An Introduction to Gnosticism and
The Nag Hammadi Library
What is Gnosticism?
“Gnosis” and “Gnosticism” are still rather arcane terms, though in
the last two decades they have been increasingly encountered in the
vocabulary of contemporary society. The word Gnosis derives from
Greek and connotes "knowledge" or the "act of knowing". On first
hearing, it is sometimes confused with another more common term of the
same root but opposite sense: agnostic, literally "not knowing”.
The Greek language differentiates between rational, propositional
knowledge, and a distinct form of knowing obtained by experience or
perception. It is this latter knowledge gained from interior
comprehension and personal experience that constitutes gnosis.1
In the first century of the Christian era the term “Gnostic” came to
denote a heterodox segment of the diverse new Christian community. Among
early followers of Christ it appears there were groups who delineated
themselves from the greater household of the Church by claiming not
simply a belief in Christ and his message, but a "special witness" or
revelatory experience of the divine. It was this experience or gnosis
that set the true follower of Christ apart, so they asserted. Stephan
Hoeller explains that these Christians held a "conviction that direct,
personal and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is
accessible to human beings, and, moreover, that the attainment of such
knowledge must always constitute the supreme achievement of human
What the "authentic truths of existence" affirmed by the Gnostics
were will be briefly reviewed below, but first a historical overview of
the early Church might be useful. In the initial century and a half of
Christianity -- the period when we find first mention of "Gnostic"
Christians -- no single acceptable format of Christian thought had yet
been defined. During this formative period Gnosticism was one of many
currents moving within the deep waters of the new religion. The ultimate
course Christianity, and Western culture with it, would take was
undecided at this early moment. Gnosticism was one of the seminal
influences shaping that destiny.
That Gnosticism was, at least briefly, in the mainstream of
Christianity is witnessed by the fact that one of its most influential
teachers, Valentinus, may have been in consideration during the
mid-second century for election as the Bishop of Rome.3 Born in
Alexandria around 100 C.E., Valentinus distinguished himself at an early
age as an extraordinary teacher and leader in the highly educated and
diverse Alexandrian Christian community. In mid-life he migrated from
Alexandria to the Church's evolving capital, Rome, where he played an
active role in the public affairs of the Church. A prime characteristic
of Gnostics was their claim to be keepers of sacred traditions, gospels,
rituals, and successions – esoteric matters for which many Christians
were either not properly prepared or simply not inclined. Valentinus,
true to this Gnostic predilection, apparently professed to have received
a special apostolic sanction through Theudas, a disciple and initiate of
the Apostle Paul, and to be a custodian of doctrines and rituals
neglected by what would become Christian orthodoxy.4 Though an
influential member of the Roman church in the mid-second century, by the
end of his life Valentinus had been forced from the public eye and
branded a heretic by the developing orthodoxy Church.
While the historical and theological details are far too complex for
proper explication here, the tide of history can be said to have turned
against Gnosticism in the middle of the second century. No Gnostic after
Valentinus would ever come so near prominence in the greater Church.
Gnosticism's emphasis on personal experience, its continuing revelations
and production of new scripture, its asceticism and paradoxically
contrasting libertine postures, were all met with increasing suspicion.
By 180 C.E. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, was publishing his first attacks
on Gnosticism as heresy, a labor that would be continued with increasing
vehemence by the church Fathers throughout the next century.
Orthodoxy Christianity was deeply and profoundly influenced by its
struggles with Gnosticism in the second and third centuries.
Formulations of many central traditions in Christian theology came as
reflections and shadows of this confrontation with the Gnosis.5 But by
the end of the fourth century the struggle was essentially over: the
evolving ecclesia had added the force of political correctness to
dogmatic denunciation, and with this sword so-called "heresy" was
painfully cut from the Christian body. Gnosticism as a Christian
tradition was largely eradicated, its remaining teachers ostracized, and
its sacred books destroyed. All that remained for students seeking to
understand Gnosticism in later centuries were the denunciations and
fragments preserved in the patristic heresiologies. Or at least so it
seemed until the mid-twentieth century.
Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library
It was on a December day in the year of 1945, near the town of Nag
Hammadi in Upper Egypt, that the course of Gnostic studies was radically
renewed and forever changed. An Arab peasant, digging around a boulder
in search of fertilizer for his fields, happened upon an old, rather
large red earthenware jar. Hoping to have found a buried treasure, and
with due hesitation and apprehension about the jinn who might
attend such a hoard, he smashed the jar open. Inside he discovered no
treasure and no genie, but instead books: more than a dozen old codices
bound in golden brown leather.6 Little did he realize that he had found
an extraordinary collection of ancient texts, manuscripts hidden a
millennium and a half before -- probably by monks from the nearby
monastery of St. Pachomius seeking to preserve them from a destruction
ordered by the church as part of its violent expunging of heterodoxy and
How the Nag Hammadi manuscripts eventually passed into scholarly
hands is a fascinating story too lengthy to relate here. But today, now
over fifty years since being unearthed and more than two decades after
final translation and publication in English as The Nag Hammadi
Library, 7 their importance has become astoundingly clear: These
thirteen papyrus codices containing fifty-two sacred texts are
representatives of the long lost "Gnostic Gospels", a last extant
testament of what orthodox Christianity perceived to be its most
dangerous and insidious challenge, the feared opponent that the Church
Fathers had reviled under many different names, but most commonly as
Gnosticism. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts has fundamentally
revised our understanding of both Gnosticism and the early Christian
Overview of Gnostic Teachings
What was it that these "knowers" knew? What made them such dangerous
heretics? The complexities of Gnosticism are legion, making any
generalizations wisely suspect. While several systems for defining and
categorizing Gnosticism have been proposed over the years, none has
gained any general acceptance.8 So with advance warning that this is
most certainly not a definitive summary of Gnosticism and its many
permutations, we will outline just four elements generally agreed to be
characteristic of Gnostic thought.
The first essential characteristic of Gnosticism was introduced
above: Gnosticism asserts that "direct, personal and absolute knowledge
of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings," and
that the attainment of such knowledge is the supreme achievement of
human life. Gnosis is not a rational, propositional, logical
understanding, but a knowing acquired by experience. The Gnostics were
not much interested in dogma or coherent, rational theology -- a fact
that makes the study of Gnosticism particularly difficult for
individuals with "bookkeeper mentalities. One simply cannot cipher up
Gnosticism into syllogistic dogmatic affirmations. The Gnostics
cherished the ongoing force of divine revelation--Gnosis was the
creative experience of revelation, a rushing progression of
understanding, and not a static creed. Carl Gustav Jung, the great Swiss
psychologist and a life-long student of Gnosticism in its various
historical permutations, affirms,
…We find in Gnosticism what was lacking in the centuries that
followed: a belief in the efficacy of individual revelation and
individual knowledge. This belief was rooted in the proud feeling of
man's affinity with the gods....
In his study, The American Religion, noted literary critic
Harold Bloom suggests a second characteristic of Gnosticism that might
help us conceptually circumscribe its mysterious heart. Gnosticism, says
Bloom, "is a knowing, by and of an uncreated self, or self-within-the
self, and [this] knowledge leads to freedom...."9 Primary among all the
revelatory perceptions a Gnostic might reach was the profound awakening
that came with knowledge that something within him was uncreated. The
Gnostics called this "uncreated self" the divine seed, the pearl, the
spark of knowing: consciousness, intelligence, light. And this seed of
intellect was the self-same substance of God. It was man's authentic
reality, the glory of humankind and divinity alike. If woman or man
truly came to gnosis of this spark, she understood that she was truly
free: Not contingent, not a conception of sin, not a flawed crust of
flesh, but the stuff of God, and the conduit of God's immanent
realization. There was always a paradoxical cognizance of duality in
experiencing this "self-within-a-self". How could it not be paradoxical:
By all rational perception, man clearly was not God, and yet in
essential truth, was Godly. This conundrum was a Gnostic mystery, and
its knowing was their treasure.
The creator god, the one who claimed in evolving orthodox dogma to
have made man, and to own him, the god who would have man contingent
upon him, born ex nihilo by his will, was a lying demon and not
God at all. Gnostics called him by many deprecatory names: "Saklas", the
fool; "Ialdebaoth", the blind god; and "Demiurge", the architect or
lesser creative force.
Theodotus, a Gnostic teacher writing in Asia Minor between 140 and
160 C.E., explained that the sacred strength of gnosis reveals "who we
were, what we have become, where we have been cast out of, where we are
bound for, what we have been purified of, what generation and
regeneration are."10 "Yet", the eminent scholar of Gnosticism, Elaine
Pagels, comments in exegesis, "to know oneself, at the deepest level, is
simultaneously to know God: this is the secret of gnosis....
Self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are
The Gospel of Thomas, one of the Gnostic texts found preserved in the
Nag Hammadi Library, gives these words of the living Jesus:
Jesus said, `I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have
become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out.... 12
He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall
become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.' 13
He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: What a
remarkably heretical image! The Gospel of Thomas in its entirety is an
extraordinary scripture. Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University
notes that though ultimately this Gospel was condemned and destroyed by
the evolving orthodox church, it may be as old or older than the four
canonical gospels preserved, and even have served as a source document
This brings us to the third prominent element in our brief summary of
Gnosticism: its reverence for texts and scriptures unaccepted by the
orthodox fold. Gnostic experience was mythopoetic: in story and
metaphor, and perhaps also in ritual enactments, Gnosticism sought
expression of subtle, visionary insights inexpressible by rational
proposition or dogmatic affirmation. For the Gnostics, revelation was
the nature of Gnosis. Irritated by their profusion of "inspired texts"
and myths, Ireneaus complains in his classic second century refutation
of Gnosticism, that “…every one of them generates something new, day by
day, according to his ability; for no one is deemed perfect, who does
not develop...some mighty fiction.”16
The fourth characteristic that we might delineate to understand
classical Gnosticism is the most difficult of the four to succinctly
untangle, and also one of the most disturbing to subsequent orthodox
theology. This is the image of God as a dyad or duality. While affirming
the ultimate unity and integrity of the Divine, Gnosticism noted in its
experiential encounter with the numinous, contrasting manifestations and
In many of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts God is imaged as a dyad of
masculine and feminine elements. Though their language is specifically
Christian, Gnostic sources often use sexual symbolism to describe God.
Prof. Pagels explains,
One group of gnostic sources claims to have received a secret
tradition from Jesus through James and through Mary Magdalene [who the
Gnostics revered as consort to Jesus]. Members of this group prayed to
both the divine Father and Mother:
`From Thee, Father, and through Thee, Mother, the two immortal
names, Parents of the divine being, and thou, dweller in heaven,
humanity, of the mighty name...'17
Several trends within Gnosticism saw in God a union of two disparate
natures, a union well imaged with sexual symbolism. Gnostics honored the
feminine nature and, in reflection, Elaine Pagels has argued that
Christian Gnostic women enjoyed a far greater degree of social and
ecclesiastical equality than their orthodox sisters. Jesus himself,
taught some Gnostics, had prefigured this mystic relationship: His most
beloved disciple had been a woman, Mary Magdalene, his consort. The
Gospel of Philip relates,
"...the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved
her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her
mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended... They said to him,
"Why do you love her more than all of us? the Savior answered and said
to them, "Why do I not love you as I love her?"18
The most mysterious and sacred of all Gnostic rituals may have played
upon this perception of God as "duality seeking unity." The Gospel of
Philip (which in its entirety might be read as a commentary on Gnostic
ritual) relates that the Lord established five great sacraments or
mysteries: "a baptism and a chrism, and a eucharist, and a redemption,
and a bridal chamber."19 Whether this ultimate sacrament of the bridal
chamber was a ritual enacted by a man and women, an allegorical term for
a mystical experience, or a union of both, we do not know. Only hints
are given in Gnostic texts about what this sacrament might be:
Christ came to rectify the separation...and join the two
components; and to give life unto those who had died by separation and
join them together. Now a woman joins with her husband in the bridal
[chamber], and those who have joined in the bridal [chamber] will not
We are left with our poetic imaginations to consider what this might
mean. Though Orthodox polemicists frequently accused Gnostics of
unorthodox sexual behavior, exactly how these ideas and images played
out in human affairs remains historically uncertain.
Classical Christian Gnosticism was lost to the Western world during
the fourth and fifth centuries. But the Gnostic world view -- with its
comprehension of humankind's true uncreated nature and inherent affinity
with God; its affirmation of interior individual experience granting
certain knowledge; and its awareness of demiurgic forces binding human
consciousness -- was not so easily extinguished. These Gnostic
perceptions continued in various forms to course through Western culture
though perforce often by occult paths. Gnosticism was and is today a
tradition perpetually reborn in the gnosis kardia of humankind, a
tradition eternally alive within those “who have ears to hear” its call.
For any reading program, this is the place to start. Pagels has
produced a popular classic, a book acclaimed for two decades by laymen and
scholars alike. You will find no better introduction to classical
Gnosticism and the Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi. The
combined reading of this book and Stephan Hoeller's text (listed above)
will give an excellent introduction to Gnosticism. Of course, after
finishing The Gnostic Gospels, you will also want to read Pagels
recent book, Beyond Belief (see below).
New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing by
Stephan A. Hoeller NEW
There has long been need for a comprehensive introductory guide to the
Gnostic tradition. Hoeller supplies just such a book with this new
offering. This delightful study gives clear voice to the essential
message of Gnosticism; it is an invaluable introduction to the history and
import of Gnosticism in the Western tradition. The Nag Hammadi library is
discuss in context and the import of the Gnostic texts is put in
perspective by this work.
Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels
In a book certain to become a another classic, Pagels returns to the
themes she first introduced two decades ago in her landmark study, The
Gnostic Gospels. Beyond Belief
interweaves ancient history with the quietly compelling tale of Pagels'
own quest to understand her heritage. It leads by careful and
well-reasoned steps back through history, to an interior spiritual
tradition within Christianity forgotten by the world – a tradition reviled
as heresy, and excised from what became orthodox creedal faith. As
most readers will perceive, Pagels’ heart is keenly attuned to that
forgotten Christianity. Pagels here discusses at length the conflict of
Ireneaus with the Valentinians and its import for the formation of
orthodoxy (issues mentioned briefly in the essay above).
Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels edited by
A presentation of four principal texts from the Gnostic writings found
at Nag Hammadi. Included here is the Gospel of Thomas, a
remarkable record of the sayings of the "living Jesus",
along with theBook of Thomas, The Gospel of James,
and Secret Book of John. A concise introduction rounds out this
nice selection of Gnostic texts. It serves as good collection to use
for beginning study of classical Gnostic writings.
Fifth Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age by Stephen
J. Patterson and James M. Robinson
Very readable edition of the important Gospel of Thomas,
perhaps the single most important document found at Nag Hammadi.This translation isaccompanied by two excellent
introductory essays placing Thomas within the historical Gospel
context. (Robinson's essay discusses in detail the discovery of the
Nag Hammadi library and the subsequent long and difficult process of
bringing the works to publication.) The book is written by
recognized scholars but addressed to a general audience. A highly
recommended introduction to this important Gnostic Gospel.
Nag Hammadi Library in English edited by James M. Robinson
The epochal translation of the entire Nag Hammadi Library. First
published in 1977, this newest edition has improved the translations
presented. Every student of Gnosticism will want to own this book,
but before attempting to understand the texts presented here, we highly
recommend a study of the introductory readings listed above.
1. Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York, 1987), p.9.
Hereafter cited as GS.
2. Stephan A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung (Wheaton, Ill., 1982),
3. Layton, p. 220.
4. Layton, pp. 217-221.
5. Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism (Oxford, 1990), p.
6. We should here note, given recent extensive discussions about the
Dead Sea Scrolls, that the Nag Hammadi find is entirely separate from that
much publicized discovery of ancient Jewish texts. Discovered beginning in
1947, two years after the Nag Hammadi texts were found, these records now
known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were apparently the possessions of Essene
communities residing near Qumran in Palestine at a time around the
beginning of the Christian era.
7. J. M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (New
York, 1st ed., 1977; 3rd ed., 1988). Hereafter cited as NHL.
8. An excellent summary of these appears in: Stephan Hoeller, "What is
a Gnostic?" Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions 23
(Spring, 1992), pp. 24-27.
9. Bloom, p. 49.
10. Clemens Alexandrinus, Exerpta ex theodoto 78.2.
11. Pagels, pp. xix-xx.
12. Gospel of Thomas, 35.4-7, NHL.
13. Gospel of Thomas, 50.28-30, NHL.
14. Helmut Koester, "Introduction to The Gospel of Thomas", in NHL, p.
124 f. See also Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of
Thomas (New York, 2003), pp. 50-73.
15. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, 1.17.1
16. ibid., 1.18.1
17. Pagels, p. 49.
18. Gospel of Philip, 63.32-64.5, in NHL.
19. Gospel of Philip, 67.27, in GS.
20. Gospel of Philip, 70.12-20, in GS.
Lance S. Owens, MD is a physician in clinical practice and an ordained
priest who serves a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica. He completed his
undergraduate degree in history at Georgetown University and Utah State
University, and received his doctorate from Columbia University.
Since 1995 he has served as the creator and editor of The Gnosis