Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 5: Valentinianism

I was overly ambitious this week. Denzey Lewis’ textbook devotes four chapters to Valentinianism; we covered all of it in one class. On top of that the students had to read an assortment of primary texts—Prayer of the Apostle Paul, Tripartite Tractate, Gospel of Truth, and Gospel of Philip—and hand in a short paper on the Gospel of Truth. Worse still, the Tripartite Tractate is really, really long! Even I had trouble getting through all the material before class.

The lecture distilled the textbook discussion of the life of Valentinus, the Valentinian schools that succeeded him, and the problems of reconstructing the Valentinian literary corpus—we use the statements by the heresy hunters to determine what texts are Valentinian, but then declare the statements of the heresy hunters to be inaccurate based on the differences we observe in the texts. We’re not even sure if the Gospel of Truth from Nag Hammadi is the same text that is ascribed to Valentinus! I mentioned briefly the fragments of Valentinus, including the one about Jesus not having to poop (“he ate and drank in a special way, without excreting solids”). That’s gold.

We turned next to an overview of the Valentinian myth drawn from Irenaeus, based on his knowledge of the works of Ptolemy. We noted along the way the differences between this version of the myth and what we find in the Tripartite Tractate. The myth engendered a lot of discussion, particularly about Valentinian anthropogony: humans are a mixture of spirit, soul, and flesh; and humans are divided into three groups depending on the precise mixture used in their creation, with the pneumatics (spiritual) being those who are guaranteed salvation, the psychics (soulful) are those who can be converted, and the hylic/sarkic (fleshly) are those who are damned.

The Valentinian sacraments were examined using the Gospel of Philip, which appears to be a Valentinian sacramental catechism; indeed one paragraph from the text sums this up quite nicely: “The Lord did everything by means of a mystery: baptism, chrism, eucharist, ranson, and bridal chamber” (Gos. Phil. 60). We looked also at a few sections of the text that have most interested readers: the one about Mary Magdalene being Jesus’ “companion” (59,6–11), and the one about Jesus loving Mary more than the apostles (63,32–64,5). Of course this meant having to show the scene from The Da Vinci Code where Gos. Phil. is used as proof of Jesus’ marriage (if DVDs were like videotapes, my copy of the film would show considerable wear in this scene). One student asked about the statement that Mary was the name of Jesus’ wife, companion, and sister. The NT gospels mention that Jesus had sisters but does not name them (Mark 6:3 par). Nevertheless, early Christian writers worked to fill in this gap in knowledge by assigning names to the sisters. The History of Joseph the Carpenter calls them Lysia and Lydia, and Epiphanius calls them Salome and Mary (also named Anna).

Our discussion section focused on Gospel of Truth, another “soft” text with poetic sections and plenty of references to canonical texts (30-60 scriptural passages are paraphrased and interpreted). The gospel contains no mention of the Sophia myth, nor of a Demiurge, but it still contains plenty of gnostic terminology: terms such as aeons, the All, the Pleroma, Deficiency, Rest, and the distinction between three classes of people (pneumatic, psychic, and hylic). Jesus is characterized as a redeemer figure who has come to help the ignorant become aware of the Father. We considered what the text might tell us about the Valentinian community. The audience are “those who have received grace from the father of truth that they might learn to know him,” which seems to be the pneumatics. The author seems to have experienced mystical union; he has achieved gnosis/perfection/rest, can now see the world as illusion, and has returned to instruct others about it. A section in which the author instructs the readers sounds like a commission to evangelize: “Steady the feet of those who stumble and extend your hands to the sick. Feed the hungry and give rest to the weary. Awaken those who wish to arise and rouse those who sleep, for you embody vigorous understanding. If what is strong acts like this, it becomes even stronger. Focus your attention upon yourselves. Do not focus your attention upon other things,” etc.

I wanted to spend the last part of class practicing some Valenitinian exegesis, i.e. looking at some NT gospel passages and imagining how they might have been discussed in the “extra-curricular” gatherings of Valentinians. We only had time enough to quickly consider one example. Here is another:

25 Now a woman was there who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years. 26 She had endured a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet instead of getting better, she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she kept saying, “If only I touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 At once the bleeding stopped, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Jesus knew at once that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 His disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing against you and you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 But he looked around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, with fear and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:25-34)

Interpretation: the 12 years could be seen as symbolic—e.g., the 12 emanations from Man and Church and Sophia is one of them; they are responsible for creation. The hemorrhage could represent the loss of Sophia/Achamoth; Jesus heals this hemorrhage (restores Achamoth). The woman could represent those who come to Jesus (the psychics) and are saved.

I finished the class emphasizing that gnostic Christians like the Valentinians valued many of the same texts as orthodox Christians but they interpreted them in ways that spoke more to their understanding of the world. In discourse today about gnostic texts, apologetic writers often state that one cannot read and follow both canonical and noncanonical texts. But that is precisely what Christians in antiquity did; indeed, Christians throughout history read both canonical and noncanonical texts and some do so today.

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