A History of Orthodoxy vs. Heresy Part II: Valentinus Up Close

Mosaic of Male Figure in Medallion, 1st-2nd century C.E. Brooklyn Museum
Mosaic of Male Figure in Medallion, 1st-2nd century C.E. Brooklyn Museum

In the previous post, I provided an overview of how Valentinus was characterized by early Church Fathers (heresiologists) and how those reports continue to shape modern scholarship despite evidence to the contrary. In this post, I will look at these issues in more detail. I apologize as this post, with its survey of fragmentary evidence, may prove difficult to read. The last few paragraphs of the post provide a summary and conclusion to the section.

For most scholars of Christian origins, the second century, CE, Alexandrian figure of Valentinus, whose legacy of the “Valentinian school” survived until at least the eighth century (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 147), is commonly characterized as a “Gnostic” or a “Gnostic Christian” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 1), based primarily on a report by heresiologist Irenaeus of Gaul, written a decade or more after Valentinus’s death and purportedly based on conversations with followers of the Valentinian Ptolemaeus (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 9).

According to reports from Irenaeus and later heresiologists, Valentinus lived from about 100 until about 175 CE. He was born in the Egyptian Delta and educated in Alexandria, where he established himself as a notable teacher (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 217). According to Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), in Miscellanies 7.106, Valentinus’ students claimed apostolic succession from an unknown disciple of Paul, Theodas (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 146). By 140 CE, he had moved to Rome, where he taught in the Roman church, supposedly seeking the appointment of bishop (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 220). He is to have left Rome around 165 CE (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 220) and, according to Epiphanius (ca. 310-403) but elsewhere unattested, he settled in Cyprus and abandoned Christianity (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 146). The circumstances of his death are not known (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 146). As Bauer points out, however, it was a “recurrent device” in heresiological reports to characterize figures like Marcion and Valentinus as propelled from the church by frustrated ambitions (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 39 n.91) a narrative trope that undermines the reliability of the report that he left the Church.

More is known about his legacy, a school of thought that persisted for several centuries. Students of his school included the more famous Heracleon, Theodotus, Ptolemaeus, and Marcus (called the “Magician” by heresiologists), and the less famous Florinus, Secundus, Axionicus Ardesianes, Theotimus, and Alexander (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 2). According to Tertullian (ca. 160-220), Ptolemaeus changed the mythology so that the “aeons were outside the Godhead (like angels), whereas Valentinus considered them to be…ideas and aspects and moments of self-realization within the mind of the Godhead” (Quispel, “Valentinus and Gnostikoi”, 3-4), possibly suggesting pantheism, supported by likely pantheism in Gospel of Truth, which he may have written (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 250). Before the close of the second century, the school of Valentinus split into the eastern branch in Alexandria led by Theodotus and Marcus (Quispel, “Valentinus and Gnostikoi”, 2), who were said to have preserved Valentinus’ system (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 146), and a western branch in Italy headed by Ptolemaeus and Heracleon (Quispel, “Valentinus and Gnostikoi”, 2) that deviated “in terms of protology (doctrine of primal beings), soteriology, and Christology” (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 146). At Constantinople in 692, a church council antiheretical canon (no. 95) summoned by Byzantine emperor Justinian II refers to Valentinians, providing the last known evidence for the school (Pearson, Against Gnosticism, 147).

All that remain of Valentinus’ original writings are six fragments from homilies and epistles preserved in the work of Clement of Alexandria, a short psalm in Hippolytus of Rome (170-236), and possibly the homily titled the Gospel of Truth (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 147) found at Nag Hammadi, along with reports from other heresiologists such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. He was known for his rhetorical skills and range as a writer, producing his own “cross-centered” Christian mythology, Greek philosophical “epistles, sermons and treatises” and “mystic” poetry (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 221). The scant surviving evidence of his original writing demonstrates a stylistic oscillation between the general and the specific and a “shifting ambiguity” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 236).

In the first book of Against Heresies, written about 180, CE, (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 223), Irenaeus (Bishop of Gaul, 130 C.E.-202 C.E.) wrote the oldest surviving report on Valentinus and the Valentinian school, including an otherwise unattested myth attributed to Valentinus, ostensibly drawn from conversations with followers of Ptolemy (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 148). In his early description of Valentinus, Irenaeus claimed that Valentinus developed his “school” from the Gnostikoi “heresy” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:XI:1), which he discusses in greater detail in the twenty-ninth chapter. There, he argues that the “Gnostic” trends among Valentinus’ students originated from Gnostic influences on Valentinus’s early thought, an element of his biography that continues to persist: “Such are the opinions which prevail among these persons, by whom, like the Lernaean hydra, a many-headed beast has been generated from the school of Valentinus” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1:XXX:15). In one heavily laden statement, Irenaeus connects Valentinus to the Gnostikoi mythology, the water-serpent Hydra and further connotes the “beast” of Revelation, all details clearly implying a connection between Valentinus and Satan.

The myth Irenaeus attributes to Valentinus (based, he says, on the “Gnostic” myth), begins with a dyad (the “Ineffable” and the “Silence”), from which a “second dyad”, (“Father” and “Truth”) were emitted, producing, in turn, the “Word” (Logos), “Life”, “Man” and “Church”, forming “a primal ogdoad (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 148).” Ten “powers” derived from the Word and Life, while twelve “powers” originated from Man and Church (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 148). One of these powers turned away “and became deficient”, leading to the creation of the material universe (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 148). Although Irenaeus does not name this power, Layton points out that it would be wisdom/Sophia in “the gnostic myth (the last of the twelve aeons accompanying the four luminaries” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 226, fn j), referring to the “Sethian” myth in Apocryphon of John. Next, Irenaeus explains how two boundaries developed, due to the emanations, separating the “mother” from the fullness (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 226) (“spiritual universe”) (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 226, fn l). From her memory of the fullness, the mother engendered “the anointed (Christ)” and its “shadow” or “matter”, if it parallels Hypostasis of the Archons 94:8f (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 226, fn n), but the anointed severed the shadow and “hastened up into the fullness” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 226). Alone with the shadow, which had been “emptied of the spiritual substance”, the mother created the dēmiourgos and “a ruler on the left” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 226). Irenaeus’ summary ends abruptly without a full description of this myth (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 149).

As stated before, heresiological reports must always be questioned. In this case, beyond his goal of demonizing the popular Valentinian school as competition for his own developing theology, Irenaeus has taken a mythology he supposedly gathered from conversations with Ptolemy’s students and attributed it to Valentinus and appears to be influenced by Apocryphon of John and the Alexandrian thinker Basilides (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 149). In a later report, Tertullian (Against the Valentinians 4) contrasted “the teachings of Ptolemy, which feature names and numbers of the aeons outside of God, and the doctrine of Valentinus, who is said to have included the aeons within God as ‘sense’ and ’emotions'”, parallel with the Nag Hammadi text Valentinus may have written, The Gospel of Truth (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 148-9). Gilles Quispel argues that Tertullian’s accounts are more reliable because of parallels with Pseudo-Tertullian and the more recently discovered Epistle to Rheginus, which he attributes to the eastern Valentinian school (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 344). Lastly, Layton argues the myth “appears more overtly Christian than the gnostic myth and also closer to the language of Plato (it speaks of a divine ‘craftsman,’ for example, and not of Ialdabaōth)”, as well as beginning with a “dyad” rather than a “monad” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 223). In other words, the author is more accurately influenced by Platonism and Stoicism than “gnostic” myths.

Despite the lacuna in Irenaeus’ description, Birger Pearson insists that “Valentinus’ version of the Gnostic myth undoubtedly followed the basic outline of the myth found in Apocryphon of John” (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 149), an untenable scholarly position. Bentley Layton says that, based on Irenaeus, Valentinus was apparently “a Christian reformer of the classic gnostic tradition” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, xii), an argument for which too little evidence exists. Gilles Quispel says the myth may be confusing “because the unknown source of Irenaeus did not understand Valentinus very well”, yet Gnostic parallels prove the “report may be trustworthy” (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 346), however speculative. He takes the “sexual connotations” of Irenaeus’ language to indicate “Valentinus, impregnated and made pregnant by the opinions of the Gnostikoi, gave birth to the many ramifications of the Valentinian network” (Quispel, “Valentinus and Gnostikoi”, 2), proof that Valentinus was gnostic. He combines Irenaeus with a “difficult passage in Tertullian”, which together, he says, serve to “prove without any shadow of doubt that the original doctrine of Valentinus is rooted in a preceding mythological Gnosis which he hellenized and christianized” (Quispel, “Valentinus and Gnostikoi”, 4), rather than resulting from later changes to his system within the Valentinian school. Elsewhere, he argues that one of the names for the demiurge in Apocryphon of John, “Saklas”, which means “fool” in Aramaic (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 36, fn d), is paralleled by the use of ‘mōros‘ to describe the demiurge in The Gospel of Truth, which Quispel argues was written by Valentinus (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 333), so that “we must assume that it is a traditional motif taken from an earlier Gnosis” based on Jewish tradition, further proof that Basilides and Valentinus developed a “monistic gnosticism” from classical Gnostics (Quispel, “Gnosticism and the New Testament”, 76). He argues that if Valentinus was “not a Gnostic, he certainly was a gnostic” (Quispel, “Valentinus and Gnostikoi”, 4), a nod to the ephemeral nature of the term, from a scholarly perspective. And, in other words, Valentinus was a “heretic”, if nothing else.

Ismo Dunderberg, however, examines the oscillation in Irenaeus’ description of Valentinianism between a “cult society” (thiasos) [Irenaeus Her. 1.13.4] and, more often, a “school” (didaskaleion): “students of Valentinus” [Irenaeus Her. 1, pref. 2], Valentinus as the founder of a school (didaskaleion) [Irenaeus Her. 1.11.1], and “the school of Valentinus” [Irenaeus Her. 1, pref. 2; 1.30.15], uses of the term that “often denotes a philosophical school” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 3) rather than a cultic movement.

Unfortunately, the fragments do little to clarify the problem. Fragment Layton A conveys a report by Valentinus in which the Logos appeared to him as a newborn baby (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 231); fragment Layton B reveals a tripartite spiritual structure of “father, son and holy spirit” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 233); Layton C describes how the angels feared and destroyed Adam (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 235); Layton D presents an analogy to explain how Adam’s “form” was modeled imperfectly, its “lack” given “credence” by “god’s invisible” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 237); Layton E argues for Jesus’ divine digestive system (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 239); Layton F implies a connection between the “individual Christian elect (‘From the beginning’) and Jesus, for both are said to be immortal by nature and superior to corruption (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 240); Layton G argues that wisdom can be found outside the church because the “law that is written in the heart” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 243); Layton H explains that evil spirits in the heart cause confusion, but father can clear the heart so that the “person will see god” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 245). Summer Harvest, a short, complete Hellenistic poem preserved in Hippolytus, describes the author’s personal gnosis (rather than pseudepigraphy as authority) of the “linear chain” of “flesh-soul-air-upper atmosphere” a cosmological structure indebted to Greek science and philosophy (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 246), particularly Stoicism as it is modified in Hermetic treatises (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 63). The scientific vocabulary of stasis alters near the ending to the mythological language of “urgent motion”, a plunge into the “deep”, the source of all emanations (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 246).

Layton acknowledges the possible synthesis of a Greek education, Philonic thought (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 217), Hermetic literature and elements of Johannine or Thomasine literature such as Gospel of Thomas that originated in Syria (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 217) in these fragments, which “are among the most striking remains of ancient Christian literature” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 217). However, because Layton wants to characterize Valentinus as a Christian reformer of Sethian gnosticism, he argues the most significant influence is “mysticism, an acceptance of salvation through gnosis (acquaintance) of the savior, the self, and god, whose most brilliant exposition is found in his sermon The Gospel of Truth” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 220), although these fragments and Truth offer no clear evidence for this interpretation.

Because Quispel defines Valentinus as Gnostic, he sees a parallel with Philo on the subject of God’s ineffable nature (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 340) and the “theme that Adam was created by angels”, based on connections established between Gnosticism and Philo by Pearson (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 342). He argues that fragment E presupposes the Hermetic doctrine of a pneumatic body: “Through asceticism, Jesus awakened this divine spark and so worked out his own salvation”, based on an interpretation of Philippians 2:12 (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 346). Pearson merely concludes his survey of the fragments by describing them as reflecting “not only a learned Gnostic teacher, but also a devout Christian pastor of souls, a mystic visionary, and a gifted poet” (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 152). Clearly, from what we have read, Valentinus was quite at home with his Greek education in the diverse community of Alexandria, as we shall see below, resulting in a system that remains difficult to define.

Based on his characterization of Valentinus as a Christian philosopher, Dunderberg explores the apparent contradiction between the death of Adam in fragment C and the implication in fragment F that humans are immortal; however, he says, it may be that Valentinus is arguing that Jesus has restored the divine parrhesia to Christians that Adam had lost (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 58-59). He also notes that later Valentinians seem to have viewed the demiurge and creator angels more positively than in these fragments or in Gospel of Philip (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 59). He associates fragment F with H to suggest that the fragments were part of philosophical instruction, a guide to controlling emotions (the “‘kingly’ attitude”) as part of general “care of one’s inner life and adopting the right mental disposition”, because the world is “a place of education for the immortal ones” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 45). This would have been a common subject in philosophical schools. On the subject of Jesus’ digestion in fragment E, Dunderberg argues Valentinus is drawing on philosophical traditions regarding great sages such as Pythagoras in order to “elevate Jesus to the level of the legendary ancient philosophers”, implying “a competitive situation not among different Christian theologies but between Christian philosophy and other forms of philosophy” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 22). From this perspective, Valentinus would clearly be a Christian with Greek philosophical training defending Christianity from the tradition he learned before his conversion.

Clearly, the brevity and lack of context for the fragments provide little evidence for Valentinus’ system, leading to much speculation among scholars. Even so, a few details can be inferred. Other than the mention of angels in fragment C, there is no hint of a “complex system of personified beings” among the fragments; rather, in fragment D, the “living realm” (or aeon) is described, corresponding to the “eternal realm” in other Hellenistic systems (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 63). Additionally, there is no hint of Wisdom’s fall, a key component of the Sethian “gnostic” myth. Even so, scholars have found much space from which to draw meaning, especially when the fragments are joined with the problematic myth preserved in Irenaeus or with The Gospel of Truth found at Nag Hammadi.

There is no clear proof Valentinus wrote The Gospel of Truth, of course, although it is an attractive idea. Layton argues that it is “extremely likely” because of stylistic parallels to the Fragments, the “uniqueness of that style”, the “alleged genius and eloquence of Valentinus” among his critics, and the lack of another plausible candidate (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 251). Because Pseudo-Tertullian indicates that Valentinus had “a gospel of his own” (Against All Heresies, 4), which Irenaeus refers to as a “Gospel of Truth” in Against Heresies, 3.11.9, and the “style of writing resembles that of the fragments of other works by Valentinus”, Pearson agrees that Valentinus is the likely author (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 153). He further contends the text implies a Gnostic system, including “an allusion to the fall of Sophia” or Wisdom (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 154), although, if this were true, allusion is the only evidence we have.

Quispel says that it was only the “second half of the second century” that “gospel” came to refer to the “kerygmatic biographies” of Jesus (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 332). Therefore, the report in Irenaeus that Valentinus had his own “gospel” and the fact that The Gospel of Truth is a sermon declaring “God’s good news to men” are not contradictory clues. Pseudo-Tertullian 4:6 claims that Valentinus has his own gospel, “this in addition to our own gospel” (evangelium habet suum praeter haec nostra), from which Quispel derives that Pseudo-Tertullian and Hippolytus are “transmitting a very old and trustworthy tradition which may go back to Justin Martyr” (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 332). Further, Quispel claims that a “close reading” of the gospel reveals the Gnostic myth “behind its allusive and sophisticated style” (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 332), an adaptation of Gnosticism that “is more radical and goes farther than any known Valentinian” (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 333), arguing for the implication or “allusion” of “Gnostic” traits as Pearson also argued. This, after all, is Quispel’s ultimate project, to suppose that Valentinian literature is not purely “Gnostic” because those elements adopted by the teacher Valentinus were later abandoned by the students of his school of thought, because Quispel could not be convinced that “Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian had simply lied when they reported about Valentinus” (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 327) and the influence of Gnosticism on his thought. However, it is well-known that the Patristic Fathers simply regurgitated much of the material they inherited from earlier heresiologists, adding only the minute original material they could provide. Erroneous information could easily pass from one Father to another over the centuries, and often did.

Unfortunately, Dunderberg says little in regards to The Gospel of Truth. I say this is unfortunate because, if Valentinus is to have written it, this is the most significant piece of evidence for his system of thought, even if it is defined by its “absence of a developed system” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 251). The Gospel of Truth is a sermon presupposing a system of thought, professing that creation, the result of an error, is illusory, contributing to ignorance of true “cosmic existence” and the knowledge of the Father that has been revealed by Jesus’ teachings and crucifixion. Knowledge of the Father leads to a slow ascent back to the source, “by the Father’s will, through his own Name (36,39-40,23), which is the Son” (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 154). This election, recorded in a “book of the living,” is “put on” by the Son as flesh, so that, when he is crucified and resurrected, salvation is made available to those who were chosen to receive it (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 155). It teaches the difference between “two possible states of being”: rest and movement, part of a general Platonist worldview within the cosmology of Stoic pantheistic monism and Greek astronomy (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 250). In other words, all creation is “nested” as permeations of God, within God, resulting in a negative view of the “illusory” material world, which, even though it is within God is ignorant and furthest from God’s nature in understanding. Salvation causes the illusion to fade to “nothingness” so that the Christian reunites with God in “repose” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 250). Layton says the focus of the sermon is “not the description of the universe but discussion of knowledge and psychology”, the few examples of myth allegorized as psychology in Late Antiquity (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 250-1). In this sense, the sermon uses myth pedagogically, incorporating interpretations of “some thirty to sixty scriptural passages, almost all from New Testament books”, with a primary focus on Johannine literature in order to “describe, evoke, and elicit a kind of relationship” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 251). The sermon is complex and thought-provoking, but there is nothing about it to betray an anti-Christian ethic.

Dunderberg’s one reference to The Gospel of Truth indicates that it portrays Christ as a “teacher” who “went to ‘schools’ and ‘spoke the word as a teacher” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 4). His primary argument about Valentinus was that, as a Christian philosopher, he “used myth to lend justification to the lifestyle they recommended to their followers” according to the practices of other “ancient schools of thought” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 7), influenced by the “intellectual milieu of second-century Alexandria, colored by Platonism and Hellenistic Judaism” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 20). According to Pierre Hadot, he says, in Greco-Roman schools of thought, philosophy “required a choice of a way of life”, a view shared by early Christian philosophers (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 23) and Hellenistic Jews.

Dunderberg says we could argue that Valentinus, Basilides and Justin Martyr were among “the earliest groups developing the idea of Christian philosophy” according to this Greco-Roman tradition (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 23). Further, the fact that Plato used myth “to lead young minds toward philosophy” while also conveying “deeper spiritual meaning, which formed the ultimate goal of education”, indicated a tradition of esoteric and exoteric uses of mythology among ancient schools of thought, consistent with his view of Valentinus as a philosopher. This, he says, requires reconsideration of Irenaeus’ accusation of a “hidden agenda” among Valentinians (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 28), a characterization that has been perpetuated by scholars despite the fact that, in the second century, the charge of secrecy “was made against all Christians by non-Christians such as Celsus” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 191). Viewed broadly in their cultural context, then, these claims may have held some validity for all early Christians, as the “prebaptismal teaching of initiates” in Christian communities could take three years according to Hippolytus (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 192), “esoteric instruction was probably offered in the school of Philo” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 193), rabbinic teaching of difficult texts was restricted to initiates (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 193) and both Philo and Origen promoted allegorical interpretation of the sacred texts. From these recorded habits of other Alexandrian schools of thought, we can surmise that Valentinus and employed esoteric and exoteric uses of mythological narratives and other philosophical traditions with his students.

Given the diversity of interpretations of scant texts by these various scholars, however, it is clear each of them has projected meaning onto the figure of Valentinus in lieu of concrete evidence to the contrary. However, as Dunderberg argued, characterizations of “Gnosticism” imply a binary dichotomy of orthodoxy and heresy, by which any thought system labeled “Gnostic” cannot be legitimately “Christian”, just as the early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus characterized them. If an exploration of early Christian history in Alexandria provides an alternative to that model, it may yet be possible to salvage Valentinus’ claims to a genuine Christian faith.

In the following post, I will survey existing evidence for the development of Christianity in Alexandria, Egypt in the first and second centuries, CE.


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