Sacred Texts  Gnosticism  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, [1887], at

p. 21


To begin with the received account of the RISE AND PROGRESS of the Gnostic philosophy, for that is its proper appellation, heresy being properly restricted to differences of opinion between members of one regularly established community, we find that as early as the year A.D. 35, the Samaritans were regarding Simon Magus, as "the Great Power of God," and he and his disciple Cerinthus, are represented by the Christian Fathers as the actual founders of Gnosticism, under that accepted name.

Of the former, Hippolytus gives a history which there is no reason for not accepting as correct in the main particulars. He was a native of Gitteh, in the province of Samaria, and commenced his career, and soon acquired great influence amongst his countrymen, by practising magic after the "Thrasymedian method" (i.e. jugglery, as previously described by Hippolytus), nay more, by working miracles "through the agency of devils." Having fallen in love with a beautiful courtezan at Tyre, he bought her from her owner, and always carried her about with him, declaring that she was the "Intelligence" (Ἔννοια) that of old was imprisoned in the body of the Grecian Helen, then of the Lost Sheep, but now was restored to him for the salvation of the world. Even before the preaching of Christianity he had set up for a teacher of a new religion, plagiarised from Moses and Heraclitus the "Obscure," based upon the axiom that Fire was the First Principle of all things, subordinate to which were the "Six Radicals": a curiously compounded mixture of Judaism and Magism, of which Hippolytus gives a full though not very intelligible summary. "This Simon, after he had ransomed Helen, granted salvation unto men by means of his own knowledge. For inasmuch as the angels had governed the world ill by reason of their own ambitiousness, he pretended that he was come to set all things right; and having changed his form and made himself like to the Principalities, the Powers, and the

p. 22

[paragraph continues] Angels, wherefore it was that he showed himself in the form of man although not a man at all, and had suffered the Passion in Judæa, although he had not really suffered it; moreover, that he had manifested himself to the Jews as the Son, in Samaria as the Father, and amongst the Gentiles in other parts as the Holy Ghost; but he submitted to be called by whatsoever name they pleased, The Prophets were inspired by the Angels, creators of the world, when they delivered their prophecies; on which account they that believe in Simon and Helen pay no regard to them (the Prophets) even in our times: and they do whatever they please, pretending that they are redeemed through his grace." . . . "Now this same Simon, when he was by his magic arts deceiving many in Samaria, was confuted by the Apostles, and having been cursed by them, he afterwards fell from his reputation and invented these fables. At last, having travelled to Rome, he again ran against the Apostles, and Peter had many encounters with him when he was seducing multitudes through his magical practices. Finally, having gone into the land of Persia, he took up his abode under a plane-tree, and there preached his doctrine. But at last, when he was on the point of being convicted for an impostor, in consequence of his making too long a stay in the same place, he gave out that, if he were buried alive, he would rise again on the third day. And in truth, having caused a pit to be dug by his disciples, he commanded himself to be covered over with earth. They therefore did what he commanded them, but he never came back unto this day, inasmuch as he was not a Christ. Now this is the story told concerning Simon, from whom Valentinus borrowed his first ideas, but called them by different names. For 'Mind,' and 'Truth,' and 'the Word,' and 'Life,' and 'the Church,' and 'Man,' the Æons of Valentinus, are confessedly the Six Radicals of Simon, namely, 'Mind, Intelligence, Voice, Name, Reason, and Thought.'"

But to go on with the series of teachers--this counter-apostolical succession--Simon was followed by Menander, he by Basilides at Alexandria, who, dying about A.D. 138, was replaced by Valentinus, born of Jewish parentage in the same city. This last is styled by Irenæus "Chief of the Gnostics," on account

p. 23

of the importance and wide diffusion of his doctrines even during his own lifetime. In Syria other sects were being founded contemporaneously with these, taking their names from Marcion and Bardesanes, both of whom tradition represents as Persians by origin, and consequently Magian by religious training. The latter is by some called a native of Pontus, a circumstance, however, making no difference as to the source of his opinions, that region being confessedly the seat of Mithraicism, and ruled over by a line claiming descent from the first Darius, or a satrap of his. It is needless to enumerate here the founders of less important sects, until we come to the uprising of Manes, author of the most daring and most permanent theosophy of them all, which fought twice over so long and obstinate a battle with the Catholic faith. This sect, its origin, and tenets, on account of the curiosity of its doctrines, and the immense influence that they exerted over the ancient and mediæval world, will be considered at length in another chapter; as will also the Ophites whose name figures so conspicuously in the history of the primitive Church.

What has been mentioned above with respect to the countries producing the founders of all these sects--Egypt, Syria, or Persia--leads us to expect to find one common principle pervading the systems of all, and such is most probably the case. The fundamental doctrine held in common by all the chiefs of the Gnosis was, that the whole creation was not the work of the Supreme Deity, but of the Demiurgus, a simple Emanation, and several degrees removed from the highest power. To the latter, indeed, styled by them the "Unknown Father" (or as Simon first designated him "The Boundless Power," and "The Root of all Things"), they attributed the creation of the intellectual world--that is, the Intelligences, the Æons, and the Angels--whilst, to the Demiurgus they referred the creation or the World of Matter, subject to imperfection from its very nature. But in order clearly to understand the grand principles underlying these doctrines, it is absolutely necessary to possess the main features of the older systems from which these same doctrines were principally borrowed; these systems being that of the Zendavesta, of the Kabbala (which is little more than a

p. 24

translation of the same), and of the reformed Brahminical religion as taught by the Buddhist missionaries in the dominions of the Syro-Macedonians, or picked up in India by Alexandrian merchants visiting the emporia of Guzerat for the sake of trade.

Although to express their ideas visibly upon their monuments (the elucidation of which is the special object of this treatise) the Gnostics largely borrowed the images and symbols of the ancient Egyptian mythology (especially those connected with the Agathodaemon, the Solar god Iao, and the guide of souls, the jackal-headed Anubis), yet these figures were employed in a new sense, unless indeed we suppose (what is probable enough) that their esoteric meaning had been from the very beginning similar to that published by the teachers of the new faith. This last explanation was in fact the perpetual boast of Valentinus, and runs through every article of his theosophy as we read it in the interesting summary given by Hippolytus; and again, it must never be forgotten, for it is the key to many of the seeming contradictions in the different systems about to be passed in review, that Greek and Jew carried with them their ancient quarrel into the new field of the Gnosis. The former exalts the Bacchic Serpent, whilst he makes Sabaoth little better than a demon; the latter continues to abominate the Serpent as the impersonation of Satan, but his Sabaoth is the "Great and Good" (as Pistis-Sophia perpetually entitles him), the defender of the believer's soul against the malignant "Æons of the Sphere," and the influence of Judaism radiating from its second focus, the school of Alexandria, was so much more powerful than ordinary readers of history have ever suspected, that a few remarks upon this very curious subject will form a useful introduction to our consideration of its later philosophy.

Next: Influence of Judaism on the Ancient World