Christian Dualism (Gnosticism)

Christian Dualism (Gnosticism)
Christian Dualism (Gnosticism)

Gnosticism arose around the same time and place as Christianity. Some Gnostics were Christian, some Jewish, and some pagan. Gnostics believed that gnosis (Greek: “knowledge”), not faith, brought salvation. Not education or experience, but revelation gave gnosis.

This article will deal with the concept, the origins, and the varieties of Gnosticism, especially as it was expressed in Valentinianism, Marcionism, Manichaeanism, Mandaeism and at Nag Hammadi. Many other forms of Gnosticism circulated in ancient religious circles too numerous to relate here, including Sethian-Barbeloites, Ophites, Naassenes, and Hermetics.

Concept and Origins of Gnosticism

The content of gnosis was that our universe arose because of a problem in a preexisting state. One version of this problem, from Iranian religion, was the meeting of two eternal antithetical realms, one of spirit, the other of matter, resulting in our universe.

The more common version was that the supreme God generated lesser gods, one or more of whom created the material universe, imprisoning divinity in a material body. Understanding of the content of gnosis brings about salvation, which is the escape of the divine spark from its material prison to its divine home.

Regarding the body as evil had contradictory ethical consequences. Some Gnostics tried to deny the desires of the body by avoiding sex, meat, and alcohol. Because they considered what was done with the body unimportant, others perhaps enjoyed all three, sometimes practicing contraception to prevent trapping spirit in new bodies.

There is debate about whether Gnosticism came from Iran or from Hellenism, but it probably grew from Judaism, perhaps in response to oppression by Gentiles. The fathers of the church traced Gnosticism to Simon Magus, converted in Samaria in Acts 8.

The second century c.e. saw a proliferation of Gnosticism. Basilides, a Jewish Christian in Alexandria around 140, was called a disciple of a disciple of Simon, although Basilides claimed to be taught by the apostle Matthias or an interpreter of Peter.

Irenaeus (c. 130–c. 200) tells one version of Basilides’ teaching: The supreme Father emanated five beings, from the lowest of which 365 heavens descended.

The angels in the lowest created the world, with divine spirit in human bodies. The Jewish god, one of these angels, tried to make his people rule the world, but the other angels stopped him. The Father sent his Son, seemingly crucified, to free the spirit. The belief that Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth only seemed to suffer and die as a human is called “docetism.”

Hippolytus (c. 160–235) relates another version of Basilides’ teaching: The “nonexistent” God generated a “Seed” containing three principles called “Sonships,” of which two flew to God, but the third stayed in the Seed. Two rulers emerged from the Seed. One created the world above the Moon.

A second, the Jewish god, created the world below the Moon. Jesus of Nazareth separated the mixed parts of creation. When the third Sonship has been restored to the spiritual world, God will subject the lower creation to ignorance, making it content in its inferiority.


The Alexandrian Valentinus was perhaps nominated for bishop of Rome around 143 but repudiated as a heretic. Valentinians believed in a divine world, the Pleroma, of at least 30 aeons. Aeon means a “world,” an “age,” and a “god.” The greatest was Abyss, who with his wife, Thought, produced the 14 remaining aeon couples.

The lowest, Sophia (Greek: “wisdom”), desired to “know” Abyss, which would have destroyed her. Sophia was protected from her desire but bore by herself a monster, Achamoth (Hebrew: “wisdom”), which was thrown out of the Pleroma.

Sophia’s distress at the birth of Achamoth became matter, her repentance of her desire to know Abyss became the soul (psyche), and the product of Achamoth’s “purification” by Jesus, a perfect being produced by all the aeons, became the spirit.

Achamoth produced from psychic substance the Demiurge, who created the universe and a man of matter into whom he breathed a soul. Achamoth then secretly planted her spirit in some humans.

Valentinians distinguished three types of people, the material, certain to perish; the “psychic,” to perish or be saved by their choices; and the spiritual, certain to be saved. Three Christs—spiritual, psychic, and bodily—were also hypothesized.


Marcion, the ship-owning son of a bishop near the Black Sea, came to Rome and generously funded the church but was expelled in 144. Like Gnostics, Marcion traced matter to an inferior god, denied a real body to Jesus, and prohibited sex, wine, and meat to his followers. However, Marcion is usually not considered Gnostic.

Humans were purely creatures of the inferior god and, like their creator, had no essential relation to the superior God. This god purely from compassion sent his son Jesus, dying to save the Jewish god’s creatures. Denying salvation by knowledge, Marcion preached salvation by faith in Jesus.

Marcion wrote Antitheses, contrasting Old and New Testaments, and edited his own bible, partly motivating the formation of the Catholic Bible. Marcion omitted the Old Testament, and of the New Testament included only the gospel of Luke and 10 epistles of Paul, removing references to the Old Testament, the creator, and Jesus’ birth. Most Gnostics were loosely organized, but Marcion founded a well-organized church that may have persisted until the 10th century.


Mani was born in 216 in Mesopotamia. His parents were Elkesaites, Jewish-Christian Gnostics. Mani also seemingly was influenced by another Gnostic sect called Mandaeism. Inspired by a vision of his “twin,” the Holy Spirit, Mani left the Elkesaites. Mani’s teaching briefly enjoyed the favor of Persian kings; however, Bahram I favored Zoroastrianism, resulting in Mani’s imprisonment and death in 276.

Mani’s followers extended from Spain to China, where they perhaps survived until the 17th century. Augustine of Hippo was deeply affected by Manichaeanism. In the West persecution destroyed Manichaeanism by the early Middle Ages. So-called Manichaeanism in later medieval Europe was not authentic.

The Paulicians arose in Armenia around 650 from generally Gnostic origins rather than as a specifically Manichaean refugee group. The Bogomils appeared in 10th-century Bulgaria after Paulicians were exiled in 872 in Macedonia. By the 11th century Bogomilian ideas spread to Italy and France, where the Cathars, suppressed in the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century, espoused them.

Mani’s followers presented him as the present incarnation of Zoroaster’s son, of Maitreya (the future Buddha), as well as of the Holy Spirit. Mani claimed his own religion included all previous religions; and the Hebrew patriarchs, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Paul preceded him as revealers of gnosis.

Like Valentinianism, Manichaeanism has three forms of Jesus, the Jesus Splendor, Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus patibilis (“suffering Jesus”), who symbolized the suffering particles of light throughout creation. Thus, whether Manichaeanism generally is Christian is questionable because it adapted itself to whatever religious environment it entered.

Like Marcion and Mandaeans, Mani did not derive evil from the supreme God but taught that the worlds of light and darkness had existed separately from eternity. In response to the attack of darkness, God created Wisdom, who bore the first Man.

In battle with darkness, Man left his soul in the underworld. Then God sent Living Spirit, who, to free Man’s soul, created the universe, which is a mix of particles of Man’s soul and matter from the world of darkness.

The particles climb the Milky Way to the Moon, whose waxing is its filling with particles, which wait until it is full, and its waning the particles’ journey to the Sun. From the Sun the particles go to the “new aeon,” where they await the end of time, when they will join the world of light.

To bind the light, evil rulers, having swallowed particles, created Adam and Eve. God sent the Jesus Splendor to give Adam gnosis. Human souls with gnosis escape from their bodies upon death, but ignorant souls enter new bodies. Sufficient light having been freed, Jesus will judge the world, which will burn to purify the remaining light. Matter will then be imprisoned forever.

Mani’s ethic intended to protect and liberate the imprisoned light. The Manichaean church consisted of the “chosen,” who abstained from meat, wine, sex, and many other things, and “hearers,” who did not.

Manichaean rites included prayers, reading, music, fasting, and feasts. Central was the “table” of the chosen, the daily meal of plants containing much light, such as melons, wheat bread, and juice or water.

The chosen liberated the light within these plants by consuming them. Unlike other Gnostics and like Marcion, Mani founded a well-organized church, perhaps accounting for Manichaeanism’s survival after the demise of almost every other Gnostic system.

Nag Hammadi and Mandaeism

Gnosticism was known mostly through its enemies, the fathers of the church, until 1945, when peasants near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, found 13 codices containing 46 tractates.

Some are previously known works, others are complete works previously known only in fragments or only by name, and many were previously unknown. Some are not Gnostic, such as Plato’s Republic and the Acts of Peter and the Twelve, and perhaps Thomas Christian writings.

The Gospel of Thomas may as accurately record Jesus’ words as the canonical Gospels. The Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip are Valentinian, the Apocryphon of John is Sethian, and others are Hermetic. The Nag Hammadi writings revolutionized Gnostic studies.

Medieval persecution largely suppressed Gnosticism, and the only Gnostic sect existing today is Mandaeism, mostly in Iraq. Like Marcionism and Manichaeanism, Mandaeism teaches that the worlds of light and darkness existed independently from eternity. Unlike them, Mandaeism prescribes child bearing and meat eating.