Note: the following definitions are from the Theosophical Glossary, unless otherwise noted or shown in square brackets.

Gnôsis (Gr.) Lit., “knowledge”. The technical term used by the schools of religious philosophy, both before and during the first centuries of so-called Christianity, to denote the object of their enquiry. This Spiritual and Sacred Knowledge, the Gupta Vidya of the Hindus, could only be obtained by Initiation into Spiritual Mysteries of which the ceremonial “Mysteries” were a type.

Gnostics (Gr.) The philosophers who formulated and taught the Gnôsis or Knowledge (q.v.). They flourished in the first three centuries of the Christian era: the following were eminent, Valentinus, Basilides, Marcion, Simon Magus, etc. [w.w.w.]

Chréstos (Gr.) The early Gnostic form of Christ. It was used in the fifth century b.c. by Æschylus, Herodotus, and others. The Manteumata pythochresta, or the “oracles delivered by a Pythian god” “through a pythoness, are mentioned by the former (Choeph. 901). Chréstian is not only “the seat of an oracle,” but an offering to, or for, the oracle. Chréstés is one who explains oracles, “a prophet and soothsayer,” and Chrésterios one who serves an oracle or a god. The earliest Christian writer, Justin Martyr, in his first Apology calls his co-religionists Chréstians. It is only through ignorance that men call themselves Christians instead of Chréstians,” says Lactantius (lib. iv., cap. vii.). The terms Christ and Christians, spelt originally Chrést and Chréstians, were borrowed from the Temple vocabulary of the Pagans. Chréstos meant in that vocabulary a disciple on probation, a candidate for hierophantship. When he had attained to this through initiation, long trials, and suffering, and had been “anointed” (i.e., “rubbed with oil,” as were Initiates and even idols of the gods, as the last touch of ritualistic observance), his name was changed into Christos, the “purified,” in esoteric or mystery language. In mystic symbology, indeed, Christés, or Christos, meant that the “Way,” the Path, was already trodden and the goal reached; when the fruits of the arduous labour, uniting the personality of evanescent clay with the indestructible Individuality, transformed it thereby into the immortal Ego. “At the end of the Way stands the Chréstés,” the Purifier, and the union once accomplished, the Chrestos, the “man of sorrow,” became Christos himself. Paul, the Initiate, knew this, and meant this precisely, when he is made to say, in bad translation: “I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Gal. iv.19), the true rendering of which is . . . “until ye form the Christos within yourselves” But the profane who knew only that Chréstés was in some way connected with priest and prophet, and knew nothing about the hidden meaning of Christos, insisted, as did Lactantius and Justin Martyr, on being called Chréstians instead of Christians. Every good individual, therefore, may find Christ in his “inner man” as Paul expresses it (Ephes. iii. 16,17), whether he be Jew, Mussulman, Hindu, or Christian. Kenneth Mackenzie seemed to think that the word Chréstos was a synonym of Soter, “an appellation assigned to deities, great kings and heroes,” indicating “Saviour,”—and he was right. For, as he adds: “It has been applied redundantly to Jesus Christ, whose name Jesus or Joshua bears the same interpretation. The name Jesus, in fact, is rather a title of honour than a name—the true name of the Soter of Christianity being Emmanuel, or God with us (Matt. i, 23.).Great divinities among all nations, who are represented as expiatory or self-sacrificing, have been designated by the same title.” (R. M. Cyclop.) The Asklepios (or Æsculapius) of the Greeks had the title of Soter.

Gnostics and Sects

Bardesanes or Bardaisan. A Syrian Gnostic, erroneously regarded as a Christian theologian, born at Edessa (Edessene Chronicle) in 155 of our era (Assemani Bibl. Orient. i. 389). He was a great astrologer following the Eastern Occult System. According to Porphyry (who calls him the Babylonian, probably on account of his Chaldeeism or astrology), “Bardesanes. . . . . held intercourse with the Indians that had been sent to the Cæsar with Damadamis at their head” (De Abst. iv. 17), and had his information from the Indian gymnosophists. . . .

Basilidean (System). Named after Basilides; the Founder of one of the most philosophical gnostic sects. Clement the Alexandrian speaks of Basilides, the Gnostic, as “a philosopher devoted to the contemplation of divine things”. While he claimed that he had all his doctrines from the Apostle Matthew and from Peter through Glaucus, Irenaeus reviled him, Tertullian stormed at him, and the Church Fathers had not sufficient words of obloquy against the “heretic”. And yet on the authority of St. Jerome himself, who describes with indignation what he had found in the only genuine Hebrew copy of the Gospel of Matthew (See Isis Unv., ii., 181) which he got from the Nazarenes, the statement of Basilides becomes more than credible, and if accepted would solve a great and perplexing problem. His 24 vols. of Interpretation of the Gospels, were, as Eusebius tells us, burnt. Useless to say that these gospels were not our present Gospels. Thus, truth was ever crushed.

Collyridians. A sect of Gnostics who, in the ear]y centuries of Christianity, transferred their worship and reverence from Astoreth to Mary, as Queen of Heaven and Virgin. Regarding the two as identical, they offered to the latter as they had done to the former, buns and cakes on certain days, with sexual symbols represented on them.

Ebionites (Heb.)Lit., “the poor”; the earliest sect of Jewish Christians, the other being the Nazarenes. They existed when the term “Christian” was not yet heard of. Many of the relations of Iassou (Jesus), the adept ascetic around whom the legend of Christ was formed, were among the Ebionites. As the existence of these mendicant ascetics can be traced at least a century earlier than chronological Christianity, it is an additional proof that lassou or Jeshu lived during the reign of Alexander Jannæus at Lyd (or Lud), where he was put to death as stated in the Sepher Toldos Jeshu.

Ephesus (Gr.). Famous for its great metaphysical College where Occultism (Gnôsis) and Platonic philosophy were taught in the days of the Apostle Paul. A city regarded as the focus of secret sciences, and that Gnôsis. or Wisdom, which is the antagonist of the perversion of Christo-Esotericism to this day. It was at Ephesus where was the great College of the Essenes and all the lore the Tanaim had brought from the Chaldees.

Essenes. A hellenized word, from the Hebrew Asa, a “healer.” A mysterious sect of Jews said by Pliny to have lived near the Dead Sea per millia sæculorum—for thousands of ages. “Some have supposed them to be extreme Pharisees, and others—which may be the true theory—the descendants of the Benim-nabim of the Bible, and think that they were ‘Kenites’ and Nazarites. . . . Eusebius, and after him De Quincey, declared them to be the same as the early Christians, which is more than probable. The title ‘brother,’ used in the early Church, was Essenean; they were a fraternity, or a koinobion or community like the early converts.”

Jacobites. A Christian sect in Syria of the 6th century, which held that Christ had only one nature and that confession was not of divine origin. They had secret signs, passwords and a solemn initiation with mysteries.

Marcionites. An ancient Gnostic Sect founded by Marcion who was a devout Christian as long as no dogma of human creation came to mar the purely transcendental, and metaphysical concepts, and the original beliefs of the early Christians. Such primitive beliefs were those of Marcion. He denied the historical facts (as now found in the Gospels) of Christ’s birth, incarnation and passion, and also the resurrection of the body of Jesus, maintaining that such statements were simply the carnalization of metaphysical allegories and symbolism, and a degradation of the true spiritual idea. Along with all the other Gnostics, Marcion accused the “Church Fathers”, as Irenæus himself complains, of “framing their (Christian) doctrine according to the capacity of their hearers, fabling blind things for the blind, according to their blindness; for the dull, according to their dulness: for those in error, according to their errors.”

Naaseni. The Christian Gnostic sect, called Naasenians, or serpent worshippers, who considered the constellation of the Dragon as the symbol of their Logos or Christ.

Nazarenes (Heb.). The same as the St. John Christians; called the Mend or Sabeans. Those Nazarenes who left Galilee several hundred years ago and settled in Syria, east of Mount Lebanon, call themselves also Galileans; though they designate Christ “a false Messiah” and recognise only St. John the Baptist, whom they call the “Great Nazar”. The Nabatheans with very little difference adhered to the same belief as the Nazarenes or the Sabeans. More than this—the Ebionites, whom Renan shows as numbering among their sect all the surviving relatives of Jesus, seem to have been followers of the same sect if we have to believe St. Jerome, who writes: “I received permission from the Nazaræans who at Beræa of Syria used this (Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew) to translate it. . . . . The Evangel which the Nazarenes and Ebionites use which recently I translated from Hebrew into Greek.” (Hieronymus’ Comment. to Matthew, Book II., chapter xii., and Hieronymus’ De Viris Illust. cap 3.) Now this supposed Evangel of Matthew, by whomsoever written, “exhibited matter”, as Jerome complains (loc. cit.), “not for edification but for destruction”(of Christianity). But the fact that the Ebionites, the genuine primitive Christians, “rejecting the rest of the apostolic writings, made use only of this (Matthew’s Hebrew) Gospel” (Adv. Hær., i. 26) is very suggestive. For, as Epiphanius declares, the Ebionites firmly believed, with the Nazarenes, that Jesus was but a man “of the seed of a man” (Epiph. Contra Ebionites). Moreover we know from the Codex of the Nazarenes, of which the “Evangel according to Matthew” formed a portion, that these Gnostics, whether Galilean, Nazarene or Gentile, call Jesus, in their hatred of astrolatry, in their Codex Naboo-Meschiha or “Mercury”. (See “Mendæans”). This does not shew much orthodox Christianity either in the Nazarenes or the Ebionites; but seems to prove on the contrary that the Christianity of the early centuries and modern Christian theology are two entirely opposite things.

Ophites (Gr.). A Gnostic Fraternity in Egypt, and one of the earliest sects of Gnosticism, or Gnosis (Wisdom, Knowledge), known as the “Brotherhood of the Serpent”. It flourished early in the second century, and while holding some of the principles of Valentinus had its own occult rites and symbology. A living serpent, representing the Christos-principle (i.e., the divine reincarnating Monad, not Jesus the man), was displayed in their mysteries and reverenced as a symbol of wisdom, Sophia, the type of the all-good and all-wise. The Gnostics were not a Christian sect, in the common acceptation of this term, as the Christos of pre-Christian thought and the Gnosis was not the “god-man” Christ, but the divine Ego, made one with Buddhi. Their Christos was the “Eternal Initiate”, the Pilgrim, typified by hundreds of Ophidian symbols for several thousands of years before the “Christian” era, so-called. One can see it on the “Belzoni tomb” from Egypt, as a winged serpent with three heads (Atma-Buddhi-Manas), and four human legs, typifying its androgynous character; on the walls of the descent to the sepulchral chambers of Rameses V., it is found as a snake with vulture’s wings—the vulture and hawk being solar symbols. “The heavens are scribbled over with interminable snakes”, writes Herschel of the Egyptian chart of stars. “The Meissi (Messiah?) meaning the Sacred Word, was a good serpent”, writes Bonwick in his Egyptian Belief. “This serpent of goodness, with its head crowned, was mounted upon a cross and formed a sacred standard of Egypt.” The Jews borrowed it in their “brazen serpent of Moses”. It is to this “Healer” and “Saviour,” therefore, that the Ophites referred, and not to Jesus or his words, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so it behoves the Son of Man to be lifted up”—when explaining the meaning of their ophis. Tertullian, whether wittingly or unwittingly, mixed up the two. The four-winged serpent is the god Chnuphis. The good serpent bore the cross of life around its neck, or suspended from its mouth. The winged serpents become the Seraphim (Seraph, Saraph) of the Jews. In the 87th chapter of the Ritual (the Book of the Dead) the human soul transformed into Bata, the omniscient serpents says:—“I am the serpent Ba-ta, of long years, Soul of the Soul, laid out and born daily; I am the Soul that descends on the earth”, i.e., the Ego.

Simon Magus. A very great Samaritan Gnostic and Thaumaturgist, called “the great Power of God.”

Valentinus. [One of the most influential Gnostic Christian teachers of the second century A.D. . . . Valentinus was born in Phrebonis in upper Egypt about 100 AD and educated in nearby Alexandria. There he became a disciple of the Christian teacher Theudas who had been a disciple of Saint Paul. He claimed that Theudas taught him secret wisdom that Paul had taught privately to his inner circle.—]

Key Texts

Heresiographies dealing with Gnosticism:

Hippolytus, Philosophumena or “Refutation of All Heresies”
Justin Martyr, First Apology
Irenaeus, Against Heresies

Gnostic Texts:

Pistis Sophia
Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Mary
Codex Nazaraeus

See also:
Gnostic Texts and the Nag Hammadi Library
Gnostic Society Library

Christian Texts:

The Canonical Bible (see Bible-hub)
Biblical Apocrypha

See also:

C. W. King, The Gnostics and Their Remains: Ancient and Mediaeval, 1887
G.R.S. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 1900
G.R.S. Mead, Simon Magus, 1892
G.R.S. Mead, Gnostic John the Baptizer: Selections from the Mandæan John-Book, 1924
G.R.S. Mead, Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.?, 1903
G.R.S. Mead, Echoes from The Gnosis, Vol. 1-11, 1906–1907
Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1913 2nd Ed. (tr. Bowden, 2001)



Selected Articles, Commentaries, etc.



Selected Articles, Commentaries, etc.