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Gnosticism1 was a branch of Christianity2 that was almost completely forgotten for many centuries - until a chance discovery in 1945 of vital documents that helped to explain its key teachings and beliefs; core values that vary quite radically from almost every other major religion across the globe.
The Death and Resurrection of Gnosticism
Throughout the Second Century AD, several Christian writers (such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus) preached to their followers about a dangerous new faith called Gnosticism. They told the readers of their letters that Gnosticism was heretical to the 'true faith' - if you followed the teachings of Gnostics, then you would be damned to hell. Up until the middle of the 20th Century though, nobody knew exactly what the Gnostics had been teaching, because the early Christians had done a particularly effective job in erasing all evidence of the precise details of the teachings from history.
Then, in 1945, a man called Muhammad Ali (no, not the boxer!) found a jar buried near the town of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Inside the jar were 13 leather-bound books, which after some intense scientific research were found to date from about 350AD. These books contained almost intact versions of many of the early Gnostic texts - including their interpretation of the story of Jesus Christ's life on Earth. These texts were finally translated into English in 1977, sparking a frenzy of activity from theological academics around the world.
What do the Gnostic texts actually teach?
The core belief of the Gnostic gospel starts with the argument that the world in which we live is inherently not a good place and that is wasn't created by a supreme, all-powerful and benevolent God or Gods. On this basis alone, it contrasts radically with almost all other organised religions. In fact, Gnostics argue that the world was created by a lesser god, one that didn't have the ability or skills to create a perfect world that would last forever. This world in which we live is therefore imperfect - replete with pain, sorrow and death, and full of beings that long to be released from this existence of flesh and blood. However, deep within each being on the planet is a spark that links humans with the supreme being that created the whole of the universe, a being that nobody can see or contact. The only way for humanity to contact this god is for humanity to evolve beyond its current flesh and blood state and achieve 'perfection.'
The most influential of the Gnostic writers (from what we can glean from the 13 texts discovered in Egypt) was Valentinus, who wrote in Rome in about 140AD. He combined the concepts of the earliest books of the New Testament with the theories that were prevalent amongst leading Greek thinkers. Valentinus's interpretation of Gnosticism follows many of the core concepts found in the other unrelated texts - essentially, that 'something is wrong with the world', and that it's the fault of the being that created that world rather than the fault of the person experiencing it. Valentinus teaches that the whole of creation came into existence thanks to a being called Bythos. Bythos 'expelled' thirty beings called aeons (or pleroma) from itself. One of the more lowly of these aeons was named Wisdom, or Sophia. She became pregnant (are you keeping up with all of this?!) and gave birth to Jehovah, the god who in turn created the physical world as we know it. Valentinus argued that as Jehovah wasn't the supreme being, the world that he created was imperfect - 'wrong', in some way.
Valentinus's view on how mankind can achieve redemption or salvation has a great deal more in common with Hinduism and Buddhism than, say, orthodox Christianity. Jesus is an important figure to Gnostics not because they believed him to be the Son of God, but rather because of the information they believed him to hold. Gnostics argue that Jesus descended from heaven for a very specific reason - not to 'die for our sins' as most Christians believe, but to show humanity the way to ascend to self-perfection.
Gnosticism and Popular Culture
In recent years, Gnosticism has been presented to the general public through several science-fiction texts, such as Philip K Dick's novel Valis and - most obviously - the hugely successful Matrix film trilogy. In the Matrix films, the hero discovers that the world he thought he was living in was in fact a lie, created by a flawed supercomputer. By gaining the knowledge of his true identity, the hero is able to become 'The One' and ascend to a higher plane of understanding and experience.