Vol. 2, Chapter XI (Cont’d) – The System of Gnosticism. Its Theology


Gnosticism is a heretical philosophy of religion, or, more exactly a mythological theosophy, which reflects intellectually the peculiar, fermenting state of that remarkable age of transition from the heathen to the Christian order of things. If it were merely an unintelligible congeries of puerile absurdities and impious blasphemies, as it is grotesquely portrayed by older historians, it would not have fascinated so many vigorous intellects and produced such a long-continued agitation in the ancient church. It is an attempt to solve some of the deepest metaphysical and theological problems. It deals with the great antitheses of God and world, spirit and matter, idea and phenomenon; and endeavors to unlock the mystery of the creation; the question of the rise, development, and end of the world; and of the origin of evil. It endeavors to harmonize the creation of the material world and the existence of evil with the idea of an absolute God, who is immaterial and perfectly good. This problem can only be solved by the Christian doctrine of redemption; but Gnosticism started from a false basis of dualism, which prevents a solution.

In form and method it is, as already observed, more Oriental than Grecian. The Gnostics, in their daring attempt to unfold the mysteries of an upper world, disdained the trammels of reason, and resorted to direct spiritual intuition. Hence they speculate not so much in logical and dialectic mode, as in an imaginative, semi-poetic way, and they clothe their ideas not in the simple, clear, and sober language of reflection, but in the many-colored, fantastic, mythological dress of type, symbol, and allegory. Thus monstrous nonsense and the most absurd conceits are chaotically mingIed up with profound thoughts and poetic intuitions.

This spurious supernaturalism which substitutes the irrational for the supernatural, and the prodigy for the miracle, pervades the pseudo-historical romances of the Gnostic Gospels and Acts. These surpass the Catholic traditions in luxuriant fancy and incredible marvels. “Demoniacal possessions,” says one who has mastered this literature, “and resurrections from the dead, miracles of healing and punishment are accumulated without end; the constant repetition of similar events gives the long stories a certain monotony, which is occasionally interrupted by colloquies, hymns and prayers of genuine poetic value. A rich apparatus of visions, angelic appearances, heavenly voices, speaking animals, defeated and humbled demons is unfolded, a superterrestrial splendor of light gleams up, mysterious signs from heaven, earthquakes, thunder and lightning frighten the impious; fire, earth, wind and water obey the pious; serpents, lions, leopards, tigers, and bears are tamed by a word of the apostles and turn upon their persecutors; the dying martyrs are surrounded by coronets, roses, lilies, incense, while the abyss opens to swallow up their enemies.”

The highest source of knowledge, with these heretics was a secret tradition, in contrast with the open, popular tradition of the Catholic church. In this respect, they differ from Protestant sects, which generally discard tradition altogether and appeal to the Bible only, as understood by themselves. They appealed also to apocryphal documents, which arose in the second century in great numbers, under eminent names of apostolic or pre-Christian times. Epiphanius, in his 26th Heresy, counts the apocrypha of the Gnostics by thousands, and Irenaeus found among the Valentinians alone a countless multitude of such writings. And finally, when it suited their purpose, the Gnostics employed single portions of the Bible, without being able to agree either as to the extent or the interpretation of the same. The Old Testament they generally rejected, either entirely, as in the case of the Marcionites and the Manichaeans, or at least in great part; and in the New Testament they preferred certain books or portions, such as the Gospel of John, with its profound spiritual intuitions, and either rejected the other books, or wrested them to suit their ideas. Marcion, for example, thus mutilated the Gospel of Luke, and received in addition to it only ten of Paul’s Epistles, thus substituting an arbitrary canon of eleven books for the catholic Testament of twenty-seven. In interpretation they adopted, even with far less moderation than Philo, the most arbitrary and extravagant allegorical principles; despising the letter as sensuous, and the laws of language and exegesis as fetters of the mind. The number 30 in the New Testament, for instance, particularly in the life of Jesus, is made to denote the number of the Valentinian aeons; and the lost sheep in the parable is Achamoth. Even to heathen authors, to the poems of Homer, Aratus, Anacreon, they applied this method, and discovered in these works the deepest Gnostic mysteries. They gathered from the whole field of ancient mythology, astronomy, physics, and magic, everything which could, serve in any way to support their fancies.

The common characteristics of nearly all the Gnostic systems are (1) Dualism; the assumption of an eternal antagonism between God and matter. (2) The demiurgic notion; the separation of the creator of the world or the demiurgos from the proper God. (3) Docetism; the resolution of the human element in the person of the Redeemer into mere deceptive appearance.

We will endeavor now to present a clear and connected view of the theoretical and practical system of Gnosticism in as it comes before us in its more fully developed forms, especially the Valentinian school.

1. The Gnostic Theology. The system starts from absolute primal being. God is the unfathomable abyss, locked up within himself, without beginning, unnamable, and incomprehensible; on the one hand, infinitely exalted above every existence; yet, on the other hand, the original aeon, the sum of all ideas and spiritual powers. Basilides would not ascribe even existence to him, and thus, like Hegel, starts from absolute nonentity, which, however, is identical with absolute being. He began where modern Agnosticism ends.

2. Kosmology. The abyss opens; God enters upon a process of development, and sends forth from his bosom the several aeons; that is, the attributes and unfolded powers of his nature, the ideas of the eternal spirit-world, such as mind, reason, wisdom, power, truth, life. These emanate from the absolute in a certain order, according to Valentine in pairs with sexual polarity. The further they go from the great source, the poorer and weaker they become. Besides the notion of emanation, the Gnostics employed also, to illustrate the self-revelation of the absolute, the figure of the evolution of numbers from an original unit, or of utterance in tones gradually diminishing to the faint echo. The cause of the procession of the aeons is, with some, as with Valentine, the self-limiting love of God; with others, metaphysical necessity. The whole body of aeons forms the ideal world, or light-world, or spiritual foulness, the Pleroma, as opposed to the Kenoma, or the material world of emptiness. The one is the totality of the divine powers and attributes, the other the region of shadow and darkness. Christ belongs to the Pleroma, as the chief of the aeons; the Demiurge or Creator belongs to the Kenoma. In opposition to the incipient form of this heresy, St. Paul taught that Jesus Christ is the whole pleroma of the Godhead (Col_1:19; Col_2:9), and the church the reflected pleroma of Christ (Eph_1:22).

The material visible world is the abode of the principle of evil. This cannot proceed from God; else he were himself the author of evil. It must come from an opposite principle. This is Matter (ὕλη), which stands in eternal opposition to God and the ideal world. The Syrian Gnostics, and still more the Manichaeans, agreed with Parsism in conceiving Matter as an intrinsically evil substance, the raging kingdom of Satan, at irreconcilable warfare with the kingdom of light. The Alexandrian Gnostics followed more the Platonic idea of the ὕλη and conceived this as κένωμα, emptiness, in contrast with πλήρωμα, the divine, vital fulness, or as the μή ὄν, related to the divine being as shadow to light, and forming the dark limit beyond which the mind cannot pass. This Matter is in itself dead, but becomes animated by a union with the Pleroma, which again is variously described. In the Manichaean system there are powers of darkness, which seize by force some parts of the kingdom of light. But usually the union is made to proceed from above. The last link in the chain of divine aeons, either too weak to keep its hold on the ideal world, or seized with a sinful passion for the embrace of the infinite abyss, falls as a spark of light into the dark chaos of matter, and imparts to it a germ of divine life, but in this bondage feels a painful longing after redemption, with which the whole world of aeons sympathizes. This weakest aeon is called by Valentine the lower Wisdom, or Achamoth, and marks the extreme point, where spirit must surrender itself to matter, where the infinite must enter into the finite, and thus form a basis for the real world. The myth of Achamoth is grounded in the thought, that the finite is incompatible with the absolute, yet in some sense demands it to account for itself.

Here now comes in the third principle of the Gnostic speculation, namely, the world-maker, commonly called the Demiurge, termed by Basilides “Archon” or world-ruler, by the Ophites. “Jaldabaoth,” or son of chaos. He is a creature of the fallen aeon, formed of physical material, and thus standing between God and Matter. He makes out of Matter the visible sensible world, and rules over it. He has his throne in the planetary heavens, and presides over time and over the sidereal spirits. Astrological influences were generally ascribed to him. He is the God of Judaism, the Jehovah, who imagines himself to be the supreme and only God. But in the further development of this idea the systems differ; the anti-Jewish Gnostics, Marcion and the Ophites, represent the Demiurge as an insolent being, resisting the purposes of God; while the Judaizing Gnostics, Basilides and Valentine, make him a restricted, unconscious instrument of God to prepare the way for redemption.

3. Christology and Soteriology. Redemption itself is the liberation of the light-spirit from the chains of dark Matter, and is effected by Christ, the most perfect aeon, who is the mediator of return from the sensible phenomenal world to the supersensuous ideal world, just as the Demiurge is the mediator of apostacy from the Pleroma to the Kenoma. This redeeming aeon, called by Valentine σωτήρ or Ἰησοῦς descends through the sphere of heaven, and assumes the ethereal appearance of a body; according to another view, unites himself with the man Jesus, or with the Jewish Messiah, at the baptism, and forsakes him again at the passion. At all events, the redeemer, however conceived in other respects, is allowed no actual contact with sinful matter. His human birth, his sufferings and death, are explained by Gnosticism after the manner of the Indian mythology, as a deceptive appearance, a transient vision, a spectral form, which he assumed only to reveal himself to the sensuous nature of man. Reduced to a clear philosophical definition, the Gnostic Christ is really nothing more than the ideal spirit of himself, as in the mythical gospel-theory of Strauss. The Holy Ghost is commonly conceived as a subordinate aeon. The central fact in the work of Christ is the communication of the Gnosis to a small circle of the initiated, prompting and enabling them to strive with clear consciousness after the ideal world and the original unity. According to Valentine, the heavenly Soter brings Achamoth after innumerable sufferings into the Pleroma, and unites himself with her — the most glorious aeon with the Iowest — in an eternal spirit-marriage. With this, all disturbance in the heaven of aeons is allayed, and a blessed harmony and inexpressible delight are restored, in which all spiritual (pneumatic) men, or genuine Gnostics, share. Matter is at last entirely consumed by a fire breaking out from its dark bosom.

4. The Anthropology of the Gnostics corresponds with their theology. Man is a microcosm consisting of spirit, body, and soul reflecting the three principles, God, Matter, and Demiurge, though in very different degrees. There are three classes of men: the spiritual, in whom the divine element, a spark of light from the ideal world, predominates; the material, bodily, carnal, physical, in whom matter, the gross sensuous principle, rules; and the psychical, in whom the demiurgic, quasi-divine rules; principle, the mean between the two preceding, prevails.

These three classes are frequently identified with the adherents of the three religions respectively; the spiritual with the Christians, the carnal with the heathens, the psychical with the Jews. But they also made the same distinction among the professors of any one religion, particularly among the Christians; and they regarded themselves as the genuine spiritual men in the full sense of the word; while they looked upon the great mass of Christians as only psychical, not able to rise from blind faith to true knowledge, too weak for the good, and too tender for the evil, longing for the divine, yet unable to attain it, and thus hovering between the Pleroma of the ideal world and the Kenoma of the sensual.

Ingenious as this thought is, it is just the basis of that unchristian distinction of esoteric and exoteric religion, and that pride of knowledge, in which Gnosticism runs directly counter to the Christian virtues of humility and love.


118. Ethics of Gnosticism

All the Gnostic heretics agree in disparaging the divinely created body, and over-rating the intellect. Beyond this, we perceive among them two opposite tendencies: a gloomy asceticism, and a frivolous antinomianism; both grounded in the dualistic principle, which falsely ascribes evil to matter, and traces nature to the devil. The two extremes frequently met, and the Nicolaitan maxim in regard to the abuse of the flesh was made to serve asceticism first, and then libertinism.

The ascetic Gnostics, like Marcion, Saturninus, Tatian, and the Manichaeans were pessimists. They felt uncomfortable in the sensuous and perishing world, ruled by the Demiurge, and by Satan; they abhorred the body as formed from Matter, and forbade the use of certain kinds of food and all nuptial intercourse, as an adulteration of themselves with sinful Matter; like the Essenes and the errorists noticed by Paul in the Colossians and Pastoral Epistles. They thus confounded sin with matter, and vainly imagined that, matter being dropped, sin, its accident, would fall with it. Instead of hating sin only, which God has not made, they hated the world, which he has made.

The licentious Gnostics, as the Nicolaitans, the Ophites, the Carpocratians, and the Antitactes, in a proud conceit of the exaltation of the spirit above matter, or even on the diabolical principle, that sensuality must be overcome by indulging it, bade defiance to all moral laws, and gave themselves up to the most shameless licentiousness. It is no great thing, said they, according to Clement of Alexandria, to restrain lust; but it is surely a great thing not to be conquered by lust, when one indulges in it. According to Epiphanius there were Gnostic sects in Egypt, which, starting from a filthy, materialistic pantheism and identifying Christ with the generative powers of nature, practised debauchery as a mode of worship, and after having, as they thought, offered and collected all their strength, blasphemously exclaimed: “I am Christ.” From these pools of sensuality and Satanic pride arose the malaria of a vast literature, of which, however, fortunately, nothing more than a few names has come down to us.


119. Cultus and Organization

In cultus, the Gnostic docetism and hyper-spiritualism led consistently to naked intellectual simplicity; sometimes to the rejection of all sacraments and outward means of grace; if not even, as in the Prodicians, to blasphemous self-exaltation above all that is called God and worshiped (2Th_2:4).

But with this came also the opposite extreme of a symbolic and mystic pomp, especially in the sect of the Marcosians. These Marcosians held to a two-fold baptism, that applied to the human Jesus, the Messiah of the psychical, and that administered to the heavenly Christ, the Messiah of the spiritual; they decorated the baptistery like a banquet-hall; and they first introduced extreme unction. As early as the second century the Basilideans celebrated the feast of Epiphany. The Simonians and Carpocratians used images of Christ and of their religious heroes in their worship. The Valentinians and Ophites sang in hymns the deep longing of Achamoth for redemption from the bonds of Matter. Bardesanes is known as the first Syrian hymn-writer. Many Gnostics, following their patriarch, Simon, gave themselves to magic, and introduced their arts into their worship; as the Marcosians did in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Of the outward organization of the Gnostics (with the exception of the Manichaeans, who will be treated separately), we can say little. Their aim was to resolve Christianity into a magnificent speculation; the practical business of organization was foreign to their exclusively intellectual bent. Tertullian charges them with an entire want of order and discipline. They formed, not so much a sect or party, as a multitude of philosophical schools, like the modern Rationalists. Many were unwilling to separate at all from the Catholic church, but assumed in it, as theosophists, the highest spiritual rank. Some were even clothed with ecclesiastical office, as we must no doubt infer from the Apostolic Canons (51 or 50), where it is said, with evident reference to the gloomy, perverse asceticism of the Gnostics: “If a bishop, a priest, or a deacon, or any ecclesiastic abstain from marriage, from flesh, or from wine, not for practice in self-denial, but from disgust, forgetting that God made everything very good, that he made also the male and the female, in fact, even blaspheming the creation; he shall either retract his error, or be deposed and cast out of the church. A layman also shall be treated in like manner.” Here we perceive the polemical attitude which the Catholic church was compelled to assume even towards the better Gnostics.


120. Schools of Gnosticism

The arbitrary and unbalanced subjectivity of the Gnostic speculation naturally produced a multitude of schools. These Gnostic schools have been variously classified.

Geographically they may be reduced to two great families, the Egyptian or Alexandrian, and the Syrian, which are also intrinsically different. In the former (Basilides, Valentine, the Ophites), Platonism and the emanation theory prevail, in the latter (Saturninus, Bardesanes, Tatian), Parsism and dualism. Then, distinct in many respects from both these is the more practical school of Marcion, who sprang neither from Egypt nor from Syria, but from Asia Minor, where St. Paul had left the strong imprint of his free gospel in opposition to Jewish legalism and bondage.

Examined further, with reference to its doctrinal character, Gnosticism appears in three forms, distinguished by the preponderance of the heathen, the Jewish, and the Christian elements respectively in its syncretism. The Simonians, Nicolaitans, Ophites, Carpocratians, Prodicians, Antitactes, and Manichaeans belong to a paganizing class; Cerinthus, Basilides, Valentine, and Justin (as also the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, though these are more properly Ebionitic), to a Judaizing; Saturninus, Marcion, Tatian, and the Encratites, to a Christianizing division. But it must be remembered here that this distinction is only relative; all the Gnostic systems being, in fact, predominantly heathen in their character, and essentially opposed alike to the pure Judaism of the Old Testament and to the Christianity of the New. The Judaism of the so-called Judaizing Gnostics is only of an apocryphal sort, whether of the Alexandrian or the Cabalistic tinge.

The ethical point of view, from which the division might as well be made, would give likewise three main branches: the speculative or theosophic Gnostics (Basilides, Valentine), the practical and ascetic (Marcion, Saturninus, Tatian), and the antinomian and libertine (Simonians, Nicolaitans, Ophites, Carpocratians, Antitactes).

Having thus presented the general character of Gnosticism, and pointed out its main branches, we shall follow chiefly the chronological order in describing the several schools, beginning with those which date from the age of the apostles.


121. Simon Magus and the Simonians

I. Commentaries on Act_8:9-24. Justin Martyr: Apol. I. 26 and 56. The pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions. Irenaeus, I. 23. Hippolytus, VI. 2-15, etc.

II. Simson: Leben und Lehre Simon des Magiers, in the “Zeitschrift für hist. Theologie” for 1841.

Hilgenfeld: Der Magier Simon, in the “Zeischrift für wissenschaftl. Theologie” for 1868.

Lipsius: Simon d. Mag. in Schenkel’s “Bibel-Lexikon,” vol. V. (1875), p. 301-321. Comp. the literature quoted there, p. 320.

Simon Magus is a historical character known to us from the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. He was probably a native of Gitthon, in Samaria, as Justin Martyr, himself a Samaritan, reports; but he may nevertheless be identical with the contemporaneous Jewish magician of the same name, whom Josephus mentions as a native of Cyprus and as a friend of Procurator Felix, who employed him to alienate Drusilla, the beautiful wife of king Azizus of Emesa, in Syria, from her husband, that he might marry her.

Simon represented himself as a sort of emanation of the deity (“the Great Power of God”), made a great noise among the half-pagan, half-Jewish Samaritans by his sorceries, was baptized by Philip about the year 40, but terribly rebuked by Peter for hypocrisy and abuse of holy things to sordid ends. He thus affords the first instance in church history of a confused syncretism in union with magical arts; and so far as this goes, the church fathers are right in styling him the patriarch, or, in the words of Irenaeus, the “magister “and “progenitor” of all heretics, and of the Gnostics in particular. Besides him, two other contemporaneous Samaritans, Dositheus and Menander, bore the reputation of heresiarchs. Samaria was a fertile soil of religious syncretism even before Christ, and the natural birth-place of that syncretistic heresy which goes by the name of Gnosticism.

The wandering life and teaching of Simon were fabulously garnished in the second and third centuries by Catholics and heretics, but especially by the latter in the interest of Ebionism and with bitter hostility to Paul. In the pseudo-Clementine romances he represents all anti-Jewish heresies. Simon the Magician is contrasted, as the apostle of falsehood, with Simon Peter, the apostle of truth; he follows him, as darkness follows the light, from city to city, in company with Helena (who had previously been a prostitute at Tyre, but was now elevated to the dignity of divine intelligence); he is refuted by Peter in public disputations at Caesarea, Antioch, and Rome; at last he is ignominiously defeated by him after a mock-resurrection and mock-ascension before the Emperor Nero; he ends with suicide, while Peter gains the crown of martyrdom. There is a bare possibility that, like other heretics and founders of sects, he may have repaired to Rome (before Peter); but Justin Martyr’s account of the statue of Simon is certainly a mistake.

The Gnosticism which Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and other fathers ascribe to this Simon and his followers is crude, and belongs to the earlier phase of this heresy. It was embodied in a work entitled “The Great Announcement” or “Proclamation” of which Hippolytus gives an analysis. The chief ideas are the “great power,” “the great idea,” the male and female principle. He declared himself an incarnation of the creative world-spirit, and his female companion, Helena, the incarnation of the receptive world-soul. Here we have the Gnostic conception of the syzygy.

The sect of the Simonians, which continued into the third century, took its name, if not its rise, from Simon Magus, worshipped him as a redeeming genius, chose, like the Cainites, the most infamous characters of the Old Testament for its heroes, and was immoral in its principles and practices. The name, however, is used in a very indefinite sense, for various sorts of Gnostics.


122. The Nicolaitans

Irenaeus: Adv. Haer. I. 26, 3; Clement of Alex.: Strom. III. 4 (and in Euseb. H. E. III. 29); Hippolytus: Philos. VII. 24; Epiphanius: Haer. I. 2, 25.

The Nicolaitans are mentioned as a licentious sect in the Rev_2:6, Rev_2:15. They claimed as their founder Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch and one of the seven deacons of the congregation of Jerusalem (Act_6:5). He is supposed to have apostatized from the true faith, and taught the dangerous principle that the flesh must be abused, that is, at least as understood by his disciples, one must make the whole round of sensuality, to become its perfect master.

But the views of the fathers are conflicting. Irenaeus (who is followed substantially by Hippolytus) gives a very unfavorable account.

“The Nicolaitanes,” he says, “are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, where they are represented as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Wherefore the Word has also spoken of them thus: ‘But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.’”

Clement of Alexandria says that Nicolas was a faithful husband, and brought up his children in purity, but that his disciples misunderstood his saying (which he attributes also to the Apostle Matthias), “that we must fight against the flesh and abuse it.”


123. Cerinthus

Iren. I. (25) 26, § 1; III. 3, § 4; III. 11, § 1; Hippol. VII. 21; Euseb. III. 28; IV. 14. Comp. Dorner: Lehre v. der Person Christi, I. 314 sq. Art. Cerinth in “Smith and Wace,” I. 447.

Cerinthus appeared towards the close of the first century in Asia Minor, and came in conflict with the aged Apostle John, who is supposed by Irenaeus to have opposed his Gnostic ideas in the Gospel and Epistles. The story that John left a public bath when he saw Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, fearing that the bath might fall in, and the similar story of Polycarp meeting Marcion and calling him “the first born of Satan,” reveal the intense abhorrence with which the orthodox churchmen of those days looked upon heresy.

Cerinthus was (according to the uncertain traditions collected by Epiphanius) an Egyptian and a Jew either by birth or conversion, studied in the school of Philo in Alexandria, was one of the false apostles who opposed Paul and demanded circumcision (Gal_2:4; 2Co_11:13), claimed to have received angelic revelations, travelled through Palestine and Galatia, and once came to Ephesus. The time of his death is unknown.

His views, as far as they can be ascertained from confused accounts, assign him a position between Judaism and Gnosticism proper. He rejected all the Gospels except a mutilated Matthew, taught the validity of the Mosaic law and the millennial kingdom. He was so far strongly Judaistic, and may be counted among the Ebionites; but in true Gnostic style he distinguished the world-maker from God, and represented the former as a subordinate power, as an intermediate, though not exactly hostile, being. In his Christology he separates the earthly man Jesus, who was a son of Joseph and Mary, from the heavenly Christ, who descended upon the man Jesus in the form of a dove at the baptism in the Jordan, imparted to him the genuine knowledge of God and the power of miracles, but forsook him in the passion, to rejoin him only at the coming of the Messianic kingdom of glory. The school of Valentine made more clearly the same distinction between the Jesus of the Jesus and the divine Saviour, or the lower and the higher Christ — a crude anticipation of the modern distinction (of Strauss) between the Christ of history and the Christ of faith. The millennium has its centre in Jerusalem, and will be followed by the restoration of all things.

The Alogi, an obscure anti-trinitarian and anti-chiliastic sect of the second century, regarded Cerinthus as the author of the Apocalypse of John on account of the chiliasm taught in it. They ascribed to him also the fourth Gospel, although it is the best possible refutation of all false Gnosticism from the highest experimental Gnosis of faith.

Simon Magus, the Nicolaitans and Cerinthus belong to the second half of the first century. We now proceed to the more developed systems of Gnosticism, which belong to the first half of the second century, and continued to flourish till the middle of the third.

The most important and influential of these systems bear the names of Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcion. They deserve, therefore, a fuller consideration. They were nearly contemporaneous, and matured during the reigns of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. Basilides flourished in Alexandria a.d. 125; Valentine came to Rome in 140; Marcion taught in Rome between 140 and 150.


124. Basilides

Besides the sources in Irenaeus, Hippolytus (L. VII. 20-27), Clemens Alex. (Strom. VII.), Eusebius (IV. 7), and Epiphanius, comp. the following monographs:

Jacobi: Basilidis philosophi Gnostici Sentent. ex Hippolyti lib. nuper reperto illustr. Berlin, 1852. Comp. his article Gnosis in Herzog, vol. V. 219-223, and in Brieger’s “Zeitschrift für Kirchengesch.” for 1876-77 (I. 481-544).

Uhlhorn: Das Basilidianische System. Göttingen, 1855. The best analysis.

Baur in the Tübinger “Theol. Jahrbücher” for 1856, pp. 121-162.

Hofstede de Groot: Basilides as witness for the Gospel of John, in Dutch, and in an enlarged form in German. Leipz. 1868. Apologetic for the genuineness of the fourth Gospel.

Dr. Hort in Smith and Wace, “Dictionary of Christian Biography (Lond. 1877). I. 268-281 (comp. “Abrasax,” p. 9-10). Very able.

Hilgenfeld, in his “Zeitschrift für wissensch. Theol.” 1878, XXI. 228-250, and the Lit. there given.

Basilides (Βασιλείδης) produced the first well-developed system of Gnosis; but it was too metaphysical and intricate to be popular. He claimed to be a disciple of the apostle Matthias and of an interpreter (ἐρμηνεύς) of St. Peter, named Glaucias. He taught in Alexandria during the reign of Hadrian (A. D. 117-138). His early youth fell in the second generation of Christians, and this gives his quotations from the writings of the New Testament considerable apologetic value. He wrote (according to his opponent, Agrippa Castor) “twenty-four books (Βιβλία) on the Gospel.” This work was probably a commentary on the canonical Gospels, for Clement of Alexandria quotes from “the thirty-third book” of a work of Basilides which he calls “Exegetica.”

His doctrine is very peculiar, especially according to the extended and original exhibition of it in the “Philosophumena.” Hippolytus deviates in many respects from the statements of Irenaeus and Epiphanius, but derived his information probably from the works of Basilides himself, and he therefore must be chiefly followed. The system is based on the Egyptian astronomy and the Pythagorean numerical symbolism. It betrays also the influence of Aristotle; but Platonism, the emanation-theory, and dualism do not appear.

Basilides is monotheistic rather than dualistic in his primary idea, and so far differs from the other Gnostics, though later accounts make him a dualist. He starts from the most abstract notion of the absolute, to which he denies even existence, thinking of it as infinitely above all that can be imagined and conceived. This ineffable and unnamable God, not only super-existent, but non-existent, first forms by his creative word (not by emanation) the world-seed or world-embryo, that is, chaos, from which the world develops itself according to arithmetical relations, in an unbroken order, like the branches and leaves of the tree from the mustard seed, or like the many-colored peacock from the egg. Everything created tends upwards towards God, who, himself unmoved, moves all, and by the charm of surpassing beauty attracts all to himself.

In the world-seed Basilides distinguishes three kinds of sonship, of the same essence with the non-existent God, but growing weaker in the more remote gradations; or three races of children of God, a pneumatic, a psychic, and a hylic. The first sonship liberates itself immediately from the world-seed, rises with the lightning-speed of thought to God, and remains there as the blessed spirit-world, the Pleroma. It embraces the seven highest genii, which, in union with the great Father, form the first ogdoad, the type of all the lower circles of creation. The second sonship, with the help of the Holy Spirit, whom it produces, and who bears it up, as the wing bears the bird, strives to follow the first, but can only attain the impenetrable firmament, that is the limit of the Pleroma, and could endure the higher region no more than the fish the mountain air. The third sonship, finally, remains fixed in the world-seed, and in need of purification and redemption.

Next Basilides makes two archons or world-rulers (demiurges) issue from the world-seed. The first or great archon, whose greatness and beauty and power cannot be uttered, creates the ethereal world or the upper heaven, the ogdoad, as it is called; the second is the maker and ruler of the lower planetary heaven below the moon, the hebdomad. Basilides supposed in all three hundred and sixty-five heavens or circles of creation, corresponding to the days of the year, and designated them by the mystic name Abrasax, or Abraxas, which, according to the numerical value of the Greek letters, is equal to 365. This name also denotes the great archon or ruler of the 365 heavens. It afterwards came to be used as a magical formula, with all sorts of strange figures, the “Abraxas gems,” of which many are still extant.

Each of the two archons, however, according to a higher ordinance, begets a son, who towers far above his father, communicates to him the knowledge received from the Holy Spirit, concerning the upper spirit-world and the plan of redemption, and leads him to repentance. With this begins the process of the redemption or return of the sighing children of God, that is, the pneumatics, to the supra-mundane God. This is effected by Christianity, and ends with the consummation, or apokatastasis of all things. Like Valentine, Basilides also properly held a threefold Christ — the son of the first archon, the son of the second archon, and the son of Mary. But all these are at bottom the same principle, which reclaims the spiritual natures from the world-seed to the original unity. The passion of Christ was necessary to remove the corporeal and psychical elements, which he brought with him from the primitive medley and confusion (σύγχυσις ἀρχική). His body returned, after death, into shapelessness (ἀμορφία); his soul rose from the grave, and stopped in the hebdomad, or planetary heaven, where it belongs; but his spirit soared, perfectly purified, above all the spheres of creation, to the blessed first sonship (υἰότης) and the fellowship of the non-existent or hyper-existent God.

In the same way with Jesus, the first-fruits, all other pneumatic persons must rise purified to the place where they by nature belong, and abide there. For all that continues in its place is imperishable; but all that transgresses its natural limits is perishable. Basilides quotes the passage of Paul concerning the groaning and travailing of the creation expecting the revelation of the sons of God (Rom_8:19). In the process of redemption he conceded to faith (pistis) more importance than most of the Gnostics, and his definition of faith was vaguely derived from Heb_11:1.

In his moral teaching Basilides inculcated a moderate asceticism, from which, however, his school soon departed. He used some of Paul’s Epistles and the canonical Gospels; quoting for example, Joh_1:9 (“The true light, which enlightens every man, was coming into the world”), to identify his idea of the world seed with John’s doctrine of the Logos is the light of the world. The fourth Gospel was much used and commented upon also by the Ophites, Perates, and Valentinians before the middle of the second century. The Gnostics were alternately attracted by the mystic Gnosis of that Gospel (especially the Prologue), and repelled by its historic realism, and tried to make the best use of it. They acknowledged it, because they could not help it. The other authorities of Basilides were chiefly the secret tradition of the apostle Matthias, and of a pretended interpreter of Peter, by the name of Glaucias.

His son Isidore was the chief, we may say the only important one, of his disciples. He composed a system of ethics and other books, from which Clement of Alexandria has preserved a few extracts. The Basilidians, especially in the West, seem to have been dualistic and docetic in theory, and loose, even dissolute in practice. They corrupted and vulgarized the high-pitched and artificial system of the founder. The whole life of Christ was to them a mere sham. It was Simon of Cyrene who was crucified; Jesus exchanged forms with him on the way, and, standing unseen opposite in Simon’s form, mocked those who crucified him, and then ascended to heaven. They held it prudent to repudiate Christianity in times of persecution, regarding the noble confession of martyrs as casting pearls before swine, and practiced various sorts of magic, in which the Abraxas gems did them service. The spurious Basilidian sect maintained itself in Egypt till the end of the fourth century, but does not seem to have spread beyond, except that Marcus, a native of Memphis, is reported by Sulpicius Severus to have brought some of its doctrines to Spain.


125. Valentinus

I. The sources are: 1) Fragments of Valentinus; Ptolomey’s Epistola ad Floram; and exegetical fragments of Heracleon. 2) The patristic accounts and refutations of Irenaeus (I. 1-21 and throughout his whole work); Hippolytus (VI. 29-37); Tertullian (Adv. Valentinianos); Epiphanius, (Haer. XXXI; in Oehler’s ed. I. 305-386). The last two depend chiefly upon Irenaeus. See on the sources Lipsius and Heinrici (p. 5-148).

II. Ren. Massuet: Dissert. de Haereticis, Art. I. De Valentino, in his ed. of Irenaeus, and in Stieren’s ed. Tom. II. p. 54-134. Very learned and thorough.

George Heinrici: Die Valentinianische Gnosis und die heilige Schrift. Berlin, 1871 (192 pages).

Comp. Neander (whose account is very good, but lacks the additional information furnished by Hippolytus); Rossel, Theol. Schriften (Berlin, (1847), p. 280 sqq.; Baur, K. Gesch. I. 195-204; and Jacobi, in Herzog2, vol. V. 225-229.

Valentinus or Valentine is the author of the most profound and luxuriant, as well as the most influential and best known of the Gnostic systems. Irenaeus directed his work chiefly against it, and we have made it the basis of our general description of Gnosticism. He founded a large school, and spread his doctrines in the West. He claimed to have derived them from Theodas or Theudas, a pupil of St. Paul. He also pretended to have received revelations from the Logos in a vision. Hippolytus calls him a Platonist and Pythagorean rather than a Christian. He was probably of Egyptian Jewish descent and Alexandrian education. Tertullian reports, perhaps from his own conjecture, that he broke with the orthodox church from disappointed ambition, not being made a bishop. Valentine came to Rome as a public teacher during the pontificate of Hyginus (137-142), and remained there till the pontificate of Anicetus (154). He was then already celebrated; for Justin Martyr, in his lost “Syntagma against all Heresies,” which he mentions in his “First Apology” (140), combated the Valentinians among other heretics before a.d. 140. At that time Rome had become the centre of the church and the gathering place of all sects. Every teacher who wished to exercise a general influence on Christendom naturally looked to the metropolis. Valentine was one of the first Gnostics who taught in Rome, about the same time with Cerdo and Marcion; but though he made a considerable impression by his genius and eloquence, the orthodoxy of the church and the episcopal authority were too firmly settled to allow of any great success for his vagaries. He was excommunicated, and went to Cyprus, where he died about a.d. 160.

His system is an ingenious theogonic and cosmogonic epos. It describes in three acts the creation, the fall, and the redemption; first in heaven, then on earth. Great events repeat themselves in different stages of being. He derived his material from his own fertile imagination, from Oriental and Greek speculations, and from Christian ideas. He made much use of the Prologue of John’s Gospel and the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians; but by a wild exegesis he put his own pantheistic and mythological fancies into the apostolic words, such as Logos, Only Begotten, Truth, Life, Pleroma, Ecclesia.

Valentine starts from the eternal primal Being, which he significantly calls Bythos or Abyss. It is the fathomless depth in which the thinking mind is lost, the ultimate boundary beyond which it cannot pass. The Bythos is unbegotten, infinite, invisible, incomprehensible, nameless, the absolute agnoston; yet capable of evolution and development, the universal Father of all beings. He continues for immeasurable ages in silent contemplation of his own boundless grandeur, glory, and beauty. This “Silence” or “Solitude” (ἠ σιγή) is his Spouse or σύζυγυς. It is the silent self-contemplation, the slumbering consciousness of the Infinite. He also calls it “Thought” (ἔννοια), and “Grace” (χαρίς). The pre-mundane Bythos includes, therefore, at least according to some members of the school, the female as well as the male principle; for from the male principle alone nothing could spring. According to Hippolytus, Valentine derived this sexual duality from the essential nature of love, and said: “God is all love; but love is not love except there is some object of affection.” He grappled here with a pre-mundane mystery, which the Orthodox theology endeavors to solve by the doctrine of the immanent eternal trinity in the divine essence: God is love, therefore God is triune: a loving subject, a beloved object, and a union of the two. “Ubi amor, ibi trinitas.”

After this eternal silence, God enters upon a process of evolution or emanation, i.e. a succession of generations of antithetic and yet supplementary ideas or principles. From the Abyss emanate thirty aeons in fifteen pairs, according to the law of sexual polarity, in three generations, the first called the ogdoad, the second the decad, the third the dodecad. The Aeons are the unfolded powers and attributes of the divinity. They correspond to the dynameis in the system of Basilides. God begets first the masculine, productive Mind or Reason (ὁ νοῦς), with the feminine, receptive Truth (ἠ ἀλήθεια); these two produce the Word (ὁ λόγος) and the Life (ἠ ζωή), and these again the (ideal) Man (ὁ ἄνθρωπος) and the (ideal) Church (ἠ ἐκκλησία). The influence of the fourth Gospel is unmistakable here, though of course the terminology of John is used in a sense different from that of its author. The first two syzygies constitute the sacred Tetraktys, the root of all things. The Nous and the Aletheia produce ten aeons (five pairs); the Logos and the Zoë, twelve aeons (six pairs). At last the Nous or Monogenes and the Aletheia bring forth the heavenly Christ (ὁ ἄνω χριστός) and the (female) Holy Spirit (τό πνεῦμα ἅγιον), and therewith complete the number thirty. These aeons constitute together the Pleroma, the plenitude of divine powers, an expression which St. Paul applied to the historical Christ (Col_2:9). They all partake in substance of the life of the Abyss; but their form is conditioned by the Horos (ὅρος), the limiting power of God. This genius of limitation stands between the Pleroma and the Hysterema outside, and is the organizing power of the universe, and secures harmony. If any being dares to transcend its fixed boundaries and to penetrate beyond revelation into the hidden being of God, it is in danger of sinking into nothing. Two actions are ascribed to the Horos, a negative by which he limits every being and sunders from it foreign elements, and the positive by which he forms and establishes it. The former action is emphatically called Horos, the latter is called Stauros (cross, post), because he stands firm and immovable, the guardian of the Aeons, so that nothing can come from the Hysterema into the neighborhood of the aeons in the Pleroma.

The process of the fall and redemption takes place first in the ideal world of the Pleroma, and is then repeated in the lower world. In this process the lower Wisdom or Sophia, also called Achamoth or Chakmuth plays an important part. She is the mundane soul, a female aeon, the weakest and most remote member of the series of aeons (in number the twenty-eighth), and forms, so to speak, the bridge which spans the abyss between God and the real world. Feeling her loneliness and estrangement from the great Father, she wishes to unite herself immediately, without regard to the intervening links, with him who is the originating principle of the universe, and alone has the power of self-generation. She jumps, as it were by a single bound, into the depth of the eternal Father, and brings forth of herself alone an abortion (ἔκτρωμα),a formless and inchoate substance, of which Moses speaks when he says: “The earth was without form and void.” By this sinful passion she introduces confusion and disturbance into the Pleroma. She wanders about outside of it, and suffers with fear, anxiety, and despair on account of her abortion. This is the fall; an act both free and necessary.

But Sophia yearns after redemption; the aeons sympathize with her sufferings and aspirations; the eternal Father himself commands the projection of the last pair of aeons, Christ and the Holy Spirit, “for the restoration of Form, the destruction of the abortion, and for the consolation and cessation of the groans of Sophia.” They comfort and cheer the Sophia, and separate the abortion from the Pleroma. At last, the thirty aeons together project in honor of the Father the aeon Soter or Jesus, “the great High Priest,” “the Joint Fruit of the Pleroma,” and “send him forth beyond the Pleroma as a Spouse for Sophia, who was outside, and as a rectifier of those sufferings which she underwent in searching after Christ.” After many sufferings, Sophia is purged of all passions and brought back as the bride of Jesus, together with all pneumatic natures, into the ideal world. The demiurge, the fiery and jealous God of the Jews, as “the friend of the bridegroom,” with the psychical Christians on the border of the Pleroma, remotely shares the joy of the festival, while matter sinks back into nothing.

In Valentine’s Christology, we must distinguish properly three redeeming beings: (1) The ἄνω χριστός or heavenly Christ, who, after the fall of Sophia, emanates from the aeon μονογενής, and stands in conjunction with the female principle, the πνεῦμα ἅγιον. He makes the first announcement to the aeons of the plan of redemption, whereupon they strike up anthems of praise and thanksgiving in responsive choirs. (2) The σωτήρ or Ἰησοῦς, produced by all the aeons together, the star of the Pleroma. He forms with the redeemed Sophia the last and highest syzygy. (3) The κάτω χριστός, the psychical or Jewish Messiah, who is sent by the Demiurge, passes through the body of Mary as water through a pipe, and is at last crucified by the Jews, but, as he has merely an apparent body, does not really suffer. With him Soter, the proper redeemer, united himself in the baptism in the Jordan, to announce his divine gnosis on earth for a year, and lead the pneumatic persons to perfection.



Dr. Baur, the great critical historian of ancient Gnosticism and the master spirit of modern Gnosticism, ingeniously reproduces the Valentinian system in Hegelian terminology. I quote the chief part, as a fair specimen of his historic treatment, from his Kirchengeschichte, vol. I. 201 sqq. (comp. his Gnosis, p. 124 sqq.):

“Der Geist, oder Gott als der Geist an sich, geht aus sich heraus, in dieser Sebstoffenbarung Gottes entsteht die Welt, die in ihrem Unterschied von Gott auch wieder an sich mit Gott eins ist. Wie man aber auch dieses immanente Verhältniss von Gott und Welt betrachten mag, als Selbstoffenbarung Gottes oder als Weltentwicklung, es ist an sich ein rein geistiger, im Wesen des Geistes begründeter Process. Der Geist stellt in den Aeonen, die er aus sich hervorgehen lässt, sein eigenes Wesen aus sich heraus und sich gegenüber; da aber das Wesen des Geistes an sich das Denken und Wissen ist, so kann der Process seiner Selbstoffenbarung nur darin bestehen, dass er sich dessen bewusst ist, was er an sich ist. Die Aeonen des Pleroma sind die höchsten Begriffe des geistigen Seins und Lebens, die allgemeinen Denkformen, in welchen der Geist das, was er an sich ist, in bestimmter concreter Weise für das Bewusstsein ist. Mit dem Wissen des Geistes von sich, dem Selbstbewusstsein des sich von sich unterscheidenden Geistes, ist aber auch schon nicht blos ein Princip der Differenzirung, sondern, da Gott und Welt an sich Eins sind, auch ein Princip der Materialisirung des Geistes gesetzt. Je grösser der Abstand der das Bewusstsein des Geistes vermittelnden Begriffe von dem absolutes Princip ist, um so mehr verdunkelt sich das geistige Bewusstsein, der Geiste, entäussert sich seiner selbst, er ist sich selbst nicht mehr klar und durchsichtig, das Pneumatische sinkt zum Prychischen herab, das Psychische verdichtet sich zum Materiellen, und mit dem Materiellen verbindet sich in seinem Extrem auch der Begriff des Dämonischen und Diabolischen. Da aber auch das psychische an sich pneumatischer Natur ist, und Keime des geistigen Lebens überall zurückgeblieben sind, so muss das Pneumatische die materielle Verdunklung des geistigen Bewusstseins auf der Stufe des psychischen Lebens wieder durchbrechen und die Decke abwerfen, die in der Welt des Demiurg auf dem Bewusstsein des Geistes liegt. Die ganze Weltentwicklung ist die Continuität desselben geistigen Processes, es muss daher auch einen Wendepunkt geben, in welchem der Geist aus seiner Selbstentäuserung zu sich selbst zurückkehrt und wieder zum klaren Bewusstsein dessen, was er an sich ist, kommt. Dies ist der gnostische Begriff der christlichen Offenbarung. Die Wissenden im Sinne der Gnostiker, die Pneumatischen, die als solche auch das wahrhaft christliche Bewusstsein in sich haben, sind ein neues Moment des allgemeinen geistigen Lebens, die höchste Stufe der Selbstoffenbarung Gottes und der Weltentwicklung. Diese Periode des Weltverlaufs beginnt mit der Erscheinung Christi und endet zuletzt damit, dass durch Christus und die Sophia alles Geistige in das Pleroma wieder aufgenommen wird. Da Christus, wie auf jeder Stufe der Weltentwicklung, so auch schon in den höchsten Regionen der Aeonenwelt, in welcher alles seinem Ausgangspunkt hat, and von Anfang an auf dieses Reultant des Ganzen angelegt ist, als das wiederherstellende, in der Einheit mit dem Absolutn erhaltende Princip thätig ist, so hat er in der Waltanschauung der Gnostiker durchaus die Bedeutung eines absolutn Weltprincips.”