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Gnosticism

Overview

The Nag Hammadi texts are dated no earlier than the second century C.E. The heresiological texts support this dating. The integrated study of these sources leads to an unavoidable conclusion: based on earlier texts that defended the existence of a Gnostic myth—either pre-Christian or contemporary with the origins of Christianity, and probably of Jewish origin—the phenomenon of Gnosticism arose and became established during the second century C.E. in large Hellenistic cities such as Alexandria. It was linked to Scholastic forms of transmission based on esoteric background of a special knowledge, and was deeply bound with the history of the formation of Christianity as a religion.

Besides a first, less well known stage during which, according to the heresiological texts, figures such as Saturninus, Menander, Basilides and, toward the middle of the century, Marcion and Valentinus followed one another, a second stage took place in the second half of the century, mastered by the Valentinian school of thought. Through the contribution of some Nag Hammadi texts, a tradition of sage philosophy also clearly stands out, deeply influenced by the coeval Platonic schools, and audaciously reinterpreting the Christian theological heritage using the background of doctrinal myths intended to go into the mystery of God's eternal genesis as well as the bond that unites the individual Gnostic to the world of the divine fullness, the pleroma. Beside this Christian Gnostic school of thought, Nag Hammadi texts disclose the existence of a plurality of groups and deeply diversified Gnostic trends tenuously tied to the nascent Christianity of the second half of the second century.

Some scholars supposed the existence of a real Sethian group, so named by the common mythical ancestor, the Seth in Genesis (Gen. 4:25) who became, in the Gnostic myth, the celestial founder of the Gnostics, a select group of divine origin predestined to salvation despite all the attempts at subjugation by the wicked Demiurge and its archons. It is impossible to apprehend from these mythological stories, taking place in the rarefied and impenetrable atmosphere of the pleroma of divine life, precise and convincing sociological indications. Nowadays the dominant trend is to look independently into each of the different texts once attributed to the alleged Sethians, trying to reconstitute the ideology and the course of the groups who used them, by a thorough editorial analysis.

The Gnostic communities reserved a special place for women: the possession of gnosis eliminated normal power hierarchies, favoring, in an ascetic background, a spiritual equality. This explains the privileged role played in certain texts by female figures such as Mary Magdalene. However, one must not draw sociological conclusions from the role played by figures of female savers present in certain Gnostic texts.

Mythology and doctrine.

The subject of the Gnostic revelation is the ontological Self, the true spiritual reality, con-substantial with (of the same substance as) the divine. Communicated by a revealer–savior and guaranteed by an esoteric tradition, this gnosis is often associated with instruction that has as a subject the communication of a mythical story. It aims at answering the questions related to existence arising from a radically pessimistic conception of the world as created by a god or a wicked demiurge in opposition to the good, absolutely transcendent God—unknown and unknowable except through Gnostic enlightenment. The Gnostic mythology narrates the events of that Gnostic god, describing his divine origin, expressing and explaining the causes for the oblivion that is his prison, and showing in the end the way back, which brings salvation.

The variegated world of Gnostic mythology is formed starting from this dualistic vision, opposing, in some ways, the pleroma, or world of light and fullness, to our world of darkness, in others, the pneuma, or spiritual reality, to the psychophysical compound created by the Demiurge. The Gnostic myths share the story that, originally, the divine world experienced a perfect fullness, which, through an "accident" within the life itself of the pleroma (in its best-known version it is represented as a mistake committed by Sophia, the last of the aeons emanated by the primordial androgyne), gave way to a world of lack and emptiness, whose master is the Demiurge.

This mythology contains a theogony narrating the unknown God's "eternal birth," which makes it possible for the Gnostic in its turn to be born again reviving his new life; a cosmogony that presents the antibiblical Gnostic version of the genesis of this cosmos, the seat of evil and prison of the Gnostic; an anthropogony, according to which the Demiurge creates the psychophysical compound into which he then (Gnostic reinterpretation of Gen. 2:7) unconsciously insufflates the spiritual principle inherited by his mother, the pleromatic Sophia; and, finally, an eschatology, according to which the world is destined to destruction and only the spiritual dimension will survive, returning then to pleroma.

Influence and global reach.

In the Western tradition of thought, Gnosticism experienced historical revivals, from Manichaeism to the medieval Catharism. Generally these were internal dualistic forms within the Christian area, which retained the cosmic pessimism and the conception of a second wicked god creator. Beginning in the Renaissance, the Christian esoteric traditions occupied the privileged place of transmission and retention of Gnostic forms of thought. Fundamental is the work of Jakob Böhme (1575–1624), whose theosophy, phenomenologically akin to that of Gnosticism, is marked by the absence of dualism and whose work fed the subsequent fortunes of Gnosticism. Leaving out of consideration, as devoid of historic importance, the attempts of neognostic churches to revitalize ancient Gnosticism, the next important Gnostic revival was early German Romanticism, with its insistence on totality and absolute knowledge, as well as pessimistic and nihilistic hints. It provided twentieth-century culture—in forms that are sometimes difficult to investigate—themes at times tied to the pessimistic side of Gnosticism, at times to its optimistic side. These themes seem to be spread in heterogeneous sectors of our culture, from the depth psychology referring to Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), to Gnostic themes appearing in new forms of religiousness. However, a more precise identification and interpretation looks difficult, in the absence of a clear sociological basis of specific worship forms and, in general terms, because of the difficulty inherent in defining a modern Gnosticism.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

PRIMARY SOURCES

Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Faivre, Antoine. Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Fundamental collection of studies, with an excellent bibliography.

Filoramo, Giovanni. A History of Gnosticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

King, K. L. Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988. Exemplary study of gender.

Scholer, David M. Nag Hammadi Bibliography, 1948–1969. Leiden: Brill, 1971. Vol. 2: Nag Hammadi Bibliography, 1970–1994. Leiden: Brill, 1997.

Turner, John D., and Anne McGuire, eds. The Nag Hammadi Library after Fifty Years. Leiden, New York, and Cologne, 1997. Important critical balance.

Giovanni Filoramo

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Glucagon to HabitatGnosticism - Overview, Bibliography