Episode 83: Geoffrey Smith on Valentinus and Valentinianism
Geoffrey Smith is a ‘Gnosticism-Sceptic’ along the lines we saw in our episode with Michael Williams, so he is not particularly interested in labelling Valentinus a Gnostic. He is, however, very interested in the thought of this early esoteric Christian thinker. We discuss the life and times of Valentinus (we know very little, but are pretty sure he came to Rome to teach in the 130’s), what we know he wrote, what little survives of what he wrote (see Works Cited, Primary Valentinus below), and the influences that might have made up his thought-world. We then turn to the status of Valentinus, and Valentinianism, in the social milieu of competing early Christianities. There was a separate, self-identifying Valentinian Church, but this is a late phenomenon: in the second century, when Valentinus lived, we are looking at one Christian approach among many, and co-existing with Christianity at large.
We then discuss the important Nag-Hammadi texts often thought to be Valentinian works, the Gospel of Truth and the Tripartite Tractate, and explore the extraordinary world-view laid out in their pages. Smith sees the origin of this mythos not (primarily) in the myth-cycle associated with the Apocryphon of John, but in close exegesis of the prologue of the biblical Gospel of John.
Finally, we return to Valentinus himself, discussing what his circle might have looked like, and the question of his reported wisdom-lineage, viewed as part of a much larger practice of self-definition through lineage in operation across the Christian spectrum. In a sense, by Smith’s reading, any Christian church with claims to an apostolic succession (and so we must include the Catholics and Orthodox here) is employing the esoteric as a tool of legitimisation. We couldn’t agree more.
Geoffrey Smith is Assistant Professor of Biblical Greek and Christian Origins and Fellow of the Nease Endowment in the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins (ISAC). He works on all kinds of interesting early Christian material, including the Coptic texts from Nag-Hammadi, and has published widely (see the Recommended Reading section for some of his most relevant output to this episode of the podcast). His sourcebook on Valentinus and Valentinianism is available now for pre-order, and is the single go-to volume to buy if you cannot get enough Valentinus after listening to this episode,a nd he is currently working on a commentary on the Gospel of Truth (NHC I, 16-43).
Works Cited in this Episode:
- ‘Adam’s Faculty of Speech’ a.k.a. ‘The Boldness of Speech’ is a genuine fragment of the writing of Valentinus. Cited at Clem. Strom. 2.36.2-4.
- The ‘Letter on Immortality’, a.k.a. ‘Annihilation of the Realm of Death’ is a genuine writing of Valentinus, part of a sermon, preserved by Clement (Strom. 4.89.1-3).
- The Theros or ‘Summer Harvest’ is the only surviving fragment of Valentinus’ psalm-book, narrated in the first person. Cited at [Ps.-]Hippolytus Adv. Hær. 6.37.7.
- The soul as a motel room being trashed by demons: Fr. H Layton = The Vision of God/Epistle on Attachments = Clem. Strom. 2.114.3-6.
- The Tripartite Tractate (NHC I,5): An elaborate ‘sacred history’ of the world, widely ascribed to a Valentinian writer. Probably third century.
- The Gospel of Truth (NHC I, 16-43): This probably-second-century text has been ascribed to Valentinus himself based on a string of circumstantial evidence, but may not be by him at all; Geoffrey Smith thinks it is not. However, Smith does consider it a Valentinian work, and thus a good (and early) primary source for trying to figure out the kinds of thinking to be found among followers of Valentinus’ thought. A fragmentary version in a different dialect of Coptic (NHC XIII) is also extant, but there’s not much of it. The Gospel of Truth isn’t a gospel at all; it is a sermon, exhorting the believers to gnôsis of god. Layton (1987, 250) calls it ‘the earliest surviving sermon of Christian mysticism’, which at least lets us know it is worth reading.
- The Treatise on the Resurrection=Epistle to Rheginus (MC NHC I, 43-50). Features a very interesting Platonizing doctrine of the resurrection.
- Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora = Epiphanius Adv. Hær. 33.3.31-33.7.10.
- The Excerpts of Theodotus: A probably-second-century work, quite mysterious. We shall be discussing it when we turn to Clement’s angelology.
- Epiphanius on Valentinus’ ‘shipwreck’: Pan. 31.7.2 (1 Timothy 1:19 is the passage from the Pastoral Epistles cited).
- Justin Martyr: Geoff thinks Justin did not write the Against Heresies, but instead promoted it, based on the following passage from his extant Apology: 1 Apology 26 (you can also refer to Chapter 2 in his Guilt by Association, 2015).
- Tertullian: Valentinus considered as a candidate for the bishopric of Rome: Adversus Valentinianos 4: ‘Valentinus had expected to become a bishop, because he was an able man both in genius and eloquence. Being indignant, however, that another obtained the dignity by reason of a claim which confessorship had given him, he broke with the church of the true faith. Just like those (restless) spirits which, when roused by ambition, are usually inflamed with the desire of revenge, he applied himself with all his might to exterminate the truth; and finding the clue of a certain old opinion, he marked out a path for himself with the subtlety of a serpent. ’
- The Testimony of Truth (NHC IX, 3): An anti-Valentinian text from the Nag-Hammadi trove; it is the only NHC text which mentions Valentinus by name.
- Smith (2020) – see below.
Most of the primary texts discussed in this episode can be found in English in Bentley Layton. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. Doubleday, New York, 1995. For a more up-to-date and focused collection, you’ll want Geoffrey S. Smith. Valentinian Christianity: Texts and Translations. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2020.
- Michel Desjardins. ‘The Sources for Valentinian Gnosticism: A Question of Methodology’. Vigiliae Christianae, 40:342–347, 1986.
- J. Dillon. The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism 80 BC to AD 220. Duckworth, London, 1977, pp. 384-89. [A good introduction to how Valentinus fits into the broader Middle Platonist milieu].
- Peter Lampe. From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries. Continuum, London, 2003.
- Christoph Markschies. Valentinus Gnosticus? Untersuchungen zur valentinianischen Gnosis mit einem Kommentar zu den Fragmenten Valentins. Mohr, Tübingen, Germany, 1992.
- Geoffrey S. Smith. Guilt by Association: Heresy Catalogues in Early Christianity. Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York, NY, 2015.
- Idem. ‘Identifying Justin’s Valentinians’. In Ulrich Mell and Michael Tilly, editors, “Opponents.” Conflicts with Rivals in Early Jewish and Christian Literature. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2019.
- G.C. Stead. ‘In Search of Valentinus’. In Bentley Layton, editor, The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Volume One: The School of Valentinus, pages 75–95. Brill, Leiden, 1980.
- Einar Thomassen. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” . Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2006.
- Heinrich von Staden. ‘Hairesis and Heresy: The Case of the haireseis iatrikai’. In Ben F. Meyer and E.P. Sanders, editors, Jewish and Christian Self-Definition: Self-Definition in the Greco-Roman World, volume 3, pages 76–100. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1982. [On the invention of a ‘rationalist school of thought’ (λογικὴ αἵρεσις) for polemical purposes within contemporary medicine].