The first part of Gnostic Women Leaders and Heroines dealt with the mythical and supernatural female protagonists. This section focuses on the historical and New Testament ones. Although Mary Magdalene certainly takes center stage in Christian Gnosticism, there are many other women who promoted holy heresy during the brief Gnostic era.
Unlike the seemingly godlike avatars of Sophia in the first article, their roles are similar to their male counterparts—apostles, disciples and philosophical students of The Savior and several Gnostic sages.
In Against Heresies (1.25.6), the Church Father Irenaeus complains about a Gnostic teacher named Marcellina, who came to Rome during the middle of the Second Century and “led multitudes astray.” She was a follower of Carpocrates of Alexandria. Besides owning a large collection of images of Pagan philosophers, Marcellina is said to have the only authentic painting of Jesus Christ, drawn by Pontius Pilate himself. Her followers marked themselves by being branded on the back of the right ear with a red-hot iron.
On the side of the Valentinians, we have two prominent female leaders. Very little is known about their lives, though. One is Flora, an educated convert who thrived sometime in the Second Century. She is the recipient of an important doctrinal letter from Ptolemy, the successor of Valentinus himself (Epiphanius, Against Heresies, 33).
The second is Flavia Sophe, who taught in the early Third Century. Her tomb is marked by the beautiful poem:
Thou, filled with longing for the paternal light, Sister and spouse,
my Sophe, Annointed in the baths of Christ with immortal sacred salve,
Hasten to glimpse the divine features of the Aeons,
The great angel of the great council, the true Son;
Thou camest into the bridal chamber and deathless climbed
Into the bosom of the Father.
There is little else in the writings of the victorious Orthodox Church on other Gnostic women leaders and heroines. But their function was certainly important concerning theology and administration, as the Church Father Tertullian barks in Prescription Against Heretics, 41:
The very women of these heretics, how wanton they are! For they are bold enough to teach, to dispute, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures— it may be even to baptize!
Tertullian goes on to write that the Gnostics were democratic and egalitarian in their religious practices. They also were condemned for inviting people of any faith and caste to join their secret lodges.
The Valentinian magician, Marcus, taught his female disciples the powers of prophecy in a ritual consisting of feasting, drawing lots, and summoning spirits (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1.4.8).
Obviously, Gnostic men and women enjoyed each other’s company and participated with wild delight in their ceremonies, which probably included art, poetry, passionate discussions and daring the mystic realms.
The Gnostic Scriptures expand on their women leaders and heroines, adding to their characteristics that they were often the intimate confidants of The Savior. The Second Revelation of James has seven unnamed women chosen as the disciples of Jesus Christ. In The First Revelation of James, Jesus speaks about four women (including Mary Magdalene) that serve as role models for how the Apostle James is supposed to conduct his ministry. The Gospel of Philip describes three Mary’s that were always at the side of The Savior (Mary Magdalene, his sister and his mother).
After Mary Magdalene, Salome seems to have the largest role in the inner circle of the Gnostic Jesus. In Orthodoxy, she is one of the women at The Cross (Mark 15:40); she is also given the dubious title of being both the younger sister of the Virgin Mary and mother of John and James Zebedee.
In the lost Gospel of the Egyptians, Jesus and Salome have a discourse on the nature of life and death. One of his answers to her question of unlocking the secrets of immortality is “When ye have trampled on the garment of shame, and when the two become one and the male with the female is neither male nor female.”
Refuting the claims of Salome’s demotion by Orthodoxy, The Gospel of Thomas Saying #61 also has a mystical interaction between Jesus and Salome:
Jesus said, “Two will recline on a couch; one will die, one will live.”
Salome said, “Who are you mister? You have climbed onto my couch and eaten from my table as if you are from someone.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the one who comes from what is whole. I was granted from the things of my Father.”
“I am your disciple.”
“For this reason I say, if one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness.”
In the apocryphal Book of James and The Pistis Sophia, Salome also finds herself in deep theological interactions with The Savior.
According to the Second Century Pagan Philosopher, Celsus, The Gnostic Carpocrateans traced their lineage directly to Salome (Against Celsus V.61).
Another Gnostic woman leader and heroine is Martha, who in the Canonical Bible is the sister of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene. She is given a prominent role in The First Revelation of James and The Pistis Sophia. In The Acts of Philip, Martha “ministered to the multitudes and labored much.”
Celsus also wrote that various Gnostic sects claimed their authority from Martha, although unlike Salome he does not mention them by name.
Although the Gnostics gave less prominence to the Virgin Mary than Roman Catholicism, they certainly gave her a relevant role (and certainly didn’t marginalize her like Protestantism). As mentioned above, The Gospel of Philip states she was always in the company of Jesus, more than likely an advisor (or perhaps just part of a feminine symbolical trinity that fueled the powers of Christ). The Gospel of Philip even extols her holiness and makes her an icon against what was becoming a structured, patriarchal Church: “Mary is the virgin whom no power defiled. She is a great anathema to the Hebrews, who are the apostles and the apostolic men.”
In The Pistis Sophia, the Virgin Mary is a member of the chosen few that the risen Christ imparts his cosmic teachings, visions and mysteries. Yet, for the most part in Gnostic accounts, she is simply the de-mythologized conduit through which the Gnostic Jesus takes form in the material world (often not in the flesh).
But perhaps the mother of Jesus does have a larger role than previously believed. In Rethinking the Gnostic Mary, Stephan Shoemaker proposes that many of the Gnostic and Apocryphal texts that mention Mary actually refer to the Virgin Mary and not Mary Magdalene. He also proposes that ‘Mary’ is often a composite character of various personalities sharing the same name in the many Gnostic and Christian legends. Of course, these types of theories are not uncommon in Biblical studies since a variety of different names is not something found in early Christianity!
Some have postulated that Saint Paul’s possible favorite disciple, Thecla, might have also been a Gnostic. Although Saint Paul was first revered by Gnostics, there is no real evidence that he granted Thecla his more heretical ideas.
But the one thing Saint Paul taught is that when it came to imparting Gnosis, labels and appearances ceased to matter:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 22, further adds to this approach:
Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter the kingdom.”
The Gnostics certainly took this to heart, understanding that gender and gender-roles were less important than the quest for spiritual liberation. The two articles of ‘Gnostic Women Leaders and Heroines’ reinforce this viewpoint that is sadly still controversial today in most religions.
It also should be noted that early Christianity also has a heritage of female leaders. But as the Gnostics vanished, so did women’s value in mainstream Christianity. Christendom did retain a tradition of women saints like Teresa De Avilla and Joan of Arc, as well as the veneration of the Virgin Mary, but the few bursts of Gnosticism throughout history reveal scant female influence. Even the modern Gnostic revival has a shortage of Gnostic women leaders and heroines.
Perhaps it is time modern Gnosticism not only get with the times but remember the time when brave Gnostic women dared to spread the truth about a universe ruled by a patriarchal arrogant god and his slaves on both Heaven and Earth.
As the Gnostic Jesus promises that each person can become a living Christ, the examples of Eve, Norea, Marcellina, Salome and Mary Magdalene promises that the potential of becoming a living avatar of Sophia is not only possible but a holy duty to any woman who has experienced Gnosis.
And then it’s time to lead the multitudes astray towards soul liberation.