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February 12th, 2011
10:25 am


The Definition of "Gnosticism".


The Definition of “Gnosticism”.


By Dmitry A. Alexeyev, St.-Petersburg.


Melchisedec is an Old Testament’s hero, King of Salem (or Sodom*), a priest of the Highest God, mentioned in Gen., 14:17-24. The most important question for us is why one of the Old Testament’s positive heroes, priest of Biblical God, who blessed Abraham, becomes a wearer of a Gnostic revelation? I mean namely Gnostic revelation, because “Gnostic”, or, even more exactly, “Sethianic” character of the tractate, named “Melchisedec”, is evident, even although it is very badly preserved.

For the answer on this question, it is necessary to research a content of quite numerous tractates from the Coptic Library, and first of all – tractates from Nag Hammadi, accounted to so-called “Sethianic branch of Gnosticism” by the most researchers. Although it is commonly accepted that “the Gnostics rejected the Old Testament and God of the Old Testament”, numerous “Sethianic” manuscripts (The Apocryphon of John, The Revelation of Adam, The Hypostasis of the Archons) or texts that near-standing to them (for example, On the Origin of the World) develops Old Testament’s plots at the same degree as, for example, the Books of Enoch. At the same time, it is difficult to agree with the understanding of “Gnostic” interpretation of Biblical stories as “protest exegesis” (term of Kurt Rudolph) or as “revaluation of values” and “metaphysical anti-Semitism” (terms of Hans Jonas), because a base of such interpretation is absolutely Judaic, being, although, non-normative for traditional Judaic understanding of the initial chapters of Genesis.

We may meet the understanding of “Elochist” (Gen., 1:1–2:3) and “Yahwist” (Gen., 2:4 ff.) fragments as two tales, that describes two different sequents of events, in the texts of Philo from Alexandria. In his writing “A Treatise on Account of The Creation of the World”, he has contradistinguished two Adams: the first Adam, created by the image and likeness of God (Gen., 1) and the second one, fashioned from the dust of the earth (Gen., 2):

“(XXIII) So, then after all the other things, as has been said before, Moses says that man was made in the image and likeness of God (Gen., 1:26). And he says well; for nothing that is born on the earth is more resembling God than man. And let no one think that he is able to judge of this likeness from the character of the body: for neither is God a being with the form of a man, nor is the human body like the form of God; but the resemblance is spoken of with reference to the most important part of the soul, namely, the mind: for the mind which exists in each individual has been created after the likeness of that one mind which is in the universe as its primitive model, being in some sort the God of that body which carries it about and bears its image within it. In the same rank that the great Governor occupies in the universal world, that same as it seems does the mind of man occupy in man; for it is invisible, though it sees everything itself; and it has an essence which is undiscernible, though it can discern the essences of all other things, and making for itself by art and science all sorts of roads leading in divers directions, and all plain; it traverses land and sea, investigating everything which is contained in either element. And again, being raised up on wings, and so surveying and contemplating the air, and all the commotions to which it is subject, it is borne upwards to the higher firmament, and to revolutions of the heavenly bodies. And also being itself involved in the revolutions of the planets and fixed stars according to the perfect laws of music, and being led on by love, which is the guide of wisdom, it proceeds onwards till, having surmounted all essence intelligible by the external senses, it comes to aspire to such as is perceptible only by the intellect: and perceiving in that, the original models and ideas of those things intelligible by the external senses which it saw here full of surpassing beauty, it becomes seized with a sort of sober intoxication like the zealots engaged in the Corybantian festivals, and yields to enthusiasm, becoming filled of another desire, and a more excellent longing, by which it is conducted onwards to the very summit of such things as are perceptible only to the intellect, till it appears to be reaching the great King himself. And while it is eagerly longing to behold him pure and unmingled, rays of divine light are poured forth upon it like a torrent, so as to bewilder the eyes of its intelligence by their splendour. But as it is not every image that resembles its archetypal model, since many are unlike, Moses has shown this by adding to the words “after his image”, the expression “in his likeness”, to prove that it means an accurate impression, having a clear and evident resemblance in form.” 

“(XLVI) After this, Moses says that “God made man, having taking clay from the earth, and he breathed into his face the breath of life” (Gen., 2:7). And by this expression he shows most clearly that there is a vast difference between man as generated now, and the first man who was made according to the image of God. For man as formed now is perceptible to the external senses, partaking of qualities, consisting of body and soul, man or woman, by nature mortal. But man, made according to the image of God, was an idea, or a genus, or a seal, perceptible only by the intellect, incorporeal, neither male nor female, imperishable by nature. But he asserts that the formation of the individual man, perceptible by the external senses is a composition of earthly substance, and divine spirit. For that the body was created by the Creator taking a lump of clay, and fashioning the human form out of it; but that the soul proceeds from no created thing at all, but from the Father and Ruler of all things. For when he uses the expression, “he breathed into”, & c., he means nothing else than the divine spirit proceeding from that happy and blessed nature, sent to take up its habitation here on earth, for the advantage of our race, in order that, even if man is mortal according to that portion of him which is visible, he may at all events be immortal according to that portion which is invisible; and for this reason, one may properly say that man is on the boundaries of a better and an immortal nature, partaking of each as far as it necessary for him; and that he was born at the same time, both mortal and immortal. Mortal as to his body, but immortal as to his intellect.” 1

So, Philo clearly differentiates these two tales, although he doesn’t contradistinguish two Creators, but two creations – intelligible human, who has been created “by the image and by likeness”, and human from flesh, fashioned “from the dust of the earth”. At the same time, Philo accurately follows such Septuagint terms as “God” and “God the Lord”, and he doesn’t ascribe creation of intelligible human to the “God the Lord”.

In the “Sethianic” context, it was taken, logically, only one next step, and good God the Creator from the “Elochist” tale, who created Adam by his own image and likeness, has been contradistinguished to the god from the “Yahwist” tale, who fashioned from the dust second Adam, from flesh, or Adam earthy, i.e. this Adam is a parody on divine First Image. It is this typology (with minor distortions, came to be in the Hellenistic midst as a result of the process of literary adaptations and further development) is in the foundation of not only “Sethianic” or “Gnostic” manuscripts, but also of some New Testament’s texts. Of course, at the monotheistic context, in any case, there is no speech about “two Gods”, so many times described by the Fathers-heresiologists, but there’s a speech only about God and his adversary, devil or “Jaldabaoth, the archon”. 

At the same time, in contradistinction with outlived imaginations that Gnostic Christians has had somebody like a different “Gnostic God”, another than Biblical God-Creator, it is evidently, that the role of God, at the Sethianic context, plays namely Elochim (God) from Gen., 1 or El El’on (The Most High God) from Gen., 14, and just Melchisedec was His priest.

We must to note, that, at the same place, in Gen., 14:22, the Most High One is equalized to Yahweh, according to the Abraham’s speech. Both movements, Christian and Judaic Orthodoxies, has their ideological basis namely in this equalization (but not equation!) Irenaeus’ statement that the heretics invented God – “and conceiving of the one who is not above this Being as really having an existence, they are thus convicted by their own views of blasphemy against that God who really exists, while they conjure into existence a God who has no existence, to their own condemnation. And thus those who declare themselves “perfect”, and as being possessed of the knowledge of all things, are found to be worse than heathen, and no entertain more blasphemous opinions even against their own Creator.” (Adv. haer., 2.9.2)2 – was brought to the point of absurdity by such writers-fantasts as Rudolph Bultmann and Hans Jonas in their books about “Gnostic religion”.

Let’s consider the Apocryphon of John as an illustration to the above mentioned. First of all, let’s note that significant part of the dialog between Jesus and John was dedicated to the commentaries on Genesis, beginning from its Second chapter, and further. The First Archon, Jaldabaoth, who directly equates to Yahweh, creates, with his archons, the Adam’s flesh, then he breaths to him a spirit of life, puts Adam into sleep and creates Eva, expels Adam and Eva from Paradise, puts damnation on Eva, establishes her husband as a lord over her, violates Eva and bores Cain and Abel from her, sends flood on the earth, and later he sends his angels, and these angels fornicates with the humans daughters. It is important to remember, that the versions of the Apocryphon of John, accessed to us, were finally edited later, in the midst of the Christians from the Pagans, but typology, that has been put in its foundation, is evident.

A plot of the Seth’s birth repeats in the Apocryphon of John twice. At first, there is a mention of heavenly Seth, “in the second aeon, near the second luminary Oroiail”, then, above, there’s a mention about earthly Adam and his son: “Adam bored Seth like posterity at the height, in the aeons”.

Let’s consider the “Sethian” conception on the examples of the two sons of Adam – Cain and Seth. Seth, as all this conception has been called “Sethian”, is extremely important for us, although he was mentioned only once, at the genealogy of Jesus in Luke: “Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God” – Luke, 3:38. Genesis describes the birth of Seth as follows: “And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth: For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew” (Gen., 4:25). We must to mention here two facts: 1) The text says explicitly that Adam was a physical father of Seth; 2) Eva states that this God (Elochim) included a sperm into her. And this fact became a reason of equalization of Seth (as a “son of man” and a “son of God”) with Christ.


Cain is described at the 1 John (3.11–12) as follows: “For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother.” V.N. Kuznetsova, author of the New Testament’s Russian translation, called “Glad Tidings”3, translates this verse as follows: “We would not like to be such as Cain, who was born by Villain and slaughtered his brother”, and then she comments: “At the latest Rabbinistic literature Cain was called a son of Eva, and devil”. I have some doubt about this statement concerning Rabbinistic literature, but I would like to mention, that she has also commented a famous expression (from John, 8:44) “a murderer from the beginning”: “Probably, it was said here about murdering Abel by Cain, who, according to some ancient Jewish legends, was a son of both, Eva and evil angel Samael, or devil”. I think she was right in this case, because Sethian legends are both ancient and, undoubtedly, Jewish in their origin, but it is the Biblical verse (Gen., 4:1) underlies in their foundation: ”And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord” (originally – from Yahweh). Here, like in the verse about birth of Seth, Adam is a physical father of a child, but Eva states, that she has had a son from Yahweh. And we know, that this equalization (in Sethian context) of Yahweh with Samael (as also with Jaldabaoth and Sakla), Yahweh, but not with an abstract “god of the Old Testament”, was witnessed many times.

In the light of Johannine dichotomies of “light and darkness”, “life and death”, “Spirit and flesh”, “truth and false”, this parallel between 1 John, 3:12 and Gen., 4:1 demonstrates evidently that the fourth Evangelist, speaking about “lord of this world” and devil, surely, speaks about the Creator of the flesh. And dichotomy of “Spirit and flesh” needs our particularly close attention. The most consistent expression of it we may find in the Johannine doctrine of “Children of God and children of devil” – children of God, born from above, from God and Spirit (see the dialog of Jesus and Nicodemus, John, 3) and children of devil, born according to the flesh. In the light of above mentioned, John’s (8:44) verse have had a new sounding. In this verse, Jesus says to Judaic people, who came to believe in Him: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.” This was not a speech about their religious worshipping or moral qualities; little above (John, 8:41), these men called God as their Father. There Jesus mentioned to them, that, staying as fleshly, and not being born from God and Spirit, they are the children of devil, creator of flesh, and that’s why they have no right to call God as their Father; and it is from this passage we can found a direct reference to “spiritual people” and “fleshly people” according to St. Paul, and also to the heresiological speculations about “Pneumatics” and “Choics”.

And, in this connection, it is necessary to cite another Antic author, who has understood the New Testament much better than Fathers-heresiologists:


“We are asked the reason, but we do not assert that man is in no sense for our denial that man is made by God, made by God; we only ask in what sense, and when, and how. For, according to the apostle, there are two men, one of whom he calls sometimes the outer man, generally the earthy, sometimes, too, the old man; the other he calls the inner or heavenly or new man. The question is, Which of these is made by God? For there are likewise two times of our nativity; one when nature brought us forth into this light, binding us in the bonds of flesh; and the other, when the truth regenerated us on our conversion from error and our entrance into the faith. It is this second birth of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel, when He says, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus, not knowing what Christ meant, was at a loss, and inquired how this could be, for an old man could not enter into his mother's womb and be born a second time. Jesus said in reply, Except a man be born of water and of the Holy Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Then He adds, That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Hence, as the birth in which our bodies originate is not the only birth, but there is another in which we are born again in spirit, an important question arises from this distinction as to which of those births it is in which God makes us. The manner of birth also is twofold. In the humiliating process of ordinary generation, we spring from the heat of animal passion; but when we are brought into the faith, we are formed under good instruction in honor and purity in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. <…> The question, then, is not whether God makes man, but what man He makes, and when, and how. For if it is when we are fashioned in the womb that God forms us after His own image, which is the common belief of Gentiles and Jews, and which is also your belief, then God makes the old man, and produces us by means of sensual passion, which does not seem suitable to His divine nature. But if it is when we are converted and brought to a better life that we are formed by God, which is the general doctrine of Christ and His apostles, and which is also our doctrine, in this case God makes us new men, and produces us in honor and purity, which would agree perfectly with His sacred and adorable majesty. If you do not reject Paul's authority, we will prove to you from him what man God makes, and when, and how. He says to the Ephesians, That ye put off according to your former conversation the old man, which is corrupt through deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and holiness of truth. This shows that in the creation of man after the image of God, it is another man that is spoken of, and another birth, and another manner of birth. The putting off and putting on of which he speaks, point to the time of the reception of the truth; and the assertion that the new man is created by God implies that the old man is created neither by God nor after God. And when he adds, that this new man is made in holiness and righteousness and truth, he thus points to another manner of birth of which this is the character, and which, as I have said, differs widely from the manner in which bodily generation is effected. And as he declares that only the former is of God, it follows that the latter is not. Again, writing to the Colossians, he uses words to the same effect: Put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man, which is renewed in the knowledge of God according to the image of Him who created Him in you. Here he not only shows that iris the new man that God makes, but he declares the time and manner of the formation, for the words in the knowledge of God point to the time of believing. Then he adds, according to the image of Him who created him, to make it clear that the old man is not the image of God, nor formed by God. Moreover, the following words, Where there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, Barbarian nor Scythian, show more plainly still that the birth by which we are made male and female, Greeks and Jews, Scythians and Barbarians, is not the birth in which God effects the formation of man; but that the birth with which God has to do is that in which we lose the difference of nation and sex and condition, and become one like Him who is one, that is, Christ. <…> It is plain that everywhere he speaks of the second or spiritual birth as that in which we are made by God, as distinct from the indecency of the first birth, in which we are on a level with other animals as regards dignity and purity, as we are conceived in the maternal womb, and are formed, and brought forth. You may observe that in this matter the dispute between us is not so much about a question of doctrine as of interpretation. For you think that it is the old or outer or earthy man that is said to have been made by God; while we apply this to the heavenly man, giving the superiority to the inner or new man. And our opinion is not rash or groundless, for we have learned it from Christ and His apostles, who are proved to have been the first in the world who thus taught.”


It was a fragment of Capitula of Faustus the Numidian, preserved by St. Augustinus in his “Contra Faustum Manichaeum”4, 24.1.

According to the above mentioned, I would like to return to the question, that has been initiated by the people from scientific world many times. I mean a definition of such phenomenon as “Gnosticism”. And I would like to cite two definitions of it, as examples. The first definition was given by Alexander L. Khosroev:  

“Almost in full compliance with the Final Document of the International Colloquium in Messina (1966), I understand under the term “Gnosticism” absolutely specific religious phenomenon, i.e.: definitive, the Christian from the beginning, movements of the first centuries A.D. (previously dualistic in their theology, although, sometimes most monistic ones), proceeds from such common characteristics as: 1) pretending on the exclusive possession of knowledge, that was received, as a rule, in the result of revelation, and, as a result, a contradistinction of itself to all other Christians, who have not such knowledge; 2) non-recognition of the Church’s hierarchy; their own, different from one group to another, understanding of principle of community’s organization, and, as a result, an absence of their own, united Church; 3) usage of the different, and often non-Biblical, traditions for their speculations, and, as a result, a true individualism in the creative process, etc. I call these Christians not Gnostics (for the avoiding of confusion with different non-Christians, who also pretended on the possessing of Knowledge, or with such Christian Gnostic, as Climent of Alexandria), but I call them Gnosticists.”

And the second definition has been given toGnosticismby the out-standing Russian philosopher Alexey F. Losev:

“Namely, Gnosticism is 1) occult, 2) pneumatic, and 3) cosmologically-humanly limited 4) Personalism, naturalistic, and quite constrainedly bring out 5) soteriological aims with the help of 6) myphologically constructed system of the term’s categories. The main here is, as we can see, this limited natutalistic Personalism, that reaches not only to cosmic-material categories, but even to human-everyday and tragic dramaturgy.”


It is easy to note, that A. Khosroev gives in his definition secondary, and unimportant, and often conflicting attributes: he undertakes it absolutely in the spirit of the Messina’s Colloquium, but he says nothing about essential and unique attributes of “Gnosticism”. But the Losev’s definition is even funnier, because Alexey Losev fights against his own fantasies, just like Don Quixote with the windmills.


From my point of view, such definitions are the results of mistakable opinions about “Gnosticism” as something like “Gnostic religion”, or, at least, “Universal heresy”. And, because of this, I would like to offer to my readers my own definition of “Gnosticism”: 


“Gnosticism” is a complex of ideas, based on differentiation and even contradistinction, at the initial chapters of the Book of Genesis, of God (Elochim, in Gen., 1:1–2:3), and god Yahweh (in Gen., 2:4 ff.). This complex of ideas has founded its various expressions and development both in canonic and apocryphal Christian and in non-Christian literature, in religious imaginations of some groups beginning from Late Antiquity, Middle Ages and the New Times until the present day”. And that’s all.  

According to this definition, “gnosis’, i.e. “knowledge”, is a knowledge about non-equality of God and “Yahweh the god”, and “ignorance” (αγνοια) is an equalization of them. That’s why our Orthodox brothers even have no right to resent: ignorance is the essence of their teaching.



January, 2011.


Translated from Russian (copyleft) by Alex Moma (February, 2011).

Original source: http://community.livejournal.com/ru_gnostik/347756.html


1 Cited according to: “The Works of Philo Judaeus, the Contemporary of Josephus”, Translated from the Greek by C.D. Yonge, B.A. Vol. 1. London: George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, 1890.

2 Cited according to: “The Writings of Irenaeus”. Translated by Rev. Alexander Roberts, D.D., and Rev. W.H. Rambaut, A.B. Vol. I. (Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Vol. V.) Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 38, George Street, London: Hamilton & Co., Dublin: John Robertson & Co., MDCCCLXVIII.

3 The original title of the book: Радостная Весть: Новый Завет в переводе с древнегреческого. Москва: Российское Библейское общество, 2005.

4 Or “Against Faustus the Manichaean”. Cited according to: Augustine. Reply to Faustus the Manichaean // St. Augustine. The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 4). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.


All the Biblical cites were given here according to the “King James Holy Bible” (re-issued in 2009). 

* Concerning Melchisedec as the King of SODOM see the article: http://sodomdiscovery.site40.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=19&Itemid=38

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October 19th, 2010
09:15 am


Partly accessed on GoogleBooks since last week.

Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1995-2006 by David M. Scholer.

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June 21st, 2010
08:31 am


A Man Of Wide Interests
The New York Times, April 28, 1912
(mirror: link)

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February 21st, 2010
01:35 pm


The Gnostic Radio:

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February 11th, 2010
04:33 pm


Lupercalia event
The Sophia Community will hold the second annual open Lupercalia event this coming Monday at the same venue as last year. Last year's posting has details.

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December 26th, 2009
02:44 pm


Dear Gnostic brothers and sisters,

I wish to congradulate you with Saviour's Incarnation Day. Merry Christmas, be happy, and, please, don't forget about our common serving to Gnosis.

Alex Moma, Ecclesia Gnostica Russica.

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September 1st, 2009
04:51 pm


Happy September!
September is tombstone month. My tombstone for this year:

Here lies Sophia Sadek.
She lived, she loved, she kicked the bucket.

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August 22nd, 2009
05:55 am


Adolf Harnack. Marcion: der moderne Gläubige des 2. Jahrhunderts, der erste Reformator. Die Dorpater Preisschrift (1870)
Hrsg. Friedemann Steck

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August 19th, 2009
09:14 pm


Nag Hammadi Studies 28: Nag Hammadi Codices XI, XII and XIII
Ed. C. W. Hedrick

Nag Hammadi Studies 31: Nag Hammadi Codex VIII
Ed. J. H. Sieber

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August 18th, 2009
12:45 am


Nag Hammadi Studies 26: Nag Hammadi Codex III, 5. The Dialogue of the Savior
Ed. Stephen Emmel

Nag Hammadi Studies 27: Nag Hammadi Codices III, 3-4 and V, 1. Eugnostos and The Sophia of Jesus Christ
Ed. D. M. Parrott

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