Rel. 222a                                                                                                                      

What is Gnosticism? 

Some Definitions  


I. A Recent Scholarly Perspectives on the Definition of Gnosticism

A. Pheme Perkins, “Gnosticism,” Encarta 96 Encyclopedia (abridged by A. McGuire)   Gnosticism, esoteric religious movement that flourished during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD and presented a major challenge to orthodox Christianity. Most Gnostic sects professed Christianity, but their beliefs sharply diverged from those of the majority of Christians in the early church. The term Gnosticism is derived from the Greek word gnosis (revealed knowledge). To its adherents, Gnosticism promised a secret knowledge of the divine realm. Sparks or seeds of the Divine Being fell from this transcendent realm into the material universe, which is wholly evil, and were imprisoned in human bodies.  Reawakened by knowledge, the divine element in humanity can return to its proper home in the transcendent spiritual realm….To explain the origin of the material universe, the Gnostics developed a complicated mythology. From the original unknowable God, a series of lesser divinities was generated by emanation. The last of these, Sophia (wisdom), conceived a desire to know the unknowable Supreme Being. Out of this illegitimate desire was produced a deformed, evil god, or demiurge, who created the universe. The divine sparks that dwell in humanity fell into this universe or else were sent there by the supreme God in order to redeem humanity.  

History The question of whether Gnosticism first developed as a distinct non-Christian doctrine has not been resolved, but pagan Gnostic sects  did exist. Gnostic mythology may have been derived from Jewish sectarian speculation centered in Syria and Palestine during the late 1st century AD, which in turn was probably influenced by Persian dualistic religions (see Mithraism; Zoroastrianism). By the 2nd century, Christian Gnostic teachers had synthesized this mythology with Platonic metaphysical speculation and with certain heretical Christian traditions. The most prominent Christian Gnostics were Valentinus and his disciple Ptolemy, who during the 2nd century were  influential in the Roman church….During the 2nd century another strain of Gnosticism emerged in eastern Syria, stressing an ascetic interpretation of Jesus' teachings. Later in the century Gnosticism appeared in Egypt, and the emergence of monasticism there may be linked with the influence of the Syrian ascetic sects. By the 3rd century Gnosticism began to succumb to orthodox Christian opposition and persecution. Partly in reaction to the Gnostic heresy, the church strengthened its organization by centralizing authority in the office  of bishop, which made its effort to suppress the poorly organized Gnostics  more effective.....By the end of the 3rd  century Gnosticism as a distinct movement seems to have largely disappeared.  

B. Christoph Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 2003

To bring together a great variety of ancient groups or event intellectual currents under the terms ‘gnosis’ and ‘gnosticism’ in modern [scholarship] is to follow a strategy adopted by Christian theologians in antiquity, who sum up under the everyday word ‘knowledge’ (gnosis) diverse movements to which knowledge was as important as it was to many other intellectual currents and forms of religion of the time….‘Gnosis’ [and/or ‘Gnosticism’] in the strict sense remains what Michael A. Williams has called a ‘typological construct’ of modern scholarship. However, in historical study it can make sense to work with such typological constructs if they also help to see phenomena with related content….In an account we need only distinguish carefully between those phenomena which are associated through direct historical connections, those who are connected more indirectly through a common cultural climate, and those between which a typological connection can be made through agreements in content.


By ‘gnosis’ I understand those movements which express their particular interest in the rational comprehension of the state of things by insight (‘knowledge’  or ‘gnosis’) in systems that as a rule are characterized by a particular collection of ideas or motives in the texts:

1) the experience of a completely other-worldly distant, supreme God;

2) the introduction of further divine figures, or the splitting up of existing figures into figures that are closer to human beings than the remove supreme ‘God’;

3) the estimation of the world and matter as evil creation and an experience of the alienation of the gnostic in the world;

4) the introduction of a distinct creator God or assistant;

5) the explanation of this state of affairs by a mythological drama in which a divine element that falls from its sphere into an evil world slumbers in human beings of one class as a divine spark and can be freed from this;

6) knowledge (‘gnosis’) about this state, which can be gained only through a redeemer figure from the other world who descents from a higher sphere and ascends to it again;

7) the redemption of human beings through the knowledge of that God (or the spark in them);

8) a tendency towards dualism which can express itself in the concept of God, in the opposition of spirit and matter, and in anthropology (the concept of the human being).


II. Gnosis and Gnosticism Defined by Contemporary Practitioners


A. From The Gnosis Archive []

Stephan A. Hoeller (Tau Stephanus, Bishop of Ecclesia Gnostica, LA    


Gnosticism is the teaching based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means...Gnosticism expresses a specific religious experience, an experience that does not lend itself to the language of theology or philosophy, but which is instead closely affinitized to, and expresses itself through, the medium of myth. Indeed, one finds that most Gnostic scriptures take the forms of myths. The term “myth” should not here be taken to mean “stories that are not true”, but rather, that the truths embodied in these myths are of a different order from the dogmas of theology or the statements of philosophy. In the following summary, we will attempt to encapsulate in  prose what the Gnostic myths express in their distinctively  poetic and imaginative language…


Some writers make a distinction between “Gnosis” and “Gnosticism”. Such distinctions are both helpful and misleading. Gnosis is undoubtedly an experience based not in concepts and precepts, but in the sensibility of the heart. Gnosticism, on the other hand, is the world-view based on the experience of Gnosis. For this reason, in languages other than English, the word Gnosis is often used to denote both the experience and the world view (die Gnosis in German, la Gnose in French).


B. What is Gnosticism? by Jordan Stratford, Minister of the Apostolic Johannite Church 

From The Gnostic Sanctuary Home Page 

Scholar Hans Jonas has stated that the relevant question is not "What is Gnosticism?", but rather "What was Gnosticism?" This approach has been the basis for a virtual industry of scholarship and literature. Unfortunately, it fails to address the wellspring of interest as Gnosis as a living spiritual tradition, and the thousands of Gnostics today who embrace Gnosticism as their religion.  Gnosis is a Greek word that means simply "to know". The term Gnosticism was coined by scholars in the last century to categorize a number of differing historic religious traditions which attained prominence during the second century C.E....To many academics, the term Gnostic simply refers to any sect of early Christianity that was dismissed by the Roman church in the fourth century as "heretical". 


The experience of Gnosis is as old as the first human soul. It is an epiphany that is the right of every individual. In this context we see a parallel in the Zen idea of satori.  The historical origins of Gnosticism are "up for grabs", so to speak. Some see it as a fusion between Christianity and Greek philosophy. Others see Gnostic origins in Jewish mysticism, or the astrological religions of ancient Persia......Because of persecution, Gnosticism declined in popularity but survived as an underground movement. Its first resurgence was in the form of the Gnostic Mani in 240. The Manicheans fled persecution through central Europe and Asia, settling in Bulgaria, Bosnia, and China, where the tradition remained strong for nine hundred years. There is a very strong Gnostic echo found in the religion of the Cathars of medieval France. While nominally Christian, they repudiated both the Crucifixion and Roman authority. In the only Crusade against fellow Christians, thousands of Cathars were slaughtered in 1244.  There is much evidence of Gnostic practice in the history of the Knights Templar... During the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandolla, John Dee, Giordano Bruno, Paracelsus and others were open advocates of humanistic Gnosticism. Claiming descent from the Templars were the Rosicrucians, principal of whom was Johann Valentinus Andrae....For a time, Gnosticism thrived under the domain of Freemasonry....Theosophists and occultists found in Gnosticism a spiritual framework that acknowledged the spiritual nobility of humanity, and an anti-authoritarian flavor that was to suit their avant-garde  personalities. 



III. A Proposal for the Use of the Terms “Gnosis” and “Gnosticism” in the Course


For the purposes of this course, we will use the term "Gnosticism" critically to designate a particular type of religious thought or worldview that is represented in many texts of the Nag Hammadi Library, as well as other sources. Crucial to these sources is an emphasis on the saving power of "Gnosis," esoteric religious knowledge, grounded in religious experience  and/or in the revelation of a mythic narrative of creation and redemption that conveys secret knowledge of the true self, the divine, and of all that exists. One classic text of Christian Gnosticism, for example, states: "It is not baptism alone that makes us free, but the knowledge (gnosis) of who we are, what we have become; where we were; where we have been cast out of; where we are bound for; from what we are delivered; what birth is; and what rebirth is." [Excerpts from Theodotus 78.2]. Those who possess such "Gnosis" often understand themselves to have achieved salvation. They have been redeemed from ignorance and from the evil and corrupt powers that govern the cosmos, human history, and the individual self. Under this broad definition, "Gnosticism" flourished in its "classic" form in the ancient Mediterranean world of the second to fourth centuries C.E, but has reappeared in various forms among religious thinkers and communities that have cultivated a similar spirituality with an emphasis on the saving power of religious knowledge or "Gnosis."