Gnosis is the common Greek noun for knowledge (in the nominative case γνῶσις f.). It generally signifies a dualistic knowledge in the sense of mystical enlightenment or "insight". Gnosis taught the deliverance of man from the constraints of earthly existence through insight into an essential relationship, as soul or spirit, with a supramundane place of freedom.

The term is used in the context of ancient religions and philosophies, aspects of Judeo-Christian beliefs, particularly to the ideas that emerged throughout early Christian and Greco-Roman interaction throughout the second century.


Gnosis is a feminine Greek noun which means "knowledge". It is often used for personal knowledge compared with intellectual knowledge (εἶδειν eídein), as with the French connaitre compared with savoir, or the German kennen rather than wissen.

Latin drops the Greek g so gno- becomes no- as in noscō meaning "I know", noscentia meaning "knowledge" and notus meaning "known". The g remains in the Latin co-gni-tio meaning "knowledge" and i-gno-tus and i-gna-rus meaning "unknown" and from which comes the word i-gno-rant, and a-gno-stic which means "not knowing" and once again this reflects the Sanskrit jna which means "to know", "to perceive" or "to understand".

A related term is the adjective gnostikos, "cognitive", a reasonably common adjective in Classical Greek. Plato uses the plural adjective γνωστικοί – gnostikoi and the singular feminine adjective γνωστικὴ ἐπιστήμη – gnostike episteme in his Politikos where Gnostike episteme was additionally used to indicate one's aptitude. The terms don't appear to indicate any mystic, esoteric or hidden meaning in the works of Plato, but instead expressed a sort of higher intelligence and ability analogous to talent.

Plato The Statesman 258e

— Stranger: In this way, then, divide all science into two arts, calling the one practical (praktikos), and the additional purely intellectual (gnostikos). Younger Socrates: Let us assume that all science is one and that these are its two forms.

In the Hellenistic era the term became associated with the mystery cults.

Gnosis is used throughout Greek philosophy as a technical term for experience knowledge (see gnosiology) in contrast to theoretical knowledge or epistemology. The term is additionally related to the study of knowledge retention or memory (see additionally cognition), in relation to ontic or ontological, which is how something actually is rather than how something is captured (abstraction) and stored (memory) in the mind.

Hellenic philosophy

The Neoplatonic philosophers, including Plotinus, rejected the gnostics as being un-Hellenistic and anti-Plato due to their vilification of Plato's creator of the universe (the demiurge), arriving at dystheism as the solution to the problem of evil, taking all their truths over from Plato. Plotinus did express that gnosis, via contemplation, was the highest goal of the philosopher toward henosis.

Judeo-Christian usage

Hellenistic Jewish literature

The Greek word gnosis (knowledge) is a standard translation of the Hebrew word "knowledge" (דעת da`ath) in the Septuagint, thus:

The Lord gives wisdom (sophia), from his face come knowledge (gnosis) and understanding (sunesis)"

— Proverbs 2.6

Philo additionally refers to the "knowledge" (gnosis) and "wisdom" (sophia) of God.

New Testament

Paul distinguishes "knowledge" (gnosis) and "knowledge falsely so-called" (pseudonymos gnosis). This last phrase (from 1 Timothy 6:20) is the origin of the title of the book by Irenaeus, On the Detection and Overthrow of False Knowledge, that contains the adjective gnostikos, which is the source for the 17th-century English term "Gnosticism".

In the writings of the Greek Fathers

The fathers of early Christianity used the word "knowledge" (gnosis) in the New Testament to mean spiritual knowledge or specific knowledge of the divine. This positive usage was to contrast it with how gnostic sectarians used the word. This positive use carried over from Hellenic philosophy into Greek Orthodoxy as a critical characteristic of ascetic practices, through St. Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, Hegesippus, and Origen.

Cardiognosis ("knowledge of the heart") from Eastern Christianity related to the tradition of the staretz and in Roman Catholic theology is the view that only God knows the condition of one's relationship with God.

The "Gnostic" sects

Among the gnostics, gnosis was first and foremost a matter of self-knowledge, which was considered the path leading to the goal of enlightenment as the hidden knowledge of the various pre-Judeo-Christian pagan mystery religions. Knowledge that first relieved the individual of their cultural religious indoctrination and then reconciled them to their personal deity. Through such self-knowledge and personal purification (virtuous living) the adept is led to direct knowledge of God via themselves as inner reflection or will. Later, Valentinius (Valentinus), taught that gnosis was the privileged Gnosis kardias "knowledge of the heart" or "insight" about the spiritual nature of the cosmos that brought about salvation to the pneumatics— the name given to those believed to have reached the final goal of sanctity.

According to Samuel Angus (1920), gnosis in these early sects was distinct from the secret teachings revealed to initiates once they had reached a certain level of progression akin to arcanum. Rather, these teachings were paths to obtain gnosis. (See e.g., "fukasetsu" (Japanese), or ineffability, a quality of realisation common to many, if not most, esoteric traditions; see additionally Jung on the difference between sign and symbol.) Gnosis from this perspective being analogous, to the same meaning as the words occult and arcana. Arcanum is knowledge akin to prognostication (divination) derived by the various systems (metaphysical in nature) used to obtain foreknowledge from the Fates or fate (i.e. to tarot reading, cleromancy, magic or magical thinking).

The Gnostics in the Early Christian Era

In the formation of Christianity, various sectarian groups, labelled "gnostics" by their opponents, emphasised spiritual knowledge (gnosis) over faith (pistis) in the teachings and traditions of the various communities of Christians. The Gnostics considered the most essential part of the process of salvation to be this personal knowledge, in contrast to faith as an outlook in their world view along with faith in the ecclesiastical authority. They were regarded as heretics by the Fathers of the early church due to teaching this type of authority rejection referred to as antinomianism (see the lawless).

The knowledge of these Christian sectarian groups is contested by orthodox Christian theology as speculative knowledge derived from religio-philosophical (metaphysical) systems rather than knowledge derived from revelation coming from faith.

Gnosis itself is and was obtained through understanding at which one can arrive via inner experience or contemplation such as an internal epiphany for example. For the various sectarian gnostics, gnosis was obtained as speculative gnosis, instigated by the contemplation of their religio-philosophical (cosmological, metaphysical, salvational and rational) systems. These systems were pagan (folk) in origin and syncretic in nature.

According to Hegemonius (4th century) Mani (3rd century) vilified the creator God of the pagan philosophers (Plato's demiurge) and the creator God of Judeo-Christianity (creator). Gnosticism presents a distinction between the highest, unknowable God and the demiurgic “creator” of the material. Several systems of Gnostic thought present the Demiurge as antagonistic to the will of the Supreme Being: his act of creation occurs in unconscious semblance of the divine model, and thus is fundamentally flawed, or else is formed with the malevolent intention of entrapping aspects of the divine in materiality. Thus, in such systems, the Demiurge acts as a solution to the problem of evil. According to Samuel Angus (1925) the gnostic sectarians additionally sought to reconcile the individual to their own personal deification (henosis), making each individual God. As such the gnostic sects made a duality out of the difference between the activities of the spirit (nous), called noesis (insight), and those of faith.

During the early formation of Christianity, church authorities (Fathers of the Church) exerted considerable amounts of energy attempting to weed out what were considered to be false doctrines (e.g., Irenaeus' On the Detection and Overthrow of False Gnosis). The gnostics (as one sectarian group) held views which were incompatible with the emerging Ante-Nicene community. Among Christian heresiologists, the concept of false gnosis was used to denote different Pagan, Jewish or Christian belief systems (e.g., the Eleusinian Mysteries or Glycon) and their various teachings of what was deemed religio-philosophical systems of knowledge, as opposed to authentic gnosis (see below, Gnosis among the Greek Fathers). The sectarians used gnosis or secret, hidden knowledge to reject the traditions of the established community or church. The authorities throughout the community criticised this antinomianism as inconsistent with the communities teachings. Hence sectarians and followers of gnosticism were first rejected by the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean (see the Notzrim 139–67 BCE), then by the Christian communities and finally by the late Hellenistic philosophical communities (see Neoplatonism and Gnosticism).

Eric Voegelin

Though his sources on Gnosticism were secondary, after the texts in the Nag Hammadi library weren't yet widely available, Eric Voegelin (1901–1985), partially building on the concept of gnosis as used by Plato and the followers of Gnosticism, along with how it was defined by Hans Jonas, defined the gnosis of the followers of Gnosticism as religious philosophical teachings that are the foundations of cults. Voegelin identified a number of similarities between ancient Gnosticism and those held by a number of modernist political theories, particularly communism and nazism.

In Eastern Orthodox thought

Gnosis in Orthodox Christian (especially Eastern Orthodox) thought is the spiritual knowledge of a saint (one who has obtained theosis) or mystically enlightened human being. Within the cultures of the term's provenance (Byzantine and Hellenic) Gnosis was a knowledge or insight into the infinite, divine and uncreated in all and above all, rather than knowledge strictly into the finite, natural or material world. Gnosis is a transcendental as well as mature understanding. It indicates direct spiritual experiential knowledge and intuitive knowledge, mystic rather than that from rational or reasoned thinking. Gnosis itself is obtained through understanding at which one can arrive via inner experience or contemplation such as an internal epiphany of intuition and external epiphany such as the Theophany.

In the Philokalia it is emphasised that such knowledge isn't secret knowledge but rather a maturing, transcendent form of knowledge derived from contemplation (theoria resulting from practise of hesychasm), after knowledge can't truly be derived from knowledge but rather knowledge can only be derived from theoria (to witness, see (vision) or experience). Knowledge thus plays an important role in relation to theosis (deification/personal relationship with God) and theoria (revelation of the divine, vision of God). Gnosis, as the proper use of the spiritual or noetic faculty plays an important role in Orthodox Christian theology. Its importance in the economy of salvation is discussed periodically in the Philokalia where as direct, personal knowledge of God (noesis; see additionally Noema) it is distinguished from ordinary epistemological knowledge (episteme—i.e., speculative philosophy).