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, ยงยง 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.