I’ve been reading about Gnosticism quite a bit lately, and a major issue is definition. How you define Gnosticism determines which Gnostic sects you include and which Gnostic sects you include determines how you define Gnosticism. It can be rather circular. The confusion is partly because the heresiologists who used the term didn’t seem to really know what they meant by it other than lumping all heretical early Christianities together. Defined by the heresiologists, Christianity came first and the Gnostics were just minor splinter groups. However, the evidence doesn’t really support this view. You can define Gnostics narrowly enough so that the term becomes limited to a set of groups starting in the second century, but that is just a definition of convvenience.
It all starts seeming rather silly. Gnostics often have been categorized as dualistic with hatred of earthly existence. But some Gnostics seemed less dualistic than the Catholics and I don’t sense that all Gnostics hated earthly existence, not any more than Christianity in general. The Gnostics believed there was something wrong with the world, but pretty much every religion believes this in one way or another.
As I see it at the moment, there are two major defining elements and two more minor elements.
The first major element is that the Gnostics were syncretistic, but this can get over-emphasized. The second major element is that they didn’t just syncretize anything they came across. They favored certain thought systems and fit them to the cultural environment they found themselves in. They favored Greek Thought and Mystery Religions of the more philosophical varieties (Platonism, Orphism, Cynicism). These in turn were grounded in the Alexandrian mixture of ideas from Egypt.
When you get down to it, Egyptian mythology is at the core of Gnosticism. The Egyptian core is more important than the syncretism. Gnostic syncretism formed around this seed of solar mythology which is a mix of complex relationships of deities held together by the early formlations of monotheism.
This is why Gnostics are similar to the Hermeticists in some ways. Through the Hermeticist similarities, we discover the two minor elements: a layered reality and archons. Basically, they saw the world as a complex play of realms, powers, and beings… but its unclear to what extent they believed in these literally or as allegories.
So, using this more broad definition, Gnostics preceded Christianity. The difference is that Gnosticism represents a broad grouping of religious sects and Christianity is a specific religion. All Christians believe in Jesus Christ, but not all Gnostics do.
Gnosticism as we normally think of it is nothing other than these earlier strains colliding with Romanized Jewish culture. On the Graeco-Roman side, solar deities (Mithras, Horus, etc.) became a prototype of savior god-man. On the Jewish side, the Messiah conformed the solar deity to a specific cultural hope. On the other side of these influences, Gnosticism came out with the Christ figure… and later in the second century Catholicism formed. However, Hellenized Jews were only one variety of Gnostics. Gnostics was just a trend and in other cultures it became other things.
Buddhists and Hindus were also around in the Roman Empire. The Gnostics influenced by these religions became someting else, but we don’t know much about them besides detecting the influence in some Gnostic texts. Hinduism in particular has a lot of Gnostic-like elements: solar deities, savior god-men, hierarchical universe, secret names (mantras) that help one to pass through the hierarchical realms, etc.
Ultimately, no one is really clear what groups specifically were what. The Therapeutae may have been early Gnostics or Buddhist or ascetic Jews… or even a mix of all three. The Gnostics formed distinctive strains, but then also kept mixing with eachother further until it became a big confusing mess. And then the Catholics gained power thus destroying most of the evidence.
Christianity is normally thought to have arisen out of Judaism. Jesus and the early Christians are portrayed as Jewish in the surviving texts, but the Christ concept came before Jesus. Judaism might simply be a later overlay. There is no clear evidence that the earlier Christ concept was originally connected to the Jewish messianic concept. There were Jewish Gnostics, but some Gnostics hated Judaism. Similarly, some Gnostics hated Jesus. Schisms and conflicting theologies abound. This is probably because there wasn’t a single original Gnosticism, but separate traditions.
Anyways, despite the diversity, its not hard to define Christianity in a way most people can understand. By the second century, Catholicism was showing its peculiar traits and was well on its way to being an established institution. The challenge with Gnosticism is that it gets defined by the ways in which it isn’t like Catholicism.
I really don’t know whether first century people such as Paul were Christians or Gnostics. I tend to go with the idea that he was both proto-Christian and proto-Gnostic, but proto-Gnositcism may have earlier roots… depending, of course, how we define these terms.
Despite Christianity claiming Judaism as its roots, Christianity has very little to do with Judaism other than the midrash attempts to justify a Savior figure that didn’t fit the Jewish definition of Messiah. Some Christians were born Jewish and had to find some way to rationalize their new faith and give it a sense of being a part of a larger tradition. Christianity is closer to the solar mythologies than Judaism, but maybe a solar deity just didn’t seem respectable enough to a Jew. Heck if I know.
The difference with Gnosticism is that Gnostics seemed to have worn their influences on their sleeves. Maybe a Christian is simply a Gnostic who doesn’t want to admit their syncretistic influences. This could make sense. As a syncretistic religion in the Roman Empire, you’re just one of many. However, to claim the Jewish Messiah for your religion makes you special and gives you some respectability. This would support the view that Catholics seemed more exclusionary (i.e., elitist) than many Gnostics. For example, the greatest Gnostic heretic of them all, Valentinus was the least exclusionary of these early Christian and Gnostic sects. Valentinus was intentionally trying to include a greater variety of people in the salvific plan. Syncretism would serve Valentinus’ purposes. Only later Christians such as Augustine openly admitted to Christianity’s commonality to other religions.
Of all that I said, much of it’s just opinion guided by intuition. There is a lot of scholarship out there, but it’s often conflicting. When you get down to it, nobody really knows. The only thing that is clear is that much of the Catholic’s version of its own history is extremely unreliable.
For me, the issue is that there is evidence that helps us to buid up various possible pictures, but the average person is largely ignorant of it all. This isn’t the type of info they teach you in Bible study class at your local church and quite possibly the same goes for many seminaries. You’d think Christians would be more curious about the actual scholarly evidence of what we actually know about the first century, but I suppose for most people it doesn’t seem that important. It’s ancient history, afterall.
Most people probably never think to question the story they hear in church. Gnosticism may be the very origins of Christianity, and yet the vast majority of Christians probably are clueless about even the slightest detail of the subject.
I often wonder why most people lack curiosity in general, but it amazes me even more when it involves something of importance… such as the origins of one’s entire faith. I noticed something similar when I was having the recent discussion with the Jewish guy. He got defensive about the discussion because he thought I was only discussing Christianity. The fact was that I certainly was discussing Judaism as well, but it wasn’t his own understanding of Judaism and so he didn’t recognize it as “Judaism”. I brought up Philo Judaeus, Jewish mysticism, and Jewish sects from the first century.
What I realized was that his interest in his own religion was as narrow as what I had observed in many Christians. He said he wasn’t really interested in mysticism and that he found the daily rituals profound enough as is. Like many people, he simply has limited curiosity.
I actually can pinpoint when he got defensive. I said that there was no clear evidence that early Christianity had its origins in Judaism. When I had taken the position that the early Christians were all Jewish, he was happy to consider Christianity as a bastardization of the true faith of Judaism. However, when I speculated that Christianity (via Gnosticism) may be an independent tradition, then he felt like I had deceived him.
He just wanted me to support him in bashing Christianity. I made a joke about Paul and psychedelic mushrooms, and this guy thought I would join him in his righteous bigotry. The poor silly fool.
He really must’ve been clueless if he thought I was any less critical of Judaism than I am of Christianity. I generally don’t like traditional religion in any form, but I’m a curious person. I only set up the discussion comparing Christian and Jewish messianic traditions in order to learn something new. But I wasn’t taking any side. As an agnostic with pessimistic leanings, I’m an equal opportunity critic.
In talking to him, I did get a better sense of Judaism. One thing became clear to me. Modern Judaism is as far away from first century Judaism as modern Christianity is from first century Christianity. It was just a very different world two thousand years ago.
The weird thing about that time is that there probably were people who would’ve considered themselves simultaneously Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic… and they wouldn’t have seen any conflict in it. There was a mixing of culture and ideas which was completely normal for the time. Someone like Philo could allegorically interpret the Torah according to Platonic philosophy. Many Jews were familiar with Greek thought and many Greeks were familiar with the Torah.
So, that is the short answer to the question of the definition of Gnosticism. 🙂