Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 12: The Inventors of a Christian Theology: Basilides, Valentinus, Ptolemy

In the crucible of Alexandria, the expectation of a Savior who would untangle the obscure paths of the destiny of humanity produced disparate developments on the basis of ancient Egyptian wisdom, Greek thought, eastern magic and the Hebrew myths.

From opposite directions, Philo of Alexandria and Simon of Samaria cast the shadow of an absent person, cut out from Judeo-Christian asceticism or from the aspiration of man to save himself.

Against Nazarenism and Elchasaitism, which were forms of Essenism that had been offered up to Greek modernity, there arose the will to emancipate oneself from the gods, which was celebrated by men such as Lucretius of Rome, Simon of Samaria, Carpocratus of Alexandria and his son, Epiphanius. Between these two extremes, various schools, sects, secret or Hermetic societies and inner circles of magicians and sorcerers intermingled and cooked up – for their own uses and according to the rules of existence that they advocated – an astonishing luxuriance of concepts, visions and representations in which the multiplicity of internal and external worlds were coupled (beyond or on this side of the best and the worst) by the most extravagant imaginations.

In Alexandria, there was born – in the daily interpenetrations of the infernal and paradisiacal universes, which were punctuated by riots, pogroms and social struggles – a theology that successive pruning, rational readjustments and polemical reasoning transformed into a dogmatic edifice that was shakily built upon nebulous foundations, which the Church did not cease to sure up through the combined action of bribed thinkers and State terrorism.

When modern historians have refused to follow Eusebius of Caesarea, for whom the Catholic Church had illuminated the world from the beginning of the Christian era and had thereby aroused the envy of Satan and his henchmen,

“The Churches had already illuminated the whole world, like the radiant stars, and the faith in our Lord and Savior flourished in all humanity, when the devil, who is the enemy of the good and the truth, and who does not cease to hamper the salvation of men, turned all of his artifices against the Church [...] He did everything so that the impostors and the seducers, who had usurped the name of our religion, brought the faithful who were attracted to them down into the abyss of corruption . . .” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastic History, IV, 7)

perhaps they have been attempting to extract from the various philosophical and moral systems that were hastily assembled under the heading of “gnosis” the ideas and opinions from which the dogmatic writings of the New Testament and the theses of Nicaea were born.

Basilides of Alexandria

To this day, all we know of Basilides comes from Eusebius’s diatribes, which were based on an ancient refutation made by a certain Agrippa Castor; on Irenaeus, who was so hostile to Valentinus that he stuffed all the Gnostics into his sack of malice; and on the Elenchos, whose author was determined to demonstrate that gnosis came from Greek philosophy.

What can one divine of Basilides’ existence? A contemporary of Carpocratus, he led a Pythagorean school in Alexandria – he conserved Pythagoras’ theory of metempsychosis – that was adapted to the tastes of the times. Basilides’ renown peaked around 125 or 135. His son Isidore continued his teachings.

Perhaps due to Philo’s influence, Basilides’ syncretism encompassed the Judaic elements of Elchasaitism and Naassenism.

Basilides referred to Barkabbas and Barcoph, the presumed sons of Noah and brothers of the Noria attested to in Naassenean, Sethian and Barbelite writings. Clement of Alexandria (who lived between 150 and 215) took him to be the master of a certain Glaucias, a “disciple of Peter,” that is to say, an Elchasaite or Nazarenean Christian. Many of his moral considerations later entered into the remarks that the Gospels attributed to Luke and Matthew would attribute to Jesus.

Basilides’ morality attempted to trace, through a just moderation, a median route between the extreme asceticism of the Judeo-Christians and the sexual liberty of Carpocratus and the Barbelites. He didn’t fail to evoke Pelagius’s thesis. Yet nothing establishes whether this adversary of Augustine [actually] knew the Alexandrian philosopher.

Basilides supposed than man had a will to perfection that was apt to assure his salvation as a spiritual being. According to the relation of each person to his sexual impulses, Basilides distinguished three categories of individuals: those who had no attraction to women; eunuchs; and men of desire whose merit was vanquishing their passions, thereby permitting the triumph of the spirit over the body:

“Certain men have an innate natural aversion to women; if they conduct themselves in conformity with this natural disposition (through abstention from sexual relations), they will do well not to marry. They are eunuchs from birth. The forced eunuchs, the ascetics of the trestle who only dominate themselves so as to attract praise, are those who mutilate themselves and have been rendered eunuchs by accident or force. They are eunuchs by force and not by virtue of a rational resolution. Those who have rendered themselves eunuchs because of the eternal kingdom have made this decision due to the natural consequences of marriage, because they dread the cares that preoccupation with subsistence involves.”[1]

To that third category, Basilides – the enemy of obsessive abstinence and the ferocity that it involves – extolled the virtues of intermittent relief and assuagement, which were, nevertheless, subject to the regulations of the will and the spirit:

“Do not throw your soul in the fire by resisting day and night in the fear of lacking continence, because a soul that exhausts itself in an uninterrupted resistance cuts itself off from hope. Thus, take for yourself – as I have told you quite clearly – a woman of temperament, so you are not diverted from the grace of God. And when you have extinguished the fire of desire through the seminal effusion, pray in good conscience. But if (...) you desire, not to act perfectly in the future, but simply not to fall, get married.”

(Note that this remark would be reprised, no doubt in an anti-Marcionite sense, in Chapter 7, verse 9, of the first Letter to the Corinthians, attributed to Saul/Paul: “Better to marry than to burn.”)

“However, such [a man] might be young or poor or weak, and, following the counsel of the Lord, does not want to be married. May he not separate himself from his brother; may he say: [‘]I am going to a sanctuary, nothing can happen to me there.[’] He keeps a distrust of himself, and he says: [‘]brother, lay your hands on me so that I do not sin,[’] and he will obtain spiritual and sensible help. It will suffice that he wants to do good for him to do so. Many times it happens that we say with our lips that we do not want to sin, whereas our thoughts persist in sinning. Such a person cannot do what he would like, uniquely through fear of incurring punishment. There are in human nature things that happen by necessity and by nature, and things that are simply natural. Thus clothes are necessary as well as natural. But the pleasures of love are only natural, we are not constrained by them.”[2]

The responsibility of the individual for the choice of a virtuous morality extended to suffering or experiencing misfortune; they were punishments for faults. His sense of guilt and nature as the source of defilement and impurity proceeded from a Judaic vision that Christianity inherited. Even a child was potentially guilty.

“I say that all those who have risked this affliction have owed this benefit to the One who leads all with gentleness, because they have sinned, but their faults have remained hidden. If in fact one had any other thing against them, it would be that they do not suffer this penalty as prevaricators for the bad actions that they have committed, but who are not outrageous, like adulterers and assassins; but because they are Christians, He summons them to suffering, He consoles them, with the result that they imagine themselves not suffering. Someone might risk suffering without having sinned at all, but this is very rare. And still he doesn’t fall under the blow of suffering because a cunning power has set traps for him, but we must envision his pain as that of a child who suffers, though, apparently, has not sinned (...) This is an advantage for the child who has not sinned or, at the very least, has not committed any act of sin, but still carries within him the disposition to sin, to fall into suffering and undergo many misfortunes; likewise, every man, even those who are perfect and have committed no act of sin, falls into suffering and suffers in the same way as the child does. He carries within himself the disposition to sin; if he has not sinned, this is because he has not had the occasion, with the result that there is no place to inscribe innocence to his credit. Whoever has the intention of committing adultery is an adulterer, even if he has not committed the act; whoever has the intention to commit murder is a murderer, even if he hasn’t gone through with it. It is the same with the innocent of whom I spoke; when I see him suffering without having done anything evil, I say that he is bad, because he had the intention to commit sin. Anything rather than imputing the evil to Providence. […] Perhaps you will not keep my words in mind and you will think to get me into difficulty by showing me such a person and saying to me: [‘]this one or that one there has sinned because he suffers[’]; I would respond, if you permitted me to do so: [‘]he hasn’t sinned, he resembles the child who must suffer.[’] If you insist with more vehemence, I would tell you: [‘]whatever man you show me, he will still be a man; only God is just.[’] No one is free from defilement, as has been said.”[3]

(Note that the reference is to The Book of Job, 14:4. Such ideas nourished the letters attributed to Saul/Paul.)

A fragment attributed to Isidore, the son of Basilides, expounded a theory about free will that would later be adopted by Catholicism.

“When you have convinced someone that the soul is not simple, that it is the force that is inherent in it that gives birth to the passions of the worst, the bad people will not, for all that, have a better reason to say: [‘]I was forced, I was pulled in, I acted despite myself, I did such an act against my will,[’] whereas in fact he himself has inclined his desires towards evil and has not struggled against the powers of the matter that is inherent in him. We must show ourselves to be the masters of the inferior part of our natures by using our reason gain the upper hand.”

To found in a cosmic way his morality of the “perfect,” the “pneumatic” or the “man [who lives] according to the spirit,” Basilides appealed to a cosmogony, many elements of which made their way into future theological quarrels. Leisegang justly established a connection between Basilides’ idea of a superior God and the conception attributed to Denys the Areopagite.[4]


“There was a time in which nothing existed; this nothing was not one of the existing things but, to speak clearly, without any digression, without any kind of artifice, absolutely did not exist. When I say, ‘exist,’ I am not affirming that the nothing ‘existed,’ but, to make what I mean to say understood, absolutely nothing existed.”[5]


“We go higher; we now say that this cause (God) is neither soul, nor intelligence; that it possesses neither imagination, opinion, reason, nor intelligence; that it can neither express nor conceive; that it has neither number, order, grandeur, nor smallness, neither equality, inequality, nor similitude; that it does not see; that it does not remain immobile nor does it move; that it neither keeps itself calm, nor possesses power; that is neither power nor light; that it does not live nor is it life; that it is neither essence, perpetuity, nor time; that one cannot grasp it intelligibly; that it is neither science, truth, royalty, wisdom, [the] One, unity, deity, good, nor spirit in any sense that we might understand; that is has neither line of descent, paternity, nor anything that is accessible to our knowledge, nor to the knowledge of any other being; that it has nothing of what belongs to non-being, nor to what belongs to being; that no one knows it such as it is and that it itself does not know anyone as being; that it completely escapes all reasoning, naming and knowing; that it is neither darkness nor light, neither error, nor truth; that it absolutely cannot affirm anything nor deny anything; that when we pose affirmations or negations that apply to realities that are inferior to it, we neither affirm nor deny anything, because all affirmations remain on this side of the unique and perfect cause of all things, [and] because all negations reside on this side of the unique and perfect cause of all things, because all negations reside on this side of the transcendence of the one who is simply deprived of everything and situated beyond everything.”[6]

Therefore, from this God – who was all-being and all non-being, and who was Sige, pure Silence (as a result, the disciples of Basilides were apparently required to be silent for five years) – there ejaculated a seed from which three entities were born. The first was the Son of God, consubstantial with his Father, and the term used by Basilides was the famous homoousios [consubstantiality] around which the quarrel of Arianism and the break with Byzantium took place. The Son was thus of the same nature as his Father. The second birth was that of the pneuma, the Spirit, the spark of God that plunged into matter and that aspired to return to its celestial kingdom. And the third, the veritable scrapings [raclure] of the divine sperm, was none other than the earth, the body, and matter, fortunately clarified by the pneumatic, spiritual spark.

The pneuma frolicked between two spaces: the inferior cosmos, which was our universe, and a hyper-cosmos. One day, the pneuma, by raising itself up and believing that it attained the highest place, made itself the Lord (the archon), and created a son who appeared so beautiful to him that he had him sit on his right. He then conceived the Ogdoad, or the eighth heaven, in which he reigned over the celestial creatures.

When the ethereal beings, still issued from the Logos Spermaticos that produced the divine nothingness, were ordered to rise, a second archon was summoned to rule over the seven other heavens or Hebdomad. The archon of Hebdomad was the one who spoke to Moses and identified himself with the Demiurge. His creation multiplied the material and spiritual traps that the pneumatics had to overcome to regain the Pneuma, co-regent with the Lord of the Ogdoad.

In the same way that sin entered the world because the first archon claimed to have a power that wasn’t his, due to his nature, all the sins of man resided in the will to power that incited him to surpass the limits of his nature.

Both extreme asceticism and license came from sin, because they set themselves aside from the just milieu claimed by Epicurean morality.

Later on, Irenaeus presented a version of Basilides’ theology, to which the scraps of the legend of Jesus would be joined:

“From the unbegotten Father, Nous was engendered first; from Nous was engendered the Logos; from the Logos, Phronesis; from Phronesis, Sophia; from Sophia and Dynamos [were engendered] the Virtues, the Powers and the Angels whom he named the first ones, and it was from them that the first heaven was created. From these angels came other angels who made a second heaven similar to the first. From these angels came [still] others, in their turn and in the same fashion, in the image of the superior angels, and these angels formed a third heaven. From this third heaven was born a fourth, and thus there followed, in an analogous fashion, the Princes, Angels and 365 heavens. It is from this number of heavens that the year has 365 days. The last heaven, the one that we see, is filled by the angels who made everything that is in the world. They shared among them the earth and all the people who are on it. Their leader is the God of the Jews. This last one, because he wanted the other people to be subjected to his people, that is to say, to the Jews, the other princes raised themselves up against him and paralyzed his plans. This was why the other people were animated by hostile sentiments with respect to his people. But having seen their corruption, the unbegotten and innumerable Father sent his unique Son, Nous, who is called Christ, to deliver those who believe in him from the domination of those who made the world. He manifested himself to their people as a man on the earth and accomplished the powers. But it wasn’t he who suffered; it was a certain Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry his cross to its place. He was crucified by error and unconsciously, after which he was changed by Jesus so that he would be taken for him. Jesus took the form of Simon and mocked them, because he remained nearby. He was the incorporeal power and the unbegotten Nous; this is why he was able to transform himself at will, and he thus returned to the one who had sent him, mocking those who had not been able to keep him, and he was invisible to all. Those who knew this were delivered from the Prince and Creator of this world. It isn’t the crucified to whom one must confess, but he who was crucified in appearance, that is to say, Jesus, who had been sent by the Father to, by this action, destroy the works of those who had made the world. Thus the one who confesses to the crucified man is a slave to the power of those who created the world of bodies; on the contrary, the others are free; they know how the unbegotten Father had spared them all. But redemption is only extended to the soul, because the body can only dissolve itself in conformity with its nature. . . . Likewise, the prophecies came from their leaders who made the world, the Law, in particular, from the one who brought the people out of Egypt. Sacrifices to the gods had to be scorned and held as nothing, but they took part in them without scruple; likewise they were not bothered by any action or the exercise of any sensual pleasure. They likewise practiced magic, the evocation of ghosts and all of the other magic tricks; they invented all sorts of names for angels, and put some in the first heaven and some in the second, and they applied themselves to distinguishing the names, principles, angels and powers of their (...) 365 heavens. It was thus, for example, that the world to which the Savior descended and from which he ascended was called Kaulakau. The one who knew all the angels and their origin became invisible and ungraspable to all the angels and the powers, in the manner of Kaulakau. Just as the Christ was unknown to all, they must not be recognized by anyone, they are invisible and unknowable to all, whereas they know all the beings and can cross them all. ‘You know all, but no one knows you!’ – such is their formula [...] Few people are capable of this knowledge, one in a thousand, ten in ten thousand. They are no longer Jews, they say, and not even Christians. It is forbidden to reveal their secrets; one must keep them in silence. They determined the site of the 365 heavens as if they were mathematicians. They borrowed their theories and applied them to the particular requirements of their doctrine. Their leader is Abraxas; the numeric value of the letters of this name is 365.”[7]

(Note that those who were “not even Christians” nevertheless constituted a branch of the Esseno-Christian tree: a Hellenized branch, different from Marcionism, although the absence of women from their cosmogony confirmed their tendency towards asceticism.)

Disentangled from the Christianity of the 180s, in which Irenaeus placed the Basilideans, their syncretism suggested – due to the importance given to Abrasax and magic carvings [in stones], called abraxas – a connection to the cult of Mithras, from which the sects devoted to Joshua/Jesus precisely borrowed the image of a solar divinity. It is probable that Basilides facilitated the exchange between Mithraism and Christianity.

The importance of magic, on the other hand, appears unquestionable. Bonner studied the talismans that bear representations of Abrasax, the Anguiped divinity with the head of a rooster, who thus united the sun and the earth, light and darkness, male and female.[8]

Based on the reports concerning Abrasax and Mithras:

“Jerome (In Amos III (P.L., XXV, col. 1018 D) notes that Basilides designated his all-powerful God with the magic name Abraxas; by adding up the respective numerical values of each Greek letter in this name, one obtained the number of circles that the ‘Sun’ describes in the course of a year; this is the same god as Mithras, [because] this name, although formed with different letters, totals the same numerical value:

1+2+100+1+60+1+200 = 365

40+5+10+9+100+1+200 = 365

“From then on, the meaning of the 365 heavens is clear. Just as the circuit of the seven planets distinguishes seven heavens, each circle described by the sun forms a heaven, that is to say, a spherical envelop traced out by this circle. Therefore, each day the sun travels a circle that is slightly different from that of the preceding day, and it is thus that, following Egyptian computations, which count months of thirty days each, there are three-hundred-sixty circles or heavens. The five other circles echo the planets, except for the sun and the moon, which are assigned particular roles, and the annual interstitial week of five days, which is the same thing, since the days of the week carry the names of the planets. The sun is Helios, and Mithras-Abraxas is the Archon who embraces the totality of the solar circle as a unity. Mithras and Helios are in a father-son relationship. Mithras is the Great God; Helios is his Logos, thanks to whom he developed himself, created the world; and he plays the role of mediator between man and God. He had the same function as the Christos-Logos; see the ‘liturgy of Mithras’ and the speech of Emperor Julian about King Helios.”[9]

According to Basilides, the Great Archon had a son, the Christ of the Ogdoad. The Hebdomad then had his Archon and he, in his turn, [had] a son, also Christ, the solar Christ, the simultaneously divine and human twin of the superior Christ of the Ogdoad.

Thus Abrasax became the prototype of the Christos-Helios and the epoch that he governed.

“Abraxas, like Mithras, designates the God who unites in himself the power of the seven planets, because his name is composed of seven letters. Because these seven letters have the total value of 365, it follows that he contains within him 365 partial or subaltern gods. As temporal grandeur, he contains everything in a year or each year that the world lives; he is the Eon, the Eternity. Each partial god presides over one day. An echo of this belief subsisted in the calendar of the Catholic Church, in which each day carries the name of a saint, the king of that day. The Christian gods simply took the place of the pagan gods.”[10]

Valentinus and the Valentinians

In a letter to the consul Servianus, Emperor Hadrian (117-138) gave an idea of the confusion of messianic sects then called “Christian”:

“Hadrian Augustus to the consul Servianus, greetings! I have found in Egypt, about which you boasted to me, only a fundamentally frivolous nation, inconstant, at the mercy of the first quack who comes along. The adorers of Serapis are Christians and those who call themselves Christian bishops adore Serapis. It is impossible to find in Egypt a synagogue-chief, a Samaritan or a Christian priest who is not an astrologist, a soothsayer or a charlatan, as well. When the patriarch comes to Egypt, some implore him to adore Serapis, others to adore the Christ. They only have a single God. He is adored by Christians, Jews and all the other peoples.”[10]

It was from the microcosm of Alexandria that Valentinus came; along with Philo and Basilides, he was the father of speculative theology. Fleeing the troubles and repressions of the last war of the Jews, he went to Rome, where he stayed from 136 to 140; [while there] he crossed paths with the Judeo-Christians, whose dissensions the Shepherd of Hermas deplored; with Marcion and his Pauline Churches; with the disciples of Carpocratus, for whom hedonism traced out the path to salvation; and with the mobs of bishops and leaders of Christian sects who had uncertain doctrines, but who satisfied their appetites for domination with all of their false teeth.

A brilliant rhetorician, a poet, and the author of letters and essays, Valentinus only shared with Christianity a certain propensity for asceticism and references to a redeemer, the Christ-Logos or a spiritual entity tasked with guiding souls towards the kingdom of the ineffable and good God. He was the author of the treatise The Three Natures (lost) and the Gospel of Truth, which was discovered at Nag-Hammadi.

Did Valentinus prophesize in the manner of Elchasai or, twenty years later, Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla, the initiators of the New Prophecy? Nothing permits one to be assured of this, but note the importance he [allegedly] accorded to ecstasy in a later report made by Epiphanius of Salamis:

“An indestructible spirit, I salute the indestructible ones. I announce to you unspeakable, inexpressible and supra-celestial mysteries, which cannot grasp the Powers, the Dominations, the subordinated Forces, or any compound being, but which are only manifested in the thought of the Immutable” (Panarion, XXXI, 5, 1-2).

The Valentinian theological system developed Basilides’ cosmo-genesis with a complexity that evokes tortuous scholastic discourse. According to the Gospel of Truth, the divine world or Plerome (which expresses well the modern term “totality”) was founded on a duality: the Ineffable, the male principle, and Silence, the female principle. From their coupling was born a second duality, and from it came a quaternary principle, with the whole forming the Ogdoad (2+2+4=8). Eleven couples of Eons (entities, powers, forces) proceeded from it; men and women delineated this amorous adventure of creation, which was as foreign to Judaism as it was to Catholicism. The total was 8 + 22, that is, 30 Eons, of which the last one, the youngest, was none other than Sophia. Relegated to the place furthest away from the primordial duality, Sophia was pregnant with desire and revolt, and engendered the Demiurge, the God of Genesis and the world.

By striving to separate her desire from the obscurity that reigned beyond the Plerome, Sophia abandoned into flesh a fragment of spirit and soul. So as to save the spirit imprisoned in matter, the celestial Messiah sent the Christ Jesus to teach men the nature and destiny of their souls, with the result that, crossing the threshold of death, they returned to their place of origin.

Platonism, which was inherent in the idea of a world that imperfectly reflected the primordial Eon, explained the manner in which Valentinus’ theology prefigured the simplified and desexualized version of Catholic dogma, but also foreshadowed the legalisms of the theologians from Arianism to Jansenism.

As for Jesus, if he was no longer Joshua – because Valentinus’ Christianity wanted to be purely Greek – then he remained the descendant of Sophia, the pneuma or Spirit, here designated by the term Logos.

In a poem, Valentinus illustrated another remark, which the Elenchos ascribed to him (VI, 42, 2) in this way: “Valentinus claims that, having seen a new-born, he asked it who he was; the baby responded that he was the Logos.” This manner of proceeding, on the part of the author of the Elenchos, illustrated quite well its anecdotal reduction of a philosophical discourse. Here is the poem, as transcribed by the Elenchos in an earlier passage (VI, 36, 7):

I see in the ether everything mixed together in the pneuma,
I see in the spirit the pneuma bearing the totality:
The flesh suspended in the soul,
The soul carried away by the air,
The air suspended in the ether,
The fruits coming from the abyss,
A small child emerging from the womb.

It was in reaction against such conceptions that the gospels recounted the childhood of Jesus, his escapades, and his family. They principally derived from a popular Christianity, a Christianity that rejected the abstractions and elitism of the Valentinians, because it needed exemplary legends to support its martyrs and faith, the pistis. The New Prophecy, carrying even further the simplicity of Elchasaitism, condemned speculations about the Savior, the Sophia, the Good God and the bad world, all of which were incomprehensible to the humble people. In his Stromates (II, 3), Clement of Alexandria wasn’t wrong when he wrote: “The Valentinians attribute to us the faith of the simple people; as for them, they claim to possess gnosis, because they are saved by nature, a benefit that they receive from the superior seed; they say that this gnosis is extremely far from faith; according to them the pneumatic is separate from the psychic.”

Clement was also a philosopher but, in the manner of Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon, he adhered (if not directly) to the New Prophecy, then at least to the fervent movement that it inspired and that would only later alienate his excessive taste for martyrdom and aggressive puritanism. Irenaeus took up the pen against “so-called gnosis,” while Clement identified gnosis with the Christian faith, but both of them chose – instead of the Hellenization of Christianity that, little by little, assimilated it into a renewal of Greek philosophy – the social and non-violent wildfire that united in the Churches and under the authority of the bishops both the poor and rich peoples whose mythical and ecumenical spirit described (for the first time) a Jesus stripped of his angelic nature and portrayed as an agitator: the one who chased the merchants from the Temple, healed the unfortunate, incurred the betrayal of his friends, submitted to an infamous death, and was resurrected in glory in the kingdom of the heavens, according to the hopes of the Montanist martyrs. In fact, on the question ‘Which rich man can be saved?’ Clement wrote a homily in which he extolled the collaboration of the classes in their shared detachment from the benefits of this world. (An echo of this would be retained in the composition of the Gospel attributed to Matthew towards the end of the Second Century.)

Nevertheless, the future theological corpus of the Church came from Valentinus. The Tripartite Treatise discovered at Nag-Hammadi revealed a trinitarian conception of God, composed of the Father, the Son and the Ekklesia (in the sense of “mystical communities of the faithful” illustrated by Hermas). According to Tertullian, the same conception was found in the works of Heracleon, a disciple of Valentinus. Theodotus, also a Valentinian, spoke of the Father, the Son and the Pneuma-Spirit more than a century and a half before Nicaea.

The Treatise on the Resurrection (Nag-Hammadi), which was of Valentinian origin, supported a doctrine according to which “the resurrection of the believer has already happened” and exhorted the Christians to live like they had already been resurrected. The New Prophecy fought against a similar assertion, and two letters placed with impunity under the name of Paul, the Letters to Timothy, attempted to combat this Valentinian argument.

The pneumatics or Perfect Ones thus attempted to accede to the state of pure spirit. Their conception of Jesus responded to their aspirations: he was the son of a carpenter and the friend of the poor; such was the populism of Montan.

According to Clement,[12] the Valentinians believed that Jesus “ate and drank, but did not defecate or urinate. The power of his continence was such that food did not spoil in him, because there was no corruption in him.” Perhaps the Barbelites and the Carpocratics were not wrong to make fun of such a concordance between spiritual asceticism and constipation.

The incorruptible Logos thus became the principle of eternity: “You have been immortal since the beginning; you are children of eternal life, and you want to experience death so as to exhaust and dissolve it, and death will die in you and through you. Because when you dissolve the Cosmos without being dissolved yourself, you dominate all of creation and corruption.”[13] These would be admirable remarks if they did not involve a perspective that was radically hostile to life, because they implied a spiritualization in which the body and its desires were precisely reduced to nothing.

Especially as it was developed by Mark, Valentinianism did not exclude a relationship with Hermeticism. According to the Elenchos (VIII, 14), a certain Monoime – in all probability a symbolic name, like Allogene or Autogene – based himself on the iota of Iesou and was inspired by Plato and Pythagoras when he argued: “The roots, the octahedron, the tetrahedron and all similar figures of which fire, air, water and earth are composed, come from the numbers enclosed in the simple feature [trait] of the iota, which is the Perfect Son of the Perfect Man.” Such doctrines flourished among the doctors of Kabala and among the scholars of the Renaissance, such as Marsilio Ficino. According themselves poorly with the political will of the bishops and their flocks to push Jesus toward the steps of the Imperial Palace, they only encountered condemnation and scorn.


Ptolemy occupied a particular position in the Valentinian school. He was known through a Letter to Flora that Epiphanius recopied in his Panarion, but not without garnishing it with quotations from the canonical Gospels with the care of a Catholic who wanted to confirm the ancient age of a dogma that in fact distorted [the thought of] the perverse and heretical Ptolemy.

Confronted with the variety of doctrines that composed Christianity in the second half of the Second Century, Flora had lost the light of the Spirit. Marcionism and anti-Marcionism were then agitating the Christian, Jewish and Greco-Roman milieus.

Ptolemy estimated himself so well prepared to suggest a philosophical surpassing of the two positions that he confessed his past adherence to Marcionism: “I, who have benefited from the knowledge of the two Gods.”[14]

More than two centuries after the birth of Essenism, the problem of Mosaic law continued to nourish speculations in the milieus preoccupied with the choice of a religious path.

“My dear sister Flora. Until now, few people have understood the Law given by Moses, because they have not exactly known the legislator, nor his commandments. These things will be quite clear to you, I think, when you have understood the contradictory opinions concerning them. Some say that the Law was given by God the Father; others, on the opposite side, maintain that it was established by the Adversary of God, the corruptor-devil, in the same way that they also attribute to him the creation of the world, affirming that he is the Father and the creator of this universe. Both positions are entirely in error, mutually contradictory and neither of the two camps have grasped the truth of the subject.”[15]

Ptolemy distinguished three stages in Mosaic Law: a Law of God, a Law of the Jews, and a revision according to the Spirit (the pneuma) that founded Christianity.

“The Law of God, pure and free of all inferior alloys, is the Decalogue, the ten commandments divided into two tablets, which prohibit what is necessary to avoid and commands what must be done; these commandments, no doubt pure, were still imperfect and clamored for completion by the Savior.

“The Law mixed with Injustice was given in vengeance and talion against those who committed injustice and ordered the tearing out of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and to punish murder with murder. Because he who commits an injustice in the second place isn’t less unjust than the first; there is only a difference in the order; the work is the same. Moreover, the commandment was and remains just, having been decreed because of the weakness of the addressees in the case of a transgression of the pure Law. It only hinders he who is not in accord with nature nor with the goodness of the Father of All. Perhaps this proscription responds to its goal, but it only explains itself through a necessity. Because he who does not want a single murder to be committed by decreeing ‘You will not kill at all,’ and who ordered the killing of a murderer in reprisal, has given a second law; and by distinguishing two kinds of murderers, he who has prohibited all murder hasn’t seen that he has been led astray by necessity. This is why the Son sent into the world by God abrogated this part of the Law, in full knowledge that it was also the Law of God; because he placed it in the Old Testament, along with the other commandments, when he said: ‘God said: He who curses his father and mother must be killed.’

“Finally, there is the distinctive part of the Law, instituted in the image of the pneumatic laws par excellence: I understand this to be the proscription relative to sacrifices, circumcision, the Sabbath, fasting, Easter, unleavened bread, etc. All these practices, being only images and symbols, received another meaning, once the truth was manifested. They have been abolished in outward form and in their corporeal application, but they have been restored in their pneumatic meaning; the words remain the same, [but] their content has changed. Thus the Savior ordered us to offer sacrifices, not sacrifices of animals bereft of reason or flavor, but sacrifices of hymns, praises, acts of grace, charity and benevolence towards the next person. Likewise, we are to practice circumcision, not that of the corporeal foreskin, but that of the pneumatic heart. The Savior requires fasting, not corporeal fasting, but pneumatic fasting, which consists in abstaining from all evil. We nevertheless observe outward fasting, because it can be of some profit to the soul, if it is practiced with discernment, if one doesn’t observe it so as to imitate others or by routine or because it is the day of fasting, as if a day could be fixed for that. One practices it at the same time that one recalls true fasting, so that those who cannot observe this practice have the reminiscence, thanks to outward fasting. Likewise, the Easter lamb and the unleavened bread are images, as shown by the Apostle Paul. ‘The Christ, our Easter, has been immolated,’ he says, and ‘so that you will know what is unleavened, do not participate in the leaven (what you call leaven is [actually] evil), but so that you will know a new dough.’

“Thus, the part that is incontestably the Law of God is divided into three parts. The first part was fulfilled by the Savior, because the commandments – ‘you will not kill at all, you will not commit adultery, you will not make false oaths’ – were included in the prohibition of anger, coveting, and swearing. The second part was totally abolished. The commandment ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ which is mixed with injustice and itself contains a work of injustice, was abolished by the contrary commandments of the Savior, because the contraries were mutually exclusive.

“Finally, it [the Law of God] is divided into a part that is transposed and transformed from the corporeal to the pneumatic: the symbolic part that is given to the image of the laws par excellence. Because the images and symbols that represent other things have a value as long as the truth does not appear; now that the truth is here, one must do the works of the truth, not the works of the image. This is also what his disciples and the Apostle Paul showed; they alluded to the symbolic part, as I have called it, with respect to the image of Easter and the unleavened bread, and to the part of the Law mixed with injustice, when he said: ‘The Law of the Commandments has become obsolete through a new teaching’ (Ephesians, 2:15); [and he alluded] to the part not mixed with evil when he said: ‘The Law is holy and the Commandments are holy, just and good.’”[16]

If these quotations from Paul participated as much in Judeo-Christian revisionism as Marcionism, the end of the letter [by Ptolemy] sketched out a return to monotheism. Thanks to the impetus of Augustine of Hippo and his thesis of the weakness of man, Catholicism developed the Ptolemaic explication of the evil introduced into the world.

“As much as this is possible in a short space, [Ptolemy wrote] I think I have sufficiently shown you the intrusion into the Law of a legislation of human origin, as well as the division of the Law of God itself into three parts. It remains for me to say what is good about this God who established the Law. But this as well I believe I have already shown you, if you were paying attention. Because if this Law wasn’t instituted by the perfect God himself, as I have said, nor by the devil (it isn’t even permitted to say this), then the legislator must have been a third in addition to the others. It was the Demiurge and the creator of this whole world and all that it contains. He is different from the other two essences, an intermediary between the two; one rightly gives to him the name of Intermediary. And if the perfect God is good by essence, which he truly is – because our Savior said that there is only one good God, his Father, whom he manifests – and if the God of contrary essence is bad, wicked and characterized by injustice, then the one who stands between the two, being neither good, nor bad, nor unjust, can be called just, because he judges in conformity with the justice in him. On the one hand, this God would be inferior to the perfect God, beneath his justice, since he is engendered and not unbegotten (a single one is unbegotten, the Father from whom all things come, because all things depend on him, each in their own way); on the other hand, he would be greater and more powerful than the Adversary. He would thus be, by nature, of a different essence and a different nature than the essence [and nature] of the two others. The essence of the Adversary is corruption and darkness – because he is material and of multiple forms – whereas the unbegotten essence of the All is incorruptible and light in itself, simple and homogenous. The essence of the Demiurge gives birth to a double virtue, but he is only, in himself, the image of the [sole and] Good God. Now, do not worry about how the unique and simple principle of all things (which we confess and we believe), about how an unbegotten, incorruptible and good principle has been able to come from the very essences of corruption and the Intermediary, who is of dissimilar essence, whereas it is in the nature of good to engender and produce beings that are similar and of the same substance.”[17]

Ptolemy then announced in his letter-preamble to a Christian [rite of] initiation that Flora had to elevate herself to a superior degree of instruction. His status as leader of a community or as a bishop, legitimized by a claimed apostolic descent, authorized him to confer such instruction:

“Because, if it pleases God, you will later learn the origin and the birth of these natures, when you have become worthy of the tradition of the apostles, a tradition that I have also received through succession, and moreover I can confirm these words through the instruction of our Savior.

“I am not worn out, my sister Flora, from having said this in several words. I said to you clearly that I would be short, but I have nevertheless treated the subject exhaustively. These remarks will be able to help you later on, if, after having received the fecund seeds, like the beautiful and good earth, you will one day bear their fruit.”[18]

Thus an elitist Christianity that substituted the refinement of a philosophical tradition for the crude matter of Hebrew mythology penetrated into the aristocratic and cultivated milieus of the Empire. Upon this Christianity of schoolmasters, the source of future Catholic theology, there would suddenly break a Christianity that was wild, fanatical and popular, and that would, on the basis of renunciation and sacrifice, elevate [ériger] the misery and resentment of the disinherited classes. Its program would inscribe itself in this remark (attributed to Jesus and hostile to the “pneumatics”): “Happy are the poor of spirit.”

The Pistis Sophia

A late text (from the Third Century), the Pistis Sophia was a passably muddled, esoteric novel in which the remarks seemed to obey a concern with according two antithetical notions: pistis (faith) and gnosis (knowledge). Leisegang summarizes it as follows:

“We are in the twelfth year after the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus recounts for his disciples, united on the Mount of Olives, his voyage across the world of the Eons and the Archons, whose power he had broken. In the course of his ascension, he encountered Pistis Sophia, whose adventures he describes at great length. In the beginning, she dwelled in the thirteenth Eon; desire for the superior world of the light made her raise her eyes towards the light of the heights. She thus drew upon herself the hatred of the Archons of the Twelve Eons; it is necessary to understand by this [reference] the masters of the fixed heaven, who correspond to the twelve signs of the Zodiac. It was between this heaven and the domain of the light, in the intermediary place, beyond the world limited by the heaven of the stars, which Sophia inhabited. A false light attracted her towards the world and she became stuck in matter. Desperate, she addressed thirteen prayers of contrition to the light of the heights and implored that she be saved from the snares of her enemies. When she arrived at the ninth prayer of contrition, Jesus was sent into the chaotic world on the orders of the first mystery. He transported Sophia from Chaos to a place secluded from the world. Pistis Sophia then addressed to God a suite of hymns of thanks, because he had saved her from her distress. Finally, Jesus ascended again and led Pistis Sophia – that is to say, the emanations of the Great Invisible – and their unbegotten and their self-engendered and their engendered and their stars and their blunders [leurs impairs] and their archons and their powers and their lords and their archangels and their angels and their decans and their liturgies and all the dwellings of their spheres and all the orders of each one of them. And Jesus did not tell his disciples all about the extension of the emanations from the Treasury or their orders, and he did not tell them about the saviors of each order, and he did not tell them about the guardian who is at each of the doors to the Treasury of Light, and he did not tell them about the place of the Twin Savior who is the Child of the Child, and he did not tell them about the place of the three amen, the places in which the five trees grow, nor anything about the place or the extension of the seven other amen, that is to say, the seven voices. And Jesus did not tell his disciples what kind are the five parasites, nor where they are placed; he did not tell them in which fashion the Great Light is deployed, nor in which place it is placed; he did not tell them about the location of the five regions, nor anything concerning the first commandment, but only spoke to them in general, teaching them that they exist; he did not speak of their extension nor the order of their places. . . . It is all an engulfed world that reveals itself to us in this indefatigable enumeration of supra-terrestrial entities, celestial regions and magic symbols; a world in which the first readers of the book must find themselves perfectly at ease among the Eons, decans, liturgies, archons and angels, the innumerable mysteries and their places.”

[1] Clement of Alexandria, Stromates, III, 1, 1-3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., IV, 12, 83.

[4] Leisegang, op. cit., p. 146.

[5] Elenchos, VII, 20.

[6] Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite, Théologie mystique, Paris, 1943.

[7] Irenaeus, op. cit., I, 24-6.

[8] Bonner (C.), Studies in magical, gnostic amulets, London 1950.

[9] Leisegang, op. cit., p. 171.

[10] Ibid., p. 172.

[11] Flavius Vopiscus, Saturn., VII, 8.

[12] Clement of Alexandria, Stromates, III, 6, 59.

[13] Lettre de Ptolémée à Flora, translation and notes by G. Quispel, Paris, 1949.

[14] Cited by Leisegang, op. cit., pp. 203 and 204.

[15] Ibid., p. 206.

[16] Ibid., p. 208.

[17] Ibid., p. 209.

[18] Ibid., p. 287 and 288.

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! April 2013. All footnotes by the author. Please note that there were two footnotes numbered 18 in the original.)

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