Beliefs & practices of Christian
The Nag Hammadi archeological find was discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nagaa Hammadi on the west bank of the Nile River in 1945. A local farmer named Muhammed al-Samman discovered thirteen leather-bound vellum codices sealed in a jar and buried in the ground. Their content revealed that there was a broad range of beliefs among the various
independent Christian Gnostic systems or schools during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. However, the following points are believed to
be generally accurate throughout this early Christian movement:
||Their Role: They believed that they, alone, truly understood Christ's message, and
that the other faith groups within early Christianity had misinterpreted Jesus' mission and
||Gnosis: Knowledge to them was not an intellectual exercise; it was not a passive
understanding of some aspect of spirituality. Rather, knowledge had a redeeming and
liberating function that helped the individual break free of bondage to the world.
Deity: The Supreme Father God or Supreme God of Truth is remote
from human affairs; he is unknowable and undetectable by human senses. She/he/it/they created a
series of supernatural but finite beings called Aeons. One of these was Sophia, a
virgin, who in turn gave birth to an defective, inferior Creator-God, also known as the
Demiurge. (Demiurge means "public craftsman" in Greek.) This lower God
is sometimes called Yaldabaoth or Ialdabaoth Jaldabaoth -- from Aramaic
words meaning "begetter of the Heavens." This is Jehovah, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old
He is portrayed as the creator of the earth and its life forms. He is viewed by Gnostics as fundamentally evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in
compassion, and prone to committing genocide. The Demiurge "thinks that he is supreme. His
pride and incompetence have resulted in the sorry state of the world as we know it, and in
the blind and ignorant condition of most of mankind." 1
||Duality of spirit and body: Spirit is of divine origin and good; the body is
inherently earthly and evil. Gnostics were hostile to the physical world, to matter, and
to the human body. But they believed that trapped within some people's bodies were the sparks
of divinity or seeds of light that were supplied to humanity by Sophia.
||Salvation: A person attains salvation by learning secret knowledge of their
spiritual essence: their divine spark of light or spirit. They then have the opportunity to
escape from the prison of their bodies at death. Their soul can ascend to be reunited with
the Supreme God at the time of their death. Gnostics divided humanity into three groups:
||The spiritual, who would be saved irrespective of their behavior while on earth.
||The Soulish, who could be saved if they followed the Gnostic path.
||The carnal who are hopelessly lost.
||Evil: They did not look upon the world as having been created perfectly and then
having degenerated as a result of the "Original Sin" of Adam and Eve. Rather the world was seen as
being evil at the time of its origin, because it had been created by an inferior God.
||Snake: Some Gnostic sects honored the snake. They did not view the snake
as a seducer who led the first couple into sinful behavior. Rather, they saw him/it as a liberator who brought knowledge to Adam and Eve by convincing them to eat of the Tree
of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thus to rise above the status of animals who were driven by instinct, and become fully human which a moral sense.
||Snake Symbol -- the Ouroboros: (a.k.a. Ourorboros, Oroborus,
Uroboros or Uroborus) This is:
"... an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its
own tail and forming a circle. It has been used to represent many things
over the ages, but it most generally symbolizes ideas of cyclicality,
unity, or infinity. ... In Gnosticism, this serpent symbolized eternity
and the soul of the world. 2
||Christ: The role of the redeemer in Gnostic belief is heavily debated at this
time. Gnostics seem to have looked upon Christ as a revealer or liberator, rather than a
savior or judge. His purpose was to spread knowledge which would free individuals from the
Demiurge's control and allow them to return to their spiritual home with the Supreme God
at death. Some Gnostic groups promoted Docetism, the belief that Christ was pure
spirit and only had a phantom body. Jesus just appeared to be a human to his followers. They
reasoned that a true emissary from the Supreme God could not have been overcome by the
evil of the world, and to have suffered and died. These beliefs were considered heresy by
many non-Gnostic Christians. Some Gnostics believed that Christ's resurrection occurred at or before Jesus' death on the cross. They defined his resurrection as
occurring when his spirit was liberated from his body. Many Gnostics believed that Jesus
had both male and female disciples.
The Universe: This is divided into three kingdoms:
- The "Earthly Cosmos": The earth is the center of the
universe, and is composed of the world that we know of and an
underworld. It is surrounded by air and by 7 concentric heavenly
spheres: one for each of the Moon, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter,
and Saturn. (Although the planet Uranus is visible to the naked eye, it
had not been detected as a planet in ancient times.) Within these spheres live demonic, tyrannical
entities called Archons. Beyond them lies Paradise which contains the "Tree
of Life", the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil", and the
flaming, turning sword of Genesis 3:24. Beyond Paradise was the sphere of the fixed stars,
divided into the 12 signs of the zodiac.
- The "Intermediate Kingdom is composed of an inner blue circle of darkness
and an outer yellow ring of light. Within these rings is a sphere which is the realm of
- The "Kingdom of God" consists of two spheres: an outer one of the
unknowable Supreme God, and inner ring of the Son.
Little is known about the rituals, organizational structure and practices of the
ancient Gnostics. Almost all Gnostic texts were destroyed during various campaigns to
suppress the movement and commit genocide against its members. Although some of their religious writings survive, there is little
information about how the groups actually functioned. Religious historians believe that:
||Many Gnostics were probably solitary practitioners. Others were members of mainline
Christian congregations, probably forming a clique within each church.
||There was no consensus on a "canon of Gnostic scripture." Many books were
circulated in different versions; various schools within the movement had their own
||Many Gnostic texts were written by (or attributed to) women. Mary Magdalene played an
important role in many Gnostic writings, often being second only to Jesus in status. They
used both female and male images for the Supreme God. Theologians speculate that they
probably treated women members as equal (or having almost equal status) to men in their
||Some groups poured a substance over the head of a member when they were dead or dying,
and recited certain ritual phrases. This was intended to help the individual's soul ascend
through the dangerous heavens of the Archons towards the Supreme God.
||Some Gnostic groups had a ritual in which new members were baptized saying: "In
the name of the Father unknown to all, in the Truth, Mother of All, in the One who came
down upon Jesus, in the union, redemption and communion of powers."
||Christian writers who attacked Gnosticism sometimes reported
conflicting accounts of sexual behavior among Gnostics. Some wrote that some Gnostic
groups appeared to have suppressed all sexual expression; their
membership were expected to remain celibate. Other Christian writers
criticized other Gnostic groups for allegedly practicing ritual sex
magic. Where the truth lies is anyone's guess.
- "Gnosticism," Metareligion, 2001-2017, at: http://www.meta-religion.com/
- "Ouroboros," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
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Copyright © 1996 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2018-APR-08
Author: B.A. Robinson