AN OVERVIEW OF GNOSTICISM
Gnosticism is a term encompassing many similar esoteric religions from the first till around the fifth century in the Mediterranean area and parts of Asia. Gnosticism was marked by the syncretism of existing philosophies, especially Christianity and the Greek thinker Plato. Namely, the Gnostic groups are held together by beliefs in a detached god, with many other divine emanations from this god; the fall of one of these emanations creating the material world. Gnosticism is named after gnosis, a belief shared by all Gnostics. This belief is that a certain kind of knowledge can rescue humans and redeem them, by the help of a mediator and savior god. This definition is sketchy at best, mainly due to the unstructured and varying groups of Gnostics.
The origins of Gnosticism are still relatively vague. It was once thought that Gnosticism was simply a corrupt version of Christianity, but research done in the late 1800s showed that Gnosticism had existed prior to Christianity as a conglomerate of Eastern and Platonic philosophy with some traces of Babylonian astrology.
The basic doctrines of the Gnostics consist of the belief of the emanations of the godhead, usually occurring in male-female pairs called syzygies, individually called æons. The belief in the lowest and last syzygy is most critical to Gnostic belief.
The last syzygy is made by the æons Sophia and Christ, sometimes simply called “Savior” or “Messiah”. It is held by Gnostics that Sophia had grown estranged to the godhead, and in her despair and desperation to return to the fullness of divinity (pleroma) she created both matter and soul. As well as these, she also accidentally created the Demiurge, an ignorant and sometimes malevolent creature usually portrayed with either a lion’s head or a snake’s body, or both. This creature, in turn, made the material world along with various servants to rule the material world, dubbed by the Gnostics as archons. These archons play the role of the demons and angels of the Old Testament.
Some time after this, the æon Christ returns her to her former divinity, and comes to the material world in the form of the human Jesus to show humans how to reach the fullness of the pleroma. The means of this attainment is a direct knowledge called gnosis. Most Gnostic groups considered gnosis to be a direct knowledge of the divine.
There were many different groups of Gnostics, because the religion itself was very unstructured unlike Arianism. The eastern Gnostics, or the Persian school, differed from western groups because it had no overtly Christian elements, and it viewed the material world, and by extension the body, to be evil, as compared to the goodness and purity of the soul.
The Syrian-Egyptian Gnostic school was different in that it considered Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, to be the possessor of special knowledge.
Another school, the Valentinian school, derives its name from its founder, Valentinus. The Valentinian school has one of the most extensive cosmologies of all Gnostic groups.
Although it prospered around the same time as Christianity, Gnosticism cannot be viewed in the same way as being a progression of the human mind to a higher understanding of God. It is a conglomerate of Christian, Greek, and Eastern ideas incorporating a kind of polytheism into a highly esoteric religion. An offshoot of the mystic pagan cults of Egypt and western Asia, its contents did not have the truth and verity that propelled the Christian faith.