Gnosticism was a religious movement that became prominent in areas of the Roman Empire, particularly in the East and in Egypt, during the A.D. 100s. It takes its name from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” While Gnosticism had both pagan* and Christian forms, it is best known as a sect* within the Christian church. Gnostics (the followers of Gnosticism) believed that understanding of the divine was granted only to a few special believers.
Gnostics believed that there were two separate worlds: the spiritual world of a supreme God and the visible, natural world. Unlike the spiritual world, the natural world was considered the flawed creation of an imperfect, even evil, creator. People have souls, Gnostics thought, but the souls of some people are elect, or special. These elect souls contained divine sparks, and they only needed to be freed from their mortal* bodies to be reunited with God. Only a special being sent by God, known as a redeemer, could grant these souls the necessary gnosis to escape their bodies and ascend to heaven to reunite with God. Christian Gnostics believed that this redeemer was Jesus Christ, who temporarily inhabited the body of a human being.
Gnostics derived their ideas from many sources, including the dialogues* of Plato. Elements of Gnosticism could also be found in Judaism and the Eastern mystical* religions of Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. Gnosticism sparked a fierce debate within the early Christian church. St. Paul and other early church leaders attacked Gnostics because of their belief that knowledge of God was closed to all but a few. Other divisive issues were the Gnostics’ rejection of the goodness of creation and the freedom of human beings. Some Gnostic sects prospered despite these attacks, but their influence declined by the A.D. 200s. (See also Afterlife; Christianity; Mithras; Religion, Roman.)
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian
* sect religious group separated from an established church, usually due to its more extreme beliefs
* mortal human being; one who eventually will die
* dialogue text presenting an exchange of ideas between people
* mystical referring to the belief that divine truths or direct knowledge of God can be experienced through meditation and contemplation as much as through logical thought