The Gnostic DemiurgeGnosticism is associated with a wide variety of sects that flourished during the late Roman Empire, in a wide arc that extended from Rome, through Egypt and the Middle East, to Persia. Little is known about most of these sects, and they are remembered through the critiques of Church heresiologists, and through surviving documents. Many sects were Christian offshoots, some were Jewish, and others are difficult to categorise.

It is difficult to summarise the wide variety of gnostic beliefs concisely, but there are some common factors:
  • Exile. The human soul is in exile from its true home, often characterised as a realm of light.
  • Captivity. The human soul is not only in exile, it is held captive by evil powers.
  • Ignorance. The human soul becomes attached to material existence and is ignorant of its true situation (exile, captivity, bondage, alienation, evil).
  • Dualism. The cosmos is divided between good and evil powers, also characterised as light and darkness, or truth and lie. In radical dualism there is a fundamental split, and good and evil have equal ontological status. In mitigated dualism the dominance of evil is seen as temporary and ultimately subordinate to good.
  • Alienation. The material world is viewed as the creation of evil beings. Sex and procreation may be viewed as perpetuating bondage, and celibacy may be encouraged. Secular and spiritual powers may also be seen as agents of evil, leading to ...
  • Antinomianism. The civil and religious structure of society may be viewed as evil, and there may be ritualised acts of defiance, often violation of sexual or dietary taboos.
  • Catastrophe. The dominance of evil is the result of a cosmological catastrophe within the divine. This is often associated with a female power (divine wisdom, Sophia) acting independently of her consort.
  • Redemption. It is possible for the human soul to become aware of its true situation and seek redemption and liberation, a return to the world of light. This may be a result of an ...
  • Emissary. The world of light may send emissaries to the world of captivity to awaken the souls of the chosen. Many gnostic sects viewed Jesus as an emissary figure. The emissary might well communicate ...
  • Secret Knowledge. The secret knowledge usually consisted of names of power, talismanic diagrams, and ritual formulae for binding the powers of evil, so enabling the soul to escape from their thrall and rise to the world of light.
Gnosticism appears to be closely associated with social alienation, and its rise in late antiquity coincided with the existence of large urban centres, breakdown of kin groups, economic deprivation, the dominance of large empires over ethnic groups, and the imposition of state religions.

Kabbalah contains many elements of structural gnosticism - that is, while there is no explicit connection with the gnosticism of late antiquity, most of the key ideas described above can be found to some degree. The Kabbalah of R. Isaac Luria contains many gnostic elements, and these tendencies were greatly exaggerated by the followers of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi and his court kabbalist and apologist Nathan of Gaza. The most extreme development of these ideas can be found in the beliefs and practices of the followers of Jacob Frank. Even highly respected and venerated Hassidic works such as the Tanya have distinctively gnostic outlook.

See also: Gnosticism (Wikipedia)

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