Marsanes

MARSANES

A Gnostic of the second century who was said to have visited heaven while in ecstacy. His name is also the title of a long but very fragmentary Gnostic work that forms Codex X of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY. The title is partly preserved at the end of the text. Neither the precise length of the text nor the numeration of the pages can be determined with precision (only folios 1-5 [= pp. 1-10] are numbered in the Codex; in modern editions and commentaries editors place an asterisk by all other page numbers).

Even the number of tractates in Codex X has been disputed. The best case however, can be made for a single in the Codex, extending from 1. 1 to 68*. 18. The title suggests that the supposed author of the document is the Gnostic Marsanes, a figure acclaimed in the untitled from the Bruce Codex on Marsanes and Nicotheos (chapter 7) and in Epiphanius Panarion 40. 7. 6, on Martiades and Marsianos as experiencing an ecstatic trip to the heavens and receiving glory from the heavenly powers.

Such a description of Marsanes fits the present also, since here the author, in the first person, lays claim to visionary revelations and writes a “revelation,” or apocalypse, which may resemble not only the apocalypse of Nicotheos alluded to in the Bruce Codex but also the apocalypses of Zoroaster, Zostrianos, Nicotheos, Allogenes, Messos, and others mentioned in Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus 16.

Marsanes opens predictably with a lacuna but proceeds to relate an exhortation, probably delivered by Marsanes to his Gnostic comrades, on knowledge and “the great Father.” It also seems to be Marsanes who describes the thirteen seals, or levels of existence, from the first and lowest “worldly” levels to the last and highest level of the supreme God, “the Silent One who has not been known.” The author claims that he—Marsanes—has true knowledge. Through his ascent beyond the limits of this world, he has attained to the knowledge of “the entire place” and has reached the conclusion (so striking in a Gnostic context) that “in every way the sense-perceptible cosmos is [worthy] of being completely saved.”

The topic of salvation leads Marsanes to introduce the descent, work, and ascent of Autogenes, the “Self-begotten One,” who “descended from the Unbegotten One” and “saved a multitude.” While several basic questions about the nature of existence and probing their implications, Marsanes himself rises to an awareness of “the supremacy of the silence of the Silent One” and offers praise. Further revelatory disclosures follow, and it is shown that as “the invisible Spirit” ascends back up to heaven, so also the Gnostics achieve bliss by ascending with him to glory.

After several very fragmentary pages, the preserves portions of a fascinating section on the nature and function of letters, sounds, and numbers, which are linked to the powers and capacities of angels, deities, and souls. Occasionally exhortations to piety interrupt the train of thought, as at 27*. 21-23, where a pronouncement against sin finds its place within the discussion of vowels, consonants, and the shapes of the soul. Reflecting contemporary astrological, magical, and grammatical themes, this long section seeks to instruct the reader in the proper way of calling upon or conjuring the angels, so that the soul might eventually reach the divine. In the words of Marsanes, such a knowledge of the alphabet will help Gnostics to “be separated from the angels” and to “seek and find [who] they [themselves] are.”

Marsanes is a Gnostic with no clearly Christian elements. It illustrates obvious Platonist traits, and may be seen as representative of gnosticism.

  • Books of Jeu and the Untitled Text in the Bruce Codex, The, ed. C. Schmidt, trans. V. MacDermot. Nag Hammadi Studies 13. Leiden, 1981.
  • Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices: Codices IX and X. Leiden, 1977.
  • Pearson, B. A. “Marsanes (X,1).” In The in English, pp. 417-26. and San Francisco, 1977.
  • . “The Marsanes (NHC X) and the Platonic Tradition,” In Gnosis: Festschrift für Hans Jonas, ed. B. Aland, pp. 373-84. Göttingen, 1978.
  • . “X,1: Marsanes,” In Nag Hammadi Codices IX and X, ed. B. A. Pearson. Nag Hammadi Studies 15, pp. 229-347. Leiden, 1980.

MARVIN W. MEYER