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Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora

One of the most famous Christian Gnostics of the second century was Ptolemy, a renowned teacher who lived and taught in Rome. From Ptolemy’s own hand comes one of the clearest expositions of Gnostic ideas, in a letter addressed to a woman named Flora, a non-Gnostic Christian whom Ptolemy is concerned to educate into the higher realms of knowledge. The letter is just the beginning of Ptolemy’s instruction, but it concerns a central com­ ponent of his Gnostic views, his understanding of the Bible.1 Regrettably, his subsequent lessons have been lost. The proper interpretation of the Bible, Ptolemy avers, depends on understanding the nature of its divine inspiration. Those who maintain that it was authored by the Perfect God and Father (e.g., the “proto-orthodox” Christians) err, because a perfect being could not inspire laws that are imperfect. Yet those who claim that it was written by God’s adversary, the Devil (e.g., other groups of Gnostics?) also err, because an evil deity could not inspire laws that are just. Instead, there is a god intermediate between these two, the just but imperfect and harsh god who created the world; it was he who inspired parts of the Bible. Other parts, however, derive from Moses himself, and yet others from the elders around him. Those that are from the intermediate god can themselves be divided into three parts, those that Jesus fulfilled (e.g., the Ten Commandments), those that he abolished (e.g., “an eye for an eye”), and those that he has symbolically transformed (e.g., ceremonial laws). Ptolemy explicitly bases his views on the teachings of Paul and, especially, Jesus himself. This letter has not been transmitted independently and was not present among the Nag Hammadi writings, but can be found only in quotations in the writings of the fourth-century heresy hunter Epiphanius (Book 33 of The Medicine Chest).

1

See further, Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 129–31.

Translation by Bentley Layton, Gnostic Scriptures: Ancient Wisdom for the New Age (New York: Doubleday, 1987) 308–15; used with permission.

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