Of the early Christian heretics who get attention from scholars and enthusiasts alike, Marcion, Valentinus, and Arius occupy the most head space. Other sects, including the Sethians, Encratites, and Ebionites are often seen as noteworthy, but probably not too influential on the development of later Christian doctrine.
It might go without saying, but I’ll say (or write) it any way, that I think these groups had much more influence on the development of modern Christianity than is presumed. Put more bluntly, I believe that the heretics that were described by the early church fathers from the 2nd to 5th century were actually the inventors of Christianity’s core.
A recurring theme is detectable among these early heretics. This theme circled around the extent of Jesus’ humanity.
Was Jesus a human who received the spirit after baptism by John, as Mark indicates? Or was Jesus the result of divine insemination, as Matthew posits? Or did John have it right, where Jesus was the actual word of God who existed prior to humanity and the world, and was later sent as a human sacrifice 40 years before the 2nd temple’s destruction in Jerusalem? After all, we hear it verbatim that God so loved the world that he sent his only son to die for the sins no one here actually committed…
Fights about Jesus and God’s nature continued for hundreds of years, through various iterations, despite eventual government persecution for those holding beliefs which strayed from the Orthodoxy.
The Marcionites, Gnostics (notably the Valentinians and Sethians), and later Arians all held views that were directly or indirectly concerned with how human Jesus was, and those ideas were incompatible with the eventual official decision, which made Jesus equivalent to God. By the time the Arian position was deemed a heresy in the 4th century, Valentinian and Marcionite theologies were on their way out. Some of these heresies survived to the East in the form of Manichaeism and Mandeaism. Though Christianity washed its hands of the early heresies, byproducts from these forgotten theologies carried through into modernity, notably the Basilidean notion that Jesus escaped death by transferring his spirit to Simon of Cyrene, a view which still persists within the Islamic faith.
Along with the question of how human Jesus was, there was also the matter of who God was. If there is any truth to Irenaeus’ statement that the Cerinthians used something like the Gospel of Mark (AH iii.11.7), or perhaps a Matthew derivative, as other heresy hunters such as Epiphanius asserts, one is right to presume that those early Christians saw nuance in the matter of who the high God was. Where many in this early class assumed a god other than the Abrahamic God as having sent the Christ, the Ebionites (perhaps equivalent to the Men from James, as described by Paul in Galatians) were more attached to the Old Testament God; yet, according to the earliest heresy hunters, notably Irenaeus, the Ebionite impression of Jesus was similar to those of heretics who saw Jesus and the Christ as separate entities.
In my mind, the 2 questions most critical to understanding early Christianity are:
- Which opinion came first: that Jesus was sent by the Abrahamic God, or that Jesus was sent by some other God?
- Who was the first so-called heretic to this Adoptionist view (that Jesus’s humanity was separable from the Christ spirit)?
Investigation of Christianity’s earliest heresies quickly leads to discovery of the so-called “father of all heresies”, Simon Magus. According to Irenaeus, this is what Simon Magus thought of Jesus:
For since the angels ruled the world ill because each one of them coveted the principal power for himself, he had come to amend matters, and had descended, transfigured and assimilated to powers and principalities and angels, so that he might appear among men to be a man, while yet he was not a man; and that thus he was thought to have suffered in Judæa, when he had not suffered.
In Irenaeus’ statement above, we see two key attributes characteristic of a theology similar to Adoptionism, Docetism: Jesus was a phantom and Jesus did not actually suffer.
Simon Magus is an attractive candidate as being the “father of all heresies,” and given Irenaeus’ statement, he also appears to be one of the earliest instigators of this Docetic view. Simon Magus’ connection to the apostolic era, specifically the conflict with Apostles John and Peter in Acts of the Apostles 8, along with his role as chief antagonist in the Acts of Peter, makes him a likely candidate for the inventor of the heresies.
After much research into the matter, the problem I have with attributing intellectual property rights of Christianity’s earliest heresies to Simon Magus is that he seems hyper-polemicized, and somewhat derivative. Simon’s presumed deviation from Judaism makes the Adoptionistic Cerinthian and Ebionite views closer to the expected profile for Christianity’s core. At this risk of injecting a false dilemma, I propose that it was Simon who was deviating from pre-existing Ebionite and Cerinthian models, rather than various imaginable alternatives.
There are other alternatives to where Christianity came from, notably the famous heretic Marcion, along with his supposed teacher, Cerdo. With these heretics, we see an increasingly complex Demiurge model, where one God created the earth and another sent Jesus. This is quite similar to Cerinthus, with his presumption that inferior angels created the earth (AH i.26.1), and in contrast to the Ebionites, who along with their hatred of Paul, also believed that the Abrahamic God was the most high (AH i.26.2).
A suspicion I have developed throughout my analysis of early Christianity is that Marcion’s teacher, Cerdo is the same person as the sparsely-mentioned heretic named Cerinthus. This speculation is derived from a number of factors:
- The first 3 letters of their names begin with the same letters
- The name [Cerdo] appears to be a polemic against the heretic, as Cerdo means “fox” in ancient Greek, “pig” in modern Spanish, and “profit” in modern Greek (any money-related scandals make Marcion a likely target).
- Cerinthus had a direct connection to the Johannine community in Western Turkey, via Irenaeus’s anecdote of a conflict between John and Cerinthus
- Cerinthus held views which seem earlier than Marcion’s phantom-Christ view
- Cerinthus was presumed to be an author of Revelation. One of Marcion’s core texts was 2 Corinthians, which seems to make reference to a person who underwent experience similar to those described in Revelation (2 Corin 12)
The earliest detail which gave rise to my initial suspicion about Cerinthus and Cerdo was that Cerinthus had a quarrel with the Apostle John. Here is Irenaeus’ account of it:
There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.
The subtext Irenaeus conveyed in this anecdote is that Cerinthus was a contemporary of the apostles.
When Epiphanius of Salamis wrote about Cerinthus, he put Cerinthus in the Apostolic era as well, only Epiphanius linked Cerinthus to Peter:
[Cerinthus] is also one of those who opposed St. Peter because he had gone to St. Cornelius when Cornelius had been vouchsafed a vision of an angel and had sent for Peter [Acts 10]. And Peter was dubious and saw the vision of the sheet and the things that were in it, and was told by the Lord to call nothing common or unclean.
Like Simon Magus, Cerinthus supposedly had an adversarial relationship with both John and Peter.
Irenaeus also alluded to analogous relationships when he gave the following account in the very next sentence following the Cerinthus-bathhouse incident:
And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me? “”I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.”
Irenaeus earlier described a connection between John and the Asian church leader, Polycarp, by claiming that Polycarp was a student of John (Irenaeus also claimed to be a student of Polycarp; that was his claim to apostolic authority). By mentioning John and Cerinthus in one sentence, and then mentioning Polycarp and Marcion in the next, one speculation is that Irenaeus subconsciously revealed that Cerinthus and Marcion’s relationship was analogous to John and Polycarp’s.
Consider Irenaeus’ entire description of Cerinthus; note that he makes several allusions to the inklings of a much more robust Gnostic view, notably that there was a “God above God”, the “other” God was ignorant, the Christ descended onto Jesus like a dove, and that Jesus (the man) suffered, but the Christ did not:
Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being.
The foundation on which Christianity was built relied on Apostolic succession. The easiest lineage to hash out is the lineage of John, precisely because of Irenaeus’s tome. Polycarp received the Spirit from John (this is perhaps detectable in the Acts of John, although Polycarp is not mentioned by name), and from Polycarp, Irenaeus received the spirit.
Early Christians realized the Apostle John did not write anything. Here is what the 3rd century presbyter Caius had to say about Cerinthus:
Cerinthus, by means of revelations which pretend to be written by a great apostle, speaking falsely, introduces wonders which he speaks of as if they had been shown to him by angels, saying that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ was to be on earth, and that again men in bodily form would live in Jerusalem and be subject to lusts and pleasures.
Likewise, Eusebius could not hold his tongue about what he would have recognized to be an obvious deception:
…that he was called John, and that this book is the work of one John, I do not deny. And I agree also that it is the work of a holy and inspired man. But I cannot readily admit that he was the apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, by whom the Gospel of John and the Catholic Epistle were written.
Hippolytus, as repeated by Epiphanius, mentioned another 2nd century CE heretical group called the Alogi “do not receive the books of John…for they say that they are not [works] of John, but of Cerinthus”. The Alogi lived in roughly the same geographic area as the Ephesian Johannines (perhaps geographically between the Ephesians and the Montanists) in modern day Western and Central Turkey.
Separate groups, over a thousand miles and a hundred years apart, with different theological agendas, came to similar conclusions: Cerinthus wrote Revelation. There are hardly any more obvious smoking guns in the web of lies and mischaracterizations the early church fathers created than the Cerinthus-Revelation link. In my opinion, Cerinthus must have written parts of Revelation between 4:1 and 22:7, which seem to be the original components of the book.
Consider another link to Cerinthus. Irenaeus, in the paragraph immediately following the one about Cerinthus, writes about an anti-Paul group called The Ebionites:
Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with respect to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the Gospel according to Matthew only, and repudiate the Apostle Paul, maintaining that he was an apostate from the law.
Irenaeus wrote the Ebionites “agree that the world was made by God.” Because this Ebionite section came immediately after the Cerinthus section, one might interpret this to mean that the Ebionites agreed with Cerinthus that the world was made by God. But the paragraph earlier made Irenaeus’ characterization of Cerinthus clear: “…the world was not made by the primary God.” Irenaeus meant that the Ebionites agreed with him and his desired Orthodoxy.
If one presumes that the instruction from “the pillars” of Jerusalem in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians that Paul should “remember the poor” is a reference to the Ebionites, then what Galatians might represent is the second generation of this Christian dissonance which began years earlier when the Ebionites disagreed with Cerinthus about the nature of God and the source of Jesus.
Consider a reference Epiphanius made to Cerinthus:
And so Cerinthus stirred the circumcised multitudes up over Peter on his return to Jerusalem by saying, ‘He went in to men uncircumcised.’
In the above quote, Epiphanius makes reference to Acts 11, which had Peter assuming the same role the Apostle Paul held in Galatians 2. In Acts 11, Peter convinces his community that eating with (and like) the uncircumcised is acceptable, which is in direct contrast to Paul’s description of Cephas in Galatians. This Petrine incident seems a striking rewrite of his actual position, recreating him as an Orthodoxical “Super Apostle.”
The fact that Cerinthus inherited Cephas’ original role, while Peter was reworked into Paul, makes for an intriguing speculation: Cerinthus was the person at the root of Paul’s Cephas.
It could very well be the case that Cerinthus was not the mastermind I imagine. He might simply have been a 2-bit early heretic that history barely remembers. But that is not the indication I get. I see indications that Christianity’s original mystery origins was later hijacked by people who saw a political opportunity to rework Christianity into a religion with mass appeal, and which was acceptable to the political actors in Rome.