Welcome

An icon of Jesus from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Welcome to Gnosticism Explained!

Much of the “information” on Gnosticism that’s available online suffers from one or both of two problems: it’s based on outdated and confused research, and/or it conflates historical facts with the wishful thinking of modern spiritual gurus and their agendas. If you’re instead looking to read a historical, factual account of what Gnosticism really was, with up-to-date scholarly sources cited throughout, then you’ve come to the right place. Gnosticism Explained strives to be as unbiased as possible, and to convey that solid information through articles that provide an accessible, pleasurable reading experience.

What Is Gnosticism?

Gnosticism is a type of early Christianity that taught that the material world was created by an evil being, and that Christ came to earth to liberate people from this evil world through the spiritual experience called “gnosis” – the root of the word “Gnostic.” Gnosis was salvation through mystical union with the divine, and as such was something that each individual had to experience internally for himself or herself. It couldn’t be obtained through any outward social/institutional means alone: believing in creeds, observing the sacraments, obeying the clergy, behaving morally, etc.

While we don’t know exactly when Gnosticism first arose, it was well-established throughout the lands occupied by the Roman Empire by the second half of the second century AD/CE.[1] At that time, Christianity was still a young, unsettled, and highly diverse religious movement. As Harvard historian of religion Karen L. King says of this period, “At the beginning of Christianity, nothing of what would later define it existed: no fixed canon [of scripture], creed, or ritual, no established institutions or hierarchy of bishops and laity, no church buildings or sacred art. The story of Christian origins is the story of the formation of these ideas and institutions. It is a story fraught with conflict and controversy.”[2] Many competing varieties of Christianity, some of them wildly different in many ways from what we today think of as “Christianity,” flourished alongside each other. Gnosticism was one of those early, vigorous visions of what Christianity was.

Thus, the Gnostics had just as much of a claim to representing “real Christianity” as did anyone else at the time. There was no official, shared standard of “orthodoxy” or “heresy” – just different personal understandings and opinions.[3]

The Mythology and Theology of Gnosticism

A sketch of an ancient Greco-Egyptian amulet that depicts a creature similar in appearance to the Gnostic demiurge

So, then, what were the specific beliefs and teachings that made Gnosticism distinct from other varieties of the budding religion that had come to be called “Christianity?”

The theology of Gnosticism was based on a particular type of dualism called “anticosmicism,” which means that the Gnostics were against (“anti-“) the world (“cosmos”). They believed that matter and the divine were antithetical to one another, and that true spirituality didn’t consist of achieving harmony with this wretched world or the equally horrible creator god of the Book of Genesis. Instead, true spirituality consisted of escaping the bonds of this earthly prison by awakening to the transcendent divinity that lies hidden within oneself, and which Christ had spoken of in his journey to earth.[4]

Gnosticism’s mythology illustrated this belief through two closely related stories: the Gnostic creation myth and the Gnostic version of the story of Jesus’s life. These were variations on two myths that all early Christians held in common: the creation myth in the Book of Genesis and the gospel story.

Gnosticism’s interpretation of the Genesis creation myth practically stood the conventional interpretation of that ancient story on its head. The Gnostic version began long before the creation of the material world, when God – the true God from whom Christ came – was all that existed. The God of Gnosticism was utterly beyond human comprehension in his perfection. As one of the Gnostic texts, the Secret Book of John, describes him, God is

illimitable, since there is nothing before it to limit it,
unfathomable, since there is nothing before it to fathom it,
immeasurable, since there was nothing before it to measure it,
invisible, since nothing has seen it,
eternal, since it exists eternally,
unutterable, since nothing could comprehend it to utter it,
unnamable, since there is nothing before it to give it a name.[5]

Since Gnosticism’s God was too perfect to ever have any reason to do anything, he didn’t create anything – not even Heaven. Instead, Heaven – which the Gnostics called the “Pleroma” (Greek for “Fullness”[6]) – arose from God of its own accord, without his active participation in it. In some versions of Gnosticism’s creation myth, God’s thought overflowed into what became the other heavenly beings.[7] In other versions, God gazed into the spiritual water that surrounded him, and his reflection became a new being who then gave rise to further beings.[8] At the center of the heavenly host was a core “trinity” of God, his son Christ, and Christ’s divine mother, whom Gnostic texts sometimes call “Barbelo” and sometimes seem to identify with the Holy Spirit.

Everything was perfect until one of the heavenly beings, Sophia (“Wisdom”[9]) decided to attempt to give birth to a new being on her own. Her son, the demiurge, was brought forth without God’s involvement, and he was therefore hideous and malevolent. He had the body of a snake and the head of a lion, with eyes like lightning bolts.[10]

In fear and shame, Sophia cast the demiurge out of Heaven. In his cosmic solitude, the demiurge created the material world in his own likeness: misshapen, petty, and just all-around wrong. He created numerous “archons” (“rulers”[11]) to help him rule his creation. The archons had bodies that were both male and female at the same time, and their heads were those of ferocious animals.[12] The demiurge and the archons trapped sparks of the divine from Heaven within human bodies, which rendered humanity subject to the archons’ dystopian rule. Normal human life, from everyday actions to societal institutions, was the product of the evil desires the archons had placed within humanity.

Thus, in the words of another Gnostic text, the Gospel of Philip, “The world came into being through a mistake.”[13] And so the human condition as we know it today came about – not through anything Adam and Eve did, because humans were innocent victims, but rather through a Fall that had already occurred in Heaven prior to the creation of the world.

But Gnosticism didn’t just offer despair; it also offered hope. Christ, the son of the true God, came to earth to liberate the sparks of divinity trapped within the clutches of the demiurge and the archons. He took over the body of a man named Jesus and went around teaching people how to achieve gnosis, the awareness of who and what they really were, which would save them from the dreadful conditions in which they were trapped. When the earthly rulers, acting on behalf of their bosses, the archons, crucified the man Jesus, the divine being Christ who had inhabited him miraculously survived, thereby proving the immortality of the spirit and its invulnerability to the flesh. (See Jesus Christ in Gnosticism for references and details.)

Jesus Christ thereby became the first Gnostic, the model for all others to follow. To quote the Gospel of Philip again, one who achieves gnosis is “no longer [just] a Christian, but a Christ.”[14]

Gnostic Texts

The books of the Nag Hammadi Library, the main surviving collection of Gnostic texts

What we know today about Gnosticism mostly comes from two kinds of sources. One of them consists of the writings of the so-called “heresiologists” – “those who study heresy”[15] – a loaded term that’s nevertheless stuck. The heresiologists were influential Christian writers of the second through fourth centuries who belonged to the type of Christianity that ultimately won out and got to define what “Christianity” was from that point forward, giving rise to the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant varieties of Christianity. They wrote about other, competing varieties of early Christianity, including Gnosticism, with the intent of refuting them. Prominent heresiologists include Irenaeus of Lyons, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, and Epiphanius of Salamis. Since the heresiologists tried to make Gnosticism look as bad as possible, they can’t be taken at face value, but when critically analyzed, they’re still valuable sources of information on Gnosticism.

The second major group of sources about Gnosticism consists of the texts written by the Gnostics themselves. Though many Gnostic texts are lost, some of them have survived to be rediscovered in modern times. In these texts, the Gnostics get the opportunity to tell us in their own words what they believed and practiced.

During Gnosticism’s heyday in the second and third centuries, there was no “New Testament” – no formal collection of early Christian scriptures that were considered more authoritative than others by all or even most Christians. Different early Christian groups held different writings to be sacred. The Gnostics were therefore far from unique in cherishing scriptures that can’t be found in what we today call the “New Testament,” and in disregarding some of the books that can be found there now. It was what all Christians did in some way or another back then.[16]

Due to the difficulty of determining whether some specific texts are or aren’t Gnostic, the exact number of Gnostic texts we possess today is difficult to pinpoint with precision, but the number stands somewhere in the dozens.[17] Most or all of them were originally written in Greek – the language in which most or all early Christian scriptures were written – in the second and third centuries.[18] That places most of them somewhat later than the texts that came to be included in the New Testament, but many of the Gnostic texts draw on oral and/or written sources that are much older.

Some of the most important and fascinating Gnostic texts include:

The Secret Book of John: an account of the creation of the world intended to serve as a sequel or prequel to the Gospel of John

The Reality of the Rulers: an exposition of the character of the archons by way of recounting and interpreting particularly telling episodes from the Gnostic creation myth

The Revelation of Peter: a story that strings together a series of revelations given by Christ to the apostle Peter, which famously features the spirit of Christ laughing above the cross

The Gospel of Philip: a wide-ranging collection of parables, aphorisms, and other short pieces that pertain to numerous topics of concern to the Gnostics

The Gospel of Truth: a work of particular literary beauty that serves as a commentary on several early Christian writings that would eventually make their way into the New Testament

The Gospel of Mary: a version of the gospel story told from the perspective of Mary Magdalene, which unfortunately only survives in fragmentary form

The Treatise on Resurrection: an overview of the Gnostic perspective on salvation, emphasizing that it’s an inner spiritual experience available in the present

Three Forms of First Thought and Thunder, Perfect Mind: two ecstatic, revelatory, and highly enigmatic poems delivered from the perspective of a female divine being who may be Sophia and/or Barbelo/the divine Mother

The Gospel of Judas: a version of the gospel story in which Judas is Jesus’s favored disciple, and in which Jesus discloses to Judas secrets of the universe and prophecies about horrible things the followers of Jesus will one day do in his name

The Gospel of Thomas: a collection of over a hundred sayings that attempt to guide the reader toward mystical union with Christ (and which might be a proto-Gnostic text rather than a truly Gnostic one)

The History of Gnosticism

An 18th-century icon of John the Apostle from the Kizhi Monastery in Russia

The question of where Gnosticism came from in the first place is a notoriously vexing one, and there’s no scholarly consensus on the matter. At the risk of oversimplification, however, scholarly views on the origins of Gnosticism can be broadly divided into two camps: one that sees Gnosticism as having emerged outside of Christianity (usually in Judaism) and later merged with it, and another that sees Gnosticism as having always been Christian from the outset.

In The Origins of Gnosticism, I summarize the views of both camps and present an argument that Gnosticism arose from within Christianity – and specifically the Christianity of the late first century. This argument, of which I’ll now give the whirlwind tour, is based on the arguments advanced in the esteemed French historian Simone Pétrement’s A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism, with considerable help along the way from New Testament professor Bart D. Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium and How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. This argument is far from the last word on the subject, but rather simply what seems to be the most plausible interpretation based on the evidence we now possess.

The historical Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish prophet who preached that the end of the world as his listeners knew it would occur within their lifetimes. God would end the unjust age they were living in and usher in a new age of justice and righteousness. The social order would be turned upside down: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” And Jesus, the spokesperson for the downtrodden, would be the king of this new, physical Kingdom of God on earth. But then Jesus was executed as a common criminal without any of his prophecies having turned out to be right.[19] (See The Historical Jesus for more on these points.)

After the failure of the historical Jesus, his anguished followers had to decide whether to abandon the movement to which they had devoted their lives or to reinterpret their leader’s message in such a way that it still seemed credible after his sordid death. They chose the latter option. As the first century wore on, Jesus’s message of a future material Kingdom of God was transformed into one of a spiritual Kingdom of God that could be accessed in the present by those who worshipped Jesus – who was now no longer just a human prophet, but the incarnation of a part of God himself. Thus Christianity as we know it today was born.[20][21] (See The Origins of Christianity for more on these points.)

These tendencies were carried furthest in the Gospel of John, the last of the four New Testament gospels to be written (c. 90-95 AD/CE).[22] Going back to their apocalyptic founder, Christians had always claimed that the age they were living in was evil. But John made a bolder claim: the world as such was evil. Jesus hadn’t just come to save people from a particular time period, but from the world itself. The apostle Paul, too, had made statements in his writings that seemed to say much the same thing.[23] For John, one’s soul was saved from this abominable world as soon as one believed in the doctrines John placed on Jesus’s lips.

Furthermore, one of the main concerns of Christians of the first century was figuring out how to give the traditional Jewish religion its due as an important backdrop for Christianity while also pointing out its shortcomings that Christ had come to correct. As Paul said of the Law of Moses, one of the centerpieces of the Jewish identity that Christians were moving away from, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”[24]

The Gnostics took these themes in first-century Christianity to what was, in a sense, their logical conclusion: that the god of Genesis, who had created this world, was evil just like his creation; that Christ had come from a different God altogether; and that the salvation he brought was so unearthly that it was solely a matter of ineffable spiritual experience, not something that could be adequately contained in any merely verbal beliefs – thus going beyond the writings of John and Paul, but in the same direction. In Pétrement’s words, Gnosticism

…is concerned with the place Judaism ought to have in another religion, and this other religion cannot be anything other than Christianity. Gnosticism sprang from Judaism, but not directly; it could only have sprung from a great revolution, and at the time when Gnosticism must have appeared, such a great revolution in Judaism could have been nothing other than the Christian revolution. … [T]he desire to limit the value of the Old Testament within a religion that nevertheless preserves it explains, and is the only thing that can explain, the structure of the Gnostic myth.[25]

(See The Origins of Gnosticism for more on this.)

This brings us to the second and third centuries, when Gnosticism reached its prime and thrived all throughout the Mediterranean world, from the lush, temperate forests of Gaul to the blazing heat and parched sands of the deserts of the Near East.

Some sources claim that there were numerous different groups of Gnostics at the time. The Gnostic texts don’t tell us who wrote or used them,[26] so we’re left to infer that for ourselves after piecing together various kinds of evidence, and ultimately we can’t be sure. But there seem to have been two main Gnostic groups within the Christianity of the period, and these may have been the only ones around back then.

The first of these groups is the classic Gnostics, which, as the name implies, were the original group of Gnostics in antiquity.[27] They seem to have called themselves simply “Gnostics,”[28] but today they’re often called “classic Gnostics” to differentiate them from other Gnostic groups. They’re also sometimes called “Sethians” based on the spiritual and mythological importance they ascribed to Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve in Genesis.[29] The classic Gnostics seem to have worshipped only with other classic Gnostics, and to have lived a rigorously ascetic lifestyle.[30][31]

The second main Gnostic group of the period was the Valentinians, who adopted much of the classic version of Gnosticism but approached it somewhat differently. For one thing, they worshipped alongside any and all other kinds of Christians and then held their own separate meetings afterward, which made them more socially integrated into the Christian mainstream of the period than the classic Gnostics seem to have been.[32] They didn’t place as much emphasis on ascetic practices for detaching themselves from the material world and its cares, preferring to focus on their inner emotional attitude to the world around them rather than their actions themselves. This, too, made them better integrated socially than the classic Gnostics, since the Valentinians could marry, have children, and generally partake in worldly life around them, even while striving to remain detached from it internally.[33]

The Valentinians were also much more theologically accommodating toward other Christian groups. Whereas the classic Gnostics not infrequently criticized other kinds of Christians in their texts, the Valentinians expressed a desire for harmony and love between all Christians. And whereas the classic Gnostics believed that only those with gnosis would be saved, the Valentinians believed that all Christians of all levels of spiritual maturity would eventually be saved.[34]

But the Valentinians’ conciliatory approach proved to be fruitless in the end. The type of early Christianity that was the precursor to Christianity as we know it today – the so-called “proto-orthodox” variety – became increasingly dominant within the Christian community as a whole over the course of this period.[35] And the Valentinians’ toleration of the proto-orthodox was not reciprocated, to say the least. The proto-orthodox were vehemently opposed to any approaches to Christianity other than their own.

When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the year 312, the proto-orthodox variety of Christianity had become the default one, so it was they who received the emperor’s blessing. In 325, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to establish a single, unified framework for Christian belief and practice. The clergy who participated were almost unanimously proto-orthodox. Thus, the outcomes of that extremely influential council only served to further entrench the position of the proto-orthodox, who by now had a socially reasonable claim to being called simply “orthodox” without the “proto” prefix.[36] Christians were no longer persecuted by the Roman authorities, but now they began persecuting each other. Finally, in 389-391, Emperor Theodosius I effectively outlawed the practice of any religion besides “official, Roman Christianity,” which was the death blow for Gnosticism in the ancient world.[37]

As part of this same process, the Gnostic texts were excluded from the increasingly formalized “New Testament” over the course of the fourth century. In 367, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria compiled the first-ever list that contained exactly the twenty-seven books that comprise the official New Testament to this day. This list was contained in a letter that was sent to all the churches under his authority, and in which he proclaimed that “in these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them.”[38] In the 390s, Athanasius’s list was ratified by synods elsewhere in the Roman Empire, effectively conferring official status on it.[39]

Several centuries later in the Middle Ages, something very much like Gnosticism resurfaced in certain “heretical” movements such as the Paulicians, Bogomils, and Cathars, all of which were violently destroyed by the official church. Gnosticism was also a tremendous inspiration for Mani, the Iranian prophet who created the religion of Manichaeism.[40] But Gnosticism in its original, quintessential form was dead and gone.

Why Gnosticism Matters Today

Today, Gnosticism is undergoing another renaissance of sorts. This time, few people are actually “converting” to any kind of Gnosticism. Instead, spiritual seekers from all over the world are using Gnosticism as a touchstone for their own individualized spiritualities. They appreciate Gnosticism’s timelessly relevant characterization of the human condition, its emphasis on firsthand personal experience over institutional dogma, the role it gives to the feminine aspects of the divine, and/or various other characteristics. Other people simply find Gnosticism to be intellectually fascinating at a more mundane level for the way it casts familiar elements of Christianity in a radical, unfamiliar light. Still others want to read about Gnosticism on purely historical grounds, as part of a desire to gain a fuller understanding of early Christianity or the religious environment of late antiquity in general.

But whatever your personal reasons are for being interested in Gnosticism, I hope that this site helps you to learn more about Gnosticism than you had before you showed up here, and that you enjoy the time you spend here.

References:

[1] Layton, Bentley. 1995. The Gnostic Scriptures. Yale University Press. p. 8.

[2] King, Karen L. 2006. The Secret Revelation of John. Harvard University Press. p. 1.

[3] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 42.

[4] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 42-43; 271.

[5] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Secret Book of John.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 108-109.

[6] Meyer, Marvin, and Elaine Pagels. 2008. “Introduction.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 11.

[7] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 53-54.

[8] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 154-156.

[9] Ibid. p. 194-197.

[10] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Secret Book of John.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 115.

[11] Meyer, Marvin, and Elaine Pagels. 2008. “Introduction.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 11.

[12] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “The Nature of the Rulers.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 192.

[13] Scopello, Madeleine, and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Gospel of Philip.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 179.

[14] Thomassen, Einar. 2008. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” Brill. p. 343.

[15] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 20-23.

[16] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 230-246.

[17] Robinson, James M. 2008. “Preface.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. xi.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford University Press.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ehrman, Bart, 2014. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. HarperOne.

[22] Ehrman, Bart. 2004. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Third Edition. Oxford University Press. p. xxxii.

[23] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 171-180.

[24] Galatians 2:11-21, NRSV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=galatians+2%3A11-21&version=NRSV Accessed on 3-18-2019.

[25] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 12, 46.

[26] Wisse, Frederik. 1981. “Stalking Those Elusive Sethians.” In The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Volume Two: Sethian Gnosticism. Edited by Bentley Layton. E.J. Brill. p. 563-576.

[27] Layton, Bentley. 1995. The Gnostic Scriptures. Yale University Press. p. 5-8.

[28] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press.

[29] Wisse, Frederik. 1981. “Stalking Those Elusive Sethians.” In The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Volume Two: Sethian Gnosticism. Edited by Bentley Layton. E.J. Brill. p. 563-576.

[30] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 88.

[31] Burns, Dylan M. 2014. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 131-138.

[32] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 36-40.

[33] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 145-146.

[34] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 133-134.

[35] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 250.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 49-50.

[38] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 230.

[39] Ibid. p. 245.

[40] Stoyanov, Yuri. 2000. The Other God: Dualist Religions from Antiquity to the Cathar Heresy. Yale University Press.