The Gospel of Judas, Papyrus.

GNOSTICISM. A complex religious movement which in its Christian form came into prominence in the 2nd cent. With its origins in trends of thought current in pagan circles, Christian Gnosticism appeared first as a school of thought within the Church; by the end of the 2nd cent. the Gnostics had mostly formed separate sects. Different forms were developed by particular teachers, such as Valentinus, Basilides, and Marcion, but some features are common to the movement as a whole[:]

[1] A central importance was attached to ‘gnosis’ , the supposedly revealed knowledge of God and of the origin and destiny of mankind, by means of which the spiritual element in man could receive redemption.

[2] The source of this special ‘gnosis’ was held to be either the Apostles, from whom it was derived by a secret tradition, or a direct revelation given to the founder of the sect.

[3] Gnostic teaching distinguished between the Demiurge or ‘creator god’ and the supreme, remote, and unknowable Divine Being.

[4] From the latter the Demiurge was derived by a series of emanations or ‘aeons’. It was he who was the immediate source of creation and ruled the world, which was therefore imperfect and antagonistic to what was truly spiritual.

[5] But into the constitution of some men there had entered a seed or spark of Divine spiritual substance, and through ‘gnosis’ and the rites associated with it this spiritual element might be rescued from its evil material environment.

[6] The function of Christ was to come as the emissary of the supreme God, bringing ‘gnosis’.

[7] As a Divine Being He neither assumed a properly human body nor died, but either temporarily inhabited a human being, Jesus, or assumed a phantasmal human appearance.

Until recently the anti-Gnostic writers were the main source of information. In 1945—6 a collection of Coptic texts was found at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. It comprised over 40 treatises, all but two pre­viously unknown. They vary widely in date and style; some are thought to date from the 2nd cent. or earlier, though the actual copies are not earlier than the 4th cent. Most of the items are superficially Christian and display Gnostic tendencies in varying degree. They include the so-called ‘Gospel of Truth’ (see Evangelium Veritatis) and the ‘Gospel of Thomas’.


LEO D. DAVIS, S.J. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, (325-787), Their History and Theology
2.1.2.  Gnosticism]

[...] THE Valentinians, followers of Valentinus who taught at Rome and Alexandria in the mid-second century, to resolve the ancient Greek problem of the one and the many, began by postulating

a supreme Father, unbegotten and perfect, who had by his side Silence, the thought of the Father.

From this primal couple, Mind and Truth, Word and Life, Man and Church flow out successively, by a process akin to that whereby thought proceeds from mind or desire from will.

From this first group of eight proceeds in turn a group of ten

and then another of twelve,

so there are at last thirty divine entities or aeons, half of whom are male, half female, forming the divine order or pleroma and bridging the abyss between the single source and the realm of multiplicity.

But the lowest of the thirty aeons, Wisdom, yearns illicitly to understand the Father and thus gives birth to Desire. In order to rectify this primal disorder, Mind and Truth produce Christ and the Holy Spirit to instruct the aeons about their proper relation to the Father. Formless Desire, offspring of Wisdom, meanwhile gives rise further to matter and psyche, whereupon Christ impresses form upon Desire who then gives rise to spirit or pneuma. Wisdom then proceeds to fashion the Demiurge or Creator, equivalent to God of the Old Testament, out of psychic substance. From matter and psyche, the Demiurge forms heaven and earth and the creatures inhabiting it. Among these creatures, the Demiurge fashions carnal man and breathes into him his own psychic substance. But Desire secretly plants spirit as well into certain men. This spiritual element yearns for the Father, and salvation consists in liberation of spirit from the lower psychic and carnal elements of the human constitution to ascend to the Father. The Savior Jesus provides the means of salvation through his revelation of the workings of the system. Merely carnal men, however, cannot be saved; psychic men can be saved with difficulty through knowledge and imitation of Jesus; spiritual men need only apprehend the teaching of Jesus to be saved.

All of this fantastic system is supported by an equally fantastic exegesis of the Scriptures where it is regarded as lying hidden. Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. 180) provided an example of this sort of exegesis; he said, according to the Gnostics, the thirty aeons are signified by the thirty years of the Lord’s hidden life; the group of twelve aeons, by the fact that Jesus at the age of twelve disputed with the doctors of the Law in the temple; the group of eighteen aeons, by the eighteen months which Jesus supposedly spent among His disciples after His resurrection. As Lonergan observes, this system is related to theology as alchemy to chemistry or legend to history.


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