Home > Christianity, Early Christianity, History, History of Religion and Culture > Valentinian Ethics and Paraenetic Discourse: Determining the Social Function of Moral Exhortation in Valentinian Christianity (Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies)

Valentinian Ethics and Paraenetic Discourse: Determining the Social Function of Moral Exhortation in Valentinian Christianity (Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies)

  • Title: Valentinian ethics and paraenetic discourse : determining the social function of moral exhortation in Valentinian Christianity
  • Author: Philip L. Tite
  • Series: Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies; v. 67
  • ISBN 13: 9789004175075
  • Publisher: Brill Academic Publishers
  • Published: 2009
  • Format: PDF


Writing in the late fourth century, Epiphanius of Salamis described a group of so-called Phibionite Gnostics that he encountered in Egypt as follows: “. . . having recognized one another, they hasten to dine. And they lavish meat dishes and wines, even if they are in penury. Then, after a drinking party where so to speak they have engorged their veins with gormandising, they turn to their frenzied passion” (Pan. 26.4.3).

Epiphanius, however, does not stop here with his description of the ethics and social interactions of these so-called “heretics.” We are later informed that the ritual performances of these sectarians include various immoral practices that should, for Epiphanius’ audience, revolt the moral sensibilities of a fourth-century Christian. We learn that these sectarians engaged in illicit sexual activities (orgies so excessive as to lead to male homosexual relations), the consumption of menstrual blood and semen, and even the ritual cannibalism of aborted fetuses that were conceived during these ritual activities. Epiphanius claims to have withstood the lure of these heretics, a lure that took the form of seductive women.

Th ese polemical barbs directed by Epiphanius against those Christians he considered heretical, though recognized within scholarship as largely hyperbole if not outright fiction, typified much of how ethics within Gnosticism was viewed by not only ancient polemists but also some modern discussions of ethics. Irenaeus, when he moved to southern Gaul in the late second century, encountered what he referred to as followers of Valentinus, specifically of Valentinus’ disciple Marcus. Irenaeus, with far more credibility in his descriptive work than Epiphanius, also attacked his opponents (especially Marcus and the Marcosian sect) on ethical grounds (see Haer. 1.13.3). Marcus was perceived as a type of charlatan, a magical cult leader who used his ritual gatherings to simply take advantage of the well-to-do women he enticed to join him. Such enticement, as we would expect, included fulfilling the sexual appetite of Marcus. References to a bridal chamber sacrament and a heavenly marriage as the climax of the Valentinian sacramental ascent to the Pleroma have further raised questions as to the ethical or unethical activities of Valentinian Christians in these early centuries. Revelling in immoral behaviors, as Gnostic practices have been commonly seen both in antiquity and in modern treatments of Gnosticism, was a simple result of the theological, specifically anthropological, system of Gnosticism. Gnostics are, it is claimed, saved by their nature. The body serves no purpose beyond being a prison from which the pneumatic “seed” or “spark” needs to escape and ascend beyond the material realm to the Gnostic’s true home (the spiritual pleroma). What one does with one’s body is, therefore, irrelevant. Acting well or badly should have no bearing on whether one is saved or not saved.

The discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, and the subsequent half-century of intense scholarship on these texts, has raised another possible view of Gnostic ethics. Rather than a licentious and antinomian ethical stance, grounded within a deterministic anthropological and anti-somatic worldview, these tractates seem to emphasize a more ascetic ethos. Not only does the Gos. Thom., arguably the best known Nag Hammadi text within New Testament studies, present such an ascetic ideal that one would expect within a more monastic context (e.g., “Blessed are the solitary and elect, for you will find the kingdom”; logion 49), but even in texts that have no evident Synoptic relationship articulate an ethic of asceticism (e.g., Gos. Phil. 82,2–8; Paraph. Shem10,24; Testim. Truth 29,26–30,17; and Soph. Jes. Chr. III 93,16–20).

The marriage image of the bridal chamber in the Gos. Phil., furthermore, is presented in contrast to the defiled marriage (81,34–82,10). Even Irenaeus described ascetic tendencies within Gnosticism, both those who followed Satornil (Haer. 1.24.2) and those of the Ophite sect (1.30.1–13). As the body for such groups is an entrapment of the soul, to indulge the appetites of the body was seen as a hindrance to the ascent of the soul beyond the material realm.

A fresh perspective on Gnosticism was highlighted by a group of scholars that met at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature held in San Francisco in 1992 to discuss the “female and male in Gnosticism,” a discussion that inevitably engaged the ethics of Gnosticism. The panel was comprised of several leading scholars who had entered the field within the past decade. These were not the voices of the 1950s or 1960s; they were the next generation of Nag Hammadi scholars, offering a new and exciting direction for the development of this field of study: Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, Karen L. King, and Michael Allen Williams each offered papers with a response by Michel Desjardins.

The discussion revolved around the debate whether Gnostics were libertines or ascetics. All of these scholars called into question the very categories—the classic libertine vs. ascetic dichotomy—used within discussions of ethics in Gnosticism; and in this challenge they built on the critique of Gnostic ethics offered by Frederik Wisse in 1975. Buckley in particular challenged the dichotomous labels in using quotation marks or the qualifier “so-called” to dismiss especially “libertine.” With a concern for ritual practices and diverse stances, including a “middle of the road” position held by the Mandaeans, Buckley, like the other members of this panel (especially Karen King), typifies a shift that has been occurring within the study of Gnosticism within the past two or three decades. Rather than seeing Gnosticism as either immoral or moral based upon the heresiological accounts, an appreciation for the diversity and complexity of the religious phenomenon (indeed, phenomena) that we consider under the label “Gnostic” was advocated. Whereas Williams dismisses the heresiological accounts of the licentiousness of their opponents, claiming that such charges were the mere product of polemics, Buckley suggests that some Gnostics might have practiced what to the Fathers would have been seen as immoral behaviours. Buckley suggests, however, that the Fathers would have missed the deeper, more spiritual significance of these acts (especially when ritually enacted). Desjardins—while praising the direction taken by his colleagues—cautions against a movement within modern scholarship from an anti-gnostic polemic to a pro-gnostic apologetic. He offers an analogy of modern moral violation of a group’s ethical standards by religious and political leaders to suggest that there is room both for criticizing the Fathers’ accounts as polemical and biased, as well as for recognizing the possible validity of the Fathers’ observations. It is, furthermore, important to keep in mind that just as the Gnostic sects were not homogeneous so also are the Fathers of diff ering historical value in their assessments.

All four of these panel participants exemplify a noteworthy development in the academic study of Gnosticism within the past twenty-five to thirty years. Whereas Gnosticism, especially prior to the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, used to be approached from a philosophical, largely phenomenological perspective, there has been an appreciation emerging within the fi eld for ethical, social, and ritual processes within the various “Gnosticisms” that existed within late antiquity. Elaine Pagels, Kurt Rudolph, and Henry A. Green all contributed to developing this appreciation during the 1970s and early 1980s. Green’s The Economic and Social Origins of Gnosticism arguably remains the most extensive sociological analysis of Gnosticism to date. For Green, Gnosticism is not a sui generis religious or philosophical development that is divorced from the social, political and economic events of the Greco-Roman world. Pagels contributed to the close reading of the Nag Hammadi material with an eye towards processes of power contestation within social entities. Her work on gender inclusion/exclusion within these early Christian communities and the conflict over authority or authoritative voices through not only theological divergences but also ritual or sacramental formulation has inspired many students to look seriously at the Gnostic material. Indeed, her work has been so successful with a popular audience that most people who are not scholars of Gnosticism likely know Gnosticism through Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels.

Rudolph’s inroduction to Gnosticism, first published in German in the late 1970s and then in English in the early 1980s, remains the standard introduction for students. It is surely the most comprehensive introductory text on Gnosticism, and is still used despite being over twenty-five years old.10 In this book, he presents the theological elements of the Gnosticisms of late antiquity, as well as the historical development and community construction of these sects. His attention to ritual and community formation is significant. As an historian, Rudolph stresses the historical, including social nature of Gnosticism.

This shift in the field towards appreciating the social aspects of Gnosticism has led to an appreciation for the importance of ethics for the Gnostics. The most significant study to appear on Valentinian ethics in particular is Michel Desjardins’ Sin in Valentinianism. Desjardins sets out to establish the Valentinian attitude towards sin through a detailed survey of the instances of sin (ἁμαρτία) within both the Fathers and the Nag Hammadi sources. His study counters a tendency within scholarly discussions to ignore or marginalize the significance of ethics within Valentinianism, claiming that an historiographical polarity of an “Orthodox” and a “Gnostic” trajectory tends to obscure the significance of sin for Valentinian Christians. Just as sin, and ethics generally, was significant for other Christians of the second and third centuries, so also, Desjardins concludes, is sin/ethics important for Valentinian Christians. This study clearly and defi natively established the interconnection of Valentinian ethics, ritualization (especially sacraments), and community formation. Overcoming sin begins with an awareness of how the heavenly Father expects the Valentinians to act. Desjardins’ work emerges from the recent appreciation for such social issues within Nag Hammadi studies. In a similar vein of thinking, and with a level of dependency upon Desjardins’ work, Michael Williams further argued that the caricatures of Gnosticism that we have inherited from the heresiologists have obfuscated the ethical concerns of the Valentinians. Rather than a deterministic anthropology that negates ethical concern, Williams contends that, “the ethical exhortation that is so visible in many of these writings from Nag Hammadi certainly argues against the notion that authors and readers of such texts discounted the importance of ethical behavior, even for the ‘spirituals.’” Both Desjardins and Williams, emerging from this broader shift in the field towards a social appreciation of Valentinianism, recognize that ethics were not irrelevant for these early Christians.

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