Paul and the veiling of Achamoth
The Gospel of Phillip talks about the mystery of the bridal chamber.
No one can know when the husband and the wife have intercourse with one another, except the two of them. Indeed, marriage in the world is a mystery for those who have taken a wife. If there is a hidden quality to the marriage of defilement, how much more is the undefiled marriage a true mystery! It is not fleshly, but pure. It belongs not to desire, but to the will. It belongs not to the darkness or the night, but to the day and the light. If a marriage is open to the public, it has become prostitution, and the bride plays the harlot not only when she is impregnated by another man, but even if she slips out of her bedroom and is seen. Let her show herself only to her father and her mother, and to the friend of the bridegroom and the sons of the bridegroom. These are permitted to enter every day into the bridal chamber. But let the others yearn just to listen to her voice and to enjoy her ointment, and let them feed from the crumbs that fall from the table, like the dogs. Bridegrooms and brides belong to the bridal chamber. No one shall be able to see the bridegroom with the bride unless he become such a one.
The bridal chamber is where the person, in the form of their ‘perfect self’ and their spirit are combined in the mystic marriage. The female component, the pure and virgin bride, must be kept secret. She is for the eyes of her husband only and for the children of the bridal chamber. Others must not see her or she will be turned into a whore.
Paul talks about the same concept, when he appears to be sermonising about women being veiled in church.
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the husband [or man]; and the head of Christ is God. (1 Corinthians 11)
Paul believes that in the mystic marriage what is male has authority over what is female, and what is female is the glory of what is male. A head of the female part of the hermaphrodite person/spirit couple is her husband the male component. So a woman’s head is her spiritual husband. But the man’s head is not his spirit but the perfect man in the image of the Christ. This relationship between a person and their spirit echoes the relationship between Jesus and Achamoth whereby Jesus has authority over Achamoth. Paul continues:
Every man praying or prophesying, having his head uncovered, honours his head. But every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. (1 Corinthians 11)
The phrase ‘have her head covered’ does not refer to wearing a hat but to wearing a veil. Superficially Paul is giving instructions as to how women should worship. There is nothing in the passage to say that such worship should be in ‘church’ or a community situation – Paul’s instructions would seem to apply equally to a woman in private. Neither does Paul make any suggestion that a woman should be veiled in the Christian community when she is not praying or prophesising. Of course many have interpreted this passage as applying to church but that is because they have a preconception that Paul is addressing the question of decency in communal worship.
In other places Paul makes it clear that his vision of prayer is two fold. A person prays with both his understanding and his spirit. In Romans 8 Paul says ‘for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered’. Later in 1 Corinthians he says ‘I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also’. As to prophesising it is clearly the spirit that is involved. So both prayer and prophesying are times when the person is in a state of union with their spirit. But the union with the spirit is the same as entering the ‘bridal chamber’ and Paul’s instructions do not refer to church but to the bridal chamber.
What does Paul mean when he talks about a woman being shorn? Having the head shorn was a punishment for the adulteress. So when Paul says that a woman who ‘prays or prophesises’ unveiled should be shorn, he means that she is being an adulteress to her husband. The concept is the same as expressed in the Gospel of Phillip. Even by showing her self to other men (who are not themselves children of the bridal chamber) the bride is playing the whore.
So the provision for veiling of the woman is directed at the bride in the bridal chamber. It can be understood at two levels. First a woman who enters the bridal chamber by entering a state of union with her male spirit in a sense becomes Achamoth herself. The veiling of the woman physically is therefore symbolic of the veiling of Achamoth, the bride, as she meets Jesus the bridegroom. So Paul is saying that a woman should be veiled whenever she enters a state of spiritual union whether or not this is in public because at such times she represents Achamoth. But there is second deeper meaning. The bride is also the man’s female spirit. Paul is saying that men should keep this spirit veiled and not expose it to the gaze of others who are not children of the bridal chamber. A woman, on the other hand, whose male spirit is in the image of the Christ, can talk about her spirit freely and openly.
For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, for as much as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. (1 Corinthians 11)
Here Paul is expressing traditional Jewish concepts by regarding the bride of the mystic union as being created for the benefit of the bridegroom. The phrase ‘the woman of the man’ recalls the separation of the male and female in the Garden of Eden. It was this separation which introduced death into the world and which the mystic union of the bridal chamber corrects. The bridegroom, in the image of god himself, shines with the light or glory of the father, while the bride, like the moon reflecting the light of the sun, shines with the reflected light of the bridegroom.
For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. (1 Corinthians 11)
This little phrase causes great problems for the conventional interpreters of Paul. He appears to belief, naively, that an unveiled woman in church would arouse the lust of the angels! But the Gnostics would have understood this differently. The angels are the agents and messengers of Yahweh whom the Gnostics believed was the demiurge. Yahweh thinks he is the ultimate god. But this is not true for he is really the lower god, or demiurge, being the son of Achamoth. Men and women have within them part of Achamoth so that they also, although appearing lowly, are in reality above Yahweh. If the angels of Yahweh were to discover this image of Achamoth within the heart of men then Yahweh, the jealous god, would be enraged. The same does not apply to the Christ, as Yahweh believes, wrongly, that Jesus is his son. It follows that Christians can speak openly about the Christ but must keep the bride, Achamoth, veiled and in secret.
This phrase is one of the indications Paul subscribed to this view that Yahweh was the demiurge. In general Paul regards angels as being malevolent forces. In Romans 8 he lists angels among the things that shall not ‘separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’. In 1 Corinthians 4 he talks about the apostles being ‘made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men’. In 2 Corinthians 11 he says ‘Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light’. In Galatians 1 he warns about false teachings from angels – ‘But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed’. Particularly telling is a phrase in 1 Corinthians 6:
Know you not that we shall judge angels?
Paul clearly believes that man is above the angels, and shall have the right to judge them. In Galatians he talks about the role of angels in bringing the law. In Paul’s view the law was not part of the original promise made to Abraham but was a temporary addition made in response to the transgressions of the Israelites. He says about the law that -
… it was arranged by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. (Galatians 3)
The law was given to Moses by Yahweh and so the mediator is Yahweh. He comes between man and the ultimate god, the father. But god is one, and when a person is united to god through the spirit they are no longer under the rule of the mediator, Yahweh, and his angels.
Paul’s passage on veiling continues;
But neither is a man apart from a woman, nor a woman apart from a man, in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11)
This is an explicit and clear reference to the spiritual union of male and female in the bridal chamber. The phrase ‘in the Lord’ indicates that Paul is speaking spiritually and not about worldly marriage. A person is not apart from their spiritual husband or wife ‘in the Lord’. As Paul advises both men and women not to marry, his expression here is contradictory unless interpreted spiritually.
For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. (1 Corinthians 11)
The psychic will read this as saying that although the woman came form the man in the Garden of Eden, man is born from the woman in the world. But the pneumatic will understand it as an allusion to the female spirit coming into existence though the man and the male spirit, including Jesus himself, coming into existence through the woman. This meaning flows on naturally from the previous phrase.
After this Paul lowers his discourse to the psychic level. He uses an appeal to nature that long hair is comely on a woman but not on a man so a woman should have her head covered. He ends with a straightforward command – “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God”.
The Valentinians understood that this passage referred to the veiling of Achamoth. In Gnostic myth Achamoth initially appears veiled to the Christ, her redeemer, out of modesty. Irenaeus reports that the Valentinians believed –
the coming of the Saviour with His attendants to Achamoth is declared in like manner by him in the same Epistle [by Paul to the Corinthians], when he says, "A woman ought to have a veil upon her head, because of the angels."
Another perspective on this passage in Paul is given by the wedding song sang by the apostle Thomas in the Gnostic work, the Acts of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas). Although the Acts of Thomas is not early itself it includes a number of apparently earlier passages including the wedding song sang at a wedding feast. It relates to the mystery of the bridal chamber and gives a description of the mystic bride.
The damsel is the daughter of light, in whom consisteth and dwelleth the proud brightness of kings, and the sight of her is delightful, she shineth with beauty and cheer. Her garments are like the flowers of spring, and from them a waft of fragrance is borne; and in the crown of her head the king is established which with his immortal food (ambrosia) nourisheth them that are founded upon him; and in her head is set truth, and with her feet she showeth forth joy.
This gives a different meaning to the idea that the female participant of the bridal chamber ought to have ‘power on her head’ – meaning a sign of power or authority. In the wedding song the king himself is established on the crown of her head. The title by which Jesus and early Christians are apparently known, Nazarene, could have been derived from the word for crown or victors wreath. The song seems to be suggesting that the king (Jesus?) is himself the crown.
The end of the song could apply to Mary herself although the twelve could have an astrological significance -
And twelve in number are they that serve before her and are subject unto her, which have their aim and their look toward the bridegroom, that by the sight of him they may be enlightened; and for ever shall they be with her in that eternal joy, and shall be at that marriage whereto the princes are gathered together and shall attend at that banquet whereof the eternal ones are accounted worthy, and shall put on royal raiment and be clad in bright robes; and in joy and exultation shall they both be and shall glorify the Father of all, whose proud light they have received, and are enlightened by the sight of their lord; whose immortal food they have received, that hath no failing, and have drunk of the wine that giveth them neither thirst nor desire. And they have glorified and praised with the living spirit, the Father of truth and the mother of wisdom.
The veiling of Achamoth explains a mystery in the epistles of Paul, in that the female aspect of the deity represented by Achamoth and the female spirit do not play an explicit role. Paul talks about the spirit constantly but he always studiously leaves the sex of the spirit in doubt. The Greek word, pneuma, which he uses is a neuter noun. In none of his writings about the spirit does he imply that it is male. He often calls the spirit ‘the spirit of god’ but this does not mean that the spirit is itself male as the Jews referred to Wisdom in the same terms as ‘the Wisdom of god’.
Christianity emerged from the Jewish Wisdom tradition and Wisdom in the form of Achamoth was central to the early Christian Gnostic cults, not least the prominent Valentinians. The Valentinians themselves traced their descent directly from Paul. To many Gnostics Paul was ‘the apostle’. Given the continuity of the Wisdom tradition from pre-Christian to Christian Gnostics, and the fact that the Gnostics themselves regarded Paul as the source of their school, it is clear that Paul must himself have been a follower of Wisdom. But to Paul, Wisdom was part of the ‘hidden knowledge’ that must be protected both from the un-initiated and from Yahweh himself. The veiling of Achamoth was symbolic of the need to protect the hidden female spirit to safeguard the purity of her beauty. So Wisdom disappears explicitly from Paul’s writings, and so the mainstream church which followed Paul devalued the feminine.
As the church of Peter settled into an orthodoxy which excluded Achamoth, the epistles of Paul were edited to bring them in line with orthodox thinking. Thus Paul is made to say that women should not speak in church in a passage which is almost certainly not genuinely written by Paul. Similarly new epistles were crafted and attributed to Paul, so that Paul could appear to attack the Gnostics who revered him as their apostle. As to what passages were so obviously contrary to orthodox teachings that they had to be edited out of Paul’s writings, that it is impossible to tell.