How the root of apostasy came into being.
Readership: All; Christians;
Author’s Note: This series received some input from Ed Hurst at Radix Fidem.
Reader’s Note: This post is the first in a series on Gnosticism.
Length: 1,000 words
Reading Time: 3.5 minutes
The theme for the month of October is Gothicism and Gnosticism. I went off schedule with the news about Taiwan and China and a couple other hot topics that came up, but other than this, I’ve already written a few posts this month that offered some examples of Gnosticism. However, I doubt that any readers have identified it as such, even though I announced this as the theme.
Gnosticism has had a vast influence in our modern culture which Christians are hardly aware of. In this post, I’ll highlight the basic history of Gnosticism in order to illustrate its foundations. In upcoming posts, I’ll build on this history to describe Gnosticism in simple layman’s terms. I’m sure I’ll offend any experts on the subject with blanket assumptions and crude logical associations, but it’s my intention to cover what is important for us to know about Gnosticism and hopefully bring our understanding up to speed.
I’ll start off with some common information about Gnosticism on Infogalactic that captured my attention. I’ve copied some excerpts here for the reader’s convenience, followed by some explanations that should fill in the blanks.
“Gnosticism (from Ancient Greek: γνωστικός gnostikos, “having knowledge”, from γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge) is a modern name for a variety of ancient religious ideas and systems, originating in Jewish milieus in the first and second century AD. Based on their readings of the Torah and other Biblical writings, these systems induced that the material world is created by an ignorant emanation of the highest God, trapping the Divine spark within the human body. This Divine spark could be liberated by gnosis of this Divine spark.”
Ed clued me in to some of the history that appears to be selectively omitted from abridged online sources. Gnosticism is rooted in the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.
During the diaspora in the centuries leading up to Christ, Judaism made a sharp departure from the religion of the Old Testament, and incorporated elements of Persian Zoroastrianism* and Greek philosophy (Hellenism), resulting in a body of rational and legalist speculation that deduced rules from Old Testament documents (the Talmud), and thereby dismissed the mystical nature of faith. This was the religious Judaism of Jesus’ day.
The introduction of Hellenistic rationalism was not the only pagan tendency to influence Judaism as it was still forming up through the time of Christ. There was already a Western brand of “mysticism” that claimed to be esoteric (see Western Esotericism), but upon examination, appears to be little more than a way to incorporate intuition as a source of insight, and pretend that it is something higher than mere intuition.**
Jesus’ testimony aroused the awareness of the mystical within the Pharisees of that time. In order for the Jews to justify rejecting the claims of Jesus to be the Messiah, they had to redefine what the Hebrew mystical approach said about Him. They also needed for Judaism to silence valid Christian criticism, and the raw guilt of having killed their Messiah. A revised form of “Jewish Mysticism” grew out of these motivations.
Here, the story gets more complicated. The Judaizers whom Paul warned Peter and the early Christians against (See Galatians 2:14) were running around the Mediterranean Basin trying to undermine the growth of Christianity and drag the churches back under the Talmud. The Judaizers would have been content, as a second option, to simply disrupt church teaching and get them lost chasing mythology. Any kind of mythology would do. Thus, there arose a number of false teachers who incorporated elements of the western version of pagan Gentile mysticism (which was mostly interpretive beliefs based on intuition**) into the revised concept of “Jewish Mysticism” in an effort to undermine the early church with heresies. It even confused many of the early witnesses of the Christian gospel, including St. Peter! (The Apostle Paul was respected as one of the few men who could sort it all out due to the fact that he was once a highly esteemed Pharisee.) As a result, a great many churches had serious problems with pagan religious philosophies, and this confusion endured for the next few centuries. Remnants of these philosophies have had enduring popularity up to the present day. For example, Valentinianism is still celebrated as Valentine’s Day.
“The Gnostic ideas and systems flourished in Mediterranean in the second century AD, in conjunction with and influenced by the early Christian movements and Middle Platonism.”
From all this mixing and mingling, there arose several schools of thought that eventually coalesced into Gnosticism. During the Dark Ages, Gnosticism developed further along these lines and eventually became an entirely different beast of its own, contributing to the later appearance of Kabbalism in the 12th century.
“After the second century a decline set in, but Gnosticism persisted throughout the centuries as an undercurrent of western culture, remanifesting with the Renaissance as Western Esotericism, taking prominence with modern spirituality. In the Persian Empire Gnosticism spread as far as China with Manicheism, while Mandeism is still alive in Iraq.”
* Also of note, the concepts of demiurges, aeons, syzygies, and positive/negative and male/female pairs (e.g. Yin-Yang, which is associated with Buddhism) also developed from the eastern esotericism of antiquity.
** Intuition is a valid human talent for pattern recognition and extrapolation. It enables shortcutting, leaping across logical steps to a solution that is typically a valid extrapolation without having to actually examine every step in detail. However, Western mysticism esteems intuition as something that is supposed to approximate classical mysticism. However, these two faculties of awareness are not the same.
For more reading on Classical Gnosticism, please refer to the following lengthy articles.
- The Orthosphere (T. F. Bertonneau): Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism (2015-05-16)
- The Orthosphere (Kristor): True Gnosticism (2015-11-05)
- Zachary Fruhling: Understanding Gnostic Philosophy: Aeons and Emanationism vs. Creation Ex Nihilo (2021-07-30)