Gnosticism (nŏs´tĬsĬzəm), dualistic religious and philosophical movement of the late Hellenistic and early Christian eras. The term designates a wide assortment of sects, numerous by the 2d cent. AD; they all promised salvation through an occult knowledge that they claimed was revealed to them alone. Scholars trace these salvation religions back to such diverse sources as Jewish mysticism, Hellenistic mystery cults, Iranian religious dualism (see Zoroastrianism), and Babylonian and Egyptian mythology. The definition of gnosis [knowledge] as concern with the Eternal was already present in earlier Greek philosophy, although its connection with the later Gnostic movement is distant at best. Christian ideas were quickly incorporated into these syncretistic systems, and by the 2d cent. the largest of them, organized by Valentinus and Basilides, were a significant rival to Christianity. Much of early Christian doctrine was formulated in reaction to this movement.

Until the discovery at Nag Hammadi in Egypt of key Manichaean (1930) and Coptic Gnostic (c.1945) papyri, knowledge of Gnosticism depended on Christian sources, notably St. Irenaeus, St. Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. Among principal Gnostic writings are the Valentinian documents Pistis-Sophia and the Gospel of Truth (perhaps by Valentinus himself). Important too is the literature of the Mandaeans in modern Iraq, who are the only Gnostic sect extant. Gnostic elements are found in the Acts of Thomas, the Odes of Solomon, and other wisdom literature of the pseudepigrapha.

Some Gnostics taught that the world is ruled by evil archons, among them the deity of the Old Testament, who hold captive the spirit of humanity. The heavenly pleroma was the center of the divine life, and Jesus was interpreted as an intermediary eternal being, or aeon, sent from the pleroma to restore the lost knowledge of humanity's divine origin. Gnostics held secret formulas, which they believed would free them at death from the evil archons and restore them to their heavenly abode. See Valentinus for typical Gnostic teaching on the pleroma.

Gnosticism held that human beings consist of flesh, soul, and spirit (the divine spark), and that humanity is divided into classes representing each of these elements. The purely corporeal (hylic) lacked spirit and could never be saved; the Gnostics proper (pneumatic) bore knowingly the divine spark and their salvation was certain; and those, like the Christians, who stood in between (psychic), might attain a lesser salvation through faith. Such a doctrine may have inspired extreme asceticism (as in the Valentinian school) or extreme licentiousness (as in the sect of Caprocrates and the Ophites). The influence of Gnosticism on the later development of the Jewish kabbalah and heterodox Islamic sects such as the Ismailis is much debated.

See H. Jonas, Gnostic Religion (rev. ed. 1964); R. Haardt, Gnosis: Character and Testimony (1971); E. H. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (1979); M. W. Meyer, The Secret Teachings of Jesus (1984); B. Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (1987); J. M. Robinson and R. Smith, The Nag Hammadi Library (1988); H.-J. Klimkeit, tr., Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia (1993).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Gnosticism: Selected full-text books and articles

What Is Gnosticism? By Karen L. King Belknap Press, 2003
Gnosticism and the New Testament By Pheme Perkins Fortress Press, 1993
The Early Christian World By Philip F. Esler Routledge, vol.2, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. Thirty-Five "Gnosticism"
Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew By Bart D. Ehrman Oxford University Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. Six "Christians 'in the Know': The Worlds of Early Christian Gnosticism"
A New Gnosticism: An Old Threat to the Church By Johnson, Luke Timothy Commonweal, Vol. 131, No. 19, November 5, 2004
Female Fault and Fulfilment in Gnosticism By Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley University of North Carolina Press, 1986
The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church By Charles E. Hill Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "John and 'the Gnostics'"
Irenaeus of Lyons By Eric Osborn Cambridge University Press, 2001
The Mandaeans: Ancient Texts and Modern People By Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley Oxford University Press, 2002
The Columbia History of Western Philosophy By Richard H. Popkin Columbia University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: "Gnosticism" begins on p. 100
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.