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Gnosticism (from Ancient Greek: γνωστικός gnostikos, “having knowledge”) is a collection of ancient religious ideas and systems which originated in the first century AD among some early Christian and Jewish sects. These various groups, labeled “gnostics” by their opponents, emphasised personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) over orthodox teachings, traditions, and ecclesiastical authority. They considered the principal element of salvation to be direct knowledge of the supreme divinity, experienced as intuitive or esoteric insight. Generally, Gnostic cosmogony presents a distinction between a supreme, transcendent God and a blind, evil demiurge responsible for creating the material universe, thereby trapping the divine spark within matter. Many Gnostic texts deal not in concepts of sin and repentance, but with illusion and enlightenment.

Gnostic writings flourished among certain Christian groups in the Mediterranean world until about the second century, when the Fathers of the early church denounced them as heresy. Efforts to destroy supposedly heretical texts proved largely successful, allowing for the survival of very few Gnostic texts. Nonetheless, early Gnostic teachers such as Valentinus saw their beliefs as aligned with Christianity. In the Gnostic Christian tradition, Christ is seen as a divine being which has taken human form in order to lead humanity back to the Light. However, Gnosticism is not a single standardized system, and the emphasis on direct experience allows for a wide variety of teachings, including distinct currents such as Valentianism and Sethianism. In the Persian Empire, Gnostic ideas spread as far as China via the related movement Manichaeism, while Mandaeism is still alive in Iraq.

For centuries, most scholarly knowledge of Gnosticism was limited to the anti-heretical writings of orthodox Christian figures such as Irenaeus of Lyons and Hippolytus of Rome. Renewed interest in Gnosticism occurred after the 1945 discovery of Egypt’s Nag Hammadi library, a collection of rare early Christian and Gnostic texts, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Apocryphon of John. A major question in scholarly research is the qualification of Gnosticism as either an interreligious phenomenon or as an independent religion. Scholars have acknowledged the influence of sources such as Hellenistic Judaism and Platonism, and some have noted possible links to Buddhism and Hinduism, though the evidence of direct influence from these latter sources is inconclusive.

Gnosis refers to knowledge based on personal experience or perception. In a religious context, gnosis is mystical or esoteric knowledge based on direct participation with the divine. In most Gnostic systems, the sufficient cause of salvation is this “knowledge of” (“acquaintance with”) the divine. It is an inward “knowing”, comparable to that encouraged by Plotinus (neoplatonism), and differs from proto-orthodox Christian views. Gnostics are “those who are oriented toward knowledge and understanding – or perception and learning – as a particular modality for living”.

The usual meaning of gnostikos in Classical Greek texts is “learned” or “intellectual”, such as used by Plato in the comparison of “practical” (praktikos) and “intellectual” (gnostikos). Plato’s use of “learned” is fairly typical of Classical texts.

By the Hellenistic period, it began to also be associated with Greco-Roman mysteries, becoming synonymous with the Greek term musterion. The adjective is not used in the New Testament, but Clement of Alexandria speaks of the “learned” (gnostikos) Christian in complimentary terms. The use of gnostikos in relation to heresy originates with interpreters of Irenaeus. Some scholars consider that Irenaeus sometimes uses gnostikos to simply mean “intellectual”, whereas his mention of “the intellectual sect” is a specific designation.

The term “Gnosticism” does not appear in ancient sources, and was first coined in the 17th century by Henry More in a commentary on the seven letters of the Book of Revelation, where More used the term “Gnosticisme” to describe the heresy in Thyatira. The term Gnosticism was derived from the use of the Greek adjective gnostikos (Greek γνωστικός, “learned”, “intellectual”) by St. Irenaeus (c. 185 AD) to describe the school of Valentinus as he legomene gnostike haeresis “the heresy called Learned (gnostic).”

The earliest origins of Gnosticism are obscure and still disputed. The proto-orthodox Christian groups called Gnostics a heresy of Christianity, but according to the modern scholars the theology’s origin is closely related to Jewish sectarian milieus and early Christian sects. Scholars debate Gnosticism’s origins as having roots in Neoplatonism and Buddhism, due to similarities in beliefs, but ultimately, its origins are currently unknown. As Christianity developed and became more popular, so did Gnosticism, with both proto-orthodox Christian and Gnostic Christian groups often existing in the same places. The Gnostic belief was widespread within Christianity until the proto-orthodox Christian communities expelled the group in the second and third centuries (AD). Gnosticism became the first group to be declared heretical.

Some scholars prefer to speak of “gnosis” when referring to first-century ideas that later developed into gnosticism, and to reserve the term “gnosticism” for the synthesis of these ideas into a coherent movement in the second century. According to James M. Robinson, no gnostic texts clearly pre-date Christianity, and “pre-Christian Gnosticism as such is hardly attested in a way to settle the debate once and for all.” However, the Nag Hammadi library contained Hermetic teachings that can be argued go back to the Old Egyptian Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC).

Contemporary scholarship largely agrees that Gnosticism has Jewish Christian origins, originating in the late first century AD in nonrabbinical Jewish sects and early Christian sects.

Many heads of gnostic schools were identified as Jewish Christians by Church Fathers, and Hebrew words and names of God were applied in some gnostic systems. The cosmogonic speculations among Christian Gnostics had partial origins in Maaseh Bereshit and Maaseh Merkabah. This thesis is most notably put forward by Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) and Gilles Quispel (1916–2006). Scholem detected Jewish gnosis in the imagery of the merkavah, which can also be found in “Christian” Gnostic documents, for example the being “caught away” to the third heaven mentioned by Paul the Apostle. Quispel sees Gnosticism as an independent Jewish development, tracing its origins to Alexandrian Jews, to which group Valentinus was also connected.

Many of the Nag Hammadi texts make reference to Judaism, in some cases with a violent rejection of the Jewish God. Gershom Scholem once described Gnosticism as “the Greatest case of metaphysical anti-Semitism”. Professor Steven Bayme said gnosticism would be better characterized as anti-Judaism. Recent research into the origins of Gnosticism shows a strong Jewish influence, particularly from Hekhalot literature.

Within early Christianity, the teachings of Paul and John may have been a starting point for Gnostic ideas, with a growing emphasis on the opposition between flesh and spirit, the value of charisma, and the disqualification of the Jewish law. The mortal body belonged to the world of inferior, worldly powers (the archons), and only the spirit or soul could be saved. The term gnostikos may have acquired a deeper significance here.

Alexandria was of central importance for the birth of Gnosticism. The Christian ecclesia (i. e. congregation, church) was of Jewish–Christian origin, but also attracted Greek members, and various strand of thought were available, such as “Judaic apocalypticism, speculation on divine wisdom, Greek philosophy, and Hellenistic mystery religions.”

Regarding the angel Christology of some early Christians, Darrell Hannah notes:

[Some] early Christians understood the pre-incarnate Christ, ontologically, as an angel. This “true” angel Christology took many forms and may have appeared as early as the late First Century, if indeed this is the view opposed in the early chapters of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Elchasaites, or at least Christians influenced by them, paired the male Christ with the female Holy Spirit, envisioning both as two gigantic angels. Some Valentinian Gnostics supposed that Christ took on an angelic nature and that he might be the Saviour of angels. The author of the Testament of Solomon held Christ to be a particularly effective “thwarting” angel in the exorcism of demons. The author of De Centesima and Epiphanius’ “Ebionites” held Christ to have been the highest and most important of the first created archangels, a view similar in many respects to Hermas’ equation of Christ with Michael. Finally, a possible exegetical tradition behind the Ascension of Isaiah and attested by Origen’s Hebrew master, may witness to yet another angel Christology, as well as an angel Pneumatology.

The pseudepigraphical Christian text Ascension of Isaiah identifies Jesus with angel Christology:

[The Lord Christ is commissioned by the Father] And I heard the voice of the Most High, the father of my LORD as he said to my LORD Christ who will be called Jesus, ‘Go out and descend through all the heavens…

The Shepherd of Hermas is a Christian literary work considered as canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers such as Irenaeus. Jesus is identified with angel Christology in parable 5, when the author mentions a Son of God, as a virtuous man filled with a Holy “pre-existent spirit”.

In the 1880s Gnostic connections with neo-Platonism were proposed. Ugo Bianchi, who organised the Congress of Messina of 1966 on the origins of Gnosticism, also argued for Orphic and Platonic origins. Gnostics borrowed significant ideas and terms from Platonism, using Greek philosophical concepts throughout their text, including such concepts as hypostasis (reality, existence), ousia (essence, substance, being), and demiurge (creator God). Both Sethian Gnostics and Valentinian Gnostics seem to have been influenced by Plato, Middle Platonism, and Neo-Pythagoreanism academies or schools of thought. Both schools attempted “an effort towards conciliation, even affiliation” with late antique philosophy, and were rebuffed by some Neoplatonists, including Plotinus.


The Essential Dialectic of Gnosticism is:

{Divine-Knowledge ⇆ Secret-Teachings ⇅ Kingdom-of-Heaven} ↻ Divine-Spark


The Intermediary Dialectic of Gnosticism is:

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The Complete Dialectic of Gnosticism is:

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