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The Early Gnostics – Messengers of the Gnosis (1)


Gnosis means “divine knowledge“. Gnostics are people who search for this divine knowledge. The traces of the early Gnostics begin in the first centuries after Christ. Many of the so-called “heretics” were killed. But Gnosticism has survived until today.


There have always been people who ask about the meaning of life and creation and who cannot find peace in the mortal world. They search for a higher knowledge, for an inner knowledge, for gnosis (gnosis of ancient Greek γνσις  = knowledge, recognition). This inner knowledge has always accompanied mankind. All the old mythologies emerged from it, all religions have their origin in it. So the pure roots of all faith can be described as gnostic, as connected with the original universal knowledge. This also applies to early Christianity.


Jesus Christ and the “Kingdom not of this world“


When Jesus held his teachings about the “kingdom not of this world” 2000 years ago, he gained it from his unity with his “Father”, the Spirit. But for the Jewish tradition, he turned the established order into question and thus became a threat. Gnosis is always heretical, as the living experience of the Spirit, on which each gnosis is based, always collides with the rigid religious traditions. The first Christians were true Gnostics. They recognized the will and the plan of God directly in their own being. Therefore they needed no institution as a mediator. Their faith was based on their own inner experience, not on an adopted doctrinal teaching. 


Truth that crystallized into a Law


The gnostic experience is a touch of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who has experienced this cannot help but testify to it. The Spirit endows such a person with great power, so he becomes one ‘known with his name’, in the words of the Bible. Gnosis and Spirit are one. A person touched by the gnosis hears the voice of God in his own being. And he carries the message out in complete safety, because it is not for him alone: Gnosis is unity and leads to unity. This unity was still very distinct in the early days of Christianity. One lived his belief in the community. A wealth of gnostic groups existed at that time.


But gradually, the Light impulse, which Christ brought into the world, became weaker. Divisions and uncertainty occured. Institutions began to regulate the direct experience of God by laws and dogmas. Some persons were deemed worthy, others not. A hierarchy was created, which divided the people into true believers and false believers, which caused much grief and suffering. And yet, through the centuries, there have always been people who were in a real connection with the Spirit, and they proved it credibly.


The First Gnostics


In the first century after Christ there was no official church. The old Jewish doctrine and the new Christian doctrine were taught in parallel. The Christian teachings were spread by the apostles. In addition, there were gnostic teachings in the strict sense. Some great gnostic teachers in Asia Minor and the Roman Empire transferred their wisdom to their followers. Especially in the 2nd Century – after the gradual beginning of the formation of the official Catholic Church – a lot of gnostic systems existed. If you look at their symbolism from the outside, they were different from each other. But if you can see the hidden core in them, their message was identical.


Valentinus und Basilides


Valentinus, one of the most famous great Gnostics, came from Alexandria. He taught by 130 AD in Asia Minor and later in Rome. For him, the visible world is a fallen world that is directed by an ungodly eon (a large power concentration). The soul that possesses gnosis – divine knowledge – has to liberate herself from this world, and return to the world of Light, the divine Father. Such a soul listens, said Valentinus, if she is called, answers the vocation and turns to Him who calls her. She finds peace in recognition of her vocation, makes herself ready to return home, and will eventually unify with the Light, the beginning of all things.


Valentinus was a disciple of Basilides, who taught mainly in Egypt and also ranks among the great Gnostics. Just like Valentinus, Basilides calls on people to leave the fallen world and return home to their origin. First, however, man must know his own state clearly, he must see through his false aspirations and desires and seek to neutralize them. Man must learn to humble himself, said Basilides, only then the soul can become “gnostic”, gaining divine knowledge by intimate insight.


Marcion and the Contrast between Gnosticism and Dogma


Marcion is also called a Gnostic in clerical history books. But this hardly seems justified, because he tried to press the gnostic teachings into a system and to make a binding dogma from them. However, this is a contradiction in terms: Gnosis and dogma are mutually exclusive. Gnosis is the intra-personal experience of the reality of the Spirit. A Gnostic testifies that through images and symbols. He will never say that truth is expressed literally in certain writings and systems, and he will never force another person to believe it.


Marcion was the son of a bishop from Sinope. Later he taught in Rome, and 144 AD he was excommunicated because of “inappropriate behavior”. He rejected the Old Testament rigorously, since it is only of significance for the Jews, and created a first canon of the New Testament, with which he wanted to give his followers a basis for the “true doctrine”. This canon only included the – partially modified – Gospel of Luke and the – also modified – letters of Paul. Marcion’s corrections primarily concerned texts, which he found influenced by the Old Testament.


Questionable Sources


Regarding all statements about the historical Gnosticism and the early Gnostics, one has always to remember that most of the information – with the exception of the few original texts – were recorded by clerical authors. And it raises the question if these reports on the “heretics” can be objective. However, some of them contain, such as those of the Church Fathers Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Epiphanius, interesting insights into the work of gnostic groups during these painful, turbulent times.


The Manichean – witnesses of the Light


In Persia, in the third century, there appeared a new, strong impulse by the Gnostic Mani, after whom his followers were named “Manichean”. Mani, even more than his predecessors, consistently distinguished between the fallen Earthly world and the world of Light. In his opinion also, the creation as we know it, was not created by the original Light-God, but by the forces of darkness. The focus of his teaching, however, was the certainty that within the people who live in darkness a divine spark lies hidden. This is the link and bridge to the true life.


Mani said:


   I am a fragrant seed of Light,

  Thrown into a dense forest with thorns.

  O, collect and pluck me!

  Bring me home on the threshing floor of the Holy Law,

  Into the granary of Light.


People who joined and formed groups in order to gain first-hand knowledge, also lived in the following centuries. At all times there were messengers of the gnosis. They live and work up to the present time.

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