Diversity in Early Christianity

The Valentinians were the first group of early Christians I learned about when I started to investigate early Christianity.  The Valentinians opened up a whole new line of inquiry, because their mythos surrounding Jesus was as much celestial as it was Earthly.  According to the Valentinians, the Christ/Soter had been created and sent by angels in the Pleroma to free Sophia from her entrapment and formlessness in the lower Kenoma.  In some versions, Sophia herself gave birth to the Christ, and he was promptly taken up to heaven (see Revelation 12:5 for an interesting correlation).

*Source:  Talk Gnosis

At the time, I saw an inkling of a relationship between this view and the Gospel of John (particularly John 1), so I was relieved when I realized the Valentinians were vociferous consumers of John.  My later speculations were (and are) that the Valentinians were responsible for the creation of the bulk of the extant Gospel of John, and probably injected the virgin birth into Christianity sometime around 130 – this probably would have created a rift between those Italian Valentinians, who held the earlier adoptionist view, and the Eastern Valentinians, who were the ones to inject this new Virgin Birth notion.

When viewed in isolation, it is easy to recognize that the Valentinians did not require Jesus Christ’s literal existence on earth.  Therefore, especially in light of their heavy Platonic influence, any text they wrote could be construed as Earthly allegory which was meant to be interpreted in terms of the celestial goings-on in their mythos.

I struggled with that conclusion for a couple reasons, and any subsequent implication that the Valentinians provide the key to unlock the Jesus mystery.  For one, the Valentinians and the Gospel of John were not the earliest Christian writings – they’re not even the earliest extant Christian writings – the Synoptic Gospels clearly preceded the Gospel of John – that’s the consensus anyway (I prefer not to disagree with critical consensus if I can avoid it).  The other reason I struggled with putting too much emphasis on constructing my view through a Valentinian lens is because the theology seems derivative.

Where the Valentinians put heavy emphasis on a Platonic worldview (there is also a palpable anti-Semitism in John’s Gospel), other theologies, such as those of Cerinthus, Carpocrates, and the Ebionites had worldviews which were more Jewish, less Greek, and seem more likely to have given rise to the Valentinian worldview than vice-versa.  For example, the Cerinthians and Carpocratians had a Jewish cosmological Demiurge model, where they presumed that inferior angels created the Earth, as opposed to the Valentinian Demiurge, Yaldabaoth – although both these Demiurges probably pointed back to Yahweh.

This Jewish angelological view is indeed related to the Valentinian view, at least abstractly in that it inserts hierarchy into heaven and it offloads material creation responsibilities onto a lower God (thus providing a solution to the problem of evil/pain/suffering), but it raises the question: which came first? 

In my opinion, the answer is self-evident.  The more Jewish view gets the priority because Jesus was (presumed to be) Jewish.  It seems entirely unlikely that the Valentinian view (or any similar predecessor) would have preceded the Cerinthian and Carpocratian models, because Cerinthus and Carpocrates both rely more on Jewish literature; likewise, they are both less hostile (or at least more ambivalent) to Judaism and Yahweh.  Providing support for this chronological conclusion is that the Cerinthians and Carpocratians are associated with the Synoptic Gospels – as I have mentioned in other posts, Cerinthus might have constructed some proto-Synoptic Gospel which gave rise to Mark and Matthew; Cerinthus was also associated with, and presumed to have written, Revelation.

In this paradigm, when one considers other important players in the pre-Orthodoxy, it is easy to see how Christianity evolved from a Cerinthian/Ebionite/Carpocratian/Synoptic model into the Valentinians; the fact that the Valentinians thrived in a tiered theological system, where initiation was required prior to receiving Gnosis, their adoption of various Synoptic and seemingly non-Gnostic material is not improbable.

When one factors in Marcion, who injected increasing hostility towards Judaism, and who seems at least partially responsible for the preservation and/or invention of the extant Paul letters (at least Galatians and 2 Corinthians), coupled with an increasingly robust Syrian and Alexandrian Gnosticism during a time of major growth in middle-Platonism, it is easy to understand what gave rise to the Valentinians, who relied on content from all of these groups in assembling their own theology.

1438140690The uniting catalyst in this mix was probably the bar Kokhba revolt in the 130s, which featured a doomed messiah claimant, Simon bar Kokhba, who persecuted Christians who refused to join him in his fight against Rome.  This was a recipe for alienation and schism, and the subsequent Jewish expulsion from Judea cemented this.

This  progression helps to explain some of the strange developments within Heterodoxical (pre-Catholic) Christianity, but it is by no means a “silver bullet” for all of the dissonant details in Christian history.  For example, it does not explain why there was such wide diversity among Christians before bar Kochba and the Valentinians.  One curious contrast was the one between the Cerinthians and the Ebionites.

The Cerinthians and Ebionites both used a Synoptic-looking Gospel which probably resembled Mark or Matthew.  Likewise, both groups agreed Jesus and the Christ were separate, and that the Christ left Jesus prior to crucifixion.  Yet the Cerinthians had a different high God than the Ebionites did.  It would appear that the Ebionites saw Yahweh and Elyon as the same God, where the Cerinthians had a hierarchy which seemed to have resembled the Canaanite religion, where the Earth’s creation was performed by inferior angels.

Approaching Cerinthus through a Greek lens reveals his insertion of the Demiurge, or the world-craftsman.  This was my simplistic conclusion on the matter for some time, but a problem (or at least a point of intrigue) is that Cerinthus seems to have relied on a Jewish worldview, especially if one presumes he was a consumer or contributor to Revelation, which strongly relies on various Old Testament texts, including Daniel and Ezekiel.  Another simplistic solution in this matter is that it was presumed among Ezekiel’s consumers that Ezekiel was a teacher to Aristotle; this probably is not true, but what it demonstrates is that there was intellectual flow between the Jewish and Greek world, and that flow was probably occurring for hundreds of years.

3a90210fe9d8851717e543dff446fb89Revelation also provides insight into its Jewish origins which solve this Jewish Demiurge dilemma.  Specifically, the reference to the woman clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet and a crown of stars.  This woman was the Queen of Heaven, a carry over from a long-lost religion which was purged from the 1st temple in the 7th century BCE (2 Kings 22-23).  She became known as Wisdom, was associated with the tree of life from Genesis, and worshippers burned incense for her.  She not only seems to have been the influence for the Gnostic Sophia, but she also seems to have worked her way into the later Jewish Gnostic belief known as Kabbalah, which integrates a concept called Chochmah Nistara, or “hidden Wisdom”.

Revelation describes the Queen giving birth to a child, who was presumably a reference to the messiah.  But another detail which is not inconsequential is its reference to the Queen’s other children, who were the ones who “kept” the law (Rev 12:17).

The Hebrew term nāsar means to guard, preserve, or keep.  This seems to be a quite obvious link which connects the Cerinthians (and any Revelation consumer) to the Nasaraeans.

This raises a question:  If the Cerinthians revered the Queen of Heaven, and the Nasaraeans were connected to the Cerinthians via Revelation 12:17, and its reference to the “keepers of the law”, does that mean the Nasaraeans were connected to the Queen of Heaven too?  Yes.

My support for that goes back to the purge of the Queen from Solomon’s temple in the 7th Century BCE.  King Josiah’s inspiration to purge the Queen came when his high priest found a lost law book of Moses, presumably Deuteronomy, while renovating the temple.  This book, which claimed to have been written by Moses, implores its readers to reject the Queen of Heaven, Baal, and other Polytheistic echoes.

It is striking then that these Nasaraenes lived among Jews, observed Jewish holidays, but rejected the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Old Testament).  According to Epiphanius, one of the reasons they rejected the Pentateuch was because they had a “secret book” which they claimed was written by Moses.  Consider this Nasaraene claim in the context of King Josiah’s purge, and it is easy to understand the Nasaraeane motivation:  they did not like Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform.

In other words, they were the theological descendants of those people who are described in Jeremiah 44:16-18, who blamed the destruction of Solomon’s temple on Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms:

“We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”

It seems likely that the Cerinthians were derivatives of the Nasaraenes, or the keepers of the 1st temple law, but this by itself does not anwer the question of why the Cerinthians had a different God than the Ebionites, despite the two groups having remarkably similar views about Jesus (that he and the Christ were separate).

One solution is that the original, first-temple law left room for a hierarchy in heaven.  In light of the subsequent direction of temple-Judaism in the 800 years following Josiah’s purge, and the fact that Yahweh became Elyon (the most high) within Orthodoxical Judaism, it seems natural that this would have been where the gravitational pull took the group; indeed even the God of Christianity became the God of Judaism despite the fact that several early Christian groups explicitly denied Yahweh was the most high, notably the Marcionites, Valentinians, Cerinthians, and Manicheans.

Another piece of the puzzle lies with Elxai, presumably the figurehead of the Elcesites, a group to which Mani the Manichean belonged.  According to Epiphanius, this Elxai led an enormously diverse group of Christians and non-Christians, which included Essenes, Ebionites, Nasaraeans, and Nazarenes.

The timeline we have for Elxai was the late 1st or early 2nd century; however, given what appears to be a clear connection between these groups and the Queen of Heaven, an obvious inference is that Elxai was not doing anything new.

This historical detail also renders an obvious link between Cerinthus and the Ebionites if one presumes the Cerinthians were a Nasaraeane derivative via their connection to Elxai; in other words, Elxai was a leader of a diverse group who were “keepers” of the law – the Nasar.  The significant theological differences between Cerinthus and the Ebionites were probably, at least for a time, overcome by the group’s broader goals of adherence to “the way”, which probably included concerns for a restoration of the 1st temple and the royal priesthood, which would have been the Order of Melchizadek, as opposed to the more Moses-centric Aaronic priesthood, which had control over the 2nd temple.  This view is probably represented in Hebrews 7:14-19

For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16 one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is declared: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”  The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19 (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.

It appears there were many manifestations of the Queen of Heaven.  We see instances with the mother from Revelation 12, Sophia in various Gnostic theologies, a likely reference to her in the Kaballah, and various echoes of her throughout the Old Testament.  But she also shows up in 2 Esdras 9-10, as a woman mourning the death of her child.  Below are excerpts:

I went out as he told me into the field that is called Ardat…Listen to me, Israel! Offspring of Jacob, pay attention to what I say! Look, I am sowing my Law in you, and it will bear fruit in you, and you will be glorified in it forever…While I was saying these things in my heart, I looked with my eyes and saw a woman to my right. She was lamenting and crying with a loud voice, and she was experiencing deep grief. Her clothes were torn, and there were ashes on her head…She said to me: “I, your servant, was infertile, and I hadn’t given birth, although I had a husband for thirty years. Hour after hour and day after day during these thirty years I pleaded with the Most High by night and day…After thirty years God heard your servant and saw how dejected I was. He attended to my distress and gave me a son…But it happened that when my son went into his wedding chamber, he fell down and died. We extinguished all our lamps, and all my fellow citizens rose to console me…I got up at night and fled, and I came into this field

It is interesting to note that the setting for this exchange with the grieving lady was a field, especially considering Mark 15 has Simon of Cyrene snatched from a field to bear Jesus Christ’s cross.

The conclusion of this story in 2 Esdras gives the grieving woman’s fate – she became a city…a replacement for the destroyed city.  The most high would come to intervene

While I was speaking to her, look! Suddenly her face shone brightly and her countenance became a flashing splendor. I became afraid of her, and I wondered what was happening.  Without warning she let out a noise, a great voice full of fear, so that the earth itself shook with the sound. I watched, and she no longer appeared to me as a woman, but there was a city built, and a place with great foundations appeared. I was afraid, and I shouted with a great voice,  “Where’s the angel Uriel, who came to me from the beginning?…”  While I was saying these things, the angel who had come to me in the beginning came to me again and looked at me.

“This woman whom you saw is Zion, whom you now see built as a city. As for what she said to you, that she was infertile for thirty years, it is because there were three thousand years in the world when offerings weren’t yet made in her. After three thousand years, Solomon built the city and made offerings. That is when the infertile woman bore a son.  As for what she said to you, that she nourished him with labor, this was the time that Jerusalem was inhabited. And as for what she said to you, that her son came into his wedding chamber and died and that misfortune happened to her, this is the destruction that happened to Jerusalem. Indeed, you saw her likeness, how she mourns her son, and you began to console her over these things that had happened. (These things were to be shown to you. )  Now the Most High, seeing that you are sincerely saddened and that you suffer for her with all your heart, has shown you the splendor of her glory and the beauty with which she is adorned. For this reason I told you to remain in the field where no house is built:  I knew that the Most High was about to show you these things.

Tomorrow night you will remain here, and the Most High will show you in dream visions what the Most High will bring about for those who live on earth in the last days.”


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

2 thoughts on “Diversity in Early Christianity”

  1. Re “For example, it does not explain why there was such wide diversity among Christians before bar Kochba and the Valentinians.” Could not the “wide diversity” simply be a manifestation of not having definitive sources anywhere at hand? Documents got circulated and copied (albeit with mistakes) but not with any speed or uniformity, I suspect, and left with big holes in any of the narratives, the local BS artists would tend to fill them with things they thought “logical” or which coincided with their personal views. Then people would quote one another and discuss and discus and discuss. Eventually “fake (good) news” abounds.

    All of this comes naturally through the motivating power of human gossip (a well-documented evolutionary advantage) and poor or non-authoritative sources. It always startles me that the highly vaunted (now anyway) Apostle Paul’s defense of himself not being a liar made the cut into scripture. Or maybe that was an interpolation.


    1. “Apostle Paul’s defense”
      It is quite funny that blurb made it in. I’ve got to assume they (Irenaeus and whoever preceded him) left that in because they did not want to overhaul Paul more than necessary to bring in his followers.

      ” poor or non-authoritative sources”
      Yes – that is the trouble. It might indeed be the case that we can never resolve anything in terms of timeline and evolution. But when I read the polemical writings against these so-called heretics, it seems to me there’s a clear evolution discernible…but I would acknowledge that this might just be my inclination to find patterns…even if they’re not really there.


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