Gnosis and the New Testament, Part 1: “Gnosis” and related terms

This article will explore the usage of the word gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis) and related terms in the New Testament. The survey will be divided as follows—

    • The verb ginw/skw
    • The noun gnw=si$
    • The Pauline usage
    • gnwri/zw and other terms
    • The Johannine usage

with certain verses discussed in more detail in separate notes.

The verb ginw/skw

The verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ) has the basic meaning “(to) know”, generally corresponding to the Hebrew ud^y` (y¹da±). It often carries a very specific Christian (theological) sense in Paul’s letters, as well as in the Gospel and letters of John—which will be discussed in separate sections below. We can see something of this already taking shape in the early Christian tradition preserved in the Synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts. Apart from generic use of the verb in the narrative context, the following passages and occurrences may be noted:

    • Mark 4:13; 8:17; 13:28f par—Jesus’ disciples are to know (that is, understand) the truth of his teaching “hidden” under the parables. This is emphasized especially in the saying in Matt 13:11 (par Lk 8:10):
      “To you [pl., i.e. the disciples] it has been given to know [gnw=nai] the secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, but to those (others) it has not been given”
      This indicates that knowledge has been revealed specially to Jesus’ followers, but not to the rest of the people (indeed, to them it has been hidden). I have discussed this passage in an earlier note.
    • Mark 5:43; 7:24; 9:30; Matt 9:30; 12:15f; Lk 18:34, pars—Similarly, on a number of occasions, Jesus seeks to keep his presence, his miracles, and/or the truth of his identity, from being known to people at large. This is sometimes referred to as the “Messianic secret”, as it is emphasized, in particular, in the Gospel of Mark (Mk 1:25, 34, 44; 3:12; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9, etc).
    • This idea is built upon in Luke-Acts, where the people do not recognize (know) Jesus, and even the disciples truly understand only after it has been revealed to them following the resurrection—Lk 18:34; 19:42, 44; 24:35, cf. also 2:43, 50; 9:45; 17:20-21; 18:34; 22:34, 67-69; 24:16, 31ff, and note also the usage in Acts 19:15. Related to this is the important motif of the disciples coming to understand who Jesus is from the testimony of the Old Testament Scriptures (Lk 24:25-27, 32, 44-45f; Acts 8:30, etc).
    • The image of the disciples (believers) being known by Jesus and by God the Father (Matt 7:23; 12:33 par). With regard to the latter, early tradition draws upon the older concept of God knowing the heartLk 16:15; Acts 1:24; 15:8, cf. also Mk 2:8; 7:6 par; Matt 15:8; Lk 24:38. Jesus’ special knowledge regarding his followers takes on distinctive meaning in the Gospel of John (cf. below), but it is suggested also at many points in the Synoptics.
    • The reverse image, of believers knowing God and His will, is mentioned several times, though in rather conventional terms (Lk 12:46-48; Acts 22:14, etc). More significant is the idea of knowing God the Father as manifest in the person of Jesus. This is stressed frequently throughout the Gospel of John; less so in the Synoptics, but cf. especially the saying in Luke 10:22, which I discuss here in a separate study.

As far as the remainder of the New Testament writings, the significant occurrences of the verb are: Heb 3:10 (LXX); 10:34; and Rev 2:23-24. Especially worth noting is the citation of Jer 31:34 in Hebrews 8:11, since it gives expression to the distinctive Christian interpretation of the “new covenant”—that believers will be taught by God himself through the presence of the (Holy) Spirit.

The noun gnw=si$

The noun gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) is derived from the verb ginw/skw (above). Of the 29 occurrences of the noun in the New Testament, 23 are found in the Pauline letters (cf. below). Interestingly, though the verb is prominent in the Johannine writings, the noun gnw=si$ does not occur. If the Gospel and letters are combating some form of gnostic (or Gnostic) tendency, as many commentators suggest, the absence of this word could be intentional. Here is a brief summary of the relevant occurrences (the Pauline passages will be discussed in context further below):

    • Rom 2:20—the Old Testament Law (Torah) is said to contain “the shape/form of knowledge and truth”
    • Rom 11:33—”the deep(ness) of the wealth and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!”; this is part of the doxology that serves as the climax of chapters 9-11, drawn from Old Testament passages such as Isa 40:13 and Job 41:3(?) [cf. also Job 9:10; Ps 77:20; Prov 25:3]. I discuss this in a separate study.
    • Romans 15:14—Paul expresses confidence that the believers in Rome are “soaked (full) of goodness, having been filled with all knowledge, and able to bring things to mind (for) each other”. A similar idea is found in 1 Cor 1:5; 2 Cor 8:7; 11:6; almost certainly this knowledge is to be understood as something given to believers specially through the presence of the Spirit. It may also reflect the prophecy of the “new covenant” in Jer 31:34 (cf. Heb 8:11).
    • 1 Cor 8:1, 7, 10-11—Paul’s argument is based on the statement in v. 1, presumably reflecting the conviction of many in Corinth, that believers “all hold knowledge”. Again, this should be understood as a ‘gift’ of the Spirit for those in Christ. Paul, however, makes clear that knowledge (and the expression of it) should be guided by love (i.e. the ‘love command’).
    • 1 Cor 12:8—Here knowledge is specifically described as something given (as a favor/gift) by God through the presence and work of the Spirit in and among believers (cf. also 14:6). It is paired with wisdom (sofi/a).
    • 1 Cor 13:2, 8—Paul uses gnw=si$ is a comprehensive sense, comprising both ‘ordinary’ human knowledge and divine/spiritual secrets that have been revealed to Christians. All of which is far surpassed by, and subordinate to, the principle of love in Christ.
    • 2 Cor 2:14; 4:6—believers are given the knowledge of God through Christ, and, in turn, reflect the glory of God (and Christ); cf. 3:12-18. I discuss these two passages in separate studies.
    • 2 Cor 10:5—worldly attitudes and ‘wisdom’ are contrary to the knowledge of God (and Christ, i.e. the Gospel). This is parallel to the important line of argument Paul develops in 1 Cor 2-3 (cf. below).
    • Phil 3:8—again, the knowledge of Christ surpasses worldly/religious experience and status; this verse is also treated in a separate note.
    • Col 2:3—Christ is referred to as “the secret of God”, in whom “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away” (cf. the separate study). This verse stands between the important Christological section in 1:9-19, the summary of the Gospel in vv. 23-29, and the section 2:8-18ff where Paul contrasts the knowledge believers have in Christ with worldly/religious thinking (cf. also 1 Tim 6:20).
    • Eph 3:19—Here it is said that the love of Christ surpasses all knowledge (cf. 1 Cor 13, etc).
    • 2 Pet 1:5-6—Knowledge is treated as a spiritual virtue/characteristic of believers (cf. 2 Cor 6:6).
    • 2 Pet 3:18—Believers are called to “grow in (the) favor and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Yeshua (the) Anointed”.

The Pauline Usage

In addition to the noun gnw=si$ (cf. above), the verb ginw/skw occurs frequently in the Pauline letters, usually with a definite theological and/or ethical sense. The significant occurrences may be outlined as follows:

Knowing God and his will

    • Rom 1:21: context of “natural revelation”—i.e., knowing something of God’s nature and character from what is manifest in creation (cf. the use of noe/w in v. 20)
    • Rom 2:18: context of God’s will as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah) (cf. 7:1)
    • Rom 3:17: part of a sequence of Scripture citations (Isa 59:7-8 etc) indicating that human beings, under the power of sin, are unable to know and understand God properly (cf. also 7:7, 15, including the idea that one comes to know/recognize sin as such through the Law); for more on “knowing” sin, cf. 2 Cor 5:21 (with regard to Jesus)
    • Rom 11:34 (Isa 40:13): the inability of created human beings to know/understand the mind (nou=$) of God; cf. 1 Cor 2:16
    • 1 Cor 1:21: the world did not (was not able to) know God through its (own) wisdom and/or as part of God’s own wisdom (cf. Rom 1:21); I have discussed this verse in an earlier note
    • Gal 4:9: the two-fold aspect of knowing—believers knowing God, and being known by Him (cf. the study on 1 Cor 13:12)

Knowing, specifically in the sense of recognizing/accepting Christ (the Gospel)

Knowing God through the presence/work of Christ and the Spirit

The specific idea of knowing Christ
    • Phil 3:10 (cf. v. 8)
    • Eph 3:19: knowing the love of Christ (which surpasses all knowledge)

God knowing the hearts/minds of human beings (and his people)

    • 1 Cor 3:20 (Ps 94:11); cf. also 2 Tim 2:19 (Num 16:5?)
    • 1 Cor 8:3: connected to the love of believers for God/Christ (and each other)
    • 1 Cor 14:7, 9: knowing in terms of understanding what is said/spoken among believers through the Spirit (importance of order and proper exercise of spiritual gifts)
    • Gal 4:9: being known by God, with the implied sense of election/predestination

Believers’ faith, attitude and behavior being known (to Paul and others, etc)

Knowing another person (believer), in terms of Christ, Christian love, and/or the Spirit

For more on Paul’s use of other, related terms, see the next section below.

The verb gnwri/zw and other terms

The related verb gnwri/zw (gnœrízœ, “make known”) is occasionally used in reference to God’s manifesting or revealing himself (“making himself known”), closely connected with the idea of the proclamation of the Gospel. Of the 25 occurrences in the New Testament, 18 are in the Pauline letters. It is often used by Paul as a rhetorical phrase to place emphasis on a specific point of teaching or instruction—”let it be known to you, I make known to you, etc” (1 Cor 15:1; 2 Cor 8:1, etc). More substantially, it is used of God in two basic senses:

    1. God making known his nature, character, power, etc to human beings or in creation—Rom 9:22-23; also Eph 1:9
    2. God making himself known in the person of Christ and the Gospel, which has been kept hidden until now—Rom 16:26; Col 1:27; also Eph 1:9; 3:5. Specifically it is referred to as a “secret” revealed to Paul (Eph 3:3; 6:19), manifest further, through believers, to the heavenly ‘rulers’ (Eph 3:10)

Outside of the Pauline writings, the verb is found in Luke 2:15, 17; John 15:15; 17:26; Acts 2:28 (citing Ps 16:11); and 2 Pet 1:16. There are several important compound forms of ginw/skw and gnwri/zw which are used on occasion:

e)piginw/skw (with the derived noun e)pi/gnwsi$)

The verb e)piginw/skw essentially means to have knowledge about [lit. upon, e)pi] (someone or something). It can be used in the sense of (a) gaining knowledge, (b) recognition, understanding, or acknowledgement, or (c) having thorough or intimate knowledge. The verb is used with some frequency in the New Testament, often in the context of recognizing Christ—Matt 11:27 par (cf. the earlier note); 14:35; 17:12; Mk 6:33, 54; Lk 24:16, 31; cf. also Lk 7:37. On occasion, we also read of Jesus (and others) gaining knowledge of someone’s thoughts, or other ‘hidden’ information (Mk 2:8; 5:30; Lk 5:22). The idea of knowing and/or acknowledging the truth of the Gospel and Christian teaching is expressed in Lk 1:4 and 2 Pet 2:21, and frequently in the use of the noun e)pi/gnwsi$. The verb occurs 12 times in the Pauline letters, and the noun 15 of the 20 instances in the New Testament; this usage may be summarized:

    • Rom 1:32—knowledge of the Law of God (especially in the ethical/moral aspect)
    • 1 Cor 13:12—to know God fully (at the end time), even as believers are fully known by him (cf. the study on this verse)
    • 1 Cor 14:37—to know/recognize the inspired/authoritative character of (Paul’s) apostolic instruction (cf. 2 Cor 1:13)
    • 1 Cor 16:18—believers are to acknowledge/recognize those who minister in Christ faithfully (cf. 2 Cor 1:14, also 6:9)
    • 2 Cor 13:5—believers should (be able to) recognize the presence of Christ in/among them
    • Col 1:6—believers recognize the grace/favor of God shown to them
    • [1 Tim 4:3—believers characterized as those with knowledge of the truth]

The Noun—

Elsewhere, the noun occurs four times in 2 Peter (1:2-3, 8; 2:20), always referring to believers’ knowledge of God and Christ.


The verb noe/w (noéœ) means to have (something) in one’s mind [nou=$], often in the sense of perceiving, comprehending, or understanding. It is used 14 times in the New Testament, including five important occurrences in the Pauline letters (but apart from Rom 1:20 [cf. above], only in the disputed letters):

    • Eph 3:4—Paul’s insight/understanding (along with the noun sunesi$) of the “secret” of God; cf. also 3:20
    • 2 Tim 2:7—believers given understanding from God/Christ (cf. 1 Tim 1:7)

In Hebrews 11:3, it is connected specifically with the faith/trust (pi/sti$) of believers. The verb a)gnoe/w indicates the opposite, i.e. being without knowledge. It is used specifically by Paul (16 of 22 occurrences in the NT), often as a rhetorical phrase:”do you not know”, “I do not want you to be ignorant (of)…” More substantive (theological) use is found in Rom 10:3; 1 Cor 14:38.

suni/hmi and su/nesi$

The verb suni/hmi means to bring (things) together [sun], i.e. in one’s mind. It likewise refers to someone perceiving and understanding (or his/her failure to do so); in the Gospels it relates to the people’s response to the things Jesus said and did (Mk 4:12 par [LXX]; 7:14; 8:17, 21 pars; Lk 18:34; 24:45, etc). The related noun su/nesi$ is more common in Paul’s writings, in a specifically Christian sense, though, apart from 1 Cor 1:19 (citing Isa 29:14), only in the disputed letters: Col 1:9; 2:2 (rel. to the knowledge of Christ as God’s “secret”); Eph 3:4 (the “secret” of Christ); 2 Tim 2:7. The verb is used in Rom 3:11; 15:21 (both citing Scripture), and in 2 Cor 10:12 and Eph 5:17. The verb sunei/dw (su/noida) has a similar meaning (“see [things] together”), but is rare in the New Testament (the noun sunei/dhsi$ being much more common). However, frequently knowledge is described in terms of sight and seeing, the Greek language coming to use forms of the verb ei&dw (oi@da) interchangeably with ginw/skw; this will be discussed in an upcoming article (Part 3, on Revelation).


The verb e)pi/stamai literally means “stand upon”, usually in the sense of “set (one’s mind) upon”, and thus come to know and understand something, i.e. specifically to know something well. It is typically used in an ordinary sense in the New Testament (narrative); but note Heb 11:8; Jude 10, and the Pauline 1 Tim 6:4.

The Johannine Usage

The verb ginw/skw is used most frequently in the Johannine writings: 57 times in the Gospel, 25 in the first letter, and once again in the second letter—83 in all, with the Gospel and first letter accounting for more than a third of all occurrences in the New Testament. The related noun gnw=si$, so important in Paul’s letters, and in much of early Christian thought and expression, does not appear in the Johannine writings at all (on this, cf. above). On “knowledge” in the Johannine writings, this is discussed in more detail in a separate article and supplemental note.

It may also be significant that a number of the other compound or related words discussed above likewise occur only rarely (or not at all) in the Johannine writings. For example, e)piginw/skw (and the related noun e)pi/gnwsi$) does not appear, nor does suni/hmi (and su/nesi$), etc; the verb gnwri/zw (“make known”) occurs only three times, though these instances are important (Jn 15:15; 17:26 [twice]). All of this is surely due, in large part, to the relatively simple (and repetitive) vocabulary used in both the Gospel and the letters—the basic verb ginw/skw (“know”) serves to cover virtually the entire semantic range. In the case of the Gospel, of course, it is impossible to separate such usage from the complicated question of the relationship between the developed discourses of Jesus in John, and the generally simpler sayings, parables, and discourses in the Synoptics. The consistent vocabulary could reflect the original (Aramaic) of Jesus himself, or a layer of interpretive translation and editing by John (and/or the Johannine writer[s]). Given the close similarity between the language of the Gospel and the letters (esp. 1 John), the latter seems far more likely.

Supplementing the verb ginw/skw is the important use of verbs related to sight and hearing. Jesus in the Johannine sayings and discourses, repeatedly connects knowledge with seeing and hearing the Son, who, in turn, is faithfully presenting what he has seen and heard from the Father. This is a vital aspect of Johannine portrait of Jesus—the theology (and Christology) expressed in these writings—and will be addressed in detail, and with considerable care, through the articles in this series.

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