Monday, February 13, 2012

The Gnostic Schools of Syria

The Syrian Gnostic Schools drew from heavily from Judaic teaching and thought, as well as that of Platonic school.  Their foundations appear to have emanated from the city of Antioch.  The surviving teachings suggest that the creation occurred in a series of stages, with the final creation being that of a universe comprising of matter.  However this material universe was considered to be primarily evil with the earlier creations, non-material in nature, as being good.  Evil lacks insight in as much as it is in opposition to goodness, yet it is not seen as being of equal standing.  “Good” and “Evil” do not refer to sin and a choice but as descriptive terms within human existence and the distance between goodness, the Plemora and oneness with God and the Logos, whereas evil is being confined within a world of matter.  Neither Good nor Evil have inherent positivity nor negativity respectively in relation to human behaviour or psyche.  The schools themselves identified themselves as Christians, however markedly different and most unlike the Christian doctrine that was to become the orthodox school of thought. 

Following the discoveries of the library of codices made at Nag Hammadi, a significant number of works which appear to have followed the ideas were found and have been translated.  These gospels and treatises generally follow a tradition named Sethian, after Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, who was thought to be the possessor and disseminator of the original gnosis.  Furthermore, those who considered themselves directly descended from Seth considered themselves to be amongst the elite, therefore worthy of achieving gnosis.  The Sethians are identified through their detractors, described by G.R.S. Mead as being the “foes” of the Gnostics.  Their existence is mentioned in the works of Irenæus and also in an anonymous work condemning the Gnostics as heretics by an author named Pseudo-Tertullian, who also is attributed with the writing of a poem against Marcion.  It has been suggested by some scholars that Sethian thought and teachings actually pre-date Christ and that Christian ideas and motifs were later adopted into their doctrines.  However, according to various Sethian works, Christ is identified as being Seth, which is at odds with the ideology that Sethianism predated the various cults of Christ.  The God as seen by the Sethians is one that is beyond description, it is only possible to describe what he isn’t, indescribable through and by rational description. 

Four of the early, lesser-known exponents and teachers of Syrian Gnosticism, together with a brief biography and explanation of their doctrines are given below:


Menander was one of Simon Magus’ followers who propagated Sinonian thought and teaching to such a degree that one of the Early Church writers, Justin Martyr, cited previously for having a particular abhorrence for the teachings of the Magus, recorded his existence and the following he appears to have attracted.  Justin clearly saw the following that Menander had attracted as being of such a threat to the developing “orthodox” Christianity, certainly given that other early teachers were attracting their own large circles of disciples, that Menander deserved a particular mention.  Like Simon Magus, who may or may not have been his teacher, Menander too was from Samaria, born in Capparatea.  Menander, based upon his association with Simon is one of the earliest Gnostic teachers, as well as placing him within the obscure timeframe of Early Christianity; Menander seems to have been teaching in the late first/early 2nd century A.D. 

The city of Antioch, in modern day Syria was where Menander’s doctrines seem to have attracted the most attention and popularity.  Antioch, like Alexandra, was a centre of learning, commerce and ideas; a link between the East and West.  The teachings of Menander appear to have been that of an early formative strand of Gnosis; knowledge [gnosis] and enlightenment being attained through transcendental thought, magic not just through faith.  The followers of Menander and his doctrines were called Menandrists.  The teachings and writing of both teacher and his followers have been lost.  The detractors of Menander suggested he believed himself to be imbued with an understanding of the powers and laws of nature, and were subject to a human will and personality.  Therefore Menander was more of a hierophant in status than a teacher.  

Furthermore, and for this alone Menander might have condemned himself and his teachings, he claimed to be Messiah; a Saviour sent to instruct and teach a path to knowledge to liberate themselves from the lower world, and attain salvation in the gnosis with the higher powers.  Much like Simon’s claims to be the Messiah, this “heretical thought” has often been misinterpreted, in that these men were trying to usurp a divine status afforded by God the father unto Jesus, by virtue of faith, his “son”.  Both Simon and Menander tought that the Saviour was in fact the Word [“logos”] of God, and that the aspiration was to achieve such a state of perfection that one might be at one with the Logos, thereby becoming “Christ” or a Saviour.  According to both Justin Martyr and Irenæus, Menander’s teachings also included the idea that baptism was an internal purification giving immortality to the soul, rather than immortality upon the final death on the final day of Judgment in Orthodox Christian teaching. 

Menander is not to be confused with the Athenian playwright of the third century BC with the same name, nor in relation to the house in Pompeii, referred to in modern terminology as “The House of Menander”, owned by Quintus Poppaeus.  Some scholars have named Menander as being a “proto-Gnostic” and have suggested that his doctrines might even predate those of Simon Magus; other sources have suggested that Menander travelled into Syria and was responsible for the founding of Zaroastrianism thought.


Saturninus [or Satornilos in Greek] is believed to have come from Antioch, and has been named as being the father of Syrian Gnosticism.  Much like Menander, this branch of Gnosticism seems to have been a very strong and powerful branch of early Christianity, inasmuch that Justin Martyr considered him to be of similar standing with the other leading schools of Gnostic teaching and thought of the time; those of Marcion, Basilides, and Valentinus. Tradition has often suggested that Saturninus was the student of Menander, and that his student was Basilides, who in turn was the teacher of Valentinus; one of the most important, intelligent and highly regarded of all the Gnostic teachers, and who’s doctrine of Christianity posed the most serious “threat” to the orthodox traditions that the Early Church fathers were writing their respective Apologies and condemnations against “knowledge falsely told” [i.e. gnosis]. 

Of Saturninus, nothing is recorded of his origins nor any biographical details, but is believed to have been either Greek or Syrian based on that his teachings appear to have originated from Antioch.  Based upon the ethics and conduct of his followers, he seems to have been a particularly strict ascetic.  A strict sense of abstinence seems to have been part of his doctrine, with its abstaining from marriage, and they were strict vegetarians.  This encratism would have been very attractive to the very devout, almost zealous in their devotion.

Very little information survives in regard to Satuninus and his doctrines.  Again, one is reliant upon the writings of his detractors, in particular that of Irenæus, which in turn is probably derived from a lost work, possibly The Compendium, by Justin Martyr.   Saturninus appears to have taught a particular theology which detailed the hierarchies of the Uknown father and his builders; the archangels, angels, and the powers.  He also writes of an anthropomorphic World-saviour, who although appearing as a man, was not in fact a man at all.  This Saviour would defeat evil, but also be the salvation of those with the gnosis within them.  An intriguing difference between Saturninus and Canonical tradition was that Man (more precisely, his outer shell, called the “plasm”) was created by the angels.  His creation was based upon a fabrication of a perfect example being shown to the angels and their endeavours to create something of a similar nature based upon the memory of what they once saw.  After man’s death, the spark within the plasm returns to the plemora.


According to the writings of Eusebius, Basilides was Alexandrian in origin, and his teachings flourished in the early decades of the second century AD.  Much like the other prolific Gnostic teachers, their detractors in the form of the Early Church fathers wrote very little in terms of biographical detail, however it appears that Basilides was married and had a son called Isidore, who’s teachings followed those of his father.  The opponents of Basilides’ teaching dismissed his claims of having received his teachings from St. Matthias, apostle of St. Peter, as being spurious in nature.  Basilides appears to have been highly educated in nature, most probably educated in Hellenic thought and culture, as well as in Egyptian wisdom. 

Practically nothing survives of Basilides and his original teachings are sadly lost to us, other than, as with other early non Proto-Orthodox teachers, through the condemnation of his ideas and teachings by Irenæus, by Hippolytus, by Clement of Alexandria and by the writer known as “Pseudo-Tertullian”.  One of the most intriguing surviving records of Basilides survives not in writing, but in Abrasax or Abraxas stones.  Abrasax stones, sometimes semi-precious, are usually small in size and inscribed with the name “Abraxas” [ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ], and mythical beasts.  The purpose of these is unknown, however it has been suggested that they were protective charms.  Magical papyri have been found with the name of Abraxas, and the name is mentioned in various Gnostic texts, including some of those found at Nag Hammadi.  One of the finest examples of these Abraxas stones was found in the United Kingdom, in the Thetford Trove.  Sadly the Thetford Trove is one of the tragedies of recent excavation and will be discussed elsewhere in greater detail.  However, for the moment, it is sufficient to note that an Abraxas stone was found as far afield as Norfolk in England.  Different interpretations have been given as to the meaning behind these stones and the word “Abraxas”; these have been proposed as meaning the order of the planets according to the Gnostic method of astronomy to Abraxas being a Gnostic deity.  The etymology behind the name remains obscure and open to much interpretation by scholars.

Basildes’ teachings, as interpreted by Irenæus were that the Nous [Mind] was first to be born or created by the Unborn Father.  From Nous came the Logos [Word, or Reason], which in turn lead to Phronesis [Prudence] being born, and who was father in turn of Dynamis [Strength] and Sophia [Wisdom].  Dynamis in turn was father to the Virtues, to the Principalities, and the Archangels. A series of heavens were created by the Archangels until there were 365 in total, therefore as many heavens as there were days in the year.  The first of these Archangels was the god of the Jews, however he sought to make all the other archangels and beings subservient to his will.  This manner and behaviour was the cause of the subsequent animosity against the Jews.  Aware of this attempt at creating a hierarchy, the Unborn Father sent the Nous in the form of Jesus Christ to deliver His followers from damnation.  Basilides further suggested that it was not Jesus who was crucified on the cross, but that it was Simon of Cyrene who was crucified in his stead.  This suggestion is echoed in the Gnostic Text “The Second Treatise of the Great Seth”, again of which the only extant copy was found at Nag Hammadi.  This idea arises from a doctic theology in that Jesus, being divine, could not suffer and did not die on the cross.  Thus Simon, together with carrying the cross also took on the physical appearance of Christ and was crucified instead.  The idea of a substitution at the crucifixion has been reiterated in Islam, in an ambiguous passage found in the Qur'an.

"Wherefore he did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead, so that the latter being transfgured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error,while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them.  For since he was an inceorperal power, and the Nous [Mind] of the unborn father, he transfigured as he pleased, and thus ascended to him who had sent him, deriding, inamuch as he could not be laid hold of, and was invisble to all." [Irenæus: Against Heresies]

"That they said [in boast], 'We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah';- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and to those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not." [Qur'an, sura 4 (An-Nisa) avat 157-158].

Therefore, with Simon having taken Jesus’ form, was crucified instead, and Jesus was returned to his Father.   Therefore through knowledge [gnosis] of Christ, the soul is saved even if the body perishes.  The later fathers condemn this teaching for it devalues martyrdom, as it suggests that men did not die for Christ, but for Simon of Cyrene.

Basilides seems to have been a prolific writer, despite the fact that none of his writings have survived.  Sources however do make reference, though sadly do not quote directly, to a number of these works.  Reference is made in Origen (and subsequently in the writings of Saints Jerome and Ambrose) that Basilides had written his own gospel.  Whether this gospel was Gnostic in nature to Basilides’ own teachings and beliefs or like The Diatessaron by Tatian, we cannot know.  Basilides also wrote various “hymns” or “odes”, again referenced, and dismissed, in Origen as being un-canonical.  Finally a “Gospel commentary” in twenty four books was written.  Only fragments survive in the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria.

In addition to these few fragments that Clement has preserved, there is some hints given as to the ethics behind the teachings of Basilides.  It was through faith that started the spiritual life, however this was the gift of Gnosis (knowledge/understanding) was bestowed to various individuals and not to others upon their souls before it became joined with the body.   Sin results in suffering and that sin is an inherent internal principle or evil, and that suffering is punishment for this act.  Persecution and suffering is as a result of this inherent internal evil, and this had lead the soul to be confused.  Basilides believed that only God the Father to have been created without sin.  Clement suggests that this attitude of Basilides lead to widespread debauchery amongst his followers, an ideology apparently echoed in the teachings of his son which encouraged satisfaction of sexual and sensual desires, a radical digression from the acetic ideals of numerous other Gnostics, and that the soul mind find solace in prayer. 

Any writings against the Gnostic teachings needs to be approached with caution, as the Gnostics were often portrayed as deviant or perverse in nature, however it is interesting to note that as early as Justin Martyr in the mid second century AD of the possibility that it is the Gnostics who are engaged in such practices, and not the Proto-Orthodox Christians.  Basilides’ teachings did not gain as much popularity or recognition as those of Marcion or the dynamic Valentinus, however they do appear to have survived for at least two centuries after his death in parts of Egypt.  Basilides' name was to continue in later tradition, with Carl Jung adopting his name as a pseudonym when writing "The Seven Sermons to the Dead."


Cerdo appears to have been of Syrian extraction, and to have been teaching just prior to the revolutionary teachings of Marcion of Sinope, probably in around c. 130-135 AD, and his teachings appear to have taken place in Rome.  Cerdo appears to have caused a disagreement with the early Christian Church in Rome, and labelled a Gnostic in subsequent times, however quite significantly has not been recorded as having been excommunicated as a result of his beliefs.  It was only with the arrival of Marcion and his contentious ideas that the Church, and that the canon of orthodox teachings and theology was still undeveloped and open to ideas rather than the rigidity and condemnation of heresy that was soon to follow.

One source suggests that Cerdo initially recanted his sins of heresy and was welcomed back into the church by the Pope, Hyginus, however he soon after strayed once again into his heretical beliefs and was excommunicated from the church again.  It has been implied that Cerdo also taught that Jesus was not the son of the God of the Jews, of the Law, and the Prophets.  Other accusations made against Cerdo mirror those later attributed to Marcion; the theology of two gods, and the dismissal of various canonical texts and only selected parts of the Gospel of Luke.  Cerdo was therefore possibly condemned for his [apparent] association with Marcion, for it has appears that Marcion took a number of his ideas, developed them and thus created his own ideas and doctrines.  Also the Church fathers were to state that Cerdo was a follower of Simon Magus, who they were denounce as being the father of all heresy, and therefore through that association alone, Cerdo would have been condemned as well. 

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