Valentinus Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111205900-Valentinus.jpg Valentinus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Roman philosopher and Gnostic{$I[g]Roman Empire;Valentinus} A second century religious genius, Valentinus synthesized concepts drawn from such disparate sources as Christian theology, rabbinic mysticism, Neopythagoreanism, Neoplatonism, Hellenistic mystery religions, and theosophy into an elaborate system of Gnostic thought that attracted large numbers of converts in the patristic period. His influence was so great that the patristic heresiologists singled him out as one of the most formidable enemies of orthodox Christianity.

Early Life

Very little is known of the early life of Valentinus (val-uhn-TI-nuhs), except that he probably was born in Lower Egypt and obtained a Greek education in Alexandria. During his stay in Alexandria, he became a Christian; according to Irenaeus and others, he was taught by Theodas, one of Apostle Paul’s students.

Some authors have suggested that Gnosticism influenced Valentinus even during these early days in Alexandria and that Theodas himself may have preached a Christian gnosis. The Gnostic stress on salvation through a secret gnosis, or transcendental knowledge, must have appealed to Valentinus, whose teachings, to the extent that they can be reconstructed from the scattered information found in writings of the church fathers who came to oppose him (and perhaps also from the Nag Hammadi papyruses), reflect an exceptionally creative mind with a strong aesthetic bent.

Life’s Work

Valentinus apparently taught in Alexandria before going to Rome during the bishopric of Hyginus (c. 136-c. 140). Tertullian states that Valentinus himself almost became bishop of Rome but withdrew in favor of a man who was later martyred (probably Pius I). In fact, Valentinus also withdrew from the Christian community, for he had become a Gnostic; soon, the Church branded him a heretic. Subsequently, Valentinus gained a considerable following—he probably established his own school—and he remained in Rome for another twenty years, after which he may have gone to Cyprus; it is possible that he stayed in Rome until his death after 160.

Valentinus’s move into Gnosticism may have been the result of a desire to go beyond the exclusivist teachings of Christianity and to integrate Jesus Christ’s teachings with contemporary Hellenistic philosophies. Valentinus’s teaching was done in the form of sermons, hymns, and psalms, as well as more formally through writing and lecturing.

Valentinian Gnosticism evolved so rapidly that it is difficult to disentangle the original Valentinian teachings from those of his disciples. Still, the Nag Hammadi works, combined with the heresiologies of the patristic writers, make it possible to describe the outlines of the Valentinian system.

As its core, it had a mythical cosmogony, offered as an explanation of the human predicament. This cosmogony was structured around “aeons”: Everything that exists is an emanation of a perfect, primordially existent aeon, which is the origin and source of being for all subsequent aeons. The term “aeon” in the Valentinian system suggests eternal existence (aei on, “always being”). This means that in terms of temporal sequence there is no difference between the One and its progeny. The difference between them is, instead, ontological: All subsequent aeons are less perfect outpourings of the One’s substance. The One is also called Proarche (First Principle), Propator (Forefather), and Buthos (Primeval Depth). The One is beyond conceptualization and is the storehouse of all perfections. In Buthos there is no difference of gender; it contains all the qualities of masculinity and femininity without distinction.

According to its inscrutable purpose, Buthos brings into being a sequence of secondary aeons. Unlike Buthos, this chain of beings is differentiated into gender pairs, or syzygies, arranged according to ontological perfection (relative perfection of being). Of these fifteen pairs, which together constitute the Pleroma (Fullness or Completion), only the first four and the last have significance in the Valentinian exposition of the ontological corruption of the universe.

The first syzygy is somewhat problematic, since Buthos transcends the qualities of masculinity and femininity yet is paired with Sige (Silence). From this first syzygy emanate Nous (Understanding) and Aletheia (Truth). From their union are produced Logos (Word) and Zoe (Life), and from the union of Logos and Zoe are produced Anthropos (Man) and Ekklesia (Church). Together, these four pairs (or two tetrads) form the Ogdoad (the Eight), from which issue the remaining eleven syzygies and, indeed, all the rest of reality.

According to the Valentinians, disharmony was introduced into reality in the following way. Of all the aeons, it was Nous who was best proportioned to understand the One and who took the greatest pleasure in this contemplation. Nous, in the abundance of his generosity, wished to share his knowledge with the other aeons, and the aeons themselves demonstrated a willingness to seek out and become more directly acquainted with the primacy and fullness of the One. Yet Nous was restrained from prematurely sharing this knowledge, for it was the desire of Buthos to lead the aeons to this awareness gradually, through steady application that might prove their worthiness. Buthos also was aware that the aeons had different capacities and therefore would have to be brought to this knowledge at different rates. The knowledge of Buthos’s purpose was passed down through the successive aeons, and all except the malcontent Sophia (Wisdom) acceded to his will.

Sophia’s desire could not be satisfied by either her station or her mate, Theletos (Will). She craved knowledge beyond her capacity: She wanted to comprehend the perfect wisdom of the Forefather. In her desire to grasp supernatural perfection, Sophia abandoned her station and stretched herself heavenward, nearly losing her distinctive character by being reabsorbed into the plentitude of the One, against its will. Alarmed by the hubris of Sophia, Buthos, in conjunction with Nous, generated Horos (the principle of limitation), who is also called Savior, One-Who-Imposes-Limitation, One-Who-Brings-Back-After-Conflict, and Cross. Horos was generated by Buthos for the purpose of restraining Sophia and stripping her of her presumptuousness. This was accomplished when Horos separated her from her passion and enthumesis (esteem, glory) and rejoined the purged Sophia to Theletos, while casting her passion in the abyss outside the Pleroma.

After the rebelliousness of Sophia was cast out, Buthos and Nous gave rise to another syzygy designed to perfect and strengthen the Pleroma. This syzygy is that of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Christ was sent to...

(The entire section is 2803 words.)