What is "Gnostic"?

I feel like a dummy for having to ask this on here, but i’ve googled and looked it up but still can’t find a simple, common man’s definition for this.

What I have so far is that gnosticism is a secret knowledge of the divine or something like that?

In addition to the definition, how does it relate to movements in history?

You probably won’t find a simple definition, the gnostics were quite varied, though they shared some common beliefs.

Generally the gnostics were people who believed, among other things, that the OT and NT God’s were two different entities, that secret knowledge had been given to man by the NT God (who is the only uncreated being in existance) at some point in history, most agreeing it was Jesus, although some not even believing he was anything special. They believe that we must go through living, multiple lives if necessary (they believed in reincarnation), until we attain this secret knowledge (gnosis) which will allow us to accend to the Father of Light.

Those called “Gnostics” held a belief that there was some “knowledge” that was necessary to be “saved”…“gnosis” in Greek is “knowledge”.

There was no one umbrella “Gnostic” group…some Gnostics held a very low regard for the body and the material world…they believed it was “created” by the Demiurge…the product of a “Cosmic mistake”…this “Demiurge” believed himself to be the True Creator God…some schools of Gnostic thought believed that he “trapped” “beings of light” in mortal bodies and it was through Christ that the “gnosis” to be free of the demiurge’s will had been passed down from the apostles to the Gnostic teachers.

Valentius was taught by Theudus…who was taught by Paul. Alexandrian Gnostics taught that Mark, who is reported to have written a Gnostic gospel had established Gnosticism in Alexandria.

The Gospel of Thomas has “Gnostic characteristics” but truly is not Gnostic as it simply records the sayings of Jesus which have many parallels in the canonical gospels.

One school or another of Gnostics competed with “proto-orhodox/catholic” Christians for dominance of the Christian message.

Many Gnostics believe Jesus didn’t die…he just “appeared” to suffer and die…some believe that the “Christ” decended on the man Jesus at his baptism and left him at his crucifixtion…which caused him to claim “My God my God…why have you forsaken me?”

Gnosticism was varried and diverse in it’s beliefs.

“The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels would shed much light on the subject…IMO.

here r some recommendations if u r interested


Texts & Translations:

Bentley Layton, ed., The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1995). In 1945, there was an extraordinary chance discovery of an ancient gnostic library at Nag Hammadi, at the bend of the Nile River. For the first time, scholars could read the gnostics in their own words—as opposed to those of their opponents. This discovery has helped transform our understanding of 2nd-century Christianity. This fine volume by Layton contains good translations not only of key Nag Hammadi texts, but also of other gnostic texts. His valuable introduction puts forth his distinctive views on Valentinus and his disciples and their contribution to shaping gnostic theology and disseminating gnostic views.

Bart D. Ehrman, ed. Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Make It into the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Iaian Gardner & Samuel N.C. Lieu, ed., Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Hans J. Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993) hardcover. The first large-scale English translation of Manichaean texts from Central Asia.

James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, 3rd edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988). Complete translation of texts.

James H. Robinson, The Coptic Gnostic Library: A Complete Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, 5 Vol. (rep

The problem is, it’s not so simple. Gnostics do claim Jesus taught his disciples ‘secret knowledge’ that he did not share with all, which is a huge error in itself, but they also believe the God of the OT was really an evil being, created by other, good gods, and that Jesus basically came to save us from God, and was actually the serpent in the garden, who gave mankind the wonderful gift of knowledge. They have a whole complicated polytheistic pantheon of gods.

You hit on the problem of classifying Gnostics in your post, not all agreed that Jesus was anything special, in fact the two that survive today (that can actually trace themselves back, I don’t mean neo-gnosticism) don’t recognize him, although one, Mandeanism, does recognize John the Baptist as the final prophet.

I was aware of Mandeanism, but what’s the other gnostic sect that also goes back two millennia?

The gnostics, as others have said, weren’t a unified group. They basically combined their own brand of paganism with Christian terminology. They believed in a pantheon of gods called “Aeons”. If you want, you can learn more about them by reading St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies.

Even just reading the first two chapters will get you a pretty good idea of what they’re about. As others have said, they’re famous for their belief in a secret knowledge (the name gnostic comes from “gnosis” meaning knowledge) and the belief that the material is inferior to the spiritual. But their beliefs are much more various and convoluted than those two basic points.

I’ve honestly tried reading it, but it’s more confusing than Greek or Roman mythology! Aeons and Demiurges and whatnot.

Yes it is quite confusing! In some chapters St. Irenaeus makes it clear that he intends to show just how confusing it is as a way of ridiculing it. I think I laughed out loud a few times when he went on and on about detail after detail. I was impressed that he took the time to learn all about it.

After reading it, I definitely am not ready to pass any quizzes on gnosticism, but you can get the basics down if you push through it. Things like who the demiurge is, who Sophia is and some of the other more important Aeons. Also their system of spiritual/animal/material and things like that. I probably wouldn’t recommend reading the whole thing to somebody unless they were really interested in that sort of mythology or really interested in the early Church.

I’m glad he did take the time. I think it’s very important to be familiar with what other religions teach. Yeah, I remember somewhat how he presented it, kind of like the skit where Bob Newhart does the telephone call, where he’s the guy who first introduces tobacco to Europeans. They are all, “you roll up a leaf and put it in your mouth? Then what? You set it on fire!!?” (laughing at the craziness of it)

Gnositicism is any faith system based upon salvation by receipt of hidden knowledge.

There are 4 major uses for the term:

  1. Christian Gnostics
    For those heretical sects who claim that Christ came to bring secret wisdom, passed to the Apostles (usually including Mary Magdalene). The scripture set includes the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Phillip, and Judas, but no specific canon is known. Given the incompatibilities, (aside from Thomas,) these could not be used with the canonical epistles.

  2. for certain other Jewish offshoot messianic sects who claim their messiah brought secret wisdom. I am not aware of any surviving such sects.

  3. for certain pagan “secret wisdom” cults, one or more of which seem to be the precursor to Christian Gnosticism by syncretism*.

  4. for those heretics who claim there is secret wisdom in the canonical gospels, and that salvation comes from knowing those secrets.

*combining two or more distinct traditions into a new, hybrid tradition.

I was thinking of the Yazidi who have many gnostic features, although not traditionally classified as gnostic. Of course this similarity could just be that both are the result of significant syncratism.

Study one sect at a time, all the sects believed contradictory things so it is impossible to rectify them.

It would be like reading about Protestantism by reading the assorted writings of Baptists and Anglicans.

Gnosticism is a very complex system of religious doctrines and practices, philosophical, theurgical, and mystagogical in character, which began in the Alexandrian period in Judeo-pagan circles and developed in the first centuries of Christianity.

The basic principle of the "gnosis’ is: In religion there is a common faith, which may be sufficient for the ordinary people, but there is also a higher knowledge, reserved to the learned, which offers a philosophical explanation of the common faith. Christian Gnosticism draws various elements from Plato, from Persian Mazdaism, from pagan mysteries, and applies them to the Christian religion by using and abusing allegorical exegesis of Holy Scripture. The Christian “gnosis” may be defined as a theosophic philosophism tending to absorb divine revelation in order to make a religious philosophy of it. It developed in Syria with Simon Magus, Menander, and Saturninus, and in Egypt (Alexandrian gnosis) with Basilides, Valentine, and their respective disciples. Despite differences, the “gnosis” is reducible, more or less, to this outline: (a) God is an inaccessible Being (Platonic transcendence), who can have no contact outside of Himself; opposed to God but coeternal with Him is matter (Platonico-Persian dualism), bad in its nature (pessimism); (b) between God and matter is the pleroma or ogdoad, an intermediate, supersense world (the hyperuranium of Plato) inhabited by beings called aeons, emanating one from the other or disposed in pairs (syzygies); © one of aeons, the Demiurge (God of the Old Testament) worked matter into the actual form of this world; (d) a divine spark from that superior world fell one day on the matter of this world of ours and remained there to suffer as in a prison (soul in the body); (e) another of the aeons (Christ) descended into this world, took the appearance of a body (Docetism) and lived and died to free spirit from matter (Redemption); (f) side by side with these theories there was a moral teaching, often lax, and a superstitious cult, in which the sacraments appear deformed. Marcion developed some Gnostic elements along lines of a very predominant and austere asceticism.

Gnosticism constituted one of the gravest dangers for the newborn Christianity; Judaism was the other. Fortunately, Gnosticism was anti-Jewish. The Fathers spotted the menace immediately and endeavored to eliminate it. St. Irenaeus refutes Gnosticism in the 5 books of his “Adversus Haereses”. His position, like that of Tertullian, is conservative, with uncompromising reaction; but in Alexandria, Clement and Origin used the false gnosis to build up a Christian gnosis (science in service of the faith): hence theology was born.

Good point, the Gnostics were not interested in history or the OT because they were related to the material world. This obviously created tension with the Catholics who defended their interpretation of scripture and their oral tradition by appealing to historical succession. I think maybe even before Clement and Origin you see a kind of Christian/ orthodox gnosis in the fourth gospel.

I think maybe even before Clement and Origin you see a kind of Christian/ orthodox gnosis in the fourth gospel.

Yeah, I have always seen the Gospel of John as being somewhat different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He was more of a “high flier”

I am going to enjoy reading “Against Heresies” Very slowly, LOL!!

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