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Carpocrates

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.

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