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Valentinus (also spelled Valentinius; c. 100 – c. 160 A.D.) was the best known and for a time most successful early Christian gnostic theologian. He founded his school in Rome. According to Tertullian, Valentinus was a candidate for bishop of Rome but started his own group when another was chosen.
Valentinus produced a variety of writings, but only fragments survive, largely those embedded in refuted quotations in the works of his opponents, not enough to reconstruct his system except in broad outline. His doctrine is known to us only in the developed and modified form given to it by his disciples. He taught that there were three kinds of people, the spiritual, psychical, and material; and that only those of a spiritual nature (his own followers) received the gnosis (knowledge) that allowed them to return to the divine Pleroma, while those of a psychic nature (ordinary Christians) would attain a lesser form of salvation, and that those of a material nature (pagans and Jews) were doomed to perish.
Valentinus was born in Phrebonis in the Nile delta and educated in Alexandria, an important and metropolitan early Christian centre. There he may have heard the Christian philosopher Basilides and certainly became conversant with Hellenistic Middle Platonic philosophy and the culture of Hellenized Jews like the great Alexandrian Jewish allegorist and philosopher Philo. Clement of Alexandria records that his followers said that Valentinus was a follower of Theudas and that Theudas in turn was a follower of St. Paul the Apostle. Valentinus said that Theudas imparted to him the secret wisdom that Paul had taught privately to his inner circle, which Paul publicly referred to in connection with his visionary encounter with the risen Christ (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Corinthians 12:2-4; Acts 9:9-10), when he received the secret teaching from him. Such esoteric teachings were downplayed in Rome after the mid-2nd century.
Valentinus taught first in Alexandria and went to Rome about 136 AD, during the pontificate of Pope Hyginus, and remained until the pontificate of Pope Anicetus. In Adversus Valentinianos, iv, Tertullian says:
- 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.
Commonly unaccepted, we cannot know the accuracy of this statement, since it is delivered by his orthodox adversary Tertullian, but according to a tradition reported in the late fourth century by Epiphanius, he withdrew to Cyprus, where he continued to teach and draw adherents. He died probably about 160 or 161 AD.
While Valentinus was alive he made many disciples, and his system was the most widely diffused of all the forms of Gnosticism, although, as Tertullian remarked, it developed into several different versions, not all of which acknowledged their dependence on him ("they affect to disavow their name"). Among the more prominent disciples of Valentinus were Bardaisan, invariably linked to Valentinus in later references, as well as Heracleon, Ptolemy and Marcus. Many of the writings of these Gnostics, and a large number of excerpts from the writings of Valentinus, existed only in quotes displayed by their orthodox detractors, until 1945, when the cache of writings at Nag Hammadi revealed a Coptic version of the Gospel of Truth, which is the title of a text that, according to Irenaeus, was the same as the Gospel of Valentinus mentioned by Tertullian in his Against All Heresies.
The Christian heresiologists also wrote details about the life of Valentinus, often scurrilous. As mentioned above, Tertullian claimed that Valentinus was a candidate for bishop, after which he turned to heresy in a fit of pique. Epiphanius wrote that Valentinus gave up the true faith after he had suffered a shipwreck in Cyprus and became insane. These descriptions can be reconciled, and are not impossible; but few scholars cite these accounts as other than rhetorical insults.
"Valentinianism" is the name for the school of gnostic philosophy tracing back to Valentinus. It was one of the major gnostic movements, having widespread following throughout the Roman Empire and provoking voluminous writings by Christian heresiologists. Notable Valentinians included Heracleon, Ptolemy, Florinus, Marcus and Axionicus.
Valentinus professed to have derived his ideas from Theodas or Theudas, a disciple of St. Paul. Valentinus drew freely on some books of the New Testament. Unlike a great number of other gnostic systems, which are expressly dualist, Valentinus developed a system that was more monistic, albeit expressed in dualistic terms.
Valentinian literature described the Primal Being or Bythos as the beginning of all things who, after ages of silence and contemplation, gave rise to other beings by a process of emanation. The first series of beings, the aeons, were thirty in number, representing fifteen syzygies or pairs sexually complementary. Through the error of Sophia, one of the lowest aeons, and the ignorance of Sakla, the lower world with its subjection to matter is brought into existence. Man, the highest being in the lower world, participates in both the psychic and the hylic (material) nature, and the work of redemption consists in freeing the higher, the spiritual, from its servitude to the lower. This was the word and mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Valentinius' Christology may have posited the existence of three redeeming beings, but Jesus while on Earth had a supernatural body which, for instance, "did not experience corruption" by defecating, according to Clement: there is also no mention of the account of Jesus's suffering in First Epistle of Peter, nor of any other, in any Valentinian text. The Valentinian system was comprehensive, and was worked out to cover all phases of thought and action.
Valentinius was among the early Christians who attempted to align Christianity with Platonism, drawing dualist conceptions from the Platonic world of ideal forms (pleroma) and the lower world of phenomena (kenoma). Of the mid-2nd century thinkers and preachers who were declared heretical by Irenaeus and later mainstream Christians, only Marcion of Sinope is as outstanding as a personality. The contemporary orthodox counter to Valentinius was Justin Martyr, though it was Irenaeus of Lyons who presented the most vigorous challenge to the Valentinians.
In the fourth-century, Marcellus of Ancyra declared that the idea of the Godhead existing as three hypostases (hidden spiritual realities) came from Plato through the teachings of Valentinus, who is quoted as teaching that God is three hypostases and three prosopa (persons) called the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit:
- "Now with the heresy of the Ariomaniacs, which has corrupted the Church of God... These then teach three hypostases, just as Valentinus the heresiarch first invented in the book entitled by him 'On the Three Natures'. For he was the first to invent three hypostases and three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he is discovered to have filched this from Hermes and Plato." 
Since Valentinus had used the term hypostases, his name came up in the Arian disputes in the fourth century. Marcellus of Ancyra, who was a staunch opponent of Arianism but also denounced the belief in God existing in three hypostases as heretical, and was later condemned for his views, attacked his opponents (On the Holy Church, 9) by linking them to Valentinus:
- "Valentinus, the leader of a sect, was the first to devise the notion of three subsistent entities (hypostases), in a work that he entitled On the Three Natures. For, he devised the notion of three subsistent entities and three persons — father, son, and holy spirit."
It should be noted that the Nag Hammadi library Sethian text Trimorphic Protennoia identifies Gnosticism as professing Father, Son and feminine wisdom Sophia or as Professor John D. Turner denotes, God the Father, Sophia the Mother, and Logos the Son.
Shortly after Valentinus' death, Irenaeus began his massive work On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, better known as Adversus Haereses with a highly colored and negative view of Valentinus and his teachings that occupies most of his first book. A modern student, M. T. Riley, observes that Tertullian's Adversus Valentinianos retranslated some passages from Irenaeus, without adding original material. Later, Epiphanius of Salamis discussed and dismissed him (Haer., XXXI). As with all the non-traditional early Christian writers, Valentinus has been known largely through quotations in the works of his detractors, though an Alexandrian follower also preserved some fragmentary sections as extended quotes. A Valentinian teacher Ptolemy refers to "apostolic tradition which we too have received by succession" in his Letter to Flora. Ptolemy is known only for this letter to a wealthy gnostic lady named Flora, a letter itself only known by its full inclusion in Epiphanius' Panarion; it relates the gnostic view of the Law of Moses, and the situation of the Demiurge relative to this law. The possibility should not be ignored that the letter was composed by Epiphanius, in the manner of composed speeches that ancient historians put into the mouths of their protagonists, as a succinct way to sum up.
The Gospel of Truth
A new field in Valentinian studies opened when the Nag Hammadi library was discovered in Egypt in 1945. Among the very mixed bag of works classified as gnostic was a series of writings which could be associated with Valentinus, particularly the Coptic text called the Gospel of Truth which bears the same title reported by Irenaeus as belonging to a text by Valentinus. It is a declaration of the unknown name of the Father; possession of which enables the knower to penetrate the veil of ignorance that has separated all created beings from the Father, and declares Jesus Christ as Savior has revealed that name through a variety of modes laden with a language of abstract elements.
- Adversus Valentinianos 4.
- Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005, article Valentinus
- Irenaeus, Adversus Haeresies i. 6
- Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, book 7, chapter 17. "Likewise they allege that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas. And he was the pupil of Paul."
- The article esoteric Christianity focuses on Early Modern and modern esoteric Christian revivals.
- Tertullian. "Against All Heresies: Valentinus, Ptolemy and Secundus, Heracleon (Book I, Chapter 4)". NewAdvent.org.
- 'Valentinian gnosticism [...] differs essentially from dualism' (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 1978); 'a standard element in the interpretation of Valentinianism and similar forms of Gnosticism is the recognition that they are fundamentally monistic' (William Schoedel, 'Gnostic Monism and the Gospel of Truth' in The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Vol.1: The School of Valentinus, edited by Bentley Layton, E.J.Brill, Leiden, 1980).
- Clement, Stromateis 3.59.3 translated B. Layton p. 239.
- A.H.B. Logan, "Marcellus of Ancyra (Pseudo-Anthimus), 'On the Holy Church': Text, Translation and Commentary. Verses 8-9." Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 51.1, April 2000:95.
- Marcellus, in Logan 2000:95
- Early Christian Writings: Valentinus
- M.T. Riley.
- Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.11.9.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Valentinus and The Valentinians.|
- The ancient primary sources for Valentinus are: Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.1 seq. and III.4; Hippolytus of Rome, Philosophumena, VI, 20-37; Tertullian, Adv. Valentin.; Epiphanius, Panarion, 31 (including the Letter to Flora); Theodoret, Haer. Fab., I, 7.
- Francis Legge, Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity, From 330 B.C. to 330 A.D. (1914), reprinted in two volumes bound as one, University Books New York, 1964. LC Catalog 64-24125.
- James M. Robinson (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Library in English (1977). New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-066933-0. The Gospel of Truth is on pp. 37–49.
- Valentinus and the Valentinian Tradition - an extremely comprehensive collection of material on Valentinian mythology, theology and tradition (from the Gnosis Archive website).
- Valentinus - A Gnostic for All Seasons Introductory essay by Stephan A. Hoeller (from the Gnosis Archive website).
- Patristic Material on Valentinus Complete collection of patristic sources mentioning Valentinus, including the works of Tertullian. Use the index search function to search the texts for specific references (again at the Gnosis Archive website).
- Catholic Encyclopedia Valentinus.
- Catholic Encyclopedia The Marcosians.
- Early Christian Writings: Valentinus, introductions and e-texts.