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The Greater Gnostic Systems Bas

The Gnostic systems having most influence within the Church and effect
upon its development were those of Basilides and Valentinus. Of these
teachers and their followers we have not only the accounts of those
opponents who attacked principally their esoteric and most
characteristically Gnostic tenets, but also fragments and other remains
which give a more favorable impression of the religious and moral value of
the great schools of Gnosticism. In their "systems" of vast theogonies and
cosmologies, in their wild mythological treatment of the most abstract
conceptions and their dualism, the Church writers naturally saw at once
their most vulnerable and most dangerous element.

A. The School of Basilides

The school of Basilides marks the beginning of the distinctively
Hellenistic stadium of Gnosticism. Basilides, its founder, apparently
worked first in the East; circa 120-130 he was at Alexandria. He was the
first important Gnostic writer. Of his Gospel, Commentary on that Gospel
in twenty-four books (Exegetica), and his odes only fragments remain of
the second, preserved by Clement of Alexandria and in the Acta Archelai
(collected by Hilgenfeld, Ketzergeschichte, 207-213).

Additional source material: Clement of Alexandria, Strom., II, 3, 8, 20;
IV, 24, 26 (ANF. II); Hippolytus, Ref., VII, 20-27; X, 14 (=VII, 1-15,
X, 10, ANF, V); Eusebius, Hist. Ec., IV. 7. The account of Hippolytus
differs markedly from that of Irenaeus, and his quotations and references
have been the subject of long dispute among scholars.

(a) Acta Archelai, 55. (MSG, 10:1526.)

The Acta Archelai purport to be an account of a disputation held
in the reign of the Emperor Probus (276-282) by Archelaus, Bishop
of Kaskar in Mesopotamia, with Mani, the founder of Manichaeanism.
The work is of uncertain authorship; it belongs to the first part
of the fourth century. It is the most important source for the
Manichaean doctrine (v. infra, 54). It exists only in a Latin
translation probably from a Greek original.

Among the Persians there was also a certain preacher, one Basilides, of
more ancient date, not long after the time of our Apostles. Since he was
of a shrewd disposition himself, and observed that at that time all other
subjects were preoccupied, he determined to affirm that dualism which was
maintained also by Scythianus. And so, since he had nothing to advance
which he might call his own, he brought the sayings of others before his
adversaries. And all his books contain some matters difficult and
extremely harsh. The thirteenth book of his Tractates,(39) however, is
still extant, which begins thus: "In writing the thirteenth book of our
Tractates, the word of salvation furnished us with the necessary and
fruitful word. It illustrates(40) under the figure of a rich [principle]
and a poor [principle], a nature without root and without place and only
supervenes upon things.(41) This is the only topic which the book
contains." Does it not, then, contain a strange word, as also certain
persons think? Will ye not all be offended with the book itself, of which
this is the beginning? But Basilides, returning to the subject, some five
hundred lines intervening, more or less, says: "Give up this vain and
curious variation, and let us rather find out what inquiries the
Barbarians [i.e., the Persians] have instituted concerning good and
evil, and to what opinions they have come on all these subjects. For
certain among them have said that there are for all things two beginnings
[or principles], to which they have referred good and evil, holding these
principles are without beginning and ingenerate; that is to say, that in
the origins of things there were light and darkness, which existed of
themselves, and which were not declared to exist.(42) When these subsisted
by themselves, they each led its own proper mode of life as it willed to
lead, and such as was competent to it. For in the case of all things, what
is proper to it is in amity with it, and nothing seems evil to itself. But
after they came to the knowledge of each other, and after the darkness
contemplated the light, then, as if fired with a passion for something
superior, the darkness rushed to have intercourse with the light."

(b) Clement of Alexandria, Strom., IV, 12. (MSG, 8:1289.)

Basilides taught the transmigration of souls as an explanation of
human suffering. Cf. Origen in Ep. ad Rom., V: "I [Paul], he
says, died [Rom. 7:9], for now sin began to be reckoned unto me.
But Basilides, not noticing that these things ought to be
understood of the natural law, according to impious and foolish
fables turns this apostolic saying into the Pythagorean dogma,
that is, attempts to prove from this word of the Apostle that
souls are transferred from one body to another. For he says that
the Apostle has said, 'I lived without any law'--i.e., before I
came into the body I lived in that sort of body which is not under
the law, i.e., of beasts and birds."

Basilides, in the twenty-third book of the Exegetics, respecting those
that are punished by martyrdom, expresses himself in the following
language: "For I say this, Whosoever fall under the afflictions mentioned,
in consequence of unconsciously transgressing in other matters, are
brought to this good end by the kindness of Him who brings about all
things, though they are accused on other grounds; so that they may not
suffer as condemned for what are acknowledged to be iniquities, nor
reproached as the adulterer or the murderer, but because they are
Christians; which will console them, so that they do not appear to suffer.
And if one who has not sinned at all incur suffering (a rare case), yet
even he will not suffer aught through the machinations of power, but will
suffer as the child which seems not to have sinned would suffer." Then
further on he adds: "As, then, the child which has not sinned before, nor
actually committed sin, but has in itself that which committed sin, when
subjected to suffering is benefited, reaping the advantage of many
difficulties; so, also, although a perfect man may not have sinned in act,
and yet endures afflictions, he suffers similarly with the child. Having
within him the sinful principle, but not embracing the opportunity of
committing sin, he does not sin; so that it is to be reckoned to him as
not having sinned. For as he who wishes to commit adultery is an
adulterer, although he fails to commit adultery, and he who wishes to
commit murder is a murderer, although he is unable to kill; so, also, if I
see the man without sin, whom I refer to, suffering, though he have done
nothing bad, I should call him bad on account of the wish to sin. For I
will affirm anything rather than call Providence evil." Then, in
continuation, he says expressly concerning the Lord, as concerning man:
"If, then, passing from all these observations, you were to proceed to put
me to shame by saying, perchance impersonating certain parties, This man
has then sinned, for this man has suffered; if you permit, I will say, He
has not sinned, but was like a child suffering. If you insist more
urgently, I would say, That the man you name is man, but God is righteous,
'for no one is pure,' as one said, 'from pollution.' " But the hypothesis
of Basilides says that the soul, having sinned before in another life,
endures punishment in this--the elect soul with honor by martyrdom, the
other purged by appropriate punishment.

(c) Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., I, 24:3 ff. (MSG, 7:675.)

The system of Basilides, as presented by Irenaeus, is dualistic and
emanationist; with it is to be compared the presentation of the
system by Hippolytus in his Philosophumena, where it appears as
evolutionary and pantheistic. The trend of present opinion appears
to be that the account given by Irenaeus is more correct, or, at
least, is earlier. The following account has all the appearance of
having been taken from an original source (cf. Hilgenfeld,
Ketzergeschichte, 195, 198). It represents the esoteric and more
distinctively Gnostic teaching of the school.

Ch. 3. Basilides, to appear to have discovered something more sublime and
plausible, gives an immense development to his doctrine. He declares that
in the beginning the Nous was born of the unborn Father, that from him in
turn was born the Logos, then from the Logos the Phronesis, from the
Phronesis Sophia and Dynamis, and from Dynamis and Sophia the powers and
principalities and angels, whom he calls the first; and that by these the
first heaven was made. Then by emanation from these others were formed,
and these created another heaven similar to the first. And in like manner,
when still others had been formed by emanations from these, corresponding
to those who were over them, they framed another third heaven; and from
this third heaven downward there was a fourth succession of descendants;
and so on, in the same manner, they say that other and still other princes
and angels were formed, and three hundred and sixty-five heavens.
Wherefore the year contained the same number of days in conformity with
the number of the heavens.

Ch. 4. The angels occupying the lowest heaven, that, namely, which is
visible to us, created all those things which are in the world, and made
allotments among themselves of the earth, and of those nations which are
upon it. The chief of them is he who is thought to be the God of the Jews.
Inasmuch as he wished to make the other nations subject to his own people,
the Jews, all the other princes resisted and opposed him. Wherefore all
other nations were hostile to his nation. But the unbegotten and nameless
Father, seeing their ruin, sent his own first-begotten Nous, for he it is
who is called Christ, to set free from the power of those who made the
world them that believe in him. He therefore appeared on earth as a man to
the nations of those powers and wrought miracles. Wherefore he did not
himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain Cyrenian, was compelled and
bore the cross in his stead; and this latter was transfigured by him that
he might be thought to be Jesus and was crucified through ignorance and
error; but Jesus himself took the form of Simon and stood by and derided
him. For as he is an incorporeal power and the Nous of the unborn Father,
he transfigured himself at pleasure, and so ascended to him who had sent
him, deriding them, inasmuch as he could not be held, and was invisible to
all. Those, then, who know these things have been freed from the princes
who made the world; so that it is not necessary to confess him who was
crucified, but him who came in the form of a man, and was thought to have
been crucified, and was called Jesus, and was sent by the Father, that by
this dispensation he might destroy the works of the makers of the world.
Therefore, Basilides says that if any one confesses the crucified, he is
still a slave, under the power of those who made our bodies; but whoever
denies him has been freed from these beings and is acquainted with the
dispensation of the unknown Father.

Ch. 5. Salvation is only of the soul, for the body is by nature
corruptible. He says, also, that even the prophecies were derived from
those princes who made the world, but the law was especially given by
their chief, who led the people out of the land of Egypt. He attaches no
importance to meats offered to idols, thinks them of no consequence, but
makes use of them without hesitation. He holds, also, the use of other
things as indifferent, and also every kind of lust. These men,
furthermore, use magic, images, incantations, invocations, and every other
kind of curious arts. Coining also certain names as if they were those of
the angels, they assert that some of these belong to the first, others to
the second, heaven; and then they strive to set forth the names,
principles, angels, powers, of the three hundred and sixty-five imagined
heavens. They also affirm that the name in which the Saviour ascended and
descended is Caulacau.(43)

Ch. 6. He, then, who has learned these things, and known all the angels
and their causes, is rendered invisible and incomprehensible to the angels
and powers, even as Caulacau also was. And as the Son was unknown to all,
so must they also be known by no one; but while they know all and pass
through all, they themselves remain invisible and unknown to all; for "Do
thou," they say, "know all, but let nobody know thee." For this reason,
persons of such a persuasion are also ready to recant, yea, rather, it is
impossible that they should suffer on account of a mere name, since they
are alike to all. The multitude, however, cannot understand these matters,
but only one out of a thousand, or two out of ten thousand. They declare
that they are no longer Jews, and that they are not yet Christians; and
that it is not at all fitting to speak openly of their mysteries, but
right to keep them secret by preserving silence.

Ch. 7. They make out the local position of the three hundred and
sixty-five heavens in the same way as do the mathematicians. For,
accepting the theorems of the latter, they have transferred them to their
own style of doctrine. They hold that their chief is Abraxas [or Abrasax];
and on this account that the word contains in itself the numbers amounting
to three hundred and sixty-five.

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Previous: The Earlier Gnostics Gnosticism

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