Sex and salvation in the Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip has more to do with sex than you might imagine. This is one of the writings that was found near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1945, a third century work that is among those traditionally considered “gnostic”.

Sure, there’s the fact that this writing is cited in conspiracy theories regarding the supposed sex life of Jesus. The Da Vinci Code‘s use of the Gospel of Philip illustrates this approach. The (incomplete) passage that is used in the book and movie is the one that refers to Jesus, a companion, and Mary Magdalene, and then goes on to refer to some kisses and the jealously of other disciples because Jesus apparently loved Mary most (but the “translation” in the movie–unlike the one here–fills in the blanks):

And the companion of the [ . . . ] Mary Magdalene. [. . . loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [ . . . ]. The rest of [the disciples . . .]. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her?. . . When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness (Gospel of Philip 63.30-64.9).

The passage is, in fact, less than clear on any claim that Jesus was the companion, in the sense of sexual partner or lover, of Mary Magadelene. (I’ll also add that none of the second or third century Gospels tell us much at all about the first century peasant Jesus; rather they tell us about how later Christians understood Jesus centuries later). Instead, this is one further instance of what we find in other early Christian writings, namely, the claim that Jesus favoured a particular disciple (a disciple who “saw the light”, in this case) and may have offered that special disciple some secret or important information. The point is that a particular community that uses that gospel is claiming some direct and special access to Jesus’ teaching, and claiming that they have the truth more than some other group (compare the Gospel of Mary Magadalene, The Coptic Gospel of Thomas,or the Gospel of John, with its “beloved disciple”– I won’t go into any other inventive theories around the beloved disciple, or the scantily clad guy in the Gospel of Mark, Secret, Elongated, or otherwise).

Not to steal Hollywood’s excitement, but the kisses in question in the Gospel of Philip are best understood not as sexual ones but as further examples of the “holy kiss” greeting among members of Jesus groups as early as the mid-first century (see Rom 16:16, for instance). The followers of Jesus who used the Gospel of Philip also apparently attached an even more important significance to this kiss (59.1-5 and 58.30-59.6) and to breath (63.6-10; 70.23-24) in connection with their understanding of how the spiritual spark in some human souls is connected with the spiritual realm as a whole . It is true, however, that some outsiders–both Greeks and Romans– accused early followers of Jesus of incest (as well as cannibalism), but that had less to do with any knowledge of Christian “holy kisses” or their tendency to call one another “brothers” or “sisters” than it had to do with common mud-slinging in characterizing foreign peoples or minority groups as dangerous barbarians (see my posts here and my article here).

Nonetheless, there is some sex, quite a bit in fact, in the Gospel of Philip. I’m talking about the consistent way in which the author of the materials gathered in this writing uses sexual union as a METAPHOR for salvation itself. And the way in which the community of Christians that used this gospel enacted this salvation in a ritual known as the “bridal chamber”. So this is not sex of the usual type and is a little more tame than Hollywood likes–sorry to disappoint.

This writing expresses the poor condition of humanity, our present fallen state, using the metaphor or analogy of the separation of the genders and speaks of salvation in terms of the reuniting of the male and female: “When Eve was still in Adam death did not exist. When she was separated from him death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more” (68.22-25). Further on it explains this “separation” again and refers to the reparation that the saviour figure, Christ, brings: “If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them” (70.9-18).

The Gospel of Philip presupposes a particular mythological and cosmological worldview that I have discussed in many other posts on “gnosticism” and related literature (browse some posts in my “gnosticism” and apocrypha category to understand this a bit better). Here Christ is the Saviour figure who brings salvation not by dying on a cross but by bringing the knowledge (gnosis), knowledge of the fact that an element within humans (certain spiritual humans) ultimately belongs in the perfect spiritual realm, not this inferior material realm framed by the creator god (the demiurge) of the Hebrew Bible.

So, for this follower of Jesus, salvation is about reunification. But how is this reunification understood and completed. Well, there is a specific ritual or process of initiation that this group felt was a way of enacting the process of gaining knowledge that brings reunification with the perfect spiritual realm: the bridal chamber, which was preceded by baptism and anointing (“chrism”). So once again, sexual union is the prominent metaphor for salvation, in this case within the ritual context. To be clear, it is not a real man and woman that unite in the ritual context of the “bridal chamber”. Rather, it is “the image” (here conceived as “male”) that unites with “the angel” (65.20-24). It is the image within man that unites with its female angelic counterpart in the bridal chamber. It is the spiritual element within certain people that reunites with its spiritual consort, thereby returning to where it belongs, namely ascending above to the perfect spiritual realm or “fullness” that is one and the same with the Father God (not the creator of this material realm).

So despite the sort of thing you’ll read in church fathers like Epiphanius (see here), the followers of Jesus that used the Gospel of Philip did not engage in actual sex for this ritual; instead it is a metaphorical way of expressing and enacting salvation. But did such Jesus-followers have sex at all? There’s a scholarly debate on precisely this matter. April DeConick is among those scholars who suggest that the Gospel of Philip reflects Christians with a relatively positive view of marriage and sexual union within marriage (article title to come soon). Scholars like this point to the positive use of the analogy of sexual union in the discussion of the bridal chamber ritual, when the author speaks of “marriage in the world” to explain the other “spiritual” marriage of the chamber (82).

Other scholars would suggest that this author of the Gospel of Philip, like many other Nag Hammadi authors, had a less positive or quite negative view of bodily matters and would suggest that “it is proper to destroy the flesh” (82.25-29), including sexual activity even within marriage. In other words, the followers of Jesus who used this Gospel filled with sex (in the metaphorical sense) may well have been sexually ascetic and refrained from the real thing in any context, (real) bridal chamber or otherwise.