Monday, December 12, 2011

The Pistis Sophia, or "The Books of the Saviour": A brief overview

"It came to pass, when Jesus had risen from the dead, that he passed eleven years discoursing with his disciples, and instructing them only up to the regions of the First Commandment and up to the regions of the First Mystery, that within the Veil, within the First Commandment, which is the four-an-twentieth mystery without and below, those [four and twenty] which are in the second space of the first mystery which is before all mysteries, --the Father in the form of a dove.

And Jesus said to his disciples: “I am come forth out of that First Mystery, which is the last mystery, that is the four-and-twentieth mystery.” And his disciples have not known nor understood that anything existeth within that mystery, but they thought of that mystery, that is the head of the universe and the head of all existence, and they thought it is the completion of all completions, because Jesus had said to them concerning that mystery, that it surroundeth the First Commandment and the five Impressions and the great Light and the five Helpers and the whole Treasury of Light."
[Pistis Sophia: Book I]
Prior to the location of the thirteen codices of Gnostic teachings and gospels at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945, the Pistis Sophia was seen as a highly significant and important Gnostic text.  The date of composition remains unknown, however it has been suggested by some scholars to have been written as early as the canonical gospels, as well a significant number of the extant apocryphal gospels.  This uncertainty in ascertaining a date is due to the lateness of the surviving copies of the work; the longest and most complete, and elaborate version is located within the Askew Codex, housed in the British Library, London, a bound volume dating from the fifth or sixth century.  Owing to this late date of completion attributed to the source material, there exists the possibility that the composition of the actual works might date from the third or fourth century.  Some early scholars proposed a date as late as the tenth century, however this hypothesis has been largely discredited and dismissed.
Pistis Sophia [Greek: Πίστις Σοφία], as a title, is both vague and obscure, not to mention inaccurate for the compilation of works as a whole.  The words "Pistis Sophia" themselves can be translated literally as meaning “Faith wisdom”, or more crudely as “faith in wisdom”, or “wisdom in faith”.  However, a more accurate translation requires the reader to take into account that "Sophia" was seen as an anthropomorphic  entity, yet divine, percieved to much much like Jesus Christ, to the Gnostic audience for which it was most probably intended.   A suggestion has been made that this pairing of the Saviour and Sophia is a reflection of the relationship that Jesus Christ entertained between himself and Mary Magdalene, notable herein by her presence amongst the disciples.  The Magdalene plays a significant role in the teachings of the Gnostics, unlike her relatively marginal role in the canonical gospels. However the relationship between Jesus and Mary is markedly different from that suggested in the Gospel of Philip, which implies an union of a more marital and sexual nature; whereas it is of a deeper, and more spiritual nature. in the Pistis Sophia.  Sophia was seen as being part of a divine syzygy [literally: a “yoking in”] with Jesus as her divine consort in form of τέλειος [or “Perfect”].  Sophia and Jesus are portrayed as one of the pairs of twenty four aeons, embodying the various emanations of God.  Dependent upon the teacher of the specific strand of Gnosticism, these emanations are given different names and attributes, however this theory of the differing emanations of God is a recurrent and consistent theme to all differing forms of the Gnostic teaching.  One of the most prevalent and wide spread forms of Gnosticism was that of Valentinus, who devised a system of male and female pairings called syzygies [Greek: συζυγίαι].
The Nag Hammadi codices, discovered in 1945.

Valentinus is amongst the most prolific of the Gnostic theologians, alongside the likes of Marcion, Basilides, and Cerdo; all of whom were later condemned as being heretics by the Early Church fathers for their alleged heterodox teachings of Christianity.  Valentinus lived in the second century A.D. from c. 100 to c. 165/75, and was either Egyptian or Carthaginian by birth.  According to a biased biography, he was educated in the thriving cosmopolitan metropolis of Alexandria, an important centre of early Christian, as well as Judaic and pagan ideas; a centre of learning that exercised a significant level of tolerance in the Roman world.  It was at Alexandria, that he was educated by a certain Theudas, allegedly a disciple of St. Paul of Tarsus.  He was once considered as a contender to be a possible bishop in c. 136, however upon the appointment of another individual, he founded his own school of thought in Rome.  None of Valentinus’ numerous teachings and writings survive, however owing to the his ideology being widespread across the empire and subsequently refuted and dismissed by various opponents [G.R.S. Mead was to use the word “foes”] of Gnostic teachings, that a sketch can be constructed of some of his teachings and theology.  Despite being deemed unorthodox and heretical by the Early Church fathers, Valentinian teachings were still highly popular; even breaking off into different strands.  His beliefs included the suggestion that the human race was divided into three different kinds of person.  There were those who followed his teachings were in receipt of gnosis [knowledge] and thereby allowing them to achieve salvation; other Christians who had received enlightenment through “gnosis” would receive a lesser form of salvation; and all others, Jew and pagan alike, were doomed and to remain forever lost.  Various recurrent themes and motifs of Valentinian teaching found in other works, indeed are evident in a significant number of the texts found at Nag Hammadi.  Scholars have suggested that some of the treatises and gospels within this collection of previously lost works might even have been written by him, or certainly his immediate circle.  After his departure from Rome, it is rumored that he went to Cyprus to continue his teachings there, where he died.  Despite the condemnation of his opponents, Valentinus appears to have been a highly respected, charismatic religious leader during his lifetime, all condemnations of being a heretic were made posthumously.   
Based upon the opinions contained in the writings of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, in his work “On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis; in reference to Valentinus’ teaching on gnosis, Irenaeus states that: “Perfect redemption is the cognition itself of the ineffable greatness: for since through ignorance came about the defect . . . the whole system springing from ignorance is dissolved in Gnosis. Therefore Gnosis is the redemption of the inner man; and it is not of the body, for the body is corruptible...” 
Of the five surviving copies of the Pistis Sophia, the Askew Codex contains extracts from other nameless books as well.  The entire volume is referred to by Mead as being “The Books of the Saviour”, correctly feeling that the term "Pistis Sophia" was an inappropriate terminology for the complete corpus of work therein.   The book itself was discovered in Egypt in 1733 by Dr. Anthony Askew, and was purchased by the British Museum in 1795 for £10.  Askew, a physician at St. Bartholomew’s and Christ’s hospital in London,  was an avid bibliophile and classical scholar; and was responsible for assembling an extensive collection of scarce editions and unusual manuscripts during his lifetime.  It is unknown where in Egypt this codex was acquired, and the actual provenance of the codex itself cannot be determined. 

This codex was to form an significant part of a relatively small corpus of work, with two other codices [the "Bruce Codex", and the "Berlin Codex"] as primary sources in terms of Gnostic literature prior to the mid twentieth century.  Most all other sources were secondhand and highly condemning in nature of Gnostic thought and teaching.  These polemic writings presented an extraordinarily adverse portrait of the Gnostics, their teachers, and their works, and dismissing them as absurd, perverse, and deviants, straying from the proto-orthodox school of Christianity encouraged by the teachings and writings of Clement of Alexandria, of Tertullian, and of Irenaeus.
Made of parchment, the codex contains 178 leaves [356 pages], measuring 8¾ inches x 6½ inches, and comprises of 23 quires, and is largely intact, in a state of excellent preservation, and with only 8 pages appearing to be missing from the text as a whole.  The book has been transcribed by two different scribes in very distinguishably different handwriting; one carefully and precisely, the other shakily and somewhat clumsily.  The two scribes seemed to have worked contemporarily; the transcription work appears to have been evenly divided between the two of them, although there are different methods of pagination, inks, correction, etc being employed by each of the two transcribers.  The words run together and are not divided into sections, chapters, nor paragraphs, and is divided into two columns per page.

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A 12th century representation of the Transfiguration.

The book itself has lost its title in antiquity, and appears to be occasionally have other been interpolated with other texts or sections from other texts during the course of the its transcription, some of which are written in another, later hand.  From time to time during the narrative, drastic changes in theme occur throughout the course of the text, with an abrupt tangental change in subject matter.  Calling the entire work, the Pistis Sophia, is in fact a misnomer, as Mead himself concedes.  The titling of the work comes from an inscription located midway through the second book,  inscribed by the second, less careful scribe.  Mead himself preferred to name the work as being the “Books of the Saviour” or more specifically “a portion.”  Mead furthermore suggests that the work is in fact a miscellany of works rather one single consistent work.  Lacunae do occur within the work, the most apparent being one of eight pages in length at the end of the end of the fifth book, ending abruptly with the disciples weeping uncontrollably.

Written in Sahidic Coptic, the dialect of Upper Egypt, and, as stated previously, probably transcribed during the fifth or sixth century, the codex would appear to be a copy of an earlier text.  In addition, the work also appears to be in translation, therefore not the original language in which the work was originally composed and written.  There exists a likely possibility that it was originally written in either Syriac, or most likely Greek, owing to a large number of Greek words, from names to verbs, and even conjugations, which have been left un-translated throughout the course of the codex.  The work was first translated into English by the Theosophist, G.R.S. Mead.

Christ Pantocrator, a mosaic from Hagia Sophia.

The Pistis Sophia recounts the teachings of Jesus following his Transfiguration whereby he remained on earth for a further eleven years subsequent to his resurrection.  His apostles are gathered together with his mother Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene.  The work is presented in a form of dialogues between Jesus and his disciples, mirroring a dialogue between the Divine Redeemer [Jesus] and the lost soul, sunk in sin and trapped in a material world [the disciples].  Through this dialogue, Pistis Sophia, a feminine entity cries for succour and release from her spiritual poverty, and her supplications are responded to by the Saviour.  Her fall is explained through her having attained the knowledge and wisdom of sin, from an existence removed from the divine and within the world of matter, created by a materialist god, named by the Gnostics the “Demiurge.”  Again this idea of a soul in torment, and a condemned material world of matter created by a foolish, lesser god are recurrent themes throughout Gnostic theology.  The teachings of Jesus through his dialogues following his resurrection are to explain how the soul might find salvation.  The text itself is full of metaphors and ideology that will seem alien to the contemporary reader or audience rather than that for whom which it was originally conducted.  Even taken together with existing knowledge of Gnosticism which still remains limited, and with more extensive knowledge and source material since the various discoveries made in the twentieth century, the tome continues to be a complicated and confusing theological work.

Also contained are elements which are atypical of other Gnostic documents and works inasmuch as elements of Greek magic are found therein which appear jarring to the spiritual nature of the rest of the work.  In addition the work appears to have been another “secret” gospel, much like other extant Gnostic works.  the feminine plays an important role, from that of the Magdalene to the personification of Sophia.  Indeed some of the early Gnostics worshiped the Holy Spirit in a female form, staggered at the beliefs and suggestions that Holy Spirit was being seen by some as being male.  Secrecy and mysticism was prevalent thoughout gnosticism, which ranged from the "hidden words" of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Thomas, to the apparant rites of initiation to mysteries  found in Askew codex.  By contrast, the Gospels in the Canon proclaim a universal message of Christianity, whereas the so-called Gnostic Gospels, truly apocryphal in nature, of which the Pistis Sophia and other works certainly can be included amongst, are seen to contain hidden messages to their readers and initiates.  These messages are more in line with the mystery schools of the time than what is seen as current, orthodox Christianity, with its followers striving towards the plemora.


  1. Fantastic!
    Question: "Piste" in French means "path". Is there a connection? "The Path of Sophia", that is , what ORDEAL or "walk" is necessary to attain Wisdom. Question: is there a connection between Sophia as teacher-of-wisdom and the Elusienian Mysteries, also a Process administered by women, the "Female Principal", "Feminin Wisdom"???

  2. On the question of Piste, actually Pistis, is a certain kind of faith, a faith in one's experience (in summary) See this link ( or the book Gnosticism by Stephan A. Hoeller.

    As to the second question; The Eleusinian Mysteries, were initiation ceremonies of the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece. It is acknowledged that their basis was an old agrarian cult which probably goes back to the Mycenaean period (c.1600–1100 BC).

    In relationship to Sophia, which has its teachings going back to Seth, its believed; of course proof is probably not possible for this. But, throughout all this time various wisdom and orthodox teachings either wholly embraced Sophia, or have references to her. Whether or not she actually existed in reality at some point in time is not also proven. This doesn’t mean she wasn't or was. Probably, more important, would be the teachings themselves. In modern times these teachings are prevalent in Depth Psychology, yet the teachings actually go much deeper then 'Depth' does. Depth Psy, pretty much covers the soul, and its relationship to the reality that we call our reality. Whereas, with Sophia, it takes us deeper/higher, so to speak back to the core of who one is, which words have never been adequate to express. Hence, a lot of this is extremely focused on experience, not knowledge as words. Hope this helps? :)