1: Rediscovering Gnosis
Begin by exploring the key tenets of the religious movements of ancient Gnosticism, centered in the concept of gnosis, or direct, personal knowledge of God. Learn about the exciting 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, a large cache of ancient manuscripts representing four diverse Gnostic traditions.
2: Who Were the Gnostics?
The 2nd-century writings of Irenaeus constitute one of the early sources on Gnosticism. Here, investigate whether Irenaeus's claim that the Gnostics deviated from an original Christian truth is accurate. Then learn what Irenaeus tells us about the Gnostics' beliefs, and how he helps us to identify key Gnostic texts.
3: God in Gnostic Myth
The Secret Book According to John is the most important surviving Gnostic text. Explore the Gnostic conception of God in this book, as a complex intellect consisting of numerous aspects called "aeons." Learn how the God of Genesis, viewed by the Gnostics as a lesser, imperfect divinity, came into being.
4: Gnosticism on Creation, Sin, and Salvation
Continuing with the Secret Book, study the text's retelling of the Genesis story, which presents the creation of humanity and the biblical Flood as the work of the false god Ialdaboath, who acts to prevent human beings from knowing their true nature. Learn also about salvation as envisioned in the Secret Book.
5: Judas as a Gnostic Tragic Hero
The Gnostic Gospel of Judas differs significantly from the portrayal of Judas in the New Testament. Discover the Gnostic account, which recasts both the actions of Judas and his role in God's larger plan, predicting an important role for Judas in the coming kingdom of God while criticizing the other disciples.
6: Gnostic Bible Stories
The Gnostic texts The Revelation of Adam and The Reality of the Rulers rewrite the early chapters of Genesis. Examine how the texts reformulate the story of the Creation, Noah and the Flood, and the question of who will be saved, placing the Gnostics themselves within Genesis and linking the stories to their salvation.
7: Gnosticism's Ritual Pathway to God
Here, explore Gnostic conceptions regarding direct knowledge of God. First, learn about ritual baptism and hymn singing in Gnosticism, and their promise of gnosis. Then study texts that illustrate two ways of knowing God; one, a journey upward through the cosmic heavens, the other through interior contemplation of one's own intellect.
8: The Feminine in Gnostic Myth
Gnosticism is known among the ancient religions for its prominent number of female deities and divinities. Look at three examples of the feminine in Gnostic texts-the feminine divine, the feminine revealer, and the feminine heroine-to assess the nature and role of the female principle within the Gnostic tradition.
9: The Gospel of Thomas's Cryptic Sayings
The Gospel According to Thomas is the most famous of the ancient documents discovered at Nag Hammadi. Learn how the text comprises sayings of Jesus that the reader must seek to understand. Observe how the gospel rejects the teaching of a future kingdom of God, contending instead that the kingdom is within us.
10: The Gospel of Thomas on Reunifying the Self
Explore core religious concepts in the Thomas gospel, highlighting its view of salvation as the overcoming of divisions, finding unity with oneself and with Jesus. Investigate the symbolic role of baptism in stripping away the old self and healing dualities, and study the gospel's advice on how to live in the world.
11: Valentinus, Great Preacher of Gnosis
The second century theologian Valentinus used the Gnostic myth in creating a powerful Christian movement. Here, learn how Valentinus modified Gnostic teachings in ways appealing to early Christians. Grasp how his spirituality invited followers to find true gnosis in Jesus and to experience God directly, intimately, and joyfully.
12: God and Creation in Valentinian Myth
Study how Valentinus's radical spirituality spread, and how the movement interacted with other contemporary forms of Christianity. Then investigate its mythological construct of the universe as composed of three elements: matter, spirit, and soul. One of these predominates in each individual human being, crucially influencing their spiritual destiny.
13: "Becoming Male" through Valentinian Ritual
This lecture explores the extraordinary power and import of the Valentinian sacraments. Grasp the symbolism of the Eucharist and the complex ritual of baptism, as they represent resurrection and salvation. Study the Valentinian conception of salvation as a healing of the schism between our angelic and human (or female/male) selves.
14: Valentinian Views on Christian Theology
To fully comprehend Valentinian teachings, we must place them within the context of the diverse Christian beliefs of their time. Delve into the Valentinian views of the resurrection, the relevance of the Jewish Bible, and the authority of Valentinus's knowledge, noting essential differences with the Christian thinking that later became orthodoxy.
15: Mary Magdalene as an Apostle of Gnosis
The figure of Mary Magdalene appears prominently in Valentinian and other so-called "heretical" writings. In assessing her significance within these traditions, contrast her portrayal in the canonical gospels with the non-canonical Gospel According to Mary, which reveals key evidence regarding the role of women in early Christianity and the nature of religious authority.
16: Competing Revelations from Christ
The Nag Hammadi codices contain numerous texts called "revelations" or "secret books." Here, explore three such texts, the Revelation of Paul, the Revelation of Peter, and the Secret Book of James, as they propound theological views that challenged and in some cases sharply criticized the emerging orthodox church and its leaders.
17: The Invention of Heresy
The teachings of the Gnostics and Valentinians were later condemned as heresy. But how did the idea of heresy arise within Christianity? Learn about the "invention" of heresy by theologians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Study what Irenaeus opposed in Gnostic/Valentinian spirituality, and the core features of his vision of Christianity.
18: Making Gnosis Orthodox
Also opposing the Gnostics and Valentinians were Christian teachers who claimed to offer a gnosis that was faithful to the teachings of the emerging church. Encounter the work of Clement and Origen, visionary theologians who encouraged Christians to move beyond mere faith to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God and the universe.
19: Gnosticism and Judaism
Begin to investigate the significance of Gnosticism for religions other than Christianity. Look into why some historians believe that Gnosticism began as a Jewish religious movement and only later included Jesus, as well as the arguments against this view, in grasping how emerging Judaism was part of the story of Gnosticism.
20: Gnosis without Christ
Two non-Jewish, non-Christian philosophical movements also responded to the ideas of the Gnostics. Study the tenets of Hermeticism, whose sacred texts offered an intellectual and philosophical path to gnosis. Learn also about Neo-Platonism, whose conception of gnosis emphasized our essential connection to God and the possibility of divine union now.
21: The Mythology of Manichaeism
Historians have often depicted the religious movement of Manichaeism as the culmination of ancient Gnosticism. Investigate Manichaeism's extraordinarily complex mythology-envisioning reality as a struggle between cosmic forces of Light and Darkness-its conception of salvation, and the structural hierarchy through which Manichaeism became a highly organized international religion.
22: Augustine on Manichaeism and Original Sin
St. Augustine, one of the most important figures in the history of Christianity, was a Manichaean before becoming a Christian. Observe how Augustine, as a Christian, vehemently opposed Manichaean views of God, good, and evil, and how he developed his teaching on original sin in response to what he had learned in Manichaeism.
23: Gnostic Traces in Western Religions
Key ideas from ancient Gnosticism persisted into the Middle Ages and beyond. Learn about Mandeanism, one of the oldest still existing religions of the Middle East; the mystical theology of Evagrius; the medieval Cathars; and Jewish Kabbalah. Trace the connections between these esoteric forms of spirituality and the Gnostics.
24: "Gnosticism" in the Modern Imagination
Finally, uncover Gnostic themes in the science fiction novels of Philip K. Dick and the films Blade Runner and The Matrix, and learn about the contemporary Gnostic Christian Church. Consider what truly links the religious movements we've studied, and what their ultimate message to us may be.
What the people we will study would want us to do is to read their texts, to consider with open minds what they teach us, and-just possibly-to pursue our own quests for the truth about God and ourselves-that is, to seek our own gnosis.
About David Brakke
Professor David Brakke is the Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and Professor of History at The Ohio State University. He received his B.A. in English from the University of Virginia, his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University. He taught for 19 years in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University.
Professor Brakke has published extensively on the history and literature of ancient Christianity, especially Egyptian Christianity, early monasticism, the formation of the biblical canon, and Gnosticism. His books include The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity; Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity; and Introduction to Christianity, with Mary Jo Weaver. He has co-edited six volumes of scholarly essays and contributed nearly 40 articles to professional journals and volumes. From 2005 to 2015, he served as editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies.
At Indiana University, Professor Brakke received recognition for his teaching and research, including the Outstanding Junior Faculty Award. He has held several important fellowships, including ones from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is currently preparing a revised edition of Bentley Layton's The Gnostic Scriptures.