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Valentinian Scriptural Interpretation

General Principles

One of the things that is immediately apparent when reading the ancient Valentinian sources is the seemingly arbitrary scriptural interpretation. However, in her her two books on the subject, Elaine Pagels (1973, 1975) demonstrates that Valentinian Biblical interpretation is systematic.

Members of the Valentinian school rejected the way most of their contemporary Christians interpreted the Bible as being overly literal. In their view, the Bible has to be interpreted in a spiritual manner. In some cases, the literal teaching is the spiritual meaning. e.g. the Sermon on the Mount. But for other, passages, the true spiritual meaning lay hidden behind the literal text in allegorical symbols. Valentinians claimed to have the secret to unlocking this hidden spiritual meaning. They supported these conclusions by citing Jesus himself: "The knowledge about the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but to the rest it comes by means of parables so that they may look but not see and listen but not understand"(Luke 8:9-10 cf. Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:3:1). According to the Valentinian tradition, Paul and the other apostles revealed these teachings only to those who were 'spiritually mature' (1 Corinthians 2:6). They identified their own teaching with these secret teachings that Jesus taught the to the apostles.

They claimed that Valentinian tradition formed a sort of "secret key" to Biblical interpretation. As one teacher says, "The scriptures are ambiguous and the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition." (Irenaeus Against Heresies3:2:1). Only those who had received these secret apostolic teachings could correctly interpret scriptures.

In their view, the Bible and all of the events and characters within it had to be read as metaphors that pointed to a higher reality. Literalist interpretation acts as a barrier to true understanding. As on writer said, "Truth did not come into the world naked; rather it came in prototypes and images: the world will not accept it in any other form" (Gospel of Philip 67:9-12). The Gospels and all of the events described in them "are representations of ones in that other realm" (Ir1:7:2) and are "a symbol and a dispensation for the conversion and salvation of humanity" (Acts of John 102). Valentinians treated the Bible as an allegory that disclosed an inner process of redemption in metaphors.

They rejected readings of the Gospel as being consistent with the Law. Rather, in their view, the spiritual law of love supercedes the Law given in the Old Testament. They also rejected views of God as lawgiver and creator of the material world as imperfect images (see Letter to Flora). In their view, God does not reveal himself in historical events directly, but rather symbolically. Only by proper interpretation of these events does scripture become revelation to the reader.

In Valentinian theology, there are three major levels of existence: the pleroma, the kenoma and the cosmos. The pleroma (Fullness) is the spiritual realm of Aeons. The kenoma (void) is the void into which the lower Sophia was cast outside of the pleroma. The cosmos is the world created by the Craftsman (demiurge). According to Valentinian tradition, the Bible allegorically discloses the details of these three levels of existence (Pagels 1973).

The cosmic level of Biblical interpretation was made publicly available to other Christians while the kenomic and pleromic levels of interpretation were to be revealed only to those who were 'spiritually mature' (1 Corinthians 2:6). If a person was not ready to receive this level of understanding, they would seem like nonsense "because their value can be judged only on a spiritual basis" (1 Corinthians 2:14).

1. Cosmic Interpretation

Examples of writings interpreting the Bible at the cosmic level are the Fragments of Herakleon, the Letter to Flora, the Treatise on the Resurrection. The cosmic level of exegesis interpreted the Bible in terms of the three substances that make up the human personality: spirit, soul and carnal soul and the three levels of spiritual development. For example the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John was interpreted by Herakleon to represent an archetype of the people who had attained to the spiritual level. Also at the cosmic level, teachers made the distinction between the Demiurge and the true God.

Valentinians did not neglect ethical matters. They regarded the spiritual law of love fullfilled and superceded the Law in the Old Testament. The law contained in the Ten Commandments was regarded as pure but imperfect law which is fulfilled by Jesus. Other parts of the Law were interpreted allogorically. For example laws commanding fasting were interpreted to mean abstaining from sin (Letter to Flora 33:5:13-14). According to Ptolemy, unjust laws and human laws instituted by Moses and the elders were abolished by Jesus (Letter to Flora 33:4:10, 33:4:14, 33:5:1).

2. Kenomic Level

This level of interpretation deals with the fall of Sophia Achamoth outside the Pleroma, her sufferings , the descent of the Savior, the creation of the the three substances.(Irenaeus Against Heresies1:8:2, 1:8:4). Principles of interpretation at this level are discussed in Irenaeus Against Heresies1:7:3. In the Old Testament, passages are interpreted to have been spoken by Wisdom or her seed or by the Craftsman. In the Gospels, Jesus is identified with the Savior while various other figures are interpreted as allegorical representations of Wisdom (sophia) or the Craftsman (demiurge) For example the centurion in Matthew 8:9 is identified with the Craftsman (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:7:4). The sayings of Jesus are also interpreted allegorically in reference to these three figures and episodes in the myth.

3. Pleromic Interpretation

This represents the most esoteric level of interpretation. Passages within the Bible were interpreted to refer to the attributes and energies (Aeons) of the divine Fullness or Pleroma A typical example is Ptolemy's Commentary on the Prologue of John. They interpreteted references to "Beginning","Life", "Word", "Humanity", "Grace" and "Truth" in the prologue and subsequent passages to be references to the Aeons within the Pleroma. Other examples of this level of interpretation are Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:1:3, 1:3:1-2.

Multiple Interpretations

As Pagels (1973) clearly demonstrates, a given passage of scripture could be allegorically interpreted on a cosmic, kenomic or pleromic level. Thus it could receive up to three allegorical interpretations depending on which level of exegesis is being given. This can be thought of like the layers of an onion. Different layers of meaning could be found within the same passage.

To illustrate this we will consider interpretation of a single passage from prologue of the Gospel of John which was considered by Pagels. The passage in question reads "All things were made through him and without him was not anything made" (John 1:3). A cosmic or exoteric interpretation of this passage is provided in Herakleon Fragment 1 and Ptolemy's Letter to Flora 3:26. In both cases, the passage is interpreted to refer to the Savior who is the cause of the creation of all the things of this world by means of the Craftsman (demiurge).

An interpretation of the passage in terms of the kenoma (void) is given in the Excerpts of Theodotus 45:3 (cf also Ptolemy in Irenaeus Against Heresies1:4:5). Theodotus interprets this passage to refer to the Savior who by delivering the fallen Wisdom (Sophia) from her ignorance 'brings her into existence' and creates the external elements of the universe.

Finally, Ptolemy interprets the same passage in terms of the Aeons in the Fullness (pleroma) in his Commentary on the Prologue of John quoted in Irenaeus Against Heresies1:8:5 (cf also Excerpts of Theodotus 6:4). In this case, Ptolemy interprets the passage to refer to the Aeon Word (logos) who, along with his partner Life (zoe), is the one who is responsible for the creation of all subsequent Aeons

Levels of Instruction

Instruction was sharply divided into literal, exoteric (publicly available) and esoteric teachings. The literal teachings consisted of the story of literal story of Jesus in the Gospel. The publicly available or exoteric teaching consisted of Valentinian doctrine as applied to the cosmic level of existence such as teaching about resurrection, the Law, Christology, the three natures, and so on. The esoteric level of instruction consisted of theology of the pleroma, and the myth of the fall in all of its complexity.

The teacher was expected to discern the person's level of spiritual development and teach accordingly. In doing this, they believed they were following the example of Jesus. In the Acts of John, Jesus says, "I must adapt myself to your hearing and according to each person's capacity I will impart to you those things of which you can be hearers" (Acts of John 87). This is discussed in the parable of appropriate diets in the Gospel of Philip: "Bodily forms will not deceive them, rather they consider the condition of each person's soul and they speak to that person accordingly. In the world there are many animals that have human form. If the disciples of God recognize that they are hogs, they feed them acorns; if cattle, barley chaff and fodder; if dogs, bones; if slaves, a first course; if children, a complete meal" (Gospel of Philip 81:3-13). If a person was considered to be at a material level of development (i.e. "an animal") they received the literal teaching ("acorns", "chaff" and "bones") and nothing more. Critics of the Valentinians record that it was hard to get anything out of them regarding their teachings if you were perceived as hostile (e.g. Tertullian Against the Valentinians 1). Presumably the Valentinians whom they were in contact assigned them to this category! In practice, People assigned to this category would not have gone on to the higher levels of instruction.

If the person was considered to be at an psychic level (i.e. "a slave") they received the cosmic level of teaching ( "a first course"). Valentinians saw most Christians as fitting into this category. If one was in this category there was the capacity for growth as instruction was given and the person could eventually move on to the next level. If the person had progressed to a spiritual level and become a "child" they received the complete teaching. According to Tertullian, complete instruction could last as long as five years and involved rigorous self-discipline. It should be noted that all who received the esoteric teaching were bound by the "duty of Silence" not to disclose it to non-initiates (cf. Tertullian Against the Valentinians 1).

Myth and Metaphor

While Valentinians saw their own teachings and myth allegorically hidden within the Bible, this does not mean that they regarded the myth itself as literally true. Rather it as well was seen as a metaphor to describe what was essentially undescribable. According to the Gospel of Philip, "Truth did not come into the world naked; rather it came in prototypes and images: the world will not accept it in any other form" (Gospel of Philip 67:9-12). The myth was seen as an aid to understanding. The spiritual person was expected to recognize the truth hidden metaphorically within the myth.

Valentinians had a radically different aproach to scripture and doctrine than most of their "orthodox" contemporaries. Because they saw scriptures and teachings as metaphorical, they did not place any emphasis on doctrinal uniformity. The diversity of teaching within the school reflects this. Different teachers placed a different emphasis on various aspects of the myth and theology. Yet all these minor differences are simply variations on a theme.


David Dawson, 1992. Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria. Berkeley, University of California Press

Bentley Layton, 1987. The Gnostic Scriptures. Garden City, NY:Doubleday & Co.

Elaine Pagels, 1973. The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis: Heracleon's Commentary on John.Nashville and New York: AbingdonPress

Elaine Pagels, 1975. The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International



Content authored by David Brons