If one were to attempt to reconstruct the thought of Valentinus on the basis of the few fragments preserved in the earliest critics – Irenaeus (c. 130-200), Clement (c. 150-215), and Hippolytus (c. 170-236), he would appear as another in that chain of Gnostics catalogued in their refutations, inseparable from his successor Ptolemaeus, who headed up the Valentinian school from about 160 and who was a sufficient systematizer to warrant more than fragmentary citation. Thus Irenaeus incorporated major passages of an extended work of the latter plus a portion of a commentary on John’s Gospel, and Epiphanius (c. 315-403) quoted a most reasonable statement of the Valentinian position under the title “Letter to Flora.”
Again, with quotations chiefly derived from the earliest opponents, Eusebius (c. 260-340) put together what was known of Valentinus within the framework of his historical chronology (E. H. IV.10): Valentinus was understood to have arrived in Rome during the four-year bishopric of Hyginus (138-142) which he dated from the first year of Antoninus Pius (137-161). Tertullian’s (c. 160-220) Adversus Valentinianos, built on his predecessors’ critiques, likewise provides little fresh information about Valentinus himself other than the cryptic remark that Valentinus nearly became bishop of Rome – that is, he presumably failed to be elected, and thence withdrew from the community.
Considering the low key attack upon the person, it can only be assumed that Valentinus’ thought was too close to Christian for comfort, originating from a strange but not impossible reading of John’s Gospel, and through it the Synoptics, especially the teachings from Matthew. Certainly Alexandrian Christian commentaries on the New Testament are a response to Valentinian exegesis, and hardly distinguishable.
The discoveries of Coptic Gnostic papyri at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945 have reopened the consideration of Valentinus, for among the texts were a series of writings which could very well be associated with him – particularly the one called the “Gospel of Truth” [Coptic text: NHC I, 3 and XII, 2; English transl. NHL 1977: 37-49], which had been specifically named as his by Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. III.11.9). The text of this gospel is still close to revelatory in style; systematization has not yet set in. It is an announcement or declaration of what has not been known, namely the name of the Father, possession of which enables the knower to penetrate that ignorance which has separated him and all creation from the Father. And Jesus the Christ in his work as Saviour has functioned as the revealer of that name through a variety of modes ladened with a language of abstract elements. The retention of belief in creation as the work of the Father makes this gospel an alternative to the contemporary Marcion (d. c. 160), but the notions are finally too esoteric for popular consumption, and the followers of Valentinus can only have been the learned.
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):
PG 7; TLG 1746.
Q188.8.131.52; DECL 590-591 (CMarkschies); ODCC 1404; NIDCC 1008 (C. C. Smith); OEEC 859-860 (C. Gianotto); GEEC 1155-1156 (K. L. King); <P1>
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This article, received in 2000, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.