A Greek word, derived from the Indo-European root gno, also preserved in English “know” and Sanskrit jnana, “knowledge.” “Gnostic” comes from the adjective gnostikos (scientific), which in classical times was never used as a substantive. The only ones who called themselves Gnostics were members of the Jewish, later superficially Christianized, group of the Gnostikoi, which abandoned the personal God of the Old Testament to find the Unknown God. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.11.1), Valentinus took the principles of this “heresy” of the Gnostics and adapted them to his own brand of teaching. Neither Valentinus, Basilides, Marcion, nor Mani ever called himself a Gnostic; gnosticism is a modern invention.
Gnosis was used in Greek to indicate self-awareness. The inscription on the temple in Delphi reads gnothi seauton (know yourself). This could be explained in different ways. The Platonists interpreted it as meaning that man, by turning his attention inward, could abstract from sense perception and passion to uncover pure reason, which could know Being. Against them the Stoics argued that man could only know himself by looking outward to the providence and harmony of the cosmos and so discover that man is part of a whole (the Stoa is holistic).
Against both schools, the undogmatic skeptics proved that man could not know anything with certainty, especially about God, and therefore should humbly acknowledge his limitations. Under their influence the Platonists admitted that the One God of Parmenides, who is Being itself, cannot possibly be known and therefore is invisible, unutterable, unknowable. The only gnosis of this Agnostos Theos (Unknown God) is the awareness that He cannot be known. In Greek: estin autou Gnosis he agnostia.
This in turn led many at the beginning of our era to the realization that the God or gods must reveal Himself or themselves in order to be perceived. Gnosis thus became an intuitive knowledge of immediate revelation or of an esoteric tradition of such revelation for the elect.
This view is found in the Oriental mystery religions of the Roman Empire and magical papyri, and also, with the equivalent da‘ut for gnosis, in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes. Man there knows God directly, but through the letter of the Law, as with the later rabbis. “I know Thee, o my God, by the spirit which Thou hast given to men, and by Thy Holy Spirit I have faithfully hearkened to Thy marvellous counsel” (Hymn 19, col. 12, Vermes, 1974).
The same concept is found in the Gospel of John 17:3: “This is (not: will be) eternal life, that they know Thee (not: believe in Thee) and know Jesus Christ [here and now], whom Thou hast sent.” Also, in the Jewish Merkabah mysticism of the first centuries man is permitted to behold directly the Glory of God in the form like the appearance of man (Ezekiel 1:26).
This was the grounding upon which the “Gnostics” of Alexandria built their system, which was known to and Christianized by Valentinus. The conference on the origins of gnosis in Messina (1966) distinguished between gnosis, an esoteric knowledge for the elect, and gnosticism, which is characterized by a split within the Deity; the fall of a spiritual being, called Anthropos or Sophia; and the identity of the human spirit with the Deity. Valentinus, in his Gospel of Truth (32, 38, Attridge and MacRae, 1988) calls his followers “children of the Knowledge of the heart.” “He who thus possesses the gnosis [Coptic: saune], knows whence he is come and whither he is going” (22.13-15).
Such gnosis does not abolish the sacrament but completes it, according to a Valentinian quoted by Clement of Alexandria in Excerpts from Theodotus (7, 8, 2, Sagnard, 1970): “Not only the bath of baptism delivers from Fate, but also the Gnosis, who we were, what we have become, where we were, in what sort of a world we have been thrown down, what is birth, what is rebirth.”
- Attridge, H. W., and G. W. MacRae. “The Gospel of Truth.” In The Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 37-51, ed. J. M. Robinson. Rev. ed. San Francisco, 1988.
- Kittel, G., ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1, pp. 689-719, trans. and ed. G. W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1964.
- Quispel, G., ed. Gnostic Studies, 2 vols. Istanbul, 1974-1975. Rudolph, K. Gnosis. San Francisco, 1983.
- Sagnard, F. L. M. M. Extraits de Theodote. Clement d’Alexandrie. New ed. Paris, 1970.
- Vermes, G. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. London and New York, 1987.