Beyond Gnosticism

Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus

Ismo Dunderberg
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 336
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/dund14172
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  • Book Info
    Beyond Gnosticism
    Book Description:

    Valentinus was a popular, influential, and controversial early Christian teacher. His school flourished in the second and third centuries C.E. Yet because his followers ascribed the creation of the visible world not to a supreme God but to an inferior and ignorant Creator-God, they were from early on accused of heresy, and rumors were spread of their immorality and sorcery.

    Beyond Gnosticism suggests that scholars approach Valentinians as an early Christian group rather than as a representative of ancient "Gnosticism"-a term notoriously difficult to define. The study shows that Valentinian myths of origin are filled with references to lifestyle (such as the control of emotions), the Christian community, and society, providing students with ethical instruction and new insights into their position in the world. While scholars have mapped the religio-historical and philosophical backgrounds of Valentinian myth, they have yet to address the significance of these mythmaking practices or emphasize the practical consequences of Valentinians' theological views. In this groundbreaking study, Ismo Dunderberg provides a comprehensive portrait of a group hounded by other Christians after Christianity gained a privileged position in the Roman Empire.

    Valentinians displayed a keen interest in mythmaking and the interpretation of myths, spinning complex tales about the origin of humans and the world. As this book argues, however, Valentinian Christians did not teach "myth for myth's sake." Rather, myth and practice were closely intertwined. After a brief introduction to the members of the school of Valentinus and the texts they left behind, Dunderberg focuses on Valentinus's interpretation of the biblical creation myth, in which the theologian affirmed humankind's original immortality as a present, not lost quality and placed a special emphasis on the "frank speech" afforded to Adam by the supreme God. Much like ancient philosophers, Valentinus believed that the divine Spirit sustained the entire cosmic chain and saw evil as originating from conspicuous "matter."

    Dunderberg then turns to other instances of Valentinian mythmaking dominated by ethical concerns. For example, the analysis and therapy of emotions occupy a prominent place in different versions of the myth of Wisdom's fall, proving that Valentinians, like other educated early Christians, saw Christ as the healer of emotions. Dunderberg also discusses the Tripartite Tractate, the most extensive account to date of Valentinian theology, and shows how Valentinians used cosmic myth to symbolize the persecution of the church in the Roman Empire and to create a separate Christian identity in opposition to the Greeks and the Jews.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51259-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VIII)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. XI-XII)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. XIII-XVI)
  6. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-13)

    The school of Valentinus, known for its keen interest in mythmaking, was one of the most significant factions denounced as heretical in nascent Christianity. Its influence in the early church is revealed not only in the surviving literary remnants of Valentinian teachers themselves, but also in the attacks leveled against them in the texts of other early Christians. Entire treatises were composed against Valentinians; the most prominent among these works was the five-volume Against Heresies, written c. 180 by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons. In later centuries, Valentinus’s reputation was established as one of the three archheretics in the early...

  7. 1 THE SCHOOL OF VALENTINUS AFTER GNOSTICISM
    (pp. 14-32)

    In this chapter, I outline my approach to the Valentinian myth. First, I bid farewell to the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy, which can be seen in the ways scholars have used the term “Gnosticism.” In my view, the criticism leveled at the use of this term by Karen King and Michael Williams has not been mere quibbling over a problematic G-word that could be replaced with some less problematic not-G-word. Rather, this discussion has dramatically changed our understanding of what we are after in examining the materials traditionally classified as Gnostic.

    Second, I draw a distinction between an intellectualist-doctrinal...

  8. PART I. MYTH, LIFESTYLE, AND THE WORLD IN THE FRAGMENTS OF VALENTINUS
    • 2 IMMORTALITY AS A WAY OF LIFE
      (pp. 35-45)

      Valentinus’s fragment 4 contains a brief excerpt stemming from his sermon in which he addresses his audience as those who “are immortal from the beginning” and “rule over creation and the entire corruption.”¹ Although Valentinus does not renarrate the creation of humankind as told in Genesis 1–2 in this fragment (as he does in fragment 1, dealing with Adam’s creation),² the way he addresses his audience recalls the biblical story. Valentinus must have been aware that the themes of immortality and ruling were often connected with interpretations of Adam’s creation in Hellenistic Jewish and Christian literature.

      In previous scholarship,...

    • 3 ADAM’S FRANK SPEECH
      (pp. 46-59)

      Valentinus’s teaching about immortality and dominion over all things was not dramatically different from other contemporary Jewish and Christian views. It was only his opinion that death serves a positive purpose (as part of the educational process of his addressees) that his contemporaries might have regarded as really exceptional. A less conventional side of Valentinus’s interpretation of Genesis becomes visible in his interpretation of Adam’s creation (fragment 1). In explaining this story, Valentinus posited the existence of malevolent creator angels who proved inferior to, and became angry at, Adam.

      The closest analogy to this interpretation can be found in the...

    • 4 COSMIC SYMPATHY AND THE ORIGIN OF EVIL
      (pp. 60-74)

      The final passage from the fragments of Valentinus, which needs to be discussed before turning to the teachings of his followers, is his short yet eloquent poem entitled Harvest (fragment 8).¹ It describes how the Spirit sustains the entire cosmic system from bottom to top:

      I see that all is suspended by the Spirit,²

      I understand that all is carried by the Spirit:

      flesh, hanging from soul,

      soul, ³ air,

      air, hanging from aether,

      fruits borne from the depth,

      a babe brought forth from the womb.

      The positive attitude Valentinus shows toward the entire universe in Harvest seems to...

  9. PART II. VALENTINIAN COSMOGONY, LIFESTYLE, AND OTHER CHRISTIANS
    • 5 MYTH AND LIFESTYLE FOR BEGINNERS
      (pp. 77-94)

      The only surviving firsthand document of Ptolemaeus, one of the most renowned Valentinian teachers, is a didactic treatise usually called his Letter to Flora.¹ With this text, Ptolemaeus seeks to convince Flora, the addressee, that there exists, in addition to the Father of All, an inferior Creator-God (Demiurge) whose character becomes visible in the biblical law.

      Ptolemaeus’s treatise must have enjoyed a remarkable popularity among early Christians in late antiquity. The text survives as quoted in Epiphanius’s antiheretical compendium Panarion, which was written about two hundred years after Ptolemaeus composed his Letter to Flora. The mere fact that Epiphanius still...

    • 6 MYTH AND THE THERAPY OF EMOTIONS
      (pp. 95-118)

      While it remains unknown how Ptolemaeus continued his teaching at a more advanced level and what kind of a myth of origin he may have had in mind, it is clear that his followers, like some other Valentinians, developed mythical accounts to explain how the world emerged. A focal point in these accounts is the tale of personified Wisdom (Sophia). It is her ill-advised action in the eternal realm, called Fullness (plērōma), that launches a chain reaction leading to the creation of another, deficient world.

      Wisdom is introduced in the Valentinian myths of origin as one of the eternal beings...

    • 7 THE CREATOR-GOD AND THE COSMOS
      (pp. 119-133)

      At the end of his Letter to Flora, Ptolemaeus hinted that he needed to offer a more profound theory of the Creator-God, whose existence he sought to prove. The surviving remnants of the more advanced instruction of Valentinian teachers about this issue and its relationship to the lifestyle they recommended to their students are discussed in this and the subsequent chapter. What is striking, however, is the paucity of firsthand evidence related to this issue. In a number of Valentinian texts, the Creator-God distinct from the supreme deity is either not mentioned at all¹ or is mentioned only in passing.²...

    • 8 WALK LIKE A VALENTINIAN
      (pp. 134-146)

      Irenaeus devotes much attention to Valentinians’ teaching about humankind, which they supported with Genesis exegesis. They taught that three invisible natures were bestowed upon Adam, that of hyle, that of the soul (psuchē), and that of spirit (pneuma). Irenaeus describes how Valentinians divided the entire humankind into respective classes. They themselves represented the spiritual race, which will be saved by nature, no matter what they did, whereas those belonging to the second, psychic class must believe and do good works to achieve salvation; for those belonging to the third, hylic class, there is no hope whatsoever: like hyle itself according...

    • 9 TWO CLASSES OF CHRISTIANS IN PRACTICE
      (pp. 147-158)

      The deterministic picture Irenaeus gives of the Valentinian teaching about the three classes of humankind is no doubt one-sided, and his sweeping accusations against the immoral lifestyle of the Valentinians do not find support in any nonhostile sources. Nevertheless, his complaint that Valentinians seemed arrogant was probably not completely ill-grounded. It is conceivable that the distinction between a superior class of spiritual Christians and a lower class of ordinary Christians was not merely a theoretical construct. Such divisions tend to create social structures as well.

      This side of the Valentinian teaching can be seen in the picture drawn of an...

  10. PART III. MYTH, SOCIETY, AND NON-CHRISTIANS
    • 10 MYTH, POWER, AND THE OPPRESSED CHURCH
      (pp. 161-173)

      Valentinians not only used mythic discourse to justify distinctions within the Christian community, but they also employed it to account for the structure of Greco-Roman society, to explain why the Christian church had to suffer in this society, and to offer a foundation for a distinct self-understanding that makes Christians different both from Greeks and Jews. These concerns become visible in the way the cosmogonic myth is used in the Tripartite Tractate (NHC I, 5).

      The author of this text is especially occupied with describing the origin and effects of power. This topic looms large in the text: the verbal...

    • 11 MYTH AND ETHNIC BOUNDARIES
      (pp. 174-188)

      It has become clear by now that Greco-Roman philosophy, especially Platonism, had no lesser impact on Valentinian teachers than it had on Sethian Christians.¹ Could this help us assess their relationship to society as well? As I mentioned in the previous chapter, Michael Williams saw in the adoption of philosophical ideas one sign of accommodation to society. According to him, the demiurgical Christians tried “to reduce the distance between on the one hand elements of the inherited Jewish and/or Jesus-movement traditions, and on the other hand key presuppositions from the wider culture, including Platonic philosophy.” He also maintained that “such...

  11. CONCLUSION
    • 12 VALENTINIAN SECRETIVENESS RECONSIDERED
      (pp. 191-196)

      In this concluding chapter, I will not repeat the results of the individual chapters but seek to develop a view as to how Valentinian esotericism could be better understood in the context of ancient schools of thought.¹ As was seen above, Irenaeus effectively created a veil of secrecy surrounding the teaching of the Valentinians. Holding back something, or saying one thing and thinking another, is always suspicious, hence the usefulness of this claim in polemics. Not only did the early allies of Irenaeus repeat this accusation, but modern scholars still continue to speak of their “hidden agenda.”

      What tends to...

  12. APPENDIX: REMARKS ON THE SOURCES OF IRENAEUS’S AND HIPPOLYTUS’S ACCOUNTS OF VALENTINIAN THEOLOGY
    (pp. 197-202)
  13. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. 203-206)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 207-272)
  15. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 273-288)
  16. INDEX OF MODERN AUTHORS
    (pp. 289-294)
  17. INDEX OF ANCIENT SOURCES
    (pp. 295-302)
  18. INDEX OF SUBJECTS
    (pp. 303-308)