PM3007: On Gnosticism

Gnosticism refers to a set of beliefs which flourished around the 1st century A.D, and the surrounding centuries. The basic belief of the Gnostics was that this world was evil, and therefore the good god could not have created it. So they believed in a greater, good god; and a lesser, evil god, the demiurge, who disobeyed the good god by creating the material world. But, they believed that the good god desires to rescue us from this evil world, and that Gnosticism was the means of this rescue.

Many forms of Gnosticism were based off Christianity. However, whereas mainstream Christianity sees God creating the world as good, they believed the world was evil and created by an evil being. Jesus Christ was seen as coming to earth, not to die for human sin, but rather as sent by the greater good god to rescue us from this evil material world. Commonly, Gnostics believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from that of the New; the God of the New Testament was seen as the real ultimate god, and the God of the Old Testament as the evil demiurge. As a result, a number of Gnostic groups identified the Old Testament figures of opposition to or rejection by God as heroes, such as the Serpent, Cain, Esau, etc. This aspect of Gnosticism can be seen as a predecessor of modern Satanism. But there were also forms of Gnosticism based on Judaism or Paganism rather than Christianity.

Gnosticism was closely associated with docetism - the belief that Jesus did not have a real human body, but only appeared to. They believed that, Jesus being divine, it was not possible for him to actually have a human body, since the human body is made from evil matter. They likewise believed that Jesus did not die on the cross, nor suffer any pain thereon - according to them, since Jesus was divine, he could not possibly die nor suffer any pain.

The term gnostic derives from Greek for knowers - the Gnostics believed that they alone knew the secret knowledge required for salvation. A common belief among Gnostics was that they had the secret teachings of Jesus, which only the most worthy disciples received, while the ordinary Christians had only received his public teachings, which were lacking in many necessary details. Many Gnostics believed that there were three classes of human beings - those guaranteed to be saved, who contained within themselves a fragment, a spark, of the divine; those for whom salvation was impossible, because they were lacking that divine spark; and sometimes a third group, between the two, for whom salvation was possible but not guaranteed.

Another common Gnostic belief was in a large hierarchy of divine emanations, by which the original and unknowable God emanated a successive series of lesser beings. In many accounts, these emanantions are male-female pairs, the last of which is Christ-Sophia. Sophia then sinned, which led to the creation of the evil demiurge, and hence the world; Sophia herself became the divine sparks trapped in the world. Christ was then sent into the world, to rescue these sparks, and hence Sophia, from the demiurge.

The Gnostics wrote many scriptures, many of which purported to contain the secret teachings of Jesus. The most famous of these is the Gospel of Thomas, part of the Nag Hammadi Codices.

Gnostics had a wide variety of moral views. At one extreme, were the libertines, who believed that since the body was evil, it did not matter what one did to it - thus one should feel free to have unlimited indulgence in food, drink or sexuality. Some of them even believed, that the body being evil, one should do everything possible to defile and debase it, to express one's contempt for it. At the other extreme, many Gnostics believed that all pleasure was evil, and was to be entirely prohibited. Some Gnostic groups demanded celibacy from all, even married couples - since the world was in their view evil, it was sinful to have children, since having children would cause more souls to become trapped in this evil world. One practice viewed highly in some of these groups was willful starvation to death, seen as the ultimate rejection of this evil world.

There are a number of biblical references condemning Gnosticism. One of these is the account in the Acts of the Apostles of Simon Magus. According to later traditions, Simon Magus went on to found one of the major schools of Gnosticism, Simonianism. A number of the errors the apostles attacked in the epistles had Gnostic aspects also.

The Gnostics largely died out by the 5th century A.D. A number of groups existed in the Middle Ages - such as the Cathars in southern France, the Bogomils and the Paulicans in the Balkans - which may be continuations of Gnosticism, although it is also possible they were independent originations of the same ideas. Another notable Gnostic-derived group is the religion of Manichaeism, which today is extinct, but at one point had followers all the way from Western Europe through the Middle East and into Central Asia - this was the religion of Augustine prior to his conversion to Christianity. A small Gnostic-derived group, surviving to this day in southern Iraq, is the Mandaeans. They claim to have been founded by John the Baptist, and they believe Jesus was a false prophet.

Maratreanism sees Gnosticism as fundamentally mistaken on the issue of whether matter is evil. According to Maratreanism, matter is not evil - matter is simply patterns in the experiences of souls. As to their fundamental nature, these patterns are good (it is good that we exist, our existence necessarily implies the existence of such patterns, of matter, hence it is good that matter exists) - but certainly they can be arranged in evil ways.

Maratreanism does not believe in a good god and an evil god like Gnostics do. We believe in Maratrea, who is perfectly good - but she creates evil as necessary for the good. We believe in the palid Pandal, who is pure evil and creates evil - but he was created Maratrea for an ultimately good purpose, and his reign upon the earth shall endure only until the day her holy Cause which she is establishing overthrows him.

As to the notions of emanations and secret knowledge, Maratreanism has similar views. The procession of roots can be understood as emanations. The knowledge of the truth of the cause and the truth of the true nature of things, though it is to be revealed publicly whenever possible, must be kept secret such as in times of persecution.

Many Gnostics believed that only certain types of people could be saved; Maratreanism by contrast believes in universal salvation.

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