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The Gospel of Truth, 4: fruits and hidden mysteries

That is the gospel of him whom they seek, which he has revealed to the perfect through the mercies of the Father as the hidden mystery, Jesus the Christ. Through him he enlightened those who were in darkness because of forgetfulness. He enlightened them and gave them a path. And that path is the truth which he taught them. For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him. It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless. He was nailed to a cross. He became a fruit of the knowledge of the Father. He did not, however, destroy them because they ate of it. He rather caused those who ate of it to be joyful because of this discovery.

This paragraph has several oblique references to the writings of Paul. It follows especially closely I Corinthians 2:6-8:

We do speak wisdom (sophia) among the initiates (the mature, teleioi), but not the wisdom of this age or of the archons of this age, who are passing away. But we speak the hidden wisdom (sophia) of God in a mystery, which God ordained before the aions for our glory. None of the archons of this age knew this: had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

This is the translation of the passage given by Elaine Pagels on page 57 of The Gnostic Paul, and I quoted this rather than from a more familiar translation in order to underscore something that may not have been obvious before: Valentinus really was following the words of Paul very closely.

The juxtaposition of the words “hidden,” “mystery” and “teleioi” (“perfect”)are very suggestive, and this brings up a debate which has been going for some time now: over whether or not Paul was the leader of a Hellenistic-style mystery school based on legends he’d heard about Jesus. “Teleioi” was a word used by the members of mystery schools to refer to those who had passed the test (or tests) of ritual initiation and could therefore be trusted to understand a deeper, secret set of teachings.

However, if Paul was not the founder or leader of a mystery school, it’s hard to imagine what else he could have meant.

In fact, what drew the ire of critics like Bishop Irenaeus was not so much the idea of initiation but that the sect of Valentinus sought to undermine the power structure of the church. It was not uncommon for the bishop of a congregation to have been excluded from initiation – creating a situation where lay members of the church claimed to have a deeper, more spiritual understanding of the Christian teaching than their ostensible leaders. There was concern among the bishops that if they allowed this to continue, the Gnostics might undermine the hierarchy of the church.  The Gnostics, for their part, rejected anything that resembled the kind of authority that the archons sought to wield over humanity – seeing everything from the Roman imperial hegemony to the claims of sole authority coming from the organized clergy as reflections of archontic power in human society.  Essentially, the Gnostics were not very good followers. As Kurt Rudolph wrote,

Jewish apocalyptic and esotericism, and the Oriental faith in salvation in the form of mystery religions, also became means of expression of a social protest. Gnosis was without a doubt the most radical voice in this circle. Its rejection of the moral tradition and the visible world of government (including the supernatural) is an attempt to solve the social problems of the time under an unambiguously religious banner… (Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, p. 292).

In the paragraph above, Valentinus conscientiously equated the archons (acting on behalf of “error”) with the worldly authorities who branded Jesus as a criminal and executed him. This blending of worldly and supernatural authorities into a singular image of tyranny was not unique to Valentinus but was common among the Gnostic writings.

The final image here is interesting: Jesus became a “fruit of the knowledge” akin to the fruit Adam and Eve were said to have eaten in the Garden of Eden. But instead of being destroyed by it, those who eat are joyful. This follows upon the example of the Gospel of John and parallels the contrast Paul sought to establish between Adam and Christ in Romans 5. But this has further significance, because later on in the Gospel of Truth we find this: “he who has no root has no fruit either” — building upon the image of the root as I described in my last post, and the ‘organic’ imagery used by the Valentinians to depict the process of emanation from the Father.

This image is also reminiscent of a passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:17-20)

This part of the Sermon on the Mount is typically cited by Christians as a warning against false prophets – among whom they would include the author of the Gospel of Truth.  The Gnostics would say the same right back to their critics, arguing that the “fruits” by which they judged the bishops – who at that point already totally excluded women from the priesthood, just to cite one point of contention – proved their allegiance with the archons rather than with the Father.  See for example chapter 9 of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which depicted through an evocative metaphor the struggles for influence within the early church.  We see therein Peter, representing the church in Rome, vehemently rejecting the witness of Mary after she described a vision from Jesus which disagreed with his beliefs.  Whether or not this scene ‘actually’ played out historically, debates like this, over the participation of women in the clergy, were raging throughout the church.  As they were excluded from participation in the clergy, women found some of the Gnostic movements, such as the Valentinian school, to be more welcoming.

The next post will be my last in this series on the Gospel of Truth, and I’m going to go a bit more “meta” next time.  Previous posts in this series:

salvation like a seed taking root

apokatastasis and stillness

logos and pleroma