Pachomian Bibliography Creator

For other people named Saint Basil, see Saint Basil (disambiguation).

Saint Basil the Great

Icon of St. Basil the Great from the
St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church; Great Hierarch
Born329 or 330
Caesarea, Cappadocia,
DiedJanuary 1 or 2, 379 (aged 48–50)
Caesarea, Cappadocia
Venerated inEastern Orthodox Church
Oriental Orthodoxy
Roman Catholic Church
Anglican Communion
Attributesvested as bishop, wearing omophorion, holding a Gospel Book or scroll. St. Basil is depicted in icons as thin and ascetic with a long, tapering black beard.
PatronageRussia, Cappadocia, Hospital administrators, Reformers, Monks, Education, Exorcism, Liturgists

Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great (Greek: Ἅγιος Βασίλειος ὁ Μέγας, Ágios Basíleios o Mégas, Coptic: Ⲡⲓⲁⲅⲓⲟⲥ Ⲃⲁⲥⲓⲗⲓⲟⲥ; 329 or 330[8] – January 1 or 2, 379), was the Greekbishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He was an influential theologian who supported the Nicene Creed and opposed the heresies of the early Christian church, fighting against both Arianism and the followers of Apollinaris of Laodicea. His ability to balance his theological convictions with his political connections made Basil a powerful advocate for the Nicene position.

In addition to his work as a theologian, Basil was known for his care of the poor and underprivileged. Basil established guidelines for monastic life which focus on community life, liturgical prayer, and manual labour. Together with Pachomius, he is remembered as a father of communal monasticism in Eastern Christianity. He is considered a saint by the traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity.

Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa are collectively referred to as the Cappadocian Fathers. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches have given him, together with Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, the title of Great Hierarch. He is recognised as a Doctor of the Church in the Roman Catholic Church. He is sometimes referred to by the epithet Ouranophantor (Greek: Οὐρανοφάντωρ), "revealer of heavenly mysteries".[9]


Early life and education[edit]

Basil was born into the wealthy family of Basil the Elder,[10] and Emmelia of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, around 330.[11] His parents were known for their piety.[12] His maternal grandfather was a Christian martyr, executed in the years prior to Constantine I's conversion.[13][14] His pious widow, Macrina, herself a follower of Gregory Thaumaturgus (who had founded the nearby church of Neocaesarea),[15] raised Basil and his four siblings (who also can be venerated as saints): Macrina the Younger, Naucratius, Peter of Sebaste and Gregory of Nyssa.

Basil received more formal education in Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (modern-day Kayseri, Turkey) around 350-51.[16] There he met Gregory of Nazianzus, who would become a lifetime friend.[17] Together, Basil and Gregory went to Constantinople for further studies, including the lectures of Libanius. The two also spent almost six years in Athens starting around 349, where they met a fellow student who would become the emperor Julian the Apostate.[18][19] Basil left Athens in 356, and after travels in Egypt and Syria, he returned to Caesarea, where for around a year he practiced law and taught rhetoric.[20]

Basil's life changed radically after he encountered Eustathius of Sebaste, a charismatic bishop and ascetic.[21] Abandoning his legal and teaching career, Basil devoted his life to God. A letter described his spiritual awakening:

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.[22]


After his baptism, Basil traveled in 357 to Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia to study ascetics and monasticism.[23][24] He distributed his fortunes among the poor, then went briefly into solitude near Neocaesarea of Pontus (mod. day Niksar, Turkey) on the Iris.[23] Basil eventually realized that while he respected the ascetics' piety and prayerfulness, the solitary life did not call him.[25]Eustathius of Sebaste, a prominent anchorite near Pontus, had mentored Basil. However, they also eventually differed over dogma.[26]

Basil instead felt drawn toward communal religious life, and by 358 he was gathering around him a group of like-minded disciples, including his brother Peter. Together they founded a monastic settlement on his family's estate near Annesi[27] (modern Sonusa or Uluköy, near the confluence of the Iris and Lycos Rivers[28]). His widowed mother Emmelia, sister Macrina and several other women, joined Basil and devoted themselves to pious lives of prayer and charitable works (some claim Macrina founded this community).[29]

Here Basil wrote about monastic communal life. His writings became pivotal in developing monastic traditions of the Eastern Church.[30] In 358, Basil invited his friend Gregory of Nazianzus to join him in Annesi.[31] When Gregory eventually arrived, they collaborated on Origen's Philocalia, a collection of Origen's works .[32] Gregory then decided to return to his family in Nazianzus.

Basil attended the Council of Constantinople (360). He at first sided with Eustathius and the Homoiousians, a semi-Arian faction who taught that the Son was of like substance with the Father, neither the same (one substance) nor different from him.[33] The Homoiousians opposed the Arianism of Eunomius but refused to join with the supporters of the Nicene Creed, who professed that the members of the Trinity were of one substance ("homoousios"). However, Basil's bishop, Dianius of Caesarea, had subscribed only to the earlier Nicene form of agreement. Basil eventually abandoned the Homoiousians, and emerged instead as a strong supporter of the Nicene Creed.[33]


In 362, Bishop Meletius of Antiochordained Basil as a deacon. Eusebius then summoned Basil to Caesarea and ordained him as presbyter of the Church there in 365. Ecclesiastical entreaties rather than Basil's desires thus altered his career path.[23]

Basil and Gregory Nazianzus spent the next few years combating the Arian heresy, which threatened to divide Cappadocia's Christians. In close fraternal cooperation, they agreed to a great rhetorical contest with accomplished Arian theologians and rhetors.[34] In the subsequent public debates, presided over by agents of Valens, Gregory and Basil emerged triumphant. This success confirmed for both Gregory and Basil that their futures lay in administration of the Church.[34] Basil next took on functional administration of the city of Caesarea.[30] Eusebius is reported as becoming jealous of the reputation and influence which Basil quickly developed, and allowed Basil to return to his earlier solitude. Later, however, Gregory persuaded Basil to return. Basil did so, and became the effective manager of the city for several years, while giving all the credit to Eusebius.

In 370, Eusebius died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him, and was consecrated bishop on June 14, 370.[35] His new post as bishop of Caesarea also gave him the powers of exarch of Pontus and metropolitan of five suffragan bishops, many of whom had opposed him in the election for Eusebius's successor. It was then that his great powers were called into action. Hot-blooded and somewhat imperious, Basil was also generous and sympathetic. He personally organized a soup kitchen and distributed food to the poor during a famine following a drought. He gave away his personal family inheritance to benefit the poor of his diocese.

His letters show that he actively worked to reform thieves and prostitutes. They also show him encouraging his clergy not to be tempted by wealth or the comparatively easy life of a priest, and that he personally took care in selecting worthy candidates for holy orders. He also had the courage to criticize public officials who failed in their duty of administering justice. At the same time, he preached every morning and evening in his own church to large congregations. In addition to all the above, he built a large complex just outside Caesarea, called the Basiliad,[36] which included a poorhouse, hospice, and hospital, and was compared by Gregory of Nazianzus to the wonders of the world.[37]

His zeal for orthodoxy did not blind him to what was good in an opponent; and for the sake of peace and charity he was content to waive the use of orthodox terminology when it could be surrendered without a sacrifice of truth. The Emperor Valens, who was an adherent of the Arian philosophy, sent his prefect Modestus to at least agree to a compromise with the Arian faction. Basil's adamant negative response prompted Modestus to say that no one had ever spoken to him in that way before. Basil replied, "Perhaps you have never yet had to deal with a bishop." Modestus reported back to Valens that he believed nothing short of violence would avail against Basil. Valens was apparently unwilling to engage in violence. He did however issue orders banishing Basil repeatedly, none of which succeeded. Valens came himself to attend when Basil celebrated the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Theophany (Epiphany), and at that time was so impressed by Basil that he donated to him some land for the building of the Basiliad. This interaction helped to define the limits of governmental power over the church.[38]

Basil then had to face the growing spread of Arianism. This belief system, which denied that Christ was consubstantial with the Father, was quickly gaining adherents and was seen by many, particularly those in Alexandria most familiar with it, as posing a threat to the unity of the church.[39] Basil entered into connections with the West, and with the help of Athanasius, he tried to overcome its distrustful attitude toward the Homoiousians. The difficulties had been enhanced by bringing in the question as to the essence of the Holy Spirit. Although Basil advocated objectively the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son, he belonged to those, who, faithful to Eastern tradition, would not allow the predicate homoousios to the former; for this he was reproached as early as 371 by the Orthodox zealots among the monks, and Athanasius defended him. He maintained a relationship with Eustathius despite dogmatic differences.

Basil corresponded with Pope Damasus in the hope of having the Roman bishop condemn heresy wherever found, both East and West. The pope's apparent indifference upset Basil's zeal and he turned around in distress and sadness.

Death and legacy[edit]

Basil died before the factional disturbances ended. He suffered from liver disease; excessive ascetic practices also contributed to his early demise. Historians disagree about the exact date Basil died.[40] The great institute before the gates of Caesarea, the Ptochoptopheion, or "Basileiad", which was used as poorhouse, hospital, and hospice became a lasting monument of Basil's episcopal care for the poor.[26] Many of St Basil's writings and sermons, specifically on the topics on money and possessions, continue to challenge Christians today.[41]


The principal theological writings of Basil are his On the Holy Spirit, a lucid and edifying appeal to Scripture and early Christian tradition (to prove the divinity of the Holy Spirit), and his Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Eunomius, written about in 364, three books against Eunomius of Cyzicus, the chief exponent of Anomoian Arianism. The first three books of the Refutation are his work; his authorship of the fourth and fifth books is generally considered doubtful.[42]

He was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies, including a series of Lenten lectures on the Hexaëmeron (also Hexaëmeros, "Six Days of Creation"; Latin: Hexameron), and an exposition of the psalter, have been preserved. Some, like that against usury and that on the famine in 368, are valuable for the history of morals; others illustrate the honor paid to martyrs and relics; the address to young men on the study of classical literature shows that Basil was lastingly influenced by his own education, which taught him to appreciate the propaedeutic importance of the classics.[43]

In his exegesis Basil was a great admirer of Origen and the need for the spiritual interpretation of Scripture. In his work on the Holy Spirit, he asserts that "to take the literal sense and stop there, is to have the heart covered by the veil of Jewish literalism. Lamps are useless when the sun is shining." He frequently stresses the need for Reserve in doctrinal and sacramental matters. At the same time he was against the wild allegories of some contemporaries. Concerning this, he wrote:

"I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those, truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own end."[44]

His ascetic tendencies are exhibited in the Moralia and Asketika (sometimes mistranslated as Rules of St. Basil), ethical manuals for use in the world and the cloister, respectively. There has been a good deal of discussion concerning the authenticity of the two works known as the Greater Asketikon and the Lesser Asketikon.[26]

It is in the ethical manuals and moral sermons that the practical aspects of his theoretical theology are illustrated. So, for example, it is in his Sermon to the Lazicans that we find St. Basil explaining how it is our common nature that obliges us to treat our neighbor's natural needs (e.g., hunger, thirst) as our own, even though he is a separate individual.

His three hundred letters reveal a rich and observant nature, which, despite the troubles of ill-health and ecclesiastical unrest, remained optimistic, tender and even playful. His principal efforts as a reformer were directed towards the improvement of the liturgy, and the reformation of the monastic institutions of the East.

Most of his extant works, and a few spuriously attributed to him, are available in the Patrologia Graeca, which includes Latin translations of varying quality. Several of St. Basil's works have appeared in the late twentieth century in the Sources Chrétiennes collection.

Liturgical contributions[edit]

Saint Basil of Caesarea holds a very important place in the history of Christian liturgy, coming as he did at the end of the age of persecution. Basil's liturgical influence is well attested in early sources. Though it is difficult at this time to know exactly which parts of the Divine Liturgies which bear his name are actually his work, a vast corpus of prayers attributed to him has survived in the various Eastern Christian churches. Tradition also credits Basil with the elevation of the iconostasis to its present height.[citation needed]

Most of the liturgies bearing the name of Basil are not entirely his work in their present form, but they nevertheless preserve a recollection of Basil's activity in this field in formularizing liturgical prayers and promoting church-song. Patristics scholars conclude that the Liturgy of Saint Basil "bears, unmistakably, the personal hand, pen, mind and heart of St. Basil the Great."[45]

One liturgy that can be attributed to him is The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, a liturgy that is somewhat longer than the more commonly used Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The difference between the two is primarily in the silent prayers said by the priest, and in the use of the hymn to the Theotokos, All of Creation, instead of the Axion Estin of Saint John Chrysostom's Liturgy. Chrysostom's Liturgy has come to replace Saint Basil's on most days in the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic liturgical traditions. However, they still use Saint Basil's Liturgy on certain feast days: the first five Sundays of Great Lent, the Eves of Nativity and Theophany, on Great and Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday and on the Feast of Saint Basil, January 1 (for those churches which follow the Julian Calendar, their January 1 falls on January 14 of the Gregorian Calendar).[citation needed]

The Eastern Churches preserve numerous other prayers attributed to Saint Basil, including three Prayers of Exorcism, several Morning and Evening Prayers, the "Prayer of the Hours" which is read at each service of the Daily Office, and the "Kneeling Prayers" which are recited by the priest at Vespers on Pentecost in the Byzantine Rite.[citation needed]

Influence on Monasticism[edit]

Through his examples and teachings St. Basil effected a noteworthy moderation in the austere practices which were previously characteristic of monastic life.[46] He is also credited with coordinating the duties of work and prayer to ensure a proper balance between the two.[47]

St. Basil is remembered as one of the most influential figures in the development of Christian monasticism. Not only is Basil recognized as the father of Eastern monasticism; historians recognize that his legacy extends also to the Western church, largely due to his influence on Saint Benedict.[48] Patristic scholars such as Meredith assert that Benedict himself recognized this when he wrote in the epilogue to his Rule that his monks, in addition to the Bible, should read "the confessions of the Fathers and their institutes and their lives and the Rule of our Holy Father, Basil.[49] Basil's teachings on monasticism, as encoded in works such as his Small Asketikon, was transmitted to the west via Rufinus during the last 4th century.[50]

As a result of his influence, numerous religious orders in Eastern Christianity bear his name. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Basilian Fathers, also known as The Congregation of St. Basil, an international order of priests and students studying for the priesthood, is named after him.


St Basil was given the title Doctor of the Church in the Western Church for his contributions to the debate initiated by the Arian controversy regarding the nature of the Trinity, and especially the question of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Basil was responsible for defining the terms "ousia" (essence/substance) and "hypostasis" (person/reality), and for defining the classic formulation of three Persons in one Nature. His single greatest contribution was his insistence on the divinity and consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son.

In Greek tradition, he brings gifts to children every January 1 (St Basil's Day). It is traditional on St Basil's Day to serve vasilopita, a rich bread baked with a coin inside. It is customary on his feast day to visit the homes of friends and relatives, to sing New Year'scarols, and to set an extra place at the table for Saint Basil. Basil, being born into a wealthy family, gave away all his possessions to the poor, the underprivileged, those in need, and children.[51] For Greeks and others in the Orthodox tradition, St Basil is the saint associated with Santa Claus as opposed to the western tradition of St Nicholas.

According to some sources, Saint Basil died on January 1, and the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates his feast day together with that of the Feast of the Circumcision on that day. This was also the day on which the General Roman Calendar celebrated it at first; but in the 13th century it was moved to June 14, a date believed to be that of his ordination as bishop, and it remained on that date until the 1969 revision of the calendar, which moved it to January 2, rather than January 1, because the latter date is occupied by the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. On January 2 Saint Basil is celebrated together with Saint Gregory Nazianzen.[52] Some traditionalist Catholics continue to observe pre-1970 calendars.

The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod commemorates Basil, along with Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa on January 10.

The Church of England celebrates Saint Basil's feast on January 2, but the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada celebrate it on June 14.[53]

In the Byzantine Rite, January 30 is the Synaxis of the Three Holy Hierarchs, in honor of Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom.

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria celebrates the feast day of Saint Basil on the 6th of Tobi (6th of Terr on the Ethiopian calendar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church). At present, this corresponds to January 14, January 15 during leap year.[citation needed]

There are numerous relics of Saint Basil throughout the world. One of the most important is his head, which is preserved to this day at the monastery of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos in Greece. The mythical sword Durandal is said to contain some of Basil's blood.[54]

See also[edit]


  1. ^Great Synaxaristes: (in Greek)Ὁ Ἅγιος Βασίλειος ὁ Μέγας ὁ Καππαδόκης. 1 Ιανουαρίου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
  2. ^St Basil the Great the Archbishop of Caesarea, in Cappadocia.OCA - Feasts and Saints.
  3. ^Great Synaxaristes: (in Greek)Οἱ Ἅγιοι Τρεῖς Ἱεράρχες. 30 Ιανουαρίου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
  4. ^Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.OCA - Feasts and Saints.
  5. ^Lutheranism 101, CPH, St. Louis, 2010, p.277
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^Fedwick (1981), p. 5
  9. ^"St Basil the Great the Archbishop of Caesarea, in Cappadocia". Orthodox Church in America Website. Retrieved 2007-12-15. 
  10. ^Quasten(1986), p. 204.
  11. ^Bowersock et al. (1999), p.336
  12. ^Oratio 43.4, PG 36. 500B, tr. p.30, as presented in Rousseau (1994), p.4.
  13. ^Davies (1991), p. 12.
  14. ^Rousseau (1994), p. 4.
  15. ^Rousseau (1994), p. 12 & p. 4 respectively
  16. ^Hildebrand (2007), p. 19.
  17. ^Norris, Frederick (1997). "Basil of Caesarea". In Ferguson, Everett. The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (second edition). New York: Garland Press. 
  18. ^Ruether (1969), pp. 19, 25.
  19. ^Rousseau (1994), pp. 32–40.
  20. ^Rousseau (1994), p. 1.
  21. ^Hildebrand (2007), pp. 19–20.
  22. ^Basil, Ep. 223, 2, as quoted in Quasten (1986), p. 205.
  23. ^ abcQuasten (1986), p. 205.
  24. ^Encyclopædia Britannica (15th ed.) vol. 1, p. 938.
  25. ^Merredith (1995), p. 21.
  26. ^ abcMcSorley, Joseph. "St. Basil the Great." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 31 May 2016
  27. ^Encyclopædia Britannica (15th ed.) vol. 1, p. 938.
  28. ^mod. Yeşilırmak and Kelkit Çayi rivers, see Rousseau (1994), p. 62.
  29. ^The New Westminster Dictionary of Church History: The Early, Medieval, and Reformation Eras, vol.1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, ISBN 0-664-22416-4, p. 75.
  30. ^ abAttwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0-14-051312-4.
  31. ^Rousseau (1994), p. 66.
  32. ^Merredith (1995), pp. 21–22.
  33. ^ abMeredith (1995), p. 22.
  34. ^ abMcGuckin (2001), p. 143.
  35. ^Meredith (1995), p. 23
  36. ^The Living Age. 48. Littell, Son and Company. 1856. p. 326. 
  37. ^Gregory of Nazianzus. Oration 43: Funeral Oration on the Great S. Basil, Bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia. p. 63. Retrieved 20 February 2016. 
  38. ^Alban Butler; Paul Burns (1995). Butler's Lives of the Saints. 1. A&C Black,. p. 14. 
  39. ^Foley, O.F.M., Leonard (2003). "St. Basil the Great (329-379)". In McCloskey, O.F.M., Pat (rev.). Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons and Feasts (5th Revised Edition). Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press. ISBN 0-86716-535-9. Archived from the original on 23 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-15. 
  40. ^Rousseau (1994), pp. 360–363, Appendix III: The Date of Basil's Death and of the Hexaemeron
  41. ^No. 48: St. Basil Wants You To Be Charitable, retrieved 2017-11-29 
  42. ^Jackson, Blomfield. "Basil: Letters and Select Works", Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds.) .T&T Clark, Edinburough
  43. ^Deferrari, Roy J. "The Classics and the Greek Writers of the Early Church: Saint Basil." The Classical Journal Vol. 13, No. 8 (May, 1918). 579–91.
  44. ^Basil. "Hexameron, 9.1". In Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (2nd Series). 8 Basil: Letters and Select Works. Edinburgh: T&T Clark (1895). p. 102. Retrieved 2007-12-15. . Cf. Hexameron, 3.9 (Ibid., pp. 70-71).
  45. ^Bebis (1997), p. 283
  46. ^Murphy (1930), p. 94.
  47. ^Murphy (1930), p. 95.
  48. ^See K. E. Kirk, The Vision of God: The Christian Document of the summum bonum (London, 1931), 9.118, (as quoted in Meredith)
  49. ^Meredith (1995), p.24
  50. ^Silvas (2002), pp. 247-259, in Vigliae Christanae
  51. ^"Santa Claus". Archived
Russian icon of Basil of Caesarea
Basilii Magni Opera (1523)

Focus On Gnosticism

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Stevan Davies

Professor of Religious Studies
Misericordia University

Walk into any large bookstore and you will discover a few shelves of books labeled "Christian" or "Buddhist" or "Jewish" while next to them you will see several shelves with the vague label "New Age" or "Spirituality." Today many people have left the comfort of the churches or synagogues they grew up in and have decided to understand religion for themselves, to be "spiritual" rather than to be part of any organized religion, perhaps to combine ideas from Buddhism and Judaism and Catholicism into a new synthesis that they create themselves. In ancient times, mainly in the first through the fourth centuries, religious thinkers of this sort were called "Gnostics." In roughly 180 CEIrenaeus, the Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (now Lyon, France) wrote a long savage attack against the Gnostics entitled "The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge (Gnosis) Falsely So Called," in which he says angrily that "since their teachings and traditions are different, and the newer ones among them claim to be constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before, it is hard to describe their views." Irenaeus was certainly right about that.

Like today's New Age writers, ancient Gnostic writers delighted in coming up with new theories, highly variable creation myths, creative salvation schemes and imaginative descriptions of supernatural realms. Because the Gnostic texts contain such a diversity of ideas, scholars sometimes despair of ever coming up with a clear and useful definition of Gnosticism. Michael Williams has argued that the term "Gnosticism" is so overloaded with diverse meanings, so contradictory in the ways it is used by scholars, and so negative in its connotation when used by Christian clergy, that we probably should not use the label "Gnosticism" at all. I think that Williams is correct, yet I will continue on here to try and discuss Gnosticism in a meaningful way, while urging you to bear in mind that there is a great deal of variation in Gnostic thought that will not be reflected in the relatively straightforward account I will provide.

The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word "gnosis," which means "knowledge." The reason that Gnostics made "gnosis" their primary category is that for them salvation depended on correct knowledge. One might immediately ask, "salvation from what?" and "knowledge of what?"

Gnosticism postulates that human beings have divinity within them because a divine soul or divine wisdom permeates us. However, they observed, hardly anyone seems to know this. To know that you are fundamentally divine reveals to you that you are also fundamentally trapped in a non-divine material environment filled with demonic forces. If people are inherently divine, and if our divinity is trapped within a world filled with demonic forces, the god who created this world cannot be the same God who is the divinity within us. There must be a higher God in a higher realm than this one. Salvation, then, is an escape from this world into the world of the God beyond the creator god and demons of this world.

In order to escape from this world to the realm of the true God we need to understand how that divinity got trapped here in the first place. This is the essential Gnostic "gnosis," knowing how it came to be that we are God trapped in this world. If we can understand the cosmic process by which we came to be here, we can reverse that process and go back to whence we came. Understanding that cosmic process is the fundamental point of Gnostic mythology, which is a mythology of creation that describes the devolution of God into us.

Many ancient Gnostic manuscripts depict this process, which Irenaus called their attempts to "work out what no one ever thought before." But there is one "locus classicus," of the Gnostic myth that is found in a book called the "Apocryphon Johannis" or, in English, "The Secret Book of John." The Secret Book of John was probably written by Jewish Gnostics in the first century CE, or even a century before. While it is critical of the Jewish God, its terminology and mythic motifs and biblical citations show that it comes from a Jewish cultural background. In the early second century CE Christians revised it slightly to make it Christian; Jesus appears at its beginning and its end and Jesus is now the name of the revealer of Gnostic truth. There are no fewer than four surviving manuscripts of the Secret Book of John, three found in the great collection of Gnostic texts called the Nag Hammadi library and one in what is called the Berlin Gnostic Codex. In addition Irenaeus includes a summary of it in his anti-gnostic tract. If there is a single basic Gnostic text, the Secret Book of John is it.

Here is a brief summary of the Secret Book of John. First we hear of an unimaginable, indescribable perfect God, the being (beyond being) called Brahman in Hinduism, or Ein Sof in mystical Judaism. The Secret Book of John goes on at some length to describe how indescribable God is. Second we hear about the mystical structures of the divine mind, how God's mind contains a central realm of providence called Barbelo, and four subordinate categories of divine activity—truth, incorruptibility, foreknowledge, and everlasting life—then how further subordinate categories of divine being, mainly mental, come into existence. The Secret Book of John's description of the mind of God, called the fullness or, in Greek, the "pleroma," is conceptual and therefore below the level of the indescribable God. Third, we are told that Sophia, the Wisdom of God, seeks to know God objectively. But this leads to crisis because God is purely subjective. God's Wisdom imagines God and, although an imaginary God is unreal, it yet takes on a kind of inferior illusory being of its own outside of God's realm. This lower god has the name Yaldabaoth and is to be identified with Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible. Fourth, Yaldabaoth, who does have a portion of divine spirit from his mother, Sophia, creates a universe populated by all sorts of demonic creatures when, to his amazement, the full mind of God reveals itself as a human being in the heavens. Yaldabaoth constructs a material version of the heavenly human being and puts the divine spirit into it to make it mobile. But, surprise! It was a trick, for now, if the human being can realize its divine origin and return above, the divine spirit will return with it and thereby the realm of Yaldabaoth will become devoid of divine spirit and cease to be. Fifth, in self-defense Yaldabaoth makes the human being ignorant of its origins. But the divine mind sends down a messenger (Jesus, in the Christian version of the tale) to give human beings true "gnosis" by which they can go back to the perfect divine realm.

Whew. The Secret Book of John may be bizarre (and there is a great deal more to it that I have left out here) but it is ultimately a negative reworking of the Biblical story of Genesis, taking the point of view that while the story behind Genesis is true, the version written into the Bible by Moses is mistaken. We hear several times in the Secret Book of John that we should understand that it was "not as Moses wrote," but as some other thing. Moses is taken to be a mistaken interpreter of the fundamental myth. For Gnosticism, the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15–17) was the tree of gnosis, and people should eat from it. Wicked Yaldabaoth forbade this and then walled off the garden and the tree after Eve did the right thing (led by a divinely empowered serpent) by eating from that Tree (Genesis 3:1–24). The story in Genesis is wholly reversed through Gnostic interpretation.

From the Gnostic perspective, Jesus is a divine being sent from the realm of the higher God into this world to inform the trapped divine elements within human beings of their true nature and origin. Accordingly, Jesus is from some entirely other world than this one and therefore the Gospel of John was particularly interesting to Gnostics because in that Gospel Jesus says repeatedly that he is not of this demonic world of lies but from another world of light and truth (Jn 12:44–46, 17:14–16). The idea of a revealer coming from a world above that is infinitely superior to this demonic world below makes the Gospel of John very open to Gnostic interpretation.

Some have said that the Gospel of Thomas is gnostic, but they are mistaken. They observe correctly that in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus sometimes says that people have divine light within them, e.g. "There is light within a man of light and he lights up all of the world. If he is not a light there is darkness," (saying 24) or "When you give rise to that which is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not give rise to it, what you do not have will destroy you," (saying 70), and certainly Gnostics would have agreed with those passages. But overall the Gospel of Thomas is not Gnostic because it affirms that the Kingdom of God is now and has been from the beginning spread out upon this world, although people do not see it (saying 113). While Gnosticism regards the world as an enimical place of entrapment and declares that God's kingdom is beyond this world, the Gospel of Thomas denies this by mocking (in saying 3) the idea that the Kingdom is in heaven (if so, "the birds will be there before you are!") rather than right here now. (For more information, see the new article on the Gospel of Thomas.)

The success of orthodox Christianity over Gnostic Christianity stemmed in part from its organizational superiority. In establishing an invariant set of beliefs through creedal conferences such as the one in Nicea (325 CE), the range of possible Christian ideas was pinned down to a defined set. Gnosticism's wild creativity worked against its success as an organized religion. Eventually orthodox Christianity defined Gnosticism as a heresy that first Roman and then medieval Catholic police power would work to exterminate. In 367 CE the Egyptian bishop Athanasius of Alexandria ordered his monks to destroy "illegitimate and secret books" and so, in a Pachomian monastery near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, the monks took their library of Gnostic books and, rather than burn them all, buried them in jars. In 1945 CE those jars were unearthed and they have subsequently been translated and published. Anyone interested in Gnosticism can read a whole library of texts from 1,600 years ago (many of which were written a couple of centuries earlier still). Through these texts, and others, Gnosticism still lives today, and through the New Age movement and the Spiritual religion movement the creative impulses of the Gnostic thinkers persist.

Further Reading

  • Brakke, David. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Davies, Stevan. The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel Annotated and Explained. Woodstock, Vt.: Skylight Paths, 2005.
  • King, Karen L. What Is Gnosticism? Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2005.
  • Meyer, Marvin. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: Revised and Updated Translation. New York: HarperOne, 2009.
  • Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
  • Williams, Michael A. Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Biblical Passages and Apocrypha

Gospel of John

Subject Entries and Commentary

Nag Hammadi
Gospel of Thomas


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