Gnosticism ( from Ancient Greek γνῶσις: Gnosis: " [ It - ] knowledge " ) or Gnosticism ( Latinized form of the Greek γνωστικισμός: gnostikismos ) called religion scientific term various religious teachings and groupings of the 2nd and 3rd century AD, and partly also of earlier progenitor. The term is also used for various constellations that are in wirkungsgeschichtlichem connection with these groups or have represented in the teachings similarities.


The expressions Gnosis, Gnostic and Gnosticism are often used indiscriminately. Commonly referred Gnosis a religious secret knowledge that, in its understanding lifts the Gnostics of the rest of humanity.

In the literature of the second and third centuries was " Gnostics " a common name for ( Christian, Jewish and pagan, Hellenistic ) intellectuals. Gnosis meant knowledge in a general sense. The self-designation as " Gnostic " is often non-specific. Gnostic movements in the specific sense were referred by their leaders or founders as Valentinians, Simonians or Basilidians, but probably already have foreign names from critics, while some of these groups probably simply " Christians" called.

The non-specific self-designation as a knower or knowers was in the wake antignostischer polemic Christian theologians (particularly Irenaeus of Lyon) extended to those spiritually related doctrines which beliefs sided with speculative - philosophical elements and seem to be under various respects in dependence or similarity relations.

The later literature often required a uniform movement called Gnosticism. The term Gnosticism comes from the modern era. The English philosopher and theologian Henry More coined it in the 17th century summary of all Christian heresies. Since the 18th century Gnosis or Gnosticism also serves as an interpretive category for contemporary religious or philosophical currents (about Ferdinand Christian Baur, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, or Rudolf Steiner). This of course comes the religious-historical phenomenon, which is referred to in ancient times as Gnosticism, from the point of view. On the Gnosis Congress of Messina in 1966, therefore, a more precise language rules was proposed. After a call gnosis " knowledge of divine mysteries, which is reserved for an elite ," Gnosticism, however, " a specific set of systems of the 2nd century after Christ ", which is bounded by historical and typological characteristics. This proposal is not only in conflict with the concept of history ( as far as it separates the religious-historical phenomenon of an unusable for historians Gnosis - term ), but is also determined.

In the recent discussion is - depending on the historical assessment - disputed whether Gnosticism as a movement within the Christian religion is to be taken ( with possibly pre-Christian precursors ) ( such as Adolf von Harnack ) or as a belief or religion that adapt to different religions can ( such as Quispel and temporarily Hans Jonas and Eric Voegelin ). Here is assessed differently, whether Gnosticism is an originally independent religious or an attempt to Judeo- Christian religion to substantiate philosophically, which then ends up in the Manichaean religion. In particular, recent discoveries have text sharpened the understanding that it is a unitary phenomenon Gnosis typological only in the context of construction that are ( such as Markschies ). Partial keep religious scholars use the term Gnosticism also the more elaborate systems of the late 2nd and 3rd centuries. In the Anglo- Saxon usage, the term gnosticism has largely prevailed on specific mythical manifestations of religious studies limit.

Main features of the Gnosis

  • There is a perfect all-encompassing God.
  • Through a high-handed and selfish act in the eons occurs an imperfect God into existence. This is demiurge or creator god called because it in turn arbitrarily All the material creates. The Demiurge is identified in many Gnostic writings with YHWH, the God of the Tanach, the Old Testament of the Bible.
  • Therefore, the Gnostics believe that Jesus of Nazareth is not the son of God of the Jews, but - as an incarnation of Christ - so spiritually understood the child of perfect deity, not physically. ( Christology )

A concise summary of the Gnostic worldview can be found in the article about the Apocryphon of John. This can not be generalized for the entire " Gnosis ", but meets at least one (or more ) of their greater tendencies to ( sethianische Gnosis / Barbelognosis ).

Ancient Gnosticism

Similarities to gnostic groups and influences on this one discusses religious movements in the Syrian, Persian and Hellenistic- Jewish environment. The exact dependencies and influences of these movements with each other are difficult to be detected and controversial; to what extent one can call them already gnostic depends greatly on how one understands this concept. The adoption of a " Jewish Gnosticism " is about as opposed to the speech of " Jewish Roots of Gnosis " controversial because many characteristics and an interest in Old Testament biblical texts are missing.

Larger knowledge enable the traditional sources of Gnostic groups in early Christianity, where elements of ancient Greek philosophy and religion (especially Mittelplatonismus and Neopythagorian thinker, doctrine of metempsychosis ), Persian ( Zoroastrianism in particular ), Babylonian and Egyptian religions are identifiable. Even relationships with the Mahayana Buddhism around the same time resulting in northern India are considered.


Until the 20th century, historians and religious scholars were largely dependent on text traditions in early Christian theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, Origen or Epiphanius of Salamis or representations in admittedly often polemical distortion at about Justin or Tertullian. After the Theological Encyclopaedia, Article II.4 Gnosis, the basic credibility of Irenaeus has been largely corroborated by the findings at Nag Hammadi.

An original texts - especially in the Coptic language - are:

  • Codex Askewianus containing the Pistis Sophia work,
  • Codex Berolinensis Gnosticus 8502, with the Gospel of Mary, the Apocryphon of John and the Sophia of Jesus Christ
  • Brucianus Codex, which contains among other things the books of Jeû.

For a long time these were the only direct textual evidence from the field of Gnosis itself a much broader textual basis comes into view, since 1945/1946 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt a whole library also Gnostic writings were found, including pseudepigraphic parallels to the New Testament genres such as the Gospel of Thomas, an Apocalypse of Paul and the Apocalypse of Peter and the paraphrase of Shem.

Furthermore, to name a Manichean texts: the finds from Turfan and from the Dakhleh Oasis, the Library of Medinet Madi, the Cologne Mani Codex.

The Corpus Hermeticum and the Hekhalot literature are related to their Gnostic character, at least controversial ( it is missing in the former case contradicts divine powers and they compelling Redeemer, in the second case is missing a mythological drama about the divine spark, here is more likely to influence the to think Kabbalah ).

Even in the New Testament texts expressions are how to find Gnostics. Because of the mentioned former undifferentiated manner of use of these expressions is almost always very unclear and controversial whether this Gnostics are meant in the sense about Valentinian Christians, whether is connected to the local language and if so, to what extent this happens critical, or whether so easy to religious knowledge in a non-specific sense of reference. Similar problems are discussed about the Ephesians or Colossians letter where Paul before " philosophy and empty deceit " ( 2:8) warns. For the Gospel of John about Bultmann elements took part in a Gnostic doctrine of redemption. But this is contradicted by key features (no myth of creation of the world by an evil demiurge, incarnation and suffering on the cross instead of Docetism ), although Gnostic theologians like to refer to the Gospel of John, for example because of the beginning with the creation of the world and a jagged, only through Christ perforated separation between light and darkness, up and down.

Non-Christian Gnostic groups

Manichaeism was a Gnostic embossed, intense missionary ancient religion that spread to China. Its founder Mani grew up in a Christian Baptist Community and regarded himself as an apostle of Christ and as continuing and finisher of his life's work. On the part of the Christian Church, the Manichaeans were not recognized as Christians.

Manichaeism was persecuted under Diocletian as Persian threat. Towards the end of the fourth century Christian emperor took measures against the Manichaeans. The year-on paganism tolerant Valentinian I enacted laws by which the property of the Manichaeans was confiscated, Gratian strung them together with the extreme Arians, and Theodosius I as undesirable enacted laws that prohibited Manichaeism.

The Mandaeans are a still existing minority in Iraq, Iran and the world, whose religion has Gnostic influences.

In Islam some groups of Shia ( Ismaili Muslims, Alevis, Alawite and Druze ), and the products resulting from the Shia syncretic religions, such as Yazidi, expected to Gnosticism. Sometimes the Sufis ( adherents of Islamic mysticism ) are counted among the Gnostics. The same applies to the Merkabah mysticism, the Kabbalah and Hasidism as currents of Jewish mysticism.

Gnostic groups in Christianity

The term Gnosis is, as already mentioned, used increasingly more selective only in the course of the constitution large ecclesiastical authority. The term Gnostic initially the most diverse groups of people are referred to. This Adolf Harnack has clearly described. He describes the early Christian Gnosticism as a highly varied movement that can be distinguished by their extremes hardly the people Christianity on the one hand or by Hellenistic syncretism on the other side. He leads on the one extreme to the Encratites that emphasized a strict asceticism in imitation of Christ, and only sometimes recordings dualistic ideas, prone to speculation Christian theologians such as Origen, as well as unobtrusive doketistische communities and at the other extreme, the Carpocratians, in addition to statues of Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle the genius of Jesus lined up a statue. Even further in the secular culture, there were magicians and soothsayers with Christian figurehead and charlatans who the people lured the money out of your pocket with incomprehensible incantations. In the middle of the Gnostic groups such as Valentianer, Basilidians and Ophites were discernible. Today, many historians would attribute the mentioned groups of people no superordinate group identity of a movement of Gnosis more.

Early representatives of the Gnostic groups are Simon Magus, Menander, Satornilos, Basilides.

Large system designs and Gnostic schools arise in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, especially the Valentinians with Valentinus, Herakleon and Ptolemy and the so-called Barbelo - Gnostics, the Ophites. For the so-called Gnosis sethianische a group identity is often (about B. Layton ) doubts, especially since the texts reveal widely differing systems. Marcion is different despite many similarities in crucial points of them, which is why his status as Gnostics is controversial. Together these designs is the attempt to express a synthesis of Judeo-Christian theology and vulgärplatonistischer speculation in mythological framework, with divine attributes personified and earthly and heavenly salvation-historical events are represented.

The Valentinian treatise, the only original document of the Valentinians, the paraphrased Irenaeus, in narrative ductus is a Platonic doctrine of three parts of the soul, which corresponds to a three-part anthropological classification:

The Sophia Achamoth are, according to the story given there ( here after WA Löhr paraphrased ), the pneumatics pneumatic seed to be formed with the mental part of the soul. The mental part of the soul must be morally educated by the world and the Savior. The Savior is pneumatic and psychological nature. Since he has not adopted hylic nature, it can not be saved. The history of salvation has its goal in the return of pneumatic elements to the Pleroma. Freed from their mental sheath, the pneumatic soul parts connect with the angels who surround the Savior. The psychic soul parts which have been proven through faith and good works, promoted to the first Ogdoad of the Pleroma.

The followers of the Gnostic schools were also persecuted during the persecution of Christians as the apostolic churches, the Alexandrian Carpocratians have been destroyed by Septimius Severus in the persecution of 202, for example.

Later influences from or references to Gnostic traditions

Gnostic elements were taken in the Middle Ages from alchemy, the Bogomils and the Cathars, in the Islamic world, among others, Druze and Yezidis. Also spiritualism has been associated with Gnostic traditions.

In the 19th century took on Mormonism and later theosophy various Gnostic traits. For part of the 20th century influences on anthroposophy, the Rosicrucians, the Grail, and discusses the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung.

The historian Nicholas Goodrick -Clarke emphasizes the influence of Gnostic and Manichaean ways of thinking on the right esoteric ideologies, such as in the ariosophy or Miguel Serrano.

In particular, using a non- religious scientific and historical, but definite content Gnosis - term, some authors ( including psychologists, philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries ) have a connection with " Gnosis " made ​​.

Gnostic churches of modern times

" Gnostic churches " are more modern churches founded, the appeal to Gnostic ideas, often located to the views of the traditional churches in conflict. The term " Gnostic Church " is historically the first time in Joanny Bricaud " Eglise Gnostique " use. The " Gnostic churches " include, among other things, the Liberal Catholic Church, the Gnostic Catholic Church ( " Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica " ) by Theodor Reuss, the Gnostic school ( Peithmann ), the Bible cloth Rosicrucianum, the Gnostic community of Urdner (Berlin), the community of the Gnostics ( EH Schmitt), the Gnostic Temple brotherhood ( Herford ) and the Altgnostische Church of Eleusis ( Hamborn ).

The first Gnostic Church of modern times, the Eglise Gnostique universal, was founded on September 21, 1890 by paleontologist Jules Stanislas Dionel († 1902). Their apostolic succession headed the Gnostic Church Dionels off from the tradition of two precursors: the Gnostic teachings of Memphis - Mizraim - Rite, and the Johannitischen Church of the Original Christians ( Eglise Johannite of Chretien Primitifs ), the beginning of the 19th century, mainly from the seceded in France acting mystical- Moorish secret society of primitive Christian - neognostisch modeled Templar Order. The " Johannitische Church of the Original Christians " derived its succession turn of the early Christians from whose teachings had been handed down most directly in Johannine Christianity. His appeal was referring to the high degree mason Jules Stanislas Dionel who dealt in 66 degrees of the Memphis - Mizraim Rite of Freemasonry in Orléans, from the Charter of the Gnostic Chancellor Etienne, the beginning of the 11th century because of its affiliation with a Gnostic secret society as Cathar martyrs was burnt.

Eric Voegelin's Gnosticism thesis

Eric Voegelin saw in modernity a return of Gnosticism, especially in the form of political religion. According to Voegelin, there are six characteristics which distinguish the Gnosis: