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A Definition of Gnosticism

Al Seeger
Religion and Culture of New Testament Times
Midterm essay
What is Gnosticism? This question has no easy answer, and scholars have debated over it for years. To solve this problem, if one considers it a religion, certain guidelines must be laid down. There are some traits common to religions around the world, so to answer the question of what is Gnosticism the scholar can put this belief system up to the following criteria: creation and cosmology, use of myth, ethics, salvation, eschatology. Most importantly, though, is the key religious experience.

By using these guidelines, distinctive features in virtually any of the world's religions can be drawn. Such guidelines can also help define Gnosticism, but the scholar will still run into some problems. Since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, the beliefs of this religion have been easier to define. Previously, all we knew about Gnosticism came from the people who despised them. Thus, a clear, unbiased picture of this religion is impossible to obtain from these sources. The NHL has given us a clearer picture, but one must remember the term "Gnostic" is a later invention, and one that far predates the discovery of the NHL. However, not all texts from the NHL can be considered Gnostic, so a text must be carefully examined before it can be classified as Gnostic.

Cosmology and Creation

Gnostic texts have a variety of ways to express the creation, but in each case the idea is the same: The material world is evil and the product of a cruel, twisted creator god. Most of the key figures in each creation myth remain the same, but their actions differ. Gnostic creation goes deeper than the mere formation of the material world, though. It plunges into the very nature of reality. Gnostics believe there is a transcendent, unknowable being simply called the "True Father" or "Living Father." From this being came a number of other beings: the Mother, the Autogenes (in some texts), and a multitude of celestial entities. These entities came in male/female pairs, and one of the key themes in later Gnostic myths is the disaster that occurs when the feminine half acts without the male half. The best known example of this theme is the creation of Yaldaboath, an entity the Gnostics believed was the Biblical Yahweh. This creator lacked a male parent, and thus was imperfect and believed he was the most powerful being in the universe. However, he does possess some of the light of the True Father, and he traps this light within flesh in the physical world. He is said to dwell in the seventh heaven where he believes there is nothing higher than his abode, but the Gnostics know he is mistaken.

Gnostic cosmology also varies, but the common theme of a number of heavens can be found in all accounts. The exact number of heavens is not clear, but there are at least seven and perhaps more. Each of these heavens is guarded by a being know as an Archon. These entities are responsible for extracting a password from the soul attempting to return to the Father. As The Apocalypse of Paul illustrates, the soul that fails to give the correct password is sent into the world to be reborn. Above all the heavens is the plenora, or light. This is the home of the Father and the realm all Gnostics aspire to reach. There is also mention of an underworld and an abyss, but the their purpose is not known. Possibly, these realms may have been borrowed from Greek, Jewish, and Mesopotamian sources.

Use of Myth

The use of myth is a key factor in many world religions. Karen King, in her article "Mackinations on Myth and Origins," defines two schools of mythic thinking by paraphrasing the ideas of a number of noted scholars and thinkers. The first school sees myth as a fundamental expression of reality and takes a more psychological approach. Freud and Durkheim are two such thinkers listed in this school. Myth needs to be interpreted, and when this is done it often tells us something about our mind or society. The second school sees myth with a clearly defined function, one that is key to understanding human life. King places Jung, Levi-Strauss, and Cassirer in this school. These scholars see myth more as a system of thinking, taking a more philosophical approach. Levi-Strauss, for example, sees myth as a mode of though equal to science, but one that deals with a different set of problems and questions.

King also mentions the works of Hans Jonas, who views Gnostic myth as artificial, or consciously constructed. Why? The Gnostic use of myth supports their cosmology. In addition, it also tends to re-shape the ideas of the Gnostics' cultures. The idea that the material world is the product of an evil creator who seeks to enslave humanity is present in many Gnostic myths, and sometimes appears to be a revolt of sorts against Jewish religion. However, this does not mean that all Gnosticism is a harsh critique of Torah! Gnosticism draws just as much off of Christian and pagan tradition as it does the Jewish tradition.

For example, On the Origin of the World and The Apocryphon of John both go into long discourses on the creation of the universe. They also contain narratives on the fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise. The description of the Cherubin in Orig. World 105.10 mirrors the descriptions of the living creatures in the book of Ezekiel. The concluding line of the same paragraph mirrors the divine throne room scene in Isaiah 6, with the snake like Saraphim angels praising God continuously. However, other texts like The Hypostasis of the Archons focus on pre-creation mythology, or what happened before recorded time. Such narratives are not unknown in the ancient near-eastern world. However, the Bible deals little with the matter. Scattered throughout the Old Testament are references to God battling a cosmic dragon and the waters of chaos, bringing to mind the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish. But since Genesis lacks a pre-creation battle narrative, it is possible the Gnostics were more influenced by pagan creation myths than the creation account in Torah.

Gnostic pre-creation mythology is an important, underlying factor that shapes this religion as a distinct belief system. The Gnostics believed the human soul was light from the perfect, unknowable entity that needed to return to it's source. Since the world's creator is evil, so the created must be evil as well. To the Gnostic, the physical world should be shunned, for the individual must make every possible effort to escape it. Gnostic wisdom literature, like The Gospel of Thomas, often compares this place to a garment, which must be shed; or else land that is being used, but does not belong to the user and must be returned.

Many Gnostic myths are clearly influenced by Judaism. One theory to account for this is that Gnosticism started as a Jewish spiritual/philisophical revolt. While some scholars believe Jewish Gnostics came later, there is no reason to believe Jewish Gnosticism wasn't an early development. Israel has a history of conquest and exile. At times, they felt they were in God's favor as they took over the lands of their neighbors. But sometimes, the Jews no doubt felt God was angry with them as they were taken over by a foreign nation. So after a few hundred years of being defeated and oppressed, some Jews no doubt began to think their beloved LORD was not the god he claimed to be. The world that Jesus was born into, as well as which Christianity and Gnosticism evolved in, was a hostile place under the rule of the Romans. One of the functions of myth is to make sense of the world, to make the individual feel "safe" during a confusing time. But after long periods of persecution, the idea of an all-powerful god who claimed to favor a patriarchal tribe of desert nomads was no longer working. It seemed God enjoyed watching his people struggle. Yahweh lost his credibility. The Gnostic reasoned the LORD from the all-powerful creator into a flawed, ignorant god who had no idea of the forces more powerful than he was. The Jewish Gnostics could interpret and construct their myths around this notion.


Little is known about Gnostic ethics. However, by using teachings from The Gospel of Thomas and going by what is known about Gnostic interpretation of myth, some possible conclusions can emerge.
It is all too easy to conclude that the Gnostics were amoral people who cared little about those of other faiths. They certainly weren't missionaries, for several sayings from Thomas emphasize the elite character of the Gnostic. For example, saying 23 states "I shall choose you, one out of thousand, and two out of two thousand, and they shall stand as a single one." There are also parables of the fisherman (saying 8) and the lost sheep (saying 107). These sayings revolve around the idea that only an elect few will enter the kingdom of the father. The central character passes up the multitude so he may choose only one, the largest and strongest. To the Gnostic mind, this was probably seen as the savior choosing not the physically strongest, but the spiritually strongest.

The Gnostic cosmology and world view also make the Gnostics seem amoral. To them, the material world is evil and temporary, something to be discarded. In a world where nothing is permanent and everything is evil, assistance for the poor and downtrodden would seem useless. After all, their salvation would depend on gnosis, so if the afflicted soul couldn't pass the Archons, it was his own fault, not the problem of the Gnostic. Hans Jonas records part of a statement by Irenaeus, where he informs the reader that, for the Gnostic, "…it is impossible for the earthly element to partake in salvation… (Jonas, page 270)." Later on, Irenaeus claims "...'the most perfect' among them do unabashed all the forbidden things of … Scripture… (Jonas, page 271)." However, given Irenaeus' attitude towards the Gnostics, such a statement probably contains his own colorings.

Irenaeus also classifies a Gnostic ethic in such a way that it almost seems he's talking about Hinduism (though the chance of any influence between the two religions is slim to none). He says the "…souls in their transmigrations through bodies must pass through every kind of life and every kind of action" (Jonas, page 273). In Irenaeus' understanding, the Gnostic must therefore indulge in everything. To be saved, he must sin. He must learn the role of the poorest farmer and the wealthiest merchant. This idea is similar to the Hindu caste system. The soul aspiring to enlightenment must first rid itself of all debts and obligations. But the Gnostic has the potential to be impeccably moral. The Gnostic seeks to be like the light and return to it. Irenaeus makes a statement that explains this, but he quickly adds a few extra words to disconnect the Gnostic with any sort of morality. He says "…it is impossible for the spiritual element (which they pretend to be themselves) to suffer corruption, whatever actions they may have indulged in" (Jonas, pages 270-1). He then illustrates this logic by comparing this spiritual element to a bar of gold dipped in filth, which will preserve its value and be uncorrupted by the filth. Irenaeus' own prejudices pollute an otherwise beautiful statement. A soul enlightened by the light of the perfect, Living Father mirrors the divine to the point where any sort of immoral action would be impossible, for the soul has tasted the infinite divine and now knows the horror the immoral act would bring. Such enlightenment is not possible from Yaldaboath, for this entity cannot recognize the power greater than himself. He is flawed and imperfect, so he couldn't hope to receive this revelation.


The process of salvation in Gnosticism is simple, yet at the same time complex. Where most religions require faith, good works, or a combination of the two to avoid damnation, the Gnostic believes salvation comes through gnosis, or knowledge. Though despite their elitist attitude, one of the more philosophical components of Gnosticism seems to indicate that even those who are not pursuing saving knowledge can return to the light eventually. However, there are an unfortunate few who seemed to be damned for life. Cosmology also comes into play when discussing Gnostic salvation. As stated previously, the Gnostics believed that above the material world were several heavens. Each one was guarded by an Archon, who would not let the ascending soul pass unless the proper word was given.

Evidence for this is found in The Apocalypse of Paul, which describes the ascent of Paul into the heavens. Page 23 records Paul's actions on the seventh heaven. While here, he speaks with an old man, who is understood to be Yaldaboath. The old man asks him where he is going, and Paul responds that he is going to the place he came from. The old man continues to question him, and finally the Spirit (possibly Christ) tells him to give him the sign. Whatever this sign was, be it a hand gesture or a drawn symbol, it allows Paul to pass on to the higher heavens. Previously, a toll collector is mentioned on the sixth heaven, an obstacle that Paul passes by command. There is also a scene on the forth heaven in which a soul is tortured, judged, and sent back into the world. Possibly, this can be interpreted that gnosis was not enough for salvation. Perhaps the soul could still be sent down to earth even if the correct passwords were known, if the soul had failed to accomplish righteous deeds or live out any obligations.

Once again, The Gospel of Thomas fills us in on a mysterious aspect of Gnosticism. Saying 50 has Jesus lecturing his audience in such a way that it is clear he is repeating a question and answer dialogue. Three times, he instructs the listeners that to say if asked where they came from, who they are, and what the sign is. The answers reflect three key themes in Gnosticism. First, if asked where they came from, they are to answer they came from the light, reflecting the theme of the light from the pleroma being trapped within the material world and the need to get back. Second, if asked who they are, the correct response is they are sons of the living father. The second answer reflects the Gnostic theme of a creator greater and more powerful than the divinities worshipped in the Gnostics' days. Finally, if asked for the sign of the father, they are to respond that it is in movement and repose. Perhaps this response reflects some sort of meditative tradition in the Gnostic religion.


Evidence for an end day theme is hard to come by in the NHL. It is not known for certain whether or not the Gnostics accepted, or even knew of, a final battle. Most likely, any sort of end day themes the Gnostics had would have been dependant on the religious background of the Gnostic. A Jewish Gnostic would most certainly have known about the Day of the LORD expressed in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. However, it is likely that he would have seen such a myth as nothing more than another one of Yaldaboath's punishments for mankind meant to make humanity suffer for one wrong or another. Christian Gnostics, on the other hand, may or may not have had a story equivalent to the events in the Book of Revelation. Many scholars believe this book was written during a time of intense Christian persecution (possibly under the reign of Emperor Nero prior to the first century). If Christian Gnosticism is an early development, then Revelations would have had no purpose in Gnostic thought. But if Christian Gnosticism is a later development, they may have recognized it.

But such myths of a final battle between the forces perceived as good and those believed to be evil probably wouldn't have been too important to Gnostic thought. The immortal soul can, and in most cases, eventually will return to the light of the Living Father. Thus, the world will only truly end when all the light from Sophia that was given for has returned to the alien God. In a sense, the Gnostic end is the same as the Gnostic beginning: to return to the single, uncorrupted source of life: the True Father.

The Key Religious Experience of Gnosticism: a Conclusion

In conclusion, the key religious experience of the Gnostic is important to understanding and classifying the religion as a whole. To discard all worldly trappings, discover the truth within, and return to the Light of the Father: that is the experience the Gnostic strives for. This idea threads its way through all aspects of Gnostic religion. The world is evil due to the actions of a twisted god (creation) and is divided into a number of realms in order to keep the soul from returning to where it came from (cosmology). Since the universe is ordered in such a way to prevent the soul from returning home, it is important to recognize the source of all reality and understand the structure of the universe (use of myth). To get back to the Light, the Gnostic must know about it and seek to become like it by distancing himself from evil (ethics). In order to do this, he must recognize the divine element within him by cultivating it with gnosis, which is the key to salvation. Finally, all this suffering in the physical world will end once the Light has returned to the beginning, the source (eschatology). The key to Gnosticism lies both in the beginning and the end, as well as everything in between.