Gnosticism is a collection of ancient religious ideas and systems which originated in the first century AD among early Christian and Jewish sects. These various groups, labeled "Gnostics" by their opponents, emphasised personal spiritual knowledge over orthodox teachings and ecclesiastical authority, they considered the principal element of salvation to be direct knowledge of the supreme divinity, experienced as mystical or esoteric insight. Gnostic cosmogony presents a distinction between this supreme, hidden God and a blind, evil demiurge responsible for creating the material universe, thereby trapping the divine spark within matter. Many Gnostic texts deal not with illusion and enlightenment. Gnostic writings flourished among certain Christian groups in the Mediterranean world until about the second century, when the Fathers of the early church denounced them as heresy. Efforts to destroy heretical texts proved successful, resulting in the survival of few Gnostic texts. Nonetheless, early Gnostic teachers such as Valentinus saw their beliefs as aligned with Christianity.

In the Gnostic Christian tradition, Christ is seen as a divine being which has taken human form in order to lead humanity back to the Light. However, Gnosticism is not a single standardized system, the emphasis on direct experience allows for a wide variety of teachings, including distinct currents such as Valentianism and Sethianism. In the Persian Empire, Gnostic ideas spread as far as China via the related movement Manichaeism, while Mandaeism is still alive in Iraq. For centuries, most scholarly knowledge of Gnosticism was limited to the anti-heretical writings of orthodox Christian figures such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Hippolytus of Rome. Renewed interest in Gnosticism occurred after the 1945 discovery of Egypt's Nag Hammadi library, a collection of rare early Christian and Gnostic texts, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Apocryphon of John. A major question in scholarly research is the qualification of Gnosticism as either an interreligious phenomenon or as an independent religion.

Scholars have acknowledged the influence of sources such as Hellenistic Judaism and Platonism, some have noted possible links to Buddhism and Hinduism, though the evidence of direct influence from these latter sources is inconclusive. Gnosis refers to knowledge based on personal perception. In a religious context, gnosis is mystical or esoteric knowledge based on direct participation with the divine. In most Gnostic systems, the sufficient cause of salvation is this "knowledge of" the divine, it is an inward "knowing", comparable to that encouraged by Plotinus, differs from proto-orthodox Christian views. Gnostics are "those who are oriented toward knowledge and understanding – or perception and learning – as a particular modality for living"; the usual meaning of gnostikos in Classical Greek texts is "learned" or "intellectual", such as used by Plato in the comparison of "practical" and "intellectual". Plato's use of "learned" is typical of Classical texts. By the Hellenistic period, it began to be associated with Greco-Roman mysteries, becoming synonymous with the Greek term musterion.

The adjective is not used in the New Testament, but Clement of Alexandria speaks of the "learned" Christian in complimentary terms. The use of gnostikos in relation to heresy originates with interpreters of Irenaeus; some scholars consider that Irenaeus sometimes uses gnostikos to mean "intellectual", whereas his mention of "the intellectual sect" is a specific designation. The term "Gnosticism" does not appear in ancient sources, was first coined in the 17th century by Henry More in a commentary on the seven letters of the Book of Revelation, where More used the term "Gnosticisme" to describe the heresy in Thyatira; the term Gnosticism was derived from the use of the Greek adjective gnostikos by St. Irenaeus to describe the school of Valentinus as he legomene gnostike haeresis "the heresy called Learned." The earliest origins of Gnosticism are still disputed. The proto-orthodox Christian groups called Gnostics a heresy of Christianity, but according to the modern scholars the theology's origin is related to Jewish sectarian milieus and early Christian sects.

Scholars debate Gnosticism's origins as having roots in Neoplatonism and Buddhism, due to similarities in beliefs, but its origins are unknown. As Christianity developed and became more popular, so did Gnosticism, with both proto-orthodox Christian and Gnostic Christian groups existing in the same places; the Gnostic belief was widespread within Christianity until the proto-orthodox Christian communities expelled the group in the second and third centuries. Gnosticism became the first group to be declared heretical; some scholars prefer to speak of "gnosis" when referring to first-century ideas that developed into gnosticism, to reserve the term "gnosticism" for the synthesis of these ideas into a coherent movement in the second century. According to James M. Robinson, no gnostic texts pre-date Christianity, "pre-Christian Gnosticism as such is hardly attested in a way to settle the debate once and for all." However, the Nag Hammadi library contained Hermetic teachings that can be argued go back to the Old Egyptian Kingdom.

Contemporary scholarship agrees that Gnosticism has Jewish Christian origins, originating in the late first century AD in nonrabbinical Jewish sects and early Christian sects. Many heads of gnostic schools we

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