The Bridal Chamber

The Gospel of Philip from the Nag Hammadi corpus contains some important passages about a kind of celestial marriage in the “bridal chamber.” It is not uncommon for Latter-day Saints to appeal to this text as evidence for a kind of parallel to Mormon notions of eternal marriage found in ancient Christianity. I hope to show that such a reading of this text is mistaken, and that appeals to the Gospel of Philip to butress Mormon apologetic aims are an example of the problem that much apologetic work faces, that of decontextualizing ancient material to produce systematic misreadings. Rather than an approval of a particular kind of ritual marriage that unites a mortal husband and wife together for eternity, the bridal chamber is best understood as BYU Prof. Gaye Strathern’s dissertation, “The Valentinian Bridal Chamber,” argues, “within the context of an ascetic lifestyle where the body and its passions were renounced in favor of a higher spiritual lifestyle” (i).

Here are some of the key texts:

“Animals do not have a wedding chamber, nor do slaves and defiled women. The wedding chamber is for free men and virgins.” (69,1-4)

“The mystery of marriage is great. [Without] it, the world would [not] exist. The existence of [the world depends on] people, and the existence [of people depends on] marriage. Then think of the power of [pure] intercourse, though its image is defiled. (64,31-65,1)

“If the female had not separated from the male, the female and the male would not have died. The separation of male and female was the beginning of death. Christ came to heal the separation that was from teh beginning and reunite the two, in order to give life to those who died through separation and unite them. A woman is united with her husband in the bridal chamber, and those united in the bridal chamber will not be separated again. That is why Eve became separated from Adam, because she had not united with him in the bridal chamber.” (70,9-22)

The problem with the LDS reading of this passage, as tempting as it may be, is that it overlooks two important elements of the text as a whole. First, the text strongly emphasizes virginity. “Free men and virgins” become metaphors for men who are free from passions and actual virgins. The text also contrasts mortal marriage and procreation with its spiritual counterpart. Second, the text emphasizes androgyny as the key to salvation. The above quoted passages must be read in light of the text’s understanding of “marriage” as a metaphor for spiritual activity such as sexual renunciation, as well as the notion of sexual difference as a post-lapsarian phenomenon.

First, this text sees virginity, not pro-creative marriage, as the norm for righteous behavior. Mortal marriage is offered as an image of this more divine counterpart. “No [one can] know when [a husband] and a wife have sex except those two, for marriage in this world is a mystery for those married. If defiled marriage is hidden, how much more is undefiled marriage a true mystery! It is not fleshly, but pure.” (83,34-84,7) This latter kind of marriage which takes place in the bridal chamber is even more secret. It is analogous to the sexual relationship in a “defiled” marriage, but contrasted with such a marriage because there is no sexual relationship at all. This kind of intimacy between the believer and the divine is a true mystery.

Second, the text sees the “separation” of Adam and Eve, a play on the Genesis narrative’s description of Eve being taken from Adam’s rib or “side”, as the cause of death, as the above quotation shows (70,9-12) This view is repeated elsewhere: “When Eve was in Adam, there was no death. When she was separated from him, death came. [unemded version follows:] If he again becomes complete and attains his former self, death will cease to be.” (68,22-26) Christ has come to restore humanity to its primal, androgynous state, as in 70,12-17. The whole idea of sexual relationships, like those in mortal marriage, is obviated when the human being is restored to his or her complete, androgynous self in the bridal chamber ritual. Elsewhere, the author explains:

“Unclean spirits are male and female in form. Males have sex with the souls that are female in form, and females cavort promiscuously with souls that are male in form. Souls cannot escape them if the spirits seize them, unless they receive the male or female power of the bridegroom and the bride. These are received from the mirrored bridal chamber….When they see a husband and a wife together, the females cannot make advances on the man and the males cannot make advances on the woman. So also if the image and the angel are joined, none can dare to make advances on the male or the female.” (65,1-26)

Here, the author offers temporal marriage as an analogy to the protection given by the marriage that occurs in the bridal chamber. In this marriage, the “image” of the human being is joined to an angel. This prevents the male and female “unclean spirits” from attaching to the soul of the person. When the image is joined to the angel, the person is complete and androgynous, no longer divided and thus no longer susceptible to temptation or violation.

I should offer a final note on the ritual of the bridal chamber, which was a cause of great speculation among the heresiologists in antiquity who accused its practitioners of vile sex rites. Unfortunately, we don’t have reliable evidence for what it consisted of. Strathern’s dissertation, mentioned above, attempts to read this in light of the hieros gamos and temple traditions, to my view with limited success, both because we lack consistent and reliable descriptions of the ritual, as well as the temporal disjunction between the period she is describing and the period she is trying to connect it to.

21 Replies to “The Bridal Chamber”

  1. Very interesting. You know that I rely on FPR to disabuse me of these false apologetics before I am ever exposed to them.

    While the text if wrong (from an LDS view) as you point out, I nevertheless was interested in the concept of mortality being a separation of male and female and eternal life a reunion of the two. There’s something worth considering there, I think.

    1. How can he disabuse you of such “apologetics?” His explanation, in view of the actual cited text, is utterly nonsensical. While the Nag Hammadi is indeed loaded with androgyny, the cited passage clearly is NOT. Your “yeah, yeah,” cheerleading of a non sequitur does not help with the investigation. Mormons are not stating that the Nag Hammadi text is scripture, but they are pointing out the the bridal chamber and the fact that marriage was considered essential for the very purpose of the earth’s creation, are NOT themselves a modern creation of Joseph Smith. They believe that these same notions were held by the first century Church, and the Nag Hammadi merely points to the fact that such might (but not necessarily) have been the case.

  2. So, how does this relate to the Da Vinci Code, at least the book version? Sex as ultimate homage to the divine?

    I’m actually serious – that’s is what I thought of when reading this post.

  3. TT, while I agree with the problems you note I’d just say that the issue for an apologist using the Gospel of Philip is less the content than the examples used by the author to explicate more platonic conceptions as found within a gnostic context. That is why use the example of a mirrored bridal chamber within the temple off from the Holy of Holies? Of course that would be of interest to a Mormon.

    Likewise the relationship of Jesus and Mary can’t help but be of interest especially given other texts. While one can’t neglect the other traditions that intersected and developed Christian gnosticism (leaving the Jewish element alone for now) one has to ask whether all the examples of a Mary/Jesus marriage in early Christianity is of interest. Yes much of this is tied to particular gnostic views especially the traditions of sexuality being promoted due to the flesh being unimportant. But why Mary and why in this fashion?

    So while I agree with you I think there is also a “let’s not miss the forest for the trees.”

    As to the Adam and Eve business I think you’d have a point save it were for non-gnostic Jewish traditions that have Adam and Eve as originally one and then divided. Now of course the way this is treated in gnosticism of various sorts is slightly different. Then there’s the old debate about what affected what (Christian gnosticism vs. Jewish mysticism)

    Now certainly even Jewish mystics tend to read all this in what we must consider a much more Platonic fashion. Allegory had become a dominant position of exegesis especially after the rise of the Stoic approach to reading Greek myths. But I think it fair for a more materialistic and less mystic oriented Mormon encountering all this to ask what traditions and rituals were there independent of the particular interpretation of ritual in a particular community.

    Is it proof? Of course not. But no apologist would put it forth as proof. Rather though if some version of the endowment was ancient and marriage was an eternal principle then we ought expect examples anciently. While these don’t confirm the endowment in the least they at least provide some evidence that the claim of an ancient endowment is plausible.

    Further, vis a vis the Gospel of Philip, I think the claim that there were rituals within gnosticism is very plausible. Ditto the idea of signs and tokens given texts like Jeu.

  4. To add, the whole issue of sacred marriage is problematic given the late source for most texts. However one must acknowledge that not all the texts, especially in the Jewish traditions, are gnostic let alone mystic.

  5. Hi Clark,
    I finally got around to this post I promised you a long time ago!
    You ask a set of rhetorical questions:
    why use the example of a mirrored bridal chamber within the temple off from the Holy of Holies?

    I would say that this notion that the “mirrored” bridal chamber is “within the temple off from the Holy of Holies” is a misreading. Actually, it says that baptism is the holy place, the holy of holy is redemption, and the bridal chamber is the holy of holies. This is clearly a symbolic hierarchy, which sees the temple as in some way prefiguring them. In fact, the connection of the union between the believer and the divine in this final ritual is closely connected to a notion of what the holy of holies was. Why do we ask about the bridal chamber comparison here, and not the baptism comparison? This is an arbitrary choice.
    The difference with LDS belief is that the bridal chamber is not the holy of holies at all (nor is baptism the holy place, etc). The comparison is made because in the bridal chamber ritual described here the believer is bound directly to the divine realm, not another person.

    But why Mary and why in this fashion?

    I am not sure what you see as the answer to this quesiton. In a text that clearly eschews marriage, and is working in a symbolic context, I am not sure that we can assume any historical reality behind this discussion.

    You suggest an answer to your questions.

    But I think it fair for a more materialistic and less mystic oriented Mormon encountering all this to ask what traditions and rituals were there independent of the particular interpretation of ritual in a particular community.

    If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that despite the fact that this text’s understanding of the “bridal chamber” is not a match at all to LDS views, that perhaps it is a ritual performed by other groups differently from the one we read about.

    While this is certainly not outside the realm of possibility, we are certainly in no better place than we were without this text. Of course, we could imagine that there is some group out there for which we have no evidence that was practicing eternal marriage as we know it. While that may be the case, we have no more or less evidence for it after reading this text. No other texts corroborate this theory of some other group (in fact, over the dozen or so mentions of the bridal chamber in ancient texts none of them come close to the LDS notion). In the end, it is just a hypthesis without any evidence for it.

    If two people getting married for eternity is in some way similar to a single person renouncing sex in order to marry the divine, I think we need to rethink our standard for interesting comparisons. We can’t cherry pick things that seem to echo our own belief, that only echo our own belief if they are removed from their context.

  6. BrianJ, glad you enjoy it! I agree that there is something very useful in the notion of a primal andogyny. This sort of gender bending could solve a lot of LDS theological problems.
    FHL, I think that the symbolism of sex is used in this text to describe the divine/human relationship. However, the text seems to advocate sexual renunciation. Interesting, eh?

  7. OK, I have to confess it’s been years since I last read The Gospel of Philip. So I wanted to reread it before saying too much (since clearly my memory isn’t as good as it ought be) So you’re right about equating the Holy of Holies and the Bridal Chamber. Bad memory.

    Certainly there is a progression although that’s a bit of an odd thing to say to a Mormon for whom it’s also a progression.

    For the rest, rereading it brought back to mind just how Platonic it is. And lots of parallels to Jewish mysticism and pagan mysiticism. (Unsurprisingly) Contextwise this clearly is tied to a mystic ascent (if only conceptually and not necessary as describing a mystic ascent.

    I guess, getting back to my point, the point is why use the symbols they did?

  8. Clark,
    I guess I am not entirely sure what you think the answer to your question is. I have plenty of answers to this, and in none of my answers is appealing to some otherwise unknown group who practiced LDS-style rituals necessary to explain why this group is practicing rituals that are nothing like LDS-style ones. What is the point that you see in these symbols?

  9. TT,

    Do you read Coptic and if not, whose translation are you working with here? If Strathearn’s then I assume it is heavily influenced by Robinson–not an altogether uncontroversial player in this field but whose NH edition is by far the most available and probably most read by the average Mormon dilettante.

  10. bystander,
    I am working with Meyer’s updated translation in his new edition of the Nag Hammadi scriptures. I don’t recall what Strathearn’s use of translation, but I’d be surprised if she weren’t required to produce her own for the purposes of her dissertation.
    I’d be happy to discuss the translation of any particular passage.

    Now, I have to come with my tail between my legs here. While anyone who reads GPhil knows that it is incredibly complex, I’m afraid that I have oversimplified the interpretive range that scholars have given it. In a conversation today with someone who is in the know, I was told that there are three different interpretations about sex and the bridal chamber: 1) the view that I have expressed here, that the individual marries an angel or the divine in sexual renunciation; 2) that sex actually occurs in the ritual of the bridal chamber (this was teh accusation of the heresiologists, and may be true); 3) the issue of whether or not sex is permissible is simply irrelevant to the life of the initiant, because this is a spiritual union.
    I am not sure that this changes my overall point, since none of these options aligns with LDS views, but I felt to need to point out the complexity of this text.

  11. Bystander, I’ve read both translations and yes, one definitely reads in a fashion more likely to appropriated by an apologist. I think this is a big problem.

    TT, I want to be more careful and say things correctly. So I’m working on a post on this. If it’s not clear, I agree with a lot if not most of what you say. I just think there is a good Mormon apologetic use of the texts. Before defending it though I want to review both translations and then the main apologetic uses. I’m just going by memory too much here and that’s dangerous.

  12. deconick has several recent articles on this, 2001 (a version of which strathearn cites), 2003, and 2008. although her interpretation could be seen to combine elements of 1 and 2, it does not really fit any of the three. summaries and bibliographic info at:

    strathearn herself appears not to be arguing no.1 exclusively. what she writes in her abstract is:

    “although some may have interpreted it as license for unrestricted sexual behavior, the bridal chamber was most often [n.b. the qualification] understood within the context of an ascetic lifestyle where . . . .”

  13. Thanks g.wesley for the added bibliography. The first three views were advanced by Williams, Pearson (this one my memory could be failing), and Pagels.

    My reading of the quote that you provide of Strathern is that she acknowledges that some people suggest that the bridal chamber was about sex (this was after all the ancient polemicists view), but that she disagrees with this reading. I for one don’t trust the ancient heresiologists much at all, especially not about inflamatory accusations that the Gnostics were participating in sex rites, but it is clear that some people take this accusation seriously.

  14. tt,

    deconick gives a rundown of who advanced what view when (including williams’ and pagels’ vacillations) in the opening of her 2003 article. it is unfortunate and somewhat perplexing that strathearn does not mention this 40 page treatment in her dissertation of the following year.

    i am also skeptical of the heresiological claims of outright debauchery, as i think most everyone in the field is. but i think you’ll find the situation with many of the valentinian reports–especially from clement of alexandria, who actually lauds the valentinian view of marriage–to be different from, say, the carpocratian reports. to argue that the valentinians practiced monogamy for the purpose of procreation is not to buy into proto-orthodox rhetoric.

    deconick’s view is, in brief, that the valentinians understood marriage and sex to be sacrosanct, if and only if practiced according to ‘will’ and not ‘desire.’ otherwise, they are deplorable, and the children resulting therefrom are defective like sophia’s abortion.

    the ascetic/libertine dichotomy is a false one, would you not agree?

  15. So, years later, I’m gonna jump in on this one. I’ve just recently been learning about some of these Nag Hammadi texts, and was very surprised at some of what I found–particularly in the Gospel of Philip, and the Apocalypse of Paul–so far. I wanted to hear some other opinions on these things, because I’m no expert–just a dental student actually.

    I just wanted to say that it seems okay to me to use this stuff in LDS apologetics to some degree at least. My main reason for thinking this is that I don’t think our ceremonies have to match up perfectly with those described in the ancient texts to be significant, because by the time the text was written, it seems likely to me that what could have been the original ceremonies and even the purposes behind them had been hugely corrupted. I’d actually be surprised if they did match up perfectly, given how quickly what I consider the original Christian doctrines became corrupted by people both inside, and outside the Universal Church. I don’t read it and think, man, this matches up perfectly. I read it and think, wow, there were some striking resemblances to Mormon doctrines and ceremonies in early Christianity–even if they had been corrupted and changed already so as to not match up perfectly.

    I’d love your thoughts on this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *