The Gnostic Religion

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The Gnostic Religion:The Message of the Alien God and the Beginning of Christianity (1958) by Hans Jonas, differs in scope, organization, and literary intention, but includes much of the information contained in his Gnosis und späntantiker Geist: Die mythologische Gnosis, the first volume of which was published in 1934. An enlarged edition of The Gnostic Religion was published in 1963 with an additional essay, and supplemented to include his research on the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in 1945. This book, particularly the 1963 paperback edition, has had great influence to the present day, and has been used as a student textbook.


  • Gnosticism gave a new turn by conceiving the planetary constituents of the soul as corruptions of its original nature contracted in its descent through the cosmic spheres. The Christian Arnobius reports this as a Hermetic teaching. ...A very close parallel (in the inverse direction) to the Poimandres account of the soul's ascent. ...[W]hat attaches itself to the soul on its downward journey has the character of substantial though immaterial entities... frequently described as "envelopes" or "garments." Accordingly the resultant terrestrial "soul" is comparable to an onion... on the model of the cosmos... in inverse order: what is outermost there is innermost here, and after the process is completed with incarnation, what is innermost in the spherical scheme of the cosmos, the earth, is as body the outer garment of man. That this body is a fatality to the soul had long ago been preached by the Orphics, whose teaching were revived in the era of Gnosticism. But now the psychical envelopments too are considered impairments and fetters of the transmundane spirit.
  • The Hermetic... mythological fantasy: not just a rejection of the physical universe in light of pessimsism, but the idea of an entirely new idea of human freedom, very different from the moral conception of... the Greek philosophers... However profoundly man is determined by nature... there still remains an innermost center which is not of nature's realm and by which he is above all its promptings and necessities. ...It is the first time in history that the radical ontological difference of man and nature has been discovered and the powerfully moving experience of it given expression... This rift between man and nature was never to close again, and protesting his hidden but essential otherness became in many variations an abiding theme in the quest for truth concerning man.
  • We come now to the ascent of the knower's soul after death, the main prospect held out to the true Gnostic or pneumatic, in the anticipation of which he conducts his life. After what we have heard about... the astral descent of the soul, the description of the ascent in the Poimandres requires no further explanation: it is the reversal of the former. ...The celestial journey of the returning soul is indeed one of the most common features in otherwise widely divergent systems, and its significance for the gnostic mind is enhanced by the fact that it represents a belief not only... expressive of man's relation to the world, but... the meaning of gnosis is to prepare for this final event, and all its ethical, ritual, and technical instruction is meant to secure its successful completion. Historically there is an even more far-reaching aspect... (though no longer passing under the name of Gnosticism) the external topology of the ascent through the spheres, with the successive divesting of the soul of its worldly envelopments and the regaining of its original cosmic nature, could be "internalized" and find its analogue in a psychological technique of inner transformations by which the self, while still in the body, might attain the Absolute as an immanent, if temporary, condition: an ascending scale of mental states replaces the stations of the mythical itinerary: the dynamics of progressive spiritual self-transformation, the spatial thrust through the heavenly spheres. Thus could transcendence itself be turned into immanence, the whole process becomes spiritualized and put within the power and the orbit of the subject. With this transposition of a mythical scheme into the inwardness of the person, with the translation of its objective stages into subjective phases of self-performable experience whose culmination has the form of ecstasis, gnostic myth has passed into mysticism (Neoplatonic and monastic), and in this new medium it lives on long after the disappearance of the original mythological beliefs.
  • In the Poimandres the ascent is described as a series of progressive subtractions which leaves the "naked" true self, an instance of Primal Man as he was before his cosmic fall, free to enter the divine realm and to become one again with God. ...[W]hat begins the ascent is already the pure pneuma disengaged from its earthly encumbrances... the rulers of the spheres are hostile powers trying to bar its passage... Wherever we hear of the doffing of garments, the slipping of knots, the loosing of bonds in the course of the upward journey, we have analogies to the Poimandres passage. The sum of the knots, etc., is called "psyche": thus it is the soul that is put off by the pneuma... In this way the ascent is... putting off the worldly nature. ...[T]he mysteries of the Mithras had for their initiates the ceremonial passing through seven gates arranged on ascending steps representing the seven planets... in those of Isis we find successive putting on and off of seven (or twelve) garments or animal disguises. The result... was called rebirth (palingenesia): the initiate himself was supposed to have been reborn as the god. The terminology of "rebirth," "reformation" (metamorphosis), "transfiguration" was coined in the context of these rituals as part of the language of the mystery cults. The meanings and applications... were wide enough to make them fit into various theological systems... But... they were eminently suited to gnostic purposes.
  • [T]he individual correlation of elements with passions varies greatly... from the turning back or supplication resulted the "soul" of the world and of the Demiurge and everything psychical, and from the rest of the passions the material elements: e.g., from the tears the moist substance, from the laughter the luminous, from the grief and shock the more solid elements of the cosmos; or "from shock (terror) and perplexity as the more inarticulate condition, the corporeal elements of the cosmos—namely earth according to the stiffening of terror; then water, according to the movement of fear; air, according to the flight of grief; the fire, however, is inherent in all of them as death and corruption, just as ignorance is hidden in the three passions"...
  • The ontological relation of Sophia and Demiurge is best expressed in the statement "the Sophia is called 'pneuma,' the Demiurge, 'soul' "... For the rest, we meet in the Demiurge of the Valentinians... traits of the world-god... his ignorance first... which in the first place relates to things above him. These, including his mother, remain entirely unknown to him; but also considering his own fashioning beneath himself he "is unthinking and foolish, and knows not what he does and effects"... which permits his mother to slip her own designs into what he believes he does on his own. On his ignorance then is based the second major trait which he shares with the general gnostic conception of the Demiurge: the conceit and presumption in which he believes himself to be alone and declares himself to be the unique and highest God.
  • Ptolemy's Letter to Flora... is at pains to make it clear from the outset that the Law of Moses, though certainly not from the perfect Father, is neither from Satan; nor is the world: both are the work of a god of justice. Those who attribute creation to an evil god are as much in error as those who ascribe the Law to the supreme God: the former err because they do not know the god of justice, the latter, because they do not know the Father of All. ...The "God" who ordained this Law, being neither the perfect Father nor the devil, can only be the Demiurge, the maker of the universe... holding a median rank between them and therefore called the "middle principle."
  • This is how the Stoics viewed the cosmic position of fire: "This warm and fiery essence is so poured out in all nature that in it inheres the power of procreation and the cause of becoming"... to them it is a "rational fire," "the fiery Mind of the universe," the most truly divine element in the cosmos. But what to the Stoics is thus the bearer of cosmic Reason, to the Valentinians is with the same omnipresence in all creation the embodiment of Ignorance. Where Heraclitus speaks of "the everlasting fire," they speak of fire as "death and corruption" in all elements. Yet even they would agree that as far as cosmic "life" so-called and demiurgical "reason" so-called are concerned these are properly symbolized in fire, as indeed in many gnostic systems the Demiurge is expressly called the god of the fire; but since that kind of "life" and of "reason" are in their nature death and ignorance, the agreement in effect amounts to a subtle caricature of the Heraclitean-Stoic doctrine. We observe here the transition to the conception of fire as the hellish element: as such we shall meet it in the "burning fire of darkness" which the Manichaeans regarded as one of the properties of "Matter."
  • What matters for the progress of the myth is the fact common to all versions that the godhead, to meet the aggressor, had to produce a special "creation" representing his own self... in response to the ensuing fate of this divine hypostasis the further multiplication of divine figures out of the supreme source comes about. This is the general gnostic principle of emanation...
  • The purity of their substance, the perfection of their circular motion, the unimpededness with which in thus moving they follow their own law, the incorruptibility of their being and the immutability of their courses—all these attributes make them in the sense of Greek philosophy "divine"... eminence of being. Among these constancy of being and immortality of life are paramount. Divine, therefore, are the stars, primarily not by their action but by the rank which they occupy in the hierarchy of things according to their immanent properties. And these are just the properties of order, eternity, and harmony which constitute the "cosmos" character of the All in general: this they represent most purely and completely. ...Beyond this ideal significance, their perfection is also the real guarantee of the duration of the whole, i.e., of the eternity of cosmic movement and life. Thus they are the most powerful assurance which the Greek affirmation of the world had been able to conceive.
  • The Pythagoreans had found in the astral order the proportions of the concordant musical scale... a harmonia... Thereby they created the most enchanting symbol of Greek cosmic piety: "harmony," issuing in the inaudible "music of the spheres," [as] the idealizing expression for the same fact of irrefragable order that astrology stresses less optimistically... Stoic philsophy strove to integrate the idea of destiny as propounded by contemporary astrology with the Greek concept of harmony: heimarmene to the Stoics is the practical aspect of the harmony, i.e., its action as it affects terrestrial conditions and the short-lived beings here. And since the stellar movements are actuated by the cosmic logos and this logos functions in the world-process as providence (pronoia), it follows that in this wholly monistic system heimarmene itself is pronoia, that is, fate and divine providence are the same. The understanding of and willing consent to this fate... as the reason of the whole distinguishes the wise man, who bears adversity... as the price... for the harmony of the whole. The existence of the whole... is the ultimate and no further questionable, self-justifying end in this teleological scheme: for the sake of the cosmos its constituent parts exist... for the sake of the whole organism. Man... is by no means the highest mode of being, he is not the end of nature, and the cosmos is not for his sake.
  • To scandalize has always been the pride of rebels, but much of it may satisfy itself in provocativeness of doctrine rather than deeds. Yet we must not underrate the extremes to which revolutionary defiance and the vertigo of freedom could go in the value-vacuum created by the spiritual crisis. The very discovery of a new vista, invalidating all former norms constituted an anarchical condition, and excess in thought and life was the first response to the import and dimensions of that vista.
  • It is no accident that, whereas the libertinistic version of gnostic morality was represented by decidedly esoteric types, our examples for the ascetic version are taken from... exoteric types of Gnosticism. Both Marcion and Mani intended to found a general church... and Mandaeism... was a community religion of popular complexion. Anarchy is incompatible with institution... and any religious establishment will lead in the direction of discipline. To some extent the church takes over the function of the polis; ideally it aspires to being an all-embracing civitas itself, in this world though not of this world, replacing the secular civitas in regulating the lives of its members. This must necessarily give rise to a canon of "virtues"... In short, institutionalized salvation, that is, the very idea of the "church," favors the discipline of ascetic morality over a literal understanding of the ideal of pneumatic freedom, which the anticosmic position... suggests. ...The Christian Gnostics listed by Irenaeus as holding libertine views regarded their "freedom" as an executive privilege never meant for the ordinary members... Generally... except for a brief period of revolutionary extremism, the practical consequences from gnostic views were more often in the direction of asceticism than of libertinism.
  • Philo was enough heir to the Stoic and Platonic tradition to accord to the concept and name of areté an important place in his thought. ...The very meaning of areté is withdrawn from the positive faculties... and placed in the knowledge of nothingness. Confidence in one's own moral powers, the whole enterprise of self-perfection... and the self-attribution of the achievement—integral aspects of the Greek conception of virtue—this... is here condemned as the vice of self-love and conceit. ..."[Q]ueen of the virtues," the most perfect... is faith, which combines the turning to God with the recognition and contempt of one's own nothingness. ..."[T]he vice most odious to God" is vainglory, self-love, arrogance, presumption—in brief, the pride of considering oneself as one's own lord and ruler and of relying on one's own powers. This [is a] complete disintegration of the Greek ideal of virtue... While to the Hellenes from Plato to Plotinus man's way to God led through moral self-perfection, for Philo it leads through self-despair in the realization of one's nothingness. ..."For then is the time for the creature to encounter the Creator, when it has recognized its own nothingness"... To know God and to disown oneself is a standing correlation in Philo. " from oneself and flee to God." ..."he who flees from his own nous flees to that of the All" ..."escape even thyself, and pass out of thyself, raving and God-possessed like the Dionysian Corybantes"
  • The enlightenment by a ray of the divine light... which transforms the psychic nature of man... is sometimes claimed and even described... in the religious literature of the age, inside and outside Gnosticism. It involves the extinction of the natural faculties, filling the vacuum with a surprisingly positive and... negative content. Annihilation and deification of the person are fused in the spiritual ecstasis... immediate presence of the acosmic essence. In the gnostic context, this transfiguring... experience is gnosis... exalted... paradoxical... knowledge of the unknowable. ...The mystical gnosis theoû—direct beholding of the divine reality—is itself an earnest of the consummation to come. It is transcendence become immanent... of divine activity and grace. It is... as much a "being known" by God as a "knowing" him, and in this ultimate mutuality the "gnosis" is beyond the terms of "knowledge"... As beholding a supreme object... "knowledge" or "cognition"; as being absorbed in, and transfigured by... "apotheosis" or "rebirth"... the knower's being merges with that of the object—which "object" in truth means the obliteration of the whole realm of objects. The experience of the infinite in the finite cannot but be a paradox... it unites voidness and fullness. Its light illuminates and blinds. With an apparent... suspension of time, it stands within existence for the end of all existence: end in the... negative-positive sense of ceasing everything worldly and... spiritual... fullfilment... the double-edged character of the true eschaton... and anticipation of death...
  • Here is one simple criterion for what is "Christian" (orthodox) or "gnostic" (heretical): whether the guilt is Adam's or the Archon's, whether human or divine, whether arising in or before creation.
  • In the opening lines the Gospel of Truth is declared to be "a joy for those who have received from the Father of Truth the gift of knowing Him through the power of the Word (Logos) who has come from the Pleroma... and for the redemption of those who were in ignorance of the Father"; the name "gospel" (evangelium) itself is then explained as the "the manifestation of hope" (i.e., of the hoped-for). ...evangelium has here the original and literal meaning of "glad tidings" that hold out hope and give assurance of fulfillment of that hope.
  • [C]osmos is said to be the "shape" (schema) of "Deficiency"; Deficiency we could equate with the "Oblivion"... Oblivion in turn is there related to "Error" (planē) and its formation (plasma), this in turn to "Anguish" and "Terror," they again to "Ignorance"—and so the whole chain of apparently psychological and human concepts, through which the mysterious tale moves, has almost by accident its cosmic meaning authenticated...
  • "[T]he speculative principle of Valentinianism...the "pneumatic equation"—namely: that the human-individual event of pneumatic knowledge is the inverse equivalent of the pre-cosmic universal event of divine ignorance...
  • In the Mandaean literature, it is a standing phrase: life has been thrown into the world, light into darkness, the soul into the body. ...Ejected into the world, life is a kind of trajectory projecting itself forward into the future.
  • In the Gnostic formula it is understood that, though thrown into temporality, we had an origin in eternity, and so also we have an aim in eternity.
  • To look at what is there, at nature as it is in itself, at Being, the ancients called... contemplation, theoria. But... if contemplation is left with only the irrelevantly extant, then it loses the noble status... as does the repose in the present... Theoria had that dignity because of its Platonic implications—because it beheld eternal objects in the forms of things, a transcendence of immutable being shining through the transparency of becoming. Immutable being is everlasting present, in which contemplation can share in the brief durations of the temporal present. Thus it is eternity, not time, that grants a present and gives it a status of its own in the flux of time; and it is the loss of eternity which accounts for the loss of a genuine present. Such a loss of eternity is the disappearance of the world of ideas and ideals in which Heidegger sees the true meaning of Nietzsche's "God is dead"; ...[i.e.,] the absolute victory of nominalism over realism. ...[T]he same cause which is at the root of nihilism is also at the root of the radical temporality of Heidegger's scheme of existence, in which the present is nothing but the moment of crisis between past and future.


  • Out of the mist of the beginning of our era there looms a pageant of mythical figures whose vast, superhuman contours might people the walls and ceiling of another Sistene Chapel. ...The tale has found no Michelangelo to retell it, no Dante and no Milton. The sterner discipline of biblical creed weathered the storm of those days, and both the Old and New Testament were left to inform the mind and imagination of Western man. Those teachings which, in the feverish hour of transition, challenged, tempted, [and] tried to twist the new faith are forgotten, their written record buried in the tomes of their refuters or in the sands of ancient lands. Our art and literature and much else would be different, had the gnostic message prevailed. ...[W]ithout its voice, its insights, and even its errors, the evidence of humanity is incomplete. ...Its glow throws light upon the beginnings of Christianity, the birth pangs of our world; and the heirs of a decision made long ago will better understand their heritage by knowing what once competed with it for the soul of man.
    • Preface (First Edition)
  • The results of... prolonged studies are published in German under the title Gnosis und späntantiker Geist, of which the first volume appeared in 1934, the second—because of the circumstances of the times—only in 1954, and the third and concluding one is still to come. The present volume, while still retaining the point of view of the larger work and restating many of its arguments, is different in scope, in organization, and in literary intention. ...[T]his treatment ...strives to reach the general educated reader as well as the scholar. ...[I]n some respects the present volume goes beyond the earlier presentation: certain texts are more fully interpreted... and it has been possible to include new material of recent discovery. Inevitably... it does duplicate, with some rephrasing, certain parts of the German work.
    • Preface (First Edition)
  • This second edition... had been enlarged by two substantial additions: a new chapter... dealing with the great find at Nag Hamadi in Egypt... and... an essay... "Gnosticism, Nihilism, and Existentialism."
    • Preface to the Second Edition

Quotes about The Gnostic Religion

  • The ancient sources are elusive passages in esoteric books the ordinary student never encounters, and secondary treatments are fragmentary and recondite. Professor Jonas’s synoptic book, well organized and beautifully written, is therefore a pioneer effort, unrivaled and indispensable. It is at once a work of original scholarship by an acknowledged authority in its field, and so lucid in its presentation that the enormous learning which it exploits is never obtrusive. It is a feat of imaginative scholarship to combine scattered and tangled threads into a unified texture with patterns clearly revealed in their dark side and in their light, and it is no less a feat to clarify the strange patterns by relating them to more familiar ones.
  • On July 23, 1925... Jonas gave a paper on "Die Gnosis im Johannesevangelium" (Gnosticism in the Gospel according to John). ...In 1928 he submitted his doctoral thesis in philosophy, "Über den Begriff deer Gnosis" (On the Concept of Gnosis), which appeared in print in 1930. The continuation of this work then culminated in the first volume, published in 1934, of the Gnosis und späntantiker Geist: Die mythologische Gnosis... The first half of the second part, already partly in typeset in 1934, did not appear until 1954. ...[T]his part remains a fragment... [S]poradic continuation of work... resulted from the unexpected resurfacing of new Coptic Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi, which had been discovered in 1945... Jonas... intervened in the discussion of some of the most important texts in this find, [e.g.,] the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Truth, and the Hypostasis of the Archons. His opinion [was] first published in 1962 in... the Journal of Religion... Prior to that, in 1958 Jonas had submitted an English version of his book on Gnosticism, entitled The Gnostic Religion: The Message of an Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. As he said in the preface, this followed the point of view of the German work, but was different "in scope, in organization, and in literary intention." Here too, the second edition in 1963 was supplemented to take account of the Nag Hammadi texts. This book, particularly the paperback edition, has had a great influence up until the present day, and is often used as a text for students. In contrast to its German predecessor, it is easier to read, since... Jonas no longer used the "Heidegger style." A less well-known version of his interpretation of Gnosticism was included in 1967 in the third volume of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    • Kurt Rudolph, "Hans Jonas and Research on Gnosticism from a Contemporary Perspective", The Legacy of Hans Jonas: Judaism and the Phenomenon of Life (2008) ed., Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Christian Wiese, pp. 94-95.
  • Hans Jonas's particular articulation of the two pronged model of "gnostic" ethics has probably been the single most influential factor in its modern popularization. But although Jonas felt that the libertinistic "alternative" actually represented the most undiluted and consistent expression of the gnostic "metaphysical revolt," he viewed it as a form of protest so radical that it could not be sustained indefinitely. Thus Jonas conceded that rather early on the libertine option was eclipsed by the ascetic option. Jonas's analysis was developed at a time when he did not have the benefit of full access to the Nag Hammadi library. Yet it is not clear that... would have in itself have altered Jonas's assessment. For no matter how much silence there is about "libertinism" from surviving sources, there remains the testimony given by the heresiologists.

See also