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Gnosticism

From Greek gnosis, "knowledge"; religious movement that blended elements from pagan mythology, Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity into a single paradigm in which devotees attempted to achieve gnosis, a special level of insight into the inner nature of the cosmos. Although many aspects of Gnosticism may be traced to pre-Christian followers of Plato, Gnosticism probably emerged within Christianity in the last half of the first century AD.

Until the mid-twentieth century, little was known about Gnosticism outside the anti-Gnostic writings of the church fathers. The discovery of an ancient library of Gnostic texts near Nag Hammadi in Egypt revealed much more about their early theology and practices. Most Gnostics shared at least three beliefs.

First, the deity that created the universe was not the supreme and true God. The creator—known among some Gnostics as "Ialtabaoth" or "the Demiurge"—was an evil deity who most Gnostics believed was the Old Testament God; they held that Jesus had been sent by a greater, higher deity.

Second, believing the physical universe was created by an evil deity, Gnostics viewed everything physical as evil. With rare exceptions, Gnostics viewed sexuality—and especially the woman's part in procreation—as disgusting and vile. The apostle Paul was possibly describing early Gnostics when he wrote, "The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith.... They forbid people to marry" (1 Tim. 4:1, 3).

The Gnostic writings known as Gospel of Eve and Gospel of Philip do describe sexual practices among Gnostics, but it is unclear whether these descriptions were symbolic or if they describe actual, physical acts. If some Gnostics did participate in sexual rituals, their rationale seems to have been that since everything physical was already hopelessly evil, what they did with their bodies was of little consequence.

The Gnostics saw women as inferior and unworthy. According to the last verse of the Gospel of Thomas, when "Simon Peter said to Jesus, 'Let Mary leave us; women aren't worthy of life,' Jesus replied, 'I will lead her to become male, so she can become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.'"

Early Christians—recognizing that the Creator of the physical cosmos is both the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ—rejected Gnosticism's negative view. The following are examples of Gnosticism's outlook on the material world, the physical body, womanhood, and sexuality.

  • "Sexual intercourse continued due to the ruler of this world. He planted sexual desire in the woman that belonged to Adam. He produced through intercourse copies of the bodies, inspiring them with his spirit of opposition" (Apocryphon of John).
  • "My mother [gave me falsehood], but [my] true [Mother] gave me life" (Gospel of Thomas, 101).
  • "The one who is acquainted with father and mother will be called the son of a prostitute" (ibid., 105).
  • Physical intercourse produces beasts, so Gnostic believers must "abandon bestiality" (Book of Thomas the Contender, 139:8-11, 28-29).
  • "Annihilate the works which pertain to the woman [i.e., child-bearing]... so that they [the works of creation] may cease" (Dialogue of the Savior, 144:19-20).
  • Femininity is "unclean" and is called Nature's "dark vagina" (Zostrianos, 131:5-8; see also Testimony of Truth, 68:6-8).
  • Marriage is defilement; sexual intercourse, called the "intercourse of Darkness," will be destroyed at the end of time (Gospel of Philip, 82:4).
  • The Gnostic believer must "flee from the insanity and fetters of femaleness, and embrace instead the salvation of maleness" (Paraphrase of Shem, 18:34-35; 27:2-3; 22:34).
  • A curse on "you who love intimacy with womankind and polluted intercourse with it" (Book of Thomas the Contender, 144:9-10).
  • "The body came from sexual desire, and sexual desire came from . . . matter" (Authoritative Teaching, 23:18-20).
  • The soul came in "a contemptible body" (Gospel of Philip, 56:25).
  • The physical world is a mistake or "an illusion" (Treatise on The Resurrection, 48:15).
  • Jesus says: "I shall destroy [this] house [physical body], and no one will be able to rebuild it" (Gospel of Thomas, 71).
  • "[The] body is bestial... [and] will perish" (Book of Thomas the Contender, 139:6-8).

Third, because they believed that everything physical was evil, Gnostics also held that Christ only seemed human, a belief known later as "Docetism" (from Greek dokein, "to seem"). According to Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, the man "whose hands and feet they nailed to the cross" was not actually Christ, because Christ did not have a body.

The earliest Christians knew, however, that Jesus Christ is not only fully God but also fully human. The apostle John was countering an early form of Docetism when he wrote, "This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God" (1 John 4:2; see also 2 John 7).

The Da Vinci Code makes several spurious claims about Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi documents, including that these writings are the "earliest Christian records," that they represent "the original history of Christ," and that they speak "of Christ's ministry in very human terms" (DVC, 234, 245). It also implies that Gnostic groups highly valued women and participated in a sexual ritual known as Hieros Gamos (125-26, 308-10).

In truth, the earliest Gnostic texts were written around AD 150—a century after Paul's earliest letters and at least half a century after the latest canonical gospel; most known Gnostic writings stem from the second and third centuries. (Edwin Yamauchi's Pre-Christian Gnosticism demonstrates that full-fledged Gnosticism did not emerge until the second century, more than seventy years after Jesus walked the earth.) Far from representing "the original history of Christ," Gnostic writings represent a view of Jesus that emerged decades after his earthly ministry.

Furthermore, no Gnostic writing speaks "of Christ's ministry in very human terms"—most Gnostics didn't even believe he was a physical being. See also Docetism; Epiphanius of Salamis; heresy; Hieros Gamos; Marcion of Sinope; Nag Hammadi; orthodoxy.



Printed with permission from Bethany House Publishers, South Bloomington, Minnesota from the book "The Da Vinci Codebreaker : an easy-to-use fact checker for truth seekers" by James L. Garlow.
 

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