In the first two centuries early Christianity began to spread rapidly. The Christian religion took off throughout the area we know as the Middle East and Asia. Along with this spread came alterations and variations of what Christianity was. These alterations were eventually dubbed “heresies” by the Orthodox Church and were considered false Christianity. Scholars have created three general categories for the types of Christianity in the first few centuries. These categories are Jewish Christianity, Gnosticism, and orthodoxy.(King, 7) The Jewish Christians have too much of the Jewish religion woven into their Christianity, and therefore were considered unorthodox. The gnostic Christians were on the opposite end of the spectrum and had little to no Jewish ties and often took more of a platonic stance on Christianity.
Gnosticism by definition comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. The texts on the opposite end of the Jewish Christians were given this name because of the importance of knowledge threading through almost all of them. They all denounced the material world, encouraging people to rid themselves of fleshly passions and desires and rise above the worldly trap of this earth by obtaining secret knowledge or gnosis, hence Gnosticism.(Perkins, 581) Although the first reference to the Gnostics was in 1 Timothy 6:20, in the New Testament, the term “Gnosticism” wasn’t officially given until the 18th century.(Freedman, 1033)
The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics lists some of the Gnostics general core teachings: a cosmic dualism between good and evil, a distinction between the Jewish creator God Yahweh or the Demiurge of Plato and the transcendent God of the New Testament, the view of creation as a result of the fall of Sophia, the identification of matter as evil, the belief that most people are ignorant of their origins and condition, the identification of sparks of divinity encapsulated in certain spiritual individuals, a faith in a docetic Redeemer (in other words that Jesus wasn’t human), a goal of escaping the prison of the body and being reunited with God through the traversing of the planetary spheres of hostile demons, a salvation based not on faith or works but upon special knowledge of ones true condition, a mixed view of morality, the interpretation of baptism and the Lord’s supper as spiritual symbols of the gnosis, and finally a view of the resurrection as spiritual, not physical.(Geisler, 274) These teachings are fairly general, and often looked different for different Gnostic sects. For example, the Sethian Gnostics cosmology is slightly different than the Valentinian cosmology, but still is different than the orthodox view of the cosmos.
Gnosticism is a broad term encompassing many different sects, people, and beliefs. Out of this variety come interesting figures in the history of Christianity. Of these figures are Simon the Magician, Marcion, and Valentinus. While all of these figures, among many more, deserve time and attention, the rest of this paper will focus on the person of Valentinus the Valentinian Gnosticism that came after him.
Valentinus was born in Egypt in the early second century. He was educated in Alexandria, the Hellenistic capital of the world at the time, where he became well learned in Platonic philosophy. It is likely that he met Christian philosopher Basilides and was influenced by his teachings. It is also thought that he received teaching from Theudas, who was a student of St. Paul, giving him some kind of apostolic sanction and authority.(Layton, 217) Around the year 136 Valentinus migrated to Rome where he got involved in ecclesiastical affairs. Valentinus became more and more popular as a leader and a teacher in the Roman church, and at one point he even expected to become the next bishop of Rome. His success in Rome is attributed to his literary talent and gifted speech. Around the year 165, after many attacks on Valentinus as a theologian, he died and therefore his individual impact ended. The cause of death is unknown, like many of the details of his life.
The little information that we do have on Valentinus comes from two sources: patristic and papyrological. The heresiological polemic against Valentinus was very successful, and the vast majority of his personal writings were destroyed. There are a few fragments left, and possibly a few full texts found in the Nag Hammadi library, but the majority of what we know about Valentinus the person comes from what others wrote about him. There are four patristic writers that include Valentinus in their works. Irenaeus of Lyon is the earliest patristic source, dating to around the year 180 C.E. He gives a detailed description of Valentinus’ theological system with the typical hersiological biases. More will be said about Irenaeus later. The next patristic source comes from Clement of Alexandria in about the year 200 C.E. He quotes six of Valentinus’ writings including quotes from treatises, sermons, and a discussion. Hippolytus of Rome, 222 C.E., brings the next patristic source. He summarizes an autobiographical and transmits a poem from Valentinus’ cosmology. The last patristic source is Marcellus of Ancyra, who died in the late fourth century. Marcellus preserves nothing but a title of a theological work by Valentinus, On the Three Natures. The papyrological sources come from texts discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library. In the library was the Gospel of Truth, which some scholars argue was written by Valentinus. The scholars that don’t make statements as to the authorship will at least agree that it is indeed Valentinian. (Freedman, 783)
Layton examines each fragment from the patristic sources. Fragment A, from Hippolytus of Rome, is likely an autobiographical or visionary statement by Valentinus. It is written in Greek, but besides the three sentences recorded nothing is known about the work as a whole. Fragment B is nothing more than a title, On the Three Natures, that is supposed to have talked about the notion of three subsistent entities and three persons: father, son, and holy spirit. Fragment C is a discussion on Adam’s speech that Valentinus had recorded. It is hard to say exactly what it could mean, but Layton suggests that it could be a reworking of the gnostic myth. Fragment D continues the discussion on Adam, this time about his name. Fragment E might be the most humorous, as it talks about Jesus’ digestive system. This short fragment gives an insight into Valentinus’ thoughts on Jesus as a human. The text states that Jesus ate and drank, but didn’t excrete what went in, implying that he was human but also above a human. Fragment F comes from a sermon and touches on the ideas of death and immortality. Fragment G is a very brief text about God’s word on the earth and in people’s hearts. Fragment H is the longest fragment from the collection of patristic sources and arguably says the most about Valentinus’ theology and thought. It talks about the hearts prerequisites for gnosis, the role of the savior and the Word, and the visitation of the father.(Layton, 230-245)
Now while it would have been useful to dive deeper into each of these fragments to pull out as much as possible about the theology of Valentinus, that wasn’t the point. Rather, the fragments are listed in limited detail above to drive home the fact that there is very little information on Valentinus and his beliefs. There are only eight fragments, anywhere from two to ten sentences, from second hand sources pulled out of much larger texts containing minimal information. Therefore, the patristic sources in the Anchor Bible Dictionary don’t have much to offer. That moves us then to the papyrological source, the Gospel of Truth.
As already stated, the authorship of the Gospel of Truth is debated among scholars. In Biblical Interpretation in the Gnostic Gospel of Truth from Nag Hammadi Williams argues that it was indeed written by Valentinus. Irenaeus states that Valentinus used a “Gospel of Truth” and while the manuscript itself doesn’t have a title the first line of the text is, “The Gospel of Truth…” suggesting that it could in fact be the title. If this is true, the “Gospel of Truth” Irenaeus refers to could in fact be this gospel. Tertulliam also states that Valentinus had his own gospel, but with no title attached. Also, the fragments mentioned above from Valentinus’ own hand have similar literary style and ideas as that Gospel of Truth, adding weight to the argument that Valentinus was indeed the author.(Williams, 2-4)
Holding to the theory that Valentinus was the author of the Gospel of Truth, we can now observe the text to get a glimpse into Valentinus’ theology. His cosmology and creation story are similar to other Gnostic sects. There is the Pleroma, with thirty aeons dwelling between the boundaries called limits. The Ineffable is the first thought or divine being and from it all the other aeons were created. Like the general Gnostic myth, the Demiurge is created and he creates the earth. On the earth people are ignorant of the Father, the Ineffable, and are in a fog of terror and anguish. No one can see the real truth, so they mistake the earth for the truth. When people can’t see the truth, or the Father, there is oblivion and disaster. To remove this fog and see through it to the Father, Jesus comes down and shows people the way. Jesus comes down with the truth and shows it to people so that they can return to the Ineffable where they belong. Like the biblical story goes, Jesus is killed, but in the Gnostic story it is Error who kills Jesus. Jesus is nailed to a tree and becomes the “fruit of knowledge.” If people acquire the secret knowledge of the truth, they can then be saved and make the journey back to the Ineffable upon death.
The theme throughout the Gospel of Truth is that the material world is evil. It is a fog separating humans from the Father. The only way to get through that fog is to get secret knowledge of the Truth. This Truth is referred to as a book, and Jesus is that book. When he was crucified, the book was published for all to see. For those who saw the book, the Truth, and understood, they would be saved. Upon seeing the Truth and being saved, they were then to renounce their worldly possessions and desires and ascend to the Father.
The Gospel of Truth, if in fact written by Valentinus, is huge in understanding his theology, cosmology, and Christology. While he holds true to the Gnostic myth with slight variations, he presents an interesting take on the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s easy to imagine a skilled speaker standing in front of a crowd of Greeks giving a sermon claiming to have the truth and the way out of the evil world and being successful.
While there is little about the person of Valentinus himself, there is much to be said about Valentinian Gnosticism after Valentinus. This began with Valentinus’ school, which began while Valentinus was still alive in Rome. The Valentinian school of thought existed peaceably with other Christians for a good amount of time. It was like other philosophical schools of thought, but they studied the same Bible that the Christians had. It would have been common, then, for a Christian to worship in a home church one night of the week and later in the week go to a Valentinian study group to interpret the Bible. (Brakke, 116)
The school represented what scholars refer to as the Syrian-Egyptian type of gnostic speculation. Much like the ideas in the Gospel of Truth, or even an elaboration of them, the school focused on placing the origin of darkness and evil within the godhead. This creates a divine tragedy, and the need for salvation comes from it. The way to salvation, as talked about above, is getting rid of the ignorance in the world. The opposite of ignorance in this instance is knowledge, and therefore knowledge saves you, the knowledge of the Truth. (Jonas, 174)
There are some scholars who divide the Valentinian school into two camps, the eastern and the western schools. In Joel Kalvesmaki’s article Italian versus Eastern Valentinianism he argues that the evidence for the distinction between two schools isn’t substantial. Only three ancient sources support the idea that there were two Velentinian schools, one eastern and one Italian. The first text is the title of Clement of Alexandria’s work, Epitomes from the Works of Theodotus and the So-Called Eastern teaching at the Time of Valentunus. Kalvesmaki argues that this title is either unreliable due to authorship issues or so specific that it brings doubt to the idea that there was a division. The second text is Hippolytus’s testimony, which has so many issues that it barely even legitimates the existence of an Eastern teaching. The third text is Tertullian’s and is vague and doesn’t even refer to an eastern and western division. Lastly, Kalvesmaki’s final argument is that in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies he mentions nothing of an eastern and western split in the Valentinian School. (Kalvesmaki, 79-89)
As mentioned a few times above, in reference to the Valentinian School and Valentinus himself, the Valentinian Gnostic movement didn’t begin as a heresy. Valentinus was a very successful preacher, and was even close to becoming the Bishop of Rome. Valentinians meshed with other Christians well, and there wasn’t much division in the early stages of the movement. Elinar Thomassen explains why he believes Valentinus was never condemned as a heretic in his article Orthodoxy and Heresy in Second-Century Rome.
While historical figures and heresiologists such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus labeled Valentinus a heretic, the Roman church never officially condemned Valentinus. Thommassen gives three reasons why he believes the church never condemned Valentinus. The first reason is Valentinus himself might not have been a Valentinian. Valentinus might not have held to the Valentinian doctrines and ideas that were later condemned by heresiologists. This possibility isn’t likely, however, as Justin Martyr had already declared Valentinians as heretics in the 150’s, when Valentinus was still around. The second reason is that the Valentinians could have been tolerated in the church. Tolerance could have been either an active recognition or a passive acceptance of doctrinal diversity. This would make sense along with the fact that Valentinian Schools existed alongside other Christians in the church with no opposition. The problem with this possibility is that while there is no evidence in the writings of the condemnation of Valentinus, there is also no clear evidence of him being accepted by the church either.
The third option, and the most likely, one is the organizational structure of the Roman church. In Paul’s letter to Rome he doesn’t address a single church but a group of house congregations. If there was no organized church structure with a system of leaders and authorities, there wouldn’t have been any condemnation of any heretics from some kind of authoritative figure in the church. (Thomassen, 245-246)
Even though there was never an official authoritative condemnation of Valentinus or his followers, the polemic attacks against them still came from people like Irenaeus and Tertullian. Irenaeus was the Bishop of Lyons in Gaul in the second century. (Hanks, 23) He wrote Against Heresies, a polemic attack against the Gnostics of the time directed mainly at Valentinus. Irenaeus attacked the Valentinians hard, tracing their origins back to Simon the Magician rather than Paul. A specific part of Valentinianism that Irenaeus attacked was their use of allegorical interpretations of the scriptures. Their use of allegory allowed them to stay in line with the scriptures of the orthodox Christians but leave room for their deeper Valentinian interpretation and understanding. (Layton, 271-273)
Almost all of our understanding of Valentinianism and Valentinus we owe to Irenaeus. His five-volume book contains the most information we have on this particular sect of Gnosticism and has given scholars a window into the world of Valentinianism, despite its heresiologist bias.
The other heresiologist that wrote against Valentinus was Tertullian. Tertullian was from North Africa, and like Irenaeus, was around during the second century. (Hanks, 27) We learn a lot from Tertullian too, and get a different flavor of attack than Irenaeus. Tertullian uses mockery to respond to the mockery of the Valentinians. He is also clearer and shorter than Irenaeus, making his points more concise and to the point. Tertullian attacks the Valentinian’s story telling and exegesis while protecting the view of Jesus held by the orthodox Christians. (Osborn, 191-195)
Given the severity and abundance of attacks against Valentinus and his followers, it is clear that he was a successful leader in the church. Irenaeus described him as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and warned Christians to stay away from the Valentinians. While the Valentinians were dubbed heretics and Valentinus will be known as a heretic for many years to come, one must admire his success as a teacher and preacher in ancient Rome. He was intriguing, thought provoking, and persistent, so much so that he had what are now considered two of the great Christians writing attacks towards him and defenses against him.
Hanks, Geoffrey. 70 Great Christians: The Story of the Christian Church.
Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2004.
70 Great Christians highlights the significance of 70 Christians lives throughout church history. It is written by Geoffrey Hanks, a Christian author, so it holds a slightly Christian bias. It details the lives of Christians from Peter and Paul all the way to Corrie Ten Boom and Billy Graham. I used this book for an intro and information to Irenaeus and Tertullian’s lives.
Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999.
The Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics was a useful resource for defining Gnosticism from a Christian point of view. It was another source written by a Christian author published by a Christian publisher, so it gave a different aspect to the definition of Gnosticism. I used its list of Gnostic teachings and its brief overview of Gnosticism as a whole.
Brakke, David. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.
The Gnostics by David Brakke was a great resource for Gnosticism as a whole. I used it specifically for its information on the Valentinian School and how it existed alongside Christian churches. Some of the other topics it covers are identifying Gnostic literature, the myth and rituals of Gnostic thought, and unity and diversity in Second-Century Rome.
Thomassen, Einar. “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Second-Century Rome.” HTR Harvard
Theological Review, 2004.
“Orthodoxy and Heresy in Second-Century Rome” is a journal article in the HTR Harvard Theological Review. The journal itself has articles ranging from “The Tomb of James the Brother of Jesus” to the “Fragility of the Moral Self.” I focused on the article that had the most relevant information pertaining to Valentinus. In this article Einar Thomassen addresses the reasons why Valentinus wasn’t accused by the Roman church of being a heretic. He also talks about Tertullian and other heretics such as Hermas and Marcion.
Perkins, Pheme. In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville, TN:
Abingdon Press, 2006.
The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible is a great resource for any type of biblical or Christian studies. It contains many volumes and has excerpts on any topic you could think of. I used its article on Gnosticism to define the word and get some background information on the topic. It was also useful for finding other sources.
Freedman, David. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
The Anchor Bible Dictionary, like The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, is a great resource for anything related to biblical studies. I used this source for its definition and article on Gnosticism and also its article on Valentinus. It gave a great overview of the sources that are available to understand Valentinus, and helped with the overview of who Valentinus was. Also, it helped me find other sources.
Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of
Christianity. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.
The Gnostic Religion is an interesting book on Gnosticism as a whole. It has a chapter on the Valentinian speculation, which I used to help understand the thought of the Valentinian Schools. It is definitely one of the tougher reads in my sources, but was still useful.
King, Karen L. What Is Gnosticism? Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 2003.
What is Gnosticism? gives a great overview to what Gnosticism is. Karen King writes clearly and precisely and really helps readers understand what Gnosticism really was. I used this source along with other sources to generate a definition of Gnosticism that echoed throughout my paper in relation to Valentinus.
Williams, Jacqueline A. Biblical Interpretation in the Gnostic Gospel of Truth from Nag
Hammadi. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1988.
Biblical Interpretation of the Gnostic Gospel of Truth was a great resource for everything I needed on the Gospel of Truth. The book was originally a dissertation for a PhD student at Yale but is now a book that completely interprets the Gospel of Truth. I used this book to research the authorship of the Gospel of Truth and some of its interpretation. This was really a great source.
Osborn, Eric Francis. Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge, U.K.:
Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Tertullian, first theologian of the West was a great source on the life of Tertullian. I used his specific text “Against Valentinus” to formulate the attacks against Valentinus and the Valentinians. Tertullian wrote against many other heresies, and this book talks about all of them, but for my purpose I just used the section on Valentinus.
Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and
Introductions. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987.
The Gnostic Scriptures was probably the most useful source. It had everything, and Layton writes in a clear and understandable way. It had information on Valentinus, the fragments of Valentinus’ writings, the Gospel of Truth, the Valentinian School, and Irenaeus’ attacks against Valentinus. It was one of the sources I found in Anchor Bible Dictionary.
Kalvesmaki, Joel. In “Italian versus Eastern Valentinianism?” Vigiliae Christianae 62,
“Italian Versus Eastern Valentinianism” was a source used specifically for the debate on whether or not two Valentinian Schools existed. It is an article in the Vigiliae Christianae journal and was written specifically for that argument. It was a great source that opened my eyes to an argument I hadn’t heard yet, and helped my understand more about Valentinianism.