Early Christian Sects

The canonical gospels and the authentic and inauthentic Pauline texts were mostly crafted between (perhaps as early as) 60 and 185, and were created to advance the positions  of Christians who sought to advance their own ideological, philosophical, and theological agendas.

During this timeframe, several distinct and influential groups contributed to the later orthodoxical Christian paradigm.


Below are the sects which were probably most influential to the emerging Christian orthodoxy:

  1. The Nasaraeans – The Nasaraeans were a heretical Jewish sect not explicitly attached to Christianity.  Hippolytus and Epiphanius describe a sect leader named Elxai, who in the late 1st/early 2nd century, led a band of Nasaraeans, Nazarenes, Ebionites, and Essenes; this group believed the Christ was a masculine, 96 mile tall figure in the sky, and had a feminine counterpart, which was the Spirit.  The Nasaraenes rejected the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Old Testament), believed scribes had corrupted Moses’ teachings, and they claimed to possess Moses’ true teachings.  Epiphanius also said they resembled the Hemerobaptists, which, coupled with these other details, implies they might be the source of the John the Baptist sect.  Epiphanius puzzled over how the Nasaraeans could be Jewish in nationality, practice Jewish customs, yet reject Judaism’s tenets as he understood them.  My speculation is that these Nasaraeans were derivatives of a Queen of Heaven cult, which revered a long-lost deity which was purged during King Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform in the 7th century BCE.  See also:  The Nasaraeans:  The Original Gnostics
  2. The Cerinthians – Cerinthus and his followers were placed between Ephesus and Galatia by early heresy hunters, notably Irenaeus of Lyon and Epiphanius of Salamis.  Cerinthus appears to have been one of the first heretics who interjected the notion of a Demiurge, or a lower God/angel who created Earth, into Christianity.  Several groups, over hundreds of  years, claimed Cerinthus contributed authorship to Revelation and the Gospel of John.  Cerinthus believed that the spirit descended onto Jesus in the form of a dove after Jesus’ baptism, and left him prior to his death on the cross.  In this sense, Cerinthus saw Jesus as a regular man who was separate from the Spirit which was embodied within him.  According to Irenaeus, Cerinthus’ followers might have found common ground with the Gospel of Mark.  Epiphanius claimed the Cerinthians used the Gospel of Matthew; my speculation is that this earliest Matthew resembled Mark a great deal, and eventually, the Gospel diverged into extant Mark and Matthew.  If one presumes that Cerinthus was a consumer of Revelation, then Revelation 12:17, Revelation 5:8, and Revelation 8:3-4 might suggest that he was a derivative of the Nasaraenes.  See also:  Cerinthus: The Most Important Heretic You’ve Never Heard Of
  3. The Ebionites – A Jewish sect which, like Cerinthus, believed that the Spirit and Jesus were separate.  Unlike Cerinthus, the Ebionites believed that the most high God (Elyon) was the same God who created the Earth – this is presumably the reason why the Ebionites followed Jewish law; yet, Irenaeus connects the Ebionites to the Cerinthians, in terms of their Adoptionist theology (where Jesus and the Spirit were separate).  In this sense, the Ebionites broke from the Cerinthians; Irenaeus specifically pointed out that the Ebionites rejected Paul, which makes them the prime candidates for being “men from James” Paul described in Galatians.  Given the contrast between the Ebionites and (both) Cerinthus and Paul, one might speculate that Cerinthus and Paul had other connections not noted by early Christian historians.  For example, Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12 makes reference to a man who was taken up to heaven and saw unspeakable things.  The Ebionites rejected the notion of the virgin birth, but used (and probably authored) an early version of the Gospel of Matthew.  This matrix may also suggest Cerinthus and Paul’s Cephas were the same person.  See Also:  Jews, Gentiles, and the Demiurge
  4. The Carpocratians – Mentioned in Against Heresies 1.25, the Carpocratians seem to be something of a synthesis between the Cerinthians (AH i.26.1) and the Ebionites (AH i.26.2); they had Gnostic elements within their theology, and espoused the view that a broad set of experiences must be had, perhaps across multiple lifetimes (transmigration of souls), in order to get out of the material realm and resurrender one’s material elements back to the rulers of this world.  They appear to have used the blurb about the “very last penny”, which can be found in the Ebionite/Nazarene Matthew, as well as Luke, which makes them candidates for being the proxy between the Cerinthians and the Marcionites.
  5. The Marcionites – Marcion appears to have been a 3rd generation Docetist, which posited that Jesus was not quite flesh; he rejected Jewish law and elevated faith above acts.  Marcion also claimed that Jesus was sent from a previously unknown God, not the God of the Old Testament, whom he called Yaldabaoth.  In this sense, Marcion had much in common with Cerinthus, and like Paul, would have faced the Ebionites’ disdain.  Marcion rejected the notion that Jesus occupied any flesh, or suffered on the cross, because Marcion saw Jesus as a phantom.  The Marcionites elevated Paul as the highest apostle, and the centerpiece of the Marcionite canon (which appears to be the first ever formalized canon) was Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.  In fact, Marcion appears to have been the first Christian to use Paul’s letters in his theology, which makes him a primary candidate for Pauline authorship.  The Marcionite canon also included a “modified” version of the Gospel of Luke, along with the other Paul letters, except for the Pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus).  See Also:  Marcion of Sinope
  6. The Johannines – located in Western Turkey, in Smyrna, Ephesus, Sardis, and other cities mentioned in the Book of Revelation.  The Johannines supposedly authored the extant John-centric texts, including Revelation and John’s Gospel.  Great care was taken among early Christian leaders, including Irenaeus, to purport that John the Apostle (son of Zebedee), moved to Ephesus from Jerusalem around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (C. 70CE) – Against Heresies 3.1.1.  Several Marcionite notions trickled into some early Johannine literature, notably the Acts of John, which had John saying that he used to walk side-by-side with Jesus, but never saw his footprints.  Jesus’ statement to Mary, telling her not to touch him because he had not yet returned to his father (John 20:17), also seems to invoke a Marcionite Docetism.  The Johannines, like the Marcionites, had a robust notion of the Demiurge, but unlike the Marcionites, the Johannines said the Demiurge was the Logos (or the Word).  In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s first miracle was preceded by his mother rendering authority to Jesus; prior to Jesus’s death on the cross, Jesus turned over his disciples to his mother; this might suggest a connection between the Queen of Heaven cult (and by extension, the Nasaraeanes and Cerinthians) and the Johannine community.
  7. The Thomasites – Wrote the Gospel of Thomas, and several other Thomas-centric texts.  The Gospel of Thomas is important because, as it is a “sayings gospel” rather than a depiction of Jesus’s acts, it might have preceded the Synoptic Gospels.  Similar to the Johannines, with the possible exception that they put more emphasis on mystical visions; this Christian evolution, which decreasingly relied on mystical visions, might indicate an evolving power structure which de-emphasised an inheritor of the Spirit (Paraclete), and simultaneously relied more on church hierarchy.  In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus seems to indicate that the Paraclete would not be born of a woman; an interesting parallel is that Paul claimed to be born of a miscarriage in 1 Corin 15:8.  Traditionally placed in Syria, to the South of the Johannines.  Potential Syrians were Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Tatian (who was a student of Justin Martyr, and later became a Valentinian), and a generation later, Theophilus of Antioch, who was a potential recipient of the prologues in Luke and Acts after 160.  In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus told his followers to follow James, which perhaps suggests that there was an emerging anti-Paul polemic.  See also: April Deconick
  8. The Nazarenes – Very similar to the Ebionites, with the notable difference being their acceptance of the virgin birth and bodily resurrection; this detail makes them the likely authors of the virgin birth narrative in the Gospel of Matthew, along with the introduction of Jesus’ familial lineage.  They seemed to undergo a co-evolution with the Johannines.
  9. The Sethians – Were either located in Syria or Alexandria – perhaps both.  They had a robust, 5-stage baptism, called the “five seals”.  Though not much is known about the specifics of the five seals, it might resemble Mandaean baptismal rites.  Had a very robust cosmology which proposed that there was a fall from the Godhead, and this fall gave rise to the material realm.  In this case, the Sethians resembled the Marcionites and Cerinthians.  Yet the Sethians’ cosmology was more complex than either Marcion or Cerinthus.  They seemed to have taken much influence from Platonists and Pythagoreans of the day, as their creation myth was similar to those Greek philosophers, which proposed that the Monad formed immaterial ideals in a higher realm, and from that realm emerged an imperfect material copy.  They were likely forerunners to the Valentinians.
  10. The Valentinians – Similar to the Marcionites, in that they saw the God of the Old Testament as the creator of the world, but a different God as the highest.  Like the Marcionites, the Valentinians revered Paul and referred to the middle-man Demiurge as Yaldabaoth.  This makes the Valentinians likely 2nd generation Marcionites who introduced notions that were inherited from Alexandrian and Syrian Gnostic sources.  One possibility is that these alterations to earlier theologies were brought on by increasing political strife between Christian groups in different geographic locations.  They consumed the Gospel of John, and there are indications that they had multiple tiers of initiation.  Clement of Alexandria claimed that Valentinus received instruction from Theudas, a disciple of Paul.  Another possibility is that Paul was a hearer of Theudas, which creates a compelling connection between the Valentinians and John the Baptist.
  11. The Naassenes – A Gnostic James-centric sect, which appears to have been as early as the early 2nd century CE.  Perhaps an offshoot of the Ebionites, who revered Mariamne (Mary), who was said to have taken instruction from James.  The Naassenes revered the serpent, similar to the Sethians and the Ophites (and the Eleusinians, who were not Christian).  This reverance for Mary is similar to the Johannine concern for Jesus’s mother.
  12. The Melchizedekians – According to the Melchizedekians, Christ was in the image of Melchizedek, and therefore, was inferior to Melchizedek; there are similar themes like this in Sethian mythology as well, as it pertains to Adam, Seth, and Jesus.  Theodotus, a Valentinian, held that Melchizadek was higher than Jesus.  One implication is that the Melchizedekians believed they ought to replace the Aaronic priesthood.  This notion is found in Hebrews 7.  Melchizadek gave wine to Abraham when he was expecting water; in John 2, Jesus performed an analogous act.
  13. The Montanists – Also referred to as the Phrygian heresy and the New Prophesy.  Originated in Central Turkey, to the south of the Marcionites, sometime in the early-to-mid-2nd century. The most prominent defender of his heresy was Tertullian, the staunch anti-Marcionite, who supposedly joined their sect around 207CE.  Often compared to modern Pentacostals, in terms of the “trances” members were under, in which they were “possessed” by the spirit.  Seem to have been influenced by the Johannines in Western Turkey, as well as the Syrian community to the south; however, the view is that the Phyrgians were less influenced by Hellenization than their counterparts.They were millenialists, and believed that there would be 1000 years of peace after Jesus’s return; this suggests they consumed Revelation, as this idea is found in Revelation 20:1-6.

Last Revised:  20170224


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

17 thoughts on “Early Christian Sects”

  1. One author I read made an argument that the Ebionites were the sect headed by James (until his death) which, when Jerusalem was sacked ca. 70CE, fled east to Syria. What I can’t understand is, the people writing the historical narratives that are the Gospels, had access to all of these people, supposedly who met and talked with Jesus and/or were related by blood (his mother, his father, his siblings) and yet, there are no quotes from this group, none. According to accounts, the peripatetic Paul got around this whole area on foot, so travel was possible, if one were motivated enough. Yet nobody thought it would be a good idea to talk to these folks or interview them? And, if this was done, it apparently contradictory enough to peoples desires that they were expunged.

    The strongest argument for Jesus being a construct of various imaginations is just this lack of energy directed at trying to pin down Jesus’s real teachings. In Jewish circles scholars kept teaching trees, e.g. I was taught by X, who was taught by Y, who was taught by the great Z, etc. So, it wasn’t a leap to try to seek out knowledge from those best able to teach one. (Paul himself claimed instruction from a great Jewish scholar which probably was a lie he told just to bolster his street cred with Jewish audiences.) Since memory is so incredibly malleable and susceptible to editing, what we ended up with is a mishmash of all of these “beliefs and wishes” you are so nobly are educating us about. No wonder none of this makes any sense. It is just one step away from a troop of monkeys banging on typewriters.


    1. Yeah, James and the Ebionites were synonymous. If you read the Epistle of James, it becomes clear that those who were trying to advance James’ theology flatly rejected Paul, specifically with regards to faith (“Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself.”).

      In my opinion, the legend of Paul was created by Marcion, and borrowed from the story of Apollonius of Tyana. I do think Marcion was able to spread this Paul theology, because he had the financial resources to do it. He seems to have travelled to western Turkey and to Syria, and I suspect he claimed to be following in the footsteps of his invention (maybe Paul existed, but he existed the way James existed, as a historical proxy – sort of like how Dumbledore and Harry Potter used Gryffindor for their historical allegiance).

      But I think most of these sects did have a Jewish basis, which is why I think some sects rejected Marcion so much.


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