In Our Time: Gnosticism

Gnosticism was part of the growth of secret knowledge cults in the first few centuries AD, flourishing in the 2nd & 3rd Centuries. Although not necessarily associated with Christianity it is best known as a different interpretation of Christianity, and the mainstream Christian Church reacted against what they regarded as heresy in ways that are still part of Christianity today. The three experts who talked about this on In Our Time were Martin Palmer (International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture), Caroline Humfress (Birkbeck College, University of London) and Alastair Logan (University of Exeter).

This was a programme that constantly threatened to runaway with itself – I think there were three times that Melvyn Bragg had to stop some tangent (often that he’d started) by saying it was a topic for another programme. And they ended a little abruptly having pretty much run out of time. The jumping off point for the programme was that in 1945 a set of documents were found buried in Egypt, and whilst some were burnt for fuel some made their way to scholars. These documents turned out to be Gnostic “gospels” and this revolutionised scholarship about Gnosticism as prior to this time it was mostly known through the writings of Christians explaining how terrible it was.

So first they talked about what Gnosticism was. Which isn’t quite as easy to pin down as all that – it wasn’t so much an organised religion as a collection of revelations and beliefs that share commonalities. And that’s part of the point. One of the commonalities is that they saw the world as divided into the material world (bad) and the spirit world (good), and the route to salvation or enlightenment was to awake from the cares of the flesh to a more spiritual awareness. It spread across a lot of Europe & Asia, and was banned by many authorities both religious & secular, but the experts mostly discussed it in the context of its interactions with and reactions to Christianity (I think that might be where Gnosticism in general is centred, but I’m not sure if that’s the case or if that’s just where they chose to focus).

Humfress told us about the creation myth that (with variations) is common throughout Gnosticism. In this there is an unknowable divine God from whom are generated various emanations of this divinity, the number varies between tellings of the myth. The last of these emanations was Sophia – Wisdom – and she desired to see the divine without his permission or knowledge. Her efforts to do so created a rent in the spiritual world and through this rent or veil is created the demiurge Yaltabaoth who creates the material world. Yaltabaoth is pretty definitely associated with the god of the Old Testament, and is pretty definitely cast as evil (the material world is Bad). This was the point where J & I were saying “oh so that’s why it was banned in lots of places” 😉 Once Adam was created he had no soul, so Sophia sent her daughter Zoey to be Eve and to tempt Adam to eat of the tree of knowledge. All humans as descendents of Adam & Eve have a spark of the divine within them, their soul, and if they awake to this knowledge then they will join with the divine unknowable God.

They were keen to stress the point that in mainstream Christian tradition one is saved and redeemed from one’s own sins – guilt is an important part of the deal. You did do wrong, and Jesus died to save you from the consequences. But the Gnostic tradition is about salvation through awakening to knowledge of your true self. You aren’t guilty of sin, your previous behaviour was the result of the demiurge who made you part of the material world. And once you are awakened it’s like you were drunk and are now sober & see how the thoughts you had before weren’t profound but were the result of the state you were in.

Gnosticism involved secret knowledge & initiation into the mysteries, but once you were initiated & anointed you were a Christ and you were an equal of anyone else who’d been anointed. This is very different from the hierarchical order that was developing within mainstream Christianity. And in fact the reaction against the Gnostics was part of what strengthened that heirarchy – making themselves different from the “heretics”.

They also talked about the impact that discovering Gnostic texts had. In academia it had a profound impact on how people interpreted the Gospels that made it into the canonical texts. And lead to re-interpretations of early Christianity (or “Christianities”). And in the more popular world it’s also had an impact. They were saying how it has influenced New Age thought & philosophies, but also the interpretation of the place of women in the Church. Particularly in light of the Gnostics having a trinity that consisted of Father, Mother & Christ, and I think they were implying that part of the Church sidelining women was reacting against the Gnostics.

It was definitely an programme where you could see that the 45minutes just skimmed the surface of the subject.