Gnostic Notions

An overview of Gnosticism is in order. Etymologically, from Ancient Greek: γνωστικός, romanized: gnōstikós, Koine Greek: [ɣnostiˈkos], ‘having knowledge’ [gnosis]. It’s a composite of mystical and religious ideas which became amalgamated during the latter half of the first century AD, consisting mainly of Jewish and early Christian sects. Their main focus was upon individualized gnosis which sharply contrasted with mainline ecclesiastical institutions. The Gnostics significance is not to be minimized as they were the gate-keepers of the magnificent Library of Alexandria, and as such, they were the guardians of the secret mystery schools of Greece and Egypt. Their main import taught that what was considered to be Supreme Being was in essence a mother-goddess—Sophia—who represented an allegorical function that reflected objective truths that led to the formation of self-realized entities.

“A Divine spark in man, deriving from the Divine Realm, has fallen into this world of fate, birth and death [samsara—inclusion mine], needing to be awakened by the Divine counterpart of the Self in order to be finally reintegrated with Source. This gnosis of Gnosticism involved the Divine identity of the knower (the Gnostic), the known (the Divine Substance of one’s Transcendent Self), and the means by which one knows (gnosis as an implicit divine faculty to be awakened and actualized). This gnosis is a revelation-tradition of a different type from the Biblical and Islamic revelation-tradition.” (Birger A. Pearson, The pneumatikos-psychikos terminology in 1 Corinthians; a study in the theology of the Corinthian opponents of Paul and its relation to Gnosticism, pg. 4) The critical factor to bear in mind was that physical matter for the Gnostics was an inversion and perversion of the metaphysical [soul]—indeed, an obstacle to be transcended and transmuted into its [spiritual] opposite. The arch-nemesis behind this perversion of Right Views was an evil entity referred to as the Demiurge, who was responsible for creating the material universe. He, along with his diabolical aides known as the archōns, kept humanity imprisoned in lower material bhumis and barred the avenue of escape through ascension into salvific spiritual realms. It was only those who possessed the divine spark (pneuma) that could escape from their corporeal incarceration. Hence, it was only through mystical insight that this Satan-like foe could be overcome and Right Spiritual order instituted. Unlike their mainline Christian counterparts, the Gnostics voided notions of sin and repentance and focused instead with illusion vs. Enlightenment. Ignorance itself is the culprit! All in all, for them Sophia (Wisdom) was the salvific agency that incurred Right Reliance into ways of deathlessness. In 1945 a vast library of gnostic documents was discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Among the documents were religious texts written by the Valentinians, a gnostic sect. The rest of this blog depicts a Valentinian exegesis of St. Paul’s Epistles, notably from Romans and Corinthians.

Before we begin their exegesis, we need to bear in mind two terms that were introduced in our previous blog, psychic and pneumatic:

In the Gnostic systems mankind is typically divided into three groups, the hylic (somatic), the psychic, and the pneumatic. These are really human personality types and not creeds of consciousness. Thus, not all Gnostics were pneumatics. Many members of Gnostic movements were in fact psychics, who were not yet ready for gnosis and liberation. The hylics lead life in worldly identification whereas the psychics have their focus on the soul’s intelligible faculty (Intellect). Although intellectual understanding takes precedence, they are still devoted to hylic life. The pneumatics, who have awakened the soul-spark, are looking beyond both the hylic and the psychic worlds. It means not only that they renounce earthly life, but they also downplay the role of human consciousness and the intellect. Elaine Pagels explains that gnosis signifies insight rather than rational knowledge (cf. Pagels, 1989, p. xix). In the Valentinian creed, also the psychics were able to attain salvation by receiving the Gnostic teaching through which they could reach the maximum psychic level of the demiurge. It relates to ego consciousness and the education of the cognitive faculties of personality. This was called salvation through “pistis” (faith). Although the pneumatics attained rebirth and spiritual resurrection in the present life, the psychics had to wait until the end of the world before they would experience transfiguration into the resurrection-body. The point is that one must have attained the psychic level before one may pass to the superior pneumatic level of the Elect. The latter, since they had transcended the ego, had recourse to intuition and a dim intelligible light, which allowed them to remain closer to the spirit. Psychic life, which follows the law of the demiurge, must needs lead to psychic death. St Paul says that “through the law I am dead to the law, that I might live unto God” (Gal. 2:19). Central to Paul is the manner in which the law has given rise to sin, which in turn leads to death, for [the] sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law (1 Cor. 15:56). Thus, when psychic death occurs the pilgrim may rise to a new life. Whereas the soul was before consubstantial with the psychic demiurge, the new pneumatic being is consubstantial with the indwelling spirit Sophia [emphasis mine]. It is evident that it is a very radical message that involves a rebellion against God himself, namely the demiurge. It is very characteristic of Gnostic thought. (

The Valentinians painted Paul as being one in mind with their own gnostic sway—considering him as a gnostic-initiate. According to Elaine Pagels, in exegetical fashion they insist that their own spiritual-writings are nothing less than the apostle’s own secret wisdom tradition—THE key to hermeneutical understanding.

The Valentinians claim that most Christians make the mistake of reading the scriptures only literally. They themselves, through their initiation into gnosis, learn to read his letters (as they read all the scriptures) on the symbolic level, as they say Paul intended. Only this pneumatic reading yields “the truth” instead of its mere outward “image.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Paul, pg. 6)

This insight into “images” is not far from our own Lankavatarian foundations; in fact, it’s in league with actual Orthodox teachings. St. Maiximos the Confessor insisted that the “Gospel” itself is an image and that the truth would not be fully revealed until the end of time. In fine Zen fashion, images point to the truth without being absolutely identical with it.

Valentinian exegetes attempt systematically to disclose to the initiate the hidden “logos” of Paul’s teaching, separating it from the metaphors that serve to conceal it from uninitiated readers. In writing his letter to the Romans for example, he uses a simple, everyday situation — the relationship between Jews and Gentlies — as a parable tor the relation between the called and the elect, between psychic and pneumatic Christians.

The Valentinians note how Paul contrasts his own mission to the pneumatic Gentiles with Peter’s mission to the psychic Jews (Gal 2:7). ‘’ Paul says that he, as apostle to the Gentiles, longs to share with them his “pneumatic charisma” (Rom 1:11), but acknowledges his obligation “both to the Greeks and to the barbarians,” that is, as he says, both “to the wise (pneumatics) and to the foolish (psychics) (Rom 1:14). This sense of dual responsibility, the Valentinians infer, impels Paul to write his letters, as he preaches, ‘in two ways at once.” As he proclaims the savior to psychics in terms they can grasp, so he addresses to them the outward, obvious message of his letters. But to the initiates, who discern “the truth” hidden there in “images,” he directs his deeper communication: they alone interpret pneumatically what psychics read only literally. (ibid, pg.7)

Now on to the exegesis itself…


Investigation of Valentinian exegesis of Romans indicates that certain gnostic theologians claim to have developed their anthropological theory from an esoteric exegesis of Romans. While most Christians read the epistle “literally”, as Paul’s discussion of the contrast between the revelation to Israel and the revelation in Christ, these exegetes read it allegorically. Accordingly, they claim, what Paul describes as the situation of “the Jews” who stand “in the law” (cf. Rm. 2.12; 3.19), subject to “sin” and “death” (8.2 f.) allegorically describes the situation of psychic Christians. They, as “Jews”, worship the “God of the Jews” (3.29), the demiurge, whose law requires them to earn their salvation “from works” (4.2). Conversely, Paul’s discussion of the “Gentiles”, who, “outside the law”, have in their hearts the “law by nature” (2.12-15) describes the situation of the pneumatics. These receive redemption entirely “apart from the law” (3.21), “without works” (3.28). They are the elect foreordained by the Father (8.29f.), redeemed “through faith”, “according to grace” (3.21-30). This analysis suggests that the traditional framework for interpreting gnostic anthropology – either in terms of “determinism” (Bultmann, 1941) or of “free will” (L. Schottroff, 1969) – proves inadequate. Such anthropological terms as the “natures” ((pDaot) or their designation as “hylic/psychic/pneumatic” instead are intended to present a modified theory of election, allegedly Pauline. They are intended to differen- tiate between the psychics’ salvation, effected by choice “through works”, on the one hand, and the pneumatics’ redemption through divine election on the other – an election received “through faith”, and “by grace”. (Elaine Pagels, The Valentinian Claim to Esoteric Exegesis of Romans as Basis for Anthropological Theory.)

The Valentinian position is the deliverance of a pneumatic [self] from the shackles of the psychics [soul].

Rom 1:21-25: “Although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, or thank him, but became vain in their imagination, and their foolish heart was darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for the image of the corruptible man (anthropos) . . . and exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and they revered and worshiped the creation and not the one who created, who is blessed among the aions.”

This passage warns of idolatry. Not just the pagans, but “worship of the demiurge, who himself is only ‘the creation’’ of the higher powers.” Hence the majority of Christians were psychic Christians—now worshiping this demiurge, the “creation instead of the true creator,”‘ who is “Christ the Logos” (cf. Jn 1:3) The demiurge, originally created to serve as an image and instrument of divine revelation, now is mistaken as an ancillary for God, and is worshiped as a god himself! They were worshipping images instead of the authentic Absolute. Yet, Paul never left them forsaken in their erroneous folly.

Paul willingly identifies himself with psychics as well as with pneumatics, acknowledging his responsibility to both Jews and to Greeks (1:14). Accommodating himself to the different capacities of each group, he preaches the gospel “in each of two ways.” Paul also intends his own letter to be read “‘in each of two ways.”” He addresses the literal level to psychics, who may read in Romans 1 only of his concern to visit Christians in Rome, his responsibility to Jews and to Greeks, and his account of the origin of idolatry and homosexuality. But he addresses the symbolic level to those who, like himself, are pneumatic. They alone, having received initiation into the technique of pneumatic exegesis could discover here his teaching, veiled in symbols, of the relationship between themselves and the psychic Christians. (Pagels, The Gnostic Paul, pg.18)

We are no strangers to Paul’s methodology, because he was using “expedient means” to usher in the truth. Being pneumatic he essentially became a psychic for others. At the same time, he never neglected his pneumatic charisma to the Elect.

The pneumatics, on the other hand, are of the elect: they receive redemption according to the “law of faith’—faith not in the psychic Jesus but in the pneumatic Christ. Unlike the works-salvation of the psychics, the pneumatic redemption excludes all human effort (and hence all “boasting”’): it depends entirely upon ‘‘what God foreordained” (3:25) in election. Paul says of this in 3:28, ‘‘we reason that the anthropos (the pneumatic) is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (ibid, pg. 23)

Passages from Corinthians strengthens this assertion. The “soul,” being psychic, cannot comprehend these mysteries; only ‘‘the spirit” can know them. Paul continues, ‘We have not received the spirit of the cosmos (i.e., the demiurge) but the spirit of God (the Father)’ who alone reveals the ‘‘deep things of God.”

1 Cor 2:14-16: “For the psychic (ho psychichos) does not receive the things of the spirit of God: they are foolishness to him, and he cannot know them, because they are pneumatically discerned. The pneumatic (ho pneumatikos) on the other hand discerns all things, but himself is discerned by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, and who may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ!” “Having the Mind of Christ” is central here. Thus, for the gnostic-side of Paul, one must become freed from the soul–[the soul is thus material here] which after all was fashioned by the demigod, and thus become freed in spirit. Mind=Spirit. This is why in works such as Tozen’s Dharmakaya Sutra, spirit is the focus—not soul:

From 3. The wordless transmission of Mahabodhisattva Padmasrigarbha:

“This body consciousness IS IN my spirit; my spirit IS NOT IN this body consciousness.” “If I desire to know my spirit and mind as they are in truth, AS ONE and NOT TWO, I have to precede my body consciousness. WHAT IS before my body consciousness AS ITSELF BEFORE EVERY CYCLE of birth, life and death and thus, every cycle of breath, every cycle of sensation, every cycle of thought, every cycle of motion, every cycle of day and night consciousness with all its desires, IS MY SPIRIT.” “Knowing my spirit, my true self, as thus is to know my true Buddhanature and knowing my Buddhanature will release me from self-ignorance and future pain.”

The mark of our teachings is like a lighthouse whose shining beacon of Unborn Light beckons the weary samsaric soul to recollect its True Nature and return to the True Primordial shore—the Unborn Buddha Mind.

Edward Conze claimed Buddhist similarities with Gnosticism:

Liberation or salvation can be achieved by a liberating insight, namely gnosis or jnana
Ignorance, or a lack of insight, called agnosis or avidyā, is the root cause of entrapment in this world
Liberating insight can be achieved by interior revelation, not by external knowledge
Both systems give a hierarchical ordering of spiritual attainment, from blind materialism to complete spiritual attainment
Wisdom, as the feminine principle personified in Sophia and prajna, plays an important role in both religions
Myth is preferred over historical fact; the Christ and the Buddha are not mere historical figures, but archetypal primordial beings
Both systems have antinomian tendencies, that is, a disregard for rules and social conventions in higher spiritual attainments
Both systems are intended for spiritual elites, not for the masses, and have hidden meanings and teachings
Both systems are monistic, aiming at a metaphysical oneness beyond the multiplicity of the phenomenal world. (Wiki)

The Bodhisattvic Resolve also was not foreign to Paul:

Paul describes how he, like the savior, although pneumatic, has taken upon himself a psychic role. Being ‘‘free’’ he has made himself a “‘slave”’ to work among the psychic slaves; he has become ‘‘a Jew to the Jews,’ ‘‘as one under the law to those under the law,”’ even “‘weak”’ to those who are the weak. In every way he accommodates himself in order to “become all things to all, so that by all means I might save some” (9:22). For it is through the ministry of the pneumatics (as Heracleon says) that psychics hear the gospel and are saved.’ (Pagels, ibid, pg. 72)

Also of paramount import is the passage concerning the resurrection.

1 Cor 15:12: “lf Christ is preached as having been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?”

What does Paul mean when he speaks of “the resurrection of the dead”‘? The other apostles clearly proclaim this as the future, bodily resurrection of those who have died.’ But the gnostic initiate rejects this preaching as crude literalism, as error typical of psychic preaching, the ‘‘faith of fools”’!’ For who are “the dead”’? The initiate knows that these are the psychics, who have been “deadened in this existence.” What, then, concerns Paul in 1 Cor 15:12? He says that “some” are saying “there is no resurrection of the dead,” that is, that the psychics cannot be raised from the “deadness of this existence” to spiritual life!’ For according to Valentinian exegesis, the “resurrection of the dead” is ‘the recognition of the truth” spoken by those who have gnosis.’

While psychics mistake Christ’s resurrection as a literal, past event, -pneumatic Christians understand it symbolically: Christ’s resurrection signifies the ‘resurrection of the ecclesia.” [meaning the body of the church, inclusion mine] That he rose “on the third day” (15:4) means that the psychic church shall be raised only when the first two days—the Aylic and psychic days, are over,’’ and the demiurge’s creation, the ‘‘kingdom of death” has ended. On the “third day, that is, the pneumatic day,” Christ shall “raise’’ the psychics and lead them from the cosmos into the pleroma.’’ (ibid, pgs. 81, 82)

Hence, what was sewn as a psychic body, shall be raised as a pneumatic body. Spirit triumphs over Soul. Of course, for our series as a whole, this is certainly not the end of the narrative.

We will take leave now with a little blessing from our series coming this Spring on the Coptic Treatise from the Codex Brucianus:

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