First Century Gnosticism

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity

  • Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” ·
  • Like Christianity, Gnosticism evolved over time.
  • There were many forms of Gnosticism throughout early Christianity.
  • Scholars have identified many strands prevalent in the first century that were synthesized within Gnosticism, including Egyptian religion, Judaism, Christianity, astrology, and Greek philosophy.
  • An initial wave of Gnosticism arose after the destruction of the temple in 70CE, but it wasn’t until the second century that it gained in prominence and achieved its classical form.
  • Early Gnosticism probably arose out of apocalyptic Judaism, and hostility towards the God of the Old Testament.
  • It arose after people abandoned the idea that God would take action on their behalf.
  • Gnostics believed that matter was evil and spirit was good.
  • This world and this body are not the ultimate reality.
  • Matter was eternal and the world had been created out of this evil stuff.
  • In other words, Gnostics believed that creation came out of evil matter.
  • Since God was spirit and good, he could not have created matter.
  • God created “spiritual elements” that handled matter and created the world.
  • As these “spiritual elements” drifted farther and farther from God, they became more and more ignorant of Him and, in the end, hostile to him.
  • Nonetheless, these spiritual elements had to be pacified (worshiped) because ultimately they were in control of the world, including all the people in it.
  • It led to a false humility of not being worthy and hence, not being able to approach God.
  • Therefore, one needed to submit to the angels and “spiritual elements.”
  • In essence, then, the Gnostics believed that a spiritual God did not create the world.
  • In Gnostic thought, Jesus was one of those “spiritual elements” that God created, although he was certainly above all of them.
  • Since matter derived from evil, it stands to reason the body was also evil.
  • Jesus, then, who was derived from God was spiritual.
  • He was not a real man (it has been said by Gnostics that when Jesus walked, he left no footprints).
  • In Gnostic thought, a “redeemer” would descend from heaven, teach gnosis, and then return to heaven.
  • Even though Gnostic thought predated Christ, it was adapted to include him.
  • It led to the argument that only through gnosis could people understand and participate in the fulness of Christianity.
  • In order for people to be saved, they had to find their way back to God.
  • This “way” was barred by all those “spiritual elements.”
  • In order for the soul to get to God, it had to bypass these elements, one by one.
  • The only way to pass by them was to have secret passwords or special knowledge.
  • Gnosticism was able to provide this secret knowledge.
  • Such knowledge came through doctrinal instruction, ritual, prophecy, sacramental initiations, and self-discovery.
  • This knowledge could be taught but generally came as a “call.”
  • All this really meant was that salvation was based on knowledge. (There was nothing about forgiveness of sins, love for others, or the cross and resurrection in this theology.)
  • Nor was every person going to be able to achieve this level of knowledge.
  • Only those who were spiritually minded could be saved.
  • The ordinary person, the earthly person was simply out of luck.
  • Because Gnostics saw matter as evil, many of them were rigidly ascetic.
  • They tried to move away from matter and material things.
  • Bodily pleasures were to be avoided.
  • Others, however, moved in the opposite direction of libertinism.
  • The thought was that since the body was already evil, what did it matter what one did or how one lived?
  • Their motto was “anything goes.”
  • Either way, they renounced their bodies and were “reborn.”
  • Gnostics believed themselves to be part of a privileged few.
  • Christianity would wrestle with Gnosticism for centuries.


Barclay, William. "The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians." Daily Study Bible. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press. 1975.

Duling, Dennis and Norman Perrin. The New Testament. Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History. Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1994.

Gaebelein, Frank. "Colossians." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 1985.

Martin, Ralph. "Colossians." The New Century Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1973.

Patzia, Arthur. "Colossians." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 1999.

Reumann, John. "Colossians." Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House. 1985.

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