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Pistis Sophia

Gnostic writing in Sahidic. Probably a fourth- or fifth-century translation of a Greek original, a product of late Egyptian Gnosticism.* It has been variously ascribed to the Valentinians, the Ophites, and the Barbelo- Gnostics. It purports to be a revelation of esoteric mysteries made known by the risen Christ to the inner circle of disciples, showing how they may attain to the Light-world and escape the present mixed world which is doomed to destruction. The title is derived from the name of the heroine, “Pistis Sophia,” a personification of Philosophy, who is delivered from Authadems (= “self-will” or “arrogance”) by Jesus during His ascension through the spheres and in conflict with the aeons. She is led from Chaos by a Power of Light sent by Jesus. Other unconnected sections are appended, including a Gnostic survey of hierarchies, aeons, and spheres, dialogues between Jesus and the disciples (especially with Mary), and discourses reflecting Gnostic sacramentalism. The work is miscellany of fantastic fragments loosely strung together, taking its name from one of the parts. In its own strange way it shows a real devotion to Christ. It exists in a single manuscript in the British Museum.

PISTIS SOPHIA pĭs’ tĭs sō fī’ ə (πίστις σοφία, meaning uncertain, the words mean faith or faithfulness and wisdom respectively). One of the spirit beings who inhabited the Gnostic world of aeons; also an untitled Gnostic “gospel” in which this spirit is mentioned.

The so-called Pistis Sophia is a work, prob. originaly in Gr., which is found in a 4th-cent. Coptic MS, Codex Askewanus. It has four chapters, the last of which is considered a separate work dating from the first half of that cent., and the first three of which were added half a cent. later. The former section purports to relate Jesus’ teachings upon His resurrection and glorification. The latter section teaches that Jesus remained on earth twelve years after His resurrection and claims to reproduce His teaching during the last of these years and also upon His appearance in brilliant light after He had ascended through the aeons. It is in this section, the first three chapters in the extant work, that the story of Pistis Sophia is related.

This spirit being lived in the thirteenth aeon. After desiring to ascend to the highest place, she “fell” and needed redemption. Jesus tells, in answer to the questions of Mary Magdalene and others, of the means of the restoration of Pistis Sophia, who some think represents mankind.

The “gospel” expresses gnostic theology through such terms as “aeons,” “mysteries,” and the like, and employs some material from Jewish lit., and from the OT and NT, but adapted to its use. The birth of Jesus is alluded to, but not the cross. Some have seen Valentinian influence in it, and it has been compared with the Nag Hammadi texts, but such relationships are uncertain.


G. R. S. Mead, tr. Pistis Sophia (1896 rev. ed. 1921, reprint 1963); G. Horner, trans., Pistis Sophia (1924); O. F. Piper, “Change of Perspective. Gnostic and Canonical Gospels.” INT XVI (1962), 409-413; NTAp I (1963), 250-259.