“Allegory of Divine Wisdom” by Luca Giordano

In Gnosticism, the “Fall” didn’t occur through Adam and Eve – it happened before the world’s creation, through a mistake made by a heavenly being called Sophia (whose name is Greek for “Wisdom”[1]).

The story of Sophia’s fall (which was part of the Gnostic creation myth) is told slightly differently in the many Gnostic texts that discuss it, but the various versions of the tale all share the basics in common.

Sophia was one of the “aeons” – divine entities who were descended from God the Father and who were roughly equivalent to angels. Of the many aeons, Sophia was the last to arise from God.

Like the other aeons, Sophia was the child of a male-female pair of aeons that had come before her, who had given birth with the Father’s blessing. Sophia and the rest of the aeons formed the “Pleroma” (Greek for “Fullness”), the Gnostic name for Heaven.

Sophia wanted to have a child, too. But she went about it in the wrong way: she conceived without the involvement of her male partner or the approval of the Father. Her child was the “demiurge,” a misshapen, belligerent creature that was utterly unlike the other heavenly beings.

Sophia immediately realized her horrible mistake and cast her child out of the Pleroma. The demiurge, now alone, believed that he was the only being who had ever existed, and created the material world out of his ignorance, foolishness, and malevolence, trapping sparks of divinity within Adam and Eve along the way.

Because of her fall and its dire consequences, Sophia became a flawed being. Her deficiency rendered her unable to remain in the perfect “Fullness” of the Pleroma, so she was placed just outside of the Pleroma, in a realm above that of her malevolent son. In anguish, Sophia repented, and the Father agreed to bring her back to the Pleroma once what had become lacking in her was restored to its natural fullness.[2]

Precedents for Sophia in Jewish Literature

In the genre of Jewish (“Old Testament”) writing known as “wisdom literature,” Wisdom (Hokma in Hebrew[3]) was personified, and she gave monologues describing her great deeds and articulating her perspective on the world. Since Hokma, like the Greek Sophia, is a feminine noun, Wisdom was cast as a female figure. In the words of Nicola Denzey Lewis, Wisdom is “God’s active feminine principle, at once a part of God but also separate from God,” as in Proverbs 8, Job 28, and Sirach 24.[4] In this regard, she’s much like the Gnostic aeons, who are also semi-independent extensions of God. They act, whereas God himself simply is.

Here’s an example of one of Wisdom’s monologues, Proverbs 8:22-31:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.[5]

The Gnostic depiction of Sophia was surely heavily influenced by this earlier Jewish depiction of Wisdom, both directly and indirectly through the works of thinkers such as Philo of Alexandria, a first-century Jewish intellectual who worked personified Wisdom into a rationalized cosmological system that sought to synthesize and harmonize the Jewish scriptures with the works of Plato, another importance influence on the Gnostics and early Christians more generally.[6]

Sophia and Non-Gnostic Christians

Some texts from the Valentinian school of Gnosticism connect the story of Sophia’s fall to the fate of non-Gnostic Christians – that is, Christians who have the baseline Christian virtue of faith but not the higher mystical insight of gnosis, the root of the word Gnostic.

For these Valentinians, those with gnosis will ascend to the Pleroma after their deaths to partake of its perfect “Fullness.” Christians without gnosis will still be saved, but will have to spend some time in the place where Sophia was put after her fall, so that they, like her, can continue to advance in perfection until they’re worthy of being admitted to the Pleroma.[7] You could say that Sophia’s realm is much like Purgatory in this view.

The existence of Sophia’s celestial waiting room of sorts enabled these Valentinians to have their cake and eat it, too: to preserve the special privilege that they believed gnosis imparted to them, while nevertheless being able to reassure other Christians that they, too, would ultimately be saved. This was surely a socially advantageous view, since it placed the Valentinians within the wider Christian fold rather than apart from it.

Conclusion

Why did the Gnostics cast divine Wisdom as the heavenly being responsible for the Fall? Isn’t that hopelessly out of character for a being named Wisdom? After all, if “Wisdom” could make a mistake, how could she truly be Wisdom? The second-century heresiologist Irenaeus, a fierce critic of the Gnostics, argued just that, and concluded that the Gnostic account of the Fall was abjectly incoherent.[8]

It seems to me that Irenaeus, in his determination to condemn the Gnostics, missed the point of the story. It’s more likely that, for the Gnostics, Sophia’s fall corresponds to the human intellect trying to be wise on its own, without the insight imparted by divine grace. Left to his or her own devices, the human thinker would inevitably go astray, because his or her thought lacks divine “Fullness” and is therefore woefully deficient. It’s fallen wisdom, not true wisdom. This inevitably creates unnecessary calamities for the thinker and for others, just as Sophia’s independent action led to her exile from Heaven and the creation of a horribly flawed world.

The solution, in this view, would be to acquire gnosis, the overarching goal of Gnosticism. The Gnostic who has been saved and has rejoined the Pleroma would thereby find himself or herself in the same position as the saved Sophia: the possessor, and even the embodiment, of true wisdom.

References:

[1] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 194-197.

[2] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Secret Book of John.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 103-132.

[3] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 194-197.

[4] Ibid. p. 126.

[5] Proverbs 8:22-31, NRSV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=proverbs+8%3A22-31&version=NRSV Accessed on 1-31-2020.

[6] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 60.

[7] Thomassen, Einar. 2008. “The Valentinian School of Gnostic Thought.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 794.

[8] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 189-190.