EXEGESIS ON THE SOUL
An imaginative tale, from Codex II of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY, describing the adventures of the soul portrayed in the guise of a woman. The story is highly animated, telling of the soul’s divine origins, her fall into the world, and her final return to the house of the Father. The soul, whose nature is feminine, was a virgin and androgynous when she was alone with the Father. When later on she fell into a body and into this life, she became contaminated by contact with numerous lovers through acts of fornication and adultery, although she believed each time that the lover with whom she was united was her true husband.
The lovers, however, deceived her, despised her, treated her as a slave, and finally abandoned her. The soul then groaned and repented, although remaining for shame in her condition of slavery.
The fruit of her unions with the lovers is imperfect: the creatures she brings into the world are deaf, blind, sick, without intelligence.
The soul later comes to her senses, repents, weeps, and invokes the name of the Father, asking His help. Moved to compassion, the Father judges her worthy of mercy. First of all, he turns the womb of the soul from outside to inside to withdraw it from the sexual pollutions of the lovers. Then he sends to her from heaven a husband-brother, the first-born of the Father’s house, probably the Spirit. The bridegroom descends to the bride, the soul, pure from every defilement, who awaits him in the bridal chamber which she has perfumed in expectation of the bridegroom. This waiting has been difficult. The soul is afraid of the bridegroom, for she does not know him. A dream, however, will reveal to her his appearance. The union between the bridegroom and the bride is spiritual, even if the author describes it in a very sensual and erotic fashion. Through the marriage, the soul will be able to bear good children, for this marriage has been accomplished according to the will of the Father. After this the soul will regenerate herself, having received in the union, through the bridegroom, the seed and the very essence of the Father. Thus she will return to her original situation, to the place from which she fell. We may deduce from the passage 134.7-8 that she will also recover her androgyny and attain to the light of salvation (135.29).
This story is enriched by the characteristics of the Hellenistic novel.
Thieves and robbers are brought into the narrative, and enhance its effect (cf. Baertelink, 1967). The setting consists often of places of ill fame, of bedrooms where the soul undergoes the impostures of her lovers. The soul is further described as a slave, seduced by the wiles of her lovers. Finally, a storm occurs in the story to underline all the more clearly the misfortunes of the soul (on this device, see Longus Pastoralia I XV.1). The recital of the unhappy adventures of the soul is followed, as in every self-respecting narrative, by a final denouement determined by a heavenly intervention clothed in the forms of love (cf. Chariton Adventures of Chaereas and Callirhoe I.1; VIII.1; Xenophon of Ephesus Anthia and Habrocomes I.8). Love is evoked with a certain eroticism, which in some respects recalls that of the Hellenistic romances, which were romances of love and adventure par excellence (cf. Longus Pastoralia II 38.2; Heliodorus Aethiopica V 4.5).
Exegesis on the Soul, however, is not just any story: it is a Gnostic story. In fact, we have here, in the author’s imaginative adaptation, the Gnostic myth of Sophia as it is set out in Irenaeus’ report on the Valentinians (Adversus omnes haereses I 1.2-3). The story of the soul fallen from her Father’s house echoes that of the Valentinian Sophia, the last of the aeons, who leaves the Pleroma and her spouse to sink into prostitution and give birth to misshapen creatures. Like the soul, Sophia also will return to her virginal and androgynous condition after many sufferings and after having made an act of repentance before the Father.
What is it then that gives originality to this Gnostic tale in the Exegisis on the Soul? It will be noted that the story centers on a feminine character. This is not unique in the Nag Hammadi Library, where several treatises are devoted to a female entity: Bronte, Norea, HYPSIPHRONE, Protennoia, as well as the treatise On the Origin of the World (on Pronoia, Pistis, Psyche), the Hypostasis of the Archons (Pistis Sophia, Orea), the Dialogue of the Savior (Mariam), the Paraphrase of Shem (Rebouel). These numerous women in the Gnostic literature often conceal, under different features and different names, one and the same personality—the soul in search of its origins. Do these women share common traits? We may reply in the affirmative if we reflect on the polarity of prostitution and virginity which inspires the conduct of the majority of these figures. Most of these women are sinners, and even prostitutes, who through repentance deliver themselves from the bonds of the flesh and attain rehabilitation. This rehabilitation consists of the recovery of their virginity, an indispensable condition for access to knowledge.
In Jewish tales and novels we find stories of women who pass from the state of prostitution to the state of virginity through repentance and thus become an example for the people of Israel. The stories of Ruth, Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba should be compared with the Exegesis on the Soul, of which they were no doubt one source of inspiration (Scopello, 1982).
The soul’s journey, from prostitution to virginity through repentance, is supported by quotations from the prophets and from Homer. It has been shown that these quotations were drawn from an anthology (Scopello, 1977). The introduction of biblical and classical language into this Gnostic treatise shows the author’s concern to make himself comprehensible through the medium of two languages familiar to the spirit of his age (probably the second century A.D., at Alexandria) for the better communication of the difficult message of gnosis.
- Baertelink, G. “Les Démons comme brigands.” Vigiliae Christianae 21 (1967):12-24.
- Scopello, M. “Les Citations d’Homère dans le traité de l’Exégèse de l’âme.” In Gnosis and Gnosticism, ed. M. Krause. Nag Hammadi Studies 8. Leiden, 1977.
- . “Les Testimonia dans l’Exégèse de l’âme.” Revue de l’histoire des religions 190 (1977):159-71.
- . L’Exégèse de l’âme: introduction, traduction, commentaire. Leiden, 1982.