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“Pass from the intermediate place”: Tracing salvific ascent in Valentinian Gnosticism
Mark Iosifescu

Illustration by Ben Swift

There is an Aggadic tradition from around the 4th century that Isaac, at the moment Abraham was about to sacrifice him on Moriah, saw the antechambers of the Throne. For the working mystic, having the vision and passing through the chambers one by one, is terrible and complex. You must have not only the schooling in countersigns and seals, not only the physical readiness through exercise and abstinence, but also a hardon of resolution that will never go limp on you. The angels at the doorways will try to con you, threaten you, play all manner of cruel practical jokes, to turn you aside... You have chosen the active way, and there is no faltering without finding the most mortal danger.

The other way is dark and female, passive, self-abandoning. Isaac under the blade. The glittering edge widening to a hallway, down, up which the soul is borne by an irresistible Aether.

It is well-known that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future... Nevertheless the future was not an empty and homogenous time to them. Because in its every second was a small gate through which the Messiah might enter. [2]

The paucity of information on the actual practices of Valentinian Gnostics invariably lends itself (as it has invariably lent itself, in the centuries since the sect’s vogue) to speculation, to careful guesswork, derived from what few sacred texts remain extant and careful readings of contemporary--often hostile--observers. This negative space, and the scholarly acrobatics required to parse it, would seem to intrinsically undermine any sweeping characterizations of the Valentinian belief system as a discrete school of religious thought. Indeed, it is difficult to examine any specifically Valentinian tendencies as anything but small idiosyncratic elements in the cultural mélange that was early Christianity--a viewpoint uncomfortably coincidental, for the unbiased scholar, with those of the early Christian thinkers who sought to damage the appeal of Gnosticism by painting it as a wrongheaded and blasphemous offshoot of the proper Church. And yet, unmoored from its context of Christianity’s spread across the Classical world, a full understanding of Valentinian Gnosticism is hopelessly elusive--for the sect was Christian, loath though heresiologists like Irenaeus of Lyons may have been to make such concessions. [3] It is thus only with an eye trained on the prevailing currents of Christian and Hellenistic thought that a properly situated, fully furnished under-standing of Valentinian Gnosticism can be realized. One such current, one whose influence cannot be overstated, is the notion of redemption through salvific ascent, a belief which, shone through the lens of Valentinianism, acquires an expansive and universal dimension.

While both the early Church and the philosophic koine of the Classical world--in many ways the two streams of tradition which fed the development of Gnosticism in the first three centuries AD--certainly contained plenty of teaching on subjects relating to individual salvation, the synthesis we find in Valentinianism is unique. Where the Christian mainstream (in an exceedingly simplified conception, to be sure) contained notions of the redemption of the soul after death--an eternal life furnished with eventual bodily resurrection--that is, an exceedingly individualized salvation, and the Greek philosophic koine proffered a Platonistic conception of all of existence as a shabby copy of an ideal realm of pure Being, Valentinianism melded the two into a model of individual salvation writ cosmic. This melding extends to temporal aspects as well; the forward-looking--indeed eschatological--dimension of Christianity is there in the Gnostic conception of the soul’s ascent upward toward an imminent salvation, as the cyclical Hellenistic vision of the universe is detectable in the sequence of emanations that is the basis of Valentinian cosmology.

This marriage of apparent opposites--ascents both individual and collective, salvations both future-flung and constantly-occurring--is, one assumes, precisely what made Valentinianism appealing to converts and disagreeable to the increasingly dogmatic Roman Church (and, occasionally, maddeningly convoluted to the contemporary reader). It was an inclusive system, one whose cosmology and system of practices was couched in enough metaphor to be readily applicable to most any walk of life, predicated on allegorical readings of scripture and convincing rhetoric. Its form mirrored the paradoxes of its content: it was earthly--advocating the Platonic notion of internal dialectic as a reason-derived path to understanding--and unabashedly mystical, practicing rituals offensive enough to Church mores that its practitioners were derided as magicians and deviants. But for all its inclusiveness, for all its Platonistic friendliness, it had a cosmological system of irreducible complexity, and a very specific means by which it described existence.

The Valentinian model’s ultimate figure of power is a being which--in reliable Gnostic paradox--is ineffable and inconceivable to the point that any description or characterization of it must be rendered by imperfect metaphor. Thus we have the Father, a God above all other gods (those beings variously implicated in the necessarily sullied realms of material existence), timeless and unchanging. But the allegorical cloak provided by the Valentinian texts reveals an important metaphorical correspondence for this immutable Father, one that speaks to the universal dimension of the tradition: “the single one, who alone is the Father, is like a root, with tree, branches, and fruit.” [4] This metaphoric extrapolation--from the family language of Father to root’s paean to nature--is certainly meant to imbue the Gnostic God with some of the perceived immutability of the natural world. It does so, to be sure, but not without simultaneously containing a kernel of the Hellenistic notion of cyclicality--for nature is nothing if not cyclical.

This potent metaphoric mixture is thoroughly explored in the Gospel of Philip, where it takes on further universality through an expansion to entire seasons (and, concurrently, entire worlds): “Those who sow in winter reap in summer. The winter is the world, the summer the other Aeon [eternal realm]. Let us sow in the world that we may reap in the summer.” Through explicitly-stated metaphor, the author lends to salvation tinges of nature’s constancy and universal applicability, while bolstering the case for its imminence. Redemption--indeed, the passage from one realm to the next--is as assured and as transformative as the coming of the harvest, and it is not an isolated temporal or physical phenomenon: “Truth, which existed since the beginning, is sown everywhere”.

Thus one might conceive of the Valentinian conception of salvation as a continuum, one which points to such seemingly paradoxical poles as cyclicality and eschatology, nature-worship-inflected pagan thinking and scripturally rigorous Christianity, indeed--to extend the Hellenistic dimension further--to states no less mutually exclusive than idealized pure ‘Being’ and the shabby, ever-imperfect realm of ‘Becoming.’ Elsewhere in the Gospel of Philip, a gradient is established connecting earthly experience and transcendent salvific truth, one which works on a sliding scale:

It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them. This is not the way with man in the world: he sees the sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and the earth and all other things, but he is not these things. This is quite in keeping with the truth. But you saw something of that place, and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father. [5]

This further clarification of the transformative salvific ideal is a key extension of the Gnostic argument for constant universal redemption; to transcend the material state, to see ‘the things that actually exist,’ the individual must engage with the very ‘Becoming’ from which it seeks escape, imbuing itself--and the world of which it is a component--with a bit of redemptive Being. This combination would seem, on the one hand, to defy the very rigorous Platonic distinction between Being and Becoming, as certainly no state of idealized purity ought be sullied with some of that material messiness. On the other hand, however, the expansive extrapolation of the author’s metaphor makes a larger argument for universal transcendence by suggesting the importance of Becoming on a planetary scale: “For the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he [the Demiurge of the Old Testament] who made the world. For things are not imperishable, but sons are. Nothing will be able to receive imperishability if it does not first become a son.” [6] Not even the world itself, we see--nor even the god who created it!--is free from constant trans-formation. And yet there is, in the Valentinian conception, a realm of imperishability, one that is, as we’ve seen, both ever-imminent and ever-postpone--a Jetztzeit, an eternal messianic now-time, as others might have styled it. [7]

It is precisely this uniquely Gnostic spin on eschatology--a salvific fulfillment that proceeds constantly and cumulatively, always and never--that best typifies the sect’s blend of Christian and Hellenic components into a theological calculus which simultaneously affirms and transcends earthly humanity, which exalts in nature’s immutability and extols its soul-like transformation. Indeed, even the Father itself--the only thing in Valentinian cosmology, ostensibly, which does not bear constant transforming--is nonetheless defined by just this upward-trending motion, the very process of universe-wide ascent over which it presides: “The Father has power. It exists fully, perfect in the thought which is a product of agreement, since it is a product of the individuality of the aeons. It is this which he loves and over which he has power, as it gives glory to the Father by means of it”. [8] Indeed, in a final paradoxical turn (one, in fact, to handily cap off all the paradoxes that have led to it), the eschatological endtime in Valentinian Gnosticism, the result of the piecemeal redemptive ascents of the souls of each adherent--and of the earthly realm itself--is a unification, a joining of the various souls--delineated and detailed on heavenward journeys of tremendous complexity--into a final oneness in the Pleroma, that realm of fullness to which the progressive filling-up of souls has pointed all along.

“When all the seed shall have come to perfection,” writes Irenaeus, “[Valentinians] state that then their mother Achamoth shall pass from the intermediate place, and enter in within the Pleroma... The spiritual seed, again, being divested of their animal souls, and becoming intelligent spirits, shall in an irresistible and invisible manner enter in within the Pleroma, and be bestowed as brides on those angels who wait upon the Saviour.” [9] And though the allegorical marriage alone was enough to incense the heresiologist, to the reader versed in Valentinian Gnosticism’s tendency toward contradictory metaphoric levels it figures as part and parcel of the sect’s simultaneous push toward individual and collective ascent, specifically honed and expansively extrapolated transformations; the nature-inflected seed, the familially-tinged bride. To the Gnostic with his or her eye fixed all at once on the messianic future and the transformative present, such mixtures are the very stuff of transcendence.

[1] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, pp. 749-750. Pynchon’s source on this would seem to have been Gershom Scholem.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Über den Begriff der Geschichte,” our translation. A caveat, though: historical characterizations of Gnostic beliefs as ones derived strictly from Hellenistic Jewish mystical predecessors have been rightfully challenged. To be abundantly clear: Valentinian Gnosticism, and Gnosticism in general, was never Jewish. Still there is little doubt that, during the era in question, mystical conceptions of time, ascent and salvation were freely osmosed among traditions and were indeed part and parcel of a general proto-Christian koiné, a common mystical consciousness.

[3] Christian, yes, albeit early Christian, and so a religion newly distilled from the many headwaters--eastern, pagan, Jewish--which flowed from upstream.

[4] The Tripartite Tractate

[5] The Gospel of Phillip

[6] Ibid.

[7] Walter Benjamin might have, and did, in “Über den Begriff der Geschichte,” or “On the Concept of History.” Per note 3, similarities with other messianic conceptions of time cannot be ignored. And per our own messianic conceptions, reader, be advised: the impact of Benjamin and his theses on this exploration, and all such explorations, cannot be overstated.

[8] Tripartite Tractate, italics mine

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