Gnosticism, the Heretical Gnostic Writings, and 'Judas'

by Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D., Hans Jonas


Dr. Irving attempts to clarify from a historic philosophical perspective the latest media hype about the gnostic writings of "Judas" from the secret Egyptian Nag Hammadi Coptic gnostic library. For that purpose she reproduces an article by the most respected and acclaimed academic scholar on Gnosticism, philosopher Hans Jonas, as published in Paul Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Publisher & Date

Dianne N. Irving, April 9, 2006

The current enthusiasm over the launching of the latest gnostic writings of "Judas" from the secret Egyptian Nag Hammadi Coptic gnostic library requires at least some minimal clarification from an historic philosophical (as distinct from religious) perspective.

Toward that end I have copied below a masterful article by the most respected and acclaimed academic scholar on Gnosticism, philosopher Hans Jonas, as published in Paul Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As one of my doctoral concentrations was in the History of Philosophy, which I have taught for over 15 years now, I learned early on the immense influence that both ancient and post-Christian gnosticism had (and still has) on the development of the history of philosophy. It is an intellectual crime that neither the accurate and entire history of philosophy nor the ancientmythology that preceded and so influenced it are taught in the academy today.

As a professor I also learned early on the immense influence gnosticism has today on our students, as well as on almost every area of the humanities in the academy and every facet of our daily living. Just try "Googling" the term yourself. It is a moral crime that the on-going spread of gnosticism — both ancient and post-Christian — is not identified or acknowledged in most "ethical" treatises, religious/secular "teachings" or the media. To not know or understand what gnosticism is is to be incapable of putting a name and a face on, questioning, or evaluating one of the most pervasive and influential mythological ideologies in our global society today. Indeed, if one were looking for one element that is historically common among almost all civilizations and cultures it is gnosticism in one form or another. No one captures these commonalities better than philosopher Hans Jonas.

Given the extensive scholarship inherent in Jonas' work, and the limited space available here, only a few comments are in order to help those unfamiliar with this philosophical or gnostic terrain. Briefly:

  • — In philosophy (as distinct from theology), "gnosticism" means a "dialectic of, or strife between, opposites or contraries" that ultimately eventuates in the necessity for a "secret knowledge" or "gnosis". In gnosticism these "opposites" that are in strife are essentially part of the larger pantheistic whole! It is difficult for the Western mind to grasp this, but relatively native to an Eastern mind. For example, Aristotle's "principle of non-contradiction" that grounds Western logic states that different things can NOT be in the same place at the same time in the same manner, etc. Thus "up" is not "down", "black" is not "white", "good" is not "bad", etc. However, in most Eastern logics (with pantheistic gnostic elements), "up" IS "down" — opposites or contraries are merely parts of the same larger whole, and thus the "same". (See the writings of the ancient gnostic Heraclitus).
  • — This is why "reversals" of "contraries/opposites" are critical in the gnostic system. They are the logical consequences of and used to explain the mythical "cosmogony" or evolution of the "cosmos". The coming into existence of the cosmos and everything in it is explained by gnostics in terms of a strife or dialectic within (or without) the first "primal being", which causes a mechanical "overflowing" of the divinity into connectinglayers or "shells" outside of it, each ruled by its own god or goddess. The same "strife between opposites" happens to each successive "shell" until the whole cosmos, including the earth and man in it, is thus ultimately formed by means of a mechanical "emanation" from the original godhead, as Jonas so well describes in the article below. Thus the various connected "parts" of the one single cosmos are also "divine" - actually a negative crisis inherent in gnosticism.
  • — Hence, gnostic cults are inherently paganistic pantheisms and polytheisms, involving the "transmigration of souls" in order to reach their "salvation" (but only after receiving "gnosis", usually revealed in a dream or altered state of mind). "God" does not "create" something out of NOTHING, as the term is generally understood, but "emanates" the rest of the cosmos — hence something comes from SOMETHING already in existence. Since this emanation results automatically from a mechanical strife or dialectic between the many opposites or contraries within the original godhead, this "God" does not produce the cosmos by his own free will, but rather must mechanically do it as a consequence of his internal (or external) strife. In contrast to the true Christian God, the gnostic "God" is not a true "creator" of anything, nor truly "creates" freely. Nor, as you will read, is he the "creator" of man or the laws of nature. In gnosticism, the term "Creator" is reserved for the Demiurge and his Archons.

"Salvation" for gnostics means, literally, the fusion of the divine element of man (the "pneuma", which is different from the soul) with the ultimate godhead. In fact, since all the elements in the cosmos are fundamental breaches of the original godhead, full reparation can happen only when all of these elements are again brought back to and fuse with the godhead. This means the destruction of the cosmos is critically necessary.

Human sexuality becomes the "evil deed" of the Demiurge thrust upon mankind in order to trick the higher gods/goddesses, the Aeons (and is the source of much population "theory", including abortion). Material things, especially the body of man, are "evil", "darkness", even "non-being". True "morality" for them is simply the whim of each god or goddess in their own realms; otherwise there is no morality at all. True "knowledge" (gnosis) is revealed only to the "elite", thus these human knowers "know" as truth only that which is given to them in secret by the higher gods/goddesses (gnosis). The rest of mankind remain in total ignorance - and thus unsaveable. Hence even the gnostic man is not really free, and thus there is no ethics or accountability for one's actions, because man is incapable of thinking for him/herself and dependent on the "knowledge" revealed (if given at all).

  • — When the "Judas" writings are currently discussed, one of the first things that marks it as a gnostic work is the claim that the role of Judas as traditionally understood is "reversed" — that is, rather than his role as a traitor of Jesus, he was really a confidant of Him. This "reversal" is classic gnosticism, a consequence of the gnostic cosmogony (mythological cosmology) of "opposites" described by Jonas in his article. Such "reversals" usually takes place between any possible "opposites" - since they are the "same".
  • — This gnostic technique of "reversing" the roles of important characters has already been used to deconstruct many depictions in the Christian Bible — e.g., in The Da Vinci CodeJesus doesn't really die but marries Mary Magdalene and with her fosters a biological genetic line of "divinities"; the serpent in the Book of Genesis is really the good "savior" rather than an evil tempter; the roles of Cain and Able in the Bible are "reversed" as well. The main purpose of "reversing" these roles is to foster increasing doubts and insecurities among the faithful - and then to proselytize them to become gnostics. It is also important to use common sense and remember that, especially in the Valentinian myths, the historical establishment of Christianity had already taken place BEFORE Valentinus wrote his "gospels" in the third century A.D.! Thus he is using the Christian story, rather than the Christians using the gnostic story. Likewise, the gnostic "Sophia" (the gnostic deconstructed version of the classical Greek goddess of wisdom), who is often confused in gnosticism with either the Christian Virgin Mary or Eve, did her bad "deed" BEFORE the gnostic "creation" of the world by the Demiurge and his Archons supposedly took place!
  • — The Christian Bible is not the only major text that is so deconstructed. As is abundantly clear from Jonas' massive bibliography in the article below, almost all major religions have been "gnosticized" by means of deconstructing their holy texts. Thus the same gnostic tactic of deconstruction has likewise been done with the Torah of Judaism, the Koran and the Haddith of Islam, as well as the holy texts of Buddhism, Taoism, etc. Hence we see in these latest writings of "Judas" that rather than representing a character to be vilified as Jewish he instead represents a character empathetic to Christianity — a story that could only be explained as interpreted by a gnostic Jewish sect. Indeed, as Jonas makes clear, the Laws of Nature and the Laws of Morality produced by the gnostic Demiurge and his Archons represent the hated Laws of Moses (the Old Testament) and as such have unfortunately historically perpetuated a fundamental hatred of the Jews (especially in the Iranian version of Gnosticism).
  • — Not only are "reversals" a common gnostic technique to deconstruct the various holy books of various religions, the deconstruction of vocabulary commonly used in those religions and in various philosophies is also a successful tactic. Thus while reading Jonas' article keep in mind that not only is "God" defined quite differently, the gnostic definitions of "salvation", "morality", "nature", "grace", "man", "angels", etc., have totally different, often opposite, meanings than we are usually familiar with. This makes identifying a gnostic work as gnostic very difficult indeed, as we think they are talking about the same thing as we.An example of this are the writings found on the website of the neo-Gnostic university here in the U.S. founded by Clare Prophet (still the President), called Summit University, in Livingston, Montana: As you move through their website, remember that most of the usual religious and theological definitions will be used by gnostics with quite different (usually opposite) meanings (e.g., spirituality, salvation, grace, God, angels, even "man"). Jesus, Mary, and most of the saints are merely "Ascended Masters" - like Clare Prophet herself. You will also notice how they have their own versions of most major religions in their bookstore (because they have deconstruct the holy books of these religions). Note especially the Christian Bible for Children, the rosaries, and the holy cards.
  • — Interestingly, Jonas was also very popular at the beginning of the "birth" of bioethics, and wrote several classic bioethics books as a warning — especially: (The Imperative of Responsibility). Jonas also wrote many books on gnosticism, most of which you can get on I would especially recommend his book, (Gnosticism and Religion). Why? Because to understand gnosticism you have to understand that it is all about one or another different cosmos, with totally different explanations of the coming into being of the universe, of the "creation" of the world and man, of gnostic morality, etc. Also, to understand gnosticism you have to know how its doctrines are disseminated to the masses in terms of symbols — and these symbols actually represent the various cosmological "realities". Jonas' book explains many of these gnostic symbols, what they mean, how they fit into the various gnostic myths and gnostic gospels, etc. (although his emphasis is mostly on post-Christian gnosticism, not its ancient roots which span back as far as the ancient myth of Okeanus about 4000 B.C). Most of these gnostic symbols are propagated today in music, art, poetry, literature, TV, radio, Broadway, etc. — including the music on the CDs your children are growing up on. His book is not difficult reading at all, and once these symbols are learned it helps one at least identify them for what they are - both in academia and in daily life.

See also Irving:

Hans Jonas, "Gnosticism", in Paul Edwards (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy(New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1967), Vol. 3, pp. 336-342.


(from the Greek "gnosis", or "knowledge") designates a broad variety of religious teachings that were rife in the Hellenized Near East of the first centuries A.D. and purported to offer knowledge of the otherwise hidden truth of total reality as the indispensable key to man's salvation. Most of the schools or sects in question were ostensibly Christian by the time our earliest witnesses, the Church Fathers, were familiar with them, and in consequence the whole movement was long regarded as essentially an aberration from Christian doctrine. However, although Gnosticism provided the first chapter in the history of Christian heresies, the Christian veneer of the systems playing that role is often thin to the point of transparency; and clearly non-Christian writings have come to light that by all criteria of content must be classed as Gnostic as well. The details of the literary evidence point to highly syncretistic origins, in which Jewish, Iranian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other Oriental traditions were blended with one another and with Greek concepts in an extremely free manner. The results were as readily made to represent an alleged esoteric truth of the Christian message as to constitute a superior (Mani) or even hostile (Mandaeans) alternative to it.

This syncretism, pertaining mainly to the outer shell, does not preclude — in fact it tends to mask — a highly original inner unity of thought distinct from all the disparate historical elements employed in its representation. Massively mythological though this representation usually is, the substance thus expressed has philosophical significance as embodying a fundamental choice — the radical antithesis to the classical Greek choice — in the realms of universal theory and human practice at once. The powerful Gnostic impulse to elaborate its basic vision into grandly constructed, quasi-rational systems of thought where everything proceeds from an absolute beginning makes Gnosticism a landmark in the history of the speculative system as such; and it is the identity of that basic vision that defines what is Gnostic and alone justifies the classing of systems of such considerable diversity under one heading.

Gnostic teachers and schools.

A number of gnostic teachers and writers are known by name (mainly those listed as heresiarchs in the patristic refutations), but much of the surviving literature is anonymous or pseudepigraphic, in keeping with the revelatory style in which it is cast. Historical individuals whose thought is documented by either critical accounts or direct fragments of their works include the Samaritan Simon Magnus and his spiritual descendants Menander, Saturninus, Cerinthus, and Cerdon (first and second centuries); the Alexandrians Carpocrates, Basilides and his son Isidore, and foremost, Valentinus with his illustrious disciples Ptolemaeus, Heracleon, Theodotus, and Marcus (second century); the pontian Marcion and the Syrian Bardesanes (second century); and the Persian-Babylonian Mani (third century). Major sects whose doctrines are well documented but not identified by individual authors or founders are, in the Christian camp, the Barbeliotes, Sethites, and Ophites (the last actually a cluster of sects); in the Hellenistic-pagan camp, the Hermetic religion (perhaps merely a literature and not an actual sect); in the Semitic East, the anti-Christian Mandaeans. Towering over the known thinkers are Valentinus, Marcion, and Mani; and Valentinianism and Manichaeism respectively represent the culminations of the two main alternative types of Gnostic speculation. The last two are here considered merely for their part in and exemplification of the wider context (see Mani and Manichaeism; Valentinus and Valentinianism).


With the exception of that of the Mandaeans, Gnostic literature was denied direct tradition under the dominion of Christianity and Islam after the eclipse of the Gnostic communities themselves. Thus, until fairly recently, information was supplied almost solely by the abundant indirect sources. These were, in the main, the anti-heretical works of the Church Fathers (Greek, Latin, and Syriac, from Irenaeus in the second century to Theodore bar Konai in the eighth century) with their diligent reports, summaries, and excerpts, and still later Islamic histories and compendia. However, for some time an impressive series of manuscript discoveries has been adding vastly to our store of original texts: Coptic-Gnostic papyrus codices from Egypt, belonging to the Christian branch of Gnosticism — the find in 1945 of a whole library at Nag Hammadi is revolutionizing the state of documentation in the area hitherto principally covered by the patristic testimony — Manichaen fragments in Persian, Turkish, and Chinese from Turfan in central Asia and in Coptic from Egypt, and the sacred writings of the Mandaeans of Iraq.

The Mandaeans are the one case of a Gnostic community surviving to the present with an unbroken written tradition of their voluminous Aramaic literature; it came to the attention of Western scholars in the nineteenth century, after it had escaped that of the Church Fathers in antiquity (probably because of the Fathers' predominantly Greek orientation). In all the other cases, the new original sources generally bear out, while greatly enriching, the testimony of the older indirect evidence. The following account, based on the entire, extremely varied material, is synoptic and selective, placing its emphases according to a conception of the whole as a system.


A radically dualistic mood dominates the Gnostic attitude and unites its widely diversified expressions, whether doctrinal, poetical, or ethical. The dualism is between man and world, and between the world and God. In either case, it is a dualism of antithetical, not complementary, terms; and it is basically one: that of man and world mirrors on the plane of experience the primordial one of God and world is, in Gnostic theory, deduced from it. The interpreter may hold conversely that the transcendent doctrine of a world-God opposition sprang from the immanent experience of a disunion of man and world, that is, it reflects a human condition of alienation. In the three-term configuration, man and God belong in essence together against the world but are in fact separated by the world, which in the Gnostic view is the alienating, divisive agency.

The object of Gnostic speculation is to derive these basic polarities — the existing state of things — by way of genetic myths from the first things and through such genealogy to point the way to their eventual resolution. The myth, a conscious symbolical construction, is thus predictive by being genetic, eschatological by being explanatory. Accordingly, the typical Gnostic system starts with a doctrine of divine transcendence in its original purity; traces the genesis of the world from some primordial disruption of this blessed state, a loss of divine integrity that leads to the emergence of lower powers who become the makers and rulers of this world; then, as a crucial episode in the drama, it recounts the creation and early fate of man, in whom the further conflict becomes centered; the final theme — in fact, the implied theme throughout — is man's salvation, which is more than man's since it involves the overcoming and eventual dissolving of the cosmic system and is thus the instrument of reintegration for the impaired godhead itself, the self-saving of God.

God and the divine realm.

The transcendence of the supreme deity is stressed to the utmost degree in all Gnostic theology. Topologically, he is transmundane, dwelling in his own realm entirely outside the physical universe, at immeasurable distance from man's terrestrial abode; ontologically he is acosmic, even anticosmic: to this world and whatever belongs to it he is the essentially "other" and "alien" (Marcion), the "alien Life" (Mandaeans), the "depth" or "abyss" (Valentinians), even "the non-being" (Basilides); epistemologically, because of the transcendence and otherness of his being, and because nature neither reveals nor even indicates him, he is naturally unknown, ineffable, defying predication, surpassing comprehension, and strictly unknowable. Some positive attributes and metaphors do apply to him: Light, Life, Spirit, Father, the Good — but not Creator, Ruler, Judge. Significantly, in some systems one of his secret names is Man. Mainly, the discourse about him must move in negations, and historically Gnosticism is one of the fountainheads of negative theology.

However, the Absolute is not alone but is surrounded by an aura of eternal, graded expressions of his infinitude, partial aspects of his perfection, hypostatized into quasi-personal beings (aeons) with highly abstract names (mostly of mental properties) and together forming the hierarchy of the divine realm, the pleroma (Plenitude). The emanation of this inner manifold from the primal ground, a kind of self-differentiation of the Absolute, is sometimes described in terms of subtle spiritual dialectics, more often in rather naturalistic (for instance, sexual), terms. Among the tenuously mythological entities that thus arise (such as Mind, Grace, Word, Knowledge, Life) are two more concrete ones with definite roles in the further evolution of the transcendental drama: Man as an eternal, divine, precosmic principle (sometimes even identified with the First Being himself) and Wisdom (Sophia), usually the last and youngest of the aeons. Extensive speculation about the diversity within the pleroma is the mark of advanced systems, but some degree of manifold on the upper reaches of being is requisite for all Gnostic metaphysics because it provides the condition for divine fallibility on which the movement into creation and alienation depends.

Lower powers and the creator.

In the genuine Gnostic systems the downward movement starts from an internal crisis in the divine realm itself, whereas in those under Iranian influence it is occasioned by the action of dark forces from without, thus presupposing the very dualism that the typical speculation lets evolve from the one monistic root. We shall mainly follow this latter, more prevalent type, which is free from Iranian influence. Here, the protagonist of crisis and fall is most often the female aeon Sophia (or such equivalents as Thought and Conception) who, from some overstepping of bounds — assertion of self-will, creative presumption, even excessive desire to know the unknowable Father — is drawn into a history of passion and error that leads her outside the blessed pleroma. (In another family of systems, Primal Man assumes the role of the sinking part of divinity.) Although the upper powers immediately set about healing this breach in the divine order, the downward trend set in motion by the original lapse must take its course, and the counterplay of these two trends henceforth governs the process. There ensues, in a development too complex and too variously elaborated to recount here, a train of ever lower hypostases descended from the erring Sophia, episodically broken by certain archetypal salvations.

The Demiurge.

Early in the descending series — and marked with all the deforming effects of the Fall whose fruit he is — appears the Demiurge, the monstrous and benighted archon (lord) of the nether powers. This widespread Gnostic figure, telling symbol of the Gnostic hostility toward the world, is clearly a polemical caricature of the Old Testament God, and the identity is made explicit by frequent transference to him of well-known utterances and actions of God from the Biblical text. Pride, ignorance, and malevolence of the Creator are recurring themes in Gnostic tales, as are his humbling and outwitting by the higher powers bent on thwarting his designs. However, over the whole range of Gnostic mythologizing the archon's image varies, and there are milder versions in which he is more misguided than evil and thus open to correction and remorse, even to final redemption. He is always a problematical and never a venerable figure.

Finding himself in the void or chaos outside the pleroma, possessed of the power inherited from his mother but ignorant of the divine worlds above him, he believes himself to be the only God and engages in creations chiefly designed to satisfy his ambition, vanity, and lust for dominion. Prominent among the host of lower powers that issue from him are six further archons whom he installs in six successive heavens; he occupies the seventh above them. Thus originate the cosmic order and its system of rule, the universe of Babylonian astrology with its seven planetary spheres and the almighty planetary deities. An eighth region beyond them (corresponding to the sphere of the fixed stars) is occupied by the mother Sophia, still exiled from the pleroma, who has no part in the creation and government of the world but intervenes in both for the purposes of salvation. The Valentinian version, the subtlest of all, depicts the Demiurge as trying vainly to imitate the perfect order of the aeons with his physical one, and their eternity with the counterfeit substitute of time — thus adding to the parody of the Biblical Creator that of the Platonic Demiurge. However, the chief instance of illicit and bungling imitation is the creation of man.

The remaining part of creation is the joint work of the seven archons. Indeed, the early systems (such as that of Simon Magus) simply name the seven as the creators of the world; and the pre-eminence of one of them, growing into a kind of monotheism of cosmic (lower) divinity, seems to be characteristic of the mature stage of Gnostic speculation. There, an episode, told with almost identical words in the cosmogonies of many different schools, rings in the next act in the drama of creation: the First Archon (the Demiurge), exulting in his works with the Scriptural proclamation "I am God and there is none other than I," draws the retort from on high, "Thou art mistaken! Above thee is First Man."

Creation of earthly man.

Some such divulgence of superior godhead (here meant as no more than a bumbling of the Creator's pride, elsewhere serving some other purpose in the divine strategy), and especially the appearance of a divine form with it, inspire the archons with the audacious plan to equal the upper perfection in a work of their own — to create terrestrial man — an effect not foreseen in the divine move. Letting them say on this occasion, "Come, let us make a man after the image we have seen," the Gnostics turned to account the puzzling plural of Genesis 1.26, and the resulting imago Dei character of created man, far from being a straight metaphysical honor, assumes an ambiguous, if not sinister, meaning. The motive for the archons' resolve is either simple envy and ambition, or the more calculating one of entrapping divine substance in their lower world by the lure of a seemingly congenial receptacle that will become its most secure bond. The imitation, presumptuous and blundering, is nevertheless effective. Although the mere creature of the archons — the body and a natural soul compounded from their several psychic powers — is not viable by itself, it becomes so through the injection of a spiritual element from beyond.

For this presence of transcendent spirit (pneuma) in psychophysical man — in itself a paradoxical, unnatural fact and the fulcrum of the whole soteriological drama — Gnostic speculation offers various explanations, their chief difference being whether the presence marks a success of the nether powers or a stratagem of the upper ones. In the first alternative, the causality operative on the divine side admits in turn the several variations of being a victim of violence (Mani), of deception, or of its own downward inclination (Poimandres). In the other alternative (the Valentinians), the divine seed is secretly deposited in the creature of the unknowing Demiurge in order to turn his work into an unintended vehicle of salvation. However, this variant is no more optimistic than the first, since the soteriological stratagem merely makes the best of a basic evil, of these divine portions' having become divorced from their source in the first place. In any case, the pneuma's innerworldly existence is a state of exile, the result of primeval divine tragedy; and its immersion in soul and body is the terminal form of that exile. For the archons, on the other hand, the incorporation of this transcendent element into their system is a condition of the system's existence, and its retention therefore becomes to them a matter of survival — their work's and their own. Hence, they must resist at all cost the spirits extrication from the cosmic involvement, which the upper powers seek for the regaining of divine wholeness. The means of this extrication is knowledge.

History of man.

The process of conveying the saving knowledge to the world-imprisoned hostage of Light begins with Adam himself and runs throughout the history of mankind in a constant counterplay with the archontic powers. Human history is thus eschatological from the beginning. In the light of this scheme, the Scriptural account of early man, especially the Paradise story, is boldly recast, WITH ALL VALUE SIGNS REVERSED. [emphasis mine — DNI] The most significant of these reversals concerns the serpent, which, as the first bringer of knowledge in defiance of the Creator's mandate of ignorance, becomes the general symbol of the acosmic spiritual principle what works for the awakening of its captive kin in the world. The revelatory line thus started, and continued through the generations, ends in Christ (or many go beyond him to further revelations of the truth). Hence the cult of the serpent in a major group of Gnostic sects, the Ophites (from the Greek "ophis", serpent). In the same spirit of reversal, Cain, Essau, and other rejected figures of the Old Testament became to certain sects (Cainites, Carpocratians, Perates) bearers of the penumatic heritage, forming a secret lineage of gnosis and persecuted by the world god for this reason; their opposites, such as Abel and Jacob, his favorites, represent the unenlightened majority. Independently of the intention to scandalize that is evident here, the Gnostic scheme called for a prophetology in succession of the Adamitic revelation, for which Iranian tradition offered the idea of an eternal Messenger who moves through history in ever new incarnations. These messengers were variously identified with names from the religious past; in the final consolidation by Mani we find them reduced to four: Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mani. The significant omission of Moses from this list requires a comment on the anti-Judaism among the Gnostics.

The this-worldly spirit of the Hebrew religion combined with historical circumstance to make the Old Testament a prominent target of Gnostic dislike, to varying degrees. The extreme of hostility, even contempt, is found in Marcion, for whom this admittedly authentic revelation of the Creator and Lord of this world shares all the blemishes of its source: It is as opposed to the gospel of salvation as its divine author is to the God that saves and as this world, his work, is to the nonmundane realm beyond. Simon Magus and others are hardly less intransigent. A more qualified view is taken by the Valentinians: the law is at least partly prefigurative of the higher truth, and the prophets, although mainly inspired by the Demiurge, are sometimes (and unbeknown to him) used by his mother, Sophia, for her own messages, which thus are interspersed in the inferior bulk. There are other shades of opinion, but rejection of the whole body of Hebrew Scripture, joined with irreverent exegetical use, is by far the rule; and on this issue, and on the related one of the identity or nonidentity of the God of Moses with the Father of Jesus Christ, the main battle was fought between the church and the heretics.

Cosmos and human nature.

The material universe, the domain of the archons, is like a vast prison, whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the scene of man's life. Around and above it, the cosmic spheres are ranged like concentric enclosing shells. Their number is usually seven, with a surrounding eighth that does not belong to the archontic realm proper but is intermediate between the cosmos and the upper world of the pleroma. There was, however, a tendency to multiply structures and to make the scheme more and more extensive: Basilides counted no fewer than 365 heavens. The religious significance of this cosmic architecture lies in the idea that everything that intervenes between here and the beyond serves to separate man from God, not merely by spatial distance but through active demonic force. Thus the vastness and multiplicity of the cosmic system express the degree to which man is removed from God.

The spheres are the seats of the archons, whose ruling set of seven are the planetary gods of the Babylonian pantheon, now significantly renamed with synonyms for the Hebrew God — another sign of the latter's degradation. The archons collectively rule the world that they (or their overlord) made, and each individually in his sphere is a warder of the cosmic prison. Their tyrannical world rule, called Fate (heimarmene), is physically the law of nature, morally the law of justice, as exemplified in the Moasic law, which issued from the Demiurge or the angels and, with its threat of retribution, aims at the enslavement of man as much as the first does with its force of necessity. As guardian of his sphere, each archon bars the passage to the souls that seek to ascend after death, in order to prevent their escape from the world and their return to God.

Man, the main object of these vast dispositions, is composed of flesh, soul, and spirit. Reduced to ultimate principles, his origin is twofold: mundane and extramundane. Both the body and the soul are products of the cosmic powers, who shaped the body in the image of the divine Primal Man and animated it with their own psychical forces: these are the appetites and passions of natural man, each stemming from and corresponding to one of the cosmic spheres, and all together making up the astral soul of man, his psyche. Through his body and his soul man is a part of the world and is subjected to heimarmene. Enclosed in the soul is the spirit, or pneuma (also called the spark), a portion of the divine substance from beyond that has fallen into the world; the archons created man for the express purpose of keeping it captive here. Thus, as in the macrocosm man is enclosed by the seven spheres, so in the human microcosm the pneuma is enclosed by the seven soul vestments originating from them. These psychical envelopments are considered impairments and fetters of the transmundane spirit, and its incarnation in the outer, material body merely completes the complex imprisonment. The resulting human constitution is, then, comparable to an onion with so many layers, on the model of the cosmos itself but with the order reversed; what is outermost and uppermost in the cosmos is innermost in man, and the innermost or nethermost stratum of the cosmic order, the earth, is the outer bodily garment of man. Only the innermost or pneumatic man is the true man, and he is not of this world, as his original in the total order, the deity, is external to the cosmos as a whole. In its unredeemed state the spirit, so far from its source and immersed in soul and flesh, is unconscious of itself, benumbed, asleep, or intoxicated by the poison of the world — in brief, it is ignorant. Its awakening and liberation are effected through knowledge.

Eschatology: salvation through gnosis.

The nature of Gnostic dualism determines the general concept of salvation, and the stratifications of cosmos and man condition its details. Its basic premise is that the transcendent God is as alien to this world as the pneumatic self is in the midst of it. The goal of Gnostic striving is the release of the inner man from the bonds of the world and his return to his native realm of light. The necessary condition for this is that he know about the transmundane God and about himself, that is, about his divine origin as well as his present situation, and hence, also about the nature of the world that determines his situation. Such knowledge is withheld from him by precisely the selfsame situation that requires it, for ignorance is the essence of mundane existence, just as it was the principle of the world's coming into being. In particular, the transcendent God is unknown in the world and cannot be discovered from it; therefore, revelation is needed. The necessity for revelation is inherent in the innercosmic condition; and its occurrence alters this condition in its decisive respect, that of ignorance. Revelation, or the "call," is thus already a part of salvation. Its bringer is a messenger from the world of Light who penetrates the barriers of the spheres, outwits the archons, awakens the spirit from its earthly slumber, and imparts to it the saving knowledge from without. The mission of this transcendent savior begins even before the creation of the world, since the fall of the divine element preceded creation, and the archetypal redemption indeed takes place in the precosmic stage. It is the incompleteness of this initial restoration, whether of Sophia or of Mani's Primal Man, that leads to the genesis of the world and the protraction of the saving process throughout its history. The fact that in the discharge of his task the eternal messenger must himself assume the lot of incarnation and cosmic exile, and the further fact that, at least in the Iranian variety of the myth, he is in a sense identical with those he calls — the once lost parts of his divine self — give rise to the moving idea of the "saved savior" (salvator salvandus).

The knowledge revealed by the messengers, for short "knowledge of God," comprises the whole content of the Gnostic myth, with everything it has to teach about God, man, and world, including the history of the beginnings which alone offers the key to the secrets of existence, that is, the revelation contains the elements of a theoretical system. On the practical side, however, it is more particularly "knowledge of the way" — of the soul's way out of the world — comprising the sacramental and magical preparations for its future ascent and the secret names and formulas that force the passage through each sphere. Equipped with this gnosis, the soul after death travels upward, leaving behind at each sphere the psychical vestments contributed by that sphere; thus the spirit, stripped of all foreign accretions, reaches the God beyond the world and reunites with the divine substance. (The most circumstantial description of this ascent is found in the "Poimandres," the first treatise of the Hermetic corpus.) On the scale of the total divine drama, the individual ascent is part of the restoration of the deity's own wholeness, impaired by the events of the beginning. Only through the loss suffered then did the deity become involved in the destiny of the world, and only to retrieve his own does he intervene, through his envoys, in cosmic history. With the completion of this ingathering, the cosmos, deprived of its elements of light, will come to an end.


In this life the pneumatics, as the possessors of gnosis called themselves, are set apart from the mass of mankind. The immediate illumination that makes the individual sovereign in the sphere of knowledge (hence the great variety of Gnostic doctrines) also inspires superior rules of conduct. Generally, the pneumatic morality is determined by hostility toward the world and contempt for all mundane ties. From this principle, however, two contrary conclusions could be drawn, and both found their extreme partisans: the ascetic and the libertine. The ascetic deduces from the possession of gnosis the obligation to avoid further contamination by the world and therefore to reduce the world's use to a minimum; the libertine derives from the same possession the privilege of unrestrained freedom. The libertine conclusion, more startling and more devious, is argued thus: The law, since it represents the will of the Demiurge and is one form of his tyranny, does not obligate the pneuma, which is "saved in its nature" and can be neither sullied by actions (which in themselves are morally neutral) nor frightened by the threat of archontic retribution which can affect only the body and the psyche). Thus the pneumatic, since he is free from the power of fate, is also free from the yoke of the moral law, and all things are permitted to him. This freedom, however, is more than merely permissive; its practice is bidden by metaphysical interest. Through intentional violation of the demiurgical norm (for which the mythological vilification of the Demiurge prepares) the pneumatic thwarts the design of the archons and thus paradoxically contributes to the work of salvation. From the motive of defiance it is then only one step further to the teaching of the Cainites and Carpocratians that there is a positive duty to perform every kind of action, to leave no deed undone, no possibility of freedom unrealized, in order to render nature its due and exhaust its powers; only in this way can final release from the cycle of reincarnations be obtained. Gnostic libertinism thus spans the whole scale from mere negative license to positive Faustian obligation — at which point it loses again some of the contrast to its ascetic alternative.

The latter alternative, too, betrays the common root in Gnosticism from which both opposites spring. Although more obvious in the libertine choice, the element of defiance shows in the ascetic one as well; as much as it may serve purification or other perfectionist ends normally associated with asceticism, it often has the declared purpose of obstructing the cause of the Creator, even just to spite him, by refusing to use his works (a kind of metaphysical strike). This obstructive aspect is especially clear in the abstention from sexual intercourse and marriage when, as in Marcion and Mani, its purpose is not to help replenish the world of the Demiurge and further disperse in it the captive light — thereby prolonging its exile and making its ingathering more difficult. Indeed, according to Mani, the reproductive scheme was instituted by the archons with precisely this end in view. Asceticism is thus a matter less of ethics than of metaphysical alignment, and its common ground with libertinism is the determination not to play the Creator's game. The one repudiates allegiance to nature through abstention; the other, through excess. Both are lives outside the mundane norm. Freedom by use and freedom by nonuse are thus alternative expressions of the same acosmism.


Acosmism, the real basis of the Gnostic position, contains the seeds of nihilism; the very extremism of divine transcendence has nihilistic implications. As the totally other, alien, and unknown, the Gnostic God has more of the "nihil" than of the "ens" in his concept. For all purposes of man's relation to the reality that surrounds him, this hidden God is a negative term; no law emanates from him — none for nature, and thus none for human action as a part of the natural order. His only relation to the world is the negative one of saving from the world. Antinomianism follows naturally, even if not inevitably, from these premises.

Two types of gnostic dualism.

This article has kept mainly to the Syrian-Egyptian stream of Gnostic speculation, to which the majority of systems, especially the Christian ones, belong. There is, however, another, Iranian line of speculation that culminates in Mani.

Both types, being Gnostic, were evolved to explain the same facts of a dislocated metaphysical situation — both are dualistic concerning their common theme: the existing rift between God and world, world and man, spirit and flesh. The Iranian type, in a Gnostic adaptation of Zoroastrian doctrine, starts from a dualism of two opposed principles and then must explain how the original Darkness came to engulf elements of the Light — it describes the world drama as a war with changing fortunes; and the divine fate, of which man's fate is a part and the world an unwilled by-product, is explained in terms of mixing and unmixing, captivity and liberation. Here the knightly male figure of First Man, the warrior, assumes the role of the exposed and suffering part of divinity. The Syrian speculation, with the female Sophia in that role, undertakes the more ambitious task of deriving dualism itself, and the ensuing predicament of the divine in the system of creation, from the one and the undivided source of being. It does this by means of a genealogy of personified divine states evolving from one another that describes the progressive darkening of the original Light in categories of guilt, error, and failure. This devolution within the divine being ends in the decadence of complete self-alienation that is this world. Both dramas start with a disturbance in the heights; in both, the existence of the world marks a discomfiture of the divine and a necessary, in itself undesirable, means of its eventual restitution; in both, the salvation of man is that of the deity itself. The difference lies in whether the tragedy is forced upon the deity from without by the trespass of an independent Darkness, which thus has the first initiative (the deity itself being in perfect tranquility), or is motivated from within itself, with Darkness and Matter the products of its passion, which they hypostatize in external terms. To divine defeat and sacrifice in the first case correspond divine guilt and error in the second; to compassion for the victimized Light, spiritual contempt for demiurgical blindness; to eventual divine liberation, reformation through enlightenment.

The Manichaean and Valentinian systems respectively exemplify the two types. The Iranian type, with its high-minded story of battle, defeat, and recovery, lends itself to more concrete and gripping dramatization. However, only the subtler Syrian type, by according metaphysical status to knowledge and ignorance as modes of the divine life and therefore as universal, cosmogonic categories, can do full justice to the redemptional claim made on behalf of knowledge in all Gnostic religion. Valentinian speculation inferred that the human individual event of pneumatic knowledge reverses the precosmic universal event of divine ignorance and is in its redeeming effect of the same ontological order. Thus the actualization of knowledge in the person is at the same time an act in the general ground of being.


  • New Testament Apocrypha are translated in M. R. James, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, 1953), and in E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, eds., Neutestamentliche Apokryphen (Tubingen, 1959-1964). Editions of the original texts are listed there. The following Apocrypha are noteworthy for their Gnostic contents: the "Acts of Thomas," containing the Hymn of the Pearl; the pseudo-Clementine "Homilies and Recognitions"; and the "Odes of Solomon." See also the section on Coptic sources, below.
  • Patristic sources, in standard editions and translations, include Irenaeus of Lyon, Against the Heresies; Clement of Alexandria, Excerpts from Theodotus and Stromateis; Tertullian of Carthage, Against Marcion, Against the Valentinians, On the Plea of the Heretics, and On the Soul; Hippolytus of Rome, Philosophoumena; Origen, Against Celsus and Commentary on the Gospel of John (containing fragments of Heracleon); and Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion. Collections of patristic texts (Greek and Latin) may be found in A. Hilgenfeld, Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristentums (Leipzig, 1884), and W. Volker, ed., Quellen zur Geschichte der christlichen Gnosis (Tubingen, 1932).
  • Coptic sources include C. Schmidt, Koptisch-gnostische Schriften (Leipzig, 1905) and Pistis Sophia, Coptica II (Leipzig, 1925); W. Till, ed., Die gnostischen Schriften des koptischen Papyrus Berolinenis 8502 (Berlin, 1955). The newly discovered Nag Hammadi texts, so far as published, include the following: M. Malinine, H. C. Puech, and G. Quispel, eds., Evangelium Veritatis (Zurich, 1956 and 1961), translated in K. Grobel, The Gospel of Truth (New York and Nashville, Tenn., 1960); H. M. Schenke, "Das Wesen der Archonten," in Theologische Literaturzeitung, Vol. 83 (1958), 661-670; A. Guillaumont, H. C. Peuch, and others, eds., The Gospel According to Thomas (Leiden, 1959), translated in R. M. Grant and D. N. Freedman, The Secret Sayings of Jesus (London and New York, 1960), and also translated by J. Leipoldt, J. Doresse, T. Save-Soderbergh, H. Quecke, and R. McL. Wilson; M. Krause and P. Labib, Die drei Versionen des Apokryphon des Johannes (Wiesbaden, 1962), also translated by S. Giverson; A. Bohlig and P. Labib, eds., Die koptisch-gnostische Schrift ohne Titel aus Codex II von Nag Hammadi (Berlin, 1962), and Koptisch-gnostische Apokalypsen aus Codex V von Nag Hammadi (Halle, 1963); M. Malinine and others, eds., De Resurrectione Epistula ad Reginum (Zurich and Stuttgart, 1963); W. Till, Das Evangelium nach Philippos, Texte un Studien II (Berlin, 1963), also translated by R. McL. Wilson. See also H. C. Peuch, "Gnostische Evangelien und verwandte Dokumente," in E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, eds., Neutestamentliche Apokryphen, Vol. I (Tubingen, 1959), pp. 158-271).
  • Hermetica are collected in A. D. Nock, ed., Hermes Trismegiste, translated by A. J. Festugiere, 4 vols. (Paris, 1945-1954), which contains text, translation, and notes and supersedes all earlier editions.
  • Writings of the Mandaeans are in the following editions and/or translations: M. Lidzbarski, Das Johannesbuch der Mandaer (Giessen, 1905 and 1915), Mandaische Liturgien (Berlin, 1920), and Ginza, Der Schatz oder das grosse Buch der Mandaer (Gottingen, 1925); and E. S. Drower, The Book of the Zodiac (London, 1949), Diwan Abatur (Vatican City, 1950, Studi e testi 151), The Haran Gawaita (Vatican City, 1953, Studi e testi 176), The Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans (Leiden, 1959), The Thousand and Twelve Questions (Berlin, 1960), the Coronation of the Great Sislam (Leiden, 1962), and A Pair of Nasoraean Commentaries (Leiden, 1963).
  • For writings of the Manichaeans, see bibliography to "Mani and Manichaeism" [another article by Jonas in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy].
  • A selection of materials from the first four sections of this bibliography can be found in R. M. Grant, Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings (London and New York, 1961).

  • General studies include F. C. Baur, Die christliche Gnosis (Tubingen, 1835); C. W. King, The Gnostics and Their Remains, 2d ed. (London, 1887); W. Bousset, Hauptprobleme der Gnosis (Gottingen, 1907); A. Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, 4th ed. (Tubingen, 1909), Vol. I; H. Leisegang, Die Gnosis (Leipzig, 1924; 4th ed., Stuttgart, 1955); E. de Faye, Gnostiques et gnosticisme (Paris, 1925); F. C. Burkitt, Church and Gnosis (Cambridge, 1932); H. Jonas, Gnosis und spatantiker Geist, 2 vols. (Gottingen, 1934 and 1954; 3d ed., 1964), and The Gnostic Religion (Boston, 1958; 2d ed., 1963); J. Dupont, Gnosis (Louvain, 1949); G. Quispel, Gnosis als Weltreligion (Zurich, 1951); R. McL. Wilson, The Gnostic Problem (London, 1958); and R. M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York, 1959).
  • Special studies include many important articles in periodicals, but for reasons of space, only books are listed here.
  • On the Valentinians, see bibliography to "Valentinus and Valentiniansim" [another article by Jonas in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy].
  • On Nag Hammadi, see F. L. Cross, ed., The Jung Codex (London and New York, 1955); H. M. Schenke, Die Herkunft des sogenannten Evangelium Veritatis (Gottingen, 1959); J. Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics (New York, 1960); and W. C. van Unnik, ed., Evangelien aus dem Nilsand (Frankfurt, 1960).
  • On Hermetism, see R. Reitzenstein, Poimandres (Leipzig, 1904); J. Kroll, Die Lehren des Hermes Trismegistos (Munster, 1914); W. Scott and A. S. Ferguson, eds., Hermetica, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1924-1936); W. Gundel, Neue astrologische Texte des Hermes Trismegistos (Munich, 1936); A. J. Festugiere, La Revelation d'Hermes Trismegiste, 4 vols. (Paris 1944-1954); and G. van Moorsel, The Mysteries of Hermes Trismegistos (Utrecht, 1955).
  • On the Mandaeans, see W. Brandt, Die Mandaer (Amsterdam, 1915); R. Reitzenstein, Das mandaische Buch des Herrn der Grosse (Heidelberg, 1919); H. Odeberg, Die Mandaische Religionsanschauung (Uppsala, 1930); E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Oxford, 1937), Water Into Wine (London, 1956), and The Secret Adam (Oxford, 1960); and K. Rudolph, Die Mandaer, 2 vols. (Gottingen, 1960-1961).
  • On other special aspects of Gnosticism, see R. Reitzenstein, Das iranische Erlosungsmysterium (Bonn, 1921), and Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen, 3d ed. (Leipzig, 1927); R. Reitzenstein and H. Schaeder, Studien zum antiken Synkretismus (Leipzig, 1926); A. Harnack, Marcion, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1924); C. H. Kraeling, Anthropos and Son of Man (New York, 1927); W. Bauer, Rechtglaubigkeit und Ketzerei im altesten Christentum (Tubingen, 1934); S. Petrement, Le Dualisme chez Platon, les gnostiques et les manicheens (Paris, 1947); H. J. Schoeps, Urgemeinde, Judenchristentum, Gnosis (Tubingen, 1956); G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism (New York, 1960); A. Wlosok, Laktanz und die philosophische Gnosis (Heidelberg, 1960); J. Jervell, Imago Dei (Gottingen, 1961); and H. M. Schenke, Der Gott "Mensch" in der Gnosis (Gottingen, 1962).


© 2006 Dianne N. Irving

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