A Valentinian funerary inscription[33]

The Valentinians were one of two early Christian sects that can be considered “Gnostic.” (The other was the classic Gnostics.) The Valentinians didn’t call themselves “Gnostics,” but their beliefs were clearly based on those of the classic Gnostics – the group of early Christians who did call themselves “Gnostics.”[1] In the words of the second-century heresiologist (proto-orthodox Christian “heresy-hunter”) Irenaeus, the Valentinians’ founder and namesake Valentinus “adapted the fundamental principles of the Gnostic school of thought to his own kind of system.”[2]

Valentinus’s Life and Teachings

Valentinus was a second-century teacher and church leader who narrowly lost a contest to become the bishop of Rome – or, as we would call the position today, the pope.[3] He was one of the first Christian philosophers.[4]

Valentinus was born around the year 100 in Phrebonis, an Egyptian town in the Nile Delta. He received a classical Greek education in Alexandria. After converting to Christianity, he studied with the Christian teachers Theudas, whom tradition holds to have been a student of the apostle Paul, and Basilides, a Gnostic philosopher.[5]

He then launched a teaching career of his own, which brought him to Rome in the late 130s. Many – perhaps even most – Christians of the time held him in high esteem, and even those who bitterly opposed his theology grudgingly respected him as an eminently successful teacher, eloquent orator, and keen thinker. Several of his students went on to become important theologians themselves, most notably Ptolemy of Rome.[6]

We know nothing of Valentinus’s life after the mid-160s.[7] The heresiologist Epiphanius asserts that he left Rome, suffered a shipwreck, washed up on the island of Cyprus, and went mad, but there’s no corroborating evidence for this implausible claim from a generally unreliable source.[8] Most modern scholars instead believe that Valentinus either died in Rome or returned to Alexandria, where the prominent theologian Clement of Alexandria discovered his thought.[9]

Only a few samples of Valentinus’s literary works survive. The longest and grandest of them is the Gospel of Truth from the Nag Hammadi Library. (There’s some controversy over whether or not Valentinus was really the author of the Gospel of Truth, but it’s highly likely that he was.[10]) The heresiologists have preserved bits and pieces from his other writings. One of them, the short poem Summer Harvest, concisely demonstrates Valentinus’s spiritual depth and literary brilliance:

I see in spirit that all are hung
I know in spirit that all are borne
Flesh hanging from soul
Soul clinging to air
Air hanging from upper atmosphere
Crops rushing forth from the deep
A babe rushing forth from the womb.[11]

Valentinus is also said to have written pieces called the Epistle to Agathopous, the Epistle on Attachments, On Friends, On the Three Natures, and Sophia.[12]

Since we possess so little of Valentinus’s own output, it’s impossible to know what he believed and taught with much precision or in much detail. But our evidence is enough to show us at least some broad outlines.

Valentinus seems to have largely accepted the mythological framework of classic Gnosticism. A spiritual figure descended from God had been cast out of the divine realm, created the material world out of arrogance and ignorance, and trapped divine sparks within the world. Christ had come to liberate people from the material world by imparting gnosis to them – that is, awakening them to the reality that their true essence is a piece of the perfect divine realm.[13] However, there were some important differences between Valentinus’s take on the basic Gnostic paradigm and the classic Gnostics’ take on it.

Like Plato, Valentinus saw myths, including Christian ones, as allegories for profound truths rather than as literal truths in and of themselves. Myths use figurative language to express something that’s otherwise inexpressible. Taking them as literal truths can lead to monstrous spiritual, moral, and theological mistakes.[14] It’s unclear whether or not the classic Gnostics believed this as well. Plotinus, a Platonist philosopher who wrote extensively against the classic Gnostics, held that they thought of their texts as literal histories,[15] and it’s entirely possible that he was correct.

By contrast, Valentinus’s views on this question are quite clear. He spoke of the Old Testament creator god as a superficial image of God, which, when believed in and followed in a literal sense, is a hindrance to experiencing firsthand what God really is.[16] In the Gospel of Truth, Valentinus poetically re-imagined the classic Gnostic creation myth as a conflict between a figure named Error, who creates the material world, and the true God who sends Christ to overcome Error – a retelling that differs in many “factual” particulars yet preserves the inner spiritual meaning of the tale.[17] Clearly, those particulars – like the roles of Sophia and the demiurge, which are here subsumed by the role of Error, perhaps in order to make the tale simpler and more straightforward for a wider audience – weren’t what really mattered about the story to Valentinus. To him, the tale was effectively a parable, and certainly not a history.

The classic Gnostics placed a considerable emphasis on the hopelessly fallen state of the material world and the shortcomings of the wicked beings who had created it. Valentinus emphasized the other side of the coin: the divinity hidden within material creation. He held that God was immanent within all things, and that things are only truly real inasmuch as they partake of God’s reality.[18]

For Valentinus, the dualism of spirit and matter went hand in hand with another dualism: that of oneness and division. Oneness was the condition of God, and division was the condition of matter. After all, God is only one thing, but there are countless different material things. Valentinus saw the unity of God as one of his most praiseworthy attributes, and he saw the plurality and particularity of matter as a horrible deficiency. Christ’s gnosis healed the painful separation and limitation that matter had introduced to spirit, and the purpose of the church was to carry on this redemptive work until all had been restored to the original unity of the Father. As the Gospel of Truth says,

For where there is envy and strife there is deficiency, but where there is unity there is completeness. Since deficiency came about because the Father was not known, from the moment when the Father is known, deficiency will cease to be. As one’s ignorance about another vanishes when one gains knowledge, and as darkness departs when light comes, so also deficiency disappears in completeness. From then on the world of appearance will no longer be evident, but rather it will disappear in the harmony of unity.

Now the works of all lie scattered. In time unity will make the heavenly places complete, and in unity all individually will come to themselves. By means of knowledge [gnosis] they will purify themselves from multiplicity into unity, devouring matter within themselves like fire, darkness by light, death by life.[19]

The very high value Valentinus placed on oneness had an important social ramification. Whereas the classic Gnostics scorned other kinds of Christians in some of their writings and seem to have worshiped only with other classic Gnostics and not with other Christians, Valentinus stressed the need for unity and harmony within the Christian community. He seems to have had no qualms about worshiping with Christians of any and all sorts. His vision of Christianity was highly accommodating toward all different kinds of Christians – including the classic Gnostics themselves.[20]

Valentinianism and the Valentinians

Valentinus and his teachings inspired the formation of a movement or sect within second-century Christianity. The heresiologists called the followers of Valentinus the “Valentinians.” This word may have been the heresiologists’ own invention. There’s no particular evidence that the followers of Valentinus ever referred to themselves as “Valentinians;” in their surviving writings, they refer to themselves as “Christians,” plain and simple, as well as “the spiritual seed,”[21] an allusion to their distinct and privileged spiritual identity.

The label “Valentinians” would also fit snugly with the heresiological convention of calling “heretical” Christian groups by the name of their real or purported founder. But while the term “Valentinian” may not have been one that the followers of Valentinus used for themselves, their movement “possessed enough continuity, coherence, and specificity, and enough of a historical relation with Valentinus,” to make it necessary for us to adopt some label to refer to them as a distinct group within early Christianity.[22] “Valentinian” works as well as, or better than, any other term for that purpose. Scholars also sometimes use the word “Valentinianism” to refer to the Valentinians’ school of thought.

From the second century through the fifth, Valentinian Christians could be found throughout the entirety of the Roman Empire from Gaul to Mesopotamia.[23] Like their founder, they worshiped in congregations made up of various different kinds of Christians, but also held additional meetings and services that were reserved for Valentinians.[24] They seem to have been well-integrated into the Christian mainstream of the period; witness, for example, the fact that Pope Victor, who served from 189-199, had a Valentinian presbyter (assistant) named Florinus.[25]

And unlike the ascetic, insular classic Gnostics, the Valentinians engaged in the normal social and economic life of the Roman Empire around them. They married, had families, and acquired their living by ordinary means. Inwardly, however, exemplary Valentinians held such worldly pursuits to be immeasurably less important than spiritual ones. Like the Stoics, they strove to prevent themselves from becoming emotionally attached to earthly delights even while partaking in them.[26]

Valentinianism wasn’t a rigid system, but rather a template based on the teachings of Valentinus that Valentinians held in common. Various groups and teachers constructed their own sub-systems around that template.[27]

Like the classic Gnostics, the Valentinians don’t seem to have believed that some were predestined to have gnosis and some weren’t.[28] They actively ministered to other Christians in the hope of helping them to progress toward gnosis.[29] And as a further instance of how accommodating the Valentinians were toward other Christians, many – perhaps most – Valentinians believed that gnosis wasn’t strictly necessary for salvation; faith, the baseline Christian spiritual virtue then as now, would suffice.[30]

The texts from the Nag Hammadi Library that are certainly or probably Valentinian are the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Philip, the Tripartite Tractate, the Interpretation of Knowledge, A Valentinian Exposition, the Treatise on the Resurrection, the First Revelation of James, and the Prayer of the Apostle Paul.[31] Other Valentinian writings preserved from antiquity are the Excerpts from Theodotus quoted by Clement of Alexandria, parts of Heracleon’s commentary on the Gospel of John quoted by Origen, and Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora.[32]

References:

[1] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 31-35.

[2] Ibid. p. 31.

[3] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 19.

[4] Dunderberg, Ismo. 2008. Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus. Columbia University Press. p. 23.

[5] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 63.

[6] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 100-105.

[7] Ibid. p. 105.

[8] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 63.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 100.

[11] Ibid. p. 101.

[12] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 68.

[13] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 101-102.

[14] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 37.

[15] Burns, Dylan M. 2014. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 74.

[16] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 37.

[17] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 101.

[18] Ibid. p. 101-102.

[19] Thomassen, Einar, and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Gospel of Truth.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 40.

[20] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 104-105.

[21] Thomassen, Einar. 2008. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” Brill. p. 4-5.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 75.

[24] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 36-40.

[25] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 66-71.

[26] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 145-146.

[27] Thomassen, Einar. 2008. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” Brill. p. 494.

[28] Dunderberg, Ismo. 2008. Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus. Columbia University Press. p. 135-140.

[29] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 116-117.

[30] Pétrement, Simone. 1990. A Separate God: The Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism. Translated by Carol Harrison. Harper San Francisco. p. 133-134.

[31] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 83.

[32] Thomassen, Einar. 2008. “The Valentinian School of Gnostic Thought.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 790.

[33] Nicola Denzey Lewis translates the inscription as:

You who desires the light of the Father,
My sister, my bride, my Sophe
You have been anointed in the baths of Christ
With imperishable, pure oil;
You hastened to gaze
upon the faces of the divine aeons,
the Angel of the great Council, the True Son
after you entered the Bridal Chamber and rose incorruptible into the Father’s house… [inscription breaks off here]

The other side reads:
She had no ordinary end [of] life, this woman who died.
She perished but she lives, and sees in reality the incorruptible light.
She lives to those who are alive, she has truly died to those who are dead.
O Earth, why do you marvel at this type of corpse? Or are you frightened?

(Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 84-85.)