In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gnosticism

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Essay Collections
  • New Testament
  • Platonism
  • The Divine Feminine
  • The Hermetica
  • Manichaeism and Mandaeism
  • Nag Hammadi in the 4th-Century Egyptian Context

Biblical Studies Gnosticism
Nicola Denzey Lewis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0168


The term “Gnosticism” can be utilized broadly, to characterize any religious movement based on an internal, individualized recognition (“Gnosis”) of one’s divine inner “spark” that links an individual with a higher divine force. In this sense, moments of “Gnosticism” have emerged at various historical periods. In a more narrow sense, however, most scholars of Gnosticism presently consider it a phenomenon that peaked in the 2nd century of the Common Era in the Roman Empire and that characterized one side of a division in the formative early Christian movement. Beyond that, there is currently no consensus concerning what “Gnosticism” was, how we might define its parameters, and whether it is correct to identify it as an ancient religious mentality at all. European scholarship—with significant academic centers studying Gnosticism in Scandinavia, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy—tends to be more positivist, employing the term “Gnosticism” or “Gnosis” without apparent apprehension. In the United States, many scholars have been more reticent about employing the term, often placing it within quotation marks to signal a profound discomfort with a term that reifies a field of study largely invented in the early modern period. However, attempts to replace the term “Gnosticism” with something more accurate have so far not produced satisfactory results. A second issue in the field has been the question of primary sources. Up to the mid-20th century, studies of Gnosticism were hampered by the paucity of original texts from “Gnostics” themselves. The greatest source for reconstructing Gnosticism was the work of their opponents, Christian heresiologists. In 1945, however, the global study of Gnosticism was set on a new path by the discovery of a set of twelve 4th-century codices near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. These texts, known as the Nag Hammadi Library or the Nag Hammadi Codices, contained approximately fifty-two documents, some of which were previously known, and some of which had until that point, been entirely lost. Although not all of the Nag Hammadi documents are “Gnostic” as such, many of them were ascribed to Gnostic authors in our extant heresiological writings. The translation and study of the Nag Hammadi documents has dominated scholarship since that time, largely replacing any attention to the work of Christian heresiologists. A concerted effort has been made at international collaboration and the expeditious production of critical translations of the codices, producing impressive results. However, the scholarship that has been produced remains largely highly specialized and technical, making teaching Gnosticism at the undergraduate level more challenging.

Introductory Works

The books here all present overviews of Gnosticism as a historical phenomenon for a general educated audience of nonspecialists. Because they are targeted to a nonspecialist audience, these introductory works generally aim for brevity and clarity rather than nuance and sophistication. Roukema 1999, Harris 1999, and Logan 2006 are all brief general introductions directed at readers from a Christian background and thus give a corrective, sympathetic interpretation of Gnosticism to that which traditional Christian theologically oriented sources have offered. Markschies 2003 is brief and lays out an introduction that draws deeply on ancient Christian anti-Gnostic sources, albeit read and presented sympathetically here. More comprehensive in scope is Meyer 2005, which specifically contextualizes the Nag Hammadi writings both in the ancient world and in terms of their significance to modern scholarship. Meyer’s clear and exciting writing appeals to a broad readership and is perfect for the undergraduate classroom. Pagels 1979 was for many years the classic introduction to Gnosticism and has been literally life changing for many readers who went on to study the texts in more depth; it reads very well, but is now becoming methodologically dated. All these works are acceptable for undergraduates, although the field so far lacks anything that resembles an undergraduate textbook, with the exception of Pearson 2007.

  • Harris, J. Glyndwr. Gnosticism: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic, 1999.

    Harris casts a wider net than most in this brief book, considering as “Gnostics” the Bogomils, Cathars, Manichaeans, Mandaeans, and modern figures from Goethe to Jung.

  • Logan, A. H. B. The Gnostics: Identifying an Early Christian Cult. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2006.

    Logan’s generally accessible volume focuses on what we can (and cannot) know about Gnostics rather than Gnosticism, based on an examination of Patristic, Neoplatonic, and even material evidence. Includes some diagrams and photographs.

  • Markschies, Christoph. Gnosis: An Introduction. Translated by J. Bowden. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2003.

    Translated from German, Markschies offers a succinct (145 pages) introduction to Gnosticism but tends to repeat categories first introduced in ancient heresiological literature, producing an overview of Gnosticism that requires further nuancing.

  • Meyer, Marvin. The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

    An accessible overview of the Nag Hammadi find, with essays on specific aspects of Nag Hammadi texts and their significance. Includes an appendix with selections of Nag Hammadi texts in the author’s English translation.

  • Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

    An award-winning classic study of Gnosticism that situates the movement within 2nd-century debates on the nature of what it meant to be fully and properly Christian. Although it is still worth reading, the book is now showing its age, and some of its key theoretical stances no longer hold.

  • Pearson, Birger. Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.

    The closest thing in the field to a textbook, Pearson based this book on his undergraduate classes on Gnosticism at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The book offers clear and informative summaries of a large range of Gnostic texts, including Manichaean sources; it does not supply a great deal of analysis but works well alongside the primary sources themselves.

  • Roukema, Riemer. Gnosis and Faith in Early Christianity: An Introduction to Gnosticism. Translated by J. Bowden. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999.

    Both an introduction to Gnosticism and a theory of its origins, this English translation of the Dutch original might be interesting to more advanced students, particularly those intrigued by the connections between Gnosticism and Platonist philosophy in the ancient world.

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