What is Gnosticism?

•October 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Gnostic is a term derived from the Greek “gnostikoi” meaning “knowers” or those with insight.

Gnostic depiction of dualistic universe

Gnosticism and Gnostic are not the same, which is covered in previous blogs. I emphasize that some early Christian schools of thought referred to themselves as gnostikoi, but Gnosticism is not its own religion or even a singular movement. The term Gnosticism has been mistakenly used to refer to a widely diverse group of early Christian texts which were hidden until the mid 19th century, and have been discovered in 3 discreet findings since then. The unfortunate perspective on “Gnostic” texts, as understood by most of mainstream Christianity, is derived from the writings of the early church Fathers, Iranaeus and Tertullian, and later, Athanasius under whose authority the orthodox canon was chosen and maintained, and who referred to the Gnostic texts as heresies or “haereses” (A term which literally means “school of thought.”) 

Cynthia Bourgeault points out in her essay on Gnosticism, “Among these early Doctors of the Church inspiration and “heresy” could run very close together. Valentinius, now known as one of the most notorious of the second century Gnostics, narrowly missed being elected bishop of Rome. And Origen, vastly admired in his own times, was later demonized as a heretic.”

Gnosticism, a term coined in the 17th century, has been used to refer to a diverse group of early proto and neo – orthodox Christianities and other spiritual understandings: Jewish Christians, Aramaic Christians, Ebionites, Marcionites, Hellenistic Christians, and I am sure that does not cover them all. The commonalities between these different worshipers are rather hard to categorize and even harder to place distinctly outside of an orthodox understanding of Judaism or Christianity. But here is the list of “Gnostic” characteristics:

  1. Personal divine revelation or “knowledge” of divine truth. People can have a first hand experience of God and that “union with God” is the ultimate achievement of a spiritual being. The spark or light of divinity resides within the human  True Self. 

Elaine Pagels: “to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God: this is the secret of gnosis…Self knowledge is knowledge of God; the Self and the Divine are identical.”

Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas: “He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, revealed to him.”

Briefly, there are many scriptures in the Biblical canon that also speak of the Christ realized within a human soul (2 Corinthians 3:18,Col2:9, John 14:15, John 17:20, 1 Cor 2:6, Gal 2:20…)

  1. Dualism – Ritualism was prized and the most sacred rituals lead to union of the “dualistic” self with God. The Gospel of Philip relates five great mysteries: baptism, charism, eucharist, redemption and a bridal chamber. None at all too different from those we observe today, and which are mentioned in Biblcal literature.
  1. Elitist – This may have been the greatest mistake of or misconception about the gnostics. To acquire “special knowing” that is not understood by all is to set yourself up for elitist superiority which only results in jealousy and suspicion. My experience of trying to share what is in my own heart has lead to the same thing. I will say that this misunderstanding stems primarily from three differences in the way people relate to the world:
    1. not everyone uses their inherent gift of intuition to the same degree
    2. the common perspective of most people is dualism, differences and competition rather than nondualism, similarity and cooperation. This is especially true in Western industrialized (Enlightened) society
    3. Cultivating intuition and empathy as well as a wisdom perspective of both/and, rather than either/or is a maturation process. The younger we are, the more literally we tend to perceive things. The more “left brained” are also more literal interpreters of the physical world.
  1. Excessively ascetic or excessively libertine – denouncing the material world, including the body, and practicing strange behavioral ritual, not acceptable by most of the culture.

These characteristics are not valid, as it turns out; not across the “Gnostic” board and not in their extreme sense, which seems to be the way they were presented and have been interpreted. Remember, our understanding of “Gnosticism” has been predicated upon the attitudes of the early church Fathers who were seeking to establish an orthodoxy, and not on the actual writings themselves.

“When the first editors of Thomas’s gospel found in it virtually no evidence for dualism, nihilism, philosophical speculation, or weird mythology, most assumed that this just goes to show you devious heretics are: they do not say what they really mean!” (Meyer)

Thankfully, this is changing as contemporary scholars, through careful study of these newly discovered texts, are coming to a better understanding of early Christianity, the variety of practices and ideologies expressed prior to 4th century orthodoxy. And rather than rely solely on the opinions of those, who by their own criteria, chose the orthodox canon, our ability to read source documents allows greater illumination of the true message of Jesus.

Bourgeault, C. The Contemplative Society: Understanding Gnosis and Gnosticism. http://www.contemplative.org/pdfs/Gnosis_Gnosticism_CB_April_2010.pdf (Accessed October 4, 2011).

Meyer, M. The Nag Hamadi Scriptures: Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts.New York,NY: HarperCollins, 2007.

Pagels, E.  The Gnostic Gospels.New York,NY: Random House, 1979.


Gnostic Schools of Thought

•October 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Gnosticism is a flawed construct, according to many scholars such as  Michael Allen Williams, Marvin Meyer, Karen King and Elaine Pagels. The term Gnosticism was coined in the seventeenth century (Meyer p 776) and used to overarch a huge diverse group of Christian followers with charismatic tendencies. It is, however, appropriate to use the term Gnostic, as derived from the Greek “gnostikoi” and used by the Sethian and Barbalognostics of the early centuries. The term manda from the Mandaic for knowledge is the virtual equivalent to the Greek term gnosis. These parallel each other in Greco-Roman history.

Coptic texts other than those found at Nag Hamadi, have also been found in Egypt: the Berlin Gnostic Codex was bought in 1896 from a dealer in central Egypt and contains The Act of Peter, The Gospel of Mary, the Secret of John, and The Wisdom of Jesus. The Codex Tchacos, containing the Gospel of Judas, a Greek mathematical text, a Greek version of Exodus, a Coptic set of Paul’s letters, The Book of Allogenes, Letters from Peter to Philip, and The First Revelation of James was also found in Egypt about 1978. It is thought that these texts may have been translated into Coptic from Greek and hidden by Christian Pachomian monks who considered them holy books during the time of Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria (367). Athanasius, like Iranaeus, deemed the writings heretical as he sought to establish a pure Christianity.  The texts within these Codices are reflective of very different perspectives and philosophical viewpoints and while some are considered Gnostic, some are not.

 Within the Berlin Codex the texts that can be considered Gnostic may be categorized into four schools of thought:

The Apostle, Didymos Judas Thomas

Thomas Christianity is thought to have come from Syria. Thomas, the central figure, is the disciple of Jesus and is nicknamed,Thomas. In Greek he is called Didymos, meaning Twin (also the meaning of his name in Syriac and Aramaic. Thomas is thought to be the twin brother of Jesus, sometimes called Didymos Judas Thomas. He is the patron saint of Syrian Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas is not a narrative, but a list of the sayings of Jesus. There seems to be some conflict between the Apostle John and Thomas, the latter being treated with some disrespect as “Doubting Thomas” within the text written by John.

Elaine Pagels has devoted much work to exploration of why Irenaeus chose the Gospel of John over that of  the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is thought to be the earliest Gospel account written (around 60 AD) and might have been used by Matthew and Luke to write their accounts of Jesus’ life. The short answer is that John’s Gospel does not allow for personal revelation of God, but only in Jesus is God revealed to humankind. Thomas’s Gospel teaches “that recognizing one’s affinity with God is key to [understanding] the Kingdom of God” (within you).

St John the Evangelist by El Greco

 Sethian Gnostics are among the earliest recorded. Many of the concepts of Sethianism combine elements of Platonism, Neoplatonism similar to the Hebrew scholar, Philo (20 BC to 40 AD) who had merged the same philosophies. In the Apocryphon of John a Sethian cosmogony was described that pre thinks the concepts of Genesis. God, in an apophatic sense, that is, God is indefinable and indescribable and can therefore only be approached from the position of what God is not: immovable, invisible, ineffable. This is actually a commonly held reflection to theologies stating what God is – omnipresent, transcendent, etc. Schools with a foundation theory that God cannot be defined include Vendantic Hinduism, Aristotelianism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Platonism.  Philo, Polycarp (teacher of Iranaeus) and later, many of the medieval Roman Catholics wrote of the apophatic nature of God. For example, the Cloud of Unknowing (14th C) is the foundational mystical text for Christian centering prayer. Drawing upon mystical traditions of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, this apophatic unknowing is carried forward by many, many Christian mystics: John Scotus Erigena, Nicholas of Cusa, John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Confessions of Augustine, and later Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton.

A Valentinian Fresco

 Valentinius, who was nearly made bishop of Rome, held to a Gnostic ideology in the second century. Valentinian gnosis presupposes Greek philosophy, in particular Neopythagorean monistic theories that pose that everything is derived, including matter, from a single first principle. Valentinian thought aimed at reconciliation of oneness and plurality through a continuous process of emanation and restoration. Valentinian ideology includes divine agency, whose presence within matter and multiplicity, by an act of grace, makes restoration to oneness possible. In order to realize this oneness, ritual acts or experiences must be performed.


 Hermetic tradition is based on the centrality of very early Greco-Egyptian mythology of Toth (the inventor of hieroglyphics) and Hermes (the most learned of the deities). These mythologies included Trinitarian concepts (Trismegistus, 3rd offspring of Hermes lineage) who was thought to have transcribed the hieroglyphics carved on steles into Greek. Trismegistus was so-called because he discovered the supreme God of threefold power: the Unbegotten, The Self-Begotten, and the Begotten. The writings were infused with astrological and alchemical practices,  giving them both a transcendent nature and a rationale based in intellectualism. However, Hermeticism is considered by scholars to be more a spiritual experiential way than a philosophy. Astronomy and alchemy were means by which Hermetics could experience self transformation through observing a vast living universe or the transmutation of metals through alchemy.

 What we can learn from the rich diversity and latitude of the Nag Hamadi scriptures is that the nature of early Christian thought and practice was anything but “orthodox.” And that later efforts to create a mainstream, apostolic church marginalized a great many early sacred texts as heretical, when perhaps much of the difference in practice and mythology was more a question of personality type and interpretation, than outright disagreement with Christian ideology.

Pagels, E.  The Gnostic Gospels.New York,NY: Random House, 1979.

Meyer, M. The Nag Hamadi Scriptures: Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts.New York,NY: Harper Collins, 2007.

Williams, M. A. Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category.Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press , 1996.


“Knowing” is Insight

•September 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The Nag Hamadi (Egypt) scriptures include nearly 50 texts, originally written in Greek and translated to Coptic, that were read as sacred literature as early as the mid-first century. The Gospel of Thomas, thought to be the earliest of the written texts, may have been used by the authors of Matthew and Luke, or the “Q” source, a hypothetical listing of the sayings of Jesus, dating from the first century (Meyer). Rather than describing deviations from mainstream Christianity, as historical accounts of the early church fathers (Iraneus and Tertullian) would have us believe, these writings reflect the wide diversity of understanding and practice in the early development of Christianity.

There remains much controversy over the meaning of the word, Gnostic, which describes most (if not all) of the Nag Hamadi scriptures. Beginning in the second century, this controversy has evolved from an unfortunate misunderstanding of the esoteric (intuitive is a better word) nature of the texts, first by Iraneus (Bishop of Lyon, late 2nd c) and later others such as Athanasius (Archbishop of Alexandria, 367ce). It was Iraneus who chose the 4 canonical gospels to represent the orthodox and apostolically-derived mainstream Christian church. Iraneus fought hard for a mainstream Christianity, partly because Christians were martyring themselves according to an extremist perspective on the need for sacrifice and asceticism. Iraneus’ best known book, Adversus Haereses or Against Heresies, comprehensively attacks anything remotely “Gnostic” as heresy, punishable by death. Unfortunately, this viewpoint has been perpetuated by an over- rational interpretation of early Christian writings and  a strong conformist attitude toward orthodoxy.

With the finding of the Nag Hamadi texts, umbrella (catch-all) use of the term Gnosticsm has come into a wider critical review.

The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (he knows mathematics) and knowing through experience (He knows me). As gnostics use the term “knowing” it is translated, “insight” for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. Elaine Pagels

From my own experience, I can tell you that the Living Word is living because our intuition allows us to appreciate it from different perspectives and deeper wisdom with every read. The Gnostic gospels immediately appealed to me, because I am a strong intuitive. I always look for underlying meaning and this has turned out to be my “way” to transcendent (and nondual) perspective.  For very rational scholarship, the transcendent nature of sacred texts is lost in the objectification of the text. I can tell you right away if the author of a book on Gnosticism or an interpreter of scripture can understand the text from an intuitive perspective or if they are entrenched in rational thought. Details of history, anthropology and archeology are primarily concerned with the physical nature of reality and how events transpire over time, but do not allow for meaningful insights of Spiritual identity. Although the details of physical and historical culture and events absolutely provide a relevant framework in which to then apply a more psychological/spiritual interpretation.

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.” Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate…If you carefully investigate these matters you will find them in yourself. Hippolytus

Gnosis means insight/understanding from both rational materialism and transcendent wisdom. Most would agree that one cannot fully appreciate God (who is mystery) with only the rational mind. The transcendent nature of mystery must be experienced through the inner senses, intuition, empathy, compassion. The external senses that inform our rational perspective may serve to lead us to the stream of the Spirit, but it is with the inner senses that we are able to move into the flow of the Spirit and realize ourselves as part of the divine reality. The Nag Hamadi scriptures are like poetry. They are, to coin a phrase from from Trappist monk, Fr Thomas Merton, “fingers pointing at the moon.”  These sacred texts, as with orthodox canon, are a vehicle that takes the mind to a conscious appreciation of that which cannot be objectified.

artwork: sandymcmullenfineart.com

Pagels, E.  The Gnostic Gospels.New York,NY: Random House, 1979.

 Meyer, M. The Nag Hamadi Scriptures: Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts.New York,NY: HarperCollins, 2007.

 Williams, M. A. Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category.Princeton,NJ:PrincetonUniversityPress, 1996.


Gnosticism – Origins and Understanding

•September 15, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Part of the group of sacred writings found at Nag Hamadi, Egypt in 1945 are called Gnostic, an embattled term (Marvin Meyer) coined in the 17th century to label all schools of thought that proposed a special “gnostic” understanding of the message of Jesus. Gnostic is a Greek word meaning “knower” or “knowers”. Several of the extensions of Jewish thought in the first century referred to themselves as “Gnostic.” Many believe the term has been used too loosely in categorizing the esoteric writings of the first century.  “Know” is a strange term that can be used to indicate a literal familiarity with or understanding of, but also, a more esoteric (or intuitive) understanding of something. Knowledge and wisdom are not the same, but this “Gnostic” term has been used to refer to them as the same.

In addition, there were certain Gnostic schools of thought that created their own mythologies or incorporated/extrapolated mythos’ of Greek schools of thought. Others can be traced to writings of Persian, Babylonian, or Zoroastrian sources and have been interpreted as a pre Christian movements of their own. (Elaine Pagels-Wilhelm Bousset,Reitsenstein). Friedlander maintained that gnosticism orginated in Judaism.

Dr Sanford Drob, a Clinical Psychologist at Fielding Graduate University, has written many books on Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and its similarities to Gnosticism. He has also studied the psychological theories of Carl Jung and his thoughts on the true and false self, also aligned with gnostic or kabbalist notions.  All of these hold in a sense that within one’s psyche are a Loving Self, made in God’s image, and a false Self (ego), informed by, and reactive to, circumstances of the material world. The ego seeks to defend the vulnerability of the True Loving Self, but ends up doing so at Love’s expense. The ego, unlike Love, will not humble itself.  Much of a person’s reactionary behavior emmanates from the ego defense mechanism on behalf of instinctual needs (arising from interaction with the material world) for security, power, and esteem. 

“This crucial difference between Gnosticism and the Kabbalah makes for an important difference in their view of humanity; with respect to this world , the Gnostic is completely hostile and alienated, a true stranger; the Kabbalist, on the other hand, is merely estranged; for him a rapprochement is both possible and desirable.”  says Drob. The notion of hostility of the Gnostics as a collective toward the material world is somewhat exaggerated and respresents the extreme end of a continuum of Gnosticism.  The idea of nonattachment to the physical (not hostile) is also remniscent of more eastern philosophies and, indeed, may reflect the influence of these cultures on early thought.  Even Jesus tells us of the fleeting nature of the material world (not that it is evil, but certainly that it is temporary and that our emphasis should be more focused on things of the spirit, which are lasting).

Matthew 6:19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ”

Mark 10:17-25  And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: `Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” 21 And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

These scriptures beg the person to “see” with the heart – to recognize and trust the reality of the Spirit as apprehended not with the senses that observe the material world, but with the inner senses we refer to as intuition, empathy, compassion. The Nag Hamadi texts by and large, must be read from this perspective. Believing strictly in what is observed with the external senses and rationalized with the intellect (attachment to material reality) cannot effect the transcendent spiritual experience that awakens our intuition and leads to deep understanding and sense of Oneness in Christ.

In the Mark scripture, we can see Jesus’  compassionate sympathy as he looked with love upon the man who felt he had met all the material world criteria for inheriting eternal life, but was unwilling to relieve himself of (not just material wealth but) a materialistic reality perspective.

Artwork: 4serenityseekers.com

Pagels, E.  The Gnostic Gospels.New York,NY: Random House, 1979.

Meyer, M. The Nag Hamadi Scriptures: Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts.New York,NY: HarperCollins, 2007.

Williams, M. A. Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category.Princeton,NJ:PrincetonUniversityPress, 1996.

The New Kabbalah, Lurianic Kabbalah, Gnosticism and the Kabbalah, Drob, S. L. http://www.newkabbalah.com/home.html (accessed October 3, 2011).


The Nag Hamadi Scriptures

•September 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

by ECUMENICUS on Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 10:54am

I have a class project to “blog” on a cultural aspect of the first century, and I have chosen the Nag Hamadi texts, specifically the “Gnostic” texts to discuss. I believe the term gnostic is widely misused and misunderstood. I resonate with some of the esoteric style of these texts and I believe they are an important aspect of the formation of the early church. Intuitive people will see their value immediately. Those responsible for choosing the canon we call the New Testament did so for various reasons, not all in the spirit of inclusive and loving Christianity, but primarily as a tool for hierarchical orthodoxy. These gnostic texts have been dismissed as heretical, an unfortunate bias that continues to propagate a dogmatically exclusive Christian tradition over a mystically inclusive religion.

Suppression of the Nag Hamadi texts (found in Egypt in a cave in 1945) was part of a struggle critical for the formation of early Christianity. These texts (the Gnostic texts) were denounced as heretical by the neo orthodox Christians of the mid second century. And as Christianity became more and more politicized (officially approved by Constantine in 4th c), even the possession of books by the laity was a criminal offense. Most of the writings use Christian terminology and are unmistakably related to a Jewish heritage. Gnosis means “knowing,” but not in the rational sense of knowing. The gnostics used the Greek term, as we would translate it, as “insight,” for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels)

Here is a saying of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas, which begins, “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.”

 “The kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.”

 Similar references to the Kingdom in the New Testament Canon:

Jesus points to the Kingdom of God within and among people, (Lk 17:20-21)

The Kingdom of God is approached through understanding (Mk 12:34)

The Kingdom of God is entered by receiving it like a child, (Mk 10:15)

through a spiritual rebirth, (Jn 3:5) and

by doing the will of God. (Mt 7:21)

It is a kingdom that will be inherited by the righteous. (1Cor 6:9)


Pagels, E.  The Gnostic Gospels.New York,NY: Random House, 1979.

 Meyer, M. The Nag Hamadi Scriptures: Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2007.