The word 'Gnosticism'
Gnosticism comes from the Greek word 'gnosis', which means to know, to seek, or to inquire. Gnosticism is a general description of a wide range of religious ideas, which became very popular during the second and third centuries. There were many different gnostic schools, all of which had different beliefs and practices, but who all claimed their particular group had the secret knowledge, which would alone achieve salvation.
Sources of our knowledge about Gnosticism
Until the middle of the twentieth century the teaching of the Gnostics was only known from the church fathers, who wrote works attacking gnostic teaching. There were a few early gnostic texts available, otherwise their teaching was only known from quotations and summaries in the writings of the church fathers. The most important of these was Irenaeus in the second century in Book 1 of his Against Heresies, as well as Epiphanus in the fourth century. A major discovery was made in 1945 when a library of fifty-two gnostic texts was discovered in Nag Hammandi in Egypt, which gave first-hand information about teaching of the gnostics for the first time. The most famous of these manuscripts is the Gospel of Thomas. The Nag Hammandi library has been translated into English and is available on-line.
What were the origins of Gnosticism?
Gnosticism was only in its beginnings during the period of the New Testament, but did not develop to its fullest extent until the middle of the second century. Gnostic beliefs arose from the Greek dualistic understanding, which separated the physical world from the spiritual world. According to the Greek philosophers, the spiritual world was the only real world, while the physical world was merely a shadow of this. God was considered to be pure spirit, who could not have anything to do with the evil physical world.
Gnostic thinking probably had its origins in Alexandria in Egypt, from where it spread throughout the Roman empire and infiltrated the church. Its exact origins are unknown, but probably grew out from a group of Jewish scholars in the early first century who were pondering about the character of God, the nature of reality and the problem of evil. In doing this, they reinterpreted their Scriptures and combined them with Greek philosophical thinking and mythological traditions, forming a Hellenistic religious movement. As it began to spread, it soon attached itself to the church, and incorporated some aspects of Christian doctrine into its thinking, particularly Jesus as the ideal redeemer figure. This phase is sometimes called incipient Gnosticism, or proto-Gnosticism, and was opposed by the apostles in the writings of the New Testament.
Tradition from the church fathers states that the father of Gnosticism was Simon Magus, the magician from Samaria, who was severely rebuked by Peter after he attempted to pay money to receive the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9-24). Following this event, he became a determined opponent of the apostles, particularly of Peter. Although he did not teach a fully developed form of Gnosticism, his teaching certainly had the seeds of Gnosticism in it. Irenaeus described him as the "father of all heretics" (Against Heresies 3: preface), and claimed that the Gnostics were disciples of Simon (Against Heresies 4:33:3). Simon probably became the focal point for the development of Gnosticism, centred in Samaria and Syria. Simon’s most influential disciple was Menander, who in turn trained Saturninus and Basilides.
Other Gnostic teachers
In their writings, the church fathers spoke out against many of the most well-known gnostic teachers, which include the following:
Cerinthus was a well-known gnostic teacher based in Ephesus who was contemporary with John the apostle, and his great opponent. Irenaeus recalls a meeting between John and Cerinthus described by Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna:
"There are also those who heard from him (Polycarp) that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, 'Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.'" (Irenaeus Against Heresies 3:3:4).
He was one of the first gnostic teachers to separate the human Jesus from the divine Christ. Irenaeus describes his doctrine as follows:
"Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered" (Against Heresies 3:11:7), and "they allege, that the Creator was one, but the Father of the Lord another; and that the Son of the Creator was, forsooth, one, but the Christ from above another, who also continued impassible, descending upon Jesus, the Son of the Creator, and flew back again into His Pleroma" (fullness of the godhead) (Against Heresies 3:11:1).
It is likely that John wrote both his Gospel and his letters to counter his teaching and influence in the church.
After being trained by Menander, Basilides moved from Syria to Alexandria, where he became a gnostic teacher before AD 150. He believed in a series of 365 heavens that emanated from the ultimate God. The powers of the last of these created the material world. He claimed that Simon of Cyrene died on the cross instead of Jesus. This teaching is shown in on the Nag Hammandi texts:
"For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. For their Ennoias did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height over all the wealth of the archons and the offspring of their error, of their empty glory. And I was laughing at their ignorance." (Second Treatise of the Great Seth 7:2)
Basilides had a disciple named Isidore. Both of these wrote books, which are all lost.
Valentinus became an influential and famous gnostic teacher in Alexandria, who travelled widely, and settled in Rome around AD 140. He taught that Jesus was the revealer of knowledge, who delivers people from ignorance and unites them with the Father. His theory was of thirty eons emanating from the Pleroma (fullness of the Godhead). The last of these was Sophia (wisdom), who mistakenly created the Demiurge or creator-God of the Old Testament. He had many disciples forming the school of Valentinianism.
Another school of gnostic thought were the Sethians, or 'the seed of Seth'. They believed that Seth was the representative of the Ultimate God through the heavenly Adam, and who was the revealer and redeemer figure, similar to Christ.
There were many other Gnostic teachers and groups mentioned by the church fathers. One of these were the Nicolaitans. In the letter to the church in Ephesus, Jesus commends the church for hating the works of the Nicolaitans (2:6), and criticises some in the church in Pergamum for holding to their teaching (2:15). This is how Irenaeus described them:
The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practise adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate." (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:26:3)
Another famous heretic during the middle of the second century was Marcion, from Sinope on the Black Sea. He has often been classified as a gnostic teacher, but that has been challenged in recent years. However, he shows many characteristics of Gnosticism, including a strongly dualistic theology, and rejection of the Jewish creator-God of Old Testament. He only accepted a limited canon of Scripture including Luke’s Gospel, and some of Paul’s letters.
Characteristics of Gnosticism
Gnosticism was an attempt at answering the centuries-old problem of the relationship between good and evil. Members of the gnostic sects were convinced that they possessed secret and mysterious knowledge, which they had received by revelation. This knowledge was deeply veiled to the world around them, and could not be found outside the teaching of their group. Gnostics received this knowledge by being initiated into one of the gnostic sects. Salvation was achieved by receiving this esoteric knowledge. In Gnosticism, knowledge took the place of faith, so the gnostics became a club of the illuminated, rather than the society of the redeemed. Gnosticism should be categorised as a mystery religion.
By nature, Gnosticism was highly syncretistic. It brought ideas from Jewish thinking and eastern paganism, as well as incorporating misunderstood concepts from Christianity. It also tended to adapt itself to embrace other systems of thought, including Christianity.
The Greek philosophers tended to have a very negative view of the physical world and of the human body. Plato taught that God was the ultimate principle of form and order, but was not personal. He said that the earth was an inferior place, and that God was far removed from they physical world, therefore the earth must have been created by a lesser spiritual being. God would be defiled if he ever came to the earth. Plato also taught that the material or physical world was merely a shadow of the real spiritual world. Aristotle taught that God was so transcendent, that he didn't even know that the world existed. This led to a strong dualism, making a distinction and separation of the spiritual world from the physical world.
Gnosticism grew out of this Greek dualism. The spiritual world was believed to be totally good and pure, but matter was thought of as totally evil, and the source of all evil. Gnostics tended to despise the world because it was made of matter, and particularly to despise the physical human body. The body was a vile prison house which imprisoned the spirit of man, which was the seed of God and completely good. The aim in life was to release this heavenly seed from the evil physical body. This could only be achieved by receiving secret knowledge from gnostic teachers and participating in complicated and secret rituals.
This dualistic philosophy that all matter is evil inevitably challenged the Christian view of the nature of God and creation, the incarnation of Jesus, and the nature of sin.
Nature of God
Dualism resulted in God becoming very distant, unapproachable, and unknowable. God was incapable of emotion, feeling or passion. Gnostics believed that God is pure spirit, and therefore he cannot have any contact with evil matter. God therefore cannot be identified with the creator-God of the Old Testament. Instead they taught that the physical world was created by an evil god, or 'Demiurge', identified as the God of the Jews, and author of the Old Testament. Some taught that the physical world resulted from the fall of 'wisdom'.
To bridge the gulf between man and the distant unknowable god, and to explain how a wholly good Supreme Being could create an evil physical universe, different gnostic teachers speculated about a complicated hierarchical series of 'aeons' or 'emanations'. These were a series of spirit beings, which were descended from the invisible God and served as intermediaries between man and God. Some teachers, such as Valentinus, claimed that there was a company of the eight highest beings known as the Ogdoad. From these a further five pairs of aeons came, known as the Deod, and another six pairs known as the Dodecad. All thirty of these together formed the 'fullness of the godhead' or 'pleroma'. Names of these emanations included Wisdom, Truth, Mind, Word, Life, Man, and Church. From Mind came another pair of Aeons called Christ and Holy Spirit.
Gnostic teachers incorporated many concepts from the Christian faith into their speculations, so it is easy to see how people in the churches could be confused and led astray from the faith by these teachers, particularly as they claimed to bring a superior form of Christian thought.
The incarnation of Jesus
Gnosticism inevitably led to a denial of the incarnation and humanity of Christ. In their dualistic thinking, it was impossible for God to take on a physical body, so they taught that Jesus was merely one of the lower level emanations.
Two forms of teaching about Jesus developed. The first was Docetism, from the Greek word 'dokein' (to seem, or to appear). Docetists taught that Jesus only seemed to have a physical body. He was only a purely spiritual being, with only the appearance of having a physical body, therefore he did not suffer and die on the cross. This concept is what is taught in the Gnostic Acts of John (AD 160), that the body of Jesus was sometimes immaterial: "Another glory also will I tell you, brethren: Sometimes when I would lay hold on him, I met with a material and solid body, and at other times, again, when I felt him, the substance was immaterial and as if it existed not at all'. and that he did not even leave footprints on the ground: 'And oftentimes when I walked with him, I desired to see the print of his foot, whether it appeared on the earth; for I saw him as it were lifting himself up from the earth: and I never saw it.'" (93)
The other form was taught by Gnostics such as Cerinthus. He made a distinction between the divine Christ and the human Jesus. Jesus was born as a man in the normal way to Mary and Joseph, and lived a righteous life of obedience to God. At his baptism the divine Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove, giving him supernatural power to bring news of the Father, who had been unknown before this time. Before the end of his life, the Christ withdrew from him, so only the human Jesus suffered on the cross, not the divine Christ.
This is how Irenaeus described the teaching of Cerinthus:
"Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being." (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:26:1)
The Gnostic Gospel of Peter (AD 130) claimed the Jesus showed no pain on the cross:
"And they brought two malefactors, and crucified the Lord between them. But he kept silence, as one feeling no pain.". It also claimed that before he died, "And the Lord cried out aloud saying: My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me. And when he had so said, he was taken up." (Gospel of Peter IV).
It was at that moment that the divine Christ left the human Jesus to suffer and die.
The Gnostic Acts of John (AD 160) even claims that while the human Jesus was being crucified, John was talking with the divine Christ in a cave on the Mount of Olives.
Thus, my beloved, having danced with us the Lord went forth. And we as men gone astray or dazed with sleep fled this way and that. I, then, when I saw him suffer, did not even abide by his suffering, but fled unto the Mount of Olives, weeping at that which had befallen. And when he was crucified on the Friday, at the sixth hour of the day, darkness came upon all the earth. And my Lord standing in the midst of the cave and enlightening it, said: John, unto the multitude below in Jerusalem I am being crucified and pierced with lances and reeds, and gall and vinegar is given me to drink. But unto thee I speak, and what I speak hear thou. I put it into thy mind to come up into this mountain, that thou mightest hear those things which it behoveth a disciple to learn from his teacher and a man from his God. (Acts of John 97)
It continues to claim that the divine Christ also said that he had not suffered,
"Nothing, therefore, of the things which they will say of me have I suffered: nay, that suffering also which I showed unto thee and the rest in the dance, I will that it be called a mystery." (Acts of John 101)
Sin and Salvation
To a Gnostic, salvation was seen as the way to escape from this evil material world, from the corruption of the physical body, into the pure world of the spirit. Sin was ignorance and salvation came through knowledge. This enlightenment would be achieved through the impartation of esoteric knowledge in a secret initiation ceremony.
Gnosticism was very exclusive, as they believed that salvation was only available to a small minority. The Gnostics divided mankind into two distinct groups. The first were the truly spiritual, or pneumatic. These were the Gnostics, who had the divine spark within them, and a deep longing to leave this material world. The others were the carnal or psychikoi, who could never rise higher than mere survival, doomed to an animal life, and who could never know what true religion was. To these, no salvation was possible. They had no longing to leave this world, so were doomed to perish. This system denied that people had any free-will. Christians were seen as potential targets for conversion to Gnosticism. True salvation was possible for them if they were initiated into Gnosticism and received the secret knowledge.
Attitudes to others
The Gnostics saw themselves as the spiritual elite, who looked with distaste, contempt or even hatred towards the unenlightened and carnal non-Gnostics. They thought that the carnal lived at no higher level than the animals, while the Gnostics were drawn from the intellectuals who had the leisure time available for the difficult and lengthy study needed to gain the knowledge for their spirits to escape from the body. The Gnostics were known for their great pride and a lack of love shown to others. For a Gnostic, the mark of true religion was contempt for ordinary people.
The dualistic separation of the physical from the spiritual led to two extremes of lifestyle. Both were ways Gnostics could show their contempt for the flesh. The first was asceticism. Because salvation was to escape from the body, the prison of the soul, some Gnostics aimed to subdue the body and its desires by a severe asceticism, which involved celibacy and fasting, or even deliberate ill-treatment of the body. Celibacy was seen as more spiritual than marriage. Some believed that humans were originally unisex, and it was the creation of woman that was the source of evil. They thought that the procreation of children simply multiplied the number of souls in bondage to the power of darkness.
The other extreme was licence, believing that because the body was evil, it did not matter what they did with their bodies, so its appetites could be indulged in and gratified without limit. The libertines taught that the soul within the body was like a pearl, which could not be stained in the mud. Many were involved in gross licentiousness, and boasted in their sin, claiming to be 'righteous' irrespective of their behaviour.
Gnostic threat to the church
The Gnostics used similar expressions to the Christians, which would cause much confusion to ordinary believers. They had particular phrases, including: 'being born of God', 'walking in the light', 'having no sin', 'dwelling in God', and 'knowing God'. Their aim was to purify the church, and change Christianity into an intellectually respectable philosophy. However, their teaching denied the incarnation of Jesus, contradicted Christian moral teaching and destroyed Christian fellowship, thus making it a severe threat to the spread of the Gospel.
Early Gnosticism addressed by the New Testament
At the time the New Testament was being written, in the middle and later part of the first century, Gnosticism was yet to develop to its fullest extent. This did not happen until the middle of the second century. However the Greek dualistic world-view was firmly established well before the first century, and some early Gnostic ideas and teaching were already present in the later part of the first century. Some scholars describe this as incipient Gnosticism. These are some examples of where this early Gnostic thinking is countered in the New Testament:
The Greek-thinking and super-spirituality of the Corinthian church was fertile soil for gnostic teaching to spring up which Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians. Some in the church were claiming to possess knowledge with others didn't have (13:2, 8:1). Some were forbidding sexual relations within marriage (ch 7), or denying the physical resurrection (ch 15). There were also serious issues of sexual immorality in the church (ch 5-6).
In Colossae, people were involved in mystical speculations, worship of angels (2:18), and asceticism (2:20-23). Paul also uses several catch-phrases used by gnostic teachers, such as 'fullness' (1:19), 'knowledge of God' (1:10), and 'elemental spirits' (2:8).
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul tells him to instruct the people to, "avoid the contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge (gnosis)" (6:21), and "not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations" (1:4). He says that these people also "forbid marriage, and demand abstinence from foods" (4:3).
The letters of 2 Peter and Jude criticise the immoral behaviour characteristic of some Gnostics. Peter says they, "revel in their dissipation .. adultery, greed ..and licentious desires of the flesh" (2:12-18). Jude describes how they, "pervert the grace of God into licentiousness, and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (Jude 4), and "defile the flesh" (v8).
In his first letter, John gives the greatest attack against Gnosticism. In the light of Gnosticism and its emphasis on knowledge, the background of the following quotations becomes more apparent: whoever says, "I have come to know him" - but does not obey his commandments (2:4), whoever says, "I abide in him" (2:6), whoever says, "I am in the light" (2:9). He declares that the teachers of Docetism, those who deny that Christ has come in the flesh, are the spirit of antichrist (4:2-3, 2 Jn 7).
As noted before, two of the letters to the churches in the Book of Revelation mention the Nicolatians (2:6,15) who appear to be a gnostic group. There were also issues of immorality in the churches (2:14,20), and something "that some call the deep things of Satan". (2:24), which may be a reference to gnostic initiations.
Irenaeus stated that John wrote his gospel to remove the error of Cerinthus, and the earlier error of the Nicolatians, who separated the Creator from the Father, and Jesus from the Christ. This is described in detail as follows:
"John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that "knowledge" falsely so called, that he might confound them, and persuade them that there is but one God, who made all things by His Word; and not, as they allege, that the Creator was one, but the Father of the Lord another; and that the Son of the Creator was, forsooth, one, but the Christ from above another, who also continued impassible, descending upon Jesus, the Son of the Creator, and flew back again into His Pleroma; and that Monogenes was the beginning, but Logos was the true son of Monogenes; and that this creation to which we belong was not made by the primary God, but by some power lying far below Him, and shut off from communion with the things invisible and ineffable. The disciple of the Lord therefore desiring to put an end to all such doctrines, and to establish the rule of truth in the Church, that there is one Almighty God, who made all things by His Word, both visible and invisible; showing at the same time, that by the Word, through whom God made the creation, He also bestowed salvation on the men included in the creation; thus commenced His teaching in the Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word ...." (Against Heresies 3:11:1)
In the light of these quotations, John’s great statement of the incarnation, that, "The Word became flesh and lived among us ..." (Jn 1:14) can be seen as a strong statement against gnostic thinking.
The positive effect of Gnosticism
In response to the threat of Marcionism, the church started to define its own theology and began the process of defining its own canon of Scripture, identifying the books it recognised to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. This included the Hebrew Old Testament, and specifically excluded the gnostic gospels and their other writings.
The on-going problem of Gnosticism
Gnosticism and gnostic ideas are still with us today in the church, and in many 'modern' philosophies. Many modern cults such as Christian Science or Mormonism are Gnostic in nature. Whenever Jesus is removed from the gospel and man is put in his place, there is Gnosticism, and a humanistic religion.
Gnosticism is another form of super-spirituality. Whenever there is an emphasis on mysticism in the church and receiving understanding through special revelations, there is a danger of Gnosticism.
Other danger signs are: exclusiveness - claiming that your particular group is the only group with God's blessing, an emphasis on man's work in salvation rather than on the work of the cross, describing God as both male and female, sin being blamed on man's environment and circumstances, a tendency towards secrecy, and a dualistic separation of the spiritual from the physical.
In modern secular thinking, there is an increasing interest in Gnostic writings, with a tendency towards syncretism, particularly the absorption of ideas from eastern mysticism, claiming that there are many ways to God not just through Jesus. This leads to a distortion and misunderstanding of Christianity, the use of Christian terminologies but with a different meaning, teaching that salvation means self-discovery or of the god within you, a denial of the problem of sin, and a dualistic world-view.
Barclay, William, The Letters of John and Jude. The Daily Study Bible. St Andrew’s Press, Edinburgh 1976.
Burge, G.M. John, Letters of, in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. ed. Martin & Davids, IVP Leicester 1997
Scholer, D.M. Gnosis, Gnosticism, in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. ed. Martin & Davids, IVP Leicester 1997
Stott, John R.W. The Letters of John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. IVP Leicester, 1992.
Wright, D.F. Docetism, in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. ed. Martin & Davids, IVP Leicester 1997
For an example of modern Gnosticism, see the Gnosis Archive web-site: www.gnosis.org. This contains copies of the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of John and the Nag Hammandi texts.