Gnosticism: Sacraments within the Gospel of Philip

The Independent Sacramental Movement is fluid ecclesiastical phenomenon. Clergy will often flow from one jurisdiction to another without much difficulty.  The Movement is a continuum of particularities, ranging from Traditionalist Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Calendarists on one end and on the other end of the continuum of the movement are Gnostic and esoteric branches that claim apostolic succession and valid sacraments.  Since the movement is composed of multiple jurisdictions or micro-denominations woven together those on the far extremes of the movement would serve as the “fringe” of the woven tapestry of the continuum.  This paper looks to explore an aspect of the Gnostic continuum of the tapestry that is the Independent Sacramental Movement through an analysis of the text, The Gospel of Philip.

In Egypt, December 1945, two men, Mohammad Ali es-Samman and his brother Khalifah Ali, were looking for fertilizer, and what they found was not what they expected to find.  What they ended up finding was a wealth of knowledge thought lost, and in a large earthenware jar, 13 (two were bound together) codices, or books, were found. These books became known as the Nag Hammadi library, because the area in which the codices were found was known as Nag Hammadi. The manuscripts discovered that make up the library have been able to give scholars a better perspective of Gnosticism.  Up until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, only a few extant decidedly Gnostic texts were available to researchers (viz., Pistis Sophia, Secret Book of John, etc…),  most of the information on Gnosticism came from the polemical writings of early Church apologists such as Irenaeus. 

Codex II contained seven documents – the Secret book of John, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Hypostasis of the Archons, On the Origin of the World, Exegesis on the Soul, and the Book of Thomas.  It is the Gospel of Philip that is the focus of this paper. The Gospel of Philip is typically considered a Gnostic text by most scholars, however, Karen King asserts that the designation of Gnosticism itself is an all too encompassing catch-all category, and states that Gnosticism is a modern classification used to classify a wide diversity of beliefs. King states, “Gnosticism has been constructed largely as the heretical other in relation to diverse and fluctuating understandings of orthodox Christianity.” This being the position of King, and a very reasonable assertion seeing the complex diversity within the various Gnostic texts, it still seems necessary to give a brief overview of some of the more universal concepts of “Gnosticism.”

Defining Gnosticism

Gnosticism as a word comes from the Greek word gnosis, which has a similar meaning to the English word know, and the Sanskrit word jnana.  Stephen Hoeller gives meaning to the word gnostic with the following definition, “A Gnostic is often defined as a person who seeks salvation by knowledge. The knowledge the Gnostic seeks, however, is not rational knowledge; even less is it an accumulation of information.” A clear characteristic of Gnosticism is the prevailing notion that the material world is shrouded in ignorance, and salvation comes when this ignorance is transcended and an understanding of divinity in its true form is discovered. Thomas J. J. Altizer offers valuable insight into the origins of Gnosticism:

Gnosticism was a violent reaction against the world of self-conscious and rational thinking evolved by classical and Hellenistic culture and an ecstatic return to the mythical world of archaic religious sensibility.  To borrow Nietzsche’s categories, it was a victory of the Dionysian over the Apollonian consciousness.  This accounts for the artificial quality of much Gnostic myth-making, as well as for the deeply rooted opposition of ancient Gnosticism to the whole Greek way of understanding and celebrating the world… The Gnostic deity can be defined as simply the polar opposite of the world.  Union with this deity takes place only through a mystical form of knowledge, gnosis, which is realized in the believer to the extent that he progressively dissolves all awareness of the world. 

What is implied by Dionysian is an experience intensive process versus a more dogmatic system of belief popularized by the likes of Irenaeus.  Knowing God (or acquaintance with God, as Bentley Layton prefers acquaintance over the term knowledge),  is an important distinction between Gnosticism and the exoteric Church’s structuralism and growing dogmatism. The God of Gnosticism is a collaboration of beings that have emanated from a single incomprehensible source called the Monad. This collaboration of beings is known collectively as the Fullness, or Pleroma. In contrast to this Fullness is the God of creation often referred to as the Demiurge, or as the “Error of the totality.”  The idea that the world was created by a being other than the “True God” is evident in the Gospel of Philip itself, “The world came about through a mistake. For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. He fell short of attaining his desire. For the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he who made the world.”  Further evidence of a Demiurge figure in the Gospel of Philip can be seen in Logion 36, “First adultery occurred, then murder! And he was born of adultery; for he was the son of the snake. Therefore, he became a murderer like his father, and slew his brother.”  This relates the story of Ialdabaoth (Demiurge) having turned himself into a snake to seduce Eve, and further identifies the Gospel of Philip as a Gnostic text.

The role of Jesus within Gnosticism, and the Gospel of Philip, is as an instrument of the Fullness to lead mankind to Gnosis, or acquaintance with God, whom Jesus calls the Father. This is in stark contrast to the Demiurge, who is himself in ignorance. Additionally, the position of the Holy Spirit is different within Gnosticism, and in the Gospel of Philip, then in exoteric Christianity. An important passage in Philip addresses the nature of the Holy Spirit thusly, “Some said that Mary conceived by the holy spirit; they are mistaken, they do not realize what they say.  When did a  female ever conceive by a female?”  This passage places the Holy Spirit as a divine feminine, and the Trinity itself as a divine family of Father, Mother, and Child.   

Limited membership and secrecy are criteria for mystery religions mentioned by Buckley, and he asserts that “public mysteries” are a contradiction.  The idea of the Gospel of Philip being a text of a mystery religion is a compelling distinction, and compatible with interpretations of other Gnostic texts; that Gnosticism is a mystery religion reserved for an elite. Freke and Gandy in their book “The Jesus Mysteries” indicate a Valentinian elitism as, “Valentinus and his followers saw it as their duty, therefore, to try and reconcile Psychic (Literalist) and Pneumatic (Gnostic) Christians.” Burkert in his treatise on pagan mystery religions mentions Gnosticism, “Certain Gnostic sects seem to have practiced mystery initiations, imitating or rather outdoing the pagans, and even orthodox Christianity adopted the mystery metaphor that had long been used in Platonic philosophy:  to speak of the ‘mysteries’ of baptism and the Eucharist has remained common usage.” Gnosticism, and especially the type of Gnosticism espoused in the Gospel of Philip, is a mystery religion similar in practice to other mystery religions of the time (e.g., cults of Mithras, Demeter, Isis, etc…), however, with Jesus as central mythical figure. When Emperor Constantine mandated that orthodox Christianity become the religion of the Empire, he alienated not only the pagan religions of the time, but also those sects – including Gnostic – that conflicted with the exoteric Church.    

Another important aspect of Gnosticism, and one that is mentioned in the Gospel of Philip, is the notion of Sophia and the Rulers. Sophia is mentioned in Logion 34 of the Gospel of Philip, “Ekhamoth is one thing; and ekmoth, another. Ekhamoth refers to wisdom proper; But  ekhmoth, to the wisdom of death – that is, the wisdom who is acquainted with death, and who is called the little wisdom.” Ekhamoth is a form of hokhmoth which is Hebrew for wisdom, while ekhmoth means “like death” in Aramaic.  In Valentinian Gnosticism Sophia, an emanation from the Fullness responsible for emanating the Demiurge, is in two forms which Layton defines as, “Achamoth, the thinking of higher wisdom, wisdom’s offspring. Called wisdom (or lower wisdom) and holy spirit; the mother; the eight; lord. Ultimately, bride of Jesus the savior.” The beings known as Rulers, or Archons, are those beings that were created by the Demiurge and who share in the administration of creation and ruling the material world. Smith puts a different interpretation of the Rulers in his commentary on the Gospel of Philip, “We may be justified in interpreting the rulers as the elements of a human being that are not concerned with spiritual matters. If we have a connection to the holy spirit, then these rulers will unwittingly do the bidding of the spirit.”

Introduction to the Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip is a Gnostic text that dates to the beginning of the 4th century and was written in Sahidic, Achmimic and sub-Achmimic, all dialects of the Coptic language, which is an Egyptian language no longer written in hieroglyphs but in a modified Greek script. Today Coptic is used only as a liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church (which has no known affiliation with Gnosticism). The copy of the Gospel of Philip found at Nag Hammadi was probably a copy of an original Greek manuscript, and is the only known surviving edition of the Gospel. The text itself is similar to the Gospel of Thomas in that it is a collection of sayings. However, it is different from the Gospel of Thomas in that it is not a collection of sayings of Jesus, which Thomas clearly is.  Layton refers to the Gospel of Philip as a “Valentinian anthology,”  composed of several different pieces of information put together to make an anthology. What is meant by “Valentinian” is how the texts relate to the ideas promoted by, or attributed to the person of Valentinus, who was a man who lived on or about 100 ca until 175 ca and who eventually ended up teaching in Rome and accumulating a sizable following.   

The Gospel of Philip lacks an introductory opening that introduces the text and gives the reader an indication of the focus of the text. This contrasts with all other gospels, apocryphal or otherwise. The name of the gospel comes, most likely, from Logion 80 which mentions Philip the Apostle. This is the only clue as to why this text is referred to as the “Gospel of Philip.” The name of the text might be a clue to the very nature of the text itself; it is a completely allegorical work. In his translation and commentary of the Gospel of Philip Smith notes, “…We will get very little out of the Gospel of Philip if we take it literally.”  The entire text of the Gospel of Philip is a symbol and needs to be interpreted. Much of the material in Philip deals with sacraments, or mysteries, and their affect in an eschatological and soteriological manner can typically be seen through a “sacramental filter.” As Logion 60 indicates, “The Lord did everything through mystery:  baptism and a chrism and a eucharist and a redemption and a bridal chamber.” This passage would indicate that both death and salvation, concepts a Christian would be very mindful of, are answered in a sacramental fashion.         

Eschatological and soteriological significance of the Gospel of Philip

A very important concept in most, if not all, forms of Gnosticism is the idea of overcoming ignorance. Salvation itself is linked to overcoming a state of ignorance, and moving away from “darkness” (ignorance) into “light” (knowledge or acquaintance). The following passage from the Gospel of Philip illustrates the problem of ignorance:

“Ignorance is the mother of all evil. Ignorance will eventuate in death, because those who come from ignorance neither were nor are nor will be. But those who are in the truth will be perfect when all the truth is revealed. For truth is like ignorance; while hidden it rests in itself, but when revealed and recognized, it is praised in that it is stronger than ignorance and error. It gives freedom.  The word said, “If you know the truth, the truth will make you free.” Ignorance is a slave, knowledge is freedom. If we know the truth, we shall find the fruits of the truth within us. If we join it, it will fulfill us.”

A facilitator towards Gnosis, and therefore an aid in salvation, is self knowledge as the Gospel of Philip states, “Should you who possess everything not know yourself? If you do not know yourself, you will not enjoy what you own. But know yourself and what you have enjoy.”  Likewise, the Gospel of Philip also teaches, “Should not all people who possess all things know themselves utterly? Now, if some do not know themselves, they will not have the use of what they possess; but those who have learned about themselves will do so.”  It would seem that knowledge of the self is a factor in the liberation from ignorance, as the Gospel of Philip mentions a root of evil within us, “Let each one dig down after the root of evil that is within us and pluck it out of our heart from the root. It will be uprooted if we recognize it. But if we are ignorant of it, it takes root in us and produces fruit in our heart. It masters us. We are its slaves.”  Self knowledge, therefore, has a salvific quality in that as we learn about ourselves, we can find that root of ignorance within us, and pull it out by the root and therefore become free of the bonds of ignorance. A reference to the necessity of self-knowledge is seen in the Gospel of Thomas as well, “Jesus said, “If you produce what is in you, what you have will save you. If you do not have what is in you, what you do not have will kill you.”  This liberation from ignorance is an essential element of Gnostic salvation, and clearly an image in the Gospel of Philip.

The concept of a place of damnation doesn’t usually play a strong roll within Gnostic texts. However, it is mentioned in the Gospel of Philip in the following passage:

A messenger in a vision saw people locked up in a house of fire and bound with fiery chains, lying in a flaming ointment. He asked them, “Why can’t they be saved?”  “We did not desire it,” they told the messenger, “but we got this place of punishment. It is the outer darkness, and we are in it. 

Damnation is linked with ignorance and desire, for those who suffer damnation in Philip are there because they did not desire to be saved, and therefore desired ignorance within an outer darkness. What does it mean to be saved, and to transcend this damnation?  The Gospel of Philip states, “No one can encounter the king while naked.”  Looking at this passage as a symbol for something other than the obvious it would conclude that the king in this passage is some sort of reference to God, or in this case the Fullness. So, if one is not to be naked, what shall he or she be clothed in? Logion 69 seems to shed some “light” on the type of clothes necessary, “The forces do not see those who have put on the perfect light and cannot seize them.  One will put on the light in a mystery, through the act of joining.” Further reference to this garment of light can be seen in the following passage from the Gospel of Philip:

The perfect human being not only cannot be restrained, but also cannot be seen – for if something is seen it will be restrained. In other words, no one can obtain this grace without putting on the perfect light [and] becoming, as well, perfect light. Whoever has [put it] on will go [. . .]. This one is the perfect [. . .] that we be [. . .] before we have come [. . .]. Whoever receives all things [. . .] hither, can [. . .] there, but will [. . . the] midpoint, as being imperfect. Only Jesus is acquainted with that person’s end!”

We have a situation were liberation from darkness (ignorance) is necessary by putting on a garment of light (knowledge or acquaintance).  Salvation is obtained through knowledge which is facilitated through self-knowledge and clothing oneself with light. One cannot see the “king” clothed in ignorance but must be clothed in perfect light.  

Is there a concept of reincarnation in Gnosticism and the Gospel of Philip? The idea of reincarnation is a possible interpretation of Philip. Logion 20 states, “No one would hide a precious expensive object within an expensive thing, yet often someone has kept vast sums in something worth a penny. Such is the case with the soul:  it is a precious thing, and it has come to reside in a lowly body.”  The Gnostic text Treatise on Resurrection alludes to reincarnation with the following passage, “Everyone should practice in many ways to gain release from this element (the body), so that one might not wander aimlessly but rather might recover one’s former state of being.” To live in ignorance is to live in a state of slavery, as has already been stated. The image of hell, also illustrated above, is a place of outer darkness. Bodily death does not seem necessary to liberate a person from slavery, as the body is simply a receptacle of lesser value that holds the soul/spirit. Until a person acquires “light” they are shrouded in darkness.  This would conclude that reincarnation, or that the soul/spirit takes on different physical forms, is necessary until the slavery of ignorance is transcended. There are two means that a person can equip themselves with in order to end this cycle of slavery; self-knowledge and reception of the mysteries.  


“The Lord did everything in a mystery:  a baptism and a chrism and a eucharist and a redemption and a holy bridal chamber.”

By indicating that everything is done in a mystery, the Gospel of Philip indicates that these five actions somehow defy regular understanding – for something to be a mystery means that it cannot be readily explained. This is important in understanding the nature of these mysteries, which are often referred to as sacraments. It is also evident that these five sacraments were instituted by Jesus as Lord, and since he “did everything” in a mystery it seems that these mysteries are the embodiment of everything Jesus “did” or taught, and this can be seen in passage 18:  “Christ has everything within him:  man, angel, and mystery, and also the father.” The sacraments are, in a sense, an extension of Christ himself as he did everything in a mystery, he is in fact the mystery. Segelberg links the five sacraments mentioned in the Gospel of Philip with a passage from the Gospel of Thomas,  “Indeed, you have five trees in paradise, which do not move in summer or winter, and whose leaves do not fall. Whoever is acquainted with them will not taste death.”  It would seem that paradise here refers to the Fullness (Pleroma), as the passage before the reference of the five trees states, “Jesus said, “Blessed is that which existed before coming into being…” If the sacraments are a part of Jesus himself, then the possible correlation with these trees in paradise is understandable that each sacrament is in essence a “tree of knowledge” and whoever receives these sacraments will “not taste death.”

The following passage from the Gospel of Philip shows how Jesus administered the sacraments, “The world eats bodies, and everything eaten in the world dies. Truth eats life, but no one fed on truth will find death.  Jesus came and he carried food, giving life to whoever wanted it so they might not die.” The image of Jesus being a distributor of food, feeding those he came into contact with truth that would give them eternal life is a powerful image. Combined with the idea that he did “everything in a mystery,” and the notion that he had “mysteries” within him paints a picture of Jesus as a sacramental font of sanctifying grace.


“God is a dyer.  Just as the good dyes called “true” dyes dissolve into the things that have been dyed in them, even so the things that god has dyed become imperishable through his colors, inasmuch as his dyes are imperishable.  Yet those whom god dips, he dips in water.”  

This passage seems appropriate to introduce the mystery of baptism within the Gospel of Philip, because it is the sacrament of baptism that provides the initial dye of the Christian character upon the would be initiate into the Christian mysteries. As the above passage indicates, that mystery of baptism makes the new initiate spiritually imperishable, or immortal. It seems appropriate to note that while Layton uses the word dips, Smith uses baptizes in this passage which would give the passage more symbolic meaning.

It is not certain if a Trinitarian formula (viz., In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit) is used in baptism, but according to Segelberg it is likely that a Trinitarian formula was used. And it is probable that baptism was done via immersion versus aspersion, as Logion 51 notes, “Anyone who goes down into the water and comes up without having received anything and says, “I am a Christian,” has borrowed the name.” Additionally, Logion 67 seems an important passage on baptism for two reasons:

We are reborn by the holy spirit. And we are born by the anointed (Christ) through two things. We are anointed by the spirit.  When we were born we were joined. No one can see himself in the water or in a mirror without light. Nor, again, can you see by the light without water or a mirror. For this reason it is necessary to baptize with two things – light and water. And light means Chrism.

Baptism is clearly a sacrament that is linked to the second sacrament of Chrism, or anointing, with baptism being the initial sequence and chrism sealing the process. However, baptism seems important in and of itself for the mirror symbolism. This image of baptism seems reminiscent of a passage from the Secret Book of John related to forethought (Barbelo), the first emanation from the Monad, “For it is this that gazes at its own self in its light around it, that is, the wellspring of living water; gives unto all the aeons; and in every way [thinks of (?)] its image, beholding it in the wellspring of the [spirit] and exercising will in its [watery] light, [that is,] the wellspring of the pure, luminous water around it.” In exoteric Christianity the dunking under water, and the saying of a ritual formula seem sufficient to bring about the affect of the sacrament. However, this appears not to be the case within the context of baptism within the Gospel of Philip. If someone were to enter the water and come up out of the water without seeing their reflection, and understanding, but then states, “I am a Christian” has only borrowed the name, has not internalized the true meaning of the mystery that is baptism. Hoeller addresses the meaning of the sacraments when he states, “The objective of a Gnostic sacrament is not merely temporary sanctification, as in the Roman Catholic doctrine of sacramental grace, but rather a total transformation, a change into the essence of the Godhead. The perfected Gnostic is not a follower of Christ but a deified human being; he is another Christ.” Therefore, baptism is the first step in the “divinization” process. The first step is to see oneself in the living waters, and to start the process by which the initiate becomes divine, as above (in the Fullness), so below (within the created world). 


“Soul and spirit are constituted of water and fire; a bridegroom’s attendant is constituted of water, fire, and light. Fire is chrism; light is fire – I do not mean worldly fire, which has no form, but another kind of fire, which has no form, but another kind of fire, whose appearance is white, which is beautifully luminous, and which bestows beauty.”

The second sacrament, that of Chrism is an anointing sacrament. As Jesus is called the Christ (the anointed) so to the initiate becomes a Christ at their anointing. An important passage on Chrism is Logion 83:

Chrism has more authority than baptism. For because of chrism we are called Christians, not because of baptism. And the anointed (Christ) was named for chrism, for the father anointed the son; and the son anointed the apostles, and the apostles anointed us. Whoever has been anointed has everything:  resurrection, light, cross, holy spirit; the father has given it to that person in the bridal chamber, and the person has received (it). The father existed in the son, and the son existed in the father. This [is the] kingdom of heavens.

The chrism itself is symbolized by fire, and this fire clothes the initiate with light – a necessary clothing in the process of acquaintance/gnosis.  The relationship between chrism and baptism are clear, one is of water and the other of fire. Baptism is a prelude to chrism, a necessary step but secondary. Segelberg mentions this relationship when he states, “A definite relationship, then, is found here between the two; the chrism is thought of as a far more important sacrament than the baptism of water. This conception fits in well with that of the Evangelium Veritatis in which baptism with water is thought of as something hylic, while chrism is the great sacrament at the performing of which EV may have been read as a homily.” Additionally, the idea of chrism is mentioned oftentimes in the Gospel of Philip with the idea of a joining, this would indicate that chrism as linked with the sacrament of the bridal chamber in that baptism, chrism, and bridal chamber constitute a tripartite initiation sequence.    


“The Eucharist is Jesus. Now, in Syriac it is called pharisatha, that is, “that which is spread out.”  For Jesus came to crucify the world.” 

Before we can understand how the Gospel of Philip addresses the Eucharist we need to look at how the Eucharist is addressed within a modern context, what has the Eucharist of the 4th century, both exoteric and esoteric, evolved into? Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann writes about the Eucharist thusly:

The Eucharist is the Sacrament of the Church, i.e., her eternal actualization as the Body of Christ, united in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Therefore the Eucharist is not only the “most important” of all the offices, it is also source and goal of the entire liturgical life of the Church. Any liturgical theology not having the Eucharist as the foundation of its whole structure is basically defective.

This opinion of the Eucharist is typical of both contemporary Orthodoxy and Catholicism. But was it so within the confines of the teaching of the Gospel of Philip?  The Gospel of Philip states:

Therefore he said, “He who does not eat my flesh and drink my blood does not have life within him.”  What is meant by that?  His “flesh” means the Word, and his “blood” means the holy spirit:  whoever has received these has food, and has drink and clothing. For my part I condemn (also) those others who say that the flesh will not arise. 

The explanation by Schmemann is similar to the passage from the Gospel of Philip in that the flesh (bread) contains the Word (Christ), and the blood (wine) contains the Holy Spirit. Additionally, the Gospel of Philip further states about the Eucharist, “And it is full of the holy spirit, and belongs entirely to the perfect human being. Whenever we drink it we take unto ourselves the perfect human being.” The perfect human being symbolized in the person of Jesus, and since Jesus brought food “so that they might not die” it rests that the Eucharist is a repeatable mystery whereby the esoterically minded Christian (Gnostic) shares in the Word and Holy Spirit.

An interesting note regarding the Eucharist is stated by Segelberg who writes, “The Eucharist of the Church lacks pneuma – it does not give life. Therefore, those how have frequently communicated have nevertheless not received anything, but when the evening of life comes then they are as un-spiritual as when they began life.  Their Church is a ‘donkey-church.’” Segelberg was commenting on the parable of the donkey at a millstone from the Gospel of Philip:

A donkey turning a millstone did a hundred miles of walking. When it was let loose it found itself still in the same place. There are people who do much traveling and make no progress toward anywhere:  when evening falls they have seen neither cities nor villages nor constructions nor the natural order nor forces nor angles – the wretches have labored in vain.

Its seems that Segelberg makes this conclusion (that the parable explains the eucharist of the exoteric Church as un-spiritual) because the next passage in the Gospel of Philip is the passage that is quoted in the start of this section on the Eucharist (i.e., The Eucharist is Jesus…). It’s not obvious that this is the meaning of the parable, although it is possible and the reason I mention it here. Considering the somewhat elitist nature of many Gnostic sects, it doesn’t seem like an impossible interpretation. 


“Insofar as the seed of the holy spirit is hidden, evil – though inert – has not been removed from its midst, and members of it are enslaved to wickedness. But when this seed is revealed, then perfect light will stream forth upon each person, and all who belong to it will [be] anointed.  Then the slaves will be free [and] captives ransomed. “Every plant that my father in the heavens has not planted [will be] rooted up.” Those who are separated will join [. . .] will become full.”

Segelberg wrote that the sacrament of redemption can possibly be seen in the exoteric sacrament of the Orthodox Church, known as Euchelaion or anointing the sick:

In the Byzantine church the euchelaion is celebrated with a remarkable solemnity. If possible there should be seven priests, each one of them reciting Epistle, Gospel and consecrating prayers. The gift of the sacrament is not only bodily health but also forgiveness of sins. On Tuesday in Holy week the euchelaion used to be celebrated in Greek orthodox churches with certain solemnity and the interesting thing is that the sacrament is conferred not mainly to sick people but to all those present who want to receive it. And far more interesting, this is regarded as equivalent to confession and those who have been anointed are not obliged to make their confession before Easter.   

The idea that the sacrament is an anointing is seen in the passage at the beginning of this section, “and all who belong to it will [be] anointed.” In the exoteric Churches the sacrament of penance (or confession) is done without an anointing, but the sacrament of extreme unction (i.e., euchelaion or anointing the sick) is done with an anointing and has the same essential effect. Like the eucharist, the redemption as a sacrament, is a repeatable sacrament and doesn’t seem to fit into the category as a rite of initiation proper. In the order of sacraments it falls just short of the pinnacle of the sacraments, the bridal chamber, and is a sacrament used to ransom the “initiate” (i.e., Gnostic) from the slavery of ignorance.  

Bridal Chamber

“If the female had not separated from the male, she and the male would not die.  That being’s separation became the source of death. The anointed (Christ) came to rectify the separation that had been present since the beginning and join the two (components); and to give life unto those who had died by separation and join them together. Now, a woman joins with her husband in the bridal bedroom, and those who have joined in the bridal bedroom will not reseparate. Thus Eve became separate from Adam because it was not in the bridal bedroom that she joined with him.”

The sacrament of the bridal chamber is the most problematic of all the sacraments listed in the Gospel of Philip. There is nothing in existence within the various exoteric Churches that would give us a clue as to the meaning of the sacrament, we must piece the information together and speculate as to the nature of the sacrament itself. What does seem clear is that the bridal chamber is a sacrament that promotes a concept of uniting, of bringing opposites together to create a whole. We not only need to ask how this sacrament was conducted, but why. The above quotation sheds some light on the why. The belief seems to be that a polarity existed between men and woman, facilitated when Eve was separated from Adam, and this polarity needed remedied because it was a source of death, as seen further in the Gospel of Philip, “In the days when Eve was [in] Adam, death did not exist.  When she was separated from him, death came into existence. If he [reenters] and takes it unto himself death will not exist.” The purpose of the sacrament seems to be the unification of the initiate with their polar opposite, in the case of a male with a symbolic Eve, and a female a symbolic Adam. The symbolic Adam or Eve seem to be filled by an “angel.” Once the sacrament is completed death is prevented, albeit in a symbolic way. Additionally, the sacrament, once completed, seems to offer protection to the initiate:

Among the shapes of unclean spirits there are male ones and female ones. It is male spirits that have sexual intercourse with souls who conduct their lives within a female shape, and female ones that mingle promiscuously with those within a male shape. And no one can escape if seized by them, unless  by taking on a male or a female power, namely (one’s) bridegroom or bride. Now, one takes on this power from the imaged bridal chamber. Whenever foolish female (spirits) see a male sitting by himself they leap upon him and fondle him and pollute him. So also when foolish male ones see a beautiful woman sitting alone they seduce her and do violence to her in order to pollute her. But when they see a man and his wife sitting together, the female ones cannot make advances to the male, nor can the male ones make advances to the female. Just so, if the image and the angel join with one another none can dare to make advances to the male or the female. 

From this passage it seems that an angel is joined with the initiate in order to compliment the initiate as if the initiate were married. Grant proposes that the unity of the bridal chamber represents an archetypal unity, and a longing to return to the androgynous unity of God himself. Hoeller offers additional insight into the sacrament with:

The sacrament of the Bridal Chamber is in fact an initiation signifying individuation; the grand symbol of the restoration of the Pleroma, or wholeness; the hieros gamos, or “sacred marriage,” of opposites within; and thus the attainment to the true and ultimate gnosis.  The archetypal symbolism of the savior as the bridegroom; Sophia, the wandering soul, as the bride; and the state of wholeness, the Pleroma, as the bridal chamber, in their personal analogues are thus the process of individuation. 

The above quotation from Hoeller can shed some light on the relationship of Jesus with Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of Philip mentions Mary Magdalene twice, in Logion 28 and 48, and in 28 she is referred to as the “companion” and “partner.” Mary Magdalene is viewed as a prostitute in exoteric Christianity, but her position in the Gospel of Philip is nothing less than praiseworthy. The full text of the passage from the Gospel of Philip states, “Three women always used to walk with the lord – Mary his mother, his sister, and the Magdalene, who is called his companion. For “Mary” is the name of his sister and is mother, and it is the name of his partner.” Knowing that we cannot interpret the Gospel of Philip literally it follows that this passage has an esoteric meaning. Mary his mother is perhaps symbolic of the Barbelo figure presented in the Secret Book of John, who is by default also the sister and lover of the Logos in a complex symphony of relationships of emanation. At first glance this idea might seem like a stretch. However, in relationship to the other sacraments this fulfills the story of emanation, from the reflection in baptism, to the anointing as Christ (Logos) in chrism, finally to the unity found in the Pleroma within the bridal chamber. If Jesus did everything in a mystery it would certainly not be against his message to experience the bridal chamber either symbolically or literally with Mary Magdalene. 

The Gospel of Philip addresses several times the notion of intercourse, all within the purview of a sacred relationship. It is not clear if this marriage is the same as the bridal chamber, and I’m not convinced that it is always symbolic marriage. Marriage is mentioned in Logion 52, “[The] Mystery of marriage [is] a great mystery, for [without] it the world would [not] exist. For [the] structure of [the world] [. . .]  But the structure [. . .] marriage. Consider the sexual intercourse [. . .] pollute(s), for it possesses [. . .] forces(s). It is in pollution that its image resides.”  Marriage is clearly important, but we know that it is not for everyone as the Gospel of Philip continues, “Animals have no bridal bedroom, nor do slaves or defiled women.  Rather, free men and virgins have one.” The reference to animals seems to be referring to the uninitiated, and that union must occur between two individuals who no longer slaves or defiled. Since slavery has been equated with ignorance it follows that marriage between two people of different stages of “gnosis” would be polluting marriage, while marriage between two people pneumatically inclined (i.e., completed the phases of initiation of baptism, chrism, and bridal chamber) would not be a pollution, but a “great mystery.”

Therefore, I conclude that the bridal chamber is a final capstone of initiation according to the Gospel of Philip, and that it represents a spiritual unity making the initiate a reflection of the unity of the Pleroma or Fullness. Worldly marriage is something separate from bridal chamber, but intrinsically linked to the rites of sacramental initiation, as Grant states, “This bridechamber is both eschatological and actual. It is a “mystery” which has already been received but is to be “fulfilled” in the future. We who are Gnostics have already become “sons of the bridechamber,” or even “sons of the bridegroom.” Therefore, our marriages have become symbols of the unions of spiritual beings above.”


The Gospel of Philip is truly a complex work. The information it provides on the sacraments is a treasure chest of information for scholars of early Christian practices, namely that of the “heterodox.” However, the Gospel of Philip raises some interesting questions in the area of leadership and the notion of church hierarchy. In the normative ‘sacramental’ churches (e.g., Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) there is a sacrament called holy orders. This sacrament is the means by which these churches propagate their clergy, and these churches by their very nature are highly structured organizations with layers of junior clergy, middle clergy, and high ranking clergy (viz., sub-deacons, deacons, priests, archpriests, monsignors, bishops, archbishops, metropolitans, etc…). Whether or not the Christians of the Gospel of Philip had such a hierarchy, even a primitive version, is unknown. In the realm of possibilities, the bridal chamber could be the Gnostic form of holy orders were the initiate is endowed, after the sacrament, to lead others through the rites of initiation and to celebrate the Eucharist and rite of redemption. Another possibility is that the sacrament of holy orders simply wasn’t mentioned in the list of sacraments, but this seems unlikely. In Christianity the sacrament of holy orders is broken down into three essential parts. The office of deacon is the lowest office of the priesthood, followed by priest, with the bishop being the fullness of the priesthood. I would speculate that the seemingly egalitarian nature of the esoteric Christianity of the Gospel of Philip would encourage a “priesthood of the people.” And the rites of initiation (viz., baptism, chrism, and bridal chamber) correspond to the sacrament of holy orders. It seems clear from the text that the bridal chamber, as a sacrament, is a very important ceremony, and that the initiate undergoes a transformation. Being a practice reserved for an elite, it seems likely that initiates following the Gospel of Philip shared a priesthood of all their believers and that this priesthood was fulfilled in the sacrament of the bridal chamber, were the initiate becomes a mirror image of the Pleroma – a beacon of light, and a whole being.

Works Cited

Altizer, Thomas J. J.  “The Challenge of Modern Gnosticism.”  Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan., 1962):  18 – 25.

Barnstone, Willis & Meyer, Marvin.  The Gnostic Bible.  Boston & London:  Shambhala. 2003

Buckley, Jorunn Jacobsen.  “A Cult-Mystery in ‘The Gospel of Philip.’”  Journal of  Biblical Literature, Vol. 99, No. 4 (Dec., 1980):  569 – 581.

Burkert, Walter.  Ancient Mystery Cults.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard University Press.  1987.

Doresse, Jean.  The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics.  New York: The Viking Press.  1960

Freke, Timothy & Gandy, Peter.  The Jesus Mysteries.  New York:  Three Rivers Press. 1999.

Grant, Robert M.  “The Mystery of Marriage in the Gospel of Philip.”  Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Sep., 1961):  129 – 140.

Grant, Robert M.  “Two Gnostic Gospels.”  Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Mar., 1960): 1 – 11.

Hoeller, Stephen A.  Gnosticism:  New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Quest Books.  2002.

Jonas, Hans.  The Gnostic Religion. Boston:  Beacon Press.  1958 (2005)

Layton, Bentley.  The Gnostic Scriptures.  Doubleday, 1987.

McCree, J. Woodrow.  “The Gospel of Truth’s Interpretation of the Sin of the Demiurge.”  Proceedings of the 14th Oxford Patristics Conference, (August 2003):  1 – 9.

Pagels, Elaine.  Beyond Belief.  New York:  Vintage Books.  2003.

Quispel, Gilles.  “Gnosticism.”  Religions of Antiquity.  Ed. Robert M. Seltzer.  New York:  MacMillan Publishing Company, 1989.  259 – 271.

Robinson, James. M. (General Editor).  The Nag Hammadi Library.  San Francisco: Harper Collins.  1990.

Rudolph, Kurt.  Gnosis:  The Nature and History of Gnosticism.  San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1977.

Schmemann, Alexander.  Introduction to Liturgical Theology.  Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.  1986.

Segelberg, Eric.  “The Coptic-Gnostic Gospel According to Philip and Its Sacramental System.”  Numen, Vol.7 Fasc. 2 (Dec., 1960):  189 – 200.

Smith, Phillip.  The Gospel of Philip Annotated & Explained.  SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2005.

Wagner, Walter H.  After the Apostles.  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press.  1994.

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