Valentinus was a Christian, not a “Gnostic”: Exploration of the history shaped by the “Orthodoxy vs Heresy” Dichotomy

Valentinians reportedly viewed the cross as symbolic of the bifurcation of material and spiritual realities
Valentinians reportedly viewed the cross as symbolic of the bifurcation of material and spiritual realities

In this series, I will look at the historical figure Valentinus (2nd c, CE), whose life work demonstrates an important intersection of second century, CE, Western thought: Hellenistic trends in Judaism and Christianity in Alexandria, “gnostic” influences from Syria and Palestine, a classical education in Greek philosophy and highly sophisticated Christian theology. He is remembered, however, being labeled a “heretic” by those who designated themselves with defining Christian Orthodoxy, as the result of a competition over power in Rome (where he is said to have attempted to be elected bishop). Valentinus will serve as an example of early Christian diversity and as evidence for the problem of “Gnosticism.”

Because of the association made by heresiologist and early Church Father Irenaeus, Valentinus is now often viewed as a “Gnostic” rather than a Christian (although he and his school of thought referred to themselves as the latter). Today, as then, “Gnosticism” is a dirty word, and there’s a reason for that. First of all, the word and its associated terms do not actually mean anything on their own (see below). It’s highly unlikely any group has ever called itself “Gnostic” and the various traits scholars attribute to the word for classification cannot be found uniformly in any single text.

The word comes from the writing of heresiologist Irenaeus, who described a group he designated as the “Gnostikoi heresy” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:XI:1), in order to associate the Christian Valentinus with it and, through this association, defame Valentinus and his school of thought. Religious studies scholars have generally followed suit, developing an entire subgenre of study for the religions of Late Antiquity that focuses on “Gnostic” trends in contradistinction with orthodox Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. The problem is, when these “trends” developed, there was no “orthodoxy.” There were only various communities across the Mediterranean, Syria and Mesopotamia exploring Jewish literary history, Greek philosophy, and Hermetic esotericism and burgeoning forms of Jewish and Gentile Christian movements among other things (such as Greek mystery religions, Mithraism, the Marcionites and Elcesaites, for example). Syncretism and heterodoxy were the norm, but language has ever shaped our perception of that important stage in the history of Western religious development.

This makes sense according to Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory on the function of language in society (elaborated here): it benefits authoritative institutions (such as the early Roman Church and modern universities, religious leaders and politicians, for instance) to perpetuate the classification of “religious”/”secular” or “heretical” (as secular=heretical in modern vernacular) as clearly delineated spheres of social behavior, but for completely different benefits. A religious authority may use “secular” or “heretical” to denigrate a competing system of thought as profane, while the political authority may discuss reasons to protect “secular” government from religious influence and the academic may dismiss the “non-secular” opponent as irrational and worthless. In this way, linguistic classifications serve various goals for the “professionals of discourse,” the specific meaning of the terms varying according to the social space in which they are utilized.

As such, Irenaeus, the “key figure” among the heresiologists who defined “heresy” in contradistinction to his burgeoning “orthodoxy” and bound it to Satan, set up as straw men the influential and popular thinkers Marcion and Valentinus in his book Against Heresies, targeting both of them as “Gnostics” who had been corrupted in their Christian faith (Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan & The Combat Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 318). Heresiological reports on Marcion set him apart from modern scholarly characterizations of “Gnosticism”, and thus he has never been seriously considered to be a “Gnostic”. Even so, scholars largely continue to define Valentinus as a “Gnostic” according to Irenaeus’ narrative.

The terms “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” are problematic enough, typically useful either as an adjective “describing a type of mystical attitude rather than historical fact” open to an individual scholar’s interpretation, (Joseph Dan, “Jewish Gnosticism?” Jewish Studies Quarterly 2 (1995): 24) or as a noun to describe possible communities of practice such as “Sethianism”, which itself “remains a category postulated for the sake of convenience” (Gedaliahu A. G. Stroumsa, Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology (NHS 24; Leiden: Brill, 1984), 7). Further, however, according to Karen King, descriptions of Gnosticism merely serve to define it as the “other” in contrast to “the normative identity of Christianity” (Ismo Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 17) developed by the early Church Fathers.

Irenaeus described Valentinians as accepting “the Christian creed of God and Christ”, yet accused them of “thinking” differently than they spoke on Christian doctrine [Irenaeus, Her. 1, pref 2] (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 3). Although, as Gedaliahu Stroumsa pointed out, scholars understand these reports rarely “corresponded to a concrete and precisely defined reality,” (Stroumsa, Another Seed, 4) Valentinus continues to be studied according to his relationship to the Gnostikoi “heresy” as established by Irenaeus, (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:XI:1) an outsider to early Christian history. This is because, as Ismo Dunderberg has argued, scholarly use of the transitory term “Gnosticism” has only “perpetuated positions characteristic of the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy”, (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 11) even when Valentinus is studied in the context of early Christian history. For example, Christoph Markschies has argued that Valentinus was not a Gnostic, yet his Valentinian school was; Jens Holzhausen, Paul Schüngel and Gilles Quispel have characterized Valentinus as a Gnostic who developed his mythology from earlier “Sethian” gnostic texts; and Bentley Layton claimed that Valentinus was “not a Gnostic in the proper sense but ‘a Christian reformer of the classic Gnostic tradition'” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 15). As these examples show, modern scholars perpetuate this definition of Valentinus even though they largely agree the term “Gnostic” has no uniform meaning.

It is clear then, that even among scholars who seek to rehabilitate Valentinus, the relationship between his system and “Gnosticism” has been difficult for scholars to abandon. In this series, I will survey the evidence of Valentinus’ work in light of some scholarly interpretations (Layton, Pearson, Quispel and Dunderberg) of that evidence. I will follow that discussion with an examination of the history of Christianity in Alexandria in the first and second centuries, CE, in order to place Valentinus’ system in the broader historical context of early Christian heterodoxy. It is my argument, similar to Dunderberg’s, that Valentinus was an early Christian whose legacy has been defined by the early Church Fathers rather than a fair examination of the available evidence. This condemnation of poor scholarship is simply one example of the broader trend among scholars of early Christianity, according to Walter Bauer, who accuses academia of largely perpetuating the binary dichotomy of “orthodoxy vs. heresy” developed by the heresiologists to blame Satan for any opposition to their theological perspective of “right belief” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, edited by Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), xxiii-xxiv). This binary dichotomy perpetuated by authoritative figures in order to shape perception of reality and historical perspective is exactly what Pierre Bourdieu describes of how language is used by those in power for indoctrination of lower classes.

In the following post, I will look at Valentinus and evidence of his work.


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