Theodotus And Christian Evolution

When I was writing about Elxai, his 96 mile-tall Christ angel, and his super-secret apocalyptic story about the wars among angels, I stumbled onto a passage Hippolytus wrote in Refutation of All Heresies, the significance of which only occurred to me this morning:

…Theodotus [of Byzantium] has been a victim of error, deriving contributions to his system partly from the Ebionites, (partly from Cerinthus).

Hippolytus described a hierarchy of influence.  In this description, Hippolytus took the opportunity to wage a polemic against early 3nd century Pope (/Saint) Callistus  by writing that he took influence from Theodotus of Byzantium, who was influenced by Cerinthus and the Ebionites.


Hippolytus gives specific details about influence:

…how Callistus, intermingling the heresy of Cleomenes, the disciple of Noetus, with that of Theodotus, constructed another more novel heresy….

In Against Heresies i.26, Irenaeus describes the Ebionite and Cerinthian Christologies as roughly similar – both believed Jesus was an ordinary man who received the Spirit after baptism (the 96 mile tall Spirit?  According to Epiphanius in his Panarion, Ebionites came to espouse this view after following Elxai!).  The core detail distinguishing the two groups was a sort of proto-Demiurge:  Cerinthus believed that inferior angels created the Earth, where the Ebionites believed it was the God of Abraham (so Irenaeus says).  The heresiologists are quick to say that Cerinthus was (educated as) an Egyptian (as in Josephus’s Egyptian?), my speculation is that this proto-Demiurge notion was probably found in 1st temple Judaism, prior to Josiah’s reform.

Hippolytus gives a peculiar description of Theodotus’s views in Refutation 10.19:

And Theodotus affirms that Christ is a man of a kindred nature with all men…He had been born of a virgin, and the Holy Ghost had overshadowed His mother…[Theodotus] maintained that Jesus had not assumed flesh in the womb of the Virgin, but that afterwards Christ descended upon Jesus at His baptism in form of a dove. And from this circumstance, the lowers of Theodotus affirm that at first miraculous powers did not acquire operating energy in Saviour Himself. Theodotus, however, determines to deny the divinity of Christ

Theodotus is an almost perfect hodge-podge of the Ebionites and Nazarenes – the distinguishing detail was that the Nazarenes had the virgin birth and resurrection, where the Ebionites did not.  Both used something like the Gospel of Matthew (with perhaps some harmonization with Luke).

Theodotus was on a theological no-man’s land.  On one side of the Jesus debate, practitioners believed the Spirit descends on ordinary-man Jesus.  On the other side, Jesus was divinely manifested by Zeus’s (sorry, did I say Zeus?) artificial insemination of Mary.  My lack of attention to Theodotus until now has led me to assume that the two views are entirely incompatible.  Yet, Theodotus held both(!).

My speculation is that Theodotus held both of these views for the same reason humans still have appendixes and wisdom teeth, and for the same reason that whales have a oddly-placed hip-bone.  Theodotus had vestiges of older faiths!  The adoptionistic view, which was held by Cerinthus and the Ebionites, was an older version which must have been losing sway among the upper echelon of Christian leaders in the late 2nd century, perhaps as Christianity’s proto-Orthodoxy sought more obvious differentiation from Judaism, which was not well-received in Rome.  Alternatively, the injection of the virgin birth was to create differentiation between (what must have been a growing collection of) Paraclete claimants and the “original” Gospel Christ, who was concocted relying on attributes of Prophets and earlier Paracletes/Christ owners.


But if Theodotus took his influence from the Cerinthians and Ebionites, where did the virgin birth come from?  This ties into earlier speculations I have made that the virgin birth existed in the East by the mid-2nd century, advocated by the Eastern Valentinians, among others.

The passage “Jesus had not assumed flesh in the womb of the virgin” is compatible with various views, including the Marcionites, who apparently did not believe Jesus had any flesh at all, and the Eastern Valentinians, who believed Jesus Christ’s body was spiritual, and that he was born from Mary as through a pipe, never making contact with her.

In this light, given the mystery origins of Christianity, my suspicion is that Theodotus was indeed influenced by the school of Valentinus, which evidently had members who did not share deeper elements of the mystery with lower-level initiates.  In Against the Valentinians, Tertullian writes

In like manner [as the Eleusinian mysteries], the heretics who are now the object of our remarks, the Valentinians, have formed Eleusinian dissipations of their own, consecrated by profound silence


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

5 thoughts on “Theodotus And Christian Evolution”

    1. Just did a quick skim on it. It looks good actually. It’s kinda like what you’ll read from Dr. Larry Hurtado. It’s not like what someone like James Mac Grath or JP Holding/Robert Turkel would write.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The history of the early church and its patchwork theology is only a side, side, side interest for me, but those guys really do get into it with healthy debate.


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