Saturninus and Basilides: The Forgotten Heretics

In Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, Saturninus is mentioned by name 8 times, and Basilides is mentioned 16 times.

Yet, both of these heretics are relatively obscure, compared to subsequent heretics who made more of a splash, including Marcion, Valentinus, and the later Arias.

It seems to me that the reason these heretics fail to bubble up on the list of famous and endeared heretics is because they did not seem to add much to Christianity that the other heretics had not already contributed.  But these heretics’ similarity to other heresies might be precisely what makes them important.

If you have not read other posts in this blog, here is a quick list of speculations I have made which make me both a conspiracy theorist (at least in terms of Christianity’s origins) and radically divergent from anything anyone in the mainstream might conclude:

  1. A heretic named Cerinthus probably represents the earliest Christianity; he might be the historical person underlying Saint Peter
  2. The Ebionites arose in response to Cerinthus’ heresy, which among other things, rejected Yaheweh as the highest God.  The Ebionites seem closely associated with James (see Galatians 2:10-2:12)
  3. Marcion rose in response to Cerinthus and the Ebionites, further advancing Cerinthus’ theology to its end point; he might be the historical person underlying Saint Paul
  4. The Valentinians rose as a synthesis to the above 3 groups, integrating Syrian and Alexandrian Gnosticism into Christianity’s earlier Docetic theologies.  They might have authored the original Gospel of John
  5. The array of data which gives rise to these speculations also points to Roman Asia as the likely place of origin for the earliest iterations of Christianity

The key topics at issue during these earliest years of Christian development, perhaps between 80CE and 160CE related to who the highest God was, whether the material realm was worth saving, and how human Jesus was.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus primarily targeted the Valentinians; however, Marcion was also a featured player in his 220,000 word tome.

In this framework, it is easy to understand why Saturninus and Basilides failed to garner much attention; yet, I think they are both important to the development of Christianity, as well as the other heresies and religions that eventually sprung from it, including Manicheanism and even Islam.

The first feature of these so-called heretics which add weight to their validity is their geography.  In 1.24.1, Irenaeus writes:

Arising among these men, Saturninus (who was of that Antioch which is near Daphne) and Basilides laid hold of some favourable opportunities, and promulgated different systems of doctrine-the one in Syria, the other at Alexandria.

In other words, Saturninus was from Syria and Basilides was from Alexandria.  These locations provide a plausible mechanism by which the earliest Christianities made their way from Roman Asia (Turkey) into Syria and Alexandria.

In this same section of Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes about Saturninus’ theology:

The world, again, and all things therein, were made by a certain company of seven angels. Man, too, was the workmanship of angels, a shining image bursting forth below from the presence of the supreme power; and when they could not, he says, keep hold of this, because it immediately darted upwards again, they exhorted each other, saying, “Let us make man after our image and likeness.” He was accordingly formed, yet was unable to stand erect, through the inability of the angels to convey to him that power, but wriggled [on the ground] like a worm. Then the power above taking pity upon him, since he was made after his likeness, sent forth a spark of life, which gave man an erect posture, compacted his joints, and made him live

The reference to the spark, as well as the seven angels who were between the supreme God and the material realm, sounds quite reminiscent of Alexandrian Gnosticism, notably the Sethians, who also posited the “divine spark” which was central to the Sethians, and the element of Gnosis which humans ought to seek.  In this sense, Saturninus seems like the perfect proxy between the Northern Christianity and the Southern Gnosticism.  The fact that Irenaeus did not provide a timeframe for when Saturninus was active provides some evidence that Saturninus was indeed early – my speculation is that he was probably earlier than 150CE.

Consider another attribute Irenaeus gives to Saturninus:

He has also laid it down as a truth, that the Saviour was without birth, without body, and without figure, but was, by supposition, a visible man; and he maintained that the God of the Jews was one of the angels; and, on this account, because all the powers wished to annihilate his father, Christ came to destroy the God of the Jews, but to save such as believe in him; that is, those who possess the spark of his life

This detail is strikingly similar to how tradition remembers Marcion, who also held that Jesus was a phantom.  If we proceed with the supposition that Marcion was earlier than what Irenaeus claimed (Irenaeus claimed Marcion was in Rome during the late 150s), then the implementation of Gnosticism in Christianity seems very well explained by Saturninus’ theology.  If the reader is willing to speculate that the Valentinians (or at least Gnostic Christians) contributed to the Gospel of John’s authorship, then this anti-semitic view espoused by Saturninus explains John 8:44, where Jesus unleashed his anti-semitic rant against the Pharisees:

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, refusing to uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, because he is a liar and the father of lies.

Like Saturninus, Basilides also has clear Gnostic attributes within his theology, notably the Demiurge concept, which posits that the earth was not made by the highest God:

[Basilides] sets forth that Nous was first born of the unborn father, that from him, again, was born Logos, from Logos Phronesis, from Phronesis Sophia and Dynamis, and from Dynamis and Sophia the powers, and principalities, and angels, whom he also calls the first; and that by them the first heaven was made

Clearly, these concepts of Nous, Logos, and Sophia were derived from Neo-Pythagorean and middle-Platonic philosophy.  In that regard, there is nothing too interesting to say about Basilides; however, there is a feature within Irenaeus’ description of Basilides which should not be ignored:

But the father without birth and without name, perceiving that they would be destroyed, sent his own first-begotten Nous (he it is who is called Christ) to bestow deliverance on them that believe in him, from the power of those who made the world. He appeared, then, on earth as a man, to the nations of these powers, and wrought miracles. Wherefore he did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them [also see the Gospel of Judas]

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Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus Christ’s cross

This reference to Simon of Cyrene, along with the Docetic undertones of the notion that Jesus, as a Nous-derived human, transferred bodies and fooled the powers on Earth, seems to me to be a prime candidate for the underlying mystery that was intended by the Gospel of Mark in Mark 15:21:

Now Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and the soldiers forced him to carry the cross of Jesus

However, another interesting parallel with Basilides can be found in the Islamic Qur’an (An-Nisa):

That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-

This Docetic sentiment found in Islam is remarkably similar to both Cerinthus, who held that the Christ and Jesus were separable, and (moreso) Basilides, who held the equivalent view.  One can speculate from this that these Docetic traditions remained alive well after Christianity was made Orthodox in the Roman empire, and these so-called heresies moved west into what would become the Sasanian and Byzantine Empires, where they found a more Gnostic-friendly atmosphere than the increasingly rigid Roman Empire, giving rise to Manicheanism and perhaps Mandaeanism, as well

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

2 thoughts on “Saturninus and Basilides: The Forgotten Heretics”

  1. Tim, you are not “a conspiracy theorist” in that much of what you say ended up a “cover up” instead of a conspiracy.

    Bottom line, Christianity would have frittered away into myriad bickering sects (still a tendency today) were it not that the Roman Emperors adopted it as the state religion of Rome (what was left of it). The Romans, with their gift for administration, eliminated Arianism, enforced consistent doctrine, and a great deal more and in adopting Christianity, empowered the Bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome, to embrace that power. The irony, of course, being Christian “authorities” embracing Rome, which ostensibly was responsible for the death of “Jesus.” (Hey, forgive and forget, eh? Whats a little issue between friends like the killing of one’s god.)

    If you think your views run counter to most Christians understanding of Christian history, consider that fact: Christianity would have died out were it not for Rome’s authoritarianism (still existent in the edicts of various churches).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Steve! Quite right about the weird relationship between Christianity and Rome, but then again, they didn’t have many alternatives but to play nice. I suspect that the very earliest inklings of orthodoxy (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus) were engaged in lobbying efforts from the very beginning, and that is the specific reason why the so-called heretics failed to get Roman acceptance. In that sense, it once again comes down to political savvy.

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