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My New Summary of Gnosticism

Yesterday I mentioned on the blog that I had rewritten my description of early Christian Gnosticism for the new edition of my textbook.   Here is what the major part of that discussion now looks like.  The first part tries to give a general overview of what different groups of Gnostics had in common; the second part describes the views of one of the most prominent Gnostic Groupsl



Major Views of Various Gnostic Groups

Despite the many differences among the various Gnostic groups, most of them appear to have subscribed to the following views.

(1)    The divine realm is inhabited not only by one ultimate God but also by a range of other divine beings, widely known as aeons.   These aeons are, in a sense, personifications of the ultimate God’s mental capacities and/or powers (some of them were called such things as Reason, Will, Grace, and Wisdom).

(2)  The physical world that we inhabit was not the creation of the ultimate God but of a lower, ignorant divine being, who is often identified with the God of the Jewish Bible.   Because the creator-god is an inferior being, the material world is a miserable place in which to live and was widely separated from the spiritual world above.

(3)  The ultimate reason there is evil in this world – and the reason the inferior creator-God came into existence in the first place – is related to the actions of one of higher divine powers (aeons) that inhabited the spiritual realm.  Usually this divine figure is called “Sophia,” or “Wisdom.”

(4)  All human beings, or for some Gnostics, only some human beings, possess a spiritual element or an immortal soul that is connected with the divine realm.  But because of their imprisonment in this world they have become oblivious of their divine origin.


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Some Other Gnostics
My New Discussion of Gnosticism: Introduction



  1. Avatar
    Matilda  November 7, 2014

    whooo, This is very elaborate! Where do you suppose they got these ideas? Are they a mish- mash of pagan, Greek, and Eastern ideas? Apparently some of the Native American religions are very complex as well. It goes to show how creative the human mind can be- not always right, but creative!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2014

      A lot of it comes from a mix of middle-Platonism and Jewish mystical thought.

    • Avatar
      BrianUlrich  November 10, 2014

      The Middle East Studies Association’s highest book award went last year to a work entitled The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran by Patricia Crone, about a significant number of similar religious movements in the mountain zone from southeastern Anatolia over into Afghanistan and south to the coasts. At one point, she refutes the idea that these movements were inspired by Mediterranean ideas centered on neo-Platonism and Gnosticism. Her own argument is that they were variations on a longstanding substrate of Iranian popular religious thought found from ancient times and that gave rise to such extant communities as the Yazidis, Kaka’is, and Baha’is. I mention it here partly because Crone mentions the fact that some Gnostics were accused of getting their ideas from Persian magi, though IIRC she doesn’t seem to really endorse that as what happened, as opposed to showing that culture ideas can flow in many directions.

  2. Avatar
    madmargie  November 8, 2014

    Wow! Pretty far out. As someone who really doesn’t believe in miracles or an afterlife, I couldn’t buy into that type of religion. I wonder where and how that kind of belief system originated?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2014

      It’s much debated. But it is closely related to middle-platonic thought and Jewish mysticism.

  3. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  November 8, 2014

    That new discussion forum feature is AMAZING !!!!!
    you can earn a better badge the more you post, yes I love it !!!!!!!!
    Bart, you are genius

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2014

      I’m trying to urge everyone NOT to post a lot — just a couple of well-thought out posts a day would be perfect.

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  November 8, 2014

    Prof Ehrman

    How certain are you that “Gnosticism” even existed as a discrete body of thought? Didn’t these groups disagree with each other as often as they agreed? And some of these “gnostic” characteristics you list could apply to half the religions in the world that have ever been!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2014

      Yes, they are very diverse. But so is Christianity, but we still talk about Christianity!

  5. Avatar
    Azeus  November 8, 2014

    An impressive summary of Sethian Gnosticism. I wish I could write like that. The mention of ‘Christ’ is used to date this belief anno domini. Philaster was not so sure. It is curious that Gnostic dogma could independently trend into a belief with a physical manifestation of Seth.That made me consider, what could a Jewish kohanim member do to set himself apart as a ‘pillar’ of the new movement. If a council was called together to set themselves apart from this Gnostic hoard an attestation ex post facto would be less than fully contested. Odd that the date fits the emergence of our earliest Christian manuscripts.

  6. Avatar
    Bill  November 8, 2014

    Been away from your thoughts too long…need to change that.

  7. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  November 9, 2014

    I’m feeling the urge to try and bring back the Carpocratians.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 9, 2014

    Sounds complicated and I am surprised that ancient people had such a complicated religion.

  9. Avatar
    Slydog1227  November 10, 2014

    HUNH??? What..? who…? how does one even reach a conclusion such as this?
    Is there a context in which such thinking would even make sense? And who would have been the one who developed these theories and explanations that everyone else then subscribed to? Would it have been the equivalent of a 2nd century Dr. Ehrman? 😉 I agree with Ronald. Sounds complicated!

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  November 17, 2014

      I actually find it easier to understand than the concept of the trinity. Still can’t get that to make sense to me.

  10. Avatar
    willow  November 10, 2014

    Anything and everything you can provide regarding text book updates will be most welcome. I am in the process of reading the 5th edition and will be printing up these several articles to accompany the already published text. That way, if I fail to purchase the newest edition in a more timely manner, I won’t be so far behind!

  11. Avatar
    Marko071291  February 15, 2019

    Hi Bart, hope you are doing well!

    I know that I’ve read that we have in some of gnostic documents evidence of anti-gnostic polemic, i.e. polemic directed from one gnostic ‘party’ to the other. If I’m right, could you point me to those primary sources? I would really like to pay more attention to the question of polemic and disagrements between various gnostic groups.
    Hope you can help me.
    Kind regards,

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2019

      The most interesting one is the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter.

      • Avatar
        Marko071291  July 5, 2019

        Bart, I don’t know if I asked you this already (I think I didn’t), but what about social structers of gnostics? Do we know anything about whether they came from educated elites (intelectuals) or they came from lower class of society or whether they were mix of everything? I know this isn’t your specific area of expertise, but hope you can help me.
        Also, are there any could books or articles on that matter? Sociological approach to gnosticism?


        Kind regards!

        • Bart
          Bart  July 7, 2019

          There have been a lot of attempts, but it’s very hard to know about their social worlds, since their books don’t talk about the matter and the books of their opponents cannot be fully trusted to be fair. It might seem they had to be predominantly from the highly educated intellectual classes, given their recondite theological views; but that’s not necessarily the case. Lots of people may have been involved who didn’t really understand deeply what it was all about. Good places to start on understanding Gnosticism would be the books by David Brakke and Nicole Denzi Lewis

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