The Gnostic Christ

Gnosticism vs. Christianity

Gnostic Sophia Tree

Gnostic Sophia Tree

by Rev. Paul A. Hughes

By the end of the second century, a religio-philosophical phenomenon on the fringes of Christianity had already been sharply defined by orthodox theologians and severely distanced from orthodox circles. This separation was performed expeditiously and effectively by such great orthodox leaders as Hippolytus, Tertullian, and most notably by Irenaeus in his Against Heresies.

This phenomenon is known today as Gnosticism. It was studied with interest in the twentieth century, especially since the discovery of a ruined Coptic library of Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1947.

But why did the orthodox Church object so to this religious strain? And why the renewed excitement among modern religion scholars? The answer is the same on both counts:   the thought of the Gnostics represents a variety of interpretation and application of the Christian message that differs from the orthodox view.

The most important point of departure from orthodox teaching is in the Gnostic redefinition of the meaning, purpose, and nature of Christ.

Is the Gnostic interpretation valid? Is it indeed Christian? Some liberal scholars consider it equally valid with the Christian message. The Gnostics, however, appear to be affected by considerable religious and philosophical thought that lies outside the Judeo-Christian orthodox continuum. Perhaps the answer — or part of it — can be discovered by examining the sources of the Gnostic view of Christ, and the construct of Christ’s nature and purpose they derive from those sources.

Definition of Terms

“Gnosticism” is a modern term1 applied to a number of religious groups that placed an emphasis on esoteric knowledge (gnōsis) which is passed along, presumably, through the ages among those whom can be said to have “arrived,” that is, achieved some higher spiritual plane.

One can refer to things “gnostic” in the broad sense or in the narrow sense.2 The broad sense is most appropriately rendered “gnostic,” with a lower-case “g”, in that it refers to the fact of an esoteric knowledge, or to certain traits or tendencies generally associated with known Gnostic religions. In this way, New Testament passages might be, and often are, alleged to be “gnosticizing.” Two examples are: (1) references to the gospel as “saving knowledge”; and (2) the use of terminology — notably by Paul — such as “knowledge,” “all things” (tá pánta, i.e., “the All”), “fullness” (plērōma), etc., which were at times employed as Gnostic technical terms.

Conversely, it is appropriate to refer to traits, practices, elements, etc., as “Gnostic,” with a capital “G”, when applied to what is by definition a specifically Gnostic religion. A working definition of Gnostic religion will follow in the next section.

Two more terms must be contrasted: “pre-Gnostic” and “proto-Gnostic.” According to the definition adopted at the Messina congress on Gnostic origins in 1966, “pre-Gnostic” refers to elements that existed before Christianity and were later incorporated into Gnostic religions. A “proto-Gnostic” element, on the other hand, is one that belongs specifically to the early stages of the formation of a Gnostic religion.3

Finally, one last term may now be defined, that is, “pre-Christian Gnosticism.” In the twentieth century, there was considerable debate whether (1) Gnosticism as a religion preceded and developed in parallel or even in tandem with Christianity; or (2) it developed more or less directly from Christianity and existed as a Christian heresy.

The view of Gnosticism as a Christian heresy prevailed until at least 1909, when Robert Law proposed Hellenistic-Oriental Gnostic origins.4 Later, Rudolf Bultmann became a major figure in a school of thought (following Richard Reitzenstein’s hypothesis) that saw Gnosticism as both preceding and affecting Christianity,5 and Gnosticism as equally valid from a religionsgeschicte point-of-view. To call Gnosticism “pre-Christian” implies a view similar to Bultmann’s.

In recent years, the pendulum has largely swung back to a more medial position. Bultmann’s proposed Iranian origin of Gnosticism is today almost universally rejected.6 Many scholars recognize pre-Christian elements having been incorporated into Gnosticism, but are critical of theories of a pre-Christian Gnostic religion such as that which Bultmann constructed from post-Christian sources.

Delineation of Gnostic Religion

Because of the extensive variety of Gnostic and gnosticizing groups, it is necessary to provide a basic definition of Gnostic religion. In a 1967 article, T. P. van Baaren suggested in sixteen points the characteristics of Gnostic religion.7 His points, however, are complex and sometimes overlap, and in some cases apply specific characteristics too broadly.8 About the same time, H. Goedicke listed just four points,9 which yet do not seem sufficiently in-depth. A more practical delineation of Gnostic religion is as follows:

  1. A transcendent and impersonal God rules the heavens.
  2. The material world is evil (i.e., cosmological dualism).
  3. Man has fallen from a pure pneumatic (i.e., spiritual) state into the evil material realm.
  4. God and the material realm are separated by a spiritual realm (the plērōma), filled with intermediate beings (aeons, “emanations,” or “hypostases”).
  5. The material world is ruled by an evil archōn or archōns (“rulers”) or Demiurge.
  6. God at times sends redeemers to man to reveal a saving gnōsis.
  7. Through the esoteric gnōsis, man is able to save himself, regain his spiritual (pneumatic) nature, and in the end ascend to his place in the plērōma.
  8. This salvation is available to a limited number of “elect” pneumatics.

This formulation should now provide a workable definition from which to continue this study.

Origins of the Gnostic Redeemer Figure

Most Gnostic redemption myths begin with the fall of Sophia (“Wisdom”) to the earthly realm. This personified Wisdom figure might have been drawn directly from Old Testament and Apocryphal sources,10 or from even more ancient Hebrew-Canaanite traditions.11

Sophia persuades the Demiurge, the evil creator of the material world, to give life to Adam,12 — to the Naassene and Barbelo sects the “Primal Man.”13 This Primal Man is identified by Bultmann as originating with the Iranian Primal Man/Redeemer myth.14 Bultmann has considered Mandaean texts to contain skeletal remnants of a more ancient Iranian prototype.15 However, he commits a fundamental error in constructing a pre-Christian myth from post-Christian sources alone — no extant Gnostic text can reasonably be dated earlier than the second century.17

Similarly, E. F. Scott postulates the origin of the Gnostic Primal Man in “some primitive myth, the meaning of which can now only be conjectured, and which possibly underlies the imagery of Daniel and the Book of Enoch.”18 Here two hypotheses are yet to be established: (1) that Daniel and Enoch indeed utilized a more ancient myth; and (2) that the later Gnostic myth in turn descended from that of Daniel and Enoch.

Depending upon the specific variety of Gnosticism, either Sophia or the Primal Man exist in a fallen state19 and require redemption. Until their redemption, the spiritual and material worlds co-exist in tension, in an imperfect and unacceptable state of admixture. At the prayer of Sophia (or “on his own initiative” in the Naassene material)20 a Redeemer (“an Aeon of supreme rank — the Soter or Christus”)21 descends into the material world to rescue the fallen one. There are in fact numerous redeemer figures identified in gnostic and related literature.22 From Judaism, directly or indirectly, come the figures of “the Great Seth” or “Illuminator”;23 Melchizedek/Seth;24 the descensus angelorum (allegorized by Philo);25 the “Light” or “Man” of Ezekiel;26 the “Son of Man” of Daniel;27 and certainly the figures of Jewish messianism and apocalyptic.28 The “Teacher of Righteousness” of the Qumran sect (ostensibly Essene) has also been cited — but the Qumranians were essentially apocalyptists rather than Gnostics.

From Mesopotamia come many redeemer figures, notably Marduk and Mithra; and from Egypt, Osiris.29

Various Hellenistic sources are postulated. In Plato is found the Ideal Man, though the redemptive idea is absent. 30 It is alleged that in some Middle Platonic sources that “the translator of Ezekiel [1:26] in the Septuagint identifies the figure of divine Man with the Platonic idea.”31 The Hermetic Poimandres (Hellenistic Jewish) posits an androgynous Phos/Zoe figure who descends and spawns mankind; Philo identifies the Divine Man or “Man of God” with the Logos.32 However, only certain Gnostic systems coupled the Logos figure with the redeemer function. In other systems, Logos remained an entirely separate entity. 33

The foregoing redeemer figures, with the exception of Philo and the Hermetic writings, do indeed represent pre-Christian elements alleged to later affect Gnosticism; yet none truly exhibits evidence of a Gnostic religion preceding Christianity, i.e., “pre-Christian Gnosticism.”

Redeemers more specific to Gnosticism are identified in Gnostic writings. “In the system of Simon Magus, Simon himself is the redeemer and appears in one form as Jesus.”34 Pistis Sophia, 369, refers to “Zorokothora-Meljisedek,” according to F. C. Burkitt a corrupted coupling of the names Zoroaster and Melchizedek — but not in fact having anything to do with the historical characters. Only their names have been borrowed.35

John Dart describes two Gnostic redeemers which he considers to be in no way patterned after Jesus Christ. Derdekeas, in The Paraphrase of Shem, is touted as a “divine warrior” after the model of the Canaanite Ba’al or the Hebrew Yahweh.36 In Dart’s description, he seems to be nothing more than a fallen aeon, but does at times take on some function as Redeemer (or “Revealer”).37 The Apocalypse of Adam presents one called the Illuminator as a redeemer.38 This figure does indeed (against Dart) appear to be based on a re-staging of the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus. The Gnostic writings appear to adapt redeemer figures after either of two patterns: (1) ancient historical/mythological/philosophical/legendary figures; or (2) the Christian presentation of Jesus Christ.

Gnostic Ascension

Gnostic Ascension

The Nature of Gnostic Redemption

Redemption in Gnosticism is not legal, ethical, or apocalyptic, as it appears variously in Judaism and Christianity. Gnosticism appears to be based on Persian physical dualism (i.e., light versus darkness), but modified into a cosmological dualism of spiritual versus material.39 The Gnostics hoped to transfer from this world to the spiritual realm, and ultimately into the plērōma, by the receipt of an esoteric gnōsis, i.e., “spiritual enlightenment.”40 This gnōsis was brought, directly or indirectly, by a redeemer who acted as “revealer” to a select few of the “elect.”

To the Gnostics, being awakened from their sleep and perceiving the knowledge, “gnosis,” of their beginnings and destiny was “redeeming” for them. In other words, obtaining mystical knowledge of this kind was thought to be their salvation, and in that sense a revealer-figure was also a redeemer.41

The Gnostic Christ

Not all Gnostics cared to associate themselves with the figure of Jesus Christ. The Mandaeans are a sect that venerated John the Baptist, but rejected Jesus as a false prophet.42

Still, overall the Gnostics freely and readily adopted the Christ-image as their Redeemer, or the latest in a series of redeemers. “The grand characteristic of Christian Gnosticism is the identification of the mythical Redeemer with Christ, with whose history the pagan traditions are interwoven.”43 Jesus became to them a mystical figure: one who, according to the Valentinians, clothed himself with the esoteric “Name of the Lord.”44

Jesus did not, say the Gnostics, come to bear the sins of men, that whoever believes in his atoning death may gain eternal life. “The real purpose of Jesus, or rather of the Soter [‘Savior’] who used Him as his instrument, was to communicate the hidden gnōsis.”45

Most scholars consider the general Gnostic view of the Incarnation to be docetic (from Gk. dokein, “to seem”). This term, however, is usually applied to the early heretical position that Jesus was never actually present in the flesh, but only “seemed” to be human. He was, in this view, entirely spiritual and his human appearance an illusion. Thus Elaine Pagels is probably right in objecting to the docetic label.46

Instead, the Gnostic Christ had two natures: the pneumatic (spiritual) and the psychic (physiological). The Gnostics variously held that the Savior/Redeemer indwelt the earthly Jesus at birth (the Naassenes and the Pistis Sophia), at the age of twelve (the Justinians), or at his baptism by John (most sects).47 The Valentinians believed that at his baptism Jesus received the “Name of the Lord.”48 The divine Savior departed from Jesus’ body at the time of the trial before Pilate,49 later while on the cross, or somewhere in-between. Basilides taught that Simon of Cyrene was transformed to look like Jesus and crucified in his place.50 Such separation of Christ from the material world was evidently requisite in order to comply with Gnostic dualistic conceptions.

Thus the true (Gnostic) Christ escaped suffering and death.51 Christ’s death was not a redemptive act: it was merely due to an outburst of wrath from the evil Demiurge.52 The wholly spiritual Christ — according to Basilides, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and The Apocalypse of Peter — now laughed at the folly of his would-be executors.53 They thought they could rid themselves of the divine Redeemer!

He whom you see above the tree, glad and laughing, is the living Jesus. But the one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute . . . one made in his likeness.54

This “laughing” of Christ was possibly drawn from Psalm 2, concerning those who conspired “against the Lord and his
Anointed,” so that “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.”55


The Redeemer figure is one variously assembled from ancient myths and traditions. Then the figure of Jesus Christ was adapted and fitted into the Gnostic scheme as yet another redeemer. Just as Gnostic teachers appropriated Paul’s terminology to their purposes, they also appropriated the figure of Christ.

The evidence adduced here does not suggest a Gnostic religion preceding Christianity — not as defined. There might have existed gnosticizing traits in some pre-Christian religious sects. There might be elements and terminology in primitive Christianity itself that can be called Gnostic. Yet Gnosticism as we know it from Nag Hammadi and related texts cannot be demonstrated before Christianity was well established.

Gnosticism is by nature syncretistic.56 The Gnostic Jesus presented here is the natural byproduct of this syncretism, wherein elements pre-Christian and post-Christian; elements Egyptian, Iranian, Hellenistic, philosophical, etc.; and elements derived from specious exegesis and active imaginations have melded to produce a radically different Christ from that of orthodox Christianity — and one that is just as naturally labeled heretical by its opponents.


1See Casey (JTS XXXVI [1938], 60), cited by R. McLaglan Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” Vigiliae Christianae 9 (1955):195, see also 193.

2See Edwin M. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 16 f.

3Ibid., 18.

4Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” 194.

5See Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” in Studies in Gnosticism and Hellenistic Religions, ed. R. van den Broek and M. J. Vermaseren (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981), 469-477.

6See Wilson, “Gnostic Origins, “ 194, 207; Gilles Quispel, “Gnosticism from Its Origins to the Middle Ages,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 5, ed. Mircea Eliade (NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987), 568; and G. Quispel, “Gnosticism and the New Testament,,” Vigiliae Christianae 19 (1965):73.

7T. P. van Baaren, “Toward a Definition of Gnosticism,” in U. Bianchi, ed., Le Origini dello Gnosticismo (1967), 178-180, quoted in Yamauchi, Pre-Christian, 14 f.

8Yamauchi, Pre-Christian, 14 f.

9 Ibid.,15.

10See Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 489-90.

11See Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 568.

12Ibid., 570.

13E. F. Scott, “Gnosticism,” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 6, ed. James Hastings (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 236.

14Henry A. Green, “Gnosis and Gnosticism: A Study in Methodology,” Numen 24 (August 1977):117.

15Ibid., 116.

16Ibid., 116 f., 123.

17See C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, 98, paraphrased in Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” 205; Dodd is followed here against Wilson’s own (unjustified) dating of Christian Gnostic origins to the mid-first century.

18Scott, 236.

19The Apocryphon of John even “combines the Anthropos [‘Man’] model and the Sophia model,” Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 570.

20Scott, 237.


22See Yamauchi, Pre-Christian, 168.

23Gedaliahu A. G. Stroumsa, Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology, Nag Hammadi Studies, vol. 24, ed. Martin Krause, James M. Robinson, and Frederik Wisse (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984), 110.

24Ibid., 111; see also Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 488.

25Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” 203.

26Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 567.


28G. van Groningen, First Century Gnosticism: Its Origin and Motifs (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), 70-72.

29Scott, 237.

30Cf. Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 567 f.; see also Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 494; and Wilson, The Gnostic Problem (London: A. R. Mowbray and Co., 1958), 221, 226.

31Quispel, “From Its Origins,” 568.


33Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 480.

34Wilson, Gnostic Problem, 226.

35F. C. Burkitt, Church and Gnosis (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1932), 69.

36John Dart, The Laughing Savior (NY: Harper and Row, 1976), 97-101.

37Ibid., 100 f.

38Ibid., 101-103.

39Scott, 234.


41Dart, 101.

42Yamauchi, “Jewish Gnosticism?” 469, 471.

43Scott, 237.

44Quispel, “New Testament,” 80, see also 82.

45Scott, 237.

46EIaine H. Pagels, “Gnostic and Orthodox views of Christ’s Passion: Paradigms for the Christian’s Response to Persecution?” in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol. 1, ed. Bentley Layton, Studies in the History of Religions, vol. 41, ed. M. H. van Voss, E. J. Sharpe, and R. J. Z. Werblowsky (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1980), 264.

47Scott, 237

48Quispel, “New Testament,” 80.

49Pagels, 265.

50Dart, 108-109.

51See Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.16.6; according to Pagels, however, the Valentinians affirmed the Passion of Christ, Pagels, 262-88; but the spiritual part of Christ still did not suffer, only the psychic (266).

52Scott, 237.

53Dart, 109.

54From The Apocalypse of Peter, quoted in Dart, 107.


56See Dodd, Fourth Gospel, 97 f., quoted in Wilson, “Gnostic Origins,” 197.

© 1987, 2007 Paul A. Hughes, previously published in Christ in Us: The Exalted Christ and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2007), also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google Book Preview.

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One Comment on “The Gnostic Christ”

  1. […] See my article on the Gnostic View of Christ as Redeemer or Archetypal Man: […]

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