Gnosticism, the Heretical Gnostic Writings, and 'Judas'

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright April 9, 2006
Reproduced with Permission

The current enthusiasm over the launching of the latest gnostic writings of "Judas" from the secret Egyptian Nag Hammadi Coptic gnostic library requires at least some minimal clarification from an historic philosophical (as distinct from religious) perspective.

Toward that end I have copied below a masterful article by the most respected and acclaimed academic scholar on Gnosticism, philosopher Hans Jonas, as published in Paul Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. As one of my doctoral concentrations was in the History of Philosophy, which I have taught for over 15 years now, I learned early on the immense influence that both ancient and post-Christian gnosticism had (and still has) on the development of the history of philosophy. It is an intellectual crime that neither the accurate and entire history of philosophy nor the ancient mythology that preceded and so influenced it are taught in the academy today.

As a professor I also learned early on the immense influence gnosticism has today on our students, as well as on almost every area of the humanities in the academy and every facet of our daily living. Just try "Googling" the term yourself. It is a moral crime that the on-going spread of gnosticism -- both ancient and post-Christian -- is not identified or acknowledged in most "ethical" treatises, religious/secular "teachings" or the media. To not know or understand what gnosticism is is to be incapable of putting a name and a face on, questioning, or evaluating one of the most pervasive and influential mythological ideologies in our global society today. Indeed, if one were looking for one element that is historically common among almost all civilizations and cultures it is gnosticism in one form or another. No one captures these commonalities better than philosopher Hans Jonas.

Given the extensive scholarship inherent in Jonas' work, and the limited space available here, only a few comments are in order to help those unfamiliar with this philosophical or gnostic terrain. Briefly:

"Salvation" for gnostics means, literally, the fusion of the divine element of man (the "pneuma", which is different from the soul) with the ultimate godhead. In fact, since all the elements in the cosmos are fundamental breaches of the original godhead, full reparation can happen only when all of these elements are again brought back to and fuse with the godhead. This means the destruction of the cosmos is critically necessary.

Human sexuality becomes the "evil deed" of the Demiurge thrust upon mankind in order to trick the higher gods/goddesses, the Aeons (and is the source of much population "theory", including abortion). Material things, especially the body of man, are "evil", "darkness", even "non-being". True "morality" for them is simply the whim of each god or goddess in their own realms; otherwise there is no morality at all. True "knowledge" (gnosis) is revealed only to the "elite", thus these human knowers "know" as truth only that which is given to them in secret by the higher gods/goddesses (gnosis). The rest of mankind remain in total ignorance - and thus unsaveable. Hence even the gnostic man is not really free, and thus there is no ethics or accountability for one's actions, because man is incapable of thinking for him/herself and dependent on the "knowledge" revealed (if given at all).

See also Irving:

Hans Jonas, "Gnosticism", in Paul Edwards (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1967), Vol. 3, pp. 336-342.


(from the Greek "gnosis", or "knowledge") designates a broad variety of religious teachings that were rife in the Hellenized Near East of the first centuries A.D. and purported to offer knowledge of the otherwise hidden truth of total reality as the indispensable key to man's salvation. Most of the schools or sects in question were ostensibly Christian by the time our earliest witnesses, the Church Fathers, were familiar with them, and in consequence the whole movement was long regarded as essentially an aberration from Christian doctrine. However, although Gnosticism provided the first chapter in the history of Christian heresies, the Christian veneer of the systems playing that role is often thin to the point of transparency; and clearly non-Christian writings have come to light that by all criteria of content must be classed as Gnostic as well. The details of the literary evidence point to highly syncretistic origins, in which Jewish, Iranian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other Oriental traditions were blended with one another and with Greek concepts in an extremely free manner. The results were as readily made to represent an alleged esoteric truth of the Christian message as to constitute a superior (Mani) or even hostile (Mandaeans) alternative to it.

This syncretism, pertaining mainly to the outer shell, does not preclude -- in fact it tends to mask -- a highly original inner unity of thought distinct from all the disparate historical elements employed in its representation. Massively mythological though this representation usually is, the substance thus expressed has philosophical significance as embodying a fundamental choice -- the radical antithesis to the classical Greek choice -- in the realms of universal theory and human practice at once. The powerful Gnostic impulse to elaborate its basic vision into grandly constructed, quasi-rational systems of thought where everything proceeds from an absolute beginning makes Gnosticism a landmark in the history of the speculative system as such; and it is the identity of that basic vision that defines what is Gnostic and alone justifies the classing of systems of such considerable diversity under one heading.

Gnostic teachers and schools.

A number of gnostic teachers and writers are known by name (mainly those listed as heresiarchs in the patristic refutations), but much of the surviving literature is anonymous or pseudepigraphic, in keeping with the revelatory style in which it is cast. Historical individuals whose thought is documented by either critical accounts or direct fragments of their works include the Samaritan Simon Magnus and his spiritual descendants Menander, Saturninus, Cerinthus, and Cerdon (first and second centuries); the Alexandrians Carpocrates, Basilides and his son Isidore, and foremost, Valentinus with his illustrious disciples Ptolemaeus, Heracleon, Theodotus, and Marcus (second century); the pontian Marcion and the Syrian Bardesanes (second century); and the Persian-Babylonian Mani (third century). Major sects whose doctrines are well documented but not identified by individual authors or founders are, in the Christian camp, the Barbeliotes, Sethites, and Ophites (the last actually a cluster of sects); in the Hellenistic-pagan camp, the Hermetic religion (perhaps merely a literature and not an actual sect); in the Semitic East, the anti-Christian Mandaeans. Towering over the known thinkers are Valentinus, Marcion, and Mani; and Valentinianism and Manichaeism respectively represent the culminations of the two main alternative types of Gnostic speculation. The last two are here considered merely for their part in and exemplification of the wider context (see Mani and Manichaeism; Valentinus and Valentinianism).


With the exception of that of the Mandaeans, Gnostic literature was denied direct tradition under the dominion of Christianity and Islam after the eclipse of the Gnostic communities themselves. Thus, until fairly recently, information was supplied almost solely by the abundant indirect sources. These were, in the main, the anti-heretical works of the Church Fathers (Greek, Latin, and Syriac, from Irenaeus in the second century to Theodore bar Konai in the eighth century) with their diligent reports, summaries, and excerpts, and still later Islamic histories and compendia. However, for some time an impressive series of manuscript discoveries has been adding vastly to our store of original texts: Coptic-Gnostic papyrus codices from Egypt, belonging to the Christian branch of Gnosticism -- the find in 1945 of a whole library at Nag Hammadi is revolutionizing the state of documentation in the area hitherto principally covered by the patristic testimony -- Manichaen fragments in Persian, Turkish, and Chinese from Turfan in central Asia and in Coptic from Egypt, and the sacred writings of the Mandaeans of Iraq.

The Mandaeans are the one case of a Gnostic community surviving to the present with an unbroken written tradition of their voluminous Aramaic literature; it came to the attention of Western scholars in the nineteenth century, after it had escaped that of the Church Fathers in antiquity (probably because of the Fathers' predominantly Greek orientation). In all the other cases, the new original sources generally bear out, while greatly enriching, the testimony of the older indirect evidence. The following account, based on the entire, extremely varied material, is synoptic and selective, placing its emphases according to a conception of the whole as a system.


A radically dualistic mood dominates the Gnostic attitude and unites its widely diversified expressions, whether doctrinal, poetical, or ethical. The dualism is between man and world, and between the world and God. In either case, it is a dualism of antithetical, not complementary, terms; and it is basically one: that of man and world mirrors on the plane of experience the primordial one of God and world is, in Gnostic theory, deduced from it. The interpreter may hold conversely that the transcendent doctrine of a world-God opposition sprang from the immanent experience of a disunion of man and world, that is, it reflects a human condition of alienation. In the three-term configuration, man and God belong in essence together against the world but are in fact separated by the world, which in the Gnostic view is the alienating, divisive agency.

The object of Gnostic speculation is to derive these basic polarities -- the existing state of things -- by way of genetic myths from the first things and through such genealogy to point the way to their eventual resolution. The myth, a conscious symbolical construction, is thus predictive by being genetic, eschatological by being explanatory. Accordingly, the typical Gnostic system starts with a doctrine of divine transcendence in its original purity; traces the genesis of the world from some primordial disruption of this blessed state, a loss of divine integrity that leads to the emergence of lower powers who become the makers and rulers of this world; then, as a crucial episode in the drama, it recounts the creation and early fate of man, in whom the further conflict becomes centered; the final theme -- in fact, the implied theme throughout -- is man's salvation, which is more than man's since it involves the overcoming and eventual dissolving of the cosmic system and is thus the instrument of reintegration for the impaired godhead itself, the self-saving of God.

God and the divine realm.

The transcendence of the supreme deity is stressed to the utmost degree in all Gnostic theology. Topologically, he is transmundane, dwelling in his own realm entirely outside the physical universe, at immeasurable distance from man's terrestrial abode; ontologically he is acosmic, even anticosmic: to this world and whatever belongs to it he is the essentially "other" and "alien" (Marcion), the "alien Life" (Mandaeans), the "depth" or "abyss" (Valentinians), even "the non-being" (Basilides); epistemologically, because of the transcendence and otherness of his being, and because nature neither reveals nor even indicates him, he is naturally unknown, ineffable, defying predication, surpassing comprehension, and strictly unknowable. Some positive attributes and metaphors do apply to him: Light, Life, Spirit, Father, the Good -- but not Creator, Ruler, Judge. Significantly, in some systems one of his secret names is Man. Mainly, the discourse about him must move in negations, and historically Gnosticism is one of the fountainheads of negative theology.

However, the Absolute is not alone but is surrounded by an aura of eternal, graded expressions of his infinitude, partial aspects of his perfection, hypostatized into quasi-personal beings (aeons) with highly abstract names (mostly of mental properties) and together forming the hierarchy of the divine realm, the pleroma (Plenitude). The emanation of this inner manifold from the primal ground, a kind of self-differentiation of the Absolute, is sometimes described in terms of subtle spiritual dialectics, more often in rather naturalistic (for instance, sexual), terms. Among the tenuously mythological entities that thus arise (such as Mind, Grace, Word, Knowledge, Life) are two more concrete ones with definite roles in the further evolution of the transcendental drama: Man as an eternal, divine, precosmic principle (sometimes even identified with the First Being himself) and Wisdom (Sophia), usually the last and youngest of the aeons. Extensive speculation about the diversity within the pleroma is the mark of advanced systems, but some degree of manifold on the upper reaches of being is requisite for all Gnostic metaphysics because it provides the condition for divine fallibility on which the movement into creation and alienation depends.

Lower powers and the creator.

In the genuine Gnostic systems the downward movement starts from an internal crisis in the divine realm itself, whereas in those under Iranian influence it is occasioned by the action of dark forces from without, thus presupposing the very dualism that the typical speculation lets evolve from the one monistic root. We shall mainly follow this latter, more prevalent type, which is free from Iranian influence. Here, the protagonist of crisis and fall is most often the female aeon Sophia (or such equivalents as Thought and Conception) who, from some overstepping of bounds -- assertion of self-will, creative presumption, even excessive desire to know the unknowable Father -- is drawn into a history of passion and error that leads her outside the blessed pleroma. (In another family of systems, Primal Man assumes the role of the sinking part of divinity.) Although the upper powers immediately set about healing this breach in the divine order, the downward trend set in motion by the original lapse must take its course, and the counterplay of these two trends henceforth governs the process. There ensues, in a development too complex and too variously elaborated to recount here, a train of ever lower hypostases descended from the erring Sophia, episodically broken by certain archetypal salvations.

The Demiurge.

Early in the descending series -- and marked with all the deforming effects of the Fall whose fruit he is -- appears the Demiurge, the monstrous and benighted archon (lord) of the nether powers. This widespread Gnostic figure, telling symbol of the Gnostic hostility toward the world, is clearly a polemical caricature of the Old Testament God, and the identity is made explicit by frequent transference to him of well-known utterances and actions of God from the Biblical text. Pride, ignorance, and malevolence of the Creator are recurring themes in Gnostic tales, as are his humbling and outwitting by the higher powers bent on thwarting his designs. However, over the whole range of Gnostic mythologizing the archon's image varies, and there are milder versions in which he is more misguided than evil and thus open to correction and remorse, even to final redemption. He is always a problematical and never a venerable figure.

Finding himself in the void or chaos outside the pleroma, possessed of the power inherited from his mother but ignorant of the divine worlds above him, he believes himself to be the only God and engages in creations chiefly designed to satisfy his ambition, vanity, and lust for dominion. Prominent among the host of lower powers that issue from him are six further archons whom he installs in six successive heavens; he occupies the seventh above them. Thus originate the cosmic order and its system of rule, the universe of Babylonian astrology with its seven planetary spheres and the almighty planetary deities. An eighth region beyond them (corresponding to the sphere of the fixed stars) is occupied by the mother Sophia, still exiled from the pleroma, who has no part in the creation and government of the world but intervenes in both for the purposes of salvation. The Valentinian version, the subtlest of all, depicts the Demiurge as trying vainly to imitate the perfect order of the aeons with his physical one, and their eternity with the counterfeit substitute of time -- thus adding to the parody of the Biblical Creator that of the Platonic Demiurge. However, the chief instance of illicit and bungling imitation is the creation of man.

The remaining part of creation is the joint work of the seven archons. Indeed, the early systems (such as that of Simon Magus) simply name the seven as the creators of the world; and the pre-eminence of one of them, growing into a kind of monotheism of cosmic (lower) divinity, seems to be characteristic of the mature stage of Gnostic speculation. There, an episode, told with almost identical words in the cosmogonies of many different schools, rings in the next act in the drama of creation: the First Archon (the Demiurge), exulting in his works with the Scriptural proclamation "I am God and there is none other than I," draws the retort from on high, "Thou art mistaken! Above thee is First Man."

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