THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH - Volume 2: by Philip Carrington, Archbishop of Quebec. Published by the syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.


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Not all the Jews were pleased with the warlike policy of Akiba and his Messiah, and there were some who fled the country. Among these was a young Jew named Trypho, whose character is a revelation of the varieties which still existed in Judaism. He had a good acquaintance with the Scriptures, but not in Hebrew. He spoke an excellent Greek, and his education had left him with an open mind. He had received instruction from the rabbis, but they had warned him not to be enticed into arguments with Christians, whose folly and simplicity he smiled at. He had read the book called 'the Gospel', however, and had admired its teaching, though he thought it impossible to carry out in practice. He is the first person we hear of who has read a Gospel as literature; and this is an indication that they were now in the hands of the public.

On arriving in Greece he did not neglect the opportunity of finding out something about philosophy, and he attached himself to a teacher at Argos of the name of Corinthus. He learned that the philosopher was a man with a mission; he could be recognized by the gown or pallium which he wore; and he should be prepared to give an account of himself to all inquirers.

Passing over the Aegean Sea to Ephesus, he was walking with some friends along the Xystus, which was a long stone walk or colonnade intended for the public use, when he saw a man of middle age, wearing the philosopher's gown. He acccosted him with a friendly greeting, and the philosopher replied with a tag out of Homer. He was easily prevailed upon to give an account of himself, and Trypho was amazed to discover that he was a Christian and professed to expound the |55 philosophy of the divine prophets. No philosopher could honourably decline a public disputation, and a debate was carried on for a couple of days, after which the Christian was obliged to leave, for his ship was sailing for some other port. He composed a report of the discussion, and enlarged it from time to time, with a view to making it a complete handbook on the subject. It was the famous Dialogue with Trypho of Justin Martyr; for Justin was the strange teacher in the philosopher's gown. The Dialogue survives almost entire, and is the most ambitious piece of early Christian literature known to us after the Pastor of Hermas; and before Justin's own Apology.

The dialogue was one of the accepted forms in Greek philosophy, the classical instances being the dialogues of Plato. We have come across another example of it in the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus, which may have suggested to Justin the idea of writing up his own dialogue. There was another dialogue on the same subject, but of a more imaginative type, in which a Jewish debater was introduced disputing with Christ himself; this anti-Christian dialogue was incorporated by the philosopher Celsus into his book against the Christians which he called The True Word. (The assumption has always been that Celsus wrote these chapters himself; but they require a Jewish author, and suit this early period.) The Jew in the Celsus Dialogue, as we may call it, had read a Gospel which was obviously Matthew, but became confused later on when he discovered there were more.


The debate at Ephesus was remarkable for the good humour and broad-mindedness of the disputants. It is obvious that a personal friendship was established between them. Once or twice they become a trifle heated, and these exchanges help us to realize that we are reading the story of an actual debate, not a literary fiction; though Justin has supplemented the story with a massive weight of additional material drawn from the 'testimony' tradition.

Our authority for saying that it took place at Ephesus is the bare statement of Eusebius, but this has been accepted by scholars without demur. The works of Justin have come down to us in two manuscripts only, one of which is a copy of the other, and the text of the Dialogue which they give is not complete. Some pages are missing in the middle, |56 and these contained the winding up of the first day's debate and the opening of the second; in another case Justin's treatment of a Psalm has dropped out; it has also lost a dedication at the beginning which was addressed to a friend named Marcus Pompeius, whose name occurs twice in the text. 'My dear Pompey', Justin says. No doubt he was a patron or friend who encouraged Justin to proceed with his work. This dedication probably stood in the copy which Eusebius used and provided him with his information.

The date of the discussion was either during the Jewish war of 131-5, or just after it. The characters speak as if it were going on, but Justin refers once or twice to the expulsion of the Jews from the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, which took place after it. These references could have been added later from the Dialogue of Jason and Papiscus or elsewhere.

There is a statement in Irenaeus that it was not customary in Asia Minor for a man to become a teacher before the age of forty. If Justin was forty in the period 132-5, he must have been born in the years 92-5, and was seventy or seventy-five when he became a martyr. It does not seem very likely that he was older than forty, therefore, and if we are prepared to discount the statement of Irenaeus we can make him younger and advance the date of his birth as far as 100. Justin was already a very proficient scholar and debater, as Trypho recognized. He had thoroughly mastered the intricacies of the' testimony' theology, which justifies us in placing his conversion a few years previous to the date of the Dialogue. No doubt the events of the war and the messianic pretensions of Bar Cochba had stimulated the interest in these studies; they may be responsible, too, for his developed doctrine of a Christian kingdom to be established in Jerusalem.


The group of Jewish refugees who were with Trypho were not all interested in Christianity or in biblical discussions. Some laughed loudly and wandered away; some stayed and listened, or sat discussing the war-news; some jeered and had to be silenced. On the second day there were newcomers, however, including a certain Mnaseas. Those who stayed were favourably impressed by what Justin had to say. Questions were asked about the status of the Jewish Christians, for |57 they were anxious to know what kind of reception their brethren of the Christian faith would receive from their Gentile co-religionists. Justin assured them that most Christians would receive them into their houses, provided they did not attempt to force their customs upon their hosts; but there were Gentile Christians who did not believe that Jewish Christians could be saved, and carried it so far that they would not talk to them or admit them into their homes.

Other historical conditions are brightly illuminated too; the Jewish rabbis, with their meticulous scholarship and their anti-Christian arguments, which were the counterpart of the anti-rabbinic arguments of Justin; the new translations of the Old Testament which were an embarrassment to Justin since they did not agree with the Septuagint texts in which he had been trained; the comparison of the Christian gospel with the pagan mystery cults, which is also made in the Celsus Dialogue ; and the daemonic parodies of the true gospel which were being produced by heretics like Satornil and Basilides.

The principal complaint of Trypho is that the Christians do not observe circumcision or the sabbaths or the appointed festivals, or the other requirements of the Jewish Law; and that they have abandoned God to set their hope upon a man, as the Celsus Dialogue also points out. Justin affirms that the man Jesus was the eternal Word of the Father.

It appears, however, that there were Christians who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but not as the eternal Word. There were some who thought of him as a 'man from men' who was made Messiah by anointing and election, at his baptism very probably. Trypho, who had been deeply impressed by Justin's arguments from the scriptures, much preferred this christology, and Justin did not discourage him from accepting Jesus on these terms as the Jewish Messiah, if that was as far as he could go.

The controversy was of grave concern to both sides precisely because a broad-minded Jew like Trypho, and a Christian of the old tradition like Justin, had so much in common. Both believed in the One God who had created the heaven and the earth, and conversed with the patriarchs, and brought the Jews out of Egypt, and spoken through the prophets. They agreed that the scriptures contained the words of divinely inspired men. They were trying to understand one another.

|58 The situation was aggravated by the effects of the war. A long and desperate war sets masses of men in motion, prisoners, refugees, displaced persons generally and, in the ancient world, slaves for sale. The Dialogue enables us to see something of this state of affairs in Ephesus, and it must have been very much the same in Rome.


The controversy was not always carried on with the friendliness and candour of the Dialogue. There were extreme men on both sides, as Justin had said. No outstanding name comes to light on the Jewish side, though the name of Ebion was invented before the century came to an end. On the anti-Jewish side we have the great heresiarch, Marcion of Pontus, a contemporary of Justin, who regarded him as the greatest enemy of the church.

A great deal has been written about Marcion in recent theology, and it has become difficult in consequence to reduce him and his movement to their correct historical proportions. He was, perhaps, the strongest and most forceful Christian leader of his time; but he was not everything that his modern admirers have claimed for him. He is big enough however without that. He was born at Sinope, a seaport on the Black Sea in the province of Pontus. His father was the bishop there, according to the Latin Libellus against Heresies which epitomizes a short treatise which Hippolytus wrote in Rome about the year 200; it goes on to say that he was excluded from the church by his father for the seduction of a virgin. This tale is not to be found in the writings of Tertullian or in the longer treatise of Hippolytus on heresies, and it has not been taken very seriously by modern scholars, though it is supported by the fourth-century Epiphanius, who appears in this instance to have some earlier source before him as he writes. It sounds a little like a misunderstanding of some picturesque statement, such as Hegesippus made, about the church being a pure virgin until it was corrupted by heresy.

We have no information about the immediate predecessors of Marcion or the period of his life before he came to Rome; but it is highly probable that he was also in Asia Minor about the time of Justin's Dialogue. Irenaeus tells us that he once confronted Polycarp and asked for recognition. 'Recognize you,' said the old stalwart grimly, |59 'Recognize you? I recognize you as the first-born of Satan.' This encounter may have taken place much later, when Polycarp visited Rome in the hundred-and-fifties; but if so, it seems to imply that he had been acquainted with Marcion at some earlier time; so that an appearance of Marcion in Smyrna in the thirties seems to be indicated.

Marcion had not parted from the catholic church when he came to Rome about 137, but when he arrived there his theology must already have been of a peculiar type. What seems to have been most deeply rooted in him was his antipathy to Judaism and the Jewish God; and just as Justin studied the scriptures and arranged his texts to prove the perfect harmony of the Old Testament with the New, so Marcion studied the scriptures with the object of proving their absolutely irreconcilable character.

Marcion was given the nickname of naukleros, a ship-owner or skipper, and as his birthplace, Sinope, was an important seaport, it has been thought that he was in the shipping business before he became a religious leader; but the nickname might have arisen from numerous voyages taken in the interests of evangelization. He seems to have been an evangelist or church-builder, like his favourite apostle, St Paul, rather than a theologian like Basilides or Valentinus; and like St Paul he may have had many journeys by land and sea to his credit. Certainly his church was very widely spread and was especially powerful in the east. It is not unreasonable to suppose that he was travelling and evangelizing in the east in the early thirties.


Marcion's bitter antagonism to the Hebrew faith was balanced by his ardent enthusiasm for the figure of the Saviour, whom he regarded as a 'saving spirit' and a messenger of mercy and love unmixed with anger or even with justice. No doubt we see here the secret of his appeal. Much of the evidence from out-of-the-way sources suggests that what impressed the Gentile mind in the Christian message was the personality of Jesus himself, whose appearance on earth was still so recent. There were numbers who responded to this appeal which was broadcasted now through written Gospels, and had no interest in, or even detested, the Hebrew monotheism, moralism and apocalyptic which came as its historical setting. Marcion felt no need for an historical |60 setting; he regarded Jesus as the son of a new or strange deity whose abode was far above the heavens. He inherited or adopted the theology of Syrian gnosis, which was docetic and ascetic and repudiated this creation altogether.

In this oriental gnosis the Christ-spirit descends from the high God into the material cosmos to do battle with the god of this world as Marcion calls the Creator, stealing a phrase from St Paul to serve his turn. The form of the myth which Marcion adopted included the descent into Hades and the liberation of the righteous souls from the dominion of death; for, according to Irenaeus, his Christus rejected the righteous men of the Old Testament, such as Abel and Enoch and Noah and Abraham, and set free Cain and the Sodomites and the Egyptians and the Gentiles generally; and this feature of the myth connects Marcion with those Ophites who regarded Cain as the forefather of the elect. These sayings should not be taken too literally, however. It looks as if the language of myth was still being freely used in this tradition as a form of expression for religious thought and controversy. A myth was refuted by an anti-myth, a poem by an anti-poem. There is no evidence which suggests that Marcion was concerned with formal theological consistency; he preached the descent of a saving Spirit who came to free mankind from the god of this world and his law and his jealousy and his Hades; this purely spiritual Saviour, who had no mortal body, nevertheless suffered and died upon the cross, which is a paradox indeed. In some strange way he allowed for the real passion and the real death which is the heart of the Christian gospel.

The docetic myth, which regarded Jesus as an angel or spirit, had appeared before this in Asia Minor and had been condemned in the Epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp. The theory which divides the Epistle of Polycarp assigns the major part of it to the present period and suggests that it was composed with Marcion in view, though indeed it does not touch upon Marcion's characteristic doctrines.


Marcion was opposed to the efforts which were being made, especially in the east, to promote an historical and apostolic form of Christianity, under the authority of Peter and the Twelve. Peter and the Twelve had never properly understood their master. He followed the Epistle |61 to the Galatians very closely in this awkward part of his theology, and perhaps he was travelling in the footsteps of older Paulinists of the docetic type. Peter and the Twelve had never cleared themselves from Judaism and the Law. The Son of God had been obliged to reveal himself a second time, choosing for his purposes the persecutor Paul. Paul had resisted Peter face to face at Antioch.

Marcion was compelled to reject the Syrian Gospel according to Matthew which was being accepted very generally now as the premier Gospel. He was in all respects the opposite of the Ebionite Christian who built on Matthew and rejected Paul. But he was bound to have documents if he was to establish his theology. The documents on which he staked the truth of his gospel were the shortened version of Luke and a collection of the Pauline Epistles which had also been edited to some extent; the Epistle to the Romans in particular had been considerably cut down. These documents, on which everything depended, were the weakest point, morally and intellectually, in his theological system. His catholic opponents accused him of fabricating them himself, and his modern champions draw a strange picture of him as a higher critic before his times, removing what he took to be Judaistic interpolations. It is considered that he did this after his arrival in Rome, but there is evidence that this literature existed in the Syrian gnostic school before he arrived there.

The fact is that any reconstruction of the origins of the heresy of Marcion is bound to have conjectural features in it, especially in this period before he came to Rome; but it seems preferable to allow for a period of evangelization, and the influence of predecessors, before that date. The success of his church organization in the east suggests that his theological views were not completely unfamiliar, and he himself not entirely unknown in those parts.


As the oral delivery of gospel material by disciples of Jesus, and disciples of those disciples, was superseded by the use of written Gospels, there was probably a period when each church was equipped with a single Gospel for its liturgical purposes, as Antioch was in the time of Ignatius. Indeed, the Marcionites and the Ebionites continued in this condition, and had an old-fashioned look in consequence. The |62 dissemination of more Gospels would throw this simple condition of affairs into confusion. There were four, five, or six to choose from. The Jew who is quoted by Celsus refers to this condition of transition.

When we read Justin's arguments with the Jews in his Dialogue, and his explanation of the faith for the Gentiles in his Apology, we find that he refers exclusively to written Gospels, which he calls the Records or Memoranda of the Apostles. He names no apostolic names; he makes few very exact quotations; he is quoting in a general way from the living evangelical tradition, and referring to written records as his authority.

He calls these records by the name of Gospels, and says that they were read in the liturgy, with the prophets; but this is not the same thing as setting up the fourfold Gospel as a sacred unity, though doubtless the position of the four was unassailable. They were not regarded as a fixed unalterable scripture, however, or at any rate not in all quarters, since his pupil Tatian felt free to combine them into a single narrative. Nevertheless, his fidelity to the text shows that it was not subject to substitutions; he confines himself to the actual words of the four, and called his book the Diatessaron, the fourfold harmony.

It follows that the adoption of the four Gospels for liturgical and didactic purposes was not exactly an act of canonization. It did not set up new scriptures in the church as yet. They approximated to the position of scripture, but the word does not seem to have been used before Irenaeus. It is claimed that Marcion made a new departure in this respect. It is possible that the heresiarchs in Alexandria took a similar step. Alexandria pioneered in literary studies.


If Marcion can be thought of as the strongest figure of his day in Christian evangelism (as some maintain), it is equally possible to suggest that Basilides was the greatest figure among the Christian intellectuals; but it is not possible, in either case, to fill in the detail of the picture. He is said by Epiphanius to have been a disciple with Satornil of Menander of Antioch; but there is nothing in common between their two systems except the sexless character of their thought about the high God; a feature which they shared with Marcion and the catholic |63 tradition. The affiliation is a mistake which arose from the attempt to form relations between the gnostic schools and to trace their origins.

The testimony of Clement of Alexandria places him in the reign of Hadrian, and this agrees with the other evidence. In Clement's time, at the end of the century, his school was still in existence in Alexandria and its writings were in circulation. It was not influential in the west, from which most of our documentary evidence comes; but it is thought that it had considerable influence in Syria. The theological systems which are ascribed to Basilides are hopelessly divergent, and modern scholars are not agreed upon what authority to follow; but it may be that he never worked out a system; he may have been a discursive writer and thinker like Clement of Alexandria himself.

A writer of his own day named Agrippa Castor wrote a Refutation of his heresy, which has not survived; but Eusebius had seen it, and drew some valuable information from it. Jerome also refers to it. It seems to provide the best starting point.


Agrippa said that Basilides wrote a twenty-four volume commentary on the Gospel. It is not said what Gospel, but we know that it contained a comment on a passage in Luke. It may have commented on all the Gospels, or on the Lucan Gospel only. Origen, in his first homily on Luke, says that he wrote a Gospel called the Gospel of the Truth; but this seems to be a misunderstanding, or perhaps a confusion with Marcion. Irenaeus says that the Valentinians used a Gospel of this name (see A.H. iii, 11,13) and part of a Valentinian homily called the Gospel of the Truth has recently turned up in papyrus form.
See The Jung Codex, ed. F. L. Cross (Mowbrays, Oxford, 1955).

Agrippa also mentions two prophets called Barcabbas and Barcoph, with certain other non-existent persons, who were given barbarous appellations so as to amaze the impressionable. Isidore, the son of Basilides, wrote a commentary on the prophet Parchor, which is another form apparently of the name Barcoph. Isidore took his cue from the old Jewish Hellenists and claimed that Aristotle and the Greek philosophers borrowed their ideas from these barbarian writers. He makes them out to be descendants of the Jewish patriarch Ham, who is regarded in the Books of Clement as the forefather of the Iranian |64 religious founder Zoroaster. These Persian scriptures were thus introduced into the canon of the Basilidian church in close association with a Christian Gospel or Gospels.

Agrippa also says that the high God of Basilides was named 'Abraxas', a magical name which is found engraved on 'gnostic' gems. Its correct form appears to have been 'Abrasax', and it was corrupted in the course of time into the mystic word Abracadabra. The Greek letters in this name, when given their numerical value, add up to three hundred and sixty-five, like the letters in the name of ' Meithras', the Iranian deity who symbolized radiant light. The Basilidian school believed in a system of three hundred and sixty-five heavens, and it would appear therefore that their philosophy was based on an Iranian Hellenism and on the symbolism of the sun revolving round the heavens in the course of the three hundred and sixty-five days of the Alexandrian calendar.

Agrippa accuses Basilides of teaching that it was a matter of no moral significance to taste food offered to idols, in which indeed he might have argued, and probably did argue, that he was only following the teaching of Paul; and also that it was allowable to deny the faith in times of persecution, which is our first reference to persecution in Alexandria. But perhaps he did no more than allow those who had denied to return to the fold, which is what Hermas did in Rome. He imitated Pythagoras in imposing a five-year period of silence on those who came to him for instruction; and Isidore regarded Pherecydes the tutor of Pythagoras as a Zoroastrian; Pythagoras could therefore be aligned with the Iranian prophets. The discipline of silence was also accepted by the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana in the Life of Apollonius, which was composed by Philostratus in the third century out of second-century sources. A rather romantic oriental mysticism was becoming fashionable.


We are fortunate in having two fairly long extracts from the writings of Basilides himself, both from the Exegetica or Gospel commentary. In the thirteenth volume he dealt with the Lucan parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and then, after about five hundred verses, he proceeded to consider the views of certain barbarians on the subject of good and |65 evil; and as they speak of an uncreated Light and an uncreated Darkness, they seem to be of Iranian origin.

Some of them say that there are two principles of all things, with which they associate good and evil; these principles are without beginning, and unbegotten. That is, in the beginning there were Light and Darkness, which existed separately and were not made.
(Acts of Archelaus, 67, in R. M. Grant, Second-century Christianity, pp. 18-19.)

The universe in which we live consists in the main of Darkness, but the Darkness is irradiated (or fertilized?) by some glimmer of Light. It is a form of the Iranian dualism which coloured much of the later Syrian gnosis.

The second extract is taken from the twenty-third volume, which was the last but one and must therefore have dealt with the story of the Crucifixion. The rigid logic of Basilides seems to have found satisfaction in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, which is common to all gnostic theologies. The pain that men suffer in this world is explained by the theory that they are working out the just penalties for the sins which they committed in some former existence; for Basilides would do anything rather than call providence evil. He finds himself in difficulties, however, over the case of children who have not sinned, and ascribes the suffering which they undergo to their inherited sin-fulness. He also finds himself in difficulties over the case of Jesus of Nazareth.

And if, as we pass from these observations you were to proceed to confound me by saying concerning someone, 'This man then has sinned, for this man has suffered', I would reply with your permission,' He has not sinned, but is like a child suffering.' If you were to press me more closely, I would say, 'Whatever man you name is a man, but God is righteous; for no one is pure, it is said, from pollution.'
(Clement Al., Stromata, iv, 12, 7.)

He appears to be speaking here of the man Jesus, in accordance with the Cerinthian christology, and not the divine Christus which dwelt in him for a time and returned to its heavenly home before the Crucifixion; and if so, we can understand the terms of his statement, and also the fact that gnostics of his school told their disciples not to put their faith in the crucified, or to join in the glorification of the martyrs, who were working out the penalty for their sins of ignorance, or at least for |66 their inborn sinfulness. Nevertheless, it was an encouragement for them to think that they were not 'suffering as evil-doers', but 'as Christians', Basilides said, echoing the words of the First Epistle of Peter.

Clement, from whom we have taken these extracts, discusses the views of Basilides rather closely, and quotes also from the treatise of his son Isidore on ethical problems. Isidore distinguishes sharply between the passions which disturb the soul or 'adhere' to it, and the inner self which must resist them. Basilides meditated deeply on the problem of the soul; intellectualist though he was, he recognized a higher faculty in man than the intellect; it was the gift of faith by which a man had intuitive knowledge of God; but it was not the possession of every man.


The account of the 'system' of Basilides in Irenaeus, which he probably obtained from the Syntagma of Justin, seems to be a conventional summary of the outstanding features of the popular teaching and practice in the organized school or church of the heresiarch. There is no trace of the Iranian mysticism, which may have been imparted only to the higher classes of initiates; but the abstract character of his thought appears in his sexless cosmogony. Unbegotten God gives birth to Intelligence; Intelligence to Word or rational thought; Word to Understanding; Understanding to Wisdom and Power. Below these come the first angels and the powers which made the universe; and below these are the three hundred and sixty-five heavens, the lowest of which is the one we see. The lowest heaven belongs to the God of the Jews, whose quarrels with the guardian angels or deities of the other nations were the cause of the Jewish wars. It was the first-begotten of the high God, Intelligence or Mind, who descended to earth, and appeared among the nations (a bold phrase indeed) in human form to deliver mankind from the tyranny of the creator; but the one who was crucified was not he; it was Simon of Cyrene – another bold statement, but it is a possible way of understanding the rather loosely articulated text of Mark.

What follows this in Irenaeus is a rather conventional tirade against gnosticism in general. The body is of no importance since it cannot be saved. Eating food which has been offered to idols is of no importance. |67 All sexual pleasures are lawful. The initiated gnostics use magical invocations and know the names of the angels, and the secret name of the Saviour, which is 'caulacau', a Hebrew word which means 'line upon line' (Isaiah xxviii. 10 and 13). They are unknown to the world, even as he was himself. 'Know every man,' they say, 'but let no man know thee.' They are few in numbers, one in a thousand and two in ten thousand. They tell their mysteries to none and keep their secrets in silence.

We seem to have a scrappy impression of the mysteries as they filtered down from the teachers at the top level to the rank and file. The immorality of which they are accused does not seem to be in line with the teaching of the master. On the other hand Hippolytus preserves a long piece of abstruse speculation which may represent the teaching of the movement at its higher levels, as it was systematized by the successors. This lower universe originated from a species of world-egg, in which everything existed in seed-form; an idea which is found in the Orphic poems. Three successive heavens rose up, each with its father-god, each of whom had a son who was wiser than himself. In this lowest world of all the elements of existence have not all been sorted out, and portions of the 'sonship' are still imprisoned in its material composition. Everywhere the natural motion of the sonship is upward; all that comes down from above is a voice or a current of power or a mere wave of energy, which liberates the imprisoned sonship and enables it to soar upward on the wing of the Holy Spirit. Some scholars regard this as the true theology of Basilides himself; others think it is not Basilidian at all.

While the school of Basilides was primarily an academic foundation which produced a number of intellectual expositions of the spiritual mysteries, it also had a church-like form, and a popular mythological aspect which was expressed in ritual and magic. Its churchly form seems to be proved by its institution of an astrological New Year festival on January 6 or 10, a date which depends upon the three-hundred-and-sixty-five day calendar which provided a mystical number for the Basilidian heavens and the mystery-word 'Abrasax'. The importance and influence of the organization is proved by the fact that it was still a force to be reckoned with in Alexandria at the end of the century.


It will be more appropriate to deal with the second great Alexandrian teacher, Valentinus, in the next chapter. Basilides built up the fabric of his thought and church organization in Alexandria itself. Valentine was a traveller. He left a strong organization behind him in Egypt which endured the test of time; but he taught in Cyprus and Rome as well. No doubt he continued to travel even after he had made Rome his headquarters.

We must deal briefly with the extraordinary case of Carpocrates, however. He accepted Jesus as a philosopher and wonder-worker of the same sort as Apollonius of Tyana, the wandering magus of the first century who is said to have acquired control over the body and over the material world by cultivating the powers of the mind. Somewhat in the same way, Jesus, who was the natural son of Joseph, possessed a powerful and pure soul, and was more righteous than other men. He could remember what he had seen in his heavenly pre-existence, and for this reason a heavenly 'power' came down upon him at his baptism, and enabled him to avoid the powers that had made the world. He disciplined his soul in the Jewish Law and thus learned to despise it, an advance in spirituality which gave him the power to work miracles and perform acts of healing. The power to work such miracles was available to all who would despise the daemonic rulers of this world, as Jesus had despised them; and the Carpocratians are credited with the belief that they were the equals in this respect of such apostles as Peter and Paul, or even of Jesus himself.

This mixture of magic and philosophy is based on the notion that this material world is inferior or useless, and that the potentialities of the mind are unlimited. The body is a prison, a favourite maxim of the mystery religions. The soul is an imprisoned angel, and must exercise its powers in order to obtain the victory over the body, and the world, and the daemonic rulers, and so return to the upper realms, where it belongs. To effect this, it must not hesitate to pass through all possible experiences in this bodily life; for unless it does, it will never free itself. It must take no account of the ideas of good and evil, which are only human opinions. Salvation comes by faith and love.

It seems likely that the moral life of the Carpocratians was just as free from moral restraint as these words imply. Carporactes had a son whose |69 name was Epiphanes. He died at the age of seventeen, after writing a treatise On Justice, which advocated a Platonic communism in the matter of wives. Quotations from this treatise given by Clement show that he used the Gospel according to St Matthew, and interpreted it so as to support the duty of promiscuous sexual love; 'Give to everyone that asketh thee', Jesus had said. The beautiful text in which he promised his presence where two or three were assembled in his name was taken to support the old mystical idea that there are three who take part in sexual intercourse, the man, the woman and the god. It was in short a sacramental rite involving a divine presence. This idea was widespread in the ancient world, and the rite was duly performed in the temples. Undoubtedly it was taken into the non-ascetic types of Christian gnosis.

Clement tells us that in his day Epiphanes was adored as a god at Sama in Cephallenia. A temple had been built there of massive stone blocks, with altars, shrines and a museum. On the new moon the people of Cephallenia celebrated ' his birthday, when he was taken up among the gods', with sacrifices, libations, banquets and hymns. This sect was clearly blessed with wealth and culture, but it was hardly Christian. The figure of the Saviour was absorbed into an eclectic 'Platonic' system, which cultivated a romantic non-moral magical spirituality.


Clement also tells us that the Basilidians observed January 6 or 10 as the birthday of Christ, which meant in their theology his baptism in the River Jordan, when the heavenly Christus came down into the world and took possession of the body of the man Jesus. The Cerinthian preoccupation with the baptism, at the expense of the Passion, was a feature of all these Alexandrian sects. In some non-canonical gospel narratives, including one which is given by Justin, the voice which comes from heaven at the baptism says, 'Thou art my Son: this day I have begotten thee'; a quotation from the second psalm which refers to the enthronement of the Davidic king. A king's accession-day is his regnal birthday. The baptism could thus be regarded as the birthday or accession-day of the divine Christus.

This form of the words is also found in some manuscripts of the Lucan Gospel, and there are scholars who think it is the correct Lucan reading.

|70 Now January 6 was a New Year festival in Alexandria at the Koreum, the temple of the Maiden. While the Basilidians were spending the evening of the 5th in vigil and readings, the devotees of Kore were keeping her festival with chants and devotions to the images of the gods; at dawn an image of a baby was brought up from the crypt and carried in procession, and it was said that the maiden had given birth to the aeon or age: another year was given to the world; it was the birthday of the new year.

January 6 has become the Christian festival of the 'Theophany' or 'Epiphany', the glorious appearance of the God. It was accepted in due course throughout the east as the festival of Christ's nativity, until the Roman date of December 25 took its place; and even now this has not happened everywhere; the Armenian church knows no other nativity festival but January 6. Even in Rome it took a long time to change January 6 over and dedicate it to the visit of the Magi; and traces of the baptism commemoration are still to be found in the ritual. It looks as if the Basilidian festival was so popular among Christians generally in Alexandria, that the church was bound to adopt it in self-defence, and mask its heretical character by assigning it to the nativity; but the association with the baptism was not forgotten.

It has been maintained that it had a nativity connexion from the beginning.
See The Evolution of the Christian Year, by A. A. McArthur, 1953.
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