Around the year 180 C.E., a Christian bishop, Irenaeus of Lyons, launched the following scathing attack against the interpretive practices of some fellow readers of scripture:

"As people would say, they attempt to braid ropes of sand. They try to adapt to their own sayings in a manner worthy of credence, either the Lord’s parables, or the prophets’ sayings, or the apostles’ words, so that their fabrication might not appear to be without witness. They disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures and…they disjoint the members of the Truth. They transfer passages and rearrange them; and, making one thing out of another, they deceive many by the badly composed phantasy of the Lord’s words that they adapt. (Against Heresies 1.8.1, Unger and Dillon)"

Who were these scriptural interpreters whose readings of the sacred texts amounted—in the bishop’s view—to so many futile yet insidious attempts to braid ropes out of sand? Irenaeus is careful to distinguish the group he speaks about here (whom he dubs “Valentinians”) from other sects, including the so-called “Gnostics” (Against Heresies 1.11.1). Yet he also grouped this diversity under a single category of error, “what is falsely called knowledge” (see 1 Tim 6:20). And until very recently, both modern Christian tradition and critical scholarship followed his lead, conjuring a single historical entity out of these and other groups of this period that were deemed heretical with historical hindsight—hence, “Gnosticism.” In the process, there has often been a tendency to elide, ignore, or otherwise fail to analyze with sufficient precision a rich, variegated, and not easily reducible set of hermeneutical strategies that produced the kind of biblical interpretation Irenaeus so trenchantly dismissed.

Was There Such a Thing as “Gnosticism”?

The term “Gnosticism” is not an ancient one. While early Christian writers made repeated reference to the Greek term for “knowledge” in various forms—the adjective gnōstikos, the noun gnōsis, and people who call themselves gnōstikoi—the birth of the term as an “-ism” is an early modern invention, coined by Henry More in the seventeenth century as part of a Protestant diatribe directed against Roman Catholics (Layton 1995). In this context, it was used as roughly equivalent to the phrase “the gnostic heresy” (gnōstikē hairesis), a formulation that can be found in early Christian texts (see Against Heresies 1.11.1; Pearson in Marjanen 2005). But does this mean that there actually was such a thing as a “Gnostic religion” in the ancient world, and if so, what sort of religious phenomenon was it? Was it a Christian sect, either one of the many varieties that existed in the tradition’s earliest moments, or a later (and derivative) heresy? A pre-Christian or non-Christian entity, perhaps growing out of Hellenistic Judaism, concurrent (and in competition) with Christianity? A totally independent movement?

While these different possibilities have been increasingly debated by scholars during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the traditional definition of “Gnosticism” as a diffuse and internally diverse early Christian heresy has proven hard to shake. Along these lines, many modern historians have tended to delineate the movement typologically in terms of a common set of characteristics. These characteristics could vary, but often included belief in the power of esoteric knowledge (or gnōsis), a devaluation of the material world, a vigorous body-soul dualism, a deterministic soteriology, the idea of a divine element within (some) human beings, a docetic Christology, a tendency toward either radical asceticism or libertinism, and—perhaps most importantly for the subject matter at hand—the use of “subversive” exegetical techniques (Jonas 1963; Rudolph 1983).

Yet recent scholarship has increasingly questioned the adequacy of this sort of broad, typological definition. Whereas the characteristics described earlier had generally been gleaned from the writings of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, Hippolytus of Rome, and other early Christian heresiologists, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945 allowed scholars to read a wide swath of so-called “Gnostic” literature for themselves. What they discovered did not conform neatly to any discernible typology. Rather, the Nag Hammadi texts offered a window into a bewildering landscape of early Christian theological, philosophical, and exegetical diversity. In light of this diversity, some scholars have called into question the basic viability of “Gnosticism” as an analytical category. Michael Williams’s work dismantles many of the standard classifications used to define the term through a careful examination of the extant primary sources. He argues instead for classifying Nag Hammadi and related early Christian texts through the use of more precise typological identifiers—such as, for example, the presence of an inferior “demiurgical” creator god in interpretations of the Genesis narrative (Williams 1996). Karen King attacks the usefulness of “Gnosticism” from a different angle, showing the degree to which historically it has been—and continues to be—a production of normative Christian discourses of orthodoxy and heresy. The term is thus rendered incoherent once it has been ostensibly removed from these discourses to function as a stand-alone category (King 2003).

Other scholars continue to see a usefulness to the term. While few if any experts in the literature would still argue for “Gnosticism” as an all-inclusive category covering the entire Nag Hammadi corpus and the full range of “heresies” described by early Christian heresiologists, some have mounted a spirited defense for a more historically careful and circumscribed use of the term or one of its variants (i.e., “Gnosis,” “Gnostic religion,” “the Gnostics”)—often either partially overlapping with, or in contradistinction from, other early Christian movements such as Valentinianism. Certain versions of this argument remain typologically oriented, positing not a discrete religious formation in antiquity that ought to be characterized as “Gnostic,” but rather a set of characteristics that can serve as a useful heuristic device for analyzing theological concepts, myths, and/or references to rituals found in multiple ancient texts—even if the authors and movements behind those texts had little or no direct historical contact (Markschies 2003; Meyer 2005).

Another position, represented most forcefully by Birger Pearson, contends on phenomenological grounds that there actually was an independent Gnostic religion. This religion, he maintains, was distinct from Christianity or Judaism, placed its primary emphasis on gnôsis (as opposed to either faith or Torah), and is epitomized most clearly by one particular text, the Secret Book of John (Pearson 2004, 2005). Finally, a third position maintains that historically, a group of ancient Christians designated themselves as “Gnostics,” and were bound together (albeit not rigidly) not only by this self-designation, but also by a shared set of myths and ritual practices (Layton; Brakke 2010). Here again the Secret Book of John is of paramount importance, along with other texts and polemical descriptions that share a similar cosmological myth. This myth has been often characterized as “Sethian” in other scholarship because of an emphasis, at least in some texts, on the biblical figure of Seth and his progeny (Schenke 1974; Turner 1986).

While the scholarly debate around the utility of the category “Gnosticism” is far from settled, it has pushed scholars on all sides to pay closer attention to the specificities of texts previously lumped under a blanket category. And with respect to biblical interpretation, it has become increasingly clear that there is no unitary Gnostic hermeneutic or exegetical approach (Williams, p. 78). Although only sometimes considered a “Gnostic”—and increasingly less so—in critical scholarship, the second-century thinker Marcion of Sinope represents one unambiguous approach to biblical hermeneutics: the rejection of Jewish scriptures and the expunging of the traces of those scriptures from Christian sacred texts. Yet when it comes to the literature of Nag Hammadi and related texts, the hermeneutical situation proves far more complicated. While these texts may revise, supplement, allegorize, correct, parody, and/or read scriptural traditions against the grain, as King rightly points out, this interpretive complexity cannot be reduced to “the simplistic and misleading stereotype that ‘Gnostics rejected Jewish scripture.’ Some did, some didn’t; those who did, did so differently” (2008, p. 79). It is to this convoluted but fascinating exegetical diversity—encompassing not only the Jewish scriptures but also the texts of a still nascent New Testament—that we now turn.

Biblical Interpretation in Nag Hammadi Texts.

Scholarly generalizations about Gnostic biblical interpretation have often portrayed it as a kind of “tendentious rewriting” (Jonas, p. 95) or “protest exegesis” (Rudolph, p. 54). While these characterizations may arguably apply to specific exegetical moves within individual texts, such sweeping generalizations with respect to the entire Nag Hammadi corpus are no longer tenable. Rather, we need to look closely at specific texts, the hermeneutical moves that they make, and the intertextual maneuvers that they perform, as they read scriptural passages together with one another and with other philosophical and cultural resources available in the ancient world. What follows will delve into these questions—without attempting comprehensiveness—through an examination of three representative examples from the Nag Hammadi corpus: the Secret Book of John, the Tripartite Tractate, and On the Origin of the World.

Each of these examples interprets the scriptural story that perhaps loomed largest in the theological imaginations of (at least some of) the anonymous authors who penned this literature: the narrative of cosmic and human creation found in Genesis 1—3. While an excellent broad overview of “Gnostic” interpretations of Genesis has recently been published (Dunderberg 2011), the ensuing exploration will focus more narrowly on specific exegetical motifs and interpretive connections deployed by the texts in comparison to one another. Of the three texts to be examined, the first has typically been categorized as Sethian (or Gnostic in the more delimited sense favored by Layton and Brakke), the second as Valentinian, and the third as not quite either—though most likely related to both. As such, the three texts’ hermeneutical common ground (both undeniable but also difficult to pin down with precision) and their divergences in specific explications of the Genesis text showcase both the benefits and the limitations of classificatory schemes with respect to the question of Gnostic interpretation.

The Secret Book of John.

As noted earlier, the Secret Book of John (second century C.E.) has been treated by many scholars as the epitome of classic “Gnostic” scripture—a group that also includes such texts as the Revelation of Adam, and the Hypostasis of the Archons, among numerous others. In its interpretation of creation, the Secret Book of John engages not only the Genesis narrative, but also numerous other ancient cultural resources including Platonizing philosophy and mythological speculations, Jewish wisdom literature, and Christian (especially Johannine) traditions—to name only its most prominent interlocutors. Yet this kaleidoscopic interpretive performance cannot be reduced to simple descriptors such as “reversal,” “caricature,” or “parody” with respect to the biblical text (though all these terms remain relevant). Rather, as King notes, the Secret Book deftly navigates apparent gaps within, and differences between, such texts as Genesis, the Gospel of John, and Plato’s Timaeus by means of a range of hermeneutical techniques and devices: retelling of the various narratives, recontextualization of smaller pieces of stories into a different plot structure, narrative elaboration, allegory, and identifications between otherwise unrelated characters from different texts (King 2006, pp. 185–188).

The Secret Book frames its revelatory narrative in terms of a dialogue, an imparting of secret knowledge by Christ to his disciple John. Here Platonizing speculations about the nature of ultimate deity are resituated in terms of the Genesis narrative. Negotiating the classic Platonic conundrum of “the One and the many,” the text explains the unfolding of a complex divine hierarchy out of a single first principle—an invisible spirit superior to deity, transcendent, and ultimately indescribable except in apophatic terms. From this first principle emanates a realm of divine beings or aeons, proceeding down a well-ordered hierarchy and together constituting a perfect unity. One of these aeons, Sophia (Wisdom), rashly decides to act out of her own self-determining thought, bringing forth a being who is divine, but who is not part of the approved hierarchy of divine emanation. This being, known as Ialdabaoth, and the rulers (or “archons”) he engenders, represent a distortion—one that introduces rupture, deformity, and problematic difference into the previously unblemished cosmos.

With respect to the Genesis narrative, all of this can be considered a kind of divine backstory, an explanation of cosmological happenings prior to—or more precisely, outside of or apart from—Genesis 1:1 (Brakke, p. 63). Ialdabaoth, then, functions in the Secret Book as the creator God of Genesis, but also as a kind of craftsman or “deimurge” modeled on Plato’s Timaeus. The move to harmonize selective aspects of Genesis and Plato in interpretations of creation was not new, being at least as old as Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 B.C.E.–50 C.E.). Yet the goodness of Plato’s craftsman, creating the best possible world on the model of the eternal Forms, had always begged the question of the origins of evil. The Secret Book navigates this thorny question by demoting Ialdabaoth to a position of ignorance, hubris, and even malice—though not radical evil in any absolute sense. Rather, the relationship between Ialdabaoth and his mother Sophia (as well as the rest of the divine realm) enacts a kind of broken mimesis. While Ialdabaoth retains a genealogical connection (and thus some continuity) to Sophia’s divinity, he is at one and the same time not like her. The mimesis fails, and the continuity between Ialdabaoth and the divine realm, such as it is, is therefore marked by deception and brokenness—and as a result, not to be trusted. So too this deep ambivalence will mark the created world order that Ialdabaoth brings about (King 2006, p. 200).

Exegesis of the Genesis text, explicitly marked as such, begins as the Secret Book turns to an account of Sophia’s repentance. According to Genesis 1:2, “a wind [or spirit] from God swept over the face of the waters.” Here Christ informs John that “Moses” is not to be trusted: the movement in question refers not to the creator god or to literal waters, but rather to Sophia moving back and forth out of shame at her transgression, a first step toward her eventual repentance. Meanwhile Ialdabaoth and the rulers get to work establishing the created order—and most especially fashioning Adam, the first human being. Reading Genesis 1:26 (“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”) disjunctively so that “image” and “likeness” apply to two different referents—a common exegetical move among Jews and Christians in this period—the Secret Book asserts that Adam is created according to an image derived from the higher divine realm and according to the flawed and distorted likeness of Ialdabaoth and the rulers. In a critical revision of Genesis 2:7 (in which Adam is formed from the dust), the rulers mold the first human’s body out of soul (i.e., psychic) substance. The result is an inanimate and inert creature, a concrete manifestation of the rulers’ true impotence. Only when the higher divine powers trick Ialdabaoth into blowing his mother Sophia’s power into Adam’s inert psychic body does he spring powerfully to life.

Through a retooling of Eve’s creation in Genesis 2:18–25, the text then recounts how the true deity implants a “helper” within Adam (cf. Gen 2:18), a luminous thought or principle who instructs Adam, but whose glowing presence within him causes his soul-substance body to shine. After encasing Adam in the “tomb” of a terrestrial body, Ialdabaoth attempts to retrieve this luminous thought from within Adam, putting him into a kind of trance in order to extract the desired power. The text figures this episode as a corrective gloss on Genesis 2:21 (“So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh”), clarifying that Moses was wrong to characterize Adam’s state as “sleep” or to designate the power being retrieved “a rib.” Here the basic narrative arc of Genesis remains intact, but with a twist: Eve emerges in this moment, yet she is not stigmatized as the original wrongdoer. Rather, as the luminous thought originally hidden within Adam, she is the source of true enlightenment. Ialdabaoth and the rulers make various attempts to control these human rivals (including a violent rape of Eve; cf. also the Hypostasis of the Archons), but all of these end in frustration or failure. The result is a rereading of Genesis 4 that presents the second generation of human beings in terms of the Secret Book’s specific soteriological vision. Cain and Abel are the misbegotten consequence of Eve’s brutal rape, while Seth, begotten legitimately by the human couple, is the “other seed” referenced in Genesis 4:25. It is his offspring who will partake in the divine image and the power of Sophia, and will therefore ultimately share in salvation.

Throughout this intricate mythological account, the interpretation of Genesis is regularly informed by the creative rereading of other scriptural intertexts—such as the description of Wisdom as co-creator in Proverbs 8, or the account of divine light illuminating the creation in the Johannine prologue. But as King has shown, the text’s Platonic commitments also shape its exegesis of Genesis in a very specific way through interpreting aspects of the story twice (King 2006, pp. 222–223). That is to say, the Secret Book renders visible in its exegetical technique the Platonic distinction between heavenly and earthly realms (or Being and becoming) by reading portions of the Genesis story in terms of both spheres. For example, the text invokes the trope of paradigmatic female figures who trigger major turning points in the story at both divine and human levels (i.e., Sophia and Eve), and it appeals to the notion of “image and likeness” twice, not only in the creation of the first human being, as discussed earlier, but also with respect to the emergence of Forethought, a particularly prominent divine aeon. In this way, Platonic philosophical ideals impact not only the content but the actual structure of the Secret Book’s biblical exegesis.

Valentinianism and The Tripartite Tractate.

Around 140 C.E., an Egyptian Christian named Valentinus came to Rome and began to gather a following. While we have only limited evidence for Valentinus’s individual views, his followers in the succeeding generations—commonly referred to as “the school of Valentinus”—went on to develop their own theological systems and hermeneutical techniques, not always entirely in keeping with the views of their founder. Thus it proves challenging to demarcate the precise limits of what early Christian literature ought to be considered “Valentinian.” In addition to quotations and summaries preserved in the writings of the heresiologists, Ismo Dunderberg identifies the following texts from Nag Hammadi: The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Gospel of Truth, The Tripartite Tractate, The Treatise on the Resurrection, The Gospel of Philip, The (First) Apocalypse of James, The Interpretation of Knowledge, and A Valentinian Exposition (Dunderberg 2008). When taken together, this evidence does not constitute a uniform theological position or interpretive stance, but instead emerges as a loosely related patchwork of viewpoints, claims, and exegetical approaches.

Still, it remains possible to draw some broad generalizations regarding Valentinian theology and exegesis. Participating (like the Secret Book of John) in a larger conversation regarding the relationship between “the One and the many” that animated much of ancient thought, Valentinian texts generally conceptualize the universe and the place of human beings within it in terms of a single-minded desire for cosmological oneness. An original state of union had given way to multiplicity, separation, and division, but would one day be restored—the chaotic plurality of the created world finding reconciliation in a return to perfect unity. Thus Valentinians looked forward to the eradication of difference and otherness, conceptualized as a recapitulation of primordial beginnings in the realm of divine fullness.

We see one example of this cosmological narrative playing out in The Tripartite Tractate (third century C.E.)—arguably the most thorough and complete account of Valentinian theology still extant. As in the Secret Book of John, the text’s creation account begins with a single unified principle. This principle, characterized here as “the Father,” produces the Son out of his own self-thinking activity, and then together the Father and Son generate an array of spiritual powers or aeons. One of these, the Logos (approximately equivalent to Sophia in other similarly structured accounts), attempts to grasp the incomprehensibility of the father, thereby generating a fissure in the divine unity. This introduction of division and deficiency ultimately results in the multiplicity that characterizes the created world. Like Sophia in the Secret Book, the Logos eventually turns back toward the true divine fullness in an act of conversion, an important byproduct of which is the generation of the Savior.

One noteworthy aspect of the Tripartite Tractate’s interpretation of Genesis (which it shares with other Valentinian literature) is the way in which the text reads the Genesis narrative together with Pauline anthropological categories. In 1 Corinthians 15:42–49, Paul makes reference to a number of bodily states including the choic (earthy), the psychic (“soulish” or animate), and the pneumatic (spiritual). And while Paul himself never triangulated these three categories, Valentinian Christians read the Pauline categories together with Platonic notions of the tripartite human being, constituted—most commonly—in terms of body, soul, and mind. The result, among certain Valentinians, was to assert that there are actually three different kinds of human beings: choic (or a synonym—hylic, often translated “material”), psychic, and pneumatic. In the Tripartite Tractate, all three of these categories are treated not as figures of speech, but rather as actual substances (Thomassen 2009). Thus we should not allow the tendency to translate hyle as “matter” to obscure the fact that from the standpoint of ancient physics—and informed especially by Stoic notions of matter and materialism—all three categories have “materialistic, concrete, and tangible” dimensions (Engberg-Pedersen 2010, p. 19). The text’s creation narrative explains the origins of the three substances: the Logos’s deficient begetting and his ensuing conversion bring about the hylic and psychic substances respectively, whereas the pneumatic substance comes about due to the joy that the Logos experiences at the Savior’s appearing.

These three substances, then, figure heavily in the tractate’s account of human creation. While the basic plotline bears notable similarities to the Secret Book of John, here a specific emphasis is placed on providing an origin story for the emergence of the three kinds of humans. In this reinterpretation of Genesis, the Logos, the demiurge-creator figure, and the rulers each contribute one of the substances—pneumatic, psychic, and hylic respectively—to the first human’s creation. The pneumatic substance is characterized in terms of singularity (thereby evoking the original—and longed for—primordial oneness), the psychic substance in terms of doubleness, and the hylic substance in terms of multiplicity. All three of these together make up Adam, who is a kind of “mixed modeling.” He is heterogeneous—and thus adulterated—from the moment of his formation. This originally compound human eventually gives way to a world populated by hylics/choics, psychics, and pneumatics, though exactly how this transition takes place is never clearly explained. Furthermore, Eve does not figure explicitly in the tractate’s creation account (though femaleness is associated with weakness, illness, and division). Rather, the text places its primary focus on the interplay, distribution, and eventual eschatological destiny of these primal substances in its account of human creation. And while the tractate’s assertions regarding the fate of the three substances have led to accusations of eschatological determinism, numerous scholars have shown that this conclusion is unwarranted, at least in its most extreme forms (Buell 2005; Dunderberg 2008). In a necessarily ambiguous and perhaps paradoxical way, there remains space for human fluidity, education, and transformation within this mythological universe—a vision of the cosmos that a Valentinian author produced by reworking the Genesis narrative with an eye to appropriating Pauline anthropological categories (read simultaneously through Platonic tripartite divisions of the human and Stoic materialism) as the fundamental building blocks of creation.

On the Origin of the World.

Our final case is an unnamed treatise from Nag Hammadi, commonly referred to as On the Origin of the World (second to early fourth century C.E.). With respect to the question of so-called Gnostic biblical interpretation, what makes this case particularly interesting is that it is so difficult to classify. The text has narrative similarities to Sethian or “classic Gnostic” texts including the Secret Book of John and the Hypostasis of the Archons (for example, the presence of Ialdabaoth as an ignorant demiurge figure), but it differs from these texts in important ways and cannot be considered straightforwardly Sethian. Neither is it Valentinian, although the tripartite anthropology discussed earlier figures significantly in its mythology. Scholars have approached this problem of classification in various ways, such as placing the text in a supplemental category dubbed “Ophite” (Rasimus 2009) or positing a primitive tradition redacted first by a Valentinian and later by a Sethian (Painchaud 1991). What is important for our purposes, however, is to note how On the Origin of the World cites and reinterprets not only the Genesis narrative but also various Pauline, Platonic, Sethian, and Valentinian concepts, tropes, and exegetical motifs to its own specific ends. In so doing, it unsettles rigid definitional boundaries and underscores just how richly diverse were the hermeneutical possibilities that fall under the broad umbrella of Gnostic interpretation.

Two short examples will suffice to illustrate this point. First to consider is the creation of Adam and Eve. Similar to the Secret Book of John, On the Origin of the World reads Genesis 1:26 in terms of a disjunction between image and likeness. And it too envisions Adam’s creation according to a fusion of both—in this case, the image of Ialdabaoth and the rulers on the one hand and the likeness of a luminous, paradigmatic “Adam” figure from the divine realm on the other (note the inversion of the trope as it appears in the Secret Book). But the text then goes on to offer a kind of counternarrative of human creation, one in which the Sophia character draws on a different image (her own, in the form of a drop of light) and a different likeness (that of her divine mother) to create a second human being: Eve. In this way, Eve emerges as the luminous woman who derives from an entirely different genealogy of image and likeness than does Adam. As such, she embodies for the rulers an unrecognizable and inassimilable difference. This serves as an affront and a threat to their aspirations to dominate the created order. And as in the Secret Book and the Hypostasis of the Archons, the rulers respond with violence (i.e., Eve’s rape), though arguably for different reasons. As for Genesis 2:21 (Adam’s sleep and the removal of his rib), it is no longer needed to justify Eve’s creation, given her alternate origins. However, rather than discarding or ignoring the verse, the text resituates it so that no creation actually happens in this moment. Rather, “the rib” is only the rulers’ subterfuge, a false story told to Adam so that he will remain ignorant of Eve’s true divine origins (Dunning 2009).

Secondly, On the Origin of the World also makes use of the Valentinian tripartite anthropological categories discussed earlier. Accordingly, its creation narrative is peopled with characters described variably and at different moments as choic, psychic, and pneumatic. Yet rather than straightforwardly assenting to these categories’ (at least partially) Pauline roots—and thus implicitly to the authority of Paul—the text actually uses the tripartite categories to polemicize against a different Pauline theological construct: the typology of Adam and Christ as first and second Adams (Rom 5, 1 Cor 15). Rather than acknowledge Christ as second (and final) Adam, it argues—in a direct riposte to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15—for three paradigmatic Adam figures, the first being pneumatic, the second psychic, and the third choic (Painchaud). Consequently, the Pauline typology is both inverted and subverted: the “first Adam” is not the Adam of Genesis 1–3, but instead a figure from the divine realm; the “third Adam” is the rulers’ earthly creation and without salvific value; and the “second Adam” is not Christ, but none other than Eve. While gender is an important aspect of numerous Nag Hammadi texts (King 2000), here Pauline concepts and categories are both relied upon and undercut in a rereading of Genesis that offers a remarkably distinctive take on the origins and meaning of human sexual difference. On the Origin of the World portrays the sexual binary as a primary rather than secondary aspect of created humanity (a deeply unusual move for a text so indebted to Platonic ways of thinking), grounded in two separate processes of creation, both of which remain central to the text’s mythology (Dunning).


The texts of the Nag Hammadi corpus and others traditionally categorized as Gnostic display a dazzling array of exegetical techniques and hermeneutical postures in their varied approaches to Jewish and Christian scriptures. These include not only interpreting scriptural texts against the grain (itself a multifarious undertaking), but also reading a range of texts intertextually to generate innovative and hybrid lenses for understanding. Through such lenses, both scripture and other cultural authorities such as Plato’s Timaeus and Stoic physics took on new meanings for ancient readers, thereby shaping their perceptions and their practices in relation to the divine, the human, and the place of both in the larger cosmos. While these complex realities have often led to accusations of “syncretism” or analyses of the texts’ various departures from some imagined normative Christian stance (a clear anachronism in the second and third centuries), such lines of inquiry are less helpful for the task of understanding the dynamics that animate Gnostic biblical interpretation. Rather, the ongoing scholarly task is to investigate with rigor and precision the specific ways in which this literature, like all early Christian literature, interprets multiple texts and traditions—scriptural and otherwise—in light of one another in order to fill gaps, iron out ambiguities (often creating new ambiguities along the way), and navigate theological and exegetical problems.



  • Brakke, David. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. An important new study arguing for the “Gnostics” as a self-identified group within early Christianity.
  • Buell, Denise Kimber. Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Dunderberg, Ismo. Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. An excellent recent analysis of a variety of issues in Valentinian myth and practice.
  • Dunderberg, Ismo. “Gnostic Interpretations of Genesis.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible, edited by Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, and Jonathan Roberts, 383–396. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Dunning, Benjamin H. “What Sort of Thing Is This Luminous Woman?: Thinking Sexual Difference.” In On the Origin of the World. Journal of Early Christian Studies 17, no. 1 (2009): 55–84.
  • Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Irenaeus of Lyons. Against the Heresies Book I. Translated and annotated by Dominic J. Unger and John J. Dillon. New York: Paulist, 1992.
  • Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. 2d rev. ed. Boston: Beacon, 1963. The classic typological exposition of Gnosticism in terms of existential alienation.
  • King, Karen L., ed. Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2000.
  • King, Karen L. The Secret Revelation of John. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. A thorough study of this major text with a focus on biblical interpretation and intertextuality. Includes a new translation.
  • King, Karen L. What Is Gnosticism? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. An influential critique of “Gnosticism” from the standpoint of its role in Christian discourses of orthodoxy and heresy.
  • King, Karen L. “Which Early Christianity?” In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter, 66–84. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Layton, Bentley. “Prolegomena to the Study of Ancient Gnosticism.” In The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, edited by L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarborough, 334–350. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995. An important article arguing for “Gnostic” as an early Christian term of self-designation and group identity, roughly akin to “Sethian.”
  • Marjanen, Antti, ed. Was There a Gnostic Religion? Helsinki: Finnish Exegetical Society/Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005. An excellent overview of the scholarly conversation around the term “Gnosticism,” but not easily available.
  • Markschies, Christoph. Gnosis: An Introduction. Translated by John Bowden. London: T.&T. Clark, 2003. English translation of Die Gnosis, first published in 2001.
  • Meyer, Marvin. The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
  • Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. A classic and still valuable introduction to the so-called Gnostic Gospels.
  • Painchaud, Louis. “The Redactions of the Writing without Title (CG II.5).” Second Century 8, no. 4 (1991): 217–234.
  • Pearson, Birger A. Gnosticism and Christianity in Roman and Coptic Egypt. New York: T.&T. Clark, 2004.
  • Rasimus, Tuomas. Paradise Reconsidered in Gnostic Mythmaking: Rethinking Sethianism in Light of the Ophite Evidence. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
  • Robinson, James, ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 3d ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
  • Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. Translated by Robert MacLachlan Wilson. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1983. English translation of Die Gnosis: Wesen und Geschichte einer spätantiken Religion, 2d ed., first published in 1980.
  • Schenke, Hans-Martin. “Das sethianische System nach Nag-Hammadi-Handschriften.” In Studia Coptica, edited by Peter Nagel, 165–174. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1974. A pioneering article that argued for the category of “Sethianism.”
  • Thomassen, Einar. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” Leiden: Brill, 2006. A masterful and comprehensive study of Valentinianism; useful for advanced research.
  • Thomassen, Einar. “Valentinian Ideas about Salvation as Transformation.” In Metamorphoses: Resurrection, Body and Transformative Practices in Early Christianity, edited by Turid Karlsen Seim and Jorunn Økland, 169–186. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009.
  • Turner, John. D. “Sethian Gnosticism: A Literary History.” In Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity, edited by Charles W. Hedrick and Robert Hodgson Jr., 55–86. Peabody, Mass.: Hendricksen, 1986.
  • Williams, Michael Allen. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. One of the seminal critiques of the term “Gnosticism.” Argued on typological grounds.

Benjamin H. Dunning