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"Gnosticism" (from the Greek gnosis, "knowledge") designates a broad variety of religious teachings that were rife in the Hellenized Near East of the first centuries CE and purported to offer knowledge of the otherwise hidden truth of total reality as the indispensable key to man's salvation. Most of the schools or sects in question were ostensibly Christian by the time our earliest witnesses, the Church Fathers, were familiar with them, and in consequence the whole movement was long regarded as essentially an aberration from Christian doctrine. However, although Gnosticism provided the first chapter in the history of Christian heresies, the Christian veneer of the systems playing that role is often thin to the point of transparency; and clearly non-Christian writings have come to light that by all criteria of content must be classed as Gnostic as well. The details of the literary evidence point to highly syncretistic origins, in which Jewish, Iranian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other Oriental traditions were blended with one another and with Greek concepts in an extremely free manner. The results were as readily made to represent an alleged esoteric truth of the Christian message as to constitute a superior (Mani) or even hostile (Mandaeans) alternative to it.

This syncretism, pertaining mainly to the outer shell, does not precludein fact it tends to maska highly original inner unity of thought distinct from all the disparate historical elements employed in its representation. Massively mythological though this representation usually is, the substance thus expressed has philosophical significance as embodying a fundamental choicethe radical antithesis to the classical Greek choicein the realms of universal theory and human practice at once. The powerful Gnostic impulse to elaborate its basic vision into grandly constructed, quasi-rational systems of thought where everything proceeds from an absolute beginning makes Gnosticism a landmark in the history of the speculative system as such; and it is the identity of that basic vision that defines what is Gnostic and alone justifies the classing of systems of such considerable diversity under one heading.

Gnostic Teachers and Schools

A number of gnostic teachers and writers are known by name (mainly those listed as heresiarchs in the patristic refutations), but much of the surviving literature is anonymous or pseudepigraphic, in keeping with the revelatory style in which it is cast. Historical individuals whose thought is documented by either critical accounts or direct fragments of their works include the Samaritan Simon Magus and his spiritual descendants Menander, Saturninus, Cerinthus, and Cerdon (first and second centuries); the Alexandrians Carpocrates, Basilides and his son Isidore, and, foremost, Valentinus with his illustrious disciples Ptolemaeus, Heracleon, Theodotus, and Marcus (second century); the Pontian Marcion and the Syrian Bardesanes (second century); and the Persian-Babylonian Mani (third century). Major sects whose doctrines are well documented but not identified by individual authors or founders are, in the Christian camp, the Barbeliotes, Sethites, and Ophites (the last actually a cluster of sects); in the Hellenistic-pagan camp, the Hermetic religion (perhaps merely a literature and not an actual sect); in the Semitic East, the anti-Christian Mandaeans. Towering over the known thinkers are Valentinus, Marcion, and Mani; and Valentinianism and Manichaeism respectively represent the culminations of the two main alternative types of Gnostic speculation. The last two are here considered merely for their part in and exemplification of the wider context.


With the exception of that of the Mandaeans, Gnostic literature was denied direct tradition under the dominion of Christianity and Islam after the eclipse of the Gnostic communities themselves. Thus, until fairly recently, information was supplied almost solely by the abundant indirect sources. These were, in the main, the antiheretical works of the Church Fathers (Greek, Latin, and Syriac, from Irenaeus in the second century to Theodore bar Konai in the eighth century) with their diligent reports, summaries, and excerpts, and still later Islamic histories and compendia. However, for some time an impressive series of manuscript discoveries has been adding vastly to our store of original texts: Coptic-Gnostic papyrus codices from Egypt, belonging to the Christian branch of Gnosticismthe find in 1945 of a whole library at Nag Hammadi is revolutionizing the state of documentation in the area hitherto principally covered by the patristic testimonyManichaean fragments in Persian, Turkish, and Chinese from Turfan in central Asia and in Coptic from Egypt, and the sacred writings of the Mandaeans of Iraq.

The Mandaeans are the one case of a Gnostic community surviving to the present with an unbroken written tradition of their voluminous Aramaic literature; it came to the attention of Western scholars in the nineteenth century, after it had escaped that of the Church Fathers in antiquity (probably because of the Fathers' predominantly Greek orientation). In all the other cases, the new original sources generally bear out, while greatly enriching, the testimony of the older indirect evidence. The following account, based on the entire, extremely varied material, is synoptic and selective, placing its emphases according to a conception of the whole as a system.

Gnostic Dualism

A radically dualistic mood dominates the Gnostic attitude and unites its widely diversified expressions, whether doctrinal, poetical, or ethical. The dualism is between man and world, and between the world and God. In either case, it is a dualism of antithetical, not complementary, terms; and it is basically one: that of man and world mirrors on the plane of experience the primordial one of God and world and is, in Gnostic theory, deduced from it. The interpreter may hold conversely that the transcendent doctrine of a world-God opposition sprang from the immanent experience of a disunion of man and world, that is, it reflects a human condition of alienation. In the three-term configuration, man and God belong in essence together against the world but are in fact separated by the world, which in the Gnostic view is the alienating, divisive agency.

The object of Gnostic speculation is to derive these basic polaritiesthe existing state of thingsby way of genetic myths from the first things and through such genealogy to point the way to their eventual resolution. The myth, a conscious symbolical construction, is thus predictive by being genetic, eschatological by being explanatory. Accordingly, the typical Gnostic system starts with a doctrine of divine transcendence in its original purity; traces the genesis of the world from some primordial disruption of this blessed state, a loss of divine integrity that leads to the emergence of lower powers who become the makers and rulers of this world; then, as a crucial episode in the drama, it recounts the creation and early fate of man, in whom the further conflict becomes centered; the final themein fact, the implied theme throughoutis man's salvation, which is more than man's, since it involves the overcoming and eventual dissolving of the cosmic system and is thus the instrument of reintegration for the impaired godhead itself, the self-saving of God.

god and the divine realm

The transcendence of the supreme deity is stressed to the utmost degree in all Gnostic theology. Topologically, he is transmundane, dwelling in his own realm entirely outside the physical universe, at immeasurable distance from man's terrestrial abode; ontologically, he is acosmic, even anticosmic: To this world and whatever belongs to it he is the essentially "other" and "alien" (Marcion), the "alien Life" (Mandaeans), the "depth" or "abyss" (Valentinians), even "the not-being" (Basilides); epistemologically, because of the transcendence and otherness of his being, and because nature neither reveals nor even indicates him, he is naturally unknown, ineffable, defying predication, surpassing comprehension, and strictly unknowable. Some positive attributes and metaphors do apply to him: Light, Life, Spirit, Father, the Goodbut not Creator, Ruler, Judge. Significantly, in some systems one of his secret names is Man. Mainly, the discourse about him must move in negations, and historically Gnosticism is one of the fountainheads of negative theology.

However, the Absolute is not alone but is surrounded by an aura of eternal, graded expressions of his infinitude, partial aspects of his perfection, hypostatized into quasi-personal beings (aeons) with highly abstract names (mostly of mental properties) and together forming the hierarchy of the divine realm, the pleroma (Plenitude). The emanation of this inner manifold from the primal ground, a kind of self-differentiation of the Absolute, is sometimes described in terms of subtle spiritual dialectics, more often in rather naturalistic (for instance, sexual), terms. Among the tenuously mythological entities that thus arise (such as Mind, Grace, Word, Knowledge, Life) are two more concrete ones with definite roles in the further evolution of the transcendental drama: Man as an eternal, divine, precosmic principle (sometimes even identified with the First Being himself) and Wisdom (Sophia), usually the last and youngest of the aeons. Extensive speculation about the diversity within the pleroma is the mark of advanced systems, but some degree of manifold on the upper reaches of being is requisite for all Gnostic metaphysics because it provides the condition for divine fallibility on which the movement into creation and alienation depends.

lower powers and the creator

In the genuine Gnostic systems the downward movement starts from an internal crisis in the divine realm itself, whereas in those under Iranian influence it is occasioned by the action of dark forces from without, thus presupposing the very dualism that the typical speculation lets evolve from the one monistic root. We shall mainly follow this latter, more prevalent type, which is free from Iranian influence. Here, the protagonist of crisis and fall is most often the female aeon Sophia (or such equivalents as Thought and Conception) who, from some overstepping of boundsassertion of self-will, creative presumption, even excessive desire to know the unknowable Fatheris drawn into a history of passion and error that leads her outside the blessed pleroma. (In another family of systems, Primal Man assumes the role of the sinking part of divinity.) Although the upper powers immediately set about healing this breach in the divine order, the downward trend set in motion by the original lapse must take its course, and the counterplay of these two trends henceforth governs the process. There ensues, in a development too complex and too variously elaborated to recount here, a train of ever lower hypostases descended from the erring Sophia, episodically broken by certain archetypal salvations.

The Demiurge

Early in the descending seriesand marked with all the deforming effects of the Fall whose fruit he isappears the Demiurge, the monstrous and benighted archon (lord) of the nether powers. This widespread Gnostic figure, telling symbol of the Gnostic hostility toward the world, is clearly a polemical caricature of the Old Testament God, and the identity is made explicit by frequent transference to him of well-known utterances and actions of God from the biblical text. Pride, ignorance, and malevolence of the Creator are recurring themes in Gnostic tales, as are his humbling and outwitting by the higher powers bent on thwarting his designs. However, over the whole range of Gnostic mythologizing the archon's image varies, and there are milder versions in which he is more misguided than evil and thus open to correction and remorse, even to final redemption. He is always a problematical and never a venerable figure.

Finding himself in the void or chaos outside the pleroma, possessed of the power inherited from his mother but ignorant of the divine worlds above him, he believes himself to be the only God and engages in creations chiefly designed to satisfy his ambition, vanity, and lust for dominion. Prominent among the host of lower powers that issue from him are six further archons whom he installs in six successive heavens; he occupies the seventh above them. Thus originate the cosmic order and its system of rule, the universe of Babylonian astrology with its seven planetary spheres and the almighty planetary deities. An eighth region beyond them (corresponding to the sphere of the fixed stars) is occupied by the mother Sophia, still exiled from the pleroma, who has no part in the creation and government of the world but intervenes in both for the purposes of salvation. The Valentinian version, the subtlest of all, depicts the Demiurge as trying vainly to imitate the perfect order of the aeons with his physical one, and their eternity with the counterfeit substitute of timethus adding to the parody of the biblical Creator that of the Platonic Demiurge. However, the chief instance of illicit and bungling imitation is the creation of man.

The remaining part of creation is the joint work of the seven archons. Indeed, the early systems (such as that of Simon Magus) simply name the seven as the creators of the world; and the preeminence of one of them, growing into a kind of monotheism of cosmic (lower) divinity, seems to be characteristic of the mature stage of Gnostic speculation. There, an episode, told with almost identical words in the cosmogonies of many different schools, rings in the next act in the drama of creation: The First Archon (the Demiurge), exulting in his works with the Scriptural proclamation "I am God and there is none other than I," draws the retort from on high, "Thou art mistaken! Above thee is First Man."

creation of earthly man

Some such divulgence of superior godhead (here meant as no more than a humbling of the Creator's pride, elsewhere serving some other purpose in the divine strategy), and especially the appearance of a divine form with it, inspire the archons with the audacious plan to equal the upper perfection in a work of their ownto create terrestrial manan effect not foreseen in the divine move. Letting them say on this occasion, "Come, let us make a man after the image we have seen," the Gnostics turned to account the puzzling plural of Genesis 1:26, and the resulting imago Dei character of created man, far from being a straight metaphysical honor, assumes an ambiguous, if not sinister, meaning. The motive for the archons' resolve is either simple envy and ambition, or the more calculating one of entrapping divine substance in their lower world by the lure of a seemingly congenial receptacle that will become its most secure bond. The imitation, presumptuous and blundering, is nevertheless effective. Although the mere creature of the archonsthe body and a natural soul compounded from their several psychic powersis not viable by itself, it becomes so through the injection of a spiritual element from beyond.

For this presence of transcendent spirit (pneuma) in psychophysical manin itself a paradoxical, unnatural fact and the fulcrum of the whole soteriological dramaGnostic speculation offers various explanations, their chief difference being whether the presence marks a success of the nether powers or a stratagem of the upper ones. In the first alternative, the causality operative on the divine side admits in turn the several variations of being a victim of violence (Mani), of deception, or of its own downward inclination (Poimandres). In the other alternative (the Valentinians), the divine seed is secretly deposited in the creature of the unknowing Demiurge in order to turn his work into an unintended vehicle of salvation. However, this variant is no more optimistic than the first, since the soteriological stratagem merely makes the best of a basic evil, of these divine portions' having become divorced from their source in the first place. In any case, the pneuma's innerworldly existence is a state of exile, the result of primeval divine tragedy; and its immersion in soul and body is the terminal form of that exile. For the archons, on the other hand, the incorporation of this transcendent element into their system is a condition of the system's existence, and its retention therefore becomes to them a matter of survivaltheir work's and their own. Hence, they must resist at all cost the spirit's extrication from the cosmic involvement, which the upper powers seek for the regaining of divine wholeness. The means of this extrication is knowledge.

history of man

The process of conveying the saving knowledge to the world-imprisoned hostage of Light begins with Adam himself and runs through the history of humankind in a constant counterplay with the archontic powers. Human history is thus eschatological from the beginning. In the light of this scheme, the Scriptural account of early man, especially the Paradise story, is boldly recast, with all value signs reversed. The most significant of these reversals concerns the serpent, which, as the first bringer of knowledge in defiance of the Creator's mandate of ignorance, becomes the general symbol of the acosmic spiritual principle that works for the awakening of its captive kin in the world. The revelatory line thus started, and continued through the generations, ends in Christ (or may go beyond him to further revelations of the truth). Hence the cult of the serpent in a major group of Gnostic sects, the Ophites (from the Greek ophis, serpent). In the same spirit of reversal, Cain, Esau, and other rejected figures of the Old Testament became to certain sects (Cainites, Carpocratians, Perates) bearers of the pneumatic heritage, forming a secret lineage of gnosis and persecuted by the world god for this reason; their opposites, such as Abel and Jacob, his favorites, represent the unenlightened majority. Independently of the intention to scandalize that is evident here, the Gnostic scheme called for a prophetology in succession of the Adamitic revelation, for which Iranian tradition offered the idea of an eternal Messenger who moves through history in ever new incarnations. These messengers were variously identified with names from the religious past; in the final consolidation by Mani we find them reduced to four: Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mani. The significant omission of Moses from this list requires a comment on the anti-Judaism among the Gnostics.

The this-worldly spirit of the Hebrew religion combined with historical circumstance to make the Old Testament a prominent target of Gnostic dislike, to varying degrees. The extreme of hostility, even contempt, is found in Marcion, for whom this admittedly authentic revelation of the Creator and Lord of this world shares all the blemishes of its source: It is as opposed to the gospel of salvation as its divine author is to the God that saves and as this world, his work, is to the nonmundane realm beyond. Simon Magus and others are hardly less intransigent. A more qualified view is taken by the Valentinians: The law is at least partly prefigurative of the higher truth, and the prophets, although mainly inspired by the Demiurge, are sometimes (and unbeknown to him) used by his mother, Sophia, for her own messages, which thus are interspersed in the inferior bulk. There are other shades of opinion, but rejection of the whole body of Hebrew Scripture, joined with irreverent exegetical use, is by far the rule; and on this issue, and on the related one of the identity or nonidentity of the God of Moses with the Father of Jesus Christ, the main battle was fought between the church and the heretics.

cosmos and human nature

The material universe, the domain of the archons, is like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the scene of man's life. Around and above it, the cosmic spheres are ranged like concentric enclosing shells. Their number is usually seven, with a surrounding eighth that does not belong to the archontic realm proper but is intermediate between the cosmos and the upper world of the pleroma. There was, however, a tendency to multiply structures and to make the scheme more and more extensive: Basilides counted no fewer than 365 heavens. The religious significance of this cosmic architecture lies in the idea that everything that intervenes between here and the beyond serves to separate man from God, not merely by spatial distance but through active demonic force. Thus, the vastness and multiplicity of the cosmic system express the degree to which man is removed from God.

The spheres are the seats of the archons, whose ruling set of seven are the planetary gods of the Babylonian pantheon, now significantly renamed with synonyms for the Hebrew Godanother sign of the latter's degradation. The archons collectively rule the world that they (or their overlord) made, and each individually in his sphere is a warder of the cosmic prison. Their tyrannical world rule, called Fate (heimarmene ), is physically the law of nature, morally the law of justice, as exemplified in the Mosaic law, which issued from the Demiurge or the angels and, with its threat of retribution, aims at the enslavement of man as much as the first does with its force of necessity. As guardian of his sphere, each archon bars the passage to the souls that seek to ascend after death, in order to prevent their escape from the world and their return to God.

Man, the main object of these vast dispositions, is composed of flesh, soul, and spirit. Reduced to ultimate principles, his origin is twofold: mundane and extramundane. Both the body and the soul are products of the cosmic powers, who shaped the body in the image of the divine Primal Man and animated it with their own psychical forces: These are the appetites and passions of natural man, each stemming from and corresponding to one of the cosmic spheres, and all together making up the astral soul of man, his psyche. Through his body and his soul man is a part of the world and is subjected to heimarmene. Enclosed in the soul is the spirit, or pneuma (also called the spark), a portion of the divine substance from beyond that has fallen into the world; the archons created man for the express purpose of keeping it captive here.

Thus, as in the macrocosm man is enclosed by the seven spheres, so in the human microcosm the pneuma is enclosed by the seven soul vestments originating from them. These psychical envelopments are considered impairments and fetters of the transmundane spirit, and its incarnation in the outer, material body merely completes the complex imprisonment. The resulting human constitution is, then, comparable to an onion with so many layers, on the model of the cosmos itself but with the order reversed; what is outermost and uppermost in the cosmos is innermost in man, and the innermost or nethermost stratum of the cosmic order, Earth, is the outer bodily garment of man. Only the innermost or pneumatic man is the true man, and he is not of this world, as his original in the total order, the deity, is external to the cosmos as a whole. In its unredeemed state the spirit, so far from its source and immersed in soul and flesh, is unconscious of itself, benumbed, asleep, or intoxicated by the poison of the worldin brief, it is ignorant. Its awakening and liberation are effected through knowledge.

eschatology: salvation through gnosis

The nature of Gnostic dualism determines the general concept of salvation, and the stratifications of cosmos and man condition its details. Its basic premise is that the transcendent God is as alien to this world as the pneumatic self is in the midst of it. The goal of Gnostic striving is the release of the inner man from the bonds of the world and his return to his native realm of light. The necessary condition for this is that he know about the transmundane God and about himself, that is, about his divine origin as well as his present situation, and hence, also about the nature of the world that determines his situation. Such knowledge is withheld from him by precisely the selfsame situation that requires it, for ignorance is the essence of mundane existence, just as it was the principle of the world's coming into being. In particular, the transcendent God is unknown in the world and cannot be discovered from it; therefore, revelation is needed. The necessity for revelation is inherent in the innercosmic condition; and its occurrence alters this condition in its decisive respect, that of ignorance.

Revelation, or the "call," is thus already a part of salvation. Its bringer is a messenger from the world of Light who penetrates the barriers of the spheres, outwits the archons, awakens the spirit from its earthly slumber, and imparts to it the saving knowledge from without. The mission of this transcendent savior begins even before the creation of the world, since the fall of the divine element preceded creation, and the archetypal redemption indeed takes place in the precosmic stage. It is the incompleteness of this initial restoration, whether of Sophia or of Mani's Primal Man, that leads to the genesis of the world and the protraction of the saving process throughout its history. The fact that in the discharge of his task the eternal messenger must himself assume the lot of incarnation and cosmic exile, and the further fact that, at least in the Iranian variety of the myth, he is in a sense identical with those he callsthe once lost parts of his divine selfgive rise to the moving idea of the "saved savior" (salvator salvandus ).

The knowledge revealed by the messengers, for short "knowledge of God," comprises the whole content of the Gnostic myth, with everything it has to teach about God, man, and world, including the history of the beginnings which alone offers the key to the secrets of existence; that is, the revelation contains the elements of a theoretical system. On the practical side, however, it is more particularly "knowledge of the way"of the soul's way out of the worldcomprising the sacramental and magical preparations for its future ascent and the secret names and formulas that force the passage through each sphere. Equipped with this gnosis, the soul after death travels upward, leaving behind at each sphere the psychical vestments contributed by that sphere; thus the spirit, stripped of all foreign accretions, reaches the God beyond the world and reunites with the divine substance. (The most circumstantial description of this ascent is found in the "Poimandres," the first treatise of the Hermetic corpus.) On the scale of the total divine drama, the individual ascent is part of the restoration of the deity's own wholeness, impaired by the events of the beginning. Only through the loss suffered then did the deity become involved in the destiny of the world, and only to retrieve his own does he intervene, through his envoys, in cosmic history. With the completion of this ingathering, the cosmos, deprived of its elements of light, will come to an end.


In this life the pneumatics, as the possessors of gnosis called themselves, are set apart from the mass of humankind. The immediate illumination that makes the individual sovereign in the sphere of knowledge (hence the great variety of Gnostic doctrines) also inspires superior rules of conduct. Generally, the pneumatic morality is determined by hostility toward the world and contempt for all mundane ties. From this principle, however, two contrary conclusions could be drawn, and both found their extreme partisans: the ascetic and the libertine. The ascetic deduces from the possession of gnosis the obligation to avoid further contamination by the world and therefore to reduce the world's use to a minimum; the libertine derives from the same possession the privilege of unrestrained freedom. The libertine conclusion, more startling and more devious, is argued thus: The law, since it represents the will of the Demiurge and is one form of his tyranny, does not obligate the pneuma, which is "saved in its nature" and can be neither sullied by actions (which in themselves are morally neutral) nor frightened by the threat of archontic retribution which can affect only the body and the psyche).

Thus the pneumatic, since he is free from the power of fate, is also free from the yoke of the moral law, and all things are permitted to him. This freedom, however, is more than merely permissive; its practice is bidden by metaphysical interest. Through intentional violation of the demiurgical norm (for which the mythological vilification of the Demiurge prepares) the pneumatic thwarts the design of the archons and thus paradoxically contributes to the work of salvation. From the motive of defiance it is then only one step further to the teaching of the Cainites and Carpocratians that there is a positive duty to perform every kind of action, to leave no deed undone, no possibility of freedom unrealized, in order to render nature its due and exhaust its powers; only in this way can final release from the cycle of reincarnations be obtained. Gnostic libertinism thus spans the whole scale from mere negative license to positive Faustian obligationat which point it loses again some of the contrast to its ascetic alternative.

The latter alternative, too, betrays the common root in Gnosticism from which both opposites spring. Although more obvious in the libertine choice, the element of defiance shows in the ascetic one as well; as much as it may serve purification or other perfectionist ends normally associated with asceticism, it often has the declared purpose of obstructing the cause of the Creator, even just to spite him, by refusing to use his works (a kind of metaphysical strike). This obstructive aspect is especially clear in the abstention from sexual intercourse and marriage when, as in Marcion and Mani, its purpose is not to help replenish the world of the Demiurge and further disperse in it the captive lightthereby prolonging its exile and making its ingathering more difficult. Indeed, according to Mani, the reproductive scheme was instituted by the archons with precisely this end in view. Asceticism is thus a matter less of ethics than of metaphysical alignment, and its common ground with libertinism is the determination not to play the Creator's game. The one repudiates allegiance to nature through abstention; the other, through excess. Both are lives outside the mundane norm. Freedom by use and freedom by nonuse are thus alternative expressions of the same acosmism.


Acosmism, the real basis of the Gnostic position, contains the seeds of nihilism; the very extremism of divine transcendence has nihilistic implications. As the totally other, alien, and unknown, the Gnostic God has more of the nihil than of the ens in his concept. For all purposes of man's relation to the reality that surrounds him, this hidden God is a negative term; no law emanates from himnone for nature, and thus none for human action as a part of the natural order. His only relation to the world is the negative one of saving from the world. Antinomianism follows naturally, even if not inevitably, from these premises.

two types of gnostic dualism

This entry has kept mainly to the Syrian-Egyptian stream of Gnostic speculation, to which the majority of systems, especially the Christian ones, belong. There is, however, another, Iranian line of speculation that culminates in Mani.

Both types, being Gnostic, were evolved to explain the same facts of a dislocated metaphysical situationboth are dualistic concerning their common theme: the existing rift between God and world, world and man, spirit and flesh. The Iranian type, in a Gnostic adaptation of Zoroastrian doctrine, starts from a dualism of two opposed principles and then must explain how the original Darkness came to engulf elements of the Lightit describes the world drama as a war with changing fortunes; and the divine fate, of which man's fate is a part and the world an unwilled by-product, is explained in terms of mixing and unmixing, captivity and liberation. Here the knightly male figure of First Man, the warrior, assumes the role of the exposed and suffering part of divinity.

The Syrian speculation, with the female Sophia in that role, undertakes the more ambitious task of deriving dualism itself, and the ensuing predicament of the divine in the system of creation, from the one and undivided source of being. It does this by means of a genealogy of personified divine states evolving from one another that describes the progressive darkening of the original Light in categories of guilt, error, and failure. This devolution within the divine being ends in the decadence of complete self-alienation that is this world. Both dramas start with a disturbance in the heights; in both, the existence of the world marks a discomfiture of the divine and a necessary, in itself undesirable, means of its eventual restitution; in both, the salvation of man is that of the deity itself. The difference lies in whether the tragedy is forced upon the deity from without by the trespass of an independent Darkness, which thus has the first initiative (the deity itself being in perfect tranquility), or is motivated from within itself, with Darkness and Matter the products of its passion, which they hypostatize in external terms. To divine defeat and sacrifice in the first case correspond divine guilt and error in the second; to compassion for the victimized Light, spiritual contempt for demiurgical blindness; to eventual divine liberation, reformation through enlightenment.

The Manichaean and Valentinian systems respectively exemplify the two types. The Iranian type, with its high-minded story of battle, defeat, and recovery, lends itself to more concrete and gripping dramatization. However, only the subtler Syrian type, by according metaphysical status to knowledge and ignorance as modes of the divine life and therefore as universal, cosmogonic categories, can do full justice to the redemptional claim made on behalf of knowledge in all Gnostic religion. Valentinian speculation inferred that the human individual event of pneumatic knowledge reverses the precosmic universal event of divine ignorance and is in its redeeming effect of the same ontological order. Thus the actualization of knowledge in the person is at the same time an act in the general ground of being.

See also Mani and Manichaeism; Valentinus and Valentinianism.


primary sources

New Testament Apocrypha are translated in M. R. James, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), and in E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, eds., Neutestamentliche Apokryphen (Tübingen: Mohr, 19591964). Editions of the original texts are listed there. The following Apocrypha are noteworthy for their Gnostic contents: the "Acts of Thomas," containing the Hymn of the Pearl; the pseudo-Clementine "Homilies and Recognitions"; and the "Odes of Solomon." See also the section on Coptic sources, below.

Patristic sources, in standard editions and translations, include Irenaeus of Lyon, Against the Heresies ; Clement of Alexandria, Excerpts from Theodotus and Stromateis ; Tertullian of Carthage, Against Marcion, Against the Valentinians, On the Plea of the Heretics, and On the Soul ; Hippolytus of Rome, Philosophoumena ; Origen, Against Celsus and Commentary on the Gospel of John (containing the fragments of Heracleon); and Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion. Collections of patristic texts (Greek and Latin) may be found in A. Hilgenfeld, Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristentums (Leipzig, 1884), and W. Völker, ed., Quellen zur Geschichte der christlichen Gnosis (Tübingen: Mohr, 1932).

Coptic sources include C. Schmidt, Koptisch-gnostische Schriften (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1905) and Pistis Sophia, Coptica II (Leipzig, 1925); W. Till, ed., Die gnostischen Schriften des koptischen Papyrus Berolinensis 8502 (Berlin, 1955). The newly discovered Nag Hammadi texts, so far as published, include the following: M. Malinine, H. C. Puech, and G. Quispel, eds., Evangelium Veritatis (Zürich, 1956 and 1961), translated in K. Grobel, The Gospel of Truth (New York and Nashville, TN, 1960); H. M. Schenke, "Das Wesen der Archonten," in Theologische Literaturzeitung 83 (1958): 661670; A. Guillaumont, H. C. Puech, and others, eds., The Gospel according to Thomas (Leiden, 1959), translated in R. M. Grant and D. N. Freedman, The Secret Sayings of Jesus (London: Collins, 1960), and also translated by J. Leipoldt, J. Doresse, T. Säve-Söderbergh, H. Quecke, and R. McL. Wilson; M. Krause and P. Labib, Die drei Versionen des Apokryphon des Johannes (Wiesbaden, 1962), also translated by S. Giverson; A. Böhlig and P. Labib, eds., Die koptisch-gnostische Schrift ohne Titel aus Codex II von Nag Hammadi (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1962), and Koptisch-gnostische Apokalypsen aus Codex V von Nag Hammadi (Halle: Martin-Luther-Universität, 1963); M. Malinine and others, eds., De Resurrectione Epistula ad Reginum (Zürich and Stuttgart, 1963); W. Till, Das Evangelium nach Philippos, Texte und Studien II (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1963), also translated by R. McL. Wilson. See also H. C. Puech, "Gnostische Evangelien und verwandte Dokumente," in Neutestamentliche Apokryphen, Vol. I, edited by E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher (Tübingen; Mohr, 1959), pp. 158271.

Hermetica are collected in A. D. Nock, ed., Hermès Trismégiste, translated by A. J. Festugière, 4 vols. (Paris, 19451954), which contains text, translation, and notes and supersedes all earlier editions.

Writings of the Mandaeans are in the following editions and/or translations: M. Lidzbarski, Das Johannesbuch der Mandäer (Giessen, 1905 and 1915), Mandäische Liturgien (Berlin: Weidmannsche, 1920), and Ginza. Der Schatz oder das grosse Buch der Mandäer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1925); and E. S. Drower, The Book of the Zodiac (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1949), Diwan Abatur (Vatican City, 1950, Studi e testi 151), The Haran Gawaita (Vatican City, 1953, Studi e testi 176), The Canonical Prayerbook of the Manaeans (Leiden, 1959), The Thousand and Twelve Questions (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1960), The Coronation of the Great Šišlam (Leiden: Brill, 1962), and A Pair of Nasoraean Commentaries (Leiden: Brill, 1963).

For writings of the Manichaeans, see the bibliography to the Mani and Manichaeism entry.

A selection of materials from the first four sections of this bibliography can be found in R. M. Grant, Gnosticism: A Source Book of Heretical Writings (New York: Harper, 1961).

secondary sources

General studies include F. C. Baur, Die christliche Gnosis (Tübingen, 1835); C. W. King, The Gnostics and Their Remains, 2nd ed. (London: Nutt, 1887); W. Bousset, Hauptprobleme der Gnosis (Göttingen, 1907); A. Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, 4th ed. (Tübingen, 1909), Vol. I; H. Leisegang, Die Gnosis (Leipzig, 1924; 4th ed., Stuttgart, 1955); E. de Faye, Gnostiques et gnosticisme (Paris, 1925); F. C. Burkitt, Church and Gnosis (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1932); H. Jonas, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist, 2 vols. (Göttingen, 1934 and 1954; 3rd ed., 1964), and The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958; 2nd ed., 1963); J. Dupont, Gnosis (Louvain, 1949); G. Quispel, Gnosis als Weltreligion (Zürich, 1951); R. McL. Wilson, The Gnostic Problem (London: Mowbray, 1958); and R. M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

Special studies include many important articles in periodicals, but for reasons of space, only books are listed here.

On the Valentinians, see the bibliography to the Valentinus and Valentinianism entry.

On Nag Hammadi, see F. L. Cross, ed., The Jung Codex (London: Mowbray, 1955); H. M. Schenke, Die Herkunft des sogenannten Evangelium Veritatis (Göttingen, 1959); J. Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics (New York: Viking Press, 1960); and W. C. van Unnik, ed., Evangelien aus dem Nilsand (Frankfurt, 1960).

On Hermetism, see R. Reitzenstein, Poimandres (Leipzig, 1904); J. Kroll, Die Lehren des Hermes Trismegistos (Münster, 1914); W. Scott and A. S. Ferguson, eds., Hermetica, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19241936); W. Gundel, Neue astrologische Texte des Hermes Trismegistos (Munich, 1936); A. J. Festugière, La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste, 4 vols. (Paris: Lecoffre, 19441954); and G. van Moorsel, The Mysteries of Hermes Trismegistos (Utrecht, 1955).

On the Mandaeans, see W. Brandt, Die Mandäer (Amsterdam, 1915); R. Reitzenstein, Das mandäische Buch des Herrn der Grösse (Heidelberg, 1919); H. Odeberg, Die Mandäische Religions-anschauung (Uppsala, 1930); E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937), Water into Wine (London: John Murray, 1956), and The Secret Adam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960); and K. Rudolph, Die Mandäer, 2 vols. (Göttingen, 19601961).

On other special aspects of Gnosticism, see R. Reitzenstein, Das iranische Erlösungsmysterium (Bonn, 1921), and Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen, 3rd ed. (Leipzig, 1927); R. Reitzenstein and H. Schaeder, Studien zum antiken Synkretismus (Leipzig, 1926); A. Harnack, Marcion, 2nd ed. (Leipzig, 1924); C. H. Kraeling, Anthropos and Son of Man (New York, 1927); W. Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum (Tübingen, 1934); S. Pétrement, Le dualisme chez Platon, les gnostiques et les manichéens (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1947); H. J. Schoeps, Urgemeinde, Juden-christentum, Gnosis (Tübingen, 1956); G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1960); A. Wlosok, Laktanz und die philosophische Gnosis (Heidelberg: Winter, 1960); J. Jervell, Imago Dei (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1961); and H. M. Schenke, Der Gott "Mensch" in der Gnosis (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1962).

other recommended works


Grant, R. M. Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period. New York: 1961.

Horner, G. Pistis Sophia. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1924.

Layton, B. The Gnostic Scriptures. New York: Doubleday, 1987.

Schmidt, C., and W. Till. Koptisch-gnostische Schriften (Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte 45). 3rd ed. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1959.

Till, W. Die gnostischen Schriften des koptischen Papyrus Berolinensis 8502 (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 60). Berlin: Akademie-Verl,1955.

Völker, W. Quellen zur Geschichte der christlichen Gnosis. Tübingen: Mohr, 1932.


Baur, F. C. Die christliche Gnosis oder die christliche Religionsphilosophie in ihrer geschichtlichen Entiwicklung. Tübingen: 1835.

Colpe, et al. Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 3rd ed. Tübingen: 19571963; 2.16481661.

Cornélis, H., and A. Leonard. La gnose éternelle (Je sais, je crois 146). Paris: 1959.

Doresse, J. The Secret Books of the Egyption Gnostics. New York: Viking Press, 1960.

Eltester, W., ed. Christentum und Gnosis. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für dir neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde des Urchristentums, 37. Giessen: 1969.

Grant, R. M. Gnosticism and Early Christianity. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Jonas, H. The Gnostic Religion. 2nd ed. Boston; 1963.

Logan, A. H. B. Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy: A Study in the History of Gnosticism. Edinburgh; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.

Peterson, E. Frühkirche, Judentum und Gnosis. Rome: 1959.

Prümm, K., et al. Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche. Freiburg: 19571966; 4.10211031.

Quasten, J. Patrology. Westminster: Newman Press, 1950; 1.254277.

Quispel, G. Gnosis als Weltreligion. Zurich: Origo Verlag, 1951.

Sagnard, F. L. La gnose valentinienne et le témoignage de saint Irénée. Paris: J. Vrin, 1947.

Scholem, G. G. Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1960.

Van Unnik, W. C. Newly Discovered Gnostic Writings (Studies in Biblical Theology 30). Naperville, IL: A. R. Allenson, 1960.

Wilson, R. McL. Gnosis and the New Testament. Oxford: Blackwell, 1968.

Wilson, R. McL. The Gnostic Problem. London: A. R. Mowbray, 1958.

Wolfson, H. A. The Philosophy of the Church Fathers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Yamauchi, E. M. Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidence. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983.

Hans Jonas (1967)

Bibliography updated by Scott Carson (2005)


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The term Gnosticism usually designates a widespread religious philosophy, current especially in the early centuries of the Christian era, which was characterized by the doctrine that salvation is achieved through knowledge or γν[symbol omitted]σις.

Problem of Definition

The obvious inadequacy of this definition is necessitated first by the historically changing views of what Gnosticism is and secondly by the extreme complexity of the religious phenomenon itself. The term was first applied by 2nd-and 3rd-century patristic writers to a large number of pseudo-Christian teachers and sects such as valentinus, basilides, and many others, all of whom were regarded as Christian heretics. In various forms their "heresies" persisted up to the 7th century, and the name Gnosticism was limited to them until modern times. In the 18th and 19th centuries the term began to receive a much broader scope when historians observed many of the distinguishing features of Gnosticism, particularly its myths and its images, in a host of other religious movements, some of them decidedly non-Christian.

Hermetic and Mandaean Writings. A purely pagan body of philosophico-religious literature, the Hermetic writings, had come to be classified as a pagan Gnosis. hermetic writers, it was found, needed but some mention of Christ, and the role Gnostics traditionally ascribed to Him, in order to parallel very accurately some of the Christian heresies. Mandaeism also, the anti-Christian baptist sect of Iraq which continues to exist even today, falls in the broader category of Gnosticism. The name mandaean is itself derived from a word in the Mandaean dialect of Aramaic meaning "knowledge." Though the time and place of origin of this religion are still matters of uncertainty and dispute, Mandaeism may safely be regarded as a late form of Gnostic religion, perhaps originating in the 5th century a.d. The great and dangerous heresy of the 3rd and subsequent centuries, Manichaeism, is generally regarded as the direct heir of some of the leading Gnostics. Its origins lie in a mingling of seemingly Christian ideas with Iranian, and possibly even Buddhist, ones.

Among the Jews, too, there were traces of Gnostic ideas, first in the dead sea scrolls and some of the Jewish apocrypha, as well as in the writings of the Hellenistic-Jewish mystic philo; then in Christian times in the Merkabah speculations of the school of Rabbi johanan ben zakkai, in the Hekalot treatises, and in the medieval Cabala. Certain late heterodox forms of Islam, some aberrant forms of medieval Christianity such as catharism, and even several modern types of occultism or theosophy deserve inclusion in the broader category of Gnosticism.

Gnosticism in the broadest sense that would embrace all the above-mentioned religions and sects over the past 2,000 years can be distinguished from Gnosticism in a much stricter sense that rejoins in extent, if not precisely in intent, the usage of the Church Fathers. Since Hermeticism, Mandaeism, Manichaeism, and Jewish mysticism are treated elsewhere, the present article will limit itself to the pseudo-Christian sects of the 2nd to the 7th centuries a.d.

Gnosticism Not a Christian Heresy. But even with this limitation, is Gnosticism correctly viewed as a Christian heresy? Here again modern scholarship has effected a significant change, one which can best be illustrated by the general rejection of Harnack's famous description of Gnosticism as "the acute Hellenization of Christianity." The Gnostics can no longer be considered Christians, half-formed ones perhaps, who tried to absorb into Christianity certain mythological and speculative currents of the Hellenistic world at large. The process was almost the reverse, described in the phrase of one modern scholar as "the verbal Christianizing of paganism." However many Christian ideas are used or misused by the Gnostics, Gnosticism remains essentially a form of paganism. Its Christian elements are on the surface only. The language and images of Christianity are used, but the essence of the Christian message is ignored completely. One must think of a vast religious spirit or atmosphere, the origins of which will be treated later in this article, a spirit essentially pagan which absorbed select elements from Christianity as indeed it absorbed something from most of the other religions it encountered.

The rejection of the patristic understanding of the Gnostic movement is not meant, however, to minimize the danger that Gnosticism offered to early Christianity in its own confrontation with the Hellenistic world. Gnosticism was assuredly one of the worst dangers ever faced by Christianity, one which the efforts of the Church Fathers managed to overcome successfully only after a prolonged struggle. Yet, like all great threats to Christian faith, it provoked many theological precisions and clarifications of value to the Church's own development within the world of Hellenistic thought.

The Sources

The documents that furnish information on the Gnostic sects and doctrines fall readily into two main categories distinct not only in nature but in the time in which they have become known to scholarship. The first category consists of the descriptions, fragments, and short works of Gnostics contained in the extant refutations of the great patristic writers. The second category embraces the highly significant Gnostic works themselves that have been discovered in recent decades.

Patristic Polemics against Gnosticism. The first and greatest of these works to come down to us in its entirety is the Adversus Haereses or Unmasking and Refutation of the False Gnosis, written late in the 2nd century by St. irenaeus of lyons, and extant in Latin translation. A somewhat earlier foe of Gnosticism was hegesippus, whose extensive travels gave him firsthand knowledge of Gnostics. His major work, the Memoirs (Hypomnemata ), is lost but is quoted frequently in Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History. tertullian (d. after a.d.220) wrote five books against marcion, one against Valentinus, and the Scorpiace ("remedy for the scorpion's sting" of Gnosticism). Besides numerous quotations from Valentinus and other Gnostics in his Stromata, clement of alexandria (d. before 215) preserved extensive Gnostic passages in an appendix to that work, the Excerpta ex Theodoto. hippolytus of rome (d. 235) is very probably the author of the long collection of Philosophoumena or Refutatio omnium haeresium, which is partly dependent on Irenaeus. This last-mentioned refutation of the Gnostics came to light in 1851 and was for a time wrongly attributed to origen. The works of Origen (d. 253254), especially his Commentary on John, contain relevant citations from the Gnostic heracleon and others.

From the 4th century come the attack on the Manichaeans in the Acts of Archelaus of Hegemonius, much useful information in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, and the monumental Panarion (medicine-box) or Haereses of St. epiphanius of salamis (d. 403). The last-named refutation, which combines firsthand information with wide use of the earlier writers on heresies, cites in full a valuable Gnostic composition, the Letter of Ptolemy to Flora. There is also much information on Gnostic heresies in the Syriac works of St. ephrem (d.373) and on the survival of Gnosticism in a later Syrian author, Theodore bar Konai, who lived in the 8th century.

Original Gnostic Writings. As sources for our knowledge of Gnosticism, all the above works suffer from a double disadvantage. Not only are they all secondhand sources, but the picture of Gnosticism they give is one seen through the eyes of its resolute enemies. Such a picture had to suffice, however, until in the mid-18th century there began a series of discoveries of original Gnostic texts culminating in the great collection of Gnostic documents found near the site of the ancient village of chenoboskion (modern Nag-Hammadi), Egypt, in 1946. All of these papyri are written in Coptic, but are presumably translations from Greek originals. What is most significant is that they are the writings of the Gnostics themselves, many of them known already by title or in fragments. Though detailed study of them will continue for a long time, it is already established that they reinforce the reliability of the patristic descriptions of the sects.

The first of the three codices found prior to the Chenoboskion collection is the Askew Codex, acquired by the British Museum in 1785 and published in translation some 65 years later. Of the five works contained in it the best known is the Pistis Sophia, named after a mythical figure in the Gnostic world of Aeons. The work, in two books, purports to narrate conversations of the risen Jesus with His disciples, revealing esoteric knowledge of the world. The contents of this codex were composed probably in the 3rd century by members of one of the popular and somewhat decadent Gnostic sects. Equally fantastic in content is the Bruce Codex, discovered in 1769 and first published in 1891. It contains two principal works, the two books now generally recognized as the Books of Jeû cited in the Pistis Sophia, and an anonymous treatise apparently of the Sethian Gnostic sect. The third document is Berlin Codex 8502, discovered in 1896. It contains a Gospel of Mary, a Sophia of Jesus Christ, and a very important Apocryphon, or Secret Book, of John, which was used as a source by Irenaeus in his description of the Barbelo-Gnostics. By the time this codex was finally published in 1955, all previous Gnostic material was dwarfed in extent and importance by the Chenoboskion discoveries.

The Chenoboskion find consists of 13 codices containing some 51 Gnostic works in Coptic dialects. Included in this collection are two works previously known, the Apocryphon of John and another writing of the Berlin Codex; several works known by name but thought lost, such as the very important Gospel of Truth of Valentinus; and others hitherto completely unknown, such as the now celebrated Gospel of Thomas. The codices seem to have formed the library of a 4th-century Sethian group but include Hermetic as well as Valentinian compositions.

Gnostic Elements in Apocryphal Gospels and Acts. A third category of sources for knowledge of Gnosticism, which is not, however, on a par with the others, is some of the apocryphal gospels and acts which remain from that vast post-Biblical pseudonymous literature that circulated so widely in the early Church. It is not easy to distinguish in this literature what is definitely Gnostic and what is merely part of the speculative world of early Christianity. The Acts of Thomas fall into the Gnostic category, and the famous "Hymn of the Pearl" contained in them marks a high point in Gnostic literaturewhich, in general, is of very poor literary quality. It is still a matter of dispute whether the apocryphal Odes of Solomon, a 2nd-century work extant in Syriac, is predominantly Gnostic or not.

Gnostic Doctrines

In speaking of only one of the many Gnostic sects, the Valentinians, St. Irenaeus begins: "Let us look now at the inconstant opinion of these, how when they are two or three they do not say the same things about the same subject, but give answers contrary both in words and in meanings" (Adv. Haer. 1.11.1). Such diversity is both a symptom of the disorder of Gnostic teachings and a logical consequence of one of its basic doctrines. If knowledge is given absolute salvific value and is counted the prerogative of a minority, then there is nothing to prevent the multiplication of esoteric systems of knowledge wherever the movement takes root. And that is precisely what happened, especially after the first generations of Gnostic teachers.

It must be understood, then, that it is impossible to sketch the contents of Gnostic teaching in such a way as to include all the pseudo-Christian forms, much less the later Christian and non-Christian forms. One can, however, detach from these many systems a series of assertions and attitudes that reflect the common atmosphere of Gnosticism. The scheme suits no one branch but is not completely foreign to any of them. The basic structure of Gnosticism may be grouped around five headings: God, the world, man, salvation, and morality. Through these categories are indicated what are commonly considered distinguishing traits of Gnosticism: dualism, emanationism, and salvation through esoteric knowledge.

Theology. The God of the Gnostics is often described as the alien God, the unknown God, the nonexistent God, the absolutely transcendent God, or the totally Other. All these expressions are an attempt to stress the complete separation of God from the world of men and angels and semidivine beings. God is not the creator of the world and has nothing to do with the world's continued existence or its government, despite the fact that the powers responsible for the world in some systems have issued from God in some mysterious way. He is unknown in the sense that man in the world cannot really know Him, and even when the spark of divinity in man is enlightened by revelation he cannot make any positive assertion about God. It is in this sense that God is said to be nonexistent.

The Gnostic concept of God presents the first facet of the absolute ontological dualism that in some form or other underlies every Gnostic tendency. God and the universe of other beings are unalterably opposed as light to darkness and as good to evil.

Cosmogony. It is proper to speak of the Gnostics' "cosmogony" rather than "cosmology" because their speculation most often took the form of a mythological explanation of the origin of the universe rather than a philosophical consideration of its composition. The first element of this cosmogony was a vast area of beings intermediate between God and men in which the Gnostic delighted to multiply names, personages, and relationships. Sometimes there is a fairly coherent distinction between the two worlds: the noumenal one in which a series of such beings, the purely spiritual Aeons, inhabit the Pleroma (fullness) near God Himself, and the phenomenal, the visible universe and its rulers. The creator of the visible world, if an individual, is called the Demiurge, after Plato's Craftsman, or if a group, the Archons, "rulers." These are often seven in number (the Hebdomad), patterned on the Babylonian planetary gods, but often given names derived from Old Testament names for God such as Iao, Adonai, and El Shaddai. They rule over the spheres that successively envelop the earth. All these powers come into being by a series of emanations, sometimes traceable back to God Himself, but without compromising His transcendence.

The shaping of the material world results, according to a frequently recurring myth, from the fall of one of the higher powers, Sophia (often called Achamoth from the Hebrew word for wisdom). As a result of her fatal attraction to evil matter, Sophia brings into being or into action the Archons who in turn produce by emanation the material world.

The powers of the spheres and the world of matter are all essentially and primordially evil, and here again appears the basic dualism. Their evil nature results primarily from the fact that they represent separation from the alien God, and each plays his role in preventing man's ascent to God. They are darkness compared with the God of light. The Archons rule the world with an almost inexorable fatality which grips men and binds them to the earth even through successive reincarnations.

Anthropology. There is a divine spark in man, according to Gnostic anthropology, which descends from the Pleroma, from God Himself; and the problem of human existence is the struggle to ascend again from the evil world of matter to the good God through knowledge. Man is in fact composed of not two but three elements: a material body, a soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma). According to whichever of these elements dominates in him, he falls into a particular category of existence. The "hylics," the material ones, are those dominated by the body, swallowed up in the cares of life on earth. The "psychics," dominated by the soul, are but one short step removed from the hylics, for the soul like the body is created by the lower powers, is subject to their rule, and is basically evil. The pseudo-Christian Gnostics identified the psychics with the majority of Christians who aspired by faith and obedience as well as by the sacramental life to join their God in eternal bliss. But those in whom the spirit or the divine spark had been rekindled, the "pneumatics," the Gnostics themselves, were destined to rejoin the divine world to which they really belonged, once they had been liberated from this world.

There can be no mistake about this process of liberation: it takes place through the instrumentality of Gnosis, knowledge. It has been observed that Gnosticism in contrast to other religions is more outspokenly man-centered than God-centered. A celebrated passage from the Excerpta ex Theodoto (no. 78.2) illustrates this tendency and describes the object of Gnosis: "It is not the bath [baptism] alone which liberates, but it is knowledge of who we were, what we have become, where we were, into what we have been cast, whither we hasten, whence we are redeemed, what birth is, and what rebirth is." The process of divine descent and reascent in Gnostic anthropology provides the answers to these questions.

Soteriology. Gnosticism is a religion of redemption, salvation, liberation. Its most distinguishing feature is that salvation is accomplished, not by the power of God nor by human faith nor by cooperation with the will of God, but by the assimilation of esoteric knowledge. The various Gnostic systems gave a central place to the figure of a redeemer whose essential task was to come among men and communicate or reveal to them the saving knowledge. The Gnostic savior is scarcely recognizable from the New Testament point of view. He is a semidivine personage, a messenger from God Himself. But Christ does not become man; Gnosticism is Docetic in holding that the redeemer merely seems to become incarnate. Various devices are used to explain away the Passion and death of Jesus.

The necessity of a redeemer tells us something more about the nature of Gnosis. For the Gnostics, knowledge is not philosophical speculation but a revelation from God, hence the popularity of the many "revelations" and discourses of Christ or other divine and semidivine powers to the disciples or the legendary heroes of Gnosticism. Further, Gnosis is an esoteric knowledge; not only is it not available to everyone, but it is intended only for those capable of being saved by it. Thus, unhampered by the demands of rigorous philosophical coherence and cloaked by esotericism, the Gnostics' imaginations could be given free rein to create and develop new systems.

Morality. One of the most common charges leveled against the Gnostics by patristic writers was immorality, made more heinous because the Gnostics defended their practice. St. Irenaeus says of them in a memorable passage: "As gold sunk in filth does not lose its beauty but preserves its own nature, the filth being unable to harm the gold, so they say of themselves that even if they be immersed in material deeds, nothing will injure them nor will they lose their spiritual essence. Therefore 'the most perfect' among them do unafraid all the forbidden things of which Scripture tells us that 'they who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God"' (Adv. Haer. 1.6.23). This practical attitude, which has been called an antinomian libertinism, is but a consequence of the Gnostic theory.

In their role as pneumatics, the Gnostics considered themselves withdrawn from the domain of the world and its powers. Their true life was the divine life of the spark of Pneuma within them. Their life on earth was meant to be an ever more complete withdrawal from matter. Paradoxical though it may seem, this withdrawal could be practiced in the two opposite extremes of severe ascetical abstention from the pleasures of life, such as we find in Marcionism, or reckless indulgence in them, which was the more common attitude of the popular sects. Contempt for the material and the laws that govern it, the latter felt, could best be shown by almost systematic flouting of all earthly standards of morality. There was no law but that of the spirit within them. While Gnostic writings show disdain for marriage and sexual relations, their authors practiced sexual promiscuity without fear of either convention or consequences. Precisely how widespread was the actual practice of immorality among the Gnostic sects, however, it is impossible to say.

Information on the religious life of the Gnostic groups is likewise very limited. It is clear that they all practiced baptism but in various disguises. Widespread among the later sects especially were the performance of magic rites and the use of magic formulas. Inscriptions and drawings of the period illustrate their delight in repeating magical names, or formulas (e.g., Abraxas ), series of vowels, phrases, and the like. There is evidence also that many were devoted to astrology and that some sects carried on mystery rites similar to those of the pagan mystery religions.

Gnostic Leaders and Sects

After this general sketch of Gnostic teachings and practice, it will be useful to mention some of the leading ancient Gnostic teachers and schools or sects. No effort will be made to be complete in the enumerations as they are found in the patristic sources, since in many cases the groups are known by name only.

Early Gnostics. According to the Fathers the founder of the Gnostic movement was simon magus, the Samaritan, who appears in the New Testament in Acts8.924 as a magician interested in Christianity. He was said by the Fathers to have written a work called the Great Tidings and to have influenced numerous disciples toward a Gnosticism with a practical libertine aspect. One of these was Menander, a Samaritan who taught in Antioch and claimed to be a savior sent from above. Simon probably represents the transition between the general current of Gnostic ideas in the 1st century and what we have called pseudo-Christian Gnosticism.

Another forerunner of the classical Gnosis was Nicolas, originator of the sect of nicolaites mentioned in Rv 2.6, 15. Little else is known of him. Another Samaritan pre-Gnostic leader was Dositheus, founder of a sect of Dositheans and said to be the teacher of Simon Magus.

Classical Period of Gnosticism (2nd Century). Simon's pupil Menander had two outstanding disciples, Saturnilus and Basilides, at Antioch according to the patristic accounts. Our knowledge of the former comes from Hippolytus, who attributes typically Gnostic themes to him. Saturnilus may have been the first of the Gnostics to find a place for Jesus Christ within his system.

Basilides. About basilides we are much better informed. He and his son Isidore inaugurated a sect at Alexandria in Egypt. The Fathers provide sharply contrasting descriptions of Basilides' teaching, which seems to have been characterized by some philosophical subtlety.

Carpocrates. St. Irenaeus reports that it was an Alexandrian contemporary of Basilides, carpocrates, who with his son Epiphanes established the sect called simply "the Gnostics" (Adv. Haer. 1.25). Among other things, they were noted for their reverence for Epiphanes, who died in his youth, and for their veneration of icons and the practice of magic.

Valentinus. The most famous and probably the most influential Gnostic teacher of the 2nd century was the Egyptian valentinus who taught at Rome. He was the author of many works, all lost except the Gospel of Truth and a Letter to Rheginus, possibly from Valentinus, in the Chenoboskion collection. His mature doctrine, as described by the Fathers, was based on a careful distinction between the spiritual and phenomenal worlds and on the tripartite classification of men. Valentinus's numerous disciples formed two schools that differed in considering the body of Jesus as psychic (the Western or Italian School) or spiritual (the Oriental School). To the former group belonged Ptolemy, author of the Letter to Flora preserved by Epiphanes; heracleon, who wrote the first known commentary on John often cited by Origen; and a Roman presbyter named Florinus. Among the teachers of the Oriental group were theodotus, excerpts of whose work are found in Clement of Alexandria, and Marcus, who taught in Asia Minor and whose disciples were said to have penetrated as far as Gaul.

Marcion. One of the most distinctive of the heretics commonly included among the Gnostics was marcion, a native of Pontus who came to Rome in a.d. 140. Unlike many of the other teachers mentioned, Marcion aimed not merely at devising a saving doctrine, but at founding an organized church. His only known work, the Antitheses, has not survived. The New Testament of his sect was one which he had revised with many omissions from the traditional one. Though his system lacked many of the familiar Gnostic ideas, Marcion taught that the evil material world was the work of a Demiurge whom he identified with the God of the Old Testament. Whatever the Gnostic views of Marcion himself, there is no doubt that the sect of Marcionites, spread by a disciple Apelles, and others, was plainly Gnostic. Strong opposition to the Old Testament and rigid asceticism were two of its characteristics.

Bardesanes. Doubt has been cast also on the classification of the Syrian Bar Daisan (Bardesanes) as a Gnostic, but here again the sect founded by him and much later opposed by St. Ephrem was undeniably Gnostic. bardesanes himself, author of various hymns and treatises including the extant Book of the Laws of the Countries, may once have been a Valentinian, but he opposed this sect later. His most notable disciple was his son Harmonius.

The Popular Gnostic Sects. It is neither feasible nor useful to enumerate all the Gnostic sects listed by Irenaeus, Epiphanius, and the other patristic writers against heresies. In many cases it is possible that individual sects were known by more than one name or that many of the names designate only minor variations within the same general groups. The date of origin of these sects is uncertain; some of them may have paralleled the work of the great Gnostic teachers, and many of them certainly lasted for a few centuries longer. As far as is known, they all seem to be characterized by excessive and fantastic mythologies and by elaborate, often repugnant rites.

Some of the sects were named after an Old Testament personage who was held to be the first prophet of their particular teachings and, therefore, was especially venerated. Thus there are such groups as the Cainites, the Sethians, and the Melchisedekians. The Sethians especially are now becoming much better known through the library of one of their adherents found near Chenoboskion in Upper Egypt. Another group, the Barbelo-Gnostics, takes its name from a mythical figure prominent in its cosmogony, the female word for the Father, Barbelo. Irenaeus infers that the Apocryphon of John stems from this sect, which appears to some to be a popular outgrowth of Valentinianism.

Several descriptions are available of groups called Ophites and Naassenes, whose names reflect respectively Greek and Hebrew words for "serpent." A cult of the serpent, presumably borrowed from the mystery religions, was a prominent part of their ritual. It is a matter of dispute whether these were really distinct sects. The Peratae described by Hippolytus may have been a branch of a more general category of Ophites. Among the sects mentioned by the 8th-century writer Theodore bar Konai were the Audians, followers of the Syrian heretic Audius.

Gnostic Origins

The uncertainty and vagueness encountered in the effort to define Gnosticism reappears in a related but more exaggerated manner in the task of discovering the origins of the Gnostic movement. Here a careful distinction must be made between the psychological origins of Gnosticism as it has been described above and the ideological origins of the syncretistic movement behind it.

The Question of Jewish Origins. It has been proposed that the great Gnostic systems arose out of the disappointed apocalyptic hopes of late Judaism. In New Testament times the messianic expectations of Judaism were high, and the fall of Jerusalem and consequent scattering of the Jews dealt them a decisive blow. Out of their profound discouragement over their present situation in the world, many Jews turned for religious solace to a sort of other-worldliness, imagining the true life of man to be lived on another plane entirely. Esoteric knowledge of this life supplanted fidelity to the faith of Israel. Novelty was sought in the religious currents abroad in the Hellenistic world, including the current of nascent Christianity.

There appears to be much truth in this sort of explanation of the origins of Gnosticism, but it prompts two cautionary remarks. The first is that it explains only the psychological state which made certain types of men receptive to the phenomenon of Gnosticism. It does not explain the origins of the varied religious and philosophical ideas which go to make up Gnostic doctrine. Secondly, this explanation runs the risk of exaggerating the role played by Judaism in Gnostic origins. It cannot be denied that there are Jewish elements in the pseudo-Christian forms of Gnosticism even though these sometimes show a strong anti-Jewish bias. Moreover, Jewish influence is often present in non-Christian Gnoseis, and there is a characteristically Gnostic strain even in heterodox Judaism itself. While the question remains a disputed one, the limited information available does not warrant the attribution of a primary role in the movement to Judaism.

Other Sources. As for the sources upon which Gnosticism drew for its strange mixture of ideas, only the following general observations can be made. Gnosticism grew out of the confrontation of a broad syncretistic movement which flourished especially in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, and eventually in Rome, with Christianity. The syncretism consisted in a tendency to adopt into one pattern of thought elements from all the religions and philosophies current in the Hellenistic world. To this amalgam ancient Iranian religion contributed the cosmic dualism that forms a basic element of nearly all varieties of Gnosticism. From Egypt came elements of the cult of Isis and Osiris; from Babylonia the influence of astrology and the planetary gods; from Syria, Greece, and Rome cultic features of the mystery religions and magic; from Judaism a host of Old Testament figures and many variations on the creation story; and from Greece, again, the philosophical currents of Stoicism and Neo-Pythagoreanism. Platonic influences felt in Gnosticism were transmitted only through the medium of later popularizations; Gnosticism was never a rigorously philosophical system of thought. Finally, Christianity lent to the syncretistic movement the role of the Savior Christ.

This is but a brief list of the currents that entered the syncretistic movement of Gnosticism, but little more can be said with certainty at the present stage of research. It is disputed whether or not there was a pre-Christian Jewish Gnosticism or even whether it is proper to speak of Gnosticism at all before the encounter with Christianity. The second question may be resolved in part by adopting the terminological distinctions suggested at the beginning of this article.

See Also: gnosticism, jewish; gnosis.

Bibliography: Sources. w. vÖlker, ed., Quellen zur Geschichte der christlichen Gnosis (Tübingen 1932). r. m. grant, Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period (New York 1961). c. schmidt and w. till, Koptisch-gnostische Schriften (Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte 45; 3d ed. Berlin 1959). w. till, Die gnostischen Schriften des koptischen Papyrus Berolinensis 8502 (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 60; Berlin 1955). g. horner, Pistis Sophia (London 1924). Studies. c. colpe, et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (3rd ed. Tübingen 195763) 2:164861. k. prÜmm, et al., Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche (Freiburg, 195766) 4:102131. j. quasten, Patrology (Westminster 1950) 1:254277. j. doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, tr. p. mairet (New York 1960). r. m. grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York 1959). h. jonas, The Gnostic Religion (2nd. ed. Boston 1963). r. m. wilson, The Gnostic Problem (London 1958). w. c. van unnik, Newly Discovered Gnostic Writings (Studies in Biblical Theology 30; Naperville, Ill. 1960). h. cornÉlis and a. lÉonard, La Gnose éternelle (Je sais, je crois 146; Paris 1959). h. a. wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, v.1 (Cambridge, Mass.1956) 495574. f. l. sagnard, La Gnose valentinienne et le témoignage de saint Irénée (Paris 1947). g. g. scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York 1960). h. c. puech, "Gnosis and Time," Man and Time: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks (Bollingen Series 30, v. 3; New York 1957) 3884. r. m. wilson, "Some Recent Studies in Gnosticism," New Testament Studies 6 (195960) 3244. s. schulz, "Die Bedeutung neuer Gnosisfunde für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft," Theologische Rundschau 26 (1960) 209226, 301334.

[g. w. macrae]


views updated May 23 2018


Gnosticism is a modern category used for defining a set of second-and third-century c.e. schools of thought and trends that have in common gnosis, a peculiar form of revealed knowledge that leads to salvation, having in itself both its value and its basis. In opposition to faith, gnosis takes root in the experience, generally human, of perceiving a division, a split between the self and the world, between the self and God, and between the self as a founding reality and the empirical ego. As global and absolute knowledge, gnosis aims at overcoming these dichotomies, recovering the individual's threatened integrity and restoring the lost unity of being.

Gnostic forms of knowledge leading to salvation are present in several religious traditions, theistic or not, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Hebrew kabbalah, or Islamic esoteric traditions. However, in the Gnosticism of the second century c.e. a complex historical reality occurred, characterized by specific identity features, demonstrated by the fact that the holders of gnosis called themselves gnostikoi.

The plurality of available sources, from the Nag Hammadi texts to the writings of those fathers of the church, the so-called heresiologists who fought against Gnosticism as a heresy, makes difficult a reconstruction both of its origins and its history. The use of the category "Gnosticism" has been criticized because it provides an overview that hides the complexity of ancient historical reality by imposing an alleged unity to phenomena that were very different. However, this category is a legitimate interpretative historical tool, the only one that grasps the distinctive and unifying feature of schools of thought and movements otherwise different and at times controversial.


The Nag Hammadi texts are dated no earlier than the second century c.e. The heresiological texts support this dating. The integrated study of these sources leads to an unavoidable conclusion: based on earlier texts that defended the existence of a Gnostic mytheither pre-Christian or contemporary with the origins of Christianity, and probably of Jewish originthe phenomenon of Gnosticism arose and became established during the second century c.e. in large Hellenistic cities such as Alexandria. It was linked to Scholastic forms of transmission based on esoteric background of a special knowledge, and was deeply bound with the history of the formation of Christianity as a religion.

Besides a first, less well known stage during which, according to the heresiological texts, figures such as Saturninus, Menander, Basilides and, toward the middle of the century, Marcion and Valentinus followed one another, a second stage took place in the second half of the century, mastered by the Valentinian school of thought. Through the contribution of some Nag Hammadi texts, a tradition of sage philosophy also clearly stands out, deeply influenced by the coeval Platonic schools, and audaciously reinterpreting the Christian theological heritage using the background of doctrinal myths intended to go into the mystery of God's eternal genesis as well as the bond that unites the individual Gnostic to the world of the divine fullness, the pleroma. Beside this Christian Gnostic school of thought, Nag Hammadi texts disclose the existence of a plurality of groups and deeply diversified Gnostic trends tenuously tied to the nascent Christianity of the second half of the second century.

Some scholars supposed the existence of a real Sethian group, so named by the common mythical ancestor, the Seth in Genesis (Gen. 4:25) who became, in the Gnostic myth, the celestial founder of the Gnostics, a select group of divine origin predestined to salvation despite all the attempts at subjugation by the wicked Demiurge and its archons. It is impossible to apprehend from these mythological stories, taking place in the rarefied and impenetrable atmosphere of the pleroma of divine life, precise and convincing sociological indications. Nowadays the dominant trend is to look independently into each of the different texts once attributed to the alleged Sethians, trying to reconstitute the ideology and the course of the groups who used them, by a thorough editorial analysis.

The Gnostic communities reserved a special place for women: the possession of gnosis eliminated normal power hierarchies, favoring, in an ascetic background, a spiritual equality. This explains the privileged role played in certain texts by female figures such as Mary Magdalene. However, one must not draw sociological conclusions from the role played by figures of female savers present in certain Gnostic texts.

Mythology and doctrine.

The subject of the Gnostic revelation is the ontological Self, the true spiritual reality, con-substantial with (of the same substance as) the divine. Communicated by a revealersavior and guaranteed by an esoteric tradition, this gnosis is often associated with instruction that has as a subject the communication of a mythical story. It aims at answering the questions related to existence arising from a radically pessimistic conception of the world as created by a god or a wicked demiurge in opposition to the good, absolutely transcendent Godunknown and unknowable except through Gnostic enlightenment. The Gnostic mythology narrates the events of that Gnostic god, describing his divine origin, expressing and explaining the causes for the oblivion that is his prison, and showing in the end the way back, which brings salvation.

The variegated world of Gnostic mythology is formed starting from this dualistic vision, opposing, in some ways, the pleroma, or world of light and fullness, to our world of darkness, in others, the pneuma, or spiritual reality, to the psychophysical compound created by the Demiurge. The Gnostic myths share the story that, originally, the divine world experienced a perfect fullness, which, through an "accident" within the life itself of the pleroma (in its best-known version it is represented as a mistake committed by Sophia, the last of the aeons emanated by the primordial androgyne), gave way to a world of lack and emptiness, whose master is the Demiurge.

This mythology contains a theogony narrating the unknown God's "eternal birth," which makes it possible for the Gnostic in its turn to be born again reviving his new life; a cosmogony that presents the antibiblical Gnostic version of the genesis of this cosmos, the seat of evil and prison of the Gnostic; an anthropogony, according to which the Demiurge creates the psychophysical compound into which he then (Gnostic reinterpretation of Gen. 2:7) unconsciously insufflates the spiritual principle inherited by his mother, the pleromatic Sophia; and, finally, an eschatology, according to which the world is destined to destruction and only the spiritual dimension will survive, returning then to pleroma.

Influence and global reach.

In the Western tradition of thought, Gnosticism experienced historical revivals, from Manichaeism to the medieval Catharism. Generally these were internal dualistic forms within the Christian area, which retained the cosmic pessimism and the conception of a second wicked god creator. Beginning in the Renaissance, the Christian esoteric traditions occupied the privileged place of transmission and retention of Gnostic forms of thought. Fundamental is the work of Jakob Böhme (15751624), whose theosophy, phenomenologically akin to that of Gnosticism, is marked by the absence of dualism and whose work fed the subsequent fortunes of Gnosticism. Leaving out of consideration, as devoid of historic importance, the attempts of neognostic churches to revitalize ancient Gnosticism, the next important Gnostic revival was early German Romanticism, with its insistence on totality and absolute knowledge, as well as pessimistic and nihilistic hints. It provided twentieth-century culturein forms that are sometimes difficult to investigatethemes at times tied to the pessimistic side of Gnosticism, at times to its optimistic side. These themes seem to be spread in heterogeneous sectors of our culture, from the depth psychology referring to Carl Gustav Jung (18751961), to Gnostic themes appearing in new forms of religiousness. However, a more precise identification and interpretation looks difficult, in the absence of a clear sociological basis of specific worship forms and, in general terms, because of the difficulty inherent in defining a modern Gnosticism.

See also Agnosticism ; Christianity ; Evil ; Heresy and Apostasy ; Knowledge ; Manichaeism ; Mysticism ; Myth ; Nihilism ; Philosophy of Religion ; Platonism ; Sage Philosophy ; Scholasticism .



Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.


Faivre, Antoine. Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Fundamental collection of studies, with an excellent bibliography.

Filoramo, Giovanni. A History of Gnosticism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

King, K. L. Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988. Exemplary study of gender.

Scholer, David M. Nag Hammadi Bibliography, 19481969. Leiden: Brill, 1971. Vol. 2: Nag Hammadi Bibliography, 19701994. Leiden: Brill, 1997.

Turner, John D., and Anne McGuire, eds. The Nag Hammadi Library after Fifty Years. Leiden, New York, and Cologne, 1997. Important critical balance.

Giovanni Filoramo


views updated May 14 2018


Gnosticism, from the Greek "Gnosis," meaning "to know," refers to a number of different groups in the second centuryC.E. Roots of the movement are evident in the Christian New Testament writings of the first century; they drew on various Pagan, Jewish, and occult ideas current in the Mediterranean Basin. Some have seen the roots of Gnosticism in the writings of Apollonius of Tyana and the biblical magician Simon Magus, mentioned in Acts 8:9-24. However, the emergence of gnostic thinking is seen most clearly in passages such as the opening verses of the Gospel of John, Paul's epistle to the Collossians 2:18, and I John 4:1, where gnostic themes are denounced.

Among some of the Gnostics, a priesthood of the mysteries existed and these initiated priests practiced magic, astrology, incantations, exorcisms, the fashioning of charms, talismans, and amulets, of which many are in museums and special collections. These priests were viewed as heretics by the church, which in the second and third century struggled to separate itself from them. Upon gaining control of the Roman Empire, Christian leaders periodically suppressed Gnostic groups and occasionally these movements provided the ideology for revolutionary groups.

Manicheism, a later movement of Gnosticism that emphasized its dualistic tendencies, was founded by a prophet named Mani (216-276 C.E.), who was noted for his skill in astrology, medicines, and magic.

The most notable gnostic teacher was Valentinus, a second-century Alexandrian who moved to Rome around 140 C.E. He became a teacher in the church of Rome before being expelled as a heretic. He continued to teach as a rival of the church for the next two decades. His major literary production was the Gospel of Truth, known only from quote in Christian polemical writings until a copy was discovered in the Egyptian desert in the twentieth century.

Magical and Occult Element in Gnosticism

The Carpocratians, one of the Gnostic sects, seem to have derived some of their mysteries and rites from Isis worship, and used theurgic incantations, symbols, and signs. The Ophites also adapted Egyptian rites, and, as their name indicates, these included serpent symbolism, an actual serpent being the central object of their mysteries. Marcos, a disciple of Valentinus, and founder of the Marcian sect, reportedly celebrated Mass with two chalices, pouring wine from the larger into a smaller, and on pronouncing a magical formula, the vessel was filled with a liquor like blood. Other sects practiced divination and prophecy by using female somnambules. Some of the sects engaged in rituals of a sexual nature.

The Gnostic talismans were mostly engraved on gems, the color and traditional qualities of the jewel being part of its magical efficacy. They used spells and charms and mystic formulas, said to "loose fetters, to cause blindness in one's enemies, to procure dreams, to gain favor, to encompass any desire whatsoever."

In a Greek Gnostic papyrus the following spell of Agathocles for producing dreams was found:

"Take a cat, black all over, and which has been killed; prepare a writing tablet, and write the following with a solution of myrrh, and the dream which thou desirest to be sent, and put in the mouth of the cat. The text to be transcribed runs: 'Keimi, Keimi, I am the Great One, in whose mouth rests Mommom, Thoth, Nauumbre, Karikha, Kenyro, Paarmiathon, the sacred Ian icê ieu aêoi, who is above the heaven, Amekheumen, Neunana, Seunana, Ablanathanalba,' [here follow further names, then] 'Put thyself in connection with N.N. in this matter [as to the substance of the dream named] but if it is necessary then bring for me N.N. hither by thy power; lord of the whole world, fiery god, put thyself in connexion with N.N. Hear me, for I shall speak the great name, Thoth! whom each god honours, and each demon fears, by whose command every messenger performs his mission. Thy name answers to the seven (vowels) a, e, ê, i, o, u, ô, iauoeêaô oueê ôia. I named thy glorious name, the name for all needs. Put thyself in connection with N.N., Hidden One, God, with respect to this name, which Apollobex also used.'&43"

The repetition/chanting of various syllables, otherwise apparently meaningless, was always held to be of great efficacy in magical rites, either as holding the secret name of the powers invoked, or of actual power in themselves. A similar practice, japa yoga, may be found in Hinduism with the repetition of mantras.

In Atanasi's Magic Papyrus, Spell VII directs one to place the link of a chain upon a leaden plate, and having traced its outline, to write around the circumference the common Gnostic legend in Greek characters (reading both ways) continuously. Within the circle should be written the nature of what was to be prevented. The operation was called "The Ring of Hermes." The link was then to be folded up on the leaden plate, and thrown into the grave of one dead before his time, or else into a disused well. After the formula was to follow in Greek: "Pre-vent thou such and such a person from doing such and such a thing"a proof that the string of epithets all referred to the same power.

These instances might be multiplied, although much of the Gnostic teachings were lost as the gnostic lost out in the religious struggles of the era. Gnosticism was passed on through the centuries in various groups usually described as heretical groups such as the Cathars and Bogomils. It reemerged in the late Middle Ages in alchemy and the kabala. With the rise of Rosicrucianism and nineteenth-century Theosophy, it became well established in the emerging pluralistic culture and has enjoyed a new life in the New Age movement.

Many of the lost gnostic texts were recovered in 1945 in the accidental discovery of a fourth-century gnostic library in the Egyptian desert at Nag Hammadi. Many complete copies of books, such as the Gospel of Truth, previously known only from a few surviving quotes in other books, were discovered intact. This discovery has stimulated modern gnostic studies, and one book, The Gospel of Thomas, a collection of lost sayings attributed to Jesus, has been adopted as holy writ by several contemporary gnostic churches.


Doresse, Jean. The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics. London: Hollis and Carter, 1960. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1972.

Hedrick, Charles W., and Robert Hodgson, Jr., eds. Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986.

Lacarriere, Jacques. The Gnostics. London: Peter Owen, 1977.

Mead, G. R. S. Fragments of a Faith Forgotten. London, 1931. Reprint, New York: University Books, 1964.

. Pistis Sophia; A Gnostic Miscellany. London, 1921. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.

Robinson, James, ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.


views updated May 29 2018


Gnosticism takes its name from the ancient Greek word gnosis ("to know" in the sense of having personal acquaintance with something or someone). It is a modern academic term that is used to refer to a religious movement that consisted of Gnostic groups that date to approximately the second through the third centuries ce and were situated throughout the Roman and Iranian empires. Gnosticism was not a unified religious tradition, but the various groups were linked through a distinctive mythology.


Gnosticism has a unique position in the study of religion. Most scholars agree that there never was a Gnostic church or a clearly defined Gnostic community. Some even have argued that Gnosticism never existed as a distinct, independent religious tradition. However, the ideas, motifs, and ethics associated with Gnosticism have had a profound effect on the development of several major religious traditions. Through its interaction with traditions as diverse as Christianity in the West and Buddhism in the East, Gnosticism has influenced the understanding of a wide array of topics related to sex and gender, including body image, sexual mores, the association of women with evil, and discussions about women's involvement in religious leadership.


The definitive Gnostic myth is a creation story that contends that the world is a tragically corrupt product of a fallen or false god and that the original, ideal creation exists before and apart from this world in a spiritual universe ruled by the true, unknown god. According to the myth, humanity belongs to the spiritual universe but has been trapped in this world and imprisoned in physical bodies by the false god. Only those who are aware of the truth of creation and its implications will be able to escape the corrupt realm.

In addition to this distinctive myth a characteristic often associated with Gnostic groups is the belief that salvation is to be found through true knowledge (gnosis) of the divine and of the human condition, a dualistic worldview that leads to antimaterialism and a tendency toward the ethical extremes of asceticism (total denial) and libertinism (total indulgence). These are the defining traits of Gnosticism. However, Gnostic ideas about salvation, dualism, and ethics derive from the unique Gnostic creation story, indicating the centrality of the myth to the expression of Gnostic identity.

The Gnostic myth is also the basis for the connection of Gnosticism to other religious traditions. For example, Gnosticism is paired with Judaism because the Gnostic myth includes characters and imagery usually associated with the book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible. The Jewish creation story appears in the Gnostic myth as the negative counterpoint to the true creation, and Yahweh, the god of Judaism, is denigrated by being equated with the myth's false god. The hostile treatment of material from Genesis suggests antagonism toward Judaism, but many scholars have interpreted it as a paradoxical proof that Gnosticism originated among a rogue sect of Jews. Kurt Rudolph (1983) has suggested that Gnosticism developed within the apocalyptic Judaism of the last centuries bce as a religion of social protest intent on challenging cultural inequities. The repudiation of the creation of the earth and the antimaterialism embraced by the Gnostics were critiques of Roman society. According to this interpretation, Gnosticism represents a radicalization of Jewish belief.

Another theory about the origins of Gnosticism maintains that the tradition is rooted in early Christian sects, specifically the sects that were labeled heresies by the emerging Christian orthodoxy. In the history of early Christianity, Gnosticism is the foil against which official Christian doctrine and practice was defined. The major schools of Gnosticism also constituted some of the major heretical movements within early Christianity. Denouncing Gnostics and disproving their ideas provided the Church Fathers, as the early leaders of the Christian community were known, with an opportunity to formulate official, or orthodox, Christianity.

One of the first individuals to be identified as a Gnostic heretic by the Church Fathers was Marcion. Originally a second-century Christian theologian, Marcion believed that the god of Christianity was the known god of Gnosticism and that the Jewish god was a false god. He also believed that because everything in the world, including people, was created by the false god, it was all evil. Marcion rejected worldly things and vilified sexuality, claiming that evil could only reproduce evil. In opposition to Marcion, orthodox Christianity insisted that the Christian and Jewish gods were one and the same, the world was not evil, and a more moderate approach to sexuality should be adopted. Although Marcion eventually was excommunicated, he and his followers, the Marcionites, established their own church in Armenia, which would continue to influence Christianity and other religions well into the medieval period.

Another figure who played a major role in the Gnostic heresies in the early Christian period was Valentinus, a Christian theologian from Alexandria, Egypt, who established a popular philosophical school for Christianity in the middle of the second century ce. Influenced by the Gnostic myth, Valentinus believed that the original spiritual universe of the unknown god, also known as the pleroma, was composed entirely of dynamic pairings of masculine and feminine principles. This cosmic ideal was lost when Sophia, one of the spiritual beings, tried to create without her masculine counterpart and produced the false (Jewish) god. The salvation of humanity relies on returning to the cosmic ideal of an androgynous masculine-feminine unity. To that end Valentinus advocated sex and marriage for the enlightened—those capable of knowing the truth of Christianity—but forbade it to those who were too materialistic to grasp the cosmic ideal. Despite Valentinus's Gnostic tendencies and excommunication for heresy, the Valentinian practice of using allegory to explain Christianity became a standard feature of Christian theology.

In the Iranian Empire the Mandaeans, an ethnic and religious community of unclear origins that made its home in the Persian Gulf, incorporated elements of Gnostic mythology—dualism and the notion of a fallen god—into their religious literature. More significantly, Mani, the founder of a religious movement known as the Manichaeans, seems to have shaped his worldview and ethics around the Gnostic myth. Manichaeism sees the world as an impure mixture of the spiritual (good) and the material (evil) created by a fallen god through a bizarre combination of sexual lust and cannibalism. The task of humankind is to help the true god defeat the fallen god by undoing the mixture of the spiritual with the material. These beliefs caused the Manichaeans to practice a strict asceticism that prohibited all forms of sexual activity, killing, and the eating of meat. Manichaeism flourished in the Persian Empire and parts of the Roman Empire during the late third century ce. Eventually it spread eastward throughout central Eurasia all the way to China, where Gnosticism and Manichaean ideas mingled and may have had an effect on Chinese Buddhism. Traces of Manichaean Gnosticism can be found in certain Buddhist sutras.


Gnosticism ceased to exist as a religious movement by the fourth or fifth century ce, but Gnostic ideas have reemerged regularly to influence other religious traditions. For example, in Europe during the Middle Ages fringe Christian sects such as the Bogomils and the Cathars professed a strongly Gnostic dualism. It is believed that those groups were influenced by remnants of the Marcionites and other Gnostic communities that took refuge in Armenia during the fifth century ce. Medieval Jewish Kabbalah also is thought to have incorporated Gnostic ideas about the various dual manifestations of the divine through contact with the Marcionites and Manichaeans. Some scholars have suggested that exposure to Gnostic ideas about salvation may have helped shape the Shi'i Islamic notion of the hidden imam.

In the modern period Gnosticism has been affiliated with literary romanticism. The romantic mythology of humanity in need of salvation from a tyrannical god has some similarities to the Gnostic myth, but romanticism lacks the notion of a higher unknown god, suggesting that it is not Gnosticism in the classical sense.


The most recent development in Gnostic studies was the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codex in a cave in Egypt. That codex is a collection of writings dating to the first few centuries ce, many but not all of which have a Gnostic tone. Many of the works found in the Nag Hammadi previously had been known only in fragmentary form or in references from other texts. The writings include literature, poetry, mythology, and philosophical and theological tractates. They share a literary heritage with the New Testament, and this has led to the designation of the Nag Hammadi texts as the Gnostic gospels or scripture. The discovery of those texts has had a strong influence on the study of early Christianity, giving rise to speculations about alternative forms of early Christianity that harbored unorthodox attitudes about the position of women and sex or sexual behavior.

see also Adam and Eve.


Layton, Bentley. 1987. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. London: SCM Press.

Rudolph, Kurt. 1983. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Williams, Michael A. 1996. Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

                                                  Jennifer Hart


views updated May 17 2018


GNOSTICISM , designates the beliefs held by a number of nonorthodox Christian sects flourishing in the first to second centuries c.e., which developed mystical systems of philosophy based on the gnosis (Gr. "knowledge") of God. These systems were syncretic, i.e., mixtures of pagan magic and beliefs from the Babylonian and Greek world as well as from the Jewish. Judaism made an important contribution to the conceptions and the developments of gnosticism. One way in which Jewish motifs were infused into gnosticism was through the Bible, which was holy to Christianity and likewise through other Jewish literature – in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – which was used by the Christians. The chapters on the Creation in Genesis were also of special influence. Special importance was also attributed to the account of the first man and his sin, which is interpreted by gnosticism as the downfall of the divine principle into the material world. From their negative attitude toward the world of natural existence and moral law which is meant to regulate man's behavior in this world, the gnostics came to a view of the God of Israel, the creator of the universe, as the god of evil, or an inferior god, and they strongly rejected his Law and its commandments. They interpreted the stories in the Bible in a way opposite to their meaning and intention: thus, for example, the original serpent is often seen by them as the bearer of the true "knowledge," of which God intends to deprive man; and Cain becomes a positive figure persecuted by God, etc.

Jewish influence on gnosticism is also evident in the use of names, concepts, and descriptions taken from the Hebrew or Aramaic, e.g., God, the creator of the universe, is called in some gnostic systems Yaldabaot (Yalda Bahut, according to some "the Child of Chaos"); other mythological or symbolic figures in gnosticism are Barbelo (Be-arba Eloha, "in four gods," i.e., the father, the son, the female principle in the divine, and the first man), Edem (Eden), Akhamot (ḥokhmot, "wisdom," according to Prov. 9:1); the name of the gnostic Naassene sect is derived from naḥash ("serpent"); the mysterious words "Ẓav la-ẓav ẓav la-ẓav kav la-kav kav la-kav ze'eir shamze'eir sham" (Isa. 28:10, 13) serve as the mystical designation of the three gnostic Sefirot.

In addition to these contributions unwittingly and unintentionally made by Judaism to gnosticism, there existed in Judaism itself, at the end of the Second Temple period, emotional and intellectual attitudes which were close to the spiritual world of gnosticism. It is possible that these had a more direct influence on the emergence of gnosticism or, at least, that they served as seeds for a few of its ideas. There are indications of this in the literature of the Dead Sea Sect. Common to both gnosticism and the Dead Sea Scrolls is the view of esoteric "knowledge" as a redemptive factor, which enables a group of select people to bridge the abyss separating the human from the divine, and to rise "from a spirit perverse to an understanding of you and to stand in one company before you with the everlasting host and the spirits of knowledge, to be renewed with all things that are and with those versed in song together" (Thanksgiving Psalms, 1qh 11:13–14), and to be those "who heard the glorious voice and saw the holy angels, men whose ears are opened and hear deep things" (War Scroll, 1qm 10:11).

The literature of the sect also reflects a dualistic outlook on the world conceiving a schism between the principle of good (the light) and the principle of evil (the darkness) each with its own hosts of angels and spirits. This view, however, in contrast to its expression in gnosticism, does not step beyond the framework of Jewish belief in divine unity. Even the feeling of disgust and revulsion with man and the impurity of his material basis ("the mystery of the flesh is iniquity"; Manual of Discipline, 1qs 11:9) does not culminate in the notion of distinction between matter per se and the divine spiritual world; "For the world, albeit now and until the time of the final judgment it go sullying itself in the ways of wickedness owing to the domination of perversity" (ibid., 4:19), but God "created man to rule the world" (ibid., 3:17–18). Thus, despite a certain spiritual kinship between the writings of the sect and the world of gnosticism, the former are not records of a "gnostic Judaism," but rather reflect certain general attitudes of mind shared at that time by others including Jews, which could be the point of departure for truly gnostic speculations.

There is no explicit mention in talmudic literature of gnosticism and its history. It is possible, however, that the appellation *Minim refers in some instances to gnostics.

For the influence of gnosticism on the history of Jewish mysticism, see *Kabbalah.


H. Graetz, Gnostizismus und Judentum (1846); C.W. King, The Gnostics and Their Remains (18722); G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (1960); Scholem, Mysticism, index; R.M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (1959); K. Schubert, in: Kairos, 3 (1961), 2–15 (Ger.); M. Friedlaender, Der vorchristliche juedische Gnostizismus (1898).

[David Flusser]


views updated Jun 27 2018


Defined most narrowly, gnosticism was an obscure Christian heresy that flourished in the first few centuries after Christ. Defined more broadly, as has become the custom, gnosticism, while still a long dead movement, antedated Christianity and even influenced it. There were Jewish and pagan as well as Christian varieties of gnosticism, and gnosticism might best be seen as a religion in its own right.

By this broader definition, gnosticism was the belief in a radical, irreconcilable dualism of immateriality and matter. Immateriality was divine and wholly good. Matter was irredeemably evil. The cosmic predicament was that pieces, or sparks, of divinity had become trapped in matter. Human souls lay trapped in bodies. (In tripartite gnosticism, an immaterial spirit lay trapped in the soul as well as the body.) Because the sparks were not merely trapped but hidden, liberation required the revelation to humans of their divinity. The cosmic goal was for all sparks to be extricated and returned to their immaterial home.

Gnosticism can be defined much more broadly still as a contemporary, not merely an ancient, movement. The dualism often lies entirely within human beings and not in the cosmos. It is the alienation of humans from their true selves. Or the dualism is political or social, between nations, classes, or races. The true self is not specifically immaterial, and the place in which it resides is not specifically the body. The alienation of humans from the world may remain, but the world is not specifically material, and no immaterial world beyond beckons. Ordinarily, there is no alienation from any divinity, for most brands of contemporary gnosticism are atheistic. Just as there is no world beyond or god beyond, so, as often as not, there looms no true self beyond. Contemporary gnosticism still requires a revelation, but the revelation can be that all that one knows of oneself and the world is all that there is to know.

Contemporary gnosticism need not even be radically dualistic. The dualism can be irenic. In radically dualistic gnosticism, ancient or modern, one's old identity is to be rejected for a new one. In irenic gnosticism, which is exclusively modern, one's new identity is to be harmonized with the prior one.

Modernity per se has been called gnostic. Others have identified postmodernism with gnosticism. Scores of writers and thinkers of the last few centuries have been labeled gnostic—for example, Goethe, Schleiermacher, Blake, Hegel, Byron, Marx, Conrad, Nietzsche, Yeats, Hesse, Toynbee, Heidegger, Sartre, Simone Weil, and Jung. Americans labeled gnostic include Emerson, Melville, Wallace Stevens, Walker Percy, Jack Kerouac, Philip K. Dick, and Thomas Pynchon. Harold Bloom has characterized American religion as gnostic. Admittedly, the application of the term gnostic can be loose. Only a few of the figures named, such as Jung, were even familiar with gnosticism, let alone deemed themselves gnostics. Individuals aside, there exist in the United States today self-professed gnostic groups with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of members. The biggest are the Ecclesia Gnostica and the Gnostic Association.

See alsoAgnosticism; Atheism; Body; New Age Spirituality; Revelation.


Altizer, Thomas J. J. "The Challenge of Modern Gnosticism." Journal of Bible and Religion 30 (1962): 18–25.

Bloom, Harold. The American Religion. 1992.

Brooks, Cleanth. "Walker Percy and Modern Gnosticism." Southern Review 13 (1977): 677–687.

Eddins, Thomas. The Gnostic Pynchon. 1990.

Jonas, Hans. "Gnosticism, Existentialism, and Nihilism." In The Gnostic Religion, edited by Hans Jonas, 2nd ed. 1963.

Segal, Robert A., with June Singer and Murray Stein, eds. The Allure of Gnosticism. 1995.

Voegelin, Eric. Science, Politics and Gnosticism. 1968.

Robert A. Segal


views updated Jun 08 2018

Gnosticism. A complex of religious movements, having at least some of its roots in Jewish and pagan thought but appearing in developed form as a Christian heresy in the 2nd cent. Among the systems of that time, those of Valentinus, Basilides, and (somewhat apart from the rest) Marcion are the best known.

Among points of difference from mainstream Christianity are (i) the distinction between the remote supreme Divine Being and the inferior Demiurge or creator god responsible for the imperfect and perverted material world; (ii) the importance of gnōsis (‘knowledge’) as a means of redemption for at least some people (sometimes called the pneumatikoi, ‘spiritual ones’); and (iii) a christology of Jesus as the emissary of the supreme God in docetic human form.

The Manichaeans, Mandeans, and Cathars may be in various ways descendants of the gnostics. The autobiography of C. G. Jung shows the influence of gnosticism on his thought.


views updated May 23 2018


This entry consists of the following articles:

gnosticism from its origins to the middle ages [first edition]
gnosticism from its origins to the middle ages [further considerations]
gnosticism from the middle ages to the present
gnosticism as a christian heresy
history of study


views updated Jun 11 2018

Gnosticism a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin. Gnostic doctrine taught that the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis) of whom enabled the redemption of the human spirit.