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The Earlier Gnostics Gnosticism

Gnosticism is a generic name for a vast number of syncretistic religious
systems prevalent, especially in the East, both before and after the
Christian era. For the most part the movement was outside of Christianity,
and was already dying out when Christianity appeared. It derived its
essential features from Persian and Babylonian sources and was markedly
dualistic. As it spread toward the West, it adopted many Western elements,
making use of Christian ideas and terms and Greek philosophical concepts.
Modified by such new matter, it obtained a renewed lease of life. In
proportion as the various schools of Gnosticism became more influenced by
Christian elements, they were more easily confused with Christianity, and
accordingly more dangerous to it. Among such were the greater schools of
Basilides and Valentinus (see next section). The doctrines of Gnosticism
were held by many who were nominally within the Church. The tendency of
the Gnostics and their adherents was to form little coteries and to keep
much of their teaching secret from those who were attracted by their more
popular tenets. The esoteric element seems to have been the so-called
"systems" in which the fanciful and mythological element in Gnosticism
appears. This, as being the most vulnerable part of the Gnostic teaching,
was attacked most bitterly by the opponents of heresy. There are no extant
writings of the earlier Gnostics, Simon, Menander, or Cerinthus. They are
known only from Christian opponents.

Sources for the history of Gnosticism: The leading sources are the Church
Fathers Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria (all
translated in ANF), Origen (in part only translated in ANF), and
Epiphanius. The accounts of these bitter enemies must necessarily be used
with caution. They contain, however, numerous fragments from Gnostic
writings. The fragments in the ante-Nicene Fathers may be found in A.
Hilgenfeld, op. cit., in Greek, with commentary. For the literary
remains of Gnosticism, see Krueger, 22-31. The more accessible are:
Acts of Thomas (best Greek text by Bonnet, Leipsic, 1903, German
translation with excellent commentary in E. Hennecke, Neutestamentliche
Apokryphen, Tuebingen and Leipsic, 1904); Ptolemaeus, Epistle to Flora
(in Epiphanius, Panarion, Haer. XXXIII); Hymn of the Soul, from the
Acts of Thomas (text and English translation by Bevan in Text and
Studies, V, 3, Cambridge, 1897, also translated in F. C. Burkitt, Early
Eastern Christianity, N. Y., 1904).

(a) Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum, 7. (MSL, 2:21.)

A wide-spread opinion that Gnosticism was fundamentally a
perversion of Christianity finds its most striking expression in
the phrase of Harnack that it was "the acute secularizing or
Hellenizing of Christianity" (History of Dogma, English
translation, I, 226). The foundation for this representation is
the later Gnosticism, which took over many Christian and Greek
elements, and the opinion of Tertullian that Gnosticism and Greek
philosophy discussed the same questions and held the same
opinions. (Cf. the thesis of Hippolytus in his Philosophumena,
or the Refutation of All Heresies; see the Proemium, ANF, V, 9
f., and especially bk. VII.) Tertullian, although retaining
unconsciously the impress of his former Stoicism, was violently
opposed to philosophy, and in his denunciation of heresy felt that
it was a powerful argument against the Gnostics to show
similarities between their teaching and the Greek philosophy he so
heartily detested. It is a brilliant work and may be taken as a
fair specimen of Tertullian's style.

These are the doctrines of men and of demons born of the spirit of this
world's wisdom, for itching ears; and the Lord, calling this foolishness,
chose the foolish things of this world to the confusion of philosophy
itself. For philosophy is the material of the world's wisdom, the rash
interpreter of the nature and dispensation of God. Indeed, heresies
themselves are instigated by philosophy. From this source came the eons,
and I know not what infinite forms, and the trinity of man in the system
of Valentinus; he was of Plato's school. From this source came Marcion's
better god with all his tranquillity; he came of the Stoics. Then again
the opinion that the soul dies is held by the Epicureans. The denial of
the resurrection of the body is taken from the united schools of all
philosophers. When matter is made equal to God, you have the teaching of
Zeno; and when anything is alleged touching a fiery god, then Heraclitus
comes in. The same subject-matter is discussed over and over again by the
heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence and
wherefore is evil? Whence and how has come man? Besides these there is the
question which Valentinus has very recently proposed, Whence comes God?

(b) Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, 23. (MSG, 7:670.)

Simon Magus. For additional source material, see Justin Martyr,
Apol. I, 26, 56, Dial. c. Tryph., 120; Hippolytus, Ref. VI,
72 f. The appearance of Simon in the pseudo-Clementine
literature (translated in ANF, VIII), presents an interesting
historical problem. The present condition of investigation is
given in the article "Clementine Literature" by J. V. Bartlett, in
Encyc. Brit., eleventh ed.

Simon the Samaritan, that magician of whom Luke, the disciple and follower
of the Apostles, says: "But there was a certain man, Simon by name," etc.
[Acts 8:9-11, 20, 21, 23.] Since he did not put his faith in God a whit
more, he set himself eagerly to contend against the Apostles, in order
that he himself might seem to be a wonderful being, and studied with still
greater zeal the whole range of magic art, that he might the better
bewilder the multitude of men. Such was his procedure in the reign of
Claudius Caesar, by whom also he is said to have been honored with a statue
on account of his magic. This man, then, was glorified by many as a god,
and he taught that it was he himself who appeared among the Jews as the
Son, but descended in Samaria as the Father, while he came to other
nations in the character of the Holy Spirit. He represented himself as the
loftiest of all powers, that it is he who is over all as the Father, and
he allowed himself to be called whatsoever men might name him.

Now this Simon of Samaria, from whom all heresies derive their origin, has
as the material for his sect the following: Having redeemed from slavery
at Tyre, a city of Phoenicia, a certain woman named Helena,(38) a
prostitute, he was in the habit of carrying her about with him, declaring
that she was the first conception [Ennoea] of his mind, the mother of
all, by whom he conceived in his mind to make the angels and archangels.
For this Ennoea, leaping forth from him and comprehending the will of her
father, descended to the lower regions and generated angels and powers, by
whom, also, he declared this world was made. But after she had generated
them she was detained by them through jealousy, because they were
unwilling that they should be regarded as the progeny of any other being.
As to himself, he was wholly unknown to them, but his Ennoea was detained
by those powers and angels who had been produced by her. She suffered all
kinds of contumely from them, so that she could not return upward to her
father, but was even shut up in a human body and for ages passed in
succession from one female body to another, as from one vessel to another
vessel. She was in that Helen on whose account the Trojan War was
undertaken; wherefore also Stesichorus was struck blind, because he cursed
her in his poems; but afterward, when he had repented and written those
verses which are called palinodes, in which he sung her praises, he saw
once more. Thus passing from body to body and suffering insults in every
one of them, she at last became a common prostitute; and she it is who was
the lost sheep.

For this purpose he himself had come, that he might win her first and free
her from chains, and confer salvation upon men by making himself known to
them. For since the angels ruled the world poorly, because each one of
them coveted the principal power, he had come to mend matters and had
descended, been transfigured and assimilated to powers and angels, so that
he might appear among men as man, although he was not a man; and that he
was supposed to have suffered in Judea, although he had not suffered.
Moreover, the prophets inspired by the angels, who were the makers of the
world, pronounced their prophecies; for which reason those who place their
trust in him and Helena no longer regard them, but are free to do what
they will; for men are saved according to his grace, and not according to
their righteous works. For deeds are not righteous in the nature of
things, but by mere accident and just as those angels who made the world
have determined, seeking by such precepts to bring men into bondage. On
this account he promised that the world should be dissolved and that those
who are his should be freed from the rule of them who made the world.

Thus, then, the mystic priests belonging to this sect both live
profligately and practise magical arts, each one to the extent of his
ability. They use exorcisms and incantations, love-potions, also, and
charms, as well as those beings who are called "familiars" [paredri] and
"dream senders" [oniropompi], and whatever other curious arts can be had
are eagerly pressed into their service.

(c) Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, 23. (MSG, 7:673.)

The system of Menander. Cf. also Eusebius. Hist. Ec., III, 26.

The successor of Simon Magus was Menander, a Samaritan by birth, who also
became a perfect adept in magic. He affirms that the first power is
unknown to all, but that he himself is the person who has been sent forth
by the invisible beings as a saviour for the salvation of men. The world
was made by angels, who, as he also, like Simon, says, were produced by
the Ennoea, He gives also, as he affirms, by means of the magic which he
teaches knowledge, so that one may overcome those angels that made the
world. For his disciples obtain the resurrection by the fact that they are
baptized into him, and they can die no more, but remain immortal without
ever growing old.

(d) Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, 26. (MSG, 7:686.)

The system of Cerinthus. For additional source material, see
Irenaeus, III, 3, 4; Hippolytus, Ref. VII, 33; X, 21; Eusebius,
Hist. Ec., III, 28.

Cerinthus, again, taught in Asia that the world was not made by the
supreme God, but by a power separated and distant from that Ruler
[principalitate] who is over the universe, and ignorant of the God who
is above all. He represented Jesus as not having been born of a virgin,
for this seemed impossible to him, but as having been the son of Joseph
and Mary in the same way that all other men are sons, only he was more
righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. After his baptism Christ
descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler; and that
then he proclaimed the unknown Father and performed miracles. But at last
Christ departed from Jesus, and then Jesus suffered and rose again, but
Christ remained impassable, since He was a spiritual being.

Next: The Greater Gnostic Systems Bas

Previous: The Internal Crisis The Gnostic

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