Religion 222a, Haverford College

Prof. Anne McGuire, Fall 2005 


This is the entry page for Religion 222a, Gnosticism. The full course syllabus for this course is available only through Blackboard and within the Tri-College network at Students should check the full syllabus in preparation for every class and follow the links to any additional assigned or recommended materials.

Course Description

Course Description: This course offers a critical examination of "Gnosticism" and the texts of the Nag Hammadi library. The meaning of the term "Gnosticism" is currently under debate among scholars and will undoubtedly continue to be used in a variety of senses. Many scholars have advocated dropping the term altogether. Some continue using the term in the traditional sense of a Christian heresy of the second to fourth centuries C.E. Others use the term in the broader sense of a religious worldview grounded in the spiritual experience of gnosis, esoteric religious knowledge. Still others argue that "Gnosticism" can remain a useful category only when it is recognized as a construct of modern scholarship that runs the risk of reifying, devaluing, and/or distorting those religious phenomena it seeks to describe.

For the purposes of this course, we will use the term "Gnosticism" critically to designate a particular type of religious thought or worldview that is represented in many texts of the Nag Hammadi Library, as well as other sources. Crucial to these sources is an emphasis on the saving power of "Gnosis," esoteric religious knowledge, grounded in religious experience and/or in the revelation of a mythic narrative of creation and redemption that conveys secret knowledge of the true self, the divine, and of all that exists. One classic text of Christian Gnosticism, for example, states: "It is not baptism alone that makes us free, but the knowledge (gnosis) of who we are, what we have become; where we were; where we have been cast out of; where we are bound for; from what we are delivered; what birth is; and what rebirth is." [Excerpts from Theodotus 78.2]. Those who possess such "Gnosis" often understand themselves to have achieved salvation. They have been redeemed from ignorance and from the evil and corrupt powers that govern the cosmos, human history, and the individual self.

Under this broad definition, "Gnosticism" flourished in its "classic" form in the ancient Mediterranean world of the second to fourth centuries C.E, but has reappeared in various forms among religious thinkers and communities that have cultivated a similar spirituality with an emphasis on the saving power of religious knowledge or "Gnosis."

Readings in the course will focus on the ancient evidence for Gnosticism, especially the writings of the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in 1945, and on recent scholarship. The primary goals of the course are to develop the skills of reading and analysing Gnostic texts critically and to become familiar with the varieties of Gnostic thought, especially those of "Sethianism," the "Thomas traditions," and the "Valentinian school." We will also consider attempts to relate these texts and ideas to other varieties of religious thought, including Platonism, Christianity, and Judaism. Throughout the course, we will explore the literary form of the texts, their uses of gender imagery, and their varying conceptions of gnosis, salvation, and union with the divine.

Course Outline

  1. Introduction to the Course: What is Gnosticism?
  2. Knowledge of the Self and Salvation in the Thomas Traditions
  3. The Creation of the 'Gnostic' World: Plato, Genesis, and Sethian Myth
  4. Creation and Redemption in the Thought of Valentinus and his School
  5. Topics in the Study of Gnosticism

    Required Readings

Required Readings, available for purchase in Haverford College Bookstore:

WWW Resources

Click here for links to some of the most useful WWW Resources for the Study of Gnosticism and Nag Hammadi. [this page is under construction]


T 8/30 Introduction to the Course: What is Gnosticism? Definitions, Origins, Approaches

Th 9/1 "Gnosticism" as System of Thought, Religious Movement, Modern Construct; Major Varieties of "Gnosticism"

For reading assignments, see the full syllabus within the Tri-Co network at:

Return to Dept. of Religion Home Page

This page maintained by, Last updated 8/28/05