Neoplatonism and Gnosticism

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Gnosticism refers to a collection of religious groups originating in Jewish religiosity in Alexandria in the first few centuries CE.[1] Neoplatonism was a school of Hellenistic philosophy that took shape in the 3rd century, based on the teachings of Plato and some of his early followers. While Gnosticism was influenced by Middle Platonism, neo-Platonists from the third century onward rejected Gnosticism.


Gnosticism originated in the late first century CE in nonrabbinical Jewish sects and early Christian sects,[2][3] and many of the Nag Hammadi texts make reference to Judaism, in some cases with a violent rejection of the Jewish God.[3]

Sethianism may have started as a pre-Christian tradition, possibly a syncretic Hebrew[4] Mediterranean baptismal movement from the Jordan Valley, with Babylonian and Egyptian pagan elements[citation needed], and elements from Hellenic philosophy. Both Sethian Gnostics and the Valentinian Gnostics incorporated elements of Christianity and Hellenic philosophy as it grew, including elements from Plato, Middle Platonism and Neo-Pythagoreanism.[5]

Earlier Sethian texts such as Apocalypse of Adam show signs of being pre-Christian and focus on the Seth of the Jewish bible.[note 1] Later Sethian texts are continuing to interact with Platonism, and texts such as Zostrianos and Allogenes draw on the imagery of older Sethian texts, but utilize "a large fund of philosophical conceptuality derived from contemporary Platonism, (that is late middle Platonism) with no traces of Christian content."[5]

Scholarship on Gnosticism has been greatly advanced by the discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi texts, which shed light on some of the more puzzling comments by Plotinus and Porphyry regarding the Gnostics. It now seems clear that "Sethian" and "Valentinian" gnostics attempted "an effort towards conciliation, even affiliation" with late antique philosophy.[6]


By the third century Plotinus had shifted Platonist thought far enough that modern scholars consider the period a new movement called "Neoplatonism".[7]

Philosophical relations[edit]

Gnostics borrow a lot of ideas and terms from Platonism. They exhibit a keen understanding of Greek philosophical terms and the Greek Koine language in general, and use Greek philosophical concepts throughout their text, including such concepts as hypostasis (reality, existence), ousia (essence, substance, being), and demiurge (creator God). Good examples include texts such as the Hypostasis of the Archons[8](Reality of the Rulers) or Trimorphic Protennoia (The First Thought which is in Three forms).[9][better source needed]

Gnostics structured their world of transcendent being by ontological distinctions. The plenitude of the divine world emerges from a sole high deity by emanation, radiation, unfolding and mental self-reflection. The technique of self-performable contemplative mystical ascent towards and beyond a realm of pure being, which is rooted in Plato's Symposium and was common in Gnostic thought, was also expressed by Plotinus.[note 2]

Divine triads, tetrads, and ogdoads in Gnostic thought often are closely related to Neo-Pythagorean arithmology. The trinity of the "triple-powered one" (with the powers consisting of the modalities of existence, life and mind) in Allogenes mirrors quite closely the Neoplatonic doctrine of the Intellect differentiating itself from the One in three phases, called Existence or reality (hypostasis), Life, and Intellect (nous). Both traditions heavily emphasize the role of negative theology or apophasis, and Gnostic emphasis on the ineffability of God often echoes Platonic (and Neoplatonic) formulations of the ineffability of the One or the Good.

There were some important philosophical differences. Gnostics emphasized magic and ritual in a way that would have been disagreeable to the more sober Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and Porphyry, though perhaps not to later Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus. Gnostics were in conflict with the idea expressed by Plotinus that the approach to the infinite force, which is the One or Monad, cannot be through knowing or not knowing.[10][11] Although there has been dispute as to which gnostics Plotinus was referring to, it appears they were Sethian.[12]

Neo-Platonic objections[edit]

In the third century CE both Christianity and neo-Platonism reject and turn against Gnosticism, with neo-Platonists as Plotinus, Porphyry and Amelius attacking the Sethians. John D. Turner believes that this double attack led to Sethianism fragmentation into numerous smaller groups (Audians, Borborites, Archontics and perhaps Phibionites, Stratiotici, and Secundians).

Plotinus considered his Gnostic opponents "heretics", "imbeciles" and "blasphemers" erroneously arriving at misotheism as the solution to the problem of evil, taking all their truths over from Plato. Plotinus' main objection to the Gnostic teachings he encountered was to their rejection of the goodness of the demiurge and of the material world. He attacked the Gnostics for their vilification of Plato's ontology of the universe as contained in the Timaeus. Plotinus accused Gnosticism of vilifying the demiurge or craftsman that shaped the material world, and so ultimately for perceiving the material world as evil, or as a prison. Plotinus set forth that the demiurge is the nous (as an emanation of the One), which is the ordering principle or mind, also reason. Plotinus was critical of the gnostic derivation of the Demiurge from Wisdom as Sophia, the anthropomorphic personification of wisdom as a feminine spirit deity not unlike the goddess Athena or the Christian Holy Spirit. These objections seem applicable to some of the Nag Hammadi texts, although others such as the Valentinians, or the Tripartite Tractate, appear to insist on the goodness of the world and the Demiurge.[note 3]

First International Conference[edit]

The First International Conference on Neoplatonism and Gnosticism at the University of Oklahoma in 1984 explored the relationship between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. The conference also led to a book named Neoplatonism and Gnosticism.

The book's intent was to document the creation of a conference in the academic world exploring the relationship between late and middle Platonic philosophy and Gnosticism. The book marked a turning point in the discussion on the subject of Neoplatonism[13] because it took into account the understanding of the gnostics of Plotinus' day in light of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library. Further discussions of the topics covered in the book led to the formation of a new committee of scholars to once again translate Plotinus' Enneads. Both Richard Wallis and A.H. Armstrong, the major editors of the work, have died since the completion of the book and conference.

This conference was held to cover some of the controversies surrounding these issues and other aspects of the two groups. The objective of the event (and the book that documents the event) was to clarify the relationship between Neoplatonism / Neoplatonists and the sectarian groups of the day, the Gnostics. The book republished the works of a wide spectrum of scholars in the field of philosophy. The book's content consisted of presentations that the experts delivered at the first International Conference. One purpose was to clarify the meaning of the words and phrases repeated in other religions and belief systems of the Mediterranean region during Plotinus' time. Another was to try to clarify the extent to which Plotinus' work followed directly from Plato, and how much influence Plotinus had on the religions of his time and vice versa. The conference and the book documenting it is considered a key avenue for dialogue among the different scholars in the history of philosophy.

Later conferences and studies[edit]

John D. Turner of the University of Nebraska has led additional conferences covering topics and materials relating to Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. Presentations from seminars that took place between 1993 and 1998 are published in the book Gnosticism and Later Platonism: Themes, Figures, and Texts Symposium Series (Society of Biblical Literature).[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Not the Egyptian God Set who is sometimes called Seth in Greek.
  2. ^ See Life of Plotinus
  3. ^ Plotinus indicated that if gnostics really believed this world to be a prison, then they might at any moment free themselves from it by committing suicide.


  1. ^ Filoramo, Giovanni (1990). A History of Gnosticism. Blackwell. pp. 142-7
  2. ^ Magris 2005, p. 3515-3516.
  3. ^ a b 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought Arthur A. Cohen, Paul Mendes-Flohr, Arthur Allen Cohen 1988 republished 2010, page 286
  4. ^ Carl B. Smith (2004), No Longer Jews: The Search for Gnostic Origins
  5. ^ a b Turner, John. "Sethian Gnosticism: A Literary History" in Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, 1986 p. 59
  6. ^ Schenke, Hans Martin. "The Phenomenon and Significance of Gnostic Sethianism" in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism. E. J. Brill 1978
  7. ^ Harder, Scrift Plotins.
  8. ^ "The Reality of the Rulers (Hypostasis of the Archons) - Barntone and Meyer - The Nag Hammadi Library". 
  9. ^ Trimorphic Protennoia
  10. ^ Faith and philosophy By David G. Leahy. Retrieved 2013-08-17. 
  11. ^ Enneads VI 9.6
  12. ^ A. H. Armstrong (translator), Plotinus' Enneads in the tract named Against the Gnostics: Footnote, p. 264 1.
  13. ^ Wallis, Richard T. (1992). "Introduction". Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. New York Press. p. 2. ISBN 0-7914-1337-3. Its study has, however been hindered until recently by lack of original Gnostics writings, the main exceptions being a few short texts quoted by the Church Fathers and some (mostly late) works translated from Greeks into Coptic, the native Egyptian language. Our picture has, however, been revolutionized by the discovery in late 1945 of a Coptic Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt 
  14. ^ "Carl Pfendner". 


  • Magris, Aldo (2005), "Gnosticism: Gnosticism from its origins to the Middle Ages (further considerations)", in Jones, Lindsay, MacMillan Encyclopdia of Religion, MacMillan 

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