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Anna Calabrese
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The Gnostic Movement(s) and the role of Women There is current pop cultural obsession with Gnosticism. A glimpse at the documentary section of Netflix will prove this to be true. Gnosticism is often presented as a mystical and poetic alternative to the patriarchal hierarchy of the Christian Church. It is also often presented as a safer and more holistic religious home for women, free of many of the misogynistic barriers of the larger institution of the church. But how much of this is true? What is Gnosticism anyway and what does it really have to say about women? This paper will explore these questions by giving an overview of what Gnosticism really is, beyond a new shelf in the Christian self-help section at Barnes and Noble. I will explore this through two Gnostic theologians, Valentinus and Ptolemy. From there, the second section will deal with women and Gnostic thought, giving focus to the role of Mary Magdalene in the Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Mary, and The Gospel of Phillip. In order to being this exploration of Gnosticism, it is more accurate to begin by discussing Gnosticisms, acknowledging primarily that Gnosticism was more than just one movement but a series of movements that shared a common belief in salvation through knowledge.[1] These movements, or this style of “speculative religious metaphysics”[2], pre-exist Christianity and came to have largest impact on Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. According to Jaroslav Pelikan[3], even the title Gnostic is a creation of modern scholars and has “ been applied to so wide a variety of teachers and teachings that it is in danger of losing its usefulness” (Pelikan pg 82). However, Gnosticism, used because there is no appropriate term to substitute, is still an immensely important element in order to fully understand the early Christian Movement. Pelikan states “ Gnosticism may be defined as a system which taught the cosmic redemption of the spirit through knowledge” (Pelikan pg 82). This system of knowing focused on the corruptible and “fallen” nature of the corporeal form and the redemptive nature of knowledge, not just as an intellectual endeavor, but also as spiritual redemption. Narrowing what begins to feel like the broad and esoteric field of enlightenment, McGuckin suggests that the term Gnostic be saved for “ those materials where we see the myth of light and dark” (McGuckin pg.2), that is a system in which materiality of the world is associated with the fall of man to darkness and salvation is the divine light by which the dark pall of that world is cast out. To better understand this archetypal Gnostic thought is instructive to turn to the work of Valentinus of Alexandria. Although possibly born in Egypt, Valentinus spent much of his life in Rome and worked under Pope Anicetus, where he almost became Bishop. [4] He is one of the most influential theologians of the Gnostic movement, with his pupils Ptolemy (who I will discuss at greater length later on) and Heracleon aiding in the propagation of Gnosticism throughout the ancient world. Valentinus proposed a “ distinctive doctrine of the divine reality and of its relation to the cosmos”( Pelikan, pg 85). Valentinian cosmology is somewhat complex, and originates with the notion that God is a “single, transcendent, and utterly unknowable Being” (Frend, 207). This being was generated in the Depth (or Bythos). After many, many years of silence and contemplation, this Depth emanated Silence. Then Depth and Silence together, who are representative of male and female aspects, emanated two other principles, understanding and truth. Following this creation came thirty separate beings, called Aeons, all in separate male and female pairings, including Word and Life, and Man and Church. These pairings created the world, known as Pleroma. The last Aeon created was Sophia (wisdom). Because Sophia quested to know the Unknowable being, she was plunged into darkness where she gave birth to a deformed infant, sometimes known as “the Child of Chaos” (Frend, pg 207). This child is “hostile and destructive spiritual force who makes the material world[5]” (McGuckin, pg3). The subsequent struggle between Wisdom Sophia and the Child of Chaos is responsible for the constant battle between good and evil that exists in the internal and external world of man. To save the world from this dualistic battle, Jesus Christ is sent to Sophia to separate wisdom from passion and enact salvation in the material world through ascent via saving knowledge. The debate between the Valentinan Gnostics and Orthodox Christians revolved heavily around what was perceived as the dualism of God in Gnostic thought. As Elaine Pagels[6] writes, “ the majority of Christians early condemned this view as dualistic, and identified themselves as Orthodox by confessing one God, who is both ‘ Father Almighty’ and ‘Maker of Heaven and Earth’” ( Pagels, pg 28). Bishop Irenaeus, one of the major forces behind the movement classifying Gnosticism as Heresy, stated that his major issue with Gnosticism was that is posited another god apart from God the creator. The Valentinan division of God into Aeons and the notion that the material world was created by a Demiurge characterized by chaos and destruction, was heretical to the teachings of the Old Testament. Even though many Valentinian theologians publicly stated their belief in “one god”, Bishop Irenaus claimed they were really just “ saying one thing and thinking another”. [7] And most disturbingly for Iraneus, most Orthodox Christians were not even able to differentiate between Orthodox and Gnostic thought. However, Iraneus declared that even though the views may have been similar in some ways, and despite linguistic similarities, the Gnostic’s were in fact guilty of blasphemy and ordered that they be expelled from the churches. Adding more fuel to the conflagration emerging between Valentinian Gnostics and the Orthodox Church were differences in the way the two theologies viewed the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. As Frend asks, “ was the Old Testament the prefiguration or introduction to the New, as in Hebrews 10, or was it wholly alien—the work of an inferior being or an evil archon?” ( Frend, pg. 208) Ptolemy, a disciple of Vanentinus’s is a key figure for further exploring this schism. For Ptolemy, the Old Testament was not the evil creation of a demiurge, it was just inadequate because it was not created by the “perfect God” and therefore contains “commandments alien to the nature and thought of such a God”( Frend, pg.208). For example, teachings such as “an eye for an eye”, were not in keeping with Jesus’ teachings of “turn the other cheek”. Therefore, for Ptolemy, the Old Testament is the product of an inferior, intermediate god who is ultimately unaware of the True God, or Ground of Beings existence[8] His views are representative of the kind of educated intellectuals who found a home in Gnostic theology, and his famous Letter to Flora presents common views of the time. For instance, Ptolemy sees Judaism as a precursor to Christianity and feels that Jewish observances such as fasting may still be carried out because as Frend asserts, “ the Gnostics gaze was always fixed on the spiritual, enlightened by the Savior Christ”( Frend, pg.209). The Letter to Flora is a good transition into the second section of this paper that will discuss Women and the Gnostic movement(s). The letter to Flora is unique because it is addressed to a woman. This woman is obviously educated and articulate. As Frend illustrates, the Letter to Flora makes clear that the Gnostics had a lot to offer women. Women’s role in salvation was emphasized and held up, and Mary (both Mother of God and Magdalene) figured prominently.

Part Two: Women and the Gnostics

Feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther is careful to point out that because Gnosticism is representative of such a diversity of thought and movements, so too is the “Gnostic” understanding of women. Therefore, the Gnostic interpretation of women must be analyzed on a text-by-text basis. Using the role of Mary Magdalene in several Gnostic texts is a keyhole into the varied views on women espoused by the writers of the Gnostic Gospels. Reuther points out that while canonical Gnostic Gospels point to Mary Magdalene as the “disciple to the disciples”[9], by the sixth century she was commonly seen as a prostitute instead of one of the disciples closest to Jesus. Looking at the role of Mary Magdalene in the Pisits Sophia, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Phillip will provide a diverse look at the Gnostic understanding of women. The Pistis Sophia and the role of Mary Magdalene is an oft-debated topic. According to Anne Graham Brock[10], “ since the first generation of early Christians, Mary Magdalene’s role has suffered from misrepresentation and distortion through the conflation of her character with other female figure, including the penitent sinner, perhaps a prostitute, who anointed Jesus. Her role has also been diminished through the substitution of her character with less threatening or controversial characters named Mary, such as Mary the mother of Jesus”( Brock, pg 123). It is this last point, that Mary Magdalene is oft conflated with Mary the Mother of Jesus in these Gnostic texts is what I found most compelling. Identifying the Mary in the texts as the Virgin, has the effect of keeping a very real woman out of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. Scholars like Elizabeth Schussler Firoenza have done great work to reconstruct the role of women, especially Mary Magdalene, in these texts. However, quoting Brock, “ still, certain scholars challenge the interpretation that Mary Magdalene is the primary character in some of the most important early noncanonical texts…instead they claim this primary figure is Mary the Mother of Jesus. In doing so they remove the threat of one of the most positive and empowering women and apostolic figures of early Christianity”( Brock 124). But the question really remains, what do the texts themselves say? According to Brock, the Pistis Sophia is decidedly representing Mary Magdalene. She points to several examples from the primary text that point to this conclusion. Many times in the Pistis Sophia, especially in Chapters 1-3 of the text, Jesus differentiates between Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of God. When Mary is mentioned without the specific title of Mother, she is referred to by stating, “ Miriam, the blessed one, whom I will complete in all the mysteries of the height, speak openly, you are she whose heart is more directed to the kingdom of heaven than all your brothers and sisters” (1.17). Brock contends that the blessed one is a definite signifier in the text that the Mary being spoken of is indeed Mary Magdalene. Evidence of this is the fact that in another passage of the first book of Pistis Sophia, Jesus speaks to his Mother Mary about Mary Magdalene stating, “ You and the other Mary, the Blessed One” (1.59)
Burton cites other evidence that the Mary being signified by the “blessed one” is indeed Mary Magdalene. In a further passage, Jesus states, “ Excellent , Mariam, the blessed one who will inherit the whole kingdom of the light”. Directly after this, Mary the Mother of Jesus comes forward and states, “ My Lord and my Savior, command me also that I answer this discourse” (1.61). Following this, even more praise is offered to Mary Magdalene, now sharply differentiated from Mary the Mother of God. Brock contends that what this text asserts above all is that in the logic of the Pistis Sophia, a woman can be blessed for more than just her biological capabilities of bearing children and being a Mother. The Pisits Sophia, a text within the Gnostic tradition, asserts that Mary Magdalene is blessed for her pure and spiritual nature,
“ Mary the spiritual one of pure light” (3.116.118). Just as the Gnostic movement itself was really a diversity of movements, the perspective on women in many of the Gnostic texts is just as diverse. However the Gospel of Phillip is similar to the Pistis Sophia in its presentation of women as spiritually enlightened beings. Rosemary Radford Reuther explains that in the Gospel of Phillip, the Valentinian creation mythos is explicated, with attention paid to the soul-spirit split that occurred with Adam and Eve. According to Reuther, “ the division of the original androgynous Adam into male and female brought death into the world. For the community of the Gospel of Phillip, the sacrament of the ‘bridal chamber’ could remedy this primal fall into gender duality and death. In this symbolic spiritual marriage, Valentinian Gnostics believed that they reunified their male-female (psychic-spiritual) duality and thus ascended to redemptive wholeness” (Reuther, pg. 124). The Gospel of Phillip also depicts Mary Magdalene as the “female half” of Christ if you will. Jesus is presented as having a special affinity for Mary, and even that he “ kisses her many times on the mouth”. In the Gospel of Phillip, Jesus’ disciples become upset and jealous of the special attention that Jesus bestows up Mary Magdalene. The Male disciples ask “ why do you love her more than us?” Jesus answers, “ when the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and who is blind will remain in darkness”. Jesus appears to be saying in that passage that Mary is the one who is the keeper of the light is Mary Magdalene and those who are blind or in the dark are the male disciples. According to Radford Reuther, the most significant Gnostic gospel for analyzing the role of women as embodied in Mary Magdalene is the Gospel of Mary. The gospel begins with Jesus laying out the importance of fostering inner peace over creating laws and scriptural guidelines that hinder that inner peace and spiritual inspiration. In the Gospel of Mary, it is the male disciples who are depicted as not possessing the qualities of inner peace that Jesus speaks of. The disciples fear that if they approach the preaching of the gospels with these characteristics of tranquility and peace, they will be killed. It is then that Mary comes to the disciples and assures them that the presence of the savior will be with them, protecting them. Peter also comes forward and asserts that Jesus “Loved Mary than any other woman” (5:5), asking Mary to share the special insights that Jesus entrusted her with the rest of the disciples. After sharing a vision regarding the nature of the souls ascent to heaven, the disciples challenge Mary’s teaching because they say it contradicts the teaching of the savior himself. Peter himself then challenges whether or not Jesus would have really chosen to share such a secret with the likes of a woman. Why would he share something with a woman that he would not chose to share with his main disciples, the men. One of the disciples comes forward and asserts that “ if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knew her very well. That is why he loved her more than us. Rather let us put on the Perfect Man and separate as he commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or law beyond what the Savior said” (9:6) [11]. With this the disciples are reminded that it is not gender that constitutes “true spirit”, and that woman are equally able to experience and preach the gospel. These passages again highlights that Gnostic scriptures were often open to viewing women beyond their gender, which so often defined them within society, and seeing them as spiritual creatures of God.

Conclusion In this paper, I have attempted to give a very brief overview of some of the substance and history of the Gnostic movement(s). I hope to have explicated that the Gnostic movement is not simple and easily defined as a “spiritual” movement, quickly palatable by “new age” consumers. Instead, the Gnostics were a group ( or groups) of elite intellectuals who constructed a complex system of beliefs that often melded Jewish, Christian, and Hellenistic tradition. It is a complex system of universal understanding, a style of “speculative religious metaphysics” that gained popularity among elites and intellectuals. Consequently, Gnosticism came under the sharp knife of the Christian Church, as Church Fathers like Bishop Irenaeus declared the Gnostics heretical for teachings that complicated notions of “one god” and preached a more dualistic conception instead. However, where the role of women is concerned, the Gnostic Gospels do present the role of women as existing beyond the biological and social roles they often found themselves trapped inside. Using three Gnostic style texts, I have shown the way that Mary Magdalene is shown as a spiritually powerful leader in her own right, not merely a woman or mother. While it is difficult to separate between the fact and fiction of modern understanding of the Gnostics, it is still a rich and vibrant area of research. In order to really begin exploration of things Gnostic, it is key to acknowledge the series of movements (often contradictory) that comprise this early Christian Movement. Nonetheless, Gnosticism sheds light on the foundations of the Church and the way it has understood itself through the ages.

Works Cited
1. J.McGuckin. 2009, Gnosticism : An Initial Consideration
2. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), The University of Chicago Press 1971

3. W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity , Fortress Press 1984
4. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books 1979
5. J.McGuckin, Christian Gnosticism: Valentinos (fl.c. 120-165)
6. Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History, Rosemary Radford Reuther , University of California Press 2005

7. Walk in the Ways of Wisdom: Essays in honor of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Trinity Press International, 2003

8. Pistis Sophia : The Gnostic Society Library, Translated with Commentary by G. R. S. Mead
London: J. M. Watkins
Published 1921
9. The Gospel of Mary Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, Karen King, Polebridge Press, 2003

[1] J.McGuckin. 2009, Gnosticism : An Initial Consideration

[2] J.McGuckin. 2009

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), The University of Chicago Press 1971
[4] W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity , Fortress Press 1984
[5] J.McGuckin, Christian Gnosticism: Valentinos (fl.c. 120-165)
[6] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books 1979
[7] Pagels, pg 32
[8] Taken from Frend as he quotes from Ptolemy Ptolemee.
[9] Goddesses and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History, Rosemary Radford Reuther , University of California Press 2005
[10] Walk in the Ways of Wisdom: Essays in honor of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Trinity Press International, 2003
[11] Taken from Rosemary Radford Reuther in Goddesses and the Divine Feminine : A Western Religious History

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