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Gnosis is a feminine Greek noun for "knowledge," especially of the personal, esoteric type rather than intellectual knowledge. It generally signifies a dualistic knowing in the sense of mystical enlightenment or "insight" and represents human deliverance from the constraints of earthly existence via insight into some essential relationship such as soul or spirit. The concept was particularly common in 2nd-century Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman philosophy and theology. As Christian dogma and ritual were being organized, and before a canonical New Testament was recognized, various sectarian groups (whom their opponents labeled "gnostics") emphasized spiritual knowledge (gnosis) over faith (pistis) [including faith in ecclesiastical authority] as the most essential part of the process of salvation. Gnosis was obtained via inner experience, such as a mystical epiphany or contemplation. Their orthodox critics regarded this kind of gnosis as speculative metaphysics rather than derived from divine revelation and condemned it as the outgrowth of pagan, syncretic systems of thought, especially Neoplatonism. In general, gnostics believed that the created world was bad, but each person had an element of the divine which sought reunion with the good (God). Since the body was not eternal, salvation did not depend on what people did in life. Jesus appeared to be human but was entirely divine; he did not transcend sin when he died, he merely escaped from the physical world.
Like Christianity itself, Christian gnosticism had its roots in Judaism. Around 520 BCE, the Persians had set up Tobiah and three other governors to rule the former Jewish kingdom; he encouraged a religious cult which became the Notzrim (Nasaara), who stressed gnosticism, allegory, monasticism, angelic intervention, divination using doves, and fortune telling. They believed the first messiah was Joshua, a descendant of Joseph who led the Jews back into the “promised land” after Moses died. The cult was particularly strong among the tribes of Ephraim and Menasseh (sons of Joseph) who inhabited the environs around the Sea of Galilee. The Pharisees later adopted their use of allegory and parable as a teaching method, making the Pharisees popular with the masses but opposed by the wealthy, rationalist, Hellenist Sadducees. In 88-76 BCE, the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannæus persecuted the Pharisees, forcing many to flee, including Joshua ben Tabbai (Joshua the Tobiad), who was eventually excommunicated and executed, but his reputation as a powerful magician and healer lived on; 80 of his followers were later executed as witches. Because of the many Tobiah “Joshuas” who had paved the way for the final Messiah, Jesus (the Christianized form of the same name) took on their name as well as many of their messianic characteristics during his ministry, which centered on the area of Galilee, and his disciples also were from the region; Nazareth itself was a Notzrim community, and Jesus of Nazareth was referred to as a Notzri. The Herodian kings suppressed the occultic practices but encouraged their monastic and mystical aspects. In 56, speaking for the Jewish establishment, Tertullus charged Paul with being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (followers of Jesus of Nazareth, “Iesous ho Nazoraios,” "Yeshua Natzri") who “disturbed the Jews in the exercise of their religion, guaranteed by the state; introduced new gods, a thing prohibited by the Romans. And thirdly, that he attempted to profane the temple, a crime which the Jews were permitted to punish." The curator of Iudaea, Marcus Antonius Felix, detained Paul for two years, and when he was recalled (for using a dispute between the Jews and Syrians of Caesarea as a pretext to slay and plunder the inhabitants) he left him imprisoned as a bribed favor to the Jews.
Probably from the same time, and from the same intellectual circles that Paul was familiar with, since his Second Epistle to the Corinthians makes many of the same allusions, an unknown Jew or group of Jews composed “The Revelation of Moses” (“The Life of Adam and Eve”). The original has not survived, but a number of later variants in different languages exist. In the Greek version, Eve stayed with the female animals in the Garden of Eden, and Adam with the males. The Devil persuaded the male snake to rebel; speaking to Eve through the serpent’s mouth, he seduced her to eat the fruit of a fig tree in which he had already placed the poison of his wickedness (lust). Eating it, Eve discovered her nakedness and hid her shame with the leaves of the fig tree, since all of the other trees had lost their leaves. Then she enticed Adam to eat as well. When God entered the garden and set his throne where the Tree of Life was, all the trees blossomed again. Adam implored God’s mercy, "For I alone have sinned," and begged to be allowed to eat of the Tree of Life (immortality). God promised Adam that if he refrained from evil that he would raise him up in the last day and give him the fruit. After the expulsion from Eden, Eve gave birth to Cain and Abel and dreamt that Cain drank Abel’s blood but that it then came out of his mouth. After Cain killed Abel, the archangel Michael promised them a new son, and Seth was born in Abel’s place. Then Adam and Eve had 30 other sons and 30 daughters. When Adam became ill, Seth and Eve returned to Eden to beg for some oil from the tree of mercy (the Tree of Life), but the archangel Michael refused though promising it at the end of time, when the delights of paradise would be given to all holy people and God would be in their midst again. When Adam died, the angel of humanity (Michael?) showed Eve the spirit of Adam ascending to God. Then a chariot of light, borne by four bright eagles with Seraphim and angels, arrived, and the seven heavens opened. Seth explained to Eve that the two fearful figures in mourning were the sun and the moon, which were deprived of their light in the presence of God. Adam was washed three times before being presented to God, who gave him to Michael to be taken to the third heaven until the last day. (Alternatively, the angels took Adam's body to Eden, where he was covered with linen clothes and fragrant oil; the body of Abel, which the earth had refused to receive, was taken to the same place, and both bodies were buried where God had taken the clay to create Adam. God then promised that Adam and all his progeny would rise again.) Six days later, three angels buried Eve near Adam, and Michael told Seth never to mourn on the Sabbath.
In the Latin version, Adam had entered Eden 40 days after his creation, and Eve 80 days after hers. They became hungry six days after their expulsion and decided to perform penance in hopes of being allowed to return: Adam would immerse himself in the Jordan river for 47 days and Eve in the icy Tigris for 40 days. But the Devil disguised himself as a bright angel and talked Eve out of doing penance. When Adam complained about the Devil’s persecution, the Devil explained his enmity arose because he and his followers had rejected God's command to worship Adam, the image of the God, and God himself, causing them to be expelled from Heaven and deprived of their glory. Adam continued his penance, but Eve, grief-stricken, went off by herself. As she was giving birth, Adam rejoined her and, due to his prayers, angels came to help her delivery; Cain was born, immediately able to run. After Michael taught them agriculture, Abel was born, and Eve dreamt that Cain drank his blood. Adam and Eve tried to keep the brothers separate by making Cain a husbandman and Abel a shepherd, but Cain murdered his brother anyway. Then Seth was born, followed by 30 other sons and 30 (or 32) daughters. (However, it also claimed that Cain and Abel each had a twin sister, Luluwa and Aklia, and that, except for Seth, Adam and Eve had no other children due to Adam’s celibacy.) Adam told Seth he was caught up in the Paradise of righteousness and that God promised him that knowledge would never be taken away from Adam's descendants. As Seth and Eve journeyed to Eden to beg unsuccessfully for the oil from the Tree of Life, the serpent bit Seth but Seth ordered him to leave; Adam died at the age of 930, and the sun, the moon and the stars went dark for seven days. Adam's soul was consigned to Michael till Judgment Day, when his sorrow would be converted into joy; and he was buried with Abel. Eve predicted a double judgment, of water and fire, and died six days later. The two tablets on which Eve had Seth record the lives of his parents were placed on Temple Mount, where Adam used to pray, but only Solomon would be able to read them. In a similar work, in Arabic, the “Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan,” the "sons of God" from Genesis 6:2 were identified as the children of Seth, and the "daughters of men" as women descended from Cain, who lured most of the Sethites down from their mountain to join them; the Cainites were led by the son of Lamech, Genun (the Biblical Jubal), the inventor of musical instruments and weapons of war. The offspring of the wicked Cainites, prone to murder and incest, and the fallen Sethites were the Nephilim, the "mighty men" of Genesis 6 who were all destroyed in the Deluge. The work also detailed the genealogy from Adam to Jesus, including the names of all the wives.
In general, though, the early Christian gnostics rejected most of the Old Testament figures other than Adam and Seth, whom they elevated to central roles; many non-Biblical figures were often cited, such as Norea, who saved them from Noah’s flood, and the three (variously named) companions of Daniel. John the Baptist was often proclaimed an early leader, but other pioneers such as the prophets Barcoph and Barkabbas were mentioned only in gnostic literature. Simon Magus, Philo of Alexandria, Zoroaster, and Hermes Trismegistus may have also been venerated by early Christian gnostics, and St. Irenaeus, who seems to have identified all heresies as inspired by the gbostics, claimed that followers of Carpocrates honored images of Pythagoras, Platon, and Aristotle along with images of Jesus. St. Thomas was often regarded as the founder of a Gnostic sect, and the Nag Hammadi copy of the “Gospel of Thomas” began, "These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded," and the “Acts of Thomas (written in eastern Syria in the early 3rd century, or perhaps as early as the first half of the 2nd century) identified him with the apostle Jude. In another Nag Hammadi book, the “Book of Thomas the Contender,” he was identified with Jesus himself, who said, "Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself…" In some cases John the Evangelist, Paul, and Mary Magdalene were respected gnostic personages (she was considered superior to the 12 apostles themselves in some texts such as the Gospel of Mary). Hermas, an influential 2nd century gnostic, was the brother of pope Pius I, and one of the chief gnostic theologians, Valentinus, a contender for the papacy at one point, was a student of Theudas who was a student of Paul; Paul publicly talked about his visionary encounter with the risen Christ on his way to Damascus, but he privately imparted only to this inner circle the secret teachings he had received on the same occasion. According to Valentinus, there were three groups of people: the spiritual (his followers, who had received the gnosis that allowed them to return to the divine Pleroma [“fullness”], a term which Paul used in Colossians 2:9), the psychical (other Christians, who would attain a lesser form of salvation), and the material (pagans and Jews, who were doomed to perish). One of the later Valentinians was Bardaisan (Bardansanes), who rejected his earlier system and became a forerunner of Mani; in the 3rd century, calling himself "the apostle of Jesus Christ," Mani founded Manichaeism, a syncretic gnostic religion influenced by Buddhism and Zoroastrianism as well as Christianity. St. Augustine of Hippo claimed that he had been a Manichaean early in life before rejecting the doctrine.
Though the Sadducees moved closer to Tobiad Gnostism as Roman restriction intensified, the initial Jewish rejection of gnosticism was continued by the early Christian communities and by the late Hellenistic philosophical communities, especially the Neoplatonists, from whom they had borrowed so much. The Sethians, the Archontic Gnostics, the Basilidean, the Valentinians, and the Manichaeans seem to have been the only schools of Christian gnostics to survive into the 4th century, and soon they were purged from the church and officially forbidden to meet, their books were banned, and they themselves were subject to execution. Due to sustained, and effective, suppression, few gnostic texts survived; however, in 1945 farmers digging for fertilizer in the Jabal al-Ṭārif caves near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, found 12 leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar; most of the 52 treatises were gnostic texts written in Coptic. They may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery and were buried after St. Athanasius condemned the use of non-canonical books in 367. One of these books was “The Apocalypse of Adam,” in which the 700-year-old First Man told his 3rd son Seth how his wife Eve had brought him knowledge of the eternal God, making them more powerful than their creator. But at the time of their fall, Adam and Eve were separated by the demiurge (Platon’s concept of an uncreated “artisan” that fashioned and maintained the physical universe from existing material, from his “Timaeus.” In many gnostic accounts, the demiurge was malevalent because of its links to the material world). Seth was begot to preserve the knowledge, through the actions of three mysterious strangers. Then Adam foretold the demiurge’s attempts to destroy mankind with a universal flood and a great fire but claimed an Illuminator would come to save the world. Thirteen kingdoms would proclaim 13 conflicting birth legends about the Illuminator, but only the "generation without a king" would proclaim the truth.
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