HUMA 3457: Gnosticism

Gnostic amulet

Image: A Byzantine Gnostic amulet.

York University, Winter 2015

EXCEL file of grades to date (updated April 27, 2015)

Instructor: Dr. Tony Burke
Phone: (416) 736-2100 ext. 22329
Time and Location: Tuesday 7-10 pm, ACW303.
Office Hours: Mon and Tues 5-6 pm (or by appointment), Rm. 036 McLaughlin College.

1. Course Description
An introduction to Gnosticism, a second century religious movement that intersected and overlapped with Christianity and Judaism. Emphasis will be on readings of primary sources. The course objective are to acquaint students with the theories behind the origins and nature of Gnosticism, examine gnostic literature from ancient Christian, Jewish, and “pagan” sources, note the continuation of gnostic thought in later gnostic movements of the Medieval period and the Middle Ages, and consider elements of gnostic thought that exist today. Gnosticism has been characterized as “utterly incomprehensible”; it is my hope that, together, students and instructor can find some order in the chaos of gnostic literature and feel some empathy for the gnostic view of the world and humanity’s place within it. Students will learn advanced text-critical skills and become acquainted with scholarship in the field.

2. Required Texts
Nicola Denzey Lewis, Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Marvin Meyer (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2007.

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

Michael Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

3. Methods of Assessment

All written work in this course is expected to be of high quality—i.e., it must conform to the style and format guidelines typical of Humanities courses—and it must be your own. To help ensure that these requirements are met, you are urged to visit the on-line guides listed below. In addition, a style sheet of my own design is to be attached to your assignments (see the assignment descriptions below). No paper will be accepted without the style sheet attached. For additional writing assistance, visit
NOTE: All graded work in this course is to be submitted to (and brought to class in a hard copy). For an overview of this service and the University’s policies regarding, please see HERE. It is very simple to use. Go to for instructions on how to create a user profile. You can use whatever email address you wish but it must be a working one since you will receive emails over the course of the year. It is recommended that you NOT use internet email accounts (e.g., Hotmail, Yahoo, etc.). You create your own password so make it easy to remember. You will also require the following information to sign in initially: Class ID: 9243910. Password: gnosis.

A. Academic Integrity: York University is very concerned about the increase in student plagiarism. As heinous a crime as plagiarism is, sometimes it is perpetrated in ignorance. The university has set up an on-line tutorial to help students recognize acts of plagiarism. You are required to complete this tutorial (no papers will be accepted until you do so). Go to the web site and work your way through the tutorial. Print off the results of the quiz and hand them in on January 20. There is no grade value for this assignment, but no papers will be accepted until the test results are handed in to the instructor. Site address:

B. Text Analyses: students will select four out of six texts assigned in the weekly readings (indicated on the syllabus), hand in a brief analysis of each and contribute heavily to the class in which the texts are to be discussed. Ask of the text: in what way is it, or is it not, “Gnostic”? what do you find interesting about it? what does it tell us about the community/author behind it? Length: 2 pages. Grade value: 10% each. Due: the class in which the individual texts are discussed. Please follow the guidelines of this STYLE SHEET and hand in the style sheet with your analyses. Length: 2 pages. Grade value: 10% each. Due: the class in which the individual texts are discussed (no exceptions).

D. The Gnostic Gospels Book Review: hand in a review of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels with the primary aim of assessing the author’s style (how is the book structured? what are the arguments she makes? what kind of audience is she writing for? does she make her arguments well? is the book a “good read”?, etc.). For more guidance on scholarly book reviews read the samples available HERE. The reviews will be discussed in class. Be sure to attach the essay style sheet available HERE. Length: 5 pages. Grade value: 20%. Due: February 10.

E. Rethinking “Gnosticism” Analysis: toward the end of the course students will hand in an analysis of Michael Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism” with the aim of assessing the cogency of his argument for dismantling “Gnosticism” as a category. The analyses will be discussed in the final class of the course. Caution: this assignment is not a book review, so a summary of the book is not required. Instead, assume your reader has the same knowledge of the book as you. Since this paper is an analysis, you should arrange your ideas thematically (making arguments about Williams’ thesis and presentation) not chronologically, as in a book review. Be sure to attach the essay style sheet available HERE. Length: 7 pages. Value: 30%. Due: April 14.

E. Class Participation: to encourage an optimum of instructor/student interaction, a portion of your final grade is allocated to class participation. The grade is based on class attendance and on asking/answering questions.  Grade value: 10%.

Missing papers: In the event that papers go missing, it is your responsibility to keep a hard copy of all written work submitted for the course.

Late papers: the instructor, like you, is a very busy person. He likes to receive papers on time so that he can give them back to you within a reasonable time and then get on with other things he has to do (the instructor has other courses to teach and other papers to grade). Late papers complicate his life. So, he cannot accept late papers unless they are accompanied with documentation from Special Needs or Health Services. Contact the professor if you foresee problems handing in papers on time.

4. Important Dates
Jan. 19: Last date to enroll without permission of instructor
Jan. 30: Last date to enroll with permission of instructor
March 6: Last date to drop course without receiving a grade

5. Class Schedule
Please come to class having read the assigned primary and secondary readings and having consulted the on-line resources. A lecture outline for each week’s class will be posted on-line by Monday morning. It is your responsibility to print your own copy of the outline and bring it to class.

Jan. 6: Introduction to the Course
On-line Resources: for a quick overview of the essentials of Gnosticism visit

Jan. 13: The Nag Hammadi Library
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 1; Denzey Lewis and Blount, “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag hammadi Codices” (PDF).
Online Resources: English scholar Mark Goodacre has assembled an awardwinning “meta-site” on New Testament scholarship at Of particular interest is the page on non-canonical literature (

Jan. 20: Heresy Hunting
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 2; Irenaeus, Against Heresies (PDF 1, PDF 2); Epiphanius of Salamis, Against Heresies 33.3.1-33.7.10 (=Ptolemy’s Epistle to Flora) (PDF); Acts 8:9-25.
Online Resources: today we sample a few of the early church thinkers who wrote polemical treatises against other Christian groups and teachers. If you want to read more, visit
** Academic Integrity Test due today **
**Ptolemy’s Epistle to Flora analysis due today, if you chose that text **

Jan. 27: Religious Landscapes
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 3; Martin, Myths of the Ancient Greeks (PDF); Plato, excerpts from The Republic (PDF) and Timaeus (PDF); Plotinus, Enneads (WORD); Denzey Lewis ch. 4; Genesis 1-9; Mark 1; Acts 9:1-31; John 1; 1 Corinthians 1-3, 8-9, 12; 2 Corinthians 10-12; Colossians 2; 1 Timothy; 1 John.
Online Resources: one of the more bizarre sites out there dedicated to Gnosticism is the Gnostic Friends Network ( Of particular interest on this site is the Gnostic Gear (warning: some images may offend) and the Network’s own theme song.

Feb. 3: Valentinians
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 5-8; Prayer of the Apostle Paul; Tripartite Tractate; Gospel of Truth; Gospel of Philip (all in Meyer).
Online Resources: the Gnosis Society hosts a home page dedicated to Valentinus. You can visit it at
**Gospel of Truth analysis due today, if you chose that text **

Feb. 10: Thomas Christianity
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 9; Meyer, pp. 779-783; Gospel of Thomas; Book of Thomas.
On-line Resources: scholars Elaine Pagels and Helmut Koester discuss the significance of the Gospel of Thomas at Also, listen to NT scholar Mark Goodacre discuss the Gospel of Thomas in one of his podcasts. And read his recent discussion of the disagreements over the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library.
** Pagels book review due today **
**Gospel of Thomas analysis due today, if you chose that text **

Feb. 17: Reading Week ~ No class

Feb. 24: Sethian Gnosticism
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 10-12; Meyer, pp. 784-789; Three Steles of Seth; Secret Book According to John.
Online Resources: Christian theologians are not particularly happy with the modern interest in Gnosticism. For a “defense” of the faith against Gnosticism read this article on Gnostic Gospels on the Faith Defenders web site.

March 3: Liturgy, Death, and the Divine Feminine
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 13-15; Gospel of the Egyptians; Treatise on the the Resurrection; Thunder: Perfect Mind.
Online Resources: Many have attempted to set Thunder: Perfect Mind to music. For a <ahem> interesting take on the enterprise see this video by Catherine Braslavsky and Joseph Rowe.
**Thunder: Perfect Mind analysis due today, if you chose that text **

Mar. 24: Gnostic Apocalypses
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 18-19; Letter of Peter to Philip; Apocalypse of Peter; Apocalypse of Adam; Apocalypse of Paul.
On-line Resources: for additional movies that touch upon Gnostic themes, check out the reviews at
**Apocalypse of Adam analysis due today, if you chose that text **

Mar. 31: Corpus Hermeticum; Mandaeans and Manichaeans
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 16; Meyer pp. 795-798; Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth; Excerpt from the Perfect Discourse; The Cologne Mani Codex (PDF) (photographs of the Codex are available HERE)
On-line Resources: learn more about the Corpus Hermeticum at Learn more about Mandaeans and Manicheans at and

April 7: The Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary
Read for Today: Denzey Lewis ch. 20; Gospel of Judas; Gospel of Mary.
Online Resources: read (and even watch) a discussion between several prominent scholars (including Karen L. King and Elaine Pagels) on Mary Magdalene at
** Gospel of Judas analysis due today, if you chose that text **

April 14: Modern Gnosticism
Read for Today: Richard Smith, “The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism” (PDF).
On-line Resources: though classical Gnosticism was eradicated in Late Antiquity, Gnostic thought has experienced a Renaissance since the discoveries at Nag Hammadi. There are even Gnostic churches around the globe. You can read how they operate by visiting the web site of the Gnostic Society ( Also, be sure to check out a copy of Gnosis magazine (in book stores or on-line at
** Rethinking Gnosticism analysis due today **