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Pheme Perkins

ABSTRACT: "IDENTIFICATION WITH THE SAVIOR IN COPTIC TEXTS FROM NAG HAMMADI"

Pheme Perkins

Ireneus correctly recognised that his gnostic opponents did not consider Jesus other than the spiritually enlightened gnostic. The spiritual ambition to identification with the Saviour and even the multiplicity of saviour figures which Ireneus mocked are fundamental elements across the spectrum of gnostic traditions. So is the desire for knowledge of the essence of the Unknowable reaches of the divine and of the self against which _Silv._ -- and several centuries before, the author of Colossians -- cautions. Worship is not foreign to the gnostic modes of salvific identification with the Savior or with angelic powers which enable the soul to enter and stand in the heavenly realm. But Jesus is not the object of cultic veneration. Gnostics may seek to realize in themselves the core of heavenly Wisdom or the seed of the heavenly Seth which the RedeemerÕs appearance as Jesus makes possible. Images of incorporation, mingling with the spiritual power of the Saviour through drinking or eating appear in _Gos. Truth_ and _Gos. Thom._ The sacramental catechesis in _Gos. Phil._ insists that its rites transform the initiate into Christ in contrast to those of conventional Christians which merely lend the name Christian at interest. In other gnostic traditions, such as _Gos. Egypt_, baptism and sealing rituals provide the context for identification of the self with higher, heavenly powers. Ecstatic prayer formulae addressed to those powers form part of the ritual. Consequently, whatever heavenly figure is reflected in Jesus may be invoked.

The gnostic preoccupation with rendering the soul immutable, invulnerable to attacks of the powers or the chaotic passions motivates the desire to be transformed by identification with powers of the superior, heavenly regions. Such beings cannot descend into the material world directly, hence the elaborate levels of images, reflections and shadows used to translate the highest spiritual realities down into this world. The system in _Tri. Trac._ was so complex that an extended salvific history attached to the Pleroma of the lower Logos before the redemption of humans was even mentioned.

Since a common assumption in the various forms of ritual transformation is redemption involves seeing the divine as it really is -- a considerable feat given the structure of the gnostic cosmos, gnostic adaptations of apocalyptic and Platonic traditions concerning the ascent of the soul provide a natural development. In Sethian circles the baptismal tradition of identification with the seed of the heavenly Seth sown in this world by Jesus (_Gos. Egypt_) has been recast in the complex ascent of the soul to a vision of the highest reality of the divine in _Zostr._ Baptisms and anointing take place at the various levels of the angelic hierarchy since the soul must be transformed at each level in order to receive the appropriate knowledge. A polemical note against baptism with death at the tractÕs conclusion could be directed against Pauline baptismal traditions or perhaps even a gnostic sacramentalism like _Gos. Phil._ which finds some foundation for its practices in the words and deeds of Jesus. _Allog._ and _3 St. Seth_ focus on ascent to a vision of the divine at the highest level of reality. _ 3 St. Seth_ may have incorporated communal prayer formulae. _Allog._ like _Zostr._ presumes that angelic assistance and extensive preparation in ascent and transformation in the lower regions is required before the soul can stand stable, without distraction or searching intellection in the Existence in order to be instructed about the paradoxical and finally unknowable nature of the One. A gnostic ascetic engaged on such a quest would hardly be satisfied with the wisdom exhortation in _Silv._ that urges abandoning the quest to know what is unknowable and conquer the passions through the indwelling assistance of Christ, the Logos, Wisdom, Demon-fighter. To the gnostic visionary such a Ònothing but Christ,Ó even with the Father and Spirit, must seem a quite impoverished inner world.


Summary of response by April De Conick:

The major difficulty with this paper arises from the title, which implies that we can learn something about Gnosticism by studying the Nag Hammadi texts together. We must be wary of the assumption that these texts somehow inherently interpret each other. Thirteen codices were found in an earthen jar in the Egyptian desert. We don't know whose they were, where they were from, or who was reading them. We don't know why they ended up all together in that jar. A variety of genres are represented: prayers, liturgies, theological treatises, sayings collections, dialogues, sermons, letters, apocalypses both with and without heavenly tours, acts, poems, and fragments of Greek literature. Furthermore, the diversity in theological positions is staggering. These include: Valentinian Gnosticism, Sethian and Christian Sethian Gnosticism, Undetermined Gnostic Traditions, Christian Thomas Tradition, Undetermined Christian Traditions, Hermeticism, and Greek Traditions. Even though the Nag Hammadi collection contains some Gnostic writings, it is NOT a conscious Gnostic collection.

This fact has important implications for Professor Perkins's paper. It might be better renamed, "Identification with the Savior in Valentinian and Sethian Gnosticism" and reworked accordingly, with attention to the differences between these two traditions. Such a restructured study would require a substantially different conclusion from "Jesus is not the object of cultic veneration," which is true of Sethianism, but not of the Valentinian tradition. In the latter, Jesus is the object of cultic veneration, as is argued in April De Conick's paper for this conference. (JRD)


(c) 1998
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the authors.

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