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Gnosticism consisted of many syncretistic belief systems which combined elements taken from Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Syrian pagan religions, from astrology, and from Judaism and Christianity. They constituted one of the three main branches of early Christianity: the other two being:
bullet The remnants of the Jewish Christian sect which was founded by Jesus' disciples after his execution and centered in Jerusalem, and
bullet The churches started by Paul, that were eventually to grow and develop into "mainline" Christianity by the end of the third century.

By the second century CE, many very different Christian-Gnostic sects had formed within the Roman Empire at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Some Gnostics worked within Jewish Christian and mainline Christian groups, and greatly influenced their beliefs from within. Others formed separate communities. Still others were solitary practitioners.

There does not seem to have been much formal organization among the Gnostics during the early centuries of the Christian movement. As mainline Christianity grew in strength and organization, Gnostic sects came under increasing pressure, oppression and persecution. They almost disappeared by the 6th century. The only group to have survived continuously from the 1st century CE into modern times is the Mandaean sect of Iraq and Iran. This group has about 15,000 members (one source says 1,500), and can trace their history continuously back to the original Gnostic movement.

Many new emerging religions in the West have adopted some ancient Gnostic beliefs and practices. By far, the most successful of these is the Church of Jesus Christ  of Latter-day Saints -- the LDS or Mormon church, centered in Salt Lake City, UT.

The Gnostic faith is undergoing a resurgence in the 21st century, primarily in Western countries. The counter-cult movement and some other Christian ministries disseminate a great deal of misinformation about the movement. 1,2,3

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Sources of ancient Gnostic information:

Until recently, only a few pieces of Gnostic literature were known to exist. These included Shepherd of Men, Asclepius, Codex Askewianus, Codex Brucianus, Gospel of Mary, Secret Gospel of John, Odes of Solomon and the Hymn of the Pearl. Knowledge about this movement had been inferred mainly from extensive attacks that were made on Gnosticism by Christian heresiologists (writers against heresy) of the second and early third century. These included Irenaeus (130? - 200? CE), Clement of Alexandria (145? - 213?), Tertullian (160? - 225?) and Hippolytus (170? - 236). Unfortunately, the heresy hunters appear to have been not particularly accurate or objective in their analysis of Gnosticism.

In 1945, Mohammed Ali es_Samman, a Muslim camel driver from El Qasr in Egypt, went with his brother to a cliff near Nag Hummadi, a village in Northern Egypt. They were digging for nitrate-rich earth that they could use for fertilizer. They came across a large clay jar buried in the ground. They were undecided whether to open it. They feared that it might contain an evil spirit; but they also suspected that it might contain gold or other material of great value. It turns out that their second guess was closer to the truth: the jar contained a library of Gnostic material of immeasurable value. 13 volumes survive, comprising 51 different works on 1153 pages. 6 were copies of works that were already known; 6 others were duplicated within the library, and 41 were new, previously unknown works. Included were The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Treatise on the Resurrection, Gospel of Philip, Wisdom of Jesus Christ, Revelation of James, Letter of Peter to Philip, On the Origin of the World and other writings. Of these, the Gospel of Thomas is considered the most important. It was a collection of the sayings of Jesus which were recorded very early in the Christian era. A later Gnostic author edited the Gospel. Some liberal theologians rank it equal in importance to the four Gospels of the Christian Scriptures.

The works had originally been written in Greek during the second and third centuries CE. The Nag Hummadi copies had been translated into the Coptic language during the early 4th century CE, and apparently buried circa 365 CE. Some Gnostic texts were non-Christian; others were originally non-Christian but had Christian elements added; others were entirely Christian documents. Some recycled paper was used to reinforce the leather bindings of the books. They were found to contain dated letters and business documents from the middle of the 4th century. The books appear to have been hidden for safe-keeping during a religious purge by the mainline Christian church.

The texts passed through the hands of a number of mysterious middlemen, and finally were consolidated and stored in the Coptic Museum of Cairo. Publication was delayed by the Suez Crisis, the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, and petty debates among scholars. The most important book, the Gospel of Thomas, was finally translated into English during the late 1960's; the remaining books were translated during the following ten years. In many ways, this find reveals much more about the early history of Christianity than do the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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References used:

  1. The Christian Research Institute has a two part series on ancient and modern Gnosticism from a conservative Protestant perspective. See: and
  2. The Gnostic Friends Network has lists of both pro and anti-Gnostic web sites at:
  3. The Gnosis Site at: This site has since gone offline.

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Copyright 1996, to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2006-MAR-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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