Salvation is often thought to be an all-or-nothing matter: you are either saved or damned. Heavenly Stories examines how some important thinkers in the ancient world, including Paul the Apostle, John of Patmos, Hermas, the Sethians, and the Valentinians, believed that salvation comes in degrees.
Jul 2021 | 312 pages | Cloth $69.95
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Differing Salvations, Differing Ethics
Part I. The Salvation of Jews and Gentiles: Higher and Lower Levels of Salvation in the Letters of the Apostle Paul and John of Patmos's Revelation
Chapter 1. John's Heavenly City: The Book of Revelation and Jewish Narratives of Salvation
Chapter 2. Paul's Olive Tree: Saving Gentiles as Gentiles and Jews as Jews in Christ
Part II. Saints and Sinners in Early Christianity: Ethical Differences as Salvific Hierarchies in the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocryphon of John
Chapter 3. In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Ethical and Salvific Differences in the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocryphon of John
Chapter 4. Diagnosing Sin and Saving Sinners: Early Christian Ethical and Soteriological Problem-Solving
Part III. The Threefold Division of Humanity: Identity, Soteriology, and Moral Responsibility in the Excerpts of Theodotus, the Tripartite Tractate, and Heracleon's Commentary on John
Chapter 5. Mapping the Heavens: The Missionizing Ethics and Soteriology of Valentinians
Chapter 6. The Threefold Division and Exegesis: Ethics in Heracleon's Commentary on John
Conclusion. Moral Imagination and Ancient Christianity
Differing Salvations, Differing Ethics
The timequake of 2001 was a cosmic charley horse in the sinews of Destiny. At what was in New York City 2:27 P.M. on February 13th of that year, the Universe suffered a crisis in self-confidence. . . . It suddenly shrunk ten years. It zapped me and everybody else back to February 17th, 1991. . . . That the rerun lasted ten years, short a mere four days, some are saying now, is proof there is a God.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake
Heavenly Stories with Fixed Endings
The conceit of Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake is that the universe has suddenly contracted instead of continuing to expand; the result of this is that we must all repeat a ten-year chunk of time. Starting on February 13th in 2001, everyone must go back to 1991 and do the last ten years over again. An added wrinkle is that there is no free will. Everyone must repeat the last ten years exactly how they happened before. We are bound to make the same mistakes, suffer the same tragedies, and enjoy the same hollow triumphs. Vonnegut has set up this apparent tragic loss of freedom to lambast the very idea of free will. We like to believe that we would do things differently, but chances are, according to Vonnegut, we would have done the whole thing the same way again anyways.
By writing a story with a fixed ending—we know from the start of the story about the rerun of the universe and the ending of the book at a writers' retreat in Rhode Island—Vonnegut could fluctuate among various times and topics in a way that both disorients and engages the reader. Ironically for a novel suffused with personal information, Vonnegut frequently castigates the reader for our predilection toward focusing on ourselves and our inner struggles instead of worrying about the world at large and society's issues. In this way, Vonnegut created a story about a fantastical absence of free will to rebuke society's lack of will to improve itself. Timequake's fixed ending and Vonnegut's spasmodic storytelling not only entertain the reader but help to convey and reinforce this central moral claim: we are complacent and thus complicit in quotidian hypocrisies and injustices.
Implicit in the linearity of Vonnegut's Timequake as well as a number of his other works—for example, The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night—is that we play specific, inescapable roles in the story of the universe. Even should we come "unstuck in time," we would simply find ourselves at different points on the same track, destined for an ending that is and has always been fixed. What is remarkable about these novels—and likely explains their moral force—is that when you know how things will turn out, the narrative intrigue focuses instead on how we get there and what sort of characters and actions drive the narrative toward its inevitable end. Vonnegut uses the fixedness of his narratives not only to highlight the banal complacency and even depravity of everyday society but also to motivate his readers toward discrete moral values and practices.
The irony of stories with fixed endings, then, is that rather than undermining our agency or our sense of belonging to the world they can underscore our responsibility for and our role in making the world what we believe it should be. Yes, the narrative is predetermined, but it cannot end without us, the ones who matter, playing the roles we were destined to play. This assurance of our own purpose and suitable end also helps to justify any suffering experienced along the way. This final observation builds upon anthropologist Michael Jackson's insights regarding the ability of storytelling to absorb, reinterpret, and integrate trauma into communal, therapeutic narratives.
Though stories may concern events that seem to have singled a person out, isolated and privatized his or her experience, storytelling is, in the final analysis, a social act. Stories are composed and recounted, their meanings negotiated and renegotiated, within circles of kinsmen and friends. Like religions, they not only allow people to unburden themselves of private griefs in a context of concerted activity; they bind people together in terms of meanings that are collectively hammered out. It is this sharing in the reliving of a tragedy, this sense of communing in a common loss, that gives stories their power, not to forgive or redeem the past but to unite the living in the simple affirmation that they exist, that they survived.
Also, as Jackson demonstrates at length, stories are fundamentally "inter-subjective" insofar as they can bridge the gap between the individual and her community. Reflecting a similar dynamic, the narratives explored in this study—despite having fixed endings—are not static but interact dialectically with the circumstances of their authors as they attempted to navigate their (perhaps putative) communities through various pitfalls along the road by creatively course correcting and modifying how their stories end accordingly.
The texts that are the focus of this book—like so many of Vonnegut's novels—are moralizing works with fixed endings. This study examines a series of ancient Jewish and Christian authors who wrote teleological stories, or stories with fixed endings, to encourage their readers toward specific ethical conduct. For each of the case studies examined in this book, the fixed end point of their narratives is a divided heaven or multiple heavens, where the saved enjoy greater or lesser rewards. Furthermore, just as there was more than one heaven or salvific reward, there were multiple types of ethical conduct, tailored to whether you were a Jew or a gentile, a saint or a sinner, a spiritual (pneumatic) or merely soulish (psychic) person. A saint will enjoy a higher level of salvation because she behaved differently than a repentant sinner. Adding a soteriological element to Vonnegut, what sort of character you were in the drama of salvation does not change at the end: saints will remain saints, and sinners will remain sinners, and each class will enjoy a different level of salvation.
To be clear: by a higher level of salvation, I do not always mean a higher space in heaven. There are myriad ways of describing equal and unequal salvation. Consider an example of each from the Gospels of Matthew and John, respectively. According to the parable of the workers in the vineyard, a landowner pays all of his workers—despite great differences in how long they each worked—the same wage (Matt. 20:1-15). "And on receiving [the usual wage] they grumbled at the landowner saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.'" This metaphor for equal salvation prompts complaints among the characters of the story who lament this apparent injustice. Their sentiment is echoed in John's inclusion of Jesus's words of comfort to his disciples in John 14:1-2. Just after Jesus reveals that Peter will deny him, his disciples become agitated. Jesus assures them, "Do not let your heart be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?" Despite Peter's less virtuous actions, Jesus consoles him that there is still a place for him among the saved. Nevertheless, this difference in rooms implies a hierarchy of salvation, and that one's heavenly reward is somehow tailored to one's conduct. As we shall see throughout this book, these salvific hierarchies are often represented through metaphors, such as a tower, a tree, or a city.
In Part I (Chapters 1-2) I shall consider two Jewish followers of Jesus, the Apostle Paul and John of Patmos, as they envision and articulate God's plan for the salvation of Israel and the Nations. The crux for both authors was how to preserve and balance Israel's special status against the inclusion of gentiles qua gentiles. In Part II (Chapters 3-4), I examine the problem of saints and sinners living alongside each other in second-century Christian communities. Two early Christian texts, the "orthodox" Shepherd of Hermas and the "heretical" Apocryphon of John, constructed higher and lower levels of salvation to account for this ethical variance. And finally, in Part III (Chapters 5-6), I explicate the practice of an early Christian movement—most often called Valentinian—of dividing humanity into three types or natures. In particular, I focus on three texts: The Excerpts of Theodotus, the Tripartite Tractate, and Heracleon's Commentary on the Gospel of John. I argue that their tripartite division, typically seen as indicative of a determinist soteriology ("saved by nature"), was in fact a complex explanation of the missionizing successes and failures of this early Christian group.
Each of these authors solves specific social problems or ethical questions in light of how things will turn out in the end for whole groups of people. That is, they all describe corporate salvation where salvific ends are tailored specifically to classes or types of persons, not individuals. They all present, with varying degrees of emphasis, teleological narratives that lay out different sorts of persons and the roles they play and will play—for good and evil—in the unfolding of salvation history. In order to be morally praiseworthy, a person must understand and play the role assigned to him or her. To put this another way and borrowing from an influential modern theologian and ethicist, the only freedom that truly matters is selecting the story we choose to believe in and our role in that story. We can perhaps modify the narrative arc through revelation or reinterpretation, but we find meaning and purpose by situating ourselves in a story whose ending is fixed.
The possible roles and the narratives themselves are particular to each author and products of specific, historical milieus. The portrayal of specific virtues and vices, differing ethical roles and standards, and various means to be saved all are indicative of the specific contexts and problems these authors were seeking to address. By examining the manner in which, for example, Paul or the Shepherd of Hermas has each constructed a cast of dramatis personae and located these characters in the drama of salvation history, we can understand better each author's ideological commitments and historical contexts. Thus, in addition to elucidating the logic of these texts as narratives, we will also gain valuable insights into the social contexts and aims of their authors.
Finally, by organizing this book around the understudied typological feature of higher and lower levels of salvation, I hope to add nuance to a number of familiar questions and debates. To this end, we will compare odd or uncommon conversation partners (e.g., Paul and John or the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocryphon of John) and break up texts and authors traditionally interpreted as saying the same things (e.g., the Tripartite Tractate/Excerpts of Theodotus and Heracleon). This is all meant to complicate certain enduring dichotomies in the study of the New Testament and early Christianity—for example, universalism vs. particularism, orthodoxy vs. heresy, and free will vs. determinism. In what follows, I will outline how the chapters in this book offer paths past these misleading binaries.
The Anachronisms of Universalism and Particularism
In his thought-provoking book on the Apostle Paul, Daniel Boyarin asserts: "Paul was motivated by a Hellenistic desire for the One, which among other things produced an ideal of a universal human essence, beyond difference and hierarchy." Due to his "Hellenizing" worldview, this Paul was a revolutionary thinker who sought to abolish all hierarchy and difference. Similar characterizations of the Apostle Paul as an anthropological and soteriological universalist reappear throughout Pauline studies. In this context, universalism connotes the radical equality or sameness of all humanity (Gal. 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus") and a uniform standard for salvation for all of humanity (1 Cor. 15:22: "For just as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ"). In other words, just as there is a single portrait of humanity, so too is there a singular source of salvation through Jesus Christ. Therefore, since every person is equal and saved by the same means, then, so it is argued, this entails a single set of criteria—variously conceived as exclusively soteriological or soteriological and ethical—according to which each person will be judged and thereby held morally accountable. As a result, this Paul has rejected Judaism and its particularism in favor of a new and universal religion where salvation is available to every person on the same soteriological (and ethical) grounds.
Although this perspective has no shortage of proponents, it does not make the best sense of our evidence. First, Paul could not reject "Judaism" in this sense because Paul's Judaism was not a reified and doctrinally bounded belief system that could be straightforwardly rejected in favor of another anachronistically formulated category, Christianity. Second, although Paul does believe that Jews and gentiles are saved insofar as they become coheirs to the promise made to Abraham by participating in Christ (Abraham's seed) through baptism (Gal. 3:29), this does not entail a radical and totalizing universalism that eliminates social, ethical, or even eschatological difference. For Paul, soteriology and ethics are related, but they do not have a strictly causal relationship where one (ethics) determines or earns the other (salvation). Nor does one (salvation) necessarily subsume or compress the other (ethics) into a uniform system wherein ethics is secondary and contingent insofar as they are only how one stays "in" the single saved people. Third and finally, there is not a totalizing salvific path that transcends or subtracts all ethnic or eschatological difference in the service of a single soteriological and ethical system; instead, we find in Paul's letters—and John's Apocalypse—different timelines and different standards for appropriate conduct for Jews and gentiles, despite the fact that both share a single means, Jesus Christ, for salvation.
With these points in mind, I will examine the complex soteriological and ethical views of Paul and the structurally similar views of his first-century Jewish compatriot John of Patmos as each described the eschatological salvation of the Nations and Israel. Both Paul the Apostle and John of Patmos differentiated between and prioritized the salvation of Israel over that of the Nations. Paul programmatically underscored this priority at the onset of his Letter to the Romans (1:16; cf. 2:9-10; 9:24; 15:8-9) by noting that salvation (???????) comes first to the Jew and then to the Greek (??????? ?? ¹????? ??? ??????). At the climax of his narrative of salvation history in Romans 11, Paul emphasized again Israel's salvific priority insofar as all of Israel will be saved while only the full number of gentiles (?? ¹?????? ??? ?????) may be engrafted onto the metaphorical olive tree that represents the salvation reserved for Israel.
John of Patmos similarly divided all of humanity into two groups—Jew and gentile—and maintained a salvific hierarchy between the two. Drawing upon the language of a holy war census in Revelation 7, John enumerated and thereby highlighted the 144,000 (12,000 from each of the restored twelve tribes of Israel) of the saved before describing the secondary and subordinate participation of the gentiles. In the eschatological vision of Revelation 21-22, John further described this hierarchical relationship by appealing to the concentric space of a new earth with a new Jerusalem as its center in order to accentuate how in the eschaton redeemed Jews and gentiles will play different roles: some Jews will serve as priests in the restored Temple, while saved gentiles, in accordance with Isaiah 60, will offer homage as repentant pilgrims.
It was a given, according to Paul and John, that God has a special interest in the salvation of Israel over and above any who might be saved from the Nations. What remained to be elaborated were how all the puzzle pieces, culled from biblical prophecies, fit together, and what their final pictures meant. What is God's plan to save Israel and the Nations, and what role(s) must each group play as the drama of salvation history enters its final stage(s)?
Clearly influencing their narratives, John and Paul interpreted the unfolding story of salvation history and the imminent end of the current age through the lens of Jewish scriptures and prophecies about the restoration of Israel and the ingathering of the Nations. Thus, Paul's and John's writings were not universal or timeless works. They each believed they were living in the special epoch in which God's promises to Israel had begun to be fulfilled (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:29—31; Rev. 1:3). Jesus Christ had initiated the eschaton, and the "firstfruits" of what would soon happen on a full scale have already begun to appear.
Events, however, were not unfolding precisely as they expected. Jesus's parousia had not yet arrived, and God's enemies seemed to be prospering. Consequently, both John and Paul had to improvise and creatively adapt their exegetical expectations in an effort to reconcile them with their experiences. J. Christiaan Beker's hermeneutic of coherence and contingency is instructive. Both Paul and John were committed to the truth of salvation history, the shape and content of which have been revealed throughout Jewish scriptures. Both authors, however, had to revise and adjust their expectations for salvation history dialectically in light of real world circumstances. Nonetheless, both John and Paul know that the final chapter of salvation history is unfolding all around, and what's more, they know how each member or group from the cast of characters is supposed to behave and what their end(s) will be.
Despite sharing an organizing belief in higher and lower levels of salvation, John and Paul addressed themselves to different audiences. As we shall see in Chapter 1, Revelation tells the ethical and soteriological story of several categories of people, ranging from heavenly priests to the eternally damned. John reconciled expectations for gentile salvific inclusion with complex spatial and temporal subordination while all the while underscoring that gentile salvation was not primarily about saving the Nations but was rather part of Israel's restoration. Where John devised an eschatological ethic aimed at his Jewish readers, Paul the Apostle wrote and thus formulated an ethic tailored for his gentile audience. In this way, we find a Jewish story about salvation that is intended for consumption by outsiders. Even though he was the Apostle to the gentiles, Paul, nonetheless, prioritized Israel's salvation over and above that of the Nations. There was not an ethnic transformation in Christ: Jews remained Jews and gentiles remained gentiles. Paul creatively reshapes biblical precedent to claim that all—Jews and gentiles—are saved through the same means, namely baptism into Christ; yet, this singular means of salvation does not abrogate the differing ethical standards established for these two groups nor does it overthrow God's favoritism toward Israel.
Over the course of Chapters 1 and 2, we shall investigate the problem of how, why, when, and to what degree gentiles could participate in Israel's impending eschatological redemption, and the social and ethical implications of such theoretical speculation. Although the Jesus movement became a predominantly gentile movement within a few generations after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, I will avoid as much as possible importing anachronistic assumptions shaped by this later development, in particular that the earliest Jesus followers imagined themselves as a "third race" existing alongside Jew and gentile. Instead, by remaining sensitive to the binary between Jew and gentile undergirding the social and soteriological expectations of early Jewish authors such as Paul and John, I will argue that these two authors—the only two we confidently know by name from the whole of the New Testament—maintained differing ethical expectations for Jews and gentiles.
In the first two chapters then, we shall consider the similarities and differences between Paul and John as both wrestled with the theoretical and sociological difficulty of reconciling Israel's pride of place with various prophetic expectations about the eschatological redemption of gentiles. Although both authors similarly endorse what I call salvific hierarchy between Israel and the Nations, their rationales, boundary lines, ethical expectations, and eschatological narratives differ greatly. Much of their conceptual overlap arises because both Paul and John are drawing from and synthesizing many of the same divergent prophetic expectations regarding the salvific status of the gentiles. In this way, each author constructs a composite and "anthologizing" or "allusive" eschatological pastiche concatenating various biblical strands to illustrate and intertextually buttress his own vision for the salvation of gentiles. Both agree, however, that there is a single, predetermined narrative—despite disagreeing about the specifics—and your apparent moral worth is based upon finding and playing your role correctly. There is not a universalizing or one-size-fits-all path toward salvation, but a complex and layered account that assigns different salvations and different ethics to differing groups of people.
Early Christianity Beyond "Orthodoxy" and "Heresy"
Scholarly attempts to explain the wide-ranging diversity of early (ca. second century) Christianity often rely on agonistic metaphors to concretize this amorphous period of competition and debate. One such heuristic metaphor is that of a horse race, in which rival schools or "Christianities" vie for dominance, and one horse—"proto-orthodoxy"—ultimately wins the contest. According to this metaphor, race spectators (historians) observe the diversity of the field and document the relative fitness of each horse (type of Christianity) over the course of the race. This model, however, orients us in such a way that we base our interpretations upon the outcome of the contest—what did proto-orthodoxy do to win, and what did the other contenders (e.g., Marcionites, Valentinians, Sethians, etc.) do to lose? In this way, we infuse proto-orthodoxy's victory with a sense of inevitability, which simultaneously marginalizes the also-rans of early Christianity.
This horse-race metaphor also artificially reifies these competing Christian groups, turning them into "discrete bounded entities that were clearly distinct from one another." Thus, not only should we avoid a teleological perspective that privileges a certain group ("proto-orthodoxy") because it wins our horse race, but we should also question the apparent coherence of these "horses" themselves by highlighting the dynamic and fluid interactions of early Christian figures, groups, practices and ideas. Early Christian authors and groups were not hermetically sealed, but rather, practices, ideas, and texts circulated widely. Many authors who are retrospectively included in the proto-orthodox camp were not in their own context socially or ideologically aligned with one another or unified against other camps; in fact, some figures claimed by later orthodoxy had more in common with their so-called heterodox peers (e.g., Clement of Alexandria and the Valentinians) than they did with each other (e.g., Clement of Alexandria with Ignatius or Irenaeus). So, how do we even begin to describe this dynamic period of competition and growth?
One proposed way forward that has gained a great deal of traction among scholars has been dubbed "identity formation." According to it, we must recognize that social categories previously assumed as static and bounded—such as orthodox and heterodox—are in fact rhetorically created and hotly contested. We should instead concentrate on the discursive strategies—such as producing texts, practicing rituals, and constructing creeds and canons—that enabled ancient persons to devise, maintain, and/or subvert communal boundary lines. Texts, therefore, do not provide unfiltered snapshots of the past, but are instead rhetorically constructed artifacts embedded in contests and debates.
Yet, in compensating for past historiographic errors, we ought not to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction so far as to make it impossible to speak of any ancient groups or communities. While certainly rhetorical, such discursive strategies were contingent upon ancient practices (e.g., rituals of initiation or excommunication, catechetical instruction, the circulation or repression of certain texts, etc.), which in turn affected the social realities and communal life of early Christians. Moreover, we may not know how successful our texts and authors were at forming like-minded communities, but we do know that this was important to them. How, then, should we balance sensitivity to the fragmentary and messy evidence of ancient authors and thinkers—especially when so many bounded categories are misleading—with our role as modern historians committed to reconstructing, as much as possible, the interplay of values and behavior in the daily lives of our objects of study?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, the sorts of questions we want answered should determine how we use these fraught categories. In Chapters 3 and 4, I intentionally set such orienting categories aside to look at higher and lower levels of salvation as a rhetorical strategy among second-century Christian house-churches. In Chapters 5 and 6, I depend upon the category of Valentinian to explore possible causes for evident, internal diversity within this specific early Christian group. I have tailored my approach to the sorts of questions I—as the modern historian—want to pursue.
In the first case then, I will discuss the Apocryphon of John without connecting it to its broader "textual" or religious community, most often referred to as "Sethians." I will study the rhetorical strategies of the Apocryphon of John and the Shepherd of Hermas as individual texts, setting out and enforcing mores and social boundaries in their congregations as they met together in house-churches in urban settings. Despite similarities in imagined audience and social setting, the Apocryphon of John is still most often categorized as belonging to a fundamentally non-Christian social organization (e.g., an "audience cult," reclusive sect, or mystery cult), whereas the Shepherd of Hermas is said to belong to a house-church community. This disparity in social setting is due more to presuppositions arising from the heterodoxy vs. orthodoxy divide than to evidence from the texts themselves. I will conclude instead that the Shepherd of Hermas and Apocryphon of John's shared solution of higher and lower levels of salvation is a centralizing technology meant to address the problem of ethical variance, both within their tight-knit communities and theoretically around the world.
In Chapters 5 and 6, I will take a different approach and situate the Tripartite Tractate, the Excerpts of Theodotus, and Heracleon's Commentary on John among a group of early Christian teachers, preachers, and prophets called "Valentinians." The name "Valentinians" is meant to indicate their alleged dependence upon a poetic and speculative second-century theologian named Valentinus. "Valentinian," therefore, was not a self-designation, but rather an external and polemical label. In fact, much of our information about the beliefs, practices, and social makeup of these early Christians is derived from hostile sources. In addition to these heresiological sources, we have a half dozen Coptic texts from Nag Hammadi that a consensus of scholars categorize as Valentinian.
This state of the sources raises two related methodological questions. First, what makes a text Valentinian? Second, are some texts, such as the Coptic Nag Hammadi ones, more Valentinian than others or somehow more trustworthy? Rather than settling these two questions, I intend to muddy the waters a bit more, by showing the diversity and contingency of views among Valentinian authors. As such, I will examine the social function of their tripartite anthropology, found among both patristic and nonpatristic sources. Thus, I will consider texts often thought to say or mean the same thing, in order to demonstrate the situatedness and strategic use of the language of three natures.
Free Will vs. Determinism
While chastising one of his favorite opponents—the followers of Basilides—for incorrectly "regarding faith as a natural disposition, though also making it a matter of election," Clement of Alexandria also rebuked the Valentinians for similarly alleging that, due to their superior knowledge, they are "saved by nature." According to Clement, however, if faith is predetermined as a natural disposition and not "the right action of a free choice," then there is no basis for salvific reward or condemnation, and thus there can be no ethical responsibility.
In the [case of the Valentinians and Basilideans], faith is no longer the right action of a free choice, [but is instead] a natural superiority; the person without faith is not responsible and will not meet his just consequences; the person with faith is not responsible; the whole essential difference between faith and unfaith could not be a matter of praise or blame if you look at it rightly, being a foreordaining natural necessity determined by a universal power. We are like lifeless puppets controlled by natural forces. It is a predetermined necessity that forces the lack of willing.
In this way, Clement skillfully deployed a stock polemic, namely the argos logos, to claim that the beliefs of his opponents are irreconcilable with basic modes of articulating ethical responsibility, such as praise and blame.
Often marshaled against the Stoics, the argos logos, or lazy argument, was a potent and rhetorically effective critique of so-called deterministic cosmologies. In short, the argos logos grounds ethical responsibility in autonomy and freedom of action and/or choice. If all events and actions are the necessary consequences of a preceding series of causes, then we are nothing more than Clement's "puppets" of fate. Consequently, so the argument goes, it would be absurd to assess predetermined and ineluctable outcomes as either morally praiseworthy or blameworthy. All events that have or will ever happen are simply the result of a preceding and inescapable series of causes; there is no human agency, and thus there is no moral responsibility.
Too often "free will" is treated as the sine qua non of ethics: if I am not free to choose otherwise, how can I be responsible for what I do? Putting aside whether the ability to choose otherwise is a sufficient placeholder for the idea of a free will, this formulation assumes that one mode of assigning praise or blame is the only way. Yet, we hear about heroes who run into danger to save others later respond to questions about their remarkable conduct by claiming that they had no choice: they let their instincts or training take over, or they simply felt compelled do to the right thing. Should we withhold praise, since character and training took over, and their conduct was not the product of a completely autonomous free will? Of course not. What we should do is recognize is that there is more than one framework for talking about responsibility and ethics.
There is an obvious tension between indeterminate freedom, especially the freedom to have chosen otherwise, and teleological narratives. Teleological narratives, like those of the Apostle Paul and John of Patmos, tell certain types of stories that answer specific questions—for example, What is God's plan for the world? How do the saved behave? How do the damned behave? Consequently, what is important for Paul and John is getting the script right and playing the correct role. They are extolling their readers to moral excellence and offering emotional consolation amid suffering; they are not interested in freedom for the sake of freedom, or how things could be otherwise. Their scripts, moreover, and the differing ethical frameworks undergirding them, privilege varying ideas or concepts, and these emphases often reflect the ideological contexts and aims of their authors.
Much of the previous research and discussion about Valentinian ethics and soteriology has been influenced by the heresiological cliché that Valentinians, without the capacity to choose otherwise, were determinists with no sense of moral accountability. As a result, subsequent scholars have debated the veracity of this polemic, disputing whether it was a deliberate mischaracterization or an accurate description. Rather than playing a zero-sum game of right or wrong, I think it more advantageous to consider Valentinians and their opponents as espousing competing and at times incompatible ideologies. In other words, the Valentinians privileged different commitments, and even different rationales, than their opponents. Once we uncover these underlying commitments and rationales, we can better understand the social position and ethical ideals of Valentinians and their opponents.
As we shall see in Chapters 5 and 6, the Excerpts of Theodotus, the Tripartite Tractate, and Heracleon's Commentary on John all distinguished between three types of humanity. Rather than preclude moral praise or blame, however, their tripartite division of humanity was a vital part of their ethics. Their tripartite anthropology privileged certain types of conduct (e.g., missionary work), and the overall linear progression of salvation history over and above other, incompatible ideological commitments (e.g., voluntary choices) held by some opponents of these Valentinians. As we shall see in Chapter 5, both the Valentinians and their heresiological opponents made rational arguments in support of competing ethical frameworks, thereby demonstrating the plurality of ethical frameworks in antiquity.
Furthermore, Chapter 6 shows that differing literary genres (e.g., cosmological or commentarial texts) also affected how these Valentinian texts and authors articulated their ethical and soteriological views. For example, the Tripartite Tractate is a totalizing narrative that begins with protology and concludes with the eschatological reunification of creation; in between it describes every successive benchmark on the linear path of salvation. As such, it is a teleological narrative that claims to show how things will turn out by explaining how they began and vice versa. Because the Tripartite Tractate narrates how things were, are, and will be, it is not interested in freedom for the sake of freedom, or how things could be otherwise. Heracleon, in contrast, wrote a biblical commentary. Because of this difference in genre, Heracleon's views differ from the Excerpts of Theodotus and the Tripartite Tractate in distinctive ways. Thus, once we recognize that there was a multitude of frameworks and genres for writing texts meant to spur readers toward various kinds of ethical conduct, we must also jettison the simple binary of right or wrong, free will or determinism, in how we categorize ancient thinkers and their texts.
The Aesthetics and Ethics of Higher and Lower Levels of Salvation
Robert Frost infamously compared writing in free verse to playing tennis without a net. True poetry, according to Frost, demanded a particular aesthetic that adhered to accepted norms, such as meter and rhyme schemes. As a prominent poet himself, Frost felt empowered to police and even enforce what constituted poetry. While I do not intend to wade into the deep and treacherous waters of poetry and its aesthetics, I find this brief anecdote illuminating for how I think about stories with higher and lower levels of salvation. It was fundamentally an aesthetic choice. The authors I consider in this study—while some were certainly dependent upon others—do not represent a coherent historical movement or tradition. Instead, and drawing out the analogy with Frost, they are a group of writers who employed a soteriological scheme—suited to their own tastes and contexts —that was later suppressed and/or misunderstood by what became orthodox Christianity.
Contrary to polemics later marshaled against them, stories with fixed endings of higher and lower levels of salvation could—paradoxically—provide their authors with the creative freedom to devise practical solutions, tailored to their specific ethical dilemmas. Has God radically transformed salvation history, reneging on his past promises and erasing prior ethical expectations? Is it really practical to expect everyone to be morally perfect? What happens when you fail or come up short at your divine calling? Rather than dismissing them as determinist, particularist, or heretical, we will examine these authors as they deployed malleable metaphors of salvation as a sophisticated and textured answer to these questions. Although this soteriological scheme or aesthetic fell out of favor with many early Christian arbiters of taste, this does not change that—for many ancient Jews and Christians—the afterlife was far more complicated than a simple binary between heaven and hell.