Exegesis of the Soul
(Text Courtesy of the Gnostic Society Library at wwwdotgnosisdotorg)
Commentary by John Munter
The author of Exeg. Soul used Jewish, Christian, and Greek literature references in an allegorical framework of the virgin female soul coming to earth, becoming polluted with various lovers, repenting, and finally attaining union with her heavenly male counterpart in the Bridal Chamber in making the argument for physical celibacy. It has been noted that the story line follows closely that of the Sophia Mythos.
The cosmopolitan literary references, allegorical methodology, Sophia Mythos framework, and asceticism are suggestive of having been produced possibly in Egypt. However, since the work has an emphasis on the Bridal Chamber sacrament it is much more likely to have been produced around the area of Edessa, Osrhenia where other Bridal Chamber literature like the Gospel of Thomas seems to have emanated from. This was certainly a cosmopolitan area of the Parthian Empire as the presence of the great Bardaisan flourishing in the late second century and early third century testifies.
The piece assumes a Christian audience and is an introductory effort aimed at converting Roman Christian and Valentinian Christian audiences as contact is made between them and Bridal Chamber Christian communities of the East.
A possible time-frame of authorship may be in the early third century as a reaction against the degeneration of esoteric Valentinian theology in the late second century as reflected by the Tripartite Tractate that was an attempt to align with papel viewpoints as well as a reaction to increasing with interface with Roman orthodoxy.
Earlier Bridal Chamber Christianity efforts such as the Joseph and Asenath and the Gospel of Thomas in the late first century, the Gospel of Philip in the early second century, and the Odes of Solomon from probably the mid-second century all were fairly shy and discreet about revealing the secrets of the Bridal Chamber. By the early third century Irenaeus had published his attacks on heresy and the secrets were out. Exegesis of the Soul reads like a Bible study with a number of long quotations in a full scale defense marshaling the Scriptural prophets and apostles and Greek literature in the allegorical method of interpretation in defending the fundamental mythology of the descent of Adam and Eve from the Primal Adam and the need to return to that unity in the Bridal Chamber.
Exeg. Soul could very well have been inspired or modeled after the first century allegorical ‘Joseph and Asenath’ that is a story of a conversion from idol-worshipping through repentance to a holy union with a twin soul in a Bridal Chamber typology. It could have been responded to by the Hymn of the Soul which is a similar allegory with much less sexually charged language written from a male viewpoint rather than the female-oriented Exeg. Soul. Scholars widely suspect the Hymn of the Soul was composed by Bardaisan who had a much more benign view of sexuality since he was married and had several children. His death in 222 CE allowed time for Exegesis of the Soul to have been published early in the third century and responded to by Hymn of the Soul.
The first very interesting insight that Exeg. Soul discusses is that while the womb is internal, ‘the womb of the soul’ is external: “is around the outside (of the body) like the male genitalia, which are external”. It is cleansed through repentance when the person turns inward. (section 131-132) This author is not aware of something like an aura having been discussed in similar early literature.
Exeg. Soul is very explicit in discussing the souls ‘bridegroom’ who “came down to her in the bridal chamber”. She, first, had to “cleanse herself in the bridal chamber: she filled it with perfume”. The bridegroom then came and “decorated the bridal chamber”. Later on “she adorned herself still more so that he might be pleased to stay with her” and “when the soul (had adorned) herself in her beauty”. This ‘adorned’ verbiage shows up elsewhere in the Bridal Chamber literature such as the Gospel of Philip and Tripartite Tractate.
The most shocking climax to the Bridal Chamber discussion and the book itself is the description of the bridegroom as “the firstborn”. The shocking part is that in this book designed as a Bible study for an orthodox Christian audience that it is clear this nomenclature is not applied to Jesus. This ‘firstborn’ is the male part of the soul. Genesis 2:24 is quoted and explained: “For they were originally joined to one another when they were with the Father before the woman led astray the man, who is her brother.”
Exeg. Soul does not reveal or make any reference to any special psychomantium meditation techniques such as using a mirror or dyed water. However, extended periods of meditation seem to be referred to: “she filled it with perfume; she sat in it waiting for the true bridegroom. No longer does she run around the marketplace…she did not know what he looked like” and “Then gradually she recognized him…”
Christ is given lip service early on: “But as to this prostitution the apostles of the savior commanded…” and later in quoting him several times, even in Jn 6:44: “…I myself will raise him up on the last day” but when it comes to giving credit: “when she becomes young again she will ascend, praising the father and her brother, by whom she was saved”. This does not seem to be an oversight from the general context of the book.
Exeg. Soul fits right in with Dialogue of the Savior’s discussion of the merger of two spirits with one soul and Joseph and Asenath’s heavenly marriage, especially, in the Bridal Chamber literature’s focus on the reunification of ‘Adam and Eve’. The secret is completely out-of-the-bag with Exeg. Soul. This is what the popular draw of the Bridal Chamber was all about and why it survived well into the second century despite repression by governments and religions.
Translated by William C. Robinson Jr.
Wise men of old gave the soul a feminine name. Indeed she is female in her nature as well. She even has her womb.
As long as she was alone with the father, she was virgin and in form androgynous. But when she fell down into a body and came to this life, then she fell into the hands of many robbers. And the wanton creatures passed her from one to another and [...] her. Some made use of her by force, while others did so by seducing her with a gift. In short, they defiled her, and she [...] her virginity.
And in her body she prostituted herself and gave herself to one and all, considering each one she was about to embrace to be her husband. When she had given herself to wanton, unfaithful adulterers, so that they might make use of her, then she sighed deeply and repented. But even when she turns her face from those adulterers, she runs to others and they compel her to live with them and render service to them upon their bed, as if they were her masters. Out of shame she no longer dares to leave them, whereas they deceive her for a long time, pretending to be faithful, true husbands, as if they greatly respected her. And after all this they abandon her and go.
She then becomes a poor desolate widow, without help; not even a measure of food was left her from the time of her affliction. For from them she gained nothing except the defilements they gave her while they had sexual intercourse with her. And her offspring by the adulterers are dumb, blind and sickly. They are feebleminded.
But when the father who is above visits her and looks down upon her and sees her sighing - with her sufferings and disgrace - and repenting of the prostitution in which she engaged, and when she begins to call upon his name so that he might help her, [...] all her heart, saying "Save me, my father, for behold I will render an account to thee, for I abandoned my house and fled from my maiden`s quarters. Restore me to thyself again." When he sees her in such a state, then he will count her worthy of his mercy upon her, for many are the afflictions that have come upon her because she abandoned her house.
Now concerning the prostitution on the soul, the Holy Spirit prophesies in many places. For he said in the prophet Jeremiah (3:1-4),
If the husband divorces his wife and she goes and takes another man, can she return to him after that? Has not that woman utterly defiled herself? "And you prostituted yourself to many shepherds and you returned to me!" said the lord. "Take an honest look and see where you prostituted yourself. Were you not sitting in the streets defiling the land with your acts of prostitution and your vices? And you took many shepherds for a stumbling block for yourself. You became shameless with everyone. You did not call on me as kinsman or as father or author of your virginity".
Again it is written in the prophet Hosea (2:2-7),
Come, go to law with your mother, for she is not to be a wife to me nor I a husband to her. I shall remove her prostitution from my presence, and I shall remove her adultery from between her breasts. I shall make her naked as on the day she was born, and I shall make her desolate like a land without water, and I shall make her longingly childless. I shall show her children no pity, for they are children of prostitution, since their mother prostituted herself and put her children to shame. For she said, "I shall prostitute myself to my lovers. It was they who gave me my bread and my water and my garments and my clothes and my wine and my oil and everything I needed." Therefore behold I shall shut them up so that she shall not be able to run after her adulterers. And when she seeks them and does not find them, she will say, 'I shall return to my former husband, in those days I was better off than now."
Again he said in Ezekiel (16:23-26),
It came to pass after much depravity, said the lord, you built yourself a brothel and you made yourself a beautiful place in the streets. And you built yourself brothels on every lane, and you wasted your beauty, and you spread your legs in every alley, and you multiplied your acts of prostitution. You prostituted yourself to the sons of Egypt, those who are your neighbors, men great of flesh.
But what does "the sons of Egypt, men great of flesh" mean, if not the domain of the flesh and the perceptible realm and the affairs of the earth, by which the soul has become defiled here, receiving bread from them, as well as wine, oil, clothing, and the other external nonsense surrounding the body - the things she thinks she needs.
But as to this prostitution, the apostles of the savior commanded (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; 1Th 4:3; 1 Co 6:18; 2 Co 7:1): "Guard yourselves against it, purify yourselves from it," speaking not just of the prostitution of the body but especially that of the soul. For this reason the apostles write to the churches of God, that such prostitution might not occur among us.
Yet the greatest struggle has to do with the prostitution of the soul. From it arises the prostitution of the body as well. Therefore Paul, writing to the Corinthians (1Co 5:9-10), said, "I wrote you in the letter, 'Do not associate with prostitutes,' not at all (meaning) the prostitutes of this world or the greedy or the thieves or the idolaters, since then you would have to go out from the world." - here it is speaking spiritually - "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood - as he said (Ep 6:12) - but against the world rulers of this darkness and the spirits of wickedness."
As long as the soul keeps running about everywhere copulating with whomever she meets and defiling herself, she exists suffering her just deserts. But when she perceives the straits she is in and weeps before the father and repents, then the father will have mercy on her and he will make her womb turn from the external domain and will turn it again inward, so that the soul will regain her proper character. For it is not so with a woman. For the womb of the body is inside the body like the other internal organs, but the womb of the soul is around the outside like the male genitalia which is external.
So when the womb of the soul, by the will of the father, turns itself inward, it is baptized and is immediately cleansed of the external pollution which was pressed upon it, just as garments, when dirty, are put into the water and turned about until their dirt is removed and they become clean. And so the cleansing of the soul is to regain the newness of her former nature and to turn herself back again. That is her baptism.
Then she will begin to rage at herself like a woman in labor, who writhes and rages in the hour of delivery. But since she is female, by herself she is powerless to beget a child. From heaven the father sent her her man, who is her brother, the firstborn. Then the bridegroom came down to the bride. She gave up her former prostitution and cleansed herself of the pollutions of the adulterers, and she was renewed so as to be a bride. She cleansed herself in the bridal chamber; she filled it with perfume; she sat in it waiting for the true bridegroom. No longer does she run about the market place, copulating with whomever she desires, but she continued to wait for him - (saying) "When will he come?" - and to fear him, for she did not know what he looked like: she no longer remembers since the time she fell from her father's house. But by the will of the father <...> And she dreamed of him like a woman in love with a man.
But then the bridegroom, according to the father's will, came down to her into the bridal chamber, which was prepared. And he decorated the bridal chamber.
For since that marriage is not like the carnal marriage, those who are to have intercourse with one another will be satisfied with that intercourse. And as if it were a burden, they leave behind them the annoyance of physical desire and they turn their faces from each other. But this marriage [...]. But once they unite with one another, they become a single life. Wherefore the prophet said (Gn 2:24) concerning the first man and the first woman, "They will become a single flesh." For they were originally joined one to another when they were with the father before the woman led astray the man, who is her brother. This marriage has brought them back together again and the soul has been joined to her true love, her real master, as it is written (cf. Gn 3:16; 1 Co 11;1; Ep 5:23), "For the master of the woman is her husband."
Then gradually she recognized him, and she rejoiced once more, weeping before him as she remembered the disgrace of her former widowhood. And she adorned herself still more so that he might be pleased to stay with her.
And the prophet said in the Psalms (Ps 45:10-11): "Hear, my daughter, and see and incline your ear and forget your people and your father's house, for the king has desired your beauty, for he is your lord."
For he requires her to turn her face from her people and the multitude of her adulterers, in whose midst she once was, to devote herself only to her king, her real lord, and to forget the house of the earthly father, with whom things went badly for her, but to remember her father who is in heaven. Thus also it was said (Gn 12:1) to Abraham: "Come out from your country and your kinsfolk and from your father`s house"
Thus when the soul had adorned herself again in her beauty [...] enjoyed her beloved, and he also loved her. And when she had intercourse with him, she got from him the seed that is the life-giving spirit, so that by him she bears good children and rears them. For this is the great, perfect marvel of birth. And so this marriage is made perfect by the will of the father.
Now it is fitting that the soul regenerates herself and become again as she formerly was. The soul then moves of her own accord. And she received the divine nature from the father for her rejuvenation, so that she might be restored to the place where originally she had been. This is the resurrection that is from the dead. This is the ransom from captivity. This is the upward journey of ascent to heaven. This is the way of ascent to the father. Therefore the prophet said (Ps 103:1-5):
"Praise the lord, O my soul, and, all that is within me, (praise) his holy name. My soul, praise God, who forgave all your sins, who healed all your sicknesses, who ransomed your life from death, who crowned you with mercy, who satisfies your longing with good things. Your youth will be renewed like an eagle's."
Then when she becomes young again, she will ascend, praising the father and her brother, by whom she was rescued. Thus it is by being born again that the soul will be saved. And this is due not to rote phrases or to professional skills or to book learning. Rather it is the grace of the [...], it is the gift of the [...]. For such is this heavenly thing. Therefore the savior cries out (Jn 6:44), "No one can come to me unless my Father draws him and brings him to me; and I myself will raise him up on the last day."
It is therefore fitting to pray to the father and to call on him with all our soul - not externally with the lips, but with the spirit, which is inward, which came forth from the depth - sighing; repenting for the life we lived; confessing our sins; perceiving the empty deception we were in, and the empty zeal; weeping over how we were in darkness and in the wave; mourning for ourselves, that he might have pity on us; hating ourselves for how we are now.
Again the savior said (cf Mt 5:4, Lk 6:12): "Blessed are those who mourn, for it is they who will be pitied; blessed, those who are hungry, for it is they who will be filled."
Again he said (cf. Lk 14:26), "If one does not hate his soul he cannot follow me." For the beginning of salvation is repentance. Therefore (cf. Acts 13:24), "Before Christ`s appearance came John, preaching the baptism of repentance."
And repentance takes place in distress and grief. But the father is good and loves humanity, and he hears the soul that calls upon him and sends it the light of salvation. Therefore he said through the spirit to the prophet (cf. 1 Cl 8:3), "Say to the children of my people, 'If your sins extend from earth to heaven, and if they become red like scarlet and blacker than sackcloth, and if you return to me with all your soul and say to me 'my Father!', I will heed you as a holy people.'"
Again another place (Is 30:15), "Thus says the lord, the holy one of Israel: "If you return and sigh, then you will be saved and will know where you were when you trusted in what is empty."
Again he said in another place (Is 30:19-20), "Jerusalem wept much, saying, 'Have pity on me.' He will have pity on the sound of your weeping. And when he saw, he heeded you. And the lord will give you bread of affliction and water of oppression. From now on, those who deceive will not approach you again. Your eyes will see those who are deceiving you."
Therefore it is fitting to pray to God night and day, spreading out our hands towards him as do people sailing in the middle of the sea: they pray to God with all their heart without hypocrisy. For those who pray hypocritically deceive only themselves. Indeed, it is in order that he might know who is worthy of salvation that God examines the inward parts and searches the bottom of the heart. For no one is worthy of salvation who still loves the place of deception.
Therefore it is written in the poet (Homer, Odyssey 1.48-1.59), "Odysseus sat on the island weeping and grieving and turning his face from the words of Calypso and from her tricks, longing to see his village and smoke coming forth from it. And had he not received help from heaven, he would not have been able to return to his village."
Again Helen <...> saying (Odyssey 4.260-261), "My heart turned itself from me. It is to my house that I want to return."
For she sighed, saying (Odyssey 4.261-4.264), "It is Aphrodite who deceived me and brought me out of my village. My only daughter I left behind me, and my good, understanding, handsome husband."
For when the soul leaves her perfect husband because of the treachery of Aphrodite, who exists here in the act of begetting, then she will suffer harm. But if she sighs and repents, she will be restored to her house.
Certainly Israel would not have been visited in the first place, to be brought out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, if it had not sighed to God and wept for the oppression of its labors.
Again it is written in the Psalms (6:6-9), "I was greatly troubled in my groaning. I will bathe my bed and my cover each night with my tears. I have become old in the midst of all my enemies. Depart from me, all you who work at lawlessness, for behold the lord has heard the cry of my weeping and the lord has heard my prayer."
If we repent, truly God will heed us, he who is long suffering and abundantly merciful, to whom is the glory for ever and ever. Amen!
The Expository Treatise on the Soul
Selection made from James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library, revised edition. HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1990.