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.
“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.