The "Great Unknown" of Gnosticism.BEHIND the whole Valentinian movement stands the commanding and mysterious figure of Valentinus himself, universally acknowledged to have been the greatest of the Gnostics. His learning and eloquence are admitted, even by his bitterest opponents, to have been of a most extraordinary nature, and no word has ever been breathed against his moral character. And yet, when we come to analyze the chaos of "information" which Patristic writers have left us on the subject of so-called Valentinianism, we find the mysterious character of the great master of the Gnosis ever receding before our respectful curiosity; he who has been made to give his name to the remodelling of the whole structure, still remains the "great unknown" of Gnosticism. We know nothing certain of him as a man, nothing definite of him as a writer, except the few mutilated scraps which hæresiological polemics have vouchsafed to us.
(I am of course leaving aside entirely the vexed question of, I will not say the authorship, but the compilation, of the treatises in the Askew and Bruce Codices. My own opinion is that we owe a great part of these elaborations to Valentinus; not that I think this can be proved in any satisfactory fashion
with the present scanty sources of information open to us. On the contrary, however, I do not see how it is to be disproved. It is very strange that, in spite of the universally admitted transcendency of Valentinus, no one of his works has been preserved to us. They are said to have been exceedingly intricate and difficult; they are further said to have been syntheses and symphonies as it were of prior formulations of the Gnosis. Now distinctly this is not the case with the outline of the best known system ascribed to "them of Valentinus" by the Church Fathers. Whereas it is patently the case with the treatises in Coptic translations; they could have been elaborated by no one but the stoutest-headed among the Gnostics--and the best head-piece of them all is said to have been on the shoulders of Valentinus.)
In spite of this appalling ignorance of the man and his teachings, the so-called Valentinian Gnosis is the pièce de résistance of nearly every hæresiological treatise. We shall, therefore, have to trespass on the patience of the reader for a short space, while we set up a few finger-posts in the maze of Valentinianism, as seen through the eyes of its Patristic opponents. We should moreover always remember that "Valentinianism," so far from being a single separate formulation of the Gnosis, was the main stream of Gnosticism simply rechristened by the name of its greatest leader.
With the exception of the few fragments to which we have referred, all that has been written "Them of Valentinus."by the Fathers refers to the teachings of "them
of Valentinus," and even then it is but very rarely that we have an unmutilated quotation from any written work of theirs; for the most part it all consists of fragments torn from their contexts, or mere hearsay. Now the followers of Valentinus were no slavish disciples who could do nothing else but repeat parrot-like the "words of the master"; the ipse dixit spirit was far from their independent genius. Each of them thought out the details of the scheme of universal philosophy in his own fashion. True that by this time the presentation of the Gnosis, from being of a most diverse nature, had become more settled in its main features, and perhaps Valentinus may have initiated this syntheticizing tendency, though it is far more probable that he developed and perfected it; nevertheless it was still enormously free and independent in innumerable details of a very far-reaching character, and its adherents were imbued with that spirit of research, discovery, and adaptation which ever marks a period of spiritual and intellectual life.
Thus we understand the complaint of Irenæus, who laments that he never could find two Valentinians who agreed together. And if this be so, what good is there in any longer talking of the "Valentinian system"? We know next to nothing from the Church Fathers of the "system" of Valentinus himself; as to his followers, each introduced new modifications, which we can no longer follow in the confused representations of the Church Fathers, who make them flatly contradict not only one another, but also themselves.
From The Philosophumena, published in 1851, we first heard of an Eastern and Western (Anatolic The so-called Eastern and Western Schools. and Italic) division of the school of Valentinus, thus explaining the title superscribed to the Extracts from Theodotus appended, in the only MṢ. of them we possess, to The Miscellanies of Clement of Alexandria. A great deal has been made of this; the meagre differences of doctrine of the Anatolic and Italic schools of Valentinianism indicated by Hippolytus (II.) have been seized upon by criticism, and had their backs broken by the weight of argument which has been piled upon them. But when Lipsius demonstrates that the Extracts from Theodotus, which claim in their superscription to belong to the Eastern school, are, following the indications of Hippolytus, half Eastern and half Western, the ordinary student has to hold his head tightly on to his shoulders, and abandon all hope of light from the division of Valentinianism into Anatolic and Italic schools, in the present state of our ignorance;--unless indeed we simply assume that they were originally purely geographical designations, to which in later times a doctrinal signification was unsuccessfully attempted to be given.
Although we have no sure indication of the date of Valentinus himself, it may be conjectured to extend from about A.D. 100 to A.D. 180, as will be seen later on.
Of the other leaders of the movement, the earliest with whose names we are acquainted, are Secundus The Leaders of the Movement. and Marcus. Now Marcus himself had a large
following as early as 150; his followers were not called Valentinians but Marcosians, or Marcians, and what we know of his system differs enormously from those of the rest of "them of Valentinus." Marcus is sometimes supposed to have been a contemporary of Irenæus, but this is only on the supposition that Irenæus, in using the second person in his hortatory and admonitory passages, is addressing a living person, and not employing the "thou" as a mere rhetorical effect, as Tertullian with Marcion.
Next, years later, we come to Ptolemæus, who again is supposed to have been a contemporary of Irenæus somewhere about A.D. 180.
Irenæus had certainly no personal knowledge of Ptolemæus, and dealt for the most part with his followers, who are said to have differed greatly from their teacher.
Later still is Heracleon, whom Clement (c. 193) calls the most distinguished of the disciples of Valentinus. Both Heracleon and Ptolemæus, however, are known not so much for the exposition of a system as for the exegetical treatment of scripture from the standpoint of the Gnosis of their time.
Still later, and as late as, say, about 220, Axionicus and Bardesanes flourished, the former of whom taught at Antioch, and the latter still farther east. They are therefore called, by some, heads of the Anatolic or Oriental school.
Theodotus, from whom the Excerpts appended to Clement's Miscellanies were taken, was of course far earlier in date, but of him we know nothing
[paragraph continues] We also hear of a certain Theotimus and Alexander, who are earlier than 220.
In brief, the influence of Valentinus spread far and wide, from Egypt eastwards to Syria, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia, and westwards to Rome, Gaul, and even Spain.
A short review of the teachings ascribed to these doctors of the Gnosis will bring our task to a close, The Syntheticizing of the Gnosis. as far as the indirect sources of Gnosticism for the first two centuries are concerned. But the fact we would again insist upon is, that we are face to face with a great movement and not a single system. On the one hand, such older forms of the Gnosis as had been exceedingly antagonistic to Judaism found a logical outcome in the great Marcionite movement, which cut Christianity entirely apart from Judaism; on the other, a basis of reconciliation was sought by the more moderate and mystical views of the movement now headed by Valentinus, which found room for every view in its all-embracing universality, and explained away contradictions by means of that inner secret teaching which was claimed to have come from the Saviour Himself.
The main outline of the movement of conciliation, which presumably had always been the attitude of the innermost circles, is perhaps to be most clearly seen to-day in the system of Basilides, but those infinite spaces, which either Basilides himself left unfilled, or Hippolytus (II.) has omitted to mention in his quotations, were also peopled with an infinitude of creations and creatures by the genius
of the Gnostics, who could brook no deficiency in the exposition of their universal science. Into this general outline, or one closely resembling it, they fitted the various aspects of the ancient Gnosis and the postulates of the old religions and philosophies, adopting these world-old ideas, and adapting them by the light of the new revelation, retaining sometimes the old names, more frequently inventing new ones.
This syntheticizing of the Gnosis was mainly due to the initiative of the genius of Valentinus. His technical works, as we have observed above, are said to have been most abstruse and difficult of comprehension, as well they might be from the nature of the task he attempted. What has become of these writings? No Church Father seems to have been acquainted with a single one of his technical treatises; at best we have only a few ethical fragments from letters and homilies. But what of his own followers, whom Church Fathers and critics make responsible for a certain Valentinian system of a most chaotic nature? Were they in possession of MSS. of Valentinus; or did they depend on general notions derived from his lectures? Did Valentinus work out a consistent scheme of the Gnosis; or did he set forth several alternatives, owing to the difficulty of the matter, and the innumerable points of view from which it could be envisaged? If the Pistis Sophia document and the other two Codices can be made to throw any light on the matter, it will be a precious acquisition to our knowledge of this most important epoch; if not, we must be
content to remain in the dark until some fresh document is discovered.
Meantime we must confine our attention to the certain traces of Valentinus and the general Sources of Information. movement; but before doing so, we must briefly review our authorities among the Fathers. In this review I shall mostly follow Lipsius, who is not only one of the best authorities on the subject (Art. in S. and W.'s Dict. of Christ. Biog., 1887), but who long ago inaugurated the admirable critical investigations into our Gnostic sources of information, by his analysis of The Panarion of Epiphanius.
Tertullian informs us that prior to himself no fewer than four orthodox champions had undertaken the refutation of the Valentinians: namely, Justin Martyr, Miltiades, Irenæus and the Montanist Proculus. With the exception of the five books of Irenæus, the rest of these controversial writings are lost.
Irenæus wrote his treatise somewhere about A.D. 185-195. He devotes most of his first book to the Valentinians exclusively, and isolated notices are found in the remaining four books.
Irenæus claims to have come across certain Memoranda of the Valentinians and had conversations with some of their number. But these Notes belonged only to the followers of Ptolemæus, and only one short fragment is ascribed to a writing of Ptolemæus himself. The personal conversations were also held with followers of the same teacher, presumably in the Rhone district--not
exactly a fertile soil in which to implant the abstruse tenets of the Gnosis, we should think, in spite of the "martyrs of Lyons."
In dealing with Marcus, Irenæus derived his information for the most part from the same unreliable oral communications, but he seems also to have been in possession of a Memoir of a Marcosian; Marcus himself living and working far away in Asia Minor years before.
In chapter xi. Irenæus professes to give the teaching of Valentinus himself; but here he is simply copying from the work of a prior refutator. Lipsius also points out that Irenæus drew some of his opening statements from the same source as Clement in The Excerpts from Theodotus.
From all of which it follows that we are face to face with a most provoking patch-work, and that the system of Valentinus himself is not to be found in The Refutation by the Bishop of Lyons.
Our next source of information is to be found in the Excerpts from the otherwise unknown Theodotus, which are supposed by Lipsius to have probably formed part of the first book of Clement's lost work, The Outlines. These excerpts "have been dislocated and their original coherence broken up" in so violent a manner, and so interspersed with "counter-observations and independent discussions" by Clement himself, that it is exceedingly difficult to form a judgment upon them. When, moreover, Lipsius assigns part of these extracts to the Oriental and part to the Occidental school, he practically bids us erase the superscription which
has always been associated with them--namely, Extracts from the (Books) of Theodotus and the so-called Anatolic School. In any case, we are again face to face with another patch-work.
Hippolytus (I.), in his lost Syntagma, recoverable from the epitomators Pseudo-Tertullian and Philaster, and Epiphanius, seems to have combined the first seven chapters of Irenæus with some other account, and the chaos is still further confused.
Hippolytus (II.), in that most precious of all hæresiological documents, The Philosophumena, gives an entirely independent account, in fact the most uniform and synoptical representation of any phase of the Gnosis of the Valentinian cycle that has reached us through the Fathers.
Tertullian simply copies from Irenæus, and so also for the most part does Epiphanius. The latter, however, has preserved the famous Letter of Ptolemæus to Flora, and also a list of "barbarous names" of the æons not found elsewhere. Theodoret of course simply copies Irenæus and Epiphanius.
So many, and of such a nature, then, are our indirect sources of information for an understanding of the Valentinian movement;--a sorry troop of blind guides, it must be confessed, where everything requires the greatest care and discrimination. Let us now return to Valentinus himself, and endeavour to patch together from the fragments that remain, some dim silhouette of a character that was universally acknowledged to have been the greatest among the Gnostics.