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Encyclopedia > Gnostic Christianity

Gnosticism is a blanket term for various religions and sects most prominent in the first few centuries A.D.


General characteristics

The word gnosticism comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis (γνῶσις), referring to the idea that there is special, hidden mysticism (esoteric knowledge) that only a few possess. The occult nature of Gnostic teaching and the fact that much of the evidence for that teaching comes from attacks by orthodox Christians makes it difficult to be precise about Gnostic systems.

The word Gnosticism is also used to describe many modern sects. However, their doctrines have sometimes little to do with ancient Gnosticism, and there has always been a great deal of diversity with gnosticism.

Many elements of gnosticism are pre-Christian, and it is generally accepted that orthodox Christianity and its canonical texts do not predate the Gnostic movement, but grew up alongside it, out of some of the same sources. Many of today's scholars are convinced that the Gospel of Thomas was used by 1st Century gnostics as well as writers who lead to the modern Christian church. Other gnostic texts make no mention of Jesus, Christ, or other Christian figures.

Many Gnostic sects were Christians who embraced mystical theories of the true nature of Jesus and/or the Christ which were out of step with the teachings of orthodox Christian faith. For example, Gnostics generally taught docetism, the belief that Jesus did not have a physical body, but rather his apparent physical body was an illusion, and hence his crucifixion was not bodily.

The so-called Gnostic Cross, the circular, harmonic cross as used by several Gnostic sects, notably the Cathars
The so-called Gnostic Cross, the circular, harmonic cross as used by several Gnostic sects, notably the Cathars

There is really no universal symbol for the variant Gnostic movements, whether ancient or modern.


One of the main gnostic sects of ancient time was the Valentinians. They are usually depicted as holding matter to be essentially evil, and the human body especially. Indeed they are often described as being little more than a Christian heresy with extreme, negative views on matter.

However, modern efforts to assess this view have found it to be too simplistic. Firstly, the notion that early Christianity came into being fully possessed of a rigid doctrinal body and a similarly strict corpus of canonical texts is unlikely. Primitive Christianity is viewed by modern atheist scholars as a most fluid entity, which encapsulated many apparently contradictory movements and core beliefs of the period; what we would now call orthodox Christianity is a synthesis of some of these beliefs, just one among many differing Christian movements. Thus the notion of a central orthodoxy from which 'Gnosticism' - or any other 'heresy' - deviated, is considered an improper approach. One might note that the original meaning of 'heresy' - denoting 'those who have made a choice' - possessed no derogatory or negative connotations common in the modern sense: it was purely adjectival. It quickly gained these negative connotations however, from the many derogatory words and phrases that were applied to heretics. Furthermore, in the particular case of the Gnostics, the common view is all too dependent on representations of the movement observed from the point of view of its detractors. This is chiefly because most of the writings we have available are in quotations from their detractors, leaving little alternative other than speculation.


Some Gnostics, in common with such Neoplatonic philosophers as Plotinus, held matter to be evil only as a method of depicting its extreme distance from the monadic source of the universe (which is, of course, supremely good). Thus matter is not evil in and of itself, but only in its distance from and its contrast to its monadic source (compare summum bonum).

It would be more accurate to characterise the Gnostic relationship with matter as one taut with ambivalence; their views an attempt to explain and clarify the divine's relationship with the imperfect universe, and to create a contextual basis for the individual Gnostic's feeling of alienation within that universe.


Gnosticism generally taught that the Earth was ruled over by a lesser "god" called Yaldabaoth, also known as the Demiurge, after Plato. The Demiurge was the head of the Archons, "petty rulers" and craftsmen of the physical world. But human bodies, although their matter is evil, contained within them a divine spark or pneuma that fell from the Source, or Nothingness from which all things came. Knowledge (gnosis) enables the divine spark to return to the Source from whence it came.

Many Gnostics (especially the followers of Valentinius) taught that there was the One, the original, unknowable God (sometimes named Bythos, the Monad as it is called by Monoimus, or the first Aeon); and then from the One emanated other Aeons, pairs of lesser beings in sequence. (Valentinius listed 30 such pairs.) The Aeons together made up the Pleroma, or fullness, of God. The lowest of these pairs were Sophia ("Wisdom" in Greek) and Christ.

In the Valentinian Gnostic creation myth, Sophia sought the unknowable One. In one account, she saw a distant light which was in fact a mirror image, and thus drifted even farther away from the pleroma.

Sophia's fear and anguish of losing her life, just as she lost the light of the One, caused confusion and longing to return to it. Because of these longings the matter (Greek: hyle, ὕλη) and the soul (Greek: psyche, ψυχή) accidentally came into existence through the four classical elements fire, water, earth, and air. The creation of the lion-faced Demiurge is also a mistake during this exile, according to some Gnostic sources, as a result of Sophia trying to emanate on her own, without her male counterpart. The Demiurge proceeds to create the physical world in which we live, ignorant of Sophia, who nevertheless manages to infuse some spiritual spark into the creation of the Demiurge. This spark is the pneuma.

After this the savior (Christos) returns and lets her see the light again, bringing her knowledge of the spirit (Greek: pneuma, πνεῦμα). Christ was then sent to earth in the form of the man Jesus to give men the gnosis needed to rescue themselves from the physical world and return to spiritual world.

The three sensations experienced by Sophia creates three types of humans:

  • hylics (bond to the matter, the principle of evil)
  • psychics (bond to the soul and partly saved from evil)
  • pneumatics, who can return to the pleroma if they achieve gnosis and can behold the world of light. The gnostics regarded themselves as members of this group.

Gnostics identified the Demiurge with the God of the Old Testament, thus they rejected the Old Testament and Judaism and often celebrated those who were rejected by the Old Testament God. Some Gnostics were believed to identify the Demiurge with Satan, a belief which contributed to the suspicion with which many Christians regarded them.

Other Gnostics regarded the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a heroic figure because it wanted to help humanity free itself of the chains of Yaldabaoth: After the Demiurge comes to rule over the physical world, Sophia sends a message by way of the Serpent. She gives gnosis to the humans this way, which causes the wrath of the Demiurge, who believes himself to be the sole creator of the universe and the exclusive ruler of this world. The "original sin" thus is in a gnostic context the "original enlightenment", and not an act of sin at all. Humans also learn that Seth, the third son of Adam, was introduced to the gnostic teachings by both his father and his mother, and that this knowledge has been preserved throughout creation.

It should be noted that the Gnostics perceived the Old Testament as myth, and thus subject to interpretation.


Most Gnostics practiced celibacy and asceticism, on the grounds that the pleasures of the flesh were evil; a few however practiced libertinism, arguing that since the body was evil they should defile it, or that since the body was evil it did not matter what was done with it. This led to further distrust, and was an accusation leveled against other groups who did not follow this practice.

Gnostic sects

(Note: It is a matter of controversy if these sects had a real succession of ideas or communion with each other, or if they more or less coincidentally had the same basic doctrine.)

First, the gnostic sects are often divided into an eastern, or Persian school, and a Syrian-Egyptic school. The Persian school has a more definitive division between light and darkness, whereas the Syrian-Egyptic school is more platonist in character. The latter is the one usually associated with Gnosticism, and the one known to include several Christian elements. A group referred to as the Ophites fall in between both of these strains.

  • Persian Gnostics
    • Mandaeanism which still exists today, but is non-Christian in character.
    • Manichaeism which was an entire religion on its own, but is now extinct.
  • Syrian-Egyptic Gnostics


We have two main historical sources for information on Gnosticism: attacks on Gnosticism by orthodox Christians (i.e. Heresiologies such as those written by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Irenaeus and Epiphanius of Salamis), and the original Gnostic works.

Neither of these two sources are entirely satisfactory. Attacks on Gnosticism by orthodox Christians, hostile as they are, most likely suffer from some degree of bias; and orthodox Christians had a tendency to conflate the many differing groups opposing them. There were considerably more Gnostic scriptures written than orthodox Christian ones, which are hinted at throughout the orthodox scriptures.

Many Gnostic scriptures and other works were written, but until the late 19th and the 20th centuries, none of them were available, except in isolated quotations in the writings of their opponents. Many 19th century scholars devoted considerable effort to collecting the scattered references in the works of opponents and reassembling the Gnostic materials.

Several finds of manuscripts have been made since, most importantly the Nag Hammadi codices. But though we now possess a reasonable collection of Gnostic texts, they are still often difficult to interpret, due to the esoteric nature of Gnostic teaching. We are also faced with difficulties in identifying which teachers or sects authored which texts. The Nag Hammadi Library is available in an English translation and is without doubt the most important collection of source texts for research in Gnosticism. With some basic knowledge of Gnostic concepts, it is not too complicated a read.

Origins of Gnosticism

The origins of Gnosticism are a subject of dispute amongst scholars: some think Gnosticism is fundamentally pagan in origin, but has adopted a Christian veneer; others trace its origin to Judaism; yet others think it derives from Jesus, and is a development of his teaching at least as valid as the orthodox one.

It seems clear that Gnosticism, at least in some of its theologically more developed formulations, was heavily influenced by Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, old Semitic religions, Christianity and (at least in the case of Monoimus) Pythagoreanism.

Gnostic texts

Note that like everything else about Gnosticism, the identification of a text as Gnostic or not may be controversial, however most Nag Hammadi codices may be assumed to be Gnostic in essence, except for the copy of Plato and the "sayings" Gospel of Thomas.

Notable Gnostics

Roughly in chronological order:

Gnosticism in modern times

Gnosticism has been treated at length by several modern authors, philosophers and psychologists:

  • After a series of visions and archival finds of Cathar-related documents, Jules Doinel "re-established" the Gnostic Church in the modern era. Founded on extant Cathar documents with a heavy influence of Valentinian cosmology, the church, officially established in the autumn 1890 in Paris, France, consisted of modified Cathar rituals as sacraments, a clergy that was both male and female, and a close relationship with several esoteric initiatory orders. The church eventually split into two opposing groups that were later reconciled in the leadership of Joanny Bricaud. Another splinter church with more occult leanings was established by Robert Ambelain around 1957, from which several other schisms have produced a multitude of distantly-related occult-oriented marginal groups.
  • The traditionalist René Guénon founded in 1909 the Gnostic review La Gnose. He believed and throughout his works exposed the idea that the modern thought, according its preference to the quantity more than to the quality, is the root of all evil aspects of modernity. The whole scientific enterprise would just be the beheaded relic of a lost Sacred Science. Modern technology and its realizations, worshipped by his contemporaries, would have been just a latter epiphany of the Kali Yuga (alias Dark Age), in a Cyclical Conception of Time.
  • Carl Jung and his associate G. R. S. Mead worked on trying to understand and explain the Gnostic faith from a psychological standpoint.
  • The theosophy founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky enjoyed and wrote extensively on Gnostic ideas.
  • The philosopher Hans Jonas wrote extensively on Gnosticism, interpreting it from an existentialist viewpoint.
  • Eric Voegelin identified a number of similarities between ancient Gnosticism and those held by a number of modernist political theories, particularly Communism and Nazism. He identifies the root of the Gnostic impulse as alienation, that is, a sense of disconnectedness with society and a belief that this lack of concord with society is the result of the inherent disorderness or even evil of the world. This alienation has two effects. The first is the belief that the disorder of the world can be transcended by extraordinary insight, learning, or knowledge, called a Gnostic Speculation by Voegelin. The second is the desire to implement a policy to actualize the speculation, or as Voegelin describes to "Immanentize the Eschaton", to create a sort of heaven on earth within history. The totalitarian impulse is derived from the alienation of the proponents of the policy from the rest of society. This leads to a desire to dominate (libido dominandi) which has its roots not just in the conviction of the imperative of the Gnostic's vision but also in his lack of concord with a large body of his society. As a result, there is very little regard for the welfare of those in society who are impacted by the resulting politics, which ranges from coercive to calamitous (cf. Stalin's nostrum: "You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet"). This totalitarian impulse in modernism has been noted by Catholic writers, particularly in Henri de Lubac's work "The Drama of Atheist Humanism", which explores the connection between the totalitarian impulses of political Communism, Fascism and Positivism with their philosophical progenitors Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Comte and Nietzsche. Indeed, Voegelin acknowledges his debt to this book in creating his seminal essay "Science, Politics, and Gnosticism". The Catholic catechism makes an oblique reference to the desire to "Immanentize the Eschaton" in article 676: The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism. Other Catholic scholars have extended it using vivid imagery created by Abbe Augustin Barruel.
  • Samael Aun Weor has extensive commentary on the Pistis Sophia in his book The Pistis Sophia Unveiled.
  • In the United States there are several gnostic churches with diverse lineages, one of which is the Ecclesia Gnostica, affiliated with an organization for studies of gnosticism named the Gnostic Society, primarily in Los Angeles. The current leader of both organizations is Stephan A. Hoeller who has also written extensively on Gnosticism and the occult.

Gnosticism has also seen something of a resurgence in popular culture in recent years.

See also

Further Information


  • James Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, 1978, rev. 1988, 549 p., ISBN 0-06-066934-9
  • Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 1979, 182 p., ISBN 0679724532
  • Stephan A. Hoeller, Gnosticism - New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing, 2002, 257 p., ISBN 0-8356-0816-6
  • Karen L King, What is Gnosticism?, 2003, 343 p., ISBN 0-674-01071-X
  • Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, "Jesus And The Goddess","The Secret Teachings Of The Christians", ISBN 0-00-710071-X
  • Hans Jonas, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist. T. 2:1-2, Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie, ISBN 3-525-53841-3
  • Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim. 1993. Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia. Trans. & presented by Hans-Joachim Klimkeit. HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN: 0-06-064586-5.
  • Barbara Aland (ed.), Gnosis : Festschrift für Hans Jonas, ISBN 3-525-58111-4
  • The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs by Timothy Freke, Peter Gandy, Hermes Corpus Hermeticum (01 March, 1999)ASIN: 0874779502
  • Ki Longfellow, "The Secret Magdalene," 2005, 458 p. ISBN 0-9759255-3-9


  • The Naked Truth - Exposing the Deceptions About the Origins of Modern Religions (1995) ASIN: 1568890060

External links

  Results from FactBites:
Gnosticism (3815 words)
Gnostics classified people according to three categories: (1) gnostics, or those certain of salvation, because they were under the influence of the spirit (pneumatikoi); (2) those not fully gnostics, but capable of salvation through knowledge (psychikoi); and (3) those so dominated by matter that they were beyond salvation (hylikoi).
Gnosticism was denounced by the Christian theologians Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian.
Also among the Christian Gnostic tractates are the Apocryphon of James, the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, the Treatise on the Resurrection, the long collection known as the Tripartite Tractate, and three editions of the Apocryphon of John (the fascinating story of creation which involves a reinterpretation of the Genesis accounts).
  More results at FactBites »



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