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I. Group Profile
- Name: Gnosticism
- Founder: Some consider Simon Magus to be the Father
of Gnosticism. However, Gnosticism has also been defined as a
mystical religion said to be "as old as humanity itself."(Ellwood
and Partin: 95-96) Gnostic beliefs can be "found in all
religions and religious philosophies, from Upanishads to the
wisdom of ancient Egypt, and from the Gathas of Zarathustra to
the mystery-cults of Greece and Rome."(Ellwood and Partin:
96) There are others who say that Gnosticism was built upon the
combined teachings of its important leaders. Some of these include
Basilides, Valentinus, Marcion, Ptolemaeus, Cerinthus, Menander,
Simon Magus, and Saturninus (Grant: 30-43).
- What is Gnosticism: As noted, Gnosticism has been
defined as a mystical religion (Ellwood and Partin: 96). It is
a mixing of rites and myths from a variety of religious traditions,
combining Occultism, Oriental Mysticism, astrology, magic, elements
from Jewish tradition, Christian views of redemption, and even
aspects of Plato's doctrine that man is not at home in the bodily
realm (McManners: 26). Despite the fact that many Gnostic systems
vary, they all have in common "a world view shaped by Hellenism
and Neoplatism" and "esoteric Judaism, Zoroastrianism,
and the ancient heritages of Egypt and Mesopotamia."(Ellwood
and Partin: 92)
One can directly trace some of the individual aspects of Gnosticism
to their roots. Their beliefs in the resurrection of the dead
and dualism come from Iranian-Zoroastrian religious ideas (Rudolph:
282). Their communities are organized like the Hellenistic Mystery
religions (Rudolph: 285). Orphism and Greek background influenced
the Gnostic belief that the soul suffers in this world and it
is fate that man should have to endure it. In turn, living a
righteous life leads to salvation (Rudolph: 286).
Gnostics consider themselves "people in the know. [They]
are the elect, their souls fragments of the divine, needing liberation
from matter and the power of the planets." (McManners: 26)
They believe that God is found in the self as well as outside
the self (Ellwood and Partin: 96). The greatest hope for the
Gnostic is to attain ultimate, first-hand knowledge so that they
may be freed from this world and return to the world of God.
History: Gnosticism has changed
over time and through different leaders, however it flourished
during the first several centuries (Edwards). There were two
major parts of Gnosticism: the Syrian Cult and the Alexandrian
Cult. The Syrian Cult was led by Simon Magus, while the other
was led by Basilides. Basilides impressed "Egyptian Hermetizism,
Oriental occultism, Chaldean astrology, and Persian philosophy
in his followers."(Davies) Also, his doctrines intertwined
early Christianity and pagan mysteries (Davies). Aside from his
Gnostic leadership Basilides remained a member of the church
in Alexandria until he died (Eliade: 571).
When Basilides died, Valentinus took over leadership of Gnostics,
incorporating some of his own ideas (Davies). He was born in
Egypt, familiar with Greek culture, and was nearly a bishop (being
passed up for a martyr). He then separated from the church (Foerster:
121). Valentinus incorporated the pleroma, or heavenly world,
into Gnosticism. The pleroma consists of at least thirty aeons
(worlds). He also believed that ignorance is the root of the
world and if it no longer existed, the world would cease to exist
During the 2nd Century, several systems of Gnosticism grew
in Alexandria and the Mediterranean area, most of which were
closely related to Christianity. This was a period in which Gnosticism
came to focus on Gnosis itself, as a goal for Gnostics to reach
(Edwards). This century was also a period when Pagan, Jewish
and Christian forms of Gnosticism had the most influence on the
doctrine and structure of the Christian Church, even though critics
treated it a Christian heresy (Crim: 277). Valentinus and another
strong Gnostic leader, Marcion, were the most feared by the Catholic
church (Crim: 278 and Rudolph: 296). They offered an alternate
or rival form of Christianity, which caused the church to begin
setting up barriers to Gnosticism (McManners: 27).
Mani came into leadership, and "Gnosticism became a world
religion when Mani (216-277) founded his alternative Christian
Church."(Eliade: 572) Mani, the Jewish-Christian raised
in a Baptist community, started Manichaeism. It existed for over
one thousand years (Eliade: 572). However, Manichaeism disappeared
in the West during the Middle Ages. When Roman Catholicism became
the state church in Armenia, the Gnostics hid in the outskirts
and mountains (Eliade: 572).
After the 3rd Century, Gnosticism practically disappeared.
There was some attempt to revive it during the Middle Ages, but
this was nearly impossible because any documents or material
about Gnostics had been buried in the desert.
The recent revival in interest was due to the discovery of
the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, revealing the writings and beliefs
of the Gnostics (Davies). One sign that there was still interest
in Gnosticism between these periods was the fact that William
Blake, the poet and artist, was a known Gnostic during the late
1700's and early 1800's. Also, a man by the name of Jakob Boehme
was noted as starting up modern Gnosticism in the early 1600's
- Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied
when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed
in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage
seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the
positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human
cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do
not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed
discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts
"cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing
"Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will
find additional links to related issues.
- Sacred or Revered Texts: The Nag Hammadi codices were
discovered around 1945 in Egypt, along with other manuscripts
found in Medinet Madi in 1930 and in Turkistan between 1902-1914.
The Nag Hammadi texts contain 52 sacred texts, which are the
"Gnostic Gospels." It had been speculated that they
were buried in a jar around 390 AD by monks from St. Pachomius
(Nag Hammadi). Little was known about Gnosticism until the documents
were found. Previously, the only evidence about Gnostics was
from their critics, who regarded them as Christian Heresy, such
as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Epiphanius (Gnosticism).
An important aspect of the Nag Hammadi documents is their
ability to tie Gnosticism to its roots. Many of the books are
not actually Gnostic. The Gospel of Thomas is encratitic,
Thunder, Whole Mind is Jewish, Acts of Peter and the
Twelve Apostles is Jewish-Christian, Prayer of Thanksgiving
is Hermetic, and Authoritative Teaching is early Catholic
The contents of the Nag Hammadi codices illuminate the beliefs
of the Gnostics. They describe the "unfolding of Divine
Powers (called 'Aeons') from the Unknowable Godhead; the Cosmos
as the result of a pre-creation error of crisis, and therefore
evil; and the fall of the Light -- the essence of the Spirit
or Divine Soul -- into the Darkness of matter, where it remains
trapped until liberated by saving knowledge (Gnosis)."(Gnosticism)
In Christian Gnosticism, Jesus is the Divine Messenger who brings
Gnosis to humans. However, in Non-Christian Gnosticism it could
be Seth (from the Bible), Zostrianos (a form of the prophet from
the Persian religion Zoroastrianism), or a mythological entity
The Cathar Texts are also Gnostic writings from the medieval
resurgence of Gnosticism through the group the Cathars. The writings
of the Corpus Hermeticum belong to one of the non-Christian forms
of Gnosticism, the Hermetics (Davies).
- Modern Issues: Gnosticism is still present in modern
times. Richard, Duc de Palatine established the Order of the
Pleroma in the 1950's in England. He had Stephen Hoeller go to
the United States to continue their work. Hoeller separated from
Duc de Palatine in the 70's and started the Ecclesia Gnostica,
a church, and the Gnostic Society. Hoeller's gnostic "church
celebrates the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and Holy Days."
(Elwood and Partin: 95) Their ceremonies and vestments are similar
to the Roman Catholics, but the language uses Gnostic terminology.
The scriptures are generally from Pistis Sophia or Gospel of
Thomas (Ellwood and Partin: 95).
There are other such gnostic churches. The American Gnostic
Church in Texas was started in 1985 and their teachings reflect
those of the 2nd Century Gnostic teachings of Basilides (Melton:
761). Rosamonde Miller started the Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum
in Palo Alto, CA (Borce).
While there are example such as these in the West, there are
also gnostics in "several Sufi orders of Islam."(Edwards)
Also, at present there are approximately "15000 Mandaeans
(Aramaic word for Gnostics) liv[ing] in Iraq and Iran."(Eliade:
570) In a more general sense there is "gnosticism in Jewish
wisdom tradition, Kabbalah, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism"
as well as in Sikhism (Edwards).
II. Beliefs of the Group
Gnosis refers to a knowledge that is essential to free oneself
from the evil material world and bodily existence (Crim: 277).
Gnostics believe humans err because they are ignorant, unlike
the Christian belief that man is sinful by nature. Gnostics will
receive salvation when they gain knowledge, gnosis. The knowledge
must be of their inner self or soul. It is similar to the Hindu
definition of meditation (Borce).
Some of the basic beliefs of Gnosticism are as follows:
- "Between this world and the God incomprehensible to
our thought, the 'primal cause,' there is an irreconcilable antagonism.
- The 'self,' the 'I' of the gnostic, his 'spirit' or soul,
is unalterably divine.
- This 'I,' however, has fallen into this world, has been imprisoned
and anaesthetized by it, and cannot free itself from it.
- Only a divine 'call' from the world of light loosens the
bonds of captivity.
- But only at the end of the world does the divine element
in a man return again to its home."(Foerster: 9)
- Another unique aspect of the Gnostic belief system is their
view of the creation of the world. They believe that the true
God has a feminine side, Sophia, the Spirit part of God. Jesus
was a product of God and Spirit, and joined them to make up the
Trinity. Sophia wanted to give birth to a being like herself.
She proceeded without permission from God. The result was imperfect
and she was ashamed of it, so she hid it in a cloud away from
the other immortals. The child was the Demiurge. He was born
with some power (from the Spirit) and used it to create the physical
world. This trapped the "spirit in matter"(Borce).
The view of the imperfections of creation are similar to those
in Hebrew scripture, just as the Creator is incompetent (McManners:
27). The Gnostics taught that the Demiurge was Yehovah from the
Old Testament. Jesus, on the other hand, they believe came from
God and the Holy Spirit, not from the Demiurge. Jesus taught
Gnostics the secret knowledge (gnosis), which he did not teach
to the church. This belief created animosity between the church
and the Gnostics. Also, contrary to Christian teachings about
Jesus being born of the virgin Mary, Gnostics believe that Jesus
entered Mary's body via sexual intercourse between Mary and Joseph
- Gnostics had several other beliefs that dismayed early Christians.
They scorned bishops, priests and deacons, however, they let
women hold leadership and liturgical positions (McManners: 28).
Many Gnostics would not make the sign of the cross, because to
them the "suffering of Jesus was no actual event but a symbol
for the universal condition of the human race."(McManners:
28) Christ could not have become flesh in order to be crucified,
since they believe that there is a separation of spirit from
matter. They view flesh as polluting (McManners: 27). This belief
would also support why they do not put faith in the eucharist,
which is supposed to be the body of Christ. Mani, the leader
of the Manicheaists, also did not believe in the drinking of
wine, the blood of Christ, because he saw it as an invention
of the devil. Many Gnostics also do not recognize the significance
of baptism in water (McManners: 27). They also believe they are
the elect group that will gain salvation, via gnosis, and everyone
else will be annihilated. "Moral virtue was of little interest
to Gnostics, whose confidence in their own salvation made all
that seem a matter of indifference."(McManners: 28)
- Gnostics also have a different view of the make up of the
world. Aeons are worlds, or "distinct spiritual entities,"
which all together make up the pleroma, or fullness (Foerster:
24). The pleroma is above the cosmos and is the "spiritual
Divine Reality," the true God's realm (Gnosticism). This
is the place a Gnostic hopes to return to through salvation.
III. Links to Gnosticism Web Sites
The Gnosis Archive includes the Gnostic Society Library, definitions
of Gnosticism, lectures from the Gnostic Society, writings from
the Ecclesia Gnostica, as well as readings and meditations from
the current Gnostic liturgy.
Texts from the Nag Hammadi Library
This site is part of the Gnostic Society Library. It provides
an introduction to Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi Library, as
well as an alphabetical index to the Library.
Gnostic Society Library
The Gnostic Society Library links you to the Nag Hammadi Library,
their lectures, and material related to Gnosticism located in
their library. The library includes other writings such as the
Manichaean, Mandaean, Cathar, and Alchemical writings.
This site provides links to important Gnostic websites, such
as the Gnosis Archive, the Gnostic Center, or the Gnostic Way.
It also allows for searches for the gnostic school near you.
This page provides links to Gnostic studies on the web. Some
of the links include the Gnostic Society Library, the Gnosis
Archive, as well as sites about Gnostic philosophy, spirituality
This site provices a survey of Gnostic beliefs and ties between
Gnosticism and Christianity.
Gospel of Thomas
This provides the Gospel of Thomas, an important scripture for
the Gnostics. The page provides a translation, and also a list
of the best available books on the subjects on this page. Also
available is the history of the Gospel of Thomas, gnostic traits
and the contents.
http://home.epix.net/~miser17/Thomas.html - no longer available
potential replacement: http://users.misericordia.edu/davies/thomas/Thomas.htm
This is a link to thirteen of the eighteen Corpus Hermeticum
texts. An introduction to the material is provided by Dr. Stephen
Hoeller, head of the Ecclesia Gnostica.
This is the home page for Gnosis: A journal of Western Inner
Traditions. It contains an index of back issues, links the
magazine suggests, and a regular feature article about some aspect
This site provides a short discussion about the Hermetics, Zoroastrians,
Mandaeans, Simon Magus, and the Peratae. The discussion is a
brief history and explanation of each group as well as the dates
of their existence.
150+ Anti-Gnostic Links
This is a link off of the Gnostic Friends Network site, which
names 150+ anti-Gnostic links. The index is put in order by the
subject of criticism of Gnosticism.
This is the site of Gnostic Communications an organization promoting
a "cultural fusion of psychic integration."
- Borce, Gjorgjievski. nd.
- "Gnosticism: Origins, Beliefs and Modern Tendencies."
- Crim, Keith Ed. 1981.
- Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions. Nashville,
TN: Abingdon. pp.277-278.
- Davies, Vicki.
- "Ecclesia Gnostica: An Introduction to the Ecclesia
- Edwards, Dean. 1994.
- The Gnosis Archive.
- Eliade, Mircea. ed. 1987.
- The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan
Publishing Company: pp.566-579.
- Ellwood, Robert S. and Harry B. Partin. 1988.
- Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. pp.93-97.
- Foerster, Werner. 1972.
- Gnosis. London: Oxford University Press.
- Grant, Robert M. ed. 1961.
- Gnosticism. London: Collins Clear-Type Press.
- Hedrick, Charles W. and Robert Hodgson, Jr. eds. 1986.
- Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, & Early Christianity.
USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
- Mansager, Alan.
- Yahweh's New Covenant Assembly. "Gnosticism:
The Mystical Empire Strikes Back."
- Melton, J. Gordon. 1996.
- Encyclopedia of American Religions, 5th ed. Detroit,
MI: Gale Research Inc. pp. 761, 736-8.
- McManners, John. ed. 1990.
- The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. Oxford:
Oxford University Press. pp.26-31.
- Rudolph, Kurt. 1983.
- Gnosis. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Limited.
- Satinover, Jeffrey Burke. 1994.
- Jungians and Gnostics. First Things.
46 (October): 41-48.
- "The Gnostic Society Library: An Introduction to Gnosticism
and The Nag Hammadi Library."
- "The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism."
- Yamauchi, Edwin M. 1973.
- Pre-Gnosticism. London: Tyndale Press.
Created by Erin Potter
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Spring Term, 1999
University of Virginia
Last modified: 07/18/01
- Source: www.religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/profiles/listalpha.htm