Did gnostics tolerate or celebrate homosexuality?
July 1, 2013 4:45 AM   Subscribe

I have heard rumor that the early Christian gnostics may have tolerated or even celebrated homosexuality. Does that seem probably to you? Is there any evidence for this in ancient sources? Does gay sex seem compatible with their thinking generally? Are there any books or articles on this topic?
posted by mortaddams to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite


You'll hopefully get better answers than this, but one thing to keep in mind about Gnosticism is that it came in a lot of flavors, as it was a broad set of ideas. But fairly constant was the idea that the created universe and matter in general was inherently evil. Spirit = good; matter = bad. This is a GROSS oversimplification and people may come along and take me to task for it, but I still believe it's roughly right and would make the answer to your question a bit more complicated.

A Gnostic, therefore, might think that your homosexuality was evil (if you were homosexual), yet still embrace you as a brother because it's a) not any more evil than the mere fact of your physical existence b) see it as unavoidable or not a solvable problem because of the overall evil in the world c) see it as a sin that your body commits that your soul is not accountable for d) all of the above.

Or not. In my experience people within a community, even a supposedly uniform one like the early church, tend to privately believe, tolerate, or even celebrate all kinds of things in opposition to what the leadership is telling them, and rationalize it (I mean that in the technical sense, not as a pejorative) based on what they individually want to believe or do. So if you were disposed to hate homosexuals, you probably got up a reason to be mean to them, and v/v.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:58 AM on July 1, 2013

the early Christian gnostics may have tolerated or even celebrated homosexuality.

Your main problem here was that Gnosticism is an even less homogeneous bird than early Christianity was, and we've got even fewer texts to go on. There were people, or at least groups of them, who could plausibly claim to speak for a majority of Christians, and we've got a ton of their writings. There are no such people/groups for the Gnostics, and we have very few Gnostic texts by comparison. So the fact that some Gnostics may or may not have had particular views towards homosexuality, while mildly interesting, isn't really going to enable anyone to draw significant conclusions as a result.
posted by valkyryn at 7:08 AM on July 1, 2013

I had always understood that a lot of the Gnostic groups were pretty heavily into abstinence.
posted by slkinsey at 7:12 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

It would be interesting to learn where the division between Gnosticism and Christianity comes from. One who lives Christianity at a deep level may resonate well with he ideas of gnosticism. Perhaps Christianity and the teachings of Jesus were born out of gnostic enlightenment.

The one thing that is clear from Jesus' teachings is that we should love (tolerate, celebrate) everyone regardless of our carnal judgements. Living in the spirit (as used by randomkeystrike), allows one to overcome our carnal tendencies, remaining aware of carnal feelings while living and responding from a spiritual perspective.

Personally I think the good/evil interpretation is overstated. That dichotomy though natural, is a result of how our carnal nature will interpret the world.
posted by lake59 at 10:07 AM on July 1, 2013

The book Melismata recommends is a great read, but it's decades old, and I've read that there have since been questions raised about some of his evidence and arguments. So it's a good starting point, but apparently it shouldn't be taken as definitive.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:58 AM on July 1, 2013

"homosexuality' as an orientation wasn't really a concept that existed at the time, but Gnostics were as against non-procreative sex as any other christian sect was, for the most part.

On the other hand, at least some groups of gnostics seemed to be comfortable with ambiguous gender roles -- see thunder perfect mind.
posted by empath at 11:54 PM on July 1, 2013

It would be interesting to learn where the division between Gnosticism and Christianity comes from.

Gnosticism was essentially an early attempt (or really, multiple attempts) to unify Hellenistic middle- and neo-platonism with Christianity to form a coherent theology/philosophy. Ultimately the mainstream Christian church rejected many of the platonic concepts and went with a much simpler conception of the divine. You'll note that most of our sources for it came from Egypt, which is because places like Alexandria had huge and influential philosophical schools where they taught Greek philosophy, as well as large populations of Jews and Early Christians, and there was a lot of cross-pollination of ideas.
posted by empath at 12:00 AM on July 2, 2013

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