Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Concept of Rebirth as the Christ and the Initiatory Rituals of the Bridal Chamber in the Gospel of Philip

  • Majella Franzmann (a1)


In this article I begin with an outline of the connection between theological concepts related to the person of the Gnostic Christian Saviour and the ritual practice of Gnostic Christian groups. After setting the scene in this general way, I look specifically at the Gospel of Philip, investigating the connection between the description of the rebirth of the Saviour at the Jordan and the rebirth of the Gnostic in the ritual of the bridal chamber.

The Nag Hammadi corpus, to which the Gospel of Philip belongs, contains many texts which may be identified as Gnostic Christian, partly because of the fact that, in these texts, the key figure of the Saviour or Revealer is identified as Jesus or Christ. The work that Jesus performs in the world for the Gnostics is revelation, for the most part, rather than redemption in the sense in which mainstream Christianity identified his activity. His revelation may involve imparting secret knowledge, especially during that time prior to his final ascent into the heavenly region of light (for those texts which are closely aligned with the mainstream Christian pattern of descent and several stages of ascent for Jesus), but it must be generally categorised as activity designed to awaken the Gnostic to the insight (gnosis) which this person already possesses.



Hide All

1 Mack, B., ‘Lord of the Logia: Savior or Sage?’, in Goehring, al. (eds), Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings: In Honor of James M. Robinson [Forum Fascicles, I] (Sonoma, CA 1990) 318, esp. W.Ap. Jas. goes further than most Gnostic texts and implies that the Gnostic may even become better than Jesus. He tells believers, who are sons (16.29-30), to become better than himself (6.19), to hasten to be saved and, if possible, to arrive even before him (7.10-15), for thus the Father will love them (7.15-16).

2 Buckley, J.J., ‘A Cult-Mystery in The Gospel of Philip’, Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980) 569–81, esp. 578-9.

3 Perkins, P., Gnosticism and the New Testament (Minneapolis 1993) 18.

4 Koester, H. and Pagels, E., ‘Introduction’, in Emmel, S. (ed), Nag Hammadi Codex 111,5: The Dialogue of the Savior [NHS, 26] (Leiden 1984) 117, consider that the whole of Dial. Sav. must be seen in the context of baptismal initiation (11), and that the dissolution process (death into new life) is already experienced by the Gnostic in baptism (12-13). In an earlier work Pagels, Visions, Appearances, and Apostolic Activity: Gnostic and Orthodox Traditions’, in Aland, B. (ed.). Gnosis. Festschrift fiir Hans Jonas (Gottingen 1978) 415–30, had suggested that the text ‘relates certain prayers, followed by the instruction, and finally the laying on of hands, after which the disciples “hoped that they might see it”, perhaps reflecting ‘a liturgical setting in which the initiate expects to see visions’ (427). Koester and Pagels take up this point again, although a little more cautiously: ‘If this statement alludes to an element of the baptismal ritual, the laying on of hands which followed baptism is understood as a prelude to receiving visions’ (13). Yet this appears to go against what the text itself says concerning visions, differentiating between the transient visions that one experiences here and the eternal vision (137.14-15), which alone is the great vision (137.9-11). Whatever is transitory must be rejected, whether that be visions, or the garments of the archons. Moreover as Perkins, Pheme, The Gnostic Dialogue: The Early Church and the Crisis of Gnosticism (New York 1980) suggests, the rejection of baptism without gnosis in this text down-plays baptism in general ‘because it only anticipates the real eschatological goal, the ascent of the soul after death’, and because ‘without gnosis all speculative and esoteric wisdom is useless’ (108, 110).

5 See Koschorke, K., ‘Die “Namen” im Philippusevangelium: Beobachtungen zur Auseinandersetzung zwischen gnostischem und kirchlichem Christentum’, Zeilschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 64 (1973) 307–22, esp. 316, and also Gaffron, H.-G., Studien zum koptischen Philippusevangelium unter besonderer Berück-sichtigung der Sakramente (Bonn 1969) 132–3, on the interpretation of these polemics as directed at the inefficacious nature of Church sacramental praxis.

6 One might argue that a Gnostic group would hardly countenance the use of material things in order to channel or mirror the spiritual in ritual practice, yet I believe that Gos. Phil. finds the answer to this difficulty by an insistence upon the hiddenness of another reality within virtually everything it discusses, though not suggesting thereby that any material reality is good by virtue of what is hidden.

7 This leaves a question mark over the possibility of Adam's birth from the union of two virginal females—the Spirit and the virgin earth (71.16-18). Buckley, J.J., ‘Conceptual Models and Polemical Issues in the Gospel of Philip’, ANRW II 25.5 (1988) 4167–94, argues for the positive presentation of ‘gender symmetry in parentage’ in the text, and suggests that if Jesus had two mothers, he would be seen in a negative light, similar to Adam (4180-1).

8 Trautmann, C., ‘La parenté dans l'Evangile selon Philippe’, in Barc, B. (ed ), Colloque international sur les textes de Nag Hammadi (Québec, 22-25 1978) [BCNH: ‘Etudes’, 1] (Québec/Louvain 1981) 267–78, compares the parallelism between Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, and the Father of All, his heavenly father, in their representation as gardeners: Joseph's planting (the cross) brings death and the Father's brings life (274). Buckley (n.7) 4177-8 finds this treatment of Joseph too negative, stating that both the Father and Joseph are gardeners whose plantings bring both death and life.

9 See Gilhus, I.S., The Nature of the Archons: A Study in the Soteriology of a Gnostic Treatise from Nag Hammadi (CG II, 4) [Studies in Oriental Religions, 12] (Wiesbaden 1985) 92–3, for the comparison of Mary and Norea.

10 Pagels, Elaine, ‘Adam and Eve, Christ and the Church: A Survey of Second Century Controversies Concerning Marriage’, in Logan, A.H.B. and Wedderburn, A.J.M. (eds), The New Testament and Gnosis: Essays in Honour of Robert McL. Wilson (Edinburgh 1983) 146–75, suggests that the body of Christ here is intended to be understood as the Church (164).

11 Schenke, H.-M., ‘Das Evangelium nach Philippus. Ein Evangelium der Valentinianer aus dem Funde von Nag-Hamadi’, in Leipoldt, J. and Schenke, H.-M. (eds), Koptisch-gnostische Schriften aus den Papyrus-Codices von Nag-Hamadi [ThF, 20] (Hamburg-Bergstedt 1960) 3165, esp. 53 nn.10, 11; and Sevrin, J.-M., ‘Les noces spirituelles dans 1'Evangile selon Philippe’, Muséon 87 (1974) 143–93, esp. 160.

12 As suggested also by Schenke and Sevrin.

13 Janssens, Yvonne, ‘L'Evangile selon Philippe’, Muséon 81 (1968) 79133, works backwards from Schenkc's identification of the Father of All as the Christ to suggest this (109). See also Sevrin (n.11) 161-3. For more on Mary Magdalene as the syzygy of Jesus in Cos. Phil., see Franzmann, M., Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings (Edinburgh 1996) 51.

14 Wilson, R.McL., The Gospel of Philip: Translated from the Coptic Text, with an Introduction and Commentary (New York/Evanston 1962) 146; Trautmann (n.8) 269; and Ménard, J.-E., L'Evangile selon Philippe: introduction, texte—traduction, commentaire (Paris 1988 2) 202, understand the writer to be attempting to unite the two concepts of birth at the Jordan through the Spirit (this is more explicitly expressed by Mdnard) and birth from the virgin Mary. For the discussion of a similar link, but in another text, see Franzmann (n. 13) 52-5 on dual parentage of the Jesus figure and baptism in Testim. Truth.

15 Gos. Phil. 59.6-11 states that three people always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother, her sister, and Mary Magdalene who was called his companion (59.9; cf. also the fragmentary text 63.32-4). Schenke, , ‘Das Evangelium nach Philippus’ (n.11), and ‘Das Evangelium nach Philippus’, Neutestamentliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung. Herausgegeben von Wilhelm Schneemelcher. 5. Auflage der von Edgar Hennecke begründeten Sammlung, Bd. Evangelien, I. (Tübingen 1989 5) 1.148–73, emends ‘her sister’ to ‘his sister’ ('seine Schwester’), since the following line speaks of Mary as his sister (44 and 159). Either one must emend as Schenke does or emend the next line to read ‘her sister’.

Despite the difficulty, it seems clear that the passage is speaking of three women and the fact that each of them was named Mary. There seems little ground for the continuing speculation over the equivalence of the three characters; see, e.g. Barc, B., ‘Les noms de la Triade dans 1'Evangile selon Philippe’, in Ries, al. (eds), Gnosticisme el monde hellénistique. Actes du Colloque de Louvain-la-Neuve (11-14 mars 1980) [PIOL, 27] (Louvain-la-Neuve 1982) 361–76, esp. 374-5; Wilson (n.14) 97; McNeil, B., ‘New Light on Gospel of Philip 17’, Journal of Theological Studies 29 (1978) 143–6, esp. 145; Trautmann (n.8) 273; Ménard (n.14) 150-1; and Klauck, H.-J., ‘Die Dreifache Maria. Zur Rezeption von Joh 19,25 in EvPhil 32’, in Segbroeck, F. Vanet al. (eds), The Four Gospels, 1992. Festschrift Frans Neirynck [BETL, 100] 3 (Leuven 1992) 2343–58, esp. 2357.

16 In discussing the passage concerning the three Maries (59.6-11), Barc (n. 15) suggests that the mother Sophia has three titles to correspond to her three divisions (the one in the Pleroma who sends the spirit; the spirit herself; the soul to whom the spirit is sent) but one name—Mary. ‘Si le Fils a revêtu trois noms (Jésus-Nazaréen-Christ) c'est pour rendre à l'Esprit divisé son unité symbolisée par un nom unique, celui de Marie’ (375). For a discussion on Barc's theory of the three names of the Son, see Franzmann (n.13) 35 n.1.

17 Widengren, G., Mesopotamian Elements in Manichaeism (King and Saviour 11). Studies in Manichaean, Mandaean, and Syrian-Gnostic Religion [UUA 1946: 3] (Uppsala/Leipsig 1946) 114–5, cites a text from the songs of Narsai in which there is a dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan. The images of bridal chamber and wedding feast are strongly connected with the baptism, although in this case it is Jesus who is identified as the bridegroom.

18 Wilson (n.14) interprets this passage to refer to five different stages in the life of Jesus, rather than to the event of his baptism: namely the divine origin, the incarnation, the anointing (Mk 14:3 f. or Jn 19:39 f. or perhaps the anointing with the Spirit at the baptism), deliverance from the grave, and the deliverance of others (145).

19 Gaffron (n.5) argues that since the plural ‘mysteries’ is not used, one cannot conclude that the five rituals named arc ‘the mysteries’, and that therefore ‘mystery’ is not the same as ‘sacrament’ (101-10). He states further: ‘Auβer dem “Sakrament des Brautgcmachs” wird kein anderes als bezeichnet!’ (108-9). By and large though, apart from Gaffron, commentators have been using the terms ‘mystery’ and 'sacrament’ synonymously.

20 Pagels (n. 10) discusses in detail the elements of the sacramental mystery in relation to the activity of redressing the separation of Adam and Eve (168-9).

21 See Gaffron (n.5) 199. Quispel, G., ‘Genius and Spirit’, in Krause, M. (ed.), Essays on the Nag Hammadi Texts in Honour of Pahor Labib [NHS, 6] (Leiden 1975) 155–69, interprets the link to one's angel or higher self as the believer becoming his feminine self in order to function as a bride. He refers to Gos. Phil. 61, but this passage speaks of receiving both a male and a female power, namely the bridegroom and the bride (165).

22 Rω may have the meaning ‘set free/release’ both with and without Crum, W.E., A Coptic Dictionary (Oxford 1939) 95a, 96b.

23 Wilson (n. 18) 71. See also ‘his life’ in de Catanzaro, C.J., ‘The Gospel According to Philip’, Journal of Theological Studies 13 (1962) 3671, esp. 37; and Layton, B. and Isenberg, W.W., ‘The Gospel according to Philip’, 145 (Isenberg's translation); and 'son âme’ in Ménard (n.14) 15. Perkins (n.3) 79 assumes ‘his’ when speaking of this passage as an allusion to the crucifixion.

24 Schenke's ([n.11] 50) emendation seems to make better sense here.

25 Of course, there are those who do not consider there is any ritual at all. Most recently Thomas Finn, Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: West and East Syria [Message of the Fathers of the Church, 5] (Collegeville, MN 1992) has written: ‘The bridal chamber (nymphon) and redemption are very likely allegorical symbols for the advanced stages of saving enlightenment rather than for rites …’ (121-2).

26 See the summary in Sevrin (n.11) 180.

27 Sevrin (n.11) argues that a) there is nothing in the text to suggest a hierogamic rite where one sees in sexual licence an anticipation of the bridal chamber (181); b) human marriage is always treated as a metaphor for the heavenly marriage not as the means of realising it (181); c) the points of contact are too few between the ritual of the kiss and the bridal chamber to suggest that the kiss is a stylisation of sexual union (186) (‘Ce n'est pas le sens normal du baiser dans les textes chrétiens ou gnostiques que l&on peut avancer: il signifie plutôt la paix, l'unité voire l'amour ou la communication d'une force’ [184]; see also Gaffron [n.5] 222: ‘Der von den Gnostikern des EvPh geübte Kuβ hat mit dem nur einmal gespendeten Sakrament des Brautgemachs nichts zu tun; er ist vermutlich nur Ausdruck der pneumatischen Gemeinschaft der Gnostikern untereinandcr’); d) the rite makes no real sense as a sacrament of the dying for the Gnostic who fears death and the dangerous journey to the Pleroma thereafter (cf. Gaffron [n.5] 218) in view of the psychology/theology of the gospel itself.

28 Tripp, D.H., ‘The “Sacramental System” of the Gospel of Philip’, in Livingstone, E.A. (ed ), Studia Patristica 17.1 (Oxford 1982) 251–60, esp. 257. Tripp finds five complementary uses of in Gos. Phil, related to eucharist, to the initiatory rites as a whole, to the union foreshadowed by the eucharist, to the union of the Father and the Son from the beginning, and to the final bliss.

29 Quispel (n.21) 165.

30 Buckley (n.2) 572.

31 Ibid. 581.

32 Pagels (n.10) 167-9.

33 Ibid. 169.

34 There is quite a lot of discussion in this Gospel concerning the deceptive or erring nature of names in the world (see e.g. 53.23-54.31). For a full discussion of this passage in the light of Platonic thought, see Woschitz, K.M., ‘Erkenntnis und Wahrheit im platonischen Denken und im gnostischen Philippusevangelium (Log. 11 und 12). Ein Strukturvergleich’, in Dalfen, al. (eds.), Religio Graeco-Romana. Festschrift für Walter Pötscher [GrBS, 5] (Graz/Horn 1993) 231–61, esp. 251-61.

35 Pagels, E.H., ‘The “Mystery of Marriage” in the Gospel of Philip Revisited’, in Pearson, B.A. (ed.). The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester (Minneapolis 1991) 442–54. See also the revised version of this article, ‘The Mystery of Marriage” in the Gospel of Philip’, in Segal, R.A. (ed.), The Allure of Gnosticism: the Gnostic Experience in Jungian Psychology and Contemporary Culture (Chicago 1995) 107–16.

36 Gaffron (n.5) 210.

37 See the helpful summary of the arguments in Pagels (n.35 [1991]).

38 In the discussion subsequent to the presentation of this article in its earlier form in Prague, members of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas suggested parallels to 2 Cor 3:18 and Chapter 1 of the Poimandres. Whereas these passages use the image in a positive way as in Gos. Phil., it is used somewhat negatively in the Manichaean Turkish text T II D 178, where the revelation of the deity in the mirror is for judgment: Klimkeit, H.-J., Gnosis on the Silk Road: Gnostic Texts from Central Asia (New York 1993) 292.

39 Woschitz (n.34) 255-6 refers to this sealing with the names as the pinnacle (‘Gipfel’) of the mystical identification of the Christian Gnostic.

40 The image of the mirror occurs in Ode of Solomon 13; see Franzmann, M., The Odes of Solomon: An Analysis of the Poetical Structure and Form [NTOA, 20] (Freiburg [Schweiz]/Göttingen 1991) 109–10. This ode would have been suitable for just such a ritual, with its exhortation to see the Christ as one's image in the mirror, to sing hymns to the spirit, to love his holiness and put it on. Further to this, my suggestion of (‘harlotry’) for the emendation of 13.3 makes sense in the light of Gos. Phil. 78.12-24 which describes (he woman who sleeps with her husband but whose heart is with another, and whose offspring then resemble the adulterer rather than her husband. If there is harlotry on one's face, then that is what one will see in the mirror, rather than the Lord; see Franzmann, M., ‘“Wipe the harlotry from your faces”: a brief note on Ode of Solomon 13,3’, Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 77 (1986) 282–3.

41 ‘This seems to clarify the equivalence of the image both as the soul (67.2-5) and as the Christ; i.e. the soul which Christ lays down in the world from the beginning (53.8-9).

42 See also the connection with the eucharist, in which the Gnostic receives the flesh and blood of Christ (the Word and Holy Spirit), the perfect man, which is food and drink and clothing (57.6-8; 75.14-21).

43 Gaffron (n.5) 120-1.

44 Ibid. 108. See also Woschitz (n.34) 250.

45 Rewolinski, E.T., The Use of Sacramental Language in the Gospel of Philip (Cairensis Gnosticus 11,3) [Diss. Harvard University] (Cambridge, MA 1978) 123.

46 Tripp (n.28) 253-6.

47 Ibid. 256.

48 Rewolinski (n.45) 139; Isenberg in Layton, B. and Isenberg, W.W., ‘The Gospel according to Philip’, Nag Hammadi Codex 11,2-7 together with XIII,2*. Brit. Lib. Or.4926(1), and P. Oxy. 1, 654, 655 [NHS, 20] 2 vols. (Leiden 1989) 1.136.

49 Page 69 contains a lengthy discussion concerning the buildings in Jerusalem as analogies for the rituals of baptism, redemption and the bridal chamber. The argument runs as follows: the three buildings of the Holy, the Holy of the Holy, and the Holy of the Holies (where the High Priest enters) correspond to baptism, redemption and the bridal chamber respectively. The three seem to imply an increasing degree of complexity or of importance, a point borne out by the assertion that the bridal chamber is superior to the others. We are then told that baptism includes resurrection and redemption, and that the redemption is in the bridal chamber. All of this seems to support the view either that baptism, redemption and resurrection constitute the experience of the bridal chamber or that we have mention here of three elements which together make up the fulness of the experience which is the bridal chamber, i.e. through the Holy, to the Holy of the Holy, to the Holy of the Holies.

The remainder of the text is obscure in meaning (made more difficult by its damaged nature) and may imply that, prior to the tearing of the veil of the Holy of Holies, this place was the image of the bridal chamber. If that was so, it was a false image of the union of the godhead with the believer, because it was the Demiurge who was resident there.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed