Gnosticism, Christianity, and Sophia

Gnostic Myths

Gnosis and Salvation

Gnostic Myths of Sophia

Sophia: Jewish Origins

The Disappearance of Sophia Sophia and Feminist Spirituality



What we actually know about Christian gnosticism is limited. All of the writings and scriptures from these groups are ancient and suspected to be incomplete. The most important discovery of Gnostic scriptures was in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. There were found "Twelve books bound in leather…plus eight pages of a thirteenth book. The pages of these books are papyrus and contain fifty two Coptic texts, some of which appear more than once…so this collection numbers forty five writings, ten of which are severely damaged while the rest are reasonably legible."

According to one Gnostic myth the shaping of the material world was the result of Sophia, who was often decribed as an emanation of eternal light, an "immaculate mirror of God's activity," and as "the spouse of the Lord." Through her desire to "know the Father", she was cast out of the Pleroma (the gnostic heaven) and her desire gave birth to the God who created the material world. Although she was eventually restored to the Pleroma, bits of her divinity remain in the material world.

The inferior God created by Sophia's desire, also referred to as the Demiurge, is the Creator God of the Old Testament. Due to his inferiority, he is not seen as good but rather an evil, angry, violent God. It is the fault of this God that the world is in the mess that it is, and due to the fact that he created it, the world is evil. The higher transcendent God is not a creator of the material world, and instead is a nurturer of the spiritual. The only hope for humankind, while locked in this evil shell of a body is to spiritually transcend this world and deny the body.
Gnostics believed that in order to acquire salvation one must possess a certain knowledge, or gnosis, which must be delivered to a person by a messenger of light. However, to receive this knowledge, one must be trying to reach beyond the evil, dark, material, physical earth and body toward that of the good, light, immaterial, and spiritual worlds. The indwelling spark must be awakened from its terrestrial slumber by the saving knowledge that comes "from without." Jesus is one of the most fundamental "awakeners" of this knowledge. Therefore, although Gnostics, like other Christians, find salvation through the messages of Jesus, Gnostics seek salvation not from sin but from "the ignorance of which sin is a consequence." The gnostics believe that the evil creator God and his angels cause this ignorance. If one receives gnosis during this lifetime- a true realization of the spirit-body dichotomy and the true destiny of the soul, then at death, when the body releases the divine spark, the soul may be free of the evil world. On the other hand, if this realization is not reached, then the ignorant soul, when released from the body will be sent back by the Demiurge into the evil painful world.

The implications of gnosticism for gender issues is evident in the view of the body. If the body is merely an evil cage keeping the soul on earth, then the gender of this body is rather unimportant. Different gnostics viewed sex differently. One of these views was that active chastity shows far too much preoccupation with the body. Sex was seen not as a sin, but as a way for humans to reach a more primal state. During sex, woman and man would become one body. Since Eve was born from Adam, becoming one body would bring a man and woman closer to the true God. On the other hand, some Gnostics believed that sex is in fact a sin. This is for two major reasons. The first is that sex is pleasing to the evil body, and that denial of the body is just punishment. The second reason is that procreation is merely the act of allowing more divine sparks to be imprisoned in evil worldly bodies. By remaining chaste, the gnostic refuses to participate in this evil action.

The gnostic myths of Sophia also have important gender implications. Sophia is both the cause of the evil, material world, and a means to overcome that world. As a member of the Pleroma Sophia (Greek for "wisdom") represents the means of gnosis. By refusing to procreate, humans assist in restoring Sophia's divine sparks to their rightful place. In some gnostic myths a partner, Christos, was created for Sophia and that partnership is an aid to humans. Sophia is thus simultaneously part of patriarchal myths that devalue women (she is the cosmic "fall" just as Eve is the material "fall") and represents liberation from them.


By those who love her she is readily seen,

And found by those who look for her...

in every thought of theirs, she comes to meet them.

-Wisdom of Solomon 6:12 and 16

Who is She?

Sophia (fem. Gk. for "wisdom") is a complex biblical figure described variously as a divine attribute, a distinct hypostasis of God, a goddess-like co-partner with God, and sometimes even as synonymous with God. She arises in the later texts of the Jewish tradition, first simply as wisdom with a capital "W," and then, in the Book of Proverbs, personified in a female form. The writings of early Christianity frequently draw on Sophia as a metaphor for Christ. The texts that include references to Sophia have only been canonized in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but many contemporary feminists have turned to her as a general model for feminist spirituality.

Her personality is riddled with contradictions. She is at once creator and created; teacher and that which is to be taught; divine presence and elusive knowledge; tempting harlot and faithful wife; sister, lover, and mother; both human and divine. Her very existence thus deconstructs all traditional binary relationships, as if she were the creation of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray or some other modern feminist theorist. Frequently Sophia defies the feminine norm established by society. As Virginia Mollenkott writes in The Divine Feminine, Sophia "is a woman but no lady." (Mollenkott 98). We see her crying aloud at street corners, raising her voice in the public squares, offering her saving counsel to anybody who will listen to her. Wisdom's behavior runs directly counter to the socialization of a proper lady, who is taught to be rarely seen and even more rarely heard in the sphere of public activity. (Mollenkott 98)

Her Origins

Just as Sophia defies definition, her origins seem impossible to trace. Scholars have suggested Semitic sources (the goddess of love and fertility, Ishtar), Egyptian sources (Maat, the goddess of conception), and Hellenistic sources (the goddesses Demeter, Persephone, Hecate, and Isis), and yet they have found no source for Sophia within the Hebrew tradition. Thus, it is still unclear whether she was borrowed from a nearby civilization or invented by the Hebrew writings. Scholars have dated Sophia's textual sources at least 500 years after most of the Hebrew tradition was developed. Sophia can be found in The Book of Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sirach), and in the Christian Gospels and epistles.

Her Development

According to the authors of Wisdom's Feast, only God, Job, Moses and David are treated in greater depth in the Hebrew Scriptures than Sophia. (Cady et. al. 15). She grows in power throughout these texts, until, as Christian feminist Joan Chamberlain Engelsman suggests, Sophia comes to rival God's power, promising salvation for those who choose to follow her.

Wisdom, David and Prophecy from Lycos Image Gallery and Pictures Now

However, the extent of Sophia's divinity in this period has been widely debated. Both Engelsman and Rosemary Radford Ruether insist that the strictly monotheistic texts of Roman-era Judaism never portray Sophia as an autonomous female divine figure. Others have argued that some passages actually describe Sophia as a co-partner with God.

Early Christians seeking to understand Jesus as savior within the context of their Jewish origins searched the Hebrew Scriptures for related figures. Jesus did not completely match the traditional Jewish conception of the messiah who was to be a human king who would establish a new reign of justice and peace in Israel. Jesus actually seemed to have much more in common with Sophia who was part divine and part human, sent by God to change society. And, as the authors of Wisdom's Feast argue, both Christ and Sophia ultimately failed to completely transform society: Sophia's cries to humanity were in vain and Jesus was crucified. Thus, early Christians adopted Sophia as a model for their portrayals of Christ while continuing to refer to him as the messiah.

Paul makes the following associations between Christ and Sophia: Christ is the Wisdom of God; like Sophia, he is a creator, first born of all creation, the radiance of God's glory and the image of the invisible God. Luke describes Jesus as Sophia's son who communicates her wisdom to humanity. In Matthew's writings, Jesus is explicitly described as personified Wisdom. Perhaps John's Gospel draws the strongest connection between the two figures, relating the story of Sophia as the pre-history of Jesus.

The Disappearance of Sophia

Eventually Sophia was completely fused with Christ. Wisdom became Logos, and explicit associations between Sophia and Jesus disappeared from Christianity. Many Christian feminists describe her disappearance in the psychological language of repression. In her essay, "Wisdom Was Made Flesh," Elizabeth Johnson argues that the feminine Wisdom was replaced by the masculine Logos "as it became unseemly, given the developing patriarchal tendencies in the church, to interpret the male Jesus with a female symbol of God" (Johnson 105). The authors of Wisdom's Feast offer a very different theory. They suggest that in order to recognize Jesus as equal to God the Father, all explicit associations between Jesus and the weaker Sophia had to be abandoned.

Wisdom's Feast also traces Sophia's disappearance to the tensions at this time between the Gnostics and the mainstream Christians. The Gnostics tended to downplay Jesus' humanity, and many rejected the notion that he was human. They adopted the association between Jesus and Sophia in order to de-emphasize Christ's bodily pain and suffering and focus more on the wisdom he imparted. Mainstream Christians, eager to separate themselves from the Gnostics, thus avoided reference to Sophia.

Sophia and Feminist Spirituality

Following in the line of feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, the author's of Wisdom's Feast argue that in order to develop feminist spirituality we need to deconstruct traditional hierarchical binaries (i.e. sacred/profane, good/bad, male/female) and create a unity that celebrates the differentiation of its parts. Sophia, they insist, embodies this unity.

It was the drive to keep things connected that was at the heart of the wisdom tradition. In the face of threats to Israel's national consciousness and to its provincial view of the world, the wisdom tradition sought to create a new more connected frame of reference. While groups within the priestly tradition in Israel and Judaism sought to separate and re-isolate the Hebrew faith, the wisdom tradition was trying to integrate the Hebrew perspective into the larger picture. (Cady et. al. 54)

Sophia was not only a force for unity within Judaism. She also established continuity between Judaism and Christianity. And her fusion with Christ offers contemporary Christians a way to understand their Savior as a union of male and female. As Mollenkott explains, "the combination of Wisdom/Christ leads to a healthy blend of male and female imagery that empowers everyone and works beautifully to symbolize the One God who is neither male nor female yet both male and female" (Mollenkott 104). Similarly Johnson writes that through the filter of the Sophia metaphor, "new ways of appreciating Christ can be formed, less associated with patriarchal control and more in tune with women's daily life and collective wisdom, so often discounted as a source of insight" (Johnson 106). In light of this feminist revival of the Sophia figure, some Christian women have begun to speak of the "Sophia-God of Jesus" and of "Jesus Sophia."

Mollenkott also suggests that Sophia can replace the Virgin Mary as a positive role model for Catholic women. Mary, she insists, is an impossible model to follow, for no woman can be both virgin and mother. In addition, she argues that the strong, independent women of today cannot identify with Mary, for the Virgin Mother is a passive figure submissive to a masculine God. Sophia, however, may be a much more viable role model: "Dame Wisdom is an especially important symbol for contemporary women because she gets us beyond the concept that femaleness finds its primary fulfillment in motherhood. Wisdom is busy in the public sphere; she is no shrinking violet, no vessel waiting to be given her significance by someone else" (Mollenkott 102). Sophia supports a two-way flow of energy--both give and take--and thus she is an especially important figure for women who need to learn to restrain themselves from giving excessively.

However, like the Virgin Mary, Sophia too was shaped by a highly patriarchal society. In fact, some biblical portrayals of Dame Wisdom are clearly sexist. Some depictions of Sophia seem to reveal concerns that her growing power threatens patriarchal society. Proverbs 7 thus picks up on the traditional "bad girl" stereotype, describing Sophia as an evil harlot who threatens the patriarchally dominated institution of marriage. Ultimately, the authors of Wisdom's Feast have to admit that much of the treatment of Sophia in the Bible and in the Christian tradition reinforces patriarchal values, making Sophia a potentially dangerous symbol of the divine. Too often she has played a mediating role, pointing toward God rather than to herself, and thus upholding male power. Because Sophia did not develop co-equal status with Yahweh, because her voice is not identified in the Christian scriptures, it has been easy to keep her secondary and derivative. (Cady et. al. 13)

In more modern Gnostic groups, Sophia is talked about in relation to Eve, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. She is compared to Eve because both women experienced a "fall from grace" which resulted in the creation of the material world into the form it is today. In the myth she gives birth to a defective creature who she casts away, but who still retains power due to her holiness.

In the end, most sources agree that Sophia can be developed into a positive figure for feminist spirituality.


In more ways than one the Sophia figure suggests that that the gender stratification of Judaism and Christianity is centered in the body. Most revealing is the name of this extremely powerful female figure of Judaism and Christianity. Her name "Wisdom" seems to lend her the power to transcend the "impurities" of her female body. Sophia's role in the Gnostic community also suggests that her power was rooted in her wisdom. Here, more divine than flesh and blood, she was capable of transcending any impurities that might have been associated with her female body. Although she was sometimes described as a mother and a lover, these were only metaphorical depictions of Sophia. Clearly her wisdom was manifested in her bodilessness.


Cady, Susan, Marian Ronan, and Hal Taussig. Wisdom's Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Camp, Claudia V. Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs. Decatur: Almond, 1985.

Cixous, . "The Laugh of the Medusa." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 1453-1471.

Irigaray, Luce. "This Sex Which is Not One." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 1466-1471.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. "Wisdom Was Made Flesh and Pitched Her Tent Among Us." Reconstructing the Christ Symbol: Essays in Feminist Christology. Ed. Maryanne Stevens. New York: Paulist, 1993. 95-117.

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. The Divine Feminine. New York: Crossroad, 1984.

Newman, Barbara. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Whybray, R.N. Wisdom in Proverbs: The Concept of Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9. Naperville: Allenson, 1965.