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Gnosticism description and history, version 2

Founder: Some consider Simon Magus to be the Father of Gnosticism. However, Gnosticism has also been defined as a mystical religion said to be "as old as humanity itself."(Ellwood and Partin: 95-96) Gnostic beliefs can be "found in all religions and religious philosophies, from Upanishads to the wisdom of ancient Egypt, and from the Gathas of Zarathustra to the mystery-cults of Greece and Rome."(Ellwood and Partin: 96) There are others who say that Gnosticism was built upon the combined teachings of its important leaders. Some of these include Basilides, Valentinus, Marcion, Ptolemaeus, Cerinthus, Menander, Simon Magus, and Saturninus (Grant: 30-43).

What is Gnosticism: As noted, Gnosticism has been defined as a mystical religion (Ellwood and Partin: 96). It is a mixing of rites and myths from a variety of religious traditions, combining Occultism, Oriental Mysticism, astrology, magic, elements from Jewish tradition, Christian views of redemption, and even aspects of Plato's doctrine that man is not at home in the bodily realm (McManners: 26). Despite the fact that many Gnostic systems vary, they all have in common "a world view shaped by Hellenism and Neoplatism" and "esoteric Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and the ancient heritages of Egypt and Mesopotamia."(Ellwood and Partin: 92) One can directly trace some of the individual aspects of Gnosticism to their roots. Their beliefs in the resurrection of the dead and dualism come from Iranian-Zoroastrian religious ideas (Rudolph: 282). Their communities are organized like the Hellenistic Mystery religions (Rudolph: 285). Orphism and Greek background influenced the Gnostic belief that the soul suffers in this world and it is fate that man should have to endure it. In turn, living a righteous life leads to salvation (Rudolph: 286).

Gnostics consider themselves "people in the know. [They] are the elect, their souls fragments of the divine, needing liberation from matter and the power of the planets." (McManners: 26) They believe that God is found in the self as well as outside the self (Ellwood and Partin: 96). The greatest hope for the Gnostic is to attain ultimate, first-hand knowledge so that they may be freed from this world and return to the world of God.

History: Gnosticism has changed over time and through different leaders, however it flourished during the first several centuries (Edwards). There were two major parts of Gnosticism: the Syrian Cult and the Alexandrian Cult. The Syrian Cult was led by Simon Magus, while the other was led by Basilides. Basilides impressed "Egyptian Hermetizism, Oriental occultism, Chaldean astrology, and Persian philosophy in his followers."(Davies) Also, his doctrines intertwined early Christianity and pagan mysteries (Davies). Aside from his Gnostic leadership Basilides remained a member of the church in Alexandria until he died (Eliade: 571). When Basilides died, Valentinus took over leadership of Gnostics, incorporating some of his own ideas (Davies). He was born in Egypt, familiar with Greek culture, and was nearly a bishop (being passed up for a martyr). He then separated from the church (Foerster: 121). Valentinus incorporated the pleroma, or heavenly world, into Gnosticism. The pleroma consists of at least thirty aeons (worlds). He also believed that ignorance is the root of the world and if it no longer existed, the world would cease to exist (Foerster: 122).

During the 2nd Century, several systems of Gnosticism grew in Alexandria and the Mediterranean area, most of which were closely related to Christianity. This was a period in which Gnosticism came to focus on Gnosis itself, as a goal for Gnostics to reach (Edwards). This century was also a period when Pagan, Jewish and Christian forms of Gnosticism had the most influence on the doctrine and structure of the Christian Church, even though critics treated it a Christian heresy (Crim: 277). Valentinus and another strong Gnostic leader, Marcion, were the most feared by the Catholic church (Crim: 278 and Rudolph: 296). They offered an alternate or rival form of Christianity, which caused the church to begin setting up barriers to Gnosticism (McManners: 27).

Mani came into leadership, and "Gnosticism became a world religion when Mani (216-277) founded his alternative Christian Church."(Eliade: 572) Mani, the Jewish-Christian raised in a Baptist community, started Manichaeism. It existed for over one thousand years (Eliade: 572). However, Manichaeism disappeared in the West during the Middle Ages. When Roman Catholicism became the state church in Armenia, the Gnostics hid in the outskirts and mountains (Eliade: 572).

After the 3rd Century, Gnosticism practically disappeared. There was some attempt to revive it during the Middle Ages, but this was nearly impossible because any documents or material about Gnostics had been buried in the desert.

The recent revival in interest was due to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, revealing the writings and beliefs of the Gnostics (Davies). One sign that there was still interest in Gnosticism between these periods was the fact that William Blake, the poet and artist, was a known Gnostic during the late 1700's and early 1800's. Also, a man by the name of Jakob Boehme was noted as starting up modern Gnosticism in the early 1600's (Eliade: 572).

Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.

Sacred or Revered Texts: The Nag Hammadi codices were discovered around 1945 in Egypt, along with other manuscripts found in Medinet Madi in 1930 and in Turkistan between 1902-1914. The Nag Hammadi texts contain 52 sacred texts, which are the "Gnostic Gospels." It had been speculated that they were buried in a jar around 390 AD by monks from St. Pachomius (Nag Hammadi). Little was known about Gnosticism until the documents were found. Previously, the only evidence about Gnostics was from their critics, who regarded them as Christian Heresy, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Epiphanius (Gnosticism). An important aspect of the Nag Hammadi documents is their ability to tie Gnosticism to its roots. Many of the books are not actually Gnostic. The Gospel of Thomas is encratitic, Thunder, Whole Mind is Jewish, Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles is Jewish-Christian, Prayer of Thanksgiving is Hermetic, and Authoritative Teaching is early Catholic (Eliade: 567).

The contents of the Nag Hammadi codices illuminate the beliefs of the Gnostics. They describe the "unfolding of Divine Powers (called 'Aeons') from the Unknowable Godhead; the Cosmos as the result of a pre-creation error of crisis, and therefore evil; and the fall of the Light -- the essence of the Spirit or Divine Soul -- into the Darkness of matter, where it remains trapped until liberated by saving knowledge (Gnosis)."(Gnosticism) In Christian Gnosticism, Jesus is the Divine Messenger who brings Gnosis to humans. However, in Non-Christian Gnosticism it could be Seth (from the Bible), Zostrianos (a form of the prophet from the Persian religion Zoroastrianism), or a mythological entity (Gnosticism).

The Cathar Texts are also Gnostic writings from the medieval resurgence of Gnosticism through the group the Cathars. The writings of the Corpus Hermeticum belong to one of the non-Christian forms of Gnosticism, the Hermetics (Davies).

Modern Issues: Gnosticism is still present in modern times. Richard, Duc de Palatine established the Order of the Pleroma in the 1950's in England. He had Stephen Hoeller go to the United States to continue their work. Hoeller separated from Duc de Palatine in the 70's and started the Ecclesia Gnostica, a church, and the Gnostic Society. Hoeller's gnostic "church celebrates the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and Holy Days." (Elwood and Partin: 95) Their ceremonies and vestments are similar to the Roman Catholics, but the language uses Gnostic terminology. The scriptures are generally from Pistis Sophia or Gospel of Thomas (Ellwood and Partin: 95). There are other such gnostic churches. The American Gnostic Church in Texas was started in 1985 and their teachings reflect those of the 2nd Century Gnostic teachings of Basilides (Melton: 761). Rosamonde Miller started the Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum in Palo Alto, CA (Borce).

While there are example such as these in the West, there are also gnostics in "several Sufi orders of Islam."(Edwards) Also, at present there are approximately "15000 Mandaeans (Aramaic word for Gnostics) liv[ing] in Iraq and Iran."(Eliade: 570) In a more general sense there is "gnosticism in Jewish wisdom tradition, Kabbalah, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism" as well as in Sikhism (Edwards).


Gnosis refers to a knowledge that is essential to free oneself from the evil material world and bodily existence (Crim: 277). Gnostics believe humans err because they are ignorant, unlike the Christian belief that man is sinful by nature. Gnostics will receive salvation when they gain knowledge, gnosis. The knowledge must be of their inner self or soul. It is similar to the Hindu definition of meditation (Borce).

Some of the basic beliefs of Gnosticism are as follows:

"Between this world and the God incomprehensible to our thought, the 'primal cause,' there is an irreconcilable antagonism.

The 'self,' the 'I' of the gnostic, his 'spirit' or soul, is unalterably divine.

This 'I,' however, has fallen into this world, has been imprisoned and anaesthetized by it, and cannot free itself from it.

Only a divine 'call' from the world of light loosens the bonds of captivity.

But only at the end of the world does the divine element in a man return again to its home."(Foerster: 9) Another unique aspect of the Gnostic belief system is their view of the creation of the world. They believe that the true God has a feminine side, Sophia, the Spirit part of God. Jesus was a product of God and Spirit, and joined them to make up the Trinity. Sophia wanted to give birth to a being like herself. She proceeded without permission from God. The result was imperfect and she was ashamed of it, so she hid it in a cloud away from the other immortals. The child was the Demiurge. He was born with some power (from the Spirit) and used it to create the physical world. This trapped the "spirit in matter"(Borce). The view of the imperfections of creation are similar to those in Hebrew scripture, just as the Creator is incompetent (McManners: 27). The Gnostics taught that the Demiurge was Yehovah from the Old Testament. Jesus, on the other hand, they believe came from God and the Holy Spirit, not from the Demiurge. Jesus taught Gnostics the secret knowledge (gnosis), which he did not teach to the church. This belief created animosity between the church and the Gnostics. Also, contrary to Christian teachings about Jesus being born of the virgin Mary, Gnostics believe that Jesus entered Mary's body via sexual intercourse between Mary and Joseph (Borce).

Gnostics had several other beliefs that dismayed early Christians. They scorned bishops, priests and deacons, however, they let women hold leadership and liturgical positions (McManners: 28). Many Gnostics would not make the sign of the cross, because to them the "suffering of Jesus was no actual event but a symbol for the universal condition of the human race."(McManners: 28) Christ could not have become flesh in order to be crucified, since they believe that there is a separation of spirit from matter. They view flesh as polluting (McManners: 27). This belief would also support why they do not put faith in the eucharist, which is supposed to be the body of Christ. Mani, the leader of the Manicheaists, also did not believe in the drinking of wine, the blood of Christ, because he saw it as an invention of the devil. Many Gnostics also do not recognize the significance of baptism in water (McManners: 27). They also believe they are the elect group that will gain salvation, via gnosis, and everyone else will be annihilated. "Moral virtue was of little interest to Gnostics, whose confidence in their own salvation made all that seem a matter of indifference."(McManners: 28)

Gnostics also have a different view of the make up of the world. Aeons are worlds, or "distinct spiritual entities," which all together make up the pleroma, or fullness (Foerster: 24). The pleroma is above the cosmos and is the "spiritual Divine Reality," the true God's realm (Gnosticism). This is the place a Gnostic hopes to return to through salvation.