Long Lost Early-Christian Gnostic Beliefs: Heresy or Enlightenment?

In the century following the birth of Jesus, a mysterious group of early-Christian sects collectively called Gnosticism formed. As the orthodox religion reigned in what would be part of their acceptable teachings, Gnosticism, a broad school of thought, was violently rejected as heresy.

Indeed, early religious leaders demonized the Gnostics with propaganda that they were baby-eating monsters, “filthy ones,” or promiscuous, immoral people.

Similarly, the Romans slandered ancient sun god worshippers in Sudan as barbarians with no necks and faces on their chests – the Blemmyes.

Gnostic comes from the word gnosis, meaning knowledge or wisdom. It’s a keyword because to the gnostics, knowledge, not faith, was key to enlightenment. To become enlightened, one had to receive gnosis from a messenger of light. 

Charms and amulets featuring symbols and words, like Abraxas, could help in the pursuit of gnosis. One well-known example is Abracadabra, chiefly known today in the realm of magic. Long ago, Gnostics wore amulets with the word, thought to protect against disease and misfortune.

Abracadabra, own work

Gnosticism Almost Erased from History

Even today, Gnostic ideas are considered heresy to many, but still an essential part of how religion came to be. Notably, some consider the Apostle Paul a Gnostic.

Importantly, the Gnostics had a completely different creation story and viewed Jesus in a completely different light than orthodox Christians would. Jesus was a being who took human form to lead people to the light, away from the material world and old ways.

Rather than discouraging Eve from eating the apple, Jesus encouraged it.

Two prominent Gnostic leaders, Basilides and Valentinus, believed that the material universe is inherently evil. As a creator of the material world, the God of the Old Testament is a misguided deity, a lesser deity called an Archon.

Generally, the leaders of Gnosticism had highly variable beliefs among many sects, but they tend to view the world as a sort of prison.

Gnostic Texts Discovered a Thousand Years Later

Today, we know little because most of the gnostic writings were lost, likely destroyed. Within four centuries, the Gnostics were largely gone, though today, Mandaeism (translated to “having knowlege”) remains in practice in Iran. Generally, it’s considered a Gnostic sect and gives clues to what was likely taught early on.

Some of what is known of ancient Gnostics is thanks to work by their antagonists in the proto-orthodox church (called polemics). As such, these writings are highly biased.

Recently, more about Gnosticism has been learned. When you start to learn more about the Gnostics, it opens up a whole universe of characters, stories, and knowledge.

Below, you can see a concise summary from Step Back:

The Lost Gnostic Gospel

In 2006, the “Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariat” was unveiled by the National Geographic Society. In a restored Egyptian papyrus dating to the 2nd century AD, Judas is depicted in a new way.

“To most Christians, Judas is seen as a traitor, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver. But a newly restored papyrus document dating to the 2nd century AD portrays a very different man. Judas is shown as Jesus’ best friend, asked by Jesus himself to betray his identity to fulfill the prophecy and liberate his soul to ascend to heaven,” reported NPR.

Thus, Judas is a favorite disciple, helping him complete his mission. Rather than betraying Jesus, Judas is acting on his instruction.

The Gnostic Gospels: The Nag Hammadi Library

In December 1945, two brothers were digging in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, looking for fertilizer. As they dug, they unearthed large earthenware jars containing leather-bound papyrus books. Sadly, the family burned much of the contents later in an oven.

However, fifty-two previously unknown Gnostic texts from the early centuries of the Christian era survived and found their way to a museum. Among them is the Apocryphon, the secret book of John, promising to reveal Jesus’ secret teachings to his disciple.

“These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down,” read one text.

Indeed, when you look closer, these texts contain many secrets that one must investigate for themselves. In these texts, Jesus is a spiritual guide who focuses on enlightenment and illusion, not sin and repentance.

For another example, here is what NPR considered one of the primary takeaways in the Gnostic texts:

“Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from Its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the Gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.”

We are united with the divine but will not realize it until enlightenment.

Thus, there are truly profound differences in these early-Christian beliefs, which some claim drew inspiration from Eastern Buddhist traditions. Certainly, early Christian beliefs were much more diverse than previously known.

Certainly, many of the Gnostic beliefs would be completely unfamiliar to most Christians (or people in general) today.

The Monad and the Demiurge

Among the Gnostic beliefs, which varied by sect, was a belief in two supreme beings.

First, the Gnostics believed in the Monad, an unknowable, agender, pure light perfect being who exists but didn’t make the world. When humans die, we leave our bodies and reunite with the Monad.

Secondly, they believed in the Demiurge, Yaldabaothor Ialdabaoth, a sometimes malevolent angry being who created the Earth and material world, entrapping humans in a sort of spiritual prison. In depictions, the Demiurge sometimes has the face of a lion and the body of a serpent. 

Along with the material world, the Demiurge created a host of co-actors called Archons. 

This creator and his angels want humans to remain ignorant. (Ouch!) Then, upon death, humans will return to back to another earthly life rather than reaching enlightenment.

Our earthly existence compels us to fall into the trap of material possessions, but it’s what you feel in your heart that matters. Today, that message certainly resonates in our ever-more-commercialized world.

Both the Monad and the Demiurge have servants known as Aeons and Archons. To some Gnostics, Jesus, or the Demiurge himself, was one of these beings.

In biblical terms, the Demiurge is the god of the Old Testament. On the other hand, Jesus came to enlighten the world about the universe’s secrets beyond earthly restraints.

When Eve bit the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, the gnostics believe the Demiurge wanted to hide it from humanity. Also, there is a second tree, the Tree of Life, or immortality. Immortality, too, was forbidden knowledge, a theme that resonates today as people continue on their quest for immortality.

See more about the Monad and Demiurge below (it gets extremely complex):

Sophia, Mother of the Universe

Also, the Gnostics believed in Sophia, a complex female figure who gave birth to the Demiurge. In early Christian writings, Sophia is sometimes a metaphor or counterpart to Christ. Her name translates to “Wisdom.”

According to some, Christ and Sophia were together as one being.

“According to Gnostic beliefs, Christ was conceived of as having two aspects: a male half, identified as the son of God, and a female half, called Sophia, who was venerated as the mother of the universe.

In the Gnostic text, The Apocryphon of John, Sophia represents divine wisdom and the female spirit.

A mystical depiction of Sophia from Geheime Figuren der RosenkreuzerAltona, 1785. via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Metempsychosis – Reincarnation

Gnostic leader Basilides believed in metempsychosis, “the passing of a soul at death into another body either human or animal,” as Merriam-Webster defines it.  Thus, upon death, a soul is reincarnated, a transmigration of souls.

According to Origen of Alexandria (185 – 254 CE), another Christian theologian, Basilides believed the biblical passed below pointed to metempsychosis.

Romans 7:9:

“The Apostle said, ‘I lived without a law once,’ that is, before I came into this body, I lived in such a form of body as was not under a law, that of a beast namely, or a bird.”

Indeed, Origen also believed souls could be reborn until their ultimate salvation, even the devil himself. All living creatures could eventually be restored to blessedness, called Apocatastasis, meaning reconstitution or restitution.

The belief in Manichaeism is related to Docetism, the belief that Jesus didn’t have an earthly body, rather a spiritual phantom body.

Manichaeism was the main rival to Christianity in a push to replace classical paganism. Eventually, the Roman Empire stamped out Manichaeism, but some form may persist in China.

Today, belief in reincarnation is not particularly viewed favorably by many conservative religious people, but there it is in early Christian texts. Is it heresy or is it enlightened thinking? That’s for you to decide on your own personal journey. Today, we have the luxury of thinking independently. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the original Gnostics, who found themselves in mortal danger for their beliefs.

See more about the complex universe of Gnostic beliefs from ReligionForBreakfast:

Featured image: A mystical depiction of Sophia from Geheime Figuren der RosenkreuzerAltona, 1785. via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain with Abraxas by Bernard de Montfaucon via Wikimedia Commonspublic domain