Gnostic writings are notable in many ways, from their visionary but gritty view of the universe to the mercurial way they waged spiritual guerrilla war against the gods and their earthly servants.
Another notable aspect of Gnostic writings is their abundant, broad depiction of female heroines — from the damsel-in-distress trope in the Exegesis of the Soul to the supreme being protagonist who saves Jesus in the Trimorphic Pretennoia, and everything in between. The Gnostic canon provides a wide array of engaging female characters in upgraded roles from Christianity, Paganism, and Judaism: Eve, Barbelo, Sophia, Helen of Tyre, Thunder, Salome, Mary Magdalene, and more. In fact, I argue that Gnosticism offered the most remarkable figure in all religions in the form of the unique Norea.
Gnosticism’s portrayal of women wasn’t merely for scrollbait or ancient eye-candy. When reading the texts, it’s easy to see that the Gnostics wanted the reader to deeply understand and empathize with the plight of their heroines, whether in the role of mother, slut, liberator, sage, or community leader (and sometimes all of those in one). This sensibility is remarkable and not encountered in any other spiritual movement of the time, and rare even today. For more, explore my series Gnostic Women and Leaders.
Thus, it makes perfect sense to speculate that women wrote some of the Gnostic gospels. And possibly some orthodox gospels too.
The blood of ages
In his latest book Gnostic Tendencies, Andrew Phillip Smith makes a sober case that a woman penned the Nag Hammadi library’s On the Origin of the World. The text is an eclectic, evocative work that provides a Gnostic “history of salvation” epic, from a precosmic cataclysm that resulted in humanity being trapped in an artificial universe (where we are now), to the eventual redemption of all souls with the aid of divine feminine agencies. This gospel is universalist in its theology but visceral in its plot, where oddly Jesus isn’t mentioned and Christ only once and incidentally. The pacing and atmosphere have that dreamlike, fragmented vibe you find in, let’s say, the third season of Twin Peaks. As Andrew explains, On the Origin of the World contains abundant birth imagery, like Chaos being the placenta while the real child is the Realm of Light.
Origin of the World as a text that is female-friendly and menstruation-positive, in its turn suggesting links to alleged ancient practices that partly may indirectly have inspired the sacramental use of menstrual blood. The text is certainly very interested in the intimate, even visceral, aspects of female biology. Female blood, male seed, afterbirth and foetus. Yet despite its explicit imagery it cannot really be labelled sex-positive. Sex-acknowledging perhaps. The authorities multiply via sexual intercourse; Adam refuses to embrace Forethought to quench her love; Zoe is raped.
It is a little easier to say that it is female-positive: certainly female-prominent. It is quite possible that the author was a woman. We cannot substantiate this but there is no reason to believe that every Gnostic text was written by a man.
Andrew further states:
Blood and semen are all over the text. Whereas the blood is generative, giving rise naturally to plants and animals, the semen is invasive. Blood belongs to the female, who is on the side of the divine. Semen belongs to the male, who belongs to the authorities, who are archonic and ignorant and oppress mankind.
Supporting this female-centric attitude, in my book Other Voices of Gnosticism, scholar Nicola Denzey Lewis states that in On the Origin of the World is a story where “the first being created, the first spiritual being, is a female being. And it’s sort of mindblowing. Eve was first, not Adam.”
As Andrew points out, the author of On the Origins of the World ultimately seems to support an ascetic life (although pregnancy and midwifery are viewed as positive). But this was not that uncommon in early Christian times, as many women shunned traditional roles after embracing encratic forms of Gnosticism or Christianity, finding themselves with more freedom to seek spiritual and intellectual avenues. Moreover, perhaps women could rarely write in those days, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t pay a scribe to record their revelations.
Other Gospel writers in male drag
Gnosticism liberated women, but as just mentioned, so did early Christianity, and the result was perhaps a desire to catalog the supramundane visions. For instance, in Probabilia uber die Addresse und den Verfasser des Habraerbriefes, Adolph von Harnack argued that the Letter to the Hebrews was written by a woman named Pricilla.
In Revolt of the Widows (and Andrew mentions this in our latest interview), Stevan Davies argues that the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles was a woman. He points out that in rewriting the Gospel of Mark, Luke “consistently chose to highlight the role of women in the life of Jesus” and then decided to “include stories, sayings, events, and persons so as to increase the positive presence of women in the Gospel.”
Davies further explains:
There can be no doubt whatsoever that the author of the Gospel of Luke made a careful, sustained, deliberate and systematic effort to show that women were important to the ministry of Jesus in Christianity’s mythic past, and so were important to the Christian movement in Luke’s historical present. The evidence that Luke did this is overwhelming and really not at issue anywhere in scholarship.
After giving several examples of an elevated status for women in his book, Davies then states:
Was Luke a woman? Yes, she was. How do we know? Well, frankly, we know this by virtue of common sense. Is it possible to imagine a man who might have done this sort of work? Are there any examples from ancient times of men striving to elevate women’s roles in the Christian religion? Are there medieval examples? Are there even modern examples? Not many, if any. It’s not impossible that Luke was a man, but it sure doesn’t seem likely. By the principle of Occam’s Razor the simple explanation that a woman author sought to elevate the roles of women in the foundational story of the Christian movement surely takes precedence over the hypothesis that a man, in a manner almost unheard of in the two thousand year long history of the Church, decided to incorporate women as fully as Luke did.
Beyond “Luke,” there is an interesting, non-scholar argument that Mary Magdalene was the author of the Gospel of John.
The storm the world forgot
We should go back to Gnosticism and mention the evocative, poetic, and meditative The Thunder, Perfect Mind, which is the oration of a divine feminine figure that has parallels to the aretalogy of such goddesses as Isis.
Elaine Pagels summarizes this text:
‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ is a marvelous, strange poem. It speaks in the voice of a feminine divine power, but one that unites all opposites. One that is not only speaking in women, but also in all people. One that speaks not only in citizens, but aliens, it says, in the poor and in the rich. It’s a poem which sees the radiance of the divine in all aspects of human life, from the sordidness of the slums of Cairo or Alexandria, as they would have been, to the people of great wealth, from men to women to slaves. In that poem, the divine appears in every, and the most unexpected, forms….
Thunder Perfect Mind may have been written in Egypt. It’s probably written by somebody who knows the traditions of Isis, knows the traditions of the Jews. It shows that this movement grew up in a world in which Jewish, Egyptian, Greek, Roman traditions are mingled and mixing and well-known to many sophisticated people. All you had to do is travel around a city, like Carnac, and you saw all these images, and these various religions and these various cultures mixing.
Did a woman write it? Let’s put it this way: Going back to Other Voices of Gnosticism, famed translator Will Barnstone explains that in ancient times religious texts were meant to be expressed as theater art. Theologians were both playwrights and actors. This time in her book Introduction to Gnosticism, Denzey Lewis states concerning The Thunder, Perfect Mind that “it is difficult to imagine a male prophet or teacher standing before a community and reciting this text.”
Obviously, this is nothing conclusive without historical evidence, but it seems odd that The Thunder, Perfect Mind would be the mansplaining of the deepest secrets of the divine feminine principle.
In the end, does it really matter?
Regardless of the gender of these texts, we do know from scholarship that early Christianity, mostly in its Gnostic arenas, viewed woman as able to receive and impart spiritual revelation, even become complete prophets, as in the case of the Montanist Maximilla, who described how Christ visited in the form of a woman!
In the second part of Gnostic Women Leaders and Heroines, I provide various instances where women held community leadership positions. In my spanning article on Mary Magdalene I argue how Mary Magdalene was considered a chief role model to the Gnostics, often the one person who understood the arcane mysteries of the cosmos.
What’s more, according to Christian tradition, the Gnostic Naassenes were founded by James but he passed the reigns on to a woman named Mary (was it Magdalene?). The pagan philosopher Celsus stated that the Gnostic Carpocrateans traced their lineage directly to Salome (Against Celsus V.61). In her latest book The Gnostic New Age, April DeConick argues that the Mandaeans, arguably the last Gnostics today, were founded by a rebellious Jewish woman named Miriai in the second century. Furthermore, there are recorded instances of Mandaean female priests and scribes in the third century.
Something powerful was going on when the Gnostics rose from nascent Christendom in the big urban centers of the Roman Empire. Something akin to thunder in the human soul during repressive times, unfortunately quelled by the later winds of orthodoxy.
As the authors of the book The Thunder: Perfect Mind write:
Its powerful, paradoxical, possibly divine, first person, primarily female voice has few–if any–parallels in all of literature. Even though occasionally obscured by terms from the ancient Mediterranean, the words of this assertive and mysterious self-revealer grip the twenty-first-century reader almost immediately. Thunder’s daring presentation of a cosmically strong woman’s voice both shocks and lingers. Out of view for more than 1,600 years, its bold and evocative expressions of a commanding, yet complex, identity resonate today as they must have in the Greco-Roman era.
But that voice has gone quiet. Even the Mandaeans no longer allow female priests or scribes.
Would this make the Gnostics feminists? I would say no. They were far greater than that. The Gnostics, in their myths and prayers, saw the divine feminine principle as an encompassing force that included all genders, all creatures, and the whole of creation — in the perfect balance of empathy and scorn as it was fragmented in the chaos of material existence. They saw the goddess as she truly was in all her prisms, inside each one of our sleeping hearts.
And if this goddess returns, her thunder would not be kind to this current world.