Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Valentinus

Alexandria

Valentinus (100-160), was born in a small town in northern Egypt, and moved to Alexandria as a child. There he received a Greek education and became a disciple of Theudas, who himself had been a student of St Paul the Apostle.

He went to Rome about 136, and became a popular teacher – so much so that when the papal chair became vacant in 157, he was a favoured contender – and certainly himself expected to win the position. When St Anicetus won instead, Valentinus left Rome in a huff for Cyprus.

Once ensconced in that island, he began to spread teachings that he claimed were secret doctrines of St Paul, passed on to Theudas. These were something of a riff on Gnosticism and Neoplatonism – a good deity named Bythos emanating spiritual beings, the Aeons, in a higher realm. Owing to a cosmic mishap, the lowest of these beings created the physical world, in which we find our souls entrapped. Christ came to liberate us from this trap.

There was much more along the same lines, and the result was a body of doctrines called Valentinianism. Among other things, the Valentinians believed that mankind was divided into three varieties; the truly spiritual, who received the divine knowledge (or Gnosis) that allowed them to return to the Godhead; the ordinary Christians, who would go to a sort of cut-rate paradise; and the rest who would simply be destroyed after death. Although Valentinianism was one among many Gnostic sects in the first few centuries after Christ, it was particularly popular because of its interesting ritual and sacraments. Among these were a relatively orthodox-appearing baptismal rite, and the mysterious “Mystery of the Bedchamber” – a sort of spiritualisation of marriage, which did not, however, necessarily require consummation. Extinct relatively early, it attracted new interest after the discovery in 1945 of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt, which contained important works of the Valentinian school.