In my last blog I provided an introduction to the Nag Hammadi codices, the so-called Christian “Gnostics”, and what evidence of early diversity within Christianity might mean for “orthodox” interpretations of Church history. This post will offer a brief introduction to the Gnostic worldview through the unique way in which some of these Christians interpreted the Gospels.
First, what do we mean by “Gnosticism”? Today the term describes a fluid category of spiritual traditions developing in the mid to late first century CE which emphasized the acquisition of gnosis, or secret knowledge of the divine, in order to achieve salvation. While the movement was not exclusive to Christianity, it is best known by its manifestation in various Christian groups deemed “heretical” by the great proto-orthodox polemicists of the second and third centuries.
Irenaeus (130-202 CE), bishop of Lyon, was one such writer deeply concerned by the rising popularity of Gnostic Christianity. Groups like the Sethians and the Valentinians took center stage in Irenaeus’ lengthy assault on Gnosticism titled On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, also known as Against Heresies. Irenaeus had borrowed his title from a Pauline warning about “knowledge (gnosis) falsely so-called” (1 Tim 6:20); the bishop obviously believed the Gnostic interpretation was putting the Church in grave danger. Evidently Gnostic teaching was, on the surface, similar enough to his own that it might go un-detected by the novice; the Gnostic distinctives were being revealed when the initiate was in too deep. Thus Irenaeus set out to both publicly expose and condemn their mysterious interpretations in great detail. Though supremely concerned with building a case against Gnostic Christianity as a corruption of his own faith, which he labeled “orthodox” or “catholic”, his assessment still lends valuable insight into the Gnostic hermeneutic.
From Irenaeus’ account we learn that Gnostic exegesis is, first and foremost, highly speculative. Their methods may have found motivation in midrashic exercises taking place in Hellenistic Jewish circles in the first century CE. The famed Apocryphon of John, found among the Nag Hammadi texts and representative of the so-called “Sethian” form of Christian Gnosticism, certainly evidences a strong link with Jewish sensibilities. In this work, which was known by Irenaeus in 180 CE, we find a dramatic retelling of Genesis, a portrait of human origins and human salvation radically different than that presented by either the traditionalist Jews or the proto-orthodox Christians. This cosmological narrative would provide the basic mythological framework facilitating the theological, soteriological, and exegetical characteristics of most Christian sects which can be confidently approached with the “Gnostic” label.
According to the myth, the god who created this world, the god of the Old Testament, is not the highest god. He is in fact a Demiurge, a lower entity, sometimes ignorant, sometimes vengeful, and ultimately responsible for trapping human souls in material bodies. The true God is a transcendent and unknowable being, the Invisible Spirit (often characterized as a great and immovable “Father”). Within him (within his “Pleroma” or “fullness”) exists a descending hierarchy of distinct powers or “aeons”; they are modes of God’s being, or personalities, each embodying God’s divine attributes. Each of these aeons is paired with another of the opposite gender which acts as its mate or consort (the “gender” of each is determined by the grammatical gender of their Greek name).
In the myth, the twelfth of these entities, the “female” Sophia (Wisdom), tragically went astray: she tried to look toward the Father, to know him on her own without the consent of her “male” consort. In Sophia’s deviant passion, which ultimately turned into fear and shame, she inadvertently created another being outside of God. This unfortunate offspring became the Demiurge, the wicked god of the OT, the creator of our material world (a poor imitation of the heavenly Pleroma). The Demiurge also created his own angels and eventually human beings who have imprisoned within them a portion of the true God’s divine essence. After this tragedy, the fallen Sophia strayed to the brink of the Pleroma, and her power began to flow out of her, nearly dissolving her completely. Thus the Father sent other aeons to rescue her from the brink of the Pleroma, and the leading power on this rescue mission was the aeon “Christ.” After the heavenly Christ saved Sophia with the help of other powerful aeons named Aletheia (Truth) and Horos (Border), God then moved to also rescue the human beings trapped in the Demiurge’s world. The Father accomplished this by sending Jesus in the form of a human being to the earth in order to impart gnosis to humanity. Through the acquisition of gnosis, man is able to realize the divine essence within him, permitting him to return to the harmony of the Pleroma (like Sophia) upon leaving the body.
These twin pictures of salvation (one heavenly, that of Sophia, and one earthly, that of mankind) provide an essential lens for the Gnostic exegesis of the Gospels. For the Gnostics, the tale of Jesus’ earthly ministry is pregnant with the story of Sophia’s fall and redemption; the Gospel texts themselves are a sort of code which exhibits a deeper and more spiritually important message about the divine happenings in the Pleroma. This secret truth is not revealed to all, of course, but to those worthy or capable of bearing it; for the Gnostic initiate, this information is only mystically and parabolically visible.
For example, the existence of the thirty “aeons” in God (literally: “spaces or cycles of time”) is revealed by the thirty years Jesus lived on the earth before his public ministry. For evidence of the twelve primary aeons, one could point to the frequent occurrence of the number twelve in the Gospels: the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles, Jesus’ age of twelve years when he disputed with the teachers of the law, and so on. For proof that it was the twelfth aeon which suffered passion, one could look to the disturbance of Judas, the twelfth apostle, who according to the Gnostics brought about Jesus’ suffering in the twelfth month of the year (the school described by Irenaeus held that Jesus preached for only one year after his baptism). One could also cite the woman who had suffered twelve years of bleeding. This last episode in particular, related in all three of the Synoptic accounts, provides a wonderful example of the creative and surprising way in which the Gnostics handled the Gospel texts. According to Irenaeus, the Gnostics saw the story about the bleeding woman as a spiritual reflection of the passion and dramatic rescue of Sophia by the agents of the Pleroma (Against Heresies, I, 3, 3).
Let us first examine the text in Mark 5:25-34:
(25) A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, (26) and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse— (27) after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind Him and touched His cloak. (28) For she thought, “If I just touch His garments, I will get well.” (29) Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. (30) Immediately Jesus, perceiving in Himself that the power proceeding from Him had gone forth, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My garments?” (31) And His disciples said to Him, “You see the crowd pressing in on You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” (32) And He looked around to see the woman who had done this. (33) But the woman fearing and trembling, aware of what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. (34) And He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”
For the Gnostics, when Christ said “Who touched my garment?” he was mystically revealing the following parallel to his disciples:
The earthly woman had reached the twelfth year of her sufferings, and in her despair she had stretched forth towards the Son, her life bleeding out into the world. So too had the heavenly Sophia, full of passion and grief, stretched out and bled her essence into the Pleroma. If the earthly woman had not touched the border of Jesus’ garment, the hemorrhaging would have continued. Likewise Sophia’s suffering would not have ceased if she had not touched the aeon Aletheia, called “the garment” of the Son, who enabled her rescue by the power of the aeon named Horos, the “limit” or “border.” This Horos was intimately connected with the heavenly Christ, and as Irenaeus explains, Horos “has two faculties: the one of supporting and the other of separating.” The power traveling through the hem of the earthly Jesus’ garment had “cut off” the flow of blood from the woman, just as the aeon Horos had “separated” the flow of passion from Sophia and “supported” her in divine reconciliation.
This interpretation boldly reflected a prevalent theme in biblical literature: the passionate straying and ultimate redemption of the female. In the book of Genesis‘ Edenic narrative, we find that Eve, apart from her male consort, had sought to gain “knowledge” (gnosis) by eating of the Tree of Knowledge. This passion spread and ultimately engulfed Adam, leaving them in need of divine rescue. A consequence of this straying was pain in childbirth and the suppression of female passion (Gen 3:16b). We may find echoes of this in Sophia’s passion, which had yielded an amorphous child who apparently owed his incomplete form to a lack of male participation. Sophia’s passion had to be “limited” and ultimately “separated” from her by the power of a male aeon Horos, under the direction of the male Christ. In the Synoptic story of the bleeding woman, we might also take the woman’s endless menstruation as a side-effect of a lack of male participation. Here it may be important to note that while some have thought to classify Gnostic attitudes toward women as especially misogynistic (usually through an overdrawn reading of the Gospel of Thomas), a regular theme in Gnostic teaching is the necessity of unity between male and female: the female may be the first to stray (like Eve in the Garden), but responsibility for harmony lies on both male and female (the Primal Man in both Christian and pagan Gnostic traditions often is, like the ultimate God he reflects, androgynous, both male and female). In the Gnostic world, even the transcendent Father is found acting in conjunction with the female aeon Sige, the womb of the Pleroma, though at times he stands alone as the Invisible Spirit, being the ingenerate first principle and prime cause of the Pleroma.
Ultimately, the secret story of Sophia and the Pleromatic Christ nestled within the Gospels was said to be discernable only to those who had embarked on the path of gnosis. But sidelined Christians like the Valentinians were not the only ones to engage in such speculative exegesis. Gnosis-inclined “proto-orthodox” Christians, like Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 CE) and Origen (d. 254 CE), also employed a hermeneutic which assumed a spiritual meaning behind the text reflective of real happenings in a real spiritual world. This affinity may provide a clue to a deeper relationship between the “Gnostic” and the emerging “catholic” Christianity of the third and fourth centuries than many have supposed. In portions of my upcoming book I continue to explore the connection between Gnosticism and several key figures in the pre-Nicene, proto-orthodox tradition, and this exploration will remain a recurrent topic here at the Buried Deep blog. Indeed, if we wish to ever understand how and why mainline Christianity teaches what it does today, we must regularly venture to the diverse Christian world which first produced “orthodoxy” and “heresy”, to the secret world of Gnosis. There the Gospel texts had far more to say than what was printed, and beneath the earthly, historical Jesus which they described there lay something secret, something spiritually attainable only by the Christian mystic. This is perhaps an unconventional but viable starting point for approaching “orthodox” Christian theology which likewise finds, through inference and subtlety, a great mystical secret, a divine and incomprehensible reality hiding beneath the life of the historical Jesus of the Gospels.
Philip Schaff, “Introductory Note to Irenaeus Against Heresies,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Against Heresies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1885).
Albert Poncelet, “St. Irenaeus,” Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910).
Michael J. Kok, The Gospel of the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Fortress Press, 2015), Ch. 6.