Introduction: What is Christian Gnosticism and Who Were the Christian Gnostics?

What is Christian Gnosticism and who were the Christian Gnostics?

"No form of lost Christianity has so intrigued modern readers and befuddled modern scholars as early Christian Gnosticism. The intrigue is easy to understand, especially in view of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library.... When that group of field hands headed by Mohammed Ali uncovered this cache of books in Upper Egypt, the world was suddenly presented with hard evidence of other Christian groups in the ancient world that stood in sharp contrast with any kind of Christianity familiar to us today. There was no Jesus of the stained glass window here, nor a Jesus of the creeds--not even a Jesus of the New Testament. These books were fundamentally different from anything in our experience, and almost nothing could have prepared us for them" Bart D. Ehrman...Lost Christianities

A collection of codices discovered sealed in a large jar in a cave near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi (aka Chenoboskion in ancient times) in 1945 has forever changed our ideas about early Christianity. These documents, now known as the Nag Hammadi Library, were made famous by Elaine Pagels in her best-selling book called Gnostic Gospels.

The origin of these more than 1,500-year-old documents is still a mystery, but they are thought to have been hidden by Egyptian desert monks from the nearby Pachomian monastery to save them from destruction by officials of the early Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt.

During the third and fourth centuries of the common era, the Christian church was busy defining and enforcing the concept and definition of "orthodox Christianity" and "true believers". In 312 AD, Constantine made the new Christian religion legal throughout the empire. The Church gained power and Constantine hoped to hold together his troubled empire.

Chairing the first ecumenical council of Christian bishops in Nicaea in 325 AD, Constantine hoped this universal Christian religion would bring his people together. Imagine his disappointment when he probably realized too late that any discussion concerning the Divine and the divine realm would be fraught with serious divisions and disagreements. He probably gave it his best shot, but it was not to be that easy.

Early Christianity before and even for a while after the Council of Nicaea was a rich tapestry of ideas and concepts, in many different gospels about the nature of the Divine and divine realm. However, subsequent ecumenical councils worked to define and set in stone exactly what constituted a true orthodox Christian. The Church carefully selected only gospels that reflected those chosen true beliefs and discarded all the rest.

Then in a festal letter of 367 AD, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, condemned outright the use of non-canonical books, including books in the libraries of the monasteries and personal libraries of the desert monks living outside Alexandria. Then all books not authorized by the bishop were ordered destroyed.

This might well have been followed by a time of gathering forbidden books and making plans to hide them. At least one or more monks likely rebelled at the order. It is thought the collection of codices discovered at Nag Hammadi were writings and gospels hidden by some of those early monks from nearby Pachomian Monastery. Planning and carrying out such a deed would have been difficult and fraught with dangers.

By the time Theodosius I declared Christianity to be the only religion allowed in the empire in 381 AD, it might have been too late for saving more gospels. Intolerance and persecutions immediately followed causing many of the early Christian sects, including the Gnostics, to go underground, meeting in secrecy. Even the old pagan religions were outlawed. Anyone caught worshiping any religion other than orthodox Christianity was punished by death.

Why this Bibliography/Blog?

I have always believed that the existence of the Great Library at Alexandria, striving to collect all written works of the known world, was a remarkably noble aspect of the ancient world. It existed for about 800 years as a cultural and educational resource. Never again has that kind of effort been duplicated during human history.

My interest in the subject of early Christianity began with the arrival of the twenty-first century. Initially I wanted to write a novel about a librarian working in the great library of Alexandria during these unsettling times -- the rise of early Christianity. A rough draft of that story is my blog, Alexandrine Librarian.

It did not take me long to realize that the fate of the Great Library and its companion institutions of learning, the Alexandrine Schools was closely tied to the rise of the early Christian Church and its increasing intolerance of alternative ideas about the nature of the Divine and the divine realm. I document the academic side of the Great Library in Alexandrine Teaching and in The Catechetical School of Alexandria

Also during these years, the first five centuries of the common era, there was a great outburst of spirituality like no other in recorded history that was a sharp contrast to and definitely at odds with the truculent nature of the early Christian Church. It is those desert monks and monasteries of the Egyptian desert south of Alexandria and the gospels they revered on a daily basis that are documented in my Desert Fathers bibliography/blog.

I find the history of the people of those times compelling. My work on this bibliography/blog, the reading and studying, has become a sort of spiritual journey. They are my personal notes on this "accidental" spiritual journey.

In this blog I want to explore available web-based resources for Gnosticism, one specific version of Christianity that appealed to some of those monks, document their belief system or cosmogony/cosmology of the Divine and the divine realm as described in the translations of these lost, now found, documents of the Desert Fathers – the Gnostic Gospels.

I hope you will enjoy these blogs as much as I have enjoyed putting them together and see for yourself who the Gnostics were and what Gnosticism was.

Comments and observations are welcome. If you are interested in contributing a chapter or so to this blog, feel free to contact me.

The Librarian
From the high mountains of southern Colorado
July 2014
send email to:
Back to Previous Level

Nag Hammadi codices. I

The Nag Hammadi Scrolls aka The Gnostic Gospels: The Lost Gospels of the Desert Fathers

  • An Introduction to the Lost Gospels...Also known as The Gnostic Elaine Pagels
  • Bart D. Ehrman...Lost Christianities
    "No form of lost Christianity has so intrigued modern readers and befuddled modern scholars as early Christian Gnosticism. The intrigue is easy to understand, especially in view of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library.... When that group of field hands headed by Mohammed Ali uncovered this cache of books in Upper Egypt, the world was suddenly presented with hard evidence of other Christian groups in the ancient world that stood in sharp contrast with any kind of Christianity familiar to us today. There was no Jesus of the stained glass window here, nor a Jesus of the creeds--not even a Jesus of the New Testament. These books were fundamentally different from anything in our experience, and almost nothing could have prepared us for them"
  • The Nag Hammadi library (Wikipedia)
    The site of discovery, Nag Hammadi in map of Egypt
    The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.... That year, twelve leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar  were found by a local peasant named Mohammed Ali Samman.... The writings in these codices comprised fifty-two mostly Gnostic treatises, but they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation/alteration of Plato's Republic. In his "Introduction" to The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James Robinson suggests that these codices may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery, and were buried after Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria condemned the uncritical use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 AD.

    The contents of the codices were written in Coptic language, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. The best-known of these works is probably the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete text. After the discovery it was recognized that fragments of these sayings attributed to Jesus appeared in manuscripts discovered at Oxyrhynchus in 1898, and matching quotations were recognized in other early Christian sources. Subsequently, a 1st or 2nd century date of composition circa 80 AD for the lost Greek originals of the Gospel of Thomas has been proposed, though this is disputed by many if not the majority of biblical matter researchers. The once buried manuscripts themselves date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.>

    The Nag Hammadi codices are housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt. To read about their significance to modern scholarship into early Christianity, see the Gnosticism article.
Complete List of Codices Found in Nag Hammadi Texts
  • Acts: The activities of the disciples after Jesus's death.
  • Epistles: Letters written by Christian leaders to other Christians.
  • Apocalypse: A revelation concerning the end of the world in a cataclysmic act of God.
  • Apocryphon: Greek term for a genre of Jewish and Early Christian writings that were meant to impart "secret teachings" or gnosis (knowledge) that could not be publicly taught.
source: Nag Hammadi library (Wikipedia)
Back to Previous Level

Elaine Pagels

  • Elaine Pagels (Wikipedia)
  • The Gnostic Gospels (Wikipedia)
    Some scholars, such as Edward Conze and Elaine Pagels, have suggested that gnosticism blends teachings such as those attributed to Jesus Christ with teachings found in Eastern traditions.... Conze has suggested that Hindu or Buddhist tradition may well have influenced Gnosticism. He points out that Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians....

    Pagels notes that the similarities between Gnosticism and Buddhism have prompted some scholars to question their interdependence and to wonder whether "...if the names were changed, the 'living Buddha' appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus" however, she concludes that, although intriguing, the evidence is inconclusive and she further concludes that these parallels might be coincidental, since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures without direct influence....

    Pagels has written that "one need only listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas to hear how it resonates with the Buddhist tradition… these ancient gospels tend to point beyond faith toward a path of solitary searching to find understanding, or gnosis." She suggests that there is an explicitly Indian influence in the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps via the Christian communities in southern India, the so-called, Thomas Christians.
  • The Gnostic Paul (Wikipedia)
Back to Previous Level




Back to Previous Level




Back to Previous Level




  • monad (Gnosticism) (Wikipedia)
    • The Monad in early Christian gnostic writings is an adaptation of concepts of the Monad in Greek philosophy to Christian gnostic belief systems.
    • In some gnostic systems the Supreme Being is known as the Monad, the One, The Absolute Aiōn teleos (The Perfect Aeon...
    • The One is the high source of the pleroma, the region of light. The various emanations of The One are called Aeons.
    • According to Theodoret's book on heresies (Haereticarum Fabularum Compendium i.18) the Arab Christian Monoimus (150-210) used the term Monad to mean the highest god which created lesser gods, or elements (similar to Aeons). In some versions of Christian gnosticism, especially those deriving from Valentinius, a lesser deity known as the Demiurge had a role in the creation of the material world in addition to the role of the Monad. In these forms of gnosticism, the God of the Old Testament is often considered to have been the Demiurge, not the Monad, or sometimes different passages are interpreted as referring to each.
  • Monad (philosophy) (Wikipedia)
    Monad being the source or the One meaning without division.
  • Monad
    The word monad is used by the neo-Platonists to signify the One; for instance, in the letters of the Christian Platonist Synesius, God is described as the Monad of Monads.
Back to Previous Level



  • kenoma Wikipedia
    • the visible or manifest cosmos, "lower" than the pleroma
    • Valentinius, a mid-2nd century Gnostic thinker and preacher, was among the early Christians who attempted to align Christianity with middle Platonism. Valentinius pooled dual concepts from the Platonic world of ideal forms, or fullness (pleroma), and the lower world of phenomena, or emptiness (kenoma, κένωμα).
Back to Previous Level




  • gnosis
    "knowledge," direct insight into God attained by pneumatics
  • Faith (pistis) and Knowledge (gnosis) (Gnostic Society Library)
    Knowledge (gnosis) is a somewhat more complex concept. Here is the definition of gnosis given by Elaine Pagels in her book The Gnostic Gospels: "...gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge ('He knows mathematics') and knowing through observation or experience ('He knows me'). As the gnostics use the term, we could translate it as 'insight', for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself... Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level is to know God; this is the secret of gnosis...."

    In orthodox Christianity, pistis is an end in itself. The object of pistis is pistis itself. This easily leads to a rigid dogmatism. Salvation comes to be seen as acceptance of a specific body of dogma to the exclusion of all others. In Valentinianism and other forms of "Gnostic" Christianity, the object of pistis is gnosis. The teachings are seen as a series of metaphors that point to the higher reality of gnosis. This helps explain the diversity of thought found within Valentinianism.
    The study of Gnosticism entered a new phase, however, with the discovery of a large collection of Coptic Gnostic documents found at Nag-Hammadi (Chenoboskion) in Upper-Egypt in 1945. Before this discovery all our information on the Gnostic sects and doctrines relied on anti-Gnostic writings, such as those of SS. Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius. This discovery has made available a wealth of original documents that are being studied now for the first time.
  • In the writings of the Greek Fathers (Wikipedia)
  • The "Gnostic" sects (Wikipedia)
  • The Gnostics in the Early Christian Era (Wikipedia)
  • In Greek Orthodox thought (Wikipedia)
    In the Eastern Orthodox Philokalia it was emphasized that such knowledge is not secret knowledge but rather a maturing, transcendent form of knowledge derived from contemplation....
Back to Previous Level





  • archon (Wikipedia)
    one of various powers in the cosmos
  • archon (Wikipedia)
    In late antiquity the term archon was used in Gnosticism to refer to several servants of the Demiurge, the "creator god" that stood between the human race and a transcendent God that could only be reached through gnosis. In this context they have the role of the angels and demons of the Old Testament. They give their name to the sect called Archontics.
Back to Previous Level


  • aeon (Gnosticism) (Wikipedia)
    • one of various levels of reality
    • Aeons bear a number of similarities to Judaeo-Christian angels, including roles as servants and emanations of God, and existing as beings of light. In fact, certain Gnostic Angels, such as Armozel, are also Aeons. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas, recently found, purchased, held, and translated by the National Geographic Society, also mentions Aeons and speaks of Jesus' teachings about them.
Back to Previous Level


Gnosticism and The Lost Gospels of the Desert Fathers

"...While Christianity was assuming the form of a 'normal religion,' at least among its adherents, some people within the Christian community resisted submitting to the requirement for conformity demanded by the new authority. These people wanted to discover for themselves the answers to certain questions. They would not accept unequivocally the so-called revealed knowledge handed down by the Church Fathers, but took upon themselves a personal search for truth through the direct experience of the divine presence.

These dissenters acquired the name Gnostic because they were seeking a special kind of knowledge concerning the nature of God and the relationship of the divine and human levels of consciousness. This special knowledge was called gnosis. It was not the knowledge that was transmitted through a sacred priesthood, nor by books filled with statements that were not to be questioned, nor through laws that were promulgated by officially recognized sectarian authorities. The kind of knowledge they sought would come from within themselves, for they understood God as being everywhere in the universe, including within the inner recesses of the individual. The Greek word gnosis most clearly expressed this kind of knowledge, for it means an inner knowing that is communicated directly from the divine origin in the human being, or--in another view--from the divine in the human being...."
...June Singer...Seeing Through the Visible World
Back to Previous Level

Glossary of Terms and Concepts in Early Gnosticism

Other Glossaries
  • A Glossary of Gnostic Terms at
    The Gnostic Q evolved during the elaboration of THE HIDDEN PASSION: A Novel of the Gnostic Christ based on the Nag Hammadi Texts.
    When the first evangelists composed their gospels, they drew upon a list of sayings which scholars later called 'Q' (from Quelle meaning Source). site by
    In the spirit of the first evangelists, I de-constructed all the known Gnostic texts to create a large list of sayings which I later called The Gnostic Q. Over the course of several years, these sayings were grouped around certain key words to create A GLOSSARY OF GNOSTIC TERMS. Since students of Gnosticism may find this research tool helpful, I've now made it available through this new site, site by L. Caruana
  • Gnostic Glossary at
    ... The word Kheper means evolution, metamorphosis, transformation, coming into being.... site by M.Alan Kazlev
  • Saunders Gnostic Glossary 2006
    The following set of terms was gathered by myself [Tom Saunders] and members of a group of scholars who study the "Gospel of Thomas." These human sources of information include, Dr. Andrew Criddle, Dr. William Arnal, Dr. Mark Goodachre, Dr. Jack Kilmon, Dr. Lynn Bauman, Mike Grondin, Frank McCoy, and others.
  • A Gnostic Glossary
  • Gnostic Terms and Concepts
Back to Previous Level

Major Players in Early Gnosticism

Gnosis In Greek Orthodox thought

Gnosis in Greek Orthodox thought is the spiritual knowledge of a saint (one who has obtained theosis)... or mystically enlightened human being. Within the cultures of the term's provenance (Byzantine and Hellenic) Gnosis was a knowledge or insight into the infinite, divine and uncreated in all and above all,... rather than knowledge strictly into the finite, natural or material world.... Gnosis is a transcendental as well as mature understanding. It indicates direct spiritual experiential knowledge... and intuitive knowledge, mystic rather than that from rational or reasoned thinking. Gnosis itself is obtained through understanding at which one can arrive via inner experience or contemplation such as an internal epiphany of intuition and external epiphany such as the Theophany.

In the Eastern Orthodox Philokalia it was emphasized that such knowledge is not secret knowledge but rather a maturing, transcendent form of knowledge derived from contemplation (theoria resulting from practice of hesychasm), since knowledge cannot truly be derived from knowledge but rather knowledge can only be derived from theoria (to witness, see (vision) or experience).... Knowledge thus plays an important role in relation to theosis (deification/personal relationship with God) and theoria (revelation of the divine, vision of God).... Gnosis, as the proper use of the noetic faculty plays an important role in Eastern Orthodox theology. Its importance in the economy of salvation is discussed periodically in the Philokalia where as direct, personal knowledge of God (noesis; see also Noema) it is distinguished from ordinary epistemological knowledge (episteme—i.e., speculative philosophy)....source: In Greek Orthodox thought(Wikipedia)
Back to Previous Level

The Gnostics in the Early Christian Era

Back to Previous Level

Gnostic Cosmogony

  • Gnostic Cosmogony
  • The Gnostic cosmogony
    When the Gnostic cosmogony is compared to the Genesis cosmogony, you can see that the Genesis was constructed from pieces and parts of the Gnostic, which preceded it. The Gnostic being far more ancient than the Orthodox, as well as much evidence that the translations from the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts were altered to support the Orthodox narrative of the ‘new’ Roman church. The biggest confusion bar none, being the translation of the Elohim and the Archons, a family of gods of the highest places in the Light and the lowest places of the Darkness, that were frequently transliterated incorrectly; Elohim, being the Family of God, was translated as a single; ‘God’. The Aeons became Angels, and the Archons became Demons. The Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, was twisted around into something evil. It was a ‘wicked’ thing that allowed men to know that they were all the Sons of God. All things were converted to a ‘mystery’ as the Gnostic knowledge was destroyed.

    The Gnostic churches were trying to explain that there was far more to Jesus’ teaching than what is found in the canonical gospels or from the letters of the apostles. Unfortunately the Gnostic gospels of Jesus’ teachings were declared ‘Heretic’, and the letters of Paul were used as the basis of scripture and the dogmas of the church.

    One of the things discovered in the Gnostic cosmogony is that you have to re-think the Old Testament Genesis about the Creator and other angels and celestial beings, the roles of Adam and Eve, and the belief of the afterlife. Much of the Genesis has changed in the Gnostic writings that are found in the Enoch and Nag Hammadi texts.

    The roles of the Creator has changed as well. The so-called Creator of this world, who is the God of Old Testament, was not the true Heavenly Father or the Ultimate Supreme Being that Jesus referred to in the New Testament. This Creator, or Demiurge I should say, was known by the name Yaldabaoth (Ialdabaoth) who was an imposter and a jealous god. It is thought that this god is also known by the pseudonyms; Ya(h), and Jehovah, the god of war. Who is the ‘jealous’ god of Israel and Moses....
Back to Previous Level