Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ask April: The Gnostics and the Name

Mac asked:
Valentinian theology sources (some) describe the "Elect" as possessing the "Name". It seems this notion of possessing the "Name" comes from the Book of Revelation where it is said to be written on their foreheads (Revelation 14:1 cf. also 22:4)?

And now my question(s)...... What does possessing the "Name" mean in Gnostic tradition..... and does this particular Gnostic notion have a following in our time?
Indeed the Gnostics in general (that is various Gnostic groups) were concerned about possessing the Name. This wasn't because of Revelation exegesis though. In fact, Revelation displays an interest in this same phenomenon, as do many other Christian sources. Name possession was part of Christian ritual.

The Name that the Christians were wanting to possess is the Name of God, the divine unutterable Name, usually written as the tetragrammaton YHWH. The Christians understood that Jesus possessed this Name, that it was given to him when he was exalted to heaven. It is this Name that they are baptised into and likely it is this Name they are writing on their heads when they were anointing their converts with oil.

The Name was powerful. It did more than identify them as God's. Possessing the Name meant that they possessed the power of the Named, and were transformed by that power. It transfigured their souls. In addition, possession of the Name guaranteed them entry into God's realm at death. It is the password that let them into heaven. Think of it like the ticket you need to get into the VIP box at a sport's game. If you have the ticket, you can pass into the box. Otherwise you are turned away.

The Gnostics made the Name their trade secret so that different groups claimed that they knew the "real" Name of God and its pronunciation. If you joined the lodge, they would teach it to you. The Ophians used Kaukalkau. The Valentinians used IAO. Marcus the Valentinian used Jesus Christ, although he claimed that the name had a secret aeonic pronunciation known only to the aeons and revealed to him in a vision. The conventional Christians used a formula like "in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Or some used "Jesus Christ." Although the conventional Christians understood this to be the YHWH Name given to Jesus.

This is still practiced in conventional Christianity. After water baptism, the convert is anointed with oil in the Name. As for what modern gnostic groups do or don't do ritually, I haven't a clue.


Jordan Stratford+ said...

"As for what modern gnostic groups do or don't do ritually, I haven't a clue."

As a general rule, we use IAO at the time of Baptism. Different churches vary, but this seems to be an established norm.

Jim Deardorff said...


Why was YHWH more preferred (if it was) to use as the Name than Elohim or El?

Pastor Bob said...

Not all churches anoint with oil at baptism. I know this is a Roman Catholic practice and also Episcopalian. The Eastern Orthodox may as well. Most Protestants do not.

Roadscholar said...

Jim, in general, YHWH or Elohim was used as the name of God by the two main traditions (Yawistic and Priestly) that were combined to make the older parts of the Old Testament. Each of these traditions, according to many scholars, used their preferred name for God.

As for the power of “the Name,” it seems that because Hebrew was the language of God, and because God created everything by speaking Hebrew words, Hebrew was seen to be endowed with power over the creation, and each letter in the Hebrew alphabet had its own particular meaning, power, and characteristic. Thus, the belief was that knowing Hebrew down to not only the level of sentence-meaning and word-meaning, but down to the level of letter-meaning (where, say, a four letter word actually contains the equivalent information of a four word sentence) would allow you to manipulate the physical, created universe and in effect perform miracles or “magic.” The Name of God, then, being a four-letter-sentence-combination of particular force, would provide you with perfect Gnosis of the created world and power over it. While these ideas were brought forward more openly by later Kabbalists and western magicians, I think it is quite obvious in the Prophets, in the gospels, and in the Gnostic writings that these ideas were in play very early on.

The ultimate fulfillment of this idea in the NT (that the man who achieves wisdom/Gnosis will be given to understand the mysteries of the Name) is exhibited in Revelation with the statement “To him who overcomes, I will give . . . a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it,” (Rev 2:17) and the words of Jesus (although they’ve been corrupted here and combined with another idea) “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? . . . Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do [or perform] what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father [the Name] is in me, and I in the Father [the Name].” -- John 10:34-39

So the ultimate purpose and fulfillment of Jesus’ message is that each of us can become (by belief, according to Pauline Christianity, by deeds according to Jamesian, or by Knowledge according to the Gnostics) not only like (our Father) Jesus, but like his Father, God, each of us (as a child of Jesus) having our own individual Names, so that, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.” (Luke 22:29-30) You know, be equal in stature with him, each with our own kingdom, and, being invited guests, drop by his kingdom for a wedding feast.

Steven Carr said...

The Christians understood that Jesus possessed this Name, that it was given to him when he was exalted to heaven.

Paul is extremely clear about this.

So clear that everybody ignores it.

Philippians 2

9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

Which name is above every name and is the name that was given by God when he exalted him?

Paul answers the question in the very next line.

When God exalted him to the highest place, God bestowed the name 'Jesus' upon him.

But, of course, that is the one thing Paul is not allowed to say, so this is ignored, even though Paul makes it as clear as he can.

Ian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian said...

But in Revelation 19:12, Jesus comes to Earth with "a name which no one knows." So, it is worth asking whether "the Name of Jesus" in the Paul quote should be understood as simply saying "the name 'Jesus'" is above every other name, or that "the [secret] name that Jesus received" is the one which is above all others.

It is also worth noting that The Name was almost never spoken (although the 1st c. Roman religious historian Varro knew it ... somehow). Instead, "Adonai" was and still is substituted for the tetragrammaton in recitation of the Torah. In the Septuagint, YHWH is thus translated "Kyrios."

That Jesus is thought of as possessing the Name is I think implied both by the fact that Paul gives Jesus the title "Kyrios" (as when Paul says things like "this is not my teaching, but the Lord's"), and the fact that the Didache community baptized "in the name of the Lord."

Steven Carr said...

Is Ian saying that Paul believed Jesus was given God's secret Name which could never be spoken?

In the next line, Paul has people use the name. The name was Jesus Christ.

It seems pretty clear that God gave him the name Jesus when he was exalted.

It is, after all, what the passage says.

Although some might read more into it.

Ian said...


In the next line (Philippians 2.11), every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is "LORD" (YHWH?).

Steven Carr said...

Yes, but that is the next line.

Nor is 'Lord' ever described as a name.

The only name which is described as a name is the name of Jesus.

And this reference is made immediately after Paul says God gave him a name.

It is not terribly significant that Paul does not say God gave Jesus the name above all other names.

But it does support to a small extent the claim that Jesus was the name given to him.

And I can't find anywhere where Paul says Jesus was given the *name* of Lord.