Gnosticism (from ancient Greek: γνωστικός gnostikos, “having knowledge”, from γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge) is a modern name for a variety of ancient religious beliefs and systems, originating in Jewish-Christian milieux in the first and second century AD. These systems believed that the divine spark that is inside every human (Spirit) could be liberated by gnosis (knowledge) acquired through direct experience. Some of the core teachings include the following:

  1. All matter is evil, and the non-material, spirit-realm is good.
  2. There is an unknowable GOD, who gave rise to many lesser spirit beings called Aeons.
  3. Gnosticism does not deal with “sin” but with ignorance.
  4. To achieve salvation, one needs gnosis (knowledge).

The Gnostic ideas and systems flourished in the Mediterranean world in the second century AD, in conjunction with and influenced by the early Christian movements and Middle Platonism. After the II century, a decline set in. In the Persian Empire, Gnosticism in the form of Manicheism spread as far as China, while Mandaeism is still alive in Iraq.
Gnosticism can be considered more as an interreligious philosophy than as a proper movement.


Gnosis refers to knowledge based on personal experience or perception. In a religious context, gnosis is mystical or esoteric knowledge based on direct participation with the Divine. In most Gnostic systems, the sufficient cause of salvation is this “knowledge of” (“acquaintance with”) the Divine. It is an inward “knowing”, comparable to that encouraged by Plotinus (neoplatonism), and differs from proto-orthodox Christian views. Gnostics are those who are oriented toward knowledge and understanding (perception and learning) a proper way of living.

The usual meaning of gnostikos in Classical Greek texts is “learned” or “intellectual”, such as used by Plato in the comparison of “practical” (praktikos) and “intellectual” (gnostikos).

By the Hellenistic period, it began to also be associated with Greco-Roman mysteries, becoming synonymous with the Greek term musterion. The adjective is not used in the New Testament, but Clement of Alexandria speaks of the “learned” (gnostikos) Christian in complimentary terms. The use of gnostikos in relation to heresy originates with interpreters of Irenaeus.

The term “Gnosticism” does not appear in ancient sources, and was first coined in the 17th century by Henry More in a commentary on the seven letters of the Book of Revelation, where More used the term “Gnosticisme” to describe the heresy in Thyatira. The term Gnosticism was derived from the use of the Greek adjective gnostikos (Greek γνωστικός, “learned”, “intellectual”) by St. Irenaeus (c. 185 AD) to describe the school of Valentinus as he legomene gnostike haeresis “the heresy called Learned (gnostic).”


Contemporary scholarship largely agrees that Gnosticism has Jewish or Judeo-Christian origins, originating in the late first century AD in nonrabbinical Jewish sects and early Christian sects.

Many heads of gnostic schools were identified as Jewish Christians by Church Fathers, and Hebrew words and names of GOD were applied in some gnostic systems. The cosmogonic speculations among Christian Gnostics had partial origins in Maaseh Bereshit and Maaseh Merkabah. This thesis is most notably put forward by Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) and Gilles Quispel (1916–2006). Scholem detected Jewish gnosis in the imagery of the merkavah, which can also be found in “Christian” Gnostic documents, for example the being “caught away” to the third heaven mentioned by Paul the Apostle. Quispel sees Gnosticism as an independent Jewish development, tracing its origins to Alexandrian Jews, to which group Valentinus was also connected.

Many of the Nag Hammadi texts make reference to Judaism, in some cases with a violent rejection of the Jewish GOD. Gershom Scholem once described Gnosticism as “the Greatest case of metaphysical anti-Semitism”. Professor Steven Bayme said gnosticism would be better characterized as anti-Judaism. Recent research into the origins of Gnosticism shows a strong Jewish influence, particularly from Hekhalot literature.

Within early Christianity, the teachings of Paul and John may have been a starting point for Gnostic ideas, with a growing emphasis on the opposition between flesh and spirit, the value of charisma, and the disqualification of the Jewish law. The mortal body belonged to the world of inferior, worldly powers (the archons), and only the spirit or soul could be saved. The term gnostikos may have acquired a deeper significance here.

Alexandria was of central importance for the birth of Gnosticism. The Christian ecclesia (i. e. congregation, church) was of Jewish–Christian origin, but also attracted Greek members, and various strand of thought were available, such as “Judaic apocalypticism, speculation on divine wisdom, Greek philosophy, and Hellenistic mystery religions.”

Neoplatonic influences

In the 1880s Gnostic connections with neo-Platonism were proposed. Ugo Bianchi, who organised the Congress of Messina of 1966 on the origins of Gnosticism, also argued for Orphic and Platonic origins. Gnostics borrowed significant ideas and terms from Platonism, using Greek philosophical concepts throughout their text, including such concepts as hypostasis (reality, existence), ousia (essence, substance, being), and demiurge (creator God). Both Sethian Gnostics and Valentinian Gnostics seem to have been influenced by Plato, Middle Platonism, and Neo-Pythagoreanism academies or schools of thought. Both schools attempted “an effort towards conciliation, even affiliation” with late antique philosophy, and were rebuffed by some Neoplatonists, including Plotinus.

Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh



In many Gnostic systems, GOD is known as the Monad, the One. GOD is the high source of the pleroma, the region of light. The various emanations of GOD are called æons. According to Hippolytus, this view was inspired by the Pythagoreans, who called the first thing that came into existence the Monad, which begat the dyad, which begat the numbers, which begat the point, begetting lines, etc.

The Sethian cosmogony as most famously contained in the Apocryphon (“Secret book”) of John describes an unknown GOD, very similar to the orthodox apophatic theology, but different from the orthodox teachings that this GOD is the CREATOR of heaven and earth. Orthodox theologians often attempt to define GOD through a series of explicit positive statements: he is omniscient, omnipotent, and truly benevolent. The Sethian hidden transcendent GOD is, by contrast, defined through negative theology: he is immovable, invisible, intangible, ineffable; commonly, “he” is seen as being hermaphroditic, a potent symbol for being, as it were, “all-containing”. In the Apocryphon of John, this god is good in that it bestows goodness.


Pleroma (Greek πληρωμα, “fullness”) refers to the totality of GOD’s powers. The heavenly pleroma is the center of divine life, a region of light “above” (the term is not to be understood spatially) our world, occupied by spiritual beings such as aeons (eternal beings) and sometimes archons. Jesus is interpreted as an intermediary aeon who was sent from the pleroma, with whose aid humanity can recover the lost knowledge of the divine origins of humanity. The term is thus a central element of Gnostic cosmology.

Pleroma is also used in the general Greek language, and is used by the Greek Orthodox church in this general form, since the word appears in the book of Colossians. Proponents of the view that Paul was actually a gnostic, such as Elaine Pagels, view the reference in Colossians as a term that has to be interpreted in a gnostic sense.


The Supreme Light or Consciousness descends through a series of stages, gradations, worlds, or hypostases, becoming progressively more material and embodied. In time it will turn around to return to the One (epistrophe), retracing its steps through spiritual knowledge and contemplation.


In many Gnostic systems, the aeons are the various emanations of the superior God or Monad. From this first being, also an æon, a series of different emanations occur, beginning in certain Gnostic texts with the hermaphroditic Barbelo, from which successive pairs of aeons emanate, often in male–female pairings called syzygies. The numbers of these pairings varied from text to text, though some identify their number as being thirty. The aeons as a totality constitute the pleroma, the “region of light”. The lowest regions of the pleroma are closest to the darkness; that is, the physical world.

Two of the most commonly paired æons were Christ (Messiah) and Sophia (Greek: “Wisdom”); the latter refers to Christ as her “consort” in A Valentinian Exposition.


In Gnostic tradition, the term Sophia (Σoφíα, Greek for “wisdom”) refers to the final and lowest emanation of God. In most if not all versions of the gnostic myth, Sophia births the demiurge, who in turn brings about the creation of materiality. The positive or negative depiction of materiality thus resides a great deal on mythic depictions of Sophia’s actions. She is occasionally referred to by the Hebrew equivalent of Achamoth (this is a feature of Ptolemy’s version of the Valentinian gnostic myth). Jewish Gnosticism with a focus on Sophia was active by 90 AD.

Sophia, emanating without her partner, resulted in the production of the Demiurge (Greek: lit. “public builder”), who is also referred to as Yaldabaoth and variations thereof in some Gnostic texts. This creature is concealed outside the pleroma; in isolation, and thinking itself alone, it creates materiality and a host of co-actors, referred to as archons. The demiurge is responsible for the creation of mankind; trapping elements of the pleroma stolen from Sophia inside human bodies. In response, the Godhead emanates two savior aeons, Christ and the Holy Spirit; Christ then embodies itself in the form of Jesus, in order to be able to teach man how to achieve gnosis, by which they may return to the pleroma.

Painting – Jesus the Nazarene

Jesus as Gnostic saviour

Jesus is identified by some Gnostics as an embodiment of the supreme being who became incarnate to bring gnōsis to the earth, while others adamantly denied that the supreme being came in the flesh, claiming Jesus to be merely a human who attained divinity through gnosis and taught his disciples to do the same. Among the Mandaeans, Jesus was considered a mšiha kdaba or “false messiah” who perverted the teachings entrusted to him by John the Baptist. Still other traditions identify Mani and Seth – third son of Adam and Eve – as salvific figures.


Three periods can be discerned in the development of Gnosticism:

  • Late first century and early second century: development of Gnostic ideas, contemporaneous with the writing of the New Testament;
  • mid-second century to early third century: high point of the classical Gnostic teachers and their systems, “who claimed that their systems represented the inner truth revealed by Jesus”;
  • end of second century to fourth century: reaction by the proto-orthodox church and condemnation as heresy, and subsequent decline.

During the first period, three types of tradition developed:

  • Genesis was reinterpreted in Jewish milieus, viewing Jahweh as a jealous GOD who enslaved people; freedom was to be obtained from this jealous GOD;
  • A wisdom tradition developed, in which Jesus’ sayings were interpreted as pointers to an esoteric wisdom, in which the soul could be divinized through identification with wisdom. Some of Jesus’ sayings may have been incorporated into the gospels to put a limit on this development. The conflicts described in 1 Corinthians may have been inspired by a clash between this wisdom tradition and Paul’s gospel of crucifixion and arising;
  • A mythical story developed about the descent of a heavenly creature to reveal the Divine world as the true home of human beings. Jewish Christianity saw the Messiah, or Christ, as “an eternal aspect of GOD’s hidden nature, his “spirit” and “truth”, who revealed himself throughout sacred history”.

The movement spread in areas controlled by the Roman Empire and Arian Goths, and the Persian Empire. It continued to develop in the Mediterranean and Middle East before and during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but decline also set in during the third century, due to a growing aversion from the Catholic Church, and the economic and cultural deterioration of the Roman Empire. Conversion to Islam, and the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229), greatly reduced the remaining number of Gnostics throughout the Middle Ages, though a few Mandaean communities still exist. Gnostic and pseudo-gnostic ideas became influential in some of the philosophies of various esoteric mystical movements of the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and North America, including some that explicitly identify themselves as revivals or even continuations of earlier gnostic groups.

Relation with early Christianity

Dillon notes that Gnosticism raises questions about the development of early Christianity.

Orthodoxy and heresy

The Christian heresiologists, most notably Irenaeus, regarded Gnosticism as a Christian heresy. Modern scholarship notes that early Christianity was very diverse, and Christian orthodoxy only settled in the 4th century, when the Roman Empire declined and Gnosticism lost its influence. Gnostics and proto-orthodox Christians shared some terminology. Initially, they were hard to distinguish from each other.

According to Walter Bauer, “heresies” may well have been the original form of Christianity in many regions. This theme was further developed by Elaine Pagels, who argues that “the proto-orthodox church found itself in debates with gnostic Christians that helped them to stabilize their own beliefs.” According to Gilles Quispel, Catholicism arose in response to Gnosticism, establishing safeguards in the form of the monarchic episcopate, the creed, and the canon of holy books.

Historical Jesus

The Gnostic movements may contain information about the historical Jesus, since some texts preserve sayings which show similarities with canonical sayings. Especially the Gospel of Thomas has a significant amount of parallel sayings. Yet, a striking difference is that the canonical sayings center on the coming endtime, while the Thomas-sayings center on a kingdom of heaven that is already here, and not a future event. According to Helmut Koester, this is because the Thomas-sayings are older, implying that in the earliest forms of Christianity Jesus was regarded as a wisdom-teacher. An alternative hypothesis states that the Thomas authors wrote in the second century, changing existing sayings and eliminating the apocalyptic concerns. According to April DeConick, such a change occurred when the endtime did not come, and the Thomasine tradition turned toward a “new theology of mysticism” and a “theological commitment to a fully-present kingdom of heaven here and now, where their church had attained Adam and Eve’s divine status before the Fall.”

Johannine literature

The prologue of the Gospel of John describes the incarnated Logos, the light that came to earth, in the person of Jesus. The Apocryphon of John contains a scheme of three descendants from the heavenly realm, the third one being Jesus, just as in the Gospel of John. The similarities probably point to a relationship between gnostic ideas and the Johannine community. According to Raymond Brown, the Gospel of John shows “the development of certain gnostic ideas, especially Christ as heavenly revealer, the emphasis on light versus darkness, and anti-Jewish animus.” The Johannine material reveals debates about the redeemer myth. The Johannine letters show that there were different interpretations of the gospel story, and the Johannine images may have contributed to second-century Gnostic ideas about Jesus as a redeemer who descended from heaven. According to DeConick, the Gospel of John shows a “transitional system from early Christianity to gnostic beliefs in a God who transcends our world.” According to DeConick, John may show a bifurcation of the idea of the Jewish God into Jesus’ Father in Heaven and the Jews’ father, “the Father of the Devil” (most translations say “of [your] father the Devil”), which may have developed into the gnostic idea of the Monad and the Demiurge.

Paul and Gnosticism

Tertullian calls Paul “the apostle of the heretics”, because Paul’s writings were attractive to gnostics, and interpreted in a gnostic way, while Jewish Christians found him to stray from the Jewish roots of Christianity. In I Corinthians Paul refers to some church members as “having knowledge” (Greek: τον εχοντα γνωσιν, ton echonta gnosin). James Dunn claims that in some cases, Paul affirmed views that were closer to gnosticism than to proto-orthodox Christianity.

According to Clement of Alexandria, the disciples of Valentinus said that Valentinus was a student of a certain Theudas, who was a student of Paul, and Elaine Pagels notes that Paul’s epistles were interpreted by Valentinus in a gnostic way, and Paul could be considered a proto-gnostic as well as a proto-Catholic. Many Nag Hammadi texts, including, for example, the Prayer of Paul and the Coptic Apocalypse of Paul, consider Paul to be “the great apostle”. The fact that he claimed to have received his gospel directly by revelation from God appealed to the gnostics, who claimed gnosis from the risen Christ. The Naassenes, Cainites, and Valentinians referred to Paul’s epistles. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy have expanded upon this idea of Paul as a gnostic teacher; although their premise that Jesus was invented by early Christians based on an alleged Greco-Roman mystery cult has been dismissed by scholars. However, his revelation was different from the gnostic revelations.

Middle Ages

After its demise in the Mediterranean world, Gnosticism lived on in the periphery of the Byzantine Empire, and resurfaced in the western world. The Paulicians, an Adoptionist group which flourished between 650 and 872 in Armenia and the Eastern Themes of the Byzantine Empire, were accused by orthodox medieval sources of being Gnostic and quasi Manichaean Christian. The Bogomils, emerged in Bulgaria between 927 and 970 and spread throughout Europe. It was as synthesis of Armenian Paulicianism and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church reform movement.

The Cathars (Cathari, Albigenses or Albigensians) were also accused by their enemies of the traits of Gnosticism; though whether or not the Cathari possessed direct historical influence from ancient Gnosticism is disputed. If their critics are reliable the basic conceptions of Gnostic cosmology are to be found in Cathar beliefs (most distinctly in their notion of a lesser, Satanic, creator god), though they did not apparently place any special relevance upon knowledge (gnosis) as an effective salvific force.

Influence on Islam

The message of the Islamic prophet Muhammad shows, according to the time of its promulgation, close relations to Gnostic ideas. The Quran, like Gnostic cosmology, makes a sharp distinction between this world and the afterlife. The notion of four rivers in heaven, as mentioned in the Quran, separating this world from the other , also appears frequently in Mandaean literature. GOD is commonly thought of as being beyond human comprehension. In some Islamic schools of thought, somehow identifiable with the Gnostic Monad. However, according to Islam and unlike most Gnostic sects, not rejection of this world, but performing good deeds leads to the heaven. And according to the Islamic belief in strict Oneness of GOD, there was no room for a lower deity; such as the demiurge. According to Islam, both good and evil come from one GOD, a position especially opposed by the Manichaeans. Ibn al-Muqaffa depicted the Islamic deity as a demonic entity who “fights with humans and boasts about His victories” and “sitting on a throne, from which He can descend”. It would be impossible that both light and darkness were created from one source, since they were regarded as two different eternal principles. Muslim theologists tried to counter this accusation by the example of a repeating sinner, who says: “I laid, and I repent”. This would prove that good can also result out of evil.

Islam also integrated traces of an entity given authority over the lower world in some early writings: Iblis is regarded by some Sufis as the owner of this world, and humans must avoid the treasures of this world, since they would belong to him. In the Ismailis work Umm al Kitab, Azazil‘s role resembles whose of the Gnostic demiurge. Like the demiurge, he is endowed with the ability to create his own world and seeks to imprison humans in the material world, but here, his power is limited and depends on the higher GOD. Such Gnostic anthropogenic can be found frequently among Ismaili traditions. However, the Ismailism were often criticised as non-Islamic. Ghazali characterized them, as a group who are just outwardly Shias but were actually adherence of a dualistic and philosophical religion. Further traces of Gnostic ideas can be found in Sufi anthropogenic. Like the gnostic conception of human beings imprisoned in matter, Sufi-traditions acknowledges the human soul is an accomplice of the material world and subject to bodily desires similar to the way archontic spheres envelop the pneuma. The Ruh must therefore gain victory over the lower and material-bound psyche, to overcome his animal nature. A human being captured by his animal desires, mistakenly claims autonomy and independence from the “higher God”, thus resembling the lower deity in classical gnostic traditions. However, since the goal is not to abandon the created world, but just to free oneself from ones own lower desires, it can be disputed whether this can still be Gnostic, but rather a completion of the message of Muhammad. It seems that Gnostic ideas were an influential part of early Islamic development but later lost its influence. However the Gnostic light metaphorics and the idea of unity of existence still prevailed in later Islamic thought.


Gnostic ideas found a Jewish variation in the mystical study of Kabbalah. Many core Gnostic ideas reappear in Kabbalah, where they are used for dramatically reinterpreting earlier Jewish sources according to this new system. The Kabbalists originated in 13th-century Provence, which was at that time also the center of the Gnostic Cathars. While some scholars in the middle of the 20th century tried to assume an influence between the Cathar “gnostics” and the origins of the Kabbalah, this assumption has proved to be an incorrect generalization not substantiated by any original texts. On the other hand, other scholars, such as Scholem, have postulated that there was originally a “Jewish gnosticism”, which influenced the early origins of gnosticism.

Kabbalah does not employ the terminology or labels of non-Jewish Gnosticism, but grounds the same or similar concepts in the language of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). The 13th-century Zohar (“Splendor”), a foundational text in Kabbalah, is written in the style of a Jewish Aramaic Midrash, clarifying the five books of the Torah with a new Kabbalistic system that uses completely Jewish terms.

Modern times

The Mandaeans are an ancient Gnostic sect that have survived to this day and are found today in Iraq. Their namesake owes to their following John the Baptist and in that country, they have about five thousand followers. A number of ecclesiastical bodies that think of themselves as Gnostic have set up or re-founded since World War II, including the Ecclesia Gnostica, Apostolic Johannite Church, Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, the Gnostic Church of France, the Thomasine Church, the Alexandrian Gnostic Church, the North American College of Gnostic Bishops, and the Universal Gnosticism of Samael Aun Weor.

A number of 19th-century thinkers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Albert Pike and Madame Blavatsky studied Gnostic thought extensively and were influenced by it, and even figures like Herman Melville and W. B. Yeats were more tangentially influenced. Jules Doinel “re-established” a Gnostic church in France in 1890, which altered its form as it passed through various direct successors (Fabre des Essarts as Tau Synésius and Joanny Bricaud as Tau Jean II most notably), and, though small, is still active today.

Early 20th-century thinkers who heavily studied and were influenced by Gnosticism include Carl Jung (who supported Gnosticism), Eric Voegelin (who opposed it), Jorge Luis Borges (who included it in many of his short stories), and Aleister Crowley, with figures such as Hermann Hesse being more moderately influenced. René Guénon founded the gnostic review, La Gnose in 1909, before moving to a more Perennialist position, and founding his Traditionalist School. Gnostic Thelemite organizations, such as Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and Ordo Templi Orientis, trace themselves to Crowley’s thought.

The discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi library after 1945 has had a huge effect on Gnosticism since World War II. Intellectuals who were heavily influenced by Gnosticism in this period include Lawrence Durrell, Hans Jonas, Philip K. Dick and Harold Bloom, with Albert Camus and Allen Ginsberg being more moderately influenced. Celia Green has written on Gnostic Christianity in relation to her own philosophy.

Alfred North Whitehead was aware of the existence of the newly discovered Gnostic scrolls. Accordingly, Michel Weber has proposed a Gnostic interpretation of his late metaphysics.



Prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 Gnosticism was known primarily through the works of heresiologists, Church Fathers who opposed those movements. These writings had an antagonistic bias towards gnostic teachings, and were incomplete. Several heresiological writers, such as Hippolytus, made little effort to exactly record the nature of the sects they reported on, or transcribe their sacred texts. Reconstructions of incomplete Gnostic texts were attempted in modern times, but research on Gnosticism was coloured by the orthodox views of those heresiologists.

Justin Martyr (c. 100/114 – c. 162/168) wrote the First Apology, addressed to Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, which criticising Simon Magus, Menander and Marcion. Since this time, both Simon and Menander have been considered as ‘proto-Gnostic’. Irenaeus (died c. 202) wrote Against Heresies (c. 180–185), which identifies Simon Magus from Flavia Neapolis in Samaria as the inceptor of Gnosticism. From Samaria he charted an apparent spread of the teachings of Simon through the ancient “knowers” into the teachings of Valentinus and other, contemporary Gnostic sects. Hippolytus (170–235) wrote the ten-volume Refutation Against all Heresies, of which eight have been unearthed. It also focuses on the connection between pre-Socratic (and therefore Pre-Incantation of Christ) ideas and the false beliefs of early gnostic heretical leaders. Thirty-three of the groups he reported on are considered Gnostic by modern scholars, including ‘the foreigners’ and ‘the Seth people’. Hippolytus further presents individual teachers such as Simon, Valentinus, Secundus, Ptolemy, Heracleon, Marcus and Colorbasus. Tertullian (c. 155–230) from Carthage wrote Adversus Valentinianos (‘Against the Valentinians’), c. 206, as well as five books around 207–208 chronicling and refuting the teachings of Marcion.

Gnostic texts

Prior to the discovery at Nag Hammadi, a limited number of texts were available to students of Gnosticism. Reconstructions were attempted from the records of the heresiologists, but these were necessarily coloured by the motivation behind the source accounts.

The Nag Hammadi library  is a collection of Gnostic texts discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt. Twelve leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar were found by a local farmer named Muhammed al-Samman. The writings in these codices comprised fifty-two mostly Gnostic treatises, but they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation/alteration of Plato’s Republic. These codices may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery, and buried after Bishop Athanasius condemned the use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367. Though the original language of composition was probably Greek, the various codices contained in the collection were written in Coptic. A 1st- or 2nd-century date of composition for the lost Greek originals has been proposed, though this is disputed; the manuscripts themselves date from the 3rd and 4th centuries. The Nag Hammadi texts demonstrated the fluidity of early Christian scripture and early Christianity itself.

Academic studies


Prior to the discovery of Nag Hammadi, the Gnostic movements were largely perceived through the lens of the early church heresiologists. Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1694–1755) proposed that Gnosticism developed on its own in Greece and Mesopotamia, spreading to the west and incorporating Jewish elements. According to Mosheim, Jewish thought took Gnostic elements and used them against Greek philosophy. J. Horn and Ernest Anton Lewald proposed Persian and Zoroastrian origins, while Jacques Matter described Gnosticism as an intrusion of eastern cosmological and theosophical speculation into Christianity.

In the 1880s Gnosticism was placed within Greek philosophy, especially neo-Platonism. Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), who belonged to the School of the History of Dogma and proposed a Kirchengeschichtliches Ursprungsmodell, saw gnosticism as an internal development within the church under the influence of Greek philosophy. According to Harnack, Gnosticism was the “acute Hellenization of Christianity.”

The Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (“history of religions school”, 19th century) had a profound influence on the study of Gnosticism. The Religionsgeschichtliche Schule saw Gnosticism as a pre-Christian phenomenon, and Christian gnosis as only one, and even marginal instance of this phenomenon. According to Wilhelm Bousset (1865–1920), Gnosticism was a form of Iranian and Mesopotamian syncretism, and Eduard Norden (1868–1941) also proposed pre-Christian origins, while Richard August Reitzenstein (1861–1931), and Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) also situated the origins of Gnosticism in Persia. Hans Heinrich Schaeder (1896–1957) and Hans Leisegang saw Gnosticism as an amalgam of eastern thought in a Greek form.

Hans Jonas (1903–1993) took an intermediate approach, using both the comparative approach of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule and the existentialist hermeneutics of Bultmann. Jonas emphasized the duality between GOD and the world, and concluded that Gnosticism cannot be derived from Platonism.

Contemporary scholarship largely agrees that Gnosticism has Jewish or Judeo-Christian origins; this theses is most notably put forward by Gershom G. Scholem (1897–1982) and Gilles Quispel (1916–2006).

The study of Gnosticism and of early Alexandrian Christianity received a strong impetus from the discovery of the Coptic Nag Hammadi Library in 1945. A great number of translations have been published, and the works of Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, especially The Gnostic Gospels, which detailed the suppression of some of the writings found at Nag Hammadi by early bishops of the Christian church, has popularized Gnosticism in mainstream culture, but also incited strong responses and condemnations from clergical writers.



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  • Yamauchi, Edwin M., “Pre-Christian Gnosticism in the Nag Hammadi Texts?“, in Church History vol. 48, (1979), pp. 129–141.
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