Valentinus (ca. 100-165 CE) was a Christian scholar educated in Alexandria and founder of a school in Rome whose prominent pupils included Ptolemy, Theodotus, and Heracleon. Valentinus, or the school that developed his thought, is probably the most famous exemplar of what modern scholars have categorized as “Gnosticism.” We see the following elements of Valentinian thought:

  • there is an ineffable transcendent divinity whose self-revelation is through a series of emanations or Aeons
  • there is a total of 30 Aeons in male-female pairs that comprise the totality of the Godhead in the plērōma (fullness)
  • there was a primordial error in judgment committed by the youngest aeon Sophia (wisdom), resulting in the exclusion of Sophia Achamoth from the plērōma and the generation of the ignorant creator of the material world (“Demiurge”)
  • the pneumatic body of Jesus did not inherit the Virgin Mary’s humanity, for he passed through her like “water through a pipe,” and the divine Christ was distinguished from the man Jesus as the former possessed the latter at Jesus’s baptism
  • there is a division of humanity into the fleshly, the soulish or psychical (i.e. lay Christians), and the spiritual or pneumatic (i.e. Valentinians) based on their receptiveness to higher “knowledge” (gnosis) and the last group has the divine spark within them longing to return to their spiritual home
  • the goal of salvation was liberation from the material cosmos, pictured as the reunification of Sophia with her bridegroom the Saviour and the elect with their angelic counterparts  

Valentinian cosmology, Christology, anthropology, ecclesiology, ethics, and exegesis is too complex a topic to summarize in a blog post. Thus, here are some links that will aid you for further study:


Carpocrates was a teacher in early 2nd century Alexandria. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.25; cf. Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 7.22; Epiphanius, Panarion 27), he held that the world was created by inferior angels, that Jesus was an ordinary human whose soul remembered what it witnessed in the spiritual realm of the unknown Father, that a divine power descended on Jesus (at his baptism?) that taught him how to escape the clutches of the world creators, and that souls transmigrate from one human body to another until they too learn how to be liberated from the material world. The secret to gaining this freedom is to reject human-made moral distinctions and participate in every possible action or way of life.

Clement of Alexandria supplements this with excepts from On Righteousness [or Justice], a treatise written by Carpocrates’ son Epiphanes. It endorses the unity and equality between all creatures and the communal sharing of property and even spouses. Finally, the Letter to Theodore ascribed to Clement reviews an expanded, esoteric edition of Mark’s Gospel that elaborated on how the young man in the linen cloth (see Mark 14:51-52) had been resurrected by Jesus before he was initiated into the “mystery” of God’s kingdom. The letter goes on to accuse Carpocrates of illegitimately appropriating the text and adding controversial additions to it such as the line “naked man with naked man” (e.g. were the Carpocratians implying a physical relationship between teacher and pupil, was this some kind of ritual like a baptism, or was nakedness a metaphor for relinquishing material possessions or liberation from the mortal coil). However, there is much controversy over whether this last text was a piece of ancient correspondence or a modern forgery and I have compiled an extensive scholarly bibliography.

Although Carpocrates only had a small following that did not have a lasting influence, his reputation has become synonymous with moral and sexual libertinism. Did he really teach that one has to perform every sort of deed, even if it is conventionally judged as evil or impious, so that the soul will not be compelled to return to the body and will ascend to the divine realm? Or was this a distortion of what may have been the Carpocratians radical communitarian ethic that held all things in common (i.e. no private property or monogamous marriages). Thomas Whitley’s article “Who Was Carpocrates” for Ancient Jew Review argues for the latter approach and I would be very interested in reading his dissertation when it is published.


According to his ancient critics, Marcion of Sinope was a wealthy ship-owner who was excommunicated from the Roman churches when spreading his message in the capital during the reign of Antoninus Pius between 138-161 CE (see Tertullian, Contra Marcion 1.19) and went on to found a threateningly successful rival movement that lasted for centuries (all the more impressive since virginity was a requirement and his churches could not boost their membership through procreation!). As they portray him, Marcion sharply divided the just creator God (the “demiurge” or “craftsman”) of the Hebrew Scriptures from the gracious heavenly Father who sent Jesus into the world to offer salvation from the demiurge’s wrath. He accepted ten of Paul’s Letters and the Gospel of Luke when the alleged Judaizing additions interpolated into them were stripped away. Thus, while Marcion would have agreed with non-Christian Jews that Jesus was not foretold in the Jewish Scriptures and that the literal observance of the Torah cannot be allegorized away, he ultimately advocated for a total break of the brand new revelation brought by Jesus from the Jewish tradition altogether. Neither the Euangelion (Gospel)used by Marcion nor his work Antitheses have survived apart from select citations from Christian writers who opposed Marcion, so it is difficult to measure how accurate the Church Fathers’ perceptions were of him. For more recent reconstructions on Marcion from contemporary scholars, I want to offer the following online articles from the website Bible and Interpretation.

As for the recent scholarship on the relationship between Marcion’s Gospel and the New Testament Gospel of Luke, I have previously posted a bibliography and a post expressing some of my cautions about factoring Marcion’s Gospel into the Synoptic Problem.


Ebion never existed. He was the fictional founder of the Jewish Christians known as Ebionites, first created by Hippolytus (Refutation of All  Heresies 7.35) and Tertullian (Prescription against Heresies 33.3-5, 20). The Church Fathers who could read Hebrew knew that ’ebyônîm translates as “poor ones,” though they denigrated the Jewish Christians who bore this designation as characterized by the “poverty” of their views about Christ or literal Torah observance (Origen, On First Principles 4.3.8; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.1-2; Epiphanius, Panarion 30.17.1). However, this term was probably a popular self-designation among Jewish Christ followers in general in light of the biblical view that God would exalt the poor and lowly and may possibly be a claim to be in continuity with the materially poor in the Jerusalem Church (see Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:25-26; Epiphanius, Panarion 30.17.2). What else can we say about the Ebionites?

  • They denied the virgin birth of Jesus, arguing that he was the biological son of Joseph and an ordinary human elected to be the Messiah at his baptism due to his exemplary righteousness (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.2, though I think his equation of the Ebionite’s Christology with that of Cerinthus and Carpocrates may be inaccurate). Indeed, anyone who lives a life of faithful obedience to God’s Law will be similarly exalted as “anointed ones” and “justified” (Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies 7.34; 10.22).
  • The Ebionites were Torah-observant and followed other extra-biblical Jewish practices such as prayer towards Jerusalem. They allegedly only accepted the Gospel of Matthew (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.2), or the non-canonical Gospel according to the Hebrews (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.4), and despised the Apostle Paul as an apostate from the Law.
  • Some Church Fathers lump all of the diverse Jewish Christians together under the title “Ebionite,” even those who shared the wider Christian belief in the virgin birth (Origen, Contra Celsus 5.61; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.2-3). In fact, Epiphanius and Jerome report about Christians referred to as “Nazoraeans” in the fourth century whose views about Jesus’ divinity and appreciation of the Apostle Paul were completely aligned with the greater Catholic Church, though they continued to observe the Torah. Nazoraean was another primitive title in circulation among later Jewish Christians (Acts 24:5).
  • Although some scholars follow the more extensive portrait of the Ebionites in Epiphanius Panarion 30 (see Schoeps, Bauckham, Luomanen), most of Epiphanius’s information derives from a variety of texts (e.g., a source of the Pseudo-Clementine literature, the book of Elchasai, a harmony of the Synoptic Gospels, a Syriac Acts of the Apostles) that he may mistakenly associate with the Ebionites (see Skarsaune). Thus, his extra information about the Ebionites’ confused Christology (e.g. Jesus as an angel and the true prophet) and practices (e.g., vegetarianism, ritual washings) may be dubious.



In the earliest text about him, Cerinthus stands alongside Simon Magus as “false apostles” and enemies of Christ and the twelve apostles (the Epistula Apostolorum 1, 7). We also get an amusing anecdote from Polycarp, the teacher of Irenaeus of Lyon, about how the Apostle John once confronted the “enemy of the truth” Cerinthus in a public bathhouse in Asia Minor and fled for his life thinking that God would strike down the walls (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4). What was so bad about Cerinthus?

We have three different portraits about Cerinthus’s teachings. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.26.1), Cerinthus taught that the material universe was created by a lesser power rather than the highest God, that Jesus was a regular human born of Joseph and Mary who was exceedingly righteous and wise, that Jesus was possessed by a divine entity called “Christ” at his baptism which enabled him to teach about the unknown Father and perform miracles, and that the divine entity left Jesus before his crucifixion and resurrection. Later theologians who depended on Irenaeus specify that Cerinthus taught that the world was created by angels, or that the creator god was a chief angel, and that angels gave the Law.

The second portrait of Cerinthus is that he taught about the thousand year reign of Christ from Jerusalem and pictured it as a great wedding festival. This belief, known as chiliasm or millenarianism, is based on a literal interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6. Gaius of Rome and Dionysius of Alexandria (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.28) exaggerated the physical, sensuous pleasures of Cerinthus’s millennial kingdom which involved feasting, marrying, and sacrifices. There was even the charge that Cerinthus forged the book of Revelation in the name of the Apostle John. Gaius accepted this charge due to his distaste for the book, while Dionysius allowed that some holy person named John who was not the Apostle wrote Revelation and that the book must be interpreted allegorically (7.25).

The final portrait is first found in writing in the fourth century writer Epiphanius of Salamis. Influenced by the link that Irenaeus draws between the beliefs about Jesus held by Cerinthus and another Jewish Christian sect (Against Heresies 1.26.2), he paints a picture of Cerinthus as a full-fledged Judaizer involved in every dispute about whether all Christ-followers are obligated to obey the Torah (including circumcision for males) in the New Testament (Panarion 28.2.3-5.3). He also associates Cerinthus with Paul’s opponents in Corinth who denied Christ’s resurrection before the general resurrection of everyone from the dead (28.6.1-3). Based on some medieval Syriac evidence, some scholars attribute this Judaizing portrait to Hippolytus of Rome in the third century. Christian writers after Epiphanius generally emphasized the allegedly “Jewish” features of Cerinthus’s teachings and toned down the “Gnostic” features.

So who was Cerinthus? Although older modern scholarship saw him as an exemplar of Jewish Gnosticism, there is no solid evidence that Cerinthus was Jewish and there is now generally a divide between scholarship that accepts that Cerinthus was a conventional gnostic (i.e. physical creation by an inferior “demiurge” or craftsman and an emissary from the spiritual world reveals saving knowledge about the unknown God and liberation from the material world) OR was simply the recipient of a more primitive Christology and eschatology (e.g. Jesus the Messiah reigns over a literal, future millennial kingdom). One of the more ingenious recent attempts to combine these two features is in C. E. Hill’s “Cerinthus, “Gnostic or Chiliast? A New Solution to an Old Problem” where the Demiurge would fulfill the promises in the Jewish Scriptures for a this-worldly messianic kingdom including the resumption of the temple system, but the gnostic Cerinthus set his sights higher on knowing the unknown Father and attaining the spiritual salvation revealed by Jesus.


RBL Review of my Book

I will interrupt my planned series to link to this recent review of my book The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century in the Review of Biblical Literature that is unfortunately behind a pay wall. I am thrilled about this review for several reasons, including that it is by the well-respected scholar Elizabeth Struthers Malbon who has contributed so much to the literary critical study of Mark’s Gospel, it provides an excellent and accurate summary of the contents of the book, and it offers positive and critical feedback that help to sharpen my own arguments. Two clarifications: I argued that 1 Peter’s circulation in Asia Minor influenced the “elders” there to develop the Mark/Peter connection that we learn from the Elder John and Acts 12:12 [another option not considered in the book is that all three multiply attest a local tradition] and I am not sure if the Carpocratians shared the asceticism of Secret Mark or appropriated the text toward their own ends. These are very minor points and I want to highlight a few of her comments that I greatly appreciate:

“Kok’s book… is a straightforwardly organized, clearly written, and meticulously detailed study of the patristic (second-century) reception of the Gospel of Mark based on the paradoxical situation that, although the “orthodox” claimed it as part of the fourfold gospel, they did not favor it or often cite or comment on it.”

“Kok’s last image of Mark’s Gospel in his conclusion is of the patristic writers rescuing this Gospel from the margins. Yet his book seems to me to present—in highly readable form — more how Mark’s Gospel was pushed to the margins. Thus, we end with the paradox with which we began: the presence and absence of the Gospel of Mark, claimed but distrusted by centrists. Kok is right that centrists did likely rescue Mark’s Gospel from oblivion, thus making it, I would add, continually available to be appreciated by subversives.”

“It was the title of Kok’s book that attracted me; however, it is the subtitle that reveals its content, and that content is well worth reading. In general, I am more skeptical than Kok about various ancient and modern traditions and theories: about Papias, about possible Pauline authorship of Colossians, about an early dating of 1 Peter, about the authenticity of Secret (or Mystic) Mark. But anyone preparing comments about authorship for a Markan commentary will have to study Kok’s book carefully, and anyone finding such already-existing comments too thin will greatly appreciate Kok’s thorough book.”

I am only aware of two other reviews that have appeared in peer-reviewed journals, for Biblical Theology Bulletin and for Themelios, and I have benefited from their critical feedback as well. Finally, my gratitude goes out to the various bloggers who have also reviewed it online.

The Origins of the Term “Heresy”

Before we begin to discuss the portrayal of various “heretics” in ancient Christian literature, we need to clarify the language of “orthodoxy” and “heresy.” From a sociological perspective, this language is about creating social boundaries between insiders and outsiders around a certain set of beliefs and practices. From a theological perspective, for those who belong to a community of faith, it is about upholding truth and weeding out falsehood.

Robert M. Royalty’s piece “Heresy in Earliest Christianity” for the website Bible and Interpretation discusses the origins of the terminology we use. Basically, although different New Testament writers polemicized against teachings or practices that they regarded as false, the Greek word haeresis itself was a neutral term denoting an option or choice, like a school of thought advocated by an individual or group that one might choose to embrace. Eventually, it took on the more pejorative connotations of Christian sects that deviated from the normative “rule of faith” handed down from the Apostles (“sent ones”) of Jesus to the bishops or overseers guarding the “universal” (Catholic) church. The church fathers pictured different heretical philosophical schools – Simonians, Nicolaitans, Cerinthians, Basilideans, Carpocratians, Marcionites, Valentinians, and so on – headed by a particular false teacher (Simon, Nicolas, Cerinthus, Basilides, Carpocrates, Marcion, Valentinus). The Jewish Christian sect of the Ebionites even gets the fictional founder Ebion. However, while the professional heresiologists who saw it as their job to expose and overthrow false teachings drew clear boundaries between groups, the reality on the ground may have been far messier with diverse lay Christians continuing to meet together and influence one another without always recognizing where their theological beliefs and practices differed subtly or significantly.

Abstract for my SBL Paper

The program book for the upcoming 2017 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston is available online. Here is the information for the session I will be speaking at:

Inventing Christianity: Apostolic Fathers, Apologists, and Martyrs


4:00 PM to 6:30 PM

Room: Room TBD – Hotel TBD

Theme: Second-Century Reconstructions of the Past

Stephanie Cobb, University of Richmond, Presiding

Matthew R. Crawford, Australian Catholic University: Forbidden Angelic Knowledge in 1 Enoch and Tatian the Assyrian (30 min)

J. Christopher Edwards, St. Francis College: The Polemical Function of Jesus in the Epistle of Barnabas (30 min)

Michael J. Kok, The King’s University: The Patristic Reception of the “Elder John” (30 min)

Diane Lipsett, Salem College, Respondent (30 min)

Business Meeting (30 min)

Here is the abstract for my presentation at the upcoming Society of Biblical Literature Meeting in November:

The Patristic Reception of the ‘Elder John’

The Papian fragment cited in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4 has caused major interpretative difficulties. Were Papias’s “elders” a special class of ecclesiastical presbyters who ranked beneath and were appointed by the apostles? Or did the “elders” stand in an appositional relationship to the “disciples of the Lord,” meaning that Papias was simply restating his goal to ascertain the elder’s (i.e. disciple’s) words or what they had said? The second question is whether the same John was mentioned twice, the first time as part of the seven disciples who had passed away and the second time as one of the two remaining disciples who were still alive in Papias’s time, or whether the disciple John and the elder John were two separate individuals. However one resolves these translation issues, this paper will explore the Patristic reception of Papias’s mysterious informant on the evangelists Mark and Matthew (H.E. 3.39.15-16). Although A. C. Perumalil (1980) and Richard Bauckham (2006, 2007) have argued via different routes that Irenaeus maintained the distinction between the apostle John and the elder John, Lorne Zelyck (2016) has reiterated that Irenaeus probably assumed that the apostle John inaugurated a line of apostolic succession in Asia Minor through the bishops Papias and Polycarp (A.H. 3.3.4; 5.33.4) and legitimated the fourth canonical Gospel by recourse to its apostolic origins (3.1.1). I would add that there is also no additional information to be gleaned about the “elder John” from Polycrates of Ephesus (Eusebius, H.E. 3.31.3; 5.24.2) or from the Muratorian Canon. Finally, Eusebius and Jerome may not have manufactured the second John since they had access to Papias’s five-volume treatise, but their biases are displayed when they assigned the book of Revelation or the Johannine epistles to this anonymous elder in order to downgrade their authoritative status (H.E. 3.39.2, 5-7; cf. 3.25.2, 4; 3.28.2-5; 3.39.13-15; 7.25.1-27; Jerome, De vir. il. 13). Thus, ideological agendas were at work in the translation of Papias’s sloppy phraseology.

The June 2017 Biblical Studies Carnival

Jim West has posted the most recent biblical studies carnival covering what bloggers were on fire in the month of June. Enjoy.

Peter in Rome: Concluding Thoughts

I have spent over a month analyzing the texts and traditions about Peter’s fate in Rome. At this point, I would reach the following tentative conclusions:

  • Paul’s original agreement with the Jerusalem Pillars was that they would stick to the “circumcised” in Judea and the surrounding regions and Paul to the rest of the nations. A faction might have developed in Corinth claiming loyalty to Peter or to the Jerusalem Church without Peter having personally visited there and Paul shows no awareness of Peter reaching Rome in the personal greetings in Romans 16.
  • Nevertheless, Peter could have changed his plans towards the end of his life and there seems to be a social memory that Peter died in Rome from the late first onward (1 Peter, 1 Clement, Ignatius). They are all vague about the circumstances of Peter’s ministry and death in the capital.
  • The scribal addition of an epilogue to the first edition of the Gospel of John is the first indication of the belief that Peter underwent the same fate as his master in stretching out his arms. This eventually developed into the full legend of Peter’s upside-down crucifixion.
  • The tales about Peter’s battle with Simon Magus in Rome may have been partially based on a misinterpreted statue and partially based on their earlier encounter in Samaria according to the book of Acts. It served a clear ideological purpose: the Roman churches had an orthodox pedigree going back to the Apostle Peter and the progenitor of all the “gnostic” heresies was soundly defeated.

Here is a link to all the main posts in the series and a scholarly bibliography.