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Gnosticism: Definition & History

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, find out about a secret sect the early Church tried to erase. We'll explain Gnosticism and who the Gnostics were as well as the history of their faith and their conflict with the Church.

A Rival Church

Many of us are familiar with the story of the early Christian church community and how the apostles spread the word of Christ. Many people even know about how Christianity went from being a small sect of religious rebels, martyred frequently by the Romans, to become the official religion of the Roman Empire and eventually one of the largest religions in the world. What you might not know is that the early Christian community had many different factions with a variety of beliefs. While many of them eventually combined under a single doctrine, there was one that refused to submit to the others. Their doctrine was so radically different from the others that the early Catholic Church hunted them down and tried to erase any trace of them from the face of their earth. Who were they and what happened to them?

Who Were They?

Gnosticism was a religion and philosophical movement active between 200 BCE and 400 CE. Based on the idea of Gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge, it focused on salvation through the discovery and fostering of secret, inner knowledge. To Gnostics, this world is a corrupt realm of suffering and evil created by a being who was not the true God but thought he was. Their goal, through Gnosis, was to wake a divine spark within themselves and gain the sacred knowledge needed to be free of this world after death.

Origins

While we don't know how Gnosticism in general began, we know the belief dates back several centuries before the birth of Christ. However, when Christianity reached the Hellenistic world, the Gnostics were among the first to adopt it, albeit reinterpreted into their own philosophy. Gnostic Christians believed that the Hebrew God was actually a being they called the Demiurge, a corrupt being who created the physical world but gave it his innate flaws of wickedness. In contrast, they believed Christ was actually a living form of divine knowledge created by Sophia, a being of wisdom created by the actual True God. They believed Jesus came to earth to teach humans how to free themselves from bondage to the Demiurge's realm. While this might seem shocking, remember that Christianity was in its early days and many different doctrines existed simultaneously.

Sophia
Sophia

Conflict with the Church

By the second century A.D., the mainstream Christian doctrine began to solidify with the exclusion of the Gnostics. One of the greatest issues dividing the Gnostics from their fellow Christian sects was the issue of Docetism, the assertion that Christ never died. As Gnostics believed the material world was evil, they refused to believe that Jesus was a fleshly incarnation. Instead, they claim he only appeared to have a physical form taken from this existence, thus he could never truly die. Clearly, this stood in extreme opposition to Church's doctrine of Christ's death and resurrection as a sacrifice to free humans from sin.

The Nicene Council codified official church doctrine and what scriptures would be considered official parts of the Bible.
Nicene

As the Church became more organized and gained political power, they accused Gnostics of deceiving their flocks and serving Satan, citing the serpent's lies in the Garden of Eden and the promise that the tree of knowledge would make Adam and Eve like God. Even Emperor Constantine's efforts to heal these deep divisions in 325 CE did nothing to relieve the tension. The Church spent the next century hunting Gnostics communities, nearly eliminating them all by the 6th century and erasing every trace of their doctrine and even their existence.

Reemergence

A few centuries after the Church's purging of Gnostics, the belief reemerged in Eastern Europe around the 9th or 10th century. The Byzantine Empire crushed the movement as soon as it publicly arose, but the Gnostics were still not eliminated. Many members fled the oppression and wandered through Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia. In each place, the settled for only a short time until they were driven out.

The Inquisition
inquisition

In the 12th century, however, they managed to settle along the southern border of France and into northern Italy, but the Church could not allow this rival doctrine to exist. They sent Dominican friars to convert them through extremely brutal methods. The Inquisition was born out of this conflict.

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