Banner graphic for Studies in the history of science, technology & culture
Help keep high-quality, independent scholarship on the Web and freely available to all: Donate to!

Q U I C K   L I N K S

The “Hermetick Philosophy,” which influenced so many artists & scientists during the Renaissance and early-modern periods, originated in the gnostic mystery religions of the 2nd–3rd centuries. For more, see the IN BRIEF topic on hermeticism.

For an example of the Hermetic and Gnostic symbolism used by early-modern designers to embellish printed works, see the She-philosopher.​com Concept page.

First Published:  August 2012
Revised (substantive):  30 June 2021

Ornamental border from Thomas Johnson's edn. of Gerard's _Herball_ (1633 and 1636)

[ a In Brief topic ]


Opening quotation markGNOSTICISM, term based on the Greek word gnosis (‘knowledge’) and first coined in the 17th century by the Protestant Henry More. He understood Gnosticism to be false prophecy that seduces Christians to idolatry, and he used the term to denigrate Roman Catholicism by calling it ‘a spice of the old abhorred Gnosticism’ — in short, he used the term as a generic term for ancient Christian heresy. In the following centuries, church historians associated Gnosticism especially with the groups and teachings denounced by 2nd- and 3rd-century Christian heresy-fighters, notably Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, and the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus. Reliance on these hostile reports led historians to describe Gnosticism as a radically dualistic, world-denying, and body-hating tradition that emphasized salvation through esoteric revelation and mystical spirituality. The term Gnosticism has also come to be used without much precision in psychology, literary studies, art, politics, and philosophy, to refer to any religion of salvation by mystical knowledge or any extreme form of dualism, especially anti-cosmic and ascetic forms of religious expression.

 In the late 19th and 20th centuries, new acquaintance with Mandaeans and Manichaean texts, as well as discoveries of Coptic texts from Egypt, especially the Nag Hammadi codices, led to a reconsideration of Gnosticism. Rather than seeing it as a single tradition with one origin and line of development, the new evidence points toward enormous variety, leading to new groupings of texts and traditions, each with different intellectual and sociological histories.

 Some of the Coptic texts represent lesser-known varieties of ancient Christianity—for example, the Gospel of Thomas (a collection of the sayings of Jesus) or the Gospel of Mary (which portrays Mary Magdalene as a leading apostle). Both of these texts emphasize the importance of Jesus’ teachings for salvation, not his death and resurrection. Another category of texts belongs to groups with ties to the 2nd-century Christian teacher Valentinus, including a copy of his own writing The Gospel of Truth. Other texts are best considered as belonging to distinct religious traditions, especially Hermeticism, Mandaeism, and Manichaeism.

 The materials with the best claim to the designation ‘Gnosticism’ are the Sethian texts, first grouped together by Hans-Martin Schenke on the basis of intellectual and ritual similarities. Bentley Layton has strengthened the social-historical basis of this category by showing a connection between the Sethian texts and an ancient group known as the gnostikoi (‘Gnostics’).

 Often characterized as ‘syncretistic,’ Sethian myth is a product of ancient urban pluralism. Sethian mythmakers shaped a distinctive view of the world out of the most prestigious religious and intellectual materials available to them. A good example is The Apocryphon of John, a grand narrative encompassing the nature of God and the divine world, the origins of the universe and humanity, the nature of evil, and salvation.

 The Apocryphon of John envisions the transcendent God and the Divine Realm as an ideal of absolute goodness, truth, and stability. God is the divine source and ruler of everything above. Where Sethian myth departs radically from other ancient myth is in conceiving of a tragic rupture in the outpouring of divine being in creation. According to the story, the youngest of the heavenly beings, Sophia, decided to create alone without the knowledge or consent of the Spirit or her male partner. Sophia’s child, the deficient product of her ignorance and passion, was ignorant, disobedient, and willfully arrogant. He created archons and angels to serve him and falsely declared himself to be the only true God.

 A dramatic retelling of the Genesis creation story follows in which God appears as a wicked being who sought to dominate humanity unjustly by enslaving them to the passions and mortality of physical existence, withholding moral knowledge and eternal life. God was jealous of the humans because they were superior to him, created in the likeness of the true God above. Sophia had planted the divine spirit within them in order to save them from this unjust domination. Male and female saviors (including Christ) were sent from the world above to overcome the deception of the world rulers and instruct humanity in the knowledge of the true God and humanity’s own divine nature. The saviors worked to protect people from the assaults of the wicked powers who rule the world. In the end, all humanity (except apostates) are destined for salvation. At death, they will leave the prison of the body and the world and return to the divine rule of the transcendent God, their true father.

 According to this story, evil is primarily a matter of unjust rule, a rupture caused by disobedience to appropriate authority. The problem addressed by Sethian myth is a strongly perceived gap between the ideals of its age and the realities of lived experience. Sethian myth is the product not of rebellion but of a sense of betrayal. It shows a deep commitment to the values of its age, including an uncompromising belief in the goodness of God and a Utopian desire for justice. But embedded in this message of hope for salvation is a sharp social criticism. For The Apocryphon of John, practices of spiritual development went hand-in-hand with condemnation of the injustices of the world.

 The Sethians’ biting criticism of the world order did not go unnoted. The myth’s portrayal of the flawed nature of the world and its creator offended nearly everyone: Jewish rabbis, Christian theologians, and Neoplatonic philosophers. In time, some Sethian thinkers (such as Marsanes and Allogenes) would soften their criticism and turn their focus more deeply upon the cultivation of inner spirituality and mystical knowledge. But the ire they aroused would leave them branded as the most exemplary form of heresy the Western world ever produced.Closing quotation mark

: : : : :

SOURCE:  Karen King and Wendy Doniger, “Gnosticism.” In Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions. Edited by Wendy Doniger. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1999. 380–381.

Ornamental border from Thomas Johnson's edn. of Gerard's _Herball_ (1633 and 1636)


go to TOP of page

go up a level: IN BRIEF page