Knowledge has always fascinated Man, his curious nature prods him to seek it, often only to find out that he lacks the virtue to use it. In a very true sense knowledge is in fact power; this seems to be an unalterable constant whether in the ancient world or today. What we are about to investigate in this article is the "Gnostic" religions. Their appeal is a simple one. In the turbulent and unpredictable ancient world, at a time when Man felt that he is but a puppet in the hands of fortune, the Gnostics proclaimed aloud: ‘come to us and we will enlighten you with Knowledge that would give you the power to be in charge of your destiny!’ When we speak about the Gnostics it is important to realise that we are not just speaking about a group of people, but in fact many widely varying groups who fit under this title due to their adherence to a common set of beliefs. Keeping this in mind is of utmost importance, for our research will not be a concise examination of the in-and-outs of every sect but will be in the shape of a survey of the general trends of Gnostic beliefs. Early Christianity will also play a role in our research for two reasons; first, the two religions often collided in the first four centuries, secondly much of Gnostic imagery and theology is adapted from a Jewish/Christian context. In a way, Gnosticism is the best example of Hellenic Syncretism.[1] It was a blend of Platonic philosophy, ancient gods, and a pinch of every school of thought at the time. It existed long before Christianity, but it didn’t seem to be as highly individualistic as we come to know it till the beginning of the Christian Era. What we mean by this is that till the Christian era the groups which we now identify as "Gnostic" would have been just another mystery cult, for they do share many similarities with them. In a way Christianity defined, or at least created a renaissance in Gnostic circles. The evidence of this is actually very straightforward. First, almost all Gnostic groups we have identified use Christian titles, as well as the Jewish/Christian scriptures. Secondly, the Gnostics themselves claimed Christian Origins. The best example of this is in THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS in which Jesus takes Thomas to the side and ‘enlightens’ him. Thus, they didn’t claim to just have any knowledge, but for many (not all) the knowledge they possessed was the true knowledge which stems from the true instructions of Jesus Christ. In effect they claimed to possess the true Krygma; the true essence of the Christian message.

As mentioned above, Gnosticism is indeed older than Christianity. Thus Christianity didn’t create Gnosticism, but as a result of Christianity Gnosticism reinvented itself. The obvious reason behind the coming of Christianity and the reinventing of Gnosticism was, of course, the person of Jesus Christ. The answer to the question of who He was and what was His role in Salvation, was the dividing line between Gnosticism and Christianity. Thus, what we are examining in effect is the concept of Christ as Savior. In the Christian/Jewish mentality, salvation accomplishes two things. First, it must fulfill the judgment of God against humanity, which is death as a punishment for sin. Secondly, it is a process of restoration. The patristic fathers always conceived man as a divine being in that his natural state is to be with God as Adam was before the fall. Thus it is not only enough to atone for the sins of humanity against God but also reconcile the two; and consequently restoring Man to his original state. To accomplish these two tasks certain criteria must be fulfilled; the Savior must be human, for He must die on behalf of the sins of humanity. He must be pure, for otherwise His death would be a natural consequence of His sins. He must also be Divine, for how else could He be the intercessor, the intermediary who would reconcile God and Humanity? In the Christian framework Jesus Christ being Son of God and Son of Man, being without sin, and actually dying and rising from the dead, makes Him the Savior. He did enlighten humanity with His teachings, but the actual salvation was through His deeds and not His words. To the Gnostics, however, Salvation had a totally different meaning. Salvation was to be saved from uncertainty, and to return to our origin "the One" or as it was called earlier "The Good," and the way this was accomplished was through the revelation of secret knowledge. Thus the deeds of the savior figure, whoever he is, are quite unimportant; what is of absolute importance, however, are his teachings. This gave rise to a number of heterodox doctrines that the Christian Church tried to combat. Among them was the Doceitic doctrine which maintained that Christ was on earth only in appearance, almost like a hologram, and did not actually take flesh, and certainly was not crucified. In the Gnostic system this doctrine would have absolutely no impact on the concept of Salvation, actually it was a necessity; who would think that a spirit would assume the lowly flesh if it didn’t have to? However, such a doctrine in the Christian framework would invalidate the whole idea of Salvation, thus we see frequent attempts in many writings aimed at destroying such doctrines.[2] Another great example which illustrates the two contradicting mentalities of Gnosticism and Christianity is the figure of Judas; who was seen in two completely different lights. To the Christians he was the greatest of traitors, to the Gnostics he "alone knew the truth better than the other apostles {and thus} he accomplished the mystery of the betrayal."[3] There were also those who denied the Virgin Birth as well as the Resurrection, which makes sense, for "if anyone accept not His virgin birth, how shall be accept His resurrection from the dead?"[4] Again, these Gnostic doctrines fit nicely into their framework, but in the Christian context they would deem the whole notion of Salvation invalid.

In all Gnostic sects, Platonism played a crucial rule. The titles and individuals referenced were usually Christian, but the whole theology of salvation, and the world-view was definitely Platonic.[5] To reconstruct the theological structure of the Gnostics is a job best left to the experts, here we are mainly relaying on the description given by J.N.D. Kelly in his EARLY CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES, which is actually one of the best descriptions we have come across. Simply put, the Gnostics/Platonists believed that there was "The Good" from which a variety of emanations (Aeons) were given off. They, the Aeons, in turn are in a sequential order, which is determined by the Aeons’ knowledge; the more they know the higher up and thus closer to ‘the Good’ they are. Each of these entities is aware of those under him, but is unaware of anything above him. They serve as the intermediaries, which we have to bypass on our journey to "The Good." As for us humans, we are actually the sons of The Good and have been separated from him, and are given these bodies almost as a punishment, for in essence we are spirits. In order for us to once again be reunited with The Good, we must gain the secret Gnosis, which will allow us to bypass all the Aeons and also to bypass the most ignorant of which, who is the Demigure who created this material world and enfleshed us. The Gnostics believed that this secret knowledge was transmitted by saviour figures, which included Seth, Enoch, and Jesus. The knowledge was often in the form of names. This is somewhat difficult for the modern individual to understand, we think of a name as simply that. However, in ancient times this was not the case. A name was in a way one’s whole being. Actually, this is a very old notion that predates the Hellenistic age and stems from the religion of the Ancient Egyptians. At any rate, knowing the name of the Aeon didn’t just give a person knowledge of him but also power over him so that the Aeon no longer became an obstacle in the souls’ return-voyage to The Good. They simply saw names in a light which we in this present age do not even consider, to them names and letters which compose them are not just sounds but "they are letters of the truth which they alone speak who know them. Each letter is a complete like a complete book, since they are letters written by the Unity, the Father having written them for the Aeons in order that by means of his letters they should know the Father."[6] The next obstacle in this maze of names and numbers is that the Aeons and gods have the names of adjectives and verbs but are used as proper nouns; thus Terror, Error, Oblivion, Anguish, and All are really individual deities. And to further complicate the problem many of them come into being as a result of their adjective meaning, for instance, Anguish and Error are said to come from Ignorance of the Father.[7] Even the ones which are given the name of nouns have to be seen and understood in a different light; for instant the Cross is not just the crossed wooden structure which Christ was crucified upon, but it is also a living intellectual entity. To further complicate the reading of Gnostic literature, as if it wasn’t complicated enough, certain groups recognized different titles as representing different entities. The best example of this is the Christian title of Christ which is "Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ," to the Gnostics the "Lord" was one being, "God" another, "Savior" another, "Jesus" another, and "Christ" yet another entity. This labyrinth of names (and numbers) was one of the points by which Christian writers stressed the foolishness of Gnosticism. St. Ireaneus himself commented that "such things really are too much for even a ‘woe’ and ‘alas’..."[8] Besides how to get saved, the Gnostics also defined who would get saved. They defined three types of men; the spiritual, the carnal and the ones in-between (the Soulish). The spiritual ones were said to be saved regardless of what they do, the carnal were assumed to be beyond salvation, and the in-betweens were believed to be capable of salvation if they followed the Gnostic way and played by the rules. This doctrine of some being saved regardless of what they did caused many to live reckless lives. However, this made the Gnostics seem even more heathenistic, thus as Ireaneus puts it even "the most perfect among them (the Gnostics) shamelessly do all the forbidden things."[9] From the Christian standpoint, the Gnostics were "injected by Satan in order to deny the baptism of rebirth unto God, and to destroy the entire faith."[10] The Gnostics were seen as the doers of "violence to the good words [of Scripture] in adapting them to their wicked fabrications."[11] In a way the Christians of the time were confused and angry since, in the words of Ireaneus "they [the Gnostics] speak the same language we do, but intend different meanings."[12] The Gnostics were even accused of not really being true believers of what they profess, for they seemed to be "unwilling to teach these things to all in public but only to those who are able to pay a large sum for such mysteries!"[13] As for the claim that the Gnostics had the true Tradition, the Christian Church through Ireaneus stated that the Gnostics differ among themselves in doctrine and tradition[14] yet the Church "though disseminated throughout the whole world ... believes these things as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; she preaches, teaches and hands them down harmoniously, as if she possessed but one mouth."[15] In other words; "the tradition of the Apostles, (is) made manifest as it is through all the world, (and) can be recognized in every Church by all who wish to know the truth."[15a] It is therefore available and apparent to all and not just to a select few.

In this section we will try to get a better understanding of Gnostic theology, and also observe first-hand how Christianity was assimilated into the Gnostic scheme. To accomplish this task, special attention will be paid to the GOSPEL OF THOMAS and the GOSPEL OF TRUTH, the latter being ascribed to the famous Gnostic teacher Valintanian. As mentioned above, names were a central theme in Gnostic teachings. Everything can be explained by their aid. The existence of god, "The Father,"[16] himself can be explained by the use of this name-theology. For "He gave a name to himself since he sees himself, he alone having the power to give himself a name, for he who does not exist has no name."[17] Thus the Father alone, having knowledge of himself, is self-existent and through his utterings (which can also be understood as his Aeons) everything came into being. However, we as humans have lost the knowledge of the Father, thus the Father sent to us the Word from the Pleroma[18] and through him we once again gained the knowledge of the Father and thus our deficiency, or lack of knowledge, "no longer exist(s)."[19] As for those who do not know of the Father; ... he who is ignorant until the end is a creature of Oblivion, and he will vanish along with it. If not, how is it that these miserable ones have no name, (how is it that) they do not have the Call? Therefore if one has knowledge, he is from above. If he is called, he hears, he answers, and he turns to him who is calling him, and ascends to him.[20] In this manner The GOSPEL OF TRUTH speaks about salvation, in a way, the latter statements wouldn’t be too much out of place in a Manchian/Augustinian/ Calvinist framework in which predestination plays such a crucial role. There is first a calling from god, then the person ‘hears,’ ‘answers,’ and then ‘turns to him who is calling him.’ The theme of predestination, which can also be found among the Stoic Philosophers of the time, is made even more manifest in the revelation that the Father is the one who "assigned"[21] the Pleromas their destinies. The GOSPEL also maintains that those "who are to receive teaching [are] the living who are inscribed in the book of the living"[22] The GOSPEL OF TRUTH also offers some interesting insights into the different currents of thought of the time. At one point it maintains that the "name of the Father is the Son"[23] and proceeds to give a theology of the Father and the Son much like that of the Monarchians[24], whom the Christian Church was fighting at the same time (2-3rd centuries). However, where the "Truth" is to be understood as the "Son", the Gospel also provides a semi-Trinitarian view by stating that "... everyone loves the Truth because the Truth is mouth of the Father; his tongue is the Holy Spirit, He who is joined to the Truth is Jointed to the Father’s mouth by his tongue, whenever he is to receive the Holy Spirit."[25] It is apparent that the Gospel doesn’t have, and doesn’t really try to form a concise theology as far as the figures of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are concerned. At one point it maintains that the Son and Spirit are mere Aeons, at another that the Son and the Father are one and the Same, and at yet another it maintains a Trinitarian approach to the whole subject. Before we move on to the GOSPEL OF THOMAS, we would like to spend a little time on the TREATISE ON RESURRECTION, which is a great example of how Gnosticism is actually a conglomerate of groups held together only by the platonic aspect to their theology, and are differentiated as to how much and which aspects did they assimilate from Christianity. It still retains a strong predestinational tone; "therefore, we are elected to salvation and redemption since we are predestined from the beginning not to fall into the foolishness of those who are without knowledge."[26] What makes this Treatise standout, however, is its concept of the flesh. Like good Gnostic prose it maintains that one "received flesh when (he) ... entered this world,"[27] but it also affirms that the flesh will accompany the person into the afterlife; "why will you not receive flesh when you ascend into the Aeons? That which is better than the flesh, which is for it (the) cause of life, that which came into being on your account, is it not yours? Does not that which is yours exist with you?"[28] This idea of the unity of the flesh and the spirit is one which most Gnostic groups do not adhere to. Flesh, being matter, is usually seen as being evil and a hindrance to the spirit in Gnostic eyes. This however is in direct contradiction to Christian doctrine. St. Ireaneus, himself, in his PROOF OF APOSTOLIC TEACHING gives one of the most readable accounts of the unity of the flesh and the body, and he does so to contrast and with the aim of disproving the usual Gnostic position which maintains their separation.[29] This break with from the orthodox Gnostic position as seen in the TREATISE, demonstrates to us how close the Gnostic and Christian teachings intermingled. Perhaps the most important, and certainly the most famous, account, which demonstrates the peculiarities of Gnostic theology, is the GOSPEL OF THOMAS. It is divided into 114 verses (actually they are better described as small chapters, each composed of a few lines) which are arranged somewhat haphazardly. In verses 2-4 the main theme is that nothing will be covered and everything will be revealed. And what is revealed? Well it is the secret knowledge which Jesus told to Thomas, and Thomas alone.[30] In this Gospel there are a great number of verses which are found in the four canonical Gospels, almost word for word (v. 8, 9, 20, 26, 34, 35, 41, 44, 54, 73, 86, 94, 96,). A second group of verses seems also to have origins in the four Gospels, but are in fact a summarized account of what is in the canonical Scriptures; v. 63 is a great example of this in which Thomas takes two sentences to relate what took Luke five verses. The GOSPEL also seems to have some verses which have been innocently doctored, in that the changes in them do not really amount to any theological doctrines. A good example of this is verse 47 in which Jesus is speaking about how one cannot serve two masters, this verse starts with the illustrative remark that "A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows." The authenticity of this sentence, as being that of Christ, is dismissed by the scholars in the Jesus Seminar, [31] but nevertheless it doesn’t really change the meaning of the verse one way or the other. It just adds an illustration which makes the teaching seem more real to the mind of a reader. Another variety of verses begin as they would in the canonical Gospels, but end in a surprising manner, verse 107 (also see verse 100) is such a verse. It depicts the story of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep and went to look for the lost one. When he found it, he said to the sheep, "I love you more than the ninety-nine." We would also like to mention verse’s 30 and 31 which are somewhat awkward following the precedence set by the puzzling, or interesting, verse 7; "Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And fool is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human." Now, let us look at what makes the GOSPEL OF THOMAS Gnostic. Already in verse 11; "... when you are in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one, you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?" we get our first firm connection to Platonism. This idea, that we are in fact half of the complete being we once were, is explicitly stated in Plato’s SYMPOSIUM in the speech of Aristophanes. Another strong indicator of Gnostic/platonic thinking is found in the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls which is evident in verses 49 and 50. Again, this doctrine (which was one of the reasons the great Origen was ostracised) fits perfectly the Gnostic scheme, in which we existed in the beginning with the father, are exiled in the flesh, and aim to return to him, our origin, once again. This Gospel is also peculiar as to its stances. In verse 27, in which the readers are commanded to keep the Sabbath, and verse 53 which calls circumcision of no importance. It seems to agree with St. Paul’s stance on circumcision, but retains the Judaic imprint of verse 27 which was the mark of Ebonites [32] and thus really contradicting the universally held Christian ideal of celebrating Sunday as being the new and true Sabbath. Finally, we cannot speak about the GOSPEL OF THOMAS without mentioning verse 114: Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heave." [33] It probably doesn’t take a genius to see that this is not exactly the message given in the Canonical Gospels. Even the Scholars in the ‘Jesus Seminar,’ who by and far have a very liberal view point, do not see this as, at all, presenting the teachings of Christ. What it does give us is a glimpse into the mentality of certain Gnostics towards women. This has been but a brief glance at the labyrinth of Gnosticism. The conflict between it and Christianity lasted into the fourth and fifth centuries (maybe even later). Throughout this period of time the Gnostics experienced a revival (especially in the 2-3 centuries) followed by a gradual decline in popularity, and were in fact persecuted as Christianity settled. As for the Christian Church, She gained much from the Gnostics, in that they forced her to systematically defend her doctrines; and in the process, also to define the first canons of the New Testament. To both the early Christians and the Gnostics Platonism played a large role. This can be seen through the influence of the two most influential men of the period, Plotinus and Origen. Both were contemporaries and students of the same master, Ammonius Sacca, and it was under them that Neo-Platonism was established. However, for Christians, philosophy was a way of describing their beliefs, and not the other way around as in the case of the Gnostics. At times the lines seemed murky, but much more often than not the lines of contention were clearly drawn.