“Gnosis” is a special, mystical kind of knowledge to which the Gnostics claimed to have privileged access. The very name “Gnostics” – which the classic Gnostics do seem to have used to refer to themselves[1] – means “those with gnosis,” and indicates just how essential gnosis was to their sense of identity.

Gnosis in Antiquity Before the Gnostics

The concept of gnosis was discussed widely and prominently in the ancient world before the Gnostics adopted it and tweaked it. It was probably most closely associated with Plato, who lived several centuries before Gnosticism first arose. Today, the ancient Greek word gnosis is usually translated as “knowledge,” but for Plato and those who came after him, the term only referred to one particular kind of knowledge, not knowledge as a whole. “Gnosis” didn’t mean everyday, ordinary factual knowledge. Nor did it mean knowing someone personally. Instead, it referred to special intuitive insight into the ultimate essence of something. Gnosis went well beyond what the senses could perceive, and it could only be obtained by particularly sensitive contemplation or by divine grace.[2][3]

The Jewish religion of the period also placed a considerable emphasis on a similar type of knowledge. For example, as the Wisdom of Solomon, a book of scripture written in the first century BC, says of God, “To know you is perfect righteousness, and to know your power is the root of immortality.”[4]

The so-called “mystery religions” (such as Orphism, Mithraism, etc.) that flourished throughout the Roman Empire in the centuries before Gnosticism came along claimed that gnosis was the gift their initiates would receive. This transformed them from ordinary people into members of a spiritual elite. The mystery religions, Plato, and Jewish religiosity largely agreed on this point: gnosis or its equivalent was only available to the aristocrats of spirituality.[5]

Gnosis in Gnosticism

The Gnostics agreed on this point, but they emphasized it to a greater degree than anyone before them by going so far as to call themselves “Gnostics,” “those with gnosis.” Their very name was a way of proclaiming to others, “We are the true spiritual elite.”

When the Gnostics used the word “gnosis,” they were referring to something that overlapped significantly with the earlier uses of the word, but also had somewhat different and additional shades of meaning due to its placement within their anticosmic mythos and worldview. For them, gnosis was the realization that one didn’t really belong in this senseless world, but rather in a divine world that’s utterly unlike it and separate from it.[6]

This wasn’t a mere intellectual realization, however. This Heaven (the Pleroma or “Fullness”) had to be experienced firsthand through mystical ecstasy.[7] As Hans Jonas puts it, gnosis was “not a natural condition”[8] – in fact, it was downright anti-natural. Normal human perceptual and cognitive abilities could never discover it. Only the heavenly spirit within oneself could do so, and this amounted to transcending the world and everything in it. The self finally understood itself as it really was, and through that radical self-knowledge it achieved liberation from any and all earthly circumstances and the humiliating, pointless suffering that went along with them.[9] To quote the Gnostic Book of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas), “Those who have not known themselves have known nothing, but those who have known themselves already have acquired knowledge about the depth of the All.”[10] And in the words of the Valentinian Gnostic teacher Theodotus, “It is not, however, the bath [baptism] alone that makes free, but knowledge [gnosis] too: who we were, what we have become, where we were, where we have come to be placed, where we are tending, what birth is, and what rebirth.”[11]

The experience of gnosis was the decisive means by which salvation was acquired – not belief in creeds, observance of sacraments, performance of moral behavior, obedience to a church hierarchy, or anything else that was ultimately just a matter of outward speech and actions and therefore belonged to the mundane world rather than the divine world. The Gnostic Gospel of Philip laments that many people “go down into the water [of baptism] and come up without having received anything.”[12] And the Gnostic Secret Book of James says the same thing in positive terms rather than in negative terms: gnosis is “how you can acquire heaven’s kingdom for yourselves.”[13]

But gnosis was more than just the means of salvation: it was salvation itself. One didn’t have to wait until after death to be saved. One could be saved internally while one was still alive, even though those moments of salvation were surely only rare and fleeting things. As the Gnostic Treatise on the Resurrection says, “Leave the state of dispersion and bondage, and then you already have resurrection.”[14]

All, or at least nearly all, second-century Christian groups agreed that Christ had come to earth to bring salvation to people. But they disagreed vehemently over what exactly Jesus’s salvation-enabling message and deeds had been. For the Gnostics, the point of Christ’s mission on earth had been to point people in the direction of gnosis through his teachings – which were something like a residue of gnosis, and which could be used as a set of clues to help one to find gnosis for himself or herself – and through proving the immortality of the spirit by outliving the death of his human body. (See Jesus Christ in Gnosticism for more on this.) Jesus hadn’t been an absolutely unique kind of being, but rather a model for others to aspire toward – to gain gnosis and thereby become united with God and Christ. According to the Gospel of Philip, the successful Gnostic is “no longer a Christian, but a Christ.”[15]

The Politics of Salvation

The Gnostic view of salvation was bitterly opposed by another group of early Christians: the so-called “proto-orthodox,” from whom “Christianity” as we know it today is descended (including its Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox varieties).

For the proto-orthodox, salvation wasn’t something that occurred within an individual’s spirit whenever that person had a mystical experience. Instead, salvation would occur for all true Christians collectively at some unknown date in the future when their bodies would be raised from the dead, just as the proto-orthodox believed Jesus’s body had been.[16][17] Furthermore, this salvation wouldn’t be based on gnosis or any other hallmark of inner spiritual maturity, but rather on outward social criteria: Does this person profess to be a Christian? Is he or she willing to undergo martyrdom? Has he or she been baptized? Does he or she submit to the clergy? Etc.[18]

Both the Gnostics and the proto-orthodox could point to the mutually-cherished writings attributed to the apostles Paul and John to justify their views.[19] And both camps claimed that their teachings had been passed down to them from the greatest luminaries among Jesus’s first followers, and thus had the stamp of apostolic authority.

But they told different stories about the method by which these teachings were transmitted down through the generations, stories that were in keeping with the larger differences between their worldviews. For the proto-orthodox, the true doctrines of the apostles had been bequeathed to them through the succession of the occupants of particular institutional offices: Bishop So-and-So had gotten them from Bishop What’s-His-Name, who in turn had gotten them from the apostle Peter, who naturally had gotten them from Jesus himself, and the like. They called this standard the “rule of faith.”[20] The Gnostics, however, claimed that their own teachings had been delivered by Christ and other biblical figures through direct revelations to spiritually advanced individuals. No institutional intermediaries were necessary.[21]

These differences between the Gnostics and the proto-orthodox over the nature of salvation and spiritual authority weren’t dry academic disputes. They went hand in hand with the two groups’ social ambitions in the politics of the early Christian church. The Gnostics believed that the true church was comprised of those with gnosis, which made the proto-orthodox illegitimate, authoritarian pretenders. The proto-orthodox, meanwhile, held that the true church was comprised of those who obeyed the clergy – by which they meant the proto-orthodox clergy specifically – and cast the Gnostics as conceited, deluded subversives.[22]

So, for example, the Gnostic Revelation of Peter called the proto-orthodox “dry canals” who “name themselves ‘bishop’ and also ‘deacons,’ as if they have received their authority from God,” but are in reality “blind and deaf” and “without perception.”[23] Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the supreme champions of proto-orthodoxy, in turn characterized the Gnostics as “thieves and robbers… false persons, evil seducers, and hypocrites.”[24] Irenaeus’s proto-orthodox colleague Bishop Ignatius of Antioch accordingly demanded of all Christians, “Let no one do anything pertaining to the church without the bishop… To join with the bishop is to join the church; to separate oneself from the bishop is to separate oneself not only from the church, but from God himself.”[25]

But this stress on unconditional obedience to the clergy presented a problem for the proto-orthodox: what were they to do in cases where the clergy themselves were “heretics,” as was often the case in the first centuries after Jesus’s death? To remedy this, they set out to systematically hunt down, remove, and replace any members of the clergy who weren’t in agreement with them so that their position on spiritual authority would be consistent.[26] For example, Irenaeus got the late-second-century Bishop Victor of Rome to fire his presbyter Florinus for being a Gnostic.[27]

As the proto-orthodox became more and more powerful within the early church, one of the two main early Gnostic sects, the Valentinians, tried to compromise and make peace with the proto-orthodox in the interest of unifying Christians and keeping a place for themselves within the broader Christian community. They put forward the idea that even though gnosis is superior to mere faith (Greek pistis), faith is the lowest common denominator of what makes a Christian a Christian. All of those with faith (pistoi, “believers”) were fundamentally part of the same group, and they were decisively separate from those without faith (apistoi, “unbelievers”). Faith, said the Valentinian teacher Theodotus, is like the horizon that separates the sky from the earth.[28] The Gospel of Philip concurred: all of those with faith, it said, “have found Life,” irrespective of their differences.[29] Another Valentinian text, the Gospel of Truth, pleaded that “faith came, did away with division, and brought the warm fullness of love.”[30]

But the Valentinians’ yearning for love and harmony proved to be no match for brute power. The proto-orthodox got what they wanted, and they and their descendants rather than the Gnostics or anyone else have overwhelmingly gotten to define what “Christianity” is ever since.

References:

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

[2] Markschies, Christoph. 2003. Gnosis: An Introduction. Translated by John Bowden. T & T Clark. p. 1-3.

[3] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 12-13.

[4] Markschies, Christoph. 2003. Gnosis: An Introduction. Translated by John Bowden. T & T Clark. p. 3-4.

[5] Ibid. p. 4-5.

[6] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 12-13.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon Press. p. 34.

[9] Ibid. p. 34-35.

[10] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Book of Thomas.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 239.

[11] Thomassen, Einar. 2008. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” Brill. p. 136.

[12] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 104-105.

[13] Scopello, Madeleine, and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Secret Book of James.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 27.

[14] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 117.

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

[16] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 117.

[17] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 169.

[18] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 104-105.

[19] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 162-165.

[20] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 122.

[21] Ibid. p. 70-71.

[22] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 105-106.

[23] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 185-186.

[24] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 105-106.

[25] Ibid. p. 105.

[26] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 143.

[27] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 123.

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

[29] Ibid.

[30] Thomassen, Einar, and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Gospel of Truth.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 44.