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Pistis Sophia

G. R. S. Mead

Available as PDF, epub, and Kindle ebook.

Tags: Gnosticism & Hermetica »Christianity

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Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945, the Pistis Sophia was the most extensive Gnostic scripture available. It was discovered in 1773. The text is notable because the female disciples of Jesus are treated as active participants in the discourse, in a way that would be unimaginable in later Christianity.

This book has 389 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1921.

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Excerpt from 'Pistis Sophia'

The ethical Interest

It is certainly an indication of the deep interest of the circle in repentance and the penitential psalms. But the interest is here ethical rather than cosmological. Pistis Sophia would seem to be intended to represent the type of the faithful repentant individual soul. Throughout, the chief interest is in salvation and redemption. This is to be acquired by repentance and by renunciation of the world, its lures and cares, but above all by faith in the Saviour, the Divine Light, and his mysteries. The first requisite is sincere repentance. The chief topic round which all the ethical teaching naturally centres, is sin, its cause and its purification, and the revelation of the mystery of the forgiveness of sins and of the infinite compassion of the First Mystery. Though there is very much also concerning the complex schematology of the invisible worlds and the hierarchies of being, much concerning the soul and its origin, of how it comes to birth and departs from earth-life, much of the light-power, the spiritual element in man,--all is subordinated to the ethical interest in the first place, and in the second to the efficacy of the high mysteries of salvation.

The Mysteries

The whole is set forth in terms of these mysteries, which are now conceived in a far more vital way than was apparently the case in the earlier literature. On the lower side the mysteries still in some respects keep in touch with the tradition of words-of-power, authentic and incorruptible names, and so forth, though there is little of this specifically in Divv. i.-iii. But it is evidently intended that the higher mysteries should now be conceived in the light of the fact that the Saviour himself is in himself concretely the First Mystery and indeed the Last Mystery, and that the mysteries are not so much spiritual powers as substantive beings of transcendent excellence. The light-robe is a mystery of mysteries, and they who have received of the high mysteries become light-streams in passing from the body. The mysteries are closely intertwined with the lore of the glory and its modes.

The astral Lore

One of the main elements in the lower schematology is the ancient astral lore, those ground-conceptions of sidereal religion which dominated the thought of the times and upheld their sway directly and indirectly for long centuries after. But here again our Gnostics, while retaining the schematology for certain purposes, placed it low in the scale. Moreover, while not denying that previously there was truth even in the astrological art, they reduced the chances of the horoscope-casters to zero, by declaring that the Saviour in the accomplishment of his cosmic ministry had now drastically changed the revolution of the spheres, so that henceforth no calculations could be counted on; these were now of no more value than the spinning of a coin.


Our Gnostics were also transmigrationists; transcorporation formed an integral part of their system. They found no difficulty in fitting it into their plan of salvation, which shows no sign of the expectation of an immediate end of all things--that prime article of faith of the earliest days. So far from thinking that reincarnation is alien to gospel-teaching, they elaborately interpret certain of the most striking sayings in this sense, and give graphic details of how Jesus, as the First Mystery, brought to rebirth the souls of John the Baptizer and of the disciples, and supervized the economy of his own incarnation. In this respect the P.S. offers richer material for those interested in this ancient and widespread doctrine than can be found in any other old-world document in the West.

The magical Element

A far more distressingly puzzling immixture is the element of magic. In Div. iv. especially there are invocations and many names which resemble those found in the Greek magical papyri and other scattered sources. But no one has so far thrown any clear light on this most difficult subject of research in general, much less on its relation to the P.S. It is evident that the writers of Div. iv. and of the first treatise of the Bruce Codex set a high value on such formulæ and on authentic names; nor are these entirely absent from the excerpts from 'The Books of the Saviour,' as witness the five words written on the light-robe. Our Gnostics unquestionably believed in a high magic, and were not averse from finding in what was presumably its most reputable tradition, material which they considered to be germane to their purpose. In this tradition there must have been a supreme personage possessing characteristics that could be brought into close connection with their ideal of the Saviour, for they equate a certain Aberamenthō with him. The name occurs once or twice elsewhere; but who or what it suggested, we do not know. In any case, as they utilized and attempted to sublimate so much else which was considered by many in those days to be most venerable, in order that they might the more extend and exalt the glory of the Saviour and take up into it what they considered the best of everything, so did they with what was presumably the highest they could find in the hoary tradition of magical power, which had enjoyed empery for so long in the antique world and still continued to maintain itself even in religio-philosophical circles, where we should, from the modern standpoint, least expect to find it.

History and psychic story

As to the setting of the narrative,--if we had not such an abundance of instances of pseudo-historic and pseudo-epigraphic scripture-writing, if this were not, so to speak, the commonplace, not only of apocryphal and apocalyptic literature, but also of no little that falls within the borders of canonical sanction, we might be more surprized than we are at the form in which the composers or compilers have framed their work. It is clear that they loved and worshipped Jesus with an ecstasy of devotion and exaltation; they do not fall short in this of the greatest of his lovers. What sort of authority, then, could they have supposed they had for conceiving the setting of their narrative in the way they have?

Objective physical history, in the rigid sense in which we understand it to-day, was of secondary interest to them, to say the least; indeed, it was apparently of little moment to the Gnostics of any school, and their opponents were not in-frequently rowing in the same boat. The Gnostics were, however, less disingenuous; they strenuously declared their belief in continued revelation, they delighted in apocalyptic and in psychic story. The belief in a post-resurrectional teaching had doubtless existed for long in many forms in Gnostic circles. It must have been widespread; for, as shown by Schmidt quite recently (Bib. 59), a Catholic writer in Asia Minor found himself compelled to steal the fire of the Gnostics and adopt the same convention in an orthodox document that was intended to be a polemic against Gnostic ideas, somewhere in the 3rd quarter of the 2nd century. However they arrived at their conviction, it seems highly probable that the writers of the P.S. must have sincerely believed they had high authority for their proceeding, and were in some way emboldened by 'inspiration' to carry out their task. As far as they were concerned, they do not by any means seem conscious of belonging to a decadent movement or of deterioration in the quality of the ideas they were attempting to set forth, as so many modern critics would have it. On the contrary, they thought they were depositories or recipients of profound mysteries never hitherto revealed, and that by a knowledge of these mysteries they could the more efficiently evangelize the world.

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