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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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III. GNOSTIC ORIGINS

The problem of Gnostic origins has not been solved,
and it sometimes looks as if presumed sources depend
primarily on the concerns of those who find them.
Generally speaking, five kinds of treatment are current.
(1) Some have found the seeds of Gnostic thought in
Jewish heterodoxy, especially apocalyptic and/or mys-
tical. It is difficult, however, to view the common idea
of a hostile creator-god as Jewish in any sense, and
the suggestion that some Gnostic teachers were ex-Jews
lacks any evidence to support it. (2) It has been held
that Gnosticism was basically a Christian heresy, but
while some evidence points in this direction, the notion
of heresy itself requires explanation (see below). (3)
Some have urged that Gnostic ideas primarily reflect
Greek religious philosophy, especially Middle Plato-
nism with its emphasis on divine transcendence. If so,
it seems odd that among the most militant opponents
of Gnosticism were Plotinus and his disciples. The
Gnostics were not philosophers (Wolfson). (4) Others
have sought for Gnostic origins in Greco-Roman,
Syrian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Iranian, and/or
Indian religion, i.e., in the syncretistic religious envi-
ronment of the early empire. Some evidence points
in this direction. The heavenly world of the Ophites,
as Celsus noted, was like that of the Mithraists. It is
not clear, however, that syncretism provided the start-
ing point for Gnosticism rather than an environment
in which it flourished. (5) Some (especially Hans Jonas)
have endeavored to treat Gnosticism as a phenomenon
essentially unique but susceptible of interpretation in
existentialist categories. Jonas has also gone on to com-
bine this approach with historical analysis (see Biblio.).

It would appear that none of the five approaches
can be completely neglected and that the most ade-
quate explanation of Gnostic origins will have to take
all into account. Some are obviously more important
than others. Thus, one might begin with Jonas by
delineating Gnosticism as a specific phenomenon and
then inquire what concrete historical circumstances
might have provided an occasion for its rise. It seems
significant that the earliest known Gnostic teacher lived
in Samaria during the time of turbulence just before
the Jewish revolt of 66-70, when Christianity was
beginning to spread. According to the church fathers,
Simon was related to paganism, to Judaism, and to
Christianity. It may also be significant that the Gnostic
teacher Basilides taught at Alexandria just after a
Jewish revolt in the time of Trajan. Similarly, Marcion
brought his Gnostic message to Rome, where Jewish
Christianity was flourishing, just after the war of
132-35. To be sure, not everything in Gnostic “history”
was related solely to Jewish revolts; the Apocalypse
of Adam
briefly describes no fewer than thirteen
“kingdoms” which arose before the true revelation was
given.

Most of the Gnostic systems were closely related to
Christianity, and Harnack defined Gnosticism as “the
acute secularizing or Hellenizing of Christianity,”
while Wolfson has preferred to speak of “the verbal
Christianizing of paganism,” since in his view the
Gnostic angels and aeons are derived from polytheistic
sources, and Gnostic contacts with philosophy (implied
by “Hellenizing”) were extremely limited. Certainly,
the doctrine of the Simonians reflects little derived
from Judaism, much from Christianity and, indeed,
from pagan thought. For most of the later Gnostics
the only savior was “the Christ,” usually differentiated
from the human Jesus. The doctrine that either Jesus
or the Christ merely seemed to suffer (“docetism”) was
not specifically Gnostic but was held by many Gnostic
teachers.

The major Gnostic systems of the second century
are undeniably Christian in intention. The question as
to whether or not they are somehow Jewish in origin
has been much debated, as already indicated. E. Peter-
son and G. Quispel have inferred the existence of a
pre-Christian Jewish Gnosis, and G. G. Scholem has
supported their conclusions from esoteric Jewish liter-
ature, especially the Hekhaloth (see Bibliography). In
spite of the importance of these studies for Gnosis in
general, it remains difficult to see how, at least in the
first and second centuries of the Christian era, Jews
could become Gnostics without ceasing to be Jews. In
addition, Gnosticism probably cannot be derived from
a single origin.