Al SeegerWhat is Gnosticism? This question has no easy answer, and scholars have debated over it for years. To solve this problem, if one considers it a religion, certain guidelines must be laid down. There are some traits common to religions around the world, so to answer the question of what is Gnosticism the scholar can put this belief system up to the following criteria: creation and cosmology, use of myth, ethics, salvation, eschatology. Most importantly, though, is the key religious experience.
Religion and Culture of New Testament Times
By using these guidelines, distinctive features in virtually any of the world's religions can be drawn. Such guidelines can also help define Gnosticism, but the scholar will still run into some problems. Since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, the beliefs of this religion have been easier to define. Previously, all we knew about Gnosticism came from the people who despised them. Thus, a clear, unbiased picture of this religion is impossible to obtain from these sources. The NHL has given us a clearer picture, but one must remember the term "Gnostic" is a later invention, and one that far predates the discovery of the NHL. However, not all texts from the NHL can be considered Gnostic, so a text must be carefully examined before it can be classified as Gnostic.
Gnostic cosmology also varies, but the common theme of a number of heavens can be found in all accounts. The exact number of heavens is not clear, but there are at least seven and perhaps more. Each of these heavens is guarded by a being know as an Archon. These entities are responsible for extracting a password from the soul attempting to return to the Father. As The Apocalypse of Paul illustrates, the soul that fails to give the correct password is sent into the world to be reborn. Above all the heavens is the plenora, or light. This is the home of the Father and the realm all Gnostics aspire to reach. There is also mention of an underworld and an abyss, but the their purpose is not known. Possibly, these realms may have been borrowed from Greek, Jewish, and Mesopotamian sources.
King also mentions the works of Hans Jonas, who views Gnostic myth as artificial, or consciously constructed. Why? The Gnostic use of myth supports their cosmology. In addition, it also tends to re-shape the ideas of the Gnostics' cultures. The idea that the material world is the product of an evil creator who seeks to enslave humanity is present in many Gnostic myths, and sometimes appears to be a revolt of sorts against Jewish religion. However, this does not mean that all Gnosticism is a harsh critique of Torah! Gnosticism draws just as much off of Christian and pagan tradition as it does the Jewish tradition.
For example, On the Origin of the World and The Apocryphon of John both go into long discourses on the creation of the universe. They also contain narratives on the fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise. The description of the Cherubin in Orig. World 105.10 mirrors the descriptions of the living creatures in the book of Ezekiel. The concluding line of the same paragraph mirrors the divine throne room scene in Isaiah 6, with the snake like Saraphim angels praising God continuously. However, other texts like The Hypostasis of the Archons focus on pre-creation mythology, or what happened before recorded time. Such narratives are not unknown in the ancient near-eastern world. However, the Bible deals little with the matter. Scattered throughout the Old Testament are references to God battling a cosmic dragon and the waters of chaos, bringing to mind the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish. But since Genesis lacks a pre-creation battle narrative, it is possible the Gnostics were more influenced by pagan creation myths than the creation account in Torah.
Gnostic pre-creation mythology is an important, underlying factor that shapes this religion as a distinct belief system. The Gnostics believed the human soul was light from the perfect, unknowable entity that needed to return to it's source. Since the world's creator is evil, so the created must be evil as well. To the Gnostic, the physical world should be shunned, for the individual must make every possible effort to escape it. Gnostic wisdom literature, like The Gospel of Thomas, often compares this place to a garment, which must be shed; or else land that is being used, but does not belong to the user and must be returned.
Many Gnostic myths are clearly influenced by Judaism. One theory to account for this is that Gnosticism started as a Jewish spiritual/philisophical revolt. While some scholars believe Jewish Gnostics came later, there is no reason to believe Jewish Gnosticism wasn't an early development. Israel has a history of conquest and exile. At times, they felt they were in God's favor as they took over the lands of their neighbors. But sometimes, the Jews no doubt felt God was angry with them as they were taken over by a foreign nation. So after a few hundred years of being defeated and oppressed, some Jews no doubt began to think their beloved LORD was not the god he claimed to be. The world that Jesus was born into, as well as which Christianity and Gnosticism evolved in, was a hostile place under the rule of the Romans. One of the functions of myth is to make sense of the world, to make the individual feel "safe" during a confusing time. But after long periods of persecution, the idea of an all-powerful god who claimed to favor a patriarchal tribe of desert nomads was no longer working. It seemed God enjoyed watching his people struggle. Yahweh lost his credibility. The Gnostic reasoned the LORD from the all-powerful creator into a flawed, ignorant god who had no idea of the forces more powerful than he was. The Jewish Gnostics could interpret and construct their myths around this notion.
The Gnostic cosmology and world view also make the Gnostics seem amoral. To them, the material world is evil and temporary, something to be discarded. In a world where nothing is permanent and everything is evil, assistance for the poor and downtrodden would seem useless. After all, their salvation would depend on gnosis, so if the afflicted soul couldn't pass the Archons, it was his own fault, not the problem of the Gnostic. Hans Jonas records part of a statement by Irenaeus, where he informs the reader that, for the Gnostic, "…it is impossible for the earthly element to partake in salvation… (Jonas, page 270)." Later on, Irenaeus claims "...'the most perfect' among them do unabashed all the forbidden things of … Scripture… (Jonas, page 271)." However, given Irenaeus' attitude towards the Gnostics, such a statement probably contains his own colorings.
Irenaeus also classifies a Gnostic ethic in such a way that it almost seems he's talking about Hinduism (though the chance of any influence between the two religions is slim to none). He says the "…souls in their transmigrations through bodies must pass through every kind of life and every kind of action" (Jonas, page 273). In Irenaeus' understanding, the Gnostic must therefore indulge in everything. To be saved, he must sin. He must learn the role of the poorest farmer and the wealthiest merchant. This idea is similar to the Hindu caste system. The soul aspiring to enlightenment must first rid itself of all debts and obligations. But the Gnostic has the potential to be impeccably moral. The Gnostic seeks to be like the light and return to it. Irenaeus makes a statement that explains this, but he quickly adds a few extra words to disconnect the Gnostic with any sort of morality. He says "…it is impossible for the spiritual element (which they pretend to be themselves) to suffer corruption, whatever actions they may have indulged in" (Jonas, pages 270-1). He then illustrates this logic by comparing this spiritual element to a bar of gold dipped in filth, which will preserve its value and be uncorrupted by the filth. Irenaeus' own prejudices pollute an otherwise beautiful statement. A soul enlightened by the light of the perfect, Living Father mirrors the divine to the point where any sort of immoral action would be impossible, for the soul has tasted the infinite divine and now knows the horror the immoral act would bring. Such enlightenment is not possible from Yaldaboath, for this entity cannot recognize the power greater than himself. He is flawed and imperfect, so he couldn't hope to receive this revelation.
Evidence for this is found in The Apocalypse of Paul, which describes the ascent of Paul into the heavens. Page 23 records Paul's actions on the seventh heaven. While here, he speaks with an old man, who is understood to be Yaldaboath. The old man asks him where he is going, and Paul responds that he is going to the place he came from. The old man continues to question him, and finally the Spirit (possibly Christ) tells him to give him the sign. Whatever this sign was, be it a hand gesture or a drawn symbol, it allows Paul to pass on to the higher heavens. Previously, a toll collector is mentioned on the sixth heaven, an obstacle that Paul passes by command. There is also a scene on the forth heaven in which a soul is tortured, judged, and sent back into the world. Possibly, this can be interpreted that gnosis was not enough for salvation. Perhaps the soul could still be sent down to earth even if the correct passwords were known, if the soul had failed to accomplish righteous deeds or live out any obligations.
Once again, The Gospel of Thomas fills us in on a mysterious aspect of Gnosticism. Saying 50 has Jesus lecturing his audience in such a way that it is clear he is repeating a question and answer dialogue. Three times, he instructs the listeners that to say if asked where they came from, who they are, and what the sign is. The answers reflect three key themes in Gnosticism. First, if asked where they came from, they are to answer they came from the light, reflecting the theme of the light from the pleroma being trapped within the material world and the need to get back. Second, if asked who they are, the correct response is they are sons of the living father. The second answer reflects the Gnostic theme of a creator greater and more powerful than the divinities worshipped in the Gnostics' days. Finally, if asked for the sign of the father, they are to respond that it is in movement and repose. Perhaps this response reflects some sort of meditative tradition in the Gnostic religion.
But such myths of a final battle between the forces perceived as good and those believed to be evil probably wouldn't have been too important to Gnostic thought. The immortal soul can, and in most cases, eventually will return to the light of the Living Father. Thus, the world will only truly end when all the light from Sophia that was given for has returned to the alien God. In a sense, the Gnostic end is the same as the Gnostic beginning: to return to the single, uncorrupted source of life: the True Father.