Meaning and Impact of Gnostic Movement

by Jason Shaw
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Introduction

The Gnostic Movement was a charismatic Christian movement where the road to redemption leading to the divine personality of Jesus Christ was established from an extended basis of understanding from pagan and scriptural sources. This movement defined and emphasised the medium for salvation as “gnosis” or wisdom. It has also also invested the status of redemption with knowledge itself. In ancient Alexandria, the adherents of the Gnostic movement lived largely and exercised their control over the Christian inhabitants of that area during the middle of the second century. Basilides, Valentinus and Hearcleon, who stayed in the town of Alexandria between 130-180 CE, pioneered the campaign. Christianity was a religion before the rise of the Gnostic Movement, centred on the universal ways of life as preached by Jesus Christ and Paul. The Gnostic advocates offered numerous interesting insights into the religious tradition and Christianity took the form of a theological religion that could deal with

Important Spiritual and Academic Problems

The founders of the religious Gnostic movement were from diverse backgrounds. Although some members were of Jewish descent and some others belonged to the Greco-Roman race, the majority of the Gnostics were Christians. The Mandaean members came from Iraq and Iran, while “Europe, the middle east, northern Africa and China” came from the Manichaean gnostics. In comparison, Muslim Gnostics from the Islamic world and the Cathars from Western Europe were part of the revolution.

Meaning and Impact of Gnostic Movement

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The Gnostic Movement

“In the Greek language, the word “Gnosis” means “knowledge”. It refers to awareness of the divine world in the sense of the Gnostic movement. The perception of God’s actual experience is known as the highest level of “gnosis” which is not clarified in any of the scriptures. It is left to the spiritual seeker to develop his own relationship with The Creator and be a part of this divine experience. There are actually two forms of gnosis or knowledge relating to the spiritual world: the knowledge of The Supreme Creator and the awareness of special methods of awakening the human soul and lifting it to the higher spiritual realms of existence. According to the main Gnostic literary works, the believers of this philosophy did not originally call themselves “gnostics”. Instead, they preferred to name themselves as “the origins of Seth”, “elightened ones”, “the elect or chosen”, “immovable ones, “perfect”, “the unshakable race”, “the generation without a king”, “the ones who know” and so on. These phrases were derived from their own theological principles.

The Gnostic movement has its own characteristics features and is different from other movements in the history of religions. The term “Gnosticism” does not herald an organized religious order with a particular doctrine for its followers. Instead, there are many schools of religious thought that claim to be members of this movement. Apart from Diem (2008), Brakke (2011) also subscribes to this view. According to the latter, although there is no ancient religion that can be identified as “Gnosticism”, there are remnants of the literature of the Gnostic school of thought.  There are different sects belonging to the Gnostic order with each having their respective theological ideals. The main schools of thought within the Gnostic movement are founded by the four important proponents: “Marcion, Basilides, Valentinus and Mani.”

The various Gnostic sects belong to one of these four schools of thought. Many of these sects have derived their names either from their founders, or from a particular place, or from a symbol or a group of people etc. Although the different Gnostic sects possess different philosophies as their central themes, all of them are dedicated to a common objective of pursuing “gnosis”. All the sects regard knowledge on a high pedestal as a means for attaining enlightenment, at times they consider “gnosis” itself to be a manifestation of salvation and they claim to possess this special knowledge in their own respective doctrines. Some of the different branches of the Gnostic movement include Sethian Gnosticism, Valentinianism and the later formed Manichaeism.

Origin of the Movement

During the early years of the Christian Era (CE), and during the successive two centuries, the eastern part of the Mediterranean world was immersed in a deep spiritual crisis. The Gnostic movement is believed to have been born as a different form of Christianity and Judaism: the two principle religions prevalent among the people of the Roman Empire and the Asia minor. It could also have originated as an independent theological school which later became intimately linked with the ideas of Christianity. The origin of this religious movement has been traced to Syria. During the first century, a group of teachers in the country preached a philosophy that was similar to the ideas of the later Gnostic movement.

Justin Martyr and Irenacus have identified the roots of Gnosticism in the ideologies of Simon Magus, an important personality in the ancient Christian faith. He was primarily a magician who was a native of the country of Samaria. The ancient citizens were enthralled by Maggus’s magical powers and believed that he was endowed with special powers from God. Thus, Magus’s philosophies gained acceptance among the people and they listened to his ideas. The entire nation of Samaritans adhered to his teachings about “the Great Power”. Simon Magus’s philosophies represented the fusion of different traditions. Magus himself was regarded as a living representative of “the Great Power”. During the time of creation, this Power had formed “Thought” first and then created a series of human beings who came to reside in the universe. Driven by a burning desire to establish their supremacy, these forces had then kept their mother “Thought” confined in some female forms. On the other hand, Helen of Troy was recognized as Magus’s female companion who was assumed to have originated from “God” in a similar manner as Athena had been born from Zeus. Sometimes, Selena, the moon-goddess was also identified as Magus’s female companion. These were the basic ideas behind Simon Magus’s philosophies which had a discernable influence on the later Gnostic movement.

Menander (60-100CE), a disciple of Magus carried forward the teachings of his master. Menander’s movement was continued by a person named Saturnius (100-120 CE) who was an Antiochene and a contemporary citizen of Ignatius. Menander and Saturnius believed in the existence of a “Supreme God”: the Father who was hitherto unknown to man. However, there was a difference in the philosophies of the two men. Like the ideas of his master Magus, Menander regarded himself as Jesus Christ, the savior of the human race. On the other hand, Saturnius endeavored to explain the significance of the advent of Christ and his mission on the human world. Saturnius considered the material world to consist of evil matter and heralded that the Jesus Christ had come to liberate the human race from the evil actions of the seven angels. Yahweh – “the Creator of the Universe” was also supposed to be one of the angels.

The philosophies of Menander and Saturnius reveal two important tenets of the Gnostic ideology. Gnostics believed that mankind should be liberated from this imperfect universe comprising of evil matter which has been created by the God of Jews. Christ was born in this world to save his believers from the God of the Jews and vanquish the latter. The savior would also lead his followers to the path of salvation. Secondly, the Gnostic ideal invests real-life circumstances with a dualistic interpretation.   

The Gnostic Philosophy

Towards the close of the first century, writer I. Clement explored the concept of the supreme knowledge as espoused by the principles of Monotheism and Christianity. He wanted to know the origin of human beings, how they were created and brought into this world. Clement also wondered how the Creator of civilization had designed the activities of the world to be in concurrence with the actions of the human beings. The preachers of the Gnostic movement delved further into these questions. They desired to know the origin of man and his ultimate destiny and explored the ways to achieve a state of perfection and enlightenment in the spiritual world. This religious movement had given rise to many sects, but all the sects shared some common ideas among themselves: their opinion of the world, its relationship with God and the methods of attaining human salvation. They believed that God – the creator of the Universe was usually incomprehensible to human beings while only the material world was visible to the ordinary human senses. The two planes were separated by an insurmountable distance consisting of antagonistic elements. However, there was a redeeming element in these ideas as well. The Gnostics believed that their “selves” constituted a “spark of God” and were originally of divine origin. At some stage, the “self” had dropped from the higher plane into the material world, where it had been converted into a sleeping prisoner by the distractive elements. It was only the “Divine Messenger: Jesus Christ” who could awaken and enlighten these sleeping Gnostic identities and help them on their way to the heavenly plane at the end of their existence on the material realm.

Under the Gnostic ideology, only a pious sage who was dedicated to the Service of the Lord could become a representative member of the religious group and was allowed to preach the group’s ideals to the other members. On the other hand, people who had committed sins and those immersed in worldly materialism were denied the privilege of adopting the Gnostic faith in their respective lives. Following this philosophy, Paul had declared to the Colossians that they had shed their previous nature and its associated practices and had adapted the new nature in their lives where the latter had been renewed in knowledge.  The Gnostic philosophy advocated that its members should endeavor to know God directly without the intermediation of religious officials like “bishops, priests, rabbis, imams” etc.

Reaction of the Christian Church

The Christian Church considered the Gnostic Movement as product of the Christian faith. The Fathers of the Church sometimes named the different Gnostic sects after the names of their respective leaders (like Valentinus), or after the names of group designations (like Nicolaitans) or after the names of concepts (like Ophites which in Greek means serpent). The Church inferred that some of the branches Gnosticism for example the Valentinian system had their origins in the ideals of Christianity itself while some others like the branch of the Phrygain Naassenes had adapted the personality of Jesus Christ to their own philosophies. The teachings of Simon Magus were considered to have originated from a common Jewish backdrop similar to Christianity and the Church believed them to have distorted the original message of the Christian religion. Based on these assumptions, the Fathers of the Christian Church did not accept the Gnostic movement within the purview of their religion. The refutation of Gnostic philosophies by the Church Fathers is evident in their writings: “Against Heresies” by Irenaeus in the 2nd century AD, “Panaroism” by Epiphanius in the 4th century AD etc. The work of the Neoplatonic philosophers such as Plotinus’s “Enneads” written in the 3rd century AD bear testimony of the unsupportive reaction of the Christian Church towards the Gnostic movement.

Modern Findings of the Origin of the Movement

However, modern research has shown that Gnostic philosophies existed even in the Jewish period prior to the advent of Christianity. Studies have also unearthed the existence a Hellenistic pagan Gnostic movement. Again, the discovery of the Mandaean sources has indicated the prevalence of an eastern Gnostic movement, separate from the ideas of the Hellenistic Gnosticism. This variety of evidence clearly implies that the origins of the Gnostic ideologies can be traced to the pre-Christian era and their philosophies have not always been influenced by the Christian beliefs.

Similarity with the Hindu Philosophy

The Gnostic school of thought believed that the universe was ruled by three primary forces: “the God of Creation, Yahweh, the goddess of Fate, Tyche and the astral powers of the Sun, Moon, Planets and the twelve zodiac signs”. This group of forces controlled the visible material world which was the residing place of the human beings. On the other hand, the “Divine Messenger” came into this world to enlighten the Gnostic individuals through the power of his grace. The powers of the primary forces were rendered helpless in front of the divine blessings of Jesus Christ. Awakened by this supernatural power, the Gnostic individuals came to acquire the ultimate knowledge regarding the mysteries of the human existence.

The writings of Clement of Alexandria (185 CE) bear proof of the fact, that the Gnostics also explored the possibility of the cycle of birth and re-birth operating in human life. This is similar to the fundamental principles of Hinduism, the religion of the majority of Indians, which is based on the concept of the cycle of rebirth according to an individual’s “karma” (actions). Therefore, the enlightened Gnostic identities came to be liberated from the transient forces of “Fate, Error and Oblivion”. They were able to dispel the dreaded possibility of their reincarnation and thus achieve true salvation. The basic tenets of Hinduism also echo these ideas, where the human soul is freed from the cycle of rebirth, once it is able to neutralize the effects of all its past “karma’s” and achieve “moksha” (salvation)

Resemblance to Greek Religious Ideas

According to the opinion of Tertullion, the Gnostic religious philosophy adhered to the ideas propounded in Matt 7.7. The Gnostics viewed religion as the journey of discovery, where an individual was allowed to search the answers to life’s mysteries. The ancient Greek school of religious thoughts also expounded this spirit of relentless enquiry. In 229 CE, the conservative Christians of Achaia, Greece invited Origen, a proponent of the Gnostic view to engage in a debate with Candidus of Athens. Candidus, was a firm believer of the dualistic religious philosophy and argued that even though it was possible for humans to achieve salvation, the devil being wholly possessed by an evil spirit could never be enlightened. Origen countered this argument by stating that even the devil could achieve salvation because he had the power to distinguish between the desirable and the undesirable actions as proposed by the Orthodox religious philosophy.

Impact of the Gnostic Movement

The pioneers of the Gnostic Movement lived in Alexandria and ideas influenced the intellectual thinking of Christians residing in Italy, Asia Minor and the Rhone Valley. This religious movement attained its peak during the second and the third centuries of the Christian Era and its influence continued through several succeeding centuries. Some theological experts opine that the impact of the Gnostic ideology can still be felt in the present world.

Influence on Literature

This movement also had a considerable impact on the religious literature of the succeeding centuries. Heracelon had compiled a commentary about John’s Gospel which was a significant component of the Gnostic Literature. This work had a significant influence on Origen who then wrote the “Commentary on the Gospel of John” in 230 CE. Origen’s work was mainly written to present the counter argument to Heracleon’s commentary on this same gospel. Christian Platonism and the school of thought based on Alexandrian theology prevalent in the third and fourth centuries were also significantly influenced by the principles of the Gnostic movement. The literature of the Gnostics is replete with spiritual and mythological personalities which are commonly found in other religious literary works. In the Gnostic texts, they are usually known by different names.

“The Gospel of Thomas” and “The Gospel of John” belonging to the first century CE are considered as the gospels of wisdom in the Gnostic religious philosophy. These writings reflect Jesus Christ as an advocator of wise teachings and sometimes portray Christ as a manifestation of “divine wisdom” itself. These two “wisdom gospels” provide an idea about the developing Gnostic ideology during that ancient period. They had an immense influence on the succeeding phases of the movement and the literary works of the later Gnostic writers.

From the first and the second century CE itself, the authors of this religious philosophy had started working on the universal literature of the Gnostic movement. “The Book of Baruch” written by Justin is a noted literature of this ideology which portrays a Jewish viewpoint of Gnosticism with the help of references to the Greco-Roman literature. The Sethian writings comprise a significant part of the Gnostic literature where Seth is regarded as the ancestor of the human race and Eve, the Mother of mankind is given a unique position highlighting her special powers. These works also provide a unique Jewish explanation of the introductory chapters of the Genesis. The literature belonging to the Valentinian branch of Gnosticism exhibits an influence of the Sethian Gnostics. The Valentinian works have created a graceful Gnostic philosophy that explores the source and destination of pure life and light. 

Impact on Art and Architecture

The Gnostic religious movement was practiced by different Gnostic sects, which shared certain common beliefs among themselves. The writings of Tertullion give an idea about the dynamic ideologies of these sects including the continuous development of their ideas, their segregation into smaller divisions, the decline in their significance and the revival of their philosophies. Most of these sects had their own unique identity as well. In 1919, archeologists unearthed beautiful fresco painting in the “Tomb of the Aurelii in Rome’s Viale Manzoni” which were artistic embodiments of the authority, serenity and creativity of one of the Gnostic sects. Artists are estimated to have painted these works during 220-240 CE and they constitute one of the foremost varieties of catacomb art in the Christian world. By the end of the third century, the catacomb art of the conservative Roman Christians had already started to exhibit the influence of the Gnostic movement.

I.Clement, a predecessor of the Gnostic movement, in his literary works had depicted the supremacy of the “Logos”, who were the real inspiration behind the music of the heavenly abode. He had also written about Orpheus, the great poet and musician of the Greek mythology and his ways of delighting the wild animals with his songs. The Gnostics started to portray these scenes in their art. The Gnostic religious movement itself was based on a synthesis of Christian philosophies and Pythagorean ideas. Thereafter, the Gnostic ideology gradually began absorbing pagan elements and this started reflecting in their subsequent expressions of art and architecture.

Aurelius Felicissimus was a freedman in ancient Rome who had constructed a huge tomb for himself. The walls of the burial chambers were adorned with artistic paintings on different themes related to Christianity. The paintings commonly depicted the themes portraying the Creation of the first man and woman: Adam and Eve, a Banquet scene which could be the scene of the Last Supper, a diligent shepherd busy comprehending a scroll while managing his flock, a victorious leader entering a city which historians assume could be that of Jesus Christ entering the town of Jerusalem and so on. The influence of the Gnostic movement is portrayed very subtly in these works of art and need to be discerned carefully. For example in the painting depicting the Creation of the first humans, the serpent is seen stationed on a tree, with its mouth open as if  preaching some ideas to Adam and Eve instead of its traditional action of tempting Eve to have the apple. In another painting, which portrays the meeting of humans in Paradise after death, the divine illumination of the Pleroma is depicted as engulfing the Paradise.

The Gnostic Movement has been witnessed to have influenced the art depicting the Greek classical literature. Two fresco paintings have been discovered representing scenes from the life of the Greek Hero, Ulysses (main character of Homer’s Odyssey) which also bears testimony to the Gnostic influence on art. One painting portrays Ulysses’s return to his homeland Ithaca while the other depicts the Greek hero with his wife Penelope and her suitors. The artists have painted a utopian picture of Ithaca probably wanting to mirror the magnificence of the world and the divine mind through their canvases. Penelope’s suitors in the second painting have been assumed to represent the souls of men which are uplifted to divine heights under the able guidance of Hermes instead of degenerating into the underworld of Hades, as enumerated by traditional pagan mythology. The new ideas depicted in the paintings are an undoubted influence of the Gnostic movement on contemporary artistic works.

Conclusion

During the second and third centuries CE, the Gnostic Movement acquired daunting dimensions. As the main centre of the movement where the significant Gnostic teachers preached their doctrines, Alexandria in Greece grew. The religious culture and heritage of Alexandria provided a conducive environment for this new movement to develop and prosper and was the most important reason for the success of Gnosticism. According to Origen, the educated citizens of contemporary Greece also started taking an active interest in this new religious philosophy. During that time, the human race over the world being immersed in an plethora of difficulties was searching for the path to salvation. The members of Judaism and those of the traditional pagan world who resided around Greece had also started experiencing problems and harbored similar aspirations of liberation. Therefore, the inhabitants of this Greek-speaking world began revering Jesus Christ as their savior who could lead them to the path of enlightenment and ultimately salvation. Thus, the basic ideals of the Gnostic movement gained widespread acceptance among the Greek people of that time period.

References:
  • Frend W.H.C. The Rise of Christianity, Fortress Press, 1984

The book describes the history of development of the Christian Religion during the early period of the human civilization. The author has traced the growth of the Church starting from a Jewish Palestine, before the birth of Jesus Christ to the monastic movement which took place in the 6th century. The book has highlighted the potential of survival of the religion under the different cultures which have prevailed during the different periods in history.

The author also provides a comprehensive and detailed account of the Gnostic movement. The elaborate essay on the topic presents information on various aspects of this religious ideology. The author has taken adequate references from the Christian writings and sources to exhibit the relation of the Gnostic Movement with its closest philosophy: the Christian Faith.

  • Diem Andrea The Gnostic Movement, MCAC Philosophy Group, 2008

This work is a study of the comparison between the Gnostic religious movement of ancient Greece and the Sant Tradition of Hinduism which has flourished in India. The author first describes ideologies of both the movements and then proceeds to make a comparative study. The book has adopted a unique theme of research and rightfully so because the basic ideas of Gnosticism do bear a resemblance to the fundamental Hindu philosophies.

In her description about the Gnostic Movement, the author gives a very basic account of the various features of this ideology. She has enumerated the different Gnostic sects, their objectives, the significance of “gnosis” in path to salvation and so on. The author has concentrated more on explaining the philosophical viewpoint of the Gnostic philosophy. The book does not provide very intricate details about Gnosticism; nevertheless it is a useful source of information on the subject.

  • Brakke David The Gnostics: myth, ritual, diversity in early Christianity, USA, Harvard University Press, 2011

This particular book gives an account of the Christian movements during the beginning of the Christian Era (CE) which also includes the Gnostic Movement. The author has explored the myths and true facts related to early Christianity.

The work has described the method of identifying the members of the Gnostic Movement and has enumerated the literature associated with the movement. The book provides an account of the myths and rituals of the Gnostic religious ideology. The author has studied the characteristic features of Gnosticism and its refutation by the Christian Church, following a unique approach. The author has advocated the approach of a middle path while exploring these sensitive issues. The work also delves into the origins of the Gnostic movement and investigates whether the different branches of the movement actually posed a threat to the Christian Church which led the latter to refute Gnosticism.

  • Jonas Hans, The Gnostic religion: the message of the alien God and the beginnings of Christianity, UK, Beacon Press, 1992

This book explores the beginnings of the Christian religion. As a background, it provides a description of the Hellenic culture in the eastern and the western countries of the world. It describes how Alexander’s conquests served as the cause of expansion of the Hellenic tradition to the oriental countries.

Then the book provides an elaborate account of the various features of the Gnostic religious movement. Under Part I, the author has explored the different aspects of the Gnostic literature – its primary tenets and its symbolic languages. In Part II, the book elaborates on the Gnostic philosophy of thought. Under Part III, the author has explored the relationship of the Gnostic Movement with the classical literature of the West.

  • Dyrness William A., Karkkainen Veli-Matti, Martinez Juan Francisco, Global Dictionary of Theology: A Resource for the Worldwide Church, USA Intervarsity Press, 2008

The Global Dictionary of Theology consists of a compilation of 250 articles written by more than 100 authors about the various theological perspectives prevalent in the world. This book is a very useful source of information about the different religious traditions across the world.

The book provides a very detailed account of the Gnostic Movement which flourished during the second and the third century CE. The authors have presented the information about the movement under five categories: the definition of Gnosticism and its characteristics, the origin and history of development of the ideology, the related sources and literary works, the later forms of the movement and the Theological evaluation of Gnosticism.

  • Barnstone Willis, Meyer Marvin The Gnostic Bible USA, Shambhala Publications 2006

The Gnostic Bible is a huge collection of the literature related to the Gnostic religious movement. Willis Barnstone, the famous poet cum translator collaborated with Mervin Meyer, an authority on ancient Christian texts to arrange together the Gnostic literary works and publish them under the banner of a single book. It is a wealthy collection of available sources relating to this particular religious philosophy. The Gnostic Movement flourished during the second and the third century of the Christian Era which is an early time period in history. It is not easy to search and compile literary works which provides relevant information about the Movement. Considering these constraints, the authors have accomplished a commendable achievement in publishing the relevant Gnostic literature under a single publication.

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