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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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Gnosticism was a religious movement which flourished
alongside and, to some extent, within Christianity and
Judaism during the first three centuries of the Christian
era. In it, great emphasis was laid on knowledge
(gnōsis) derived from secret revelations and capable
of bestowing salvation on the knower. The term should
be differentiated from “Gnosis,” which refers to any
kind of knowledge of divine mysteries reserved for an
elite. In Gnosticism there is a particular kind of Gnosis,
usually involving the notion of a divine spark in man
which needs to be awakened and reintegrated with its
divine source. The awakening and the movement to-
ward reintegration are provided by a revealer-
redeemer who brings knowledge of the way to return
to the divine source, usually through the heavenly
spheres above.


The modern usage of these terms does not precisely
coincide with that found in ancient sources, where only
a few sects are specifically called “Gnostic” and the
term “Gnosticism” does not appear. The various groups
actually derived their names from their founders or
from localities, activities, doctrines, or objects of wor-
ship. The modern usage is intended to point toward
the basic similarities among the groups, for in general
all agreed in rejecting the world of material phenom-
ena as created by an evil demiurge, inferior and hostile
to the supreme deity known only to the Gnostic. The
Gnostic, like the Platonist, regarded his body as a tomb
and longed to escape from the body and the world,
returning to the “unknown god” (i.e., unknown to
others) who dwells beyond the regions ruled by the
hostile planetary deities and (or including) the

During the late third century and afterwards, Gnos-
ticism was in decline. Its adherents, driven out of the
Christian church and soon proscribed by the state, may
have turned to Manichaeism, similar to Gnosticism but
more vigorous and better organized. Still later, there
were definite Gnostic tendencies among such groups
as the Bogomils and the Cathari, some of whom made
use of old Gnostic books. In modern times Gnosis, if
not ideas derived from Gnosticism as such, is sometimes
encountered in theosophical teaching.


For many centuries Gnosticism was known almost
exclusively from the writings of Christian opponents.
By the middle of the second century the Roman apolo-
gist Justin had composed a treatise, now lost, in which
he argued that Gnostic movements, inspired by
demons, first arose after Christ's ascension. The first
Gnostic teacher was Simon Magus (who in Acts 8 is
not depicted as a Gnostic); he was followed by his
disciple Menander and, later on, by Marcion of Pontus.
Justin's argument is not convincing, for Menander held
himself to be the revealer and can hardly have been
Simon's disciple, while Marcion's doctrines had little
to do with either Simon or Menander. Justin was trying
to show the generic development of Gnosticism from
a single, demon-inspired source, and he was uncritically
followed by later antiheretical writers. Different ex-
planations of Gnosticism were sometimes provided.
Thus, Hegesippus (ca. 180) argued that the church,
originally a “pure virgin,” was corrupted by varieties
of sectarian Judaism which led to the major Gnostic
schools of the second century. About the same time
Saint Irenaeus (Church Father, second century)
claimed that Gnostic teaching was due to vanity,
immorality, skill in magic, or love of mythology for
its own sake. These explanations can be called psy-
chological. Other anti-Gnostic writers argued that
Gnostic ideas were derived from Greek philosophers,
though, actually, they provided little proof for the

Modern discoveries made in Egypt have revealed
the existence of many documents used by the Gnostics
themselves, occasionally in Greek but usually in Coptic
translations. The most important works published be-
fore 1956 were the third- or fourth-century Pistis
and the Berlin versions of the Gospel of Mary
(Magdalene), the Apocryphon (secret book) of John, and
the Sophia (wisdom) of Jesus Christ. In 1956 the situa-
tion began to change, for in that year the first of 51
treatises, bound in 13 leather volumes and found near
Nag-Hammadi (Chenoboskion) in upper Egypt, was
published; this was the so-called Gospel of Truth
possibly, but by no means certainly, identified with a
Valentinian Evangelium veritatis mentioned by
Irenaeus. The whole collection of Gnostic documents
was later described by H.-C. Puech, J. Doresse, and
(most reliably) M. Krause (see Bibliography). By the
end of 1967 only a few of these documents—discovered
as early as 1945—had been published. These include
the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel
of Philip,
three versions of the Apocryphon of John,
an Epistle to Rheginus on the Resurrection, a treatise
without a title, and a collection of apocalypses ascribed
to Saint Paul and Saint James, and to Adam. The
writings in this Gnostic library seem to date from the
fourth century, but in at least one instance it can be
shown that the original was two centuries older. Proof
of this point was given when H.-C. Puech identified
two Oxyrhynchus papyri, written in Greek in the early
third century and previously called the “sayings of
Jesus,” with the newly discovered Gospel of Thomas.
In addition, something like the Apocryphon of John
was known to Irenaeus and used in his Adversus
(i. 29)—though this Gnostic work was evi-
dently subject to a good deal of modification. Two of
the Nag-Hammadi versions are longer than the other
one, which in turn corresponds fairly closely with the
Berlin version; and Irenaeus' source is different from
all of them.

The picture of Gnosticism emerging from the Nag-
Hammadi texts is like that given by the church writers
in that a great deal of variety was present; some docu-
ments are Valentinian, others Sethian, some even con-
sisting of the non-Christian Hermetic writings. A com-
plete assessment can be provided only when all are
published. For the moment it can be said that the only
document thus far clearly non-Christian (apart from
the Hermetica) is the Apocalypse of Adam, apparently
a synthesis of Jewish and Iranian motifs.



Ethics. It is important to begin with ethics because,
while Gnostic systems vary greatly, the ethical outlook
of the Gnostics seems to reflect a basic alienation from
the world which is expressed in two extreme forms.
(1) In the system ascribed to Simon Magus there is the
view that the spark within the Gnostic needs to be
freed from the repressions of conventional morality.
The Old Testament law is the epitome of such morality;
it was ordained by rebellious angels who imprisoned
their mother, Simon's “first thought,” in various human
bodies including those of Helen of Troy and, later, a
Tyrian prostitute. Simon's descent to rescue his “first
thought” is thus a model for the coming of Gnosis to
rescue all Gnostics. His reputed use of magic, especially
love-magic, symbolizes the Gnostic's control over his
environment, from which he is now free. Other Gnos-
tics vigorously attacked the Old Testament law;
Epiphanes, for example, argued that the repressive
injunctions against theft and against coveting a neigh-
bor's wife were ridiculous, for in the natural and origi-
nal state of mankind there was neither property nor
monogamy. Other schools insisted upon the positive
necessity of breaking conventional laws. According to
the Valentinians, it was the Gnostic's duty to imitate
the unions of the angelic powers above. “Whoever is
in the world and does not love a woman so as to possess
her does not belong to the truth and will not attain
to the truth; but he who is from the world and does
not possess a woman will not attain to the truth, be-
cause he has not possessed a woman with desire.” (In
part this language is based on the Gospel of John, but
the conclusion the Gnostics drew was that continence
and good works were necessary for ordinary Christians,
not for themselves.) Several groups claimed that sexual
morality was not the only kind of morality that had
to be transcended. They argued that the Gnostic had
to experience “everything” so that the spark could be
saved. For this reason they held that the great sinners
of the Old Testament were the real saints, and that
Judas Iscariot was the author of Man's salvation. In
some respects these doctrines remind us of Greco-
Roman Cynicism, but the Gnostic found them sanc-
tioned by divine revelation. (2) At the other extreme
there lies a pessimistic and repressive view which led
to extreme asceticism (there is no trace of magic in
these systems). Saturninus, for example, held that the
savior (Jesus) came to destroy evil men and demons
and to save the good; the good were those who rejected
marriage and reproduction as instituted by Satan.

Both kinds of ethical outlook were derived from a
common alienation from convention and from ordinary
human existence, to be transcended either by compul-
sive promiscuity or by compulsive asceticism. Although
in both Judaism and Christianity freedom could lead
to license and self-discipline to asceticism, the Gnostic
ethical outlook was different because it was related to
the conviction that the world lay permanently under
the control of evil creators from whom only the Gnos-
tic could escape.

Theology. Four second-century systems serve to il-
lustrate common themes and variations on the themes.
The first two can be regarded as close to mythology
and to syncretistic reinterpretation of the Old Testa-
ment; the second two will show how the myths were
developed, somewhat more systematically, in the di-
rection of the New Testament. (1) The Coptic versions
of the Apocryphon of John begin and end with a
framework relating the Gnostic revelation to Christian
tradition. At the beginning, John, the son of Zebedee,
sees a vision on a mountain top; at the end, he tells
his fellow disciples what the savior said to him. In the
middle, however, there is the revelation itself, which
clearly reflects the Old Testament narrative but
reinterprets it drastically. The revealer appears in “a
unity of many forms” and declares himself to be the
Father, the Mother, and the Son; but the ultimate
reality is a spirit of immeasurable light, transcending
all gods. From this spirit proceeded a series of emana-
tions, the lowest of which, Wisdom, produced from
herself an ugly son named Ialdabaoth (presumably a
parody of some form of the name Yahweh). In turn
Ialdabaoth produced twelve angels, each accompanied
by seven more; each of the seven had three “powers.”
Then he made twelve more “authorities” or “princi-
palities,” seven to rule over the seven heavens, five
over the underworld. The total is thus 360 and corre-
sponds with the days in a lunar year. In various lists
the seven world-rulers are assigned slightly different
names, but in essence all are based on names of Yahweh
in the Old Testament (Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim,
Sabaoth). Thus far, only the names suggest any relation
to the Old Testament.

At this point, however, the Apocryphon begins to
correct the Old Testament narrative. It was Ialdabaoth
who said, “I am a jealous god; there is no other god
beside me”—thus proving that other gods really exist.
What was “borne about” (Genesis 1:2 in Greek) was
not the wind or the spirit of Elohim but Ialdabaoth's
mother, who had just realized that he had emanated
from her. This took place “not as Moses said, Above
the waters.” The seven authorities saw an image re-
flected from the Holy Perfect Father above and said
to one another, “Let us make a man after the image
and after the appearance of God.” They were unable
to give him life, and therefore some of Wisdom's power
had to be breathed into him before he could stand
upright. The whole story of paradise, largely “not as


Moses said,” tells of how Ialdabaoth and the others
tried to maintain control over the man.

(2) Another mythological system, that of a certain
Justin as set forth in his book entitled Baruch, shows
how some Gnostics fused Greek, Jewish, and Christian
elements. At the beginning, Justin states that the su-
preme deity, called “the Good,” is to be identified with
the Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus, though the
story of the universe is not concerned with him (pre-
sumably because he plays no role in mythology). This
story tells of two inferior principles named Elohim and
Eden. The connection with the Old Testament is obvi-
ous. Elohim loved Eden, for Eden was also the Old
Testament Israel; he “planted a garden in Eden”
(Genesis 2:8), and this garden consisted of twelve angels
who resembled their father, twelve who resembled
their mother. “The angels of this paradise are allegori-
cally called trees”; thus the tree of life is Baruch
(“blessed”), while the tree of the knowledge of good
and evil is Naas (“serpent”). When Elohim later
abandoned Eden as his love for her cooled, she tried
to torment him, especially through the activities of her
angel Naas. Elohim's angel Baruch tried to summon
men to follow Elohim and leave the world, but his
efforts, made not only through Moses and the other
Hebrew prophets but also through Hercules (twelve
labors!), were not successful. Jesus, unlike his prede-
cessors, remained faithful to Baruch and, in spirit,
ascended to the Good. This story is supposed to provide
a key to Greek mythology as well as to the Bible. Thus
Elohim really equals Zeus, who appeared to Leda-Eden
as a swan and to Danae-Eden as a shower of gold.

Justin's system was not only mythological but also
liturgical; at baptism an initiate took the following
oath: “I swear by the One above all, the Good, to keep
these mysteries and to tell them to no one and not
to return from the Good to the creation.” At baptism,
then, he obviously entered into the spiritual world
above, following the example of Elohim himself. Such
oaths, found among other Gnostic groups as well, re-
mind us that the mythology was produced in the con-
text of religious cult.

(3) A somewhat more philosophical form of Gnosti-
cism, at least in expression, is to be found in the system
of Basilides of Alexandria (ca. 117-38). Originally there
was absolutely nothing; then the nonexistent god made
the nonexistent cosmos (= pure potentiality) out of
the nonexistent, “establishing” the seed of the universe
which contained a “triple sonship.” (It has been sug-
gested that Basilides may have come in contact with
Indian ideas at Alexandria, and that they explain his
emphasis on nonexistence.) The first of these sonships
returned to the nonexistent god, while the second tried
to do so but could not come close until “winged with
the Holy Spirit”; the third remained in “the mixture
of seeds.” After this a great archon (ruler) arose and
with his son created the universe; in turn the second
ruler generated a third. (This part of the system is
probably based on Christian ideas.) The function of
all three rulers was to reveal the nature of existence
to the beings beneath them and to assist the third
sonship to move upward. Jesus, the son of Mary, was
their agent. He himself ascended above and thus pro-
vided a model for other souls to imitate. When the
whole third sonship has returned above, cosmic igno-
rance will come upon every being left below, and even
upon the archons. They will remain in ignorance of
what is above and “will not be tormented by the desire
of what is impossible.” Various expressions used by
Basilides find parallels in Middle Platonism and in the
Aristotelian language sometimes employed therein. As
a whole, however, the system is not philosophical, as
Wolfson has pointed out. Basilides himself claimed,
rather unconvincingly, that his doctrine came from the
apostle Peter.

(4) Probably the most important system or group
of systems in the second century was Valentinianism,
surviving to be denounced with other heresies by the
emperor Theodosius in 428. Its founder was a certain
Valentinus, at Rome about 140, but it was system-
atically developed in various directions by Ptolemaeus
(toward philosophy; refuted by Irenaeus), Theodotus
(toward mythology), and Marcus (toward magic and
numerology). The basic system involved either one or
two first principles from which emanated thirty
“aeons”, also called the “pleroma” or totality of the
spiritual beings above the cosmos. The cosmos origi-
nated when the thirtieth aeon, Wisdom, fell into outer
darkness, became pregnant, and gave birth to the
demiurge. He in turn made the seven heavens (angels)
out of his mother's emotions and their expressions (e.g.,
water from tears, light from laughter). Much of the
story thus far is obviously close to that in the
Apocryphon of John, but we know that the Valentinians
went on to describe the process of salvation. The Savior
descended from the pleroma to redeem fallen Wisdom
and the spirits which she had breathed into men. There
are three classes of men: material, with bodies con-
trolled by soul; psychic, with body and soul but capable
of obtaining spirit; and spiritual, with body and soul
entirely controlled by spirit. Spirit is to be rescued from
spiritual men, and this rescue has already taken place
for those whose spirits the Savior presented as brides
to the angels in the pleroma.

The Valentinians usually proved the truth of their
statements by exegesis of isolated New Testament texts,
although Ptolemaeus was able to find the pleroma in
the whole prologue to John, and a little later,


Heracleon produced the first commentary on John in
order to prove his case.

Expressions paralleled in Jewish mysticism often
occur in Valentinian writings, especially in the Gospel
of Truth
(though it may not be fully Valentinian). It
would appear, however, that the essence of the system
lies in a Judaized and Christianized version of a myth
like that in the Apocryphon of John. Conceivably it
arose in a heterodox Jewish-Christian environment.


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

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

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.


It is often claimed that Gnostic teachers and teach-
ings flourished in the primitive Christian communities;
traces of Gnostic thought have been found in some of
the letters written by Paul or later ascribed to him,
as well as in the Johannine literature and the letters
of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 110). Probably, how-
ever, what is being opposed by the early Christian
writers should be called “Gnosis,” for no developed
Gnostic system has been convincingly recovered. One
cannot read Valentinian exegesis of Paul, for example,


back into the first century and assume that either he
or his opponents meant what the Valentinians said they

On the other hand, it is clear that Christian theology
owed much to the Gnostics. At first the borderline
between “orthodoxy” and “heresy” was by no means
as clear as it later seemed to be; in addition, without
the impetus proved by the Gnostic systems as such,
Christians would probably not have turned to philo-
sophical theology as, for good or ill, they did. They
would not so soon have tried to develop systematic
teaching in theology and ethics. The syncretistic
aspects of Gnosticism also probably provoked Christian
teachers to insist upon the exclusively apostolic origins
of their faith and practice.

The basic difference between both Christianity and
Judaism, on the one hand, and Gnosticism, on the other,
seems to lie in their contrasting views of human nature
and history. For the Gnostic, man was essentially a
spiritual being whose goal was reunion with his divine
source. For Jews and Christians, man was composed
of body and soul together, and his goal was both
worldly and otherworldly. Insofar as there was an elite,
it was not constituted “by nature” but by adherence
to a community in this world, a community which
would ultimately be raised from the dead and vindi-
cated by the God who made the world.

Gnosticism as a phenomenon of the early centuries
of the common era no longer exists, although it is
sometimes used by modern theologians as a term of
opprobrium for the ideas of their opponents. Gnosis,
on the other hand, is present in almost every kind of
theosophical movement, and ideas related to it seem
to flourish in esoteric or “underground” groups today.
It remains possible that out of such Gnosis new expres-
sions analogous to Gnosticism can arise.


The most important older studies of Gnosticism are W.
Bousset, Hauptprobleme der Gnosis (Göttingen, 1907) and
E. de Faye, Gnostiques et Gnosticisme, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1925).
Criticisms and reinterpretations are provided by A.-J.
Festugière, la révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste, 4 vols. (Paris,
1945-54); H. J. Schoeps, Urgemeinde—Judenchristentum—
(Tübingen, 1956); H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion
(Boston, 1958); R. McL. Wilson, The Gnostic Problem
(London, 1958); and C. Colpe, Diereligionsgeschichtliche
(Göttingen, 1961); see also K. Wegenast, “Gnosis,
Gnostiker,” in K. Ziegler and W. Sontheimer, Der Kleine
Pauly: Lexikon der Antike
(Stuttgart, 1967), II, 830-39. The
newer discoveries are discussed by J. Doresse, The Secret
Books of the Egyptian Gnostics
(New York, 1960), and ac-
curately listed by M. Krause, “Die koptische Hands-
chriftenfund bei Nag Hammadi,” Mitteilungen des
Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo,
(1962), 121-32; 19 (1963), 106-13. On special points see also
H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers
(Cambridge, Mass., 1956), I, 495-574; G. G. Scholem, Jewish
Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition

(New York, 1960); and R. M. Grant, Gnosticism: an Anthol-
(New York, 1961), and Gnosticism and Early Christian-
2nd ed. (New York, 1966). For the important Messina
conference see U. Bianchi, ed., le origini dello gnosticismo:
Colloquio di Messina
(Leiden, 1967) and Studi di storia
religiosa della tarda antichità
(Messina, 1968).


[See also Dualism; God; Heresy; Hierarchy; Myth; Neo-
Platonism; Prophecy; Sin.]