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History of Gnosticism

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History of Gnosticism

The history of Gnosticism is subject to a great deal of debate and interpretation. The complex nature of Gnostic teaching and the fact that much of the material relating to the schools comprising Gnosticism has traditionally come from critiques by orthodox Christians make it difficult to be precise about early sectarian gnostic systems, although Neoplatonists like Plotinus also criticized "Gnostics."

Irenaeus in his Adversus Haereses described several different schools of 2nd-century gnosticism in disparaging and often sarcastic detail while contrasting them with Christianity to their detriment. Despite these problems, scholarly discussion of Gnosticism at first relied heavily on Irenaeus and other heresiologists, which arguably has led to an 'infiltration' of heresiological agendas into modern scholarship; this was not by choice, but because of a simple lack of alternative sources.

This state of affairs continued through to modern times; in 1945, however, there was a chance discovery of a cache of 4th-century Gnostic manuscripts near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The texts, which had been sealed inside earthen jars, were discovered by a local man called Mohammed Ali, and now this collection of texts is known as the Nag Hammadi library; this allowed for the modern study of undiluted 'Gnostic scripture' for the first time. The translation of the texts from Coptic, their language of composition, into English and other modern languages took place in the years approaching 1977, when the full Nag Hammadi library was published in English translation. This has clarified recent discussions of gnosticism, though many would agree that the topic still remains fraught with difficulties.

At the same time, modern movements referencing ancient gnosticism have continued to develop, from origins in the popular new age and occult movements of the 19th century. Thus 'Gnosticism' is often ascribed to modern sects where initiates have access to certain arcana. The strict usage of the term remains a historical one however, specifically indicating a set of ancient religious movements.


  • Etymology and philosophical context 1
    • The meaning of 'gnosis' 1.1
    • The Platonist and Aristotelian traditions 1.2
    • Neoplatonism and Plotinus' Address to the Gnostics 1.3
  • Sources 2
    • Heresiologists and Gnostic detractors 2.1
      • Justin 2.1.1
      • Irenaeus 2.1.2
      • Hippolytus 2.1.3
      • Tertullian 2.1.4
    • Eusebius 2.2
    • Gnostic texts preserved before 1945 2.3
    • The Nag Hammadi library 2.4
      • Significance of the Nag Hammadi library 2.4.1
  • The development of the Syrian-Egyptian school 3
  • The development of the Persian school 4
  • Gnosticism in modern times 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7

Etymology and philosophical context

The meaning of 'gnosis'

Gnosis (γνώσις) in ancient and modern Greek is the common feminine noun for "knowledge". The word is a 19th-century construction first made by Henry More, but is based on the use of the adjective "of knowledge", (Greek γνωστικός) by Irenaeus (c.185 AD) to describe the school of Valentinus However, itself refers to a very specialized form of knowledge, deriving both from the exact meaning of the original Greek term and its usage in Platonist philosophy (see Plato's gnostikoi’ and gnostike episteme from Politicus (or Statesmen) 258e-267a). Gnosis also has a hermetic understanding. In the Hellenic world gnosis and hermetic understanding were exclusively pagan as one can see in the word being Koine Greek and deriving from Pagan Platonic philosophy. Platonic and Pythagorian modes of thinking spread Greek ideas and culture throughout the Hellenic world, introducing the mideastern peoples conquered by Alexander the Great to many of the concepts that were unique to Greek thinkers of the time (and vice versa). It should also be noted that Alexander made efforts to unite all conquered peoples under a common language and a common culture, which led to many cultures adopting Koine Greek as a language for common communication in commerce between different ethnic and cultural groups.

One of the most important events of this era was the translation of the many Hebrew texts of what is now known as the Old Testament into a single language (Koine Greek) in a single work (the Seventy or Septuagint). In addition, many of the Greek ideas of existence (hypostasis) and uniqueness or essence (ousia) and most importantly rational mind (nous) were introduced into Babylonian, Egyptian, Libyan, Roman, Hebrew, and other Mediterranean cultures, as was the concept that we exist within the mind of God, Noetic or Nous. This caused many of the educated and informed people of these cultures to incorporate these ideas and concepts into their own philosophical and religious belief systems. Gnosticism among those individuals who are called Gnostics, was one such example. Many of the first Gnostics may have been pagan and Hebrew (Egyptian, Babylonian and Hebrew), predating Christianity.

Unlike modern English, ancient Greek was capable of discerning between several different forms of knowing. These different forms may be described in English as being

Gnosis refers to knowledge of the second kind. Therefore, in a religious context, to be 'Gnostic' should be understood as being reliant not on knowledge in a general sense, but as being specially receptive to mystical or esoteric experiences of direct participation with the divine. Gnosis refers to intimate personal knowledge and insight from experience. Indeed, in most Gnostic systems the sufficient cause of salvation is this 'knowledge of' ('acquaintance with') the divine. This is commonly associated with a process of inward 'knowing' or self-exploration, comparable to that encouraged by Plotinus. However, as may be seen, the term 'gnostic' also had precedent usage in several ancient philosophical traditions, which must also be weighed in considering the very subtle implications of its appellation to a set of ancient religious groups (though currently there is no direct archaeological evidence to support such a claim outside of the Mediterranean).

The Platonist and Aristotelian traditions

The first usage of the term ‘gnostikoi’, that is, 'those capable of knowing', was by Plato in the Politicus (258e-267a), in which he compares the gnostike episteme ('understanding connected with knowledge'), which denotes knowledge based on mathematical understanding or abstraction knowledge (see Kant), to the praktike episteme ('understanding connected with practice'). Plato describes the ideal politician as the practitioner par excellence of the former, and his success is to be considered only in the light of his ability toward this ‘art of knowing’, irrespective of social rank. Hence any man, be he ruler or otherwise may thus become, as Plato puts it, ‘royal’. Here, gnostikos makes reference to an ability to possess certain knowledge, not the condition of possessing knowledge per se or the knowledge that is itself possessed, nor even, it might be further noted, to the individual who possesses it.

In ‘The History of the Term Gnostikos’ in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1981, 798–800) Morton Smith lists users of ‘gnostikos’ in this manner as being Aristotle, Strato of Lampsacus, ‘a series of Pythagoreans’, Philo Judaeus and Plutarch, amongst others. Christoph Markschies notes in Gnosis: An Introduction (trans. John Bowden, T & T Clark, London, 2001) that the term was used extensively only within the Platonist tradition, and would not have had much relevance outside it.

Despite this, Plato's usage of the descriptive phrase 'royal' to denote the elevated position of the able gnostikoi, and the availability of such a position to all members of society regardless of rank, would have been greatly appealing to such early Christians as Clement (Titus Flavius Clementis) of Alexandria, who happily described gnosis as the central goal of Christian faith. Despite this, Clement is not however typically considered a Gnostic in the modern sense. Aristotle, who was a student of Plato and later a teacher at Plato's academy, described the ideal life of success as one spent in theoretical contemplation (bios theoretikos). Thus, as with Clement, gnosis as such becomes the central goal of life, extending through the mode of morality into the realms of politics and religion. Philosophy, according to Aristotle, is a methodically ordered form of attaining this gnosis: 'Philosophy promises knowledge of being' (Alexander of Aphrodisias, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, c. 200 CE).

The ancient Gnosticism related to the texts found at Nag Hammadi and the various ancient reports on such Gnostics, therefore, could be described as but one of many ancient traditions dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, which supply teachings and methodologies that are supposed to aid in such pursuit. Various ancient reports about Gnostics often identify the groups by their founder or teacher.

As with both the Platonist and the Aristotelian traditions, the pursuit of gnosis is the central occupation of life, and involves a measure of dedicated contemplation to attain. As with Clement, it may be surmised that the description of the gnostike episteme by Plato was appealing to early Gnostic formulators. Some early Gnostic movements emphasize the rarity of such knowledge, for example, some texts and reports associated with the Sethian gnostic tradition (see below).

Despite the above, the problem remains that the term 'Gnosticism' was rarely if ever self-applied by any group in antiquity; even if the suitability of the term might be argued from the discussion above, it remains for the most part a modern typological construction. As a result, the term may be said to draw attention to the doctrine of gnosis out of proportion to its actual importance to 'Gnostics' themselves.

In ancient times, Irenaeus and Plotinus both referred to the various sects as diverging from the Hellenistic Greek philosophical understanding. Hence Irenaeus and Plotinus refer to what they saw as distinctive among the various groups of gnostics.

On the other hand, 'Gnosticism' is still adjectivally applied to systems of belief that do not afford knowledge the special significance that the term implies. Such uses of the term 'Gnosticism' rely on other similarities, such as structural parallels in various texts and visions. This tactic could be said to stretch the category's usefulness in meaningful discussion in a broader context. In certain cases, such broad usage has also led to confusion between various ancient and modern usages of the term, even among scholars.

Neoplatonism and Plotinus' Address to the Gnostics

The text known as Plotinus' Address to the Gnostics or Against the Gnostics is more properly known as 'Against those that affirm the creator of the kosmos and the kosmos itself to be evil'. The text appears in the ninth tractate of the second Ennead, the Enneads being the works of Plotinus as collated and edited by Porphyry, his disciple. It is known that Plotinus' writing was poor, and that he detested revising and correcting his work, preferring to leave such tasks to others. The name was given to the text by Plotinus as pointed out in the Life of Plotinus.

Also many Neoplatonic philosophers while not directly criticising gnosticism did however explicitly use demiurgic or creative teachings to bring about salvation to their followers. Pro demiurgic Neoplatonic philosophers included Porphyry, Proclus, Iamblichus of Chalcis. Pre Neoplatonic philosopher and Neo pythagorian philosopher Numenius of Apamea. The Demiurge being Plato's creator of the material world demiurgic as to participate in the creative processes of the universe bringing one closer to the Demiurge or creator.

The formation of the text is as an address delivered by Plotinus to a number of his students, who have apparently been corrupted by ideas other than Plotinus' own. As such, the tract takes the form of an extended address by the philosopher, and he occasionally acknowledges the audience as intimates. Although Plotinus is very specific in that he states his target is not his students exclusively, but Gnostics so called.

The general tendency to view the text much as Porphyry's titles – both the abbreviated and the lengthier versions – summarize it has recently come under challenge. To do so makes several assumptions and is not the generally accept view since this contradicts the Life of Plotinus. Doubts concerning the accuracy of the abbreviated title in reflecting the text's central intentions might arise, especially when it is considered that the word 'Gnostic' is very seldom encountered in the text itself. Though Plotinus himself pointed out that he felt that the group should not garner too much attention. Also people might become confused because of the Platonic use of the word "gnostic" and then also this sectarian use of the word. This is why Plotinus' attack is direct and brief. In A. H. Armstrong's translation of The Enneads, 'Gnostic' occurs only eleven times in the tractate in question, often as editorial emendations for neutral phrases such as 'they' (αύτούς) or 'the others' (των αλων). A. H. Armstrong is very clear in his introduction to the Against the Gnostics tract to clarify via the Nag Hammadi that Plotinus was indeed attacking the secterians who claimed the Sethian cosmology as Plotinus' target.

Morton Smith has hypothesized that Porphyry was influenced in his chosen title by the success of Irenaeus's Adversus Haereses, which was well known in Rome at the time; Porphyry thus appropriated the form of the title to describe a schismatic group, though recalling the discussion above, it would be likely that Porphyry would understand 'Gnostic' in a Platonist context, rather than a Christian one. The description of his opponent's libertinism, for example, does not sit well with the evidence of ascetic tendencies within Gnostic texts (see below), and this has been noted by Michael Allen Williams. Morton Smith has taken the opposite position and used the Secret Gospel of Mark as gnostic text to validate that certain gnostic secterians were indeed libertine, also see the Cainites. Michael Williams does not address Morton Smith's views on gnosticism's libertinism and or The Secret Gospel of Mark, nor does he mention the references to libertines or antinomianism made by Philo (see On the Migration of Abraham 86–93), or R. Yohanan ben Zakkaiunder under the term Minuth. Michael Williams has pointed out that Plotinus arrives at this conclusion of libertinism by a process of ‘rhetorical magic’, rather than ‘direct observation’.[1] Observing that ultimately only two moral choices pertain – either dedicating oneself to bodily pleasure or to the pursuit of virtue – Plotinus reasons that, since his opponents appear uninterested in the operations of virtue, they must therefore despise 'all the laws of the world'. Michael Allen Williams though does not call into question who Plotinus' target is. He affirms them as being the Gnostics secterians that Plotinus was attacking. Gnostics that would fall under the heading today as secterians of Gnosticism. Thus the accusations of libertinism are not necessarily observations of Gnostic behaviour per se, but are rather hypotheses extrapolated from his opponent's apparently neglectful attitude to virtue.

This does not limit his attack on the core tenets of the Gnostic Sethian cosmology as the longer title of the tract reveals. Plotinus attacks his opponents as blasphemers and imbeciles who stole all of their truths from Plato. Stating that the creation cosmology of Sophia and the demiurge "surpasses sheer folly".[2] Plotinus states of the mindset that if someone is a Gnostic, that they are already saved by God regardless of their behavior, this would lead to libertinism. One might compare the ‘rhetorical subterfuge’ of Irenaeus in Adversus Haereses: he creates a dilemma upon the horns of which he claims his opponents are caught, forcing them to accept one of ‘two equally unacceptable alternatives’ (Denis Minns, Irenaeus, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994, 26). Thus, by trapping his pupils within such a dilemma, Plotinus hopes to convince them of the inferiority of the learnings by which they have been corrupted.

Dr. Christos Evangeliou purposed the idea that the group of Gnostics that Plotinus was attacking in his "Against the Gnostics" were possibly Syncretic Christians, or Gnostic Christians, during the First International Conference on Neoplatonism and Gnosticism in the 1980s. Evangeliou forwarded this hypothesis because some of the same ways that Plotinus was criticizing the Gnostics, Porphyry later used as ways to criticize Christianity, in Porphyry's Against Christianity. Evangeliou also noted that some things that Plotinus criticized the gnostics for could also be applied to orthodox Christianity. If Evangeliou still holds this to be true is unclear and it is not apparently reflected in some of his more current works.[3] This was also addressed by Richard Wallis in his History of Philosophy. This dialogue was challenged (though indirectly) by other scholars of the field in light of the Nag Hammadi discovery, most importantly by A. H. Armstrong.


Heresiologists and Gnostic detractors

Prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 (arguably until its translation and eventual publication in 1977), Gnosticism was known primarily only through the works of heresiologists, Church Fathers who worked to chronicle those movements perceived to deviate from the developing orthodox church, and to refute their teachings as they did so, with the ultimate aim of demonstrating their moral inferiority. The problems with such sources are immediately apparent: given the avowed antagonism of such writers to what they reported, could they be trusted to maintain accuracy, despite their bias? The Nag Hammadi library generally confirms that the heresiologists' summaries of Gnosticism give an accurate, albeit incomplete and polemical, portrayal of the movement, its beliefs and practices.

The list below briefly details the works of several of the more significant of the heresiologists; however, the list could be expanded to contain Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Epiphanius of Salamis, and others. The analytical tactics employed by each heresiologist is also given, where possible.


Justin Martyr (c. 100/114 – c. 162/168), the early Christian apologist, wrote the First Apology, addresses to Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, which mentions his lost 'Compendium Against the Heretics', a work that reputedly reports on the activities of Simon Magus, Menander and Marcion; since this time, both Simon and Menander have been considered as 'proto-Gnostic' (Markschies, Gnosis, 37). Despite this paucity of surviving texts Justin Martyr remains a useful historical figure, as he allows us to determine the time and context in which the first gnostic systems arose. Outside of the earliest forms of gnosticism as indicted by the Apocalypse of Adam which is pre-Christian. Marcion is popularly labelled a gnostic, however most scholars do not consider him a gnostic at all, for example, the Encyclopædia Britannica article on Marcion clearly states: "In Marcion's own view, therefore, the founding of his church—to which he was first driven by opposition—amounts to a reformation of Christendom through a return to the gospel of Christ and to Paul; nothing was to be accepted beyond that. This of itself shows that it is a mistake to reckon Marcion among the Gnostics. A dualist he certainly was, but he was not a Gnostic."


Irenaeus' central work, which was written c. 180–185 AD, is commonly known by the Latin title Adversus Haereses ('Against Heresies'). The full title is Conviction and Refutation of Knowledge So-Called, and it is collected in five volumes. The work is apparently a reaction against Greek merchants who were apparently conducting an oratorial campaign concerning a quest for knowledge within Irenaeus' Gaulish bishopric.

Irenaeus' general approach in Adversus Haereses was to identify Simon Magus from Flavia Neapolis in Samaria (modern-day Palestine) as the inceptor of Gnosticism, 'its source and root' (Adversus Haereses, I.22.2). From there he charted an apparent spread of the teachings of Simon through the ancient 'knowers', as he calls them, into the teachings of Valentinus and other, contemporary Gnostic sects. This understanding of the transmission of Gnostic ideas, despite Irenaeus' certain antagonistic bias, is often utilized today, though it has been criticized.

Against the teachings of his opponents, which Irenaeus presented as confused and ill-organized, Irenaeus recommended a simple faith that all could follow, 'oriented on the criterion of truth that had come down in the church from the apostles to those in positions of responsibility' (Markschies, Gnosis, 30–31). Therefore, Irenaeus' work might justifiably be seen as an early attempt by a Christian writer to posit the idea of a fully formed orthodoxy, transmitted from the apostles directly after Christ's death and, in support, possesses a rigorously defined hierarchical authority. From such a stable and superior authority heresies according divide by deviation from the norm it maintains, rather than developing alongside it by alternate yet related lines.


Hippolytus was an early Christian writer elected as the first Antipope in 217. He died as a martyr in 235. He was known for his polemical works against the Jews, pagans and heretics; the most important of these being the seven-volume Refutatio Omnium Haeresium ('Refutation Against all Heresies'), of which only fragments are known.

Of all the groups reported upon by Hippolytus, thirty-three are considered Gnostic by modern scholars, including 'the foreigners' and 'the Seth people'. As well as this, Hippolytus presents individual teachers such as Simon, Valentinus, Secundus, Ptolemy, Heracleon, Marcus and Colorbasus; however, he rarely reproduces sources, instead tending only to report titles. Also of interest, a sect known to Hippolytus as the 'Naasenes' frequently called themselves 'knowers': 'They take [their] name from the Hebrew word snake. Later they called themselves knowers, since they claimed that they alone knew the depths of wisdom' (Refutatio, V.6.3f).

Hippolytus considered the groups he surveyed to have become involved in Greek philosophy to their detriment. They had grievously misunderstood its foundations and thus had arrived at illogical constructions, through its influence becoming hopelessly confused (Markschies, Gnosis, 33).


Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, c. 155–230) was a prolific writer from Carthage, the region that is now modern Tunisia. He wrote a text entitled Adversus Valentinianos ('Against the Valentinians'), c. 206, as well as five books around 207–208 chronicling and refuting the teachings of Marcion.


The historian Eusebius wrote an entire section of his histories devoted to the early Christian gnostics and their historical development.[4]

Gnostic texts preserved before 1945

Prior to the discovery at Nag Hammadi, only the following 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 (see above).

The Nag Hammadi library

For a complete list of the texts found at Nag Hammadi, please see the list in the Nag Hammadi article; to see a list showing which texts were attached to the different Gnostic schools, see below.

The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. The writings in these codices comprised fifty-two mostly Gnostic tractates; they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation of Plato's Republic. The codices are currently housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

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.

For a full account of the discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi library (which has been described as 'exciting as the contents of the find itself' (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 48)) see the Nag Hammadi library article.

Significance of the Nag Hammadi library

Prior to the publication of the translations of Nag Hammadi the only available sources for gnostic material were, as has been noted, heresiological writings. These suffered from a number of difficulties, not least the antagonistic bias the writers held towards gnostic teachings. 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, but instead gave us only titles and extended commentaries on their perceived heretical mistakes. Reconstructions were attempted from the available evidence, but the resulting portraits of gnosticism and its central texts were necessarily crude, and deeply suspect. The ability to overcome such problems provided by the Nag Hammadi codices need hardly be noted.

Of greatest difficulty was the fact that, prior to the publication of the codices, theological investigators, in order to proceed, could not help but to subscribe at least in part to the view of the heresiologists that gnosticism marked a heretical deviation from a fully formed orthodox Christianity in the three centuries immediately following Christ's death. The availability of original texts not only allowed an unsullied transmission of gnostic ideas, but also demonstrated the fluidity of early Christian scripture and, by extension, Christianity itself. As Layton notes 'the lack of uniformity in ancient Christian scripture in the early period is very striking, and it points to the substantial diversity within the Christian religion' (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, xviii).

Thus, although it is still correct to speak of early Christianity as a single tradition, it is also a complex network of competing sects and individual parties, which express their contrasting natures through differences in their scriptural interests. These differences may have arisen as much from differences in cultural, linguistic and social milieus, the coexistence of essentially different theological conceptions of Jesus, as well as the differences in the philosophical or symbolic systems in which early Christian writers might express themselves. As such, the Nag Hammadi library offers a glimpse of the set of circulating texts that would have been of interest within a 'Gnostic' community (rather than as a gnostic canon in and of itself) and thus potentially provides an insight into the gnostic mind itself.

It was with the Council of Nicaea in 325 (convened during the reign of the Emperor Constantine; 272–337) and the 3rd Synod of Carthage in 397, which progressively cemented Christianity as the officially sanctioned religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, that a structurally coherent and crystallized form of orthodox Christianity began to emerge. Though Christianity was not made the official religion of the Roman Empire until Theodosius I 391 AD. (Although, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, even though many barbarian tribes were Christian, Christianity wasn't technically official until Charlemagne, c800 AD, in the west). Central to the formation of orthodoxy was the creation of a binding and coherent scriptural 'canon', which was to be strictly observed by the adherents of that church. The Nag Hammadi library offers an intriguing source of texts whose intended exclusion as much drove the formation of the orthodox canon as did the desire to include certain other texts, now well-known. 'Orthodox Christian doctrine of the ancient world—and thus of the modern church—was partly conceived of as being what gnostic scripture was not' (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures; emphasis writer's own). Thus a study of Gnostic scripture might also obliquely increase our knowledge of nascent orthodoxy, the intentions of the orthodox formulators, the effect of social setting on early Christian expression, and the Judaic foundations it rests upon.

The development of the Syrian-Egyptian school

Bentley Layton has sketched out a relationship between the various gnostic movements in his introduction to The Gnostic Scriptures (SCM Press, London, 1987). In this model, 'Classical Gnosticism' and 'The School of Thomas' antedated and influenced the development of Valentinus, who was to found his own school of Gnosticism in both Alexandria and Rome, whom Layton called 'the great [Gnostic] reformer' and 'the focal point' of Gnostic development. While in Alexandria, where he was born, Valentinus probably would have had contact with the Gnostic teacher Basilides, and may have been influenced by him.

Valentinianism flourished throughout the early centuries of the common era: while Valentinus himself lived from ca. 100–175 CE, a list of sectarians or heretics, composed in 388 CE, against whom Emperor Constantine intended legislation includes Valentinus (and, presumably, his inheritors). The school is also known to have been extremely popular: several varieties of their central myth are known, and we know of 'reports from outsiders from which the intellectual liveliness of the group is evident' (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 94). It is known that Valentinus' students, in further evidence of their intellectual activity, elaborated upon the teachings and materials they received from him (though the exact extent of their changes remains unknown), for example, in the version of the Valentinian myth brought to us through Ptolemy.

Valentinianism might be described as the most elaborate and philosophically 'dense' form of the Syrian-Egyptian schools of Gnosticism, though it should be acknowledged that this in no way debarred other schools from attracting followers: Basilides' own school was popular also, and survived in Egypt until the 4th century.

Simone Petrement, in A Separate God, in arguing for a Christian origin of Gnosticism, places Valentinus after Basilides, but before the Sethians. It is her assertion that Valentinus represented a moderation of the anti-Judaism of the earlier Hellenized teachers; the demiurge, widely considered a mythological depiction of the Old Testament God of the Hebrews, is depicted as more ignorant than evil. (See below.)

Manichean priests writing at their desks, with panel inscription in Sogdian. Manuscript from Khocho, Tarim Basin.

The development of the Persian school

An alternate heritage is offered by Kurt Rudolph in his book Gnosis: The Nature & Structure of Gnosticism (Koehler and Amelang, Leipzig, 1977), to explain the lineage of Persian Gnostic schools. The decline of Manicheism that occurred in Persia in the 5th century CE was too late to prevent the spread of the movement into the east and the west. In the west, the teachings of the school moved into Syria, Northern Arabia, Egypt and North Africa (where Augustine was a member of school from 373 to 382); from Syria it progressed still farther, into Palestine, Asia Minor and Armenia. There is evidence for Manicheans in Rome and Dalmatia in the 4th century, and also in Gaul and Spain. The influence of Manicheanism was attacked by imperial elects and polemical writings, but the religion remained prevalent until the 6th century, and still exerted influence in the emergence of the Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathari in the Middle Ages.

In the east, Rudolph relates, Manicheanism was able to bloom, given that the religious monopoly position previously held by Christianity and Zoroastrianism had been broken by nascent Islam. In the early years of the Arab conquest, Manicheanism again found followers in Persia (mostly amongst educated circles), but flourished most in Central Asia, to which it had spread through Iran. Here, in 762, Manicheanism became the state religion of the Uyghur Empire. From this point Manichean influence spread even further into Central Asia, and according to Rudolph its influence may be detected in Tibet and China, where it was strongly opposed by Confucianism, and its followers were subject to a number of bloody repressions. Rudolph reports that despite this suppression Manichean traditions are reputed to have survived until the 17th century (based on the reports of Portuguese sailors).

Gnosticism in modern times

Many culturally significant movements and figures have been influenced by Gnosticism, including, for example, Carl Jung, Aleister Crowley. Other figures are seen to have an affinity with Gnosticism though they may not have been directly influenced by it, such as William Blake. This influence has apparently grown since the emergence and translation of the Nag Hammadi library (see above). See the article Gnosticism in modern times for a fuller treatment; readers are also recommended to The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James M. Robinson, later editions of which contain an essay on 'The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism', by Richard Smith.


  1. ^ Michael Allen Williams, Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category, Princeton, NJ (1996), 178):
  2. ^ Against the Gnostics chapter 10
  3. ^ Leahy, D.G. (2003). Faith and Philosophy: The Historical Impact. Ashgate. p. 5.  
  4. ^ "NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine". Christian Classics Ethereal Library ( Retrieved 2015-08-06. 


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