A modern designation for a religious movement of the early centuries CE, though only some of the groups involved actually called themselves “gnostics” (from Greek gnōsis, “knowledge”). Initially it was regarded as a heresy within early Christianity, opposed by Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and others, the “falsely called knowledge” of 1 Timothy 6.20. A false knowledge, however, implies the existence of a true knowledge, and Clement of Alexandria in fact uses the term “gnostic” for a Christian who has penetrated more deeply than the ordinary believer into the knowledge of the truth (Stromata 7.1–2). Further complications have arisen with increasing knowledge of the religious life of the ancient world, comparative study of ancient religions, and the attempt to account for the origins of gnosticism. One common error of method has been to identify terms or concepts as “gnostic” because of their appearance in developed gnostic systems, and then to trace them back through Greek philosophy or the religions of Egypt, Persia, or Babylonia. This is to ignore the fact that the gnostics adapted and transformed motifs that they borrowed; some such terms and concepts are “gnostic” only in a gnostic context. More recently, increased attention has been paid to possible Jewish origins; but while there is no doubt of the importance of the Jewish contribution, for example in gnostic use and reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible, it is by no means certain that the movement originated within Judaism or was initiated by Jews. The Septuagint was the Bible also of early gentile Christians.
What is now clear is that the movement did not suddenly emerge in the second century CE, when it was opposed by early church fathers. There are affinities in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, and there is evidence that there was a good deal of “gnosticizing” thought even in the first century CE. A question still in debate is the extent of “gnostic” influence on the New Testament, since the evidence has to be found in the New Testament itself, and there is always a danger of interpreting it in light of later systems, which may be to impose on it the ideas of a later period. There is still no gnostic document that in its present form can be dated prior to the New Testament.
The chief characteristics common to all the developed systems are: (1) a radical cosmic dualism that rejects this world and all that belongs to it: the body is a prison from which the soul longs to escape; (2) a distinction between the unknown transcendent true God and the creator or Demiurge, commonly identified with the God of the Hebrew Bible; (3) the belief that the human race is essentially akin to the divine, being a spark of heavenly light imprisoned in a material body; (4) a myth, often narrating a premundane fall, to account for the present human predicament; and (5) the saving knowledge by which deliverance is effected and the gnostic awakened to recognition of his or her true nature and heavenly origin. At one time it was thought, as the church fathers sometimes allege, that the gnostic was “saved by nature,” and that morality was therefore of no importance; indeed, since ethics is largely a matter of obedience to the law of the creator, who seeks to hold the human race in slavery, it could be seen as a positive duty for the gnostic to disobey all such commands. The evidence of the Nag Hammadi documents, however, suggests that while some gnostics may have shown libertine tendencies, the main direction of the movement was toward asceticism. Some of the characteristics listed can be identified in other systems of thought, but that does not make these gnostic; it is the combination of those ideas into a new synthesis that is gnosticism.
The classic period of gnosticism is the second century CE, with such figures as Basilides and Valentinus, and the latter's disciples Ptolemy and Heracleon, but this was the culmination of a long development. The later books of the New Testament (e.g., the Pastorals, Jude, 1 John) show signs of resistance to an incipient gnosticism, but it is a mistake to think of clear distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy at such an early stage; differing points of view may well coexist for a period, interacting with one another, before it finally becomes clear that they are incompatible. The gospel of John makes frequent use of the verb “to know,” but never employs the noun gnōsis, which may perhaps be significant; Paul uses the noun quite often, but we need to ask whether he is speaking of a specifically gnostic knowledge. Most religions do profess to convey some kind of knowledge! While there may be doubts about gnostic influence in the New Testament, there can be no question of the significance of New Testament influence on gnosticism; this is shown by numerous allusions and direct quotations in the sources, to which the Nag Hammadi library has added greatly.
Gnosticism has often been regarded as bizarre and outlandish, and certainly it is not easily understood until it is examined in its contemporary setting. It was, however, no mere playing with words and ideas, but a serious attempt to resolve real problems: the nature and destiny of the human race, the problem of evil, the human predicament. To a gnostic it brought a release and joy and hope, as if awakening from a nightmare. One later offshoot, Manicheism, became for a time a world religion, reaching as far as China, and there are at least elements of gnosticism in such medieval movements as those of the Bogomiles and the Cathari. Gnostic influence has been seen in various works of modern literature, such as those of William Blake and W. B. Yeats, and is also to be found in the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and the Anthroposophy of Rudolph Steiner. Gnosticism was of lifelong interest to the psychologist C. G. Jung, and one of the Nag Hammadi codices (the Jung Codex) was for a time in the Jung Institute in Zurich.
Robert Mc L. Wilson