The Glossary of Terms


Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer

Though gnostics may have adopted some first century writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas, many very honest biblical scholars today believe that the original Gospel of Thomas was not a gnostic writing but was a first century sayings gospel of the same early date as the Gospel of Q. Even Paul's writings advocate gnosis (spiritual knowledge) (see Rom 2:20, 11:33, 15:14; 1Co 1:5; 12:8-11; ) but also warns of having gnosis without having -- and embodying -- agape (love) (see 1Co 8:1-11, 13:1-13). Paul did not advocate gnosis in the way that gnostics in the second century and beyond did. Paul's are the earliest writings in the New Testament, and Paul had direct interaction with Jesus' immediate disciples (Peter and John) and family (James, the brother of Jesus). Most scholars doubt that any other New Testament writers had the direct contact with Jesus inner circle as did Paul, with the possible exception of the author/s of the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John. (Some consider that the original draft of the Gospel of John was derived from a community of followers who were students of the disciple John and/or of Mary Magdalene. For additional details, see

In Everett Ferguson's excellent Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Second Edition (NY: Garland Publishing, 1998, page 465-470), Pheme Perkins provides a very sound description of gnosticism, which in part reads:

Derived from the Greek for "knowledge," gnosis, the term "Gnosticism" covers a number of religious and quasiphilosophical movements that developed in the religious pluralism of the Hellenistic world and flourished from the second to the fifth centuries A.D.

Gnosis in this sense does not refer to understanding of truths about the human and natural world that can be reached through reason. It refers to a "revealed knowledge" available only to those who have received the secret teachings of a heavenly revealer. All other humans are trapped in ignorance of the true divine world and the destiny of the Gnostic soul to return to its home there...

Worldview. One of the most striking features of Gnostic teaching is the elaborate mythology that explains how this world of darkness, dominated by a demonic god and his powers, came into being...

Augustine's and Luther's doctrines of predestination and justification by faith, with no concern for the life substantiating that faith, is much closer to core gnostic values than are some modern denominations that have been accused of gnostic tendencies. Keeping the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7), the Gospel of John, and the writings of Paul central to ones theology and especially central to one's practice of Christianity provides excellent means of avoiding gnostic tendencies.

It also should be noted that most Protestant and Roman Catholic critical biblical scholars today have concluded that Jesus did not consider himself to be God. In fact, they would assert that Jesus, the Jew, would have summarily rejected such a heretical belief. Many of those scholars also make a distinction between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and the post-crucifixion Christ and Lord. (For more details, see the article on the Trininty at

For a fuller view of the diversity of Christian theology even in the first and second centuries, I recommend Walter Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Philaddelphia: Fortress, 1971). On the subject of gnositicsm, he commented (page 57):

Clement never lost his enthusiasm for "gnosis." To be sure, he makes a distinction between genuine and heretical gnosis, and feels himself to be separated from the latter and linked with the former through the holy apostles Peter, James, John, and Paul (Strom. 1.[1.]11.3). But this does not keep him from having some central points in common with heretical gnosticism...


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Gnosticism, a generic term for a variety of religious movements of the first centuries of the Christian era. Although the theology, ritual practice, and ethics of these groups differed considerably, all purported to offer salvation from the oppressive bonds of material existence through gnosis, or ‘knowledge.’ Such knowledge was diverse, although it regularly dealt with the intimate relationship of the self to the transcendent source of all being, and this knowledge was often conveyed by a revealer figure.

What is known about Gnosticism traditionally depended upon reports in the church fathers such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, and Epiphanius, who were opponents of Christian Gnostic teachers. Since the eighteenth century, several original Gnostic works have been discovered, including Codex Askew, Codex Bruce, the Berlin Gnostic Codes and, most recently, the Nag Hammadi collection.

The relationship between Gnosticism and early Christianity has been a controversial issue. Against the patristic view that Gnosticism was a Christian heresy begun by Simon Magus, many modern scholars have held that it was originally an independent movement. Earlier expressions of this opinion, which posited at the core of Gnosticism a redeemed-redeemer myth of possible Iranian origin, have proven questionable. Primarily on the basis of the Nag Hammadi evidence, many today hold that Gnosticism first emerged in the late Hellenistic or early Imperial period among speculative and syncretistic Jews.

By the second century, Gnosticism achieved its classical form among both Christian and non-Christian exponents. One example is found in the teachings of the Valentinians, Christian Gnostics who held that the world emerged from a primordial pair, or ‘syzygy,’ Depth and Silence, from which emanated a complex spiritual world or ‘Pleroma.’ One element or ‘aeon’ in that world, Sophia, fell and produced from her passion and repentance the psychic and material realms of existence. In a movement that typifies the whole soteriological process, Christ came to restore her to her original condition. Humanity is composed of the results of this process, having spiritual, psychic, and material components. The gnosis provided by Jesus, a being separate from Christ, awakens the awareness of the spiritual component of humanity about its essential identity with the Godhead and leads to ultimate restoration.

Despite its suppression by ecclesiastical authorities in the third and fourth centuries, Gnosticism continued in the guise of Manichaeism and Mandaeism and in various medieval speculative movements.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible

Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993, pages 255-256)

Article written by Robert McL. Wilson, professor of Biblical Criticism, Ereritus, University of St. Andrews, Scotland

Gnosticism. A modern designation for a religious movement of the early centuries CE, though only some of the groups involved actually called themselves "gnostics" (from Greek gnosis, "knowledge"). Initially it was regarded as a heresy within early Christianity, opposed by Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and others, the "falsely called knowledge" of 1 Timothy 6:20. A false knowledge, however, implies the existence of a true knowledge, and Clement of Alexandria in fact uses the term "gnostic" for a Christian who has penetrated more deeply than the ordinary believer into the knowledge of the truth (Stromata 7.1-2). Further complications have arisen with increasing knowledge of the religious life of the ancient world, comparative study of ancient religions, and the attempt to account for the origins of gnosticism. One common error of method has been to identify terms or concepts as "gnostic" because of their appearance in developed gnostic systems, and then to trace them back through Greek philosphy or the religions of Egypt, Persia, or Babylonia. This is to ignore the fact that the gnostics adapted and transformed motifs that they borrowed; some such terms and concepts are "gnostic" only in a gnostic context. More recently, increased attention has been paid to possible Jewish origns; but while there is no doubt of the importance of the Jewish contribution, for example in gnostic use and reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible, it is by no means certain that the movement originated within Judaism or was initiated by Jews. The Septuagint was the Bible also of early gentile Christians.

What is now clear is that the movement did not suddenly emerge in the second century CE, when it was opposed by early church fathers. There are affinities in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, and there is evidence there was a good deal of "gnosticizing" thought even in the first century CE. A question still in debate is the extent of "gnostic" influence on the New Testament, since the evidence has to be found in the New Testament itself, and there is always a danger of interpreting it in light of later systems, which may be to impose on it the ideas of a later period. There is still no gnostic document that in its present form can be dated prior to the New Testament.

The chief characteristics common to all the developed systems are: (1) radical cosmic dualism that rejects this world and all that belongs to it: the body is a prison from which the soul longs to escape; (2) a distinction between the unknown transcendent true God and the creator or Demiurge, commonly identified with the God of the Hebrew Bible; (3) the belief that the human race is essentially akin to the divine, being a spark of heavenly light imprisoned in a material body; (4) a myth, often narrating a premundane fall, to account for the present human predicament; and (5) the saving knowledge by which deliverance is effected and the gnostic awakened to recognition of his or her true nature and heavenly origin. At one time it was thought, as the church fathers sometimes allege, that the gnostic was "saved by nature," and that morality was therefore of no importance; indeed, since ethics is largely a matter of obedience to the law of the creator, who seeks to hold the human race in slavery, it could be seen as a positive duty for the gnostic to disobey all such commands. The evidence of the Nag Hammadi documents, however, suggests that while some gnostics may have show libertine tendencies, the main direction of the movement was toward asceticism. Some of the characteristics listed can be identified in other systems of thought, but that does not make these gnostic; it is the combination of those ideas into a new synthesis that is gnosticism.

The classic period of gnosticism is the second century CE, with such figures as Basilides and Valentinus, and the latter's disciples Ptolemy and Heraclean, but this was the culmination of a long development. The later books of the New Testament (e.g., the Pastorals, Jude, 1 John) show signs of resistance to an incipient gnosticism, but it is a mistake to think of clear distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy at such an early stage; differing points of view may well coexist for a period, interacting with one another, before it finally becomes clear that they are incompatible. The gospel of John makes frequent use of the verb "to know," but never employs the noun "gnosis, which may perhaps be significant; Pauls uses the noun quite often, but we need to ask whether he is speaking of a specifically gnostic knowledge. Most religions do profess to convey some kind of knowledge! While there may be doubts about gnostic influence in the New Testament, there can be no question of the significance of New Testament influence on gnosticism; this is shown by numerous allusions and direct quotations in the sources, to which the Nag Hammadi library has added greatly.

Gnosticism has often been regarded as bizarre and outlandish, and certainly it is not easily understood until it is examined in its contempory setting. It was, however, no mere playing with words and ideas, but a serious attempt to resolve real problems: the nature and destiny of the human race, the problem of evil, the human predicament. To a gnostic it brought a release and joy and hope, as if awakening from a nightmare. One later offshoot, Manicheism, became for a time a world religion, reaching as far as China, and there are at least elements of gnosticism in such medieval movements as those of the Bogomiles and the Cathari. Gnostic influence has been seen in various works of modern literature, such as those of William Blake, and W.B. Yeats, and is also to be found in the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and the Anthroposophy of Rudolph Steiner. Gnosticism was a lifelong interest to the physchologist C.G. Jung, and one of the Nag Hammadi codices (the Jung Codex) was for a time in the Jung Institute in Zurich.

To explore this subject in even greater depth, see Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Second Edition, edited by Everett Ferguson (NY: Garland Publishing 1999, pages 465-470), and other books on the topic of gnosticism that are listed in the bibliography on New Testament history at

See also "Christian Science versus gnosticism" at

See also "heresy" at


All glossary terms
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer
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