The Gospel of Philip

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (June, 2005)

Because the Gospel of Philip from Codex 2 of the Nag Hammadi Library contains Valentinian doctrine, and the gnostic heretic Valentinus is known to have lived in the second century AD, it has been assumed that the work follows him. It has been officially dated in the second half of the third century AD.

If, however, there is clear factual evidence of a first century date of composition, it would be necessary for historians to conclude that the doctrine known as Valentinian was held also in the first century, originating with a teacher preceding Valentinus.

There is such evidence in the opening paragraphs of the work. They include the words, "A Hebrew makes a Hebrew, and such a person is called 'proselyte'. But a proselyte does not make a proselyte.....When we were Hebrews we were orphans and had our mother, but when we became Christians we had both father and mother" (52.15-24).

The implication is that the writer had recently been a "Hebrew", but now was a Christian. One of the activities of Hebrews was proselytising, persuading Gentiles to become Jews. But converted Gentiles had limited powers, not having been born with a Jewish identity, so were not permitted to make proselytes of other Gentiles. Moreover, Gentiles had been instructed by a Mother, but not by a Father. The reason was that a woman, a female teacher, being uncircumcised, could make close contact with uncircumcised Gentiles, such as was necessary during the rite of baptism. Both were "unclean". A Father, a circumcised Jewish teacher, must not have close contact with the "unclean". But the Christian advance on this practice had removed the necessity of circumcision, and with it the adoption of all aspects of Jewish identity. This is the major theme of Pauline theology.

The New Testament regards Hebrews as pre-Christian. Paul had been a Hebrew before his conversion (Philippians 3:5). Disputes about women's status between Hebrews and Hellenists were judged favorably to Hellenists (Acts 6: 1-6). The Epistle to Hebrews sets out to persuade Hebrews to advance to Christian doctrine out of an elementary doctrine (Hebrews 5:12-14 - Hebrews 6:1-8). These are clear indications of a very early date for the Hebrew versus Christian distinction. Moreover, the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD supplies a terminus, for after that date Judaism could no longer claim a superior national identity.

It follows that descriptions of events in the Gospel of Philip are contemporary with the first Christian generation, and could hardly have been made if they were not historically acceptable. This point gives great significance to the most famous passage, showing that Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. It is evidence that she was his wife.

"There were three who always walked with the lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion.... And the companion of the [Saviour was ] Mary Magdalene. [He loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples] said to him, 'Why do you love her more than all of us?'The Saviour answered and said to them,'Why do I not love you like her? " (59, 6-12; 63, 32- 64, 5)

The emphasis given to women in this work is consistent with its pervasive imagery of the bridal chamber as symbolic of initiation into Christianity. Here are examples of its bridal imagery :

"The mysteries of truth are revealed, though in type and image. The bridal chamber, however, remains hidden. It is the holy in the holy. The veil at first concealed how God controlled the creation...If some belong to the order of the priesthood they will be able to go within the veil with the high priest....There is glory which surpasses glory. There is power which surpasses power. Therefore the perfect things have opened to us, together with the hidden things of truth. The holies of the holies were revealed, and the bridal chamber invited us in." ( 84, 20- 85, 21).

"Indeed, one must utter a mystery. The father of everything united with the virgin who came down, and a fire shone for him on that day. He appeared in the great bridal chamber. Therefore, his body came into being on that very day. It left the bridal chamber as one who came into being from the bridegroom and the bride. So Jesus established everything in it through these. It is fitting for each of the disciples to enter into his rest.

"Adam came into being from two virgins, from the spirit and from the virgin earth. Christ, therefore, was born from a virgin to rectify the fall which occurred in the beginning." (71, 3-21).

In the same work, it is said that the bridal chamber imagery also applies to evil spirits. "Great is the mystery of marriage! For [without] it the world would [not exist]......The forms of evil spirit include male ones and female ones. The males are they that unite with the souls which inhabit a female form, but the females are they which are mingled with those in a male form, through one who was disobedient. And none shall be able to escape them, since they detain him if he does not receive a male power or a female power, the bridegroom and the bride. One receives them from the mirrored bridal chamber." ( 64, 31- 12)

The bride image is found also in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 21:1-2) which is closest of all New Testament books to Qumran.

The theme enables a connection to be made between Valentinian bridal imagery and the bridal imagery used by Simon Magus. The connection is made in the histories of Eusebius, a Christian historian of c. 260-c.339 AD. It would mean that the gnostic predecessor of Valentinus had been Simon Magus, consistently with the indications of a first century date. A connection between the apostle Philip and Simon Magus is shown in Acts 8:9-13.

Eusebius shows that the Valentinian bridal imagery was condemned by the Christian father Irenaeus (c. 130-c.200). "The same Irenaeus powerfully exposed the bottomless pit of the system of Valentinus with its many errors, and unbared his secret and latent wickedness while he was lurking like a reptile.... (Irenaeus wrote of a related initiator) 'Some of them construct a bride-chamber, and celebrate a mystery with certain invocations on their initiate, and say that what they do is a spiritual marriage...others bring them to water and baptize them with this invocation, 'To the name of the unknown Father of the universe, to Truth, the mother of all things, to him who descended into Jesus', and others invoke Hebrew words in order more fully to amaze the initiate.'" (Eccl. Hist. 4, 11, 3-6).

Eusebius also refers to Irenaeus' condemnation of Simon Magus and his "unholy and foul teaching." Eusebius writes: "Simon was the first author of all heresy. From him, and down to the present time, those who have followed, feigning the Christian philosophy, with its sobriety and universal fame for purity of life, have in no way improved on the idolatrous superstition from which they thought to be set free, for they prostrate themselves before pictures and images of Simon himself and of Helena, who was mentioned with him, and undertake to worship them with incense and sacrifices and libations. Their more secret rites, at which they say that he who first hears them will be astonished, and according to a scripture current among them will be 'thrown into a marvel', truly are full of marvel and frenzy and madness; for they are of such a kind that they not merely cannot be related in writing, but are so full of baseness and unspeakable conduct that they cannot even be mentioned by the lips of decent men. For whatever foulness might be conceived beyond all that is base, it is surpassed by the utter foulness of the heresy of these men, who make a mocking sport of wretched women, weighed down, as is truly said, by every kind of evil." (Eccl. Hist. 2,13, 5-8).

The data is accounted for if Simon Magus used sexual symbolism in his secret rites, if the actual apostle Philip preserved the symbolism in a Christian version before 70 AD, and it was preserved in the Magian version by Valentinus in the second century. The gospel of Philip deals with the marriage of Jesus with Mary Magdalene because it was understood as symbolic of the union of Jesus with Gentiles, in the context of the Christian version of the practice found in the Book of Revelation. In the generation of Jesus, gnostic thinking had not yet become sharply opposed to Christianity, and it was only because of the libertarian excesses of gnostics that the subsequent separation took place.