(iv) The goddess Sophia and the role of women
On the question of Philosophical Understanding, the Gnostics did not follow Plato completely. Instead they preferred to follow Parmenides and distinguished between the Great Sophia , who as we saw had been represented by the Goddess Demeter ( the Romans were still establishing temples to her long after they had abandoned the other Greek gods); the Fallen Sophia, whom Parmenides had represented through the figure of Persephone. As we saw, this fallen Sophia was the representation of divine wisdom in the world, as distinct from the pure form of Wisdom that exists in the original Sophia. The doctrine of the Divine Sophia was also adopted in an amended form in later Christianity, especially in the Orthodox tradition. It was the doctrinal basis for the great St Sophia church in Constantinople .
I have already referred to the Gnostics’ claim that the goddess Figure of Sophia was believed in by Jesus and was a key part of the early Christian theological thinking. In recent discoveries, especially as elaborated by the philosopher Elaine Pagels, it is asserted that the worship of the goddess Sophia was part of the teachings of early Christianity. Indeed Pagels presents a very interesting argument about the role of women, including divine women, amongst the early Christians. She is very angry about what she sees as the total destruction of the references to divine and apostolic women in the version of the accepted Gospels which was adopted by the Council of Nycaea.
In any event, there seems no doubt that the Gnostics believed that women were equal to men in every respect. They believed that women could be disciples and apostles. They believed that Mary Magdalene was the most important of the disciples of Jesus and that she had a very special place in his life. Some believed that she had married Jesus. Reference is often made to the Gnostic Gospel of St Phillip, which says:
. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] . . . They said to him, "Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Savior answered and said to them, "Why do I not love you as (I love) her?"
Of course The Da Vinci Code Book and its predecessors on which he based the novel, all play up this relationship with Mary Magdalene – maintaining that Jesus had children with her and that this gave rise to generations of ancestors of Christ. But not all Gnostics believed that this was the case. In any event it is not central to the philosophical issue – which has to do with the symbolism of the Divine Great Sophia and Fallen Sophia.
The different Gnostic views did not agree about these issues surrounding the life of Jesus. However there was one thing that they did agree about – which made them Christian Gnostics: the Supreme and Divine role of the Christ.
(V) The Divine Role of Christ
To understand this, we refer back to our Schema 4 and briefly summarize: We have the Impersonal Divine Being, God the Father, the source of all existence. Together with the Great Sophia, He creates the intermediate beings, the Aeons which include personal gods and the angels referred to in the Old Testament . The most important of these personal gods to this point are the Demiurge or Lesser god who created of the material world and the Lesser Sophia – who brings wisdom to humanity. Human beings have a dual nature – the Soul and Spirit , as given by God the Father and the human body which entraps the soul in their miserable material existence.
But now the question arises: what is the role of Christ? It is important here to distinguish Christ as a Spiritual Being from the Figure of the historical Jesus. Some Gnostics accepted that the divine Christ had manifested himself in the Figure of the historical Jesus; but others did not. The fundamental point here, however, is the theory of the Christ. The Gnostics had put forward the view that Christ , whether or not He had manifested himself in a physical being, was in fact a totally Divine Being and that he had come to the world to overcome the entrapment into which man had been placed in as a result of the actions of the Lesser personal god.
It is thus very important to recognize that most Gnostics believed in the doctrine of the Christ as a supremely Divine Being capable combating the work of the personal Lesser god, especially in placing the human soul into the material body with all the consequences that followed from that. This whole conception raised the Figure of Jesus Christ, not merely to the status of another Divine person, but to a divine person of the utmost importance in the Universe. He was seen as a direct manifestation of the One transcendent God, God the Father. In this sense, he is not only the Logos – He can be said to be the Son of God.
This doctrine went beyond what St Paul had stated and what is in most of the original Gospels. What is of utmost importance, however, is that this doctrine was also adopted by the traditional Patristic fathers. Thus they increasingly came to see Jesus Christ, not merely as the only son of God who had become man, but as a Supreme God Figure himself. In my view, this is the most important contribution which the Gnostics made to early Christian thinking. The teaching is summed up by one of the early Christian fathers so:
Let no one laugh at the idea of God having a Son! This is not a case of the myths of the poets who make the gods out to be no better than men. We have no such ideas about God the Father and the Son. The Son of God is the Logos of God in thought and power.
But what was the role of this Christ Figure. When he speaks of saving mankind, the Gnostics interpreted Jesus to mean far more than merely providing a form of immortality – that is, providing a form of permanent existence in time. They believed that Christ could provide the Path to the final reconciliation between the human soul and God. In other words, a reunification between the human soul and the Divine being was achievable. Jesus had come to the world to reassure us of the existence of the Christ, of the Divine Logos that opened up the possibility of overcoming the enslavement by the material world- as created by the Lesser god.
Thus in the 40 days in the wilderness, it is not merely Jesus the man confronting the Devil. It is the Christ confronting the Lesser God and his material creation. (notice in this Biblical passage that the Devil offers Jesus the whole material world;[Luke 4:1-13]
Then the accuser took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and he said to him, "All these I will give you if you will do obeisance and reverence me." But Jesus answered him, "It is written, ‘You shall reverence the lord your God and serve him alone.’" Then the accuser left him.
The Gnostics interpreted this to support their view that the Lesser god had created the material world and was in control of it – for otherwise he would not own it and be able to offer it to Jesus).
This possibility of reunification with God the Father was of course very similar to doctrines of Pythagoras and Parmenides. As we have seen, both had argued that the goal of human soul was to achieve this reunification with God through mystical experience and philosophical understanding. Although this task could not be fully achieved in a life on earth, it was possible to live life in such a way that this reunification could be achieved after death.
Christ had emanated from God the Father,( the One) to undo the damage of the Lesser god and to convey the message that it was possible to overcome the privations and suffering of human life, and to believe in the possibility of reunion with the One Divine Being. In various guises, this idea of reunion of the soul with God had been the foundation of virtually all of mysticism from the dawn of civilization. The role of Christ was therefore fundamentally that of a Teacher and a Guide, reinforcing the message.
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