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Deleted from Wikipedia

The Negative Spin on "Gnosticism" Continues on the Internet

In December, 2006, I contributed a short addition to the Wikipedia article on Gnosticism. My intention was to alert readers to the long-standing disinformation around this controversial subject, using a simple metaphor: the label does not match the contents. Most of all, I wanted to show that the anti-cosmic or world-hating attitude attributed to Gnostics is inconsistent with the textual evidence, especially as concerns the role of the goddess Sophia embodied in the earth.

How could Gnostics have hated the material world when they saw it as the metamorphosed form of their supreme divinity?

The article was submitted and appeared at the top of the entry. However, last month when I looked at Wikipedia with the intention to refer someone to the article, I saw that my addition had been deleted and the entire entry had been revamped—I am tempted to say, whitewashed. Readers are now deprived of any critical caution about the Patristic bias on Gnosticism, a bias perpetuated by all scholars who undertake the subject. The entry is organized by dry categories, and ignores the prominent non- and anti-Christian elements in the Nag Hammadi Library and elsewhere. It provides links to contemporary groups calling themselves Gnostics, but these groups are nothing more than revisions of Christian salvationism complete with ritual, hierarchy, and ecclesiastical pomp. In effect, any trace of the Pagan Gnostic elements that can legitimately be found in the surviving materials has been eliminated.

The opening paragraph of the current Wikipedia entry asserts that "several Gnostic texts appear to have no Christian element at all," but this qualification is not developed anywhere in the article. The Wikipedia staff offer this explanation for their treatment of Gnosticism:

Though difficulties have arisen in offering a definitive, categorical definition of Gnosticism (see below), various strategies have been employed in overcoming the problem, with varying degrees of success. It is therefore appropriate to offer a typological model of those ancient philosophical movements typically called Gnostic; the model offered is adapted from Christoph Markschies' version, as described in 'Gnosis: An Introduction'.

The "typological model" consists of a mind-numbing inventory of categories and labels. The entry is extensive, packed with theoretical and historical details, and includes many valuable links. The Wikipedia staff obviously regard Gnosticism as an important subject, and have done their best to be precise and exhaustive in covering it. But despite the excellent work put into it, the entry conforms to, and confirms, the Patristic bias on Gnosticism, avoids even an elementary exegesis of Sophianic cosmology, or obviates any connection to the Mysteries of the Great Mother. The section on Sophia does not cite the passage in Irenaeus' Against Heresies that describes how the Aeon Sophia, who is merely called "the final and lowest emanation of God," becomes transformed into the planet earth, so that her passions morph into the elements of the biosphere.

In short, readers of Wikipedia do not get a chance to see how non-salvationist Gnosticism looked on its own terms, independent of disinformation and retrofitting. Yet there is plenty of textual material, both in the NHL and the polemics, for a restoration of the non-Christian worldview of Gnosis.

Here is my addition to the Wikipedia entry, just as I submitted it in December 2006, with the html code intact:

"Gnosticism" is a term created by modern scholars to describe a diverse religious movement often associated with the rise of Christianity, although textual evidence for the movement contains distinctly non- and anti-Christian elements, as well as anti-Judaic elements. Because the textual evidence comes from the first few centuries [[AD]], many scholars have assumed that Gnosticism did not predate this period, but earlier historians of religion saw it as an outgrowth of ancient mystical traditions in Asia, especially Iran. There has been considerable controversy about which groups fit the term "Gnostic." Scholars even dispute whether or not members of these ancient cults described themselves by the term "gnostikoi" at all.<ref name = "layton">Layton, Bentley (1987). ''Gnostic Scriptures''. Doubleday. pp. 5, 18</ref><Ref name = "williams">Williams, Michael (1996). ''Rethinking Gnosticism''. Princeton University Press. pp. 31-43</ref>

The close connection between Gnostics and the Mystery religions of the classical world, attested by ancient sources and affirmed by some scholars such as G. R. S. Mead, suggests that Gnostics would have called themselves ''telestai'', "those who are aimed," consistent with their involvement in the Mysteries. By contrast, they would have been called ''gnostikoi'', meaning "know-it-all," as an insult directed to them by their enemies, the Church fathers such as Irenaeus. <ref name = "lash">Lash, John Lamb(2006). ''Not in His Image''. Chelsea Green Publishing. pp. 10ff, 123ff, </ref>

The subject of Gnosticism presents exceptional difficulties at the outset due to the lack of any clear definition of ''gnosis'', "knowledge" in Greek, ''considered in the sense that Gnostics themselves would have understood it''. Scholars at the Messina Conference in 1966 failed to arrive at a consensus, and no expert writing on Gnosticism follows precisely the same rules of interpretation. The evidence for the movement - mainly, the Nag Hammadi codices (NHC) in Coptic, other non-NHC documents in Coptic, related apocrypha in Greek, Aramaic, and Syriac, and the patristic writings against the Gnostics - may be compared to the contents of a trunk labelled "Gnosticism" with a description of the contents written on the label. Upon rummaging through the trunk, it becomes clear that it contains many elements that do not fit the description on the label, and even flatly contradict it.

==The Patristic Profile==
Despite their different interpretations of the material, most scholars accept the patristic profile of Gnosticism (i.e., the description on the label). This is a standard and summary account of doctrines assumed to be held by Gnostics of various schools or sects. The source of this account is the writings of the Church Fathers, also called the patristic literature or the polemics. Because the Fathers branded Gnostics as heretics, and wrote to discredit and refute them, the polemics present something like the dossier of the prosecution in a criminal case. Almost all original and untainted evidence of the case for the defense, i.e., the Gnostic's views in their own words, has been destroyed. The profile can be summarized as follows:

Gnostics regarded nature and the material world as flawed, corrupt, if not downright evil. They claimed that the natural world was created by a lesser deity, the Demiurge, not the true God who dwells in another realm outside space and time. The human soul, which originates as a divine spark in the higher world, finds itself fallen captive to matter, exiled in the realm of the senses. Spiritual development means extricating oneself from enmeshment with matter and returning to the Source, the Light of God. Gnosis is the recognition of the presence of the Higher Self, the spark of Divinity trapped in matter, but only an elite few can realize this awareness and liberate themselves from the enslavement of this world.

Consistent with this description, scholars attribute an "anti-cosmic" or world-hating attitude to Gnostics. The theme of spiritual escapism is sometimes amplified by the addition of a savior who comes from the realm of God to show the way of return. By equating this redeemer figure with Jesus Christ of the New Testament, scholars assume a form of Gnostic Christianity in which spiritual liberation depends on salvation through a divine emissary or messiah. By this odd twist, Gnostic doctrines come to resemble the salvationist message of Christianity endorsed by the very people who condemned the Gnostics as heretics.

But if Gnostic beliefs were so close to conventional Christianity, they would not have been considered such a threat, and violently suppressed. The claim of prominent scholars that Gnostic doctrines were merely early and marginal variations of Christianity makes sense only if the genuine heretical impact of the Gnostic message is ignored. <ref name = "king"> Karen(1987). ''The Gospel of Mary of Magdala''. Doubleday. pp. 5, 18</ref> The online Catholic Encyclopedia repeats the disinformation introduced by the Church fathers in the 2nd Century. It states that Gnostics held matter to be corrupt, and the life of the senses, depraved. Hence, the only solution for the fallen condition of humanity is to be reconciled to the parental god who exists beyond this world, and to obey his rules within this world. Salvation is only possible through the superhuman savior. Ironically, these notions attributed to Gnostics come close to the primary doctrines of Christianity considered as a religion of trans-worldly escapism.

The erroneous and misleading nature of the Patristic profile calls for a revision of the key doctrines of the Gnostic schools, approximating to their own terms. The spiritual practices of non-Christian gnosis and the theological theory of divine wisdom (Sophia) embodied in the earth are supported by many surviving materials. Once identified, the authentic features of pagan spirituality in Gnosticism present a stark contract to the patristic profile. In a pagan revision of Gnosticism, the goddess Sophia figures as the central divinity, by contrast to the Judeo-Christian father god and his son, the messiah. Scholars estimate that one-third to two-thirds of the surviving material supports the Sophianic version of Gnosticism. .<ref name = "troger">Karl-Wolfgang (1978). ''Colloque International''. Leuven, Editions Peeters, 86 - 120, and "lash"> John Lamb (2006). ''Not in His Image''. Chelsea Green Publishing, 112, 272ff </ref>

The result of such a revision is a clear argument against salvationist ideology, or the belief in redemption through suffering, the incarnation of the redeemer, deliverance for the just, and divine retribution. In fact, key parts of the Gnostic material, such as the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, present a radical critique of salvationist view. Pagan Gnosis cannot be defined as a path to individual salvation, understood in the Christian sense. Rather, it was theory and practice of the illumined individual who realizes the genius of humanity (Anthropos) by alignment with the wisdom goddess, Sophia.

 

jll: Flanders, April 2007.

 

 

 


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.