Religion 222a, Haverford College

Prof. Anne McGuire, Fall 2011; 896-1028

This web-based syllabus will be updated regularly. Students should check this webpage before every class and follow the links to any additional assigned or recommended materials.

Course Description

Course Description: This course offers a critical examination of "Gnosticism" and the texts of the Nag Hammadi library. The meaning and usefulness of the category "Gnosticism" are currently under debate among scholars. Some scholars advocate dropping the term altogether. Others use the term in the traditional sense of an ancient Chrisitan heresy of the second to fourth centuries C.E. Others use the term in the broader sense of any religious worldview grounded in the spiritual experience of gnosis, or esoteric religious knowledge. Many scholars hold the view that "Gnosticism" can remain a useful category only when it is recognized as a category of modern scholarship that runs the risk of reifying, devaluing, and/or distorting those religious phenomena it seeks to describe.

In this course we'll use the term "Gnosticism" to designate a particular type of religious movement and worldview that emerged within the culture of the ancient Mediterranean world, and that is represented in many texts of the Nag Hammadi Library. Crucial to these sources is an emphasis on the saving power of "gnosis," a particular kind of esoteric or secret knowledge, grounded in spiritual experience and in revelations which often take the form of mythic narratives of creation and redemption. In most of these sources, gnosis, or true understanding, is presented as the key to salvation. 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" understand themselves to have been redeemed from ignorance and evil and and to have achieved salvation through their acquisition of Gnosis and their participation in rituals of rebirth and redemption.

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 esoteric religious knowledge or "Gnosis." Readings in the course will focus on the ancient evidence for Gnosticism, especially the writings of the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in 1945, as well as recent scholarly studies. The primary goals of the course are to develop the skills of reading and analysing Gnostic texts critically and to become familiar with the varieties of Gnostic thought, especially those of the Valentinian school, the Thomas traditions, Sethianism, and contemporary forms of Gnosis. We will also consider efforts to relate the evidence for "Gnosticism" to other varieties of religious thought, including Platonism, Christianity, and Judaism. Throughout the course, we will explore the literary form of the texts, their uses of gender imagery, and their varying conceptions of gnosis, salvation, and union with the divine.

Course Outline

  1. Introduction to the Course: What is Gnosticism?
  2. Knowledge of the Self and Salvation in the Thomas Traditions
  3. The Creation of the 'Gnostic' World: Plato, Genesis, and the Myth of Sophia in Sethian Gnosis
  4. Creation and Redemption in the Thought of Valentinus and his School
  5. Gnosticism and Gnosis in the Contemporary World; Topics in the Study of Gnosticism

Required Readings

Required Readings, available for purchase in Haverford College Bookstore:

Course Requirements

WWW Resources

Click here for links to some of the most useful WWW Resources for the Study of Gnosticism and Nag Hammadi. [under construction]


T 8/30 Introduction to the Course: What is Gnosticism? Definitions, Origins, Approaches

Th 9/1 "Gnosticism" as System of Thought, Religious Movement, Modern Construct; Major Varieties of "Gnosticism"

Recommended for further reading: R. Segal, "Introduction," The Allure of Gnosticism, 1-9; R. Miller, "The Experience of Gnosis," Allure, 199-203; C. Markschies, "Gnosis: An Introduction", 1-27

II. Knowledge of the Self and Salvation in the Thomas Traditions (1/29-19)

T 9/6 Self and Salvation in the Thomas Traditions: The Gospel of Thomas and The Hymn of the Pearl

Th 10/8 Creation and Redemption in the Gospel of Thomas

  • Recommended for further reading: Other translations of GThomas available online:
  • Gospel of Thomas trans. by Stephen Patterson and Marvin Meyer
  • Suggested Topics for Study/Papers: 1) Analyse and interpret 2-3 of GT's Parables. 2) Analyse the representation of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden in GT. 3) Consider the relation of opposites and other kinds of difference -- such as beginning and end; inside and out; two and one; male and female. 4) How is the notion of redemption (or salvation) connected to the theme of creation in GT?

  • T 9/13 Finding the Hermeneia, Entering the Kingdom, and Knowing the Self in The Gospel of Thomas

    III. The Creation of the 'Gnostic' World: Genesis, Plato, and the Myth of Sophia in 'Sethian' Gnosis

    Th 9/15 Stories of Creation Retold: Genesis, Wisdom Literature, and Plato in Gnostic Myth

    Th 9/22 The Mythic World of the Hypostasis of the Archons: Ialdabaoth and his Offspring in the HypArch; "Sethianism"

    Topics for Study/Papers: 1) Read the selections from Irenaeus and HypArch closely alongside Genesis 1-6, focusing on the accounts of human creation in Gen 1:26-28 (P) and 2:7 ff. (J) and their gnostic parallels. 2) Who is the Creator in the Hypostasis of the Archons? How does he fit into the structure of the cosmos? How does this figure relate to the God of Genesis 1-3? 3) Who are Adam and Eve, and what is their relation to one another, to the Creator, and to the two realms in the HypArch? What is the significance of these differences for the reader's perspectives on the nature of the world, its creator, and the human self?

    T 9/27 Adam, Eve, and their Descendants in the HypArch and the Apocalypse of Adam

    T 10/4 Sophia and the Creator in the Apocryphon of John: The Origins of the Gnostic Sophia Myth

    T 10/4 The Relation of Sophia and Christ; Adam, Eve, and Seth in the Apocryphon of John

    Th 10/6 Language, Ritual, and Visionary Experience in Sethian Gnosticism; Debates on the Theory of a "Sethian System" and "Sethian Gnosticism"

    T 10/18 The Female Voice of the Divine: Language, Spirit, and Wisdom in Thunder, Perfect Mind

    Th 10/20 Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, The Gospel of Mary, and Nag Hammadi Texts
    Double Class Session will begin at 9 a.m. in Gest 101

    Th 10/20 Representations of Mary Magdalene in Ancient Christianity and Contemporary Culture

    IV. Creation and Redemption in the Thought of Valentinus and his School

    T 10/25 Language, Creation, and Redemption in the Fragments of Valentinus

    Th 10/27 The Thought of Valentinus: Fragments and The Gospel of Truth

    T 11/1 and Th 11/3 The Mystical Theology of Valentinus: The Gospel of Truth

    T 11/8 The Teachings of the Valentinian School: Ptolemy's Letter to Flora

    Th 11/10 Ptolemy's Version of the Sophia Myth; Irenaeus's vs. the Valentinians (esp. Ptolemy and Marcus)

    T, 11/15 The Mystery of the Bridal Chamber in The Gospel of Philip: Gender, Sexuality, and Images of Union

    Th 11/17 Gnosis, Language, Ritual, and Salvation: Mysteries of Union in The Gospel of Philip 

    T 11/22 No Class; Attending Annual Meeting of Society of Biblical Literature, San Francisco

    V. Gnosticism and Gnosis in the Contemporary World: Philip K. Dick's Valis and Contemporary Gnostic Groups

    T 11/29 Gnosis, Science Fiction, and Alternative Realities : "By now Fat had finally lost touch with reality" (Valis, p. 100)

    Th 12/1 Reading Valis as Spiritual Autobiography (2-3-74) and Gnostic Myth

    T 12/6 Gnosticism in Contemporary Culture

    Th 12/8 Presentation of Research Topics

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