Valentinus
(2nd century A.D.)

From papal candidate to leading Gnostic

A brilliant theologian who taught in Alexandria, Egypt (the Oxford of his day), Valentinus moved to Rome in about A.D. 136 and quickly became a candidate for pope, then known as bishop of Rome. Not only was he not elected, he was excommunicated when he later emerged as leader of a heresy known as Gnosticism, which taught that only a select few receive gnosis (“knowledge” in Greek) from God about how to find salvation.

With this conviction, Valentinus proceeded to reinterpret the Bible—misinterpret, charged critics such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. For Valentinus, the most important lessons of Scripture came not from the obvious meaning but from the symbolism beneath the words. This method of biblical interpretation, called allegory, allowed Valentinus to create elaborate stories and teachings that blurred the lines between Christianity, mysticism, philosophy, and Judaism.

To the Genesis sketch of Creation, for example, Valentinus added a number of details. Throughout the ages, according to Valentinus, God produced 15 spiritual couples who personified divine characteristics such as goodness and truth. One being, Sophia (Greek for “wisdom”), rejected her partner because her only passion was to know everything about God. By herself she conceived and gave birth to a deformed child, whom she named Ialdabaoth (probably meaning “Child of Chaos”). Out of the elements of creation, her son (the diety portrayed in the Old Testament) produced the dark world of humanity and infused it with numbness toward God. Jesus, God’s great revelator, came to awaken people to the “deep things of God.”

For Valentinus and other Gnostics, there was no mixing of the spiritual world with ...

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