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:
- Mani was a disciple of Alcibiades
- Mani and Alcibiades were disciples of an Elchesite teacher who had Elxai’s book.
- 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.