Neutralized Gender. Understanding the Symbolic Language in Gnostic Sources

Seminar Paper, 2019
19 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction
1.1 General overview
1.2 Conceptual clarifications
1.2.1 Gender in religious context
1.2.2 What is Gnosticism?
1.2.3 Main interest of this work

2 Accounts of Gender in the sources
2.1 Biblical Background
2.2 Historical Accounts
2.3 Mythological Accounts

3 Models of explaining gender in Gnosticism
3.1 Role of the women in Gnostic society
3.2 Symbolic use of language

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1. Introduction

1. 1. General overview

In the very first paragraph of her article concerning the role of women in gnosticism, Anne McGuire writes that “the task of reconstructing the social roles of women in "gnosticism" remains one of the most challenging in the study of ancient Mediterranean religions.”1 She is right in the face of the regarding sources of this esoteric religion. Until the discoveries of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, which fundamentally changed the opinions of scientists, very less was known about this complex religious movement. The only source of its research constituted polemical texts of already long known antiheretical church fathers (such as Epiphanius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Clement) and only some gnostic codices among other fragments were known to the scientists.2

Both, the polemical texts of the church fathers and the original manuscript finds testify that there were different schools and forms of Gnosticism. Its syncretic nature, which allowed gnosis to mingle itself with other religions easily, makes it difficult for the scientists to recognize a primordial system of gnosis from those writings. There is a soul that has fallen from the heaven into the material world and has lost a part of itself. The salvation is only possible through reunion with the heavenly part, through having this knowledge. Even this basic platonic idea has been interpreted variously. While some renounced the material world, others in libertine circles interpreted that one could do whatever one wanted to do with one's own body, since that would not harm the soul.

As there is a platonic philosophy based on strong dualism between immaterial and material world behind this thought system of Gnosticism 3, a symbolical language appears in the sources regarding the immaterial side. This symbolical language4 is demanding itself already. It makes the source material challenging for scientists to analyze the content, to understand it, and to continue to draw safe conclusions from it. Furthermore it makes an extensive use of gender imagery. The main interest of this work is firstly to summarize the ongoing gender debate in gnosticism, to point out problems of analysis based on a few selected examples and to present existing alternative explanatory models.

1. 2. Conceptual clarifications

Before starting to deal with the complex of gender debate in Gnosticism, it is helpful to define some concepts and terminus, which are of help for understanding the topic.

1. 2. 1. Gender in religious context

As mentioned above, Gnostic texts make an extensive use of gender imagery. Therefore it is fundamental to make aware briefly of the obvious difference between Sex and Gender, which is often emphasized in the feminist literature. These terms can be clearly separated from one another in the English language. But some other languages do not make this difference clear. In German for instance, there is only the word “Geschlecht” defining both sex and gender. Therefore the English word of gender has been transferred in German literature. Sex and gender are not congruent in their sense. Sex defines rather a fixed biological gender or points on biological differences between women and men, while gender is associated with ideas about what being male and being female means in everyday life, therefore referring to social roles. While biological sex has been accepted as natural and innate, the idea of a gendered image, which is effected through history, social environment or religious teachings, has become widely established.5

The concept of gender is multidimensional, but the scientific world is often failed to problematize its potency. The gender-critical thinking was not possible before the modern era, but it constitutes even today a cognitive dissonance between women's and men's understanding of gender studies.6 Today in many cultures some of social set ups or behaviors are accepted to be normal, because they are prescribed by authoritative religious teachings and established themselves as normative. Those set ups were reconsidered by the modern women’s movement.7 Every religion has its own image on gender. In the case of Gnosticism, which is not a pure religion by its own, there are images, which are against to the traditional established images of older religions such as Christianity. In its cosmogony, there are many semigods such as Aeon, Archons, Yaldabaoth, etc. Those gods don’t have any biological sex of course, but they are owner of specific genders, as they carry some of the characteristics, which are attributed to one sex according to social environment of the time. In this respect, it becomes relevant to what extent these roles of the gods testify about the sociology of this religious community.

1. 2. 2. What is Gnosticism?

When describing a heresy, church fathers often used the term γνωστικός (readed as gnostikos, meaning "knowing ones"). This word has its origins in Ancient Greek γνῶσις (readed as Gnosis) and it means literally knowledge. This was not an ordinary word from every day speech. This word referred to platonic philosophy and belonged to the language of intellectuals. 8 In this environment, claiming to have knowledge (gnosis) was normal and common, but “the use of Gnostikos as a proper name was distinctive.”9 Church fathers used this term for referring a wide range group of people. However, the neologism “Gnosticism” has been created by Henry More (1614-1687) upon the accounts of church fathers, whereby it described all christian heresies in ancient world.

The term has found wide application. Nevertheless, the text finds in Nag Hammadi have brought new information into light. It became clear that the people who have "Gnostic thought" had a self-understanding and they did not call themselves as Gnostics but differently (such as: the offspring of Seth, the saved ones, the immoveable race etc). 10 Michael Allen Williams dealt this topic in his book Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. He problematized the absence of any established definition by people who use the term. Furthermore, in his opinion those people who are labeled “Gnostics” constituted different groups with different set of beliefs.11 Gnosticism as such is not a religion by itself, but it was confused with a historical entity and therefore mistakenly came to be understood as religion. 12 Conceptual composition of various ancient groups into a single system under the term of gnosis was the method of Christian theologians in antiquity, which subsumed and generalized various movements under the same word. Traditional approaches have retained the intention of the church fathers in this regard. 13

Layton suggests that the available data from original sources shows that the term Gnostic was used to describe “a member of a distinct social group or a professional school of thought”. In this matter he points up that researchers of an ancient social group should use the same term as the same group used to define itself, as this is the most appropriate label for them. By designating themselves with a proper name, a group of people becomes distinct to others.14

Although the problematic definition of Gnosticism is still in use, the scientific world today tends to be clearer about its negative connotation from anti heretical context.

This new concept refers today to a religious-philosophic movement of ancient times, with the underlying aspects of radical dualism and redemption potential of the knowledge (Gnosis). It probably began to develop gradually in the first century AD, and adapted pagan, Jewish and Christian ideas by transforming them slightly.

1. 2. 3. Main interest of this work

Due to limited page number of this work, the problematic situation of sources and consequently of the definitions has been shortly mentioned above. Scientists distinguish two groups of sources (antiheretical and primary). One became attentive of gender imagery in gnostic cosmogony and characters, which has been extensively used in these sources. Many scientists have dealt with it and most important question has been, if it was possible to detect a correlation between the text and their less known social world. On the other side, due to long discussions on the nature of Gnosticism, attempts of determining the role of women were always speculative. In the following, the ongoing discussions on the role of women are summarized.

Gnostic communities may have shared same basic principles in their thought15, but it does not mean that those people become socialized in the same homogenize environment. The movement of Gnosticism has reached a great prevalence in geography. After summarizing different assertions in literature on gender in Gnosticism, I will interpret negativity of femaleness and the symbolic language in the sources.

2. Accounts of Gender in the sources

Before accounts with gender-specific references are dealt below, it must be said that some ideas of Gnostic movements are not Egyptian at all. The fact that the most important finds and sources are preserved in Egypt and in a specific dialect of Coptic should not lead to the assumption that this movement is somewhat purely Egyptian.16 The specific dialect of Coptic, which is used in codices of Nag Hammadi should be accepted as a proof that this movement was widely spread.17

2.1 Biblical Background

The contents of the Gnostic writings often have references to the Bible, especially Genesis history. Regardless of whether or not there was an earlier, unchristian kind of gnosis, one can assume that the Gnostics reinterpreted familiar images and stories. An example of this is the epistle of Eugnostus, which, as the investigations show, is preserved in a revised, Christianized version in the text of Sophia Jesu Christi. The Gnostics were slowly being replaced from the Orthodox Church and they were not promoting this detachment movement because they needed Christians as their audience.18

The call to become one (instead of two) in Gnostic sources is a return to ideal state, which has been at the beginning of human creation. By eliminating femininity, the ideal state can be achieved. This thought comes from the biblical narrative, according which man is created first. And the woman also arises through the division of the man.19 The meaning of the Genesis story becames apparent, if one thinks about the expression in the Pauline 1 Timothy 2:12-15. Interpretations of Genesis story has played an important role in the early Christian community and as one can aspect, Gnostics have reinterpreted it, in terms of gnostic theology. It is said in Gospel of Philip (When Eve was still in Adam death did not exist. When she was separated from him death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more.20 ) With these statements, Eve is characterized as the one who caused death by separating herself from Adam. In the further course of this paper it will become clear which parallelism is to be reflected in Gnostic mythology. The active action of Eve is the decisive factor here. Eve is no longer the passive one but causes her separation herself.21


1 McGuire 1999, 257.

2 Two of those codices (Codex Askewianus and Codex Brucianus) show a late stage, while the Berlin Codex shows an early stage of Gnosticism, like the findings of Nag Hammadi. Krause 1998, 86f. Interesting to mention is the fact that the Berlin Codex, which was already bought in 1896, has not been published until 1955. The reason of its late publication is connected to the discovery of Nag Hammadi codices in 1945. The rise of scientific investigations and publications after the discovery, and the further literature can be observed in the bibliography work of David M. Scholer 1971; 1997; 2009.

3 Platons effect becomes appear, if one remembers the fact, that an excerpt of Platons Republic (588A -589B) was also found in Nag Hammadi.

4 van Unnik speaks of “dark hints” for explaining the hardness of translation: van Unnik 1960, 24f.

5 Petersen 1999, 335-338; King 2005, 3296.

6 King 2005, 3296.

7 King 2005, 3297.

8 Layton 1995, 336-337; Markschies 2006, 9-21.

9 Layton 1995, 344.

10 Only some called themselves gnostikos, not all of the groups. Layton 1995, 335.

11 Williams 1996, 2-22.

12 King 2003, 1-3.

13 McGuire 1999, 258; Markschies 2006, 18f.

14 Layton 1995, 334-335.

15 Different authors propose different models of basic principles. McGuire 1999, 258; Markschies 2006, 25-26.

16 Hornung 1999, 51.

17 Markschies 2006, 45.

18 Aland 2014, 203.

19 Petersen 1999, 314.

20 Isenberg 1990, 150.

21 Petersen 1999, 322-325.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Neutralized Gender. Understanding the Symbolic Language in Gnostic Sources
University of Göttingen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
neutralized, gender, understanding, symbolic, language, gnostic, sources
Quote paper
Sait Can Kutsal (Author), 2019, Neutralized Gender. Understanding the Symbolic Language in Gnostic Sources, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Neutralized Gender. Understanding the Symbolic Language in Gnostic Sources

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free