According to his ancient critics, Marcion of Sinope was a wealthy ship-owner (ναύκληρος) who offered the churches in Rome a generous gift, but his gift was rejected due to the message that he was spreading in the capital during the reign of Antoninus Pius between 138-161 CE (see Tertullian’s The Prescription Against Heretics 30.1 and Against Marcion 1.19). The date of Marcion’s excommunication is often fixed around 144 CE due to Tertullian’s calculation that 115 years and 6 1/2 months separated Christ from Marcion in the latter passage. Some scholars point to Justin’s earlier testimony in his First Apology, addressed to Antonius Pius and his son Verisimmus and likely dating between 150-154 CE (cf. P. Lorraine Buck, “Justin Martyr’s ‘Apologies: Their Number, Destination, and Form” JTS 54 : 55, 55n.45), that Marcion was still alive and that his teachings had spread throughout the world (cf. 1 Apol. 28.5; 58.1). He went on to found a threateningly successful rival movement that lasted for centuries, which was all the more impressive since celibacy was a requirement and thus there were not new children born into the Marcionite churches.
As the heresiologists 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 may have had a docetic Christology in which Jesus appeared on earth as an adult, but this has been challenged by David E. Wilhite (cf. “Was Marcion a Docetist: The Body of Evidence vs. Tertullian’s Argument” Vigiliae Christianae 71.1 : 1-36). He accepted ten of Paul’s Letters (i.e. the Apostolikon) and a Gospel that bore resemblances to Luke’s Gospel (i.e. the Evangelion). His opponents accused him of tampering with both texts by removing allegedly Judaizing additions that were interpolated into them. The debate over whether the Gospel that Marcion inherited was the canonical text of Luke’s Gospel that he subsequently edited, derived from a different Vorlage than the canonical text, or was prior to the canonical text of Luke (and Acts) has been reopened in scholarship. I go back and forth between the first two options, but I think that the third option that dates the canonical version of Luke-Acts after Marcion is too late and I am not persuaded that either text responds to Marcion or to his ideas. While Marcion agreed with non-Christian Jews that Jesus was not foretold in the Jewish Scriptures and that the literal observance of the Torah or the eschatological prophecies of the Hebrew Bible cannot be allegorized away, he ultimately advocated for a total break of the brand new revelation brought by Jesus from the Jewish tradition altogether. Marcion’s version of the Gospel and the Pauline letters and his work Antitheses have not 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.
- Sebastian Moll, “A New Portrait of Marcion” (see also his “Marcion: A New Perspective on his Life, Theology, and Impact“)
- Judith Lieu, “Marcion and the Idea of Heresy” (see also her book review “Marcion and the Ideology of Texts“)
- Jason BeDuhn, “Marcion and the Invention of the New Testament” (see also his “The New Marcion: Rethinking the ‘Arch-Heretic’” and “The Myth of Marcion as Redactor: the Evidence of ‘Marcion’s’ Gospel Against an Assumed Marcionite Redaction“)
As for the recent scholarship on the relationship between Marcion’s Gospel and the New Testament Gospel of Luke, here is a bibliography:
- BeDuhn, Jason. The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon. Oregon: Polebridge, 2013.
- BeDuhn, Jason D. “The Myth of Marcion as Redactor: The Evidence of ‘Marcion’s’ Gospel against an Assumed Marcionite Redaction.” Annali di storia dell‘esegesi 29.1 (2012): 21-48
- Gregory, Andrew. The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Irenaeus. WUNT 2.169. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
- Harnack, Adolf Von. Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott. Eine Monographie zur Geschichte der Grundlegung der katholischen Kirche. 2nd edition. TU 45. Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1924. (English Translation: Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Durham: Labyrinth, 1989).
- Hays, Christopher M. “Marcion vs. Luke: A Response to the Plädoyer of Matthias Klinghardt.” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 99 (2008): 213-232.
- Hoffman, R. Joseph. Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity: An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century. Chicago: Scholars Press, 1984.
- Klinghardt, Matthias. “Markion vs. Lukas: Plädoyer für die Wiederaufnahme eines alten Falles.” New Testament Studies 52 (2006): 484-513.
- Klinghardt, Matthias. “The Marcionite Gospel and the Synoptic Problem: A New Suggestion.” Novum Testamentum 50 (2008): 1-27.
- Klinghardt, Matthias. Das älteste Evangelium und die Entstehung der kanonischen Evangelien. 2 volumes. TANZ 60. Tübingen: Francke, 2015.
- Lieu, Judith. “Marcion and the Synoptic Problem” in New Studies in the Synoptic Problem. Edited by P. Foster, A. Gregory, J. S. Kloppenborg, J. Verheyden. BETL 279; Leuven: Peeters, 2011, 731-51.
- Lieu, Judith. Marcion and the Making of a Heretic: God and Scripture in the Second Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
- Knox, John. Marcion and the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.
- Matthews, Shelly. “Does Dating Luke-Acts into the Second Century Affect the Q Hypothesis?” Pages 253-264 in Gospel Interpretation and the Q-Hypothesis. Edited by Mogens Müller and Heike Omerzu. LNTS 573. London: T&T Clark, 2018.
- Moll, Sebastian. The Arch-Heretic Marcion. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.
- Roth, Dieter T. The Text of Marcion’s Gospel. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
- Roth, Dieter T. “Marcion’s Gospel and the History of Early Christianity: The Devil is in the (Reconstructed) Details.” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum 21.1 (2017): 25-40.
- Roth, Dieter T. “Marcion’s Gospel and the Synoptic Problem in Recent Scholarship.” Pages in Gospel Interpretation and the Q-Hypothesis. Edited by Mogens Müller and Heike Omerzu. LNTS 573. London: T&T Clark, 2018.
- Smith, Daniel A. “Marcion’s Gospel and the Resurrected Jesus of Canonical Luke 24.” Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum 21.1 (2017): 41–62.
- Smith, Daniel A. “Marcion’s Gospel and the Synoptics: Proposals and Problems.” Pages 129-173 in Gospels and Gospel Traditions in the Second Century: Experiments in Reception. Edited by Jens Schröter et al. BZNW 235. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2018.
- Tsutsui, Kenji. “Das Evangelium Marcions: Ein neuer. Versuch der Textrekonstruktion.” Annual of the Japanese Biblical Institute 18 (1992): 67–132.
- Tyson, Joseph B. Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
- Vincent, Markus. Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.
- Vincent, Markus. Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels. Studia Patristica Supplement 2, Louven: Peters, 2014.
- Vinzent, Markus. “Marcion’s Gospel and the Beginnings of Early Christianity.” Annali di storia dell’esegesi 32.1 (2015): 55-87.
- Zahn, Theodore. Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons: Urkunden und Belege zum ersten und dritten Band. Erlangen: Deichert, 1888 (especially pages 455-94).
Jesus’s upbringing in the village of Nazareth is well-attested in the Gospel traditions and Matthew 2:23 tries to prove that it fulfilled biblical prophecy, likely connecting the place name to the promise about the messianic “branch” (netser) that would arise from the family of Jesse in Isaiah 11:1. In Acts 24:5, Paul is accused as a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. This title continued to be used for non-Greek and non-Latin Jesus followers and the title was even added to the Rabbinic benediction cursing various minim (the label that the Rabbis originally used for Jewish heretics) sometime in the fourth century (cf. Epiphanius, Pan. 29.9.2; Jerome, Comm. Am. 1.11-12; Comm. Isa. 5.18-19; 49.7; 52.4-6).
However, in Panarion 29, Epiphanius treats the Nazarenes as a specific Jewish sect. He locates them in Beroea near Coelesyria, in the Decapolis near Pella, and in Bahanitis at Kokaba/Chochaba (29.7.7). He has a rather convoluted discussion about the antiquity of this name alongside other early titles (e.g., the Jessaeans) and of their origins (e.g., were they among the earliest followers of Jesus or originate after Jewish Christ followers fled to Pella during the Jewish War?); he even claims that Ebion was originally a member of the Nazarenes. He is unsure whether they shared Cerinthus’s Christology, in which Jesus was the son of Mary and Joseph who was later possessed by a divine spirit (29.7.6). Nevertheless, their beliefs seem to line up with other fourth-century Christians on the use of both the Old and New Testaments (though they read the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew in 29.7.4 and 29.9.4), the confession of monotheism and Jesus’s divine sonship, and the hope for the future resurrection of the dead for believers (29.7.2-4). The only difference is that they continue to practice the Jewish Torah (29.7.5).
Jerome also seems to affirm that the Jewish, Torah-observant Nazarenes affirmed the Christian creedal confession about the virgin birth of the Son of God who suffered by the order of Pontius Pilate before rising again in his letter to Augustine (cf. Ep. 112.13). Moreover, he was comfortable positively referencing their writings, including their Gospel traditions (e.g., a distinct Gospel according to the Nazarenes or their own translation of and commentary on Matthew’s Gospel?) and commentary on the book of Isaiah. An analysis of the fragments from their commentary shows that they critically engaged with the Rabbis’ traditions and exegetical methods, though they made some errors about the history of the Rabbinic movement, and that they both accepted Paul’s mission to the Gentile and considered themselves to be part of the wider church. The only difference from their Gentile Christian peers is that they wanted to continue to practice the Torah.
How do we factor these fourth-century testimonies about the Nazarenes in with the early Patristic discussions of the Ebionites since Irenaeus in the late second-century. Scholars have taken three basic positions. First, some view the evidence as pointing to a Jewish, Torah-observant sect in the fourth century that was aligning their Christology and ecclesiology with the majority of Christians in their day. Second, other scholars argue that they (and not the Ebionites) were the original heirs of the Jerusalem Church and, when previous Patristic writers referred to Jewish believers who either affirmed the virgin birth (i.e. Origen, Eusebius) or did not compel Gentiles to adopt the Torah (i.e. Justin Martyr), they were really referring to the orthodox Nazarenes. Third, a few scholars have argued that the “Nazarenes” were just Catholic believers in non-Greek or non-Latin speaking areas, some of whom may have been ethnically Jewish, and that it was Epiphanius who transformed these believers into a distinct sect with their own lengthy history. For a bibliography on the Nazarenes:
- A.F.J. Klijn and G.J. Reinink, Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects (Leiden: Brill, 1973).
- Andrew Gregory, “The Nazoraeans” in Shadowy Characters and Fragmentary Evidence: The Search for Early Christian Groups and Movements (ed. Elisabeth Hernitschenck, Josef Verheyden, and Tobias Nicklas; WUNT 1; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 125-40.
- Edwin K. Broadhead, Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of Antiquity (WUNT 266; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010).
- James Carleton Paget, Jews, Christians and Jewish Christians in Antiquity (WUNT 251; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010)
- Martinus C. de Boer, “The Nazoreans: Living at the Boundary of Judaism and Christianity” in Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Judaism and Christianity (ed. Graham N. Stanton and Guy G. Stroumsa; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 239-262.
- Petri Luomanen, Recovering Jewish Christian Sects and Gospels (Leiden: Brill, 2012)
- Petri Luomanen, “Nazarenes” in A Companion to Second-Century Christian “Heretics” (ed. Antti Marjanen & Petri Luomanen; SVC 76. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2005), 279-314.
- Petri Luomanen, “The Nazarenes: Orthodox Heretics with an Apocryphal Canonical Gospel?” in The Other Side: Apocryphal Perspectives on Ancient Christian ‘Orthodoxies’ (ed. Candida R. Moss, Tobias Nicklas, Christopher Tuckett, and Joseph Verheyden), pp. 55-74.
- R. A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Brill, 1988).
- Simon Claude Mimouni, Early Judeo-Christianity: Historical Essays (Peeters, 2012).
- Stephen G. Wilson, Related Strangers: Jews and Christians 70-170 CE (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
- Wolfram Kinzig, “The Nazoraeans” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (ed. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 463-487.
Ebion never existed. He was the fictional founder of the Jewish Christ followers known as Ebionites, first created by Tertullian (Prescription against Heresies 33.3-5, 20) and Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies 7.35). Some of the Church Fathers were aware that אביונים or ebyonim 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 their literal interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures (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 (e.g., Luke 6:20-23/Matt 5:3-12) 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, Pan. 30.17.2). Although the Christian heresiologists treat the Ebionites as a single sect, it is more likely that they have summarized a variety of beliefs and practices that were held by diverse Jewish Christ followers during the Patristic period:
- They denied the virgin birth of Jesus, arguing that he was the biological son of Joseph and a human who was anointed by God’s spirit at his baptism to be the Messiah due to his exemplary righteousness (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.2). Indeed, anyone who lives a life of faithful obedience to God’s Law will be similarly exalted as “anointed ones” and “justified” (Hippolytus, Ref. 7.34; 10.22). Irenaeus compares the Ebionites’ Christology to the Christologies of Cerinthus and Carpocrates, though I doubt that the Ebionites held that the “Christ aeon” possessed Jesus at his baptism and left him before him crucifixion.
- There may have been a divide between the Ebionites who denied or affirmed the virgin birth (Origen, Contra Celsus 5.61; cf. 5.65; in Matth. 16.12; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.27.2-3), though apparently both groups rejected Paul and did not accept the Johannine teaching about Jesus’s heavenly pre-existence. Other Jewish Christ followers who accepted a divine Christology and were open to Paul’s law-free mission to the Gentiles will be discussed in the next post on the Nazarenes.
- The Ebionites were Torah-observant and despised the Apostle Paul as an alleged apostate from the Law. They followed some extra-biblical Jewish practices such as prayer towards Jerusalem. They allegedly only accepted the Gospel of Matthew (Irenaeus, Haer. 1.26.2), or the non-canonical Gospel according to the Hebrews (Eusebius, h.e. 3.27.4).
- Although some scholars follow the more extensive portrait of the Ebionites in Panarion 30 (e.g., Schoeps, Bauckham, Luomanen), most of Epiphanius’s information derives from a variety of texts that he assumes originated with the Ebionites (cf. Skarsaune). These texts include possible sources of the pseudo-Clementine literature (e.g., Journeys of Peter; Ascent of James), the book of Elchasai, a Greek Gospel that features some harmonizing tendencies, and an apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. Thus, he may have lumped in a range of beliefs and practices under the label “Ebionite”, resulting in a confused account of their Christology (e.g., Christ as a gigantic archangel, the repeated incarnations of Christ since Adam, and Jesus as the true prophet like Moses who came to abolish sacrifice) and practices (e.g., the rejection of parts of the Pentateuch and prophetic corpus, the daily ritual immersions, the vegetarianism, etc.).
Here is a brief bibliography on the Ebionites:
- A.F.J. Klijn and G.J. Reinink, Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects (Leiden: Brill, 1973).
- Edwin K. Broadhead, Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of Antiquity (WUNT 266; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010)
- Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church (trans. Douglas A. Hare; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969).
- James Carleton Paget, Jews, Christians and Jewish Christians in Antiquity (WUNT 251; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010)
- Oskar Skarsaune, “The Ebionites” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (ed. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 419-462.
- Petri Luomanen, Recovering Jewish Christian Sects and Gospels (Leiden: Brill, 2012)
- Richard Bauckham, “The Origin of the Ebionites” in The Image of the Judaeo-Christians in Ancient Jewish and Christian Literature (ed. P. J. Tomson and D. Lambers-Petry ; WUNT 158; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003)
- Sakari Häkkinen, “Ebionites” in A Companion to Second-Century Christian “Heretics” (ed. Antti Marjanen & Petri Luomanen; SVC 76. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2005), 247-78
Valentinus (ca. 100-165 CE) was a Christian scholar educated in Alexandria and founder of a school in Rome. He even hoped, at one stage, to become bishop of Rome and some of his followers regarded him as part of a line of succession going back to the Apostle Paul (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 7.17). His most prominent pupils included Heracleon (who wrote the first commentary on John’s Gospel that was critically examined by Elaine Pagels), Ptolemy, and Theodotus. Valentinus, or the school that developed his thought, is probably the most famous exemplar of what modern scholars have categorized as “Gnosticism” and a list of writings associated with him or his school can be found in Geoffrey Smith’s Valentinian Christianity: Texts and Translations (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020). 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:
- EarlyChurch.org – Valentinus and Valentinian Gnosticism (fl. 120-160) (Rob Bradshaw)
- Valentinian Ethics and Paraenetic Discourse: Determining the Social Function of Moral Exhortation in Valentinian Christology (Philip L. Tite)
- What is Valentinianism (April DeConick; cf. there was a great blog debate between DeConick and Larry Hurtado plus others on Gnostic intellectuals years ago here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here)
- David Brakke on Valentinian Cosmology (link provided by Anthony Le Donne)
- The Development of the New Testament Canon – Valentinus, and the Valentinians (Glenn Davis)
- Valentinus and the Valentinian Tradition – Home Page (gnosis.org) (David Brons)
- Catholic Encyclopedia – Valentinus and Valentinians (Patrick Healy)
- Early Christian Writings – Valentinus (Peter Kirby)
Carpocrates was a teacher in early second-century Alexandria. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.25.1-6; 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 son of Joseph whose pure 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 angelic creators of the world (equated with the officers who hold people prisoners in Matthew 5:25-26/Luke 12:58-59), and that souls transmigrate from one human body to another. To ensure that the soul does not long to return to bodily existence, it has to undergo all kinds of bodily experiences, regardless of whether the actions that it performs are regarded as good or evil in society. Irenaeus also accuses Carpocrates’ followers of practicing various forms of magic. Finally, Carpocrates had a disciple named Marcellina who travelled to Rome during the episcopacy of Anicetus (ca. 157-168 CE); her followers allegedly branded their disciples on the lobe of the right ear and venerated images of philosophers. Indeed, the Carpocratians treated Jesus as a philosopher who taught his disciples the “mystery” (cf. Mark 4:11) of how to be liberated from corporeal existence.
Clement of Alexandria supplements this with excepts from On Righteousness [or On Justice], a treatise written by Carpocrates’ son Epiphanes who died at the young age of seventeen years old. Its thesis is that originally all creation was equal before God (e.g., the sun shines on the good and the bad alike in Matthew 5:45), until the lawgiver introduced laws regulating private property such as the prohibition against envy. Thus, Epiphanes reasons that people can only be equal if they share everything in common, including their 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. this has been interpreted as implying a physical relationship between teacher and pupil, as some kind of ritual like a baptism, or as a metaphor for relinquishing material possessions or for the soul’s liberation from the physical body). 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 summarizes his PhD dissertation, which offers a new reconstruction of the origins and reception of the Carpocratian movement. I also have a forthcoming journal article critically interacting with Morton Smith’s portrayal of the Carpocratians in his books Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973) and The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel of Mark (New York, Harper & Row, 1973).
One of the great villains of church history, at least according to his Christian detractors, is a shadowy figure referred to as Simon the magos (“magician”). Many readers may be familiar with his portrayal in the book of Acts where he is identified as a Samaritan who was adept in the practice of magic, is acclaimed by the crowds as the embodiment of a Great Power, is converted to the Jesus movement by Philip the Evangelist, and is rebuked by Peter when he tried to bribe Peter to attain the ability to impart the Spirit (cf. Acts 8:9-24). Incidentally, this created the term “simony,” denoting the illegitimate attempts to purchase ecclesiastical offices and power.
The Christian philosopher Justin Martyr, who addressed his First Apology to the emperor Antonius Pius (ruled 138-161 CE) and his son Verisimmus, recounts that Simon spread his teachings in Rome and uses the existence of a statue between two bridges on the river Tiber (1 Apol. 26; 56). He read the inscription as “to Simon the holy god” (simoni sancto deo), but a statue dedicated to the deity Semo Sancus was unearthed in 1574 with the inscription semoni sanco deo fidio sacrum (“to Semo Sancus Dius Fidius”). Was this the statue that Justin saw and misinterpreted in reference to Simon Magus? If so, this may have sparked the later legends of Simon Magus’s activities in Rome and to Peter encountering his old foe there, with the chief apostle triumphing over the arch-heretic.
According to Irenaeus of Lyon (Against Heresies 1.26.1-4), Simon and his consort Helena of Tyre was remembered as the father of all of the demiurgical theologies (i.e. the belief that the material world was created by a lesser divinity or divinities, often termed the “demiurge” or “craftsman”, rather than a supremely transcendent, spiritual deity) in all of their diversity in his genealogy of heresy. This portrait of Simon influenced later Christian writers (e.g., Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies 6.15; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.14.1-6; 2.17.1; Epiphanius, Panarion 21; Jerome, Illustrious Men 1). The apocryphal Acts of Peter narrate how Simon Peter and Simon Magus engaged in a magical contest in Rome to see whose message was divinely authorized. The Jewish Christian sources underlying the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions and Homilies also polemicize against Simon Magus, but the name “Simon” may actually be a cipher for the Apostle Paul as the real target of the author’s criticism (e.g., Peter rejects “Simon’s” claims about his own authoritative status on the basis of visions that he has had, as opposed to Peter’s personal acquaintance with Jesus during his ministry, or complains in his letter to James about his “enemy” spreading lawless teachings among the Gentiles).
When we strip away the apocryphal legends about Simon’s magical abilities (e.g. including flying over the capital of the Empire!), the typical polemical insults used in antiquity to slander an opponent, and the representation of Simon’s thought as a crude parody of Christian doctrine (e.g. did Simon identify himself as the persons of the Trinity or attempt a resurrection miracle after being buried alive?), is there anything left about Simon’s person or message that is historically reliable? Was he some kind of ritual specialist who was believed to be possessed by a divine spirit and did he found a movement that was a serious rival to the apostles in Jerusalem? Can elements of the myth that Irenaeus attributed to him – the existence of the supreme power, the first thought (the feminine Greek noun ennoia) that conceived other angelic beings, or the gnostic savior that delivered ennoia from the material world that the angelic powers had created to imprison her (this cosmogonic myth was acted out by Simon and Helena) – be traced back to Simon? There is an extensive scholarly bibliography about Simon for those interested in pursuing such questions, but the main concern of this post is to discover how Peter ended up confronted the magician not only in Samaria but also in Rome itself. Here are some resources to learn more about this figure:
- Ferreiro, Alberto. Simon Magus in Patristic, Medieval and Early Modern Traditions. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
- Haar, Stephen. Simon Magus: The First Gnostic? Berlin: De Gruyter, 2003.
- Meeks, Wayne A. “Simon Magus in Recent Research.” Religious Studies Review 3 (1977): 137-142.
The earliest text about Cerinthus places him alongside Simon Magus as “false apostles” and enemies of Christ and the twelve apostles (the Epistula Apostolorum 1, 7; cf. Acts 8:9-24). We also get an amusing anecdote that may have been passed down by the bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, the teaching of Irenaeus of Lyon, about how the Apostle John once confronted Cerinthus in a public bathhouse in Asia Minor and fled for his life thinking that God would strike down the walls because the “enemy of the truth” was inside the building (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 divine power rather than the supreme God. This was a way of protecting God, a completely spiritual and transcendent being, from direct involvement in the act of creation. 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. As for Cerinthus’s Christology, he accepted that Jesus was an ordinary human and the biological son of Joseph and Mary. However, since Jesus exceeded his peers in righteousness and wisdom, he was possessed by a divine entity called “Christ” at his baptism, which enabled him to teach about the unknown Father and perform miracles. Since this divine entity was impassible and could not suffer, the Christ aeon left Jesus before his crucifixion and resurrection.
The second portrait of Cerinthus is that he taught about the thousand year reign of Jesus 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 exaggerated the physical, sensuous pleasures of Cerinthus’s millennial kingdom which involved feasting, marrying, and sacrifices (cf. (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.28.2; 7.25.3). There was even the charge that Cerinthus forged the book of Revelation in the name of the Apostle John. Gaius accepted the charge because he despised the book of Revelation and the Montanists who promoted it. Dionysius allowed that some holy person named John wrote the book of Revelation, but he insisted that this John was not an apostle 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 fourth-century heresiologist Epiphanius of Salamis offers a third portrait of Cerinthus. 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), Epiphanius paints a picture of Cerinthus as a full-fledged Judaizer involved in every dispute about whether all Christ-followers must 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 believe that Epiphanius’s source was Hippolytus of Rome in the third century. Others argue that Epiphanius was the one who invented this portrait of Cerinthus, which influenced subsequent Christian writers.
So who was Cerinthus? Although older modern scholarship saw him as an exemplar of Jewish Gnosticism, there is no solid evidence that Cerinthus was ethnically Jewish. The main divide is between scholars who view Cerinthus as a Gnostic, arguing that the physical world was created by an inferior demiurge or “craftsman” and that a spiritual emissary called Christ came to reveal saving knowledge, or think that Cerinthus just held to a more primitive Christology and eschatology, namely that Jesus was the human Messiah who will rule over a millennial kingdom on earth. Some scholars have tried to reconcile the first two portraits. C. E. Hill argues that Cerinthus identified the demiurge with the God of Israel and believed that the demiurge would fulfil all the messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Bible during the millennium, but those who accepted Jesus’s message about the previously unknown heavenly Father would receive a spiritual form of salvation (i.e. Christians would not have a share in the millennium). I have argued that Cerinthus understood the supreme God and the demiurge to be on the same team, so that it was the former’s will that the latter would create the world and restore it into a paradise during the millennium (i.e. Christians would both experience life during the millennium and inherit their everlasting spiritual salvation after it was completed). For further engagement with the scholarly sources on Cerinthus, see my article www.cdamm.org/articles/cerinthus.