnostics and the modern Freemasons.