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Pistis Sophia: The Books of the Savior

An Introduction by G.R.S. Mead

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Arhcive Notes

The following introductory comments are extracted from G.R.S. Mead, Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Gospel, pp. xxxix - l. It should be remember that this introduction was written in 1921, decades before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, and at a time when the Pistis Sophia was one of the most important and largest collections of Gnostic material available to scholars.  Note that the complete 1921 edition of Pistis Sophia translated by G.R.S. Mead is now available in our library.


An Excerpt from the Introduction to Pistis Sophia

by G.R.S. Mead

We have in the contents of the Askew, Bruce and Berlin Codices a rich material which hands on to us valuable direct information concerning what I have called 'The Gnosis according to its Friends,' in distinction from what previously used to be our only sources, the polemical writings of the heresiological Fathers, which set forth 'The Gnosis according to its Foes.' We have thus at last a new standpoint from which to review the subject, and therewith the opportunity of revising our impressions in a number of respects; a considerably different angle of vision must needs change the perspective of no little in the picture.

The chief business or interest of the orthodox Fathers was to select and stress what appeared to them to be the most bizarre points and elements, all that was most absurd in their judgment, in the many Gnostic systems, and of course, and rightly, everything that could be thought to be ethically reprehensible. Good, bad and indifferent were only too frequently lumped together. It was of no interest to this polemic to mention similarities in belief and practice between the heretics and their opponents, to dwell on the lofty faith of numbers of these Gnostics in the transcendent excellence and overmastering glory of the Savior or on many signs of spiritual inwardness, and especially of high virtue, in which they were at the least not less scrupulous than their critics. Doubtless there were sects and groups whose tenets were absurd at any valuation, and some whose laxity of ethics demanded severe reprobation. But the majority could not be accused on the score of moral delinquency, indeed no few were rigidly ascetic; and some of their speculations again have a sublimity of their own, and in a number of cases anticipated Catholic dogma. If we turn to our direct sources in Coptic translation, we find that the ethic is admirable, even if we are averse from over-asceticism in the religious life, and that their whole-souled devotion to and worship of the Saviour is unbounded.

It is no part of the plan of this translation to attempt anything in the nature of a commentary. That would mean a second volume, and would in any case be an unsatisfactory performance; for much would still remain obscure, even if every ray of light shed on this or that special point by those who have most deeply studied the subject, were gathered together. One or two very general remarks, however, may be ventured.

u In the P.S. Jesus is everywhere pre-eminent and central. He is here revealed as Saviour and First Mystery, who knows all and unveils all, infinite in compassion. As such he is pre-existent from eternity, and his ministry is not only earthly, but cosmic and supercosmic; indeed, it is the chief feature in the divine economy. Yet nowhere is he called the Christ. If this is intentional, no reason seems to be assignable for such an abstention. There is no sign of antagonism to Judaism or to the O.T. On the contrary, the psalms and other utterances which are quoted, are validated by the theory that it was the Power of the Saviour which 80 prophesied of old through the mouth of a David, a Solomon, or an Isaiah.

The whole setting is post-resurrectional. In Div v. i.-iii Jesus has already, for eleven years after the crucifixion, been instructing his disciples, men and women, in the Gnosis. The scene now depicts the disciples as gathered round the Saviour on the Mount of Olives on earth. The range and scope of this prior teaching may be seen in Div. iv., where the introductory words speak of it as taking place simply after the crucifixion. In this stratum the scene is different. The sacramental rite is solemnized on earth; it takes place, however, on the Mount of Galilee and not on the Mount of Olives. But the scene is not confined to earth only, for the disciples are also taken into some of the regions of the invisible world, above and below, have vision there conferred upon them, and are instructed on its meaning. Now in Div v. i.-iii. Jesus promises to take the disciples into the spheres and heavens for the direct showing of the nature and quality and inhabitants, but there is no fulfillment of this promise in the excerpts we have from ' The Books of the savior.' It is not to be supposed, however, that Div. iv. is part of the fulfillment of the high promise made in the prior extracts; for in it we move in an earlier phase of the instruction and in an atmosphere of lesser mysteries than those indicated in the preceding part.

Div v. i.-iii. throughout proclaim the revelation of higher mysteries. This is only now made possible by the supremely joyous fact that in the twelfth year of the inner-teaching-ministry a great, If not supreme, moment in the life of the Saviour has been accomplished; his earthly ministry is now achieved, and he is invested with the full radiance of his triple robe of glory, which embraces the whole powers of the universe. He ascends into heaven in dazzling light which blinds the disciples. After thirty hours he returns again, and in compassion withdraws his blinding splendour, 60 as to give his final teaching to his faithful in his familiar form. This means that ' The Books of the Saviour' purport to contain not only a post-resurrectional teaching, and therefore a Gnostic revelation supplementary to the public preaching before the crucifixion, but also a still higher and more intimate unveiling within the post-resurrectional instruction already current in the tradition. If there had been apocalyptic elements and visions in the prior literature, there were to be still more transcendental revelations now on the completion of the ministry. Until the investiture, or rather reinvestiture, had taken place according to the divine command, it had not been possible for the Saviour to speak in utter openness face to face on all things; now it is possible. Such is the convention.

In Div v. i.-iii. there is presupposed throughout a system of eons and the rest, which is already highly complex and shows manifest signs of consisting of stage once severally at the summit of earlier systems, but now successively subordinated. It is clear then that, if still loftier hierarchies are to be brought on to the stage, it can only be by again reducing what had previously been regarded as 'the end of all ends ' to a subordinate position. This is the method adopted, and we lose ourselves in the recital of the designations and attributes of ever more transcendental beings and spaces and mysteries.

In all of this, however, there is no sign of interest in metaphysical speculation; there is no philosophizing.. It is then not any element of Hellenic thought proper in the aeonology, which is said to have been so strongly the case with the teaching of Valentinus himself, that has led so many to conjecture a Valentinian derivation. It is rather the long episode of the sorrowing Sophia which has influenced them. This episode reflects on a lower level of the cosmic scale somewhat of the motif of the ' tragic myth' of the world-soul the invention of which is generally ascribed to Valentinus himself, though he may possibly have transformed or worked up already existing materials or notions. It is this long Sophia episode and its skillfully inverted mystical exegesis and allegorical interpretation, following the method developed by Alexandrine contemplatives which has produced the impression on many that it was of fundamental importance for the system of the P.S.

It is certainly an indication of the deep interest of the circle in repentance and the penitential psalms. But the interest is here ethical rather than cosmological. Pistis Sophia would seem ~o be intended to represent the type of the faithful repentant individual soul. Throughout, the chief interest is in salvation and redemption. This i8 to be acquired by repentance and by renunciation of the world, its lures and cares, but above all by faith in the Saviour, the Divine Light, and his mysteries. The first requisite is sincere repentance. The chief topic round which all the ethical teaching naturally centres, is sin, its cause and its purification, and the revelation of the mystery of the forgiveness of sins and of the infinite compassion of the First Mystery. Though there i8 very much also concerning the complex schematology of the invisible worlds and the hierarchies of being, much concerning the soul and its origin, of how it comes to birth and departs from earth-life, much of the light-power, the spiritual element in man,-all is subordinated to the ethical interest in the first place, and in the second to the efficacy of the high mysteries of salvation.

The whole is set forth in terms of these mysteries, which are now conceived in a far more vital way than was apparently the case in the earlier literature. On the lower side the mysteries still in some respects keep in touch with the tradition of words-of-power, authentic and incorruptible names, and so forth, though there is little of this specifically in Div v. i.-iii. But it is evidently intended that the higher mysteries should now be conceived in the light of the fact that the Saviour himself is in himself concretely the First Mystery and indeed the Last Mystery, and that -the mysteries are not so much spiritual powers as substantive beings of transcendent excellence The light-robe is a mystery of mysteries, and they who have received of the high mysteries become light-streams in passing from the body. The mysteries are closely intertwined with the lore of the glory and its modes.

One of the main elements in the lower schematology isthe ancient astral lore, those ground-conceptions of sidereal religion which dominated the thought of the times and upheld their sway directly and indirectly for long centuries after. But here again our Gnostic, while retaining the schematology for certain purposes, placed it low in the scale. Moreover, while not denying that previously there was truth even in the astrological art, they reduced the chances of the horoscope-casters to zero, by declaring that the Saviour in the accomplishment of his cosmic ministry had now drastically changed the revolution of the spheres, so that henceforth no calculations could be counted on; these were now of no more value than the spinning of a coin.

Our Gnostics were also tranmigrationists ; transcorporation formed an integral part of their system. They found no difficulty in fitting it into their plan of salvation, which show no sign of the expectation of an immediate end of all things -that prime article of faith of the earliest days. So far from thinking that reincarnation is alien to gospel-teaching, they elaborately interpret certain of the most striking sayings in this sense, and give graphic details of how Jesus, as the First Mystery, brought to rebirth the souls of John the Baptizer and of the disciples, and supervised the economy of his own incarnation. In this respect the P.S. offers richer material for those interested in this ancient and widespread doctrine than can be found in any other old-world document in the West.

A far more distressingly puzzling immixture is the element of magic. In Div. iv. especially there are invocations and many names which resemble those found in the Greek magical papyri and other scattered sources. But no one has so far thrown any clear light on this most difficult subject of research in general, much less on its relation to the P.S. It is evident that the writers of Div. iv. and of the first treatise of the Bruce Codex set a high value on such formula and on authentic names; nor are these entirely absent from the excerpts from 'The Books of the Saviour' as witness the five words written on the lightrobe. Our Gnostics unquestionably believed in a high magic, and were not averse from finding in what was presumably its most reputable tradition, material which they considered to be germane to their purpose. In this tradition there must have been a supreme personage possessing characteristics that could be brought into close connection with their ideal of the Saviour, for they equate a certain Aberamentho with him. The name occurs once or twice elsewhere; but who or what it suggested, we do not know. In any case, as they utilized and attempted to sublimate so much else which was considered by many in those days to be most venerable, in order that they might the more extend and exalt the glory of the Saviour and take up into it what they considered the best of everything, so did they with what was presumably the highest they could find in the hoary tradition of magical power, which had enjoyed empery for so long in the antique world and still continued to maintain itself even in religio-philosophical circles, where we should, from the modern standpoint, least expect to find it.

As to the setting of the narrative,-if we had not such an abundance of instances of pseudohistoric and pseudo-epigraphic scripture-writing, if this were not, so to speak, the commonplace, not only of apocryphal and apocalyptic literature, but also of no little that falls within the borders of canonical sanction, we might be more surprised than we are at the form in which the composers or compilers have framed their work. It is clear that they loved and worshipped Jesus with an ecstasy of devotion and exaltation; they do not fall short in this of the greatest of his lovers. What sort of authority, then, could they have Supposed they had for conceiving the setting of their narrative in the way they have ?

Objective physical history, in the rigid sense in which we understand it to-day, was of secondary interest to them, to say the least; indeed, it was apparently of little moment to the Gnostics of any school, and their opponents were not infrequently rowing in the same boat. The Gnostics were, however, less disingenuous; they strenuously declared their belief in continued revelation, they delighted in apocalyptic and in psychic story. The belief in a post-resurrectional teaching had doubtless existed for long in many forms in Gnostic circles. It must have been widespread; for, as shown by Schmidt quite recently (Bib. 59), a (Catholic writer in Asia Minor found himself compelled to steal the fire of the Gnostics and adopt the same convention in an orthodox document that was intended to be a polemic against Gnostic ideas, somewhere in the 3rd quarter of the 2nd century. However they arrived at their conviction, it seems highly probable that the writers of the P.S. must have sincerely believed they had high authority for their proceeding, and were in some way emboldened by ' inspiration ' to carry out their task. As far as they were concerned, they do not by any means seem conscious of belonging to a decadent movement or of deterioration in the quality of the ideas they were attempting to set forth, as so many modern critics would have it. On the contrary, they thought they were depositories or recipients of profound mysteries never hitherto revealed, and that by a knowledge of these mysteries they could the more efficiently evangelize the world.

It is evident, however, that the P.S. was never intended to be circulated as a public gospel. Certain things are to be preached or proclaimed to the world, but only certain things. Certain mysteries, again, the recipients were to bestow under certain conditions, but others were to be reserved. The ' Books of the Saviour ' are, therefore, to be regarded as apocrypha in the original sense of the word-that is, ' withdrawn ' or ' reserved ' writings. As such they fell within the proscriptions of artificial secrecy common to all the initiatory institutions of the time and of all time. And artificial secrecy can with difficulty, if ever, avoid the moral and intellectual hazard of its innate obscurations. The P.S. was intended for already initiated disciples, for chosen learners, though ~o pledge of secrecy is mentioned. It was intended, above all, for would-be apostles, for those who should go forth to proclaim what was for them the best of good news; it is clearly the inner instruction of a zealously propagandist sect.

If ' The Books of the Saviour ' in their full original form - for in the extant P.S. we have but selections from them and the formula of the higher mysteries are omitted,-and if what is given of the lower mysteries in Div. iv. were held back from public perusal owing partly at least to the fear of the unworthy making improper use of them, there is little danger to-day on this score, for this part of the miscellany remains so far the most securely incomprehensible. And indeed no little else remains obscure, even when we are of those who have made a protracted study of the psychical elements in mysticism and of the general psychology of religious experience. But there is much also in our codex which has a charm of its own. There are things of rare, if exotic, beauty, things of profound ethical significance, things of delicate spiritual texture.

In any case, however all these very various elements and features in the syncretism be judged and evaluated, the Pistis Sophia is unquestionably a document of the first importance, not only for the history of Christianized Gnosticism, but also for the history of the development of religion in the West.


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