Gnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas

Course No. 6271
Professor David Brakke, Ph.D., M.Div.
The Ohio State University
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Course No. 6271
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  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring a variety of visuals designed to aid in your understanding of the course material. Among these helpful visuals are maps that show the presence of Gnostic communities in the ancient world; artwork and illustrations depicting the key figures of Gnosticism, including Valentinus and Mary Magdalene; and photographs of ancient Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Judas.
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Course Overview

The three centuries following the death of Jesus were a momentous and turbulent era in Western religious thought. During this time, as Christianity began its massive ascent, distancing itself from paganism and Judaism, other important currents of religious belief appeared, in what became an epoch of intense theological conflict and debate.

In this age of burgeoning faith, few if any influences on the theological landscape were as significant or far-reaching as the religious movements known to us as Gnosticism. Gnosticism, one of the most fascinating and perplexing phenomena in Western religious history, intersected deeply with early Christian thought, sparking religious ideologies that competed with the theological thinking that came to define Christianity. And, though Gnosticism was eventually branded as heretical by the emerging orthodox church, the church formed many of its most central doctrines in response to Gnostic ideas.

But what was Gnosticism? Why did its ideas and mythology appeal to so many people? How did it influence other faiths, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam?And why did Christianity— while showing clear signs of Gnostic influence—condemn it?

This course takes on these provocative questions and more, in a narrative that unfolds as an enthralling religious detective story—penetrating the mysteries of a stigmatized yet profoundly important legacy of religious thought. Among many intriguing features of the story, you’ll learn that:

  • What we call “Gnosticism” comprises a number of related religious ideologies and movements, all of which sought “gnosis,” or immediate, direct, and intimate knowledge of God;
  • Gnostic groups reinterpreted and often rewrote Jewish and Christian scriptures, creating religious mythologies that struck deep chords in contemporary seekers;
  • Gnostic thought and practice reveal to us the precursors of the mystical tradition within Christianity.

Throughout its existence, Gnosticism maintained a continuing, contentious dialogue with Christian thought. Ultimately, such core Christian concepts as original sin, the immaculate conception, and heresy developed in response to Gnosticism. To study the history and theology of Gnosticism is to gain a deeply revealing view into how canonical Christianity developed as it did, and to comprehend some highly influential alternative religious paths in the West—the paths of gnosis.

In Gnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas, Professor David Brakke of The Ohio State University is your guide in a richly detailed immersion in the theology, sacred writings, rituals, and outstanding human figures of the Gnostic movements. At the heart of the story is the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, a mysterious cache of ancient documents unearthed in the Egyptian desert, that gave us firsthand accounts of the Gnostics’ beliefs, practices, and ways of life. Studying these invaluable texts, along with more recent discoveries, such as the astonishing Gospel of Judas and Gospel According to Mary, gives you a profound look at Gnostic spirituality and its singular impact on religious history.

While fully respectful of traditional Christian beliefs, this course provides a valuable perspective on the development of Western religions and Christian theology.

Discover the Core of Gnostic Belief and Practice

In the opening section of the course, you’ll explore two of the primary spiritual paths in the Gnostic tradition. First, you’ll devote a full six lectures to the Gnostic School of Thought, a religious movement that spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. By studying essential Gnostic texts such as The Secret Book According to John, the Revelation of Adam, and The Reality of the Rulers, you’ll penetrate the elaborate Gnostic religious myth, conceiving of God as a highly complex divine intellect consisting of numerous dimensions known as “aeons.”

Among many striking features of Gnostic theology, you’ll find that:

  • The Gnostics believed that the God of Genesis was a lesser, imperfect divine being, but not the ultimate God.
  • Gnostic thought contends that Jesus saves, not by dying for our sins, but by revealing to us our true origin in the spiritual Entirety.
  • Gnostic scriptures were not unchangeable, and were often modified over time: religious myth was simply a means to the ultimate end of gnosis.
  • Gnostic texts describe two ways of knowing God directly; one, by a spiritual journey through the heavens, the other by contemplation of one’s own intellect—believed to be a miniature version of the Entirety, or God’s mind.

Next, you’ll study the most famous of the Nag Hammadi texts, themystical Gospel According to Thomas, a variant on Gnostic thought that teaches that the kingdom of God is not a future event, but is already present, hidden within each of us.

The following lectures devote careful study to the Valentinians, who turned the Gnostic myth into a powerful Christian movement that lasted for centuries. Within these lectures you’ll learn how the theologian Valentinus reformulated Gnostic mythology in ways that appealed powerfully to Christians, and you’ll grasp the remarkable Valentinian vision of salvation—as a healing of the separation between our divided “male” and “female” selves.

Explore Alternate Western Paths to Divinity

As the course progresses, you’ll investigate other important early paths of gnosis, both Christian and non-Christian, which further illuminate the theological conceptions and influence of the Gnostics:

  • The “Orthodox” Gnostics: Learn about the seminal work of Christian theologians Clement and Origen, who, while intensely opposed to both the Gnostics and the Valentinians, claimed to offer a path to gnosis of God which was consistent with the teachings of the emerging church.
  • The Hermeticists: Grasp the theology of Hermeticism, based in religious wisdom of ancient Egypt and Greece, which taught a philosophical and mystical pathway to the divine.
  • The Neo-Platonists: Encounter the Neo-Platonist teaching of Plotinus, whose theology focused on our essential union with “The One” and divine gnosis through contemplation.
  • The Manichaeans: Study the highly dualistic mythology of this religion, explore its path to salvation through restraint and moral purity, and learn how St. Augustine developed his teaching on original sin in opposition to Manichaean ideas.

Across the span of the lectures, you’ll observe how and why gnosis-based theology deeply alarmed proto-orthodox Christians, and how their concerns ultimately gave rise to the concept of heresy.

A Riveting and Highly Illuminating Inquiry

A religious scholar of extraordinary knowledge and insight, Professor Brakke brings the Gnostics’ story alive with the style of a master storyteller, using visual aids to demystify complex mythology in an accessible yet deep and comprehensive presentation. Following Gnostic ideology through the centuries, he vividly illustrates its impact on Western thought, from its role in early religions and its re-emergence in medieval spirituality to its remarkable traces in modern popular culture, from science fiction writing to Hollywood films.

In delving into the paths of gnosis, you’ll discover a compelling, alternative current of religious practice in the West, which challenged proto-orthodox Christianity, profoundly affecting its development. In the resulting crucible of theological debate, you’ll see clearly how orthodox Christianity differentiated itself from these paths, and how Gnostic influence continued to affect Western spirituality in ways that resonate to the present day. Join us in a penetrating look at a heretical yet historically significant tradition of religious thought.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Rediscovering Gnosis
    Begin by exploring the key tenets of the religious movements of ancient Gnosticism, centered in the concept of gnosis, or direct, personal knowledge of God. Learn about the exciting 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, a large cache of ancient manuscripts representing four diverse Gnostic traditions. x
  • 2
    Who Were the Gnostics?
    The 2nd-century writings of Irenaeus constitute one of the early sources on Gnosticism. Here, investigate whether Irenaeus's claim that the Gnostics deviated from an original Christian truth is accurate. Then learn what Irenaeus tells us about the Gnostics' beliefs, and how he helps us to identify key Gnostic texts. x
  • 3
    God in Gnostic Myth
    The Secret Book According to John is the most important surviving Gnostic text. Explore the Gnostic conception of God in this book, as a complex intellect consisting of numerous aspects called "aeons". Learn how the God of Genesis, viewed by the Gnostics as a lesser, imperfect divinity, came into being. x
  • 4
    Gnosticism on Creation, Sin, and Salvation
    Continuing with the Secret Book, study the text's retelling of the Genesis story, which presents the creation of humanity and the biblical Flood as the work of the false god Ialdaboath, who acts to prevent human beings from knowing their true nature. Learn also about salvation as envisioned in the Secret Book. x
  • 5
    Judas as a Gnostic Tragic Hero
    The Gnostic Gospel of Judas differs significantly from the portrayal of Judas in the New Testament. Discover the Gnostic account, which recasts both the actions of Judas and his role in God's larger plan, predicting an important role for Judas in the coming kingdom of God while criticizing the other disciples. x
  • 6
    Gnostic Bible Stories
    The Gnostic texts The Revelation of Adam and The Reality of the Rulers rewrite the early chapters of Genesis. Examine how the texts reformulate the story of the Creation, Noah and the Flood, and the question of who will be saved, placing the Gnostics themselves within Genesis and linking the stories to their salvation. x
  • 7
    Gnosticism's Ritual Pathway to God
    Here, explore Gnostic conceptions regarding direct knowledge of God. First, learn about ritual baptism and hymn singing in Gnosticism, and their promise of gnosis. Then study texts that illustrate two ways of knowing God; one, a journey upward through the cosmic heavens, the other through interior contemplation of one's own intellect. x
  • 8
    The Feminine in Gnostic Myth
    Gnosticism is known among the ancient religions for its prominent number of female deities and divinities. Look at three examples of the feminine in Gnostic texts - the feminine divine, the feminine revealer, and the feminine heroine - to assess the nature and role of the female principle within the Gnostic tradition. x
  • 9
    The Gospel of Thomas's Cryptic Sayings
    The Gospel According to Thomas is the most famous of the ancient documents discovered at Nag Hammadi. Learn how the text comprises sayings of Jesus that the reader must seek to understand. Observe how the gospel rejects the teaching of a future kingdom of God, contending instead that the kingdom is within us. x
  • 10
    The Gospel of Thomas on Reunifying the Self
    Explore core religious concepts in the Thomas gospel, highlighting its view of salvation as the overcoming of divisions, finding unity with oneself and with Jesus. Investigate the symbolic role of baptism in stripping away the old self and healing dualities, and study the gospel's advice on how to live in the world. x
  • 11
    Valentinus, Great Preacher of Gnosis
    The second century theologian Valentinus used the Gnostic myth in creating a powerful Christian movement. Here, learn how Valentinus modified Gnostic teachings in ways appealing to early Christians. Grasp how his spirituality invited followers to find true gnosis in Jesus and to experience God directly, intimately, and joyfully. x
  • 12
    God and Creation in Valentinian Myth
    Study how Valentinus's radical spirituality spread, and how the movement interacted with other contemporary forms of Christianity. Then investigate its mythological construct of the universe as composed of three elements: matter, spirit, and soul. One of these predominates in each individual human being, crucially influencing their spiritual destiny. x
  • 13
    Becoming Male through Valentinian Ritual
    This lecture explores the extraordinary power and import of the Valentinian sacraments. Grasp the symbolism of the Eucharist and the complex ritual of baptism, as they represent resurrection and salvation. Study the Valentinian conception of salvation as a healing of the schism between our angelic and human (or female/male) selves. x
  • 14
    Valentinian Views on Christian Theology
    To fully comprehend Valentinian teachings, we must place them within the context of the diverse Christian beliefs of their time. Delve into the Valentinian views of the resurrection, the relevance of the Jewish Bible, and the authority of Valentinus's knowledge, noting essential differences with the Christian thinking that later became orthodoxy. x
  • 15
    Mary Magdalene as an Apostle of Gnosis
    The figure of Mary Magdalene appears prominently in Valentinian and other so-called "heretical" writings. In assessing her significance within these traditions, contrast her portrayal in the canonical gospels with the non-canonical Gospel According to Mary, which reveals key evidence regarding the role of women in early Christianity and the nature of religious authority. x
  • 16
    Competing Revelations from Christ
    The Nag Hammadi codices contain numerous texts called "revelations" or "secret books". Here, explore three such texts, the Revelation of Paul, the Revelation of Peter, and the Secret Book of James, as they propound theological views that challenged and in some cases sharply criticized the emerging orthodox church and its leaders. x
  • 17
    The Invention of Heresy
    The teachings of the Gnostics and Valentinians were later condemned as heresy. But how did the idea of heresy arise within Christianity? Learn about the "invention" of heresy by theologians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Study what Irenaeus opposed in Gnostic/Valentinian spirituality, and the core features of his vision of Christianity. x
  • 18
    Making Gnosis Orthodox
    Also opposing the Gnostics and Valentinians were Christian teachers who claimed to offer a gnosis that was faithful to the teachings of the emerging church. Encounter the work of Clement and Origen, visionary theologians who encouraged Christians to move beyond mere faith to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God and the universe. x
  • 19
    Gnosticism and Judaism
    Begin to investigate the significance of Gnosticism for religions other than Christianity. Look into why some historians believe that Gnosticism began as a Jewish religious movement and only later included Jesus, as well as the arguments against this view, in grasping how emerging Judaism was part of the story of Gnosticism. x
  • 20
    Gnosis without Christ
    Two non-Jewish, non-Christian philosophical movements also responded to the ideas of the Gnostics. Study the tenets of Hermeticism, whose sacred texts offered an intellectual and philosophical path to gnosis. Learn also about Neo-Platonism, whose conception of gnosis emphasized our essential connection to God and the possibility of divine union now. x
  • 21
    The Mythology of Manichaeism
    Historians have often depicted the religious movement of Manichaeism as the culmination of ancient Gnosticism. Investigate Manichaeism's extraordinarily complex mythology - envisioning reality as a struggle between cosmic forces of Light and Darkness - its conception of salvation, and the structural hierarchy through which Manichaeism became a highly organized international religion. x
  • 22
    Augustine on Manichaeism and Original Sin
    St. Augustine, one of the most important figures in the history of Christianity, was a Manichaean before becoming a Christian. Observe how Augustine, as a Christian, vehemently opposed Manichaean views of God, good, and evil, and how he developed his teaching on original sin in response to what he had learned in Manichaeism. x
  • 23
    Gnostic Traces in Western Religions
    Key ideas from ancient Gnosticism persisted into the Middle Ages and beyond. Learn about Mandeanism, one of the oldest still existing religions of the Middle East; the mystical theology of Evagrius; the medieval Cathars; and Jewish Kabbalah. Trace the connections between these esoteric forms of spirituality and the Gnostics. x
  • 24
    Gnosticism in the Modern Imagination
    Finally, uncover Gnostic themes in the science fiction novels of Philip K. Dick and the films Blade Runner and The Matrix, and learn about the contemporary Gnostic Christian Church. Consider what truly links the religious movements we've studied, and what their ultimate message to us may be. x

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Your professor

David Brakke

About Your Professor

David Brakke, Ph.D., M.Div.
The Ohio State University
Professor David Brakke is the Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and Professor of History at The Ohio State University. He received his B.A. in English from the University of Virginia, his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University. He taught for 19 years in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. Professor Brakke has published...
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Gnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 54.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A complex subject well presented...................
Date published: 2018-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from From Neo-Platonism to the Early Christian Church Summarizes the Gnostic texts very effectively so that the learner does not need to read them in their raw states. Traces the progression from late Pagan thought through to the Church Fathers. A period when Christianity was still defining itself and could have taken one of several paths - all are discussed in good depth here. Would recommend that the learner already have a good foundation in the first five books of the Old Testament and the Gospels of the New Testament before taking the course.
Date published: 2018-08-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Quite eye-opening I haven't studied much Gnostic history, so this was a great intro to the early writings and personalities. I was impressed by Dr. Brakke's level-headed view on the Gospel of Thomas, and am encouraged to learn more now.
Date published: 2018-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wide ranging Extremely interesting broad view, covering many beliefs that are versions of gnosticism. The lecturer covers the basic belief of each variation along with history of its development & founder(s) where possible. It is shame that so much information has been lost or destroyed.
Date published: 2018-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It was exactly as titled - very thorough! I have been interested in gnosticism for a few years now and have only been able to gather information in bits and pieces; I have a few books on the subject. This series is the thorough, comprehensive collection I have been looking for!
Date published: 2018-06-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good content I listened to the lectures over the span of several weeks. While I found the content interesting, I thought that he speaker could have been a little more engaging. Further, I would have liked to get to more of how these mythologies and cosmologies led to actual worship. A few rituals were mentioned but the details on how one actually worships and how one attains spiritual evolution were sparse.
Date published: 2018-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gnosticism:From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas I thought the professor was so knowledgeable about the subject. You could tell he really knew his subject. Thanks to Great Courses for this opportunity to find out more about this subject
Date published: 2018-03-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I had known about Gnostics before but only in a general way. I found the lectures here to be very specific and pointed. They have a lot of factual evidence regarding Gnostics and gnosticism.
Date published: 2017-12-29
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