In Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus describes a Gnostic sect he called the Naassenes. According to Hippolytus, the Naassenes were the first Christians to be called Gnostics.
Hippolytus wrote “The Naasseni ascribe their system, through Mariamne, to James the Lord’s brother”. The Naassenes were concerned with the first man (Adamas) and had a system consistent with other Gnostic sects, which included a material paradigm which had 3 classes of men: material, psychic, and spiritual. This trinitarian view of man is consistent with the Valentinians.
According to Hippolytus, “Naas” is a reference to the serpent; this elevation of the serpent in Genesis is not unlike other Gnostic sects, or other groups between Syria and Alexandria. The serpent represented the “moist essence of the universe”. This puts the Naassenes in a similar category as the Ophites or Sethians, who believed the serpent in Eden was the Logos of God sent from heaven to rescue Eve and Adam from the rulers of material. Another stunning consideration is that Naassene is a corruption of the term Nasaraene, that Jewish group I speculate were immediate predecessors of the earliest Christians.
In the Paul/James Christian dichotomy tradition, which presumes a divergence between Judaized and Greek Christians in the late 1st century, the Naassenes are a puzzle. For instance, Hippolytus explains that the Naassenes are understood through a passage in Romans – Romans 1:27
And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.
There is dissonance here, in terms of their awareness of Paul. Hippolytus writes this James-reverent group used a Pauline letter. Of course, the fact that this Pauline passage is about homosexuality may reveal Hippolytus was constructing a polemic. It might also be the case that Hippolytus was incorect, lying, or mis-attributing details to this group.
But I do not think any of these alternatives are correct. One of the central Naassene tenets was that the primal man was androgynous – again, in parallel to the Valentinians. It is therefore not unexpected that the Naassenes practiced homosexuality within their sect.
Also noted about the so-called “Naassene fragment“, which is a portion of the text Hippolytus claimed belonged to the Naassenes, is that it relied on excerpts from 1 and 2 Corinthians, as well as Galatians and Ephesians. The reference to Ephesians, at least to this writer, is unanticipated, as it is viewed by many critical scholars as being inauthentic. A solution here is either the Naassenes sprang up after Paul’s authentic letters had already been written (assuming Pauline forgeries only began after Paul’s death), or Ephesians was forged in Paul’s lifetime. Alternatively, Ephesians is at least partially authentic.
The explanatory factor in the Naassene fragment is its awareness of the Gospel of Thomas. Hippolytus states:
They transmit a tradition concerning this in the Gospel entitled “According to Thomas,” which states expressly, “The one who seeks me will find me in children of seven years and older, for there, hidden in the fourteenth aeon, I am revealed
I have described the bridge between Jamesian Christianity and Pauline Christianity in terms of the Gospel of Thomas in other posts. There are 2 separate logia within the Gospel of Thomas which clarify the matter. In one saying within Thomas, the disciples ask Jesus who they should follow, and Jesus responds that they should follow James, because the heavens and the Earth were constructed for him.
In another saying, Jesus told his disciples that they should be on the lookout for one not born of a woman. I have made the argument that this saying in Thomas explains why Paul made references to “pains of his childbirth” (Gal 4:19), and being born of a miscarriage (ektroma) (1 Cor 15:7-8) in the context of Christ revealing himself to James prior to revealing himself to Paul.
I have also made the case that this reference in Thomas to “one not being born of a woman” is simultaneously a reference to the Paraclete, or the subsequent recipient of the Christ Spirit in the current generation, along with being the prototype of the virgin birth. The Gospel of Mark, in my opinion, is a Paul-centric drama which has his doppelganger, Simon of Cyrene, being the new recipient of the Christ Spirit after Cephas and the other disciples abandon him.
In my post about Elxai, I pointed out that he had two 96 mile tall spirits in the sky, and he led a group of Essenes, Ebionites, Nasaraenes, and Nazarenes. Critical scholars have pointed out the relationship between the Ebionites and Nazarenes; the distinguishing factor was the belief in the virgin birth – the Nazarenes were essentially Ebionite 2.0. I also pointed out that Elxai believed the Christ had reincarnated several times across many generations, undergoing different birth circumstances each time.
The connection here is that Paul was taking up this tradition; his awareness of pains from childbirth, along with odd circumstances he claimed about his birth, was an invocation of Paraclete attributes. The fact that Paul is so often considered a reworking of Simon Magus is not inconsequential, considering that Simon Magus, like Jesus Christ, had a female companion attached at the hip – Helen.
The significance of the Naassene reverence to Mariamne is critical here, especially in light of Mariamne being a disciple of James. The James-Mariamne relationship is analogous with the Simon-Helen relationship, as well as so many other repetitions of this motif. Marcus the Magician had a Deacon’s wife that he went around with; the Marcionite Apelles had a Philumene; Montanus had 2 female companions. And Jesus Christ had Mary Magdelaine.
In other words, these early Christian leaders believed themselves to be earthly incarnations of the masculine and feminine spirits which were proposed by Elxai. James and Mary were just another in a long line; however, Paul’s awareness of James probably indicates that James (and Cephas) preceded him. In light of the Naassene awareness of Paul, the Naassenes might represent a snapshot in time prior to a fallout between Jamesian and Pauline Christians. And James…he was just another in a long line of Jesus Christs.