Valentinus and Valentinianism

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Valentinus (mid-2nd century CE) was the founder of what came to be one of the most influential Gnostic sects of heretical Christianity. Little can be known with certainty about either his life or his teachings, apart from what has been preserved for us in the writings of the church fathers, much of which is reported only very sketchily, with a view toward refutation. The discovery, in 1945, of important Coptic texts at Nag Hammadi has improved our understanding of his thought, but the texts discovered there (principally the so-called Evangelium Veritatis [Gospel of truth]) represent the thought of the various schools drawing inspiration from his teachings and cannot reasonably be attributed to Valentinus himself. St. Irenaeus (Adversus Haereseis I) and others assert that he was a native of Egypt, where he is said to have studied under Theodas, alleged to have been a pupil of St. Paul, but reports of both the connection to Egypt and to St. Paul may be motivated by a desire to put him into a certain tradition, whether mystical or theological. St. Irenaeus also reports that he lived in Rome during three pontificates (Hyginus, 136140; Pius, 140155; Anicetus, 155166), and Tertullian (Adversus Valentinianos ) says that he was in communion until he was passed over for the episcopacy (possibly in favor of Pius, though this is not clear), whereupon he left the church. Tertullian also mentions large numbers of followers (frequentissimum plane collegium inter haereticos, Adv. Val. I), some of whom appear to have founded movements of their own, for example, Theodotus, Heracleon, Florinus, Ptolemaeus, and Marcusthese last two serving as particular targets for St. Irenaeus.

The philosophical and theological system of Valentinus bears some similarities to Platonism, though it has also been suggested, with much less plausibility, that his system was founded upon principles drawn from the Ophites, a Gnostic sect particularly devoted to the role of the serpent as metaphor and, in some cases, object of worship. If there were Pythagorean elements, as has also been suggested, they have been very cleverly disguised. Like Pythagoreanism, however, we may say that Valentinianism as we know it comes primarily from the writings of his disciples (and from his critics among the fathers) rather than from any writings of his own that have come down to us. It is possible to divide his followers into two "schools," one in the East (the "Anatolian" or "Oriental") and one in the West (the "Italian"). It has been alleged by some scholars that the Eastern school better preserved the teachings of Valentinus himself, but of course in the absence of empirical data it is impossible to make such a judgment without begging the question. More is said about the connection to Platonism below.

The Valentinians posit a primal being, Bythos (from the Greek buthos, "the depth," or "abyss"), who existed before all else, though in some sources he is portrayed as eternally coexisting with the Silence or Contemplation that is his thought. From this primordial pair arose, by emanation, three "syzygies" (Greek suzugia, "pair"), pairs of beings known as "aeons" (Greek aiôn, literally "age" or "generation" but also personified as a title for a divine being), which may have been conceived as aspects of divinity, though this interpretation possibly reflects a Trinitarian influence that may have been alien to Valentinus. (Some evidence suggests that Valentinus tried to remain in communion with the church, in which case he may have tried to formulate his ideas in a manner conducive to orthodoxy; on the other hand, the refutations of his followers would have been put into the terms and relations most natural to the orthodox writers of the refutations.)

The syzygies themselves represent cosmological opposites such as male and female, and it may be this aspect of the system that has suggested to some a Pythagorean influence. From this first triad of syzygies emanate other aeons, until there are thirty in all. These fifteen syzygies of thirty aeons make up the so-called pleroma (Greek plêrôma, "fullness," or "satiety"), a realm of immaterial, spiritual being. The last aeon to arise by emanation from the original triad is Sophia who, being farthest from the source of Being, managed through weakness to fall into sin and produce an offspring, Achamoth. If we care to take the comparisons with Platonic metaphysics seriously, we may note that Achamoth appears to represent a metaphysical principle of mimesis, for it creates a rival world, the kenoma (Greek kenôma "emptiness," or "vacuum"), in imitation of the pleroma, and a rival being, the Demiurge, in imitation of Bythos.

The Demiurge is clearly intended to be the God of the Old Testament, since he sets about creating the heavens and the earth of Genesis and everything in them. In particular, he creates humankind out of matter (Greek hulê ) by imparting into it something of his own psychic substance (Greek psukhê ). In addition to these two aspects of humankind, the "psychic" and the "hylic," a third, spiritual element, the "pneumatic" (Greek pneuma ), was incorporated into our nature, apparently without the Demiurge's knowledge.

As in other Gnostic systems, humankind falls into classes that depend upon the degree to which members of the class have access to the saving knowledge (Greek gnôsis ) that will enable them to escape the temporally finite material existence of the kenoma and enter into the eternal bliss of the pleroma. In the Valentinian system there are three classes: the pneumatikoi (that is, the Valentinians themselves) represent the spiritual, or highest, class, to whom full gnôsis has been given; the lowest class, the hulikoi, are those whose material aspect dominates and who are thus doomed never to escape from the kenoma and who will be destroyed along with it at the end of time; somewhere between lie the psukhikoi, or "psychics," the non-Valentinian Christians who can attain a kind of pseudo-salvation by means of faith and good works that will enable them to enter into the same plane of existence as the Demiurge. Christ is an aeon among the original thirty who unites himself (either at conception or at baptism) with the human Jesus of Nazareth (who is present only in a docetic sense), who is then the first to bring gnôsis to the rest of humankind.

Apart from the role of the Christ aeon and Jesus of Nazareth, there is little here to suggest Christian origins, in spite of Valentinus's reported desire to remain in communion with the orthodox church, and this fact has prompted some scholars to suggest that the Valentinians were, in fact, merely borrowing from pagan versions of Gnosticism. However, as with the connections to the Ophites, the Platonists, and the Pythagoreans, this is mere speculation. The evidence regarding Valentinus himself is so thin, and that regarding the Valentinian schools so varied and contradictory, that it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to make any clear and non-circular case for the influences and origins of any aspect of the system as a whole. At best, similarities to other philosophical systems can be noted, but it is difficult to draw any secure conclusions about influences. The putative connection to Platonism, for example, clearly lies in the positing of two "realms," one ideal and the other material, with different sorts of beings inhabiting each and the material representing a kind of "falling away" from the ideal; but this kind of metaphysical system can be found in Jewish thought that either predates or is fully independent of Platonism. Of greater significance would seem to be Achamoth as a principle of mimesis, but that construal of his role in the system is already an interpretation beyond what can be found in the actual Valentinian texts, and it cannot serve to establish a definite link with Platonist thought. Similarly, it is perhaps tempting to see Pythagorean "dyads" in the Valentinian syzygies, but mere parallelism is insufficient to establish genuine borrowing.

See also Gnosticism; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism.


texts and translations

Clement of Alexandria. Stromateis, edited by J. Ferguson. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 1991.

The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices. Department of Antiquities, Arab Republic of Egypt in Conjunction with UNESCO. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 19721984.

Foester, W., and R. McL. Wilson, eds. Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19721974.

Hippolytus. Refutatio omnium Haeresium, edited by M. Marcovich.Berlin: De Gruyter, 1986.

Irenaeus. Adversus omnes Haereses (Elegkos kai Anatropê tês Pseudônumou Gnôseôs ), editions by A. Stieren (Leipzig: T. O. Weigel, 18481853) and W. Harvey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1857); critical text by A. Rousseau, L. Doutreleau, et al. (Sources Chrétiennes, 100, 152 f., 210 f., 263 f., and 293 f. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 19651982).

Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. London: SCM, 1987.

Nag Hammadi Studies. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975(for main editions of texts).

Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1977, 1996.

Tertullian. Adversus Valentinianos, edited by J.-C. Fredouille, Sources Chrétiennes 280, 281. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 19801981.

Völker, W. Quellen zur Geschichte der christlichen Gnosis. Tübingen: Mohr, 1932, esp. pp. 57141.


Barc, Bernard. Colloque international sur les textes de Nag Hammadi. Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 1981.

Bermejo Rubio, Fernando. La escisión imposible: Lectura del gnosticismo valentiniano. Salamanca: Universidad Pontificia, 1998.

Cross, F. L., ed. The Jung Codex. London: Mowbray, 1955.

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Desjardins, Michel. Sin in Valentinianism. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1990.

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Pagels, Elaine. "A Valentinian Interpretation of Baptism and Eucharist, and its Critique of Orthodox Sacramental Theology and Practice." Harvard Theological Review 65 (1972): 153170.

Poirier, Paul-Hubert. "Pour une histoire de la lecture pneumatologique de Gn 2, 7." Revue des Études Augustiniennes 40 (1994): 122.

Quispel, Gilles. "The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic." Vigiliae Christianae 50 (1996): 327352.

Quispel, Gilles. "Valentinus and the Gnostikoi." Vigiliae Christianae 50 (1996): 14.

Sagnard, Francois. La Gnose valentinienne et le témoignage de Saint Iréneé. Paris: J. Vrin, 1947.

Simonetti, Manlio. "Valentinus gnosticus." Cassiodorus 1 (1995): 197205.

Stead, G. C. "The Valentinian Myth of Sophia." Journal of Theological Studies 20 (1969): 75104.

Townsley, A. L. "St. Irenaeus' Knowledge of Presocratic Philosophy." Rivista di Storia e Letteratura Religiosa 12 (1976): 374379.

Scott Carson (2005)