Eleven Features of Gnosticism


The following list is a summary of eleven features of Gnosticism delineated by Birger Pearson.

1. Gnosis. The “adherents of Gnosticism regard gnosis (rather than faith, observance of law, etc.) as requisite to salvation. The saving ‘knowledge’ involves a revelation as to the true nature both of the self and of God; indeed, for the Gnostic, self-knowledge is knowledge of God.”

2. Theology. “Gnosticism also has . . . a characteristic theology, according to which there is a transcendent supreme God beyond the god or powers responsible for the world in which we live.”

3. Cosmology. “A negative, radically dualist stance vis-à-vis the cosmos involves a cosmology, according to which the cosmos itself, having been created by an inferior and ignorant power, is a dark prison in which human souls are held captive.”

4. Anthropology. “Interwoven with its theology and its cosmology is . . . an anthropology, according to which the essential human being is constituted by his/her inner self, a divine spark that originated in the transcendent divine world and, by means of gnosis, can be released from the cosmic prison and can return to its heavenly origin. The human body, on the other hand, is part of the cosmic prison from which the essential ‘man’ must be redeemed.”

5. Eschatology. “The notion of release from the cosmic prison entails . . . an eschatology, which applies not only to the salvation of the individual but to the salvation of all the elect, and according to which the material cosmos itself will come to its fated end.”

6. Social. “Gnosticism, at first glance, seems to be a highly individualistic religion, and so it is. But, in fact, Gnostics did gather in communities of like-minded persons.”

7. Ritual. “Closely tied to this is . . . a ritual dimension as well, for the Gnostics had religious ceremonies of various kinds.”

8. Ethical. “There is, also, . . . an ethical dimension, though in this area there was considerable variation from group to group. Most characteristic, reflecting the acosmic nature of Gnosticism, is the propensity toward withdrawal from engagement with the cosmos, which in its most extreme forms involved abstinence from sex and procreation.”

9. Experimental. “That all of the aforementioned features of Gnosticism involved . . . an experimental dimension almost goes without saying. Religious experience, for the Gnostics, involved joy in the salvation won by gnosis, as well as an extreme alienation from, and revolt against, the cosmic order and those beings attached to it.”

10. Myth. “[W]hat holds everything together for the Gnostic is myth. One of the most characteristic features of Gnosticism is its mythopoesis, its impulse to create an elaborate mythical system giving expression to all that gnosis entails. An interesting feature of Gnostic mythopoesis is that there was a great variation in the telling of the myth; each Gnostic teacher would create new elements to be added to his or her received myth, and, with such elaborations, Gnostic myths could become more and more complicated as they developed.”

11. Parasitical. “But what makes Gnosticism so hard to define is, finally, its parasitical character, a feature that constitutes an eleventh dimension of Gnosticism. This brings up the problem of the relationship between Gnosticism and other religions, chiefly Judaism and Christianity.”

This list is highly instructive and useful in gnostic research, particularly when the following cautions are kept in mind: (1) no gnostic text or system of the second century C.E. will exhibit all of these characteristics equally and uniformly—a demonstration of the tremendous variety among the gnostics; (2) most elements, when taken independently, can be identified with other religious and philosophical systems present in the ancient world—a testament to the syncretistic nature of Gnosticism; and (3) certain features stand out as unique to Gnosticism—an indication of the innovation that Gnosticism brought to the ancient religious and philosophical landscape.

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