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Gnosticism - Coptic Wiki


A modern term invented by scholars to indicate arbitrarily all sorts of currents of late antiquity that stressed gnosis, an intuitive knowledge of revealed mysteries. It should be limited to writings of the group that called themselves Gnostics (e.g., the Apocryphon of John) and products of thinkers like Basilides (Alexandria, c. 120), Valentinus (c. 150, Alexandria and Rome), and Marcion (Sinope and Rome, c. 150), who were familiar with the concepts of the “Gnostics” and them.

Original works rightly attributed to gnosticism are all in Coptic, with the exception of the second-century Greek Letter to Flora, by a certain Ptolemaeus, preserved in the Panarion of Epiphanius. The oldest of them are the Codex Askewianus (containing the two Books of Jeu) and the Codex Brucianus (with four books of the Pistis Sophia). Both are written in Sahidic, the dialect of Luxor; were probably acquired there in the eighteenth century by the Scottish traveler James Bruce; and were not translated but written directly in Coptic.

The Pistis Sophia tells, among other things, how Mary Magdalene interprets the Psalms authoritatively, as if she were an early Christian prophetess, and is criticized for that by Peter. This may reflect tensions in the local congregation of Luxor between a Gnostic faction that had preserved the primitive office of prophet(ess) and a faction, inspired by Rome, that favored an episcopal order.

In 1896 the German scholar Carl Schmidt announced the acquisition of a Coptic codex, Papyrus Berolinensis 8502, whose writings were not published until 1955. It contains the following:

  1. The pivotal writing of the rightly so-called Gnostics, the Apocryphon of John, which, notwithstanding its Christian name, is originally a Jewish writing of Alexandrian origin and describes the Unknown God and the spiritual world. It then continues to tell the story of the creation of the world and the history of mankind as a constant struggle between Wisdom, which bestows freedom of the spirit and consciousness, and a foolish demiurge called Jaldabaoth, who forbids eating fruit of the tree of knowledge.
  2. The Gospel of Mary, in which Mary Magdalene tells her visionary experience of the risen Christ and again is criticized by Peter.
  3. The Sophia of Jesus, a revision of the non- Christian letter of Eugnostos the Blessed.
  4. A fragment of the Acts of Peter, which are not gnostic at all but only ascetic and miraculous, and beloved by the Catholics. For that reason it is just possible that Papyrus Berolinensis 8502 was written in the scriptorium of a monastery.

In the second half of the third century, the great Gnostic Mani (216-277) sent his missionaries Papos and Thomas to Egypt, where they settled in Lycopolis, on the Nile above the Thebaid in Middle Egypt. There they proselytized among the pupils of the Platonic philosopher Alexander of Lycopolis, who wrote a preserved treatise against them. There they seem also to have translated, or to have had translated, the Manichaean writings found at Madinat Madi in 1930-1931 (kephalaia, Psalms, homilies, etc.) from East Aramaic into sub-Akmimic, the Coptic dialect of Lycopolis and surroundings.

In 1945, Muhammad Ali al-Samman, an Egyptian farmer of the Nag Hammadi region, found a jar containing a collection of about thirteen codices, fifty-two writings in Coptic, that is incorrectly called a Gnostic library. Codex II ends with the typically monkish invocation “Remember me, my brethren, in your prayers.” This alone is sufficient to suggest that these manuscripts were copied in one of the nearby, recently founded Pachomian monasteries. And it is thinkable that some old-fashioned monks valued these pious books and indignantly left the monastery when archbishop Athanasius stressed the importance of the canon (367) and the abbot urged them to surrender their precious treasures. Later, when pressure increased, they did not destroy the books because they had an inherent quality of holiness, but buried them carefully, just as Jews put devalued manuscripts in a hidden place, called the geniza. All further stories about the discovery are untrustworthy.

Nor are all the writings Gnostic. Rather, they reflect the situation of the second-century Alexandrian and can be used to illustrate the history of gnosticism, which is largely an Alexandrian phenomenon. Just as Athens is a symbol of logos (reason) and Jerusalem of faith, so Alexandria is the cradle of the third component of the Western cultural tradition, gnosis: inner experience and imaginative thinking. It lived on in Manichaeism, was transmitted to the Cathars of southern France through the intermediary of Armenian Paulicians and Messalians, revived in 1600 with the experience of the shoemaker Jacob Boehme, and survives in the ideas of Johann Goethe and George Hegel, Rudolf Steiner and Carl Jung, William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

At the beginning of our era, Alexandria was a crucible of Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish lore. There the Platonic philosopher Eudorus (first century B.C.) had given a religious, optimistic interpretation of the Master that cannot be reconciled with the tragic overtones of Plotinus (third century): God is Mind (not beyond Mind and thought); God brings forth matter out of Himself (matter is no lower emanation, is not evil); Ideas are thoughts of God (not to be found in Plato). One of these Ideas is Man (which Plato curiously denies in his Parmenides 130c). All this is relevant for subsequent gnosticism. Especially the theme that the shining figure of Man is manifested as a prototype to the angels, who fashion the body of Adam, occurs again and again. It is not without reason that a fragment of Plato’s Republic was found among the writings from Nag Hammadi (VI, 5).

Of the approximately 10 million Jews then living in the world (of whom 6 million were in the diaspora of the Roman Empire and only 500,000 in Palestine), hundreds of thousands lived in Alexandria. Most of them were very different from their law-abiding Palestinian counterparts, more liberal even than their compatriot Philo, the Alexandrian philosopher. Their religiosity can be found in the Sophia Salmonis, in the Roman Bible, and in the Nag Hammadi writing VI, 2, Thunder, Perfect Mind or Bronté, in which a godless goddess, Sophia, reveals her paradoxical nature.

In fact, Alexandrian Jews reveled in speculations about Sophia, whose relationship with the wanton Astarte is thinly veiled. Moreover, the fragments of the Alexandrian Jewish poet Ezekiel Tragicus reveal that by the second century B.C. there were certain circles in Alexandria that meditated about the “likeness like the appearance of a Man” of Ezekiel 1:26, which to this day remains the main theme of Jewish mysticism. Some identified this “Glory of God” with the Idea of Man.

Gnostic Anthropos and gnostic Sophia are of Jewish origin. There were also in Alexandria at the time. They, too, contributed to the rise of gnosticism. According to Egyptian religion, the Nile originated from the tears of the sun god Ra. In other words, matter is an emanation of the deity. So Valentinus can say that the world came into being from the tears and the smile of creative Wisdom, Sophia. The Egyptians spoke with incredible freedom about the sexual lives of their gods. So did the Gnostics. According to the theology of Hermopolis, a Nile goose (the Great Cackler) laid her egg in the moor; from it was born the sun god, who functions as a demiurge who arranges the world. In the same way, the Orphics of Alexandria taught that their demiurge, Phanes, was born from the cosmic egg formed in chaos, and Basilides taught that the great archon, Abraxas, came forth from the chaotic world seed. According to the Egyptians, the Godhead was androgynous, Father and Mother at the same time. The Gnostics, Valentinians, and Manichaeans had no different opinion.

Very much the same is found in the seventeen writings, the products of a mystery community in Alexandria, a sort of Masonic lodge, of which Greeks, Jews, and Copts were members. In the Prayer of Thanksgiving, at last understandable owing to a fragment from Nag Hammadi (VI, 7), the female half of the androgynous God is invoked with the words “We know Thee, womb conceiving through the phallus of the Father.” Much of the Egyptian influence on Gnosticism seems to have been exercised through the intermediate channel of the hermetic lodge. This encourages us to seek the origin of gnosticism in this Alexandrian congregation at the beginning of the Christian era.

According to the thirteenth treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Anthropos is born from the womb of spiritual Wisdom in silence, begotten by the sperm of God. This Anthropos, of course, is also a personal figure, the likeness as the appearance of Adam of Ezekiel 1:26, and the Idea of Man. According to the Poimandres, the first treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum, this Anthropos is brought forth by God in a process of parturition. This god Man desired to act as a demiurge, but fell in love with lower Nature and took his indwelling in a body that Nature had brought forth after the beautiful form of Man.

We must suppose that some Jews of Alexandria had formed a lodge of their own, a sort of B’nai B’rith, for in Nag Hammadi have been found purely Jewish and completely un-Christian writings like the Letter of Eugnostos the Blessed (III, 3, and V, 1) in which the concept is amplified that the eternal Son of God is Man. In the three Steles of Seth (VII, 4) this divine Son of Father and Mother is called Geradamus (Ceraios Adamas or Primordial Man), none other than the Adam Qadmon of medieval cabalism. This is the basic myth of the “Gnostics,” who produced the Apocryphon of John, the Hypostasis of the Archons (II, 4), On the Origin of the World (II, 5), and many similar writings of Nag Hammadi. It lived on in the Manichaean Trinity of Father, Mother, and Archetypal Man.

The of Alexandria of the first two centuries was pluriform and tolerant. According to a trustworthy tradition contained in the pseudo-Clementine homilies, “a Hebrew man called Barnabas,” a Judaic-Christian missionary from Jerusalem, had been the first to preach the Gospel there. The legend that Mark, the interpreter of Peter, came from to Alexandria proves that Rome later tried to cover up these heterodox origins and to impose its authoritarian, episcopal order.

The Jewish-Christian Gospel of the Hebrews was still discussed with some sympathy by and by Origen. The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, about the City of God (Nag Hammadi VI, 1), reveals the religiosity of this Jewish-Christian faction. Moreover, there were Encratites, sexual teetotalers (as it were) who abolished marriage and whose views can be found in the Gospel of Thomas (II, 2), The Book of Thomas the Contender (II, 7) and Exegesis on the Soul (II, 6). Gentile-Hellenistic is evidenced by the of Sextus (XII, 1) and the Teachings of Silvanus (VII, 4). characterized by the confession of faith, the canon, and the monarchic episcopacy was a latecomer in Alexandria.

Until it took over, Gnostic teachers like Basilides, Carpocrates, and Valentinus could easily remain members of the church. The first two taught reincarnation (like the “Gnostics” of the Pistis Sophia). All three were very free about sex (that was the influence of Egyptian religion and the local Hermetists), and the last two held that Christ had come to make man, spiritual man, conscious of his deepest self. This is most impressively described in the Gospel of Truth (I, 3), a sermon given by Valentinus in Rome (c. 140) and developed in a complicated, very “heretical” myth about Sophia, who tries unsuccessfully to penetrate to the depth of the Godhead, falls, and brings forth the world but is brought back to her origin by Christ, the divine Savior. The implication was that only spiritual men could be saved.

The leaders of the Western school of Valentinianism, Ptolemaeus and Heracleon in Rome, took a more favorable view of rising and the ordinary churchgoer, whom they called “psychic” because he had a soul but no spirit. They thoroughly modified the system and even introduced the novel concept that is not a tragic concomitant of evolution but a consequence of free will. Their views are attested in The Tripartite Treatise (1, 5) from the school of Heracleon, which describes at great length how the Logos (Sophia) has to pass through the inferno of matter and paganism, via the purgatory of (Jewish) religion and ethics, to achieve the freedom of the spirit and complete consciousness owing to the coming of Christ. It thus prepares the way for Origen, who also stressed gnosis for the elect and faith for the believers.

Gnosticism seems to have much in common with Neoplatonism and Catholicism: it preaches an unknown and unknowable God, rejects the world, and aims at salvation. In fact, it is not more pessimistic than Neoplatonism as far as matter and the visible world are concerned, and like rejects anthropomorphism. But when one looks more closely, its distinctive feature is its concept of God. According to Valentinus, every man has a guardian angel or Self who gives gnosis to his counterpart, but also needs the man or woman to whom he belongs because he cannot enter the pleroma, the spiritual world, without his other half. Mani teaches that every Manichaean has a twin, who inspires him and leads him to the light, but at the same time Mani holds that the eternal Jesus suffers in matter and is to be redeemed by the Gnostic. And Jacob Boehme says that God is an ocean of light and darkness, love and ire, who wants to become conscious in man.

The God of gnosticism is Being in movement.


  • Layton, B. The Gnostic Scriptures. New York, 1987. Pagels, E. The Gnostic Gospels. New York, 1980.
  • . Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. New York, 1988.
  • Quispel, G. “Gnosticism from the Middle Ages to the Present.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 5, pp. 566-74. New York, 1987.
  • Segal, A. F. Two Powers in Heaven. Leiden, 1977.