Basilides, the founder of one of the semi-Christian sects, commonly called Gnostic, which sprang up in the early part of the 2nd cent.
I. Biography.—He called himself a disciple of one Glaucias, alleged to be an interpreter of St. Peter. He taught at Alexandria : Hippolytus in general terms mentions Egypt. Indeed Epiphanius enumerates various places in Egypt visited by Basilides; but subsequently allows it to appear that his knowledge of the districts where Basilidians existed in his own time was his only evidence.
If the Alexandrian Gnostic is the Basihdes quoted in the Acts of the Disputation of Archelaus and Mani, he was reported to have preached in Persia. Nothing more is known of his life. According to Epiphanius, he had been a fellow- disciple of Menander with Saturnilus at Antioch in Syria; but this is evidently an arbitrary extension of Irenaeus’s remarks on the order of doctrines to personal relations.
If the view of the doctrines of Basilides taken in this article is correct, they afford no good grounds for supposing him to have had a Syrian education. Gnostic ideas derived originally from Syria were sufficiently current at Alexandria, and the foundation of what is distinctive in his thoughts is Greek.
Several independent authorities indicate the reign of Hadrian (a.d. 117-138) as the time when Basilides flourished. To prove that the heretical sects were “later than the Catholic church,” Clement of Alexandria marks out early Christian history into different periods : he assigns Christ’s own teaching to the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius; that of the apostles, of St. Paul at least, ends, he says, in the time of Nero; whereas ” the authors of the sects arose later, about the times of the emperor Hadrian, and continued quite as late as the age of the elder Antoninus”.
He gives as examples Basilides, Valentinus, and (if the text is sound) Marcion, taking occasion by the way to throw doubts on the claims set up for the two former as having been instructed by younger contemporaries of St. Peter and St. Paul respectively, by pointing out that about half a century lay between the death of Nero and the accession of Hadrian.
Again Eusebius places Saturninus and Basilides under Hadrian. Yet his language about Carpocrates a few lines further on suggests a doubt whether he had any better evidence than a fallacious inference from their order in Irenaeus. He was acquainted with the refutation of Basilides by Agrippa Castor; but it is not clear, as is sometimes assumed, that he meant to assign both writers to the same reign. His chronicle (Armenian) at the year 17 of Hadrian (a.d. 133) has the note “The heresiarch Basilides appeared at these times”; which Jerome, as usual, expresses rather more definitely. A similar statement without the year is repeated by Jerome where an old corrupt reading (mortuus for moratus) led some of the earlier critics to suppose they had found a limit for the date of Basilides’s death. Theodoret evidently follows Eusebius. Earliest of all, but vaguest, is the testimony of Justin Martyr.
Writing in or soon after a.d. 145, he refers briefly to the founders of heretical sects, naming first the earliest, Simon and Menander, followers of whom were still alive; and then apparently the latest, Marcion, himself still alive. The probable inference that the other great heresiarchs, including Basilides, were by this time dead receives some confirmation from a passage in his Dialogue against Trypho, a later but probably not much later book, where the “Marcians”, Valentinians, Basilidians, Saturnilians, “and others”, are enumerated, apparently in inverse chronological order : the growth of distinct and recognized sects implies at least the lapse of some time since the promulgation of their several creeds. It seems therefore impossible to place Basilides later than Hadrian’s time; and, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we may trust the Alexandrian Clement’s statement that his peculiar teaching began at no earlier date.
II. Writings.—According to Agrippa Castor, Basilides wrote “twenty-fourbooks on the Gospel.” These are no doubt the Exegetica, from the twenty-third of which Clement gives an extract. The same work is doubtless intended by the “treatises ” (tractatuum), the thirteenth book of which is cited in the Acta Archelai, if the same Basilides is referred to. The authorship of an actual Gospel, of the “apocryphal” class, is likewise attributed to Basilides on plausible grounds. The word “taken in hand” in Luke I. 1 gives Origen occasion to distinguish between the four evangelists, who wrote by inspiration, and other writers who “took in hand” to produce Gospels. He mentions some of these, and proceeds “Basilides had even the audacity” to write a Gospel according to Basilides; that is, he went beyond other fabricators of Gospels by affixing his own name. This passage is freely translated, though without mention of Origen’s name, by Ambrose; and is probably Jerome’s authority in an enumeration of the chief apocryphal Gospels; for among the six others which he mentions the four named by Origen recur, including that of the Twelve Apostles, otherwise unknown. Yet no trace of a Gospel by Basilides exists elsewhere; and it seems most probable either that Origen misunderstood the nature of the Exegetica, or that they were sometimes known under the other name.
An interesting question remains, in what relation the Exegetica stand to the exposition of doctrine which fills eight long chapters of Hippolytus. Basilides (or the Basilidians), we are told, defined the Gospel as “the knowledge of supermundane things”, and the idea of the progress of “the Gospel” through the different orders of beings plays a leading part in the Basilidian doctrine. But there is not the slightest reason to think that the “Gospel” here spoken of was a substitute for the Gospel in a historical sense, any more than in St. Paul’s writings. Indeed several passages, with their allusions to Rom. V. 14, vVIII. 19, 22, 23 ; I. Cor. II. 13 ; II. Cor. XII. 4 ; Eph. I. 21, III. 3, 5, 10, prove that the writer was throughout thinking of St. Paul’s “mystery of the Gospel”. Hippolytus states distinctly that the Basilidian account of “all things concerning the Saviour” subsequent to “the birth of Jesus “agreed with that given in “the Gospels”. It may therefore be reasonably conjectured that his exposition, if founded on a work of Basilides himself, is a summary of the opening book or books of the Exegetica, describing that part of the redemptive process, or of the preparation for it, which was above and antecedent to the phenomenal life of Jesus. The comments
on the Gospel itself, probably containing much ethical matter, as we may gather from Clement, would have little attraction for Hippolytus.
The certain fragments of the Exegetica have been collected by Grabe, followed by Massuet and Stieren in their editions of Irenaeus; but he passes over much in Clement which assuredly has no other origin. A single sentence quoted in Origen’s commentary on Romans, and given further on, is probably from the same source. In an obscure and brief fragment preserved in a Catena on Job, Origen implies the existence of Odes by Basilides and Valentinus. No other writings of Basilides are mentioned.
III. Authenticity of the Hippolytean Extracts.—In endeavouring to form a clear conception of the work and doctrine of Basilides, we are met at the outset by a serious difficulty. The different accounts were never easy to harmonize, and some of the best critics of the first half of the 19th cent, considered them to refer to two different systems of doctrine. But till 1851 their fragmentary nature suggested that the apparent incongruities might conceivably be due only to the defects of our knowledge, and seemed to invite reconstructive boldness on the part of the historian. The publication of Hippolytus’s Refutation of all Heresies in 1851 placed the whole question on a new footing. Hardly any one has ventured to maintain the possibility of reconciling its ample statements about Basilides with the reports of Irenaeus and Epiphanius. Which account then most deserves our confidence?
Before attempting to answer this question it is well to enumerate the authorities. They are Agrippa Castor as cited by Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, the anonymous supplement to Tertullian, de
Praescriptione, the Refutation of Hippolytus, Epiphanius, Philaster, and Theodoret, and possibly the Acta Archelai, besides a few scattered notices which may be neglected here. This ample list shrinks, however, into small dimensions at the touch of criticism.
Theodoret’s chapter is a disguised compilation from previous Greek writers. The researches of Lipsius have proved that Epiphanius followed partly Irenaeus, partly the lost Compendium of Hippolytus, this same work being also the common source of the Latin authors pseudo-Tertullian and Philaster.
Our ultimate authorities therefore are Irenaeus (or the unknown author from whom he took this section of his work), the Compendium of Hippolytus (represented by Epiphanius, Philaster, and pseudo-Tertullian), Clement and the Refutation of Hippolytus, together with a short statement by Agrippa Castor, and probably a passing reference and quotation in the Acts of Archelaus.
It is now generally allowed that the notices of Clement afford the surest criterion by which to test other authorities. Not only does his whole tone imply exact personal knowledge, but he quotes a long passage directly from the Exegetica. Is then his account, taken as a whole, consistent with other accounts? And does it agree best with the reports of Irenaeus and Hippolytus in his younger days, or with the elaborate picture drawn by Hippolytus at a later time? This second question has received opposite answers from recent critics. A majority have given the preference to Hippolytus; while Hilgenfeld (who three years before, in his earliest book, the treatise On the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions, had described the Basilidian system from the then known records, endeavouring with perverse ingenuity to show their virtual consistency with each other) has prided himself on not being dazzled by the new authority, whom he holds to be in effect describing not Basilides but a late development of his sect; and Lipsius takes the same view.
It should be observed at the outset that the testimony of Clement is not quite so homogeneous as is generally assumed. Six times he criticises doctrines of “Basilides” himself; eight times he employs the ambiguous plural. Are we to suppose a distinction here, or is the verbal difference accidental? Both views
might be maintained. The quotation from the Exegetica is a piece of moral argument on Providence, wholly free from the technical terms of Gnostic mythology. In the succeeding discussion Clement eventually uses plurals, which might equally imply that he employs both forms indifferently, or that he distinguishes Basilides from his followers within the limits of a single subject.
The other references to “Basilides” are likewise of a distinctly ethical character, while several of the passages containing the plural name abound in technical language. Yet the distinction is not absolute on either side. “Basilides” furnishes the terms “the Ogdoad”, “the election”, “supermundane”; while such subjects as the nature of faith, the relation of the passions to the animal soul, and the meaning of Christ’s saying about eunuchs, occur in the other group, though they remind us rather of Basilides himself. In the last passage, moreover, the ambiguous plural is applied to a quotation intended to shame by contrast the immoral Basilidians of Clement’s own time; and a similar quotation from Basilides’s son Isidore immediately follows; the authors of the two quotations being designated as “the forefathers of their (the late Basilidians’) doctrines”. It is hard to believe that mere anonymous disciples, though of an earlier date, would be appealed to in this manner, or would take precedence of the master’s own son. On the whole, there can be no reasonable doubt that all the doctrinal statements in Clement concern Basilides himself, when not distinctly otherwise expressed, and depend on direct knowledge of the Exegetica. With good reason therefore they may be assumed as a trustworthy basis for the whole investigation. The most doubtful instances are the passages cited presently on the Baptism and on the descent of the Minister, i.e. the Holy Spirit.
The range of possible contact between the quotations and reports of Clement and any of the other authorities is not large. His extant writings contain nothing like an attempt to describe the Basilidian System. The Stromates, which furnish the quotations from Basilides, expressly limit themselves to moral and practical questions; and reserve for a future work, i.e. the lost Hypotyposes, the exposition of the higher doctrine belonging to the department of knowledge which the Stoics called Physics, beginning with the Creation and leading up to Theology proper. Now it is precisely to this latter department that the bulk of Gnostic speculation would belong, and especially such theories as Hippolytus ascribes to Basilides; and moreover Clement distinctly promises that in the course of that loftier investigation he will “set forth in detail the doctrines of the heretic, and endeavour to refute them to the best of his power”. We have therefore no right to expect in the Stromates any cosmological or even theological matter respecting Basilides except such as may accidentally adhere to the ethical statements, the subjects treated of in the various books “against all heresies” being formally excluded by Clement. His sphere being thus distinct from theirs, the marked coincidences of language that we do find between him and Hippolytus afford a strong presumption that, if the one account is authentic, the other is so likewise. Within the narrow limits of Clement’s information we meet with the phrases “primitive medley and confusion”, and on the other hand “separation” (differentiation) and restoration ;with a division of the universe into stages, and prominence given to the sphere of “super-mundane “things; with an “Ogdoad” and an “Archon”; all of these terms being conspicuous and essential in the Hippolytean representation. Above all, we hear of the amazement of the Archon on receiving “the utterance of the ministering Spirit” or “Minister” as being that fear of the Lord whichis called the beginning of wisdom; the utterance itself being implied to be a Gospel; while Hippolytus describes the same passage as interpreted of the amazement of the Great Archon on receiving ” the Gospel”, a revelation of things unknown, through his Son, who had received it from a “power” within the Holy Spirit. The coincidences are thus proportionately great, and there are no contradictions to balance them : so that it would require strong evidence to rebut the conclusion that Clement and Hippolytus had the same materials before them. Such evidence does not exist. The coincidences between Clement and the Irenaean tradition are limited to the widely spread “Ogdoad” and a single disputable use of the word “Archon”, and there is no similarity of doctrines to make up for the absence of verbal identity. The only tangible argument against the view that Hippolytus describes the original system of Basilides is its Greek rather than Oriental character, which is assumed to be incompatible with the fundamental thoughts of a great Gnostic leader. We shall have other opportunities of inquiring how far the evidence supports this wide generalization as to Gnosticism at large. As regards Basilides personally, the only grounds for expecting from him an Oriental type of doctrine are the quotation in the Acts of Archelaus, which will be discussed further on, and the tradition of his connexion with Saturninus of Antioch, which we have already seen to be founded on a misconception. The fragmentary notices and extracts in Clement, admitted on all hands to be authentic, are steeped in Greek philosophy; so that the Greek spirit of the Hippolytean representation is in fact an additional evidence for its faithfulness. It may yet be asked, Did Hippolytus consult the work of Basilides himself, or did he depend on an intermediate reporter? His own language, though not absolutely decisive, favours the former alternative. On the one hand it may be urged that he makes no mention of a book, that occasionally he quotes by the words “they say”, “according to them”, and that his exposition is immediately preceded by the remark, “Let us then see how openly both Basilides and [his son] Isidore and the whole band of them not merely calumniate Matthias [from whom they professed to have received records of Christ’s secret teaching], but also the Saviour Himself “. Against these indications may be set the ten places where Basilides is referred to singly, and the very numerous quotations by the words “he says”. It is true that Greek usage permits the occasional use of the singular even when no one Writer or book is intended. But in this case the most natural translation is borne out by some of the language quoted. The first person singular proves the book in Hippolytus’s hands to have been written by an original speculator; yet this very quotation is immediately followed by a comment on it with the third person plural which here at least can mean no more than that Hippolytus held the Basilidians of his own day responsible for the doctrines of his
author. The freshness and power of the whole section, wherever we touch the actual words of the author, strongly confirm the impression that he was no other than Basilides himself. Thus we are led independently to the conclusion suggested by the correspondence with the information of Clement, whom we know to have drawn from the fountain-head, the Exegetica. The fancy that the book used by Hippolytus was itself the Traditions of Matthias has nothing to recommend it. The whole form is unlike that which analogy would lead us to expect in such a production. If it was quoted as an authority in the Exegetica, the language of Hippolytus is justified. Nor is there anything in this inconsistent with the fact vouched for by Clement that Basilides claimed to have been taught by Glaucias, an “interpreter” of St. Peter.
We shall therefore assume that the eight chapters of Hippolytus represent faithfully though imperfectly the contents of part at least of the Exegetica of Basilides; and proceed to describe his doctrine on their authority, using likewise the testimony of Clement wherever it is available.
IV. Doctrine.—Basilides asserts the beginning of all things to have been pure nothing. He uses every device of language to express absolute nonentity. He will not allow the primitive nothing to be called even “unspeakable”: that, he says, would be naming it, and it is above every name that is named. Nothing then being in existence, “not-being God” (or Deity, the article is omitted here) willed to make a not-being world out of not-being things. Once more great pains are “taken to obviate the notion that willing ” implied any mental attribute whatever. Also the world so made was not the extended and differentiated world to which we gave the name, but “a single seed containing within itself all the seed-mass of the world”, the aggregate of the seeds of all its forms and substances, as the mustard seed contains the branches and leaves of the tree, or the peahen’s egg the brilliant colour of the full-grown peacock. This was the one origin of all future growths; their seeds lay stored up by the will of the not-being God in the single world-seed, as in the new-born babe its future teeth and the resemblances to its father which are thereafter to appear. Its own origin too from God was not a putting-forth, as a spider puts forth its web from itself. (By this assertion, on which Hippolytus dwells with emphasis, every notion of “emanation” is expressly repudiated.) Nor was there an antecedent matter, like the brass or wood wrought by a mortal man. The words “Let there be light, and there was light” convey the whole truth. The light came into being out of nothing but the voice of the Speaker “and the Speaker was not, and that which came into being was not”. What then was the first stage of growth of the seed? It had within itself “a tripartite sonship, in all things consubstantial with the not-being God”. Part of the sonship was subtle of substance, part coarse of substance, part needing purification. Simultaneously with the first beginning of the seed the subtle sonship burst through and mounted swiftly up “like a wing or a thought” till it reached the not-being God; “for toward Him for His exceeding beauty and grace every kind of nature yearns, each in its own way”.
The coarse sonship could not mount up of itself, but it took to itself as a wing the Holy Spirit, each bearing up the other with mutual benefit, even as neither a bird can soar without wing, nor a wing without a bird. But when it came near the blessed and unutterable place of the subtle sonship and the not-being God, it could take the Holy Spirit no further, as not being consubstantial or of the same nature with itself. There, then, retaining and emitting downwards the fragrance of the sonship like a vessel that has once held ointment, the Holy Spirit remained, as a firmament dividing things above the world from “the world ” itself below.
The third sonship continued still within the heap of the seed-mass. But out of the heap burst forth into being the Great Archon, “the head of the world, a beauty and greatness and power that cannot be uttered”. He too raised himself aloft till he reached the firmament which he supposed to be the upward end of all things. Then he became wiser and every way better than all other cosmical things except the sonship left below, which he knew not to be far better than himself. So he turned to create the world in its several parts. But first he “made to himself and begat out of the things below a son far better and wiser than himself”, for thus the not-being God had willed from the first; and smitten with wonder at his son’s beauty, he set him at his right hand. “This is what they call the Ogdoad, where the Great Archon is sitting”. Then all the heavenly or ethereal creation (apparently included in the Ogdoad), as far down as the moon, was made by the Great Archon, inspired by his wiser son. Again another Archon arose out of the seed-mass, inferior to the first Archon, but superior to all else below except the sonship; and he likewise made to himself a son wiser than himself, and became the creator and governor of the aerial world. This region is called the Hebdomad.
On the other hand, in the heap and seed-mass, constituting our own (the terrestrial) stage, those things that come to pass come to pass according to nature, as having been previously uttered by Him Who hath planned the fitting time and form and manner of utterance of the things that were to be uttered : and these things have no one to rule over them, or exercise care for them, or create them : for sufficient for them is that plan which the not-being One planned when He was making” [the seed-mass].
Such is the original cosmogony as conceived by Basilides, and it supplies the base for his view of the Gospel, as well as of the interval before the coming of the Gospel into the world. When the whole world had been finished, and the things above the world, and nothing was lacking, there remained in the seed-mass the third sonship, which had been left behind to do good and receive good in the seed; and it was needful that the sonship thus left behind should be revealed and restored up yonder above the Limitary Spirit to join the subtle and imitative sonship and the not-being One, as it is written, “And the creation itself groaneth together and travaileth together, expecting the revelation of the sons of God”. Now we the spiritual, he said, are sons left behind here to order and to inform and to correct and to perfect the souls whose nature it is to abide in this stage. Till Moses, then, from Adam sin reigned, as it is written; for the Great Archon reigned, he whose end reaches to the firmament, supposing himself to be God alone, and to have nothing above him, for all things remained guarded in secret silence; this is the mystery which was not made known to the former generations. But in those times the Great Archon, the Ogdoad, was king and lord, as it appeared, of all things : and moreover, the Hebdomad was king and lord of this stage; and the Ogdoad is unutterable, but the Hebdomad utterable. This, the Archon of the Hebdomad, is he who spoke to Moses and said, “I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and the name of God did I not make known to them” (for so, says Hippolytus, they will have it read), that is, of the unutterable God who is Archon of the Ogdoad. All the prophets, therefore, that were before the Saviour, spoke from that source.
This short interpretation of the times before Christ, which has evidently suffered in the process of condensation by Hippolytus, carries us at once to the Gospel itself. “Becaustherefore it was needful that we the children of God should be revealed, concerning whom the creation groaned and travailed, expecting the revelation, the Gospel came into the world, and passed through every principality and power and lordship, and every name that is named”. There was still no downward coming from above, no departure of the ascended sonship from its place; but “from below from the formlessness of the heap the powers penetrated up to the sonship” (i.e. probably throughout the scale the power of each stage penetrated to the stage immediately above), and so thoughts were caught from above as naphtha catches fire at a distance without contact. Thus the power within the Holy Spirit “conveyed the thoughts of the sonship, as they flowed and drifted to the son of the Great Archon”; and he in turn instructed the Great Archon himself, by whose side he was sitting.
Then first the Great Archon learned that he was not God of the universe, but had himself come into being, and had above him yet higher beings; he discovered with amazement his own past ignorance, and confessed his sin in having magnified himself. This fear of his, said Basilides, was that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom (wisdom to “separate and discern and perfect and restore”). From him and the Ogdoad the Gospel had next to pass to the Hebdomad. Its Archon’s son received the light from the son of the Great Archon, he became himself enlightened, and declared the Gospel to the Archon of the Hebdomad, and he too feared and confessed, and all that was in the Hebdomad received the light.
It remained only that the formlessness of our own region should be enlightened, and that the hidden mystery should be revealed to the third sonship left behind in the formlessness, as to “one born out of due time”. The light came down from the Hebdomad upon Jesus the Son of Mary. That this descent of the light was represented as taking place at the Annunciation, and not merely at the Baptism, is clearly implied in the express reference to the words of the angel in Luke I. 35, “A Holy Spirit shall come upon thee,” which are explained to mean” that [? spirit] which passed from the sonship through the Limitary Spirit to the Ogdoad and the Hebdomad till it reached Mary ” (the interpretation of the following words, “And a power of the Most High shall overshadow thee”, appears to be hopelessly corrupt). On the other hand, when it is described as a result of the descent of the light from the Hebdomad “upon Jesus the Son of Mary”, that He “was enlightened, being kindled in union with the light that shone on Him”, the allusion to the traditional light at the Baptism can hardly be questioned; more especially when we read in Clement’s Excerpta that the Basilidians interpreted the dove to be “the Minister”. the revealing “power” within the Holy Spirit.
From the Nativity Hippolytus’s exposition passes on at once to its purpose in the future and the final consummation. The world holds together as it is now, we learn, until all the sonship that has been left behind, to give benefits to the souls in formlessness and to receive benefits by obtaining distinct form, follows Jesus and mounts up and is purified and becomes most subtle, so that it can mount by itself like the first sonship; “for it has all its power naturally established in union with the light that shone down from above”. When every sonship has arrived above the Limitary Spirit, “then the creation shall find mercy, for till now it groans and is tormented and awaits the revelation of the sons of God, that all the men of the sonship may ascend from hence”. When this has come to pass, God will bring upon the whole world the Great Ignorance, that everything may remain according to nature, and that nothing may desire aught that is contrary to nature. Thus all the souls of this stage, whose nature it is to continue immortal in this stage alone, will remain without knowledge of anything higher and better than this, lest they suffer torment by craving for things impossible, like a fish desiring to feed with the sheep on the mountains, for such a desire would have been to them destruction. All things are indestructible while they abide in their place, but destructible if they aim at overleaping the bounds of Nature. Thus the Great Ignorance will overtake even the Archon of the Hebdomad, that grief and pain and sighing may depart from him : yea, it will overtake the Great Archon of the Ogdoad, and all the creations subject to him, that nothing may in any respect crave for aught that is against nature or may suffer pain. “And in this wise shall be the Restoration, all things according to nature having been founded in the seed of the universe in the beginning, and being restored at their due seasons. And that each thing has its due seasons is sufficiently proved by the Saviour’s words, ‘My hour is not yet come’, and by the beholding of the star by the Magi; for even He Himself was subject to the ‘genesis’ [nativity] of the periodic return, here used in the limited astrological sense, though above as ‘restoration’ generally of stars and hours, as foreordained in the great heap”.
“He,” adds Hippolvtus, evidently meaning our Lord, “is [in the Basilidian view] the inner spiritual man in the natural [psychical] man; that is, a sonship leaving its soul here, not a mortal soul, but one remaining in its present place according to nature, just as the first sonship up above hath left the Limitary Holy Spirit in a fitting place; He having at that time been clothed with a soul of His own”. These last two remarks, on the subjection to seasons and on the ultimate abandonment of the immortal but earth-bound soul by the ascending sonship or spiritual man, taking place first in the Saviour and then in the other “sons of God,” belong in strictness to an earlier part of the scheme; but they may have been placed here by Basilides himself, to explain the strange consummation of the Great Ignorance. The principle receives perhaps a better illustration from what purports to be an exposition of the Basilidian view of the Gospel, with which Hippolytus concludes his report.
“According to them,” he says, “the Gospel is the knowledge of things above the world, which knowledge the Great Archon understood not : when then it was shown to him that there exists the Holy Spirit, that is the Limitary Spirit, and the sonship and a God Who is the author of all these things, even the not-being One, he rejoiced at what was told him, and was exceeding glad : this is according to them the Gospel”. Here Hippolytus evidently takes too generally the special form under which Basilides represented the Gospel as made known to the Great Archon. Nor, when he proceeds to say that “Jesus according to them was born in the manner that we have previously mentioned”, is it clear that Basilides gave a different
account of the Nativity itself from that accepted by the church, because he gave a peculiar interpretation to the angel’s words. “After the Nativity already made known,” adds Hippolytus, “all incidents concerning the Saviour came to pass according to them [the Basilidians] as they are described in the Gospels”. But all this is only introductory to the setting forth of the “primary principle. These things “(apparently the incidents of our Lord’s life) ” are come to pass that Jesus might become the first fruits of the sorting of the things confused”. For since the world is divided into the Ogdoad and the Hebdomad and this stage in which we dwell, where is the formlessness, “it was necessary that the things confused should be sorted by the division of Jesus. That therefore suffered which was His bodily part, which was of the formlessness, and it was restored into the formlessness; and that rose up which was His psychical part, which was of the Hebdomad, and it was restored into the Hebdomad; and he raised up that which belonged to the summit where sits the Great Archon, and it abode beside the Great Archon : and He bore up on high that which was of the Limitary Spirit, and it abode in the Limitary Spirit; and the third sonship, which had been left behind in [the heap] to give and receive benefits, through Him was purified and mounted up to the blessed sonship, passing through them all.”
“Thus Jesus is become the first fruits of the sorting; and the Passion has come to pass for no other purpose than this, that the things confused might be sorted.” For the whole sonship left behind in the formlessness must needs be sorted in the same manner as Jesus Himself hath been sorted. Thus, as Hippolytus remarks a little earlier, the whole theory consists of the confusion of a seed-mass, and of the sorting and restoration into their proper places of things so confused.
Clement’s contributions to our knowledge of Basilides refer chiefly, as has been said, to the ethical side of his doctrine. Here “Faith” evidently played a considerable part. In itself it was defined by “them of Basilides” as “an assent of the soul to any of the things which do not excite sensation, because they are not present”; the phrase being little more than a vague rendering of Heb. XI. i, in philosophical language.
From another unfortunately corrupt passage it would appear that Basilides accumulated forms of dignity in celebration of faith. But the eulogies were in vain, Clement intimates, because they abstained from setting forth faith as the “rational assent of a soul possessing free will”. They left faith a matter of “nature”, not of responsible choice. So again, while contrasting the honour shown by the Basilidians to faith with its disparagement in comparison with “knowledge” by the Valentinians, he accuses them of regarding it as “natural,” and referring it to “the election” while they apparently considered it to “discover doctrines without demonstration by an intellective apprehension”. He adds that according to them (ot there is at once a faith and an election of special character in each “stage”, the mundane faith of every nature follows in accordance with its supermundane election, and for each (? being or stage) the [Divine] gift of his (or its) faith corresponds with his (or its) hope. What “hope” was intended is not explained : probably it is the range of legitimate hope, the limits of faculty accessible to the beings inhabiting this or that “stage”. It is hardly likely that Clement would have censured unreservedly what appears here as the leading principle of Basilides, the Divine resignment of a limited sphere of action to each order of being, and the Divine bestowal of proportionally limited powers of apprehending God upon the several orders, though it is true that Clement himself specially cherished the thought of an upward progress from one height of being to another, as part of the Divine salvation. Doubtless Basilides pushed election so far as to sever a portion of mankind from the rest, as alone entitled by Divine decree to receive the higher enlightenment. In “this sense it must have been that he called the election a stranger to the world, as being by nature supermundane”; while Clement maintained that no man can by nature be a stranger to the world. It is hardly necessary to point out how closely the limitation of spheres agrees with the doctrine on which the Great Ignorance is founded, and the supermundane election with that of the Third Sonship.
The same rigid adhesion to the conception of natural fixity, and inability to accept Christian beliefs, which transcend it, led Basilides to confine the remission of sins to those which are committed involuntarily and in ignorance; as though, says Clement, it were a man and not God that bestowed the gift. A like fatalistic view of Providence is implied in the language held by Basilides in reference to the sufferings of Christian martyrs. In this instance we have the benefit of verbal extracts, though unfortunately their sense is in parts obscure. So far as they go, they do not bear out the allegations of Agrippa Castor that Basilides taught that the partaking of food offered to idols, and the heedless abjuration of the faith in time of persecution was a thing indifferent; and of Origen, that he depreciated the martyrs, and treated lightly the sacrificing to heathen deities. The impression seems to have arisen partly from a misunderstanding of the purpose of his argument, partly from the actual doctrine and practices of later Basilidians; but it may also have had some justification in incidental words which have not been preserved. Basilides is evidently contesting the assumption, probably urged in controversy against his conception of the justice of Providence, that the sufferers in “what are called tribulations” are to be regarded as innocent, simply because they suffer for their Christianity. He suggests that some are in fact undergoing punishment for previous unknown sins, while “by the goodness of Him Who brings events to pass” they are allowed the comfort of suffering as Christians, not subject to the rebuke as the adulterer or the murderer”; and if there be any who suffers without previous sin, it will not be “by the design of an [adverse] power” but as suffers the babe who appears to have committed no sin.
The next quotation attempts at some length an exposition of this comparison with the babe. The obvious distinction is drawn between sin committed in act and the capacity for sin; the infant is said to receive a benefit when it is subjected to suffering, “gaining” many hardships. So it is, he says, with the suffering of a perfect man, for his not having sinned must not be set down to himself; though he has done no evil, he must have willed evil; “for I will say anything rather than call Providence evil.” He did not shrink, Clement says, and the language seems too conclusive, from applying his principle even to the Lord. “If, leaving all these arguments, you go on to press me with certain persons, saying, for instance, ‘Such an one sinned therefore, for such an one suffered’, if you will allow me I will say, ‘He did not sin, but he is like the suffering babe’; but if you force the argument with greater violence, I will say that any man whom you may choose to name is a man, and that God is righteous; for ‘no one’, as it has been said, ‘is clear of defilement’.” He likewise brought in thenotion of sin in a past stage of existence suffering its penalty here, “the elect soul” suffering “honourably through martyrdom, and the soul of another kind being cleansed by an appropriate punishment.”
To this doctrine of metempsychosis “the Basilidians” are likewise said to have referred the language of the Lord about requital to the third and fourth generations; Origen states that Basilides himself interpreted Rom. VII. 9 in this sense, “The Apostle said, ‘I lived without a law once’, that is, before I came into this body, I lived in such a form of body as was not under a law, that of a beast namely, or a bird”; and elsewhere Origen complains that he deprived men of a salutary fear by teaching that transmigrations are the only punishments after death. What more Basilides taught about Providence as exemplified in martyrdoms is not easily brought together from Clement’s rather confused account. He said that one part of what is called the will of God (i.e. evidently His own mind towards lower beings, not what He would have their mind to be) is to love (or rather perhaps be satisfied with) all things because all things preserve a relation to the universe, and another to despise nothing, and a third to hate no single thing.
In the same spirit pain and fear were described as natural accidents of things, as rust of iron. In another sentence Providence seems to be spoken of as set in motion by the Archon; by which perhaps was
meant that the Archon was the unconscious agent who carried into execution (within his own “stage”) the long dormant original counsels of the not-being God. The view of the harmony of the universe just referred to finds expression, with a reminiscence of a famous sentence of Plato , in a saying that Moses “set up one temple of God and an only-begotten world”.
We have a curious piece of psychological theory in the account of the passions attributed to the Basilidians . They are accustomed, Clement says, to call the passions Appendages, stating that these are certain spirits which have a substantial existence, having been appended (or “attached”, or “adherent, various kinds of close external contact being expressed by to the rational soul in a certain primitive turmoil and confusion, and that again other bastard and alien natures of spirits grow upon these, as of a wolf, an ape, a lion, a goat, whose characteristics, becoming perceptible in the region of the soul, assimilate the desires of the son to the animals; for they imitate the actions of those whose characteristics they wear, and not only acquire intimacy with the impulses and impressions of the irrational animals, but even imitate the movements and beauties of plants, because they likewise wear the characteristics of plants appended to them; and [the passions] have also characteristics of habit [derived from stones], as the hardness of adamant. In the absence of the context it is impossible to determine the precise meaning and origin of this singular theory. It was probably connected with the doctrine of metempsychosis, which seemed to find support in Plato’s Timaeus, and was cherished by some neo-Pythagoreans later in the 2nd cent.; while the plurality of souls is derided by Clement as making the body a Trojan horse, with apparent reference to a similar criticism of Plato in the Theaetetiis. And again Plutarch ridicules the Stoics (i.e. apparently Chrysippus) for a “strange and outlandish” notion that all virtues and vices, arts and memories, impressions and passions and impulses and assents (he adds further down even “acts”, such as “walking, dancing, supposing, addressing, reviling”) are not merely “bodies” (of course in the familiar Stoic sense) but living creatures or animals, crowded apparently round the central point within the heart where “the ruling principle” is located : by this “swarm”, he says, of hostile animals they turn each one of us into “a paddock or a stable, or a Trojan horse”. Such a theory might seem to Basilides an easy deduction from his fatalistic doctrine of Providence, and of the consequent immutability of all natures.
The only specimen which we have of the practical ethics of Basilides is of a favourable kind, though grossly misunderstood and misapplied by Epiphanius. Reciting the views of different heretics on Marriage, Clement mentions first its approval by the Valentinians, and then gives specimens of the teaching of Basilides and his son Isidore, by way of rebuke to the immorality of the later Basilidians, before proceeding to the sects which favoured licence, and to those which treated marriage as unholy. He first reports the exposition of Matt. XIX. II f. (or a similar evangelic passage), in which there is nothing specially to note except the interpretation of the last class of eunuchs as those who remain in celibacy to avoid the distracting cares of providing a livelihood. He goes on to the paraphrase of I. Cor.VII. 9, interposing in the midst an illustrative sentence from Isidore, and transcribes the language used about the class above mentioned. “But suppose a young man either poor or (?) depressed, and in accordance with the word [in the Gospel] unwilling to marry, let him not separate from his brother; let him say ‘I have entered into the holy place, nothing can befall me’; but if he have a suspicion let him say, ‘Brother, lay thy hand on me, that I may sin not’, and he shall receive help both to mind and to senses; let him only have the will to carry out completely what is good, and he shall succeed. But sometimes we say with the lips, ‘We will not sin’, while our thoughts are turned towards sinning : such an one abstains by reason of fear from doing what he wills, lest the punishment be reckoned to his account. But the estate of mankind has only certain things at once necessary and natural, clothing being necessary and natural, but natural, yet not necessary”.
Although we have no evidence that Basilides, like some others, regarded our Lord’s Baptism as the time when a Divine being first was joined to Jesus of Nazareth, it seems clear that he attached some unusual significance to the event. “They of Basilides” says Clement, “celebrate the day of His Baptism by a preliminary night-service of [Scripture] readings; and they say that the ‘fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’ is (or means) the fifteenth day of the [Egyptian] month Tybi, while some [make the day] the eleventh of the same month”. Again it is briefly stated in the Excerpta that the dove of the Baptism is said by the Basilidians to be the Minister. And the same association is implied in what Clement urges elsewhere: “If ignorance belongs to the class of good things, why is it brought to an end by amazement [i.e. the amazement of the Archon], and [so] the Minister that they speak of is superfluous, and the Proclamation, and the Baptism : if ignorance had not previously existed, the Minister would not have descended, nor would amazement have seized the Archon, as they themselves say.”
This language, taken in conjunction with passages already cited from Hippolytus, implies that Basilides regarded the Baptism as the occasion when Jesus received “the Gospel” by a Divine illumination. The supposed descent of “Christ” for union with “Jesus”, though constantly assumed by Hilgenfeld, is as destitute of ancient attestation as it is inconsistent with the tenor of Basilidian doctrine recorded by Clement, to say nothing of Hippolytus. It has been argued from Clement’s language by Gieseler, that the Basilidians were the first to celebrate our Lord’s Baptism. The early history of the Epiphany is too obscure to allow a definite conclusion on this point; but the statement about the Basilidian services of the preceding night receives some illustration from a passage of Epiphanius, lately published, in which we hear of the night before the Epiphany as spent in singing and flute-playing in a heathen temple at Alexandria: so that probably the Basilidian rite was a modification of an old local custom.
According to Agrippa Castor Basilides “in Pythagorean fashion” prescribed a silence of five years to his disciples.
The same author, we hear, stated that Basilides “named as prophets to himself Barcabbas and Barcoph, providing himself likewise with certain other [? prophets] who had no existence, and that he bestowed upon them barbarous appellations to strike amazement into those who have an awe of such things”. The alleged prophecies apparently belonged to the apocryphal Zoroastrian literature popular with various Gnostics. From Hippolytus we hear nothing about these prophecies, which will meet us again presently with reference to Basilides’s son Isidore, but he tells us that, according to Basilides and Isidore, Matthias spoke to them mystical doctrines which he heard in private teaching from the Saviour : and in like manner Clement speaks of the sect of Basilides as boasting that they took to themselves the glory of Matthias. Origen also and after him Eusebius refer to a “Gospel” of or according to Matthias. The true name was apparently the Traditions of Matthias : three interesting and by no means heretical extracts are given by Clement. In the last extract the responsibility laid on “the elect” for the sin of a neighbour recalls a passage already cited from Basilides.
It remains only to notice an apparent reference to Basilides, which has played a considerable part in modern expositions of his doctrine. Near the end of the anonymous Acts of the Disputation between Archelaus and Mani, written towards the close of the 3rd cent, or a little later, Archelaus disputes the originality of Mani’s teaching, on the ground that it took rise a long time before with ” acertain barbarian”.
“There was also, he says, a preacher among the Persians, a certain Basilides of great [or greater] antiquity, not long after the times of our Apostles, who being himself also a crafty man, and perceiving that at that time everything was preoccupied, decided to maintain that dualism which was likewise in favour with Scythianus,” named shortly before as a contemporary of the Apostles, who had introduced dualism from a Pythagorean source. “Finally, as he had no assertion to make of his own, he adopted the sayings of others ” (the last words are corrupt, but this must be nearly the sense). “And all his books contain things difficult and rugged.”
The writer then cites the beginning of the thirteenth book of his treatises (tractatuum), in which it was said that “the saving word” (the Gospel) by means of the parable of the rich man and the poor man pointed out the source from which nature (or a nature) without a root and without a place germinated and extended itself over things. He breaks off a few words later and adds that after some 500 lines Basilides invites his reader to abandon idle and curious elaborateness (varietate), and to investigate rather the studies and opinions of barbarians on good and evil. Certain of them, Basilides states, said that there are two beginnings of all things, light and darkness; and he subjoins some particulars of doctrine of a Persian cast. Only one set of views, however, is mentioned, and the Acts end abruptly here in the two known MSS. of the Latin version in which alone this part of them is extant.
It is generally assumed that we have here unimpeachable evidence for the strict dualism of Basilides. It seems certain that the writer of the Acts held his Basilides responsible for the barbarian opinions quoted, which are clearly dualistic, and he had the whole book before him. Yet his language on this point is
loose, as if he were not sure of his ground; and the quotation which he gives by no means bears him out : while it is quite conceivable that he may have had some acquaintance with duahstic Basilidians of a later day, such as certainly existed, and have thus given a wrong interpretation to genuine words of their master. It assuredly requires considerable straining to draw the brief interpretation given of the parable to a Manichean position, and there is nothing to show that the author of it himself adopted the first set of ” barbarian” opinions which he reported.
Indeed the description of evil (for evil doubtless is intended) as a supervenient nature,without root and without place, reads almost as if it were directed against Persian doctrine, and may be fairly interpreted by Basilides’s comparison of pain and fear to the rust of iron as natural accidents . The identity of the Basilides of the Acts with the Alexandrian has been denied by Gieseler with some show of reason. It is at least strange that our Basilides should be described simply as a “preacher among the Persians”, a character in which he is otherwise unknown; and all the more since he has been previously mentioned with Marcion and Valentinus as a heretic of familiar name. On the other hand, it has been justly urged that the two passages are addressed to different persons. The correspondence is likewise remarkable between the “treatises” in at least thirteen books, with an interpretation of a parable among their contents, and the “twenty-four books on the Gospel” mentioned by Agrippa Castor, called Exegetica by Clement. Thus the evidence for the identity of the two writers may on the whole be treated as preponderating. But the ambiguity of interpretation remains; and it would be impossible to rank Basilides confidently among
dualists, even if the passage in the Acts stood alone : much more to use it as a standard by which to force a dualistic interpretation upon other clearer statements of his doctrine.
Gnosticism was throughout eclectic, and Basilides superadded an eclecticism of his own. Antecedent Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, and the Christian faith and Scriptures all exercised a powerful and immediate influence over his mind. It is evident at a glance that his system is far removed from any known form of Syrian or original Gnosticism. Like that of Valentinus, it has been remoulded in a Greek spirit, but much more completely.
Historical records fail us almost entirely as to the personal relations of the great heresiarchs; yet internal evidence furnishes some indications which it can hardly be rash to trust. Ancient writers usually name Basilides before Valentinus; but there is little doubt that they were at least approximately contemporaries, and it is not unlikely that Valentinus was best known personally from his sojourn at Rome, which was probably the last of the recorded stages of his life. There is at all events no serious chronological difficulty in supposing that the Valentinian system was the startingpoint from which Basilides proceeded to construct by contrast his own theory, and this is the view which a comparison of doctrines suggests. In no point, unless it be the retention of the widely spread term archon, is Basilides nearer than Valentinus to the older Gnosticism, while several leading Gnostic forms or ideas which he discards or even repudiates are held fast by Valentinus. Such are descent from above, putting forth or pullulation, syzygies of male and female powers, and the deposition of faith to a lower level than knowledge. Further, the unique name given by Basilides to the Holy Spirit, “the Limitary Spirit”, together
with the place assigned to it, can hardly be anything else than a transformation of the strange Valentinian “Limit” (opos), which in like manner divides the Pleroma from the lower world; though, in conformity with the unifying purpose of Basilides, the Limitary Spirit is conceived as connecting as well as parting the two worlds. The same softening of oppositions which retain much of their force even with Valentinus shows itself in other instances, as of matter and spirit, creation and redemption, the Jewish age and the Christian age, the earthly and the heavenly elements in the Person of our Lord. The strongest impulse in this direction probably came from Christian ideas and the power of a true though disguised Christian faith. But Greek speculative Stoicism tended likewise to break down the inherited dualism, while at the same time its own inherent limitations brought faith into captivity. An antecedent matter was expressly repudiated, the words of Gen. iI. 3 eagerly appropriated, and a Divine counsel represented as foreordaining all future growths and processes; yet the chaotic nullity out of which the developed universe was to spring was attributed with equal boldness to its Maker : Creator and creation were not confused, but they melted away in the distance together. Nature was accepted not only as prescribing the conditions of the lower life, but as practically the supreme and permanent arbiter of destiny. Thus though faith regained its rights, it remained an energy of the understanding, confined to those who had the requisite inborn capacity; while the dealings of God with man were shut up within the lines of mechanical justice. The majestic and, so to speak, pathetic view bounded by the large Basilidian horizon was well fitted to inspire dreams of a high and comprehensive theology, but the very fidelity with which Basilides strove to cling to reality must have soon brought to light the incompetence of his teaching to solve any of the great problems. Its true office consisted in supplying one of the indispensable antecedents to the Alexandrian Catholicism which arose two generations later.
V. Refutations.—Notwithstanding the wide and lasting fame of Basilides as a typical heresiarch, no treatise is recorded as written specially in confutation of his teaching except that of Agrippa Castor. He had of course a place in the various works against all heresies; but, as we have seen, the doctrines described and criticized in several of them belong not to him but to a sect of almost wholly different character. Hippolytus, who in later years became acquainted with the Exegetica, contented himself with detecting imaginary plagiarisms from Aristotle. Even Origen, who likewise seems to have known the work, shows in the few casual remarks in his extant writings little real understanding even of Basilides’s errors. On the other hand, Clement’s candid intelligence enables him to detect the latent flaws of principle in the Basilidian theory without mocking at such of the superficial details as he has occasion to mention. Hilgenfeld, writing (1848) on the pseudo-Clementine literature, made a singular attempt to show that in one early recension of the materials of part of the Recognitions Simon was made to utter Basilidian doctrine, to be refuted by St. Peter, the traces of which had been partly effaced by his becoming the mouthpiece of other Gnostics in later recensions.
VI. Isodorus.—In the passage already noticed Hippolytus couples with Basilides “his true child and disciple” Isidore. He is there referring to the use which they made of the Traditions of Matthias; but in the next sentence he treats them as jointly responsible for the doctrines which he recites. Our only other authority respecting Isidore is Clement (copied by Theodoret), who calls him in like manner “at once son and disciple” of Basilides. In this place he gives three extracts from the first and second books of Isidore’s Expositions of the Prophet Parchor. They are all parts of a plea, like so many put forward after the example of Josephus against Apion, that the higher thoughts of heathen philosophers and mythologers were derived from a Jewish source. The last reference given is to Pherecydes, who had probably a peculiar
interest for Isidore as the earliest promulgator of the doctrine of metempsychosis known to tradition. His allegation that Pherecydes followed “the prophecy of Ham” has been perversely urged as a sign that he set up the prophets of a hated race against the prophets of Israel. The truth is rather that the identification of Zoroaster with Ham or Ham’s son, whatever may have been its origin, rendered it easy to claim for the apocryphal Zoroastrian books a quasi-biblical sanctity as proceeding from a son of Noah, and that Isidore gladly accepted the theory as evidence for his argument. “The prophets” from whom “some of the philosophers ” appropriated a wisdom not their own can be no other than the Jewish prophets. Again Clement quotes his book On an Adherent Soul in correction of his preceding quotation from Basilides on the passions as “appendages”. If the eight lines transcribed are a fair sample of the treatise, Isidore would certainly appear to have argued here against his father’s teaching. He insists on the unity of the soul, and maintains that bad men will find “no common excuse” in the violence of the “appendages” for pleading that their evil acts were involuntary : “our duty is”, he says, “by overcoming the inferior creation within us through the reasoning faculty, to show ourselves to have the mastery”. A third passage from Isidore’s Ethics is intercalated into his father’s argument on I. Cor. VII. 9, to the same purport but in a coarser strain.
Basilides had to all appearance no eminent disciple except his own son. In this respect the contrast between him and Valentinus is remarkable. A succession of brilliant followers carried forward and developed the Valentinian doctrine. It is a singular testimony to the impression created at the outset by Basilides and his system that he remained for centuries one of the eponymi of heresy; his name is oftener repeated, for instance, in the writings of Origen, than that of any other dreaded of the ante-Nicene church except Marcion, Valentinus, and afterwards Mani. But the original teaching, for all its impressiveness, had no vitality. The Basilidianism which did survive, and that, as far as the evidence goes, only locally, was, as we have seen, a poor and corrupt remnant, adulterated with the very elements which the founder had strenuously rejected.
VII. The Spurious Basilidian System.—In briefly sketching this degenerate Basilidianism it will seldom be needful to distinguish the authorities, which are fundamentally two, Irenaeus and the lost early treatise of Hippolytus; both having much in common, and both being interwoven together in the report of Epiphanius. The other relics of the Hippolytean Compendium are the accounts of Philaster, and the supplement to Tertullian. At the head of this theology stood the Unbegotten, the Only Father. From Him was born or put forth Nus, and from Nus Logos, from Logos Phronesis, from Phronesis Sophia and Dynamis, from Sophia and Dynamis principalities, powers, and angels. This first set of angels first made the first heaven, and then gave birth to a second set of angels who made a second heaven, and so on till 365 heavens had been made by 365 generations of angels, each heaven being apparently ruled by an Archon to whom a name was given, and these names being used in magic arts. The angels of the lowest or visible heaven made the earth and man. They were the authors of the prophecies; and the Law in particular was given by their Archon, the God of the Jews. He being more petulant and wilful than the other angels, in his desire to secure empire for his people, provoked the rebellion of the other angels and their respective peoples. Then the Unbegotten and Innominable Father, seeing what discord prevailed among men and among angels, and how the Jews were perishing, sent His Firstborn Nus, Who is Christ, to deliver those Who believed on Him from the power of the makers of the world.
“He”, the Basilidians said, “is our salvation, even He Who came and revealed to us alone this truth.” He accordingly appeared on earth and performed mighty works; but His appearance was only in outward
show, and He did not really take flesh. It was Simon of Cyrene that was crucified; for Jesus exchanged forms with him on the way, and then, standing unseen opposite in Simon’s form, mocked those who did the deed. But He Himself ascended into heaven, passing through all the powers, till He was restored to the presence of His own Father. The two fullest accounts, those of Irenaeus and Epiphanius, add by way of appendix another particular of the antecedent mythology; a short notice on the same subject being likewise inserted parenthetically by Hippolytus. The supreme power and source of being above all principalities and powers and angels is Abraxas, the Greek letters of whose name added together as numerals make up 365, the number of the heavens; whence, they apparently said, the year has 365 days, and the human body 365 members. This supreme Power they called “the Cause” and “the First Archetype”, while they treated as a last or weakest product (Hysterema, a Valentinian term, contrasted with Pleroma) this present world as the work of the last Archon. It is evident from these particulars that Abraxas was the name of the first of the 365 Archons, and accordingly stood below Sophia and Dynamis and their progenitors; but his position is not expressly stated, so that the writer of the supplement to Tertullian had some excuse for confusing him with “the Supreme God.”
On these doctrines various precepts are said to have been founded. The most distinctive is the discouragement of martyrdom, which was made to rest on several grounds. To confess the Crucified was called a token of being still in bondage to the makers of the body (nay, he that denied the Crucified was pronounced to be free from the dominion of those angels, and to know the economy of the Unbegotten Father); but it was condemned especially as a vain and ignorant honour paid not to Christ, Who neither suffered nor was crucified, but to Simon of Cyrene; and further, a public confession before men was stigmatized as a giving of that which is holy to the dogs and a casting of pearls before swine. This last precept is but one expression of the secrecy which the Basilidians diligently cultivated, following naturally on the supposed possession of a hidden knowledge. They evaded our Lord’s words, “Him that denieth Me before men,” etc., by pleading, “We are the men, and all others are swine and dogs.”
He who had learned their lore and known all angels and their powers was said to become invisible and incomprehensible to all angels and powers, even as also Caulacau was (the sentence in which Irenaeus, our sole authority here, first introduces Caulacau, a name not peculiar to the Basilidians, is unfortunately corrupt). And as the Son was unknown to all, so also, the tradition ran, must members of their community be known to none; but while they know all and pass through the midst of all, remain invisible and unknown to all, observing the maxim, “Do thou know all, but let no one know thee.” Accordingly they must be ready to utter denials and unwilling to suffer for the Name, since [to outward appearance] they resembled all. It naturally followed that their mysteries were to be carefully guarded, and disclosed to “only one out of 1000 and two out of 10,000.”
When Philaster (doubtless after Hippolytus) tells us in his first sentence about Basilides that he was ” called by many a heresiarch, because he violated the laws of Christian truth by making an outward show and discourse (proponendo et loquendo) concerning the Law and the Prophets and the Apostles, but believing otherwise,” the reference is probably to this contrast between the outward conformity of the sect and their secret doctrines and practices. The Basilidians considered themselves to be no longer Jews, but to have become more than Christians. Repudiation of martyrdom was naturally accompanied by indiscriminate use of things offered to idols. Nay, the principle of indifference is said to have been carried so far as to sanction promiscuous immorality. In this and other respects our accounts may possibly contain exaggerations; but Clement’s already cited complaint of the flagrant degeneracy in his time from the high standard set up by Basilides himself is unsuspicious evidence, and a libertine code of ethics would
find an easy justification in such maxims as are imputed to the Basilidians. It is hardly necessary to add that they expected the salvation of the soul alone, insisting on the natural corruptibility of the body. They indulged in magic and invocations, “and all other curious arts”. A wrong reading taken from the inferior MSS. of Irenaeus has added the further statement that they used “images”; and this single spurious word is often cited in corroboration of the popular belief that the numerous ancient gems on which grotesque mythological combinations are accompanied by the mystic name ABRAXAS were of Basilidian origin.
Imperfect and distorted as the picture may be, such was doubtless in substance the creed of Basilidians not half a century after Basilides had written. Were the name absent from the records of his system and theirs, no one would have suspected any relationship between them, much less imagined that they belonged respectively to master and to disciples.
Outward mechanism and inward principles are alike full of contrasts; no attempts of critics to trace correspondences between the mythological personages, and to explain them by supposed condensations or mutilations, have attained even plausibility. Two misunderstandings have been specially misleading. Abraxas, the chief or Archon of the first set of angels, has been confounded with “the Unbegotten Father”, and the God of the Jews, the Archon of the lowest heaven, has been assumed to be the only Archon recognized by the later Basilidians, though Epiphanius (69 b.c.) distinctly implies that each of the 365 heavens had its Archon. The mere name “Archon” is common to most forms of Gnosticism. So again, because Clement tells us that Righteousness and her daughter Peace abide in substantive being within the Ogdoad, “the Unbegotten Father”and the five grades or forms of creative mind which intervene between Him and the creator angels are added in to make up an Ogdoad, though none is recorded as acknowledged by the disciples : a combination so arbitrary and so incongruous needs no refutation. On the other hand, those five abstract names have an air of true Basilidian Hellenism, and the two systems possess at least one negative feature in common, the absence of syzygies and of all imagery connected directly with sex. On their ethical side the connection is discerned with less difficulty.
The contempt for martyrdom, which was perhaps the most notorious characteristic of the Basilidians, would find a ready excuse in their master’s speculative paradox about martyrs, even if he did not discourage martyrdom himself. The silence of five years which he imposed on novices might easily degenerate into the perilous dissimulation of a secret sect, while their exclusiveness would be nourished by his doctrine of the Election; and the same doctrine might further after a while receive an antinomian interpretation. The nature of the contrast of principle in the theological part of the two creeds suggests how so great a change may have arisen.
The system of Basilides was a high-pitched philosophical speculation, entirely unfitted to exercise popular influence, and transporting its adherents to a region remote from the sympathies of men imbued with the old Gnostic phantasies, while it was too artificial a compound to attract heathens or Catholic Christians. The power of mind and character which the remains of his writings disclose might easily gather round him in the first instance a crowd who, though they could enter into portions only of his teaching, might remain detached from other Gnostics, and yet in their theology relapse into “the broad highway of vulgar Gnosticism”, and make for themselves out of its elements, whether fortuitously or by the skill of some now forgotten leader, a new mythological combination. In this manner evolution from below might once more give place to emanation from above, Docetism might again sever heaven and earth, and a loose practical dualism (of the profounder speculative dualism of the East there is no trace) might supersede all that Basilides had taught as to the painful processes by which sonship attains its perfection. The composite character of the secondary Basilidianism may be seen at a glance in the combination of the five Greek abstractions preparatory to creation with the Semitic hosts of creative angels bearing barbaric names. Basilidianism seems to have stood alone in appropriating Abraxas; but Caulacau plays a part in more than one system, and the functions of the angels recur in various forms of Gnosticism, and especially
in that derived from Saturnilus. Saturnilus likewise affords a parallel in the character assigned to the God of the Jew as an angel, and partly in the reason assigned for the Saviour’s mission; while the Antitactae of Clement recall the resistance to the God of the Jews inculcated by the Basilidians. Other “Basilidian ” features appear in the Pistis Sophia, viz. many barbaric names of angels (with 365 Archons), and elaborate collocations of heavens, and a numerical image taken from Deut. XXXII. 30. The Basilidian Simon of Cyrene is apparently unique.
VIII. History of the Basilidian Sect.—There is no evidence that the sect extended itself beyond Egypt; but there it survived for a long time. Epiphanius (about 375) mentions the Prosopite, Athribite, Saite, and “Alexandriopolite” (read Andropolite) nomes or cantons, and also Alexandria itself, as the places in which it still throve in his time, and which he accordingly inferred to have been visited by Basilides. All these places lie on the western side of the Delta, between Memphis and the sea. Nearer the end of cent. IV. Jerome often refers to Basilides in connection with the hybrid Priscillianism of Spain, and the mystic names in which its votaries delighted. According to Sulpicius Severus this heresy took its rise in “the East andEgypt”; but, he adds, it is not easy to say “what the beginnings were out of which it there grew”. He states, however, that it was first brought to Spain by Marcus, a native of Memphis. This fact explains how the name of Basilides and some dregs of his disciples’ doctrines or practices found their way to so distant a land as Spain, and at the same time illustrates the probable hybrid origin of the secondary Basilidianism itself.