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Our Knowledge of Gnosticism

Now that I have said something about the Nag Hammadi library in general (the traditional scholarly account of its discovery; the contents) I can move on to a discussion of “Gnosticism” as we have learned about it from these texts.   This is a topic I covered over four years ago on the blog; the occasion, at the time, was that I had been forced to rethink my views because of a new publication I had been working on.  Here is what I said then:


On to a different topic for a bit. I am now in the process or reading the copy-edited version of the new edition of my anthology of ancient Christian texts, After the New Testament. In early posts, back in January (2014) I talked about what would be in this anthology and how it would differ from the first edition, which I published fifteen years ago.

In addition to adding some sections (full new rubrics, for example, on Women in the Early Church and on the History of Biblical Interpretation), I altered a few things – especially my entire section dealing with Christian Gnosticism. In my first edition I simply had one undifferentiated mass of texts that I called Gnostic. This is completely unsatisfying, confusing, simplistic, and, well, just wrong. This time I’ve tried to mend the errors of my ways. Based on my reading of more recent work in the field, I’ve rewritten the general introduction to Gnosticism in the text, and divided the primary text readings into four categories, each involving different “kinds” of Gnosticism: Sethian Gnosticism, Valentinianism, Thomasine Texts, and “Other” Gnostic Texts. In this post I will reproduce my new introduction; in subsequent posts I will reproduce my new introductions to each of the categories.



Gnostic Christian Texts: Introduction

Prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, we were ill-informed concerning the beliefs and practices of early Christian Gnostics, since virtually all of our information came from attacks leveled against them by their proto-orthodox opponents. An enemy can scarcely be trusted to provide a fair or accurate portrayal of one’s views.

The discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts did not completely remedy the problem, however.  For one thing…

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The Sethian Gnostics, from After The New Testament
Did a “Pope” Write the First-Century Book of 1 Clement?



  1. Avatar
    fishician  August 21, 2018

    Any thought that the Gospel of John is in any way related to or a precursor of Gnosticism, with its unusual introduction (“Logos,” “the true light,” etc.), and it’s emphasis on one’s understanding of Jesus rather than on moral and ethical behavior as in the Synoptics?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2018

      I wouldn’t say that John was a precursor in the sense that his views inevitably would lead to Gnosticism, but many later Gnostic did indeed love John in particular and did see him as advocating their views (You shall *know* the truth and the truth will make you free!)

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  August 21, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, the only way I have been able to make sense of Gnosticism — within the context of the large amount of syncretism of that time and place — is to create a diagram with fuzzy borders showing the marriage of all the different schools of thought.

    So we can imagine three interlocking circles for the Venn diagram. Each of the three circles has a “pure” form of an original tradition:
    1) The “Platonic” tradition of the Greeks (Also includes other schools, such as Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.)
    2) The Jewish tradition (including the incipient form of Jewish Christianity)
    3) The Dualist traditions of the Iranian cultures (such as Persian Zoroastrianism)

    Where Jewish tradition overlaps with some Iranian Dualism, you get Jewish apocalypticism, with a “good” God in a cosmic war with a “wicked” Satan. Where Jewish apocalypticism overlaps with some Platonism, you get the kind of Hellenized Jewish apocalypticism of, for example, 4 Maccabees.

    Where Iranian Dualism overlaps with some Jewish tradition, you a Dualist apocalypticism, such Mandeanism and Manicheanism. If you add a little Platonism into the mix, then you get late stage Manicheanism.

    Where Jewish tradition overlaps with some Platonism, you get Hellenized Judaism, like that of Philo.

    Where Platonism overlaps with some Iranian Dualism, you get a pagan Gnosticism, such as what we find in Neoplatonism. Add a little Judaism/Christianity and you get the Hermetica.

    Where, instead of Jewish tradition, you extend it to Christian tradition (i.e. the Judaism without the Jews) and overlap that with Iranian Dualism and Platonism, you get Christian Gnosticism.

    We can think of it kind of like a recipe book.
    — Add 3 parts Judaism/Christianity, 2 parts Iranian dualism and 1 part Platonism, and you get Christian Gnosticism
    — Add 3 parts Iranian dualism, 2 parts Judaism/Christianity, and 1 part Platonism, and you Manicheanism
    — Add 3 parts Judaism and 1 part Platonism, you get Kabbalah
    — Add 3 parts Platonism and 1 part Judaism/Christianity, you the Hermetica
    — Add 3 parts Platonism and 1 part Iranian dualism, you get Neoplatonism
    — Add 3 parts Judaism and 2 parts Iranian dualism, you get Mandeanism

    And so on…

  3. Avatar
    saavoss  August 21, 2018

    One of my favorite topics! I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the thread. You mentioned this thread comes from your anthology. Is this available on Amazon?
    Finally, you did not mention the Cathars. We’re they not considered Gnostics, or is their period too late?

  4. Avatar
    forthfading  August 21, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Would you classify your conclusions about the dating and influence of Gnosticism in the Gospel of Thomas to the majority opinion of scholars or a minority opinion. I have learned to stop seeing a majority view as simply correct since being a member of your blog, but I always like to know where you fall.


    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2018

      The majority now is inclinied to date it early second century, and not to call it Gnostic.

  5. Avatar
    michael  August 21, 2018

    Professor Ehrman, is it known from where the Cathars in the early Middle Ages in the Languedoc region in France derived their Gnostics views? The gnostic groups behind Nag Hammadi and the early Christian groups you list had long disappeared at that time. I am visiting their imposing hilltop castles where they fled for the inquisition and the internal French crusade, but nobody seems to have an answer.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2018

      It may be known, but I’m not one of the knowers.

    • Avatar
      nichael  August 31, 2018

      Concerning the Cathars:
      Given the nature of their views (e.g. the dismissal of the entire Old Testament, and the dualistic nature of their theology –God/Satan) whether they might have been more likely to have been influenced by Marcionite thought than the Gnostics. (Especially as they were primarily a Northern European phenomenon.)

  6. John4
    John4  August 22, 2018

    A question for you, Wonderful Bart:

    Why is your *After the New Testament* not available in kindle?

    I’ve often been curious as to why some particular work or other is or is not available in kindle. I’ve found obscure monographs available in the format. And, as with your *After the New Testamnt*, I’ve found works of (*relatively*, lol!) wider interest available only in the ancient (lol) codex format.

    Perhaps you (or someone you know who is more knowledgeable on the subject?) could discuss why or why not a particular work becomes available in kindle.

    Many, many thanks, Bart!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2018

      I really don’t know. Maybe because it’s an anthology of primary texts rather than a normal book?

  7. Avatar
    John Murphy  August 22, 2018


    I’m not sure whether you allow links, but this discussion on Gnosticism would be of interest to blog members who want to know more about the subject, I think.

    It’s from BBC’s “In Our Time” series.


  8. Avatar
    TheologyMaven  August 22, 2018

    I’ve always wondered about potential translational oddities related to ” gnosis” for English speakers. If the Greek means something like “knowing through direct experience” rather than the “book knowledge” that “knowledge” tends to mean in common English, then how is the gnosis different than experiencing the divine through direct experience? Not so much “secret teachings” as perhaps valuing personal experiences over the thoughts of proto-orthodox authors.

    Which perhaps places these concepts more in the mainstream of mysticism through the ages.
    Do historians using different languages to translate the Greek have different shadings on their “take” on gnosis?

    If we look at critics of ideas today, we find they often lump groups together and take the worst thing they do and apply it to all the groups. Thank you for your efforts to try to untangle the differences!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2018

      Yes, some scholars have tried for other words than “knowledge” — e.g. “understanding” or “acquaintance”

  9. Robert
    Robert  August 22, 2018

    Γνωσις του γνωστικισμός. Ha ha. Just got it!

  10. Avatar
    hoijarvi  August 23, 2018

    Was Marcion a gnostic? I’ve heard arguments both ways, but the definition in this blog seems to match gnosticism pretty well.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2018

      No definitely not (though people used to call him that). He did not hold to a Pleroma of divine aeons, did not think that “knowledge” brought salvation, did not think humans had a spark of the divine within etc. — the various telltale signs of gnostics.

      • Robert
        Robert  August 24, 2018

        “He [Marcion] … did not think that “knowledge” brought salvation.”

        What, if anything, of we know of Marcion’s soteriology?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 26, 2018

          Well, little, other than that he appears to have placed a high premium on faith, like his favorite apostle Paul.

  11. Avatar
    Apocryphile  August 23, 2018

    I’m not sure any work can be called “definitive” when it comes to this subject, but one book that comes close, IMO, is Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism? (2005)

  12. Avatar
    John Murphy  August 24, 2018


    I was reading some stuff about the beliefs of gnostics regarding the god of the Old Testament, so I thought I should go and have a proper look at the opening chapters of Genesis. I had read that book before, but what struck me yesterday was that I missed the glaring contradiction of chapters 1 and 2: the difference in the accounts of how God made Adam and Eve. I’ve heard you say that the vast majority of readers completely miss the contradictions of the New Testament, even though they are very obvious and relate to very important events, e.g. who discovered the ’empty tomb’.

    Anyway, my question is this: based on your experience in academic institutions, would you say that this ‘sloppiness’ on the part of reader is unique to those who peruse religious texts? Do your colleagues in other fields report the same trend among their students? Is there some kind of conditioning when it comes to our reading of religious texts, a conditioning that makes us satisfied provided that what we read sounds vaguely like what we’ve read before?

    Sorry for the long and off-topic question!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2018

      It’s especially true of readers who come to the text expecting it to be completely consistent, internally, yes. But my sense is that in reading most books, readers generally aren’t alert to the possibility of discrepancies.

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  September 26, 2018

    In God’s final address to Job (40:24-41:26) he describes the fearsomeness of Leviathan, making it seem almost his own equal. Have any early Christian commentators (proto-orthodox or not) addressed this passage and what can be inferred from it about God as creator? It seems to raise the possibility that YHWH and Leviathan are twins (cf. 41:12 & Ps. 18:9) who engaged in primordial combat, with YHWH besting Leviathan. It also seems odd that this is what finally causes Job to abandon his complaint.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      Leviathan shows up elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and is usually thought to refer to Ancient Near Eastern myths of creation where the God battles and kills a sea monster (Lothan or Leviathan) and divides up its body in order to make the material world. Job appears to be depending on this earlier set of myths.

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