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What Is Gnosticism? A Blast from the Past

From time to time I get asked about Gnosticism.  What was it exactly?  I deal with the issue in a number of my books, as you may know.  Here is a summary statement that I published a couple of years ago on this date, based on my rewriting of the section on Gnosticism in my undergraduate textbook, The New Testamen: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.

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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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Mythicists, Jesus, and the Messiah
What If the Mythicists Were Right: Mailbag November 6, 2016

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Tempo1936  November 7, 2016

    Most fundamentalists believe luke and Paul are actual historical figure.
    Fundamentalist also believe Luke not only knew Paul but traveled and was a good friend because of Luke’s writing in the book of acts
    Also Paul writes that he knew Luke in 2 Timothy 4:11, Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 1:24.
    What evidence is there that Luke never met or knew Paul?
    this scholarly or historical conclusion would shock most Christians.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2016

      I give a fuller discussion in my book Forged, and a much fuller one in my scholarly book Forgery and Counterforgery. Short story: when you can compare what Luke says about Paul in Acts with what Paul says about himself in his letters — about his travels, his message, his theology — almost always they are at odds. It does not appear that Luke knew him.

  2. Avatar
    Colin P  November 7, 2016

    Not on this subject at all, but when is your book on the rise of Christianity likely to be published Bart?

  3. Avatar
    Ophiuchus  November 7, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you know of any connection between Gnosticism and The Mithraic mystery religion?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2016

      There does not appear to have been any, apart from a common interest in astronomy.

  4. Avatar
    doug  November 7, 2016

    Gnostic beliefs seem, at least in part, to be an attempt to explain the Problem of Evil — this world with its vast evils was created by an inferior divine being rather than by God. So Gnostics let God off the hook.

  5. Avatar
    rblouch  November 7, 2016

    “The Sethian myths begin by describing the original, single, perfect divine being called the Invisible Spirit. This one is both unknown and unknowable — so distinct from anything we can imagine that he cannot be described. This Spirit is said to evolve into an entire Pleroma (= fullness) or other divine beings, the aeons. ”

    That is yoga.

    It is yoga with a subtle mis-direction, however. While the Invisible Spirit cannot be known or become knowable it CAN be directly experienced. The early yoga practices were designed to facilitate that experience. Getting your leg behind your head has almost nothing to do with it. Postures came a millennium later once the early practices had degraded.

    Knowledge comes sequentially out of and is inferior to direct experience. It (knowledge) is a part of the Pleroma so it can’t see it’s source in full. The Source cannot be fully described because of that relationship but…it…can…be…experienced…directly and you, Bart Ehrman, can have that experience if you so desire and have proper technique and diligence. So can anyone.

    God gives it a shot in Old Testament as well. The truest statement in the entire bible is his declaration, “I AM that I am…..tell them I AM sent you.”

    “I am” exists prior to all the phenomena that arise out of it. That, too, is yoga.

    It can be directly experienced by anyone with an interest and sufficient dedication.

  6. Avatar
    Hume  November 7, 2016

    Just when things couldn’t get more strange, you throw this massive curve-ball at me Bart!

  7. Avatar
    Hume  November 7, 2016

    I find these arguments never answered well by monotheism:

    1. Why do we have massive amounts of evidence for a 4.5 billion year old planet … and 10 000 years of history in genesis?

    2. There is interdisciplinary evolutionary evidence from dozens of fields stating every living thing has evolved from simpler organisms … and the OT has creation of living things in their current form in 2 to 3 days.

    3. Denosivans, Neanderthals, Naledi, and Floresiensis are human cousins from a common ancestor … no where mentioned in the ancient texts.

    4. Not a shred of futuristic knowledge in the texts – no hint of DNA, electricity, germ theory, quantum entanglement … and we have agricultural metaphorical parables.

    What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2016

      I have some of the same quesitons!

    • Avatar
      webattorney  November 13, 2016

      What you say are hard facts that will never be answered by the Bible without some creative interpretations. I am done with all kinds of creative interpretations. To me, some things in the Bible are plainly not accurate. But this doesn’t mean the Creationist theory is wrong because some Being could have started off the evolution trail.

      For Bart: One question on the Chapter 6 of Book of John: When Jesus talks about how his believers will rise up on the last day, is Jesus talking about during his lifetime or some day in future?

      I do agree that “I Am” type of phrases uttered by God in the Bible remind me of yoga and the Eastern religion.

  8. Avatar
    Tony  November 7, 2016

    The diversity of early Christianity is amazing. It strikes me that point (2) pretty well matches Marcionism as we understand it.
    Dr Ehrman, on the subject of Marcionism, what are your thoughts on the work of Joseph B. Tyson and others who define Luke-Acts as an anti-Marcionite effort dating from about the 120’s?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2016

      I don’t think Marcion was active yet at that time. (Or for another ten or fifteen years)

  9. Avatar
    Rogers  November 8, 2016

    Bart, I’ve been reading your book Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.

    In that book you have a chapter on the Gosple of Thomas, and though that gospel doesn’t contain some of the classic concepts of the Gnostics, such as there is no demiurge or gnostic cosmongony, or exegesis of Hebrew Bible scripture from a gnostic perspective, etc., you propose that the Gospel of Thomas can be best read and understood by pre-supposing a gnostic framework.

    Well, you then proceed to devote the rest of the chapter to showing examples by expounding on some concept of gnosticism and then cite a logion from the Gospel of Thomas and interpret the verse throught that particular lens of understanding.

    Well, I really liked this chapter – because it was a pretty good concise explanation of gnosticism and especially because the approach makes the Gospel of Thomas entirely accessible to a modern reader – even the verses that seem rather strange or out right bizarre.

    I bring this up to refer anyone to that book and that particular chapter for one of what I consider your more outstanding expositions on gnosticism – as an introduction.

  10. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  November 8, 2016

    Do you agree that Gnosticism is experiencing some kind of revival, not strictly as a religious movement, but rather as an undercurrent in today’s culture?

    Off topic: I am very interested in the Book of Revelation and I would like to know what is the meaning of the symbols that it uses. What would be the best trade book that discusses it? Would you consider starting a thread about it, perhaps offering (decisive) explanation to it chapter by chapter?
    Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2016

      Yes, there are some parts of our culture that are very much inclined to gnostic views. Revelation: you might try Bruce Metzger’s Breaking the Code. I’ve thought about doing a book myself on it, but if so, it will be way down the line.

  11. Avatar
    Eric  November 8, 2016

    Interesting mythical juxtaposition: “Wisdom”, what some might call among the highest of human aspirations, is lowly and faulty in the better realm of we can not even comprehend.

  12. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  November 8, 2016

    Do you see any similarities between present day mythicists and historical gnosticism? Mythicists describe early Christians’ original understanding of Christ as a cosmic figure crucified by demons in the heavenly realm. Is there anything in gnosticism similar to that that mythicists might have used? They both seem quite bizarre (though maybe no more bizarre than Orthodox Christianity seems to the unbiased). Maybe mythicists think Christianity originated in the same way as gnosticism.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 8, 2016

    The range of your expertise truly amazes me.

  14. Avatar
    dragonfly  November 8, 2016

    Are these myths told in the nag hammadi writings? How much did we know about the sethians before the nag hammadi discovery?

  15. Avatar
    andersg89  November 9, 2016

    Hi Bart
    Just for clarification, did the sethians separate Seth (Jesus) from the Son (Christ) or was Seth the companion to Barbelo?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2016

      Seth is the son of Adamas, the latter of whom is the heavenly counterpart to the earthly Adam; he (Seth) resides in one of the four luminaries (the one known as Oraoiael). It’s all very confusing. I’d suggest you read the account in David Brakke, The Gnostics, esp. ch. 3, “The Myth and Rituals of the Gnostic School of Thought”

      • Avatar
        andersg89  November 9, 2016

        The whole thing does sound like people influenced by Platonism and Christianity writing down psychedelic experiences. I don’t try to be funny, psychedelic drugs have been involed in a number of non-abrahamitic religions.
        Did any of the Anti-Gnostic writers accuse them of any practices that sounds like drug use to modern ears?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 10, 2016

          They accuse them of lots of things, but not hallucinogenic drugs! (Or rock and roll. But plenty of sex.)

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 10, 2016

    It is really odd to think of the “Creator God” as being an “inferior” god and lesser than other gods.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2016

      Odd only if you think the Creator of the world is supreme!

    • Avatar
      Ephraimlad  June 1, 2018

      Ronald, this was my initial impression when I dug into the Gnostics. Consider it like this: the God above the gods creates an operating system, which handles all the low-level functions and APIs. A vengeful, bloody, psychopathic god later creates an application which runs on that operating system. This application is an aberration of the Supreme God’s thought, and is characterized by sickness and pain, and an endless cycle of death.

      Generally, it’s not that the Gnostics did not believe in a Supreme, Sovereign God – it’s that this irredeemable pesthole we live is was not created by Him. The aim, then, was to gain the knowledge of how escape it.

  17. Avatar
    RAhmed  November 14, 2016

    How and when did Christian Gnosticism develop? I have read much about how Orthodox Christianity eventually came to be, but I haven’t seen the same discussion about Gnosticism. For example, was it already there during Paul’s lifetime or did it develop much later?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 14, 2016

      It developed later. For a good modern treatment, see David Brakke’s book on the Gnostics.

  18. Avatar
    Marko071291  December 12, 2018

    Hi Bart,
    Sorry to bother you with so manny questions in the past few days (Book by C. Hezser is already on its way to my home adress!)
    Regarding gnosticism, I assume that this is not really your area of expertise , but I hope you can help me. I’ve read a lot of books on gnosticism, but I couldn’t find any book or article that deals with social aspect of gnosticism (especially Valentinian school): How did they function as a group? Was there any structure at all? Where did they meet etc…
    I suppose it’s hard to know much about it with any degree of certainty, but I hope you have some article or book on your mind (it can be in English, German or French). Thank’s a lot!
    P.S. I’ll try to contact Zlatko Plese via mail. Maybe he knows something that can help me.

    Kind regards,

    Marko.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Yes, Zlatko would be the guy. The fullest study of the Valentinians is Einar Thomassen, The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” Definitely the place to start. Also, have you tried David Brakke’s book? He limits “Gnostics” to the Sethians, but gives a brief but authoritative account. I’m afraid almost our only sources for social life are enemy comments (Irenaeus says the Valentinians were members of the orthodox communities) and inferences. Very little to go on!

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