The Gnostic View of

the Feminine

by Gary C. Burger, MDiv

"Simon Peter said to them: 'Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.' Jesus said: 'Lo, I shall lead her, so that I may make her a male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven." (Gospel of Thomas 114)

Introduction

Since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945 containing ancient documents written by Gnostic Christians there has been a renewed interest in the teachings of these groups that existed from around the middle of the second to perhaps the fourth centuries. At first only historians had much interest in them and only from an academic perspective. But the counter-cultural movement starting in the 1960's has driven rising interest in the general public. An increasing number of people are questioning and even rebelling from Christianity's traditional teachings on issues such as roles that women should be allowed to have in ministry and the validity of Christianity's exclusive claims to religious truth and salvation.1

In the process of this revolution people have looked to sources of religious and social truth outside of Christianity. Some such sources have been what have been called the "alternative Christianities" of the Early Church period. These were groups like the Gnostics who also rebelled from the then traditional teachings of the orthodox Church but were not able to survive. Although little is known about the Gnostics, we possess more of their literature than other heretical groups, especially as a result of the Nag Hammadi texts. In this way, there is more to use and filter into the general publics attention. As a result people today look to their teachings and examples to garner support for their own causes. Unfortunately, popular level understanding of the beliefs of the Gnostics has diverged rather sharply from the truth. We need only to ask the scholars who often have spent their entire careers on the subject.

This ignorance has led to authors like Dan Brown in his novel The Da Vinci Code hijacking Gnosticism for their own literary, social, political and religious purposes. They have accidentally or intentionally taken advantage of the public's lack of knowledge and gullibility to exploit Gnosticism for their own gains. Yet, is it accurate to say that the Gnostics were feminists and can people rightfully uses their teachings to support radical feminist causes? This article will first explain the view that the Gnostics held toward the feminine and then explain the view that the Bible has toward the feminine.

The Nature of Gnosticism

Technically, Gnosticism is applied loosely to a group of ancient sects that held some beliefs in common, but they each developed varying ideas and complexities within that commonality. Although they are also placed under the umbrella label of "Christian" their beliefs held them well outside the teachings of early "orthodox" Christians and the Early Church, especially those of Jesus and the Apostles. They used a rather eclectic approach to develop a new religion. They borrowed from Eastern mysticism, Greek philosophy and Christianity. However, about the only part that was Christian was the terminology they used. They used, but redefined, Christian terms like God, Jesus, and salvation and so on to fit into the mythologies they developed from other sources.

The most important aspect of their belief system, as it relates to sexuality and gender, is their view of the body and the material world. From Greek philosophy they borrowed the belief that the physical world, including the body, is evil, and only the spiritual realm is good. This is called Dualism. In this Dualism the material realm and the spiritual realm are diametrically opposed. Out of this Dualism the Gnostics derived the belief that sex and sexuality is evil. Contrary to some popular beliefs this idea, that sex is evil, is not a teaching that came from the Bible or early orthodox Christians. Unfortunately, it crept into the teaching of some churches later for reasons beyond the scope of this article.

The Nature of the Feminine in Gnosticism at First Glance

Gnostic literature is full of references to female characters, who play prominent literary roles. One such figure is Sophia, who is, to the Gnostics, a sort of goddess, and sometimes consort to Jesus. Jesus' mother Mary, his sister Mary and Mary Magdalene also figure prominently. What is more, Jesus prefers to reveal secret revelations to Mary Magdalene instead of the male disciples. For this reason some have asserted that the Gnostics were feminists and gave positions of church leadership to women as much as, or more than, to men. The literature speaks, as I mentioned, about the goddess Sophia. This has led some people, like Dan Brown, to assert that early Christians worshipped her, but the male rulers of the Church forced them to stop.

Today, people should learn more about Gnosticism before using it to support these conclusions, for a more careful analysis of the Gnostic texts leads to a very different understanding. Not only did the Gnostics believe that the body, and therefore sexuality and sexual intercourse is evil, but that femininity itself is evil.

The Truth about the Feminine in Gnosticism

On November 19-25, 1985, a group of scholars who specialize in ancient Gnosticism met to discuss "Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism." The presentations that were made were published in a book by that title and edited by Karen L. King.2 Because the participants are scholars who have studied Gnosticism, we may take their findings more seriously than non-historians like Dan Brown and others who have not even bothered to learn about Gnosticism. The scholars do not always agree on various fairly minor issues concerning Gnosticism, but they unamously agree that Gnosticism had a very low view of women and the sacred feminine. What follows are some quotes from these authorities on how the Gnostics viewed the feminine.

Pheme Perkins, writing about the work of another scholar, writes,

"According to this view, the gnostic experience is ultimately misogynist in the extreme."3

Karen King the editor summarizes, "The gnostic myth of the fall and restoration of Sophia can be perceived as essentially gender related: female weakness/error/imperfection is strengthened/corrected/completed by male intervention."4

King also wrote, "When gender imagery is used with regard to the creation of the lower world, it is the feminine (in the guise of Sophia) that is consistently made responsible for deficiency and is associated with the corruption of the material realm. ... We see here again the common association in antiquity of the male with (positive) heavenly or spiritual qualities, the female with (negative) material aspects."5

This is significant to The Da Vinci Code because Dan Brown asserts that Gnosticism portrayed the goddess Sophia and the feminine divine in a positive light. In addition, he incorrectly portrays Mary Magdalene and the novel's modern day character Sophie as symbolic or posibly incarnations of the goddess Sophia.

Frederik Wisse analyzed the Nag Hammadi texts for similarities:

"Thus, finding a number of texts associated with Gnosticism that differ greatly in character and content but agree more or less in their view of femininity is a remarkable and significant fact that would permit one to speak of a trend or tendency." The view of femininity he discovered was antifeminine. "The reader of these texts is expected to be able to escape the bondage of femininity." One of the books, Zostrianos, teaches that "Femininity in the meaning of sexuality and procreation is something that can enslave everyone, and its opposite, masculinity, does not appear to be a natural quality of males but a state that all must seek in order to be saved."6

The same scholars warned against using the Gnostic texts to support the role of women in positions of leadership in the Church. Michael A. Williams contends,

"The role played by women in gnostic sects is in fact something that we do not know with certainty for all, or even most, gnostic groups."7

This is significant to The Da Vinci Code because Dan Brown misuses a portion of a Gnostic Gospel of Mary to assert that Jesus meant to leave Mary Magdalene in charge of the Church instead of Peter. For more on this please read Dan Brown's Assertions About Mary Magdalene(assertions 3 and 4).

Gnosticism's peak appears to have been in the late second century and it probably died out sometime in the fourth or fifth century. One of the reasons was the effective logic of orthodox church apologists like Irenaeus, who took them to task. However, most people of the day were not well educated and would not have been able to read or follow their reasoning. For the same reason, the average person would not have been attracted to the highly literary and esoteric nature of Gnosticism. Even beyond this, it is reasonable to think there were probably stronger sociological reasons. One reason could be that with its misogynistic stance, it did not attract many women and therefore did not propagate biologically.

Douglas M. Parrott writes about what it must have been like to be a woman in a Gnostic sect.

"To enter a gnostic group, once she knew everything about it, a "thinking" woman ... would have had to somehow to discount the common belief about the nature of the female, which she would have found at every turn. ... But the constant emphasis on the defect of femaleness, and the like, and the use of the image of an out-of-control female to talk about the soul, must have been a special burden to them."8

Parrott goes on to suggest that,

"this problem was influential in the final outcome of the struggle between the orthodox and the Gnostics. Women may have been put down badly in the orthodox churches, but at least they were not burdened with a conception of themselves that was essentially degrading."9

I could fill another page or two with more quotes to show that the consensus of these scholars was (to repeat a quote from above) that Gnosticism was "ultimately misogynist in the extreme."

These statements should warn us to be careful not to read into a few choice passages from the Gnostic texts what we want them to mean. If we could use a time machine to bring Gnostic leaders like the author of the Gospel of Mary into the present day, they would no doubt speak against psuedo-historians and novelists hijacking their writings to say things to which they were actually radically opposed.

Conclusion

It is extremely unfortunate that for many centuries so many Christians and churches have held views that do not measure up to the high value that God places on the feminine aspect of His image which He placed into humanity. That was not a result of careful understanding of the biblical view of the feminine. Many people today are looking outside the traditional Church for support of an intuitive (God given) conviction that women are of equal value to God and His glorious purposes as men. Some, like Dan Brown, claim that early groups like the Gnostics held a primitive and correct view of this equality, and chauvinistic orthodox leaders persecuted them out of existence for it. Yet when one takes the trouble to actually read and study the Gnostic texts it becomes abundantly clear that they were even worst.

The Gnostics held the feminine nature as responsible for the evil in the world. The Bible shows us that we are individually responsible for the choice we make to rebel from God and collectively we bring evil into the world. In Gnosticism the only hope for salvation is to abandon the feminine and become masculine in spiritual character. The Bible shows us what we already intuitively know—that whatever gender we are and no matter how good we try to make ourselves, we just can't measure up to God's standard of perfect holiness. Through Jesus Christ we have the equal opportunity to receive God's grace, mercy and forgiveness.


References

1 Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage-Random House. 1979. 150.

2 King, Karen L. (ed.) Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

3 ibid. p. 110.

4 ibid. p. 171.

5 ibid. p. 174.

6 ibid. p. 301.

7 ibid. p. 21.

8 ibid. p. 95.

9 ibid. p. 95.


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