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Valentinus: A Respected Christian Teacher or Heretic?

by Mark M. Mattison

In previous blog posts, Marko Marina walked us through the amazing story of Valentinus, who inspired a generation of gifted Christian leaders across the Mediterranean. He also introduced us to ‘proto-orthodox’ Christians who marginalized Valentinus and his followers. For example, the influential ‘heresy hunter’ Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, emoted about the followers of Valentinus in his monumental work Against Heresies, written around 180 C.E. Irenaeus wrote:

But those who are from Valentinus, being, on the other hand, altogether reckless, while they put forth their own compositions, boast that they possess more Gospels than there really are. Indeed, they have arrived at such a pitch of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing “the Gospel of Truth,” though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles, so that they have really no Gospel which is not full of blasphemy (Adv. Haer. III.11.9).

Intriguingly, the ancient texts discovered near Nag Hammadi in 1945 included a Valentinian book opening with the words, “The Gospel of Truth.” It reads:

The Gospel of Truth is a joy for those who’ve received grace from the Father of Truth, that they might know him through the power of the Word that came from the Fullness – the one who’s in the thought and mind of the Father. They call him ‘Savior.’ That’s the name of the work (the Savior) will do to redeem those who had become ignorant of the Father. And the term “the Gospel” is the revelation of hope, the discovery of those who search for (God).

Photo of one section of the Gospel of Truth text found at Nag Hammadi.

Photo of one section of the Gospel of Truth text found at Nag Hammadi. Photographer unknown, Manuscritos en el tiempo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Although it isn’t completely certain that Valentinus wrote the Gospel of Truth, many scholars believe that he did.

The Gospel of Truth and Mysticism

What is immediately clear, however, is how deeply the Gospel of Truth is rooted in Christian spirituality. Its opening paragraph (quoted above) already resonates with John 1:1-18, which also uses the key terms ‘Father,’ ‘Word,’ ‘fullness,’ ‘grace,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘know.’ The author of the Gospel of Truth was familiar with not only John’s Gospel, but with many other New Testament texts as well, including Matthew, Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 2 Corinthians, 2 Timothy, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation.

Despite its name, however, the Gospel of Truth isn’t a Gospel in the traditional sense. That is, it doesn’t provide a narrative about the life and death of Jesus. Bentley Layton has described it rather as “the earliest surviving sermon of Christian mysticism” (Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, 250). Indeed, as an esoteric text, it can be challenging to understand. Harold W. Attridge and George W. McRae write that part of what makes it “particularly difficult is that the text operates at the same time on a number of different levels, using symbolic language which has a multiplicity of referents” (Robinson, ed., The Coptic Gnostic Library, Volume I, 71).

Crucifixion, Eden, and Eucharist

For example, the Gospel of Truth artfully weaves together the crucifixion, the story of the Garden of Eden, and the Eucharist in this amazing passage:

They nailed him (Jesus) to a tree, and he became the fruit of the Father’s knowledge. However, it (the fruit) didn’t cause destruction when it was eaten, but those who ate it were given joy in the discovery. He discovered them in himself and they discovered him in themselves.

Commenting on this passage, Marko Marina writes:

Jesus came to Earth to enlighten others and bring them closer to knowledge, which is the only way to a full salvation. Error persecuted him and caused his crucifixion. However, instead of the cross, Valentinus (or the unknown author) uses the metaphor of the tree. On that tree, Jesus becomes a “’fruit of the father’s acquaintance”.

However, eating from this tree is not a forbidden, but a desirable thing to do. By accepting the gnosis [knowledge] Jesus teaches, people are opening themselves to the knowledge that brings salvation. Interestingly enough, the Gospel of Truth interprets the sacrament of the Eucharist as valuable means of obtaining knowledge. (Marina, “Authority as a Challenge: A Study of the Valentinian Gnostic School,” 21, 22).

The Nothingness of Error

It isn’t clear whether the ‘Error’ that crucified Jesus is a mythological figure, like the ‘demiurge (‘craftsman’ or creator). On the one hand, ‘Error’ in the Gospel of Truth may be “strengthened,” “angry,” and “anxious,” but on the other hand, it “has no root” and “is empty, with nothing inside it”; it doesn’t truly exist. Jörgen Magnusson writes that probably, “Error is simultaneously a symbolic designation for the group of people that persecuted Jesus and a description of their mental state.” He goes on to write:

To sum up, Error is strongly coloured by an unusually evil demiurge figure. The characteristics of the demiurge spread over to a group of people who carries out deeds that are driven by false knowledge, fear and anger. In a deeper sense, however, Error does not really exist. It is nothing, and focusing on it only helps it to prevail. The Father’s children are therefore much better off if they only pay attention to the Father. (Magnusson, Rethinking the Gospel of Truth: A Study of Its Eastern Valentinian Setting, 91,92).

The Parable of the Nightmares

The Gospel of Truth illustrates this vividly in its parable of the nightmares:

When the light shines on the terror which they received, they know that it’s nothing. In this way, they were ignorant of the Father, whom they didn’t see. Since it was terror and disturbance and instability and doubt and division, many illusions were at work among them, and vain ignorance, like they were deep in sleep and found themselves in nightmares. Either they’re running somewhere, or unable to run away from someone; or they’re fighting, or being beaten; or they’ve fallen from heights, or fly through the air without wings. Sometimes, too, it’s like someone is killing them, even though no one’s chasing them; or they themselves are killing those around them, covered in their blood. Until those who are going through all these nightmares can wake up, they see nothing, because these things are nothing.

That’s the way it is with those who’ve cast off ignorance like sleep. They don’t regard it as anything, nor do they regard its other works as real, but they abandon them like a dream in the night. They value the knowledge of the Father like they value the light. The ignorant have acted like they’re asleep; those who’ve come to knowledge have acted like they’ve awakened. Good for the one who returns and awakens!

These, and many other poetic insights, fill the pages of the Gospel of Truth, an inspiring example of Valentinus’ deeply spiritual teaching. It’s little wonder that he inspired so many of his students to become highly regarded teachers in their own right in the early days of the growing Church.