Christopher J. Dawe and Dr. Gaye Strathearn, Ancient Scripture
The Gospel of Philip, while not the most famous of the Gnostic texts found with the lost documents of Nag Hammadi Library in 1945 does offer an exciting glimpse at the ritual sacraments used by Valentininian Gnostics. In the view of the anonymous author of Philip these rituals were necessary for salvation. “The Lord,” according to the text “…did everything in a mystery, a baptism and a chrism and a eucharist and a redemption and a bridal chamber.” (Gospel of Philip 67:27-30.) Of these ordinances, one of the most important is the chrism:
The chrism is superior to baptism, for from the word “chrism” that we have been called “Christians,” certainly not because of the word “baptism.” And it is because of the chrism that “the Christ” has his name…He who has been anointed possesses everything. He possesses the resurrection, the light, the cross, the Holy Spirit. (74:12-21.)
The chrism, a ritual anointing with sacred olive oil, was what allowed a believer to truly be termed a Christian and allowed those chosen to move past demons to an eventual resurrection.
A reoccurring element in Philip is references to an intricate sacramental system. Though there is significant discussion about this it would appear that the Gospel of Philip is providing a list of five ascending rituals necessary for salvation. It is impossible to state how wide spread these sacraments were amongst the Valentinians—the text and others are sadly silent on this subject. Equally unknown is the nature of the rituals themselves. While these questions will likely remain unanswered for some time, it can be said that the Gospel of Philip was popular amongst Gnostics.
BECOMING A CHRISTIAN
As a guide through the sacraments, one of the most striking details of the Gospel of Philip is baptism’s relatively low place. Though baptism is often seen as the pinnacle expression of a Christian convert’s faith, Philip regarded it as far less important than chrism—it is only with the chrism that a convert can truly be termed a Christian. Receiving this title is the most immediate effect of chrism. The following reconstructed test illustrates this:
If somebody says: I am a Jew, nobody is going to move. If somebody says: I am a Roman, nobody will be confused either…But if I say: I am a Christian, everybody will tremble. May I obtain this sign…which the archons will not be able to endure, that is, the name.
Notice that the name “Christian” (coming only after the chrism) is one that will make not only mortals tremble but that the “archons” “will not endure hearing.”
The archons, from the Greek άρχοντες for “rulers” were, in Gnostic theology, a set of demons who served the Demiurge, the evil creator of the flawed, physical universe. A primary function of the Archons was to prevent humanity from reaching the true God. If Segelberg’s and Shenke’s additions are correct Philip is stating that only the name “Christian” will allow one to overcome to Archons.
In addition to the name, the chrism also provides Christians with another tool to defeat the Archons—light.
Not only will they [the Archons] be unable to detain the perfect man but they will not be able to see him, for if the see him they will detain him. There is no other way for a person to acquire this quality except by putting on the perfect light… (69:8-11.)
By “putting on the perfect light” a person can simply move pass the Archons who would otherwise detain him. According to Philip “the light is the chrism.” (69:13-15.) Though Philip is silent on how this occurs, a Catholic writer may provide clarification.
Irenaeus, a 2nd century theologian, helps to explain how those with the chrism can slip by the Archons. In Adversus Haereses, a work denouncing the Gnostic “heresies,” Irenaeus described the Valentinian view of the chrism as follows—“Now, as soon as the Mother hears these words, she puts the Homeric helmet of Pluto upon them, so that they may invisibly escape the judge.” The Helmet of Pluto cloaked the wearer in invisibility.
Only with the donning, so to speak, of the helmet of Pluto could the Archons be passed and full ressurection achieved. This also instills new vision, complementing baptism: “None can see himself either in water or in a mirror without light. Nor again can you (sg) see in light without water or mirror.”
In the Gospel of Philip the above is the only passage that directly connects light with the chrism. Elsewhere, light seems to be more directly linked with the ceremony known as the Bridal Chamber. (72.6.) According to Martha Turner, “One of the problems the data presents is that the same results (the reception of ‘light’…) are in different passages associated with different names.”
Far from taking this to mean that the rituals are the same, Turner observes, “…functional distinctions that do not overlap are not available in proto-orthodox references to baptism and chrism either, which were nevertheless clearly distinguishable actions.” A possibility for the appearance of light at different rituals is that differing amounts of light are given at each sacrament, with chrism providing the amount necessary to slip past the Archons. This, unfortunately, is impossible to know without further information.
One of the truly interesting items about chrism is its almost universal acceptance in the Christian world in the first centuries following Christ. Writings of Church Fathers contain numerous references to the ceremony. The most detailed writings come from Cyril, a fourth century Bishop of Jerusalem. In his Five Mystagogical Catecheses Cyril echoed what Philip claimed—it is only after chrism that one becomes “Christian” in the fullest sense of the word. The ritual anointing established, for its recipient, direct communication from the Paraclete and provided a way to completely “shun Satan…and all his pomp.” More importantly, the neophyte becomes a christ, an “anointed” member of God’s earthly kingdom. In Cyril’s theology this was simply not available to those not initiated through the sacrament. Cyril’s work shows that Philip’s vision of the chrism was practiced. A system of complex, mystical, and esoteric ceremonies existed as early (or as late!) as the fourth century and was sanctioned by an orthodox bishop whose rank was only lower than the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch.
The Gospel of Philip contains a sacramental system necessary for salvation. While the exact natures of the ceremonies are unknown it is clear that the ritual anointing known as chrism was a key component. It is only with the receipt of chrism that a follower of Jesus can truly be called a Christian and gain the powers needed to ascend into Heaven.