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Early Christianity


Doctrines At the heart of Gnostic teaching is the belief that there is a divine spark in humanity that has fallen from the realm of light into the realm of matter or darkness. Christian Gnosticism termed the realm of darkness "the Void" and the realm of light "the Fulness". Each realm has its own God-figure: the God of the Void is the Lord God of the Jewish scriptures; the God of the Fulness is described as Mind. It is to the Fulness that Gnostic Christians will return. Ordinary Christians will dwell with the God of the Void. Non-Christians are destined for destruction.
The person of Jesus Christ is also conceived in dualistic terms. There are two Christs: the "psychic" Christ, the Messiah predicted in the Jewish scriptures, and the true saviour who descended upon Jesus during his baptism. In this scheme of things Jesus' teachings are interpreted as pointing to the Fulness and can only be properly understood by Gnostics.

History The origins of Gnosticism are unknown. It is uncertain whether it antedated Christianity or emerged from within Christianity. Drawing upon diverse sources such as non-Christian mythology, astrology, Greek philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism, Gnosticism consisted of various groups whose teaching was deemed to be accessible only to a select few.
The most famous Gnostic schools were those of Basilides and Valentinus, which emerged in the first half of the 2nd century. These schools and their followers set about interpreting the New Testament texts according to Gnostic principles, and established their own works such as the Apocryphon of John and the Gospel of Truth.
Gnostic ideas stirred up considerable opposition from mainstream Christian apologists, and by the early 3rd century Gnostic influence had seriously declined. A form of semi-Gnosticism continued through the teachings of the Persian prophet Mani and his supporters, who came to be known as Manichaeans. Manichaeanism at first spread quickly throughout the Roman empire but, like Gnosticism, was successfully attacked by Christian apologists. By the fifth century Gnosticism and Manichaeanism had all but disappeared.
The only group today which could claim any succession from Gnosticism are the Mandaeans. Like Gnosticism, Mandeism is dualistic, based on the belief in a realm of darkness and a realm of light. Mandean communities are to be found in south-western Iran and southern Iraq.

Symbols Gnostic symbolism reflects the syncretic character of Gnostic belief. God is symbolised by light; the material world by darkness. The connection between these two realms is depicted in the form of a serpent biting its own tail; one half of the serpent is black; the other half is white. The number 7 represents the seven angels who created the world and who in turn represent fate. The symbol of the Mother reflects the dualistic nature of Gnostic belief. There are two mothers: the Supreme Mother who is the Holy Spirit and the second, inferior Mother who gives birth to the God of the Void. The water of baptism enables the believer to be united with Christ as Christ was united with the Holy Spirit through his baptism. In Mandeism the baptismal ceremony enables the baptised person to be free of sin and to enter into the world of light.

Adherents There are some 20,000 Mandaeans in Iraq and a very small community in Iran (Europa Publications Limited 1995, 1:1569).

Main Centre
 Mandaean groups survive in Nasiriyah, Iraq.