All religions are essentially gnostic, which means they center their ideology around knowledge. Christians take this to the extreme, with many believing that accepting the knowledge of Jesus as their savior is sufficient pre-requisite for declaring oneself Christian. Other faiths place more emphasis on ritual, and less on knowledge, but it is still important in every faith to remember certain things.
Every religion boils down to a system for transferring knowledge, like an artificial form of genetics. Religion was most important before written language, when stories and songs would need to be transmitted between generations in order to preserve knowledge. Eventually, religion was written down, and as a result, long forgotten faiths sometimes find their way back into our memory.
Christian Gnosticism was a strong movement in the early days after Jesus. While the whole of the religion is lost to us, we get bits and pieces of it through lost papyri and codices. To make matters worse, it was certainly not a monolithic movement with a standardized belief structure. However, when taken together, the Gnostic world view is strikingly interesting.
In the beginning were the Archons, beings with limitless power, floating in an endless void. The youngest was Sophia, whose name means wisdom.
Sophia decided to create a companion for herself. Being the youngest and not wanting her older siblings to take Her creation away, she went off alone where she could not be seen. She created Yaldabaoth, the demiurge. She lavished it with attention and gave it everything He desired.
Because the apple never falls far from the tree, Yaldabaoth felt compelled one day to create. He didn’t want His mother to see it, so behind His back He created the world, our physical world (the world of mass, as opposed to the spirit world or just the Earth). He populated it with all kinds of animals and even one being that resembled Him and His Mother.
Seeing that His creation was alone, and having not given His creation the power to create, He made his creation a mate. He set up the events of Genesis as a game to amuse Himself. Some Gnostics found traditionally villainous characters like Cain to be heroic, though the circumstances of the Gnostic interpretation are lost to us.
Basically, the Gnostics were maltheists. They saw the Old Testament God, YHWH, as being this evil Demiurge, Yaldabaoth. The “Creator” was only a partial creator, for He made our world, but was Himself naïve to the whole of the existence. His imperfection accounts for the imperfection of our world.
At some point, we don’t know when Gnostics think this was, Sophia found out what Yaldabaoth had done. She saw our world and wept. No, this wasn’t the flood. What do we know is that Gnostics believe she sent Jesus to try to save us.
Gnostics believe Jesus was sent by Sophia with a knowledge that would allow human spirits to escape the prison created for us by Her Son. There is even evidence that Gnostics believed in the transmigration of souls, which is the Western terminology for reincarnation. This all likely comes about from a melding of Jewish and Platonic teachings, as Plato devised a system of reincarnation in which we are prisoners (see Plato’s Cave).
Judas, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene are some of the leading “Gospel” sources on Gnosticism. Their Gospels are classified as Gnostic because of their pronounced dualism and emphasis on knowledge. The Gospel of Judas is remarkable for its claim that Judas was asked by Jesus to initiate the events that led to the crucifixion, also portraying Judas as the most trusted apostle.
It is interesting to note that the Canonical Gospels all portray Judas and Thomas with great negativity; Judas is always called “the betrayer,” while the story of “doubting Thomas” is none too flattering. And calling Mary a prostitute is a play out of every schoolyard bully’s playbook. Smear campaigns have always worked on the ignorant masses.
Now you know more.