Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

Gnosticism: A Very Brief Introduction

In our times Gnosticism has had a startling revival. It continues to pop up in popular books, magazines, news articles, etc. Where did this thing called Gnosticism come from? Who were some of the key players?

What follows is a very brief introduction to the second-century Gnosticism engaged by early Christians like Irenæus (c.130-c.202).

The Gnostics were individuals who belonged to various religious movements, who believed that people could be saved only by their knowledge (gnosis). This knowledge was secret—known only by those to whom it had been revealed by God. Though Gnostics were involved in a variety of religions and sects, they particularly flourished through their association with the fringes of Christianity.

Gnosticism is known widely for its particularly sharp dualism: that which is “spiritual” is good, but that which is physical is bad. This influenced everything they thought and taught. For example, creation was the result of the fall of “wisdom.” Thus, even the very act of the creation of the physical was a result of sin. The one sent by God to be the redeemer of the universe, then, is sent so as to bring a “secret knowledge” to God’s people by which they may be saved.

Also as a result of this sharp dualism morals of Gnostics varied. Some believed that since knowledge of the spiritual was all that was required for salvation how one behaved physically was of no relevance, and thus rampant immorality was encouraged. Others argued that since the physical was bad, it should not be indulged in any sense. This latter group was the more common position and resulted in drastic asceticism. Under this view marriage, sexuality, wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and many other things essential to the Christian life had to be abandoned.

The Christology of Gnostics was affected drastically by the idea that anything physical is evil. They were forced to hold to a Docetic view of Christ, insisting that he was not human, nor physical, nor were his sufferings real. Rather, all of these were mere apparitions.

The Gnostics were also dualists in their view of God. They saw a sharp contrast between the God of the Old Testament and the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The God of the Old Testament was a God of justice and anger, committed only the nation of Israel, willing to destroy all the nations of the world for their sake. The God of the New Testament, they argued, is much more merciful and loving. The God of the Old Testament created the world which is physical and therefore evil, but the God of the New Testament is spiritual and is concerned with saving people through a secret knowledge of the spiritual which is revealed in Jesus.

The Gnostics were prolific writers and produced many works still extant even now. The Mandaean communities currently living in modern day Iraq and Iran are the only remnant of Gnosticism in today’s world. Even this sect, however, did not come into existence until at least the second century ad and thus had no influence on the world of Christ or the writing of the New Testament.

It is argued that Simon of Acts 8 was a prototype which later Gnostics would follow and modify. Several other key Gnostic figures and teachers include Cerinthus, Marcion, Basilides, Carpocrates, and the most prominent teacher, Valentinus.

2 Comments

  1. Jordan Stratford+

    12 January, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Gnosticism is known widely for its particularly sharp dualism: that which is “spiritual” is good, but that which is physical is bad.

    You’ve made here the very common mistake of equating Gnosticism with Manichaeanism. While there are some strains of Gnostic thought in Manichaeanism, they are not synonymous: None of the dualism to which you refer here is found in Gnostic scripture. The Valentinian writings are very earthy and pro-Creation.

    “The Mandaean communities currently living in modern day Iraq and Iran are the only remnant of Gnosticism in today’s world. Even this sect, however, did not come into existence until at least the second century ad and thus had no influence on the world of Christ or the writing of the New Testament.”

    St. Paul encountered the Mandaeans in Ephesus; the Sabaeans who were baptised Christians by John the Baptist but who had never head of Jesus. Solidly first-century.

    Also the Gospel of John contains many Gnostic elements, particularly in its Platonist pre-amble. Christ as “Logos” is an explicitly Gnostic concept.

    Christian mysticism (St. John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard von Bingen, St. Theresa of Avila, etc) is nothing short of a Gnostic revival of the middle ages.

    Iranaeus’ take on Gnosticism cannot be taken seriously; he broadly condemns any kind of heresy under the “Gnostic” label, and includes among them groups such as the Borborites and Cainites who likely did not exist and were simply fictions created by Iranaeus.

    Great blog! I’ll be back.

  2. Thanks for the posting.

    One of my favorite comments by Irenaeus is his remark on vegetarians. He said that vegetarians oppose divinity because they do not eat the divine gift of animal flesh. With that kind of reasoning, one who does not imbibe in the divine gift of cannabis also opposes the divine.

    In my studies of Church history, the Gospels, and Gnostic literature, I could not help but observe that there’s a direct connection between Christ and the Gnostics. It’s even more profound than the connection between Peter and Roman pontificate.

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