This is the conclusion to a series on Valentinus, the early Christian condemned by Irenaeus as a “heretic” by association with the Gnostikoi, a designation perpetuated by modern scholars of religious history. I have attempted to rehabilitate his biography and use Valentinus as an example of how the binary dichotomy of “orthodoxy vs. heresy” has shrouded the early Roman Church’s suppression of Christian diversity in the name of battling Satan. To read this series from the beginning, please click here.
Elaine Pagels said, “What distressed Irenaeus most was that the majority of Christians did not recognize the followers of Valentinus as heretics” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 32). She also concedes, however, that, without the mythic historical narrative of apostolic succession upon which the Orthodox Church in Rome defined itself (claiming a pure doctrine from Jesus to the disciples to the founders of the Church), diversity may have been Christianity’s downfall. Many scholars believe recitation of the Christian creed, intended to identify true Christians in the early Church, was developed in response to the popularity of Marcion (Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 28). It is well known that, early in the second century, Marcion developed his own Christian canon of acceptable books, “excluding the Jewish scriptures and limited to a severely expurgated Luke and Paul”, prompting early Christians to develop an official canon, which resulted in “differing canons” among various communities (Forsyth, The Old Enemy, 299). The Church in Rome set as its primary task weeding out differences under the authority of its own order (although this was not accomplished until the 5th century in the Roman Church, and variations persisted in the East, in Africa and later variations appeared in the West after the Protestant Reformation, calling into question the stability of “Bible” as an official canon). Pagels says the discovery of texts hidden from Church oppression in the desert at Nag Hammadi offers “a new perspective on this process [and] we can understand why certain creative persons throughout the ages, from Valentinus and Heracleon to Blake, Rembrandt, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, found themselves at the edges of orthodoxy. All were fascinated by the figure of Christ–his birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection: all returned constantly to Christian symbols to express their own experience. And yet they found themselves in revolt against orthodox institutions” (Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 150).
I began this series by declaring that Valentinus was a Christian and not a “Gnostic”. “Gnostic”, I said, is a dirty word, tantamount to “heresy”, as Irenaeus intended. However, Valentinus could certainly have been described as “gnostic”, and this would not have limited his claims to a Christian faith. Prior to the discovery of codices and fragments at Nag Hammadi in 1945, scholars largely outlined “Gnosticism” according to heresiological reports and medieval dualistic systems, taxonomies that continue to shape the conversation. Despite the fact that textual variety of Nag Hammadi codices resists simple labeling, many scholars continue to discuss definitive “Gnostic” systems as comparative tools for “heretics” such as Valentinus. For my study, however, I focus on the literary trend of “gnosis” across quite different textual variations, defined here as salvation granted by the ineffable god in the form of divine revelation, “acquaintance” (gnosis) with an otherwise “secret” and unattainable truth. This trend does not require radical dualism, although it may; and radical dualism (such is found in Zoroastrianism, for example) might not equate with “gnosis”. Other common traits of “Gnosticism”, as was found among dualistic groups of the Middle Ages, are not relevant to the early literary trend of gnosis found among Greeks, Jews and Christians as an experience of salvation alternative to institutional authority.
Based on the fragments and The Gospel of Truth, it is safe to say that Valentinus believed that, through crucifixion, Christ became the “fruit of the father’s gnosis” (The Gospel of Truth 18:26), for “whoever does not possess gnosis is in need, and what that person needs is great, inasmuch as the thing that such a person needs is what would complete the person” (The Gospel of Truth 21:15-17) and those who receive the gnosis provided by Christ receive it as revelation: “In their hearts appeared the living book of the living, which is written in the father’s thought and intellect.”
And what does the reception of gnosis in one’s heart accomplish? “When one receives gnosis, ignorance of the other passes away of its own accord; and as with darkness, which passes away when light appears: so also lack passes away in completion, and so from that moment on, the realm of appearance is no longer manifest but rather will pass away in the harmony of unity.” In other words, the illusion of distinction will evaporate and the person who receives gnosis will understand, through revelation, his or her unity with God and the cosmos and all that is in it, because everything that exists is in God, for this is a pantheistic cosmology. Evil, if it were to be mentioned, is a “lack”, an ignorance of the true reality. It is easy to see why this Valentinian sermon found at Nag Hammadi, very likely written by Valentinus himself, was suppressed by the early Church as the power of orthodoxy grew. However, nothing about this sermon violates the notion of a Christ-centered theology. In fact, The Gospel of Truth “paraphrases, and so interprets, some thirty to sixty scriptural passages, almost all from New Testament books (Genesis, John, 1 John, Revelation, Matthew, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Hebrews). Of these, it has been shown that the Johannine literature (including Revelation) has had the most profound theological influence upon Valentinus’s thought: the Pauline literature, less so; and Matthew hardly at all” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 251). It is Christian.
Too often, scholars accept Eusebius’ historical narrative of apostolic succession for Roman Orthodox authority, which, as we have seen, ignores evidence to the contrary and perpetuates the binary dichotomy of “orthodoxy vs. heresy” by which Valentinus and other non-orthodox Christians were so easily condemned. This is unfortunate, for academics have long acknowledged that the New Testament documents developed under “spatial as well as temporal limitations to their sphere of authority” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, xxii), a perspective that should be broadened to acknowledge widespread syncretism and diversity of Christian thought in the second century. The Orthodox historical narrative contends that the cohesive apostolic succession (clear authority from Christ to the disciples to the early Church Fathers) was impeded by the efforts of the “devil”, who led “true Christians” away from “pure doctrine” into heterodoxy (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, xxiii), an explanation of diversity as a “heresy” designed by Satan. Because of this narrative of apostolic succession, heresiologists argued that heresy actually derived from what was originally pure orthodoxy, a result of “impure motives” (such as pride) corrupting “right belief” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, xxiii-xxiv). That “heresy” derived from “orthodoxy” is close to the truth, of course, as heresy did not exist until it was defined by orthodoxy a century later. The result, of course, was that only the heresiologist’s theology could be considered valid and any opposing views were attributed to Satan, the author of “error” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, xxiii-xxiv). From the perspective of the heresiological reports of early Church Father Irenaeus, writing a generation after Valentinus, the latter man was clearly a heretic, led astray by Satan from a position of orthodoxy that did not exist during his lifetime.
Despite recent efforts by scholars to rehabilitate Valentinus as an important Gnostic, Gnostic Christian, Christian philosopher or heterodox theologian, attempts to clearly define his system only serve to imply his heretical position in regard to Church history. It is more intellectually honest to view the scant evidence of his work in light of the environment in which he was educated: early second century Alexandria, a complex mix of cultures and literature that resists simple labels. To do otherwise is to accept an authoritative position that perpetuates the binary dichotomy of “orthodoxy vs. heresy” to rewrite a complex history as a progressive narrative of good vs. evil.
In closing, I would like to share my favorite section from The Gospel of Truth, which explains that the Son is the Name of the Father. Let that sink in for a moment: God is ineffable…so unknowable to the human mind, in fact, that God’s name is expressed as an entire lifetime on earth…and not just any life…a mysterious life that we do not understand. If we could understand the life of Jesus and if we could express that life in words, then we could speak the name of God. But we cannot; God is beyond our capacity to do so. That is the eloquence of this great Christian who authored The Gospel of Truth, that he spoke in symbol, imagery, metaphor and myth to express what the institutions often fail to explain: although we may understand that God exists and experience God in our lives, our capacity to know God is far more limited than our capacity to know Jesus…and if Jesus were so easy to know, why have there been so many different churches in Christian history? This is gnosis, the knowledge/acquaintance granted by God because it cannot be learned in any book or institution or derived by any human mind. And this is why Valentinus was both gnostic and Christian and a threat to the Roman Church.
“[H]e is the father, from whom the beginning came and to whom all who emanated from him will return. And they appeared so that there might be glory and joy in his name. Now, the name of the father is the son. It is he who in the beginning named what emanated from him, remaining always the same. And he begot him as a son and gave him his name, which he possessed. It is in whose vicinity the father has all things: he has the name, and he has the son. The latter can be seen; but the name is invisible, for it alone is the mystery of the invisible, which comes into ears that are wholly full of it, because of him. And yet the father’s name is not spoken. Rather, it is manifest in a son. Thus, great is the name!”
The Gospel of Truth 37: 37-38:24
Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, ed. Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.
Carabine, Deirdre. The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Press, 1995.
Dan, Joseph. “Jewish Gnosticism?” Jewish Studies Quarterly 2 (1995): 309-29.
Dunderberg, Ismo. Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Forsyth, Neil. The Old Enemy: Satan & The Combat Myth. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Quispel, Gilles. “Gnosticism and the New Testament”. Vigiliae Christianae 19, no 2 (Jun., 1965), 65-85.
Quispel, Gilles. “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”. Vigiliae Christianae 50, no 4 (1996), 327-352.
Quispel, Gilles. “Valentinus and Gnostikoi”, Vigiliae Christianae 50, no 1 (1996): 1-4.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Pearson, Birger A. Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
Runia, David T. “Philo and the Early Christian Fathers”. In The Cambridge Companion to Philo, ed. Adam Kamesar. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Schwartz, Daniel R. “Philo, His Family, and His Times”. In The Cambridge Companion to Philo, ed. Adam Kamesar. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Segal, Alan F. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012.
Stroumsa, Gedaliahu A. G. Another Seed: Studies in Gnostic Mythology. NHS 24; Leiden: Brill, 1984.
Termini, Cristina. “Philo’s Thought within the Context of Middle Judaism”. In The Cambridge Companion to Philo, ed. Adam Kamesar. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
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I’ve suspected for a while now that Alexandria had a far greater role in the creation of Christianity than is normally supposed, and this article very skillfully and helpfully organizes a lot of details of the period concerning Alexandria, especially in Part Three of the piece. A very worthy effort that with some minimal reworking could easily appear in an academic journal (and should).
As a ‘by the way’, my interest in Alexandria as a site for the creation of Christianity comes from my own ‘Jesus mythicism’, which ought to be called New Testament minimalism. The quote you mention in Part Three from Justin Martyr about the Christian demanding ’emasculation’ – provided this didn’t mean circumcision, and really referred to severing the penis (still done today by radical ascetics) – ought to raise the question: what Jesus were they following?
In any event, a great piece and an example of internet scholarship at its best.
N.B. Came here by way of the Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio Facebook page.
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Thank you very much! I’ve long had a strong interest in Gnosticism and I’m working on a series looking at it as a modern movement of spiritual awakening as much of our population leaves the church in search of deeper, more meaningful truth. I think the “spiritual but not religious” movement could be organized around an understanding of the early gnostic movement and its relationship with developing Christianity.