Christian Gnosticism

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The term Gnosticism is used by scholars with a wide variety of meanings and levels of specificity. Sometimes the term refers only to those Sethians who used the term gnostikoi to describe themselves. Sometimes it is used more broadly to include Valentinians, followers of Basilides, and others. Likewise, one scholar may consider Simon Magus a gnostic, where another considers him a proto-gnostic. Some early Church fathers, such as Irenaeus, seemed to think that all heresies were Gnosticism at root, and thus that any heretic was in a sense a Gnostic.

Pre-Christian characters important to Gnostics[edit]

The death of Simon Magus.

Gnostics considered many pre-Christian characters to be important religious figures. Adam and his son Seth were especially important. Several figures appear in Gnostic versions of Old Testament stories who do not appear in canonical versions, such as Norea, who saves the Gnostics from the flood in the time of Noah. The three companions of Daniel are called by many names in Gnostic texts, and often invoked. Eugnostos is a proto-Sethian writer of the Nag Hammadi text of the same name, and may have lived as early as the 1st century BC. John the Baptist is sometimes claimed as an early Gnostic leader — for example, by the Mandaeans. Other figures are more difficult to locate in time, such as the Prophets Barcoph and Barkabbas, mentioned by Basilides and Epiphanius.

Likewise, it may not have been unusual for even Christian Gnostics to consider a variety of pre-Christian people as important religious figures. Irenaeus claims that followers of Carpocrates honored images of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle along with images of Jesus Christ. Philo of Alexandria, Zoroaster, and Hermes Trismegistus may have occupied similar roles among other early Christian gnostics.

Christian Gnosticism in the first centuries[edit]

Although some scholars hypothesize that gnosticism developed before or contemporaneous with Christianity, no gnostic texts have been discovered that pre-date Christianity.[1] James M. Robinson, a noted proponent of pre-Christian Gnosticism, has admitted "pre-Christian Gnosticism as such is hardly attested in a way to settle the debate once and for all."[2] Since pre-Christian Gnosticism, as such, is strictly hypothetical, any influence of Gnosticism upon Christianity is speculative. Therefore, gnosticism as a unique and recognizable belief system is typically considered to be a second century (or later) development.[3]

Important figures in early gnosticism include Simon Magus (named in the book of Acts; later claimed by gnostics to be a proponent of gnosticism), Cerinthus, Carpocrates, and Basilides. Early teachers such as Marcion, Theudas, and Nicolas of Antioch are more difficult to define as "gnostics" due to variant teachings that do not fit easily within that category.

Jesus is claimed as a gnostic leader by Christian gnostics (hence "Christian gnosticism"), as are several of his apostles, such as Thomas the Apostle, claimed as the founder of the Thomasine form of Gnosticism. Indeed, Mary Magdalene is respected as a Gnostic leader, and is considered superior to the twelve apostles by some gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Mary. John the Evangelist is claimed as a Gnostic by some Gnostic interpreters,[4] as is even St Paul.[5]

A student of Valentinius claims that Theudas was a student of St. Paul, and in turn taught Valentinius, which would put Theudas in the late 1st century if true.

Nicolas of Antioch and Jezebel of Thyatira, mentioned in the Book of Revelation (late first century), are sometimes claimed as leaders of the Nicolaitans. It's unclear just how Gnostic these figures were, but Epiphanius believes that the Archontic Gnostics are descendents of the Nicolatians.

In the 2nd century several major schools can be distinguished, such as the Sethians (with no clear leaders), and the Valentinians following the teachings of Valentinus.

By the 3rd century the prophet Mani gave birth to Manicheanism, a syncrestic gnostic religion which was influenced by Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity.

Gnostic schools of thought[edit]

The gnostics interpreted the stories of God and Jesus differently than other Christians. In general, gnostics believed that the created world was bad, and that is was made by a lesser, evil god distinct from the good god. They believed that there is an element of the divine in each person, and that that divinity wants to join again with the good god.They also believed that people could be saved by a sort of secret knowledge. Some thought that it did not matter what people did in life, since the body was not eternal. While Christians thought Jesus was both human and divine, gnostics thought he was divine only, but appeared human. While Christians thought Jesus transcended sin when he died, gnostics say he merely escaped from the physical world. While Christians said people must read the Old Testament, gnostics said people only need to read the New Testament.[6]

In the early 2nd century Cerinthus founded a Gnostic offshoot of the Ebionites, the first to teach a Supreme God distinct from the creator of this world. Also in the 2nd century Carpocrates founded the Carpocratians. His students include Marcellina the Carpocratian and his son Epiphanes (not Epiphanes of Salamis). Another early 2nd century theologian was Basilides. His son Isidore succeeds him around 150. A Gnostic teacher named Cerdo is teaching in Rome sometime in 136-142. Marcion is a 2nd-century theologian whose links to Gnosticism have been hotly disputed, although his disciple Apelles the Marcionite seems to have interacted with the Alexandrian Gnostics later on. Apelles was also friends with Philumene, an Alexandrian prophetess.

Little is known of founders of Sethian Gnosticism, which flourished in the 2nd century AD. Early Sethian leaders might include:

  • Barkabbas - a prophet mentioned by Basilides and linked to the Gnostics by Epiphanius;
  • Zostrianos, the supposed writer of a Nag Hammadi text, believed in antiquity to be a follower of Zoroaster;
  • Satornius (Satornilos, Satorninos) who may have been an early 2nd-century Sethian teacher
  • Marsanes (Marsianos), the supposed author of a Nag Hammadi text, who is also mentioned by Epiphanius of Salamis as a prophet revered by the Archontic Gnostics.

Porphyry also mentions several of these, as well as Nikotheos and Messos, Gnostic revelation writers whose works don't survive (Nikotheos is mentioned in the Bruce Codex too, as a "perfect man" who had seen visions of the "triple powered one"), and Adelphios and Aquilinus (mentioned as leaders of the Gnostics by Porphyry). Eutaktos of Armenia is founder of the Archontic Gnostics, according to Epiphanius. Peter the Gnostic or Peter of Kapharbarikha is a Palestinian Archontic described by Epiphanius. Martiades is a prophet of Archontics mentioned by Epiphanius, along with Marsanes.

Valentinus, who may have been a student of Basilides, and Theudas was a prominent Gnostic teacher of another major form of Gnosticism in the 2nd century AD. He taught many other Gnostic fathers whose names we know, and his school survived for centuries.

His school was later divided into Eastern and Western branches based on a Christological dispute. Western Valentinians include: Ptolemy the Valentinian, whose letter to Flora survives, and who seems to have been martryed in 152; Flora a female Valentinian who corresponded with Ptolemy; Heracleon who has several surviving excerpts; Hermogenes (the painter) a late 2nd century painter, Monoimus the Arab, and Prodicus the Gnostic, Secundus, Florinus (a presbyter), Alexander, and Theotimus. Eastern Valentinians include: Marcus the Valentinian, a magician interested in using Gematria with Valentinianism; Axionicus of Antioch, who was alive in time of Tertullian; and Theodotus who also has several surviving excerpts in Clement of Alexandria's Excerpta; Ambrose and Candidus (in the 3rd century).

Later Gnostics[edit]

The 3rd century also sees Bardaisan or Bardansanes, an immediate forerunner of Mani. He was a Valentianian at one point but later rejected them. The prophet Mani, who described himself as "the apostle of Jesus Christ", founded a religion called Manichaeism. His religion borrowed heavily from Gnosticism and may well be thought of a form of gnosticism, so it might be fair to think of Mani as a father of Christian Gnosticism, although clearly many would dispute this.

By the early 4th century, gnostics were kicked out the church and officially forbidden to meet, by the mid 4th century their books were widely banned and by the late 4th century Gnosticism carried a death penalty in the Roman empire. The Sethian Gnostics, Archontic Gnostics, Basilidean Gnostics, Valentinian Gnostics, and Manicheans seem to be the only schools of Christian Gnostics to survive into the 4th century. St. Augustine of Hippo claimed to be a Manichean early in life, but later rejected it, and thus was a Church Father who was at one point a gnostic. Likewise, the late 3rd-early 4th century theologian Lactantius has sometimes been thought of as being influenced enough by Gnosticism to be a Gnostic father, but this is by no means clear.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "At this stage we have not found any Gnostic texts that clearly antedate the origin of Christianity." J. M. Robinson, "Sethians and Johannine Thought: The Trimorphic Protennoia and the Prologue of the Gospel of John" in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol. 2, Sethian Gnosticism, ed. B. Layton (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981), 662.
  2. ^ J. M. Robinson, "Jesus: From Easter to Valentinus (Or to the Apostles' Creed)," Journal of Biblical Literature, 101 (1982), p.5.
  3. ^ To this end Paul Trebilco cites the following in his article "Christian Communities In Western Asia Minor Into The Early Second Century: Ignatius And Others As Witnesses Against Bauer" in JETS 49.1: E.M. Yamauchi, “Gnosticism and Early Christianity,” in W. E. Helleman, ed. (1994). Hellenization Revisited: Shaping a Christian Response Within the Greco-Roman World. University Press of America. p. 38.  ; Karen L. King (2003). What is Gnosticism?. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 175. ; C. Markschies (2003). Gnosis: An Introduction. London: T&T Clark. pp. 67–69. ; cf. H. Koester (1982). Introduction to the New Testament, Vol 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity. Walter de Gruyter. p. 286. ; For discussions of “Gnosticism” see Yamauchi, “Gnosticism” 29–61; M. A. Williams (1996). Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton University Press. ; Gerd Theissen (1999). A Theory of Primitive Christian Religion. London: SCM Press. pp. 231–39. .
  4. ^ Elaine Pagels, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis. Heracleon's Commentary on John. Nashville: SBL Monograph Series 17, 1973
  5. ^ Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Paul. Philadelphia 1975.
  6. ^ Marty, Martin (1987). A Short History of Christianity. Augsburg Fortress Publishers. ISBN 978-0800619442.