FALLEN HARMONY – SOPHIA, MARY MAGDALEN AND HELENA
The idea that the first work of God, the Source of All Being, is Harmony, or Wisdom, the template, or inherent law, which allows all Creation to flourish in freedom, is a commonplace from a distant past and through the early centuries of Christianity.
To Pythagoras and Plato this is an abstract idea. The first created thing is number. Myths may be woven to help us understand what it means, as in Plato’s story of the making of the World Soul in Timaeus.
Once this abstract concept becomes a myth, and Harmony or Wisdom becomes personified, a simple idea develops in increasingly complicated ways. In the early Christian world there are conflicting versions.
There is no doubt that the myth of Sophia, as the first agent of Creation, is a key part of the various systems of Gnostic belief which were alive for several centuries after the time of Christ – and may have roots before then.
What, I suggest, is important, is to see that it is not the belief in a personification of this first created thing, in the female form of Sophia or by another name, that is special to the gnostic sects, but her role. In gnostic systems Sophia or Wisdom is not simply the divine Harmony which is present in all things, but which, as Pythagoras and Plato taught, we are too corrupt to hear. The aspect of the gnostic myth which is unorthodox, as far as what we think of as orthodox Christianity is concerned, is Sophia’s fall. This form of Gnosticism has a negative view of the material world. The world itself is corrupt, not just ourselves. Sophia was God’s first creation and she, for example (there are many versions of the story), makes the angels and the world, but the world she makes imprisons her. Creation contains destructive forces.
This is, it appears, quite opposed to the orthodox Christian view. What became orthodox Christianity has a far more positive view of Creation – but whether the difference between orthodoxy and heresy was obvious in the first century AD is anybody’s guess. Did the very first Christians have a completely positive view of Creation if they were waiting for the return of Christ and the end of things? Whatever the origins of these views it is clear that two opposed ideas existed quite early in the history of the Church.
The important point, though, is that it is the fallenness of Sophia and not Sophia herself which is heretical. The negative view of nature also led to various alternative understandings of Jesus – sometimes denying that he could have had a physical body. The arguments around these alternative views went on for centuries – and after a quiet period bubbled up again with the heresies of the 12th and 13th centuries. The Cathar heresy of St Francis’s time may have been attractive as a simple and apparently purer way in comparison with a rich and corrupt Church, but it included this negative view of Nature and the belief that Jesus could not have been corrupted by a material body. Perhaps this heretical aspect didn’t matter much to the ordinary people of southern France.
The other aspect of Gnosticism which was anathema to the early church was its exclusiveness. There was a tendency to say that a group had secret ways of escaping the evil of the world. The Church believed redemption was for all, in other words, it was universal, or catholic.
These are purely personal observations and nothing more than that. This whole area is a minefield.
The fallen Sophia figure (a myth built around an abstract philosophy in Pythagoras’s world) is important in Gnostic circles but it seems surprising that a more positive (and biblical) alternative was not promoted by the orthodox Church.
Could it be that the role of Sophia, or the belief in the inherent law of Harmony, is not so visible in the early church because the whole idea of Sophia had become inextricably associated with the Gnostic version, and had been corrupted by this myth of the fall and imprisonment? Wisdom had been tainted.
As is probably obvious from this website I am generally in favour of Nature and I do not find Gnosticism attractive. There may be, though, some traditions within it which reveal somethings that are lost in orthodox Christianity.
In the last few decades Mary Magadalen has been popularly associated with Sophia, a Wisdom figure. This idea has its roots in the Gnostic gospels in which Mary Magdalen seems to be treated as the wisest disciple, closest to Jesus. Elaine Pagel’s 1979 book “The Gnostic Gospels” was the first popular examination of this collection of texts. Pagels argues that the appearances of Mary Magdalen in these texts support a view that women had an important role in the early church. Mary Magdalen is not specifically equated with Sophia, but she is shown as a person with a unique relationship with Christ. The difficulty in using this to support a claim that women had a more equal place, though, is that the Gnostic gospels have a negative view of sexuality. Mary’s equality with the men depends on an abandonment of sexuality.
Pagels also confuses the issue by quoting the mostly orthodox Clement of Alexandria, writing in the second century, arguing that women should be equal to men as in Christ “there is no male or female.” Clement uses the term “Gnostic” to mean “having direct knowledge of God” and he writes that this is true of all Christians. At least for Clement the idea that people could have direct knowledge of God was not a heresy or a point of division between orthodox and heretical beliefs.
The Hag Hammadi writings do support the case that Mary was remembered as someone very important in the early church – but doesn’t St John’s gospel give her a much stronger role, without any negation of her sex? Mary certainly has a very important part to play. Regardless of its historical validity this gospel at least gives clues to the way Mary Magdalen was seen by one church at that time.
The Nag Hammadi gospels date from later than St John’s gospel, though dating is controversial. St John’s gospel is generally dated from the end of the first century, while the earliest of the Nag Hammadi texts could be from the following century, and some from the late third century AD – though Irenaeus, writing in the second half of the second century in his “Against Heresies”, describes a wide range of Gnostic sects and beliefs, and of writings which appear in the Nag Hammadi library, which shows how much of this literature was in existence within a century of the canonical New Testament. Some people suggests some texts, in particular, the Gospel of Thomas, are as early as the canonical writings.
Irenaeus argues against the Gnostics for two main reasons – their negative view of nature and for their lack of authenticity. The Gnostics produced all kinds of writings which claim to be authentic words of Jesus and the disciples – though this is more a literary convention, a device for discussing mystical ideas, rather than a form of faking. These are not “gospels” in the style of the four New Testament books.
In contrast to these sects, Irenaeus says, the Church has a consistent tradition supported by the apostolic succession of bishops. The teaching of the Church is consistent and authoritative.
He sees the beginning of these sects in the life of Simon Magus, a magician who appears as a rival teacher in the Acts of the Apostles. Gnostic beliefs may be much older in fact. Irenaeus’s description of Simon Magus, who talks of himself as God, gives the clearest version of the myth of a fallen Wisdom and, very interestingly, shows that this Sophia or Wisdom was embodied in a real woman, Simon’s companion, Helena.
“Having redeemed from slavery at Tyre, a city of Phœnicia, a certain woman named Helena, he was in the habit of carrying her about with him, declaring that this woman was the first conception of his mind, the mother of all, by whom, in the beginning, he conceived in his mind [the thought] of forming angels and archangels. For this Ennœa leaping forth from him, and comprehending the will of her father, descended to the lower regions [of space], and generated angels and powers, by whom also he declared this world was formed. But after she had produced them, she was detained by them through motives of jealousy, because they were unwilling to be looked upon as the progeny of any other being… She suffered all kinds of contumely from them, so that she could not return upwards to her father, but was even shut up in a human body, and for ages passed in succession from one female body to another, as from vessel to vessel. She was, for example, in that Helen on whose account the Trojan war was undertaken… Thus she, passing from body to body, and suffering insults in every one of them, at last became a common prostitute… ” (Irenaeus Against Heresies Book 1 Chapter 23)
The controversial writer John Allegro suggested a link between this story and the relationship of Jesus and Mary Magdalen. In some Gnostic writings, which may have been in existence when Irenaeus wrote, Mary is Jesus’s companion in the same way as Helena is Simon’s. To Allegro these stories are all versions of one myth – he sees the gospel as a myth originating in ideas from the Dead Sea Scrolls community and their Teacher of Righteousness. (See J.M. Allegro. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth (1979).)
Whatever the chronology of these stories it is easy to imagine that Simon is imitating Jesus and that Simon and Helena are a kind of parody of Jesus and Mary Magdalen.
This is an impenetrable problem. For centuries Church tradition assumed Mary Magdalen was a prostitute, like Helena, without any scriptural authority. Has the story of Helena become confused with Mary, or is the story about Mary actually as old as this?
In all the mists of confusion it’s reasonable to entertain a conjecture that Mary Magdalen can be associated with Wisdom or Sophia, or, in the Simon Magus story, Ennoea.
But what does this mean?
Sophia is a personification of Wisdom or Harmony, an abstract idea, or a matter of number, as the Pythagoreans would say. Mary Magdalen is not Sophia, or Isis, or a goddess. In the story (just thinking of it as a story) she is a woman, an individual. What can be said is that this woman, in certain ways, takes on the qualities of Wisdom, as first made thing. She is not Wisdom, because Wisdom is a principle of inherent harmony not a person – but a human being can personify that principle by being who they are.
Simply by being the associate of Jesus, as Son of God, she can be imagined as a personification of Wisdom. This is more than a symbolic or poetic idea. She is playing that part, whether consciously or not, and whether the writer is consciously making the connection. Myths and biblical themes are overlaid in a way that cannot be disentangled. In the garden, when Mary mistakes the risen Christ for the gardener, the story is also overlaid with themes from the Garden of Eden – and the moment when she recognises him and he names her – “Mary” – is startlingly resonant. This is the risen Christ naming the first living person he has met. She is the first person to now he is alive.
Artistically and poetically this has power because it is not analysed and explained. There may be mythical themes here but they only have power by being embedded.
This is not to say that this scene is literally or historically true. If it is a piece of literature it is on a completely different level to the Gnostic writings.
Sophia/ Harmony is an abstract principle – but this idea of inherent order can be understood through literary, poetic, or real personifications. Mary, Jesus’s mother, is this essence of creation in her act of giving birth, and mothering, Jesus, while still being Mary, Mary Magdalen, in the garden, is both a reflection of Eve, and, in the moment of recognition and knowledge, she is the essence of Wisdom – while being Mary Magdalen.
(A musical point about Mary Magdalen:
It is possible that several different characters have been combined to form Mary Magdalen. For centuries in the Western Church Mary Magdalen was assumed to be the same person as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. This is now said to be non-scriptural. This is purely my personal point of view but to me St John’s gospel makes it clear they are the same person. The author uses actual names sparingly – never naming the “beloved disciple” for example – and using names for symbolic effect, as in the resurrection scene. But both Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalen are described as “weeping”. (The same Greek word is used in both cases.) This word appears nowhere else in the book. The only other New Testament use is in St Luke’s gospel, also describing Mary Magdalen.
This has the same effect of a musical leitmotiv, labelling the character, as used by Wagner – or of the attribute used to identify a saint in art.
To the reader who is picturing the scene (and the book is extremely visual) these two women are vividly identified as the same person.)
There is possibly a human need for such reflections in a human face, or in something true and beautiful in Nature. Dante’s Beatrice was Beatrice – as she insists (“I am…I am Beatrice”) but she is also a reflection of Wisdom.
This reflection is the awareness of harmony and unity in things, a flash of brilliant light which shows the unfallen harmony within Nature and, within it, the sense of God’s presence. If we think too much of mythical personifications we may not look for these sparks of grace in the world and people around us.
In Jewish Cabala this radiance is the Shekinah, the Glory of God – and this is sometimes equated with Sophia, as the first created thing. The Shekinah is spoken of as feminine, but is God. Sometimes the Shekinah is equated with the Holy Spirit – but that could be understood as the energy, the binding force, of God, or Love.
As soon as these aspects of God are thought of as personified confusions tend to follow. They are only ways of understanding the ineffable. Any imagery we use has to be held lightly and discarded when it causes confusion. Though an personified image may help us contemplate the nature of the Shekinah I wonder if there is a danger that holding onto such an image might get in the way of seeing this Glory in the world. God’s Glory may reveal itself in a very fine slice of lemon meringue pie, in the unexpected.
Things become hopelessly entangled when we use imagery or terms from more than one tradition. As explained elsewhere a medieval scholar like Abelard could become muddled when thinking about Wisdom and the the Holy Spirit. Other traditions see it differently, but in Christian theology the Spirit is God, God in action, whereas Wisdom is the first made thing, the pattern of Harmony. Of course Wisdom reveals God, and is the mirror of God, but is not God, the absolute origin and unity.
Perhaps this radiant Shekinah is the Glory that we are aware of when we are aware of the Harmony. This seems to be what is meant by Sophia in the mystical theology of Jacob Boehme and his followers in 17th century England. The Sophia experienced by Dr Pordage and Jane Leade seems to be closer to this idea of the Shekinah, the Glory of God, than to a Wisdom as the secret laws within Creation. The Shekinah, this thrilling radiance, whether seen in the figure who appeared to Dr Pordage, or in the face of Beatrice, or in the lemon meringue pie, is the effect of Wisdom being revealing to us, or, and perhaps these are both happening at the same time, the effect on us of the sudden awareness of the Word, of a thing having Unity.