From the Greek gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge’. The term is used for a kind of religious speculation in vogue in the first two centuries CE and long known through the writings of Christian Fathers, who were hostile to it and feared that it might seduce orthodox believers. But the discoveries in Upper Egypt at Nag Hammadi of Christian sects who were indeed influenced by Gnosticism has given a much richer impression of the movement. Gnostics had a profound anxiety about salvation. People, they thought, lived like zombies and needed to be roused to authentic life by receiving knowledge of their true selves and of their destiny with the true God. Equally, they needed esoteric knowledge about their one-time heavenly origin. When this was acquired, the initiate threw off the oppressive bonds of earthly materialism. The knowledge was conveyed by a heavenly revealed figure or Redeemer—the resemblance to Christianity is obvious. Historians have therefore tried to discover whether Christian teachers borrowed elements from Gnosticism or whether 2nd cent. Gnosticism was a deviationist heresy out of the Church or perhaps out of Judaism. Certainly Paul seems to make use of Gnostic terminology either by way of accommodating his message to the cultural milieu or to refute those who tried to eliminate the essence of the gospel by incorporating Christ into a Gnostic system. For example, the Greek pleroma (‘fullness’) was a Gnostic concept denoting the range of heavenly powers who were the mediators, or buffers, between the divine and the fallen world. What Paul does is to take this word (e.g. in Col. 1:23) and hijack it: Christ is the fullness of all being. There is not a plurality of angelic powers (cf. Heb. 1:4) as in Gnostic speculation. Similarly, the gospel of John contains themes reminiscent of Gnosticism: the descent and ascent of the Redeemer to heaven (John 3:13) and the dualism of spirit and flesh (6:63). But John is no Gnostic: the idea of descent comes from the Wisdom [[➝ wisdom]] tradition and ascent from Dan. 7:13.

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