You can find all three meanings in the New Testament. This means it is knowledge by participation. It is a knowledge which is as intimate as the relation between husband and wife. It is not a knowledge of analytic and synthetic research; it is not scientific knowledge. But it is knowledge of union and knowledge of salvation: it’s existential knowledge. Therefore the Gnostics were the Greek intellectuals, but were people who wanted to live in the realm of participation with the Divine, and who understood the cognitive function of man as a functioning of participation.
The Gnostics were not a sect – if at all, they were many sects – but they were much more than this. They were a universal religious movement in the late ancient world.
We call this movement “syncretism,” usually. It was a mixture of all the religious traditions of that time. This general movement of religious mixture was spreading all over the world, and it was strong enough to penetrate into Greek philosophy, so that we call that period of Greek philosophy the religious period of Greek philosophy. It was strong enough to penetrate into the Jewish religion: Philo of Alexandria is a typical predecessor of Gnosticism. It was strong enough to penetrate into the Roman law and into Christian theology.
The elements of this religion of mixture are the following: 1) The negative presupposition, namely the destruction of the national religions by the conquests of Alexander and of Rome. The great world empires undercut the national religions.
2) The philosophical interpretation of mythology. When you read the systems of the Gnostics, you will have the feeling that this is rationalized myth. And this feeling is right.
3) The renewal of the old mystery traditions.
4) The re-emergence of the psychic and magic elements, as it appeared in the religious propaganda of the East; while the political movement went from the West to the East (Rome conquered the East), the religious movement, this great syncretistic thinking and acting which we call Gnosticism, went from East to West and conquered, at least partly, even Rome. So when you read about the Gnostics, don’t believe you know all about them; it is easy to dismiss them. It was an attempt to combine all the religious traditions which had lost their genuine roots, and bring them together in a system of a half-philosophical, half-religious character. The Gnostic groups showed many similarities and many conf licts with original Christianity.
They claim, against the public tradition of the Christian churches, to have secret traditions which are known only to the initiated; they are not public. They reject the Old Testament because it contradicts many of their fundamental tenets, especially the dualistic and ascetic tendencies. And the New Testament is not rejected but is purged. The man who did this first of all was Marcion. He tried to purge the Pauline canon. He leaves the ten main letters and the Gospel of Luke, which is most influenced by Paul. He rejects all other letters and gospels of the New Testament. Luke and ten Pauline letters, that’s enough – because there, no elements are present which contradict the basic ideas of Gnosticism.