In 1958 Jonas published The Gnostic Religion, which is a revised English version of his German study of gnosticism. He was a prolific author who wrote many books, essays, and articles on the philosophical problems of nature, organism, and technology. His last book was the painstaking study of ethics about Das Prinzip Verantwortung (1979).


JONAS, Hans (b. Mönchengladbach, Germany, 10 May 1903; d. New Rochelle, N.Y., 5 February 1993), philosopher who significantly contributed to 20-century research on gnosticism (FIGURE 1).

Life. Jonas was born into a Jewish family in Mönchengladbach, a city in the Prussian Rhine Province. He lived as a teenager through World War I, and became a Zionist. In 1921, Jonas graduated from high school (Gymnasium) in his hometown, and enrolled as student of philosophy at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (Germany). He took courses with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and followed Heidegger in 1923 to the Philipps-Universität Marburg (Germany). He enrolled in courses about the New Testament taught by the Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), and in a seminar about the Gospel of John he encountered the problems of gnosticism. Jonas began to study its classical sources, including the recently published Mandaean and Manichean texts (see MANDAEANS). In 1928 he received his PhD with a dissertation about Der Begriff der Gnosis, which was just one chapter in an extensive work-in-progress on the fundamentals of the gnostic worldview and its impact on late antiquity. This research was to be published in two parts under the title Gnosis und spätantiker Geist. In 1933 Jonas completed the first part, which appeared the following year as Die mythologische Gnosis. But the young and highly gifted scholar had already emigrated from Germany, first to London and in 1934 to Jerusalem, because of the dramatically increased anti-Semitism after Adolf Hitler had been elected chancellor on 30 January 1933. Even though Jonas was still working on the book’s second part, Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie, during his time in London, only after World War II did the German publisher issue the book. Its first half appeared in 1954, while its second part, edited by the author on the basis on Jonas’ unpublished papers and essays, had to wait until 1993, Jonas taught as lecturer at the Hebrew University until 1948, though he was a soldier in the British army from 1940 until 1945. In Jerusalem, he was, among others, a colleague of Gershom Scholem (1897-1982). In 1949, after Jonas had served for about a year in the Israeli Army, he accepted a fellowship at McGill University (Montreal, Canada). He was appointed fellow at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) in 1950, and in 1955 he received a position as professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he remained until his retirement in 1976.

In 1958 Jonas published The Gnostic Religion, which is a revised English version of his German study of gnosticism. He was a prolific author who wrote many books, essays, and articles on the philosophical problems of nature, organism, and technology. His last book was the painstaking study of ethics about Das Prinzip Verantwortung (1979).

Gnosticism and Manicheism. Jonas’ research is relevant to Iranian studies because, firstly, he described the typology of the gnostic systems, mainly in relation to cosmogonic speculations, and, secondly, he showed that Manicheism is a particular kind of gnosticism.

Jonas (1964, pp. 255-262) distinguished four types of the “constructive main forms” of gnostic cosmogony: the Iranian, the Syrian-Egyptian, the Alexandrian-ecclesiastical, and the Neoplatonic. With regard to the Iranian strain of gnosticism, Mani “most completely adopted the Iranian version of dualism” (Jonas, 1963, p. 57). While the Syrian-Alexandrian type “is the attempt to place the origin of darkness, and thereby of the dualistic rift of being, within the godhead itself, and thus to develop the divine tragedy, the necessity of salvation arising from it, and the dynamics of this salvation itself, as wholly a sequence of inner-divine events” (ibid., p. 174), the Iranian form of gnosticism “starts from a dualism of pre-existent principles” (ibid, p. 105). Unlike the original Zoroastrian dualism (see ZOROASTRIANISM) the two principles of light and darkness of the Manichean gnosticism are identified with spirit and matter (body), good and evil. The system of Mani “represents, by reason of the type as such, and in spite of its highly wrought elaborateness, in its theoretical substance a more archaic level of gnostic thought” (ibid., p. 206). Jonas (1964, pp. 320-28; cf. 1963, pp. 112-29) discovered examples of this more archaic form in the so-called “Hymn of the Pearl” (Acts of Thomas, chaps. 108-113) and in some hymns of the Odes of Solomon. He recognized that Mandaean texts, in which the Iranian and the Syrian-Egyptian types are mixed, also express an archaic model of gnostic thinking and pity (1964, pp. 262-83; cf. 1963, p. 57-62).

Jonas (1964, pp. 283-320; cf. 1963 pp. 206-237) was one of the first, after the discovery of the Turfan manuscripts (see TURFAN EXPEDITIONS), to give a synopsis of the complete system of the religion of Mani, even before Hans Jakob Polotsky (1905-91) published his well-known article on Manicheism (see COPTIC MANICHEAN TEXTS). Jonas relied on the Nestorian heresiographer Theodore Bar Konai (fl. 791-92) for his outline, supplementing it with “whatever pieces of material from parallel texts fit into a particular passage and contribute to the fuller presentation of the idea treated” (1963, pp. 209-210). These additional sources were the Acta Archelai of Hegemonius (before 350), as well as works of Alexander of Lycopolis (fl. 300), Titus of Bostra (fl. 364), Severus of Antiochia (d. 538), Theoderet (393-ca. 460), Augustine (354-430), and Ebn al-Nadim (fl. 987; see AL-FEHREST): “The mosaic method employed is not meant as the reconstruction of a hypothetical original but merely as a synoptic utilization of the dispersed remnants for the convenience of the non-specialized reader” (Jonas, 1963, p. 210). The synopsis is still valuable despite the discovery of new sources and our advanced understanding of gnosticism. Jonas was correct to describe Mani’s religion as “the only gnostic system which became a broad historical force, and the religion based on it must in spite of its eventual downfall be ranked among the major religions of mankind” (ibid., p. 206). Despite the traditional understanding of syncretism as derivative Jonas recognized the originality of Mani’s thoughts, and warned that “it must not be supposed because of Mani’s syncretistic method that his system itself was a syncretistic one. It was on the contrary the most monumental single embodiment of the gnostic religious principle for whose doctrinal and mythological representation the elements of older religions were consciously employed” (ibid., 208). Measuring the various influences on Mani, Jonas argued that Iranian religion most intensely affected Mani’s cosmogony, while Christian religions most deeply impacted his eschatology and Buddhism was most directly reflected in his ethical and ascetic ideals of human life (ibid.). Jonas concluded that “from the point of view of history of religions Manichaeaism is the most important product of Gnosticism” (ibid.). In other words, he understood Manicheism as the Iranian type of gnostic thought.


Biography. H. Jonas, Erinnerungen, ed. C. Wiese, Frankfurt am Main, 2003.

Eric Pace, “Hans Jonas,” New York Times, 6 February 1993.

R. H. Popkin and C. Wiese, “Jonas, Hans,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., XI, 2007, p. 393.

Works of Jonas.

A critical edition of his complete works in 8 vols., edited by D. Böhler and W. C. Zimmerli, is under preparation at the Hans-Jonas-Zentrum Berlin (Germany); information is available online (accessed on 15 April 2009).

Der Begriff der Gnosis, Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments N.F. 30, Göttingen, 1930; orig., Ph.D. diss., Philipps-Universität Marburg, 1928; also included in Die mythologische Gnosis.

Die mythologische Gnosis: Mit einer Einleitung zur Geschichte und Methodologie der Forschung, with a preface by Rudolf Bultmann, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist 1, 3rd enl. ed., Göttingen, 1964; orig. ed., Göttingen, 1934; 2nd rev. ed., Göttingen, 1954.

Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie: 1. Hälfte, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist 2.1, 2nd rev. ed., Göttingen, 1966; orig. ed., Göttingen, 1954.

The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity, Boston, 1958; 2nd rev. ed., Boston, 1963; tr. as Gnosis: Die Botschaft des fremden Gottes, ed. Christian Wiese, Frankfurt am Main, 1999.

The Phenomenon of Life: Towards a Philosophical Biology, with a foreword by Lawrence Vogel, Evanston, Ill., 2001; orig., New York, 1966; tr. as Organismus und Freiheit, with K. Dockhorn, Göttingen, 1973; repr. as Das Prinzip Leben: Ansätze zu einer philosophischen Biologie, Frankfurt a. M., 1994.

Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1974; repr., Chicago, 1980.

“A Retrospective View” in Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Gnosticism, Stockholm, August 20-25, 1973, ed. G. Widengren and D. Hellholm, Stockholm, 1977, pp. 1-15.

Das Prinzip Verantwortung: Versuch einer Ethik für die technologjsche Zivilisation, Frankfurt a. Main, 1979; tr. as The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, with D. Herr, Chicago, 1984.

Wissenschaft als persönliches Erlebnis, Göttingen, 1987; incl. bibliography.

Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie: 1.und 2. Hälfte, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist 2, ed. K. Rudolph, Göttingen, 1993.



H. J. Polotsky, “Manichäismus,” RE, suppl. VI, 1935, cols. 240-71.

K. Rudolph, “Hans Jonas und die Manichäismusforschung,” Manichaean Studies Newsletter 12, Fall 1995, pp. 10-20; rev. repr. in Gnosis und spätantike Religionsgeschichte: Gesammelte Aufsätze, Leiden, 1997, pp. 773-81.

Idem, “Hans Jonas und die Gnosisforschung aus heutiger Sicht,” in Hans Jonas: Von der Gnosisforschung zur Verantwortungsethik, ed. W. E. Müller, Stuttgart, 2003, pp. 25-39; repr. in Die Weiterwohnlichkeit der Welt: Zur Aktualität von Hans Jonas, ed. E. Jacobson and C. Wiese, Berlin, 2003, pp. 93-107 and 333-37.

(Kurt Rudolph)

Last Updated: April 15, 2009