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The Suppressed Gnostic Feminism

From the nine Muses, one separated away. She came to a high mountain and spent time seated there, so that she desired herself alone in order to become androgynous. She fulfilled her desire, and became pregnant from her desire….[81.2-9]

In the work of the poet Valentinus the story becomes a parable about Wisdom: Desiring to conceive by herself, apart from her masculine counterpart, she succeeded, and became the “great creative power from whom all things originate,” often called Eve, “Mother of all living.” But since her desire violated the harmonious union of opposites that some gnostics believed was intrinsic in the nature of being, what she produced was aborted and defective;16 from this, says Valentinus, originated the terror and grief that mar human existence.17 To shape and manage her creation, this account goes, Wisdom brought forth the demiurge, the creator-God of Israel, as her agent.18

Personified Wisdom, then, appears in several different ways in gnostic sources. Besides being the “first universal creator”19 who brings forth all creatures, she also enlightens human beings and makes them wise. Followers of Valentinus and Marcus who prayed to the mother as the “mystical, eternal Silence” and as “Grace, She who is before all things,” also saw her as “incorruptible Wisdom,”20 the source of insight or gnosis. Other gnostics believed she conferred on Adam and Eve the benefits received in Paradise. She taught them self-awareness, guided them to find food, and assisted in the conception of their third and fourth children—according to this account, a son, Seth, and a daughter, Norea.21 She also saved Noah when the creator became angry with the human race:

…because they did not worship or honor him as Father and God, he sent forth a flood upon them, that he might destroy them all. But Wisdom opposed him…and Noah and his family were saved in the ark by means of the sprinkling of the light that proceeded from her, and through it the world was again filled with humankind.22

Another newly discovered text from Nag Hammadi, called Trimorphic Protennoia (literally, the “Triple-formed Primal Thought”), celebrates the feminine powers of Thought, Intelligence, and Foresight. The text opens with a divine figure who claims,

[I] am [Protennoia, the] Thought that [dwells] in [the Light]…, [She who exists] before the All…. I move in every creature…. I am the Invisible One within the All. [35.1-24]

She continues. “I am perception and knowledge, uttering a Voice by means of Thought. [I] am the real Voice. I cry out in everyone, and they know that a seed dwells within” (36.12-16). The second section, spoken by a second divine figure, opens with the words

I am the Voice…. [It is] I [who] speak within every creature…. Now I have come a second time in the likeness of a female, and have spoken with them…. I have revealed myself in the Thought of the likeness of my masculinity. [42.4-26]

Later the voice explains:

I am androgynous. [I am both Mother and Father], since [I copulate] with myself…[and with those who love] me…. I am the womb [that gives shape] to the All…I am Me[iroth]ea, the glory of the Mother. [45.2-10]

Even more remarkable is the gnostic poem called Thunder, Perfect Mind. This text contains a revelation spoken by a feminine figure:

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…. I am she whose wedding is great, and I have not taken a husband…I am knowledge, and ignorance…I am shameless; I am ashamed. I am strength, and I am fear…I am foolish, and I am wise…I am godless, and I am one whose God is great. [13.16-16.25]

What does the use of such symbolism imply about the gnostics’ view of human nature? Their conception of the feminine and the androgynous evidently draws on a variety of sources, notably on Genesis and on the Platonic traditions that circulated among Hellenistic writers. Gnostic writers often refer to the first creation account in Genesis 1:26-27 (“Then God said, Let us make man [adam] in our image, after our likeness…in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”). A Greek version of this passage circulated during the early Talmudic period. It suggested to Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, who had been influenced by Plato’s myta of androgyny, that

when the Holy one…first created mankind, he created him with two faces, two sets of genitals, four arms and legs, back to back. Then he split Adam in two, and made two backs, one on each side.23

Some gnostics adopted a similar idea, teaching their followers that Genesis 1:26-27 narrates an androgynous creation. Marcus not only concludes from this account that God is dyadic (“Let us make humanity”) but also that “humanity, which was formed according to the image and likeness of God (Father and Mother) was masculo-feminine.”24 His contemporary, the gnostic Theodotus (c. 160), explains that the saying “according to the image of God he made them, male and female he made them,” means that “the male and female elements together constitute the finest production of the Mother, Wisdom.”25 Gnostic sources which describe God as a dyad often suggest that human nature is also androgynous.

Yet all of these sources—secret gospels, revelations, mystical teachings—were called heretical and were excluded from the New Testament collection compiled by orthodox Christians. By the time the heretical texts were sorted from the canonical ones—probably as late as the year 200—virtually all the feminine imagery for God had disappeared from orthodox Christian tradition.

What is the reason for this total rejection? Some gnostics suggested that the God of Israel, whom some called Ialdabaoth, had initiated the polemics which his followers carried out in his name. They argued that he was a derivative, merely instrumental power created by the Mother to administer the universe, although he had a far more grandiose conception of himself. He believed that he had made everything by himself, while, in reality, the argument ran, he had been able to create the world only because Wisdom, his Mother, had “infused him with energy” and influenced him with her own ideas. Followers of Valentinus suggested that the Mother herself had encouraged the God of Israel to think that he was acting autonomously, but, as they explain, “It was because he was foolish and ignorant of his Mother that he said, ‘I am God; there is none beside me.’ “26 According to another account, he so disappointed his Mother when he created inferior beings that she left him alone and withdrew into the upper regions of the heavens. “Since she had departed, he imagined that he was the only being in existence; and therefore he declared, ‘I am a jealous God, and besides me there is no one.’ “27 The Apocryphon of John also suggests that God’s motive was jealousy:

…he said “I am a jealous God, and there is no other God beside me.” But by announcing this he indicated to the angels…that another God does exist; for if there were no other one, of whom would he be jealous?… Then the Mother began to be distressed. [13.8-14]

Others declared that his Mother refused to tolerate such presumption:

[The creator], becoming arrogant in spirit, boasted himself over all those things that were below him, and exclaimed, “I am father, and God, and above me there is no one.” But his mother, hearing him speak thus, cried out against him, “Do not lie, Ialdabaoth.”28

Often, in these gnostic texts, the creator is castigated for his arrogance—nearly always by a superior feminine power. According to the Hypostasis of the Archons, discovered at Nag Hammadi, both Wisdom and her daughter, Life, objected when

he became arrogant, saying “It is I who am God, and there is no other apart from me”…[and] a voice came forth from above the realm of absolute power, saying, “You are wrong, Samael” [which means “God of the blind”]. And he said, “If any other thing exists before me, let it appear to me!” And immediately, Sophia [“Wisdom”] stretched forth her finger, and introduced light into matter, and she followed it down into the region of Chaos…and he again said to his offspring, “It is I who am the God of All.” And Life, the daughter of Wisdom, cried out; she said to him, “You are wrong, Saklas!” [94.21-95.8]

The second-century gnostic teacher Justinus describes the Lord’s terror and anxiety “when he discovered that he was not the God of the universe.” Gradually his shock gave way to wonder, and finally he came to welcome what Wisdom had taught him. Justinus concludes that this is the meaning of the saying, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.”29

Yet all of these explanations for the suppression of the gnostic texts are derived from mythology. Can we find any historical reasons why the writings were suppressed? This raises a much larger question: by what means, and for what reasons, did certain ideas come to be classified as heretical, and others as orthodox, by the beginning of the third century? In part, at least, the answer lies in the practical and social implications of the gnostic Christians’ belief in a feminine element, or creative principle, which they associated with God—and with all humanity.

Bishop Irenaeus notes with dismay that women especially are attracted to heretical groups. “Even in our own district of the Rhone Valley,” he admits, the gnostic teacher Marcus had attracted “many foolish women”—including the wife of one of Irenaeus’ own deacons—from his congregation.30 He suggested that Marcus himself was a diabolically clever seducer, a magician who compounded special aphrodisiacs to “deceive, victimize, and defile” his prey. Whether Irenaeus’ accusations have any factual basis no one knows. But when he describes Marcus’ techniques of seduction, Irenaeus indicated that he is speaking metaphorically. For, he says, Marcus addresses women “in such seductive words” as in his prayers to Grace, “She who is before all things,”31 and to Wisdom and Silence, the feminine element of the divine being.

Second, he says, Marcus seduced women “by telling them to prophesy” 32—which they were strictly forbidden to do in the orthodox church. When he initiated a woman, Marcus concluded the initiation prayer with the words “Behold, Grace has come upon you; open your mouth, and prophesy.”33 Then, as the bishop indignantly describes it, Marcus’ “deluded victim…impudently utters some nonsense,” and “henceforth considers herself to be a prophet!” Worst of all, in Irenaeus’ view, Marcus invited women to act as priests in celebrating the eucharist with him: he “hands the cups to women”34 to offer up the eucharistic prayer, and to pronounce the words of consecration. Tertullian, a second-century spokesman for the orthodox church in North Africa, expresses similar outrage at the behavior of gnostic women:

  1. 16

    Irenaeus, AH 1.2.2-3.

  2. 17

    Irenaeus, AH 1.4.1-1.5.4.

  3. 18

    Irenaeus, AH 1.5.1-3.

  4. 19

    Clemens Alexandrinus, Excerpta ex Theodoto 47.1.

  5. 20

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.1-6.

  6. 21

    Irenaeus, AH 1.30.9.

  7. 22

    Irenaeus, AH 1.30.10.

  8. 23

    Genesis Rabba 8.1, cited in an excellent discussion of androgyny by Wayne A. Meeks, “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity,” in History of Religions 13.3 (February 1974), pp. 165-208. For a discussion of androgyny in gnostic sources, see Elaine Pagels, “The Gnostic Vision,” in Parabola 3.4 (November 1978), pp. 6-9.

  9. 24

    Irenaeus, AH 1.18.2.

  10. 25

    Clemens Alexandrinus, Excerpta ex Theodoto 21.1.

  11. 26

    Irenaeus, AH 1.5.4; Hippolytus, Ref 6.33.

  12. 27

    Irenaeus, AH 1.29.4.

  13. 28

    Irenaeus, AH 1.30.6. Note the collection of passages cited by N.A. Dahl in “The Gnostic Response: The Ignorant Creator,” prepared for the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, 1976, Nag Hammadi Section.

  14. 29

    Hippolytus, Ref 6.32.

  15. 30

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.5.

  16. 31

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.3.

  17. 32

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.4.

  18. 33

    Irenaeus, AH 1.13.3.

  19. 34

    Hippolytus, Ref 6.35; Irenaeus, AH 1.13.1-2.

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