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The Figure of Error in the Gospel of Truth


The Gospel of Truth is one of the most important Valentinian works discovered as part of the Nag Hammadi cache. The work is not a gospel in the sense of an account of the deeds and sayings of Jesus. Instead it represents an extended homily or meditation on the gospels and on Christ. Many scholars consider it to be the work of Valentinus himself.

The opening paragraphs of the Gospel of Truth describe the primordial fall and the origin of the material universe in rather vague, euphemistic terms. This "creation tale" contains no explicit references to mythological figures familiar from other Valentinian texts (e.g. Sophia, the demiurge, etc.). However, these passages do refer to a semi-personified "error." This has led some to conclude that a some mythological figure such as the Demiurge or Sophia underlies these references to error. Other scholars have rejected such interpretations. The competing theories will be examined and evaluated on the basis of the text itself and relevant parallels from other Valentinian sources.

The Competing Interpretations

The concept of error (Greek plane) plays a central role throughout in the Gospel of Truth. In several passages near the beginning of the work, error is refered to in a semi-personfied manner. One group of scholars suggests that "error" in these opening passages of the work refers the figure of Sophia familiar from other Valentinian texts. For example Simone Petrement (1990) and Attridge and McRae (1988, p 38) both link error to Sophia. Theories identifying error with Sophia can easily be discounted. For example, later in the text error is linked to the crucifixion of Jesus (18:21-31). The text also speaks of error's destruction (26:15-32). This is at odds with any known Gnostic myth of Sophia, particularly a Valentinian one.

Another group of scholars interpret error to be a reference to the Demiurge. For example, Kurt Rudolph argues that "presumably the 'passions' are circumlocutions for things which are abundantly described in mythological terms, for example 'error' as an image of the demiurge..." (Rudolph 1983, pp. 83-84). Hans Jonas also interprets this passage in a similar manner (Jonas 1963, p. 190). As we shall see, this theory also has some insurmountable problems.

Last of all, some scholars have identified error to be a reference to the Valentinian devil (diabolos) or world-ruler (cosmocrator) (cf. Against Heresies 1:5:4). According to Helderman (1981), error "far more clearly resembles the Valentinian Kosmokrator or diabolos." The same position is also held by Menard (1972). As we shall see, this theory has some support in the Gospel of Truth as well as related texts.

Due to problems with the above theories, some have suggested that error represents various combinations of the above mythological figures. For example, David Dawson (1992) suggests that error represents both the Demiurge and Sophia! In his view, Valentinus has "simplified the Gnostic narrative by assimilating characters, replacing Ialdabaoth and Sophia with 'Error'" (Dawson 1992, p 146). This position represents something of a cheat and will not be considered separately. Many of the arguments we will consider in regards to identification of error with either figure individually also apply here.

Other scholars have cast doubt on claims that any mythological figures can be read into the text. For example, Robert Haardt argues that in the Gospel of Truth, "the Sophia myth, (and) the figure of the Demiurge, her son...are lacking..." (Haardt 1971, pp. 207-208). Bentley Layton agrees that the Gospel of Truth "makes no specific reference to the gnostic myth" (Layton 1987, p 250). Similar conclusions are also reached by Williams (1988) in her monumental work on this text. Indeed as we will demonstrate in this article, error seems to be used in the Gospel of Truth as a synonym for the familiar Valentinian concept of "lack" or "deficiency" ( Greek: hysterema).

The Origin of "Error" According to the Gospel of Truth

In order to investigate competing claims about this work, it is necessary to examine the passage in question in some detail. It is also useful to examine the passage in the context of the work as a whole. The text of the "creation" passage as translated by Layton (1987) is as follows:

Inasmuch as the entirety had searched for the one from whom they had emanated, and the entirety was inside of him -- the inconceivable uncontained, who is superior to all thought - ignorance of the Father caused agitation and fear. And the agitation grew dense like a fog, so that no one could see. Thus error found strength and labored at her matter in emptiness. Without having learned to know the truth, she took up residence in a modeled form (a material body), preparing by means of the power, in beauty, a substitute for the truth. Now to the inconceivable uncontained this was not humiliating; for the agitation and fear and the modeled form (material body) of deception were as nothing, whereas established truth is unchangeable, imperturbable, and cannot be beautified. For this reason despise error since she has no root. She dwelt in a fog as regards the Father, preparing, while she dwelt there, products and forgetfulnesses and fears, so that by them she might beguile those of the middle and take them captive. (16:31-17:36)

This so-called "creation" passage opens with a description of how all of the divine emanations ("the entirety") lie within the father yet are somehow ignorant of him. As a result they began to search for him. Their ignorance of the Father leads to "agitation and fear". In a parallel account later in the text, the author describes how the Father "was the object of fear, and disturbance and instability and indecisiveness and division, there was much futility at work among them and much empty ignorance" (29:1-8). The fall is described in similar terms in another Valentinian text: "Instead of perfection, he saw a defect; instead of unification, he saw division; instead of stability, he saw disturbances; instead of rests, tumults" (Tripartite Tractate 80:15-19). Ignorance of the Father in all cases results in "fear" as well as "agitation" or "disturbance."

The agitation resulting from the futile quest for the father is described as being "dense like a fog so no one could see" (17:11-13). Elsewhere in the text, it is described as being like when "one falls asleep and finds oneself in the midst of nightmares" (29:8-11). This "fog" results in the appearance of error or perhaps is error. Other parts of the text also describe how error arises because of ignorance of the Father. One passage describes how the Aeons "had swerved after accepting error because of the Depth of him who surrounds every way, while nothing surrounds him (i.e. the Father)" (22:20-32). According another passage, the unknowability of the Father (i.e. his "depth") led them to sin "in the midst of their error" (32:36-37). They are those "who had gone astray from the presence of certain others, who fell short of mercy, in error and bondage" (31:23-26).

Parallels with other texts

It is worthwhile comparing this description of the fall to accounts in other Valentinian works. One important difference is that in the Gospel of Truth, the Aeons as a group are described as having strayed into error. In conventional Valentinianism, only the twelfth Aeon, Sophia falls into error. For example, according to the teacher Marcus, "an error occurred in connection with the twelfth number" i.e. Sophia (Against Heresies 1:16:1). According to the account of Ptolemy, "Sophia (Wisdom), the very last and youngest of the Twelve emitted by Humanity and Truth, plunged forward and fell victim to suffering without the embrace of her consort...This suffering consisted of a search for the Father. It was her wish to grasp his greatness, which she was unable to do because she had involved herself in an impossible undertaking. And she suffered great distress owing to the greatness, depth and inscrutability of the Father and her love for him"(Against Heresies 1:2:2) It is noteworthy that just as in the Gospel of Truth, the catalyst for the fall is the "search for the Father." The Aeons are assumed to be ignorant of the Father and it is their misguided wish to understand him that leads to disaster. In Ptolemy's account, Sophia's ignorance of the Father leads to "suffering." Similarly, the ignorance of Aeons in the Gospel of Truth leads to "agitation and fear." Sophia's suffering is regarded by Ptolemy as the origin of matter.

The account in the Tripartite Tractate (74:18f) is also extrememly relevant here. The Tripartite Tractate similarly describes how the Logos (i.e. Sophia) fails in his quest to find the Father. According to this text, the Sophia-Logos "did not reach the attainment of the glories of the Father, the one whose exalted status is among things unlimited. This one did not attain him." Instead, the Sophia-Logos brought forth "that which was deficient in itself" corresponding to the sufferings described by Ptolemy. This took the form of a false reality in the form of "likenesses, copies, shadows, and phantasms, lacking reason and the light, these which belong to the vain thought, since they are not products of anything." The Tripartite Tractate goes on to describe how "the Logos (i.e. Sophia) was a cause of those who came into being and he continued all the more to be at a loss and he was astonished. Instead of perfection, he saw a defect; instead of unification, he saw division; instead of stability, he saw disturbances; instead of rests, tumults. Neither was it possible for him to make them cease from loving disturbance, nor was it possible for him to destroy it. He was completely powerless, once his totality and his exaltation abandoned him" What is noteworthy is that in the Tripartite Tractate as in the Gospel of Truth, the fall results in "disturbances" and "tumults" which have an energy and a false reality of their own. This false reality belongs to the Sophia-Logos' "vain thought" or "arrogance" much as the false reality in the Gospel of Truth belongs to the "error" of the Aeons. This primordial chaos corresponds to matter which according to the Tripartite Tractate was later formed into the visible world by the Demiurge.

Is "error" the Demiurge?

Is it possible that "error" in the Gospel of Truth represents a direct reference to the Demiurge? It is clear that error is closely associated in some manner with matter. According to the text in the Gospel of Truth, error "labored at her matter in emptiness"(17:15-16). However, it is far from clear that this refers to the formation of the material world by the Demiurge. It could instead refer to the generation of matter itself. According to other Valentinian accounts, matter is generated when Sophia fall into a state of deficiency before the Demiurge even appears on the scene. It is just as credible to relate this passage to that event as it is to the subsequent shaping of matter into the world by the Demiurge.

The following sentence describes how error "took up residence in a modeled form"(17:17). The use of the term "modeled form" (plasma) seems to indicate that the passage is a reference to Adam. According to Bentley Layton's (1987) notes on his translation of the text, the term modelled form is "Jewish and Christian jargon for the human body, based on the fact that the creator modeled Adam out of earth." Thus, according to the text, error itself is present within Adam's body!

This passage presents a major stumbling block to the theory that error is the Demiurge. In authentic accounts of the Demiurge, he is described as creating Adam's "modeled form" (e.g. Reality of the Rulers 87:26-88:3). Here, rather than creating the "modeled form," error is instead is described as taking up residence in it! This is at odds with the role played by the Demiurge in Gnosticism in general and Valentinianism in particular i.e. creation of Adam's body.

The only way to maintain the theory that error is the Demiurge is to reject Layton's translation of this passage. However, three of the four major translations of this text phrase this sentence in a very similar manner to Layton (Grant 1961 pp. 146-161 and Foerster 1974 pp. 53-70). This leaves the Demiurge theory in very serious trouble (despite all the arm-waving by some on Usenet).

"Error" as lack

A less simplistic but ultimately more satisfying explanation is possible. Helderman (1981) argues that error represents the "state of consciousness of the Aeons/Pneumatics." A similar interpretation is also advocated by Bentley Layton (1987). He argues that in the Gospel of Truth, "the figures and events of myth are psychological." Stevan Davies (1989) similarly argues that while error is in reality present in the minds of the Aeons, they falsely perceive it as external to themselves much as they falsely perceive a material creation external to themselves. It is an "illusory self" which is "projected out and externalized" when in truth there is no reality outside of the self (Davies 1989). These three scholars agree that to the extent that error can be seen as a mythological figure, it should be understood as the psychological force which is active in the fallen Aeons. This has strong support in the text. The fallen Aeons are those who had "swerved after accepting error" (22:20) and who sinned "in the midst of their error" (32:36-37).

In other Valentinian texts, this psychological force acting within the fallen Aeon Sophia is ussually termed "lack" or "deficiency" (Greek hysterema). In a few cases it is termed "error" (e.g. Against Heresies 1:16:1). Valentinians identify lack with matter and the material body and argue that lack is destroyed by the advent of gnosis.

It is our contention that "error" is simply a synonym for "lack". This would not be surprising considering the similarity in meaning between the two terms. A strong case can be made for this interpretation if it can be shown that:

  1. the terms "error" and "lack" are used interchangeably in the Gospel of Truth

  2. error (like lack) is closely identified with matter and the physical body

  3. error (like lack) is destroyed by the advent of gnosis (or truth)

This theory has strong support within the text itself. Error is the state into which the straying Aeons have fallen. They have "swerved after accepting error" (22:20-32). They are the ones who "sinned in the midst of their error" (32:36-37). They are those "who had gone astray from the presence of certain others, who fell short of mercy, in error and bondage" (31:23-26). The fact that at times error is semi-personified does not necessitate reading a mythological entity such as the Demiurge into the text. Personified "error" can simply be seen as a metaphor for (non-personified) error or deficiency. Such a personification of "error" or "foolishness" is a common metaphor in ancient writings (see Helderman 1981). In almost every case, it is contrasted with "truth" or "wisdom." That's exactly what we see here. Error acts "without having learned to know the truth" (17:18) and represents a "substitute for the truth"(17:20).

The identity of lack and error is supported in many passages where the two seem to be used interchangeably. Error arises because the Aeons did not know the Father. They "accepted error" because of the Father's "depth" i.e. his unknowability (22:20f). Similarly , "lack came into being because the Father was not known" (24:28-32). Both "error" and "lack" are described as coming into being because the Aeons did not know the Father. Surely this is no coincidence.

According to the "creation tale," the material realm is in some manner is intimately associated with error. According to the text, it is "her (i.e. error's) matter" (17:16f). Elsewhere the text describes how "the realm of appearance which belongs to the lack is the world" (24:22-24). Thus the material realm is said to belong to both error and lack further supporting the hypothesis that the two are interchangeable. There is further confirmation of this from elsewhere in the text. According to one passage, "the lack belonging to the realm of matter did not result from the infinity of the Father...rather the Father's Depth is immense and it is not with him that the thought of error resides"(35:8-18). Note that the "lack belonging to the realm of matter" is described as the "thought of error." Again note the intimate association of matter, error and lack. In a notable parallel, the teacher Theodotus speaks of the realm of matter as "the thought of the deficiency" (Excepts of Theodotus 22:7). As is normal in Valentinian thought, the Gospel of Truth describes an intimate association between matter and lack. What is is noteworthy that the same intimate relationship is said to exist between matter and error.

According Valentinian myth, the lack expresses itself as the negative emotional states (sufferings) experienced by the fallen Aeon Sophia such as grief, fear and confusion. These negative emotional states are the origin of matter. In the Gospel of Truth, error is similarly said to produce negative emotional states such as "forgetfulness", "fear" and "agitation" in those subject to it. As in other Valentinian texts, these mental states seem to be the basis of matter. As the text says, these emotional states became solidified into matter when "the agitation grew dense like a fog, so that no one could see" (17:11-12). As discussed above, the sentence that describes how "error found strength and labored at her matter in emptiness" (17:14-16) can thus be understood to refer to the creation of matter itself. Error/lack both creates and is matter.

The presence of error within Adam's material body (i.e. modeled form") is not difficult to explain in light of this theory. In a parallel account of the creation of Adam's body, Valentinus describes "the lack (hysterema) within the act of modeling" of Adam (Valentinus Fragment 5/D). Like error, "lack" is said to be present within Adam's "modeled form." The close identity of the fallen state ("lack" or "error") with matter is typical of Valentinianism. The "error" or "lack" present in the modeled form is simply matter itself. The teacher Herakleon similarly describes the material body as "the deep matter (hyle) of error" (Herakleon Fragment 23). Another source describes how "mankind were involved in great ignorance and error" which can be seen as matter itself (Against Heresies 1:15:2).

The line where "error" is said to "beguile those of the middle and take them captive" (17:34-36) also provides further evidence that the Demiurge theory is incorrect. In Valentinian jargon, "those of the middle" refers to ordinary Christians i.e. those who are already subject to the Demiurge (Layton 1987, Against Heresies 1:8:3). The Demiurge would have no need to take captive those who are already subject to him. A simple explanation is possible. The presence of error or deficiency within Adam and his descendants (i.e. "those of the middle") results in "products and forgetfulnesses and fears" which may "take them captive."

The Gospel of Philip contains a significant parallel here. That work describes how ignorance is the "root of evil which is within" each of us (Gospel of Philip 83:19-20). According to this text, "if we are ignorant of it, it takes root in us and produces its fruit in our heart. It dominates us; we are its slaves. It takes us captive, so that we do things that we do not want; and do not do the things we want. And it grows powerful because we do not recognize it." (Gospel of Philip 83:24-28). Like error, ignorance is the root of evil that resides within us. And like error, it "grows powerful" and "takes us captive" if we are ignorant of it.

In his study of the Gospel of Truth, Jan Helderman (1981) suggests that if it is necessary to identify error with a Valentinian theological figure, a far better candidate than the Demiurge is the Valentinian devil or "ruler of the world" (cf. Against Heresies 1:5:4). Like error, the devil (diabolos, literally "deceiver") is the personification of matter and ignorance. The Gospel of Truth does mention the devil using terms that closely resemble those applied elsewhere to error. Near the end of the Gospel of Truth, the author advises the elect: "Do not become a (dwelling) place of the devil, for you have already brought him to nothing" (33:19-22). The author cautions the elect who have already purged themselves of error against again becoming a dwelling place of "the devil." Note that the text assumes that fallen human beings are a dwelling place for "the devil." This can be brought into connection with claims that error resides in the modeled form of fallen human beings.

This connection between the devil and error is supported by Valentinus' disciple Herakleon. According to him, "the devil has no will, but only desires...his nature is not of the Truth, but the opposite to the Truth: error and ignorance. Therefore he can neither stand in Truth, nor have the Truth in himself. From his nature he has falsehood as his own, and by nature he can never speak the Truth. Not only is he himself a liar, but he is also falsehood's father. His 'father' means his nature, since it is composed of error and falsehood" (Herakleon Fragment 46-47). It is noteworthy that Herakleon explicitly identifies the devil but not the Demiurge with error.

Error is described in the Gospel of Truth as contemptible because it has "no root"(17:29-30). In this work, rootlessness is related to impermanence. In the view of the author, "what has no root also has no fruit: truly, although it may think to itself 'I have come into being,' next it will wither of its own accord" (28:16-23) Only things that have a root in the Father are permanent and bear "fruit". All else is ultimately "empty" i.e. it has no true existence.

Forgetfulness and the Downfall of Error

The passage following the "creation tale" is also of some interest. It concerns error and its ultimate downfall through the activity of Christ:

The forgetfulness which belongs to error is not apparent. It is not [...] with the Father. It was not in the Father's company that forgetfulness arose, and surely then not because of him! Rather, what comes into being within him is acquaintance, which appeared so that forgetfulness might perish and the Father might come to be known. Inasmuch as forgetfulness arose because the Father was unknown, from the moment the Father comes to be known, there will no longer be forgetfulness. It is to the perfect that this, the proclamation of the one they search for has made itself known, through the mercies of the Father. By this the hidden mystery Jesus Christ shed light on those who were, because of forgetfulness, in darkness. He enlightened them and gave them a way, and the way is the truth, about which he instructed them. For this reason, error became angry at him and persecuted him. She was constrained by him and became inactive. He was nailed to a tree and became the fruit of the Father's acquaintance. Yet it did not cause ruin because it was eaten. Rather, to those who ate of it, it gave the possibility that whoever he discovered within himself might be joyful in the discovery of him. (17:36-18:31)

Like lack, forgetfulness, seems to be used more or less interchangeably with error. The first paragraph of this passage includes a retelling of the myth of the fall. However, instead of error, the text describes how "forgetfulness" arose "because the Father was not known." (18:8-10) In a related passage, a "modeled form" is attributed to forgetfulness (21:34-37). It seems natural to connect the modeled form of forgetfulness with that attributed to error above (17:17).

The sentence describing the dissolution of forgetfulness has a very close parallel elsewhere in the text. The dissolution of lack is described using almost the same words: "Inasmuch as the lack came into being because the Father was not known, from the moment the Father is known the lack will not exist." (24:28-32). In a related passage discussed previously, the text describes how those who remain in ignorance are the "modeled form" of forgetfulness which will perish along with it (21:34-37).

The second paragraph begins with an account of how Christ "shed light on those who were, because of forgetfulness, in darkness" (18:17-20). He gives them "a way" which is the truth. This can be related to a passage which occurs shortly after this one. It describes how Christ "has brought many back from error, going before them unto their ways from which they had swerved after accepting error because of the Depth of him who surrounds every way, while nothing surrounds him (i.e. the Father)" (22:20-32) Those who have fallen have strayed from the way of the truth because they have "accepted error" in their search for the one "who surrounds every way." Note that error is not a personification in this passage. As in the creation account above, error arises because of the ignorance of the Aeons. It represents the fallen state into which the Aeons have strayed because of their search for the Father.

The text ascribes the persecution and crucifixion of Jesus by the Roman authorities to error. According to the text, "error became angry at him and persecuted him"(18:16-18). Similarly, the Tripartite Tractate describes how those "who are from the order of the 'left' have a path to error: not only did they deny the Lord and plot evil against him, but also toward the Church did they direct their hatred and envy and jealousy" (Tripartite Tractate 122:2-9). Once again it is "error," or rather, those on the "path to error" who are held responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Gospel of Truth goes on to compare the cross to the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In contrast to the tree in the Garden of Eden, the cross bears the "fruit of the Father's acquaintance" (i.e. Christ) which gives the discovery of the Father to those who eat of it (18:24-31). The original tree resulted in error taking up residence in those who ate of it while the new tree brings truth and acquaintance (gnosis).

The passage describes how as a result of the truth brought by Christ, error was "constrained by him and became inactive." (1822-23). A more detailed account of the dissolution of error occurs later in the text. It would be useful to examine it at this point:

All the ways moved and were disturbed, for they had neither basis nor stability; and error became excited, not knowing what to do; she was troubled, mourned, and cried out that she understood nothing, inasmuch as acquaintance, which meant the destruction of her and all her emanations had drawn near to her. Error is empty, with nothing inside of her. Truth came forward, all its emanations recognized it and they saluted the Father in truth and power so perfect that it set them in harmony with the Father. (26:15-32)

This passage can be related to the passage discussed above. Error's anger is related to the fear that the advent of the truth brought by Christ will bring about its destruction. The language used here to describe error has some close parallels in accounts of the fallen spiritual element. According to those accounts, the fallen spiritual element like error "understood nothing..." (AH 1:4:1). As a result of the fall of the spiritual element into deficiency, "she suffered grief because she had not understood, fear lest life leave her as light had; uncertainty at all of these; and everything in lack of acquaintance" (AH 1:4:1). Error is not identical with the fallen spiritual element. To the contrary, the fallen spiritual element which has "accepted error" experiences lack of understanding and emotional turmoil as a result. As described elsewhere, "the Father's Depth is immense and it is not with him that the thought of error resides. It (the thought of error) is a fallen thing that can easily be made upright through the discovery of him who came to that which he would bring back" (35:14-21)

The passage describes error as "empty". Elsewhere error is said to be active in "emptiness" (17:17). The appearance of Truth which is fullness (pleroma) results in the dissolution of error and her "emanations" (i.e. matter). This passage can be brought into close connection with the passages where the related abstractions of forgetfulness and lack are said to cease to exist when the Father become known (18:7-10, 24:28-32). Similarly the Devil is "brought to nothing" by those who have gnosis (33:19-22).

Freed from error, the emanations of Truth are set in "harmony with the Father."(26:32). They are also freed of matter which is destroyed along with error. Like error, matter is ultimately "empty" or unreal with "nothing inside of it" (26:26-27).The text describes how matter is destroyed by gnosis: "all will purify themselves out of multiplicity into unity, consuming matter within themselves as fire, and darkness by light and death by life " (25:13-18). Matter, like error, simply goes up in a puff of smoke like a bad dream in the presence of truth and gnosis.


In conclusion, it seems apparent that the terms error, lack, and forgetfulness are used more or less interchangeably in this text. The text describes how the spiritual emanations or Aeons are initially in ignorance about the Father. They attempted to search for their origin but this only led them to fall into lack/error/forgetfulness. Error/lack/forgetfulness is essentially identical with matter and the "realm of appearance." The Father is eventually made known through the intercession of the Son. From the moment the truth becomes known, error/lack/forgetfulness ceases to exist. In addition, the "form" of lack/error/forgetfulness i.e. matter and the material body is also destroyed.

Using constantly shifting metaphors, the Gospel of Truth describes a myth of how the spiritual element falls into error and is eventually restored to gnosis by Christ. However, the mythological figures familiar from other Valentinian texts are wholly absent in this text. Instead, as Bentley Layton puts it, in the Gospel of Truth, "the figures and events of myth are psychological . . . the underlying dynamic of Gnostic myth (fullness--lack--recapture of the lacked) is reapplied microcosmically, at the level of the individual Christian." (Layton 1987, pp250-251). Valentinus describes what he regards as the essential features of his teachings without clothing them in the mythological language he and his followers often used.


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Content authored by David Brons