Vol.2, Chapter XI. The Heresies of the Ante-Nicene Age


112. Judaism and Heathenism Within the Church

Having described in previous chapters the moral and intellectual victory of the church over avowed and consistent Judaism and heathenism, we must now look at her deep and mighty struggle with those enemies in a hidden and more dangerous form: with Judaism and heathenism concealed in the garb of Christianity and threatening to Judaize and paganize the church. The patristic theology and literature can never be thoroughly understood without a knowledge of the heresies of the patristic age, which play as important a part in the theological movements of the ancient Greek and Latin churches as Rationalism with its various types in the modern theology of the Protestant churches of Europe and America.

Judaism, with its religion and its sacred writings, and Graeco-Roman heathenism, with its secular culture, its science, and its art, were designed to pass into Christianity to be transformed and sanctified. But even in the apostolic age many Jews and Gentiles were baptized only with water, not with the Holy Spirit and fire of the gospel, and smuggled their old religious notions and practices into the church. Hence the heretical tendencies, which are combated in the New Testament, especially in the Pauline and Catholic Epistles.

The same heresies meet us at the beginning of the second century, and thenceforth in more mature form and in greater extent in almost all parts of Christendom. They evince, on the one hand, the universal import of the Christian religion in history, and its irresistible power over all the more profound and earnest minds of the age. Christianity threw all their religious ideas into confusion and agitation. They were so struck with the truth, beauty, and vigor of the new religion, that they could no longer rest either in Judaism or in heathenism; and yet many were unable or unwilling to forsake inwardly their old religion and philosophy. Hence strange medleys of Christian and unchristian elements in chaotic ferment. The old religions did not die without a last desperate effort to save themselves by appropriating Christian ideas. And this, on the other hand, exposed the specific truth of Christianity to the greatest danger, and obliged the church to defend herself against misrepresentation, and to secure herself against relapse to the Jewish or the heathen level.

As Christianity was met at its entrance into the world by two other religions, the one relatively true, and the other essentially false, heresy appeared likewise in the two leading forms of ebionism and gnosticism, the germs of which, as already observed, attracted the notice of the apostles. The remark of Hegesippus, that the church preserved a virginal purity of doctrine to the time of Hadrian, must be understood as made only in view of the open advance of Gnosticism in the second century, and therefore as only relatively true. The very same writer expressly observes, that heresy had been already secretly working from the days of Simon Magus. Ebionism is a Judaizing, pseudo-Petrine Christianity, or, as it may equally well be called, a Christianizing Judaism; Gnosticism is a paganizing or pseudo-Pauline Christianity, or a pseudo-Christian heathenism.

These two great types of heresy are properly opposite poles. Ebionism is a particularistic contraction of the Christian religion; Gnosticism, a vague expansion of it. The one is a gross realism and literalism; the other, a fantastic idealism and spiritualism. In the former the spirit is bound in outward forms; in the latter it revels in licentious freedom. Ebionism makes salvation depend on observance of the law; Gnosticism, on speculative knowledge. Under the influence of Judaistic legalism, Christianity must stiffen and petrify; under the influence of Gnostic speculation, it must dissolve into empty notions and fancies. Ebionism denies the divinity of Christ, and sees in the gospel only a new law; Gnosticism denies the true humanity of the Redeemer, and makes his person and his work a mere phantom, a docetistic illusion.

The two extremes, however, meet; both tendencies from opposite directions reach the same result — the denial of the incarnation, of the true and abiding union of the divine and the human in Christ and his kingdom; and thus they fall together under St. John’s criterion of the antichristian spirit of error. In both Christ ceases to be mediator and reconciler and his religion makes no specific advance upon the Jewish and the heathen, which place God and man in abstract dualism, or allow them none but a transient and illusory union.

Hence, there were also some forms of error, in which Ebionistic and Gnostic elements were combined. We have a Gnostic or theosophic Ebionism the pseudo-Clementine), and a Judaizing Gnosticism (in Cerinthus and others). These mixed forms also we find combated in the apostolic age. Indeed, similar forms of religious syncretism we meet with even before the time and beyond the field of Christianity, in the Essenes, the Therapeutae, and the Platonizing Jewish philosopher, Philo.


113. Nazarenes and Ebionites (Elkesaites, Mandoeans)

I. Irenaeus: Adv. Haer. I. 26. Hippolytus: Refut. omnium Haer., or Philosophumena, l. IX. 13-17. Epiphanius: Haer. 29, 30, 53. Scattered notices in Justin M., Tertullian, Origen, Hegesippus, Eusebius, and Jerome. Several of the Apocryphal Gospels, especially that of the Hebrews. The sources are obscure and conflicting. Comp. the collection of fragments from Elxai, the Gospel of the Hebrews, etc. in Hilgenfeld’s Novum Test. extra Canonem receptum. Lips. 1866,

II. Gieseler: Nazaräer u. Ebioniten (in the fourth vol. of Stäudlin’s and Tzschirner’s “Archiv.” Leipz. 1820).

Credner: Ueber Essaeer und Ebioniten und einen theitweisen Zusammenhang derselben (in Winer’s “Zeitschrift für wissensch. Theol.” Sulzbach, 1829).

Baur: De Ebionitarum Origine et Doctrina ab Essaeis repetenda. Tüb. 1831.

Schliemann: Die Clementinen u. der Ebionitismus, Hamb. 1844, p. 362-552.

Ritschl: Ueber die Secte der Elkesaiten (in Niedner’s “Zeitschr. Hist. Theol.” 1853, No. 4).

D. Chwolsohn: Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus. St. Petersburg, 1856, 2 vols.

Uhlhorn: Ebioniten and Elkesaiten, in Herzog, new ed., vol. IV. (1879), 13 sqq. and 184 sqq.

G. Salmon: Elkesai, Elkesaites, in Smith & Wace, vol. II. (1880) p. 95 98.

M. N. Siouffi: Études sur la religion des Soubbas on Sabéens, leurs dogmes, leurs moeurs. Paris, 1880.

K. Kessler: Mandaeer, in Herzog, revised ed., IX. (1881), p. 205-222.

AD. Hilgenfeld: Ketzergesch. des Urchristenthums, Leip., 1884 (421 sqq.).

The Jewish Christianity, represented in the apostolic church by Peter and James, combined with the Gentile Christianity of Paul, to form a Christian church, in which “neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature in Christ.”

I. A portion of the Jewish Christians, however, adhered even after the destruction of Jerusalem, to the national customs of their fathers, and propagated themselves in some churches of Syria down to the end of the fourth century, under the name of Nazarenes; a name perhaps originally given in contempt by the Jews to all Christians as followers of Jesus of Nazareth. They united the observance of the Mosaic ritual law with their belief in the Messiahship and divinity of Jesus, used the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, deeply mourned the unbelief of their brethren, and hoped for their future conversion in a body and for a millennial reign of Christ on the earth. But they indulged no antipathy to the apostle Paul, and never denounced the Gentile Christians and heretics for not observing the law. They were, therefore, not heretics, but stunted separatist Christians; they stopped at the obsolete position of a narrow and anxious Jewish Christianity, and shrank to an insignificant sect. Jerome says of them, that, wishing to be Jews and Christians alike, they were neither one nor the other.

II. From these Nazarenes we must carefully distinguish the heretical Jewish Christians, or the ebionites, who were more numerous. Their name comes not, as Tertullian first intimated, from a supposed founder of the sect, Ebion, of whom we know nothing, but from the Hebrew word, אֶבְיוֹן poor. It may have been originally, like “Nazarene” and “Galilean,” a contemptuous designation of all Christians, the majority of whom lived in needy circumstances; but it was afterwards confined to this sect; whether in reproach, to denote the poverty of their doctrine of Christ and of the law, as Origen more ingeniously than correctly explains it; or, more probably, in honor, since the Ebionites regarded themselves as the genuine followers of the poor Christ and his poor disciples, and applied to themselves alone the benediction on the poor in spirit. According to Epiphanius, Ebion spread his error first in the company of Christians which fled to Pella after the destruction of Jerusalem; according to Hegesippus in Eusebius, one Thebutis, after the death of the bishop Symeon of Jerusalem, about 107, made schism among the Jewish Christians, and led many of them to apostatize, because he himself was not elected to the bishopric.

We find the sect of the Ebionites in Palestine and the surrounding regions, on the island of Cyprus, in Asia Minor, and even in Rome. Though it consisted mostly of Jews, Gentile Christians also sometimes attached themselves to it. It continued into the fourth century, but at the time of Theodoret was entirely extinct. It used a Hebrew Gospel, now lost, which was probably a corruption of the Gospel of Matthew.

The characteristic marks of Ebionism in all its forms are: degradation of Christianity to the level of Judaism; the principle of the universal and perpetual validity of the Mosaic law; and enmity to the apostle Paul. But, as there were different sects in Judaism itself, we have also to distinguish at least two branches of Ebionism, related to each other as Pharisaism and Essenism, or, to use a modern illustration, as the older deistic and the speculative pantheistic rationalism in Germany, or the practical and the speculative schools in Unitarianism.

1. The common Ebionites, who were by far the more numerous, embodied the Pharisaic legalism, and were the proper successors of the Judaizers opposed in the Epistle to the Galatians. Their doctrine may be reduced to the following propositions:

(a) Jesus is, indeed, the promised Messiah, the son of David, and the supreme lawgiver, yet a mere man, like Moses and David, sprung by natural generation from Joseph and Mary. The sense of his Messianic calling first arose in him at his baptism by John, when a higher spirit joined itself to him. Hence, Origen compared this sect to the blind man in the Gospel, who called to the Lord, without seeing him: “Thou son of David, have mercy on me.”

(b) Circumcision and the observance of the whole ritual law of Moses are necessary to salvation for all men.

(c) Paul is an apostate and heretic, and all his epistles are to be discarded. The sect considered him a native heathen, who came over to Judaism in later life from impure motives.

(d) Christ is soon to come again, to introduce the glorious millennial reign of the Messiah, with the earthly Jerusalem for its seat.

2. The second class of Ebionites, starting with Essenic notions, gave their Judaism a speculative or theosophic stamp, like the errorists of the Epistle to the Colossians. They form the stepping-stone to Gnosticism. Among these belong the Elkesaites. They arose, according to Epiphanius, in the reign of Trajan, in the regions around the Dead Sea, where the Essenes lived. Their name is derived from their supposed founder, Elxai or Elkasai, and is interpreted: “hidden power,” which (according to Gieseler’s suggestion) signifies the Holy Spirit. This seems to have been originally the title of a book, which pretended, like the book of Mormon, to be revealed by an angel, and was held in the highest esteem by the sect. This secret writing, according to the fragments in Origen, and in the “Philosophumena” of Hippolytus, contains the groundwork of the remarkable pseudo-Clementine system. (See next section.) It is evidently of Jewish origin, represents Jerusalem as the centre of the religious world, Christ as a creature and the Lord of angels and all other creatures, the Holy Spirit as a female, enjoins circumcision as well as baptism, rejects St. Paul, and justifies the denial of faith in time of persecution. It claims to date from the third year of Trajan (101). This and the requirement of circumcision would make it considerably older than the Clementine Homilies. A copy of that book was brought to Rome from Syria by a certain Alcibiades about a.d. 222, and excited attention by announcing a new method of forgiveness of sins.

3. A similar sect are the Mandaeans, from Manda, knowledge (γνῶσις)also Sabians, i.e. Baptists (from sâbi, to baptize, to wash), and Mughtasilah, which has the same meaning. On account of their great reverence for John the Baptist, they were called “Christians of John.” Their origin is uncertain. A remnant of them still exists, in Persia on the eastern banks of the Tigris. Their sacred language is an Aramaic dialect of some importance for comparative philology. At present they speak Arabic and Persian. Their system is very complicated with the prevalence of the heathen element, and comes nearest to Manichaeism.


114. The Pseudo-Clementine Ebionism

I. Sources

1. Τά Κλημέντια, or more accurately Κλήμεντος τῶν Πέτρου ἐπιδημιῶν κηρυγμάτων ἐπιτομή first published (without the twentieth and part of the nineteenth homily) by Cotelier in “Patres Apost.” Par. 1672; Clericus in his editions of Cotelier, 1698, 1700, and 1724; again by Schwegler, Stuttg. 1847 (the text of Clericus); then first entire, with the missing portion, from a new codex in the Ottobonian Library in the Vatican, by Alb. R. M. Dressel (with the Latin trans. of Cotelier and notes), under the title: Clementis Romani quae feruntur Homiliae Viginti nunc primum integrae. Gott. 1853; and by Paul de Lagarde: Clementina Graece. Leipz. 1865.

2. Clementis Rom. Recognitiones (Ἀναγνωρισμοί or Ἀναγνώσεις), in ten books, extant only in the Latin translation of Rufinus (d. 410); first published in Basel, 1526; then better by Cotelier, Gallandi, and by Gersdorf in his “Bibl. Patr. Lat.” Lips. 1838. Vol. I. In Syriac, ed. by P. de Lagarde (Clementis Romani Recognitiones Syriace). Lips. 1861. An English translation of the Recognitions of Clement by Dr. Thomas Smith, in the “Ante-Nicene Christian Library,” Edinburgh, vol. III. (1868), pp. 137-471. The work in the MSS. bears different titles, the most common is Itinerarium St. Clementis.

3. Clementine Epitome de Gestis Petri (Κλήμ. ἐπισκ. Ῥώμησπερὶ τῶν πράξεων ἐπιδημιῶν τε καὶ κηρυγμάτων Πέτρου ἐπιτομή), first at Paris, 1555; then critically edited by Cotelier, l.c.; and more completely with a second epitome by A. R. M. Dressel: Clementinorum Epitomae duae, with valuable critical annotations by Fr. Wieseler. Lips. 1859. The two Epitomes are only a summary of the Homilies.


II. Works

Neander and Baur, in their works on Gnosticism (vid. the following section), and in their Church Histories.

Schliemann: Die Clementinen nebst den verwandten Schriften, u. der Ebionitismus. Hamb. 1844.

Ad. Hilgenfeld: Die Clementinischen Recognitionem n. Homilien nach ihrem Ursprüng n. Inhalt. Jena, 1848. Art. by the same in the “Theol. Jahrbücher” for 1854 (483 sqq.), and 1868 (357 sqq.); and Die Apost. Väter. Halle 1853, p. 287-302.

G. Uhlhorn: Die Homilien n. Recognitionem des Clemens Romanus. Gött. 1854. Comp. the same author’s article “Clementinen,” in Herzog, second ed., vol. III. (1878), p. 277-286.

Ritschl: Die Entstehung der altkath. Kirche 1857 (second ed. p. 206-270).

J. Lehmann: Die Clementinischen Schriften mit besonderer Rücksicht auf ihr liter. Verhältniss. Gotha 1869. He mediates between Hilgenfeld and Uhlhorn. (See a review by Lipsius in the “Protest. Kirchenztg,” 1869, 477-482, and by Lagarde in his “Symmicta,” I. 1877, pp. 2-4 and 108-112, where Lehmann is charged with plagiarism).

R. A. Lipsius: Die Quellen der römischen Petrus-Sage kritish untersucht. Kiel 1872. Lipsius finds the basis of the whole Clementine literature in the strongly anti-Pauline Acta Petri.

A. B. Lutterbeck: Die Clementinen und ihr Verh. z. Unfehlbarkeitsdogma. Giessen, 1872.


The Pseudo-Clementine Ebionism

The system of the pseudo-Clementine Homilies exhibits Ebionism at once in its theosophic perfection, and in its internal dissolution. It represents rather an individual opinion, than a sect, but holds probably some connection, not definitely ascertained, with the Elkesaites, who, as appears from the “Philosophumena,” branched out even to Rome. It is genuinely Ebionitic or Judaistic in its monotheistic basis, its concealed antagonism to Paul, and its assertion of the essential identity of Christianity and Judaism, while it expressly rejects the Gnostic fundamental doctrine of the demiurge. It cannot, therefore, properly be classed, as it is by Baur, among the Gnostic schools.

The twenty Clementine Homilies bear the celebrated name of the Roman bishop Clement, mentioned in Phi_4:3, as a helper of Paul, but evidently confounded in the pseudo-Clementine literature with Flavius Clement, kinsman of the Emperor Domitian. They really come from an unknown, philosophically educated author, probably a Jewish Christian, of the second half of the second century. They are a philosophico-religious romance, based on some historical traditions, which it is now impossible to separate from apocryphal accretions. The conception of Simon as a magician was furnished by the account in the eighth chapter of Acts, and his labors in Rome were mentioned by Justin Martyr. The book is prefaced by a letter of Peter to James, bishop of Jerusalem, in which he sends him his sermons, and begs him to keep them strictly secret; and by a letter of the pseudo-Clement to the same James in which he relates how Peter, shortly before his death, appointed him (Clement) his successor in Rome, and enjoined upon him to send to James a work composed at the instance of Peter, entitled “Clementis Epitome praedicationum Petri in peregrinationibus.” By these epistles it was evidently designed to impart to the pretended extract from the itinerant sermons and disputations of Peter, the highest apostolical authority, and at the same time to explain the long concealment of them.

The substance of the Homilies themselves is briefly this: Clement, an educated Roman, of the imperial family, not satisfied with heathenism, and thirsting for truth, goes to Judaea, having heard, under the reign of Tiberius, that Jesus had appeared there. In Caesarea he meets the apostle Peter, and being instructed and converted by him, accompanies him on his missionary journeys in Palestine, to Tyre, Tripolis, Laodicea, and Antioch. He attends upon the sermons of Peter and his long, repeated disputations with Simon Magus, and, at the request of the apostle, commits the substance of them to writing. Simon Peter is thus the proper hero of the romance, and appears throughout as the representative of pure, primitive Christianity, in opposition to Simon Magus, who is portrayed as a “man full of enmity,” and a “deceiver,” the author of all anti-Jewish heresies, especially of the Marcionite Gnosticism. The author was acquainted with the four canonical Gospels, and used them, Matthew most, John least; and with them another work of the same sort, probably of the Ebionitic stamp, but now unknown.

It has been ingeniously conjectured by Baur (first in 1831), and adopted by his pupils, that the pseudo-Clementine Peter combats, under the mask of the Magician, the apostle Paul (nowhere named in the Homilies), as the first and chief corrupter of Christianity. This conjecture, which falls in easily with Baur’s view of the wide-spread and irreconcilable antagonism of Petrinism and Paulinism in the primitive church, derives some support from several malicious allusions to Paul, especially the collision in Antioch. Simon Magus is charged with claiming that Christ appeared to him in a vision, and called him to be an apostle, and yet teaching a doctrine contrary to Christ, hating his apostles, and denouncing Peter, the firm rock and foundation of the church, as “self-condemned.” But this allusion is probably only an incidental sneer at Paul. The whole design of the Homilies, and the account given of the origin, history and doctrine of Simon, are inconsistent with such an identification of the heathen magician with the Christian apostle. Simon Magus is described in the Homilies as a Samaritan, who studied Greek in Alexandria, and denied the supremacy of God and the resurrection of the dead, substituted Mount Gerizim for Jerusalem, and declared himself the true Christ. He carried with him a companion or mistress, Helena, who descended from the highest heavens, and was the primitive essence and wisdom. If Paul had been intended, the writer would have effectually concealed and defeated his design by such and other traits, which find not the remotest parallel in the history and doctrine of Paul, but are directly opposed to the statements in his Epistles and in the Acts of the Apostles.

In the Recognitions the anti-Pauline tendency is moderated, yet Paul’s labors are ignored, and Peter is made the apostle of the Gentiles.

The doctrine which pseudo-Clement puts into the mouth of Peter, and very skillfully interweaves with his narrative, is a confused mixture of Ebionitic and Gnostic, ethical and metaphysical ideas and fancies. He sees in Christianity only the restoration of the pure primordial religion, which God revealed in the creation, but which, on account of the obscuring power of sin and the seductive influence of demons, must be from time to time renewed. The representatives of this religion are the pillars of the world: Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Christ. These are in reality only seven different incarnations of the same Adam or primal man, the true prophet of God, who was omniscient and infallible. What is recorded unfavorable to these holy men, the drunkenness of Noah, the polygamy of the patriarchs, the homicide of Moses, and especially the blasphemous history of the fall of Adam, as well as all unworthy anthropopathical passages concerning God, were foisted into the Old Testament by the devil and his demons. Thus, where Philo and Origen resorted to allegorical interpretation, to remove what seems offensive in Scripture, pseudo-Clement adopts the still more arbitrary hypothesis of diabolical interpolations. Among the true prophets of God, again, he gives Adam, Moses, and Christ peculiar eminence, and places Christ above all, though without raising him essentially above a prophet and lawgiver. The history of religion, therefore, is not one of progress, but only of return to the primitive revelation. Christianity and Mosaism are identical, and both coincide with the religion of Adam. Whether a man believe in Moses or in Christ, it is all the same, provided he blaspheme neither. But to know both, and find in both the same doctrine, is to be rich in God, to recognize the new as old, and the old as become new. Christianity is an advance only in its extension of the gospel to the Gentiles, and its consequent universal character.

As the fundamental principle of this pure religion, our author lays down the doctrine of one God, the creator of the world. This is thoroughly Ebionitic, and directly opposed to the dualism of the demiurgic doctrine of the Gnostics. But then he makes the whole stream of created life flow forth from God in a long succession of sexual and ethical antitheses and syzygies, and return into him as its absolute rest; here plainly touching the pantheistic emanation-theory of Gnosticism. God himself one from the beginning, has divided everything into counterparts, into right and left, heaven and earth, day and night, light and darkness, life and death. The monad thus becomes the dyad. The better came first, the worse followed; but from man onward the order was reversed. Adam, created in the image of God, is the true prophet; his wife, Eve, represents false prophecy. They were followed, first, by wicked Cain, and then by righteous Abel. So Peter appeared after Simon Magus, as light after darkness, health after sickness. So, at the last, will antichrist precede the advent of Christ. And finally, the whole present order of things loses itself in the future; the pious pass into eternal life; the ungodly, since the soul becomes mortal by the corruption of the divine image, are annihilated after suffering a punishment, which is described as a purifying fire. When the author speaks of eternal punishment, he merely accommodates himself to the popular notion. The fulfilling of the law, in the Ebionitic sense, and knowledge, on a half-Gnostic principle, are the two parts of the way of salvation. The former includes frequent fasts, ablutions, abstinence from animal food, and voluntary poverty; while early marriage is enjoined, to prevent licentiousness. In declaring baptism to be absolutely necessary to the forgiveness of sin, the author approaches the catholic system. He likewise adopts the catholic principle involved, that salvation is to be found only in the external church.

As regards ecclesiastical organization, he fully embraces the monarchical episcopal view. The bishop holds the place of Christ in the congregation, and has power to bind and loose. Under him stand the presbyters and deacons. But singularly, and again in true Ebionitic style, James, the brother of the Lord, bishop of Jerusalem, which is the centre of Christendom, is made the general vicar of Christ, the visible head of the whole church, the bishop of bishops. Hence even Peter must give him an account of his labors; and hence, too, according to the introductory epistles, the sermons of Peter and Clement’s abstract of them were sent to James for safe-keeping, with the statement, that Clement had been named by Peter as his successor at Rome.

It is easy to see that this appeal to a pseudo-Petrine primitive Christianity was made by the author of the Homilies with a view to reconcile all the existing differences and divisions in Christendom. In this effort he, of course, did not succeed, but rather made way for the dissolution of the Ebionitic element still existing in the orthodox catholic church.

Besides these Homilies, of which the Epitome is only a poor abridgement, there are several other works, some printed, some still unpublished, which are likewise forged upon Clement of Rome, and based upon the same historical material, with unimportant deviations, but are in great measure free, as to doctrine, from Judaistic and Gnostic ingredients, and come considerably nearer the line of orthodoxy.

The most important of these are the Recognitions of Clement, in ten books, mentioned by Origen, but now extant only in a Latin translation by Rufinus. They take their name from the narrative, in the last books, of the reunion of the scattered members of the Clementine family, who all at last find themselves together in Christianity, and are baptized by Peter.

On the question of priority between these two works, critics are divided, some making the Recognitions an orthodox, or at least more nearly orthodox, version of the Homilies; others regarding the Homilies as a heretical corruption of the Recognitions. But in all probability both works are based upon older and simpler Jewish-Christian documents, under the assumed names of Peter and Clement.

As to their birth-place, the Homilies probably originated in East Syria, the Recognitions in Rome. They are assigned to the second half of the second century.

In a literary point of view, these productions are remarkable, as the first specimens of Christian romance, next to the “Pastor Hermae.” They far surpass, in matter, and especially in moral earnestness and tender feeling, the heathen romances of a Chariton and an Achilles Tatios, of the fourth or fifth centuries. The style, though somewhat tedious, is fascinating in its way, and betrays a real artist in its combination of the didactic and historical, the philosophic and the poetic elements.



Lagarde (in the Preface to his edition of the Clementina, p. 22) and G. E. Stietz (in the lengthy review of Lagarde in the “Studien und Kritiken” for 1867, No. III p. 556 sqq), draw a parallel between the pseudo-Clementine fiction of Simon and the German story of Faust, the magician, and derive the latter from the former through the medium of the Recognitions, which were better known in the church than the homilies. George Sabellicus, about a.d. 1507, called himself Faustus junior, magus secundus. Clement’s father is called Faustus, and his two brothers, Fatistinus and Faustinianus (in the Recognitions Faustus, and Faustinus), were brought up with Simon the magician, and at first associated with him. The characters of Helena and Homunculus appear in both stories, though very differently. I doubt whether these resemblances are sufficient to establish a connection between the two otherwise widely divergent popular fictions.


115. Gnosticism. The Literature


1. Gnostic (of the Valentinian school in the wider sense): Pistis Sopitia; Opus gnosticum e codice Coptico descriptum lat. vertit M. G Schwartze, ed. J. H. Petermann. Berl. 1851. Of the middle of the third century. An account of the fall and repentance of Sophia and the mystery of redemption. Comp. the article of Köstlin in the “Tüb. Theol. Jahrbücher,” 1854. — The Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Apocalypses are to a large extent of Gnostic origin, e.g. the Acts of St. Thomas (a favorite apostle of the Gnostics), John, Peter, Paul, Philip, Matthew, Andrew, Paul and Thecla. Some of them have been worked over by Catholic authors, and furnished much material to the legendary lore of the church. They and the stories of monks were the religious novels of the early church. See the collections of the apocryphal literature of the N. T. by Fabricius, Thilo, Tischendorf, Max Bonnet, D. William Wright, G. Phillips, S. C. Malan, Zahn, and especially Lipsius: Die Apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und Apostelligenden (Braunschweig, 1883, 2 vols.) Comp. the Lit. quoted in vol. I. § 14; § 20, and in Lipsius, I. 34 sqq.

II. Patristic (with many extracts from lost Gnostic writings): Irenaeus: Adv. Haereses. The principal source, especially for the Valentinian Gnosticism. Hippolytus: Refutat. Omnium Haeresium (Philosophumena), ed. Duncker and Schneidewin. Gott. 1859. Based partly on Irenaeus, partly on independent reading of Gnostic works. Tertullian: De praescriptionibus Haereticorum; Adv. Valentin; Scorpiace; Adv. Marcionem. The last is the chief authority for Marcionism. Clemens Alex.: Stromata. Scattered notices of great value. Origenes: Com. in Evang. Joh. Furnishes much important information and extracts from Heracleon. Epiphanius: Πανάριον. Full of information, but uncritical and fanatically orthodox. Eusebius: Hist. Eccl. Theodoret: Fabulae Haer.

See Fr. Oehler’s Corpus Haereseologicum (a collection of the ancient anti-heretical works of Epiphanius, Philastrus, Augustin, etc.). Berol. 1856-1861, 5 vols.

III. Neo-Platonist: Plotinus: Πρὸς τοὺς γνωστικούς (or Ennead. II. 9).

IV. Critical: R. A. Lipsius: Zur Quellen-Kritik des Epiphanios. Wien 1865. Die Quellen der äItesten Ketzergeschichte. Leipz. 1875 (258 pp.)

Ad. Harnack: Zur Quellen-Kritik der Geschichte des Gnosticismus. Leipz. 1873. Comp. his article in Brieger’s “Zeitschrift für K. Gesell.” for 1876, I. Also Hilgenfeld: Ketzergesch. p. 1-83.



Massuet (R.C.): Dissert. de Gnosticorum rebus, prefixed to his edition of Irenaeus; also in Stieren’s edition of Iren. vol. II. pp. 54-180.

Mosheim: Comment. de rebus ante Const. M. pp. 333 sqq.

Neander: Genet. Entwicktlung der gnost. Systeme. Berl. 1818. Comp. the more mature exposition in his Ch. Hist. He first opened a calm philosophical treatment of Gnosticism.

Jaques Matter.: Histoire critique du Gnosticisme et de son influence sur les sectes religieuses el philosophiques des six premiers siècles Par. 1828; second ed. much enlarged. Strasb. and Par. 1844, in 3 vols.

Burton: Bampton Lectures on the Heresies of the Apost. Age. Oxf. 1830,

Möhler (R.C.): Der Ursprung des Gnosticismus. Tüb. 1831 (in his “Vermischte Schriften.” I. pp. 403 sqq.)

Baur: Die christliche Gnosis in ihrer geschichtl. Entwicklung. Tüb. 1835. A masterly philosophical analysis, which includes also the systems of Jacob Böhme, Schelling, Schleiermacher, and Hegel. Comp. his Kirchengesch. vol. I. 175-234.

Norton: History of the Gnostics. Boston, 1845.

H. Rossel: Gesch. der Untersuch. über den Gnostic.; in his “Theol. Nachlass.” published by Neander. Berl. 1847, vol. 2nd, p. 179 sqq.

Thiersch: Kritik der N. Tlichen Schriften. Erl. 1845 (chap. 5, pp. 231 sqq. and 268 sqq.)

R. A. Lipsius: Der Gnosticismus, sein Wesen, Ursprung und Entwicklungsgang. Leipz. 1860 (from Ersch and Gruber’s “Allgem. Encycl.” 1. Sect. vol. 71). Comp. his critical work on the sources of Gn. quoted above.

E. Wilh. Möller: Geschichte des, Kosmologie in der griechischen Kirche bis auf Origenes. Mit specialuntersuchungen über die gnostischen Systeme. Halle, 1860 (pp. 189-473).

C. W. King: The Gnostics and their Remains (with illustrations of Gnostic symbols and works of art). Lond., 1864.

Henry L. Mansel (Dean of St. Paul’s, d. 1871): The Gnostic Heresies, ed. by J. B. Lightfoot. London, 1875.

J. B. Lightfoot: The Colossian Heresy, Excursus in his Com. on Colossians and Philemon. London, 187, 5, pp. 73-113. This is the best account of Gnosticism, written by an Englishman, but confined to the apostolic ige.

Renan: L’ église chrétienne (Paris, 1879), Chap. IX. and X. p. 140-185, and XVIII. p. 350-363.

J. L. Jacobi: Gnosis, in the new ed. of Herzog, vol. V. (1879), 204-247, condensed in Schaff’s “Rel. Encycl.” 1882, vol. I. 877 sqq.

G. Salmon, in Smith and Wace, II. 678-687.

G. Koffmane: Die Gnosis nach ihrer Tendenz und Organisation. Breslau, 1881. (Theses, 33 pages).

Ad. Hilgenfeld:Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristenthums. Liepzig, 1884 (162 sqq.).

A number of monographs on the individual Gnostics, see below.


116. Meaning, Origin and Character of Gnosticism

The Judaistic form of heresy was substantially conquered in the apostolic age. More important and more widely spread in the second period was the paganizing heresy, known by the name of Gnosticism. It was the Rationalism of the ancient church; it pervaded the intellectual atmosphere, and stimulated the development of catholic theology by opposition.

The Greek word gnosis may denote all schools of philosophical or religious knowledge, in distinction from superficial opinion or blind belief. The New Testament makes a plain distinction between true and false gnosis. The true consists in a deep insight into the essence and structure of the Christian truth, springs from faith, is accompanied by the cardinal virtues of love and humility, serves to edify the church, and belongs among the gifts of grace wrought by the Holy Spirit. In this sense, Clement of Alexandria and Origen aimed at gnosis, and all speculative theologians who endeavor to reconcile reason and revelation, may be called Christian Gnostics. The false gnosis on the contrary, against which Paul warns Timothy, and which he censures in the Corinthians and Colossians is a morbid pride of wisdom, an arrogant, self-conceited, ambitious knowledge, which puffs up, instead of edifying (1Co_8:1), runs into idle subtleties and disputes, and verifies in its course the apostle’s word: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools (Rom_1:22).”

In this bad sense, the word applies to the error of which we now speak, and which began to show itself at least as early as the days of Paul and John. It is a one-sided intellectualism on a dualistic heathen basis. It rests on an over-valuation of knowledge or gnosis, and a depreciation of faith or pistis. The Gnostics contrasted themselves by this name with the Pistics, or the mass of believing Christians. They regarded Christianity as consisting essentially in a higher knowledge; fancied themselves the sole possessors of an esoteric, philosophical religion, which made them genuine, spiritual men, and looked down with contempt upon the mere men of the soul and of the body. They constituted the intellectual aristocracy, a higher caste in the church. They, moreover, adulterated Christianity with sundry elements entirely foreign, and thus quite obscured the true essence of the gospel.

We may parallelize the true and false, the believing and unbelieving forms of Gnosticism with the two forms of modern Rationalism and modern Agnosticism. There is a Christian Rationalism which represents the doctrines of revelation as being in harmony with reason, though transcending reason in its present capacity; and there is an anti-Christian Rationalism which makes natural reason (ratio) the judge of revelation, rejects the specific doctrines of Christianity, and denies the supernatural and miraculous. And there is an Agnosticism which springs from the sense of the limitations of thought, and recognizes faith as the necessary organ of the supernatural and absolute; while the unbelieving Agnosticism declares the infinite and absolute to be unknown and unknowable and tends to indifferentism and atheism.

We now proceed to trace the origin of Gnosticism.

As to its substance, Gnosticism is chiefly of heathen descent. It is a peculiar translation or transfusion of heathen philosophy and religion into Christianity. This was perceived by the church-fathers in their day. Hippolytus particularly, in his “Philosophumena” endeavors to trace the Gnostic heresies to the various systems of Greek philosophy, making Simon Magus, for example, dependent on Heraclitus, Valentine on Pythagoras and Plato, Basilides on Aristotle, Marcion on Empedocles; and hence he first exhibits the doctrines of the Greek philosophy from Thales down. Of all these systems Platonism had the greatest influence, especially on the Alexandrian Gnostics; though not so much in its original Hellenic form, as in its later orientalized eclectic and mystic cast, of which Neo-Platonism was another fruit. The Platonic speculation yielded the germs of the Gnostic doctrine of aeons, the conceptions of matter, of the antithesis of an ideal and a real world, of all ante-mundane fall of souls from the ideal world, of the origin of sin from matter, and of the needed redemption of the soul from the fetters of the body. We find also in the Gnostics traces of the Pythagorean symbolical use of numbers, the Stoic physics and ethics, and some Aristotelian elements.

But this reference to Hellenic philosophy, with which Massuet was content, is not enough. Since Beausobre and Mosheim the East has been rightly joined with Greece, as the native home of this heresy. This may be inferred from the mystic, fantastic, enigmatic form of the Gnostic speculation, and from the fact, that most of its representatives sprang from Egypt and Syria. The conquests of Alexander, the spread of the Greek language and literature, and the truths of Christianity, produced a mighty agitation in the eastern mind, which reacted on the West. Gnosticism has accordingly been regarded as more or less parallel with the heretical forms of Judaism, with Essenism, Therapeutism, Philo’s philosophico-religious system, and with the Cabbala, the origin of which probably dates as far back as the first century. The affinity of Gnosticism also with the Zoroastrian dualism of a kingdom of light and a kingdom of darkness is unmistakable, especially in the Syrian Gnostics. Its alliance with the pantheistic, docetic, and ascetic elements of Buddhism, which had advanced at the time of Christ to western Asia, is equally plain. Parsic and Indian influence is most evident in Manichaeism, while the Hellenic element there amounts to very little.

Gnosticism, with its syncretistic tendency, is no isolated fact. It struck its roots deep in the mighty revolution of ideas induced by the fall of the old religions and the triumph of the new. Philo, of Alexandria, who was a contemporary of Christ, but wholly ignorant of him, endeavored to combine the Jewish religion, by allegorical exposition, or rather imposition, with Platonic philosophy; and this system, according as it might be prosecuted under the Christian or the heathen influence, would prepare the way either for the speculative theology of the Alexandrian church fathers, or for the heretical Gnosis. Still more nearly akin to Gnosticism is Neo-Platonism, which arose a little later than Philo’s system, but ignored Judaism, and derived its ideas exclusively from eastern and western heathenism. The Gnostic syncretism, however, differs materially from both the Philonic and the Neo-Platonic by taking up Christianity, which the Neo-Platonists directly or indirectly opposed. This the Gnostics regarded as the highest stage of the development of religion, though they so corrupted it by the admixture of foreign matter, as to destroy its identity.

Gnosticism is, therefore, the grandest and most comprehensive form of speculative religious syncretism known to history. It consists of Oriental mysticism, Greek philosophy, Alexandrian, Philonic, and Cabbalistic Judaism, and Christian ideas of salvation, not merely mechanically compiled, but, as it were, chemically combined. At least, in its fairly developed form in the Valentinian system, it is, in its way, a wonderful structure of speculative or rather imaginative thought, and at the same time all artistic work of the creative fancy, a Christian mythological epic. The old world here rallied all its energies, to make out of its diverse elements some new thing, and to oppose to the real, substantial universalism of the catholic church an ideal, shadowy universalism of speculation. But this fusion of all systems served in the end only to hasten the dissolution of eastern and western heathenism, while the Christian element came forth purified and strengthened from the crucible.

The Gnostic speculation, like most speculative religions, failed to establish a safe basis for practical morals. On the one side, a spiritual pride obscured the sense of sin, and engendered a frivolous antinomianism, which often ended in sensuality and debaucheries. On the other side, an over-strained sense of sin often led the Gnostics, in gIaring contrast with the pagan deification of nature, to ascribe nature to the devil, to abhor the body as the seat of evil, and to practice extreme austerities upon themselves.

This ascetic feature is made prominent by Möhler, the Roman Catholic divine. But he goes quite too far, when he derives the whole phenomenon of Gnosticism (which he wrongly views as a forerunner of Protestantism) directly and immediately from Christianity. He represents it as a hyper-Christianity, an exaggerated contempt for the world, which, when seeking for itself a speculative basis, gathered from older philosophemes, theosophies, and mythologies, all that it could use for its purpose.

The number of the Gnostics it is impossible to ascertain. We find them in almost all portions of the ancient church; chiefly where Christianity came into close contact with Judaism and heathenism, as in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor; then in Rome, the rendezvous of all forms of truth and falsehood; in Gaul, where they were opposed by Irenaeus; and in Africa, where they were attacked by Tertullian, and afterwards by Augustin, who was himself a Manichaean for several years. They found most favor with the educated, and threatened to lead astray the teachers of the church. But they could gain no foothold among the people; indeed, as esoterics, they stood aloof from the masses; and their philosophical societies were, no doubt, rarely as large as the catholic congregations.

The flourishing period of the Gnostic schools was the second century. In the sixth century, only faint traces of them remained; yet some Gnostic and especially Manichaean ideas continue to appear in several heretical sects of the middle ages, such as the Priscillianists, the Paulicians, the Bogomiles, and the Catharists; and even the history of modern theological and philosophical speculation shows kindred tendencies.