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Gnosticism is a modern scholarly term used to categorize a number of loosely connected groups whose common beliefs included dualism and salvation through revealed spiritual knowledge. These various schools, often considered pseudo-philosophical, flourished in II-V Centuries, and each is associated with a particular teacher, such as Valentinus or Basilides. Some schools are thought to have their origin in Jewish mysticism and to predate Christianity. Legends say gnostics followed the teaching of Dositheus, instructor of Simon Magus. Others, who consider the schools an outgrowth of Christianity, consider Deacon Nicholas, one of the original seven deacons, to have founded the discourse of gnosticism. Still others think gnostic thought originated in neo-Platonic philosophy. Whatever its roots, gnosticism is more an approach than a coherent system of beliefs.

Gnostics, the term the Fathers use, believed in a Creator God, a God who is absolutely other than man. This spiritual being is so far above matter that it could not have created this world. Gnostics were dualists who posited that Satan (the God of the Old Testament) or the Platonic demiurge emanated from the Creator God and fell away in some manner. This lesser god created and ruled the fallen, evil, material world. Man is a creation of this lesser god, but he still retains a fragment of the divinity that the lesser received from the greater. The few who become aware of this fragment know they have a connection to the divine; they alone can be saved.

These are the spiritual, the highest of the created. They become spiritual through revelation of hidden knowledge from a teacher, who had a revelation from God, or through extreme asceticism which conquers the body. Valentinus taught that ritual marriage of the soul to its counterpart would lead to salvation. Jesus was, according to Gnostic teaching, a spiritual: He did not, could not, assume a human body; he was an emissary of the Creator God (not the Son of God) and had a semblance of a physical body. This Christology is thought to have influenced Docetic Christology.

Gnostics believed that the soul, which is separate from the spirit, was created by the lesser god and was ruled by lesser powers. Although some Gnostic schools rose as schools of thought within Christianity, the differences caused the two groups to split from each other. Christians, in Gnostic terms, are merely psychics who were too tied to the material world.

Christians rejected Gnostic teachings because Gnostics reject the Scripture as a source of revelation and as a form of public knowledge. Gnostics say that Christ did not become a man; Christ can teach the way to salvation but is not the way to salvation. Some Gnostics rejected all Christian sacraments as material; some saw Christian sacraments as pale imitations of the true spiritual sacraments. Christianity teaches that salvation comes through a relationship between God and man; gnostics taught that salvation comes through special knowledge granted only to a few, through knowledge that must be kept from the wider community. Christian preaching and teaching, in contrast, is public.

Below the psychics in the gnostic hierarchy are the material beings, people with no inkling of their divine origin and who live only according to the body.

Until the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, gnosticism was known largely though Patristic attacks and the various groups, such as the Manichees and the Cathars, which were influenced by the various gnostic teachings.

Karen Rae Keck

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