Gnostic Sects

If you’ve read anything about Gnosticism before, you may have been confronted with several arcane names of alleged Gnostic sects: “Ophites,” “Cainites,” “Barbeloites,” “Archontics,” and others.

However, it’s highly unlikely that such Gnostic sects – that is, groups of people who called themselves “Gnostics” but were more specialized than just “Gnostics” – actually existed in antiquity. The only ancient sources in which they’re mentioned are the works of the heresiologists (early Christian “heresy hunters”) Hippolytus and Epiphanius. Both of them relied exclusively on the works of their predecessor Irenaeus for their accounts of Gnostic sects, but they went well beyond Irenaeus’s reports in an attempt to “flesh them out.” Where they made it look like they were giving additional information that Irenaeus didn’t cover, they were really providing nothing but their own baseless speculations about the existence of discrete sects within the group that Irenaeus referred to as simply “Gnostics.” Their “reports” are therefore just garbled misunderstandings of Irenaeus’s earlier, simpler, and surely more accurate characterization.[1]

Thus, as far as we can tell today, there never were any “Ophites,” “Cainites,” “Barbeloites,” “Archontics,” etc.

Some modern people have postulated that there was a distinct “Thomas Christianity” or “Thomasine school” of early Christianity which produced the non-canonical early Christian texts that prominently feature Jesus’s apostle Thomas, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas, and the Book of Thomas.[2] The existence of such a sect or school is certainly more plausible than Hippolytus’s or Ephiphanius’s flights of fancy. After all, Thomas was the favored apostle of early Christian communities in Syria, especially the area around Edessa in eastern Syria. There’s therefore a credible setting in which a “Thomasine school” or such could have emerged and flourished.[3]

However, the weight of the evidence is against there having been a “Thomasine” sect or school, too. The reason is simple: the texts that center on Thomas don’t have anything in common except that. They share no common theological or mythological perspective. (And while the Gospel of Thomas and the Book of Thomas are probably Gnostic texts, the Acts of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas aren’t.) It’s implausible that they were created by the same group of early Christians.[4]

How, then, can we determine how the Gnostics organized themselves socially and/or intellectually? Unfortunately, the Gnostic texts themselves don’t explicitly say who composed them and/or used them.[5] Our best potential sources for an answer to that question don’t give us any straightforward or obvious one.

But all is not lost. The answer is likely to be found in a close reading of a source we’ve already mentioned: Irenaeus.

Irenaeus refers to the main rival Christian group he wants to refute as “Gnostics.” The word “gnosis” – the root of the word “Gnostic” – was used fairly commonly in antiquity, and the adjective “gnostic” was occasionally used as a somewhat technical philosophical term with the meaning “that which leads to gnosis.” But no ancient writers whose works have survived used “Gnostic” as a noun – as in “a Gnostic” or “the Gnostics” – before Irenaeus and the other early heresiologists, who used the label to describe certain theological opponents of theirs.[6]

Irenaeus almost certainly wouldn’t have used “Gnostic” to describe his enemies unless they were already known as “Gnostics,” because doing so would have weakened his polemical strategy. “Gnosis” had strongly positive connotations, so if Irenaeus had called them “Gnostics” when doing so wasn’t necessary to get his point across, he would have been giving them a compliment – surely the last thing he wanted to do! That strongly suggests that he only referred to them as “Gnostics” because everyone already called them that – a suggestion made stronger still by the phrase “gnosis falsely so-called” in the title of his major book (Detection and Overthrow of Gnosis Falsely So-Called, also known as Against the Heresies). That, in turn, strongly suggests that “Gnostic” was a label Irenaeus’s rivals already used for themselves. Irenaeus himself never explicitly says as much, but that’s the most plausible inference from what he does say.[7]

This interpretation receives corroboration from at least two more sources. Another early Christian writer and teacher, Clement of Alexandria, writes that his teachings are intended to make his students into “Gnostics” – which, in Clement’s usage, means spiritually and intellectually mature Christians. However, Clement goes out of his way to stipulate that what he has in mind here is something very different than those who already refer to themselves as “Gnostics” – thus implying that there were such people in Clement’s time.[8]

A third-century pagan Neoplatonist writer, Porphyry of Tyre, also speaks of a group of Christians whom he and his teacher Plotinus had encountered. Porphyry, too, calls them “Gnostics.” His lists of their scriptures and his descriptions of their theology leave no doubt that he’s referring to the same group as Irenaeus and Clement. And while it’s possible that Clement’s account was influenced by that of Irenaeus, Porphyry’s account is independent of Irenaeus.[9]

Thus, it’s virtually certain that the early Christian group whom Irenaeus refers to as “Gnostics” actually used that label for themselves in antiquity, and that they’re the same people for whom later heresiologists like Hippolytus and Epiphanius made up numerous confusing extra names.

But Irenaeus and other ancient records also speak of another closely related group of early Christians: the “Valentinians.” Irenaeus and another early heresiologist, Tertullian, treat the Gnostics and the Valentinians as two separate groups. Irenaeus says that although the Valentinians weren’t Gnostics, they were profoundly inspired by the Gnostics[10] – a claim that the Valentinian texts discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library confirm.

The Valentinians were so close to the Gnostics theologically and mythologically that it hardly makes sense to leave the Valentinians out of any in-depth discussion of Gnosticism. Most modern scholars therefore treat the Valentinians as being “Gnostic” in the same sense in which Paul of Tarsus was a “Christian” even though he never referred to himself as such, or the sense in which the pre-Christian peoples of Europe were “pagans” even though they never referred to themselves as such. This usage of the word “Gnostic” is admittedly sub-optimal as far as clarity is concerned, because to a casual reader it conflates “Gnostic” as a modern classification with “Gnostic” as an ancient Christian sect. But it’s the usage that you’ll find in almost any book on the subject, so for the sake of consistency, we’ll retain that usage here.

However, Bentley Layton has put forward a wonderfully helpful and minimally intrusive tweaking of this terminology. So as to differentiate the ancient Christian sect who called themselves “Gnostics” from the modern classification of “Gnosticism” that also includes the Valentinians, he’s proposed calling the sect the “classic Gnostics.”[11] I accept Layton’s suggestion. Throughout this site, when I say simply “the Gnostics” or “Gnosticism,” my remarks apply to both the classic Gnostics and the Valentinians. But when I say “classic Gnostics,” I’m referring specifically to the original Gnostics – the people who seem to have actually called themselves “Gnostics” in the ancient world.

So, in summary, it appears that there were two early Christian sects that were theologically Gnostic: the classic Gnostics and the Valentinians.


[1] Wisse, Frederik. 1981. “Stalking Those Elusive Sethians.” In The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Volume Two: Sethian Gnosticism. Edited by Bentley Layton. E.J. Brill. p. 569-570.

[2] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 104.

[3] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “Thomas Christianity.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 779.

[4] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 104.

[5] Wisse, Frederik. 1981. “Stalking Those Elusive Sethians.” In The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Volume Two: Sethian Gnosticism. Edited by Bentley Layton. E.J. Brill. p. 564.

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

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

[8] Ibid. p. 31-35.

[9] Ibid. p. 36-40.

[10] Ibid. p. 31-35.

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