The Full Wiki

Gnostics: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


(Redirected to Gnosticism article)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Simple crossed circle.svg
This article is part of a series on Gnosticism
History of Gnosticism
Early Gnosticism
Syrian-Egyptic Gnosticism
Gnosticism in modern times
Simon Magus
Gnostic texts
Gnostic Gospels
Nag Hammadi library
Codex Tchacos
Askew Codex
Bruce Codex
Gnosticism and the New Testament
Related articles
Neoplatonism and Gnosticism
Bosnian Church
Esoteric Christianity

Gnosticism Portal
 v • d • e 

Gnosticism (Greek: γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge) refers to diverse, syncretistic religious movements in antiquity consisting of various belief systems generally united in the teaching that the cosmos was created by an imperfect god, the demiurge with some of the supreme God's pneuma; this being is frequently identified with the Abrahamic God, (as opposed to the Gospel according to the Hebrews) and is contrasted with a superior entity, referred to by several terms including Pleroma and Godhead.[1] Depictions of the demiurge—the term originates with Plato's Timaeus[2]—vary from being as an embodiment of evil, to being merely imperfect and as benevolent as its inadequacy permits. Gnosticism was a dualistic religion, influenced by and influencing Hellenic philosophy, Judaism (see Notzrim), and Christianity;[3] however, by contrast, later strands of the movement, such as the Valentinians, held a monistic world-view.[4] This, along with the varying treatments of the demiurge, may be seen as indicative of the variety of positions held within the category.

The gnōsis referred to in the term is a form of mystic, revealed, esoteric knowledge through which the spiritual elements of humanity are reminded of their true origins within the superior Godhead, being thus permitted to escape materiality.[5] Consequently, within the sects of gnosticism only the pneumatics or psychics obtain gnōsis; the hylic or Somatics, though human, being incapable of perceiving the higher reality, are unlikely to attain the gnōsis deemed by gnostic movements as necessary for salvation.[6][7] Jesus of Nazareth is identified by some Gnostic sects as an embodiment of the supreme being who became incarnate to bring gnōsis to the earth.[8] In others (e.g. the Notzrim and Mandaeans) he is considered a mšiha kdaba or "false messiah" who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John the Baptist.[9] Still other traditions identify Mani and Seth, third son of Adam and Eve, as salvific figures.[10]

Whereas Gnosticism has been considered by scholars to originate as a branch of Christianity, alternate theories have proposed traces of Gnostic systems existed some centuries before the Christian Era, thus predating the birth of Jesus.[11] The movement spread in areas controlled by the Roman Empire and Arian Goths [12], and the Persian Empire; it continued to develop in the Mediterranean and Middle East before and during the second and third centuries. Conversion to Islam and the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229) greatly reduced the remaining number of Gnostics throughout the Middle Ages, though a few isolated communities continue to exist to the present. Gnostic ideas became influential in the philosophies of various esoteric mystical movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and North America, including some that explicitly identify themselves as revivals or even continuations of earlier gnostic groups.


Nature and structure of Gnosticism


The main features of gnosticism

Gnostic systems (particularly the Syrian-Egyptian schools) are typically marked out by:

"And the Sophia of the Epinoia [...] brought forth. And [...] something came out of her which was imperfect and different from her appearance, because she had created it without her consort. And it was dissimilar to the likeness of its mother, for it has another form.

"And when she saw (the consequences of) her desire, it changed into a form of a lion-faced serpent. And its eyes were like lightning fires which flash. She cast it away from her, outside that place, that no one of the immortal ones might see it, for she had created it in ignorance."

From The Secret Book of John (long version), Nag Hammadi Library, Codex II, trans. Frederik Wisse.[13]
  1. The notion of a remote, supreme monadic divinity, source - this figure is known under a variety of names, including 'Pleroma' (fullness, totality) and 'Bythos' (depth, profundity);
  2. The introduction by emanation of further divine beings, which are nevertheless identifiable as aspects of the God from which they proceeded; the progressive emanations are often conceived metaphorically as a gradual and progressive distancing from the ultimate source, which brings about an instability in the fabric of the divine nature;
  3. The introduction of a distinct creator God or demiurge. Which is an illusion and as a later emanation from the single monad or source, this second God is a lesser and inferior or false God. This creator god is commonly referred to as the demiourgós (a technical term literally denoting a public worker the Latinized form of Greek dēmiourgos, δημιουργός, hence "ergon or energy", "public God or skilled worker" "false God" or "God of the masses"), used in the Platonist tradition.[14]
    The gnostic demiurge bears resemblance to figures in Plato's Timaeus and Republic. In the former the demiourgós is a central figure, as benevolent creator of the universe who works to make the universe as benevolent as the limitations of matter will allow; in the latter, the description of the leontomorphic 'desire' in Socrates' model of the psyche bears a resemblance to descriptions of the demiurge as being in the shape of the lion; the relevant passage of The Republic was found within a major gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi,[15] wherein a text existed describing the demiurge as a 'lion-faced serpent'.[13]
    Elsewhere this figure is called 'Ialdabaoth',[13] 'Samael' (Aramaic: sæmʕa-ʔel, 'blind god') or 'Saklas' (Syriac: sækla, 'the foolish one'), who is sometimes ignorant of the superior God, and sometimes opposed to it; thus in the latter case he is correspondingly malevolent.
    The demiurge as a tyrannical God having caused the imperfect material world and all of its suffering, is as the creator God of the pagan philosophers (Zeus) and the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic creator God (Yahweh or Adonai) not real but a construct or illusion of the human mind (as nous). Since no secondary creator God is necessary or of high importance as everything is eternal or emanated and can not be created or destroyed. The demiurge typically creates a group of co-actors named 'Archons', who preside over the material realm and, in some cases, present obstacles to the soul seeking ascent from it;[13]

    [The demiurge] is blind; because of his power and his ignorance and his arrogance he said, with his power, "It is I who am God; there is none apart from me." When he said this, he sinned against the entirety. And this speech got up to incorruptibility; then there was a voice that came forth from incorruptibility, saying, "You are mistaken, Samael" - which is, "god of the blind."

    From The Hypostasis of the Archons or The Reality of the Rulers, Nag Hammadi Library, Codex II, trans. Bentley Layton.[16]
  4. The estimation of the world, owing to the above, as flawed or a production of 'error' but possibly good as its constituent material might allow.[4] This world is typically an inferior simulacrum of a higher-level reality or consciousness. The inferiority may be compared to the technical inferiority of a painting, sculpture, or other handicraft to the thing(s) of which those crafts are supposed to be a representation. In certain other cases it takes on a more ascetic tendency to view material existence, negatively. Which then becomes more extreme when materiality, and the human body, is perceived as evil and constrictive, a deliberate prison for its inhabitants;
  5. The explanation of this state through the use of a complex mythological-cosmological drama in which a divine element 'falls' into the material realm and lodges itself within certain human beings; from here, it may be returned to the divine realm through a process of awakening (leading towards salvation). The salvation of the individual thus mirrors a concurrent restoration of the divine nature; a central Gnostic innovation was to elevate individual redemption to the level of a cosmically significant event;

The model limits itself to describing characteristics of the Syrian-Egyptian school of Gnosticism. This is for the reason that the greatest expressions of the Persian gnostic school - Manicheanism and Mandaeanism - are typically conceived of as religious traditions in their own right; indeed, the typical usage of 'Gnosticism' is to refer to the Syrian-Egyptian schools alone, while 'Manichean' describes the movements of the Persia school.

This conception of Gnosticism has in recent times come to be challenged. Despite this, the understanding presented above remains the most common and is useful in aiding meaningful discussion of the phenomena that compose Gnosticism. Above all, the central idea of gnōsis, a knowledge superior to and independent of faith made it welcome to many who were half-converted from paganism to Christianity. The Valentinians, for example, considered pistis (Greek: "faith") as consisting of accepting a body of teaching as true, being principally intellectual or emotional in character.[17] The age of the Gnostics was highly diverse, they seem to have originated in Alexandria and coexisted with the early Christians until the 4th century AD and due to there being no fixed church authority, syncretism with pre-existing belief systems as well as new religions were often embraced. According to Clement of Alexandria, "...In the times of the Emperor Hadrian appeared those who devised heresies, and they continued until the age of the elder Antoninus."[18]

The relationship between Gnosticism and Orthodox Christianity during the late first and the whole of the second century is vital in helping us to further understand the main doctrines of Gnosticism; due in part to the fact that, prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, much of what we know today about gnosticism has only been preserved in the summaries and assessments of early church fathers. Irenaeus declares in his treatise "Against Heresies"[19] that Gnostic movements subjected all morality to the caprice of the individual, and made any fixed rule of faith impossible. According to Irenaeus, a certain sect known as the "Cainites" professed to impart a knowledge "greater and more sublime" than the ordinary doctrine of Christians, and believed that Cain derived his power from the superior Godhead.[20] Although a Gnostic Christian himself, Clement of Alexandria, a 2nd century church father and the first notable member of the Church of Alexandria, raised a criticism against the followers of Basilides and Valentinus in his Stromata: in his view it annulled the efficacy of baptism, in that it held no value faith, the gift conferred in that sacrament.[21]

Dualism and monism

Typically, Gnostic systems are loosely described as being 'dualistic' in nature, meaning they had the view the world consists of or is explicable as two fundamental entities. Hans Jonas writes: "The cardinal feature of gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and world, and correspondingly that of man and world."[22] Within this definition, they run the gamut from the 'radical dualist' systems of Manicheanism to the 'mitigated dualism' of classic gnostic movements; Valentinian developments arguably approach a form of monism, expressed in terms previously used in a dualistic manner.

  • Radical Dualism - or absolute Dualism which posits two co-equal divine forces. Manichaeism conceives of two previously coexistent realms of light and darkness which become embroiled in conflict, owing to the chaotic actions of the latter. Subsequently, certain elements of the light became entrapped within darkness; the purpose of material creation is to enact the slow process of extraction of these individual elements, at the end of which the kingdom of light will prevail over darkness. Manicheanism inherits[23][24] this dualistic mythology from Zurvanist Zoroastrianism[25], in which the eternal spirit Ahura Mazda is opposed by his antithesis, Angra Mainyu; the two are engaged in a cosmic struggle, the conclusion of which will likewise see Ahura Mazda triumphant.
    The Mandaean creation myth witnesses the progressive emanations of Supreme Being of Light, with each emanation bringing about a progressive corruption resulting in the eventual emergence of Ptahil, the god of darkness who had a hand in creating and henceforward rules the material realm.
    Additionally, general Gnostic thought (specifically to be found in Iranian sects; for instance, see 'The Hymn of the Pearl') commonly included the belief that the material world corresponds to some sort of malevolent intoxication brought about by the powers of darkness to keep elements of the light trapped inside it, or literally to keep them 'in the dark', or ignorant; in a state of drunken distraction.
  • Mitigated Dualism - where one of the two principles is in some way inferior to the other. Such classical Gnostic movements as the Sethians conceived of the material world as being created by a lesser divinity than the true God that was the object of their devotion. The spiritual world is conceived of as being radically different from the material world, co-extensive with the true God, and the true home of certain enlightened members of humanity; thus, these systems were expressive of a feeling of acute alienation within the world, and their resultant aim was to allow the soul to escape the constraints presented by the physical realm.
  • Qualified Monism - where it is arguable whether or not the second entity is divine or semi-divine. Elements of Valentinian versions of Gnostic myth suggest to some that its understanding of the universe may have been monistic rather than a dualistic one. Elaine Pagels states that 'Valentinian gnosticism [...] differs essentially from dualism';[26] while, according to Schoedel 'a standard element in the interpretation of Valentinianism and similar forms of Gnosticism is the recognition that they are fundamentally monistic'.[27] In these myths, the malevolence of the demiurge is mitigated; his creation of a flawed materiality is not due to any moral failing on his part, but due to his imperfection by contrast to the superior entities of which he is unaware.[4] As such, Valentinians already have less cause to treat physical reality with contempt than might a Sethian Gnostic
    The Valentinian tradition conceives of materiality, rather than as being a separate substance from the divine, as attributable to an error of perception, which become symbolized mythopoetically as the act of material creation.[4]

Moral and ritual practice

The question of Gnostic morality can only be resolved by reading the claims of their contemporaries. Numerous Christian writers accused some Gnostic teachers of claiming to eschew the physical realm, while simultaneously freely indulging their physical appetites; however there is reason to question the accuracy of these claims.

Evidence in the source texts indicates Gnostic moral behaviour as being generally ascetic in basis, expressed most fluently in their sexual and dietary practice.[28] Many monks would deprive themselves of food, water, or necessary needs for living. This presented a problem for the heresiologists writing on gnostic movements: this mode of behavior was one which they themselves favoured and supported, so the Church Fathers, some modern-day Gnostic apologist presume, would be required perforce to offer support to the practices of their theological opponents. In order to avoid this, a common heresiological approach was to avoid the issue completely by resorting to slanderous (and, in some cases, excessive) allegations of libertinism (see the Cainites), or to explain Gnostic asceticism as being based on incorrect interpretations of scripture, or simply duplicitous in nature. Epiphanius provides an example when he writes of the 'Archontics' 'Some of them ruin their bodies by dissipation, but others feign ostensible fasts and deceive simple people while they pride themselves with a sort of abstinence, under the disguise of monks' (Panarion, 40.1.4).

In other areas of morality, Gnostics were less rigorously ascetic, and took a more moderate approach to correct behaviour. Ptolemy's Epistle to Flora lays out a project of general asceticism in which the basis of action is the moral inclination of the individual:

External physical fasting is observed even among our followers, for it can be of some benefit to the soul if it is engaged on with reason (logos), whenever it is done neither by way of limiting others, nor out of habit, nor because of the day, as if it had been specially appointed for that purpose.

Ptolemy, Letter to Flora

This extract marks a definite shift away from the position of Catholic orthodoxy, that the correct behaviour for Christians is best administered and prescribed by the central authority of the Catholic Church, as transmitted through the Apostles to the Church's bishops. Instead, the internalised inclination of the individual assumes paramount importance; there is the recognition that ritualistic behaviour, though well-intentioned, possesses no significance or effectiveness unless its external prescription is matched by a personal, internal motivation. This line of Gnostic thought is echoed in Protestantism's emphasis on private interpretation of Scripture, and on its individualist emphasis.

Charges of Gnostic libertinism find their source in the works of Irenaeus. According to this writer, Simon Magus (whom he has identified as the prototypical source of Gnosticism, and who had previously tried to buy sacramental authority of ordination from St. Peter the Apostle) founded the school of moral freedom ('amoralism'). Irenaeus reports that Simon's argument was that those who put their trust in him and his consort Helen need trouble themselves no further with the biblical prophets or their moral exhortations and are free 'to do what they wish', as men are saved by his (Simon's) grace and not by their 'righteous works' (Adversus Haereses[29]).

Simon is not known for any libertinistic practice, save for his curious attachment to Helen, typically reputed to be a prostitute. There is, however, clear evidence in the Testimony of Truth that followers of Simon did, in fact, get married and beget children, so a general tendency to asceticism can likewise be ruled out.

Irenaeus reports of the Valentinians, whom he characterizes as eventual inheritors of Simon, that they are lax in their dietary habits (eating food that has been 'offered to idols'), sexually promiscuous ('immoderately given over to the desires of the flesh') and guilty of taking wives under the pretence of living with them as adopted 'sisters'. In the latter case, Michael Allen Williams has argued plausibly that Irenaeus was here broadly correct in the behaviour described, but not in his apprehension of its causes. Williams argues that members of a cult might live together as 'brother' and 'sister': intimate, yet not sexually active. Over time, however, the self-denial required of such an endeavour becomes harder and harder to maintain, leading to the state of affairs Irenaeus criticizes.

Irenaeus also makes reference to the Valentinian practise of the Bridal Chamber, a ritualistic sacrament in which sexual union is seen as analogous to the activities of the paired syzygies that constitute the Valentinian Pleroma. Though it is known that Valentinus had a more relaxed approach to sexuality than much of the Catholic Church (he allowed women to hold positions of ordination in his community), it is not known whether the Bridal Chamber was a ritual involving actual intercourse, or whether human sexuality is here simply being used in a metaphorical sense.

Of the Carpocratians Irenaeus makes much the same report: they 'are so abandoned in their recklessness that they claim to have in their power and be able to practise anything whatsoever that is ungodly (irreligious) and impious ... they say that conduct is only good or evil in the eyes of man'.[30] Once again a differentiation might be detected between a man's actions and the grace he has received through his adherence to a system of gnosis; whether this is due to a common sharing of such an attitude amongst Gnostic circles, or whether this is simply a blanket-charge used by Irenaeus is open to conjecture.

On the whole, it would seem that Gnostic behavior tended towards the ascetic. This said, the heresiological accusation of duplicity in such practises should not be taken at face value; nor should similar accusations of amoral libertinism. The Nag Hammadi library itself is full of passages which appear to encourage abstinence over indulgence. Fundamentally, however, gnostic movements appear to take the 'ancient schema of the two ways, which leaves the decision to do what is right to human endeavour and promises a reward for those who make the effort, and punishment for those who are negligent' (Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis:The Nature and History of Gnosticism, 262).

Major Gnostic movements and their texts

As noted above, schools of Gnosticism can be defined according to one classification system as being a member of two broad categories. These are the 'Eastern'/'Persian' school, and a 'Syrian-Egyptic' school. The former possesses more demonstrably dualist tendencies, reflecting a strong influence from the beliefs of the Persian Zurvanist Zoroastrians. Among the Syrian-Egyptian schools and the movements they spawned are a typically more Monist view. Notable exceptions include relatively modern movements which seem to include elements of both categories, namely: the Cathars, Bogomils, and Carpocratians which are included in their own section.

Persian Gnosticism

The Persian Schools, which appeared in the western Persian province of Babylon, and whose writings were originally produced in the Aramaic dialects spoken in Babylon at the time, are representative of what is believed to be among the oldest of the Gnostic thought forms. These movements are considered by most to be religions in their own right, and are not emanations from Christianity or Judaism.

  • Mandaeanism is still practiced in small numbers, in parts of southern Iraq and the Iranian province of Khuzestan. The name of the group derives from the term Mandā d-Heyyi, which roughly means "Knowledge of Life." Although the exact chronological origins of this movement are not known, John the Baptist eventually would come to be a key figure in the religion, as an emphasis on baptism is part of their core beliefs. As with Manichaeism, despite certain ties with Christianity, Mandaeans do not believe in Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed. Their beliefs and practices likewise have little overlap with the religions that manifested from those religious figures and the two should not be confused. Significant amounts of original Mandaean Scripture survive in the modern era. The primary source text is known as the Genzā Rabbā and has portions identified by some scholars as being copied as early as the 2nd century CE. There is also the Qolastā, or Canonical Book of Prayer and The Book of John the Baptist (sidra ḏ-iahia).
  • Manichaeism which represented an entire independent religious heritage, but is now mostly extinct was founded by the Prophet Mani (210-276 CE). Although most of the literature/scripture of the Manichaeans was believed lost, the discovery of an original series of documents have helped to shed new light on the subject. Now housed in Cologne Germany, the Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis contains mainly biographical information on the prophet and details on his claims and teachings. Despite connections with Jesus Christ, it is not believed that the Manichaeans in any way practiced a religion with identifiable overlap with any of the various Jewish or Christian sects. As Mani stated, "The true God has nothing to do with the material world or cosmos", and, "It is the Prince of Darkness who spoke with Moses, the Jews and their priests. Thus the Christians, the Jews, and the Pagans are involved in the same error when they worship this God. For he leads them astray in the lusts he taught them." [31][32]

Syrian-Egyptian Gnosticism

The Syrian-Egyptian school derives much of its outlook from Platonist influences. Typically, it depicts creation in a series of emanations from a primal monadic source, finally resulting in the creation of the material universe. As a result, there is a tendency in these schools to view evil in terms of matter which is markedly inferior to goodness, evil as lacking spiritual insight and goodness, rather than to emphasize portrayals of evil as an equal force. These schools of gnosticism may be said to use the terms 'evil' and 'good' as being relative descriptive terms, as they refer to the relative plight of human existence caught between such realities and confused in its orientation, with 'evil' indicating the extremes of distance from the principle and source of goodness, without necessarily emphasizing an inherent negativity. As can be seen below, many of these movements included source material related to Christianity, with some identifying themselves as specifically Christian (albeit quite different from the so-called Orthodox or Roman Catholic forms).

Syrian-Egyptic scripture

Most of the literature from this category is known/confirmed to us in the modern age through the Library discovered at Nag Hammadi.

  • Valentinian works are named in reference to the Bishop and teacher Valentinius, also spelled Valentinus. ca. 153 AD/CE, Valentinius developed a complex Cosmology outside of the Sethian tradition. At one point he was close to being appointed the Bishop of Rome of what is now the Roman Catholic Church. Works attributed to his school are listed below, and fragmentary pieces directly linked to him are noted with an asterisk:
    • The Divine Word Present in the Infant (Fragment A) *
    • On the Three Natures (Fragment B) *
    • Adam's Faculty of Speech (Fragment C) *
    • To Agathopous: Jesus' Digestive System (Fragment D) *
    • Annihilation of the Realm of Death (Fragment F) *
    • On Friends: The Source of Common Wisdom (Fragment G) *
    • Epistle on Attachments (Fragment H) *
    • Summer Harvest*
    • The Gospel of Truth*
    • Ptolemy's Version of the Gnostic Myth
    • The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
    • Ptolemy's Epistle to Flora
    • Treatise on Resurrection (Epistle to Rheginus)
    • Gospel of Philip
  • Basilidian works are named for the founder of their school, Basilides (132–? CE/AD). These works are mainly known to us through the criticisms of one of his opponents, Irenaeus in his work Adversus Haereses. The other pieces are known through the work of Clement of Alexandria:
    • The Octet of Subsistent Entities (Fragment A)
    • The Uniqueness of the World (Fragment B)
    • Election Naturally Entails Faith and Virtue (Fragment C)
    • The State of Virtue (Fragment D)
    • The Elect Transcend the World (Fragment E)
    • Reincarnation (Fragment F)
    • Human Suffering and the Goodness of Providence (Fragment G)
    • Forgivable Sins (Fragment H)
  • The Gospel of Judas is the most recently discovered Gnostic text. National Geographic has published an English translation of it, bringing it into mainstream awareness. It portrays Judas Iscariot as the most enlightened disciple, who acted at Jesus' request when he handed Jesus over to the authorities. Its reference to Barbelo and inclusion of material similar to the Apocryphon of John and other such texts, connects the text to Barbeloite and/or Sethian Gnosticism.

Later Gnosticism and Gnostic-influenced groups

  • Other schools and related movements; these are presented in chronological order:
    The circular, harmonic cross was an emblem used most notably by the Cathars, a medieval group that related to Gnosticism.
    • Simon Magus and Marcion of Sinope both had Gnostic tendencies, but such familiar ideas as they presented were as-yet unformed; they might thus be described as pseudo- or proto-Gnostics. Both developed a sizable following. Simon Magus' pupil Menander of Antioch could potentially be included within this grouping. Marcion is popularly labelled a gnostic, however most scholars do not consider him a gnostic at all, for example, the Encyclopædia Britannica article on Marcion clearly states: "In Marcion's own view, therefore, the founding of his church — to which he was first driven by opposition — amounts to a reformation of Christendom through a return to the gospel of Christ and to Paul; nothing was to be accepted beyond that. This of itself shows that it is a mistake to reckon Marcion among the Gnostics. A dualist he certainly was, but he was not a Gnostic - Depending of course on one's definition of 'Gnostic'."
    • Cerinthus (c. 100 AD), the founder of a heretical school with gnostic elements. Like a Gnostic, Cerinthus depicted Christ as a heavenly spirit separate from the man Jesus, and he cited the demiurge as creating the material world. Unlike the Gnostics, Cerinthus taught Christians to observe the Jewish law; his demiurge was holy, not lowly; and he taught the Second Coming. His gnosis was a secret teaching attributed to an apostle. Some scholars believe that the First Epistle of John was written as a response to Cerinthus.[33]
    • The Ophites, so-named because they worshiped the serpent of Genesis as the bestower of knowledge.
    • The Cainites, as the term implies, worshiped Cain, as well as Esau, Korah, and the Sodomites. There is little evidence concerning the nature of this group; however, it is surmisable that they believed that indulgence in sin was the key to salvation because since the body is evil, one must defile it through immoral activity (see libertinism). The name Cainite is used as the name of a religious movement, and not in the usual Biblical sense of people descended from Cain. According to Biblical text, which is our only source of knowledge about the man Cain, all descendants of Cain perished in Noah's Flood, as only Noah's family survived, deriving from the line of Seth.
    • The Carpocratians, a libertine sect following only the Gospel according to the Hebrews
    • The Borborites, a libertine Gnostic sect, said to be descended from the Nicolaitans
    • The Paulicans, an Adoptionist group, also accused by medieval sources as Gnostic and quasi Manichaean Christian. They flourished between 650 and 872 in Armenia and the Eastern Themes of the Byzantine Empire
    • The Bogomils, , the synthesis of Armenian Paulicianism and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church reform movement, which emerged in Bulgaria between 927 and 970 and spread throughout Europe
    • The Cathars (Cathari, Albigenses or Albigensians) are typically seen as being imitative of Gnosticism; whether or not the Cathari possessed direct historical influence from ancient Gnosticism is disputed. Though the basic conceptions of Gnostic cosmology are to be found in Cathar beliefs (most distinctly in their notion of a lesser, Satanic, creator god), they did not apparently place any special relevance upon knowledge (gnosis) as an effective salvific force. For the relationship between these medieval heresies and earlier Gnostic forms, see historical discussion above.


Gnostic ideas found a Jewish variation in the mystical study of Kabbalah. The Kabbalists took many core Gnostic ideas and used them to dramatically reinterpret earlier Jewish sources according to this new influence. See Gershom Scholem's Origins of the Kabbalah for further discussion. The Kabbalists originated in Provence which was at that time also the center of the Gnostic Cathars. It is thus believed that Cathar Gnostics persuaded Jews to Gnostic ideas, leading to the development of Kabbalah. Another influence on Kabbalah was probably that of the Muslim Ismailis. By contrast, however, followers of Kabbalah date its origins as early as the Garden of Eden.

Kabbalah, however, does not employ the terminology or labels of gentile Gnosticism, but grounds the same or similar concepts in the language of the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible). Nevertheless, during the time periods when Gnosticism was drawing large numbers of followers from various religions, creating Gnostic versions of those religions, many Jews also developed a mystical version of Judaism remarkably similar to Gnostic beliefs.

While Kabbalah shares several themes with Gnosticism, such as a multiplicity of heavenly levels and archetypes and the importance of mystical knowledge of these, it does not reflect the distinctive Gnostic belief that the material world and the Hebrew Bible are the work of an inferior and malevolent deity. Rather than describing Kabbalah as a form of Gnosticism, it would be more accurate to describe both Kabbalah and Gnosticism as members of a family of Neoplatonic/Neopythagorean Oriental mystical traditions, which would also include Sufism. Gershom Scholem once described Gnosticism as "the Greatest case of metaphysical anti-Semitism."[34]

Important terms and concepts

Please note that the following are only summaries of various Gnostic interpretations that exist. The roles of familiar beings such as Jesus Christ, Sophia, and the Demiurge usually share the same general themes between systems but may have somewhat different functions or identities ascribed to them.


In many Gnostic systems, the æons are the various emanations of the superior God, who is also known by such names as the One, the Monad, Aion teleos (Greek: "The Complete Æon"),[citation needed] Bythos (Greek: Βυθος, 'Depth' or 'profundity'), Proarkhe (Greek: προαρχη, "Before the Beginning'), E Arkhe (Greek: ἡ ἀρχή, 'The Beginning'), Ennoia (Greek: "Thought") of the Light[35] or Sige (Greek: Σιγη, "Silence").[36] From this first being, also an æon, a series of different emanations occur, beginning in certain Gnostic texts with the hermaphroditic Barbelo,[13][37][38] from which successive pairs of aeons emanate, often in male-female pairings called syzygies;[39] the numbers of these pairings varied from text to text, though some identify their number as being thirty.[40] The aeons as a totality constitute the pleroma, the "region of light". The lowest regions of the pleroma are closest to the darkness; that is, the physical world.[citation needed]

Two of the most commonly paired æons were Jesus and Sophia (Greek: "Wisdom"); the latter refers to Jesus as her 'consort' in A Valentinian Exposition.[41] Sophia, emanating without her partner, resulting in the production of the Demiurge (Greek: lit. "public builder"),[42] who is also referred to as Yaldabaoth and variations thereof in some Gnostic texts.[13] This creature is concealed outside the Pleroma;[13] in isolation, and thinking itself alone, it creates materiality and a host of co-actors, referred to as archons. The demiurge is responsible for the creation of mankind, by create he traps elements of the Pleroma stolen from Sophia in human bodies.[13][16] In response, the Godhead emanates two savior æons, Christ and the Holy Spirit; Christ then embodies itself in the form of Jesus, in order to be able to teach man how to achieve gnosis, by which they may return to the Pleroma.[8]


In late antiquity some variants of Gnosticism used the term Archon to refer to several servants of the Demiurge.[16] In this context they may be seen as having the roles of the angels and demons of the Old Testament.

According to Origen's Contra Celsum, a sect called the Ophites posited the existence of seven archons, beginning with Iadabaoth or Ialdabaoth, who created the six that follow: Iao, Sabaoth, Adonaios, Elaios, Astaphanos and Horaios.[43] Similarly to the Mithraic Kronos and Vedic Narasimha, a form of Vishnu, Ialdabaoth had a head of a lion.[13][44][45]


Engraving from an Abraxas stone.

The Egyptian Gnostic Basilideans referred to a figure called Abraxas who was at the head of 365 spiritual beings (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, I.24); it is unclear what to make of Irenaeus' use of the term 'Archon', which may simply mean 'ruler' in this context. The role and function of Abraxas for Basilideans is not clear.

The word Abraxas was engraved on certain antique gemstones, called on that account Abraxas stones, which may have been used as amulets or charms by Gnostic sects. In popular culture, Abraxas is sometimes considered the name of a god who incorporated both Good and Evil (God and Demiurge) in one entity, and therefore representing the monotheistic God, singular, but (unlike, for example, the Christian God) not omni-benevolent (See Hesse's Demian, and Jung's Seven Sermons to the Dead). Opinions abound on Abraxas, who in recent centuries has been claimed to be both an Egyptian god and a demon, sometimes even being associated with the dual nature of Satan/Lucifer. The word abracadabra may be related to Abraxas.

The above information relates to interpretations of ancient amulets and to reports of Christian heresy hunters which are not always clear.

Actual ancient Gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi Library, such as the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians, refer to Abrasax as an Aeon dwelling with Sophia and other Aeons of the Spiritual Fullness in the light of the luminary Eleleth. In several texts, the luminary Eleleth is the last of the luminaries (Spiritual Lights) that come forward, and it is the Aeon Sophia, associated with Eleleth, who encounters darkness and becomes involved in the chain of events that leads to the Demiurge and Archon's rule of this world, and the salvage effort that ensues. As such, the role of Aeons of Eleleth, including Abrasax, Sophia, and others, pertains to this outer border of the Divine Fullness that encounters the ignorance of the world of Lack and interacts to rectify the error of ignorance in the world of materiality.

Words like or similar to Abraxas or Abrasax also appear in the Greek Magical Papyri. There are similarities and differences between such figures in reports about Basiledes' teaching, in the larger magical traditions of the Graeco-Roman world, in the classic ancient Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of the Egyptians, and in later magical and esoteric writings.

The Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung wrote a short Gnostic treatise in 1916 called The Seven Sermons to the Dead, which called Abraxas a God higher than the Christian God and Devil, that combines all opposites into one Being.


A lion-faced deity found on a Gnostic gem in Bernard de Montfaucon's L'antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures may be a depiction of the Demiurge; however, cf. Mithraic Zervan Akarana [46]

The term Demiurge derives from the Latinized form of the Greek term dēmiourgos, δημιουργός, (literally "public or skilled worker") and refers to an entity responsible for the creation of the physical universe and the physical aspect of humanity. The term dēmiourgos occurs in a number of other religious and philosophical systems, most notably Platonism. Moral judgements of the demiurge vary from group to group within the broad category of gnosticism - such judgements usually correspond to each group's judgement of the status of materiality as being inherently evil, or else merely flawed and as good as its passive constituent matter will allow.

Like Plato does, Gnosticism presents a distinction between a supranatural, unknowable reality and the sensible materiality of which the demiurge is creator. However, in contrast to Plato, several systems of Gnostic thought present the Demiurge as antagonistic to the Supreme God: his act of creation either in unconscious and fundamentally flawed imitation of the divine model, or else formed with the malevolent intention of entrapping aspects of the divine in materiality. Thus, in such systems, the Demiurge acts as a solution to the problem of evil. In the Apocryphon of John (several versions of which are found in the Nag Hammadi library), the Demiurge has the name "Yaltabaoth", and proclaims himself as God:

"Now the archon who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas, and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, 'I am God and there is no other God beside me,' for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come."

"Samael", in the Judeo-Christian tradition, refers to the evil Angel of Death, and corresponds to the Christian demon of that name, one second only to Satan[citation needed]. Literally, it can mean "blind god" or "god of the blind" in Aramaic (Syriac sæmʕa-ʔel); another alternative title is "Saklas", Aramaic for "fool" (Syriac sækla "the foolish one").

Gnostic myth recounts that Sophia (Greek, literally meaning "wisdom"), the Demiurge's mother and a partial aspect of the divine Pleroma or "Fullness", desired to create something apart from the divine totality, and without the receipt of divine assent. In this abortive act of separate creation, she gave birth to the monstrous Demiurge and, being ashamed of her deed, she wrapped him in a cloud and created a throne for him within it. The Demiurge, isolated, did not behold his mother, nor anyone else, and thus concluded that only he himself existed, being ignorant of the superior levels of reality that were his birth-place.

The Gnostic myths describing these events are full of intricate nuances portraying the declination of aspects of the divine into human form; this process occurs through the agency of the Demiurge who, having stolen a portion of power from his mother, sets about a work of creation in unconscious imitation of the superior Pleromatic realm. Thus Sophia's power becomes enclosed within the material forms of humanity, themselves entrapped within the material universe: the goal of Gnostic movements was typically the awakening of this spark, which permitted a return by the subject to the superior, non-material realities which were its primal source. (See Sethian Gnosticism.)

Some Gnostic philosophers identify the Demiurge with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, in opposition and contrast to the God of the New Testament. Still others equated the being with Satan. Catharism apparently inherited their idea of Satan as the creator of the evil world directly or indirectly from Gnosticism.


The word 'Gnosticism' is a modern construction, though based on an antiquated linguistic expression: it comes from the Greek word meaning 'knowledge', gnosis (γνῶσις). However, gnosis itself refers to a very specialised form of knowledge, deriving both from the exact meaning of the original Greek term and its usage in Platonist philosophy.

Unlike modern English, ancient Greek was capable of discerning between several different forms of knowing. These different forms may be described in English as being propositional knowledge, indicative of knowledge acquired indirectly through the reports of others or otherwise by inference (such as "I know of George Bush" or "I know Berlin is in Germany"), and empirical knowledge acquired by direct participation or acquaintance (such as "I know George Bush personally" or "I know Berlin, having visited").

Gnosis (γνῶσις) refers to knowledge of the second kind. Therefore, in a religious context, to be 'Gnostic' should be understood as being reliant not on knowledge in a general sense, but as being specially receptive to mystical or esoteric experiences of direct participation with the divine. Indeed, in most Gnostic systems the sufficient cause of salvation is this 'knowledge of' ('acquaintance with') the divine. This is commonly identified with a process of inward 'knowing' or self-exploration, comparable to that encouraged by Plotinus (ca. 205–270 AD). However, as may be seen, the term 'gnostic' also had precedent usage in several ancient philosophical traditions, which must also be weighed in considering the very subtle implications of its appellation to a set of ancient religious groups.

Monad (apophatic theology)

In many Gnostic systems (and heresiologies), God is known as the Monad, the One, The Absolute, Aion teleos (The Perfect Æon), Bythos (Depth or Profundity, Βυθος), Proarkhe (Before the Beginning, προαρχη), and E Arkhe (The Beginning, η αρχη). God is the high source of the pleroma, the region of light. The various emanations of God are called æons.

Within certain variations of Gnosticism, especially those inspired by Monoimus, the Monad was the highest God which created lesser gods, or elements (similar to æons).

According to Hippolytus, this view was inspired by the Pythagoreans, who called the first thing that came into existence the Monad, which begat the dyad, which begat the numbers, which begat the point, begetting lines, etc. This was also clarified in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. This teaching being largely Neopythagorean via Numenius as well.

This Monad is the spiritual source of everything which emanates the pleroma, and could be contrasted to the dark Demiurge (Yaldabaoth) that controls matter.

The Sethian cosmogony as most famously contained in the Apocryphon ('Secret book') of John describes an unknown God, very similar to the orthodox apophatic theology, although very different from the orthodox credal teachings that there is one such god who is identified also as creator of heaven and earth. In describing the nature of a creator god associated with Biblical texts, orthodox theologians often attempt to define God through a series of explicit positive statements, themselves universal but in the divine taken to their superlative degrees: he is omniscient, omnipotent and truly benevolent. The Sethian conception of the most hidden transcendent God is, by contrast, defined through negative theology: he is immovable, invisible, intangible, ineffable; commonly, 'he' is seen as being hermaphroditic, a potent symbol for being, as it were, 'all-containing'. In the Apocryphon of John, this god is good in that it bestows goodness. After the apophatic statements, the process of the Divine in action are used to describe the effect of such a god.

An apophatic approach to discussing the Divine is found throughout gnosticism, Vedanta, and Platonic and Aristotelian theology as well. It is also found in some Judaic sources.


Pleroma (Greek πληρωμα) generally refers to the totality of God's powers. The term means fullness, and is used in Christian theological contexts: both in Gnosticism generally, and in Colossians 2.9.

Gnosticism holds that the world is controlled by evil archons, one of whom is the demiurge, the deity of the Old Testament who holds the human spirit captive.

The heavenly pleroma is the center of divine life, a region of light "above" (the term is not to be understood spatially) our world, occupied by spiritual beings such as aeons (eternal beings) and sometimes archons. Jesus is interpreted as an intermediary aeon who was sent from the pleroma, with whose aid humanity can recover the lost knowledge of the divine origins of humanity. The term is thus a central element of Gnostic cosmology.

Pleroma is also used in the general Greek language and is used by the Greek Orthodox church in this general form since the word appears under the book of Colossians. Proponents of the view that Paul was actually a gnostic, such as Elaine Pagels of Princeton University, view the reference in Colossians as something that was to be interpreted in the gnostic sense.


In Gnostic tradition, the term Sophia (Σoφíα, Greek for "wisdom") refers to the final and lowest emanation of God.

In most if not all versions of the gnostic myth, Sophia births the demiurge, who in turn brings about the creation of materiality. The positive or negative depiction of materiality thus resides a great deal on mythic depictions of Sophia's actions. She is occasionally referred to by the Hebrew equivalent of Achamoth (this is a feature of Ptolemy's version of the Valentinian gnostic myth). Jewish Gnosticism with a focus on Sophia was active by 90.[citation needed]

Almost all gnostic systems of the Syrian or Egyptian type taught that the universe began with an original, unknowable God, referred to as the Parent or Bythos, as the Monad by Monoimus, or the first Aeon by still other traditions. From this initial unitary beginning, the One spontaneously emanated further Aeons, pairs of progressively 'lesser' beings in sequence. The lowest of these pairs were Sophia and Christ. The Aeons together made up the Pleroma, or fullness, of God, and thus should not be seen as distinct from the divine, but symbolic abstractions of the divine nature.


The development of the Syrian-Egyptian school

Bentley Layton has sketched out a relationship between the various gnostic movements in his introduction to The Gnostic Scriptures (SCM Press, London, 1987). In this model, 'Classical Gnosticism' and 'The School of Thomas' antedated and influenced the development of Valentinus, who was to found his own school of Gnosticism in both Alexandria and Rome, whom Layton called 'the great [Gnostic] reformer' and 'the focal point' of Gnostic development. While in Alexandria, where he was born, Valentinus probably would have had contact with the Gnostic teacher Basilides, and may have been influenced by him.

Valentinianism flourished throughout the early centuries of the common era: while Valentinus himself lived from ca. 100–180 AD/CE, a list of sectarians or heretics, composed in 388 AD/CE, against whom Emperor Constantine intended legislation includes Valentinus (and, presumably, his inheritors).[citation needed] The school is also known to have been extremely popular: several varieties of their central myth are known, and we know of 'reports from outsiders from which the intellectual liveliness of the group is evident' (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 94). It is known that Valentinus' students, in further evidence of their intellectual activity, elaborated upon the teachings and materials they received from him (though the exact extent of their changes remains unknown), for example, in the version of the Valentinian myth brought to us through Ptolemy.

Valentinianism might be described as the most elaborate and philosophically 'dense' form of the Syrian-Egyptian schools of Gnosticism, though it should be acknowledged that this in no way debarred other schools from attracting followers: Basilides' own school was popular also, and survived in Egypt until the 4th century.

Simone Petrement, in A Separate God, in arguing for a Christian origin of Gnosticism, places Valentinus after Basilides, but before the Sethians. It is her assertion that Valentinus represented a moderation of the anti-Judaism of the earlier Hellenized teachers; the demiurge, widely regarded to be a mythological depiction of the Old Testament God of the Hebrews, is depicted as more ignorant than evil. (See below.)

Manichean priests writing at their desks, with panel inscription in Sogdian. Manuscript from Khocho, Tarim Basin.

The development of the Persian school

An alternate heritage is offered by Kurt Rudolph in his book Gnosis: The Nature & Structure of Gnosticism (Koehler and Amelang, Leipzig, 1977), to explain the lineage of Persian Gnostic schools. The decline of Manicheism that occurred in Persia in the 5th century AD was too late to prevent the spread of the movement into the east and the west. In the west, the teachings of the school moved into Syria, Northern Arabia, Egypt and North Africa (where Augustine was a member of the school from 373-382); from Syria it progressed still farther, into Palestine, Asia Minor and Armenia. There is evidence for Manicheans in Rome and Dalmatia in the 4th century, and also in Gaul and Spain. The influence of Manicheanism was attacked by imperial elects and polemical writings, but the religion remained prevalent until the 6th century, and still exerted influence in the emergence of the Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathari in the Middle Ages, until it was ultimately stamped out as a heresy by the Catholic Church.

In the east, Rudolph relates, Manicheanism was able to bloom, given that the religious monopoly position previously held by Christianity and Zoroastrianism had been broken by nascent Islam. In the early years of the Arab conquest, Manicheanism again found followers in Persia (mostly amongst educated circles), but flourished most in Central Asia, to which it had spread through Iran. Here, in 762, Manicheanism became the state religion of the Uyghur Empire.

Neoplatonism and Gnosticism

Historical relations between antique Greek Philosophy and Gnosticism

The earliest origins of Gnosticism are still obscure and disputed, but they probably include influence from Plato, Middle Platonism and Neo-Pythagoreanism academies or schools of thought, and this seems to be true both of the more Sethian Gnostics, and of the Valentinian Gnostics.[47] Further, if we compare different Sethian texts to each other in an attempted chronology of the development of Sethianism during the first few centuries, it seems that later texts are continuing to interact with Platonism. Earlier texts such as Apocalypse of Adam show signs of being pre-Christian and focus on the Seth, third son of Adam and Eve. These early Sethians may be identical to or related to the Notzrim, Ophites or to the sectarian group called the Minuth by Philo.[48][49] Later Sethian texts such as Zostrianos and Allogenes draw on the imagery of older Sethian texts, but utilize "a large fund of philosophical conceptuality derived from contemporary Platonism, (that is late middle Platonism) with no traces of Christian content."[50] Indeed the doctrine of the "triple-powered one" found in the text Allogenes, as discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library, is "the same doctrine as found in the anonymous Parmenides commentary (Fragment XIV) ascribed by Hadot to Porphyry [...] and is also found in Plotinus' Ennead6.7, 17, 13-26."[47]

Rejection by antique Greek Philosophy

However, by the 3rd century Neoplatonists, such as Plotinus, Porphyry and Amelius are all attacking the Sethians. It looks as if Sethianism began as a pre-Christian tradition, possibly a syncretic[51] that incorporated elements of Christianity and Platonism as it grew, only to have both Christianity and Platonism reject and turn against it. Professor John D Turner believes that this double attack led to Sethianism fragmentation into numerous smaller groups (Audians, Borborites, Archontics and perhaps Phibionites, Stratiotici, and Secundians).[50] Scholarship on Gnosticism has been greatly advanced by the discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi texts, which shed light on some of the more puzzling comments by Plotinus and Porphyry regarding the Gnostics. More importantly, the texts help to distinguish different kinds of early Gnostics. It now seems clear that "Sethian" and "Valentinian"[52] gnostics attempted "an effort towards conciliation, even affiliation" with late antique philosophy,[53] and were rebuffed by some Neoplatonists, including Plotinus.

Philosophical relations between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism

Gnostics borrow a lot of ideas and terms from Platonism. They exhibit a keen understanding of Greek philosophical terms and the Greek Koine language in general, and use Greek philosophical concepts throughout their text, including such concepts as hypostasis (reality, existence), ousia (essence, substance, being), and demiurge (creator God). Good examples include texts such as the Hypostasis of the Archons (Reality of the Rulers) or Trimorphic Protennoia (The first thought in three forms).

Criticism of gnosticism by antique Greek Philosophy

As a pagan mystic Plotinus considered his opponents heretics[54] and elitist blasphemers,[55] arriving at misotheism as the solution to the problem of evil, being not traditional or genuine Hellenism (in philosophy or mysticism), but rather one invented taking all their truths over from Plato,[56] coupled with the idea expressed by Plotinus that the approach to the infinite force which is the One or Monad cannot be through knowing or not knowing (i.e., dualist, which is of the dyad or demiurge).[57][58] Although there has been dispute as to which Gnostics Plotinus was referring to it appears they were indeed Sethian.[59] Plotinus' main objection to the Gnostics he was familiar with, however, was their rejection of the goodness of the demiurge and the material world. He attacks the Gnostics as vilifying Plato's ontology of the universe as contained in the Timaeus. He accused Gnosticism of vilifying the Demiurge, or craftsman that crafted the material world, and even of thinking that the material world is evil, or a prison. As Plotinus explains, the demiurge is the nous (as the first emanation of the One), the ordering principle or mind, and also reason. Plotinus was also critical of the Gnostic origin of the demiurge as the offspring of wisdom, represented as a deity called Sophia. She was anthropomorphically expressed as a feminine spirit deity not unlike the goddess Athena or the Christian Holy Spirit. Plotinus even went so far as to state at one point that if the Gnostics did believe this world was a prison then they could at any moment free themselves by committing suicide. To some degree the texts discovered in Nag Hammadi support his allegations, but others such as the Valentinians and the Tripartite Tractate insist on the goodness of the world and the Demiurge.

Buddhism and Gnosticism

Early 3rd century–4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write about a Scythianus, who visited India around 50 AD from where he brought "the doctrine of the Two Principles". According to Cyril of Jerusalem, Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus presented himself as a "Buddha" ("He called himself Buddas").[60] Terebinthus went to Palestine and Judaea ("becoming known and condemned"), and ultimately settled in Babylon, where he transmitted his teachings to Mani, thereby creating the foundation of Manichaeism:

"But Terebinthus, his disciple in this wicked error, inherited his money and books and heresy, and came to Palestine, and becoming known and condemned in Judæa he resolved to pass into Persia: but lest he should be recognised there also by his name he changed it and called himself Buddas."

In the 3rd century, the Syrian writer and Christian Gnostic theologian Bar Daisan described his exchanges with the religious missions of holy men from India (Greek: Σαρμαναίοι, Sramanas), passing through Syria on their way to Elagabalus or another Severan dynasty Roman Emperor. His accounts were quoted by Porphyry (De abstin., iv, 17[citation needed]) and Stobaeus (Eccles., iii, 56, 141).

Finally, from the 3rd century to the 12th century, some Gnostic religions such as Manichaeism, which combined Christian, Hebrew and Buddhist influences (Mani, the founder of the religion, resided for some time in Kushan lands), spread throughout the Old World, to Gaul and Great Britain in the West, and to China in the East. Some leading Christian theologians such as Augustine of Hippo were Manichaeans before converting to orthodox Christianity.

Such exchanges, many more of which may have gone unrecorded, suggest that Buddhism may have had some influence on early Christianity: "Scholars have often considered the possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity. They have drawn attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus" (Bentley, "Old World Encounters").

Christianity and Gnosticism

The ascetic notion of immediate revelation through divine knowledge sought to find an absolute transcendence in a Supreme Deity. This concept is very important in identifying what evidence there is pertaining to Gnosticism[61] in the NT, which would influence orthodox teaching.[62] Main Gnostic beliefs that differ from Biblical teachings include: the creator as a lower being [‘Demiurge’] and not a Supreme Deity; scripture having a deep, hidden meaning whose true message could only be understood through “secret wisdom”;[63] and Jesus as a spirit that “seemed”[64] to be human, leading to a belief in the incarnation (Docetism).[65] The traditional “formula which enshrines the Incarnation…is that in some sense God, without ceasing to be God, was made man…which is a prima facie [‘at first sight’ a] contradiction in theological terms…the [NT] nowhere reflects on the virgin birth of Jesus as witnessing to the conjunction of deity and manhood in His person…the deity of Jesus was not…clearly stated in words and [the book of] Acts gives no hint that it was”.[66] This philosophy[67] was known by the so-called “Church Fathers” such as Origen, Irenaeus, and Tertullian.[68]

At its core, Gnosticism formed a speculative interest in the relationship of the oneness of God to the ‘triplicity’ of his manifestations. It seems to have taken Neoplatonic metaphysics of substance and hypostases [“being”][69] as a departure point for interpreting the relationship of the “Father” to the “Son”[70] in its attempt to define a new theology.[71] This would point to the infamous theological controversies by Arius[72] against followers of the Greek Alexandrian school,[73] headed by Athanasius.[74]

The ancient Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in Egypt in the 1940s, revealed how varied this movement was. The writers of these manuscripts considered themselves ‘Christians’, but owing to their syncretistic beliefs, borrowed heavily from the Greek philosopher Plato. The find included the hotly debated Gospel of Thomas, which parallels some of Jesus’ sayings in the Synoptic Gospels. This may point to the existence of a postulated lost textual source for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, known as the Q document.[75] Thus, modern debate is split between those who see Gnosticism as a pre-Christian form of ‘theosophy’[76] and those who see it as a post-Christian counter-movement.

NT scripture was largely unwritten, at least in the form of canon, existing in the practices, customs and teachings of the early Christian community. What largely was communicated generation to generation was an oral tradition passed from the apostles to the Bishops and from Bishops and priests to the faithful through their preaching and way of life.[77] Constantine’s call for unity in the building of the new Roman Church led to his request for Eusebius to produce some 50 copies of manuscripts. These were approved and accepted by the emperor, which later influenced the final stages of canonization.[78]

The best known origin story in the NT comes in the person of Simon the ‘mage’ [Acts 8:9-24]. Although little is known historically about him, his first disciple is said to have been Basilides.[79] Paul’s epistles to Timothy contain refutations of “false doctrine [and] myths” [1 Tim 1:3-5]. The importance placed here, as in most NT scripture, is to uphold the truth since through such knowledge God hopes for “all men” to be saved [1 Tim 2:4]. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians have much to say regarding false teachers (2 Co 11:4), “spiritualists” [pneumatikos—1 Co 2:14-15; 15:44-46] and their gnosis. They warn against the “wisdom of the wise” and their “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (1 Co 1:19; 2:5—NIV; cp. Col 2:1-10; 2:8). These are seen as the clearest texts reacting to early Gnostic trends.{fact|date=March 2010} The book of Jude also contains scripture exhorting believers to seek the true faith (Jude 3) and it is nowhere more influential than in the nature of the man, Jesus.

The writings attributed to the Apostle John contain the most significant amount of content directed at combating the progenitors of heresies.[80] Most Bible scholars agree that these were some of the last parts of the NT written and as such, can offer the most insights into a 1st century perspective.[81] The writer’s repeated adherence to true knowledge (“hereby we know”—inherent in Jesus’ ministry) and nature[82] seem to challenge other speculative and opposing beliefs.

The 2nd epistle of John is only 13 verses long but puts strong emphasis on the ‘Christology’ of Jesus.[83] From its context we see the importance placed on “knowing…walking” and loving the truth (v. 1-4), on the humanity of the man Jesus (v. 7-11) and adherence to “teaching [the doctrine] of Christ” [cp. John 7:14-18]. These point to false teachers who claimed to bring some higher teaching than what the apostles taught.[84]

From the evidence at hand, it seems that early Christian apologists used their biblical faith to teach a pagan audience how best to adopt the new religion. (They were) Wrapping their understanding of scripture and worldly wisdom in the process and taking their lead from such Jewish apologists like Philo of Alexandria. Whether even without Philo the ‘Fathers of the Church’ would have attempted to harmonize scripture and philosophy is a plausible assumption. Whether the result of their harmonization would have been the same as it is now is a matter of conjecture. But it happens that Philo came before them and it also happens that all kinds of evidence show the influence of Philo upon them.[85]

It is hard to sift through what actual evidence there is regarding Gnosticism in the NT due to their historical synchronicity. The Hammadi library find contains Pagan, Jewish, Greek and early Gnostic influences,[86] further reinforcing the need to tread lightly. The antiquity of the find being of utmost importance since it shows primary evidence of texts that may also have influenced the process of NT canonization.[87]

If any conclusion is to be made at this point it is that Gnosticism was considered a real enough threat by the apostles themselves, showing us how early it started to infiltrate the Church, through which several of its undercurrents were to strongly influence later ‘orthodox’ doctrine.[88][89]

'Gnosticism' as a potentially flawed category

In 1966 in Messina, Italy, a conference was held concerning systems of gnosis. Among its several aims were the need to establish a program to translate the recently-acquired Nag Hammadi library (discussed above) and the need to arrive at an agreement concerning an accurate definition of 'Gnosticism'. This was in answer to the tendency, prevalent since the eighteenth century, to use the term 'gnostic' less as its origins implied, but rather as an interpretive category for contemporary philosophical and religious movements. For example, in 1835, New Testament scholar Ferdinand Christian Baur constructed a developmental model of Gnosticism that culminated in the religious philosophy of Hegel; one might compare literary critic Harold Bloom's recent attempts to identify Gnostic elements in contemporary American religion, or Eric Voegelin's analysis of totalitarian impulses through the interpretive lens of Gnosticism.

The 'cautious proposal' reached by the conference concerning Gnosticism is described by Markschies:

In the concluding document of Messina the proposal was 'by the simultaneous application of historical and typological methods' to designate 'a particular group of systems of the second century after Christ' as 'gnosticism', and to use 'gnosis' to define a conception of knowledge transcending the times which was described as 'knowledge of divine mysteries for an élite'.

Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, p. 13

In essence, it had been decided that 'Gnosticism' would become a historically-specific term, restricted to mean the Gnostic movements prevalent in the 3rd century, while 'gnosis' would be a universal term, denoting a system of knowledge retained 'for a privileged élite.' However, this effort towards providing clarity in fact created more conceptual confusion, as the historical term 'Gnosticism' was an entirely modern construction, while the new universal term 'gnosis' was a historical term: 'something was being called "gnosticism" that the ancient theologians had called "gnosis" ... [A] concept of gnosis had been created by Messina that was almost unusable in a historical sense'.[90] In antiquity, all agreed that knowledge was centrally important to life, but few were agreed as to what exactly constituted knowledge; the unitary conception that the Messina proposal presupposed did not exist.[90]

These flaws have meant that the problems concerning an exact definition of Gnosticism persist. It remains current convention to use 'Gnosticism' in a historical sense, and 'gnosis' universally. Leaving aside the issues with the latter noted above, the usage of 'Gnosticism' to designate a category of 3rd century religions has recently been questioned as well. Of note is Michael Allen Williams' Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for the Dismantling of a Dubious Category, in which the author examines the terms by which Gnosticism as a category is defined, and then closely compares these suppositions with the contents of actual Gnostic texts (the newly-recovered Nag Hammadi library was of central importance to his argument).[91]

Williams argues that the conceptual foundations on which the category of Gnosticism rests are the remains of the agenda of the heresiologists. Too much emphasis has been laid on perceptions of dualism, body- and matter-hatred, and anticosmism[92] without these suppositions being properly tested. In essence, the interpretive definition of Gnosticism that was created by the antagonistic efforts of the early church heresiologists has been taken up by modern scholarship and reflected in a categorical definition, even though the means now existed to verify its accuracy. Attempting to do so, Williams contests, reveals the dubious nature of categorical 'Gnosticism', and he concludes that the term needs replacing in order to more accurately reflect those movements it comprises.[91] Williams' observations have provoked debate; however, to date his suggested replacement term 'the Biblical demiurgical tradition' has not become widely used.

Gnosticism in modern times

A number of 19th century thinkers such as William Blake, Arthur Schopenhauer,[93] Albert Pike and Madame Blavatsky studied Gnostic thought extensively and were influenced by it, and even figures like Herman Melville and W. B. Yeats were more tangentially influenced.[94] Jules Doinel "re-established" a Gnostic church in France in 1890 which altered its form as it passed through various direct successors (Fabre des Essarts as Tau Synésius and Joanny Bricaud as Tau Jean II most notably), and which, although small, is still active today.[95]

Early 20th century thinkers who heavily studied and were influenced by Gnosticism include Carl Jung (who supported Gnosticism), Eric Voegelin (who opposed it), Jorge Luis Borges (who included it in many of his short stories), and Aleister Crowley, with figures such as Hermann Hesse being more moderatedly influenced. Rene Guenon founded the gnostic review, Le Gnose in 1909 (before moving to a more "Perennialist" position). Gnostic Thelemite organizations, such as Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and Ordo Templi Orientis, trace themselves to Crowley's thought.

The discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi library after 1945 had a huge impact on Gnosticism since World War II. Thinkers who were heavily influenced by Gnosticism in this period include Hans Jonas, Philip K. Dick and Harold Bloom, with Albert Camus and Allen Ginsberg being more moderately influenced.[94] A number of ecclesiastical bodies which think of themselves as Gnostic have been set up or re-founded since World War II as well, including the Society of Novus Spiritus, Ecclesia Gnostica, the Thomasine Church, the Apostolic Johannite Church, the Alexandrian Gnostic Church, the North American College of Gnostic Bishops. Celia Green has written on Gnostic Christianity in relation to her own philosophy.[96]

See also


  1. ^ Hinnells, John. "Pleroma". A New Dictionary of Religions. 
  2. ^ "Plato's Cosmology: The Timaeus". History of Ancient Philosophy, University of Washington. 
  3. ^ Walker, Benjamin (1990). Gnosticism: Its History and Influence. Harper Collins. ISBN 1-85274-057-4.
  4. ^ a b c d "Valentinian Monism". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 12/02/2009. 
  5. ^ Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Press, 1989, pgs. 18, 37, 42.
  6. ^ "The Tripartite Tractate". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  7. ^ Teke, Charles (PDF). Towards a Poetics of Becoming: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s and John Keats’s Aesthetics Between Idealism and Deconstruction. Universität Regensburg. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  8. ^ a b "An Introduction to Gnosticism and The Nag Hammadi Library". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-12-02. 
  9. ^ Macuch, Rudolf (1965). Handbook of Classical and Modern Mandaic. Berlin: De Gruyter & Co.. pp. 61 fn. 105. 
  10. ^ "The Gnostic World View: A Brief Introduction". The Gnosis Archive. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  11. ^ Gnosticism Article from the Jewish Encyclopedia
  12. ^ Barbarian migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 By Guy Halsall pg 293 Publisher: Cambridge University Press (January 28, 2008) ISBN 0521434912 ISBN 978-0521434911 [1]
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i "The Apocryphon of John". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  14. ^ "Demiurge". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  15. ^ "Plato, Republic 588A-589B". "The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  16. ^ a b c "The Hypostasis of the Archons". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  17. ^ "Faith (pistis) and Knowledge (gnosis)". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  18. ^ Huidekoper, Frederic (1891). Judaism at Rome: B.C. 76 to A.D. 140. D. G. Francis. p. 331. "First on our list stand the Gnostics..." 
  19. ^ Irenaeus. "Against Heresies, II, 27, 1". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  20. ^ Irenaeus. "Against Heresies, I, 31, 2". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  21. ^ Clement. "Stromata, II, 3". New Advent. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  22. ^ Hans Jonas The Gnostic Religion, p. 42, Beacon Press, 1963 ISBN 0-8070-5799-1; 1st ed. 1958
  23. ^ Middle Persian Sources: D. N. MacKenzie, Mani’s Šābuhragān, pt. 1 (text and translation), BSOAS 42/3, 1979, pp. 500-34, pt. 2 (glossary and plates), BSOAS 43/2, 1980, pp. 288-310.
  24. ^ Bevan, A. A. (1930). "Manichaeism". Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume VIII Ed. James Hastings. London
  25. ^ Zaehner, Richard Charles (1961). The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. New York: Putnam. ISBN 1-84212-165-0 (2003 Phoenix ed).  A section of the book is available online. Several other websites have duplicated this text, but include an "Introduction" that is very obviously not by Zaehner.
  26. ^ Pagels, Elaine (1978). The Gnostic Gospels. 
  27. ^ Schoedel, William (1980). 'Gnostic Monism and the Gospel of Truth' in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Vol.1: The School of Valentinus, (ed.) Bentley Layton,. Leiden: E.J.Brill. 
  28. ^ Layton, Bentley (1987). The Gnostic Scriptures. SCM Press - Introduction to "Against Heresies" by St. Irenaeus
  29. ^ Irenaeus. "Against Heresies, I, 23, 3". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  30. ^ Irenaeus. "Against Heresies, I, 25, 4". Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  31. ^ Classical Texts:Acta Archelai Now, he who spoke with Moses, the Jews, and the priests he says is the archont of Darkness, and the Christians, Jews, and pagans (ethnic) are one and the same, as they revere the same god. For in his aspirations he seduces them, as he is not the god of truth. And so therefore all those who put their hope in the god who spoke with Moses and the prophets have (this in store for themselves, namely) to be bound with him, because they did not put their hope in the god of truth. For that one spoke with them (only) according to their own aspirations. [] Page 76
  32. ^ Likewise, Manichaeism, being another Gnostic sect, preached a similar doctrine of positioning God against matter. This dualistic teaching embodied an elaborate cosmological myth that included the defeat of a primal man by the powers of darkness that devoured and imprisoned the particles of light. Thus, to Mani, the devil god which created the world was the Jewish Jehovah. Mani said, "It is the Prince of Darkness who spoke with Moses, the Jews and their priests. Thus the Christians, the Jews, and the Pagans are involved in the same error when they worship this God. For he leads them astray in the lusts he taught them."[2]
  33. ^ González, Justo L.(1970). A History of Christian Thought, Vol. I. Abingdon. pp. 132-3
  34. ^ Understanding Jewish History: Texts and Commentaries by Steven Bayme Publisher: Ktav Publishing House ISBN 0881255548 ISBN 978-0881255546 [3]
  35. ^ "The Thought of Norea". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  36. ^ "Valentinian Theology". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  37. ^ "Allogenes". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  38. ^ "Trimorphic Protennoia". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 209/02/13. 
  39. ^ "The Pair (Syzygy) in Valentinian Thought". Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  40. ^ Mead, G.R.S. (2005). Fragments of a Faith Forgotten. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 1417984139. 
  41. ^ "A Valentinian Exposition". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  42. ^ "Demiurge". "Catholic encyclopedia". Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  43. ^ Origen. "Cotra Celsum". The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved 2009/20/13. 
  44. ^ "Mithraic Art". Retrieved 2009-12-13. 
  45. ^ "Narashimba". Manas: Indian Religions. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  46. ^ Campbell, Joseph: Occidental Mythology, page 262. Penguin Arkana, 1991.
  47. ^ a b Turner, John (1986). "Sethian Gnosticism: A Literary History" in Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism and Early Christianity. pp. 59. 
  48. ^ Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Romischen Welt/Rise and Decline of the Roman World Bd 21/1 Volume 2; Volume 21 By Hildegard Temporini, Joseph Vogt, Wolfgang Haase Publisher: Walter de Gruyter (December 31, 1983) Language: German ISBN 3110088452 ISBN 978-3110088458 [4]
  49. ^ The term "minim" in the Talmud often refers to gnostics, as Friedländer, and before him Krochmal and Grätz, have pointed out. [5]
  50. ^ a b Turner, John. "Sethian Gnosticism: A Literary History" in Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 1986 p. 59
  51. ^ Hebrew
  52. ^ This is what the scholar A. H. Armstrong wrote as a footnote in his translation of Plotinus' Enneads in the tract named against the Gnostics. Footnote from Page 264 1. From this point to the end of ch.12 Plotinus is attacking a Gnostic myth known to us best at present in the form it took in the system of Valentinus. The Mother, Sophia-Achamoth, produced as a result of the complicated sequence of events which followed the fall of the higher Sophia, and her offspring the Demiurge, the inferier and ignorant maker of the material universe, are Valentinian figures: cp. Irenaues adv. Haer 1.4 and 5. Valentinius had been in Rome, and there is nothing improbable in the presence of Valentinians there in the time of Plotinus. But the evidence in the Life ch.16 suggests that the Gnostics in Plotinus's circle belonged rather to the other group called Sethians on Archonties, related to the Ophites or Barbelognostics: they probably called themselves simply "Gnostics." Gnostic sects borrowed freely from each other, and it is likely that Valentinius took some of his ideas about Sophia from older Gnostic sources, and that his ideas in turn influenced other Gnostics. The probably Sethian Gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi included Valentinian treatise: ep. Puech, Le pp. 162-163 and 179-180.
  53. ^ Schenke, Hans Martin. "The Phenomenon and Significance of Gnostic Sethianism" in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism. E. J. Brill 1978
  54. ^ Introductory Note This treatise (No.33 in Porphyry's chronological order) is in fact the concluding section of a single long treatise which Porphyry, in order to carry out the design of grouping his master's works more or less according to subject into six sets of nine treatise, hacked roughly into four parts which he put into different Enneads, the other three being III. 8 (30) V. 8 (31) and V .5 (32). Porphyry says (Life ch. 16.11) that he gave the treatise the Title "Against the Gnostics" (he is presumably also responsible for the titles of the other sections of the cut-up treatise). There is an alternative title in Life. ch. 24 56-57 which runs "Against those who say that the maker of the universe is evil and the universe is evil. The treatise as it stands in the Enneads is a most powerful protest on behalf of Hellenic philosophy against the un-Hellenic heresy (as it was from the Platonist as well as the orthodox Christian point of view) of Gnosticism. A.H. Armstrong introduction to II 9. Against the Gnostics Pages 220-222
  55. ^ They claimed to be a privileged caste of beings, in whom God alone was interested, and who were saved not by their own efforts but by some dramatic and arbitrary divine proceeding; and this, Plotinus claimed, led to immorality. Worst of all, they despised and hated the material universe and denied it's goodness and the goodness of its maker. For a Platonist, this is utter blasphemy -- and all the worse because it obviously derives to some extent from the sharply other-worldly side of Plato's own teaching (e.g. in the Phaedo). At this point in his attack Plotinus comes very close in some ways to the orthodox Christian opponents of Gnosticism, who also insist that this world is the work of God in his goodness. But, here as on the question of salvation, the doctrine which Plotinus is defending is as sharply opposed in other ways to orthodox Christianity as to Gnosticism: for he maintains not only the goodness of the material universe but also it's eternity and it's divinity. A.H. Armstrong introduction to II 9. Against the Gnostics Pages 220-222
  56. ^ The teaching of the Gnostics seems to him untraditional, irrational and immoral. They despise and revile the ancient Platonic teachings and claim to have a new and superior wisdom of their own: but in fact anything that is true in their teaching comes from Plato, and all they have done themselves is to add senseless complications and pervert the true traditional doctrine into a melodramatic, superstitious fantasy designed to feed their own delusions of grandeur. They reject the only true way of salvation through wisdom and virtue, the slow patient study of truth and pursuit of perfection by men who respect the wisdom of the ancients and know their place in the universe. A.H. Armstrong introduction to II 9. Against the Gnostics Pages 220-222
  57. ^ Faith and Philosophy By David G. Leahy
  58. ^ Enneads VI 9.6
  59. ^ This is what the scholar A. H. Armstrong wrote as a footnote in his translation of Plotinus' Enneads in the tract named against the Gnostics. Footnote from Page 264 1. From this point to the end of ch.12 Plotinus is attacking a Gnostic myth known to us best at present in the form it took in the system of Valentinus. The Mother, Sophia-Achamoth, produced as a result of the complicated sequence of events which followed the fall of the higher Sophia, and her offspring the Demiurge, the inferior and ignorant maker of the material universe, are Valentinian figures: cp. Irenaues adv. Haer 1.4 and 5. Valentinius had been in Rome, and there is nothing improbable in the presence of Valentinians there in the time of Plotinus. But the evidence in the Life ch.16 suggests that the Gnostics in Plotinus's circle belonged rather to the other group called Sethians on Archonties, related to the Ophites or Barbelognostics: they probably called themselves simply "Gnostics." Gnostic sects borrowed freely from each other, and it is likely that Valentinius took some of his ideas about Sophia from older Gnostic sources, and that his ideas in turn influenced other Gnostics. The probably Sethian Gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi included Valentinian treatise: ep. Puech, Le pp. 162-163 and 179-180.
  60. ^ Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lecture 6, paragraph 23
  61. ^ First coined in Plato’s Politikos [‘Statement’] as gnostikoi [‘those capable of knowing’], and linking it with knowledge [episteme] (Introduction to Politikos. Cooper, John M. & Hutchinson, D. S. [Eds.] (1997)
  62. ^ What is understood as “orthodox” and “Gnostic” teachings in this early period [1st-2nd century] needs to be redefined due to the complexities now unfolding regarding their historical and doctrinal similarities. Ed. Note.
  63. ^ The terminology has ties to the passage in Pro 8:23, taking a well known Judaic-concept of ‘personification’ and defining it with Christ as the “wisdom of God” [1 Co 1:24]. This metaphor was common and understood by most church fathers like Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, Epiphanius and Cyril. (Racovian Catechism, pp. 73-75)
  64. ^ From the Greek dokein, hence Docetism (Dictionary of the Later NT & its Developments, Intervarsity Press, 1997)
  65. ^ Jesus was Sui Generis, the doctrine of the “pre-existent” Christ accepted by some Gnostics and ‘orthodox’ Christians. Hanson R. P. C (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 A.D. Edinburgh T. & T. Clark, 1988)
  66. ^ New Bible Dictionary, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., Grand Rapids, MI, 1975), pp. 558-560. Furthermore, scripture teaches that this is not in line with Judaic [or rabbinic] teaching, something Jesus himself adhered to [Luke 2; John 4:24; Phil 3:3-4]. Also see, Nuesner, Jacob, The Modern Study of the Mishna, 1997; & Mishne Torah.
  67. ^ In Platonism the soul [psuchē] was self-moving, indivisible; degenerated and eternal, existing before the body which housed it, and longing to be free from its earthly imprisonment, leading to the Docetist-dualist concept of ‘good’ & ‘evil’ matter. Ed. Note.
  68. ^ Their own ‘heresiology’ would later be attacked as heretical. See, Holt, Reinhard, The Western Heritage of Faith and Reason, Winston N.Y., 1971), p. 382; Alastair H. B. Logan, Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1996)
  69. ^ “Was the Lord’s prayer addressed only to the hypostasis of the Father as ‘our Father’ and the Father of the Son, or to the entire ousia of the Godhead?” Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol. 1, the Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1971.
  70. ^ A new theological vocabulary capable of explaining this doctrine was created [e.g. homoousios=same essence]. Adopting an idea of Origen’s that easterners would appreciate in their own Sabellianism. Hanson, Search, pp. 687-688
  71. ^ The crisis of the later Roman Empire and move towards the east brought a “new realism” which may have inclined Christians to accept the new theological doctrine. Ed. note
  72. ^ Arius preached that, “before Christ, God was not yet a Father…there was when he [Jesus] was not.” Since most of his works are lost, the accounts are based on reports of others. Hanson, Search, pp. 5-8.
  73. ^ Alexandria had long been a hotbed of theological innovation and debate where high ranking Christian thinkers used methods from Greek philosophy as well as Jewish and Christian sources for their teachings. Ed. note
  74. ^ Although, he took his monotheism seriously, he later taught that the only way to save mankind from moral and physical extinction was for God to do the unthinkable, descend into human flesh. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the World”, in Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 4, Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994)
  75. ^ See Goodacre, Mark. The Case against Q: Studies in Marcan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002); Robinson, James, M. The Nag Hammadi Library, HarperOne, 1990.
  76. ^ The word became familiar to Greeks in the 3rd century with Ammonius Saccas and the Alexandrian Neo-Platonists [or Theurgists]: it was adopted in 1875 by H. P. Blavatsky and others associated with the Theosophical Society (Blavatsky, H. P. The Secret Doctrine, the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy, Theosophical Uni. Press, first published 1888)
  77. ^ Its formulation coinciding with the period most strongly associated with Gnosticism [4th-6th centuries]. See, Eusebius Hist. Eccl; McDonald, L. M, The Formation of the Biblical Canon (rev. and exp, ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).
  78. ^ Dictionary of the Later New Testament, pp. 135-143.
  79. ^ Basilides was one of the earliest and best-known Gnostics (Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Intervarsity Press, 1993, pp. 350-351)
  80. ^ Yet, however, the author makes it clear why the gospel was written in John 20:31 Ed. Note
  81. ^ Scholarly debate lies in placing the letters between 70-90A.D. & 90-110A.D. (Dictionary of the Later NT & its Developments, Intervarsity Press, 1997)
  82. ^ “In the beginning the Word existed. The Word existed in the presence of God, and the Word was a divine being.” John 1:1. A Contemporary English Translation of the Coptic Text, late 2nd century C.E based on the texts of George William Horner. The Coptic version of the NT in the southern dialect, otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic, 1911.
  83. ^ The Apostle states that in light of the continual battle by Satan against God and His Christ, it is not surprising that “our gospel is veiled…, the god of this world” blinding people, as also in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 (NRSV)
  84. ^ It is not surprising to see that John is in harmony with Paul’s own teachings regarding the “true doctrine” in his pastoral letters (cp. 1 Tim 6:3-4; 2 Co 11:4). Ed. Note.
  85. ^ H. A. Wolfson, ‘Notes on Patristic Philosophy’, Harvard Theological Review 57, no. 2 [Apr. 1964] p. 124.
  86. ^ “Both pagan mythologies and Platonic philosophical traditions…extensive use of the early chapters of Genesis…the obvious centrality of Jesus Christ [and apostolic figures] in many texts.” Dictionary of the Later New Testament, p 410
  87. ^ See Everett Ferguson, "Factors leading to the Selection and Closure of the New Testament Canon," in The Canon Debate. eds. L. M. McDonald & J. A. Sanders (Hendrickson, 2002); Lindberg, Carter (2006) A Brief History of Christianity. Blackwell Publishing
  88. ^ The Council at Nicaea [325 A.D.] went on to condemn “those who say…that He [Jesus] came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance…these, the Catholic Church and apostolic Church anathematizes”. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, pp. 215-216. Kelly translates ousia as “substance” here, and the creed as recited today translates homoousios as “consubstantial”—of the same substance.
  89. ^ Works Cited I. Alastair, H. B. Logan, Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1996) II. Bewkes, E. G. The Western Heritage of Faith and Reason (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, N.Y., 1960). III. Blavatsky, H. P. The Secret Doctrine, the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy, Theosophical Uni. Press, first published 1888. IV. Cooper, John M. & Hutchinson, D. S. (Eds.) Introduction to Politikos, 1997. V. Danielou, Jean. The Origin of Latin Christianity (Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1977). VI. Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Intervarsity Press, 1993. VII. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & its Developments, Intervarsity Press, 1997. VIII. Hanson, R. P. C. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 A.D. Edinburgh T. & T. Clark, 1988. IX. Holt, Reinhard. The Western Heritage of Faith and Reason, Winston N.Y., 1971. X. Horner, G. W. The Coptic version of the New Testament in the southern dialect, otherwise called Sahidic and Thebaic, 1911. XI. New Bible Dictionary, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., Grand Rapids, MI, 1975. XII. Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol. 1, the Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1971. XIII. Phillip, Schaff & Wace, Henry eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 4, Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994). XIV. Selwyn, E. G. ‘Image, Fact and Faith’, NTS 1 no. 4 (May 1955). XV. Wolfson, H. A. ‘Notes on Patristic Philosophy’, Harvard Theological Review 57, no. 2 (Apr. 1964) & the Philosophy of the Church Fathers (Harvard Uni. Press, Publishing, PA. 1976).
  90. ^ a b Markschies, "Christolph" (2003). Gnosis: An Introduction. T.& T.Clark Ltd. pp. 14–15. 
  91. ^ a b Williams, Michael Allen (1999). Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691005427. 
  92. ^ Afloroaei, Lucia (2009). "Religious Dualism: Some Logical and Philosophical Difficulties". Journal for Interdisciplinary Research on Religion and Science 4 (January): 83–111. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 
  93. ^ Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. XLVIII
  94. ^ a b Smith, Richard. "The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism" in The Nag Hammadi Library, 1990 ISBN 0-06-066935-7
  95. ^ Cf. l'Eglise du Plérôme
  96. ^ Green, Celia (1981,2006). Advice to Clever Children. Oxford: Oxford Forum. Ch.s XXXV-XXXVII.



Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Aland, Barbara (1978). Festschrift für Hans Jonas. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-58111-4. 
  • Burstein, Dan (2006). Secrets of Mary Magdalene. CDS Books. ISBN 1-59315-205-1. 
  • Freke, Timothy; Gandy, Peter (2002). Jesus and the Lost Goddess : The Secret Teachings of the Original Christians. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0-00-710071-X. 
  • Green, Henry (1985). Economic and Social Origins of Gnosticism. Scholars P.,U.S.. ISBN 0-89130-843-1. 
  • Haardt, Robert (1967). Die Gnosis: Wesen und Zeugnisse. Otto-Müller-Verlag, Salzburg. pp. 352 pages. , translated as Haardt, Robert (1971). Gnosis: Character and Testimony. Brill, Leiden. 
  • Hoeller, Stephan A. (2002). Gnosticism - New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Wheaton: Quest. pp. 257 pages. ISBN 0-8356-0816-6. 
  • Jonas, Hans (1993). Gnosis und spätantiker Geist vol. 2:1-2, Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-53841-3. 
  • King, Charles William (1887). The Gnostics and Their Remains. 
  • King, Karen L. (2003). What is Gnosticism?. Harvard University Press. pp. 343 pages. ISBN 0-674-01071-X. 
  • Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim (1993). Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia. Harper, San Francisco. ISBN 0-06-064586-5. 
  • Layton, Bentley (1995). "Prolegomena to the study of ancient gnosticism". in edited by L. Michael White, O. Larry Yarbrough. The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8006-2585-4. 
  • Layton, Bentley (ed.) (1981). The Rediscovery of Gnosticism: Sethian Gnosticism. E.J. Brill. 
  • Markschies, Christoph (2000). Gnosis: An Introduction. T & T Clark. pp. 145 pages. ISBN 0-567-08945-2. 
  • Mins, Denis (1994). Irenaeus. Geoffrey Chapman. 
  • Pagels, Elaine (1979). The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 182 pages. ISBN 0-679-72453-2. 
  • Pagels, Elaine (1989). The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press. pp. 128 pages. ISBN 1-55540-334-4. 
  • Petrement, Simone (1990), A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticsim, Harper and Row ISBN 0-06-066421-5
  • Rudolph, Kurt (1987). Gnosis: The Nature & Structure of Gnosticism. Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-067018-5. 
  • Walker, Benjamin (1990). Gnosticism: Its History and Influence. Harper Collins. ISBN 1-85274-057-4. 
  • Williams, Michael (1996). Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01127-3. 

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




  1. Plural form of Gnostic.


Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010
(Redirected to Gnosticism article)

From BibleWiki

A system of theology and philosophy. It came into prominence in the first centuries of the common era, and the 'founders of the early church felt it was nessesary to undertake its refutation. Writers on the history and dogmas of the Church have often devoted much attention to the subject, endeavoring to fathom and define its nature and importance. It has proved even more attractive to the general historians of religion, and has resulted in a voluminous literature. Some scholars, according to their various points of view, have sought its origins.


Jewish Gnosticism.

Jewish gnosticism unquestionably antedates Christianity, for Biblical exegesis had already reached an age of five hundred years by the first century C.E. Judaism had been in close contact with Babylonian-Persian ideas for at least that length of time, and for nearly as long a period with Hellenistic ideas. Magic, also, which, as will be shown further on, was a not unimportant part of the doctrines and manifestations of gnosticism, largely occupied Jewish thinkers. There is, in general, no circle of ideas to which elements of gnosticism have been traced, and with which the Jews were not acquainted. It is a noteworthy fact that heads of gnostic schools and founders of gnostic systems are designated as Jews by the Church Fathers. Some derive all heresies, including those of gnosticism, from Judaism (Hegesippus in Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl." iv. 22; comp. Harnack, "Dogmengesch." 3d ed. i. 232, note 1). It must furthermore be noted that Hebrew words and names of God provide the skeleton for several gnostic systems. Christians or Jews converted from paganism would have used as the foundation of their systems terms borrowed from the Greek or Syrian translations of the Bible. This fact proves at least that the principal elements of gnosticism were derived from Jewish speculation, while it does not preclude the possibility of new wine having been poured into old bottles.


Cosmogonic-theological speculations, philosophemes on God and the world, constitute the substance of gnosis. They are based on the first sections of Genesis and Ezekiel, for which there are in Jewish speculation two well-established and therefore old terms: "Ma'aseh Bereshit" and "Ma'aseh Merkabah." Doubtless Ben Sira was thinking of these speculations when he uttered the warning: "Seek not things that are too hard for thee, and search not out things that are above thy strength. The things that have been commanded thee, think thereupon; for thou hast no need of the things that are secret" (Ecclus. [Sirach] iii. 21-22, R. V.). The terms here emphasized recur in the Talmud in the accounts of gnosis. "There is no doubt that a Jewish gnosticism existed before a Christian or a Judæo-Christian gnosticism. As may be seen even in the apocalypses, since the second century B.C. gnostic thought was bound up with Judaism, which had accepted Babylonian and Syrian doctrines; but the relation of this Jewish gnosticism to Christian gnosticism may, perhaps, no longer be explained "(Harnack," "Geschichte der Altchristlichen Litteratur," p. 144). The great age of Jewish gnosticism is further indicated by the authentic statement that Johanan b. Zakkai, who was born probably in the century before the common era, and was, according to Sukkah 28a, versed in that science, refers to an interdiction against "discussing the Creation before two pupils and the throne-chariot before one."


In consequence of this interdiction, notwithstanding the great age and the resulting high development of Jewish gnosticism, only fragments of it have been preserved in the earlier portions of traditional literature. The doctrines that were to be kept secret were of course not discussed, but they were occasionally touched upon in passing. Such casual references, however, are not sufficient to permit any conclusions with regard to a Jewish gnostic system. If such a system ever existed (which may be assumed, although the Jewish mind has in general no special predilection for systems), it surely existed in the form of comments on the story of Creation and on Ezekiel's vision of the throne-chariot. It is even probable that the carefully guarded doctrines lost much of their terrifying secrecy in the course of the centuries, and became the subject of discussion among the adepts. Magic, at first approached with fear, likewise loses its terrifying aspects as the circle of its disciples enlarges. The same thing happened in the case of gnosticism, which was itself largely colored by magic. Hence it may be assumed that the scattered references of the amoraim of the third to the fifth century C.E., which in view of the statements made by the heresiologists of the Christian Church are recognized as being gnostic in nature,contain much older gnostic thought. They are quoted in the names of later scribes only because the latter modified the ideas in question or connected them with passages of Scripture, and not because they were the authors of them or the originators of the system. It is also highly probable that a not inconsiderable part of the earliest Jewish gnosis is still extant, though in somewhat modified form, in the mystical small midrashim that have been collected in Jellinek's "Bet ha-Midrash," and in the medieval products of the Jewish Cabala. Although at present means are not at hand to distinguish the earlier from the later elements, it is undeniable that the devotees of secret science and magic in general can not be easily exterminated, though they may seem to disappear from time to time. Krochmal, and after him Joel, have already pointed out gnostic doctrines in the Zohar. Further investigation will show the relationship of gnosticism to the Cabala, as well as that of both to magic in general.

Definition and Terminology.

In the gnosticism of the second century "three elements must be observed, the speculative and philosophical, the ritualistic and mystical, and the practical and ascetic" (Harnack, l.c. p. 219). These three elements may all be traced to Jewish sources. The ritualistic and mystical element, however, was here much less developed than in Judæo-Christian and Christian gnosticism, as the liturgical worship and the religio-legal life had been definitely formulated for many ages. Although very clear traces of it exist, it is difficult to determine exactly the limits of gnosis and to distinguish between what belongs to its domain and what to the domains of theology and magic. This difficulty is due to the nature of gnosis itself, the chief characteristic of which is syncretism, and also to the nature of the Jewish sources, which do not deal with definite problems, but with various questions indiscriminately. If the gnostic systems were not known through other sources, the statements relating to them in the rabbinical works could not be recognized. These elements were, in fact, discovered only in the first half of the last century (Krochmal, Grätz), and new ones have been ascertained by more recent investigators (Joel, Friedländer, etc.); much, however, still remains to be done.

The speculations concerning the Creation and the heavenly throne-chariot (i.e., concerning the dwelling-place and the nature of God), or, in other words, the philosophizings on heaven and earth, are expressly designated as gnostic. The principal passage with reference thereto is as follows: "Forbidden marriages must not be discussed before three, nor the Creation before two, nor the throne-chariot even before one, unless he be a sage who comprehends in virtue of his own knowledge ["hakam u-mebin mida'ato"]. Whoever regards four things would better not have been born: the things above, the things below, the things that were before, and the things that shall be. Whoever has no regard for the honor of his God would better not have been born" (Ḥag. ii. 1). As Johanan b. Zakkai refers to this interdiction, it must have been formulated in pre-Christian times (Tosef., Ḥag. ii. 1, and parallels). The characteristic words "hakam u-mebin mi-da'ato" occur here, corresponding to the Greek designations γνῶσις and γνωστικοί (I Tim. vi. 20; I Cor. viii. 1-3). The threefold variation of the verb (image) in the following passage is most remarkable: "In order that one may know and make known and that it become known, that the same is the God, the Maker, and the Creator" (Abot iv. end; Krochmal, "Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman," p. 208); these words clearly indicate the gnostic distinction between "God" and the "demiurge." "Not their knowledge but my knowledge" (Ḥag. 15b), is an allusion to gnosis, as is also the statement that man has insight like angels (Gen. R. viii. 11 [ed. Theodor, p. 65, (image) ]). These expressions also occur elsewhere, while γνῶσις and γνωστικός are not found once in the rabbinical vocabulary, though it has borrowed about 1,500 words from the Greek; it may be concluded, therefore, that these speculations are genuinely Jewish. In classical Greek γνωστικός does not mean "one who knows," but "that which is to be known"; hence the technical term may even have been coined under Jewish influence.

A Secret Science.

Gnosis was originally a secret science imparted only to the initiated (for instance, Basilides, in Epiphanius, "Hæreses," xxiv. 5) who had to bind themselves by oath, ἄητα φυλάξαι τὰ τῆς διδασκαλίδα σιγώμενα (Justin, "Gnost." in Hippolytus, "Philosophosemena," v. 24; comp. ib. v. 7: ἀπόῤῥητος λόγος και μυστικός; also Wobbermin, "Religions-geschichte Studien zur Frage der Beeinflussung des Urchristenthums Durch das Antike Mysterien wesen," p. 149; and Aurich, "Das Antike Mysterienwesen in Seinem Einfluss auf das Christenthum," p. 79). The gnostic schools and societies, however, could not have made very great demands on their adherents, or they could not have increased enough to endanger the Church as they did. The Pneumatics, who formed a closed community, endeavored to enlarge it (Herzog-Hauck, l.c. vi. 734). Indeed, most gnostic sects probably carried on an open propaganda, and the same may be observed in the case of Jewish gnosticism. The chief passages, quoted above, forbid in general the teaching of this system, and Eleazar (3d cent.) refused in fact to let Johanan (d. 279) teach him it. Origen, who lived at the same time in Palestine, also knew the "Merkabah" as a secret science ("Contra Celsum," vi. 18; comp. Friedländer, "Der Vorchristliche Jüdische Gnosticismus," pp. 51-57, on Philo and the conditions of being initiated). Joseph, the Babylonian amora (d. 322), studied the "Merkabah"; the ancients of Pumbedita studied "the story of the Creation" (Ḥag. 13a). As they studied it together, they were no longer strict in preserving secrecy. Still less concealment was there in post-Talmudic times, and hardly any in the Middle Ages. Philosophy never has been hedged with secrecy, and the mandate of secrecy reminds one of the κρύβε, κρύβε of the magic papyri. Gnosis was concealed because it might prove disastrous to the unworthy and uninitiated, like magic formulas. By "correct knowledge" the upper and the lower world may be put in motion. When Eleazar was discussing the thronechariot, fire came down from heaven and flamed around those present; the attending angels danced before them, like wedding-guests before the groom, and the trees intoned songs of praise. When Eliezerand Joshua were studying the Bible, "fire came down from heaven and flamed around them," so that the father of Elisha b. Abuyah, the gnostic referred to below, asked affrightedly: "Do you mean to set my house on fire?" (Yer. Ḥag. 77a, b; comp. Lev. R. xvi. 4; Friedländer, "Der Vorchristliche Jüdische Gnosticismus," p. 59). These men were all pupils of Johanan b. Zakkai. When two other scholars interpreted the Merkabah the earth shook and a rainbow appeared in the clouds, although it was summer. These stories indicate that this secret doctrine revealed the eternally acting media of the creation of heaven and earth.

Knowledge of this kind was dangerous for the uninitiated and unworthy. When a boy read the Merkabah (Ezek. i.) before his teacher and "entered the ḥashmal with his knowledge" [ (image) ], fire came out of the ḥashmal [comp. Ezek. i. 4, "as ḥashmal out of the fire"] and consumed him [Ḥag. 13a], for the boy was one who knew [ (image) = γνωστικός]. Gnosis is neither pure philosophy nor pure religion, but a combination of the two with magic, the latter being the dominant element, as it was the beginning of all religion and philosophy. The expression "to shake the world," used by the gnostic Bar Zoma (Gen. R. ii. 4, and parallels), reminds one of the origins of gnosis. The phrase "to trim the plants," occurring in the second leading passage on Jewish gnosticism, quoted below, must be noted here, for it refers, of course, to the influencing of the heavenly world by gnostic means.

Gnostic Signs.

The ophitic diagram that Krochmal shows in the pictures that "may not be looked upon" (Tosef., Shab., and parallels), is evidently derived from magic, for the cabalistic sign of the pentagram is found on one of the earliest shards (Bliss and Macalister, "Excavations in Palestine During the Years 1898-1900," plates 29, 42; Dr. Emaus, in "Vajda, Magyar Zsidó Szemle," xvii. 315 et seq.). A mere reference to this view must suffice here; its importance has been noted by Anrich, l.c. pp. 86-87; it points the way to an understanding of Jewish gnosis. A few interesting examples may be given here. The following passage occurs in the Berlin Papyrus, i. 20, Parthey: "Take milk and honey and taste them, and something divine will be in your heart." The Talmud, curiously enough (Ḥag. 13a), refers the phrase, "Honey and milk are under thy tongue" (Cant. iv. 11), to the Merkabah, one of the principal parts of Jewish gnosis, saying that the knowledge of the Merkabah, which is sweeter than milk and honey, shall remain under the tongue, meaning that it shall not be taught (comp. Dietrich, "Abraxas." p. 157; "honey and milk must be offered"). The Valentinians taught that in order to attain salvation the pneumatic required nothing further "than gnosis and the formulæ [ἐπιήματα] of the mysteries" (Epiphanius, "Hæreses," xxxi. 7).

The Four Who Entered Paradise.

"Four scholars, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aḥer [Elisha b. Abuyah], and Rabbi Akiba, entered paradise [ (image) = πασάδεισος]; Ben Azzai beheld it and died; Ben Zoma beheld it and went mad; Aḥer beheld it and trimmed the plants; Akiba went in and came out in peace" (Tosef., Ḥag. ii. 3; Ḥag. 14b; Yer. Ḥag. 77b; Cant. R. i. 4). The entering into paradise must be taken literally, as Blau points out ("Altjüdisches Zauberwesen," pp. 115 et seq.). The following proof may be added to those given there: "In the beginning of the Paris Papyrus is that great ἀπαθανατισμός, in which the mystic rises above stars and suns ἔν ἐκστάσει οὐκ ἐν ἐαυτῳ ὤν, near to the Godhead. By such art Iamblichus, freed from his body, endeavored to enter the felicity of the gods ['De Mysteriis,' i. 12], and thus his slaves said that they had seen him, ten ells above the earth, his body and garments gleaming in golden beauty" (Dietrich, l.c. p. 152). Paul (II Cor. xii. 1-4) speaks similarly of paradise, a passage that Joel ("Die Religionsgesch." i. 163, note 3) misinterprets as a "picture of gnosis." This instructive passage is as follows: "It is not expedient for me, doubtless, to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I can not tell; or whether out of the body, I can not tell: God knoweth); such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man. . . . How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter."

"Trimming the Plants."

Philo says, similarly: "Some one might ask, 'If true holiness consists in imitating the deeds of God, why should I be forbidden to plant a grove in the sanctuary of God, since God did the same thing when He planted a garden?' . . . While God plants and sows the beautiful in the soul, the spirit sins, saying, 'I plant '" ("De Allegoriis Legum," §§ 52 et seq.; ed. Mangey, §§ 117 et seq.). Philo here speaks also of trimming the trees. It is evident that this is the language of gnosis, but the words are used allegorically, as in Scripture. The literal interpretation here is perhaps also the correct one. The mystic imitates God, as Philo says, in planting a grove—that is, the mystic becomes himself a creator. He likewise has the power to destroy. There were books on the plants of the seven planets—for example, a work by Hermes, Βοτάναι τῶν 'Αροσκόπων (Dietrich, l.c. p. 157, note 1). Hence the planets were also regarded as "plantations," and Aḥer's "trimming of the plants" in paradise must be interpreted in this sense. Berechiah (4th cent.) interpreted the words of Canticles i. 4, "God brought me into his apartments," to refer to the mysteries of the Creation and the throne of God (Cant. R. ad loc.; Bacher, "Ag. Bab. Amor." iii. 356). Hence he regarded the knowledge of the Merkabah as an entering of the apartments of God, or as entering the "Pardes." Akiba says to his companions who have entered paradise: "When you come to the pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water, water!' for of this it is said (Ps. ci. 7): 'He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house'" (Ḥag. xiv. 6). "Ben Zoma stood and pondered; R. Joshua passed him and addressed him once and twice, but received no answer. The third time he answered quickly. Then Joshua said to him: 'Whence the feet [ (image) (image) ]?' He answered, 'Nothing "whence," my master.' Then R. Joshua said, 'I call heaven and earth to witness that I will not stir from this placeuntil you answer me, Whence the feet?' Ben Zoma answered thus: 'I was contemplating the Creation, and between the lower and the upper waters the distance is not greater than two or three fingers' breadth, for it is not written that the Spirit of God "moved," but that the Spirit of God "hovered," just as a bird moves his wings, and his wings touch it and do not touch it.' Joshua then turned and said to his pupils, 'Ben Zoma is gone [ (image) ].'" Ben Zoma remained on earth but a few days longer (Gen. R. ii. 17). The expression "is gone" refers to ecstasy, the corresponding expression in the parallel passages being (image) ("he is always beside himself").

The Creation of the World.

Thinkers have devoted much time to speculations on the creation of the world; even the Jews who were loyal to the Law connected these speculations with the first chapter of the Torah, which dominated the whole of Jewish life and thought. In order to check the philosophemes a scribe of the third century said, paraphrasing Prov. xxv. 2, "In the first chapter of the Torah it is the glory of God to conceal things; in the following ones, to search them out" (Gen. R. ix., beginning). In view of the unfriendly attitude of official Judaism the existence of the numerous gnostic allusions can be explained only on the ground that not all speculations on the Creation were held to touch upon the knowledge of the act of creation (comp. the principal passage in Ḥagigah). The wise Joshua himself gives an explanation of the Creation (Gen. R. x. 3). The leading questions of cosmology are: How, and by whom, and by what means, was the world created? "A philosopher said to the patriarch Gamaliel II. (c. 100), 'Your God is a great builder, but He had efficient means—clay, darkness, and water, wind, and watery depths [tehom]'" (Gen. R. i. 4). Johanan (d. 279) said: "One should not strive to know what was before the Creation, because in speaking of the palace of an earthly king one does not mention the dungheap that was formerly on that spot" (Ḥag. 16a). One may see the nature of these speculations from such passages: "If God had not said to heaven and earth: 'Enough!' they would still continue to extend" (Gen. R. iv. 6). God is therefore called (image) ("he spake, (image) = "enough"), and among the Naasenes 'Ησαιδαῖος = (image) plays, in fact, an important part (Hilgenfeld, "Ketzesgeschichte des Urchristenthums," p. 257). The spheres of the sun and moon are in the second of the seven heavens (Gen. R. vi. 5). The creation of light was especially puzzling, several kinds being distinguished (ib. iii. 4).


Jewish thought was particularly sensitive in regard to monotheism, refusing all speculations that threatened or tended to obscure God's eternity and omnipotence. R. Akiba explained that the mark of the accusative, (image) , before "heaven and earth" in the first verse of Genesis was used in order that the verse might not be interpreted to mean that heaven and earth created God ("Elohim": Gen. R. i. 1), evidently attacking the gnostic theory according to which the supreme God is enthroned in unapproachable distance, while the world is connected with a demiurge (comp. Gen. R. viii. 9, and many parallel passages). The archons of the gnostics perhaps owe their existence to the word (image) = ἀρχή. The first change made by the seventy translators in their Greek version was, according to a baraita (2d cent. at latest), to place the word "God" at the beginning of the first verse of Genesis. Rashi, who did not even know gnosticism by name, said it was done in order to make it impossible for any one to say, "The beginning ['Αρχή as God] created God [Elohim]." Genesis i. 26 they rendered: "I [not "We"] will create a man" (comp. Gen. R. viii. 8). The plural in the latter passage is explained on the ground that God took counsel with the souls of the pious. Genesis v. 2 was amended to: "Man and woman created he him" (not "them"), in order that no one might think He had created two hermaphrodites (thus Rashi; comp. Gen. R. viii.; ἀνδρόγυνος, διπρόσοτος: "Philosoph." ed. Duncker, v. 7, p. 132; Adam ἀρσενόϑηλυς and other passages in Hilgenfeld, l.c. pp. 242, 255; μητροπάτωρ in Wobbermin, l.c. pp. 81, 85; derived from Babylonian cosmogony; Berosus, in Eusebius, "Chronicon," ed. Schöne, i. 14-18). Gen. xi. 7 was changed so as to read "I will come down."

Syzygy Doctrine.

It may be mentioned here, in connection with these views about original hermaphroditism, that even the earlier authorities of the Talmud were acquainted with the doctrine of syzygy (Joel, l.c. i. 159 et seq.). The following passages indicate how deeply the ancients were imbued with this doctrine: "All that God created in His world, He created male and female" (B. B. 74b; comp. Ḥag. 15a, "mountains and hills," and R. H. 11a). God made man out of the dust of the earth (Gen. ii. 7): "dust" ("'afar") is masculine, "earth" ("adamah") is feminine. The potter also takes male and female earth in order that his wares may be sound (Gen. R. xiv.). The doctrine of the division of the waters into male and female is intimately connected with the gnosis of the Creation. R. Levi said: "The upper waters [rain] are male; the lower waters ["tehom," the great water in which the earth floats] are female, for it is written [Isa. xlv. 8]: 'Let the earth open [as the woman to the man] and bring forth salvation [generation]'" (Yer. Ber. 14a, 21; comp. Pirḳe R. El. v. and xxiii., "male and female waters"). The rain is called "rebi'ah" because it mingles with the earth (ib.; Simon b. Gamaliel, 2d cent.). The rain is the spouse of the earth (Ta'an. 6b, where the expressions used are "bride" and "groom"). In the introduction to the Zohar sins also are divided into male and female.

Prince of the World.

The Jews of course emphatically repudiated the doctrine of the demiurge, who was identified by some Christian gnostics with the God of the Old Testament and designated as the "accursed God of the Jews," from whom all the evil in the world was derived (Epiphanius, "Hæreses," xl. 7; comp. Harnack, "Geschichte der Altchristlichen Litteratur," p. 174; Herzog-Hauck, l.c. vi. 736; Friedländer, l.c. p. 69). The monotheism of the Jews was incompatible with a demiurge of any kind. The passage Abot iv. 22, already quoted, is evidently directed against the demiurge and similar views: "To be announcedand to be made known that He is the God, the God, the Maker, the Creator, the Prudent, the Judge . . . that He shall judge . . . for all belongs to Him. If thy bad inclination assures thee that the nether world will be thy refuge, [know] that thou hast been created and born against thy will, that thou wilt live and die against thy will, and that thou wilt give account before the King of Kings against thy will." The belief in a "prince of the world" is a reflex of the demiurge. When God said, "I arrange everything after its kind," the prince of the world sang a song of praise (Ḥul. 60a). It was he that recited Ps. xxxvii, 25, for it is he, not God, who lives only since the Creation (Yeb. 16b). He desired God to make King Hezekiah the Messiah, but God said, "That is my secret"; God would not reveal to the demiurge His intentions in regard to Israel (Sanh. 94a; comp. Krochmal, l.c. p. 202).

Two Principles.

The two powers ("shete reshuyot"), a good and an evil, are often mentioned. In order to explain evil in the world the gnostics assumed two principles, which, however, are not identical with the Mazdean dualism (comp. Yer. Ber., end; Krochmal, l.c. p. 208, note; Ḥul. 87a; Friedländer, l.c. pp. 80 et seq.). On dualisms, trinities, eight powers ("dyas," "tetras," "ogdoas"), see Hilgenfeld, l.c. pp. 236 et seq. Hypostases often occur (Krochmal, l.c. p. 205). God has two thrones, one for judgment, and one for "ẓedaḳah" (benevolence, justice, and mercy; Ḥag. 14a).

The official view, and certainly also the common one, was that founded on Scripture, that God called the world into being by His word (see Ps. xxxiii. 6, 9: "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth. For he spake and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast"). According to tradition, however, it required merely an act of His will, and not His word (Targ. Yer. to Gen. translates "He willed," instead of "He spake"). There were materialistic ideas side by side with this spiritual view. The Torah existed 2,000 years before the Creation; it, and not man, knows what preceded Creation (Gen. R. viii. 2). It says, "I was the instrument by means of which God created the world" (Gen. R. i.). This idea is rationalized in the Haggadah by comparing the Torah with the plans of a builder. Rab (200 C.E.), a faithful preserver of Palestinian traditions, refers to the combinations of letters by means of which the world was created (Ber. 58a; Epstein, "Recherches sur le Sèfer Yezirah," p. 6, note 2).

The Sefer Yeẓirah.

The gnosis of the Palestinian Marcus conceived the world to have come into being through the permutation of letters (Grätz, "Gnosticismus und Judenthum," pp. 105 et seq.). The στοιχεῖα of the alphabet corresponds to the στοιχεῖα of the universe (Wobbermin, l.c. p. 128). Epstein calls this view an astrological one, and he expounds it further (l.c. pp. 23 et seq.). The several elements of the alphabet play an important rôle in this cosmologic system, a reflection of which is found in one of the haggadah, in which the letters, beginning with the last, appear before God, requesting that the world be created through them. They are refused, until bet appears, with which begins the story of Creation. Alef complains for twenty-six generations, and is only pacified when it heads the Decalogue (Gen. R. i. 1). It was evidently held that the world came into being with the first sound that God uttered. Johanan thought that a breath sufficed, hence the world was created by ת (Gen. R. xii.). This view is connected with another view, according to which God first caused the spirit ("ruaḥ" = wind) to be. In the Sefer Yeẓirah, the three principal elements of the alphabet are (image) ; that is, (image) (air), (image) (water), and (image) (fire: Epstein, l.c. pp. 24 et seq.). According to this conception there are three, not four, elements, as was commonly assumed after the Arabic period. Curiously enough, the second book of "Jeu," p. 195, and the "Pistis Sophia," p. 375 (quoted in Herzog-Hauck, l.c. vi. 734), refer to three kinds of baptism —with water, with fire, and with spirit. It is impossible to say to what extent the Yeẓirah speculations influenced the Cabala and its principal manual, the Zohar, as well as its prominent adepts, at the close of the Middle Ages and in modern times, as there are no special studies on the subject. Many gnostic elements, as, for example, the syzygy doctrine (in which are found father, mother, and son), have doubtless been preserved in the Cabala, together with magic and mysticism.

Anti-Jewish Gnosis.

Gnosis was regarded as legitimate by Judaism. Its chain of tradition is noted in the principal passage in Ḥagigah, Johanan b. Zakkai heading the list. Here is found the threefold division of men into hylics, psychics, and pneumatics, as among the Valentinians. Although these names do not occur, the "third group," as the highest, is specifically mentioned (Ḥag. 14b), as Krochmal pointed out before Joel. The ophitic diagram was also known, for the yellow circle which was upon it is mentioned (Joel, l.c. p. 142). Gnosis, like every other system of thought, developed along various lines; from some of these the Jewish faith, especially monotheism, was attacked, and from others Jewish morality, with regard to both of which Judaism was always very sensitive. There were gnostics who led an immoral life, Aḥer (Elisha ben Abuyah) being among these, according to legendary accounts (comp. Pes. 56a; Eccl. R. i 8; Harnack, l.c. pp. 166 et seq.; Hilgenfeld, l.c. pp. 244-250). But there were also gnostic sects practising asceticism (Herzog-Hauck, l.c. vi. 734, 755). Jose b. Ḥalafta seems to have belonged to one of these, for he speaks of "five plants [sons] that he planted." This is the language of gnosis. Those parties which, though within Judaism, were nevertheless inimical to it—among them Judæo-Christianity—naturally used gnosis, then the fashion of the day, as a weapon against the ruling party, official Judaism. (On the relation between Jewish and Christian gnosis see Harnack, l.c. p. 144, and Friedländer, l.c. p. 63; on antinomian gnosis see Friedländer, l.c. pp. 76 et seq.) The term "minim" in the Talmud often refers to gnostics, as Friedländer, and before him Krochmal and Grätz, have pointed out. The knowledge of the origin and nature of man also belonged to gnosis (Irenæus. i. 14, 4 γιγνώσκω ὄεν εἰμί; comp. Clem. Al. Exc. ex.Theod. 78; see Homunculus; Adam). There are also other traces of Gnosticism in Judaism (comp. Gen. R. vii. 5). See also Cosmogony; Creation.

Bibliography: N. Krochmal, Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman, pp. 199 et seq., Lemberg, 1863; H. Grätz, Gnosticismus und Judenthum, Krotoschin, 1846 (the chief authority); Grätz, Gesch. iv. 112 et seq.; Joel, Die Religionsgesch. i. 103-170, Breslau, 1880; M. Friedländer, Der Vorchristliche Jüdische Gnosticismus, Göttingen, 1898; Schürer, in Theol. Litteraturzeitung, 1899, pp. 167-170; Hönig, Ophiten; A. Epstein, Recherches sur le sèfer Yezirah, Paris, 1894 (reprinted from R. E. J. xxviii.-xxix.); I. Matter, Histoire Critique du Gnosticisme, Paris, 1828; Mansel, The Gnostic Heresies, London, 1875; A. Hilgenfeld, Ketzergesch. des Urchristenthums, Leipsic, 1884; A. Harnack, Gesch. der Altchristlichen Litteratur, i., ib. 1893; idem, Doymengesch. 3d ed., Freiburg im Breisgan, and Leipsic, 1894; A. Dietrich, Abraxas, Leipsic, 1891; G. Aurich, Das Antike Mysterienwesen in Seinem Einfluss auf das Christenthum, Göttingen, 1894; G. Wobbermin, Religionsgesch. Studien zur Frage der Beeinflussung des Urchristenthums Durch das Antike Mysterienwesen, Berlin, 1896; G. R. S. Mead, Fragmente eines Verschollenen Glaubens (German transl. by A. von Ulrich), ib. 1902; A. Wurm, Die Irrlehrer im Ersten Johannesbrief, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1903; Biblische Studien, viii. 1. For other works, see Herzog-Hauck, Real-Encyc. vi. 728.

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.
Facts about GnosticismRDF feed


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address