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March 23rd, 2013

A Survey of Gnosticism: Past and Present

Coptic Gnostic Church

Coptic Gnostic Church

[This is part 1 of 2]

What follows is a summary based on my personal notes of a presentation I was invited to give at the Spiritual Circle of Atlanta on 18 March 2013. The topic was Gnosticism: Past and Present. I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to give this presentation, the hostess for welcoming us all into your beautiful home and the participants who made it out in spite of a very threatening and ferocious thunder storm. It was a great joy for me to have this opportunity to share about one of my favorite topics.

I am a bishop serving at Holy Mother Barbelo Sanctuary within the Coptic Gnostic Church,  a contemporary independent sacramental Gnostic community.

When I was first invited to give a presentation on Gnosticism, I was told by the principal organizer that the group expressed an interest in this topic, that they were curious to learn more about it and that, for the most part,  there was only some basic knowledge of the subject among the participants planning on attending. I wrestled for some time with what might be the best approach to presenting this vast and deep subject. What angle would be most suitable for this audience? Should I specialize or should I take a more general approach? I decided on the latter as I felt that a broad, more generalized overview of Gnosticism would serve as a suitable introduction while simultaneously offering threads that could be picked up by those who want to pursue a deeper study and, if so inclined, engage in contemplative praxis as well. That said, this humble overview is by no means comprehensive. It simply would not be possible to cover all the various communities and their views which have been identified as gnostic, both past and present, in a two hour presentation. I could probably speak all day long and still not be able to cover this comprehensively. This means there are many communities and views that I did not even mention, no less, go into any detail about. Any and all omissions do not indicate a lack of interest, importance or value to the study of Gnosticism. I simply had to decide what to include and what to cut for the sake of brevity, and even in doing so the presentation ran the full length of allotted time and then some. At the end of the presentation I offered to send a suggested reading list to anyone who was interested in such as well as my contact information for anyone who has an interest in ongoing dialog.

Early Christianity – 1st through 4th centuries CE
One might ask, “What does Christianity have to do with Gnosticism?” The short answer is, a lot really. The longer answer is what I intend to offer a small glimpse of in the next few sections. Historically speaking, the earliest Christian communities were in fact very diverse. So much so that it would not be far from the truth to think of them in the plural – to think of them as ‘Christianities’ – like various theologians and scholars have suggested, such as Walter Bauer (1877 – 1960)  and more recently (and arguably most notably) Professor Bart Ehrman. Professor Ehrman writes about this in great detail in his popular book Lost Christianites: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford University Press, USA. 2005).  Ehrman apparently started out as an Evangelical Christian. He attended Wheaton College with aspirations to become a minister. As an academic studying higher criticism of biblical texts and pondering some of the hard questions that are explored in that discipline, he eventually became an agnostic (which is, by the way, much different from being a gnostic). He continued with his academic career and received a PhD and M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Dr. Bart Ehrman

Dr. Bart Ehrman

Professor Ehrman is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The reason I mention Bauer and Ehrman is simply because their work sets up a rather strong argument for the diversity of Christian communities, their beliefs and practices, in the early period we are examining here (roughly from the 1st through 4th centuries CE). And this is the very same period where we see many of the communities emerging that scholars and historians have retroactively labeled ‘Gnostic’. To be clear, not all Gnostics were Christian in orientation, yet many of them were. And as we shall see, the tension between these various Christian communities was one of the aspects that ultimately gave rise, for better or for worse, to the formation of a Christian orthodoxy.

Marcionism
While not typically identified as a Gnostic per se,  Marcion of Sinope and his followers play an important role historically speaking in terms of showing one of the many Christian communities that existed alongside each other, and one that grew to such great prominence that a shock wave was sent out to the rest of Christendom causing a reaction that was one of the components prompting the proto-orthodox (i.e. those who held the views of what later became orthodoxy before these were codified as orthodox views) towards solidifying an orthodox Christian doctrine and practice.

Marcion

Marcion

Marcionism dates to circa 140 CE. Marcion was the son of a bishop. He traveled to Rome around 135 CE and after failing to obtain episcopal office there, he broke away from the church in Rome and formed his own Christian community. One of the principal teachings of Marcion was that the God of the Hebrew scriptures was a different God than the one Jesus taught about. The view was that the God of the Hebrew scriptures was presented as a vengeful, jealous and warlike deity who on occasion would command his servants to slaughter,  pillage and murder whole nations of people, including women and children. Contrasting this image of God with the image presented by Jesus, who spoke of the Father as being a God of light and love, a peaceful and compassionate deity, Marcion declared these two could not be the same God. He and his followers rejected the Hebrew scriptures wholesale. Contrary to poplar belief, it was Marcion (not Constantine) who created the first Christian canon. In fact, the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE had little to do with the forming of a canon. Its main focus was on christology, meaning, defining the nature and attributes of Christ. The Council of Nicaea addressed the Arian controversy that was rocking the Christian world at the time and led to the formation of the Nicene Creed. So the next time you hear someone spout off that it was Constantine that created the Bible, you can relieve them of their ignorance if you so choose. One of the first canons we know about was the Marcionite canon, created by our present heretic Marcion circa 140 CE. Marcion’s canon consisted solely of the Pauline Epistles (minus the Pastorals and Hebrews) and the Evangelion (which simply means gospel, or good news, or, a really popular anime series…take your pick). The Evengelion of Marcion is also known as ‘The Gospel of the Lord’. This Gospel was an alternate version of the Gospel of Luke than that which is found in the current canonical Christian scriptures. The Marcionite canon predates the canon attributed to Athanasius by roughly 220 years, as denoted in his 39th Festal Letter in 367 CE  which is commonly thought of as the first canon similar to the one we have now. Though one could also argue that it was Origen who first created a New Testament canon circa 250 CE, but even so, Marcion’s canon still predates this by roughly 100 years. The indication is that there really wasn’t much thought about creating an authoritative canon (as in, these books and these alone are Christian scriptures) until the time of Marcion, and it took the orthodox Christian world much longer before any specific books were definitively settled on as canonical. The irony is that, to this day, Marcion is considered a heretic by the orthodox churches and yet, he was the first to codify a canon. Speaking of heresy…

Heresiology
It was Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160 – c. 225 AD) that penned Adversus Marcionem (Against Marcion) sometime around 207 CE in response to Marcionism. Tertullian was one among many of the heresiologists (the proto-orthodox and later orthodox Christians that wrote refutations against what they perceived to be heretical doctrines). Tertullian also wrote Adversus Valentinianos (Against the Valentinians) in his attempt to refute the teachings of Valentinus (a famous Christian Gnostic) and his school who I shall return to later. Yet of all the various heresiologists, it is perhaps Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, and his work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) that is the best known and most comprehensive attempt at refuting what we now call the Gnostics.

Irenaeus

Irenaeus

The full title of Adversus Haereses is Against Heresies: On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (written circa 180 CE). And here we note that the Greek term ‘gnosis’, from which we derive the classification ‘Gnostic’ as well as ‘Gnosticism’, means knowledge. Yet this is a special type of knowledge as there are two other Greek terms that can be translated into English as knowledge, 1) episteme, meaning knowledge in the sense of a science or systematic study, and 2) techne, meaning knowledge in the sense of a craft or skill (for a more in-depth examination of these terms, see this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). And although Irenaeus was writing in Latin, the knowledge he is referring to as  a “knowledge falsely so-called’ is the gnosis of the Gnostics. He is, in effect, claiming that he (and the church he is writing for) has the true gnosis and that these other folks (all of the groups he attempts to refute in his works) are in error, misguided and heretical. This term ‘gnosis’ as mentioned above, indicates a special kind of knowledge, a knowledge unlike episteme or techne. It refers to a direct inner-knowing, an experiential and mystical knowledge. Both the emerging orthodoxy as well as the various Gnostic sects lay claim to gnosis in one form or another. Yet the polemics of the heresiologists, coupled with persecution and ultimately (though much later) backed by crusades and inquisitions, was so successful that for nearly 1700 years, with scarce few exceptions, the only information we essentially had about these early Christian and Non-Christian Gnostic communities was derived from those who adamantly stood in opposition to them. Ask my enemies what type of person I am and you are bound to get a biased response, no?

The Nag Hammadi Library
The year is 1945 CE. A bedouin by the name of Mohammed Ali (not the famous boxer) is searching for some fertilizer in the mountains in Egypt to the north-west of Luxor, between Denderah and Panopolis. In one of the many caves in the area, he happens upon an earthenware jar. At first he fears opening it, thinking perhaps it contains a Jinn. Yet he decides to give it a go and see what is inside.

Nag Hammadi Codices

Nag Hammadi Codices

What he finds is a set of thirteen leather-bound codices. Unaware of their importance, Mohammed Ali brings them home and sets them on a burn pile. While the precious codices were being stored at his house, his mother uses one of them to kindle a fire for the household (lost forever!). Through a series of events, the codices pass through the hands of several people, including the cleric Al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd el Masih, the Egyptian historian Raghib, then onto the black market, then the Egyptian government and eventually they are sent to the Coptic Museum in Cairo. The codices are written in Coptic, which is an Egyptian language designed as a substitute for the ancient hieroglyphs. The codices are believed to be translations from earlier originals written in Greek. Some Greek fragments have been found that support this theory. It takes many years and the interaction of several other people and institutions before the codices are fully translated into English for the first time and made available to the general public (1977). This find enables us to have an essentially unprecedented opportunity (there are some previous exceptions, like the Pistis Sophis for example), to read the Gnostics in their own words. Interestingly enough, there is some speculation that the codices may have been hidden by the monks of a Coptic Orthodox monastery not far away from the site where they were discovered. Scholar Karen King makes this suggestion in her book, The Secret Revelation of John where she speculates that perhaps the monks hid them away as the Western Church was growing in power and becoming more concerned about establishing a unified worldwide orthodoxy. In any case, whoever it is we have to thank for preserving these precious codices may be lost in the sands of time forever, but the texts themselves have found the light of day. And there was much rejoicing, amidst some weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Some Ancient Gnostic Communities
All of the above was simply to give a general idea of the historical context of Gnosticism and to indicate some of the difficulties in regards to the amount and type of information that has been available to us. Obviously there is much more to it than what I have sketched out here. Yet hopefully the information I have provided can be used as an entry point for further study. Before we move into specific examples of Gnostic communities, I also want to point out that research in this area is ongoing even today. We have barely begun to scratch the surface. And what is and what is not ‘Gnostic’ or ‘Gnosticism’ is a hotly debated topic in academia, to the point where some scholars have suggested these terms are no longer even viable (For example, see Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category by Michael Allen Williams). However, there is more to Gnosticism than is met with in the halls of academia, and there are many today who identify with this term, and have embraced it and given life to it in various ways (see ‘The Gnostic Revival’ and ‘Some Contemporary Gnostic Communities’ below). Yet historically speaking, what has been referred to as Gnosticism, as if this was a single spiritual community or religion all sharing a homogeneous belief  system does not appear to exist in the historical record. What we do know is that there were certainly several communities that held divergent views from those who later become the upholders of orthodox Christianity, and that these other groups were quite popular, some of them vying to grab hold of the general populace, some of them even coming close to doing so and perhaps thereby changing history as we know it, yet for various reasons, being minimized, stamped out and almost completely forgotten. In fact, one of the only groups that verifiably dates back to the early period that still exists today are the Mandeans.

Mandeans
The Mandeans are an early 2nd century Persian school. The name is derived from the Aramaic word ‘manda’ which means ‘knowledge’,  and thus ‘Mandean’ means ‘The knowers’. It appears they were originally a Gnostic sect living in ancient Palestine along the Jordan River who, fleeing persecution from the Jews, eventually settled in Mesopotamia (present day Iran and Iraq). In the Quran, they are referred to as the Sabians and are there considered one of the People of the Book (along with Jews and Christians).

Mandeans

Mandeans

Mandeans reject the teachings of Abraham, Moses and Jesus while venerating John the Baptist as a prophet. One of the principal liturgical rites of the Mandeans is masbuta (baptism). For the Mandeans, ‘running water is the form that the Lightworld takes on earth’ (Buckley, 2002) and therefore it is necessary to repeatedly undergo masbuta as a preparation for entering the Lightworld at the time of death. They have a collection of holy scriptures, the principal texts being the Treasure , the Book of John, and the Qolasta (a prayer book). Unfortunately, due to the war in Iraq, as well as further persecution, the Mandeans are in danger of becoming extinct. This would be a great loss to religious, spiritual and cultural history. My prayers are with them. They have shown extraordinary resilience. May their unique tradition and culture continue on into the future and flourish for many centuries to come.

Manichaeism
Manichaeism arose in Persia in the latter half of the 3rd century CE. Its founder was the prophet Mani (c. 217 – 277 CE). Mani syncretized various elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Buddhism into a unique system of thought and religious expression.

Mani

Mani

At the age of twelve Mani received his first revelation from the angel al-Tawm. He kept his revelations hidden until he was twenty-four, whereupon he announced he was the Paraclete Jesus prophesied about and that he was also the seal of the prophets, teaching the true gospel. He traveled extensively, spreading his message and establishing communities of disciples in many of the places he went. The spread of Manichaeism was far reaching, gaining ground not only in its place of origin, but also in Africa, Spain, Italy, Rome, Egypt, France, India, China and Tibet. Manichaeism was dualistic in its cosmology, postulating two co-eternal yet opposing principles – the Father of Greatness (Abba d’Rabbuta) and the King of Darkness (Melech Kheshokha), each ruling a Kingdom or World. The King of Darkness invaded the World of Light (ruled by the Father of Greatness) thereby entrapping fragments of light in the darkness. These fragments of light can be set free. The soul is a fragment of light trapped in the darkness of the human body, which itself can be set free through discipline and various spiritual practices. The disciples of Mani were categorized into two main classes, the Elect and the Hearers. The Elect were dedicated to a life of poverty, celibacy and a strict vegetarian diet. The Hearers were allowed to marry but were discouraged from procreating. They also supported the Elect in various ways, including taking on the ‘sin’ of harvesting and preparing food. Mani taught that divine particles of light were trapped in matter and so harvesting and preparing food could be a cause for incurring sin. The Elect were forbidden from doing so. However, they would accept food from the Hearers and in return would offer prayers of purification on their behalf.

[In part 2 we will examine the Sethians, the Valentinians, the Gnostic Revival of the late 19th century and a few contemporary Gnostic Churches in existence today]

A Survey of Gnosticism: Past and Present (Part 2)

Coptic Gnostic Church

Coptic Gnostic Church

[This is part 2 of 2. See previous post here]

Sethian Gnostics
The Sethians are one of the earliest gnostic schools we have any information about. According to noted scholar John D. Turner, there is some evidence that Sethian communities emerged  during the 1st century BCE and continued well into the 3rd century CE (possibly even later). So the Sethians appear to be pre-Christian in origin, possibly starting out as a Jewish baptismal sect and only later, after the advent of  early Christianity, incorporating some Christian elements into their teachings and praxis.

There are references and varying descriptions of the Sethians in the patristic heresiologists Hippolytus, Pseudo-Tertullian, Epiphanius and Irenaeus. Several of the tractates from the Nag Hammadi Library are considered, more or less, representative of Sethian literature, such as the Apocryphon of John, Hypostasis of the Archons, Gospel of the Egyptians, Apocalypse of Adam, Three Steles of Seth, Zostrianos, Melchizedek, Thought of Norea, Marsanes, Allogenes and Trimorphic Protennoia. In addition, some scholars identify the Untitled Text from the Bruce Codex (sometimes named On the Origin of the World, though this title is not in the text itself) as Sethian. The recently discovered Gospel of Judas appears to be Sethian as well. Both the Valentinians and the Basilideans were influenced to some degree by the Sethians.

Seth

Seth

We do not know for certain what Sethians called themselves, though there are multiple examples in the texts that refer to the ‘seed of Seth’, the ‘unshakable race’, the ‘children of the light’, the ‘incorruptible, immovable race’ and similar terms that appear to be self-referential. Sethians venerate Seth. This is the biblical Seth, third son of Adam and Eve, born sometime after Cain murdered Abel. Much of what contemporary scholars have termed ‘Classical Gnosticism’ (in regards to cosmology, soteriology and so forth) has been derived from the extant Sethian literature. In short, the influence of Sethianism within Gnostic studies and spirituality is far-reaching. It should be noted that the terms ‘Sethian’, ‘Sethianism’, ‘Gnostic’ and ‘Gnosticism’ do not appear in any of the Sethian literature we have on record. Some of these terms were applied by the patristic heresiologists and then retroactively adopted by modern scholars for the sake of convenience (This is also true for several other groups we now call Gnostic, indeed, perhaps all of them). There are several divergent accounts of cosmology described in the Sethian narratives, but I want to include here an overview of just one of them (taken from the Apocryphon of John, which is considered to be one of the principal texts within the Sethian literature). I will go into some detail here, yet I refer interested readers to study the source texts for a more in-depth reading. I feel these cosmological narratives are essential in gaining an understanding of the Sethian Gnostics as well as those whom they have influenced. Many of the Gnostic schools that came after the Sethians were aware of these narratives and either incorporated them directly, adapted from them or reacted against them in some way. A rough analogy would be the importance of understanding Jewish tradition and influence within the early Christian communities. Without that understanding, a great wealth of information, context, and influence is lost.

Of the Invisible Spirit (variously referred to as the Source, the One, the Father, the All, etc.) the Apocryphon of John states:



It is not appropriate to think about It as a god or that It is something similar. For It surpasses divinity. It is a Dominion having nothing to rule over It. For there is nothing existing before It nor does It have need of them.

It does not need life. For It is eternal. It does not need anything. For It cannot be made perfect as though It were deficient and only required perfecting. Rather It is always totally perfect.

It is Light. It cannot be limited because there is nothing before It to limit It. It is inscrutable for there is no one before It to scrutinize It.


The first Aeon, Barbelo, emanates from the Invisible Spirit when It reflects upon Itself.



And Its thinking become a thing. She appeared. She stood in Its presence in the brilliance of the Light; She is the Power which is before the All. It is She who appeared, She who is the perfect Pronoia of the All, the Light, the Likeness of the Light, the Image of the Invisible, She who is the Perfect Power, Barbelo, the Perfect Aeon of the Glory.


From these (the Invisible Spirit and Barbelo, the latter also called Pronoia, the First-Thought or Forethought) emanates a third, the Autogenes.



Barbelo gazed intently into It, the pure Light. She turned herself toward It. She gave birth to a Spark of blessed Light, but it was not equal to her in greatness. This is the Only-begotten who appeared from the Father, the divine Autogenes, the first-born Son of the All of the Spirit of pure Light.


From the Light of the Autogenes emanates four divine beings, called the Four Lights (or Four Luminaries). These are Harmozel, Oroiael, Daveithai and Eleleth.

Through a series of further emanations many other Aeons, Intelligences and so forth come into being, the entirety of which, taken all together, is the divine Pleroma (Fullness). The outermost Aeon is called Sophia (Wisdom). Sophia reckons to herself that she wants to emanate in a similar manner as the Invisible Spirit has done. Yet she attempts to do so on her own, separate and apart.



Because of the unconquerable power within her, her thought did not remain idle. And an imperfect product appeared from her, and it was different from her pattern because she created it without her partner. And it was not patterned after the likeness of its Mother, for it had a different form.



When she saw (the product of) her will, it was different, appearing with the likeness of a lion-faced serpent. His eyes were like flashing fires of lightning. She cast him out from her, outside of those places so that none among the immortals might see him, for she had created him in ignorance.


Yaldabaoth

Yaldabaoth

Sophia named the being Yaldabaoth. He is also called Saklas (Foolish One) and Samael (Blind God). Upon seeing her child, Sophia realizes she acted in error. She covers Yaldabaoth with a luminous cloud attempting to hide him and places a throne in the midst of the cloud. Yaldabaoth withdraws from Sophia, abandons the place where he was born, creates his own domain inside a blaze of luminous fire and begets other beings called the archons (rulers). Yaldabaoth is also sometimes called the Chief Ruler, as he is the leader of the archons. [There are several details I am skipping over here]. Yaldabaoth then arrogantly proclaims,



I am God and there is no other God beside me.


And it is said of this,



For he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.


Because of the power of his Mother that is in him, Yaldabaoth creates many other beings – archons, angels and so forth. At this point, surveying his realm and all the beings that he rules over, Yaldabaoth proclaims,



I am a jealous God and no other god exists besides me.


Yet by saying this, it indicates to the beings subservient to Yaldabaoth that another God does indeed exist. They questioned amongst themselves,



If there were not another who exists, of whom would he be jealous?


Sophia understood the deficiency as the brightness of her Light was diminished. She cried out and her cries were heard in all of the Pleroma. The Invisible Spirit poured over her something from the entire Pleroma and Sophia was raised to an Aeon above her child. A voice came from the exalted Aeon,



The Human exists and the Child of the Human


And Yaldabaoth heard the voice, but he thought it came from his Mother. And the holy and perfect Mother-Father, the Pronoia, appeared in the likeness of a man. And the entire Aeon of Yaldabaoth was shaken. Yaldabaoth and all of the archons saw the image of the man reflected in the waters of the abyss. Yaldabaoth said to all of the archons,



Come, let us create a human according to the image of God and according to our likeness so that his image might illuminate us.


Yaldabaoth and the archons then created all of the various parts of the human, each according to the power that was given them. And yet, when they were through, the human lay motionless. Sophia wanted to retrieve the power which she had given to Yaldabaoth, so she called out to the Mother-Father of the All, who sent down the Five Lights to the Aeon of the Chief Archon, and they said to Yaldabaoth,



Breathe into his face by your spirit and his body will rise.


And Yaldabaoth breathed his spirit into the face of the human, which is the power of his Mother. And the power of the Mother left Yaldabaoth and went into the body of the human. Yaldabaoth did not understand because of his ignorance. And the human began to move, and rose up, and was luminous. And all of the archons were jealous. Yet the understanding of the human was greater than the archons, and greater even then that of Yaldabaoth. When the archons perceived this greatness, they picked up the human and cast him down into the lowest depths of matter. Yet the Mother-Father sent down a helper to the human, the luminous Epinoia. It is she who aids the whole creation, laboring with him and guiding him by correction back towards the Pleroma (Fullness).

The above summary from the Apocryphon of John is incomplete. There is more to the narrative than I have shared here, however many of the key aspects can be gleaned from this description. And as mentioned previously, there are several different narratives coming from various Sethian texts, each with slight variations on a theme, but all essentially expressing a similar mythos. One of the key features of this narrative is that humanity contains a spark of the divine within us, that our true source is from the Pleroma and that we have forgotten who we are and where we have come from due to the machinations of Yaldabaoth and the archons who attempt to keep us diverted and in ignorance. This is where the concept of gnosis (knowledge) comes into play. It is through attaining gnosis of our true origins and of our true nature that we can begin a path of return (or ascent) back to the Source and liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the archons. I appreciate you indulging my lengthy excursion into Sethian cosmology. I have given more attention here to the Sethians than to any of the other Gnostic communities as I feel they have influenced much of what came after them to some degree or another. Historically speaking, this seems to be the case from the evidence we have available to us. That said, there are many other forms of ancient Gnosticism that are just as wonderful to explore in their own right. Unfortunately, in the interests of time and volume constraints, I will only be able to mention one more before moving on to the modern period. Yet for further study, see the recommended reading list to follow.

Valentinianism
Valentinus (c. 100 – 160 CE) was born in Africa and studied theology, Hellenistic science and other subjects in the great city of Alexandria. Around 136 CE Valentinus left Alexandria for Rome. While at Rome he became a candidate for episcopal office, yet another was chosen instead of him. However, Valentinus remained influential within the Christian communities of his day. His teachings and the community that grew around him became known as Valentinianism. And though he was eventually branded a heretic by the orthodox, he and his school remained staunchly Christian in orientation. There is no question that the Valentinians considered themselves to be Christians. They often participated in the life of the orthodox church while supplementing this participation with further, more esoteric, doctrines taught privately for the elect.

Valentinian Aeons

Valentinian Aeons

The Valentinians were influenced in their cosmology by the Sethians as well as by Platonism. That said, they did create a highly complex system of cosmology, theology, christology and soteriology that is uniquely their own. The Valentinians taught that human beings are of three types or classifications – choic or hyclic (meaning earthly), psychic (meaning of the mind/emotions) and pneumatic (meaning spiritual). They viewed Christ as the son of the Aeon Sophia who descended upon the earthly Jesus during his baptism and thereby came to reveal the true gnosis to humanity. The Valentinians developed a full sacramental system, which included some of the forms of the orthodox sacraments, but also included other sacraments such as that of the bridal chamber. Some details of this are hinted at in the Gospel of Philip which appears in the Nag Hammadi Library.

The Gnostic Revival
Beginning in the late 19th century a movement emerged that has had lasting effects down to today. During the long interim between the early Gnostic period (of at least the 1st through 4th centuries CE) and the modern Gnostic period (from the late 19th century until now) there is no direct historical evidence that any of the Gnostic traditions remained intact with the exception of the Mandeans as mentioned previously. However, there is an idea that is sometimes referred to as the ‘underground stream’. This idea suggests that elements of Gnosticism were preserved and transmitted through various esoteric schools and/or societies and have thereby found their way into the modern world uninterrupted. Whether one concedes to this concept or not, there is no doubt that at present Gnosticism – in its various forms and manifestations – still speaks to people today and that many have embraced it both religiously and spiritually as a meaningful aspect of their everyday lives.

Jules Doinel

Jules Doinel

And while the beginning of the modern period had several elements coming together from multiple sources, it is clear that the most defining moment comes with the spiritual consecration of a man by the name of Jules Doinel (1842 – 1903). Doinel was an archivist who, during his research, came across some documents which were purportedly from the Cathars (a Christian sect from the 11th through 13th centuries with some gnostic overtones). Doinel was also a Freemason and was involved in the Spiritist movement that was prevalent at the time. During a Spiritist seance in late 1889 Doinel believed he made contact with a synod of discarnate Cathar bishops who instructed him to propagate Gnostic teachings and to form a Gnostic Church. Doinel proclaimed the year 1890 as the ‘Era of the Gnosis Restored’. He formed the Eglise Gnostique  (Gnostic Church) and assumed the office of Patriarch. For his ecclesiastical name he chose Tau Valentin II in honor of Valentinus the Christian Gnostic mentioned above. Doinel’s Gnostic Church did not claim Apostolic Succession, but rather was founded and begun by Doinel himself and the lines of succession within his church flowed down from him, established through his spiritual consecration by the Cathar bishops as mentioned above. The Gnostic Church of Doinel venerated Simon Magus and blended several aspects of the Valentinians as well as some ideas borrowed from Freemasonry. In 1895 Doinel unexpectedly resigned from the Eglise Gnostique, converted to Roman Catholicism, and swayed by a man named Leo Taxil, he wrote a book titled Lucifer Unmasked claiming to expose the Freemasons as being Luciferian in nature. However, in 1897 Leo Taxil publically announced that the anti-masonic movement he helped to foster was indeed a hoax. In 1900, Jules Doinel was readmitted to the Eglise Gnostique. In the interim Léonce-Eugène-Joseph Fabre des Essarts was heading the church.

Joanny Bricaud

Joanny Bricaud

Joanny (Jean) Bricaud (1881 – 1934) was also involved as well. Circa 1907 he split away and formed his own church called l’Église Gnostique Universelle (Universal Gnostic Church). Many of the Gnostic churches  that followed – including some that are in existence today – are indebted, in one form or another to Doinel’s and Bricaud’s respective churches. However, there are some churches that might be considered completely independent from these origins, having predated Doinel’s church. For example l’Église Johannites des Chretiens Primitif (The Johannite Church of Primitive Christians) founded in 1804 by Bernard Raymond Fabré-Palaprat (1773 – 1838). There were several other key figures during this time period and there was a lot of cross-over between different esoteric societies and the Gnostic churches, such as Freemasonry, the Theosophical Society, Martinism, Memphis-Misraim Rite, etc. Some notable mentions for further study are Theodore Ruess (1855 – 1923), Gerard Encausse aka Papus (1865 – 1916), Paul Sedir (1871 – 1926), Robert Ambelain (1907–1997) and Michael Bertiaux (1935 – present).

Some Contemporary Gnostic Communities
In this section I mention just a few Gnostic Churches that are currently functioning today, along with a very brief description of each:

Ecclesia Gnostica
Founded in England in 1953 by Bishop Richard Jean Chretien Duc de Palatine and established in the United States in 1959 through Bishop Stephan A. Hoeller. The Ecclesia Gnostica was the first modern Gnostic Church to be registered in the US.  It has parishes in Los Angeles,  Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Sedona and Oslo, Norway.

Website: Ecclesia Gnostica

Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum
Based out of Palo Alto, California and headed by Bishop Rosamonde Miller. Along with the traditional lines of Apostolic Succession, Tau Rosamonde also holds a rare Mary Magdalene succession which she received in Southern France in 1962 through representatives of the Holy Order of Miriam of Magdala. The Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum has a unique expression of spiritual practice which Tau Rosamonde has called Wild Gnosis.

Website: Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum

Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica
This is a Thelemic Gnostic Church which is the ecclesiastical arm of the Ordo Templi Orientis. It has historical links with the Gnostic Churches of Doinel, Bricaud and Papus but was later adapted by Aleister Crowley to adhere to the Law of Thelema.

Website: Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica

Ecclesia Gnostica Spiritualis
Founded by Lucien-Francois Jean-Maine and under the spiritual guidance and protection of Archbishop Michael Bertiaux. The Ecclesia Gnostica Spiritualis has historic roots in Haiti and Spain and is closely tied to the Ordo Templi Orientis Antiqua and the Monastery of the Seven Rays.

Website: Ecclesia Gnostica Spiritualis

Apostolic Johannite Church
Founded in 2000 by James Foster, the current Patriarch is Mar Iohannes IV. Their emphasis is on Johannite Spirituality. They have multiple parishes in the United States as well as parishes in Canada, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.

Website: Apostolic Johannite Church

Alexandrian Gnostic Church
Founded by Tau Thomas Valentinus who currently serves as Catholicos. The AGC is rooted in the Valentinian Gnostic tradition. They also integrate aspects of the Christian Forth Way as taught by G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky and others. The AGC includes aspects of Liberation Theology and works to promote social justice in the world.

Website: Alexandrian Gnostic Church

Thelemic Gnostic Church of Alexandria
An independent Thelemic Gnostic Church that offers service to the community and has an emphasis on Knightly Chivalry. Based out of Portland, Oregon.

Website: Thelemic Gnostic Church of Alexandria

Assembly of the Knowledge and Wisdom of Solomon
Founded by T Allen Greenfield in 1986. The Assembly of the Knowledge and Wisdom of Solomon serves as a facilitating node or ‘switch’ to connect up the international Free Illuminist community. Emphasis is on exploration of points chauds system, Congregational Illuminism, the Great Arabia Mountain Working, esoteric and occult research and history, etc. Functions in a completely nonhierarchical manner to foster a bottom-up approach to the Great Work.

Website: Assembly of the Knowledge and Wisdom of Solomon

Coptic Gnostic Church
Founded in 2008, the Coptic Gnostic Church is an independent sacramental Gnostic community. We place equal value on intellectual study and contemplative praxis. We currently have a parish in Atlanta, Georgia called Holy Mother Barbelo Sanctuary served by Bishop +Dositheos. Holy Mother Barbelo Sanctuary held regular monthly Gnostic Study Groups for two years and these are about to begin again in May 2013 with a new focus. We will also begin offering Sacraments to the public in July (2013). Our Sacramental Rites have been strongly influenced by the Sethian tradition.

Website: Coptic Gnostic Church

The Coptic Gnostic Church also has a chapel in Cave Springs, Georgia called Chapel of the Gnosis which is served by His Grace Bishop +Palamas and Reverend Mother Salome+. In addition, +Palamas and Salome+ also facilitate a contemplative initiatic order called Order of the Three-fold Path which has a focus on Mystical Christianity. Chapel of the Gnosis has been offering an Elemental Healing Mass on a regular basis as well as hosting a meditative Labyrinth Walk and other services based on the needs of the community in their local area.

Website: Chapel of the Gnosis

[To follow - a recommended reading list for Gnostic studies]



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