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Gnostic name wordcloud

I’ve been working on an index of the named figures in Gnostic myth, focusing especially on the Barbelo-Sethian texts – Pistis Sophia, Books of Ieou, the Untitled Apocalypse, and related works in the Nag Hammadi Library.  I was surprised to see how prominent were some of the lesser-known figures of Gnostic myth – such as Youel, “she who belongs to the glories,” and Esephech, “the Child of the Child.”  Both of them are described in several texts (notably Zostrianos) as spirit-instructors.

Sophia is a bit under-represented (I didn’t index every single occurrence of her name) – and the list isn’t necessarily comprehensive – ‘representative’ is probably a more accurate description.

Using Wordle I constructed a word cloud; click the image to see the full-size version.

wordcloud of Gnostic god-names

The Merging of Opposites in Thunder: Perfect Mind

Thunder: Perfect Mind is not like any other text in the Gnostic corpus.  It was written in the first person, and consists of a seemingly endless list of contradictory self-descriptions:

I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.

The narrator is female, but she moves beyond female-centric imagery into the abstract:

I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.

Some, including Douglas M. Parrott, one of the principal translators, have compared it to the Isis aretalogies used in Egyptian worship.  An aretalogy is a list or catalog of characteristics used to identify a deity.  For example, the most famous of the Isis aretalogies is this one, which seems to be the work of an Isis mystery cult in Thrace.  It doesn’t bear much resemblance to Thunder: Perfect Mind.  The Isis aretalogy addresses Isis in the second person, and it doesn’t have a similar rhythm at all. But the parallels may provide a clue.

Thunder: Perfect Mind does bear a bit more resemblance to the Sophia aretalogy in Proverbs 8:22-36:

Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil. (Proverbs 8:23-26)

The Sophia monologue was written during the Hellenistic period and exemplifies the Wisdom scripture of the Jewish community in Alexandria.  But even this work is very different.  It is essentially a creation story praising Wisdom, telling a coherent narrative, whereas Thunder: Perfect Mind is simply a mind-boggling array of contradictory assertions.

Merging of opposites is a prominent theme in Gnostic scripture.  Consider this famous passage from the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom” (Gospel of Thomas 22)

This in turn can be compared to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, considered one of the foundational writings of alchemy.  Some alchemical writings appear to have been deeply crypto-Gnostic (cf. for example the work of Silberer and Jung), and the alchemical endeavor possibly provided one avenue by which Gnostic ideas were preserved in secret during the years when being in possession of Gnostic writings was a grave offense.

But what purpose could this have served?  Is it simply meant to sound profound while being, simply, nonsense?  Nanna Olsen gave a clue in her conclusion to this essay about Thunder: Perfect Mind:

The text … works to convey meaning not in an informative way, but in a performative one by perpetually deferring, defying, disrupting and destructing meaning, and forcing the reader into insoluble dilemmas, it becomes obvious how the text makes sense.

The key word there is ‘performative.’  The most obvious use of the text is as a ritual script.  Perhaps the goal was invocation, or the literal drawing of divine presence into oneself by prayer and ritual.

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquilli, in their book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, describe an interesting theory based on taking brain images of people having religious experiences.  Ritual, they suggested, induces a state of mystical awe by stimulating both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic faculties in the nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for “fight or flight” by responding to potential threats; speeding the heart and and exciting the amygdala.  The parasympathetic nervous system responds to calming stimuli by slowing the heartbeat and allowing the body to enter a restful state.  Normally either one or the other is active at a time; only an unsual circumstance can trigger both to be active at the same time. Religious ritual accomplishes this, though. Ritual performance involves rhythm and repetition, which tend to calm one down; but they also present the mind with imagery or mysteries that evoke fear or surprise.  The result is that both nervous systems are triggered at the same time and the result can be a profoundly emotional experience.

Even the title of the text alone suggests this juxtaposition: “thunder” alongside “perfect mind.”  The text is intended to be performed, and gives us great insight into what it must have been like to participate in Gnostic worship.

Guardian Angels in the Gnostic tradition

The idea of guardian spirits or angels was fairly widely known throughout the West during the period of antiquity, though these took many different forms.

For example, the Romans worshipped spirits called the lares, who were ancestor spirits who remained to guard over a family and household.  This entailed protection from harm as well as protection of the family’s hearth and bounty.  The Romans also believed in spirits called genii (sg. genius), who were associated with a particular person, place, or concept, and charged with guarding and protecting the virtue of that which they watched over.  The office of Roman emperor had a genius, as did the entire people of the Roman Empire.

Roman subjects paid a kind of spiritual tax in the requirement to regularly offer a small sacrifice, usually a small pastry or cake, to the genii of the emperor and the Roman Empire. Jews were exempted from making this sacrifice by special treaty, but that dispensation did not apply to Christians.  Refusing to make this sacrifice was the most frequent act for which Christians were condemned during the waves of persecution that sometimes swept through the Empire.

Among the various sects of Judaism, the idea of protective spirits was adopted gradually, though naturally as angels.  Daniel, when sent to the lions’ den, was protected by an angel, though it does not read as if this was an angel permanently appointed to protect him.  In the Book of Enoch are mentioned angels sent to guard over the righteous (and, according to the Epistle of Jude, to execute the Lord’s judgment).  Also, the Book of Enoch describes several archangels whose duties include promotion of justice, especially Michael.

It is this type of guardian angel who appears in Acts 12, in which an angel freed Peter from jail.  When Peter made his way to the house of Mary the mother of John, he knocked at the gate, only to have the apostles think, since it can’t be him (he’s in prison!) maybe it’s his angel.

The Holy Spirit, as a guide and protector to the body of the church, plays a role not unlike the genius of the Empire.  This is also analogous to the Kabbalistic idea of the Keneset Yisrael, the soul of the body of Israel – a spiritual bond connecting the members of the nation together as one body.

The Gnostics also spoke about guardian angels, but their understanding was somewhat different.  An excellent essay, “Joined to an Angel,” describes the role of the guardian angel in the Valentinian scripture and its importance in the Gnostic sacraments – especially the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber, which was not a marital ceremony between man and woman, but a marriage between the aspirant and their guardian angel, spiritually analogous to the marriage of Christ and Sophia.

In the Valentinian tradition, each person has an angel who is a go-between between them and the divine presence — but the connection is even deeper than that.  The Gospel of Philip describes the union with the guardian angel by way of an analogy:

The forms of evil spirit include male ones and female ones. The males are they which unite with the souls which inhabit a female form, but the females are they which are mingled with those in a male form… And none shall be able to escape them, since they detain him if he does not receive a male power or a female power, the bridegroom and the bride. One receives them from the mirrored bridal chamber. When the wanton women see a male sitting alone, they leap down on him and play with him and defile him. So also the lecherous men, when they see a beautiful woman sitting alone, they persuade her and compel her, wishing to defile her. But if they see the man and his wife sitting beside one another, the female cannot come into the man, nor can the male come into the woman. So if the image and the angel are united with one another, neither can any venture to go into the man or the woman.

The image (eidolon) is a Gnostic term for the material body, and the implication is that the angel is almost like another half of your soul without whom you are incomplete.

This esoteric notion of the guardian angel has its roots (as do many of the Gnostic ideas) in the writings of Plato.  During the classical period, the Greek words for personal angel (daimon) and god (theou) were used somewhat interchangeably.  By the time of Plato a distinction started to appear, which was explicated in this exchange between Socrates and the priestess Diotima in the Symposium:

“What then is Love?” I asked; “Is he mortal?” “No.” “What then?” “As in the former instance, he is neither mortal nor immortal, but in a mean between the two.” “What is he, Diotima?” “He is a great spirit (daimon), and like all spirits he is intermediate between the divine and the mortal.” “And what,” I said, “is his power?” “He interprets,” she replied, “between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him the arts of the prophet and the priest, their sacrifices and mysteries and charms, and all, prophecy and incantation, find their way.

A similar notion of the guardian angel persists to this day, which is known in modern occultism because it was developed into a system of theurgic magic by Mathers in his Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, the central goal of which is called the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.  The aspirant, after a period of ritual purification (similar to the ascetic lifestyle advocated by many of the Gnostic sects) is said to attain mastery over many things in this world.  The magical SATOR square, employed therein, was known to ancient magic practitioners, including those of ancient Alexandria.  In many ways, we see, the Western esoteric tradition has remained largely intact over the millennia.

Rebirth in the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas and several related works such as the Book of Thomas the Contender were the product of a community in Galilee or Syria modern scholars call “the Thomas Christians,” and we can call collectively the body of scripture they wrote “the Thomas scripture.”  They wrote the first draft of the Gospel of Thomas around the same time as Paul wrote his letters, circa 50 CE, a generation or so before the Gospel of Mark was written.

At the time of Jesus, there was a great amount of diversity of belief among the Jewish people, including about the notion of the afterlife.  The Sadducees held to a traditional Jewish view of the afterlife as described in the book of Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: that when a person dies, all of them dies.  The Pharisees added to this the idea that upon the return of the Messiah, the righteous would be resurrected from the dead.

Early Christians, like the Essenes and other apocalyptic sects, adopted the Greek idea of the afterlife.  According to this teaching, each person has an eternal soul.  When a person dies, the soul is guided by a psychopomp to the underworld, where they are judged and sent on to a final destination: a pleasant realm like Elysium for the virtuous, or a fiery realm of punishment like Tartarus for the wicked.

But these were not the only ideas about death and the eternal soul being considered and debated among people of the middle east at that time.  Most of the Gnostic communities, due to the influence of Buddhism, professed some degree of belief in rebirth.  Rebirth is not quite like the more familiar idea of reincarnation.  The idea of reincarnation is that each person has an immortal soul that remains unchanged from incarnation to incarnation.  The idea of rebirth is a bit more nebulous: that some of the energy that makes us up is eternal — the eternal breath, or holy spirit (ruach hakodesh or hagia pneuma) — but that the self, or the part of us that identifies as “I,” is not.  The “I” dies along with the body and the eternal essence is released back into the cosmos.

The Thomas Christians believed this, but they also taught that Jesus made it possible for the “I” to become immortal and persist after death.  This was a privilege granted only to the righteous.  Consider for example Saying 60 of the Gospel of Thomas (I’ve slightly interpolated from the translation here):

He saw a Samaritan carrying a lamb and going to Judea. He said to his disciples, “[Why is that man carrying a lamb?]” They said to him, “So that he may kill it and eat it.” He said to them, “He will not eat it while it is alive, but only after he has killed it and it has become a carcass.”
They said, “Otherwise he can’t do it.”
He said to them, “So also with you, seek for yourselves a place for rest, or you might become a carcass and be eaten.”

Rest, or repose, or stillness, as I noted in my commentary on the Gospel of Truth, is used as a way of depicting the process of achieving gnosis with the divine presence by way of quiet prayer and stillness meditation.

The Gospel of Thomas is very concerned with the distinction between being alive and being a corpse; it comes up so often we might consider it a major theme.  The idea is that if you die without salvation, your identity will fade and your spirit will be reabsorbed into the world, and you won’t have another shot at achieving eternal life for your selfhood until you are a human again, which may take some time.  Consider this excerpt from the Book of Thomas the Contender:

The savior replied, “Listen to what I am going to tell you and believe in the truth. That which sows and that which is sown will dissolve in the fire – within the fire and the water – and they will hide in tombs of darkness. And after a long time they shall show forth [as] fruit of the evil trees, being punished, being slain in the mouth of beasts and men at the instigation of the rains and winds and air and the light that shines above.”

This illuminates the meaning of the stranger sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, such as saying 7:

Jesus said, “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”

There is something of an alchemical understanding of spirit at play here.  Spirit evolves when beings eat others or are themselves eaten.  If a ‘higher’ being eats a ‘lower’ being (with humans being seen as the pinnacle – what else would we expect a human to say?), it transforms the spirit of the eaten from a lower state to a higher state.  If a ‘lower’ being eats a ‘higher’ being, the spirit is still transformed from a lower state to a higher state, but all the sadder for the higher being!  But if spirit is buried in the earth along with a body, it has to start all over again… being absorbed by the roots of trees and showing forth as fruit.  (There must be a metaphorical level of meaning here too, or else why are the trees called evil?)

What goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you. (Thomas 14; also Matthew 15:11, compare Luke 6:45)

According to the Thomas Christians, the person who is able to achieve immortality in their identity will live on and has a chance to escape from the world, which was constructed as a prison for spirit.

Jesus said, “Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.” (Thomas 56)

The Gospel of Truth, conclusion: An Instrument of Metanoia

There’s a tension hidden in the metaphors and imagery used in the Gospel of Truth, and it regards the meaning of the metaphor of “error.” Throughout the text, “hylic substance” — matter, in other words — is said to be from a swirling “fog of error” which grew so thick it could take on form. Presumably the people of Valentinus’ time were unaware of how clouds of matter in space slowly condense over time into stars and planets, but the idea is similar. The obvious implication of equating matter with error is that the material universe is an illusion, which is a doctrine classically associated with Gnosticism.

But there’s another way to interpret the Gospel of Truth’s narrative about error, and I lean towards this being the “real” underlying meaning: that error taking on substance is a metaphor for the process by which concepts can get in the way of understanding our experiences, especially mystical experiences which can defy description.

The term “hypostasis” has numerous meanings, but we can use it here to refer to a process that happens within discourse over the course of decades. It starts with one writer or speaker, struggling to come up with a way to describe a particularly profound experience or realization. He or she chooses a term, knowing that it comes up a bit short, but which can be made to accommodate the thought being communicated.  The problem is that religious experience often defies easily being matched with categories or notions or concepts that were designed to describe “things” in the real world and “events” which happen to those “things.” So the community agrees by convention to use, say, the word “wisdom” (sophia) to refer to one aspect of an ineffable experience.

The next generation comes along, and see this word sophia closely associated with something that affected the authors or speakers profoundly. They don’t have the benefit of the actual shared experience which triggered the start of this discourse, a particular circumstance that has now become a part of history. Their experience is of a community that has always used the word sophia to refer to a particular part of their experience. Add to this that the next generation may even have their own, separate sets of ineffable experiences that they choose to associate with this word. But the problem is clear: religious discourse is a giant game of ‘telephone’ played over centuries.

The further in time a religious community is from the initial experience which led them to gather together the particular set of ideas they use to describe what happened to them, the more profoundly the original meaning is lost. In that absence, a new meaning starts to form around the word sophia, and a “goddess,” Sophia, is born. By this time all you have at the center of your religious community is a set of ideas — the pneuma, the spiritual breath that permeated the original experience, is absent.

At the same time, though, the solution is not to sweep away the edifice. That edifice is necessary because it does provide a vocabulary which we might then use to describe our experiences with the divine. Without the edifice it is not possible to reconstruct the steps which led to the initial experience in the first place. We need a shared or cultural atlas of the mind in order to put these experiences into perspective.

The Gnostic program, then, was not to sweep everything off the table, but to make you aware, as much as possible, that religious doctrine is a set of tools. And not just religious doctrine, but philosophy or discourse in general. The key when using it to describe ones experiences of the divine presence is to make them work for you — not to let them control your expectations or box in your mind. And of the errors one can make, where the Gnostics were concerned, one of the deepest is to believe in the literal truth of religious doctrine.

For evidence, consider in itself the reality of the Nag Hammadi library: 13 codices of mostly Gnostic writing from various schools, times, and places. There are at least a dozen different versions of the creation myth among these texts alone. These texts give different names for the aions, different names for the archons. They differ on just about every point of morality or doctrine. They are not the collective product of a community that believed deeply in the literal truth of what they had written. But these texts must have served some purpose, or they would not have been maintained.

Perhaps each text in the library was the product of a different school who believed in the literal truth of its own scripture. Maybe: but this leads to the question of who would have gathered all these various contradictory texts into volumes together?

Perhaps the collector was an opponent of heresy who had collected them in order to refute them. Maybe: but what opponent of heresy would have stolen off into the desert to hide these texts in order to protect them from discovery by the literal-minded Church who intended to destroy them? (Besides, as James Robinson pointed out in the introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library, the scribal margin notes belie the idea that they were collected by an opponent.)

The very existence of the Nag Hammadi library is astounding in this regard. But it is not just the juxtaposition of contradictory scriptures in one library that leads us to the conclusion above: it is the conduct of the Gnostics themselves in their own congregations, as reported by their opponents. Elaine Pagels cited Tertullian’s indignance at the way the Gnostics conducted their ceremonies as an example of the church’s outrage — expressing dismay that they took turns in the role of priest or bishop, while denying that the bishops appointed by the church had any special authority.

It is uncertain who is a catechumen, and who a believer: they all have access equally, they listen equally, they pray equally — even pagans, if any happen to come… They share the kiss of peace with all who come, for they do not care how differently they treat topics…. (Tertullian, quoted in The Gnostic Gospels, p. 42)

We can begin to form an idea of what wisdom was spoken among the initiates in the Valentinian gatherings. Recall in Matthew 13 that when Jesus was alone with the disciples, he gave them an explanation for the meaning of the parable of the sower along with a justification for speaking in parables in the first place: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.'”

The parables in the gospels, and even the many numerous parables in the Gospel of Truth – and there are many – are considered by the Valentinians to be “rehearsal” for the teaching that Christian doctrine itself is a parable.

We begin to understand now the role of the Gospel of Truth. Valentinus sought to develop the spiritual themes he found common to Hellenistic philosophy, Gnosticism as it existed before him, and Christianity, gathering them in a format that would be easily understandable to Christians, but also easily digestible in the light of the revelation that the entire doctrine is a parable. The experience can not be communicated directly; it has to occur as a transformation in the way you view something you have been contemplating. So the Gospel of Truth presents the Christian doctrine in familiar terms, but in a form designed to make it easier to make the leap from believing in it to understanding it as a grand metaphor. The pivot is one’s relationship with the Father.

When someone calls your name, it brings about a sudden change in your conscious state. Valentinus used this as a metaphor for the experience of metanoia:

If one has knowledge, he is from above. If he is called, he hears, he replies, and he turns toward him who called him and he ascends to him and he knows what he is called. Since he has knowledge, he does the will of him who called him. He desires to please him and he finds rest. He receives a certain name. He who thus is going to have knowledge knows whence he came and whither he is going. He knows it as a person who, having become intoxicated, has turned from his drunkenness and having come to himself, has restored what is his own.

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

The Gospel of Truth, 3: salvation like a seed taking root

Continuing my series of posts on the Gospel of Truth.

For this reason, do not take error too seriously. Thus, since it had no root, it was in a fog as regards the Father, engaged in preparing works and forgetfulnesses and fears in order, by these means, to beguile those of the middle and to make them captive. The forgetfulness of error was not revealed. It did not become light beside the Father. Forgetfulness did not exist with the Father, although it existed because of him. What exists in him is knowledge, which was revealed so that forgetfulness might be destroyed and that they might know the Father, Since forgetfulness existed because they did not know the Father, if they then come to know the Father, from that moment on forgetfulness will cease to exist.

“This reason” to not take error seriously was discussed in the last post: error is nothing but a fog borne of getting caught up into the wrong way of looking at things. A Greek word translated here as “ignorance” is agnosia; though this is the root from which we derive the word ‘agnostic’, it refers to being without (a-) gnosis (gnosia).

There is another similar bit of wordplay going on in the opening of the Gospel of Truth. The word commonly translated as “truth” is aletheia. This word also begins with the prefix a-, added to the root letheia, which means “forgetfulness.” (In Greek mythology, Lethe was the name for a river of Hades, which would cause you to forget everything if you drank of it.) So we have a direct pair of contrasts here:

truth (memory, revelation of what is concealed) vs. forgetfulness (concealing of truth)
gnosis (acquaintance, familiarity, attunement) vs. agnosia (ignorance)

Forgetfulness is a theme that comes up throughout the Gnostic scripture. The underlying notion is that we’ve been made to forget our true nature, and that developing a state of gnosis of the Father is a really a process like remembering something we already knew but had forgotten. See for example the Hymn of the Pearl, which tells a story about a prince sent on a quest, but who has fallen under a spell and forgotten who he was or what he was seeking. Before he can complete his quest, he first has to remember who he is!

“Root” is a term that shows up in the untitled Nag Hammadi text known to scholars as the Valentinian Exposition. There we find several times “Root of the All” as a name for the Father. Recall, the aions, the members of the Pleroma, are always described as having organic origin – as being begotten of another aion. “Root of All” is a very evocative notion, providing a vivid image of things in the cosmos existing as branches of a tree, of which the Father is the root. It also depicts a cosmic order like a tree, of which every part is rooted into the ground. But error, forgetfulness, “had no root.”

Who are “those of the middle”? To answer this we have to consider a threefold distinction between types of nature, hinted at in the writings of Paul and made more explicit in the writings of the Valentinians.

  • The pneumatic, or spiritual, is that which is already in tune with God, and therefore is not in need of guidance. It is on the path to full reconciliation with the Father and therefore to re-enter the Pleroma.
  • The hylic, or material, is that which is fashioned from the fog of error and, being no part of the genuine order, will eventually simply dissolve. It is maya.
  • The middle nature is called psychic. The modern English use of the word ‘psychic’ is a bit off from the original Greek meaning, ‘soul,’ in the sense of that which characterizes what is alive and animate. The psychic nature has the potential to be reconciled with the Father… but it also has the potential to simply dissolve.

Valentinus saw this three-fold distinction reflected in the lives of people around him. Not in the sense of saying that there are three “types” of people; rather, it is a way of thinking about the decisions people make and the actions they take. He was opposed to the very idea of fate or destiny, believing it to be a trick to keep the spirit into remaining intertwined with error. To look at it from the perspective of fate, it is everyone’s “fate” to remain entangled in the fog of error created by the demiurge; that there are not one but two ways to escape from the fog of error is a “hack” provided by the Father and the Logos.  But to take the pathways out of error and liberate oneself from the fate built by error requires conscious choice and deliberate effort. It requires metanoia. It requires rightness of action.

This notion has existed in many forms in Christian teaching; it is not exclusive to the Gnostics. For example, in Eastern Orthodoxy, there is the threefold path of theosis, of becoming like God. This is a path that requires both faith and action, inward change as well as outward change. This is the way by which those who have led a psychic life can still attain reconciliation with the Father. But it contrasts with the Protestant notion that salvation comes by faith alone, which implies that salvation is an “on or off switch,” like a toggle – where you either have it or you don’t.  The Gnostic view teaches that salvation is an ongoing process.

Those whose actions reflect a pneumatic nature do not need as much guidance to achieve or maintain attunement with the Father. They are called upon instead to help provide that guidance to those who need it — “those of the middle,” who are in more danger of making choices that will lead them on a destructive path.

Valentinus goes on to say what will happen to those who accomplish this: “if they then come to know the Father, from that moment on forgetfulness will cease to exist.” To use a metaphor from a later portion of the Gospel of Truth, it is like waking up in the morning. The fearsome foes who menaced you in your dreams do not even fade or retreat; they were never real to begin with.

Earlier posts in this series:

1: on the Logos and the Pleroma

2: apokatastasis and stillness

The Gospel of Truth, 2: apokatastasis and stillness

For the name of the gospel is the manifestation of hope, since that is the discovery of those who seek him, because the All sought him from whom it had come forth. You see, the All had been inside of him, that illimitable, inconceivable one, who is better than every thought.

The teachings of Valentinus draw heavily from the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John. We saw before a passage expanding upon the opening of the Gospel of John, and here is an oblique reference to Colossians 1, especially verses 19-20: “For in him all the fulness (pleroma) of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

This passage, among many written by Paul, refers to the idea of apokatastasisthe restoration or reconciliation of all things with God. This idea may remind us of the Buddhist notion of bodhichitta or the Jewish teaching of tikkun olam.  Valentinus asserts that since all things once dwelt within his mind, and spring forth from it, so all things seek to return there, to the state of balance and equilibrium which is the genuine cosmic order. And indeed, we find that all things in nature seek equilibrium.  As Meister Eckhart was attributed as saying, “There is nothing in creation so like God as stillness.”

There is a deep contrast between this teaching and that which we find among many of the other Gnostic schools of thought – dualism, the idea that the Platonic “Realm of Forms” is the only true nature and material existence is a curse or trap.  A similar flavor of dualism appears in some schools of mainstream Christian thought as well: for example the Calvinistic idea of total depravity.  Valentinus was familiar with both forms of dualism and rejected both.  As we see in the second paragraph quoted below, he argued that the distinction we think appears to divide one kind of nature from another is really just an error of the mind.  When we’ve reconciled to God’s perspective, we the error fades and we see only that all is of one nature.  If all things will ultimately be reconciled with God, there cannot really be, in a ‘deep’ sense, a fundamental divide of any sort in nature: neither of substance nor of essence.

The ineffability of God is also mentioned here. This is a theme common to all schools of Gnosticism, and it turns out to be of great significance. It is not enough just to say that God is beyond comprehension; God is also beyond description. “Ineffable” means “beyond utterance,” and this means that any descriptions or attributions we make in attempting to describe God must fall short. No one utterance can contain the whole truth. The Gnostics kept this in the forefront of their mind and refused to ever invest themselves fully in one scripture or doctrine. Doctrine was not, was never, to be taken fully literally. In their mythopoeic writings, the many variations of the creation story of Genesis which we find throughout the corpus of Gnostic literature, there is a sense that all sacred notions are being deliberately overturned – for example, they cast the serpent as the savior against a dictatorial creator. It was not that they were casually blasphemous, shocking us just for the heck of it. It was that they understood the dictum, as expressed by those of a different (but related) faith tradition – “If you meet the Buddha you must kill him.” We speak of ‘God’ in an attempt to describe our experiences of the divine presence. But our words, our concepts, must never be mistaken for the real thing.

That is one level on which we might understand what Valentinus meant in the next paragraph.

Ignorance of the Father brought about terror and fear. And terror became dense like a fog, that no one was able to see. Because of this, error became strong. But it worked on its hylic substance vainly, because it did not know the truth. It was in a fashioned form while it was preparing, in power and in beauty, the equivalent of truth. This then, was not a humiliation for him, that illimitable, inconceivable one. For they were as nothing, this terror and this forgetfulness and this figure of falsehood, whereas this established truth is unchanging, unperturbed and completely beautiful.

This theme of error being like a fog through which we cannot see is repeated numerous times, in numerous different ways throughout the Gospel of Truth. “Fashioned form” is particularly key here, because it makes clear that Valentinus is talking about the demiurge. In Valentinian myth, we learn of aions, reflections of the divine who live within the Pleroma and who are all begotten, birthed organically one from another or borne of seeds; and they are described so in contrast to the denizens of the material world, who are all fashioned, or created, as if by hand.

Which brings me to the question I asked at the end of my first post. “Error” prevents us from attuning our minds to the genuine cosmic order – because of terror and fear we are caught up into made-up ideas. The word used later in the Gospel of Truth, as throughout the New Testament, to refer to the process of casting off these errors is metanoia – which is mistranslated as “repentance,” but metanoia is not a word with the same moral overtones. It combines the roots meta, which means “above”, and nous, which means “mind,” and means, therefore, to lift your mind above its present state.

The Gospel of Truth, 1

The Gospel of Truth was written circa 150 CE by a member of the Valentinian school of Gnostic Christianity. The author was probably Valentinus himself, though we do not have a direct attribution. Notable for its clear and beautiful prose, it was widely-read throughout the late second century CE and serves as an excellent starting point for an exploration of classical Gnostic Christianity. I will excerpt from the translation by Robert Grant, published in The Nag Hammadi Library and available to read here at the Gnostic Society Library, though I also recommend the translation by Bentley Layton available in The Gnostic Scriptures.

The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos, who has come from the Pleroma and who is in the thought and the mind of the Father; he it is who is called “the Savior,” since that is the name of the work which he must do for the redemption of those who have not known the Father.

When reading a text from the Valentinian school, keep in mind that these authors were fond of looking for ways to express several ideas using the same set of words. They read and wrote scripture according to a technique we might compare to the Jewish approach of pardes – drawing from not just the most direct way of reading the text, but seeking clues that point to mystical or even esoteric ideas.

“The gospel of truth” is not the title of this text, though it is now used as that because the original manuscript did not specify a title. On the most direct level, “the gospel of truth” likely refers to the familiar doctrine of Christianity. But to those reading with a more esoteric frame of mind, this phrase referred more widely to the expression of cosmic truth in any form it may take, of which the Christian gospel was just one form.

“The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos” – the most direct way to read this is as a fairly innocuous Christian statement, invoking the Father as the provider of truth by way of the Logos. But there is also an esoteric reading here. The “gift” given to us by the Logos is “knowing [the Father]” – where “knowing” means gnosis, a mystical experience of affinity or closeness with the Father.

The word Logos (from the Greek word for word) has a rich history that predates Christianity and its use here invokes that fuller meaning. It is probably familiar to most readers for its use in the Gospel of John. It was almost certainly the intention of the author of the Gospel of John to incorporate the earlier, pre-Christian meanings of the word into his message. Originally, “Logos” was a name the Stoic philosophers gave to the cosmic mind they believed was responsible for coalescing all that exists into a natural order. To the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Stoic Logos was clearly an expression of the power by which the Lord created by speaking, as described in Genesis 1. The opening of the Gospel of John, which paralleled the creation story of Genesis 1, casts the Logos in this way: it “was with God, and was God” at the beginning.

But, for Philo, the Logos expresses another idea: a similarity of essence between the human mind and the Lord’s mind of which it is a reflection. In other words, the human mind and the divine mind are made out of the same “stuff.” This notion is key to understanding the Gnostic philosophy and worldview.

Pleroma is a Greek word which means “fullness” and in this context calls to mind the fullness of the divine presence.  For now we can think of it as the original or genuine cosmic order as conceived in the mind of God – the Platonic realm of Forms.  The concept originates in the dialogs of Plato, which were a source of inspiration for Gnostics of the classical period.  For example, in Phaedo, we find this passage, which compares the “true” heaven and earth to the one in which we live, which may contain many beauties but is still “corrupted and corroded” by comparison:

We live in a hollow of the earth and think we live on the surface, and call the air heaven, …[but] if a man could come to the top of it, and get wings and fly up, he could peep over and look, just as fishes here peep up out of the sea… [so] he could learn and know that that is the true heaven and the true light and the true earth.  For this earth and the stones and all the the places here are corrupted and corroded… so that nothing worth mention grows in the sea, and there is nothing perfect there, one might say, but caves and sand and infinite mud and slime wherever there is any earth, things worth nothing at all as compared with the beauties we have; but again those above as compared with ours would seem to be much superior.  (Phaedo, translated by W. H. D. Rouse, in Great Dialogues of Plato, p. 314)

Thus “the power of the Logos” is not merely the message and acts of Jesus Christ, but all the ways by which we come to gnosis – to a closer awareness of the divine presence. And so the esoteric meaning of this first sentence is that truth, or expression rooted in the genuine cosmic order – in the Pleroma – originates from the Father’s mind and was expressed during the act of creation by speaking words. And, since our minds are akin to the Father’s mind, we can through this affinity become attuned to the Father.

But – if our minds should be by nature ‘attuned’ to the divine wavelength, why aren’t they? I’ll explore this question more deeply in my next post.