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Antiqua mater : a study of Christian origins online

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God.-^ The secret spring of this innovation we can
but trace to Hellenic jealousy of the Jews and their
Law and Prophets, and to a passionate recalcitration
against its impositions, whether circumcision or the
ascetic regulationiS for the proselytes of the Gate. To
establish a rival theology, to claim the true knowledge
of the Supreme as their own, to invent a new category
of mediatorial beings or Aeons : all this was to super-
sede the Old Testament and to claim the spiritual em-
pire for the Greeks. And it still remains a moot
question whether the forms of Christian dogma at the
end of the second century owed more to the Gnosis of
imaginative Greeks, or to the Midrasch of imaginative
Hebrews. The cultus, on the other hand, had its
origin in Hellenic, combined with Persian and Syrian

According to Irenaeus, the Nicolaitans and their
successor Cerinthus (c. 115) must have been busy from
the beginning of that century in their work of exalting
the new religion over Judaism. What was the new

De Bapt. 17, on the author who wrote Amove PaiUi, On the 'holy-
sisters of Marcion,' Tert. Adv. M, 5. 8 ; Iren. i. 13, 5. 6 (Marcus and
the deacon's wife).

^ The Greek and Flatonist character of the Gnosis is strongly empha-
sised by Joel, Bliche^ i. 101-170. On its practical side, as a Mystery-
related to the ancient Mysteries, Koffmane, Die Gnosis^ &g., 1881 ;
.Weingarten, Eist. Zeitschr., 1881, 461 f.

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religion ? Here for the first time, as far as we can
discover, the figure of ' Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph
and Mary/ not of a virgin, comes into view. He was
not Christ ; but Christ, one of the Aeons or emana-
tions of the Divine Being, which together constituted
His Pleroma or fulness, was caused to descend on Jesus
at His baptism in the form of a dova Through the
mouth of Jesus, the Aeon Christ proclaimed the true
God ; but quitted Him before His death, and had no
part in His passion or resurrection.^ It was, then, a
doctrine of the true God which Cerinthus set store by ;
and it was as inconsistent with his theory of a celestial
being that he should sufifer, or should even be born, as
in the case of the analogous emanations in the system
of Philo. The descent of a spiritual being into the first
Teacher at His baptism appears to have been the oldest
mode of conceiving of the beginning of the Gospel ;
and it is itself, perhaps, an inference from the belief
in the entrance of the new soul in baptism. That Jesus
was the son of Joseph and Mary appears also to have
been the old belief.^ The centre of activity of Nico^
laos and of Cerinthus was probably Antioch; while
Antioch is connected with Samaria through Satur-
ninus, who was said to have been under the influence
of Simon and Menander, the Samaritans.' Cerdo the
Syrian was under similar, influences.*

In all these teachers the doctrine of the unbeginning
and unknowable God, the Creator of angels or Aeons,
ministerial and mediatorial powers, excluded the supre-
macy of the God of the Jews, and not only His supre-

* Irfen. I. 26 ; Hippol. 7. 33.

' In Carpocrates* system, ^ren. i. 25. 5. On Oarpocrates* son, Epi-
phaiies, whose apotheosis was celebrated hj the Kephallenians, Clem.
Alex. Strom, 3. 2. 5.
. * Iren. I. 23, 24. * Iran. i. 27. Cf. HippoL 7. 37.

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macy but His goodness. He was *just,* not in the
modern sense of the word, but in the old sense of the
arbitrariness, of the right founded on possession, of
local deities. And consistently with that Persian
dualism which governs these conceptions, and which
recognised the dominion and works of Satan in mar-
riage and procreation, it was hardly possible to find a
place for the Demiurge except in the category of evil
beings. The redemption of the soul from its fallen
earthly state, the recovery of its pre-existent blessed-
ness, was the governing thought in these systems ; and
it appears, especially in the system of Carpocrates, that
Jesus was honoured in company with Greek philosophers
as one of the typical examples of the upward striving
soul in its resistance to the powers of the present evil
world ;^ even as the descent of a divine power upon
Jesus is typical of the descent of a like power upon
chosen souls.^ In the system of Basilides, Christ, so
far from being the Messias of the Jews, was the first-
bom Nous of the unbegotten Father, and His mission
was to deliver the faithful from subjection to the ruling
powers of this world. To believe in * the crucified one *
was still to be under the dominion of those powers.
The Nous did not endure to be crucified: Simon of
Cyrene, transfigured, was substituted in his stead ; or
the crucifixion was illusory. This elation of mind
toward the spiritual, this disdain of the senses, charac-
terises all the Gnostics. Puffed up in the possession of
gnosis, they disparaged mere pistis or faith, and denied
the necessity of works to salvation.^ They carried on

^ Iren. I. 25. 6. * A likeness of Christ was made by Pilate.' We
shall see reason to believe that it was through the Gnostics the tradi-
tion of Pilate was preserved.

* Iren. I. 24. 3 f.

' Men are saved by grace, and actions are indifferent Iren. i. 23. 3.

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the old Mysteries in a more refined form; for the
Mysteries aimed at the purification of the soul from the
fleshly nature as a condition of future blessedness ; and
initiation had the efficacy of a sacrament. The rites
practised by some of the Gnostics and termed by their
opponents magic,^ and the promise to their followers of
immortality, indicate the continuance of the old secret
rites over which Pausanias draws the veil of reverential
silence, but which we know from his and other con-
temporary testimony, continued to exert a purifying
influence upon the general conscience. From this point
of view, indeed, it may be said that the Gnostics,
sharing the universalistic aspirations of the time, sought
to establish a new Mystery and a new Eevelation, in
which new names were engrafted upon the old Hellenic

The name S6t^r or Saviour,^ so frequently predicated
of the old Hellenic gods, is given in the system of
Valentinus to Jesus, also called Christ and Logos and
the great high-priest. He is the common fruit of the
Pleroma or complement of Aeons, the leading ogdoad,
or the four pairs, — Nous, Al^theia, Bathos, Sig^,
Logos, Z06, Anthropos, Ecclesia. These attempts at a
logical structure under the forms of persons and genera-
tion remind of the old theogony.* From the last-
named pair proceeds Sophia, who in solitary impotence
gives birth to an abortion (ScTjOw/xa). This seems a

^ The charge of magic was brought against Jesus. Justin, DiaL 69.
Cf. CeUui in Orig, 2. 50. 51 ; Clem. Hecog, i. 58.

2 Cf. the Pistis Sophia, Kostlin, TTieol, Jahrb. 1854 ; Baur, Oesch, d.
CkrisU. K, I. 205 ; Lippert, Chinaten-ihum, 105.

' The Saviour — for they do not call him Lord — did no work in
public for thirty years, thus setting forth the mystery of the thirty
Aeons, Iren. i. i. 3, i. 2. 6.

^ Irenaeus dwells on this, 2. 14.

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confession of the inadequacy of philosophy. But
from the first pair proceed Christ and the Holy Spirit,
and Christ gives form to the abortion of Sophia.

The Sdt^r Jesus is sent by the Pleroma to deliver
the wandering Sophia Achamoth, in her sadness, fear,
and perplexity. Here is the same idea at bottom as
that of the Helena of Simon, or rather of the Jesus of
Simon's teaching. These tales may be regarded as ' Par-
ables for the multitude/ ^ rather than as Dogmata in the
Gnostic teaching, which aimed above all at an Ascetic
and a Life. But not to confuse ourselves amidst these
allegorical dream-theorems, the governing thought is.
still that of the opposition of the pneumatic or higher
life in man to the lower, the hylic or material and the
psychic life. And this, theologically and dramatically,
is the opposition of the Saviour Jesus in whom all the
Pleroma of the true God and Father dwells, to the
Demiurge Jehovah. The soul is lost in the embrace
of matter and longs for redemption and return to the
spiritual, its pre-existent state. And this redemption
is accomplished by the revelation of the mystery,
hidden from the natural man, to the psychic in man,
that he may become a pneumatic man.* According
to this old tripartite psychology, the lower natures are
from the Demiurge, the pneumatic is from Sophia.
Jesus was psychic until His baptism, when the S6t6r
descended on Him.* So Heracleon taught. The law
and the prophets partake of the inferior nature of the
Lawgiver, the Demiurge ; and He deceived men when
He asserted, I am God and there is none other !

It is impossible not to feel that the Aeonian poem

^ See the instructive passage from Galen in Gieseler, K. Gesch^ i. i,
4th ed. p. 167, cited by Harnack, Hdb. 170.

2 Iren. i. 6. ' Of. Baur, Die ChrisU. Gnosis^ 123 flf.

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of Valentinus was the epic of a great revolution in
the minds of men, bearing as little relation to actual
history as Milton's great epic. The facts of a hundred
years before Valentinus we cannot find conveyed by
any continuous tradition : merely the belief that a
drama in the celestial places had found about that
date a denouement in Galilee and Judaea, the tragical
end of which was explained away as an illusion. The
real ' Gospel,' the contents of which brought redemption
to souls alike fettered in Judaism and in Paganism,
was in the Gnosis itself.^ It seems that we have here a
refined Hellenism contending for spiritual empire with
that refined Judaism of the Diaspora, — that religion
of loVe and good works and faith in no Antinomian
sense which inspires the literature of the saints and
elect and brethren under * apostolic ' direction. In
the face of such phaenomena, it can hardly be main-
tained that ' Christianity,' which still contains implicitly
these oppositions in itself, is the product, in any ex-
clusive sense, of either the Jewish or the Hellenic

We need to bear in mind that our information
concerning Valentinus is mainly- inferential from that
which is said concerning his followers towards the
close of the second century ; nor must we confuse the
subject, by wrongly ascribing to the master a knowledge
of our canonical Gospels only possible to the followers.
There is no evidence that Valentinus owned any
authoritative written tradition ; there is evidence that
he appealed to the viva vox, the ' living voice of Truth '
alone, and rejected even the tradition of the * apostles

^ The remarkable point of affinity between the Gnosis of ' Barnabas '
and of these rejecters of the Old Testament is that both seek to evolve
' facts ' from the world of imagination.

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and elders.' ^ He was independent both of Scripture
and Tradition, His followers claimed for their writings
the designation of the ' Gospel of Truth/ implying that
the other writings which passed as Evangelia of the
Apostles at their time, did not contain * the Truth.' *
Hippolytus says that Valentinus was rather a Pytha-
gorean and a Platonist than a Christian : ^ not from

* the Gospels * did he derive his system. The Catholics,
then, and the Gnostics at the close of the century^
meant two diflferent things by the term * Gospel/ For
the former it was a developed or developing narrative
of the life of Jesus, His crucifixion and resurrection ;
for the latter, a poetico-philosophic system, in which
the new religion was defined as a redemption from the
present world and from the restrictions of the old
covenant, and in which the very facts presented in
the current narrative were explained as allegorical of

* the Truth ' in their own system.*

We have seen how exceedingly slight and vague
are the uses of the word Evangelion in Barnabas,
Clement, and Ignatius ; how in Justin it occurs only
in one probably interpolated place to denote * Memoirs
of the Apostles.' It must be inferred, not only that
the hooks we call Gospels, but the very naifne Gospel,
came only into current and controversial use about
the time of Irenseus. And by the Gospel the Catholics
and the Gnostics meant two diametrically opposite
things. The latter have the advantage, in that they
gave both a more precise and a more comprehensive
theological definition to the contents of the good
message. So far as we can trace the opposition, it

* Iren. 3. 2. I f, * lb. 3. Ii. 9. > 6. 29 ; cf. 6. 21.

* The Twelve Apostles, a type of the Aeons, Christ's Baptism and
suffering twelve months later ; the woman with the issue of blood, &c
Iren. 2. 21 ff.

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had meant, — for the adherents of the Law and the
Prophets, remission of sins, conditional upon the keep-
ing of the moral commandments ; for the Gnostics, the
complete redemption of the soul alone, by emancipation
from its lower and terrestrial life, and from all moral

It is worth notice, that according to Clement of
Alexandria, Valentinus claimed for his teacher Theodas,
a disciple of * Paul,' as Basilides claimed Glaucias, the
interpreter of * Peter.' ^ The Marcionites said that
Paul only knew the truth. When the writings we
have in our hands, came into acceptation in the com-
munities as Evangelia, it must have seemed to these
transcendentalists — we are speaking of the followers
of the earlier Gnostics — who had found in the new
religion ' the Gnosis of supra-mundane matters,' ^ that
its grand epical character had been dwarfed into a
series of tales, by much the same process that Eu^-
merus had applied to the ancient gods of Greece. la
both cases, spiritual and transcendent beings bad been
reduced to the proportions of humanity, and brought
down to a life in flesh and blood. That a god might
appear in the guise of humanity and again vanish was
the old belief of the Greeks. Even he might be born
of mortals, as in the happier time to which Pausanias
looks back. But there was a vast difference between
an apparitional and an actual suffering life in the
flesh. And where men agreed only in the main fact
of an incarnation or an apparition in the distant
past, there was room for the most conflicting opinions
as to the mode of that appearance, and the contents of
the message.

1 Strom, 7. 17, § 106 ; Iren. 3. 13.
» Hippolyt. 7. 25.

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Nothing can be more fascinating than the figure of
Marcion, whose activity at Rome (c. 139-1^} pro- ^'^ *^
duced an impression so lasting and so widespread.
He too is said to have followed the line of ' Paul/
whom all indications point out as the arch-Gnostic or
Antinomian from this time forward. Our witnesses
from the end of the second century, Irenaeus ^ and
TertuUian,^ tell us that Marcion upheld the teaching
of * Paul ' alone in opposition to the other apostles,
who mixed up legal matters with the Gospel. Here
for the first time we hear of that solitary apostle
whose idea has so long filled the imagination of
Christendom. Marcion (or rather the Marcionites)
had a written Evangelion ; and there is no evidence
of his having mutilated our Luke's Gospel, as he
is charged with doing in the inverted reasoning of
Irenseus and Tertullian, who condemn the earlier
narrative because it does not conform to the later

Marcion was eager to establish the antithesis of the
Law and the Gospel as he understood it; and Ter-
tullian calls his teaching *the Gospel according to
the Antitheses/ wherein he would separate his own
Christ from the Creator, as of another God, and alien
from the Law and Prophets.* However, Tertullian
says that Marcion retained of the Gospel enough for
his own refutation. In the pleasant polemic of Ter-
tullian, Marcion and his followers are 'dogs;' and
proverbially we know how * dogs ' are to be reasoned
with. To the modern reader, however, it may appear
that Tertullian, with all his eloquence and wit, might

^ 3. 12. 12, 13. I. * Adv, Marc, 4. 2. 3.

' Supernatural Religion^ p. 80 ff., 90 ff.
* Adv. Marc. 4. I.

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have chosen a better occasion for their display
than in attacking an eminent teacher of confessed
ascetic virtue, who had passed away, as if he were
still living, and from whose retaliation he was safe.
The ghost of Marcion seems to rise in silent dignity
of rebuke before us as we read. His criticisms upon
the Old Testament, his repugnance to its coarser
anthropomorphic representations of the Divine, anti-
cipated the reflections of modern times, A Gospel
which came to announce that the Law was still in
force, or even that a New Law of less burdensome
restrictions was introduced, was to him no good tidings
at all. Under the ignorance of an authoritative Eule
of faith which prevailed at his time, when life was
not to b$ shaped in accordance with a given creed, but
the creed was to be shaped in harmony with the
aspirations of the life, the abolition of carnal ordi-
nances was necessarily the negative side of that
Deliverance, of which the positive was the acquisition
of perfect spiritual freedom. The Antinomian move-
ment was but the tendency we have noticed in the
early 'apostolic' literature pushed to an extreme.
The Gnostics were the most ardent and thorough-
going reformers, only too logical in the application
of their principles. The emancipation of the mind
from all positive praescription can only lead in the
end, as the reformers of the fifteenth century found, to
social dissoluteness.^

As the free Jewish communities of the Diaspora
found it necessary to build their life on the basis of
apostolic Mandates, on the broad distinction of the
'Two Ways,' so ultimately the Catholics found it

^ The charges of Irenseus and Tertullian against the Gnostic brethren
and sisters may be taken cum grano,


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necessary to unite reverence for tlie Decalogue with
faith in One in whom the Law had found its ideal
consummation. But if a spiritual movement can only
be understood from its logical extremes, then the
Gnostic movement reveals the force and the extent
of the Innovation of the second century. The Christ
(Chrestos, Chreistos) of the Gnostics is neither son
of David, nor angel or archangel of Jehovah ; he is, in
effect, a * new god,' in that relative sense in which the
Greek held the conception of a known god, in contrast
to him who ever remained essentially unknown.^

Marcion's * Gospel ' was rather a theological mani-
festo than a historical or quasi-historical narrative.
It was called the * Gospel of the Lord ; ' and the fact
that it bore no author's name is rather a proof of its
early origin than the reverse.^ It was when controversy
demanded definite authenticity for statements, that
men began to discover the names of individual apostles
or evangelists which remain unknown so late as Justin
Martyr. And this anonymous Gospel opened with
the statement that

*In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Jesus came
down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee.' ^

What was meant was that Jesus, or the Soter, the
celestial spirit of the Gnostic system, the offspring of
the Pleroma, descended from heaven at that epoch.
* Your Lord, that better god,' says Tertullian, ' loved
man so well (man the work of *'our God") that for
his sake he endured to descend from the third heaven
into these poverty-stricken elements, and for his sake

1 The reference to ' Christ as God * iu Pliny's letter probably refers
to Gnostic views.

2 Adv, Marc. 4. 2. Cf. Supematwal Rdigiont p. 141.

s Tertullian, A'dv. Marc, 4. 7. Cf. Iren. i. 27. 2 : He < came mto

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was crucified in this little cell of the Creator even/ ^
He had his own condition, his own world, and his own
heaven. He was revealed in the twelfth year of
Tiberius Csesar ; Tertullian is writing in the fifteenth
of Severus ; and he says in criticism of the opinion
of that better world, that its substance has not hitherto
been discovered, as it ought to have been, along with
its Lord and Author.^ Again, * In the fifteenth year
of Tiberius, Christ Jesus deigned to emanate from
heaven, a salutary Spirit,' according to the ' Gospel ' of
Marcion. Now as 115 years 6^ months intervene
between Tiberius and Antoninus Pius, in whose reign
Marcion lived, Tertullian suggests that the God of
Marcion's revelation had nothing in common with the
God revealed by Christ in Tiberius' reign ; the former
is a new theological birth of the Antonine period.*
It is throughout no question of history. If Tertullian
could have said, *You have no evidence of what
occurred in Tiberius' reign,' he would have cut the
ground from under his own feet ; he had before him
Luke's Gospel, which referred to the same year of
that reign. But if the modern inquirer, stepping in
between these contending parties, asks. Where is the
evidence of any divine appearance and sofifering in
Tiberius' reign ? Tertullian, and the Marcionites, like
Justin of Neapolis, and others, have nothing but
the bare record of undated books or floating tradition
to which to refer in reply. Here and there it seems
as if we were about to come upon something of a
more historical character, but it fades away, as we
seek to grasp it. Tertullian looks back to * the time
of the apostles ' as one of a pure Theology ; and in the,
existing churches * of apostolic census ' the Christianity

* Adv. Marc. I. 14. * Ibid. 15. ' Ibid. 19.

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is that which holds to * the Creator ' in opposition to
Marcion. The churches which hold to Marcion's
Gospel, on the other hand, are stigmatised as late and
spurious. But these assertions prove nothing; for
Tertullian hnows scarce more of individual * apostles '
than did Justin ; and his notion of a sacred deposit
kept in the churches of the apostles from the beginning
is borrowed from the realm of imagination. He says
that the apostles one after another clearly affirmed
that Christ belonged to no other God than the Creator ;
and that there was no mention of a second God before
* Marcion's scandaL' He adds that this is easily proved
from an examination of the apostolic and the hseretical
churches, there is a ' subversion of the rule ' where the
opinion is of later date. Yet he passes from the
point without offering any proof, which, had it been
forthcoming, would have rendered his laborious di, priori
polemic unnecessary. His eloquent treatise in truth
throughout thinly disguises a deep embarrassment. He
had to deal with a sect which taught a Christ of their own,
a Jesus of their own, evolved not out of the Old Tes-
tament Scriptures, but out of their own philosophic or
poetic consciousness. He can only assert that this doc-
trine was a novelty dating from about fifty years before
his time. He probably believed this ; for he was of
those who could not make out the features of the
Christ at all, except from the Old Testament prophecies.
But he could not prove that his 'John' and 'Matthew,'
his * Luke ' and ' Mark,' were men who had been com-
missioned by Christ to publish the Gospel ; he simply
begs the point, as he begs priority for them, against
analogy, over the anonymous Gospel of Marcion.

It remains an enigma why Marcion and the Gnostics
should have adopted the name Christus at all to desig-

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nate the celestial emanation of the good God, who had
little or nothing in common with the Messiah of the
Jews. One is tempted to suppose a misunderstanding,
and to conjecture that Chredus, * the good one ' (as in
Suetonius), was the original name. However, Jesus
was the name with which Marcion's Gospel opened.
Yet if it was adopted as the name of their ideal
' Salvation ' from the Hebrew Jeschua, perhaps no other
explanation need be sought.^ Tertullian claims that
Jesus as a name is suitable to the Christ of the
Creator, or God of the Old Testament, because the
Son of Man has His name chauged to Joshua (Jesus)
on becoming the successor of Moses — in short, He was
* consecrated with the figure of the Lord's own Name,'
He shares the notions of * Barnabas ' and Justin, and
ofifers further, by his use of Old Testament prophe-
cies and narratives, more examples of that licence
and often absurdity of exegesis by which the suflfering
and cross of Jesus are found foreshadowed and made a

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