Focus On Gnosticism
Written by leading scholars, the Focus On essays are designed to stimulate thought and to explore in depth topics of interest in the field of Biblical studies. New essays on specific themes, with links to related content within the site for further reading, are published throughout the year. All visitors to Oxford Biblical Studies Online can access these essays, but related content links in Previous Features are available to subscribers only. Please visit the full collection of Focus On essays.
Update Alert Service: to receive an email notice and details when a new Focus On article or site update is posted, sign up for Oxford Biblical Studies Online update alerts.
Stevan DaviesProfessor of Religious Studies
Walk into any large bookstore and you will discover a few shelves of books labeled "Christian" or "Buddhist" or "Jewish" while next to them you will see several shelves with the vague label "New Age" or "Spirituality." Today many people have left the comfort of the churches or synagogues they grew up in and have decided to understand religion for themselves, to be "spiritual" rather than to be part of any organized religion, perhaps to combine ideas from Buddhism and Judaism and Catholicism into a new synthesis that they create themselves. In ancient times, mainly in the first through the fourth centuries, religious thinkers of this sort were called "Gnostics." In roughly 180 CE Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France) wrote a long savage attack against the Gnostics entitled "The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge (Gnosis) Falsely So Called," in which he says angrily that "since their teachings and traditions are different, and the newer ones among them claim to be constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before, it is hard to describe their views." Irenaeus was certainly right about that.
Like today's New Age writers, ancient Gnostic writers delighted in coming up with new theories, highly variable creation myths, creative salvation schemes and imaginative descriptions of supernatural realms. Because the Gnostic texts contain such a diversity of ideas, scholars sometimes despair of ever coming up with a clear and useful definition of Gnosticism. Michael Williams has argued that the term "Gnosticism" is so overloaded with diverse meanings, so contradictory in the ways it is used by scholars, and so negative in its connotation when used by Christian clergy, that we probably should not use the label "Gnosticism" at all. I think that Williams is correct, yet I will continue on here to try and discuss Gnosticism in a meaningful way, while urging you to bear in mind that there is a great deal of variation in Gnostic thought that will not be reflected in the relatively straightforward account I will provide.
The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word "gnosis," which means "knowledge." The reason that Gnostics made "gnosis" their primary category is that for them salvation depended on correct knowledge. One might immediately ask, "salvation from what?" and "knowledge of what?"
Gnosticism postulates that human beings have divinity within them because a divine soul or divine wisdom permeates us. However, they observed, hardly anyone seems to know this. To know that you are fundamentally divine reveals to you that you are also fundamentally trapped in a non-divine material environment filled with demonic forces. If people are inherently divine, and if our divinity is trapped within a world filled with demonic forces, the god who created this world cannot be the same God who is the divinity within us. There must be a higher God in a higher realm than this one. Salvation, then, is an escape from this world into the world of the God beyond the creator god and demons of this world.
In order to escape from this world to the realm of the true God we need to understand how that divinity got trapped here in the first place. This is the essential Gnostic "gnosis," knowing how it came to be that we are God trapped in this world. If we can understand the cosmic process by which we came to be here, we can reverse that process and go back to whence we came. Understanding that cosmic process is the fundamental point of Gnostic mythology, which is a mythology of creation that describes the devolution of God into us.
Many ancient Gnostic manuscripts depict this process, which Irenaus called their attempts to "work out what no one ever thought before." But there is one "locus classicus," of the Gnostic myth that is found in a book called the "Apocryphon Johannis" or, in English, "The Secret Book of John." The Secret Book of John was probably written by Jewish Gnostics in the first century CE, or even a century before. While it is critical of the Jewish God, its terminology and mythic motifs and biblical citations show that it comes from a Jewish cultural background. In the early second century CE Christians revised it slightly to make it Christian; Jesus appears at its beginning and its end and Jesus is now the name of the revealer of Gnostic truth. There are no fewer than four surviving manuscripts of the Secret Book of John, three found in the great collection of Gnostic texts called the Nag Hammadi library and one in what is called the Berlin Gnostic Codex. In addition Irenaeus includes a summary of it in his anti-gnostic tract. If there is a single basic Gnostic text, the Secret Book of John is it.
Here is a brief summary of the Secret Book of John. First we hear of an unimaginable, indescribable perfect God, the being (beyond being) called Brahman in Hinduism, or Ein Sof in mystical Judaism. The Secret Book of John goes on at some length to describe how indescribable God is. Second we hear about the mystical structures of the divine mind, how God's mind contains a central realm of providence called Barbelo, and four subordinate categories of divine activity—truth, incorruptibility, foreknowledge, and everlasting life—then how further subordinate categories of divine being, mainly mental, come into existence. The Secret Book of John's description of the mind of God, called the fullness or, in Greek, the "pleroma," is conceptual and therefore below the level of the indescribable God. Third, we are told that Sophia, the Wisdom of God, seeks to know God objectively. But this leads to crisis because God is purely subjective. God's Wisdom imagines God and, although an imaginary God is unreal, it yet takes on a kind of inferior illusory being of its own outside of God's realm. This lower god has the name Yaldabaoth and is to be identified with Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible. Fourth, Yaldabaoth, who does have a portion of divine spirit from his mother, Sophia, creates a universe populated by all sorts of demonic creatures when, to his amazement, the full mind of God reveals itself as a human being in the heavens. Yaldabaoth constructs a material version of the heavenly human being and puts the divine spirit into it to make it mobile. But, surprise! It was a trick, for now, if the human being can realize its divine origin and return above, the divine spirit will return with it and thereby the realm of Yaldabaoth will become devoid of divine spirit and cease to be. Fifth, in self-defense Yaldabaoth makes the human being ignorant of its origins. But the divine mind sends down a messenger (Jesus, in the Christian version of the tale) to give human beings true "gnosis" by which they can go back to the perfect divine realm.
Whew. The Secret Book of John may be bizarre (and there is a great deal more to it that I have left out here) but it is ultimately a negative reworking of the Biblical story of Genesis, taking the point of view that while the story behind Genesis is true, the version written into the Bible by Moses is mistaken. We hear several times in the Secret Book of John that we should understand that it was "not as Moses wrote," but as some other thing. Moses is taken to be a mistaken interpreter of the fundamental myth. For Gnosticism, the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15–17) was the tree of gnosis, and people should eat from it. Wicked Yaldabaoth forbade this and then walled off the garden and the tree after Eve did the right thing (led by a divinely empowered serpent) by eating from that Tree (Genesis 3:1–24). The story in Genesis is wholly reversed through Gnostic interpretation.
From the Gnostic perspective, Jesus is a divine being sent from the realm of the higher God into this world to inform the trapped divine elements within human beings of their true nature and origin. Accordingly, Jesus is from some entirely other world than this one and therefore the Gospel of John was particularly interesting to Gnostics because in that Gospel Jesus says repeatedly that he is not of this demonic world of lies but from another world of light and truth (Jn 12:44–46, 17:14–16). The idea of a revealer coming from a world above that is infinitely superior to this demonic world below makes the Gospel of John very open to Gnostic interpretation.
Some have said that the Gospel of Thomas is gnostic, but they are mistaken. They observe correctly that in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus sometimes says that people have divine light within them, e.g. "There is light within a man of light and he lights up all of the world. If he is not a light there is darkness," (saying 24) or "When you give rise to that which is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not give rise to it, what you do not have will destroy you," (saying 70), and certainly Gnostics would have agreed with those passages. But overall the Gospel of Thomas is not Gnostic because it affirms that the Kingdom of God is now and has been from the beginning spread out upon this world, although people do not see it (saying 113). While Gnosticism regards the world as an enimical place of entrapment and declares that God's kingdom is beyond this world, the Gospel of Thomas denies this by mocking (in saying 3) the idea that the Kingdom is in heaven (if so, "the birds will be there before you are!") rather than right here now. (For more information, see the new article on the Gospel of Thomas.)
The success of orthodox Christianity over Gnostic Christianity stemmed in part from its organizational superiority. In establishing an invariant set of beliefs through creedal conferences such as the one in Nicea (325 CE), the range of possible Christian ideas was pinned down to a defined set. Gnosticism's wild creativity worked against its success as an organized religion. Eventually orthodox Christianity defined Gnosticism as a heresy that first Roman and then medieval Catholic police power would work to exterminate. In 367 CE the Egyptian bishop Athanasius of Alexandria ordered his monks to destroy "illegitimate and secret books" and so, in a Pachomian monastery near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, the monks took their library of Gnostic books and, rather than burn them all, buried them in jars. In 1945 CE those jars were unearthed and they have subsequently been translated and published. Anyone interested in Gnosticism can read a whole library of texts from 1,600 years ago (many of which were written a couple of centuries earlier still). Through these texts, and others, Gnosticism still lives today, and through the New Age movement and the Spiritual religion movement the creative impulses of the Gnostic thinkers persist.
- Brakke, David. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011.
- Davies, Stevan. The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel Annotated and Explained. Woodstock, Vt.: Skylight Paths, 2005.
- King, Karen L. What Is Gnosticism? Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2005.
- Meyer, Marvin. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: Revised and Updated Translation. New York: HarperOne, 2009.
- Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
- Williams, Michael A. Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.