THE GNOSTIC THREEFOLD PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT
The Ascent of Mind and the Descent of Wisdom
Novum Testamentum XXII, 4 (1980)
JOHN D. TURNER
Many things in Late Antiquity come in threes: three
levels of being, three periods of history, three stages of initiation into
the mysteries and into the study of philosophy, three stages of the mystical
ascent, even the Christian Trinity. Such triads are to be found in a number
of Gnostic systems as well. Significant instances of these triads have
now come to light in Gnostic documents at home in the so-called Barbeloite
Gnosticism of the second century CE. Because some of these documents were
read by Plotinus' circle in Rome during the third century CE., the question
of the relationship of these documents to contemporary Neoplatonism is
immediately raised. Yet these systematized triads go back a long way in
Western antiquity, at least as far back as Plato. Beginning with him, and
perhaps a good deal before him, the systematic tripartition of the universe
into stratified levels of reality and the tripartition of the process by
which one comes to know this universe becomes more widespread and increasingly
dogmatic in western philosophy and religion. The pattern that emerges is
what one might call the three-stage path to spiritual fulfillment, a sort
of tripartite structure of spiritual paidaeia by which Hellenistic man
might come to know himself, his world, and his place in it. This three-fold
path is, of course, found in both Greek and Jewish non-gnostic literature.
Specifically however, I suggest that when Gnostic literature portrays this
path as a three-stage ascent of the soul to the deity, we have to do with
the Platonic tradition, when it portrays this path as a three-fold descent
of the deity (or some aspect thereof) to the soul in the lower world, we
have to do with primarily Jewish traditions.
The Gnostic documents to which I wish to call attention
are five treatises from the Nag Hammadi Coptic Gnostic Library, all of
which are available in translation,
and all of which seem to belong to a single Gnostic group or sect, the
so-called Barbelo-Gnostics described in book I, ch. 29 of Irenaeus' Against
the Heresies. The treatises are: the well-known Apocryphon
of John (Ap. John) from Codex II, and the less well-known
treatises Trimorphic Protennoia (Trim. Prot.) from
Codex XIII, Allogenes from Codex II, Zostrianos (Zost.)
from Codex VIII and The Three Steles of Seth (Steles Seth)
from Codex VII. Strictly speaking, two other treatises, Marsanes
from Codex X, and the anonymous concluding tractate of the Bruce Codex
belong to this group, since they clearly draw on the same fund of mythologumena
found in the other five treatises (e.g. Invisible Spirit, Triple Power,
Barbelo, Triple Male and the Kalyptos-Protophanes-Autogenes triad), but
their position in the group seems to be derivative rather than constitutive.
I begin with some observations about the contents and genealogical interrelationships
of the five main Barbeloite treatises, and then turn to the question of
their affinity with Platonic metaphysics.
I. THE BARBELOITES
Near the turn of the century, Carl Schmidt showed that the Christian-Gnostic
Apocryphon of John contained in the then recently discovered Berlin Gnostic
Codex represented a version of the Barbeloite Gnostic system described
around 180 CE by Irenaeus in his Against the Heresies (I, 29.1-4)..
Since the Nag Hammadi find, we now possess three more copies of this Ap.
John. One of them (NHC III,1: 1,1-40,11) is nearly identical
with the Ap. John of the Berlin Codex (BG 8502, 2:
19,6-77,7), with which it witnesses a shorter recension of Ap. John.
The other two copies (NHC II, 1: 1,1-32,9; NHC IV,1: 1,1-49,28)
belong to a longer recension of Ap. John.
In the text common to all four versions of Ap.
John, the central figure who initiates the salvation of the Gnostic
is the First Thought of the Invisible Spirit, Barbelo, often called Pronoia,
Metropator, the merciful Father of the All. The saving drama is motivated
by Barbelo's attempt to rescue her productive power of thought from the
clutches of Sophia's ignorant offspring Yaldabaoth, who has captured it
in the lower world by incarnating it into Adam, his counterfeit copy of
Barbelo's male aspect. Her saving mission is conceived in three descents
which mark three successive saving dispensations: first as the Autogenes
Christ who causes the Archon to blow pneuma into the inert Adam (BG, 51,1-52,1);
second, as the Epinoia of Light who appears in the form of the spiritual
Eve (Zoe) or of the tree of knowledge (BG, 52,18-53,20; 59,660,20); and
third, as the Christ of the frame story who now reveals the gnosis to John
In the longer versions of Ap. John,
this third saving descent is spelled out in the form of a concluding hymnic
composition of three stanzas (II, 1: 30,11-31,25), which in effect
recapitulates the three descents just narrated. Each stanza narrates in
the first person a separate descent of Pronoia, the First Thought of the
Unknown God, into the world of chaos to gather up her lost members. At
the first two descents (II, 30,11-21; 21-32) this divine First Thought
shakes up the world of chaos and its ruling powers; however, because the
time is not yet propitious, she does not rescue her members, but re-ascends
to the light. On the third descent (II, 30,32-31,25), the First Thought
descends to the prison, said to be the body; she awakens the soul from
its corporeal forgetfulness, reminds it of its origins, and raises it up
to the light by a sort of mystery initiation called the five seals.
This triadic Pronoia hymn had a further history,
for it was soon expanded into a larger independent tractate, the Trimorphic
Protennoia of Codex XIII, 1: 35,1-50,24).
Instead of a short hymn each of whose stanzas relates a single descent
of the saving First Thought of God, Trim. Prot. is a full
treatise. It is divided into three separate sub-tractates, each one relating
a separate descent of the First Thought of the Unknown God into the lower
world. Each descent seems to depict not only a separate saving dispensation,
but also a different modality of the First Thought. She descends first
as Father, Barbelo, the Voice of the Unknown God's First Thought, she reaches
down to chaos and loosens the bonds of her members by explaining to them
the evil powers that enslave them ("The Discourse on Protennoia", XIII,
35,1-42,3). She descends second as Mother, Meirothea, the Sound of the
Voice of the First Thought, and inaugurates the shift from the old Aeon,
ruled by the powers of Destiny, to the new Aeon of salvation whose advent
she announces to her fallen members ("On the Heimarmene," XIII, 42,4-46,4).
She descends the third time as Son, Christ the Logos or Word of the Voice
of the First Thought, and disguising herself from successively lower levels
of evil powers, she leads her members back into the light by means of the
noetic ascent ritual of the five seals ("The Discourse on the Appearance,"
Clearly TriPot derives its structural division into
three subtractates from the three stanzas of the Pronoia hymn concluding
the longer ending of Ap. John. Furthermore, compositional
seams and other formal and material considerations enable one to see that
after the short opening aretalogy (XIII, 35,1-32), each sub-tractate is
also composed of three sub-sections: an aretalogy cast in the ego eimi
style of self-predication (35,32-37,3 on the Voice; 42,4-16 on the Sound,
46,5-32 on the Logos); a doctrinal exposition (37,3-40,29 on Barbeloite
cosmology; 42,17-44,29 on eschatology; 46,33-48,35 on soteriology), and
a closing aretalogy in which Protennoia narrates her saving deeds in the
first person (40,29-42,2; 44,29-46,3; the final section seems to be a later
Sethian-Christian conclusion, 48,35-50,20). The doctrinal exposition of
the first sub-tractate constitutes the other main point of contact between
Trim. Prot. and Ap. John, since it contains
a version of the Barbeloite cosmogony and Sophia myth common to the portions
of Ap. John that parallel Iren. Haer. I, 29.1-4 (=
BG, 26,14-44,19 = II, 4,19-13,13). Glosses containing the name of Christ
inserted into this Barbeloite cosmogony betray a process of Christianization
at work in Trim. Prot., a process which is most evident in
the later Sethian-Christian conclusion of the entire treatise, according
to which Protennoia raises Jesus aloft from the cross. In Ap. John,
the originally non-Christian Pronoia hymn was made serviceable to Christian
Barbeloite Gnosticism simply by being appended to a treatise already of
that character. In Trim. Prot., the Pronoia hymn provided
a framework which was expanded in the form of lengthy aretalogies, then
drawn into the Barbeloite sphere through the interpolation of the Barbeloite
cosmogony, and then Christianized by means of the Christian-Sethian conclusion.
At this point, two other Barbeloite documents call for comment.
In Codex XI, we find the treatise Allogenes,
and in Codex VIII a document containing much the same doctrine, Zost.
Now these documents are very probably those Gnostic revelations of the
same name which Porphyry in his Life of Plotinus 16
says were displayed before Plotinus' circle in Rome around CE 244-269.
The first section of Allogenes (XI, 45,1-49,38) contains a cosmology
whose structure and inhabitants are nearly identical with those of Zost..
and Steles Seth, and to a lesser degree with those found
in Irenaeus' Barbeloite source and ill the Ap. John. Although
it contains a brief sketch relating the unfolding of the supreme principle
into its subordinate powers, Allogenes mostly confines its attention
to a cosmology which analyses the cosmos into three levels. The highest
level is occupied by the Unknown God and/or the Invisible Spirit, who seems
to be related to the immediately subjacent intelligible world through a
mediating principle called the Triple Power, a single being who exists
in three modalities, Being, Vitality and Mentality.
The second level is occupied by the Aeon of Barbelo, the self-knowledge
of the Unknown God, who consists of three aspects or hypostases: Kalyptos,
Protophanes and Autogenes (a fourth being, Triple Male, is present in the
Aeon of Barbelo, but its position therein is uncertain.
The third level of the world is not described, but only alluded to as the
realm of Nature, Physis. The second section of Allogenes contains
a revelation of the way to the divine vision, related by a figure named
Youel, who figures as a minor power in Zostrianos and the anonymous
Gnostic tractate of the Bruce Codex. The final section of Allogenes
reports the successful completion of Allogenes' visionary ascent through
the intelligible world of the Aeon of Barbelo, and then through the modalities
of the Triple Power, from the level of self-knowledge (i.e. blessedness
or Mentality), through the level of Vitality, to the level of Existence;
at the summit of the world of being, the Triple Power reveals itself and
the Unknown One above it to Allogenes by a primary revelation of the Unknown
God (XI, 58,26-61,20). This primary revelation is a negative theology which
contains a word-for-word parallel with the Coptic text of a similar negative
theology at the beginning of all versions of Ap. John (XI,
62,28-63,23 = BG, 23,3-26,13 = II, 3,18-35). Thus not only Trim.
Prot., but also Allogenes is documentarily dependent on some
version of Ap. John.
In Allogenes, the triad of the Unknown God,
his self-knowledge, and Nature is rather close to Plotinus' triad of the
One, Intellect and Soul, in which the lower soul is called Nature. Furthermore,
Plotinus a number of times alludes to a tripartition of Intellect, .his
second hypostasis, into Being, Life and Intellect, much as the Being, Vitality
and Mentality triad of Allogenes (XI, 49,28-38) represents the tripartition
of the Triple Power of the Invisible Spirit.
The triadic scheme of Allogenes is also present
in Zost., although Zost.. seems to interpret the ascent through
various levels by a series of baptisms. The Steles Seth utilizes
a triadic ontology similar to the one found in Allogenes, but instead
of systematically expounding it, Steles Seth conveys glimpses
of it in the course of three lengthy aretalogical doxologies addressed
respectively to Adamas (a sort of ideal Anthropos figure), Barbelo, and
lastly the Unknown God. The concluding paragraph of Steles Seth
makes it clear that these three doxologies are to be used in connection
with a spiritual ascent and descent, consisting of three stages. Besides
the three-level cosmology and the use of the Kalyptos-Protophanes-Autogenes
triad, Allogenes, Zost., and Steles Seth all
witness the triad Being or Existence, Vitality, and Mentality found incipiently
in Plotinus and perhaps Porphyry, and rampantly in Proclus and Damascius.
We have an interlocking web of five Barbeloite Gnostic
treatises. Zost.. and Steles Seth clearly display
the same cosmology and terminology found in Allogenes; Allogenes
and Trim. Prot. are both literarily dependent on some version
of Ap. John, and the central figure that relates them all
is Barbelo, the First Thought of the Unknown God. As his Intellect or Self-Knowledge,
Barbelo constitutes the focus of the Gnostic experience of salvation. All
five treatises possess a three-level ontology consisting of a level beyond
being, an intelligible or aeonic level, and a lower realm of Nature sometimes
so devalued as to be called Chaos or the prison. In each, the intelligible
world, the Aeon of Barbelo, is also tripartitioned whether structurally
(the three levels of Allogenes, Zost., Steles Seth)
or narratively (the three descents of Pro[ten]noia in Ap. John
and Trim. Prot.). The goal of each treatise is to reunite
the Gnostic's intellect to its source in the aeonic world by the reception
of a revelation of and from the highest realm made available to the lowest.
Yet in spite of these similarities, these five treatises
are all different. They all deck out their ontological structure with various
hypostatic aeons, whose coming-to-be and deployment constitute a myth that
predominates in varying degrees in the various tractates. The major mythological
feature I take to be a cosmogony narrating the successive begetting of
personified powers or Aeons who occupy ever lower levels of being. Under
this definition, Ap. John and Trim. Prot. would
be the most mythological, with Zost., Steles Seth
and Allogenes as the least mythological, according to the degree
to which this mythological cosmogonic narrative predominates or is alluded
to. In the most mythological, Ap. John and Trim. Prot.,
revelation occurs through the three-stage descent of a divine noetic principle
into the world of mortals, while in the less mythological treatises, Zost.,
Steles Seth and especially Allogenes, the revelation
occurs only after the three-stage ascent of the Gnostic's intellect to
its own proper ontic level. Once one has caused one's mind to ascend to
the highest level of being, a revelation of the unknown God who is beyond
being is disclosed to the successful Gnostic. In Allogenes, this
"primary revelation" is a negative theology; one knows the Unknown God
by not knowing him (XI, 59,30-32; 61,17-19), a motif known already from
the Chaldean Oracles ("It is necessary to know [that one] . . . by stretching
a vacant mind to the object of knowledge" (p. 11 Kroll, frg. 1,7-9 des
In the main body of Ap. John, the
saving gnosis is mediated by the three descents of Barbelo: the merciful
Father (-Mother), in the guise of the Autogenes Christ who blows pneuma
into Adam; the Epinoia of Light who appears as the spiritual Eve (Zoe)
or as the tree of knowledge, and finally as the Christ of the frame story.
In the hymnic narrative of the threefold descent of the First Thought (Pronoia)
added to the longer version of Ap. John, the saving gnosis
is manifested on the third descent of the First Thought where she communicates
the mysterious five seals. Trim. Prot. is essentially an
expansion of the same scheme, except that here the three descents of the
First Thought are interpreted by a three-stage progressive revelation each
stage of which is identified by an auditory metaphor: the Father or Voice
who awakens the Gnostics from the bonds of oblivion, the Mother or Sound
of the Voice who overthrows the rule of Fate and announces the shift of
the ages; and the Son or Logos of the Voice, who strips away the corporeal
and psychic accretions and puts the garment of light on the Gnostic through
the five seals.
On the other hand, in the treatises Zost.,
Steles Seth and Allogenes, revelation is not brought
below by a descending revealer, but rather occurs only after the Gnostic
has ascended to the peak of the world of being in successive stages of
detachment and self-unification by an autonomous mystical technique; only
at this point does revelation of the Unknown God occur. To be sure, revelation
is brought down to the Gnostic in the form of these treatises themselves
according to which a famous mortal, Dositheus, Zoroaster or Allogenes,
has achieved the vision and redescended to communicate it by depositing
a record of their experience with a trusted disciple who teaches it to
others. But the means by which gnosis is achieved is a self-performable
technique. What occupies the center of attention in these treatises is
the structure of the divine world, not its production, and the spiritual
ascent through the intelligible levels of that divine world--here there
are no archons, no fall of the soul, no secret passwords, no dissolution
of the bonds of oblivion by a Redeemer.
II. THE PLATONIC LEGACY
The achievement of gnosis in three stages of enlightenment, whether conveyed
by a descent or an ascent, is not as such the legacy of Plato to these
Barbeloite treatises, since this feature is found also in Jewish and Christian
apocalyptic. Rather, the peculiar legacy of Plato is to be found in the
basically emanationistic metaphysical ontology that structures the transcendent
world of these treatises. In the final section, it will be suggested that
the three-stage descent scheme of these treatises is basically un-Platonic,
on the other hand, in these treatises, the three-stage ascent, although
found in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic, is of Platonic inspiration insofar
as the knower at each stage assimilates to his own being the form of being
proper to the level at which he finds himself. First we turn to the ontology
of these treatises, and then to their epistemology.
All five treatises seem to display at least a three-level ontology: a level
beyond being occupied by the Unknown God or Invisible Spirit; a level of
pure being occupied by the First Thought of the Unknown God, Barbelo and
her Aeon, and a perceptible level consisting of the material world. A fourth,
psychic level intermediate between the aeons and the material world is
possible, but is not consistently portrayed. In accordance with the Gnostic
ambivalence toward the soul and psychic existence, the metaphysical status
of the soul is ambiguous in these texts.
This three or perhaps four-level ontology seems
to be present in Ap. John and Trim. Prot.,
but in a less systematic manner. For them, the sphere of revelation is
predominantly the psychic and/or material sphere in which gnosis is conveyed
through a series of descents of the First Thought or some aspect thereof.
In Allogenes, Zost.. and Steles Seth, the three-
or four-level ontology is very prominent, since it forms the staircase
by which revelation is obtained by the Gnostic directly at the level from
which it derives, through a gradual ascent.
H.J. Krämer has pointed out that there are
two basic ontological structures prevalent in the Platonism of late antiquity.
One consists of three levels: 1) the sphere of pure being consisting of
a monadic intellectual principle containing the ideal forms and numbers;
2) the demiurgic sphere of the World Soul, often considered to be the lower
level of a bipartite Intellect rather than a separate sphere, and 3) the
sphere of the material principle. This structure, represented by most Middleplatonists
(Albinus, Apuleius, Celsus, Maximus and Numenius) and by Aristotle, is
said to derive from Xenocrates, the successor of Speusippus as leader of
the Old Academy after Plato's death. The other basic structure consists
of four levels and is the same as the three-level structure except that
a highest level beyond being, occupied by "the One," dominates the other
three. This structure is typical of Neo-pythagoreans (Nicomachus, Moderatus,
pseudonymous numerological treatises), Philo and many Gnostics (Basilides,
the monistic Valentinians of Hippolytus, the Megale Apophasis),
and is said to derive from the esoteric teaching of Plato and his successor
Speusippus. The four-level structure of course found its clearest exponent
in Plotinus with his spheres of the One, the Intellect, the Soul, and Matter.
It appears that the Barbeloite treatises belong to the four-level structure,
bearing in mind that the position of soul is ambiguous. In Ap. John
and Trim. Prot., soul has its roots in the Intellect, yet
it has fallen into the realm of matter through the abortive demiurgic work
of the indiscreet Sophia and the arrogant Yaldabaoth. In Allogenes
and in Steles Seth, which omit the Sophia myth, the soul
is not mentioned as such, although it may occupy the lowest level of Barbelo's
Aeon. Among the Barbeloite treatises, Allogenes certainly displays
the greatest interest in a systematic metaphysics. Because of its similarity
to Plotinus' metaphysics and because this treatise as well as Zost..
was almost certainly known to Plotinus and Porphyry (Vita Plot. 16), the
metaphysical structure of Allogenes merits some extended comment.
The cosmology of Allogenes is tripartite,
but belongs to the four-level metaphysic of Speusippus, the Neopythagoreans
and Plotinus. The highest being, corresponding to Plotinus' One, is the
Unknown God or Invisible Spirit, characterized by non-being existence,
silence and stillness, he is not an existing thing and is completely unknowable
(XI, 62,23-64,14). The second major level is that of the Aeon of Barbelo,
corresponding to Plotinus' Intellect, which consists of three personae:
Kalyptos (the nous noêtos), the domain of "the authentic existents"
(the noêta), Protophanes (the nous theôrêtikos
or kinoumenos akinêtos ôn), the domain of "those who
exist together" (cf. Enn. IV.1.1: ekei [en tôi nôi]
homou men pas nous ... homou de pasai psychai] ); and Autogenes
(the nous dianooumenos), the domain of the "individuals" (perhaps
individuated souls).The third level, Nature, is only alluded to, and appears
to hold no interest for the author of Allog.
Clearly the most intriguing feature of Allog's metaphysics, and perhaps
the crucial feature by which it can be placed at a definite point in the
Platonic tradition, is the Triple Power. This being is mentioned sometimes
independently, sometimes in conjunction with the Invisible Spirit, and
once in conjunction with Barbelo. By a static self-extension, the Triple
Power becomes the Aeon of Barbelo (XI, 45,21-30). Furthermore it is said
that the Triple Power traverses the boundlessness of the Invisible Spirit
that subsists in the Triple Power, so that this "boundlessness" might (in
turn) surround the Invisible Spirit as his self-knowledge (49, 7-21). Thus
the Triple Power probably is the potency (dynamis) of the Unknown
One and/or Invisible Spirit by which he unfolds himself into the world
of Being and Intellect. The Triple Power is said to consist of three modalities:
That-which-is (Being), Vitality and Mentality (XI, 49,26-38).
Now according to Plotinus' doctrine of Intellect,
there emanates from the superabundant potency of the One a "trace" called
"Life." This Life, declining from the One, is at first boundless, but once
it has turned back to the One in an act of vision it receives a limit.
By receiving a limit this "boundless Life" becomes definable being and
at the same time thinking Intellect (Enn. VI.7.17). This seems to
correspond exactly to the function of the Triple Power in Allogenes,
except that while in Plotinus the triad Being-Life-Mind is an aspect of
the second hypostasis (Intellect), in Allogenes the Triple Power
of Being-Vitality-Mentality seems to exist above the second hypostasis
(Barbelo) as a sort of quasi-hypostasis. This quasi-hypostatic status of
the Triple Power seems to find its analogy for the first time in the metaphysics
of Porphyry, Plotinus' disciple.
According to P. Hadot, Porphyry posited the existence
of a triadic being called "Life" as a mediating hypostasis between the
Plotinian One and Intellect, because he wished to demonstrate that the
Intellect which for Plotinus is completely discontinuous with the transcendent
One, is paradoxically at the same time discontinuous and continuous with
In effect, Porphyry attributed three modalities or phases to the Intellect,
which he analyzed into the triad, Existence, Life and Intellect. Porphyry's
term existence (hyparxis), which is also used of the Triple Power
in Allogenes and Zost., is meant to refer to the absolute
being (auto to einai) of the One, which is the idea of the
derived being (to on) proper to the Intellect. Intellect thus unfolds
from the absolute being of the One in three phases according to which each
modality of the Intellect predominates at a given stage. First, qua hyparxis,
Intellect is purely potential Intellect resident in and identical with
its idea, the absolute being of the One. Last, qua. Intellect, it has become
identical with the derived being (to on) of Intellect proper, the
second hypostasis, as the hypostatic exemplification of its idea, the absolute
being of the One. The transitional phase between the first and last phases
of intellect in effect constitutes a median modality of Intellect in which
it is "boundless thinking" or Intellect qua Life. Porphyry apparently conceived
this transitional phase of Intellect qua Life to have hypostatic reality,
and it is tempting to see the Triple Power of Allogenes in the same
light. Thus in Allogenes, the Triple Power is continuous with the
Invisible Spirit qua its Existence-modality, discontinuous with the Invisible
Spirit but continuous with Barbelo qua its Mentality-modality, and qua
its Vitality-modality, it is simultaneously continuous and discontinuous
with both the Invisible Spirit and Barbelo. Hence the Triple Power serves
to emphasize the transcendence of the Invisible Spirit, but at the same
time to prevent any ultimate gap in the chain of being. Since Plotinus
in his treatise "Against the Gnostics" (Enn. II.9.1 and 6) rejects
such attempts to partition the Intellect and posit more than three hypostases,
it is quite possible that by restricting his Being-Life-Intellect triad
to the second hypostasis, he is reacting against such hypostatic entities
as the Triple Power of Allogenes and the Porphyrian median phase
of the triad in which Life predominates (significantly, Allogenes
also calls the Triple Power an "Eternal Life," XI, 66,32-36). If so, it
is possible that Allogenes may have originally introduced this triad
to Plotinus and his circle.
If Allogenes be considered as one of the
sources from which Plotinus could have derived this triad, one must try
to account for its appearance in Allog. To answer this it is necessary
to recognize two different kinds of triads functioning in Allog. The Being
or Existence-Vitality-Mentality triad represented by the Triple Power belongs
to the subject of first principles (archai) or what one might call
"stoicheology," that branch of metaphysics where one is concerned to show
how all things originate from primal principles. On the other hand, the
tripartition of Intellect or Barbelo by means of the triad Kalyptos-Protophanes-Autogenes
belongs more properly to ontology, or better, to "noology."
Now the "stoicheic" triad seems to derive from contemporary
Neopythagorean speculation on the origin of all things from the monad.
Thus the second-century CE Neopythagoreans Nicomachus of Gerasa (Eisagoge,
11.8.1) and Theon of Smyma (Expositio, p. 37,15-18 Hiller) posit
a triad (trigonos) to be potentially resident in the original monad.
This triad is evidently composed of the old Pythagorean "even" and "odd,"
which in the Old Platonic Academy were called the "one" and the "indefinite
dyad," two principles whose interaction produces the transcendent ideas
conceived as numbers, and from them, all else. Xenocrates identified this
"one" with a transcendent Mind who imposed limit on the "indefinite dyad"
or material principle, thus producing the world-soul or definite dyad,
which he regarded as a self-moving number. This stoicheic metaphysics was
later modified (as early as Eudorus of Alexandria in the first century
BCE) in such a way as to incorporate the doctrine of a transcendent One
beyond being espoused by Plato and Speusippus. Thus one arrives at the
Neopythagorean stoicheic metaphysics of a One beyond being from whom derives
a pair of elements, the monad and indefinite dyad, from this triad all
On the other hand, the "noetic" tripartition of the divine intellect has
little to do with the Neopythagorean speculation on first principles, but
derives from contemporary Middle-Platonic exegesis of Plato, Timaeus 39E:
"the Nous beholds (kathora) the ideas resident in the veritable
living being (ho esti zôion); such and so many as exist therein
he purposed (dienoêthê) that the universe should contain."
As one can judge from the noology of the Chaldean Oracles, Numenius, Albinus
and Maximus, the Timaeus passage was taken to imply two intelligences or
Gods, one inert, the other demiurgic. The first God, an inert intelligence
(nous noêtos, nous en hêsychia) was found in the "living
being" of the Timaeus. The second God, a demiurgic intelligence, was regarded
as double: as contemplative intellect (nous nooun, nous theôrêtikos,
cf. kathora) he is directed upwards in contemplation of the first
God or inert intelligence, and as the planning intellect (nous dianooumenos)
he is directed downward to his creation. Plotinus himself plays with such
a notion (Enn. III.9.1) which he later attributes to the Gnostics
and abandons (Enn. II.9.1 and 6) by equating the lower planning
intellect with his Soul-hypostasis, and interpreting the upper (inert)
contemplated and (active) contemplating intellects as two indivisible phases
of his Intellect-hypostasis.
Now it is quite possible that behind Allogenes
there stands a group whom Plotinus mentions as "others" who view the living
being, the intellect and the planning principle as a single being (Enn.
III.9.1,26-27; cf. II.9.1,14-57; 9.6,14-35). For in Allogenes, the
intellective level called the Aeon of Barbelo is tripartitioned into three
levels. The highest, Kalyptos, contains "those who truly exist"; this level
would be the inert nous noêtos (but which can somehow "act,"
XI, 45,32). The median level, the male Mind Protophanes, would be the nous
nooun (cf. noeron, XI, 51,18). The lowest level, Autogenes,
would be the nous dianooumenos (who "works successively and individually"
on nature (XI, 51,28-32; cf. the nous merisas, Enn. III.9.1).
This scheme comes very close to that mentioned and rejected by Plotinus.
Yet according to the earliest version of the Barbeloite
cosmogony contained in Ap. John (BG, 26,14-29,18) and Iren.
Haer. I.29.1, Barbelo is not actually tripartitioned. Rather, once
she appears on the stage, she requests what appear to be three powers or
faculties: Prognosis, Aphtharsia, and Aionia Zoe (a fourth, Ennoia, is
only redundant hypostatization of Barbelo's cognomen Ennoia). When one
reads further in Ap. John that Barbelo is associated with
three powers and three names, one begins to think of the Triple Power,
which in Allogenes is called Being or Existence, Vitality or Life,
and Mentality. Now conceptually the term Prognosis is close to the term
Mentality (derivatives of gnôsis and nous respectively).
Aphtharsia certainly characterizes the permanence of pure being as opposed
to becoming, and Aionia Zoe already contains the term Life. It is therefore
tempting to regard the "stoicheic" triad Being-Vitality-Mentality as a
speculative Analogiebildung of the "noological" triad Prognosis-Aphtharsia-Aionia
Zoe. Owing to its more abstract character, it could be pressed into the
service of a Gnostic-philosophical "stoicheology" whose intent would be
to show how the intellectual Aeon of Barbelo derives from the Unknown God
or Invisible Spirit. In Ap. John, Barbelo derives from the
thought of the Invisible Spirit which arises from his image reflected in
the Water of Life that surrounds him. By means of the triad Being-Vitality-Mentality,
Allogenes merely spells out the nature of this process in a monistic
rather than dualistic fashion. In place of the dual principles of Invisible
Spirit and Water of Life, Allogenes conceives in the Triple Power
a single principle, the boundless power of the Invisible Spirit, which
objectifies itself in an act of contemplative reversion to its source.
The high deity does not objectify himself in an act of conception, rather
his potency objectifies itself in three phases of spontaneous emission.
It is possible that Plotinus, in his desire to emphasize
the absolute transcendence of the One, may have accepted the generative
function of the Triple Power triad of Allogenes, but not its hypostatic
status between the One and intellect. Thus he demoted the triad Being-Life-Mind
to his second hypostasis, taking his lead from a favorite passage of Plato,
Sophist 248E: "Are we really to be so easily persuaded that change,
life, soul and intelligence have no place in the perfectly real (pantelôs
on), that it has neither life (zôê) nor intelligence,
but stands solemnly aloof, devoid of intelligence (nous)?
While for Allogenes "perfectly real" means something beyond Intellect,
for Plotinus this could be Intellect only, and no more.
If this hypothetical process accounts for the role
of the Triple Power in Allogenes, one must yet account for the nomenclature
it attaches to the tripartite Aeon of Barbelo. How was the triad Kalyptos-
Protophanes- Autogenes attached to Barbelo in Allogenes substituted
for the Prognosis-Aphtharsia-Aionia Zoe triad of Ap. John?
To begin with, if the triad Being-Vitality-Mentality
was formed on analogy with the Prognosis- Aphtharsia-Aionia Zoe triad,
the latter triad may have been abandoned altogether to avoid confusion
with the new triad that transcended it. Thus a new triad of names had to
be substituted for it, or even conceivably displaced it. This is the triad
These names in this particular triadic arrangement
are witnessed only in Allogenes, Zost., the anonymous final
tractate of the Bruce Codex ("the ninth Father has a kalyptos- aspect,
a prôtofanês-aspect, and an autogenês-
aspect" Schmidt-Till 341,5-7), Steles Seth, and in Marsanes
(X, 3,25-4,10). While the triadic structure of the Aeon of Barbelo seems
to have more or less clear antecedents, the names of this triad are unattested
in the earliest Barbeloite literature, and their source can only be a matter
of conjecture. Thus the term Kalyptos, which can mean either "hidden" or
"that which covers " probably derives from the conception of the veil or
kalumma separating the higher from the lower realm. The position
of Kalyptos as the highest entity in the intelligible Aeon of Barbelo comes
very close to that of the Valentinian upper Horos or Limit that separates
the highest deity Bythos from the other Aeons that derive from him (cf.
Iren. Haer. I.11.1; ValExp XI, 27,37-38; the "veil" of GPhil II, 3,69,36;
The term Protophanes may be of Orphic origin: in
the Orphic Rhapsodies, Phanes (called also Eros, Metis, and Erikepaios)
was so-called because he was "first to appear" (prôtos gar efanthê,
Orph. Arg. 14-16 Hermann) from the cosmic egg. Bisexual,
he was regarded as "always two-formed," "looking this way and that," and
called (according to Proclus) "the key of Mind" (Orph. frag.
72-89; 167 Kern, Synesios, Hymns 2.63 calls the "Son" protofanes
eidos). Both the Orphic etymology "first-appearing" and his characterization
as mind and as mediating between above and below are clearly reflected
in Protophanes' position in Allogenes, where as "the great male
Mind" (XI, 45,34-36; 46,24-25) he represents the progression from the psychic
("individuals" in Autogenes) to the intelligible ("those who truly exist"
in Kalyptos) levels of the aeon of Barbelo (XI, 46,25-34).
Finally, the term Autogenes probably derives from
the Autogenes-Monogenes light (identified with Christ) who according to
Ap. John is generated in Barbelo by the Father. Irenaeus
(Haer. I.29.1) adds the interesting comment that the production
of Autogenes was the "beginning of the genesis of all things," that is,
the origin of the world of becoming and multiplicity. In Platonic metaphysics,
this would be the role of the Demiurge who shapes the World Soul (Timaeus
39E ff.). The Valentinians attribute this role to Jesus, the Fruit of the
Pleroma, who fashions Sophia's passions into the psychic (and material)
world. One may therefore adduce relevant mythological sources for the names
contained in the triad, but since the names are not associated together
in a triad prior to Allogenes and Zost., one must assume
that it was the Gnostics behind these documents who developed this triad.
Be these theories concerning the nomenclature of the Barbeloite triads
as they may, it cannot be doubted that the structure and deployment of
these triads in Allogenes, Zost., and Steles Seth
derive from the metaphysics originating in the Platonic Academy. The triad
of the Triple Power belongs to the "stoicheological" speculation of the
Alexandrian Neopythagoreans, and the triad of the Aeon of Barbelo belongs
to the "noological" speculation of the Middleplatonic interpretation of
Plato's Timaeus. The general ontology and cosmology of the upper world
in Ap. John and Trim. Prot. also intersects
with the general Platonic ontological stratification of the cosmos, but
the center of gravity in these documents is clearly anthropological and
soteriological rather than metaphysical. Accordingly, the cosmology of
these documents is a prelude to the myth of Sophia, the description of
man's condition in the material world and the saving initiatives of the
higher world in response to that condition. Here, there is no contemplative
or ecstatic ascent through the intelligible world. Man has been so tightly
bound in matter that his intellect cannot raise itself above it; he is
dependent on the descent of the divine intellect to his own level. Yet,
oddly enough, in Ap. John and Trim. Prot.,
this descent of the divine intellect takes place in three stages, just
as in Allogenes, Zost.. and Steles Seth, the
ascent of the Gnostic intellect occurs in three stages. In Allogenes,
Zost.. and Steles Seth these stages are conceived
vertically, while in Ap. John and Trim. Prot.,
they are described as a horizontal temporal succession.
We now turn to a consideration of the epistemology of these tractates,
specifically the feature that, whether conveyed by descent or ascent, gnosis
is achieved in three steps. First, the threefold ascent.
The attainment of enlightenment in progressively
higher levels of ecstatic ascent is a feature not only of the Platonic
tradition, but also of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature.
Here the levels of ascent are usually called heavens, thrones or palaces
and vary in number between three and ten. But even in the cases when apocalyptic
literature portrays a three-stage ascent, the object of vision is generally
a personal deity or his throne (who is not ontologically consubstantial
with the seer's soul), the course and end of history, the abode of souls,
the last judgment, the nature of the heavens, and the divine glory. Similar
visionary ascents are also part of the Platonic tradition, such as the
myth of Er in Republic X, Plutarch's "Poseidonian" myths of Thespesius
(De sera num. vind.) and Timarchus (De
gen. Soc. ) and so on, but unlike Jewish visionary literature,
the Platonic literature conceives the ascending soul to be returning to
its point of origin, and the supreme object of vision is not a personal
The three-stage ascent of Allogenes, Zost..
and Steles Seth seems to have as its object not so much a
vision of the upper world, but rather the actual assimilation of the state
of one's own being to the state of being that characterizes each level,
one undergoes the ascent according to a prescribed sequence of mental states
characterized by increasing self-unification and mental abstraction. The
movement from multiplicity to solitariness and from motion to stillness
is precisely coordinated with the ontological character of each level of
the ascent. The progressively higher levels of being require a corresponding
ascending scale of self-performable mental states. Because the monistic
ontology is emanationistic, evolving from one to many, the ascent is a
gradual purification and reintegration of the time bound self, alienated
from its ground, back up to its atemporal self-identity. The structure
of such a movement is at home, not in apocalyptic, but in the mystery religions,
except that the stages of the ritual have been interiorized.
A firm prototype of this threefold ascent is certainly
to be found in Plato's Symposium (210A-212A) in the speech where
Socrates recounts the path to the vision of absolute beauty into which
he had been initiated by the wise Diotima. The method consists of a three-stage
qualitative and quantitative purification or purgation of the soul by a
redirection of Eros, the moving force of the soul, away from the lower
realm to the higher. The qualitative purgation is a progressive shift of
attention from the sensible to the intelligible realm in three levels of
knowing, which correspond to three levels of life: physical beauty, moral
beauty and intellectual beauty; these are the objects respectively of the
bodily senses, the ethical components of the soul, and the intelligizing,
contemplative faculty of the reflective soul. The quantitative purgation
is a shift of attention away from individual instances of beauty, to the
ideal beauty of all forms, and finally to absolute beauty itself, which
then discloses itself as a sudden and immediate intuition. The next higher
stage is therefore achieved by a purifying and unifying synthesis of the
experience of the lower stage.
Indeed Plato seems to have applied this three-stage
progression not only to his own study of philosophy but also to the program
of study in the Academy he founded.
In the seventh book of the Republic (533E-540B) he lays down the
plan for educating the guardians of the ideal state. After the propaedutic
study of mathematics up till the stable and mature age of fifty, one took
up the study of dialectic for five years, and then after a fifteen year
period of fieldwork, one is at age fifty ready for the goal, the highest
philosophy, contemplation of the ideas.
Plato's successors such as Xenocrates and Aristotle
also maintained a threefold approach to philosophy, subdividing it into
theology, mathematics and physics Aristotle) or into physics (including
the idea theory), ethics, and logic (Xenocrates).
The latter became the standard division of subject matter in the Academy
as well as within the Peripatetic and Stoic traditions, even the Epicureans
divided philosophy into physics, ethics, and epistemology (to kanonikon).
Since Aristotle, physics was the domain of theoretical philosophy, at its
summit was "first philosophy," called theology or metaphysics, then mathematics,
including astronomy, and then physics proper.
In the first four centuries of our era to which
the Barbeloite treatises belong, the Platonic tradition regarded metaphysics
or theology as the highest of the three stages of enlightenment or spiritual
progress. It corresponded to the highest stage of initiation into the mysteries
and was in fact called epopteia, the supreme vision of the highest
reality (Plut., De Is. et Os. 382d; Theon of
Smyrna, Expos. p. 14 Hiller; Clem. Alex., Strom. I.28.176,1-2;
Origen, In cant. cant. p. 75,6 Baehrens). Commenting
on this phenomenon, P. Hadot points out that Porphyry's systematic arrangement
of Plotinus' Enneads conforms to this scheme (Enn. I = ethics; Enn.
II, III = physics; Enn. IV, V, VI = epoptic, the objects of contemplation),
as do certain Neoplatonic prescriptions for the order of the study of Plato's
dialogues (Republic = ethics; Timaeus = physics; Parmenides
= theology; cf. Chalcidius, In Tim. 272 & 335; Proclus,
In Tim. I, p. 202 Diehl).
Vision or epopteia of the highest reality
was thus the object of the Platonic metaphysics of Late Antiquity. The
methods for achieving this vision of the divine by means of dialectic were
called "paths" of ascent (cf. Albinus, Didasc. X.5.6, p. 165,14
ff. Hermann; Origen, Contra Cels. VII,42; Maximus of Tyre,
The via analogiae or way by comparison was based on the parable
of the sun in the sixth book of Plato's Republic. The via negationis
(kat' afairesin), or way by abstraction or negation of all perceptible
affirmative predicates, was regarded as the only logically self-sufficient
path to the divine, although it was not based on any of Plato's works.
This method figures prominently in the negative theologies at the beginning
of Ap. John and at the end of Allog. Complementing the via
negationis was the via additionis (kata prothesis
or synthesin) or way by approximation from effects to cause.
The via eminentiae or way by ascending degrees (anabasmoi)
was based on Plato's Symposium, and corresponds to the stage by
stage withdrawal (anachôrêsis) to the highest level
of the Triple Power in Allogenes as well as to the ascents presupposed
in Zost.. and Steles Seth. There is perhaps yet a
final way which transcends dialectic, the via imitationis
or way by assimilation, probably based on Plato's Theaetetus (176B)
where the goal is said to be flight from this world to the other, to be
assimilated (homoiôthênai) to the divine so far as possible.
This method seems to correspond to the "primary revelation" or non-knowing
knowledge of the Unknown One in Allogenes and perhaps to the "command"
of Steles Seth (VII, 125,15-16;). The sequence of these methods
is illustrated by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. V.11.71.2): first, purification
by acceptance of the given, second, dialectical contemplation (epopteia),
consisting of the analysis of the given leading to primary intellection
and abstraction of all dimension and position pertaining to corporeal and
incorporeal objects (the via negationis) leading to the pure
monad, finally one achieves the intellection of the highest being in terms
of knowing what he is not. So also Plotinus suggests a similar approach
(Enn. VI.7.36): one begins by instruction through analogies, negations,
syntheses and ascending degrees; he draws near by purifications, virtues,
orderings (of the soul) and gradations of the intelligible until one "stands
firmly" upon it (the via eminentiae, cf. Allogenes
59,18-20; 60,28-31); at that point where one becomes simultaneously subject
and object of one's own vision, all learning is abandoned and "suddenly"
(cf. Symposium 210E) one sees the source of light itself (the via
imitationis). The culmination of the vision, the via imitationis
or way of assimilation, transcends philosophy for mysticism or ecstasy.
Since it involves contemplative imitation of the virtues of which the divine
is the source, and since his only virtue is oneness, aloneness, tranquillity
and absolute goodness, the via imitationis is the ascetic
way, a purgative stripping away of all powers of soul and intellect a self-concentration
into pure solitariness where no object of knowledge exists outside the
knower. At this point, to know is not to know. This appears to be the culminating
experience envisaged in Allogenes and Steles Seth.
It has its roots in the three-stage ascent to the vision of the Beautiful
described in Plato's Symposium. To be sure, the roots have been
bent in a very ascetic direction, perhaps by Neopythagorean rigorism and
the Gnostic spirit itself, but the fruit continues to bear the stamp of
the Platonic tradition.
When we turn to the other main Barbeloite vehicle
for enlightenment, the revelation of gnosis through the threefold descent
of a hypostasis of the divine intelligence as depicted in Ap. John
and Trim. Prot. we seem to have left the Platonic territory.
To be sure, the ontology of these treatises still resembles that of late
Platonism, but the triple descent motif is foreign to it.
Recent scholarship locates the descent motif in
the Jewish myth of the descending and demiurgic figure of the divine wisdom
(Sophia) that works itself out in Proverbs 8, 1 Enoch 42, Sirach 24, Wisdom
of Solomon 6-10 and other Jewish sources (cf. also the descent of God's
Name and Shekinah.
This myth seems to have influenced Philo's doctrine of the Logos (especially
the logos prophorikos) as well as that of the author of the Johannine
prologue and the Alexandrian Fathers, who interpreted Christ as the Logos.
In general the three-stage advent of redemption
into the world is depicted in two basic schemes. The first scheme is horizontal
and temporally successive, where redemption is conveyed by descents of
separate figures or by repeated descents of the same figure. The second
is a more vertical and modalistic scheme in which a single revealer is
manifested in each of the three levels of the cosmos in a form and modality
suited to the being and needs of each level. Generally neither the first
nor the second scheme is found in pure form, they almost always occur in
some combination. The first (horizontal) scheme clearly predominates in
the Pronoia hymn of Ap. John, where the same figure (Pronoia)
makes repeated descents. The same scheme occurs in Gos. Eg.
(III, 63,4-64,9; IV, 74,17-75,24) where the same figure, Seth, is said
to pass through three parousiai experienced by his seed, the incorruptible
generation: the flood, the conflagration, and finally the judgment of the
hostile powers by Seth in the form of Jesus. On the, other hand, in ApocAdam
there are three saving descents, but the, other hand in ApocAdam there
are three saving descents, but in each case the redeeming figures appear
to be different: at the flood the seed of Seth is rescued by great angels
(V, 69,1-25); at the conflagration, the seed of Seth is rescued by Abrasax,
Samblo and Gamaliel (V, 75,9-76,7); thereafter "for the third time" at
the advent of the days of death the Illuminator will save their souls (V
76,8-77,3). However, the modalistic scheme is already making inroads in
ApocAdam, since, although the successive descents are each ascribed to
separate figures, the phrase "the third time" is clearly a device to cause
the reader to see them all as manifestations of a single figure, the Illuminator.
Moreover, Gos. Eg. and ApocAdam provide
a clue concerning the origin of the horizontal scheme of three successive
descents, of which the first two are preparatory and accompanied by purificatory
destructions, and the third conveys final salvation. The periodization
of the Gnostic history of salvation into three saving dispensations by
means of fire and flood seems to derive from Jewish apocalyptic.
This scheme seems to be present in 1 Enoch 10 and 99-100 and in the legend
of the steles of stone and clay established by the seed of Seth to preserve
their wisdom against destruction by flood and conflagration (Vita
Ad. et Ev. 49-50 Charles; Josephus, Ant. 1.2.3
Whiston; Cf. Lk 17:25-30; 2 Pt 2:4-9). As for the Barbeloite texts, while
flood and conflagration are not mentioned in the Pronoia hymn of Ap.
John, the main body of Ap. John (BG, 72,14-73,18)
mentions the flood, and Trim. Prot. (XIII, 43,8-12) mentions
the conflagration; in each case these are destructions that preface the
third descent of the redeemer. .
While in ApocAdam the horizontal scheme of the threefold
descent still predominates, the vertical modalistic scheme is beginning
to make an appearance in the tendency to regard the descent of angels,
a triad of powers, and the Illuminator as separate manifestations of a
single being, the Illuminator. Somewhat the same combination of schemes
occurs in Ap. John where Barbelo, the merciful Father-Mother,
descends through the agency of the Autogenes (BG, 51,1-52,1), the Epinoia
of Light (BG, 52,1853,20; 59,6-60,20) and Christ (BG, 75,11-15). In the
Barbeloite tradition, it is in Trim. Prot. that the vertical
modalistic scheme becomes most prominent with the Voice, Sound and Word
modalities of Protennoia. Yet the horizontal scheme of the underlying Pronoia
hymn remains dominant.
The vertical modalistic scheme seems to be purest
in the triple Sonship of Basilidean system (Hipp. Ref. VII.22.7
ff.), the intellectual, psychic, and earthly Christs of the Naasenes (Hipp.
Ref. V.6.5.6), the Christ of three natures, three bodies and three
powers of the Peratae (Hipp. Ref. V.12.4) and in the pneumatic,
psychic and sensible Christs of the Valentinians (Iren. Haer. I.7.1-2;
Exc. Theod. 59; Hipp. Ref. VI.36.3-4). Generally this
tripartite redeemer originates from the next to the highest metaphysical
level and is subsequently manifested at each of the three cosmic levels
(Pleroma, Middle, Earth or sometimes agennêtos, autogenês,
gennêtos) in a form corresponding to the ontological status of
that level and the figures that inhabit it. In the Christian Gnostic systems,
the tripartite redeemer is often Christ, although just as often one finds
that Christ is identified with the final modality in which a more exalted
tripartite redeemer is manifested, as is the case with Barbelo in the Christianized
Barbeloite texts. Insofar as the redeemer originates from the next to the
highest ontological level, it is often identical with the divine Mind or
Thought or some aspect thereof. This feature seems to draw on the late
Platonic noology. But even in texts that seem to be very distant from the
late Platonic noology, one finds evidence of a three-stage descent, just
as in the Hymn of the Pearl, where the redeemer originates from the East,
passes through Babylon and. reaches "down to Egypt" (Acta Thom.
We conclude, then, that the motif of the attainment
of gnosis or enlightenment in three stages is a major Gnostic motif. When
this three-stage process is described in the form of a threefold (horizontal,
temporally successive) or three-stage (vertical, modalistic) descent, it
seems that one is dealing with a conception of basically Jewish provenance.
This conception combines such motifs as a tripartitioning of historical
epochs originating within Jewish (and Christian) apocalyptic, Jewish speculation
on the descending figure of the Wisdom, Name and Glory of God, and Hellenistic
Jewish and early Christian speculation on the Logos. To be sure, the descent
pattern has prototypes in the Greek tradition, as does the partitioning
of history into world epochs as well as speculation on the Logos. But when
Greek myths recount the descent of heroes and gods to redeem lovers and
protégés from Hades, the descents do not involve a progressive
revelation of the deity either in successive periods of history or in successive
levels of the universe.
On the other hand, the motif of the threefold ascent
in the Gnostic literature seems to emanate from the Platonic tradition.
In cases where the stages of this ascent represent levels of being whose
characteristics become part of the beholder's psychic state, as in Allogenes,
the influence of Plato as well as of Neopythagoreanism and certain mystery
religions seems undeniable. To be sure, the ascent through three levels
is to be found in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic. But here the object
is not to assimilate one's psychic states to the ontic characteristics
of those levels by a progressive purgation of sensory illusion, multiplicity
and alienation leading to an absolute unitary stasis characteristic of
deification. When such assimilation does occur in apocalyptic, as in 2
Enoch 22, it is not regarded as an assimilation to the deity, and it is
always a gift from the higher powers, and not a self-performable technique.
Between Greek and Jewish portrayals of the way to enlightenment, there
seems always to be the characteristic respective opposition between nature
and grace, even in the Gnostic versions. In Judaism and most mythological
Gnosis, the deity descends to the aid of man. In the Platonic tradition
and in philosophical Gnosis, man ascends to the deity. Even if a higher
revelation awaits him at the summit of the world of being, and even if
the way needs to be shown by another initiated one, it is man's duty to
raise himself to the threshold of deity, "to become like God so far as
possible" (Theaet. 176B).
The progressive attainment of enlightenment through
the threefold descent of a revealer figure was preserved in the western
tradition in Christian theology where Christ, the pre-existent Word of
God, was seen to be active in the time of the prophets, in the mission
and message of Jesus, and in his future advent as the eschatological judge.
Likewise the Christian mystical tradition received the three-stage ascent
pattern through the influence of Plotinus and the pseudo-Dionysius; the
pattern gained its greatest literary expression in Dante Alighieri's Divine
The Nag Hammadi Library in English,
edited by J. M. Robinson, (San Francisco: Harper & Row and E. J. Brill,
1977). Other translations: Ap. John in W. C. Till, Die
gnostischen Schriften des koptischen Papyrus
Berolinensis 8502 (TU 60; Berlin: Akademie Verlag, I955)
and in M. Krause and P. Labib, Die drei Versionen
des Apokryphon des Johannes im Koptischen
Museum zu Alt-Kairo (Abh. des Deutschen Archäl.
Instituts Kairo, Koptische Reihe I; Wiesbaden, I962); Trim. Prot.
in G. Schenke, "Die dreigestaltige Protennoia," ThLZ 99 (1974),
731-746; Y. Janssens, "Le Codex XIII de Nag Hammadi," Le Muséon
87 (I974), 341-413; Steles Seth in M. Tardieu, "Les Trois
Stèles de Seth," RevSchPhTh 57 (1973), 545-575. The Coptic
text and English translation with notes of Allogenes (by J. D. Turner
and O. S. Wintermute), of Zost. (by J. Sieber), of Steles
Seth (by J.M.Robinson) and of Trim. Prot. (by J.D.
Turner) are contained in Nag Hammadi Codices XI,
XII and XIII (Nag Hammadi Studies 28; Leiden: E. J.
Brill, 1990) and Nag Hammadi Codex VIII (Nag
Hammadi Studies 31; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991).
Schmidt, "Irenäus und seine Quelle in adv. haer. I, 29," in Philotesia:
Paul Kleinert zum LXX Gebusrtstag dargebracht.
Berlin: Weidmann, 1907, pp. 315-336.
is more reasonable to suppose Trim. Prot. is an expansion
of Ap. John (II, 34,11-31,25) than that the latter is an
abridgement of the former. The Pronoia hymn is clearly added to the conclusion
of Ap. John. The first subtractate of Trim. Prot.
("The Logos of the Protennoia" XIII, 35,1-42,3) contains the cosmology
of Ap. John II, 4,10-12,9 (= Iren. Haer. I, 29, 1-4) as an
inserted section (XIII, 37,20-40,18) without which Trim. Prot.
would reproduce little more than the Pronoia hymn of Ap. John.
This suggests that the author of Trim. Prot. is dependent
on the longer version of Ap. John in which he found the Pronoia
were in his time many Christians and others, and sectarians who had abandoned
the old philosophy, men of the schools of Adelphios and Aculinos, who possessed
many treatises of Alexander the Libyan and Philocomos and Demostratos and
Lydos and produced revelations by Zoroaster and Zostrianos, and Nicotheos,
and Allogenes and Messos, and other people of the kind ..." Zoroaster and
Zostrianos probably refer to Zost. of Codex VIII (hendiadys); Allogenes
and Messos probably refer to Allogenes of Codex XI; for Nicotheos,
see Anon. Bruc. 342: 2-8 Schmidt-Till. See also J.H.Sieber, "An Introduction
to the Tractate Zostrianos from Nag Hammadi," Novum Testamentum
15 (I973), 233-240, and F.G. Bazan, "Gnostica: El Capitulo XVI de la Vida
de Plotino de Porfirio," Salesianum 36 (1974), 463-478.
Power is frequent in such Gnostica as the Bruce and Askew Codices (passim,
see Index in Schmidt-Till, p. 397), Steles Seth (VII, 121,
31-33; 122,13; 133,23-25), Zost. (VIII, 24,12-13; 79,21; 87,15-16;
97,2; 118,11-12; 128,20), and Marsanes (X, 1: passim).
the Kalyptos-Protophanes-Autogenes triad, cf. Zost., VIII,15, 4-17;
22,4-14; 44,24-31; 58,14-16; 60,13-17; (also 25,10-18; 135,12-17; 119,
4-17); Allogenes. XI, 45,31-47,7; 31,7-38; 58,12-26; in Steles
Seth the names do not occur in a triadic context: Kalyptos VII,
122,14; 123,1; 126,5; Protophanes, VII,113,5-6; Autogenes, VII, 119,16.
Cf. also Marsanes X, 3,25-4,12 and Anon. Bruce, 341,5-7 Schmidt-Till. For
Triple Male, cf. Steles Seth, VII, 110,17-19. 29-30; 121,8-9;
Zost.. VIII,24,4; 44,30; 51,22; 52,16; 61,17-18; Allogenes,
XI, 45,37; 51,33; 55,36; 58,15; Ap. John, BG, 27,21; II,
5,8; Trim. Prot., XIII, 37,16; Anon. Bruce 341,8 Schmidt-Till.
J. Krämer, Der Ursprung der Geistmetaphysik:
Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Platonismus
zwischen Platon und Plotin (Amsterdam: P. Schippers,
Hadot, "La métaphysique de Porphyre," in Porphyre (Entretiens
sur l'antiquité classique XII; Vandoeuvres-Geneva: Fondation Hardt,
I960), pp. 127-157; "Discussion," pp. 158-163. Hadot does not discuss the
possible role of the Chaldean verse hê men gar dynamis sun ekeinôi
[scil. tôi patri] nous de ap' ekeinou (Procl.
Theol. Plat. 365,3) which H. Lewy relates to Anon.
Taur. IX, 1 (Chaldean Oracles and Theurgy:
Mysticism, Magic and Platonism in the
Later Roman Empire [Recherches d'archéologie,
de philologie et d'histoire XIII; Cairo: Institut Francais d'Archéologie
Orientale, 1956], p. 79, n. 47). While Lewy thinks this nous is
an emanation of the patrikos nous of the Chaldeans, it is also possible
that it is the patrikos nous itself. This verse may have formed,
along with Ap. John and Neopythagorean speculation, the basis
on which Allogenes or perhaps Porphyry developed the Being or Existence-Life
or Dynamis-Mind triad. While the present article suggests Allogenes
as the source of the triad, Hadot claims Porphyry as the originator on
the basis of his theory that the anonymous Parmenides commentary (Anon.
Taur.) is by Porphyry ("Fragments d'un commentaire de Porphyre sur
le Parménide," REG 74 , 410-438).
this, see A. J. Festugière, La révélation
d'Hermès Trismégiste,Vol. I, Le dieu
inconnu et la gnose (Études bibliques;
Paris: J. Gabalda, I954), pp. 18-53; Krämer, Der Ursprung
der Geistmetaphysik, pp. 193-369.
extensive analysis of this triad in Plotinus, see P. Hadot, "Etre, Vie,
Pensée chez Plotin et avant Plotin," Les sources de
Plotin (Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique V; Vandoeuvres-Geneva,
Fondation Hardt, I960), pp. 159-174; "Discussion," pp. 175-190.
Enoch 42, 2 Enoch 2-23; Test. Levi. 2-5; Asc. Is.; Apoc. Bar 6, 3 Bar 1;
Vita Ad. et Ev. 25, Apoc. Sophonias
apud Clem. Alex. Strom. V.11, Apoc. Abraham
15; Apoc. Moses 37; often in rabbinic Merkaba and Hekhaloth
speculation; 2 Cor 12 and numerous Christian and Gnostic Apocalypses).
See W. Bousset, Die Himmelreise der Seele (Archiv
für Religionswissenschaft 4 , 136-169; 229-273; reprint Darmstadt:
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1960). Bousset tries to show that the
three-heaven cosmology is original in the earliest Jewish apocalyptic and
is of Iranian origin; only later was it displaced by the Neo-Babylonian
seven-heaven cosmology. C. Colpe has attempted to establish a phenomenological
criterion for the gnostic version of the ascent of the soul ("Die Himmelreise
der Seele," in Le Origini dello Gnostismo:
Colloquio di Messina, 13-18 Aprile 1966;
Testi e Discussioni. Ed. by U. Bianchi. [Supplements
to Numen XII; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967, pp. 429-445). He points out that
in Iranian and Jewish sources depicting the ecstatic ascent of the soul
through the heavens, the soul of the visionary is never aboriginally consubstantial
with the object of vision. When assimilation occurs, as in investiture
with the cloak of glory (1 Enoch 62; 2 Enoch 22), it is conferred, not
achieved by mental praxis. In Greek and Gnostic sources, the ascending
soul is as a rule consubstantial with the object of vision according as
these sources reflect the notion of the analogy between the microcosmos
(= highest part of the visionary's soul) and the macrocosmos (the highest
level of the cosmos). The notion of consubstantiality is also found in
Jewish wisdom literature, but except for Philo, these sources depict neither
the microcosmos-macrocosmos conception nor the ascent motif, portraying
instead the descent motif. The gnostic descent and ascent scheme is distinguished
by the motif of the redeemed redeemer, according to which the upper macrocosmic
soul becomes the redeemer of the lower microcosmic soul by awaking the
latter from the sleep of incarnation so as to release it for its ascent
to its origin. In this respect, Allogenes, Zost. and Steles
Seth cannot be regarded as truly gnostic. On the other hand, Ap.
John and Trim. Prot. are gnostic, since they depict
the descents of the First Thought (like the descent of Wisdom) as redemptive
of its fallen (consubstantial!) portions (merê, melê).
In this connection, it is perhaps significant that Trim. Prot.
and the Pronoia hymn of Ap. John depict the ascent of the
redeemed soul by means of the mystery initiation motif of the five seals
(cf. Apuleius, Metam. XI, 24). The five seals are not portrayed
as a self-performable ascent. Rather the soul must be raised up from its
sleep by a succession of celestial helpers or psychopomps located at various
levels of the ascent; it cannot raise itself, as in Allogenes, Zost.
and Steles Seth. It therefore appears that Jewish wisdom
literature forms the pre-gnostic prototype for the descent motif of Ap.
John and Trim. Prot., while the Greek visionary literature
provides the pre-gnostic prototype for the ascent motif of Allogenes,
Zost. and Steles Seth. The visionary ascent motif
of Jewish apocalyptic, lacking the motif of the consubstantality of knower
with known seems to stand apart here, but on the other hand may indeed
have contributed to the gnostic descent motif through its eschatological
speculations rather than its ascent motifs (see note 18 below).
the analysis of H. Jonas, "Myth and Mysticism: A Study of Objectification
and Interiorization," Philosophical Essays: From Ancient
Creed to Technological Man (Englewood Cliffs:
Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 291-304.
this, see H. Cherniss, The Riddle of the Early
Academy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945), pp. 60-85.
this division and its history in western thought, see P. Merlan, From
Platonism to Neoplatonism (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,
1953), pp. 53-77. Cf. Aristotle, Met. 1026a 6-19; 1064b 1-3; Xenocrates
apud Sext. Emp. Adv. Math. VII, 16,147 (= frags. 1
and 5 Heinze).
"La métaphysique de Porphyre," pp. 127-129.
these "ways," see H. Dörrie, "Die Frage nach dem Transzendenten im
Mittelplatonismus," Les sources de Plotin (Entretiens
sur l'antiquité classique V; Vandoeuvres-Geneva: Fondation Hardt,
I960), pp. 2I3-2I4; A.-J. Festugière, Le dieu inconnu
et la gnose, pp. 92-140; Krämer, Der Ursprung
der Geistmetaphysik, pp. 105-I08.
G. W. Macrae, "The Jewish Background of the Sophia Myth," Novum
Testamentum 12 (1970), 86-101; but Cf. H. Conzelmann, "Die Mutter
der Weisheit," Zeit und Geshichte: Dankesgabe
an Rudolf Bultmann zum 80. Geburtstag.
Ed. E. Dinkler (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1964, pp. 225-234,
who argues that the prototype of the hypostatized Sophia is Isis.
Perkins has shown that the threefold schematization of ApocAdam derives
from Jewish apocalyptic speculation on Adam and Seth in relation to a periodization
of history based on the Genesis tradition of the flood and of Sodom and
Gomorrah; the speculative Gnostic reworking of these traditions as one
moves from ApocAdam to GEgypt and on to ParaShem (VII, 25, 9-20), Ap.
John and Trim. Prot. show increasing distance from
the Jewish roots of this periodization ("Apocalyptic Schematization in
the Apocalypse of Adam and the Gospel of the Egyptians," Proceedings
of the Society of Biblical Literature,
One Hundred Eighth Annual Meeting: Book
of Seminar Papers, Vol. 2 [Society of Biblical Literature,
I972], pp. 591-595). Attention should also be called to Pindar's second
Olympian Ode (68 ff.), where only those souls who "thrice
had been courageous in keeping their souls pure from all deeds of wrong"
will achieve the Isles of the Blessed; to Plato, Phaedrus 249A,
where the soul who has chosen the life of philosophy in each of three thousand-year
periods of incarnation will regain its wings; and to Empedocles, Frg. 115
Diels, where the daimon is eligible for heavenly bliss only after three
transmigration periods of ten thousand years. Although this Greek, perhaps
Orphic or Pythagorean, eschatology certainly involves a three-phase purification,
the conclusion of each period involves a new ethical choice of the soul,
but not a judgmental visitation from without. The Stoic doctrine of the
periodic ekpyrôsis of the cosmos involves the destruction
scheme, but these periods are eternally repetitive with no salvific goal
(e.g. Nemesius, De nat. hom. 38, p. 277 = SVF II 625).
Seneca (Nat. quaest. II, 28,7) mentions periodic destructions
by flood and renewal after the conflagration, but these occur without any
schematization (solutus legibus sine modo fertur).
Significantly, following Plato, Philo denies these destructions (De
aetern. mundi 497; 508). Origen also rejects the Stoic scheme
of periodic conflagration, since destnrction by fire and flood are God's
way of purging the soul's evil (Contra Celsum IV, 11-13):
when Celsus appeals to the world-catastrophes mentioned by Plato (Timaeus
22), Origen reminds him that this myth is the product of irrational thinking,
whence even Plato put the myth into the mouth of an Egyptian priest (Contra
Celsum I, 19-10; cf. IV, 4I).