Gnosticism, the Heretical Gnostic Writings, and 'Judas'

Creation of earthly man.

Some such divulgence of superior godhead (here meant as no more than a bumbling of the Creator's pride, elsewhere serving some other purpose in the divine strategy), and especially the appearance of a divine form with it, inspire the archons with the audacious plan to equal the upper perfection in a work of their own -- to create terrestrial man -- an effect not foreseen in the divine move. Letting them say on this occasion, "Come, let us make a man after the image we have seen," the Gnostics turned to account the puzzling plural of Genesis 1.26, and the resulting imago Dei character of created man, far from being a straight metaphysical honor, assumes an ambiguous, if not sinister, meaning. The motive for the archons' resolve is either simple envy and ambition, or the more calculating one of entrapping divine substance in their lower world by the lure of a seemingly congenial receptacle that will become its most secure bond. The imitation, presumptuous and blundering, is nevertheless effective. Although the mere creature of the archons -- the body and a natural soul compounded from their several psychic powers -- is not viable by itself, it becomes so through the injection of a spiritual element from beyond.

For this presence of transcendent spirit (pneuma) in psychophysical man -- in itself a paradoxical, unnatural fact and the fulcrum of the whole soteriological drama -- Gnostic speculation offers various explanations, their chief difference being whether the presence marks a success of the nether powers or a stratagem of the upper ones. In the first alternative, the causality operative on the divine side admits in turn the several variations of being a victim of violence (Mani), of deception, or of its own downward inclination (Poimandres). In the other alternative (the Valentinians), the divine seed is secretly deposited in the creature of the unknowing Demiurge in order to turn his work into an unintended vehicle of salvation. However, this variant is no more optimistic than the first, since the soteriological stratagem merely makes the best of a basic evil, of these divine portions' having become divorced from their source in the first place. In any case, the pneuma's innerworldly existence is a state of exile, the result of primeval divine tragedy; and its immersion in soul and body is the terminal form of that exile. For the archons, on the other hand, the incorporation of this transcendent element into their system is a condition of the system's existence, and its retention therefore becomes to them a matter of survival -- their work's and their own. Hence, they must resist at all cost the spirits extrication from the cosmic involvement, which the upper powers seek for the regaining of divine wholeness. The means of this extrication is knowledge.

History of man.

The process of conveying the saving knowledge to the world-imprisoned hostage of Light begins with Adam himself and runs throughout the history of mankind in a constant counterplay with the archontic powers. Human history is thus eschatological from the beginning. In the light of this scheme, the Scriptural account of early man, especially the Paradise story, is boldly recast, WITH ALL VALUE SIGNS REVERSED. [emphasis mine -- DNI] The most significant of these reversals concerns the serpent, which, as the first bringer of knowledge in defiance of the Creator's mandate of ignorance, becomes the general symbol of the acosmic spiritual principle what works for the awakening of its captive kin in the world. The revelatory line thus started, and continued through the generations, ends in Christ (or many go beyond him to further revelations of the truth). Hence the cult of the serpent in a major group of Gnostic sects, the Ophites (from the Greek "ophis", serpent). In the same spirit of reversal, Cain, Essau, and other rejected figures of the Old Testament became to certain sects (Cainites, Carpocratians, Perates) bearers of the penumatic heritage, forming a secret lineage of gnosis and persecuted by the world god for this reason; their opposites, such as Abel and Jacob, his favorites, represent the unenlightened majority. Independently of the intention to scandalize that is evident here, the Gnostic scheme called for a prophetology in succession of the Adamitic revelation, for which Iranian tradition offered the idea of an eternal Messenger who moves through history in ever new incarnations. These messengers were variously identified with names from the religious past; in the final consolidation by Mani we find them reduced to four: Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mani. The significant omission of Moses from this list requires a comment on the anti-Judaism among the Gnostics.

The this-worldly spirit of the Hebrew religion combined with historical circumstance to make the Old Testament a prominent target of Gnostic dislike, to varying degrees. The extreme of hostility, even contempt, is found in Marcion, for whom this admittedly authentic revelation of the Creator and Lord of this world shares all the blemishes of its source: It is as opposed to the gospel of salvation as its divine author is to the God that saves and as this world, his work, is to the nonmundane realm beyond. Simon Magus and others are hardly less intransigent. A more qualified view is taken by the Valentinians: the law is at least partly prefigurative of the higher truth, and the prophets, although mainly inspired by the Demiurge, are sometimes (and unbeknown to him) used by his mother, Sophia, for her own messages, which thus are interspersed in the inferior bulk. There are other shades of opinion, but rejection of the whole body of Hebrew Scripture, joined with irreverent exegetical use, is by far the rule; and on this issue, and on the related one of the identity or nonidentity of the God of Moses with the Father of Jesus Christ, the main battle was fought between the church and the heretics.

Cosmos and human nature.

The material universe, the domain of the archons, is like a vast prison, whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the scene of man's life. Around and above it, the cosmic spheres are ranged like concentric enclosing shells. Their number is usually seven, with a surrounding eighth that does not belong to the archontic realm proper but is intermediate between the cosmos and the upper world of the pleroma. There was, however, a tendency to multiply structures and to make the scheme more and more extensive: Basilides counted no fewer than 365 heavens. The religious significance of this cosmic architecture lies in the idea that everything that intervenes between here and the beyond serves to separate man from God, not merely by spatial distance but through active demonic force. Thus the vastness and multiplicity of the cosmic system express the degree to which man is removed from God.

The spheres are the seats of the archons, whose ruling set of seven are the planetary gods of the Babylonian pantheon, now significantly renamed with synonyms for the Hebrew God -- another sign of the latter's degradation. The archons collectively rule the world that they (or their overlord) made, and each individually in his sphere is a warder of the cosmic prison. Their tyrannical world rule, called Fate (heimarmene), is physically the law of nature, morally the law of justice, as exemplified in the Moasic law, which issued from the Demiurge or the angels and, with its threat of retribution, aims at the enslavement of man as much as the first does with its force of necessity. As guardian of his sphere, each archon bars the passage to the souls that seek to ascend after death, in order to prevent their escape from the world and their return to God.

Man, the main object of these vast dispositions, is composed of flesh, soul, and spirit. Reduced to ultimate principles, his origin is twofold: mundane and extramundane. Both the body and the soul are products of the cosmic powers, who shaped the body in the image of the divine Primal Man and animated it with their own psychical forces: these are the appetites and passions of natural man, each stemming from and corresponding to one of the cosmic spheres, and all together making up the astral soul of man, his psyche. Through his body and his soul man is a part of the world and is subjected to heimarmene. Enclosed in the soul is the spirit, or pneuma (also called the spark), a portion of the divine substance from beyond that has fallen into the world; the archons created man for the express purpose of keeping it captive here. Thus, as in the macrocosm man is enclosed by the seven spheres, so in the human microcosm the pneuma is enclosed by the seven soul vestments originating from them. These psychical envelopments are considered impairments and fetters of the transmundane spirit, and its incarnation in the outer, material body merely completes the complex imprisonment. The resulting human constitution is, then, comparable to an onion with so many layers, on the model of the cosmos itself but with the order reversed; what is outermost and uppermost in the cosmos is innermost in man, and the innermost or nethermost stratum of the cosmic order, the earth, is the outer bodily garment of man. Only the innermost or pneumatic man is the true man, and he is not of this world, as his original in the total order, the deity, is external to the cosmos as a whole. In its unredeemed state the spirit, so far from its source and immersed in soul and flesh, is unconscious of itself, benumbed, asleep, or intoxicated by the poison of the world -- in brief, it is ignorant. Its awakening and liberation are effected through knowledge.

Eschatology: salvation through gnosis.

The nature of Gnostic dualism determines the general concept of salvation, and the stratifications of cosmos and man condition its details. Its basic premise is that the transcendent God is as alien to this world as the pneumatic self is in the midst of it. The goal of Gnostic striving is the release of the inner man from the bonds of the world and his return to his native realm of light. The necessary condition for this is that he know about the transmundane God and about himself, that is, about his divine origin as well as his present situation, and hence, also about the nature of the world that determines his situation. Such knowledge is withheld from him by precisely the selfsame situation that requires it, for ignorance is the essence of mundane existence, just as it was the principle of the world's coming into being. In particular, the transcendent God is unknown in the world and cannot be discovered from it; therefore, revelation is needed. The necessity for revelation is inherent in the innercosmic condition; and its occurrence alters this condition in its decisive respect, that of ignorance. Revelation, or the "call," is thus already a part of salvation. Its bringer is a messenger from the world of Light who penetrates the barriers of the spheres, outwits the archons, awakens the spirit from its earthly slumber, and imparts to it the saving knowledge from without. The mission of this transcendent savior begins even before the creation of the world, since the fall of the divine element preceded creation, and the archetypal redemption indeed takes place in the precosmic stage. It is the incompleteness of this initial restoration, whether of Sophia or of Mani's Primal Man, that leads to the genesis of the world and the protraction of the saving process throughout its history. The fact that in the discharge of his task the eternal messenger must himself assume the lot of incarnation and cosmic exile, and the further fact that, at least in the Iranian variety of the myth, he is in a sense identical with those he calls -- the once lost parts of his divine self -- give rise to the moving idea of the "saved savior" (salvator salvandus).

The knowledge revealed by the messengers, for short "knowledge of God," comprises the whole content of the Gnostic myth, with everything it has to teach about God, man, and world, including the history of the beginnings which alone offers the key to the secrets of existence, that is, the revelation contains the elements of a theoretical system. On the practical side, however, it is more particularly "knowledge of the way" -- of the soul's way out of the world -- comprising the sacramental and magical preparations for its future ascent and the secret names and formulas that force the passage through each sphere. Equipped with this gnosis, the soul after death travels upward, leaving behind at each sphere the psychical vestments contributed by that sphere; thus the spirit, stripped of all foreign accretions, reaches the God beyond the world and reunites with the divine substance. (The most circumstantial description of this ascent is found in the "Poimandres," the first treatise of the Hermetic corpus.) On the scale of the total divine drama, the individual ascent is part of the restoration of the deity's own wholeness, impaired by the events of the beginning. Only through the loss suffered then did the deity become involved in the destiny of the world, and only to retrieve his own does he intervene, through his envoys, in cosmic history. With the completion of this ingathering, the cosmos, deprived of its elements of light, will come to an end.


In this life the pneumatics, as the possessors of gnosis called themselves, are set apart from the mass of mankind. The immediate illumination that makes the individual sovereign in the sphere of knowledge (hence the great variety of Gnostic doctrines) also inspires superior rules of conduct. Generally, the pneumatic morality is determined by hostility toward the world and contempt for all mundane ties. From this principle, however, two contrary conclusions could be drawn, and both found their extreme partisans: the ascetic and the libertine. The ascetic deduces from the possession of gnosis the obligation to avoid further contamination by the world and therefore to reduce the world's use to a minimum; the libertine derives from the same possession the privilege of unrestrained freedom. The libertine conclusion, more startling and more devious, is argued thus: The law, since it represents the will of the Demiurge and is one form of his tyranny, does not obligate the pneuma, which is "saved in its nature" and can be neither sullied by actions (which in themselves are morally neutral) nor frightened by the threat of archontic retribution which can affect only the body and the psyche). Thus the pneumatic, since he is free from the power of fate, is also free from the yoke of the moral law, and all things are permitted to him. This freedom, however, is more than merely permissive; its practice is bidden by metaphysical interest. Through intentional violation of the demiurgical norm (for which the mythological vilification of the Demiurge prepares) the pneumatic thwarts the design of the archons and thus paradoxically contributes to the work of salvation. From the motive of defiance it is then only one step further to the teaching of the Cainites and Carpocratians that there is a positive duty to perform every kind of action, to leave no deed undone, no possibility of freedom unrealized, in order to render nature its due and exhaust its powers; only in this way can final release from the cycle of reincarnations be obtained. Gnostic libertinism thus spans the whole scale from mere negative license to positive Faustian obligation -- at which point it loses again some of the contrast to its ascetic alternative.

The latter alternative, too, betrays the common root in Gnosticism from which both opposites spring. Although more obvious in the libertine choice, the element of defiance shows in the ascetic one as well; as much as it may serve purification or other perfectionist ends normally associated with asceticism, it often has the declared purpose of obstructing the cause of the Creator, even just to spite him, by refusing to use his works (a kind of metaphysical strike). This obstructive aspect is especially clear in the abstention from sexual intercourse and marriage when, as in Marcion and Mani, its purpose is not to help replenish the world of the Demiurge and further disperse in it the captive light -- thereby prolonging its exile and making its ingathering more difficult. Indeed, according to Mani, the reproductive scheme was instituted by the archons with precisely this end in view. Asceticism is thus a matter less of ethics than of metaphysical alignment, and its common ground with libertinism is the determination not to play the Creator's game. The one repudiates allegiance to nature through abstention; the other, through excess. Both are lives outside the mundane norm. Freedom by use and freedom by nonuse are thus alternative expressions of the same acosmism.


Acosmism, the real basis of the Gnostic position, contains the seeds of nihilism; the very extremism of divine transcendence has nihilistic implications. As the totally other, alien, and unknown, the Gnostic God has more of the "nihil" than of the "ens" in his concept. For all purposes of man's relation to the reality that surrounds him, this hidden God is a negative term; no law emanates from him -- none for nature, and thus none for human action as a part of the natural order. His only relation to the world is the negative one of saving from the world. Antinomianism follows naturally, even if not inevitably, from these premises.

Two types of gnostic dualism.

This article has kept mainly to the Syrian-Egyptian stream of Gnostic speculation, to which the majority of systems, especially the Christian ones, belong. There is, however, another, Iranian line of speculation that culminates in Mani.

Both types, being Gnostic, were evolved to explain the same facts of a dislocated metaphysical situation -- both are dualistic concerning their common theme: the existing rift between God and world, world and man, spirit and flesh. The Iranian type, in a Gnostic adaptation of Zoroastrian doctrine, starts from a dualism of two opposed principles and then must explain how the original Darkness came to engulf elements of the Light -- it describes the world drama as a war with changing fortunes; and the divine fate, of which man's fate is a part and the world an unwilled by-product, is explained in terms of mixing and unmixing, captivity and liberation. Here the knightly male figure of First Man, the warrior, assumes the role of the exposed and suffering part of divinity. The Syrian speculation, with the female Sophia in that role, undertakes the more ambitious task of deriving dualism itself, and the ensuing predicament of the divine in the system of creation, from the one and the undivided source of being. It does this by means of a genealogy of personified divine states evolving from one another that describes the progressive darkening of the original Light in categories of guilt, error, and failure. This devolution within the divine being ends in the decadence of complete self-alienation that is this world. Both dramas start with a disturbance in the heights; in both, the existence of the world marks a discomfiture of the divine and a necessary, in itself undesirable, means of its eventual restitution; in both, the salvation of man is that of the deity itself. The difference lies in whether the tragedy is forced upon the deity from without by the trespass of an independent Darkness, which thus has the first initiative (the deity itself being in perfect tranquility), or is motivated from within itself, with Darkness and Matter the products of its passion, which they hypostatize in external terms. To divine defeat and sacrifice in the first case correspond divine guilt and error in the second; to compassion for the victimized Light, spiritual contempt for demiurgical blindness; to eventual divine liberation, reformation through enlightenment.

The Manichaean and Valentinian systems respectively exemplify the two types. The Iranian type, with its high-minded story of battle, defeat, and recovery, lends itself to more concrete and gripping dramatization. However, only the subtler Syrian type, by according metaphysical status to knowledge and ignorance as modes of the divine life and therefore as universal, cosmogonic categories, can do full justice to the redemptional claim made on behalf of knowledge in all Gnostic religion. Valentinian speculation inferred that the human individual event of pneumatic knowledge reverses the precosmic universal event of divine ignorance and is in its redeeming effect of the same ontological order. Thus the actualization of knowledge in the person is at the same time an act in the general ground of being.





FAIR USE NOTICE: This may contain copyrighted (©) material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues, etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in Title 17 U.S.C. section 107 of the US Copyright Law. This material is distributed without profit.

1, 2,