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Gnosis (from ancient Greek γνῶσις Gnosis "[ER] knowledge" or knowledge) or Gnosticism ( Latinized form of the Greek γνωστικισμός gnōstikismós ) called religious studies phrase various religious teachings and groups of 2nd and 3rd century. Chr. , Partly earlier forerunner.

The term is also used for various currents that are historically related to these groups or that show similarities in the teachings represented. Gnostic positions gained a foothold in some churches of early Christianity, but were strictly rejected by the New Testament , and gnosis developed into the main theological opponent of the early church in the 2nd century .

Use of language

The terms gnosis, gnosticism and gnosticism are often used indiscriminately. Usually, Gnosis describes a religious knowledge which, according to their own understanding, sets the Gnostics apart from the rest of humanity. In the literature of the second and third centuries, Gnostic was a common term for Christian and Jewish , but also pagan and Hellenistic intellectuals. Gnō̂sis meant “knowledge” in the general sense, so that the self-designation as “Gnostic” is often unspecific. Gnostic movements in the specific sense were named after their leaders or founders as Valentinians , Simonians or Basilidians , but these are presumably already foreign names by critics, while some of these groups probably simply called themselves "Christians". In the wake of the antignostic polemics of Christian theologians (especially Irenaeus of Lyon ), the unspecific self-designation as knower or knower was extended to those spiritually related doctrines that provided beliefs with speculative- philosophical elements and, in various respects, seem to be related to dependencies or similarities.

Later literature often assumed a unified movement called Gnosis. The term Gnosticism comes from modern times. The English philosopher and theologian Henry More coined it in the 17th century to summarize all Christian heresies . Since the 18th century, gnosis or gnosticism have also served as an interpretation category for contemporary religious or philosophical currents (for example with Ferdinand Christian Baur , Johann Gottlieb Fichte or Rudolf Steiner ). With this, of course, the phenomenon of the history of religion , which in antiquity was called gnosis , falls out of sight. At the Gnosis Congress in Messina in 1966, a more precise language regulation was therefore proposed. According to this, Gnosis denotes “knowledge of divine secrets that is reserved for an elite”, whereas Gnosticism denotes “a certain group of systems from the 2nd century AD”, which is delimited by historical and typological characteristics. This proposal is not only in conflict with the history of the concept (for example in that it separates the phenomenon of religious history from a Gnosis concept that is unusable for historians), but is also underdetermined.

In the more recent discussion - depending on the historical assessment - it is disputed whether Gnosis should be understood as a movement within the Christian religion (with possibly pre-Christian preliminary stages) (e.g. Adolf von Harnack ) or as a worldview or religion that can adapt to different religions (such as Quispel and at times Hans Jonas and Eric Voegelin ). It is judged differently whether Gnosis represents an originally independent religion or an attempt to underpin the Judeo-Christian religion philosophically, which then ends in the Manichaean religion. More recent text finds in particular have sharpened the understanding that there is a uniform phenomenon of gnosis only in the context of typological constructions (such as Markschies ). In some cases, religious scholars reserve the term Gnosticism for the more elaborate systems of the late second and third centuries. In Anglo-Saxon usage, the term gnosticism has largely established itself as a means of narrowing it down to specific mythical manifestations.

Main characteristics of gnosis

Kurt Rudolph (1990) outlines five character traits to classify and characterize Gnosis:

  • Dualism , there is an opposition between good and bad, and there is a transcendent, hidden God and a lower creator God ( Demiurge )
  • Cosmogony, the result also describes dualities, light and darkness, spirit and flesh; evil was present in creation from the beginning
  • Soteriology, a redemption is taken in Gnosis via the path of knowledge of the dualistic character of the world.
  • Eschatology, the believer's goal is to move into the place of the good, to recognize the primacy of the spiritual dimension in one's own existence
  • Community and cult

The following theses belong to the central contents of Gnosis:

  • There is a perfect all-embracing God.
  • Through an unauthorized or self-related act in the eons , an imperfect God comes into existence. This is called Demiurge or Creator God because he in turn creates the material universe on his own.
    • The demiurge is identified in many Gnostic scriptures with YHWH , the god of Tanakh , the Old Testament of the Bible.
    • The Gnostics therefore assume that Jesus of Nazareth is not the son of the God of the Jews, but - as an incarnation of Christ - the child of the perfect deity, i.e. understood spiritually, not physically ( Christology ).
  • The Demiurge also creates man and places him in ever denser matter.
  • However, creation (and man) fundamentally carry the principle of the original perfect deity within them, from which they are inseparable.
  • Some Gnostic currents see the material world, including the human body, as " evil ", others focus on the inherent spiritual principle, which enables the way back to spiritual perfection or unity.
  • The inherent spiritual principle, also called pneuma , spark or seed , must be made aware of the human being in contrast to the psyche in order to be able to recognize and loosen the attachments to the material world.

A clear summary of the Gnostic view of the world can be found in the article about John's Apocryphon . This can by no means be generalized for the entire “Gnosis”, but it does at least apply to one (or more) of its larger currents (Setian Gnosis / Barbelognosis ).

Ancient Gnosis

Similarities to Gnostic groups and influences on them are discussed for religious movements in the Syrian , Persian and Hellenistic-Jewish environment. The exact interdependencies and influences of these movements are difficult to determine and are controversial; the extent to which you can call it Gnostic depends heavily on how you understand the term. The assumption of a “Jewish Gnosis”, for example, is controversial in contrast to the talk of the “Jewish roots of Gnosis” because many characteristics and an interest in Old Testament biblical texts are missing.

The traditional sources for Gnostic groups in early Christianity enable greater knowledge , whereby elements of ancient Greek philosophy and religiosity (especially Middle Platonism and New Pythagoreans , doctrine of the migration of souls ), Persian (especially Zoroastrianism ), Babylonian and Egyptian religions can be identified. Also, relationships with the approximately the same time resulting in northern India Mahayana - Buddhism be considered.


Up until the 20th century, historians and religious scholars were largely dependent on textual traditions from early Christian theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyon , Clemens of Alexandria , Hippolytus of Rome , Origen or Epiphanius of Salamis, or representations in, of course, often polemical, such as Justin or Tertullian . According to the Real Theological Encyclopedia , Article Gnosis II .4, the fundamental credibility of Irenaeus has been largely confirmed by the finds in Nag Hammadi .

The following should be mentioned in the original texts - especially in the Coptic language :

For a long time these were the only direct text witnesses from the context of Gnosis itself. A much broader text basis comes into view, since 1945/1946 a whole library of Gnostic scriptures was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt , including pseudepigraphic parallels to the New Testament genres such as the Gospel of Thomas , an apocalypse of Paul and apocalypse of Peter and the paraphrase of the sea . Manichaean texts are also worth mentioning: the finds from Turfan and the Dakhleh oasis , the Medinet Madi library , the Cologne Mani Codex . The Corpus Hermeticum as well as the Hekhalot literature are at least controversial as far as their Gnostic character is concerned (in the first case there is a lack of anti-divine powers and a redeemer to compel them, in the second case there is no mythological drama about the divine spark, here it is more the influence of the Thinking Kabbalah ).

Expressions such as Gnostics can also be found in texts of the New Testament . Because of the undifferentiated use of these expressions mentioned at the time, it is almost always very unclear and controversial whether this refers to Gnostics in the sense of Valentine Christians, whether they are connected to the language used there and, if so, to what extent this is critical, or whether so that reference is simply made to religious knowledge in a non-specific sense. Corresponding problems are discussed for example for the letter to the Ephesians or the letter to the Colossians, where Paul warns of “philosophy and empty deceit” (2.8). For the Gospel of John , for example, Bultmann adopted elements of a Gnostic doctrine of redemption. However, decisive features contradict this (no myth of a world creation 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 rough one, only through Christ broken separation between light and darkness, above and below.

Non-Christian Gnostic Groups

A fragment of the Cologne Mani Codex, in which a main source for Manichaeism is handed down

The Manichaeism was a Gnostic embossed, intense missionary ancient religion that spread to China. Its founder, Mani , grew up in a Christian Anabaptist community and saw himself as an apostle of Christ and as a continuation and completion of his life's work.

Manichaeism was persecuted as a Persian threat under Diocletian . By the end of the fourth century, Christian emperors took action against the Manicheans. Valentinian I , who was tolerant of paganism , passed laws according to which the property of the Manichaeans could be confiscated, Gratian classified them as undesirable along with the extreme Arians, and Theodosius I passed laws that forbade Manichaeism.

The Mandaeans are a minority that still exists today in Iraq , Iran and around the world, where the predominant religion has Gnostic influences.

In Islam , some groups of the Shia ( Ismailis , Alevis , Nusairians and Druze ), as well as the syncretistic religions that emerged from the Shia, are assigned to the Gnosis. Sometimes the Sufis (followers of Islamic mysticism ) are counted among the Gnostics. As in the Christian gnosis, also in the Islamic gnosis the material world is considered "foreign". The same applies to the Merkaba mysticism, Kabbalah and Hasidism as currents of Jewish mysticism.

Gnostic groups in Christianity

The term gnosis is only used more and more selectively in the course of the constitution of large church authority. The term gnostic is initially used to denote the most diverse groups of people. This has Adolf Harnack clearly described. He describes early Christian Gnosticism as a very varied movement, which at its extremes can hardly be differentiated from popular Christianity on the one hand or from Hellenistic syncretism on the other. At one extreme he lists the Enkratites who emphasized a strict asceticism in the following of Christ and only sometimes took up dualistic ideas, Christian theologians who tend to speculate like Origen as well as inconspicuous docetist communities and at the other extreme the Carpocratians , who next to statues of Pythagoras , Plato and Aristotle erected a statue of the genius of Jesus . Even further in secular culture there were magicians and fortune tellers with Christian figureheads, as well as charlatans who lured people out of their pockets with incomprehensible incantations. In the middle the Gnostic groups like Valentians , Basilidians and Ophites can be made out. Today, many historians would no longer ascribe a superordinate group identity to a movement of Gnosis to the groups mentioned.

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

Large system designs and Gnostic schools emerged in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, especially the Valentinians with Valentinus , Herakleon and Ptolemy and the so-called Barbelo-Gnostics , including the Ophites . For the so-called Setian Gnosis , a group identity is often doubted (for example by B. Layton), especially since the corresponding texts reveal strongly different systems. Despite many similarities, Marcion differs from them in decisive points, which is why his status as a Gnostic is controversial. What these drafts have in common is the attempt to express a synthesis of Judeo-Christian theology and vulgar Platonist speculation in a mythological framework, in which divine characteristics are personified and earthly salvation-historical and heavenly events are represented.

The Valentinian Treatise, the only original document of the Valentinians, which also paraphrases Irenaeus, gives in narrative style a platonic doctrine of three parts of the soul, which correspond to a three-part anthropological classification:

  1. pneumatikoi (Greek πνευματικοί 'spirit- like')
  2. psychikoi (Greek ψυχικοί , soul- like ')
  3. hylikoi (Greek ὑλικοί , substance- like ')

According to the narration given there (paraphrased here after WA Löhr), Sophia Achamoth gives the pneumatics the pneumatic seeds in order to be formed with the psychic soul part. The psychic part of the soul must be educated morally, by the world and the Savior. The Redeemer is pneumatic and psychological. Since he has not adopted a hylical nature, it cannot be saved. The goal of salvation history is the return of the pneumatic elements to the pleroma . Freed from their psychic shell, the pneumatic parts of the soul connect with the angels who surround the Savior. The psychic parts of the soul, which have proven themselves through faith and good works, rise into the first eightness of the pleroma.

The followers of the Gnostic schools were persecuted during the persecution of Christians just like the apostolic churches; for example, the Alexandrian Carpocrats were destroyed in the persecution of Christians in 202 by Septimius Severus .

Later influences from or references to Gnostic traditions

Gnostic elements were adopted in medieval Europe by alchemists , the Bogomils and the Cathars , in the Islamic world by Druze and Yazidis among others . Also of Spiritualism has been associated with Gnostic traditions in conjunction.

In the 19th century, Mormonism and later theosophy adopted various Gnostic traits. For the 20th century, influences on anthroposophy , the Rosicrucians , the Grail Movement and the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung are discussed.

The historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke emphasizes the influence of Gnostic and Manichaean thought patterns on ideologies of racist esotericism , for example in Ariosophy or in Miguel Serrano .

Some authors (including psychologists and philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries) have established a connection with "Gnosis", particularly by using a gnosis term that is not related to religious studies and history, but rather based on content.

Gnostic churches of the modern age

So-called “Gnostic Churches” are spiritual communities and esoteric groups that have emerged since the end of the 19th century. They refer to Gnostic ideas and whose views do not correspond to the teachings of conventional churches. The term “Gnostic Church” was first used historically in Joanny Bricaud's “Église Gnostique”. The “Gnostic Churches” include the Liberal Catholic Church , the Gnostic Catholic Church (“Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica”) by Theodor Reuss , the Gnostic School (Peithmann), the Lectorium Rosicrucianum , the Gnostic Congregation of Urdner ( Berlin ), the Community of the Gnostics (EH Schmitt), the Gnostic Temple Brotherhood ( Herford ) and the Old Gnostic Church of Eleusis ( Hamborn ).

The first Gnostic Church of the modern age, the Église gnostique universelle , was founded on September 21, 1890 by the spiritualist Jules Doinel (1842-1902). The Gnostic Church of Dionels derived its apostolic succession from the tradition of two forerunners: The Gnostic teachings of the Memphis Misraïm Rite and the Johannitic Church of the Early Christians (Église Johannite des Chrétiens Primitifs), which at the beginning of the 19th century differed from those predominantly in France acting mystical-Moorish secret society of the early Christian-Neognostic modeled on the Knights Templar. The "Johannitic Church of the Original Christians" derived its succession from the Original Christians, whose teachings were most directly passed down in the Johannine Christianity. The high degree Freemason Jules-Stanislas Dionel, who dealt with Freemasonry in Orléans in the 66th degree of the Memphis-Misraïm Rite , from the charter of the Gnostic Chancellor Etienne, who at the beginning of the 11th century as a member of a Gnostic secret society , drew his calling Cathar martyr was burned.

Eric Voegelin's Gnosis thesis

Eric Voegelin saw a return of gnosis in the modern age, especially in the form of political religion . According to Voegelin, there are six characteristics that characterize Gnosis:

  1. The Gnostic shows dissatisfaction with his situation in the world.
  2. The Gnostic believes the world is bad, but he does not believe in human inadequacy.
  3. The Gnostic believes that he can be redeemed from the evil of the world.
  4. The Gnostic believes that the order of being can be changed in a historical process.
  5. The Gnostic believes that the redeeming change can take place through human action.
  6. The Gnostic believes he is in possession of the knowledge of the method of this change, from this standpoint he creates recipes for self and world redemption and prophetically proclaims his knowledge of redemption to mankind.

See also


Web links

Wiktionary: Gnosis  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Primary texts
Secondary literature

References and comments

  1. Stuttgart Explanatory Bible. 2nd Edition. German Bible Society , Stuttgart 1992, ISBN 3-438-01121-2 , explanations p. 29
  2. This is supported by evidence from Justin (Dialogue with Trypho 35,6); see e.g. B. Markschies 2001, 18.
  3. Adolf von Harnack : Textbook of the history of dogmas . 4th edition. 3 volumes 1886-1890, OCLC 5006786 (published 1909-1910).
  4. See Hans Jonas : Gnosis and late antique spirit . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1934; 1954; Part One: The Mythological Gnosis. With an introduction to the history and methodology of research. 4th edition. 1988, ISBN 3-525-53123-0 ; Part Two: From Mythology to Mystical Philosophy. 3. Edition. ed. u. erg. v. Kurt Rudolph 1993, ISBN 3-525-53841-3 .
  5. Kurt Rudolph : The Gnosis. Nature and history of a religion of late antiquity. 3rd edition Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1990, ISBN 978-3-52552-110-6 , pp. 65 f. ( PDF; 13.2 MB, 430 pages accessed at
  6. ^ George W. MacRae : The Jewish. Background of the Gnostic Sophia Myth. Novum Testamentum (An International Quarterly for New Testament and Related Studies) Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1970), pp. 86-101 DOI: 10.2307 / 1560039
  7. In Arabic this term is called 'irfān (عرفان), literally means “state of knowledge” and is equated with “mysticism”; thus it corresponds to the "inner core" of Sufism .
  8. Geo Widengren: Religious phenomenology . Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1969; New edition 2012, ISBN 978-3-110-88396-1 , p. 508.
  9. Adolf von Harnack , Dogmengeschichte Volume 1.
  10. Art. Alexandria I. In: Theologische Realenzyklopädie
  11. Cf. also Walter Pagel , Marianne Winder: Gnostisches bei Paracelsus and Konrad von Megenberg. In: Gundolf Keil, Rainder Rudolf, Wolfram Schmitt, Hans J. Vermeer (eds.): Specialist literature of the Middle Ages. Festschrift Gerhard Eis. Stuttgart 1968, pp. 359-371.
  12. See also Harald Strohm: The Gnosis and National Socialism. A study of the psychology of religion. Alibri, Aschaffenburg, ISBN 3-932710-68-1 .
  13. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke: The Occult Roots of National Socialism. 2nd Edition. Graz 2000, p. 10, 175. (First edition The Occult Roots of Nazism. 1985)
  14. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke: In the Shadow of the Black Sun. Aryan Cults, Esoteric National Socialism and the Politics of Demarcation. Marix Verlag, Wiesbaden 2009, ISBN 978-3-86539-185-8 , p. 380. (Original Black Sun. 2002).
  15. See for example Peter Sloterdijk, Thomas Macho: Weltrevolution der Seele . A reading and working book of Gnosis from late antiquity to the present. Artemis & Winkler, 1991, ISBN 3-7608-1055-1 ; Reinhard W. Sonnenschmidt: Political Gnosis . Belief in alienation and illusion of immortality in religion and political philosophy of late antiquity. Fink, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-7705-3626-6 ; Samuel Vollenweider: Gnosis in the Modern Age? In: Ders .: Horizons of New Testament Christology: Studies on Paul and on early Christian theology. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2002, ISBN 3-16-147791-X , pp. 347–362 (p. 357 brief critical reference to the “shimmering” concept of gnosis in Sloterdijk / Macho 1991).
  16. Peter-Robert König : A life for the rose (Arnoldo Krumm-Heller). Munich 1995, ISBN 3-927890-21-9 , p. 45.
  17. German website of the Gnostic Catholic Church ("Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica") ( Memento of the original from July 19, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice.  @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  18. Horst E. Miers : Lexicon of secret knowledge. Goldmann Verlag, Munich 1993, ISBN 3-442-12179-5 , pp. 251-252.
  19. ^ Karl RH Frick : Light and Darkness. Gnostic-theosophical and Masonic-occult secret societies up to the turn of the 20th century. Volume II. Marix Verlag, Wiesbaden 2005, ISBN 3-86539-044-7 , p. 274, p. 314-315 and p. 513.
  20. Horst E. Miers: Lexicon of secret knowledge. Goldmann Verlag, Munich 1993, ISBN 3-442-12179-5 , pp. 251-252.
  21. ^ Karl RH Frick: Light and Darkness. Gnostic-theosophical and Masonic-occult secret societies up to the turn of the 20th century. Volume 2, Marix Verlag, Wiesbaden 2005, ISBN 3-86539-044-7 , pp. 234, 240, 336-339.
  22. See: Eric Voegelin: Science, Politics and Gnosis. Munich 1959 and Der Gottesmord. On the genesis and shape of modern political gnosis. Paderborn 1999, ISBN 3-7705-3385-2 .
  23. After: Johanna Prader: Der Gnostische Wahn. Eric Voegelin and the Destruction of Human Order in the Modern Age. Vienna 2006, ISBN 3-85165-725-X , p. 74 ff.