The following is an excellent, but incomplete and incompletely edited research paper on Gnostic Cosmology, written by a former student of mine.  daw 8/2/01

Among the religions of late antiquity, perhaps only paganism displayed greater diversity than Gnosticism. Gnostic groups lacked a common structure and a canon of scriptures and often disagreed on key issues, making them difficult to identify. As Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (140/50-200) and currently the most famous second-century author, wrote, ?Since they [the Gnostics] differ so widely among themselves both as respects doctrine and tradition, and since those of them who are recognized as being most modern make it their effort daily to invent some new opinion, and to bring out what no one ever before thought of, it is a difficult matter to describe all their opinions? (Against the Heresies, 1.21.5, as rptd. in Ehrman 165). Many extant Gnostic writings do, however, seem to share an underlying worldview (Ehrman 161-5).  

Most generally, Gnostics held that revealed ?gnosis,? a Greek word often translated ?knowledge? but more accurately meaning something like "insight? (Pagels xix) was necessary for salvation.  Salvation in fact meant understanding the gnostics? ultimate situation: ?who they were and how they came to be here, . . . where they came from and how they could return? (Ehrman 167).  They believed the origin of the universe explained its present nature and so Gnostic myths, which explain the Gnostics? views of ultimate reality, dwell heavily on issues of cosmology and cosmogony.

Within Gnostic myths and other Gnostic writings, we find other common tenets that explain and support the Gnostic salvation thesis.  The Gnostics ?understood the world in radically dualistic terms? (Ehrman 164).  For them, matter and spirit constituted the two fundamental and opposing components of reality.  Spirit was good and matter was not just imperfect and transitory as Plato had described it, but inherently evil and therefore not the work of the true God, who was completely spirit, but of a lesser deity.  And the Gnostic myths served largely to explain how the calamitous creation of the material world resulted from a perversion in the divine realm (Ehrman 164-5).

How much of these myths the Gnostics took literally and how much was understood as metaphoric reflection on the human condition is difficult to know, but it is clear that dualism featured heavily in ancient religious and philosophical thought from the Mediterranean and the Near East (Ehrman 164-5, Rudolph 59-60).  For Iranian Zoroastrianism, conflicts between a good and an evil god lie behind the beginning, the procession, and the end of cosmic history.  This ethically oriented dualism did not, however, align ?good? with spiritual and ?evil? with material.  Plato and his followers came closer to such a system when they separated the cosmos into an eternal, ?spiritual? level and its mutable, material counterpart.  The material realm was imperfect, but they stopped short of radically moralizing the distinction as the Gnostics would.  Among known groups of late antiquity, only the Gnostics maintained as a pivotal belief [1] the total evilness of creation and its creator (Rudolph 50-60).

According to some Gnostic myths [2], in the beginning there existed one true and omnipotent God composed only of spirit.  This God continues to exist but is so superior to humanity as to be incomprehensible.  This divine spirit reproduced, forming other divine but lesser [3] spirits in the form of couples sometimes called ?aeons.?  Some of these couples then mated and so created a divine realm with each generation increasingly separated from the true god and thus less perfect (Ehrman 166).  According to an anonymous treatise recovered among other Gnostic documents at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, an aeon, whom the Gnostics called Sophia (Greek for ?wisdom?) or Pistis (?faith?), ?wished to create a work alone without her consort.  And her work became an image of heaven, (so that) a curtain exists between the heavenly and the lower regions (aeons).  And a shadow came into being and this shadow became matter? (Nag Hammadi Corpus II 4,94 (142), 5-13 as rptd. in Rudolph 73).  Other myths recount that Sophia exceeded her bounds by attempting to comprehend the entire divine realm.  As a result, she fell from the divine place and therefore became terrified, angry, and upset [4] and these emotions ontologically personified themselves.  In either case, the illegitimate offspring of Sophia bring about the creation of the world (Ehrman 166). 

These malformed beings, partly divine but by their illegitimacy severed from the divine family tree, wished to capture Sophia and rob of her of divine power.  Fearing that she would first recover her strength and return to the divine realm, they divided her into innumerable pieces and imprisoned her in matter, where she remains as the divine ?spark? within the human bodies of Gnostics, yearning to return to her heavenly home.  Humans without this divine spark are, like animals, just another part of creation and thus destined for ultimate destruction.  But within the Gnostics dwell the sparks of divine that can be liberated from the material world-if one acquires the gnosis necessary for salvation (Ehrman 166)!

Thus the Gnostics did not belong to the evil material order.  A true understanding of their historical plight and their place in the universe as the elect carrying the divine within along perhaps with esoteric knowledge such as the passwords needed to pass through ascending realms to the highest heaven after death would ensure the Gnostics of salvation (Erhman 167).  The popularity among some Gnostic texts of the inscription at the Delphic oracle, ?know thyself,? reflects this soteriological emphasis upon self-understanding.  And like the Platonists, Gnostics interpreted the saying as, ?know the divine soul that is within you? (Rudolph 113).  But such insight cannot come from within this evil world; an aeon must reveal it to the trapped sparks (Ehrman 167), some of whom apparently recorded it in Gnostic texts.  By having an aeon communicate the divine will to humanity, Gnostic systems permit the true God to connect with creation through an intermediary.  Plato?s Demiurge and the logos, the ?word?, of John 1 accomplish the same thing.

Not all Gnostics considered themselves Christians and Gnosticism seems to have originated apart from Christianity, but those who did synthesize the two movements considered Jesus the divine being who delivered the gnosis that redeems humanity.  As the messenger from the divine realm, though, Jesus had to be completely spirit; the divine could inhabit material flesh.   So Gnostics had to explain why Jesus appeared human.  One solution was to claim just that-he only appeared human.  Referred to as docetism [5], this view held that Jesus put on act of seeming to hunger, to eat, to thirst, to bleed, to die, as he taught his disciples the saving gnosis.  The insight was only for the elect who carried the divine spark and so Jesus feigned humanity-as Paul says, Christ came ?in the likeness of sinful flesh? (Romans 8:3)-to conceal the revelation from the non-Gnostics (Ehrman 167).  For the same reason Jesus taught in parables, concluded them by saying ?Let he who has ears to hear, hear,? referring to the hidden truth that the elect could find in the parable; and later explained the meaning of the parables to his disciples in private.  The parables themselves often depicted the ?kingdom of heaven? as something, such as yeast or a treasure, which one hides [6].  As the anti-Gnostic writings of ecclesiastics including Ireneaus and Tertullian reveal, proto-orthodox Christianity, which would eventually win-in terms of numbers of followers-the intense and polemical theological battles of the second and third centuries, defined much of its theology through conflict with other Christian groups (Filoramo 4).  And it declared docetism a heresy at the Council of Chalcedon in 423, deciding that Christ was ?fully human, fully divine.?

More commonly though, Gnostic texts claim that Jesus was a flesh-and-blood human temporarily inhabited by the spiritual Christ.  The Christ chose Jesus for his righteousness and at the time of his baptism descended from heaven in the form of a dove ?and entered into him, empowering him to do miracles and to teach the gnosis necessary for salvation.?  Because as a spiritual being he could not encounter death, the Christ abandoned Jesus at his crucifixion.  Gnostics supported these notions with the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, where Jesus? public ministry begins in earnest with his baptism and where, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus cries from the cross: ?My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?? (Ehrman 167-8; Rudolph 151-169).  The non-canonical Gospel of Peter?s wording of Jesus final cry sounds even more Gnostic: ?My power, O power, you have left me? (v. 19, as rptd. in Ehrman 175).

This distinction between what seems to be the truth of Jesus? identity and message and the deeper truth hidden behind the appearances allowed Gnostics to inconspicuously worship alongside other Christians.  They could profess the same creeds and say the same prayers while inwardly understanding the words to have a deeper meaning that the proto-orthodox Christians rejected.  And so Irenaeus could declare that ?Such persons are to outward appearance sheep; for they appear to be like us, by what they say in public, repeating the same words as we do; but inwardly they are like wolves? (Against the Heresies, 3.16.8, as rptd. in Ehrman 165).

Finally, the Gnostics hostile rejection of this world meant that they did not develop a system of system of social ethics to govern human relationships.  As to personal morality, some proto-orthodox church fathers report that since the Gnostics considered the body an unimportant prison, they did not care what they did with their bodies; they were sexually immoral gluttonous cannibals.  Such an attitude did exist in antiquity.  Paul, for example, rebukes members of the church in Corinth for upholding it.  These charges, however, were also standard fare in ancient religious polemics and others leveled them against Jews and proto-orthodox Christians.  Other church fathers along with all extant Gnostic texts testify that Gnostics? rejection of the body made them not libertines, but ascetics; no one they thought should submit to the desires of evil flesh and so they condemned gluttony, drunkenness, luxurious clothing, and usually sexual activity (Rudolph 252-62; Ehrman 168-9).  As Jesus himself says to Peter in the Gnostic text Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles when Peter asks about the path to Jesus? home: ?Not every man is able to go on that road except one who has relinquished all his possessions and has fasted daily from district to district? (Nag Hammadi Corpus VI 1, 5, 19-6, 8 as rptd. in Rudolph 261).

In forging these characteristics, Gnosticism mined a vast array of religions and philosophies from the East, the Near East, Europe, and North Africa.  In the words of Kurt Rudolph, ?A further peculiarity of the Gnostic tradition. . . lies in the fact that it frequently draws its material from the most varied existing traditions, attaches itself to it, and at the same time sets it in a new frame by which this material takes on a new character and a completely new significance.

a) give examples of this synthesis - On self knowledge - p. 133 rudolph

b) explain why it is no surprise

1. Hellenism was a syncretism of Oriental and Greek cultures

2. During the second and third centuries, when Gnosticism flourished, the Roman Empire witnessed an flood of influence from Indian and other Eastern cultures and the cultural exchange was so open at that time anyway that the lines between East and West were not yet fixed.


II. explain Gnostic cosmology as the Gnostic tendency to borrow and retheologize material from other traditions

III. give a short history of the rise and fall of gnosticism and explain how we came to know much more about it in this century (Nag Hammadi)

IV.  explain why anyone today is interested in gnosticism

a) its importance as a counter-culture against which orthodox Christianity defined itself

b)   its lingering remnants and influences among contemporary Christianity

c) its appeal to those seeking alternative (Christian) spiritualities (one sentence)


Works Cited

Betz, Hans Dieter. "Antiquity and Christianity." Journal of Biblical Literature 117, No. 1 (Spring 1998): 3-22.

Downing, Gerald F. "Deeper Reflections on the Jewish Cynic Jesus." Journal of Biblical Literature 117, No. 1 (Spring 1998): 97-104.

Ehrman, Bart D.  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Fideler, David.  Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism.  Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 1993.

Filoramo, Giovanni.  A History of Gnosticism. Trans. Anthony Alcock. Cambridge,  Mass.: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1990.

Goehring, James E., Charles W. Hedrick, and Jack T. Sanders with Hans Dieter Betz.   Gnosticism & the Early Christian World: in Honor of James M. Robinson.  Sonoma,  California: Polebridge Press, 1990. 

Pagels, Elaine.  The Gnostic Gospels.  New York: Random House, 1979. 

Rudolph, Kurt.  Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism.  1977.  Trans. P. W.  Coxon, K. H. Kuhn, Robert McLachlan Wilson.  Ed. R. McL. Wilson.  San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1987.

[1] According to Kurt Rudolph, the evil characterization of the visible world appears as well in certain Orphic teachings that are of uncertain date?(60).
[2] For the texts of these, see the Nag Hammadi Library, James Robinson, ed.
[3] Note the parallel with Platonic thought, where creation imperfectly reflects certain eternal archetypes.
[4] As in the myth of Pandora, a woman bears responsibility for the introduction of ?negative? emotions into the world.
[5] From the Greek verb dokeo, to appear.
[6] For examples of all these features of Jesus? ministry, see Matthew 13.