Pauline Gnosticism

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Ephesians 6:12  NASB

Rulers – Spiritual warfare.  That’s how most people interpret Paul’s enigmatic statement.  Our fight is with the Devil and all his minions in this world and in heaven.  At least that’s what we typically think—until we investigate Gnosticism’s influence on Christian thinking.  Paul was not a gnostic, but what he wrote was certainly adopted by gnostic teachers as if he were.  And it’s still with us today, despite the fact that much of gnostic theology has been officially rejected.

Here’s a basic view of Gnosticism:

Gnosticism (from Ancient Greek: γνωστικός, romanizedgnōstikósKoine Greek[ɣnostiˈkos], ‘having knowledge’) is a collection of religious ideas and systems which originated in the late 1st century AD among Jewish and early Christian sects.  These various groups emphasised personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) above the orthodox teachings, traditions, and authority of traditional religious institutions. Viewing material existence as flawed or evil, Gnostic cosmogony generally presents a distinction between a supreme, hidden God and a malevolent lesser divinity (sometimes associated with the Yahweh of the Old Testament) who is responsible for creating the material universe. Gnostics considered the principal element of salvation to be direct knowledge of the supreme divinity in the form of mystical or esoteric insight. Many Gnostic texts deal not in concepts of sin and repentance, but with illusion and enlightenment.[1]

Gnosticism included the idea of Archons, rulers of this world and heavenly spheres, who prevented men from connecting with the one true transcendental God.

The spheres are the seats of the Archons, especially of the ‘Seven,’ that is, of the planetary gods borrowed from the Babylonian pantheon.  It is significant that these are now often called by Old Testament names for God (Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai), which from being synonyms for the one and supreme God are by this transposition turned into proper names of inferior demonic beings . . . The Archons collectively rule over the world, and each individually in his sphere is a warder of the cosmic prison.  Their tyrannical world-rule is called heimarmene, universal Fate, a concept taken over from astrology but now tinged with the gnostic anti-cosmic spirit.  In its physical aspect this rule is the Law of nature; in its psychical aspect, which includes for instance the institution and enforcement of the Mosaic Law, it aims at the enslavement of man.[2]

This is the same Greek word Paul uses in his letter to the Ephesians (árchōn).  Undoubtedly gnostic thinkers recognized a connection.  In addition, Paul describes Man in a tripartite Greek combination (what we now term as “body, mind,” and “spirit” or “soul”).  This is also close to gnostic teaching.  It wasn’t much of a step to enlist Paul’s writings as prooftexts for Gnosticism.  Officially the Church rejected Gnostic theology, but the ideas were planted in the general population, and like most religious ideas, popular beliefs are often at odds with the studies of academics and theologians.  Gnosticism had appeal for obvious reasons.  God does seem far off and unknowable, especially after the Tanakh was all but jettisoned by the Catholic Church.  Jesus seemed to be the savior who descended from the realm of light to bring men back to the true God.  Spiritual warfare against demonic powers fits a religious view of the world.  The Platonic combination of “body, mind, and soul” was preached everywhere.  And Gnosticism proclaimed the Mosaic Law to be restrictive and unnecessary.  Many of these ideas are still popular today despite the fact that very few modern believers know anything about Gnosticism.

Paul’s theology is rescued from this mistake by the fact that it remains Jewish.  YHVH is not the far-off transcendent God.  Yeshua is not the messenger of heavenly light from another realm.  Man is nephesh, not a Platonic mixture.  But still, Paul writes in Greek and in Greek many of these Jewish ideas are garbled and can easily become Hellenistic without a Jewish paradigm.  Who knows?  Perhaps you’ve been carrying gnostic baggage in your religious vocabulary without even knowing it.

Topical Index:  árchōn, ruler, spiritual warfare, body-mind-soul, Gnosticism, Ephesians 6:12


[2] Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p. 43.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Richard Bridgan

👍🏻 An excellent and helpful summary in brief… thank you. And an appropriate challenge to consider what of the underlay of our theological bases has it origin in historic Hellenism and cultural ideas rather than the Israelite community’s testimony of its particular and peculiar relationship with the God of Israel.

Michael Stanley

Skip, It seems that you not only created a straw man, but you set him on fire as well! For those of us ( and we are legion, not Legion) who hold a supernatural world view, your sourcing of our paradigm to Gnosticism may be to some too simplistic and to others patently offensive. As you are aware most NT writers were not only well acquainted with the myths of extra biblical literature such as found in The Books of Enoch, but these supernatural belief systems were foundational to their understanding of the spiritual realm and Yeshua’s mission. To dismiss them as “gnostic baggage” is to toss the baby out before you even draw the bathwater. While there maybe some elements of Babylonian babble and Greek Gnostic Garbage in the theology of many modern Charismatics I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the demonic or suspect the supernatural. Yeshua came to this earth to do more than to live a perfect sinless Torah observant life or even to die for the sins of man. He had an agenda that included the casting out of an indeterminate number of unclean demonic spirits and challenging the earthly rule of The Watchers led by Ha Satan. I doubt that you would charge that He was under the influence of Gnosticism, even if early Gnostics quoted him faithfully and frequently. Many Biblical scholars, including Dr. Michael Heiser, have written extensively about this 2nd temple era Jewish paradigm of supernaturalism which we claim is foundational to both understanding the Scriptures, Yeshua’s accomplishments, as well as our present predicaments and our future perils. And yes, perhaps I have been carrying gnostic baggage in my religious vocabulary without even knowing it, but perhaps
you, by so easily dismissing the Supernatural World View as Gnosticism, have failed to “put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”