The concept of Gnosticism has intrigued and confounded scholars ever since the ancient heretics stormed the Christian scene with their radical faith. Some scholars have even proposed that Gnosticism never existed, merely part of the malleable stream that Christianity has always been and always will be.
This column has covered Gnosticism for several years, but never truly proposed a definition or framework. Whatever definition or framework offered would be ultimately imperfect and provisional, as Gnostic studies continue to evolve; thus, it is best to offer, in a continuing series, several ones from various expert in the field.
The first one of the series, more of a set of defining characteristics, comes from German scholar Christoph Markschies, from his book, Gnosis: An Introduction. The list is the considered by many to be the most concise definition in the last decade.
1. The experience of a completely otherworldly, distant, supreme god.
2. The introduction of further divine figures (conditioned by this experience) or by the splitting up of existing figures into figures that are closer to human beings than the remote supreme god.
3. The estimation of the world and matter as evil creation and an experience of the alienation of the Gnostic in the world.
4. The introduction of a distinct creator God or assistant: within the Platonic tradition he is called “craftsman”—Greek demiurgos—and is sometimes described in Gnostic document as merely ignorant, but sometimes also as evil.
5. The explanation of this state of affairs by a mythological drama in which a divine element, one that falls from its sphere into an evil world, slumbers in human beings of one class as a divine spark and can be freed from this state.
6. Knowledge (gnosis) about this state, which, however, can be gained only through a redeemer figure from the other world who descends from a higher sphere and ascends to it again.
7. The redemption of human beings through the knowledge of “that God (or the spark) in them.”
8. A tendency toward dualism of different types, which can express itself in the concept of God, in the opposition of spirit and matter, and in the concept of the human being as constituted of body plus soul.
As mentioned, other definitions in different forms will be offered in future articles under this title.