C O P | N E T

A Survey of Gnostic Beliefs and Gnostic-Christian ties

By: Maged S. Mikhail

Knowledge has always fascinated Man, his curious nature prods him to seek it,
often only to find out that he lacks the virtue to use it. In a very true
sense knowledge is in fact power; this seems to be an unalterable constant
whether in the ancient world or today. What we are about to investigate in
this article is the "Gnostic" religions. Their appeal is a simple one. In the
turbulent and unpredictable ancient world, at a time when Man felt that he is
but a puppet in the hands of fortune, the Gnostics proclaimed aloud: 'come to
us and we will enlighten you with Knowledge that would give you the power to be
in charge of your destiny!'

When we speak about the Gnostics it is important to realize that we are not
just speaking about a group of people, but in fact many widely varying groups
who fit under this title due to their adherence to a common set of beliefs.
Keeping this in mind is of utmost importance, for our research will not be a
concise examination of the in-and-outs of every sect but will be in the shape
of a survey of the general trends of Gnostic beliefs. Early Christianity will
also play a role in our research for two reasons; first, the two religions
often collided in the first four centuries, secondly much of Gnostic imagery
and theology is adapted from a Jewish/Christian context.

In a way, Gnosticism is the best example of Hellenic Syncretism.[1] It was a
blend of Platonic philosophy, ancient gods, and a pinch of every school of
thought at the time. It existed long before Christianity, but it didn't seem
to be as highly individualistic as we come to know it till the beginning of the
Christian Era. What we mean by this is that till the Christian era the groups
which we now identify as "Gnostic" would have been just another mystery cult,
for they do share many similarities with them. In a way Christianity defined,
or at least created a renaissance in Gnostic circles. The evidence of this is
actually very straightforward. First, almost all Gnostic groups we have
identified use Christian titles, as well as the Jewish/Christian scriptures.
Secondly, the Gnostics themselves claimed Christian Origins. The best example
of this is in THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS in which Jesus takes Thomas to the side and
`enlightens' him. Thus, they didn't claim to just have any knowledge, but for
many (not all) the knowledge they possessed was the true knowledge which stems
from the true instructions of Jesus Christ. In effect they claimed to possess
the true Krygma; the true essence of the Christian message.

Gnostic and Christian Views of Salvation:
As mentioned above, Gnosticism is indeed older than Christianity. Thus
Christianity didn't create Gnosticism, but as a result of Christianity
Gnosticism reinvented itself. The obvious reason behind the coming of
Christianity and the reinventing of Gnosticism was, of course, the person of
Jesus Christ. The answer to the question of who He was and what was His role
in Salvation, was the dividing line between Gnosticism and Christianity. Thus,
what we are examining in effect is the concept of Christ as Savior.

In the Christian/Jewish mentality, salvation accomplishes two things. First, it
must fulfill the judgment of God against humanity, which is death as a
punishment for sin. Secondly, it is a process of restoration. The patristic
fathers always conceived man as a divine being in that his natural state is to
be with God as Adam was before the fall. Thus it is not only enough to atone
for the sins of humanity against God but also reconcile the two; and
consequently restoring Man to his original state. To accomplish these two
tasks certain criteria must be fulfilled; the Savior must be human, for He must
die on behalf of the sins of humanity. He must be pure, for otherwise His
death would be a natural consequence of His sins. He must also be Divine, for
how else could He be the intercessor, the intermediary who would reconcile God
and Humanity? In the Christian framework Jesus Christ being Son of God and Son
of Man, being without sin, and actually dying and rising from the dead, makes
Him the Savior. He did enlighten humanity with His teachings, but the actual
salvation was through His deeds and not His words.

To the Gnostics, however, Salvation had a totally different meaning. Salvation
was to be saved from uncertainty, and to return to our origin "the One" or as
it was called earlier "The Good," and the way this was accomplished was through
the revelation of secret knowledge. Thus the deeds of the savior figure,
whoever he is, are quite unimportant; what is of absolute importance, however,
are his teachings.

This gave rise to a number of heterodox doctrines that the Christian Church
tried to combat. Among them was the Doceitic doctrine which maintained that
Christ was on earth only in appearance, almost like a hologram, and did not
actually take flesh, and certainly was not crucified. In the Gnostic system
this doctrine would have absolutely no impact on the concept of Salvation,
actually it was a necessity; who would think that a spirit would assume the
lowly flesh if it didn't have to? However, such a doctrine in the Christian
framework would invalidate the whole idea of Salvation, thus we see frequent
attempts in many writings aimed at destroying such doctrines.[2] Another great
example which illustrates the two contradicting mentalities of Gnosticism and
Christianity is the figure of Judas; who was seen in two completely different
lights. To the Christians he was the greatest of traitors, to the Gnostics he
"alone knew the truth better than the other apostles {and thus} he accomplished
the mystery of the betrayal."[3] There were also those who denied the Virgin
Birth as well as the Resurrection, which makes sense, for "if anyone accept not
His virgin birth, how shall be accept His resurrection from the dead?"[4]
Again, these Gnostic doctrines fit nicely into their framework, but in the
Christian context they would deem the whole notion of Salvation invalid.

Gnostic Theology
In all Gnostic sects, Platonism played a crucial rule. The titles and
individuals referenced were usually Christian, but the whole theology of
salvation, and the world-view was definitely Platonic.[5] To reconstruct the
theological structure of the Gnostics is a job best left to the experts, here
we are mainly relaying on the description given by J.N.D. Kelly in his EARLY
CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES, which is actually one of the best descriptions we have
come across. Simply put, the Gnostics/Platonists believed that there was "The
Good" from which a variety of emanations (Aeons) were given off. They, the
Aeons, in turn are in a sequential order, which is determined by the Aeons'
knowledge; the more they know the higher up and thus closer to 'the Good' they
are. Each of these entities is aware of those under him, but is unaware of
anything above him. They serve as the intermediaries which we have to bypass
on our journey to "The Good." As for us humans, we are actually the sons of The
Good and have been separated from him, and are given these bodies almost as a
punishment, for in essence we are spirits. In order for us to once again be
reunited with The Good, we must gain the secret Gnosis, which will allow us to
bypass all the Aeons and also to bypass the most ignorant of which, who is the
Demigure who created this material world and enfleshed us. The Gnostics
believed that this secret knowledge was transmitted by savior figures, who
included Seth, Enoch, and Jesus.

The knowledge was often in the form of names. This is somewhat difficult for
the modern individual to understand, we think of a name as simply that.
However, in ancient times this was not the case. A name was in a way one's
whole being. Actually, this is a very old notion which predates the
Hellenistic age and stems from the religion of the Ancient Egyptians. At any
rate, knowing the name of the Aeon didn't just give a person knowledge of him
but also power over him so that the Aeon no longer became an obstacle in the
souls' return-voyage to The Good. They simply saw names in a light which we in
this present age do not even consider, to them names and letters which compose
them are not just sounds but "they are letters of the truth which they alone
speak who know them. Each letter is a complete <thought> like a complete book,
since they are letters written by the Unity, the Father having written them for
the Aeons in order that by means of his letters they should know the

The next obstacle in this maze of names and numbers is that the Aeons and gods
have the names of adjectives and verbs but are used as proper nouns; thus
Terror, Error, Oblivion, Anguish, and All are really individual deities. And
to further complicate the problem many of them come into being as a result of
their adjective meaning, for instance, Anguish and Error are said to come from
Ignorance of the Father.[7] Even the ones which are given the name of nouns
have to be seen and understood in a different light; for instant the Cross is
not just the crossed wooden structure which Christ was crucified upon, but it
is also a living intellectual entity. To further complicate the reading of
Gnostic literature, as if it wasn't complicated enough, certain groups
recognized different titles as representing different entities. The best
example of this is the Christian title of Christ which is "Lord God and Savior
Jesus Christ," to the Gnostics the "Lord" was one being, "God" another,
"Savior" another, "Jesus" another, and "Christ" yet another entity. This
labyrinth of names (and numbers) was one of the points by which Christian
writers stressed the foolishness of Gnosticism. St. Ireaneus himself
commented that "such things really are too much for even a `woe' and

Besides how to get saved, the Gnostics also defined who would get saved. They
defined three types of men; the spiritual, the carnal and the ones in-between
(the Soulish). The spiritual ones were said to be saved regardless of what they
do, the carnal were assumed to be beyond salvation, and the in-betweens were
believed to be capable of salvation if they followed the Gnostic way and played
by the rules. This doctrine of some being saved regardless of what they did
caused many to live reckless lives. However, this made the Gnostics seem even
more heathenistic, thus as Ireaneus puts it even "the most perfect among them
(the Gnostics) shamelessly do all the forbidden things."[9]

From the Christian standpoint, the Gnostics were "injected by Satan in order to
deny the baptism of rebirth unto God, and to destroy the entire faith."[10] The
Gnostics were seen as the doers of "violence to the good words [of Scripture]
in adapting them to their wicked fabrications."[11] In a way the Christians of
the time were confused and angry since, in the words of Ireaneus "they [the
Gnostics] speak the same language we do, but intend different meanings."[12]
The Gnostics were even accused of not really being true believers of what they
profess, for they seemed to be "unwilling to teach these things to all in
public but only to those who are able to pay a large sum for such
mysteries!"[13] As for the claim that the Gnostics had the true Tradition, the
Christian Church through Ireaneus stated that the Gnostics differ among
themselves in doctrine and tradition[14] yet the Church "though disseminated
throughout the whole world ... believes these things as if she had but one soul
and one and the same heart; she preaches, teaches and hands them down
harmoniously, as if she possessed but one mouth."[15] In other words; "the
tradition of the Apostles, (is) made manifest as it is through all the world,
(and) can be recognized in every Church by all who wish to know the
truth."[15a] It is therefore available and apparent to all and not just to a
select few.

Gnosticism and Christianity
In this section we will try to get a better understanding of Gnostic theology,
and also observe first-hand how Christianity was assimilated into the Gnostic
scheme. To accomplish this task, special attention will be paid to the GOSPEL
OF THOMAS and the GOSPEL OF TRUTH, the latter being ascribed to the famous
Gnostic teacher Valintanian.

As mentioned above, names were a central theme in Gnostic teachings.
Everything can be explained by their aid. The existence of god, "The
Father,"[16] himself can be explained by the use of this name-theology. For
"He gave a name to himself since he sees himself, he alone having the power to
give himself a name, for he who does not exist has no name."[17] Thus the
Father alone, having knowledge of himself, is self-existent and through his
utterings (which can also be understood as his Aeons) everything came into
being. However, we as humans have lost the knowledge of the Father, thus the
Father sent to us the Word from the Pleroma[18] and through him we once again
gained the knowledge of the Father and thus our deficiency, or lack of
knowledge, "no longer exist(s)."[19] As for those who do not know of the

... he who is ignorant until the end is a creature of
Oblivion, and he will vanish along with it. If not, how is
it that these miserable ones have no name, (how is it that)
they do not have the Call? Therefore if one has knowledge, he
is from above. If he is called, he hears, he answers, and he
turns to him who is calling him, and ascends to him.[20]

In this manner The GOSPEL OF TRUTH speaks about salvation, in a way, the latter
statements wouldn't be too much out of place in a Manchian/Augustinian/
Calvinist framework in which predestination plays such a crucial role. There
is first a calling from god, then the person `hears,' `answers,' and then
`turns to him who is calling him.' The theme of predestination, which can also
be found among the Stoic Philosophers of the time, is made even more manifest
in the revelation that the Father is the one who "assigned"[21] the Pleromas
their destinies. The GOSPEL also maintains that those "who are to receive
teaching [are] the living who are inscribed in the book of the living"[22]

The GOSPEL OF TRUTH also offers some interesting insights into the different
currents of thought of the time. At one point it maintains that the "name of
the Father is the Son"[23] and proceeds to give a theology of the Father and
the Son much like that of the Monarchians[24], whom the Christian Church was
fighting at the same time (2-3rd centuries). However, where the "Truth" is to
be understood as the "Son", the Gospel also provides a semi-Trinitarian view by
stating that "... everyone loves the Truth because the Truth is mouth of the
Father; his tongue is the Holy Spirit, He who is joined to the Truth is Jointed
to the Father's mouth by his tongue, whenever he is to receive the Holy
Spirit."[25] It is apparent that the Gospel doesn't have, and doesn't really
try to form a concise theology as far as the figures of Father, Son and Holy
Spirit are concerned. At one point it maintains that the Son and Spirit are
mere Aeons, at another that the Son and the Father are one and the Same, and at
yet another it maintains a Trinitarian approach to the whole subject.

Before we move on to the GOSPEL OF THOMAS, we would like to spend a little time
on the TREATISE ON RESURRECTION, which is a great example of how Gnosticism is
actually a conglomerate of groups held together only by the platonic aspect to
their theology, and are differentiated as to how much and which aspects did
they assimilate from Christianity. It still retains a strong predestinational
tone; "therefore, we are elected to salvation and redemption since we are
predestined from the beginning not to fall into the foolishness of those who
are without knowledge."[26] What makes this Treatise standout, however, is its
concept of the flesh. Like good Gnostic prose it maintains that one "received
flesh when (he) ... entered this world,"[27] but it also affirms that the flesh
will accompany the person into the afterlife; "why will you not receive flesh
when you ascend into the Aeons? That which is better than the flesh, which is
for it (the) cause of life, that which came into being on your account, is it
not yours? Does not that which is yours exist with you?"[28] This idea of the
unity of the flesh and the spirit is one which most Gnostic groups do not
adhere to. Flesh, being matter, is usually seen as being evil and a hindrance
to the spirit in Gnostic eyes. This however is in direct contradiction to
Christian doctrine. St. Ireaneus, himself, in his PROOF OF APOSTOLIC TEACHING
gives one of the most readable accounts of the unity of the flesh and the body,
and he does so to contrast and with the aim of disproving the usual Gnostic
position which maintains their separation.[29] This break with from the
orthodox Gnostic position as seen in the TREATISE, demonstrates to us how close
the Gnostic and Christian teachings intermingled.

Perhaps the most important, and certainly the most famous, account which
demonstrates the peculiarities of Gnostic theology is the GOSPEL OF THOMAS. It
is divided into 114 verses (actually they are better described as small
chapters, each composed of a few lines) which are arranged somewhat
haphazardly. In verses 2-4 the main theme is that nothing will be covered and
everything will be revealed. And what is revealed? Well it is the secret
knowledge which Jesus told to Thomas, and Thomas alone.[30] In this Gospel
there are a great number of verses which are found in the four canonical
Gospels, almost word for word (v. 8, 9, 20, 26, 34, 35, 41, 44, 54, 73, 86, 94,
96,). A second group of verses seems also to have origins in the four Gospels,
but are in fact a summarized account of what is in the canonical Scriptures;
v. 63 is a great example of this in which Thomas takes two sentences to relate
what took Luke five verses. The GOSPEL also seems to have some verses which
have been innocently doctored, in that the changes in them do not really amount
to any theological doctrines. A good example of this is verse 47 in which Jesus
is speaking about how one cannot serve two masters, this verse starts with the
illustrative remark that "A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows."
The authenticity of this sentence, as being that of Christ, is dismissed by the
scholars in the Jesus Seminar, [31] but nevertheless it doesn't really change
the meaning of the verse one way or the other. It just adds an illustration
which makes the teaching seem more real to the mind of a reader. Another
variety of verses begin as they would in the canonical Gospels, but end in a
surprising manner, verse 107 (also see verse 100) is such a verse. It depicts
the story of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep and went to look for
the lost one. When he found it, he said to the sheep, "I love you more than
the ninety-nine." We would also like to mention vesres 30 and 31 which are
somewhat awkward following the precedence set by the puzzling, or interesting,
verse 7; "Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes
human. And fool is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will
become human."

Now, let us look at what makes the GOSPEL OF THOMAS Gnostic. Already in verse
11; "... when you are in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were
one, you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?" we get our
first firm connection to Platonism. This idea, that we are in fact half of the
complete being we once were, is explicitly stated in Plato's SYMPOSIUM in the
speech of Aristophanes. Another strong indicator of Gnostic/platonic thinking
is found in the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls which is evident in
verses 49 and 50. Again, this doctrine (which was one of the reasons the great
Origen was ostracized) fits perfectly the Gnostic scheme, in which we existed
in the beginning with the father, are exiled in the flesh, and aim to return to
him, our origin, once again.

This Gospel is also peculiar as to its stances. In verse 27, in which the
readers are commanded to keep the Sabbath, and verse 53 which calls
circumcision of no importance. It seems to agree with St. Paul's stance on
circumcision, but retains the Judaic imprint of verse 27 which was the mark of
Ebonites [32] and thus really contradicting the universally held Christian
ideal of celebrating Sunday as being the new and true Sabbath.

Finally, we cannot speak about the GOSPEL OF THOMAS without mentioning verse

Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females
don't deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her
to make her male, so that she too may become a living
spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes
herself male will enter the domain of Heave." [33]

It probably doesn't take a genius to see that this is not exactly the message
given in the Canonical Gospels. Even the Scholars in the `Jesus Seminar,' who
by and far have a very liberal view point, do not see this as, at all,
presenting the teachings of Christ. What it does give us is a glimpse into the
mentality of certain Gnostics towards women.

This has been but a brief glance at the labyrinth of Gnosticism. The conflict
between it and Christianity lasted into the fourth and fifth centuries (maybe
even later). Throughout this period of time the Gnostics experienced a revival
(especially in the 2-3 centuries) followed by a gradual decline in popularity,
and were in fact persecuted as Christianity settled. As for the Christian
Church, She gained much from the Gnostics, in that they forced her to
systematically defend her doctrines; and in the process, also to define the
first canons of the New Testament.

To both the early Christians and the Gnostics Platonism played a large role.
This can be seen through the influence of the two most influential men of the
period, Plotinus and Origen. Both were contemporaries and students of the same
master, Ammonius Sacca, and it was under them that Neo-Platonism was
established. However, for Christians, philosophy was a way of describing their
beliefs, and not the other way around as in the case of the Gnostics. At times
the lines seemed murky, but much more often than not the lines of contention
were clearly drawn.


Note: For the citations in the Nag Hammadi Library page numbers are given
(except in the case of the Gospel of Thomas). As for the Proof of Apostolic
Teaching and Against the Heresies (and the Gospel of Thomas) the standardized
reference numbers for these works is given. References to the writings of St.
Ignatius is from Lightfoot's APOSTOLIC FATHERS.

[1] For 'Hellenic Syncretism' and a sketch of the major cults and religions of
the Hellenic age see Martin's HELLENISTIC RELIGIONS (see. Bib.)
unfortunately however his assessment and approach to Christianity leave
much to be desired and some to be opposed.

[2] John 1:14, 1-Timothy 3:16, 1-John 1:1. Ignatius [Bishop of Antioch (110
d.)] to the Ephesians 7.2, 18.2; to the Trallians 9.1-2; to the Smyrnaeans

[3] Against the Heresies, I.31.1

[4] Proof of Apostolic Teaching, 38

[5] The Platonic Structure which is described later is actually Neo-Platonic.
It doesn't, as far as I know, contradict traditional Platonism and it is
more systematic thus easier to understand.

[6] Nag Hammadi Library. The Gospel of Truth, 40-1

[7] Nag Hammadi Library. The Gospel of Truth, 38

[8] Against the Heresies, I. 15.4 and also I.11.4

[9] Ibid., I.6.3

[10] Ibid., I.21.1

[11] Ibid., I.3.6

[12] Ibid., Preface.2.15

[13] Ibid., I.4..3

[14] Ibid., I.21.5

[15] Ibid., I.10.2 &3. [15a] Against the Heresies III.3.1

[16] The title "Father" is given instead of "The Good" in this Gospel of
Truth. This is very important in illustrating the assimilation of
Christianity into the Gnostic framework. For the Gospel of Truth does
not have any quotations from either the New or Old Testaments yet the
names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are regularly used. Also as
we proceed we will notice that it exhibits a strange blend of Gnostic
thought, heterodox perspectives, and even some Orthodox Christian

[17] Nag Hammadi Library. The Gospel of Truth., 47

[18] Ibid., 37

[19] Ibid., 41

[20] Ibid., 40

[21] Ibid., 48

[22] Ibid., 40

[23] Ibid. 47

[24] Monarchianism, (a.k.a. Sabilianism) was a heresy in the early church
which maintained that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all one God, who
would assume different roles at different times, thus this doctrine in
effect denied the presence of God as a Trinity.

[25] Nag Hammadi Library. Gospel of Truth, 42

[26] Nag Hammadi Library. The Treatise on Resurrection, 52

[27] Ibid., 52

[28] Ibid.

[29] Proof of Apostolic Teaching, 2

[30] Nag Hammadi Library. Gospel of Thomas, 13

[31] Funk & Hoover. The five Gospels, 499

[32] The Ebonites were a group in the Jewish tradition who accepted
Christianity to a degree, yet demanded the observance of the Sabbath and
the circumcision of the flesh.

[33] The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar state that the author is using "Male"
and "female" metaphorically to refer to the higher and lower aspects
of human nature. p. 532

Funk, Robert W. & Roy W. Hover, and The Jesus Seminar. THE FIVE GOSPELS,

Ireaneus. PROOF OF APOSTOLIC TEACHING. Ancient Christian Writers Series v.
16. Trans. & Annotated. by Joseph P. Smith. N.Y.: Newman Press, 1952.

Ireaneus. AGAINST THE HERESIES (book I). Ancient Christian Writers Series v.
55 Translated & Annotated by Dominic J. Unger, Revised by John J. Dillon.
U.S.: Paulist Press, 1992.

Kelly, J.N.D. EARLY CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES. (Revised Edition). US.: Harper
Collins, 1978.

Lightfoot, J.B. and J.R.. Harmer. THE APOSTOLIC FATHERS (2nd ed.) Ed. &
Rev. by Michael W. Holmes. U.S.: Baker Book House, 1989.

Press., 1987.

Robinson, James ed. THE NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY IN ENGLISH. U.S.: Harper and Row,

_|_ This article is one of many more articles about the Coptic Orthodox
| Church, the Christian Apostolic Church of Egypt. These articles can be
| obtained electronically from Copt-Net Repository, using anonymous FTP
COP|NET from pharos.bu.edu:CN. Please mail inquiries to CN-request@cs.bu.edu.