Date of Submission

Spring 2012

Academic Program


Project Advisor 1

Bruce Chilton

Project Advisor 2

Roger Berkowitz

Abstract/Artist's Statement

Numerous people in the contemporary world are finding the message of Gnosticism relevant in their lives, but do we have a clear understanding of the Gnostics? The word "Gnosticism" is a modern development derived from the Greek word meaning "knowledge," gnosis. Gnosis itself refers to a specialized form of knowledge, meaning personal awareness of oneself, another person, or in the case of the Gnostics, the divine. Previous to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in December 1945, bishops, thinkers and historians of the early church who were opponents of so called “Gnostic” teachings bequeathed to us much of what we understood regarding the Gnostics. On the one hand, some of these ancient heresiologists or opponents believed that the Gnostic movement lacked morality and that it was corrupting Christianity with nonsense that did not have a place within the theology. Such heresiologists include figures like Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement. Neo-Gnostics (those who have appropriated Gnosticism in the contemporary world, specifically in New Age circles), on the other hand, have a different impression of the ancient Gnostics. They refer to the heresiologists as “organizers” and believe them to have been invested in the sole interest of acquiring power within the Church. To them, the Gnostics were a liberal sect of Christianity that embraced equality among all as well as sexuality. Works such as the Da Vinci Code further perpetuate this image in the media.

Through a historical overview, textual analysis, and finally in the construction of a debate between Irenaeus and Valentinus, this inquiry seeks to provide a better image of Gnosticism by relieving Gnosticism of some of the heresiological and Neo-Gnostic misconceptions that have characterized the movement. Firstly, I will a present a historical overview of Irenaeus, Valentinus and the Gnostics; secondly I will present a section of Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies regarding the Valentinian myth juxtaposed to the Gnostic text, Gospel of Truth written by Valentinus. Communicating Irenaeus’ account of the Valentinian myth in conjunction with a text from the actual creator of the myth will allow readers to become acquainted with the complex Gnostic worldview. I will present as consistent an account of the materials as allowed given the fragmentary nature of some of the sources. I will then engage in textual analysis, highlighting themes within the myth that provide insight into its function and challenges both heresiological and neo-Gnostic interpretations of Gnosticism regarding their social behaviors and theology. Lastly, I will reconstruct a debate between Valentinus and Irenaeus. I use the debate in order to explain differences between Irenaeus and Valentinus that further enhance the understanding of Gnosticism. The relationship between Gnosticism and Orthodox Christianity is essential in becoming acquainted with the main doctrines of Gnosticism. I employ debate because it best reflects the time period before the outlaw of Gnosticism when active discussion on theological matters was not uncommon.

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