During times of cultural crisis, new versions of Gnosticism awaken: learn about their origins!
In order to understand the origin and doctrine of the so-called “Gnostic gospels,” written between the 2nd and 4th centuries and found in Nag Hammadi (Egypt), we first need to be introduced briefly to the movement that was behind them, and thus understand why Christians rejected these texts and how they have no connection with the historical Jesus.
Gnosticism (gnosis = knowledge [in Greek]) is a pre-Christian spiritual movement born of a syncretistic combination of elements of Iranian religion with other Mesopotamian traditions, ideas from Greek philosophical schools such as Platonism and Pythagoreanism, and the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. “It bursts onto the public stage in the mid-2nd century as a powerful trend, coming to be represented by many teachers and various schools, and enjoying ample growth (Palestine, Syria, Arabia, Egypt, Italy and Gaul)” (García Bazán).
It is characterized by seeking salvation through knowledge reserved for a chosen few, and by a distinct cosmological and anthropological dualism. The knowledge they were seeking was not intellectual, but spiritual and intuitive—namely, the discovery of divine nature itself: eternal, hidden, and imprisoned in the body and the psyche. This knowledge was reserved for an elite group of “spiritual” men.
When it came into contact with Christianity, Gnosticism gave rise to a long list of sects that mixed Gnostic and Christian elements, confusing the early Christian communities. Ancient Gnosticism, while not homogeneous in all its teachings, generally had significant contempt for the material world and for the body.
Gnostics believed that the material world in which we live is a cosmic catastrophe, and that, in some way or another, sparks of divinity have fallen into and been trapped in matter, from whence they need to escape and return to their source. They escape from matter when they gain full consciousness of their situation and their divine origin. This knowledge is called gnosis.
Therefore, the only way to achieve salvation is not by God’s action, but by acquiring personal awareness of having that “divine spark” in oneself. Many of these doctrines take the form of self-salvation, self-divinization, or reincarnation, with a touch of pantheism, and they see Jesus and Christ as two separate realities. These ideas appear again in New Age movements such as Conny Mendez’s Christian Metaphysics, the Ishayas, and modern Gnostic and esoteric sects.
It is important to emphasize that Gnostic beliefs are strongly anti-Christian and deny the central beliefs of Christianity: the Incarnation of the Word, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their vision of the world is, furthermore, pessimistic.
Thanks to the testimony of many Christian writings against Gnostics, we know a great deal about their beliefs. The dogmas proclaimed by early Christianity were established in order to save the original faith from contamination by the Gnostic ideas that began to proliferate in the Hellenistic world and within the Roman Empire from the 2nd to the 5th centuries.
It is not true that Gnosticism was a marginal form of Christianity, as various writers of the esoteric world often affirm; rather, the two were separate and mutually deprecating. Not only did Christians reject the Gnostics for distorting the message and life of Jesus with oriental doctrines and strange philosophies; the Gnostics also rejected and attacked orthodox Christians, because the Gnostics viewed them as spiritually inferior beings.
The attacks were mutual, but Gnosticism, due to its syncretistic nature that mixed together elements of any religion, assimilated aspects of Christianity into its teachings, and gave the impression of being a tolerant religion. This is easy to see by reading the mutual doctrinal attacks from that period.
Historian Paul Johnson writes the following in this regard: “Gnostic groups adopted fragments of Christianity, but they tended to separate these elements from their historical origins. They were Hellenizing them, in the same way that they Hellenized other oriental cults (often amalgamating the results). Paul fought with all his strength against Gnosticism, since he realized that it could devour Christianity and destroy it. In Corinth, he met educated Christians who had reduced Jesus to a myth. Among the Colossians, he discovered Christians who adored intermediate spirits and angels. It was difficult to combat Gnosticism because, like the hydra, it had many heads, and was always changing. Of course, all the sects had their own codes, and they generally hated each other. Some conflated Plato’s cosmogony with the story of Adam and Eve, and they interpreted it in different ways; thus, the Ophites venerated serpents … and cursed Jesus in their liturgy…”
Some authors have written that Christian dogmas changed the doctrine of early Christianity, but that is not true. Christian dogmas do not introduce any doctrinal novelty; rather, they formulate the faith clearly and explicitly in a precise theological language, so as to free it from ambiguous expressions and arbitrary interpretations that could distance it from the faith of the apostles.
Dogmas came to the aid of the faithful so that they could avoid being confused by new doctrines that were foreign to the Gospel. In a way, those Gnostic currents of thought are promulgated anew today in teachings such as those spread by the New Age movement, the Urantia Book, Sixto Paz with his books like cosmic soap operas, J.J. Benítez with his The Trojan Horse series, the followers of The DaVinci Code, and other supposed new revelations by extraterrestrials regarding Jesus. They present their fantasies as the hidden, secret, apocryphal version of history.
In times of cultural crisis, new forms of Gnosticism awaken from the depths of history with their illusions, their multicolored games, and their contortions, and they lavish their ideas on a vast public hungry for spiritual secrets and exotic mysticism. It’s important to clarify that today’s Gnostic movements and “Gnostic churches” have no historical continuity with ancient Gnosticism; rather, they are modern-day re-packagings or reinventions using elements similar to ancient forms of Gnosticism, but with ever-changing new traits in accordance with each new socio-cultural and religious context.