What is (was) Gnosticism?
Until the 20th Century there was probably never an organized religion that went by the name “Gnosticism.” Rather, there were gnostic beliefs that influenced many and diverse spiritual practices and beliefs. It is not the purpose of this page or this website to provide any detailed explanation of the diverse Gnostic sects and ideas. Indeed, I would not be capable of doing so, even if I tried. In “The Secular Gospel of Sophia,” Gnosticism is the background for the first third of the novel and, for the rest of the story, a metaphor for knowledge of the ancients that was lost, sometimes by accident and circumstance, but often by the deliberate suppression of divergency within the newly empowered Christian Church. All I intend for here is to give the briefest of explanations of my (undoubtedly flawed) understanding of gnostic beliefs and practices, to define some of the principal concepts and divine characters that are mentioned in the novel, and to point to better, more capable sources for those who want to more fully explore this field.
In Greek, the word “gnosis” means, essentially, “knowledge.” In Classical Antiquity (a term that refers to an insane diversity of cultures and ideas from approximately 800 BC in Greece through, perhaps, 400 AD in Roman Empire), the word gnosis meant more than simply knowledge to those who incorporated it into their religious and spiritual belief systems. It meant something like “divine knowledge” or knowledge of the true and largely hidden nature and sources of the visible world we inhabit. The idea that there exists a perfect (or more perfect) realm that is only accessible to those with knowledge of it has been a part of every esoteric religion I have heard of or studied, and of many philosophical schools as well. The teachings of Pythagoras and Plato promoted the idea that only a select few initiates were capable of acquiring gnosis and it is partially from these sources that some of the gnostic beliefs of early Christianity probably arose. “Secret” religions of Egypt, Greece and Rome undoubtedly provided other sources of inspiration.
The Gnostic branch of Christianity probably began to arise in the First Century, that is more or less contemporaneously with what became orthodox Christianity. For many of the Christian Gnostics, Jesus was a divine messenger, sent from the Unknowable One or true God to inform mankind that the world in which we live is the imperfect creation of a lesser God and that the only way to escape the grips of the lesser deity is with knowledge of the pure, non-visible and non-physical realm that exists outside of the lesser god’s creation.
Of course, by writing the above generalization, I have committed the sin of over-generalization. There were many different branches of Gnostic thought. In some schemes the universe is populated by many Aeons and Arch-Aeons that rule over different aspects of the world in which we live. Some sects believed in metempsychosis. Some believed that the supreme goddess was Sophia. Sophia means wisdom in Greek. More often, Sophia was depicted as a fallen angel whom Jesus came to earth to rescue. (I like the metaphor of wisdom lost among mankind.) Most sects probably believed that the world we lived in was involved in a constant, cosmic of good versus evil. Some believed this conflict would eventually end. Some believed it would go on forever.
That is all I am going to say about it and in saying this I have already escaped the bounds of my knowledge, or my gnosis, if you will. If you are interested in learning more, please visit the Sources page for some of the literature I have read or partially read on the subject. Or, better yet, do your own research, which has every chance of giving you a clearer idea on the subject than my uncertain conclusions.