1902 Encyclopedia > Gnosticism


GNOSTICISM, a general name applied to various forms of speculation in the early history of the church. The term _yvoxns is found in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, and in the Apocryphal Book of Wisdom, denot-ing the knowledge of the true God, or knowledge communi-cated by Him. In the New Testament the word is fre-quently used by St Paul (1 Cor. i. 5, xii. 8; 2 Cor. iv. 6, x. 5), and in the second epistle of St Peter (i. 5, 6 ; iii. 18), to express the saving knowledge of God in Christ; and in the first epistle to Timothy occurs the significant phrase, " Oppositions of Science (yjwews) falsely so called." It may be inferred, therefore, that the use of the simple term, in a bad as well as a good sense, was not unknown to the apostolic age, although the expression -yvcoo-riKo's (Gnostic) is said not to be found till the beginning of the 2d century, when it was first employed by the sect of the Ophites, or, according to some, by Carpocrates. Both expressions were used by the early Christian fathers with the double meaning already indicated. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stro-mata or Miscellanies, entitles the enlightened or perfect Christian a Gnostic (Strom, i. 20, ii. 6). He points out at length the distinction between the true Gnostic and the disciples of false systems who laid claim to the name of Gnostics. It is only to systems of the latter kind that the name of Gnosticism is now applied.

The sources of Gnosticism are to be found in diverse forms of religious and speculative culture antecedent to Christianity, especially in the theology of the Alexandrian Jews, as represented in the writings of Philo, and again in the influences flowing from the old Persian or Zara-thustrian religion and the Buddhistic faiths of the East. To the theosophic system of Philo, with its mixture of Platonic and Old Testament ideas, some of the most characteristic conceptions of Gnosticism are certainly to be traced, such as the infinite separation between God and the world, and the necessity of a mediating power or powers in the creation of the world. This class of ideas prevailed largely at the time of the introduction of Christianity, especially in Alexandria, which was the great meeting-point of Jewish and Hellenic culture. The more the state of the pre-Christian Jewish mind and Jewish literature is investigated, the more do we recognize everywhere a strange commingling of old with new thoughts, of tradition with philosophy, of religion with speculation. The age was in all its aspects eclectic, and the Jewish no less than the Gentile schools of the time were centres for the fusion of old streams of culture from many quarters, and the rise of broader intellectual tendencies. Ever since the captivity, Judaism had borne more or less the impress of the old state religion which it encountered in its exile. How far post-Exilian Judaism was moulded by Zarathus-trian conceptions is a very difficult question; but no historical student can doubt that its cosmogony, its angelology, and even its anthropology, were largely modified by contact with Persia. But not only was Zarathustrianism active in and through Judaism. In itself, it spread westward, and became directly and indirectly both a precursor and a parent of Gnostic speculation. Certain forms of Gnos-ticism seem little else than adaptations of the Bersian dualism to the solution of the great problem of good and eviL In other forms of it, again, the Pantheism of India seems to have been a pervading influence. This, too, has its representative in the Jewish schools of the time, in the secret doctrines of the Kabbala, which many carry considerably beyond the time of Christ, although the two books through which we alone know these doctrines-—_ the Book of Creation and the book called Zohar or Light —are plainly of much later production. These doctrines sprang up in Palestine, and not among the Hellenistic Jews. The philosophy on which they rest is plainly pan-theistic. Whereas the principle lying at the foundation of the theosophy of Philo makes almost an absolute distinction between the Supreme indefinable Source of all things and the world, the philosophic postulate of the Kabbala is the identity of God and the world—the one being the Eternal Substance of which the other is the manifestation and form. " In place of the personal God, distinct from the world, acknowledged in the Old Testament, the Kabbala substi-tutes the idea of an universal and infinite substance, always active, always thinking, and in the process of thought, developing the universe. In the place of a material world distinct from God and created from nothing, the Kabbalist substitutes the idea of two worlds—the one intel-ligible, the other sensible,—both being, not substances dis-tinct from God, but forms under which the Divine Sub-stance manifests itself " (Mansel's Gnostic Heresies, p. 35).

Gnosticism is found reproducing one and all of these con-ceptions, with the additional idea of redemption directly borrowed from Christianity. In all its forms, it may be said to represent the efforts made by the speculative spirit of the time to appropriate Christianity, and to make use of some of its most fertile principles for the solution of the mysteries lying at the root of human speculation. The more advanced writers of the present day refuse to recog-nize Gnosticism as a heresy, or to speak of the Gnostics as deserters from the Christian Church. And they are right so far. The Gnostic schools were always so far outside the church. They were not heretical, therefore, in the ordinary sense. But it is no less true that Gnosticism, in all its developments, is only intelligible in connexion with Chris-tianity. It was the impulse of Christian ideas which alone originated it, which constituted the vital force of thought that made it one of the most significant phenomena of early Christian history; and it is only its connexion with Chris-tianity which can be said to make it any longer interesting.

The question as to the date of its origin has been much investigated of late by such writers as the late Dean Mansel among ourselves, and Lipsius, Harnack, and Hilgenfeld in Germany. Do we find traces of it in the New Testament writings % or are the supposed allusions to it there to be otherwise explained 1 It is well known that this question has an important bearing upon other questions as to the origin of some of the New Testament writings, and the special object for which these writings were composed. Without entering into details, or attempting to examine the several passages which may be supposed to contain allusions to Gnosticism in the New Testament, it may be said that such allusions, more or less definite, seem to occur in the later epistles of St Paul, especially the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, and in the Pastoral epistles. A supposed allusion has also been traced in the first epistle to the Corin-thians, where the word yvwcrts, for the first time in the New Testament writings, is found in a depreciatory sense, in the phrase rj yvwcrts (pvcrcol, rj Se aycarrj oiKoSofiti (1 Cor. viii. 1). In so very general a use of the expression, however, even in its connexion with the question of eating meats which had been offered to idols, it must be held very doubtful whether anything more than a general meaning is intended. And the same remark applies to many even of the more defined modes of expression, such as Pleroma and JEon, which occur in the later epistles. The true explanation of all these phrases, as well as much else in St Paul's writings, is probably the fact that the spirit of Gnosticism, and the language which it afterwards developed and applied, were " in the air " of the apostolic age. Its modes of thought, as already seen, were prevalent in Philo and in other quarters, and the tendencies which were afterwards worked up into systems were no doubt in existence in the time of St Paul, and still more in the later apostolic time. It seems plainly against such tendencies, rather than against any special sects or schools, that the cautions of St Paul are directed. In the Apocalypse, and in the epistles and gospel attributed to St John, these tendencies are seen in a
more developed although, hardly in a more distiuct state. The second chapter (vv. 6-15) of the Apocalypse has been held to mention a sect of the Gnostics by name—the Nicolaitans—a sect supposed to derive its name from Nicolas, one of the seven deacons, who had departed from the faith and fallen into licentious doctrines and practices. Even in such a sect as this, however, we recognize rather the expression of those lax and restless tendencies which sought everywhere to corrupt the doctrines of the gospel, than any clear philosophical bias. Upon the whole, it may be concluded that what we see in the writings of the New Testament is exactly what we might expect. The Gnostical spirit is present, but Gnosticism is as yet unde-veloped. The apostolic age is an age of transition, in which the speculative and ethical spirit of the time is everywhere seen encountering the new life of Christianity, and new seeds of creative thought are everywhere springing from the encounter. There are teachers of all kinds, especially Jewish teachers, busy throughout the Roman world. But Gnosticism properly so-called, as a series of speculative systems, is not yet born. Its approach is heralded by many tendencies forecasting it; but it is only in the Syrian and Alexandrian schools of the beginning of the 2d century that we see it coming forth into distinct shape. Men like Simon Magus and his pupil Menander, the former the opponent of St Peter, and again men like Cerinthus, the opponent of St John, may be called Gnostics. In such traditions of their teaching as survive, we see the workings of the Gnostical spirit—the spirit which sought to trans-mute the facts of Christianity into some ideological theory. But none of these leaders elaborated systems, or at least we are no longer able to trace with precision of outline the doctrines which they taught. Broperly speaking, therefore, they are the precursors of Gnosticism, rather than the founders of Gnostic schools. It is implied by Irenaeus (i. 25) that the followers of Carpocrates first called themselves Gnostics; and again by Hippolytus that this designation was first assumed by the Ophites (1. v.). But little can be gathered from writers like Irenaeus, or even Hippolytus, as to the true order of development of the Gnostic systems. With the former, for example, Saturninus and Basilides stand not only before Carpocrates, but before Cerinthus, the Ebionites, and the Nicolaitans (i. 24, 26). The last thing to seek in the early fathers is either accuracy of chronology, or a clear sequence of thought. They handle topics, for the most part, quite irrespective of either; and the student is forced back mainly, if not exclusively, on internal evidence as his only trustworthy guide in analysing and classifying the systems of thought which prevailed in the first two centuries.

According to such evidence, and the bias of individual writers, the Gnostic systems have been very differently classified. Mosheim has divided them with reference to their greater or less recognition of the Dualistic principle ; Neander with reference to their relation to Judaism ; F. Baur with reference to their relation both to Judaism and heathenism. Lipsius, one of the most recent and careful writers on the subject, arranges the Gnostical systems in a threefold order—1st, in so far as they arise within the Jewish schools, and aim to distinguish between Christianity and Judaism; 2d, in so far as they appear within the broader sphere of Hellenism ; and 3d, in so far as they approach the circle of Christian faith, and become more or less united with the doctrines of the church.

The most intelligible principle of classification seems to be that already indicated, which recognizes first an inchoate period corresponding to the New Testament age, and repre-sented by many diverse teachers, chiefly of Jewish origin, and then fixes attention upon the great schools of Syria and of Egypt, with the addition of that of Asia Minor, repre-sented by Marcion. These schools are distinguished by their internal features, and their respective relations to Judaism on the one hand and dualism on the other; but they stand out more clearly from their geographical centres, perhaps, than from any other distinguishing features.

I. The inchoate phase of Gnosticism is represented by men like Simon and Cerinthus, both prominently associated with apostles and sects, such as the Ophites or Naasseni (from E?™, serpent), the Peratse or Peratics,the Sethiani,and the followers of one Justinus, author of a book called the Booh of Baruch, which was written probably not earlier than the beginning of the 2d century. All these sects are elaborately described by Hippolytus in the fifth book of his Refutation of Heresies. Simon Magus follows them in his order of treatment (1. v.). There can be little doubt, however, that Simon must be placed in the very front of the history of Gnosticism, in so far as he belongs to this history at all. This is the position that he occupies in the treatise of Irenasus (Adv. Hcereses, 1. i. c. 23); and his association with St Peter, as well as the account of him in the apostolic history in which he appears (Acts viii. 5, 9, 10) within seven years of the ascension of our Lord, plainly indicates that this is his true position. The character of his teaching, moreover, points to the same conclusion. It is a form of anti-Christianism, rather than any mere depravation of the Christian system. It is true that he is represented in the passage of the Acts of the Apostles already referred to (viii. 13) as having professed himself a believer, and having been baptized; but his whole career afterwards, and the doctrines attributed to him, prove that, whatever may have been his feelings for the moment, he neither understood Christianity, nor came under its practi-cal influence in any degree. Probably he regarded the apostles as only magicians of remarkable skill, and enrolled himself for a time in their company in order that he might learn their secrets and be able to exercise their powers. He was plainly an impostor of the first magnitude, who must be credited with a marvellous and unblushing audacity rather than with any clear philosophic or spiritual aims. He gave himself out as " the great power of God " (Acts viii. 10). "Ego sum sermo Dei," he said of himself, according to St Jerome (on Matt. xxiv. 5), with much blasphemous nonsense besides. He carried about with him a " certain woman named Helena," a prostitute whom he had purchased in the city of Tyre, and who he said " was the first conception ("Evvoia) of his mind, the mother of all things, by whom in the beginning he conceived the thought of making the angels and archangels " (Iren., Adv. Hcer., i. 23). He recognized Christ as Bedeemer, but only as occupying an inferior position to himself. He was the true Logos or Power of God, which had previously in an imperfect degree appeared in Jesus. He himself is "the God who is over all things, and the world was made by his angels " (Ibid., i. 23). It is clear that a teacher of this kind had little relation to Christianity, except in so far as it came across his own designing and ambitious path. He had knowledge and intellectual address to avail himself of the prevailing conceptions of the Alexandrian philosophy, so as to impart some coherency to his own insane dreams; but he was characteristically a magician (as his character has survived in history) rather than a philosopher or spiritual thinker. He claims the position assigned to him in the history of Gnosticism mainly in virtue of his pupil and successor Menander who laid the foundation at Antioch of the Syrian Gnostic school more conspicuously represented by Saturninus and others.

For an account of Cerinthus and his system we refer our readers to the article CERINTHUS. The account of his relations with St John, as given by later Christian tradi-tion, may be a mythical expression of the popular Christian feeling about an obnoxious teacher rather than a state-ment of actual facts; but there seems no doubt that Cerinthus represented, in the close of the 1st century, a type of doctrine especially opposed to that of the fourth gospel. He is supposed to have been of Jewish descent, to have been educated in Alexandria, and to have diff used his doctrine in Asia Minor. Opposed as he was to the Christianity of the church in attributing the creation of the world, not to the Supreme God, but to "a power separate and distinct from " Him, and in conceiving Jesus as a mere man to whom the Christ was united at baptism, and from whom the Christ departed before His death (Iren., i. 2; Hippolytus, vii. 33), he was yet far from being the mere anti-Christian impostor that Simon was. He makes no claim to miraculous or divine powers in himself, but holds a distinct, however erroneous, Christology. The idea of "redemption is not only recognized by him, but recognized as verified in Christ and in Him alone. His chief concep-tion of the Creator of the world being other than the Supreme God was probably borrowed by him from the Egyptian schools in which he seems to have taught.

The sects of the Naasseni, the Peratae, the Sethiani, and the followers of Justin, placed, as we have said, by Hippoly-tus before Simon, may probably all be ranked along with him and Cerinthus in the early and still undeveloped stage of Gnosticism. It is very difficult to attain to any certainty as to their chronological position. Bunsen traces the origin of the Ophites as far back as the Bauline age; but on very definite grounds it may be concluded that the sect, if existent then, could hardly have acquired any prominence or intellectual interest,—not even in the time of St John ; and certain details of their teaching cannot well be earlier than the beginning of the 2d century. Hippolytus gives a distinct and lengthened account of these several sects. The Naasseni, he says, borrowed their opinions from the Greek philosophers and the teachers of the mysteries ; the Peratae took them " not from the Scriptures, but from the Astrologers;" the Sethiani "patched up their system out of shreds of opinion taken from Musasus, and Linus, and Orpheus;" and Justin was indebted for his to the "marvels of Hero-dotus !" He says, moreover, of the Naasseni that they " call themselves Gnostics." We must leave here, as else-where, the more particular description of these sects to special articles. All of them, however, may, with Mansel (Gnostic Heresies, p. 96), be regarded as branches of a common sect to which the title of Ophites particularly answers. The serpent was more or less a common symbol with them all; and the idea of the serpent as in some manner a redeeming power for mankind—"a symbol of intellect by whose means our first parents were raised to the knowledge of the existence of higher beings than their creator "—seems to have run through them all. The serpent no doubt tempted man, but he fell from allegiance to the Demiurge, or Creator of the present world, only to rise to the knowledge of a higher world. Thus to iden-tify the serpent with the Redeeming Word or Divine Son came very near to converting the power of Evil into the ideal of Good. This was the logical conclusion which probably lay more or less in all their systems; but it only showed itself fully in a cognate sect called the Cainites, the description of which follows that of the Ophites and the Sethians in the first book of the treatise of Irenaeus (c. xxxi.). This sect carried to its extreme form the inver-sion of Biblical story, and raised the serpent into a creative and redeeming power. All the evil characters in the Old Testament, with Cain at their head, are set forth as the true spiritual heroes; and, in consistency with the same view, Judas Iscariot, in the New Testament, is repre-sented as alone " knowing the truth," and so accomplishing the betrayal of the Saviour, as some later theorists have also supposed, in order that His good work might be com-pleted. They had a gospel of their own in the interest of such views, which they styled " the gospel of Judas."

Another name in the history of Gnosticism, that of Carpocrates, may be classed in this earlier period, although he is said to have been still active as a teacher in the time of Hadrian (117-138). The followers of Carpocrates, as already mentioned, are represented by Irenaeus (i. 25) as first styling themselves Gnostics. His opinions had a certain affinity both with those of Cerinthus and the Ophites. They are described at length by Irenaeus (i. 25) and Hippo-lytus (vii. 20). Both writers also ascribe to this teacher and his disciples a great devotion to magical arts, and accuse them of voluptuousness and even licentiousness of life. They seem to have cherished an esoteric doctrine which inculcated the indifference of all actions, and that nothing was really evil by nature. Some of the teachers of the sect marked their pupils by branding them on the inside of the lobe of the right ear. Epiphanes, a son of Carpocrates, is associated with his father in the reign of Hadrian as actively promot-ing the spread of their heresy, and, dying young, he is said to have been worshipped as a god by the inhabitants of a town in Cephalonia, of which his mother was a native. He must have been a remarkable youth, credited as he is with a work on Justice, fragments of which have been pre-served by Clement of Alexandria, advocating a very out-rageous form of communism. Women of note allied them-selves to this free confederacy, one of whom, Marcellina, came to Borne in the time of Anicetus (d. 168), and " led multitudes astray " (Iren. i. 25 ; see also CARPOCRATES).

II. But, as already indicated, it is not till the first quarter of the 2d century that we see Gnosticism in full and systematic development; and then it ranges from two main centres—Antioch in Syria, and Alexandria.

(1.) Menander, the pupil of Simon, settled at Antioch, and there laid the foundation of the Syrian Gnostic school, whose chief representatives in the 2d century are Saturninus, Tatian, and Bardesanes, the last two of whom were more or less connected with the church—Tatian, as a pupil of Justin Martyr, and the writer of a harmony of the four gospels under the name of Diatessaron, and Bardesanes as one of the first of the interesting series of hymn-writers for which we are indebted to the Syrian church. The Syrian Gnosis is distinguished by its admixture of Zarathustrian elements, and the consequent sharpness and precision with which it seizes the idea of conflict between the powers of Good and Evil—the Supreme God, on the one hand, and the Demiurge and his angels or aeons, on the other hand. For a more particular account of the characteristics of the system, see articles on the names above mentioned.

(2.) Along with the Syrian school, and occupying a more prominent place in the development of the religious thought of the 2d century, stands the great school of Alexandrian Gnosticism, represented especially by Basilides and Valen-tinus and their followers. Basilides appears to have been a native of Syria, and to have taught in Alexandria about the yearl25. " He is the first Gnostic teacher," says Bunsen (Hippolytus and his Age, p. 107), " who has left an indi-vidual personal stamp upon his age. . . . His erudition is unquestionable. He had studied Blato deeply. . . . All that was great in the Basilidean system was the originality of thought and moral earnestness of its founder." Bunsen also maintains that " Basilides was a pious Christian, and worshipped with his congregation," while admitting that his sect fell away from the church and from Christianity by refusing to recognize the authority of Scripture and the necessity of practical Christian communion.

Valentinus was probably educated in the school of Alex-andrian Gnosticism, as he developed Gnostic ideas in their connexion with Hellenic, rather than Persian, modes of thought into the. most elaborate and carefully reasoned system which they reached. He came to Eome about the year 140, and there formed a sect which exercised con-siderable influence over the commingling speculations of the time which met in that great centre. Bunsen vindi-cates his Christian character, and says that St Jerome speaks of him with great respect. If at any time he really belonged to the church, it seems to be admitted (Epiph, Hcer., xxxi. 7) that in Cyprus, whither he returned and where he died, he ultimately proclaimed himself outside its pale. The most illustrious disciples of the Valentinian Gnosticism, which prevailed on till the 6th century, were Ptolemaeus, Heracleon, and Marcus. It is the tenets of these teachers, especially of the first, that are chiefly discussed in the opening chapter of the well-known treatise of Irenaeus.

(3.) In addition to these two great schools of Gnosticism there is still a third, especially represented by the famous Marcion of Pontus, whose centre may be regarded as Asia Minor. Marcion was the son of a Christian bishop, by whom he is said to have been excommunicated. Following one Cerdon, a Gnostic of Antioch, Marcion distinguished himself by his extreme opposition to Judaism, and generally by a Gnostic attitude at variance with the Old Testament, the God of which is to him the Demiurge in conflict with the Supreme Being and the Christ whom He sent to redeem the world from the power of this Demiurge. His Christ-ology was of course docetic,—the divine power being only united to the man Jesus for a time. He accepted only ten of St Paul's epistles, and a mutilated copy of the gospel of St Luke. The teaching of the Clementine fictions and a Jewish sect known by the name of Elkesaites, whose tenets seem to have resembled this teaching, is considered by Mansel and others to constitute a Judaizing reaction from the Pauline Gnosticism of Marcion.

Our readers are referred to special articles for a detailed exposition of these several Gnostic systems. It remains for us here to give a general sketch of the questions which Gnosticism discussed, and the broader features which char-acterized its main developments.
III. The fundamental questions with which Gnosticism concerned itself are the same which in all ages have agitated inquiry and baffled speculation, viz., the origin of life and the origin of evil,—how life sprung from the Infinite Source,—how a world so imperfect as this could proceed from a supremely perfect God. The Oriental notion of matter as utterly corrupt is found to pervade all Gnostical systems, and to give so far a common character to their speculations. It may be said to be the ground-principle of Gnosticism.

Setting out from this principle, all the Gnostics agree in regarding this world as not proceeding immediately from the Supreme Being. A vast gulf, on the contrary, is sup-posed to separate them. In the general mode in which they conceive this gulf to be occupied they also agree, although with considerable varieties of detail.

The Supreme Being is regarded as wholly inconceivable and indescribable—as the unfathomable Abyss (Valentinus) —the Unnameable (Basilides). From this transcendent source existence springs by emanation in a series of spiritual powers (Swa/xeis). It is only through these several powers or energies that the infinite passes into life and activity, and becomes capable of representation. To this higher spiritual world is given the name of ir\rjpwp.a, and the divine powers composing it, in their ever-expanding procession from the Highest, are called Aeons.

So far a common mode of representation characterizes all the Gnostical systems. All unite in this doctrine of a higher emanation-wo rid. It is in the passage from this higher spiritual world to the lower material one that a speculative distinction of an important character begins to characterize them. On the one hand, this passage is appre-hended as a mere continued degeneracy from the Source of Life, at length terminating in the kingdom of darkness and death—the bordering chaos surrounding the kingdom of light. On the other hand, this passage is apprehended in a more precisely dualistic form, as a positive invasion of the kingdom of light by a self-existent kingdom of darkness. According as Gnosticism adopted one or other of these modes of explaining the existence of the present world, it fell into the two great divisions which, from their places of origin, have received the respective names of the Alexandrian and Syrian Gnosis. The one, as we have seen, presents more a Western, the other more an Eastern type of speculation. The dualistic element in the one case scarcely appears beneath the Pantheistic, and bears resemblance to the Platonic notion of the vhq—a mere blank necessity, a limit-ing void. In the other case, the dualistic element is clear and prominent, corresponding to the Zarathustrian doctrine of an active principle of evil as well as of good—of a king-dom of Ahriman (Auro-Mainyus) as well as a kingdom of Ormuzd (Ahura-Mazdao).

In the Alexandrian Gnosis a link of subordination is preserved between the two kingdoms, separated as they are. For the vhq only becomes a living and active power of evil through the quickening impartation of some element from the higher kingdom in its progressive descent from the Supreme Source. The stream of being in its ever-outward flow at length comes in contact with dead matter, which thus receives animation, and becomes a living source of evil. Its life and power, however, are withal only derived from the higher kingdom. But in the Syrian Gnosis the kingdom of darkness has no such dependence upon the kingdom of light. There appears from the first a hostile principle of evil in collision with the good.
Out of this main distinction other more special distinc-tions arise, still more clearly defining the one form of yvuio-is from the other. According as the two kingdoms are recog-nized as subordinate the one to the other, or as opposed to each other, it is obvious that different views will prevail as to the character of the A.-qu.iovpyo's, or maker of this world, whose name and functions are so prominent in all systems of Gnosticism. In the one case, his relation to the Supreme Source of life will be apprehended as more dependent—in the other, as more hostile. In the former view, the yiwis, while rising in its pride of speculation far above all mere earthly relations and historical religions, could yet find in these a point of contact, whereby the higher spiritual truth, penetrating this lower world, would gradually raise it to its own elevation. In the latter, no such point of contact is left between nature, or history, and the yv&cris. Accord-ingly, while the Alexandrian form of Gnosticism was found to embrace Judaism, as a divine institution, although very inferior and defective in its manifestation of the Divine character, the Syrian rejected it as being wholly the work of the spirit of the lower world—the AqfJiiovpyos warring with the supreme God. This anti-Judaical spirit is found developed to its extreme in Marcion.

The Gnostic conception of Christ, in so far uniform, is also of course greatly modified by the different relations which the systems thus bore to Judaism. In all he is re-cognized as a higher iEon, proceeding from the kingdom of light for the redemption of this lower kingdom of darkness. But, in the one case, however superior, he is yet allied to the lower angels and the A^/xioupyo's, governing this lower world. His appearance, accordingly, admits of being his-torically connected with the previous manifestations of the Divine presence upon earth. But, in the other case, he is apprehended as a being wholly distinct from the A-^iovpyos, and his appearance takes place in this lower world without

any previous preparation, in order that he may draw to himself all kindred spiritual natures held in bondage by the power of this lower world. If any point of connexion is admitted in this latter case betwixt Christianity and the lower world, it is certainly not found in Judaism or any historical religion, but in the theosophic schools, where an esoteric knowledge of the Supreme was cultivated.

IV. Vague, confused, and irrational as Gnosticism in most of its systems is, its influence upon the development of Christian thought was by no means detrimental. It com-pelled Christian teachers to face the great problems of which it attempted the solution in so many fantastic forms. It expanded the horizon of controversy within as without the church, and made men like Irenaeus, and Clement, and Origen, and even Tertullian, feel that it was by the weapons of reason and not of authority that they must win the triumph of Catholic Christianity. Gnosticism, therefore, may be said to have laid the foundation of Christian science, and it is certainly interesting and deserving of notice that it is in the two great cities of Antioch and Alexandria, —where Gnosticism had chiefly planted itself,—that we see the rise of the first two schools of Christian thought, These centres of half-Pagan and half-Christian speculation became the first centres of rational Christian theology.
The several schools of Gnosticism seem to have gradually lost importance after the middle of the 3d century, although some of them continued to linger till the 6th century. Manichseism was little else than a revival of it in the Syrian form, and this system in the 4th and 5th centuries became so powerful as almost to be a rival to Christianity. The great Christian father St Augustine, as is well known, was long fascinated by its influence. Again, strangely, in the 12th century the same spirit burst forth afresh, and in special connexion with the name of the great apostle of the Gentiles. The sect of Paulicians, originating in the old Syrian haunt of heresy, Samosata, spread through Asia Minor, and then through Bulgaria and the borders of the Greek empire into Italy, Germany, and France. Gibbon, in the 54th chapter of his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has given a vivid and powerful description of the fortunes and persecutions of the sect, and the readi-ness with which its doctrines seized upon whole populations. In southern France especially it spread like wildfire, and for a time almost entirely displaced Catholic Christianity. This Western development of the old Oriental dualism was characterized by many of the features of the earlier Gnos-ticism, such as the doctrine of the radical evil of matter, aversion to the Old Testament as the work of an evil Demiurge, and a docetic Christology. Extinguished in the horrors of the Albigensian war, it can hardly be said to have reappeared in the history of Christendom.

Literature.—Only one original Gnostic work has survived to modern times, the irlans crotpia. of Valentinus (edited by Petermann, Berlin, 1851); for all further knowledge of the system we are en-tirely dependent on the treatises of its avowed opponents,—especially on that of Irenosus (Z\eyx°s T>)s ^(vSavi/j.ov yvaxreais) and on that of Hippolytus (t\eyxos Kara iraaap aipectav), although reference may also be made to passages bearing on the subject in the writings of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clemens Alexandrinus, Origen, Euse-bius, Philastrius, Epiphanius, Theodoret, Augustine, and Plotinus. The subject is taken up with more or less fulness in all the church histories, and histories of philosophy. Among the more important recent works bearing upon the elucidation of Gnosticism may be mentioned those of JTeander (GenetiseheEnhoickelung der vornehmsten Gnostischen Systeme, 1818), Matter (Histoire critique du Gnosticisme, 1828, 2d ed. 1843), Baur (De Gnosticorum Christianismo Ideali, 1827; Die Christliche Gnosis, 1835; Die drei ersten Jahrhunderte, 3d ed., 1863), Bunsen (Hippolytus u. seine Zeit, 1852-53), Lipsius (art. " Gnosticismus" in Ersch and Gruber's Encyclopädie, repub-lished in a revised form with the title Der Gnosticismus; sein Wesen, Unsprung, und Entwickelung, 1860), Hamack (Zur Quel-lenkritik der Geschichte des Gnosticismus, 1873), Mansel (Gnostic Heresies, 1875), and Lipsius (Die Quellen der ditcsten Ketzergeschichte neu untersucht, 1875). References to the monographs by Ritschl, Volkmar, Heinrici, Hilgenfeld, and others on special branches of the subject will be found under the several headings BARDESANES, BASILIDES, MAECION, VALENTINUS, &c. (J. T.)

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries