What Is Gnosis?

Teachings about gnosis were at the heart of the Christian way from the beginning; although with the passage of time, the idea of gnosis was gradually swept away from mainstream Christianity.

We can demonstrate the importance of gnosis by turning to the words of none other than Jesus himself:

Woe to you, lawyers; for you have taken away the key of gnosis (knowledge): you did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered.” (Luke 11: 52)

This accusation by Jesus, levelled against certain religious authorities of the time, might well be a fair comment today about those who do likewise, condemning that of which they themselves have “entered not in”. The words “entering in” are used in the sense of turning inwards, as in meditation, and do not refer to an entrance to any outer structure. Thus according to Jesus – as the passages quoted above clearly imply – far from being an ancient heresy, gnosis is central to the spiritual life!

This understanding is further strengthened by turning to St. Paul; the word gnosis occurs 24 times in his epistles which, although written earlier, are placed after the four gospels in the New Testament.

For example, St. Paul directs his readers to what he considers to be the very peak of the spiritual life – “full gnosis (epi-gnosis) of the Son of God, the measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 13)

He also uses gnosis, emphasised with the prefix epi, in the well-known passage about love in the first letter to the Corinthians:

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully even as also I am fully known”. (1 Cor. 13: 12)

The phrase “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face,” echoes virtually word for word a statement in the writings of Plato (c. 427 – 347 BC), one of the great philosophers of ancient Greece. Paul was both a Jew and an educated Greek who wrote in Greek; he would have undoubtedly been familiar with the dialogues of Plato.

Gnosis is a Greek word, translated into English by the word “knowledge”. It needs to be made clear that knowledge here means experiential knowledge. It is not knowledge gained by reading or by word of mouth, no matter how sublime the source; it is not knowledge about anything; it is knowledge that is gained through direct experience. It is the direct knowledge of God. It is knowledge in which the knower and the known are one. Those Christians who espoused this understanding came to be known as Gnostics.