Gnostic Fragments


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Willis Barnstone. Professor David Brakke. Kenneth Wapnick. Jay Kinney.

Fragments from an Earthen Jar–James Robinson and the Nag Hammadi Library

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Fragments of Heracleon

Search HathiTrust. Advanced full-text search Advanced catalog search Search tips. Tools Cite this Export citation file. Similar Items Fragments of a faith forgotten. However, unlike Paul, they recognized their creator as the "Ineffable Parent," and not as the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.


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The task of Christian hermeneutics after Valentinus was to prove the continuity of the Old and New Testament. In this regard, as well as in the general spirituality of his teaching—not to mention his primitive trinitarian doctrine—Valentinus had an incalculable impact on the development of Christianity. Ptolemy or Ptolemaeus , fl. Irenaeus as "the blossom of Valentinus' school" Layton, p.

We know next to nothing about his life, except the two writings that have come down to us: the elaborate Valentinian philosophical myth preserved in Irenaeus, and Ptolemy's Epistle to Flora , preserved verbatim by St. In the former we are met with a grand elaboration, by Ptolemy, of Valentinus' own system, which contains a complex anthropological myth centering around the passion of Sophia. We also find, in both the myth and the Epistle , Ptolemy making an attempt to bring Hebrew Scripture into line with Gnostic teaching and New Testament allegorization in a manner heretofore unprecedented among the Gnostics.

In the system of Ptolemy we are explicitly told that the cause of Sophia's fall was her desire to know the ineffable Father. Since the purpose of the Father's generating of the Aeons of which Sophia was the last was to "elevate all of them into thought" Irenaeus 1. The purpose of the Pleroma was to exist as a living, collective expression of the intellectual magnitude of the Father, and if any single being within the Pleroma were to attain to the Father, all life would cease.

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This idea is based on an essentially positive attitude toward existence—that is, existence understood in the sense of striving, not for a reposeful end, but for an ever-increasing degree of creative or "constitutive" insight. The goal, on this view, is to produce through wisdom, and not simply to attain wisdom as an object or end in itself.

When Sophia desired to know the Father, then, what she was desiring was her own dissolution in favor of an envelopment in that which made her existence possible in the first place. This amounted to a rejection of the gift of the Father—that is, of the gift of individual existence and life.

It is for this reason that Sophia was not permitted to know the Father, but was turned back by the "boundary" horos that separates the Pleroma from the "ineffable magnitude" of the Father Irenaeus 1. The remainder of Ptolemy's account is concerned with the production of the material cosmos out of the hypostatized "passions" of Sophia, and the activity of the Savior Jesus Christ in arranging these initially chaotic passions into a structured hierarchy of existents Irenaeus 1.


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  • Colossians Three classes of human beings come into existence through this arrangement: the "material" hulikos , the "animate" psukhikos , and the "spiritual" pneumatikos. The "material" humans are those who have not attained to intellectual life, and so place their hopes only upon that which is perishable—for these there is no hope of salvation. The "animate" are those who have only a half-formed conception of the true God, and so must live a life devoted to holy works, and persistence in faith; according to Ptolemy, these are the "ordinary" Christians.

    The Valentinian-Ptolemaic notion of salvation rests on the idea that the cosmos is the concrete manifestation or hypostatization of the desire of Sophia for knowledge of the Father, and the "passions" her failure produced.

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    Salvation, then, in its final form, must imply a sort of spiritual creation on the part of the Gnostics who attain the Pleroma. The "animate" humans, however, who are composed partly of corruptible matter and partly of the spiritual essence, must remain content with a simple restful existence with the craftsman of the cosmos, since no material element can enter the Pleroma Irenaeus 1. In his Epistle to Flora in Epiphanius Rather than simply declaring these two gods to be unrelated, as did Marcion, Ptolemy develops a complex, allegorical reading of the Hebrew Scriptures in relation to the New Testament in order to establish a genealogy connecting the Pleroma, Sophia and her "passion," the Demiurge, and the salvific activity of Jesus Christ.

    The scope and rigor of Ptolemy's work, and the influence it came to exercise on emerging Christian orthodoxy, qualifies him as one of the most important of the early Christian theologians, both proto-orthodox and "heretical. The world religion founded by Mani CE and known to history as Manichaeism has its roots in the East, borrowing elements from Persian dualistic religion Zoroastrianism , Jewish Christianity, Buddhism, and even Mithraism.

    The system developed by Mani was self-consciously syncretistic, which was a natural outgrowth of his desire to see his religion reach the ends of the earth. This desire was fulfilled, and until the late Middle Ages, Manichaeism remained a world religion, stretching from China to Western Europe.

    It is now completely extinct. The religion began when its founder experienced a series of visions, in which the Holy Spirit supposedly appeared to him, ordering him to preach the revelation of Light to the ends of the earth. Mani came to view himself as the last in a series of great prophets including Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Paul Rudolph, p.

    His highly complex myth of the origin of the cosmos and of humankind drew on various elements culled from these several traditions and teachings. The doctrine of Mani is not "philosophical," in the manner of Basilides, Valentinus or Ptolemy; for Mani's teaching was not the product of a more or less rational or systematic speculation about the godhead, resulting in Gnosis, but the wholly creative product of what he felt to be a revelation from the divinity itself.

    It is for this reason that Mani's followers revered him as the redeemer and holy teacher of humankind Rudolph, p. Since Manichaeism belongs more to the history of religion than to philosophy proper or even the fringes of philosophy, as does Western Gnosticism , it will suffice to say only a few words about the system, if for no other reason than that the great Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo had followed the Manichaen religion for several years, before converting to Christianity cf. Augustine, Confessions III. The main point of distinction between the doctrine of Mani and the Western branch of Gnosticism Basilides, Valentinus, etc.

    This means, essentially, that Mani began with a fundamental belief about the nature of humanity and its place in the cosmos, and concocted a myth to explain the situation of humankind, and the dynamics of humanity's eventual salvation. The details of the cosmology were apparently not important, their sole purpose being to illustrate, poetically, the dangers facing the souls dwelling in this "realm of darkness" as well as the manner of their redemption from this place.


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    The Manichaean cosmology began with two opposed first principles, as in Zoroastrianism: the God of Light, and the Ruler of Darkness. This Darkness, being of a chaotic nature, assails the "Kingdom of Light" in an attempt to overthrow or perhaps assimilate it. The "King of the Paradise of Light," then, goes on the defensive, as it were, and brings forth Wisdom, who in her turn gives birth to the Primal Man, also called Ohrmazd or Ahura-Mazda.

    This Primal Man possesses a pentadic soul, consisting of fire, water, wind, light, and ether. Surprisingly, the Primal Man is defeated, and his soul scattered throughout the Realm of Darkness. However, the Manichaeans understood this as a plan on the part of the Ruler of Light to sow the seeds of resistance within the Darkness, making possible the eventual overthrow of the chaotic realm. To this end, a second "Living Spirit" is brought forth, who was also called Mithra. This being, and his partner, "Light-Adamas," set in motion the history of salvation by putting forth the "call" within the realm of darkness, which recalls the scattered particles of light from the vanquished soul of Ohrmazd.

    These scattered particles "answer" Mithra, and the result is the formation of the heavens and earth, the stars and planets, and finally, the establishment of the twelve signs of the zodiac and the ordered revolution of the cosmic sphere, through which, by a gradual process, the scattered particles of light will eventually be returned to the Realm of Light.

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