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The Tripartite Tractate

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Estimated Range of Dating: 200-300 A.D.

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Birger A. Pearson writes, "The Tripartite Tractate is the only completely preserved systematic treatise of Valentinian gnosis that has come down to us. It is a very lengthy treatise of eighty-eight pages--in the Nag Hammadi corpus only Zostrianos (VIII,1) is longer--and presents the entire mythological story of pleromatic origins, divine devolution leading to creation, and ultimate reintegration into the divine Pleroma. The text is divided by scribal decoration in the manuscript into three parts. Since no title is given to this treatise in the manuscript, the first editors called it Tractatus Tripartitus, or in English, Tripartite Tractate. The three main segments correspond to three major acts in the mythological drama. Part I (51,1-104,3) has an account of the primal Father and his aeons. Part II (104,4-108,12) deals with the creation of humanity and Adam's fall. Part III (108,13-138,17) presents the Savior's incarnation and human responses to his coming, culminating in the final restoration." (Ancient Gnosticism, p. 184)

Einar Thomassen writes, "The importance of this tractate is above all that it contains a version of the Valentinian system that is distinctly Valentinian at the same time that it differs on many points from the well-known systems reported by the church fathers. For this reason, it helps us understand better what are the constant and indispensible features of the Valentinian systems and what are the constant and indispensable features of the Valentinian systems and what are individual and local variations. Thus, the system of Tripartite Tractate does not have a Pleroma of thirty aeons and does not list the names of the aeons; its aeons are numberless and nameless. Instead of presenting the Pleroma as being unfolded by means of arithmetical and geometrical derivations, the Tripartite Tractate describes the emanation process in embryological terms as a gradual formation of the Pleroma within the Father that ends in the birth of the aeons as autonomous beings. Further, there are not two Sophias, as in the systems reported by Irenaeus and Hippolytus, but only one. In fact, the fallen aeon is not called Sophia at all, but simply a logos, or word (logos being used as a generic name for the aeons). Finally, there is no 'psychical Christ' in the Tripartite Tractate--the figure that the Savior puts on when he descends into the world and who suffers and is crucified while the Savior himself remains passionless. Instead, the Savior is himself incarnated in a human body, suffers, dies, and is redeemed. These differences between the system of the Tripartite Tractate and those found in the church fathers demonstrate that the latter, far from representing 'the' Valentinian system (as the church fathers claim), are merely local variants of it." (Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pp. 57-58)

Birger A. Pearson writes, "The Tripartite Tractate presents a revisionist version of the Valentinian system. The differences between it and other Valentinian sources have been noted, and these can be accounted for with the suggestion that its author had taken into account ecclesiastical criticisms of Valentinian doctrines and was attempting to make his treatise more compatible with the doctrines of a growing orthodox establishment." (Ancient Gnosticism, p. 187)

Einar Thomassen writes, "The author of the Tripartite Tractate is unknown. Dating the treatise is difficult. On the one hand, the text shows some affinity with Origen (185-254) and his school: the argument from 'Father' to 'Son' (51,12-15); the argument from the oneness of the Father to the only-begotten nature of the Son (57,8-23); the notion of the eternal generation of the Son (56,30-35; 58,7-8); the idea that the end will be like the beginning, that is, a unity (127,23-25; 132-20-23); and the emphasis throughout the text on providence, education, and economy in the salvation process, a perspective that also provides justification for creation and the temporary cosmic existence of humanity. (However, the Tripartite Tractate explicitly rejects another idea often found in Origen and his followers, the concept of a 'substance' of the Father [53,34-35].) If these similarities are significant, a date in the second half of the third century must be assumed. On the other hand, the treatise also contains elements that point toward an early phase of Valentinian theology, like the theory that the aeons initially existed inside the Father as in a womb--a theory also attested for Valentinus himself (Tertullian, Against the Valentinians 4.3) and found in the Gospel of Truth. It is not unlikely that the Tripartite Tractate incorporates materials and ideas from different Valentinian sources, some of which may be significantly older than the treatise itself." (Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pp. 60-61)

The Tripartite Tractate (118,14-122,12) distinguishes between people who are "spiritual" (who instinctively accept the Savior), those who are "psychical" (who can respond positively to the Savior if taught), and those who are "material" (who naturally turn away from the Savior).

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Kirby, Peter. "The Tripartite Tractate." Early Christian Writings. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/tripartite.html>.