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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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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Reviews

Gnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 69.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very clear exposition of a fascinating subject I have learned various details of Gnosticism before but this course provides a great framework for understanding those details. Yet another Great Course (I’ve taken about 25 in the past 20 years)—I’ve never been disappointed.
Date published: 2019-11-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One man's gnosis is another man's heresy Gnosis, in this set of very excellent lectures, means 'knowledge'. Heresy can loosely be defined as any teaching or idea that does not conform to 'orthodoxy' (from Greek meaning 'right opinion'). This would lead a person (me, in this case...a non-religious one at that) to conclude that the Nag Hammadi codices (books outlining a major retelling of the origins of the Judaeo-Christian bible) were rejected by those early Christians who had canonized the New Testament. While the codices were most likely written in the 4th century, the ideas espoused were floating around in the early 2nd century (according to Iraneas...according to Brakke). Some scholars even suggest that some of these ideas might have been discussed over a proto-latte as early as 50 CE (Q document?). Regardless, during this time there seems to have been plenty of good news stories floating around...it must have been a very difficult decision as to what should be included as official 'Gospels' and which would be rejected. After all, you can't have a successful new belief system without a guiding orthodoxy. Those writers of the Nag Hammadi codices (let's call them Gnostics) must have been crushed. After all, they had a pretty good story...in many ways much better that what had become the canon of the new religion. That, of course is my opinion. But the course...Dr Brakke patiently laid out the history and background in this survey of Gnosticism and made me want to learn more. Better still, they got me thinking about the Gnostic ideas about the origin of mankind from their point of view. My takeaway, briefly, is that I liked the idea that the god of the Jewish bible Torah/Old Testament) was a lesser god, manifested/created by an aspect of the true supreme entity (who had multiple aspects). This lesser god created the world as we know it, including Adam and Eve. But, since he was a lesser god, he made mistakes that needed to be rectified. One aspect of the true God invested Adam and Eve with the Divine (in his/her image) and encouraged them to eat of the tree of knowledge. As Dr Brakke alludes in the final lecture, perhaps that Divine power that was instilled was consciousness, containing many aspects such as intellect, curiosity and imagination (among all the others). In this way, the world around us...that world created by a lesser god...contained both good and evil, and we humans contained the divine power to tell the difference. At this point the true god exits stage right...until there's a wake-up call. Jesus is introduced to the world to remind us that we have righteousness within us and we have the power (through Him) to choose good over evil. In the end it is our consciousness and intellect that are divine, making us responsible for our salvation. In many ways, that interpretation (all mine at this point) is similar to Buddhism, but could be only slightly modified to fit into any religious dogma. In summary, these lectures were great...they made me think, and isn't that why we're all here. Recommended! I think I used a coupon during a great sale when I bought this set.
Date published: 2019-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easy to understand I bought this course 3 weeks ago. Gnosticism has always been presented as shadowy in comparison to current Christian traditions. This course clearly show why 3rd century church leaders were so afraid of these mystic beliefs. Probably going back through the course to nail down more of the supernatural gods of creation and mans attempt to explain our reason for existence.
Date published: 2019-11-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from as good a course on gnosticism as you could want this is a truly exemplary course on gnosticism. prof. brakke is the ideal guide as he knows the subject inside and out, is a clear and steady speaker, and is able to explain this diverse and cryptic movement with an ease i would hardly have thought possible. i was stunned by the order he was able to bring to chaos. he’s also produced a course that works well regardless of your prior level of knowledge. i already had some familiarity with gnosticism, but i watched it with someone who was more or less a beginner, and we both found it equally informative and enriching. now because we’re dealing with movements the official church considers heretical, the ideas in this course will inevitably appeal more to those who are outside the christian mainstream. some of the material will certainly be challenging for orthodox believers. nonetheless i would recommend this course even to the orthodox because it does such a good job of explaining the context in which orthodox christianity came to be and the ideas which the official church was reacting against. in clarifying the “heresies,” it can’t help but shine a light on the mainstream teachings as well. and if you’re wondering why anyone would choose to be a “heretic” in the first place, prof. brakke goes out of his way to help us understand why some early christians would have been drawn to these alternative teachings. as a good professor he never actually advocates on behalf of any perspective, either gnostic or orthodox, but he does bring out the strengths of the gnostic worldview and the nature of its psychological and philosophical appeal, so that it becomes easy to understand what sort of person might be attracted to such movements and why. the course also definitively shows how diverse early christianity was. you’re not just learning about one unified group called “gnostics”: you’re learning about a whole series of alternate takes on christianity, most of whom would have considered themselves to be the true christians. after studying all these different groups and all the different scriptures they produced, you’ll be forever disabused of the notion that early christianity was one single, homogeneous religion. in my view, this alone is worth the price of admission. i did the video version of this course, but there is not much need to. there are a few helpful diagrams, but these can all be found in the guidebook.
Date published: 2019-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gnosticism: Nag Hammaadi to the Gospel of Judas It is literally thrilling to listen, watch and learn from Professor David Brakke. The information is concise, well presented and incredibly researched. I am happy I decided to include this course in my first order. I appreciate the breadth of knowledge you provide us and the learned people who present it.
Date published: 2019-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course! I viewed the entire course and found the lecturer to be knowledgeable and clear in his presentation. I greatly appreciated the ability to view courses at my leisure and the ease of the internet based streaming delivery. I am going to purchase the DVD.
Date published: 2019-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clarity, and detail This professor makes a complicated topic very clear, and enjoyable to watch. I cannot imagine a better presentation on the Gnostics and Valentinians.
Date published: 2019-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening and Informative Dr. Brakke is an excellent lecturer. The information presented is compact, forthright, and comprehensive. A very difficult subject is conveyed in such a manner that one can grasp the substance of the topic. Great overview of Christianity before it became orthodox. I don't know if Brakke used a telepromter, but he didn't miss a beat and is able to keep the DVD viewer focused and hanging on to keep up with him.
Date published: 2019-06-13
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