• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Suppressed Gnostic Feminism

Unlike many deities of the ancient Near East, the God of Israel shared his power with no female divinity, nor was he the divine husband or lover of any.1 He can scarcely be characterized in any but masculine epithets: king, lord, master, judge, and father.2 Indeed, the absence of feminine symbolism for God marks Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in striking contrast to the world’s other religious traditions, whether in Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome, or in Africa, India, and North America, which abound in feminine symbolism. Modern Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theologians deny that God should be characterized sexually.3 Yet the language they use daily in worship and prayer conveys a different message: who, growing up within Jewish or Christian tradition, has escaped the distinct impression that God is masculine? And while Catholics revere Mary as the mother of Jesus, they never identify her as divine in her own right: she is “mother of God,” but not “God the Mother” comparable with God the Father.

Christianity, of course, added the idea of the trinity to the Jewish description of God. Yet of the three divine “Persons,” two—the Father and the Son—are described as masculine, and the third—the Spirit—suggests the sexlessness of the Greek neuter term for spirit, pneuma. Studying the early history of Christianity (the field called “patristics,” that is, study of “the fathers of the church”) one is not surprised to come across passages like the one that concludes the recently discovered secret Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to them [the disciples]: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” [51.19-26]4

Strange as it may seem, this passage simply states what more familiar Christian doctrine often assumes: that the men form the legitimate body of the community, while women are allowed to participate only through association with the Christian “brotherhood.”

Further exploration of the archaeological find that included the Gospel of Thomas—the discovery, in 1945, of some fifty-two ancient papyrus texts, hidden nearly 1,600 years ago on a cliff near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt—has identified many of the texts as Christian works which were attacked and condemned as “heretical” perhaps as early as AD 150. These gospels, revelations, and other writings are unique in many ways. But one of the most striking differences between these so-called “heretical” sources and orthodox ones is that gnostic sources characteristically describe God with sexual imagery—often feminine imagery. One might expect that these texts would show the influence of archaic pagan traditions of the Mother Goddess, but for the most part their language is specifically Christian, and unmistakably related to a Jewish heritage. Yet instead of describing the monistic and masculine God familiar from orthodox tradition, many of these texts speak of God as a dyad who is both masculine and feminine.

One group of gnostic sources claims to have received a secret tradition from Jesus through James and through Mary Magdalene. Members of this group prayed to both the divine Father and Mother: “From Thee, Father, and through Thee, Mother, the two immortal names, Parents of the divine being, and thou, dweller in heaven, humanity, of the mighty name….”5 Other gnostic authors asked to whom a single, masculine God proposed, “Let us make man (adam) in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Since the Genesis account goes on to say that humanity was created “male and female” (1:27), some concluded that the God in whose image we are made must also be both masculine and feminine—both Father and Mother.

Who wrote these texts and how do they characterize the divine Mother? About the gnostic writers themselves and the setting in which they lived we know little, although gnostic Christians were influential enough to be denounced at length. The texts we now have are far more diverse than was previously thought. We can see, for example, that several gnostic groups described the divine Mother as part of an original couple. Valentinus, the second-century gnostic teacher and poet, begins with the premise that God is essentially indescribable. But he suggests that the divine can be imagined as a dyad; consisting, in one part, of the Ineffable, the Depth, the Primal Father; and, in the other, of Grace, Silence, and Womb and “Mother of the All.”6 Valentinus reasons that Silence is the appropriate complement of the Father, and designates the Silence as feminine and the Father as masculine because of the grammatical gender of the Greek words. He goes on to describe how Silence receives, as in a womb, the seed of the Ineffable Source; from this she brings forth all the emanations of divine being, ranged in harmonious pairs of masculine and feminine energies.

Followers of Valentinus prayed to her for protection as the Mother, and as “the mystical, eternal Silence.”7 For example, Valentinus’ disciple Marcus, who was called a magician, invokes her as Grace (in Greek, the feminine term charis): “May She who is before all things, the incomprehensible and indescribable Grace, fill you within, and increase in you her own knowledge.”8 In his secret celebration of the mass, Marcus teaches that the wine symbolizes her blood. As the cup of wine is offered, he prays that “Grace may flow” into all who drink it. A prophet and visionary, Marcus calls himself the “womb and recipient of Silence”9—much as she is the recipient of the Father. His visions of the divine being appeared, he reports, in female form.

Another gnostic writing, called the Great Announcement, quoted by the orthodox writer Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies, explains the origin of the universe as follows: From the power of Silence appears “a great power, the Mind of the Universe, which manages all things, and is a male…the other…a great Intelligence…is a female which produces all things.”10 Following the gender of the Greek words for “mind” (nous—masculine) and “intelligence” (epinoia—feminine), this gnostic author explains that these powers, joined in union, “are discovered to be duality…. This is Mind in Intelligence, and these are separable from one another, and yet are one, found in a state of duality.” This means, the gnostic teacher explains, that

there is in everyone [divine power] existing in a latent condition…. This is one power divided above and below; generating itself, being mother of itself, father of itself, sister of itself, spouse of itself, daughter of itself, son of itself—mother, father, unity, being a source of the entire circle of existence.11

How did these gnostics intend their meaning to be understood? Some gnostic teachers insisted that God be considered as a “great male-female power.” Others claimed that since, in reality, the divine is neither male nor female, the terms were meant only as metaphors. 12 A third group suggested that the primal Source could be described in either masculine or feminine terms, depending on which aspect one intended to stress. Proponents of these diverse views agreed that the divine should be understood as a harmonious, dynamic relationship of opposites—a concept that may be akin to the Eastern view of yin and yang, but remains alien to orthodox Judaism and Christianity.

A second group of gnostic writers describe the divine Mother as the Holy Spirit. The Apocryphon [Secret Book] of John, one of the codices found at Nag Hammadi, relates that in his “great grief” after the crucifixion John had a mystical vision of the Trinity:

the [heavens were opened and the whole] creation [which is] under heaven shone and [the world] trembled. [And I was afraid, and I] saw in the light…a likeness with multiple forms…and the likeness had three forms. [1.31-2.9]13

To John’s question the vision answers: “It said to me, ‘John, Jo[h]n, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid?…I am the one who [is with you] always. I [am the Father]: I am the Mother; I am the Son’ ” (2.9-14).

This gnostic description of God—as Father, Mother, and Son—startling as it may seem, can be recognized as another version of the Trinity. The Greek words for the Trinity, which include the neuter term for spirit (pneuma), virtually require that the third “Person” of the Trinity be asexual. But the author of the Apocryphon of John has in mind the Hebrew term for spirit, ruah, a feminine word; and so concludes that the feminine “Person” conjoined with the Father and Son must be the Mother. The Apocryphon of John goes on to describe the divine Mother:

She is…the image of the invisible, virginal, perfect spirit…. She became the Mother of everything, for she existed before them all, the mother-father [matropater]….[4.34-5.7]

The secret Gospel to the Hebrews likewise has Jesus speak of “my Mother, the Spirit.”14 In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus contrasts his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, with his divine Father—the Father of Truth—and his divine Mother, the Holy Spirit. Interpreting one of Jesus’ more puzzling sayings from the New Testament, (“Whoever does not hate his father and his mother cannot be my disciple”), the author of the gospel adds that “my (earthly) mother [gave me death], but [my] true [Mother] gave me life.” So, according to the Gospel of Philip, another text found at Nag Hammadi, those who become Christian gain “both father and mother” (52.24), for the Spirit (ruah) is “Mother of many” (59.35-60.1).

While some gnostic sources suggest that the Spirit constitutes the maternal element of the Trinity, the Gospel of Philip makes an equally radical suggestion about the doctrine that later developed as the virgin birth. Here again, the Spirit is both Mother and Virgin, the counterpart—and consort—of the Heavenly Father: “Is it permitted to utter a mystery? The Father of everything united with the virgin who came down” (71.3-5)—that is, with the Holy Spirit descending into the world. But because this process is to be understood symbolically, not literally, the Spirit remains a virgin. The author goes on to explain that as “Adam came into being from two virgins, from the Spirit and from the virgin earth” so “Christ, therefore, was born from a virgin” (71.16-19)—that is, from the Spirit. But the author ridicules those literal-minded Christians who mistakenly refer the virgin birth to Mary, Jesus’ mother, as though she conceived apart from Joseph: “They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman?” (55.25-26). Instead, he argues, virgin birth refers to that mysterious union of the two divine powers, the Father of All and the Holy Spirit.

Yet other gnostics suggest that the divine Mother can be characterized as Wisdom. Here the Greek feminine term for “wisdom,” sophia, translates a Hebrew feminine term, hokhmah. Early interpreters had pondered the meaning of certain Biblical passages—for example, the saying in Proverbs that “God made the world in Wisdom.” Could Wisdom be the feminine power in which God’s creation was “conceived”? According to one teacher, the double meaning of the term conception—physical and intellectual—suggests this possibility: “The image of thought [ennoia] is feminine, since…[it] is a power of conception.”15 The Apocalypse of Adam, discovered at Nag Hammadi, tells of a feminine power who wanted to conceive by herself:

  1. 1

    Where the God of Israel is characterized as husband and lover in the Old Testament, his spouse is described as the community of Israel (e.g., Isaiah 50:1, 54:1-8; Jeremiah 2:2-3, 20-25, 3:1-20; Hosea 1-4, 14) or as the land of Israel (Isaiah 62:1-5).

  2. 2

    One may note several exceptions to this rule: Deuteronomy 32:11; Hosea 11:1; Isaiah 66:12 ff.; Numbers 11:12.

  3. 3

    Formerly, as Professor Morton Smith reminds me, theologians often used the masculinity of God to justify, by analogy, the roles of men as rulers of their societies and households (he cites, for example, Milton’s Paradise Lost, IV.296 ff., 635 ff.).

  4. 4

    The gnostic texts cited in this piece are published in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson (Harper & Row, 1977). Citations abridged here are provided in full in my forthcoming The Gnostic Gospels. Material in this article has previously appeared in Signs (2, 2, 293 ff.) and in the New Oxford Review (March, 1979, 4-11).

  5. 5

    Cited in the third-century Refutation of All Heresies, by Hippolytus (Refutationis Omnium Haeresium 5.6), hereafter cited as Ref.

  6. 6

    Cited in Vol. I, 11.1 of the second-century Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses (Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge) by Irenaeus (hereafter cited as AH).

  7. 7

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.6.

  8. 8

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.2.

  9. 9

    Irenaeus, AH 1.14.1.

  10. 10

    Hippolytus, Ref 6.18.

  11. 11

    Hippolytus, Ref 6.17.

  12. 12

    Irenaeus, AH 1.11.5; Hippolytus, Ref 6.29.

  13. 13

    The words placed in brackets indicate scholarly reconstructions of the texts, which are damaged in these places.

  14. 14

    The Gospel to the Hebrews, cited in Origen, Commentary on John 2.12.

  15. 15

    Hippolytus, Ref 6.38.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print