Gospel of Philip Discusses Early Christian SacramentsDid you know that not all early Christians observed the same sacraments as most Christians do, today? In a previous post, we talked about Valentinian perspectives about baptism. The Gospel of Philip in the Nag Hammadi Scripturesdescribes five sacraments: “The master [did] everything in a mystery: baptism, chrism, eucharist, redemption, and bridal chamber.”

Many Christians today think of marriage as a sacrament, but some early Christians thought that the true sacramental marriage was to Jesus Christ, not to other humans. In this post, let’s talk about the depiction of the sacrament of bridal chamber in the Gospel of Philip.

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Back to Adam and Eve

If you haven’t read my previous post about the  the differences between Paul and Thomas on the male/female metaphor in Genesis 2 , I encourage you to do so; it’s a great starting place. Here’s the gist:

  1. In Genesis 2, men were understood to have received the breath/spirit/pneuma of God, while women had not– they got it second-hand, as a derivative from men.

  2. In the canonical New Testament, Paul argues (2 Corinthians 11) that one should read Jesus as the male in that story, and that all of us (even those of us whose gender/sex is male) are spiritually the females in that story. Genesis 2 is a metaphor for Christ and us, not for human males and females.

The Gospel of Philip agrees with Paul on the proper reading of Genesis 2. Hence, in Philip 68:22-26,

When Eve was in Adam, there was no death. When she was separated from him, death came. If <she> enters into him again and he embraces <her>, death will cease to be.

In Genesis 2, there existed a single person (the Man) who was made from dust and breath, who was whole, and who never tasted death. To create Eve, Adam had a part of himself removed. If we see ourselves as Eve in that story, to experience the breath of God, we need to return to Christ, and the metaphor they used for joining a male and a female is a bridal chamber. Such writers probably took inspiration from Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:

I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ

Who Was the Bridal Chamber Sacrament For?

There’s a rather odd chapter in the Gospel of Philip 69:1-4, which indicates that the sacrament of the bridal chamber is not for all creatures and people:

Animals do not have a wedding chamber, nor do slaves or defiled women. The wedding chamber is for free men and virgins.

This is a pretty strange-sounding passage. To figure out what it’s getting at, let’s look at chapter 78:25-79, and 79:13-18:

Humans have sex with humans, horses have sex with horses, donkeys have sex with donkeys. Members of a species have sex with members of the same species. So also spirit has intercourse with spirit, word mingles with word, light mingles [with light].

What does this tell us? Marriage occurs within a species. If we are promised in marriage to Christ, who is spirit, we ought not think of that in terms of some sort of physical/carnal marriage; that’d be like a human marrying a donkey. Rather, marriage with Christ is a spiritual matter.

If [you] become human,
[a human] will love you.
If you become [spirit],
spirit will unite with you.
If you become word,
word will have intercourse with you.
If you become light,
light will mingle with you.
If you become one of those above,
those above will rest on you.
If you become a horse or donkey or bull
or dog or sheep or some other animal,
wild or tame,
then neither human nor spirit
nor word nor light can love you.
Those above and those within cannot rest in you,
and you have no part in them.

This passage notes that what we become determines whom we are intimate with. Do we succumb to our lowest impulses and become like animals? Then we will never experience true human or spiritual intimacy. Do we live rich lives as humans, but never develop spiritually? Then we may know and experience human intimacy, but never spiritual intimacy. It is only when we become spirit– light– word– that we experience intimacy in those things.

The final part of that passage helps to further clarify:

People who are slaves against their will can be free. People who are freed by favor of their master and then sell themselves back into slavery cannot be free again.

This carries forward the idea that responsibility is at the center of our spiritual development. If we are slaves against our will, our chains may be physical– or even psychological or spiritual– but they are forced upon us, and we are capable of spiritual development and moving toward the bridal chamber. However, if we choose slavery– if we choose to give up our freedom and autonomy for personal gain– we lose the very thing we would need for spiritual development.

No Cause for Bragging

One might think that a Christian who experienced the sacrament of bridal chamber– spiritual marriage with Christ– would want to flaunt that over others, indicating their spiritual superiority. The Gospel of Philip argues in chapter 81 that they must not brag:

If marriage is exposed, it has become prostitution, and the bride plays the harlot not only if she is impregnated by another man, but even if she slips out of her bedchamber and is seen… Bridegrooms and brides belong to the bridal chamber. No one can see a bridegroom or a bride except by becoming one.

For the writer of the Gospel of Philip, even if we are spiritually faithful to Christ, that intimacy must remain personal and private to remain sacred (a sacrament). Those who helped these early Christians in their spiritual development were referred to as “bridegroom attendants”, but the Christian following this practice would be expected not to discuss or flaunt their spiritual development outside of that sphere.

What Does the Bridal Chamber Accomplish?

To understand what these early Christians believed they were accomplishing through the sacrament of the bridal chamber, let’s start with Matthew 27:51. It claims that, when Jesus was crucified, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

Writing about this, the Gospel of Philip notes in Chapter 84:

For this reason the curtain was not torn only at the top, for then only the upper realm would have been opened. It was not torn only at the bottom, for then it would have revealed only the lower realm. No, it was torn from top to bottom. The upper realm was opened for us in the lower realm, that we might enter the hidden realm of truth.

This is what is truly worthy and mighty, and we shall enter through symbols that are weak and insignificant. They are weak compared to perfect glory. There is glory that surpasses glory, there is power that surpasses power. Perfect things have opened to us, and hidden things of truth. The holy of holies was revealed, and the bedchamber invited us in.

In this passage, it is noted that the bridal chamber is ultimately just a “weak and insignificant” symbol, but like all sacraments, ot opens the door to for our minds to know and experience “worthy and mighty” spiritual truth.

I find this Valentinian thinking on sacraments to be fascinating. The sacrament of the bridal chamber is particularly interesting when compared to treating marriage between humans as a sacrament. As well, the notion of sacraments as weak and insignificant symbols that allow us to enter the door to worthy and might spiritual truth is an excellent paradox; I hope, in the future, to do a post exploring paradox in the Gospel of Philip.

We definitely didn’t cover all the passages in this book talking about the bridal chamber (in particular, we left out a lot about the role of “attendants”), and we didn’t talk about other works discussing this sacrament such as the Exegesis on the Soul and the Tripartite Tractate, so I may revisit this topic in the future.

Thanks for reading! Appreciate any thoughts or questions we have. What do you think about the Valentinian concept of the bridal chamber?

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