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Gnosticism – Holman Bible Dictionary



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The classic explanation does leave some problems unsolved, however. Little doubt exists that there are ideas, attitudes, and practices incorporated into many of the gnostic heresies that are found outside of Hellenistic thought and much earlier than the second century of the Christian era. In particular, the ultimate goal of the Gnostics--to return to the absolute deity beyond matter and to be in some sense absorbed into the deity--belongs to near eastern pre-Christian mystical thought and not primarily to the Hellenistic world.

The existence of such non-Hellenistic features in the gnostic sects has occasioned studies of the possibility of there being a pre-Christian gnosticism which could be understood in itself rather than as an heretical offshoot of the Christian faith. Some researchers came to the conclusion that there was a full-fledged, organized, pre-Christian gnostic religion with a literature and most crucially--the hope of a redeemer who would be sent from the true deity and ascend back to him after awakening the spiritual persons to their redemption. Some radical scholars even went so far as to maintain that the way the early Christians proclaimed Christ was dependent on and modeled after such gnostic expectation. This view thus came to be almost the exact opposite of the classic view of the gnostic sects as Christian heresies and made Christianity heavily dependent on gnosticism. This quite radical view of gnosticism has been shown to be inadequate because no literary evidence whatsoever exists for a full-blown pre-Christian gnosticism. As for a pre-Christian gnostic redeemer expectation, it is now generally acknowledged that this was a figment of the researcher's imagination without any relevant documentary evidence.


Although the radical conclusions of some scholars regarding a highly developed pre-Christian gnosticism have been discounted, it does seem clear that there were many ideas, assumptions, and perceptions about deity, reality, and the relationships of persons to gods and the world that were incorporated into the gnostic sects from outside Hellenistic sources. Two literary discoveries have both inspired and tended to support this line of research--the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1946 and the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 with many gnostic documents.

The value of the study of gnosticism for interpreting the New Testament is greatest from the point of view that there was a pre-Christian gnosticism which was not an organized religion but was more a general attitude among thoughtful persons that although ignorance abounded, one could through knowledge come to understand one's true identity and find union or relationship with the absolute deity. This way of conceiving of a pre-Christian gnosticism supplements the classic view by providing an explanation for the rapid and widespread development of so many diverse gnostic heretical sects so quickly. This view also offers an explanation of why the New Testament could so easily be exploited by gnostic sects. The early Christian preachers and writers, seeking to speak and write to be understood, used terms current in the first century world in the vague context of gnostic religious longings and gave them new meaning in the context of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
- Source: Gnosticism, by Harold S. Songer, Holman Bible Dictionary

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This post was last updated: Feb. 27, 2006