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). Others charged Cerinthus with forging both the Apocalypse and the Gospel of John (cf. Epiphanius, Panarion 51.3.6; Dionysius bar Salibi, preface to his Commentary on the Apocalypse).
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 medieval Syriac evidence (cf. Dionysius bar Salibi), some scholars attribute this Judaizing portrait to Hippolytus of Rome in the third century. Christian writers after Epiphanius generally emphasized the “Judaizing” rather than “Gnostic” features of Cerinthus’s teachings.
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 a divide between scholarship that treats Cerinthus as 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 as 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. For a critique of Hill’s thesis, see the chapter on Cerinthus by Matti Myllykowski in A Companion to Second-Century Christian ‘Heretics’.