Who Was Elxai?

To most people who have pondered him, Elxai was simply another, in a long line of obscure heretics who played a marginal role on the fringes of early Christianity.

Elxai’s curious doctrine included male and female 96 mile-tall angels who lived in the sky.  The male was the son of God, and the female was the Holy Spirit.  A clear prototype of an emerging Christian Trinity should be noted here, as a father, mother, and son make for plausible and economical early formulation of the Christian Trinity.

Along with Elxai’s pre-Trinity formulation, he also advocated remission of sins via the combination of belief, obeying his book, and baptism. This baptism included adherence to his book, which made reference to “seven witnesses” which were critical in his mystery:  heaven, water, holy spirits, angels of prayer, oil, salt, and earth.

He seems to have had a Pythagorean (Platonic) worldview, which to Hippolytus, equated to concerns for astrology and magic, and he believed followers should be circumcised and live according to the (Jewish) law.  According to Hippolytus:

…he asserts that Christ was born a man in the same way as common to all, and that Christ was not for the first time on earth when born of a virgin…that frequently again he had been born and would be born.  Christ would thus appear and exist among us from time to time, undergoing alterations of birth, and having his soul transferred from body to body.

According to Elxai (via Hippolytus), Jesus would return to earth over-and-over again.  Could this be a precursor to the Paraclete?  The mention of “undergoing alterations of birth” is also remarkable.  Perhaps Elxai’s view was that Jesus would be born normally in one generation, but abnormally, such as via a miscarriage (1 Cor 15:7-8), in a subsequent generation.  Consider this in the context of Jesus telling his apostles in the Gospel of Thomas that they should fall down on their faces when they find one “not born from a woman”.

Hippolytus’s description appears to be compatible with the beliefs of Basilides, who used the Gospel of Mark, and believed that the Spirit which was encapsulated within Jesus Christ transferred to Simon of Cyrene prior to his crucifixion.  Likewise, the notion of reincarnation is quite compatible with this view.  The fact that Elxai incorporated the notion that the Christ Spirit would descend onto Jesus under the right circumstances is likewise similar to other early Markan/Matthean readers, such as the Ebionites and Cerinthians.

Though Hippolytus references the “third year of Trajan’s reign”, C 100 CE, it is not entirely obvious that this was the time Elxai was active; Hippolytus references students of Elxai, Pope Callistus (c 210CE) and Sobiai – both received Elxai’s teachings.  However, Hippolytus appeared to err in his assumption about the personhood of Sobiai.  Rather, Sobiai seems to be a reference to an Aramaic term, which means “sworn members” (Lightfoot, St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 1876).

In contrast to more popular heretics such as Marcion and Valentinus, Elxai was not mentioned by Irenaeus in Against Heresies.  Rather, the first mention of him was when Hippolytus wrote about him in Refutation of All Heresies.

Hippolytus paints a complex picture of influence with Pope Callistus as roughly the hub.  Callistus was influenced by the Noetians.  Callistus was also influenced by Theodotus the Tanner.  Callistus’s doctrines were expanded by Alcibiades, who claimed to have Elxai’s book, which included, among other things, a story of war in heaven among angels.


Alcibiades was contemporary with Mani the Prophet, who was also said to be an Elchesite.  Therefore, the following speculations are most economical:

  1. Mani was a disciple of Alcibiades
  2. Mani and Alcibiades were disciples of an Elchesite teacher who had Elxai’s book.
  3. This Elchesite religion was much more prominent than the Heresiologists (Hippolytus, Epiphanius, etc) would admit

Callistus’s role in this hierarchy should not be understated; note that, according to Hippolytus, Callistus had influence from Theodotus the Tanner (or shoemaker).  Hippolytus wrote “How Theodotus has been a victim of error, deriving contributions to his system partly from the Ebionaeans (partly from Cerinthus).”

Consider a New Testament parallel in Acts of the Apostles.  There is only one book in the entire bible (including the Old Testament) which makes reference to the tanner profession: Acts of the Apostles.  Acts 9 has Peter bringing a Tabitha back to life in Joppa (Tabitha was also called Dorcas – as Eisenman speculates, Dorcas may be Dortas, a reference to Dositheus.  In the Pseudo-Clementines, Simon Magus overcomes Dositheus to take control of John the Baptist’s sect).

During his time in Joppa, Peter stayed with a tanner named Simon(!).  If this anecdote is fictional (which it no doubt is), consider a reason why an author would have given Simon the profession of tanner.

Tanners made shoes and other wearable products by using dead animal carcasses.  The tanning profession was not a pleasant one.  It required working with foul-smelling carcasses, and it created much pollution in local water supplies.  This profession would have been regarded with aversion by Jews because it “necessitated more or less ceremonial contamination, especially in the case of unclean animals” (Hastings, Bible Dictionary, IV, 677).

In Acts, Peter’s time with Simon preceded a change to his dietary views which were referenced (with infamous hostility) in Galatians 2, and which Paul griped were influenced by the men from James (Ebionites).  In Peter’s vision in Joppa, the lord shows Peter four-footed animals, reptiles, and birds, and commands Peter to kill and eat them.  Peter protests at first, but eventually alters his dietary rigidity.  He then goes to Jerusalem to share this vision with the apostles.  He was rebuked by some community members for eating with uncircumcised men.  According to Epiphanius, Peter’s antagonist in this scene was Cerinthus.

Read chronologically, Peter’s stay with Simon the tanner precipitated this major alteration to Christian dietary rules, and flew in the face of Jewish law.  Of course, Christianity’s rejection of Jewish law was precipitated by the Apostle Paul’s writings.

Could this anecdote of Simon the tanner be a codification of the Apostle Paul?

A few paragraphs earlier, Peter (and John) encounter another Simon who practiced magic (similar to Elxai, along with other heretics, such as Marcus the Magician and Carpocrates – Theudas [John the Baptist] was also claimed by Josephus to be a magician).  Simon Magus desired to have similar powers as the Apostles, and offered money to get those powers.  Throughout 2nd, 3rd, and 4th century polemical texts, Simon the magician became a thinly-veiled obfuscation of the Apostle Paul, although it is possible Simon the magician was his own individual person – perhaps that Simon referenced by Josephus who played matchmaker to Procurator Antonius Felix and Drusilla of Mauretania the Elder.

I have made the case in another post that Simon of Cyrene was also a codification of the Apostle Paul, and he was foreshadowed in Mark 9:38-40 as an anonymous stranger whom John told to stop casting demons in Jesus’s name.

One frivolous speculation is that Theodotus the Tanner, Simon the Tanner, and the Apostle Paul were all the same person.  A somewhat more economical speculation is that Theodotus claimed to be a reincarnation of one of the two; given the penchant for reincarnation claims within these early Christian sects, this speculation is quite possibly economical.

Regardless, we have a clear linear progression between Cerinthus and Alcibiades, who used Elxai’s book, which described a war among angels in heaven.  Recall that Eusebius of Caesaria pointed to two separate entities, Caius the Presbyter and the Alogi, who believed Cerinthus wrote the Book of Revelation. Eusebius gives the following Caius quote in Church History:

But Cerinthus also, by means of revelations which he pretends were written by a great apostle, brings before us marvelous things which he falsely claims were shown him by angels; and he says that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ will be set up on earth, and that the flesh dwelling in Jerusalem will again be subject to desires and pleasures. And being an enemy of the Scriptures of God, he asserts, with the purpose of deceiving men, that there is to be a period of a thousand years for marriage festivals

In terms of Elxai’s description of a war among angels in heaven, consider a passage from Revelation 12:7-8

And there was war in heaven:  Michael and his angels going forth to war with the dragon; and the dragon warred and his angels; and they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven

If Elxai’s book was not a prototype of Revelation, it seems a likely derivation.  The fact that Elxai is linked to Trajan is not inconsequential, given the tradition that the Apostle John, the earliest presumed author of Revelation, died in the year 100.  According to tradition, Trajan’s adopted father, Nerva, released John from his imprisonment on Patmos.

Elxai’s connections to other groups is again brought up by Epiphanius.  Epiphanius says that Elxai had followers who were Nasaraene, Nazarene, Ebionite, and Essene.  What a remarkable diversity among the Elchesites!

Two of the above groups, the Nasaraenes and the Essenes, were explicitly non-Christian; yet, they aligned enough to be called Elchesites!

As I have proposed, the glue which would have held these groups together was a version of Judaism which existed prior to Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform, which held reverence for the Queen of Heaven, and her law emanated from heaven.  The clue here is that, according to Epiphanius, the Nasaraenes believed they had the true teachings of Moses, which (in this hypothesis) would have been the text in its form prior to Josiah’s reform.

It seems likely that most of the earliest versions of Christianity were iterations of these various heresies, concerned with restoration of the Queen of Heaven (and her wisdom), elevation of the mother and her son (in the form of spirits manifest on earth), baptism which facilitated the encapsulation of the spirits, and demotion of Mosaic law.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

16 thoughts on “Who Was Elxai?”

  1. Interesting, and I’d never heard of him until now. Another piece in the composite character, perhaps?

    I would caution you, though, in saying a trinity prototype. The trinity was very well established long, long before the early Christian church.

    There are hints of it in the OT: Isaiah 48:16:“From the beginning from the time that it was, I was there: (1st person) and now the Lord GOD (2nd person) and His Spirit, (3rd person) hath sent me (1st person).”

    The concept of a Trinity is however fully expressed in Zoroastrian:

    Ahura Mazda (the Father), Spenta Mainyu or Vohu Mana (the Holy Spirit), and Asha Vahista (the Logos, or Son):

    “Praise to thee, Ahura Mazda, threefold before other creations.”

    In the Egyptian ” Hymn to Amun” it’s written:

    ‘No god came into being before him (Amun)’ and that ‘All gods are three: Amun, Re and Ptah, and there is no second to them. Hidden is his name as Amon, he is Re in face, and his body is Ptah.’

    In Buddhism the Trikāya doctrine says that Buddha has three kāyas or bodies (from wiki):

    1. The Dharmakāya or Truth body which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries;
    2. The Sambhogakāya or body of mutual enjoyment which is a body of bliss or clear light manifestation;
    3. The Nirmāṇakāya or created body which manifests in time and space.

    Toaists treach of The Three Pure Ones who are regarded as the pure and singular manifestation of the Tao and the origin of all sentient beings. They are also called the Three Pure Pellucid Ones, the Three Pristine Ones, the Three Divine Teachers, the Three Clarities, or the Three Purities.

    In Hinduism, the trinity (Trimūrti, or The Three Forms) is of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. These three-in-one are called “the Hindu triad” or the “Great Trinity”

    In the Hindu Puranas there is this passage:

    ‘O ye three Lords! know that I recognise only one God. Inform me, therefore, which of you is the true divinity, that I may address to him alone my adorations.’

    In response, the three-gods-in-one (Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva [or Shiva]), replied,

    ‘Learn, O devotee, that there is no real distinction between us. What to you appears such is only the semblance. The single being appears under three forms by the acts of creation, preservation, and destruction, but he is one.’

    And the concept is found with the Greeks. Aristotle wrote:

    ‘All things are three, and thrice is all: and let us use this number in the worship of the gods; for, as the Pythagoreans say, everything and all things are bounded by threes, for the end, the middle and the beginning have this number in everything, and these compose the number of the Trinity'”.

    Thomas Dennis Rock wrote in his book, The Mystical Woman and the Cities of the Nations, 1867 (Pg. 22-23)

    “The ancient Babylonians recognised the doctrine of a trinity, or three persons in one god— as appears from a composite god with three heads forming part of their mythology, and the use of the equilateral triangle, also, as an emblem of such trinity in unity”


    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree the trinity clearly has its roots in older philosophies (etc). But to the extent that Christianity can be mapped chronologically, the trinity concept did not come until later. I’ll try to think of a better word than prototype…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think even in the earliest stage of the Catholic Church, they do not believe in the trinity. Someone correct me on this but the even someone as late as Irenaeus (fl.180 AD/CE) in his Against Heresies doesn’t mention the trinity doctrine at all. He’s the guy to first cite the four gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I think most secular biblical scholars including Bart Ehrman in his book Misquoting Jesus and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture have said that the Trinity doctrine like 1 John 5:7-8 is appended later but not originally found in the earlier canons. While it’s true that the earlier a copy goes, the more errors can be found, but given the lack of attestation from earlier Church Fathers in the last quarter of the second century, I think it is safe to say that the Trinity doctrine is a late insertion to the canon.

        I think the reason probably is to usurp pagans and other members of mystery cults who believe in their own trinity and appease them just like how Christians copied elements from pagan gods and attached it to Jesus.

        -virgin birth
        -death and ressurection
        -crucifixion (not necessarily being nailed to a cross but rather a god with their arms outstretched)
        -turning water into wine
        -one god in three divine persons like the “Trimurti” in Hinduism


      2. Yes, the official trinity was not early, although the earliest abstract formulation seems to be with Justin Martyr, then Theophilus of Antioch, then Tertullian. These were just passing notions, and not Orthodoxy – it wasn’t until the 4th century that you can certainly say that the Trinity was Orthodox.

        It is my contention, though, that the Trinity was indeed part of the earliest Christian formulations – it’s just that the Holy Spirit was the divine feminine who would reside in the holy city. The son was the temple of “New Jerusalem”. These Spirits would descend on the elect, just like the earliest Christians claimed.


  2. Re “It seems likely that most of the earliest versions of Christianity were iterations of these various heresies, concerned with restoration of the Queen of Heaven (and her wisdom), elevation of the mother and her son (in the form of spirits manifest on earth), baptism which facilitated the encapsulation of the spirits, and demotion of Mosaic law.” In this they were quite modern: they wanted what they wanted and they wanted it now.

    More and more institutional Christianity seems a mishmash of all of these attempts of various sects to get what they wanted, resulting in something largely incoherent and pretty much not what people wanted.

    On Fri, Jul 28, 2017 at 4:08 PM, Tim Stepping Out wrote:

    > Tim…Stepping Out posted: “To most people who have pondered him, Elxai > was simply another, in a long line, of obscure heretics who played a > marginal role on the fringes of early Christianity. Elxai’s curious > doctrine included male and female 96 mile-tall angels who lived in the sk” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Christianity had a lot of diversity from the beginning, which contributed to Irenaeus’s 4-gospel canon (plus Paul…and then all the “inauthentic” texts). That, coupled with the awfulness of the New Testament’s implications, seems to contribute to all the diversity.


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