Sunday, October 7, 2012

Gnosticism: Nag Hammadi

I am currently taking an amazing class entitled Early Christian Thought. It's taught Oxford tutorial style. The main focus is the reading. There are three (kind of four) of us in class, and we each are assigned a time period to read all the original sources on. We read about 300 pages a week for three weeks, and then write an essay responding to a question the teacher proposes based on the reading. We then present the essay to the rest of the class. My classmates will grill me and we will discuss my topic. My first assignment was Gnosticism. So I had the privilege of reading the Nag Hammadi Scriptures, which also included the Gospel of Judas.  

Gnosticism is dark. One of the main characteristics is that Yahweh is not the highest god, but either ignorant of the fact or maliciously trying to wipe out the truth. That idea can really play with people and shake their faith. I know it did mine. I think it would be wise to give a cautionary note before students read, just letting them know what they are in for and to stay close to God.  


“From your reading of the Nag Hammadi texts and Hippolytus, how would you describe the precise character of Gnosticism? 

The first thing that needs to be understood about Gnosticism is that it is not one unified group. There were many different ideas and schools of thought that have been lumped into one big group by the modern age. As a history professor once said, it is much like how the term liberal has been used to label those who are not conservative. Though one group may deny the divinity of Christ, and a separate group affirms that there is more than one way to get to God; both are considered to fall under the same camp of liberalism. So also Gnosticism covers a variety of different ideas, some of which are even at odds with one another.
For example, the Testimony of Truth[1], along with condemning the Orthodox Church, speaks out against the “heretics” of other gnostic schools. In between listing the wrong theology of certain Gnostic teachers, the author states that the different gnostic schools do not agree with each other. The author then goes on to say, “[there is] no judgment…for these because of…them…the heretics…{…}they will belong to the [world rulers of] darkness…of the world{…}they are punished.”[2] The author of the Testimony of Truth is by all means Gnostic in his thought, yet we see harsh language being used on others who are share “similar” convictions.
To get to the point of being able to define Gnosticism, one must first understand a little bit about the main schools of thought that most Gnostics tended toward. The scholars who produced The Nag Hammadi Scripture describe four distinct groups of thought found within the Nag Hammadi library – Thomas Christianity, the Sethian School of Gnostic thought, the Valentinian School of Gnostic thought, and the Hermetic Religion. Understanding the basic premise of each school will help us better identify the chaos that is Gnosticism as portrayed in the Nag Hammadi texts.[3]
Thomas Christianity is named after their central figure, Thomas the Apostle. The Gospel of Thomas, the Book of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas (not among the Nag Hammadi collection), and perhaps the Dialogue of the Savior are all considered part of this group of texts. The scholars of The Nag Hammadi Scriptures believe that it was this group that influenced Valentinus and helped form his own gnostic school.[4] This was also the group that seemed to highly influence Manicheanism, as both the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas were accepted as inspired texts.[5]
Thomas Christianity seems to have come out of Syria, where the legacy of Thomas as the twin was so important[6]. At some point, it was thought in Syria that Thomas was actually the twin of Jesus. This Syrian concept of Thomas, who was also called Judas Thomas, as the twin of Jesus was dominant in  Thomas Christianity[7]. Not only was the family connection between Judas Thomas and Jesus emphasized, but we also see this connection allegorized as the relationship of a person and his heavenly ego. This would be picked up among other gnostics later.
The Sethian School of Gnostic Thought is named after the third son of Adam who was thought to be the embodiment of Gnosis. This was often based on Genesis 4:25 and Genesis 5:3,
 “(4:25)And Adam had relations with his wife again; and she gave birth to a son, and named him Seth, for, she said, “God has appointed me another offspring in place of Abel; for Cain killed him.”(5:3) When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.”
The Sethians focused on Seth being “another offspring” or seed as well as Seth’s bearing of the image of Adam (unlike Cain and Abel), which was in turn the image of God. Up to 16 treatises are ascribed to this group, including the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, the Secret Book of John, the Revelation of Adam, and the famous Gospel of Judas (not in the Nag Hammadi Library). What really set the Sethians apart was their highly developed story of the cosmos, which was very strange in comparison to the orthodox story.
We get a good glimpse of it in the famous Gospel of Judas. After Jesus laughs at the disciples for praying to the wrong God (Yahweh), He tells them that whoever is strong enough should bring forth the perfect person to stand before Jesus. Only Judas Iscariot is able to do so. As he stands there he tells Jesus, “I know who you are and from what place you have come. You have come from the immortal realm of Barbelo, and I am not worthy to pronounce the name of the one that sent you.”[8] Jesus realized that Judas understood and told him to move away from the others.
What is the realm of Barbelo? First, it is important to discern that in the Gospel of Judas, Barbelo’s realm is compared against the realm of the God of the Jews. The Gospel of Judas, as is characteristic of almost all of the Gnostics, is not stating that the Orthodox have misunderstood Yahweh and the heavens, but simply that there is a higher realm.[9]
The actual story of this realm is quite bizarre. Though many tell of it, the treatise The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, explains things well.[10] At one point, there was the Great Invisible Spirit who is self-generating. From him came the Father, the Mother (Barbelo), and the Child. Each of these three also had a realm of eight.[11] From this comes a multitude of different triads. This is when things get murky. Though The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit has one version of what happens here, other Sethian texts vary on the details. It is enough that the reader understands that there are several levels of heavenly realms, and that from one of the lower realms came Eleleth, who in turn produced Sophia. It is through Sophia that the material world and its evil ruler, Sakla (who is equated with Yahweh), come into being. As an important side not, at a quick glance, the Sethians don’t seem to call the material world inherently bad.
To quickly summarize the rest of this complicated story, the seed of Seth, who is part of the high realm, is sown into the world.[12] For the rest of the duration of the world, Sakla and his demonic powers try and destroy the seed of Seth (the flood is mentioned as one of Sakla’s attempts). Seth’s mission is to save mankind and he appears in various ways, the most famous being as Jesus. Ultimate salvation comes through each individual’s assimilation back into the Divine Mother, the original condition of all people. Within the Sethian texts there are different nuances, but many seem to follow this general outline of the cosmos. Another factor of Sethian Gnostics is the five seals, which is a baptismal rite that many texts mention.
The Valentinian school of Gnostic thought seems to be very similar to Sethian Gnosticism. Named for its founder Valentinus, it is thought to have been started around the year 140 AD.[13] Some of the treatises categorized under this group are the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Phillip, the Tripartite Tractate, and the Valentinian Exposition. Like Sethian Gnosticism, the Valentinian gnostic believed in a grand, complicated cosmos complete with aeons and a divine realm, along with the fall of Sophia which produced the world of matter.[14] A major difference, however, is how the Valentinians treat the ruler of this world. He is not viewed at the evil sakla,[15] but as the ignorant demiurge, a simple tool used by Sophia to do the manual labor of creation. Instead of trying to crush the “seed of Seth” found in humans, the demiurge is not viewed as the cosmic enemy, but just as an idiot.
For example, the Tripartite Tractate states, “When he [demiurge] saw that the things he said and worked on were great, good, and marvelous, he rejoiced and was happy, as if he was the one who had spoken and had done these things by his own thoughts; for he was ignorant that the movement within him came from the spirit in a predetermined way toward what it wanted.”[16]  Another distinct aspect of Valentinian Gnosticism is that though the demiurge is the God of the Old Testament, because he is actually a tool of Sophia, some of the writings of the OT are considered to be of the true father and are useful to the Valentinian Gnostic.[17]
The Hermetic Religion doesn’t really deserve much mention as it is a minor group and basically a conglomeration of Gnosticism and popular religions like the myths of the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. According to Mahe, “Hermetism is not a philosophical system but a spiritual way,”[18] which basically means things could contradict and not completely add up.
I hope that it has been shown that there is great variety within Gnosticism. One group viewed the powers of this age bent on destroying the divine spark, while another viewed the ruler as a bumbling simpleton, and yet another doesn’t seem to speak on the subject much at all. This disparity was even recognized by the gnostics themselves. What I haven’t even had time to develop is the fact that there seems to be different degrees of gnostic thought found in each treatise, with some not containing much at all.[19]
With all this in mind, it is evident that giving overall Gnosticism a “precise definition” is based on the popular assumption that Gnosticism is more unified than it truly is. All that can be done is to describe the usual characteristics that have often been given:
 Gnostics focus on secret knowledge which can usually be found by looking within, hence the term Gnostic, the Greek word for knowledge. This can be found as an explicit theme in almost every Gnostic text. Another basic Gnostic trait is the idea of fullness and deficiency. This can also be explicitly found in many of the texts, and is featured in the genesis story of the Valentinians, as Sophia became deficient after she tried to grasp God and then needed to be filled. Matter is always viewed as bad, with some viewing matter as truly evil and others viewing matter simply as the lowest form.
The most defining basic characteristic of Gnosticism is their perspective of Yahweh and Jesus. Yahweh is not the most high God, but only the creator god who is much lower in comparison to the divine realm of Aeons. He is viewed as either ignorant or a demon trying to stamp out the sons of the true god, the ineffable one. Jesus is not the son of Yahweh but the son of the most high god, bringing a message of reconciliation to come back to the divine realm of Aeons.
But I am not saying anything that isn’t found in most basic summaries of Gnosticism. What might be more beneficial would be to try and give a precise definition for each strain of Gnosticism that has been found, now that we understand the different schools. However, after my quick overview of the Nag Hammadi texts, my own hypothesis is that even the four schools of thought aren’t truly unified. It even seems that those texts that could be confidently placed in one of the groups, though they do share many of the same characteristics as the rest of the group, also have many differences. For example, while most of the Valentinians preached that it was Sophia who had tried to grasp the totality of the ineffable father and thus fallen and created the world, the Tripartite Tractate states that is was the logos who did so, which would really change things.
                Perhaps I have some of my own false presuppositions that make that question irrelevant. To what degree should each theology agree to be considered coming from the same source? Is a different ordering of the Aeons really difference enough to be considered a separate school? Perhaps even researching the question of how important was doctrinal unity among the schools of the gnostics would help, if it were possible. I now realize that I have more questions than I do answers, but through it all I have concluded that some questions must be reevaluated in light of my brief research, which is an answer in itself, is it not?

[1] Which may have been written by Julius Cassianus, who according to Clement of Alexandria departed from the school of Valentinus. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, page 616
[2] The Nag Hammadi Scriptures page 624
[3] I relied heavily on the epilogue of NHS, found on pages 777-798, which described each group of Gnotics
[4] The Nag Hammadi Scriptures page 778
[5] The Nag Hammadi Scriptures783
[6] In John 11:16, we see that Thomas is also called Didymus, which is the Greek equivalent to the Aramaic term for twin. Vincents Word Studies in the New Testament, John 11:16. The Word Bible Software
[7] See the Book of Thomas in NHS page 239 for an example
[8] NHS page 761
[9] The Gospel of Judas actually seems to be written specifically against the Orthodox Church, as the author implies that Judas alone knew the truth, and the other disciples followed the lower god and did not understand.
[10] Starts on NHS page 252
[11] Also called “Ogdoad” which the previously mentioned author of the Testimony of Truth mentions as part of the wrong teaching of the heretics
[12] The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit NHS page263
[13] NHS 790
[14] The Tripartite Tractate is where you will find most of this in detail
[15] Which by the way means fool
[16] NHS 85
[17] See the Tripartite Tractate NHS 89-91
[18] NHS page 796
[19] See the Teachings of Silvanus. This book seems like it could have almost been biblical.


  1. Wow!I cannot express my gratitude, no wonder I couldn't grasp the origin ideas, I was seeing them as one. I have done so much reading and will continue to do so but,you have cleared up so much! Truly there are no words to express my all I've got is thank you!I finally gave up with the origin stories and focused on after and next. Landrethlori@gmail.Com would love to be able to reach out to you with any others questions or thoughts.please let me know if that's ok. I seriously am overwhelmed with gratitude.The understanding that the lack of my understanding on origin stories (higher realms) is not an hindrance at all of my understandings from within (of course after study. I feel much more confident in my knowlege.