Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead


OF the life of Ptolemy, one of the oldest pupils of Valentinus, we know absolutely nothing.. It was through some of the pupils of Ptolemy mainly that Irenæus (I. i.-viii.) become acquainted with a rough outline of some of the ideas of the developed Gnosticism of this line of tradition; but whether or not Ptolemy himself was alive when the Presbyter of Lyons wrote the opening chapters of his Refutation, somewhere about A.D. 185-195, it is impossible to say. Of the writings of Ptolemy two fragments alone have been preserved: an interpretation of the magnificent Proem of the Beginnings still extant in the Prologue to the fourth canonical Gospel (Iren., I. viii. 5), and a letter to a lady called Flora, quoted by Epiphanius (Hær., xxxiii.).

Whether or not the teaching of Ptolemy had any essential differences from that of his master Valentinus, it is at present impossible to decide; and the copied statement of Tertullian (Adv. Valent., 4)--that with Ptolemy the names and numbers of the æons were separated into personal substances external to Deity, whereas with Valentinus these substances had been included in the sum of the Godhead, as sensations, affections, and emotions--is perfectly unintelligible to the student of Gnosticism.

We will first consider the Letter to Flora, and then the interpretation of the Logos-doctrine Proem. The The Letter to Flora.Letter to Flora gives the view which the Valentinian to Flora. tradition held concerning the world-process, the old Covenant theology, and the documents of the Jewish law.

Opinions, says Ptolemy, are divided; some holding the one extreme and contending that the Jews’ Law came direct from God and the Father (the Logos); others maintaining the absolute contrary, and declaring that it emanated from the opposite power, the destroyer, the god of this world (the Accuser or Diabolos). Both of these extreme views are unwise. On the one hand, the Law is evidently imperfect, as may be seen from the crude ideas ascribed to God in some of the documents, ideas foreign to the nature and judgments of the God of the Christ; and on the other, the world-process cannot be the work of an unjust power, for the Saviour Himself declared that a house divided against itself cannot stand; and the "Apostle" long ago robbed of its sting the "baseless wisdom" (?νυπ?στατον σοφ?αν) of such liars, in the words, "all things were made by Him," the Logos, and not by a god of destruction.

Ptolemy, like the rest of the Valentinians, condemns as strongly such false gnosis as later the now-called "orthodox" Fathers, headed by Irenæus, condemned all gnosis. But at this time the phrase "knowledge falsely so called" was not a condemnation of all gnosis, for there still was an "orthodox" Christian gnosis, as Clement of Alexandria and others have so well shown.

Such views, then, are held only by those who are ignorant of the causative law; the one body of extremists being ignorant of the God of Justice (the framer of the karmic law), the other of the All-Father, whom the Saviour was the first to know and proclaim to the Jews.

The Gnostics held a middle position between these extremes, the only possible one. Ptolemy thus proceeds The "Higher Criticism."to answer the doubts of Flora entirely in  the spirit of what is now called the "Higher Criticism"; he lays down a position immediately self-evident to the cultured Gnostic genius, and said to be based on the words of Jesus, but only recovered by modern scholarship after many long centuries of obscurantism.

The law, as set forth in the Five Books ascribed to Moses, is not from one source, that is to say, not from God alone. In fact, three sources may be distinguished: (1) laws given by Moses under inspiration; (2) laws enacted by Moses himself; (3) laws added by the elders.

This division is borne out by the "Words of the Saviour"; for with regard to divorce He taught that it was permitted by Moses only because of the Jews’ hardness of heart, whereas the Law of God from the beginning laid down that husband and wife should not be sundered. The law of Moses was simply an enactment of expediency, it was not the Law. Moreover, the traditions of the elders were equally not the Law. For the inspired Law taught that honour was due to father and mother; and Jesus had opposed this old truth of karmic duty to the ignorant tradition of the elders, which taught that anything given to father or mother by the child was a gift--a phrase which Ptolemy quotes differently from the readings of either of the synoptic documents that still preserve it; namely, "whatsoever benefit thou receivest from me, is a gift to God."

Thus three distinct sources are to be distinguished, only one of which can be referred to what can in any sense be called revelation.

Again, as to the first division, this in its turn is resolvable into three elements: (1) a good element (the Decalogue), endorsed and completed by the teaching of Christ; (2) a bad element, which He set aside, the "eye for an eye" law of retaliation; and (3) the typical and symbolical rites, such as circumcision, the sabbath and fasting, which the Christ translated from their sensible and phenomenal forms into their spiritual and invisible meaning. This is borne out in a remarkable fashion by one of the newly discovered Sayings: "Jesus saith, Except ye fast to the world, ye shall in no wise find the Kingdom of God; and except ye sabbatize the sabbath, ye shall not see the Father." (See Sayings of Our Lord, Grenfell and Hunt; London, 1897).

Thus with regard to the third element, the Christ taught that the "offerings" to God were not to consist of incense and the slaughter of irrational animals, but of spiritual thanksgiving, and goodwill and good works to our neighbours; that circumcision was not of anything physical, but of the spiritual heart; that keeping the sabbath was resting from evil works; and in like manner fasting was from baser things, and not from physical food.

From what source, then, came the "inspiration" of Moses in establishing such observances? From a source midway between the world of men and the God over all; that is to say, from the intermediate The Source of Moses’ Inspiration.realms, or world-soul, the fabricative power of this physical world. The source of Moses’ inspiration was not the Perfect Deity of the Christ, but an inferior source, not good (for God alone is really good), nor evil (the power which opposes good alone being evil), but imperfect; the power of the adjuster or arbitrator. This source is inferior to the Perfect Deity; it is only conditionally righteous or just, and so inferior to the perfect righteousness and justice of God. The maker or soul of our world is generable, the creator of the divine creation ingenerable. But the world-maker is superior to the opposer, the world, whose substance is destruction and darkness, and whose matter is material and manifoldly divided. But the substance of the cosmic spaces of the ingenerable Father (the cosmic spaces, or "universals," as opposed to the "world," or our earth; the cosmic planes as distinguished from the terrestrial) is incorruptibility and self-existent Light, simple and one.

The substance of these cosmic spaces is differentiated in an incomprehensible manner into two powers or aspects, soul enforming body; that is to say, the "planetary soul" enforming the "earth." This soul is an image of the ideal cosmos, and it is from one of its powers that Moses received his inspiration.

So far the sensible letter of Ptolemy to Flora; in which the Gnostic doctor, by his knowledge of the unseen world and understanding of the teaching of the Christ, intuitively applies a canon of criticism to the contents of the Pentateuch, which the best scholarship of our own century has taken a hundred years to establish intellectually.

The Proem to the Fourth Gospel.We will now proceed to consider the interpretation which Ptolemy gave to the glorious Proem that now stands at the head of the fourth Gospel.

The Beginning is the first principle brought into being by God, and in it the Father emanated all things in germ, or potentially. This Beginning is called Mind, Son, and Alone-begotten (that is to say, brought forth by the Father alone).

The next phase of being was the emanation of the Logos (Reason or Word) in the first principle, the Beginning or Mind. This Logos in His turn contained in Himself the whole substance of the Æons, which substance the Logos enformed.

According to the Lexicon of the Alexandrian Hesychius, the philosophical meaning of the term Logos is "the cause of action" (? το? δρ?ματος ?π?θεσις).

The opening words, therefore, treat of the divine hypostases.

"In the Beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was (one) with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the Beginning (one) with God." I translate the phrase πρ?ς τ?ν Θε?ν by the words "one with God," and not by the simple and familiar "with God," on the authority of Ptolemy (? πρ?ς ?λλ?λους ?μα κα? ? πρ?ς τ?ν πατ?ρα ?νωσις), seeing that the simple English preposition "with" does not convey the sense of the Greek.

First of all there is a distinction made between the three, God, Beginning and Logos, and then they are at-oned, or identified; in order that first the emanation of the two from the one may be shown--of the Son (or Beginning or Mind) and of the Logos from the Father)--and then the identification or at-one-ment of the two with each other and with the Father may be indicated.

For in the Father and from the Father is the Beginning; and in the Beginning and from the Beginning is the Logos. Well said is it then, "In the Beginning was the Logos," for He was in the Son (or Mind).

"And the Logos was (one) with God." For the Beginning is one with God, and, consequently, the Logos is one. For what is of God, is God.

"All came into being through Him, and without Him nothing had being." That is, the Logos was the cause of the divine or æonic creation.

But "that which has its being in Him is Life"--the syzygy or consort of the Logos.

The Æons came into being through Him, but Life was in him. And she who is in Him, is more akin to Him than they who came into being through Him. For she is united to Him and bears fruit through Him.

"And the Life was the Light of men"--"men" signifying first of all the supernal Man and his spouse, the Church, for they were enlightened, or brought to light through Life. Thus far concerning the Pleroma or divine world.

The next verse, "The Light shineth in the Darkness and the Darkness comprehended it not," refers to the sensible universe. For though the chaos of the sensible universe was made into cosmos by the passion of the Divine Æon, the sensible world knew Him not. And this Æon is thus Truth and Life, and "Word made flesh," in the cosmic process. It is the enlightened only who have "beheld His glory," the glory of the Alone-begotten Son, the Divine Æon or Pleroma, given unto Him by the Father, full of Grace (another name for Silence and Peace) and Truth.

And thus, said Ptolemy, distinct reference to the two tetraktydes--Father and Silence, Mind and Truth, Word and Life, Man and Church--is contained in the Proem.

Such was the nature of the exegesis of Ptolemy with regard to the Proem of the Logos-doctrine, and here we must reluctantly leave him, for we have no further information.

Irenæus’ summary, in his opening chapters, of what he had picked up concerning the tenets of "them of Ptolemy," differs but slightly from the outlines of the æon-process and Sophia-mythus drama already familiar to our readers from the account of Hippolytus.



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