Gnostic Images of the Feminine
The purpose of this paper is to examine the feminine imagery used in the newly
discovered gnostic gospels, called The Nag Hammadi Library (abbreviated
as NHL), and to raise questions concerning the effect of the repression of this
imagery by the traditional Church (called here orthodox). The first part will
deal with a brief overview of Gnosticism, a definition of terms, and a short history
of the find at Nag Hammadi. The second section will explore ways in which feminine
imagery is associated with divinity and cosmology, drawing on selected passages
from the NHL. The third section will describe the role of Sophia in the gnostic
controversy. The fourth section will concern itself with gnostic theory and its
bearing on the social and ecclesiastical role of women. The paper concludes with
a number of questions arising from the research.
There has been a growing interest around the world in Gnosticism, a religion
that influenced the origins of the Christian Church. Investigation into its extant
literature has led to greater understanding of the roots of Christianity as well
as to a wealth of questions regarding the evolution and source of its rich cosmogonic
Overview of Gnosticism, The Nag Hammadi Manuscripts
Few primary sources of information on Gnosticism were available before the twentieth
century. The early Christian Church waged fierce campaigns against what they considered
to be dangerous heresies of Gnosticism. The Church fathers were successful in
destroying almost every written trace of Gnostic teaching. What we knew of Gnosticism
come mainly from what the Church fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons, Justin, and Tertullian
said against it.
At the turn of the century, the first in a series of discoveries of Manichean
and gnostic manuscripts was made in Turkestan. This was followed by another find
in Egypt (Medinet Madi) in 1930. The most exciting discovery and largest find
of gnostic manuscripts was made at Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt around 1946. A large
number of papyrus manuscripts about gnosticism written in Coptic were found in
a fire-proof earthen jar in the desert. The circumstances of its discovery alone
would make a lively Hollywood movie. The find is on a par with the "Dead
Sea Scrolls'' found near Wadi Qumran in 1947. In contrast to the Qumran texts,
however, the story of the discovery of the Coptic gnostic texts is still largely
veiled in obscurity, since the exact place of discovery was unknown and up to
1975 no archeological investigation had taken place in the area.
It was only through the remarkable detective work of James M. Robinson, the
Director of the group who collected and translated the NHL (see below), that the
real story of how the manuscripts were found came to light. He found out that
the real discoverer was a camel driver named Mohammed Ali es-Samman from the village
of El Qasr who found the manuscripts in 1945 in a large clay jar in a cave near
Hamra Dom near Nag Hammadi, while digging for fertilizer. Four weeks later he
killed his father's murderer from Hamra Dom and so he never again visited the
region for fear of vengeance. An archeological investigation of the region has
been undertaken by the Claremont Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in the
late '70's. The region includes a whole range of early Egyptian burial sites from
the 3rd century B.C. (Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, 41)
The library was found in sight of the Basilica of Saint Pachomius, the founder
of Christian monasticism. Robinson believes that the surviving copies of the texts
were produced in a Pachomian monastery. (The Nag Hammadi Library, 10).
The collection and publication of the material was plagued by innumerable delays
and obstacles. The war, academic disputes, the untimely deaths of researchers
in possession of original texts, the great amount of wheeling and dealing over
ownership, the difficulties of translation, all delayed the publication and dissemination
of the ideas found in these texts. The Nag Hammadi Library is the published
collection of these manuscripts, compiled and translated by members of the Coptic
Gnostic Library Project of The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity. Although
the content of the library had already been made known between 1949 and 1950 by
French scholars, it was not until 1977 that the collection was published, due
to the efforts of the Coptic Library Project which in 1966 began their labor of
translation and piecing together the fragments.
The Greek word gnosis may be translated "insight"; Gnosticism as a
religion means ''religion of knowledge.'' Gnosis was used in antiquity as the
name of the ancient religion; ''Gnosticism'' has been used by scholars since the
18th century. (Rudolph, Gnosis, 9) Gnosis is still used by modern authors
to describe the complex of ideas belonging to the Gnostic movement. ''Gnosticism''
is also used to specify the Christian heresy of the second century A.D.(Robert
McL. Wilson, Gnosis and the New Testament, 9)
Although there are some authors who disagree, it is generally accepted that
Gnosticism as a distinct religious doctrine arose within the Christian tradition
side by side with ''orthodox'' Christianity (Wilson, Gnosis and the New Testament,
see 9-59 for a thorough discussion of the controversy on origin of Gnosticism
within Christian tradition). Gnosticism is a dualistic system, consisting of several
schools and movements, which took up a negative attitude towards the world and
the society of the time. It taught that the individual as ''sou1'' or ''spirit''
could be delivered or redeemed from the prison of earthly existence through insight
into his essential relationship with a supramundane realm of freedom. (Rudolph,
The spread of Gnosticism from the western part of the Near East (Syria, Palestine,
Egypt, Asia Minor) to central and eastern Asia and medieval Europe (14th. cent.)
shows its role in the history of religion. A remnant still exists today in the
Mandeans of Iraq and Iran. In fact, the word ''Mandeans'' means ''Knowers'' (i.e.,
Gnostics). (NHL, 6).
Its influence on the evolution of thought can be traced in European and Near
Eastern traditions, be it in theology, theosophy, mysticism or philosophy. Many
of Europe's greatest thinkers such as Blake, Dostoevski, Goethe, Tolstoy, Nietzsche,
and Jung were interested in and influenced by Gnosticism. (Elaine Pagels, The
Gnostic Gospels, 150)
Well into the 19th century the heresiological literature mentioned above formed
our principal source for the study of the nature and history of Gnosis and determined
the course of research. The quotations from these sources consisted of only 50
printed pages. It become increasingly recognized that the Gnostics had produced
most of the Christian theological literature, especially in the second century.
This was true not only of strictly theological works but also for poetry, hymns,
and stories about Jesus and the apostles. There were two great Gnostic thinkers
of the second century, Basilides and Valentinus, but only a few fragments of their
work remain, which include commentaries on biblical passages, gospels, letters,
homilies, psalms, and hymns. (Rudolph, Gnosis, 25)
The find at Nag Hammadi consisted of 13 volumes, of which only 11 are complete,
while two others (vols. 12 and 13) are only fragments. In one of the bindings,
a receipt for grain was found which mentions two persons from upper Egypt. Other
fragments of letters and receipts used to reinforce the bindings, indicate the
date the books were made: two receipts bear the dates 333, 341, 346, and 348.
These findings confirm the dating of the discovery already made previously, to
the fourth century (about 350). The origin of the individual documents and their
translation into Coptic go further back, somewhere in the second and third centuries.
The fragments of letters mention a ''Father Pachom'' and presbyters and monks,
so scholars infer a monastic environment. One possibility is that the writings
derive from the library of a monastery and were singled out and buried because
of their heretical character in the course of some purge.
The NHL consists of 12 books, plus eight leaves removed from a thirteenth book
in late antiquity and tucked inside the front cover of another. There are 52 tractates.
Forty are writings unknown then, 30 of these are fairly complete and 10 are in
fragments. Six tractates are duplicates of documents within the library itself.
Another six texts were already known before, including one very poor translation
of a passage from Plato's "Republic." The writings are divided into
13 codices. (NHL, 10-12)
It is agreed by gnostic researchers and scholars that in the Nag Hammadi discovery
we have one of the most extensive of all the finds of recent times. Even the Qumran
discovery is smaller in extent and not so well preserved, although the texts are
about 500 years older.
Feminine Symbolism and Imagery in Gnosticism
The absence of feminine symbolism in characterizing divinity is peculiar to
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There is no need to elaborate the fact of the
masculinity of the Jewish God of the O1d Testament. This God is king, lord, father
and judge. He can be terrible in his wrath and vengeance, sometimes portraying
the most primitive qualities of the masculine--a bullying power-wielding authority
figure. (Book of Job 1-4; Bible, Revised Standard Version)
In Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Africa, India, and North America, the imagery
used to describe God and creation abounds with feminine symbolism. The texts discovered
at Nag Hammadi reveal many sexual symbols to describe God. The language, however,
is unmistakably Christian and related to a Jewish heritage. Instead of picturing
a masculine and monistic God, many of these texts speak of God as a dyad who embraces
both masculine and feminine elements. (Pagels, Gnostic Gospels, 49)
What strikes the casual reader of the Gnostic texts at first glance is the abundance
of feminine and sexual imagery in descriptions of divinity, Christ, and myths
of creation and cosmology.
The feminine as principle, seen as the personification of divine attributes,
can be classified in three different ways. The first would be as a metaphysical
principle, corresponding to the Void in Buddhist terminology. Here she is the
great Silence, the Womb. The second characterization would be as the Holy Spirit,
a member of the Holy Trinity. The third is Sophia or wisdom. We are most familiar
with Sophia, because of her association with the Hebrew ''hokhmah'' and her derivation
from Hellenistic and Egyptian religions. The Gnostic text ''The Sophia of Christ''
was one of the six texts already known before the Nag Hammadi find.
The passages which describe the feminine are diverse, and many are fragmentary.
They also reflect a number of different teachings within Gnosticism itself. It
must be emphasized that this paper is a generalized over-view and in no way covers
in detail the beauty and complexity of the feminine imagery employed throughout
the Nag Hammadi texts. The subject has not been fully explored and holds many
exciting possibilities for further research.
I will roughly divide into two categories the first use of the feminine (mentioned
above as the metaphysical counterpart of God): the first as Divine Silence, the
Womb; and the second is part of the Androgyny of God, the "ultimate"
God being beyond sexual imagery altogether. The first of these two views was outlined
by one of the major Gnostic leaders, Valentinus. He was an eloquent and educated
teacher, writer, and poet.
He taught that God is indescribable, but could be imagined as a dyad. One aspect
is the Primal Father, who is the Ineffable, the Depth; the other aspect is the
"Mother of the All'' who is Grace, Silence, the Womb. Valentinus reasons
that Silence receives, as in a womb, the seed of the ineffable Source, and from
this she brings forth all the emanations of divine being, ranged in harmonious
pairs of masculine and feminine energies. Followers of Valentinus prayed to her
for protection as the Mother, the ''mystical, eternal Silence." (Pagels,
Gnostic Gospels, 50)
The feminine was not identified with any absolute principle of evil, but with
the fallible part of God, which became involved in the material world. The original
Dyad brings forth a couple, Nous and Truth. The divine Pleroma consists of a series
of male-female aeons. The last aeon, Sophia, plays the role of Cosmic Eve. Humanity
consists of three classes of beings: the fleshly ones; the psychics, who have
souls; and the pneumatics, who have the spiritual seed from the Mother or Achamoth.
The female and male elements were originally united. They are reunited when the
female element becomes male, and are then united with the angels and enter into
the Pleroma. Attributed to the Valentinians is the passage from Irenaeus: "Therefore
it is said that the woman is changed into the man and the Church here below into
angels." (Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, "Word, Spirit and Power: Women
in Early Christian Communities" in Women of Spirit, 47-48)
The concluding lines of the Gospel of Thomas (II,2) in NHL contain a peculiar
passage often quoted that refers to the above quote from Irenaeus: "Simon
Peter said to them, 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.' Jesus
said, 'I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may
become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself
male will enter the kingdom of heaven.'" (NHL, 130)
It is clear that biology is not at issue, but the archetypal meaning of masculine
and feminine. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who acquired one of the NHL codices
(called the Jung Codex) would interpret this passage psychologically. Perhaps
he would say that wholeness or the recovery of the archetype of Self (i.e., Christ
as Logos, the human God image) is not possible without the coming of consciousness,
the assimilation, of the anima for a man and the animus for a woman. What is unconscious
in each sex is the opposite gender; this is what acts as a bridge to the wholeness
of the psyche. For Jung, we are indeed androgynous in the unconscious. A feminist
voice, however, might question why the same would not hold true for the male:
that he needs to become conscious of his feminine side, the anima, in order to
enter the kingdom of heaven or wholeness.
A disciple of Valentinus named Marcus, differs from Valentinus by placing a
Tetrad which is called "nonmaterial Father" and is neither male nor
female, before the aeons described above. He holds that there is a "spiritual
man' formed in the image and likeness of God, who was masculine-feminine. (Fiorenza,
"Word, Spirit, and Power" in Women of Spirit, 48)
They believed that the spiritual seed within each person had to become perfected;
at the end of time, this perfected seed would become "married to" the
As the Holy Spirit, the feminine was seen as a third person of the Holy Trinity.
The Apocryphon of John tells of John's vision of the Trinity as Father, Mother,
He said to me, "John, John, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid?
You are not unfamiliar with this likeness, are you? I am the one who is with
you forever. I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son, I am the unpolluted
and uncorruptible one." (NHL, p. 99)
Further on, the author continues the speech of the visioned Lord:
"He gazes upon his image which he sees in the spring of the Spirit. He
puts his desire in his light-water, that is the spring of the pure light-water
which surrounds him. And his Ennoia (a feminine term meaning "image of thought")
performed a deed and she came forth, namely she who had appeared before him in
the shine of his light. This is the first power which was before all of them
and which came forth from his mind, that is the Pronoia of the All." (p.
The text goes on to describe the androgynous beings created through her, including
her "abortion"--the arrogant demiurge who created this world and has
no knowledge of God, or the upper echelons of heaven; he thinks he is the supreme
god. It is worth noting that the Gnostics equated the Hebrew masculine deity with
the arrogant demiurge. The efforts of the orthodox Christians to eliminate the
gnostic teaching was believed by Gnostics also to be linked to the efforts of
the demiurge to keep humans ignorant of their divine nature.
The feminine was given a prominent position as Sophia, or Wisdom. The Hebrew
translation is "hokhmah," a feminine form. Scholars have debated the
meaning of Biblical passages such as "God made the world in Wisdom"
(Proverbs). The double meaning of the word "conception"--physical and
intellectual--suggests the gnostic belief that God's thought is image; it is feminine
and creates the cosmos (see passage from John above). In Genesis 1:26 when God
proposes "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" we wonder
who is the "us" if not a feminine counterpart, since man and woman were
the final result? (Pagels, Gnostic Gospels, 49)
Although we can trace the myth of Sophia (Wisdom in Gnosticism) back to Hellenistic
and Egyptian mystery cults, there is little or no solid evidence that the images
of the feminine used in Gnosticism derived solely from the influences of these
The Gnostic Controversy
The Gnostics identified Jesus with Sophia. The gnostic churches downplayed the
humanity of Jesus and the crucifixion. Many did not believe that Jesus was human
and died. They saw Jesus as the divine redeemer who therefore could not die. The
churches represented by the New Testament, however, established as one of the
primary tenets of faith that Jesus was human as well as the Son of God; and that
he actually died. The entire hierarchy of the early Church rested on these beliefs
and especially the Resurrection. The fact of the Resurrection and the witnesses
to it determined the structure and organization of the Church. (Pagels, Gnostic
Gospels, see chapter 1 for a thorough coverage of the Resurrection controversery
and its political implications regarding Church hierarchy.) To the Gnostics, Sophia
was the feminine aspect of the Divine who came down from God with a special message.
Since "being saved" was a function of knowing Jesus' message rather
than the crucifixion-resurrection event, the message-carrying Sophia was an especially
appealing image of Jesus for them.
Sophia was also part of the Hebrew tradition but not equivalent to the Messiah.
Because of her divine qualities, she could not be the Messiah who was, for the
Jews, supposed to be human and a king. She did share some of the same attributes
as the Messiah, however: she was sent by God, and was to change human society
by her mission. Apparently, this similarity evoked the interest of the early churches.
Closer examination of Sophia by those early followers of Jesus revealed that she
reflected Jesus' life in ways that the Messiah figure did not. She, like Jesus,
was the one who had failed. Jesus' crucifixion fits into the picture of Sophia
calling vainly to humanity, and then going back to God without having visibly
changed things. If one saw Jesus as Sophia, Jesus' lack of kingly success was
no longer a problem but a confirmation of his divine calling. Similarly this association
allowed those who saw Jesus as divine to do so without denying his fundamental
mission. Sophia, like the Messiah, was to come to change humanity. The difference
in the portraits in Hebrew tradition was that the Messiah succeeds and Sophia
is often rejected. In 1 Corinthians 1:23, Paul writes, "We are preaching
a crucified Christ . . . a Christ who is the power and the Sophia of God."
A few verses later (30) he continues, "By God's action Jesus Christ has become
our Sophia." In 2:6-8, he continues:
But still we have a Sophia to offer those who have reached maturity: not a philosophy
of our age, it is true, still less of the masters of our age, which are coming
to their end. The hidden Sophia of God which we teach in our mysteries is the
Sophia that God predestined to be for our glory before the ages began. She is
a Sophia that none of the masters of this age have ever known. (S. Cady, M. Ronan,
and H. Taussig, Sophia, 51)
Paul is the New Testament author who most explicitly proclaims Jesus to be Sophia
but he is also one of the writers for whom the Gnostic movement is a real problem.
Since Gnosticism downplayed Christ's historicity and resurrection and proclaimed
that Christ as Wisdom could be realized individually, it was declared a heresy.
Gnosticism was thus a major factor inhibiting the New Testament proclamation of
Jesus as Sophia. So Paul's portrayal of Jesus as Sophia is explicit at times but
It is against this background that the books were written and gathered into
the collection we know as the New Testament. In this historical situation proclamation
of Jesus as Sophia was equivalent to accepting the gnostic stance against Jesus'
humanity and crucifixion. This left the orthodox churches in an obvious perplexing
dilemma. They clearly needed to acknowledge their debt to Sophia in understanding
Jesus, for what they said about Jesus was unintelligible without recognition of
Jesus as Sophia. Without knowing who Sophia was, they could not have begun to
revise the Jewish messianic figure and develop their own Christology related to
Jesus. On the other hand, the New Testament churches could not proclaim Jesus
as Sophia directly or develop the figure of Jesus Sophia further without being
identified with the gnostic rejection of Jesus' humanity and crucifixion. Thus
the gnostic controversy seems to have been the main reason for the New Testament's
gradual dismissal of Sophia. There are many other factors in explaining why Sophia
was ignored after the New Testament writing. Many of these have to do with the
Church's embracing of patriarchal worldviews and not exclusively with theological
considerations. But the New Testament ambiguity relative to Jesus Sophia is for
the most part understandable. What was a natural and imaginative development of
the figure of Sophia in the early churches seems to have been aborted by the gnostic
controversy. (Cady, Ronan, and Taussig, Sophia, 52)
Another manuscript in the NHL which had not been known before is called "On
the Origin of the World." It is very important because, like the passage
from John above, it gives an account of Creation quite different from the one
found in the Bible. In this text, the creation of the world is described in similar
terms as mentioned above. Sophia, it states, sent her daughter Eve, as an instructor
to raise up Adam, in whom there was no soul, so that those whom he would beget
might become vessels of the light. When Adam saw her, he said, "You will
be called 'the mother of the living' because you are the one who gave me life."
According to this text, the wicked demiurge and his helpers (called in this account
the "authorities") created Adam's body but were incapable of giving
him a soul, nor did they want him to have a soul. Then, and this is very important,
the text continues that the anger of the authorities was very great: "Now
come, let us seize her (Eve) and let us cast our seed on her, so that when she
is polluted she will not be able to ascend to her light, but those whom she will
beget will serve us. But let us not tell Adam that she is not derived from us,
but let us bring a stupor upon him, and let us teach him in his sleep as though
she came into being from his rib so that the woman will serve and he will rule
over her." (italics mine) Eve, however, being of divine origin, overhears
them, and outwits their foul intention. What happens at the Tree of Knowledge
is quite different from the account we are given in the Bible. The "authorities"--the
wicked demiurge and company--do not want Adam and Eve to know of their divine
origin because the authorities are envious and cannot create or distribute that
divine spark, only Sophia can. The following passage describes what happened in
the Garden of Eden according to the gnostic version:
(The authorities) came to Adam and Eve timidly. They said to him, 'Every tree
which is in Paradise, whose fruit may be eaten, was created for you. But beware!
Don't eat from the tree of knowledge. If you do eat, you will die.' After they
gave him a great fright, they withdrew up to their authorities. Then the one
who is wiser than all of them, this one who is called 'the beast' (i.e., the
androgynous son of Sophia, the serpent in the Biblical version), when he saw
the likeness of their mother Eve, he said to her, 'Don't be afraid! You certainly
shall not die. For he knows that when you eat from it your mind will be sobered
and you will become like god, knowing the distinctions which exist between evil
and good men. For he said this to you, lest you eat from it, since he is jealous.'
Now Eve believed the words of the instructor. She looked at the tree. And she
saw that it was beautiful and magnificent, and she desired it. She took some
of its fruit and ate, and she gave to her husband also, and he ate too. Then
their mind opened. For when they ate, the light of knowledge shone for them.
When they put on shame, they knew that they were naked with regard to knowledge.
When they sobered up, they saw that they were naked, and they become enamored
of one another. When they saw their makers, they loathed them since they were
beastly forms. They understood very much.
When the instructors found out, of course, they were furious, but being impotent
could do little but curse the woman and her sons and Adam, and the earth and
the fruit. And everything they created they cursed. Since that day the authorities
knew that truly one who is strong before them . . . They brought a great envy
into the world only because of the deathless man. (NHL p. 172f)
The significance of this text cannot be overstated. The Church Fathers used
the Creation story to justify the subordination of woman to man. They have expounded
for centuries on the evil of woman because she led Adam and the whole human race
to sin by obeying the serpent. (See Krister Stendhal, The Bible and the Role
of Women for an elaboration of Biblical sources regarding attitudes towards
women.) We must wonder in the light of these newly found gospels not only about
the course of development of Christian theology, but about the role of woman in
the Church and in society. Would our attitudes be different today had this creation
myth rather than the Biblical one been chosen for the Bible?
Social and Ecclesiastical Structures in Gnosticism
There is very little information about the details of the social structure of
Gnostic communities. Rudolph concludes they were not very different from the other
Christian communities. Recruits came from all levels of society, some of the leading
thinkers from the upper classes, but the majority from the middle and lower classes,
particularly skilled artisans and merchants. Marcion is the only Gnostic whose
profession we know about. He was a ship owner like his father who lived in the
first half of the second century, and was one of Paul's more radical disciples.
Another leader was Marcus, a Valentinian, who was said to be devoted to women.
Information, probably biased and intended to slander, came from Irenaeus. He said
Marcus deceived wealthy women of high rank in order to obtain their property and
abuse them physically. The Marcionites were well organized, with a hierarchy of
bishops and priests. We do not know much about the actual role of women in Marcion's
church, but he is said to have appointed women to all church offices on an equal
basis with men. (Rudolph, Gnosis, 211)
Can we say there is a correlation between gnostic theory which included the
feminine and a corresponding attitude of acceptance of women within the gnostic
community? Most scholars agree there is. (Specifically, Rudolph Gnosis
[p. 211], Pagels, Gnostic Gospels [chap. 3], and Fiorenza "Word, Spirit,
and Power" in Women of Spirit in references cited above.)
The percentage of women was evidently very high and reveals that Gnosis held
out prospects otherwise barred to them, especially in the official church. They
frequently occupied leading positions either as teachers, prophetesses, missionaries,
or played a leading role in cultic ceremonies (baptism, eucharist) and magical
practices such as exorcisms. One example is that of Marcellina who around A.D.
150 propagated the doctrines of the gnostic Carpocrates in Rome. The important
disciple of Valentinus, Ptolemaeus, wrote a detailed letter, still extant, to
an educated lady he calls "Sister Flora" on questions dealing with the
interpretation of the Mosaic law. Also preserved is the tomb inscription with
gnostic imagery of a gnostic woman called Flavia Sophe. (Rudolph, Gnosis,
In the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles which emanate mostly from gnostic circles
women frequently play a significant role. Rudolph presumes that the prominent
position of Sophia and other female beings in the gnostic systems account for
this. Consequently sex is not the determining factor although ideologically women
are not granted equal rights. The heresiologists naturally took offense at the
special status of women in the gnostic communities and either subjected them to
ridicule or made them the object of smutty remarks. (Rudolph, Gnosis, 211-12)
It would be biased to say that it was only within the Gnostic community that
women held leadership roles. Evidently women also held positions of authority
within the orthodox Christian Church.
Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this paper to compare and contrast
the ecclesiastical role of women within the Gnostic and orthodox Christian communities.
For a detailed and thorough account of the role of women in the early Christian
church, the reader is referred to the following excellent books listed in the
Bibliography: Women of Spirit, Women Priests (esp. "Junia ...");
Women Priests in the Catholic Church?; Women in Christian Tradition;
and The Bible and the Role of Women.
These books share a common purpose. They bring to light a wealth of carefully
documented proofs that clearly show that women were leaders in the orthodox Christian
Church when it was being formed. What is also portrayed through innumerable Hebrew
and Christian texts is the overwhelmingly negative and vicious degradation accorded
the female sex by both Hebrew and Christian religious writers. Researchers have
even discovered recently the successful attempt by the Christian Fathers to turn
the name of Junia to its masculine form of Junias. Junia was not only a leader
and missionary teacher in the early Church (she and her husband were fellow prisoners
of Paul) but she and her husband were called "apostles" in I Corinthians
9:5. (Fiorenza, "Women, Spirit, and Power" in Women of Spirit,
According to the author of "Junia..." most Romans (Bible) commentators
do not seem to be even aware of the possibility that this important leader could
be a woman, and virtually all modern biblical translations have Junias rather
than Junia. (L. and A. Swidler, Eds., Women Priests, 141)
Whether it was Paul or other writers, the cultural norm of the time prevailed
in their teachings, which was the subordination of women. In contrast to this,
however, are the accounts of real women (Prisca, Junia, Phoebe, and Thecla, to
name a few) doing real leadership work who received high praise, even from Paul.
(Fiorenza, "Women, Spirit, and Power" in Women of Spirit, 34-37)
That leaves us with an unsettling and perplexing question. It appeared that
the coming of Christ introduced a new Idea into the collective psyche. This Idea
was primary to (prior to) the personified historical person Christ. This Idea
is Logos, Wisdom, the Gnostic Sophia, or as John said: "In the beginning
was the Word: and the Word was with God . . ." The coming of Christ introduced
a new wave of possibilities into the evolution of the mind of humanity. Coinciding
with the re-vitalization of the Hebrew tradition was the very new concept of equality.
Unlike the Hellenistic tradition, this religion offered the poor, the uneducated,
the slaves and the women an equal chance to contact the Divinity. This new Idea
announced the reality of the individual as opposed to the exclusive identity
with tribe and family. Something happened, however. It is abundantly evident from
patristic studies that how the image of Divinity was perceived by Peter and his
successors determined the foundation of the Christian Church. They perceived the
authority of God as descending from God the Father to his Son Christ to Peter
to his designated Bishops and priests. (For a detailed description of this, see
Pagels, Chapter 2.)
If we entertain the notion that Christ was Wisdom (which as we saw above was
accepted by Paul) and this Wisdom is accessible to each person as an inner
reality, then from one angle the political structure of the Church can be viewed
as antithetical to the realization of Christ. In other words, if I can only make
contact with the reality of Christ outside myself through the chain of my priest,
his bishop, his pope, then Christ, and then God, this strips Christ of any inner
reality (i.e., as Idea). It projects his meaning outside the person, away from
the soul, the inner being, onto some imagined external prize at the end of the
chain, above the clouds.
The interpretation of Christ as inner reality coincides with the eastern doctrines
of realization and Jung's analysis (see particularly Aeon in CW, a study
What is so exciting about this discovery besides the obvious thrust given to
patristic research, is the new frontier that has opened up to reveal a pot of
gold of desperately needed images of feminine divinity and wisdom. We need to
recover the lost feminine that our western culture so sorely needs. It is not
enough that Mary was designated the Mother of God. As Pagels said, it is a far
cry from this to "God the Mother." That which the Church almost totally
annihilated with its vehement hatred may be the only thing that can save it from
the oppressive one-sided sterility many believe it has become. No longer does
Christianity offer on a mass level the living symbols that make a bridge to the
Divine within. Carl Jung went on the premise that what the collective psyche needs
to heal itself can often be found in what it has rejected. He regarded Gnosticism
and the study of its symbolism to be invaluable in this regard. He might say that
the vehemence with which it was rejected is an indication of its archetypal power
(its truth for humanity). In other words, Gnosticism may very well have been a
unique vision of the message and meaning of Christ as Idea, a vision that
not only offered an unusual interpretation of the historical Christ but a vision
that may have accurately mirrored the dilemma of humankind as well--the individual
encompassing both spirit and instinct. Jung believes the gnostic imagery corresponds
to and reflects psychic processes. He draws out its imagery to show its consistency
with archetypal symbols of the Self.
Perhaps the words of James Robinson who devoted himself to making known to the
world the Nag Hammadi texts, sums up the importance of Gnosticism:
Thus Gnosticism seems not to have been in its essence just an alternate form
of Christianity. Rather it was a radical trend of release from the dominion of
evil or of inner transcendence that swept through later antiquity and emerged
within Christianity, Judaism, Neoplatonism, the mystery religions . . . As a new
religion it was syncretistic, drawing upon various religious heritages. But it
was held together by a very decided stance, which is where the unity amid the
wide diversity is to be sought. (NHL p. 10)
So we close with no conclusions, only questions: When the feminine was thrown
out of the New Testament along with the rest of the Gnostic gospels, where did
it go? Has the other half of Christianity been lying dormant in the collective
unconscious for 1500 years? Does the find at Nag Hammadi coincide with a re-birth
of awareness of our own rejected and despised feminine nature (anima/soul)? And
finally, where is the real Christianity?
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Kathleen Damiani, Ph.D.
copyright © 2005