The concept underlying all religious thinking of the first century CE was Platonism (c.
300 BCE). According to this philosophy, the real world is the dimension of the Spirit –
the world of Ideal Forms. They felt there was a Golden Dictionary in this spiritual world
which contained all the words that would ever be spoken, and each word was the name
of a spirit which inhabited each item of the material world. The material world which we
see around us is only an illusion and a reflection of the spirit world. For example, we
call a chair a “chair” because it contains the ghost or spirit of “chairness.” If we could
somehow exorcise the ghost of “chairness” from a particular piece of furniture, it would
fall apart, because it was no longer possessed by the spirit of its True Form.
This Platonic philosophy was referred to as “Idealism,” as opposed to the philosophy
of “Materialism,” which holds that the world we can see, touch and measure is the real
world, and the spiritual world is only imaginary.
Today, however, the word “idealism” has come to mean the pursuit of lofty goals in life;
and “materialism” has come to refer to “consumerism,” or the pursuit of trivial goals.
The philosophy of Empiricism, which we call the “Scientific Method,” would not be
developed for another millennium and a half. So the only way primitive people had of
understanding things was through myth, allegory, metaphor, and simile. Moreover,
words were regarded as magic, and knowing the “True Name” of something was the
only way to control it.
Every concept was thought of as having a spirit. Thus, a person of the biblical era
would have said that a light bulb glows because it contains the spirit of light. An object
falls to the floor because it contains “The Heavy.” An air conditioner works because it
contains “The Cold.” A fire gives warmth because it contains The Hot, etc.
II. Gnostic Concepts
The modern word for projecting an abstract idea into concrete reality in this manner is
called “reification.” But it’s a small step to change reification into personification; not
only is the idea given concrete reality, but it is turned into a supernatural person – with a
name, an identifiable appearance, a family history, and certain attributes of personality.
Throughout ancient literature we read of someone referring to an abstract idea – let’s
say “eons,” meaning a long period of time. But in the very next sentence the writer
might say that “The Eons decided among themselves to kidnap Soul and take her to
the land of Sin. But Justice brought his angels to her rescue...” etc.
In Greco-Roman mythology, these abstract concepts were turned into gods and
goddesses. But in the Abrahamic religions they were turned into angels, demons, and
In the apocryphal “Testament of Solomon,” for example, the king lists many of the
problems of society, plus an entire Merck’s Manual of diseases. Then he tells us the
name of the demon which is responsible for that problem or disease, and once we
know its true name, we can then utter incantations to cast them out. This was a Jewish
book which shows a strong Gnostic influence. Most of my information, by the way, is
from a recently published translation of the entire library of Gnostic books discovered in
the Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi in 1945.
Now, the main difference between the Gnostics and Orthodox Christians of the time is
in the emphasis each side gives to either the spiritual world, or the material world.
Orthodox Christians put more emphasis on the material world, theological consistency,
and continuation of tradition. Gnostics, on the other hand, were so mystical that it’s
very difficult even to understand their mythology. They were the New Agers of their
time; very little of what they said made any sense. And not only did different Gnostic
writers have a wide variety of cosmologies, for example, but even the same author
frequently contradicted himself. The meanings of key words would shift from a
common literal meaning, to a metaphorical meaning, to a reification, to a
personification, and back again. In various books, words such as “powers, thrones,
eons, myriads, authorities, lights, manifestations, archons, guardians, and totalities”
are the names of supernatural beings. The Gnostics also invented a lot of their own
Here is a typical sentence from The Gospel of the Egyptians: “The whole pleroma of
the lights was well pleased. Their consorts came forth for the completion of the
ogdoad of the divine Autogenes....” Got that?
Of course, the fact that there are many gaps in the surviving manuscripts, and that the
original concepts have often been redacted by anonymous editors to co-opt them for
their own purposes adds to the confusion.
But the scholarly consensus is that Gnostics viewed everything in the material world as
evil; only the spirit is good. Salvation was not available to everyone; it could only be
achieved through esoteric knowledge of the divine nature of things (gnosis). This
knowledge was different from empirical knowledge, and different from faith. Gnosis
could not be transmitted through instruction – or persuasion – but only through a long,
grueling period of testing and secret rituals. Only those who passed through the
probationary period were accepted as one of the elect. They also believed in
reincarnation, and it was only through the attainment of gnosis that a soul could escape
the cycle of rebirth into this painful world.
They had no concept of “sin,” as disobedience to Yahweh – as Christians preached.
Instead, the Gnostic goal in life was not to overcome temptation, but to overcome their
own ignorance. For this reason, they did not proselytize, because they thought no one
could be “saved” just by believing some doctrine.
Gnosticism was often associated with astrology, numerology, and magic. (Presumably
some of their “secret knowledge” involved passing along information about how to
perform magic tricks.)
Basically, Gnostics believed that humans are a chip off the divine block, but we have
been thrown into a world of birth, fate, pain, and death. The perceptible universe was
regarded as an elaborate mechanical cage in which a bit of the divine has been
entrapped by the malevolent creator of the universe, and our fate is determined by the
stars. Our ultimate goal, then, is to attain emancipation from this astrologically
dominated material world and reunite with the godhead through personal revelation.
Many Gnostics rejected any responsibility for ethical behavior, because life is only an
illusion, and our fate is predetermined anyway. As you might expect, this frequently got
them into a lot of trouble.
Gnostics emphasized the total ineffability of the “One,” or the “Good,” which means it is
something you cannot even talk about – as opposed to the Jews who were constantly
chatting with their very anthropomorphic Yahweh. The Gnostics usually separated their
transcendent god from the Creator god (whom Plato called the Demiurge) and this
Creator was the Evil One – as opposed to the Jews, who said Yahweh was a good
Creator, but he allowed a fallen angel to become the Evil One.
According to Gnostic cosmology, the universe consists of seven concentric crystalline
spheres, in which the flat earth was at the center. The rotation of these spheres
explained the movement of the sun, the moon, and the five planets that can be seen
with the naked eye – and beyond the last sphere was the solid dome of the fixed stars.
These stars were actually holes in the dome, through which we can see the holy light of
the Ineffable One.
The idea of seven heavens was a common conception throughout the ancient world –
mentioned several times in my biblical book. But according to the Gnostics, each of
these spheres was controlled by an evil spirit, called an Eon. Altogether there were 30
Eons – each of which controlled one day out of every month.
They taught that after death their soul would pass up through the “barrier of evil” to
rejoin the Ineffable One. But in order to get through these check-points, it was
necessary to know the name of the evil angel in charge of each, and the name of the
good angel who could thwart the malevolent one, as well as the proper incantation to
Gnostics said the world came into existence through the union of certain Eons. One
particular Eon, named Sophia (wisdom) produced an inferior demiurge, named
Ialdabaoth. This evil creator is the one who made the world – which is why things are
so screwed up. Or, in some stories, Ialdabaoth created the angels, and it was this
band of stumble-bum angels who made such a mess of things. At any rate, their
creation stories were similar to those of the Old Testament, but when Yahweh does all
the ridiculous things that we rightly laugh at, the Gnostics sensibly explained them away
by saying that, after all, he was just a pompous, vain and incompetent god, who only
thought he was greater than all other powers. So the Gnostic view was that the entire
universe was imperfect and hostile to humankind.
According to Judeo-Christian theology, humanity is being punished because Adam
disobeyed Yahweh. Whereas, the Gnostics held that the original sin was committed by
Sophia, the Eon, who was responsible for Ialdabaoth, which the Jews called Yahweh.
Gnostics believed there were three types of people: Spiritual, Psychic, and Material.
Gnostics were the Spiritual type; all of them would go straight to heaven. Orthodox
Christians were the Psychic type; they could go in either direction. Everyone else fell
into the category of Materialism, which meant they were all doomed to hell. Some
Gnostics, both ancient and modern, were (are) extremely anti-intellectual, because the
intellect, they claim, is part of the material cage which traps us. Therefore they were
extreme subjectivists – assuming that only their own feelings and visions were valid.
Whereas, orthodox Christians believe that the crucifixion of Jesus was a human
sacrifice which was necessary to save the souls of all humanity, Gnostics, on the other
hand, believed that Christ was pure spirit, sent down from above to reveal the secrets
of how people can save themselves through knowledge of the True Nature of things, i.
e., “gnosis.” The crucifixion was only the occasion of his ascension back to heaven,
and since he was only a phantom, no suffering was involved. (It was to counter this
heretical view that the Nicene Creed specifies that Jesus Christ was “begotten, not
made” ... “he suffered and was buried; and on the third day he arose again...”)
Like Christians, the Gnostics believed that the universe would eventually come to an
end, but also like Christians, different writers disagreed on exactly what would happen.
About the only thing we can say definitively about Gnostic beliefs is that they opposed
all the laws of the Torah. They insisted that the Jewish Yahweh was really the devil, and
that all those restrictions were only designed to enslave us.
III. Gnostic History
After conquest by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and finally the Romans, Jewish
thought had become apocalyptic; they believed that the present age was totally evil, but
through divine intervention by Yahweh, the world would be destroyed and replaced by a
return to paradise. This was associated with two supernatural powers – one good, the
So, Jewish ideology from ancient times was already tending toward Gnosticism.
Jews were expecting a Messiah to arise from the lineage of King David, who would
defeat their enemies and bring about the paradisiacal age. The Jewish sect of
Essenes called him the Teacher of Righteousness. The Gnostics postulated a Savior
figure, whom they called Seth. So the stage was well prepared for the arrival of
Early Christian writers said that a man named Simon Magus (“Magus” meaning “The
Great”) was the founder of Gnosticism, along with his disciple Menander, who
proclaimed himself as the Savior. Modern scholars dispute this, claiming that Gnostic
ideas go back much farther than that. In any case, Simon and Menander drew
considerable attention with their magic shows, while preaching that the universe was
created by a female principle, as well as a male principle. And it was this more
permissive female principle that gave them their magical powers.
Simon and Menander both lived during the era of Pontius Pilate and King Herod, and
were chief rivals to the Christians in recruiting converts.
After the Christian movement was underway, a man named Saturninus of Antioch
began interpreting stories about Jesus in a Gnostic way, but preached vegetarianism
and, like Paul, rejection of all earthly pleasures, since pleasure was regarded as
“sinful,” in the sense that it was a distraction. So, Gnosticism split into two branches –
one preaching celibacy and asceticism, the other preaching hedonism and compulsory
promiscuity. This libertine sect claimed it was necessary to experience everything in
order to become jaded with the world, and thus freed from control of the evil angels.
The Gnostic hatred of sexuality, as the most powerful chain binding us to the here-and-
now, probably influenced the developing Christian doctrine of “sin” more than any other
The most prominent Gnostic of the time was Valentinus, who tried to systematize these
conflicting doctrines into a coherent philosophy. He had several disciples: Ptolemaeus
lived in Rome and interpreted biblical texts according to Gnostic concepts. Marcus
went to Gaul and Asia Minor to teach ritual practices, astrology, and numerology. Also
in the East was Theodotus, who taught both biblical interpretation and cultic rites. In
their interpretations of Jewish writings, some Gnostics rejected all the ancient prophets
as agents of satanic powers; only their own Gnostic prophesies were valid, they said.
During the second century CE, the Middle East was a cauldron of religious ideas,
competing with each other, influencing each other, and finally blending together.
Simon Magus was mentioned in the New Testament, in the book of Acts, Chapter 8, as
trying to buy the secrets of how the disciples performed their “miracles.” And
throughout Paul’s letters in the New Testament, Paul is constantly complaining about
the Gnostics trying to take over and mislead his congregations. He rails about their
incessant babble regarding genealogies of Jesus, angelologies, demonologies, secret
rituals, magic, and all manner of supernatural entities. He advises his congregations to
shun them or excommunicate them, but don’t debate them in public, since that would
only seem to give them credibility.
During this time, various Gnostics wrote pseudepigraphal gospels, epistles,
revelations, testaments – all the literary genres found in the Bible – all presenting their
interpretations of the Jewish, Pagan, and Christian stories and casts of characters.
Some of these books are contained in the Nag Hammadi Library.
During the rise of Christian ideology, Gnostics exchanged the twelve signs of the
zodiac for the names of the twelve apostles. They preached that the spheres control
the fate of every person – until they are baptized. “But after baptism the astrologers
are no longer right,” they said.
Many Gnostics met regularly for worship services, during which some authoritative
texts would be preached, and certain rituals such as Eucharists, baptism, and
prophesy via glossolalia were performed. During the period of persecution of
Christians by the Romans, Gnostics, like Christians, had to go underground. But after
the empire officially adopted the Christian religion, the newly powerful Christian
authorities went after the Gnostics with a vengeance: Their books were burned and
their leaders executed.
Some Gnostics, however, didn’t believe in public meetings and rituals at all, and
therefore managed to survive.
During the early years of the Christian church, there arose a prophet in Persia, named
Mani, who was strongly influenced by the Gnostics. His doctrine, known as
Manichaeanism, eventually evolved into an entirely separate religion, and was a major
competitor to Christianism up until about the eleventh century. St. Augustine, who was
born in 354, was a member of a Manichaean church, but in later life, converted to
Christianity. In his writings, he talks about the Manichaean influence on his doctrines.
And St. Augustine’s books are one of the cornerstones of Catholic theology today.
There is much dispute about when and why Gnosticism arose: Was it before
Judaism? Or was it only developed during the formation of Christian doctrines? At
any rate, the existing Christian church developed its official theology and organization
largely in reaction to Gnosticism and Manichaeanism.
By the early third century, however, Christian doctrines were becoming better
organized than Gnostic ones, and the Gnostic cults began to fade away.
In 325, Emperor Constantine ordered 318 Christian bishops to convene in the Black
Sea resort of Nicea, and that was where the Nicene Creed spelled out the official
doctrines of the Catholic Church, in order to differentiate it from those of the Gnostics,
Manicheans, Jews, and Pagans.
IV. The Nicene Creed
This is the creed that was adopted at the Council of Nicea, and still stands as the
cornerstone of all Christian denominations. The bracketed words were added by the
bishop of Rome in 1054, over the objections of the bishop of Constantinople -- which
led to the schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox
“I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all
things visible and invisible.
“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father
before all worlds [God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not
made, being of one substance [essence] with the Father; by whom all things were
made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was
incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified
also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose
again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right
hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the
dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
“And [I believe] in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from
the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and
glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And [I believe] in one Holy Catholic and
Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for
the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
When the creed was adopted, the bishops then began sorting through the hundreds of
religious books in circulation, and after squabbling for many years, they finally adopted
the 27 books making up what they called the New Testament. Even then, however, not
all congregations accepted the decisions of the council.
V. Gnosticism Today
Many Gnostic ideas were widespread throughout Eurasia and still exist in Vedanta, as
well as Jewish, Christian, and New Age mysticism today. There is an essay at the end
of the Nag Hammadi anthology which points out the influence of Gnosticism in Western
thought and literature. Some of the writers who have explicitly acknowledged their debt
to Gnostic ideas include: William Blake, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Carlyle, Anatol France,
Yeats, Herman Melville, and Madam Blavatsky. Carl Jung derived many of his
psychological theories on internalizing Gnostic metaphysics. He thought the idea of
being alienated from the True God and cast into an evil world created by an
incompetent Demiurge provided a useful model of our own subconscious. More
recently, E.M. Forster, Herman Hesse, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and science
fiction writer Philip K. Dick have all credited Gnosticism for many of their themes.
La Asociacion Gnostica is widespread throughout Latin America; and in Los Angeles,
there is a Gnostic Church at the corner of Sunset and Hilgarde St., adjacent to the
UCLA campus. They have an incense filled chapel – and a web site.
The bishop of the church says that interest in Gnosticism has been revived because of
its use by many of the writers I just mentioned, and new translations of the Nag
To me, they sound pretty much like Zen Buddhists, or the anglicized version of
Vedanta, called Self Realization. They don’t advocate poverty, chastity, or
vegetarianism – but moderation in all things.
They say Jesus was only one of many messengers of light who have brought gnosis to
humanity. The Samadhi of the yogis; the Nirvana of Mahayana Buddhists; the Satori of
Zen Buddhism – are all types of gnosis.
Morality, they say, is strictly man-made; it is necessary for a civil society, but it has
nothing to do with religion or salvation.
And finally, like Buddhism, they encourage non-attachment and non-conformity to the
modern world. They like to say they are in the world, but not of the world.
Thank you for your attention.
The Gnostic Gospels
by Milt Timmons
|[Speech delivered to the Humanist Association of Los Angeles,
Van Nuys, CA, July 11, 2004]