Carpocrates, a Platonic philosopher who taught at Alexandria early in the 2nd cent., and who, incorporating Christian elements into his system, became the founder of a heretical sect mentioned in one of our earliest catalogues of heresies, the list of Hegesippus, preserved by Eusebius. These heretics are the first of whom Irenaeus expressly mentions that they called themselves Gnostics; Hippolytus first speaks of the name as assumed by the Naassenes or Ophites. Of all the systems called Gnostic, that of Carpocrates is the one in which the Hellenic element is the most strongly marked, and which contains the least of what is necessarily Jewish or Oriental. He is described as teaching with prominence the doctrine of a single first principle: the name Monatheist Gnosis given by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. III 2) to the doctrine of the school which he founded, is made by Neander to furnish the key to the whole Carpocratian system; but possibly is only intended to contrast with the doctrine of the Valentinian teachers, who thought it necessary to provide the first Being with a consort, in order that emanations from Him might be conceivable.
Carpocrates taught that from the one unknown unspeakable God different angels and powers had emanated, and that of these the lowest in the series, far below the unbegotten Father, had been the makers of the world. The privilege of the higher souls was to escape the rule of those who had made the world; even by
magical arts to exercise dominion over them, and ultimately, on leaving the world, to pass completely free from them to God Who is above them.
Jesus he held to be a mere man naturally born of human parents, having no prerogatives beyond the reach of others to attain. His superiority to ordinary men consisted in this, that His soul, being steadfast and pure, remembered those things which it had seen in the revolution in which it had been carried round with the unbegotten God, and therefore power [or a “power”] had been sent from God enabling Him to escape the makers of the world. Though brought up in Jewish customs, He had despised them, and therefore had received powers enabling Him to destroy the passions which are given to men as a punishment.
But in this there was nothing special: others might be the equals or the superiors not only of Peter or Paul, but of our Lord Himself. Their souls, too, might remember the truths they had witnessed; if they despised the rulers of the world as much as Jesus did, they would be given the same privileges as He, and higher if they despised them more. Thus the Carpocratians gave honour, but not an exclusive honour, to Christ. They had pictures of Him, derived, it was said, from a likeness taken by Pilate’s order; and images, which they crowned and treated with other marks of respect; but this they did also in the cases of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers.
In the opening statement concerning the making of the world, the doctrine ascribed to Carpocrates is almost identical with that ascribed to Saturninus; but in the next paragraph the language is distinctly taken from the myth in Plato’s Phaedrus, in which human knowledge is made to be but a recollection of what the soul had seen when carried round with the gods in their revolution, and permitted to see the eternal forms of things.
The doctrine of the duty of despising the rulers of the world received among the Carpocratians an interpretation which enabled them to practise immorality without scruple. Things in themselves were indifferent; nothing was in its own nature good or evil, and was only made so by human opinion. The true Gnostic might practise everything—nay, it was his duty to have experience of all.
A doctrine concerning the transmigration of souls which was taught by other Gnostic sects, and which harmonized well with Platonic teaching, was adopted by the Carpocratians in the form that a soul which had had its complete experience passed at once out of the dominion of the rulers of the world, and was received up to society with the God above them: those which had not were sent back to finish in other bodies that which was lacking to them; but all ultimately would be saved. But as was also taught by the Basilidians of Irenaeus and by the Ophites, salvation belonged to the soul alone; there would be no resurrection of the body. In conformity with this theory was interpreted the text from the Sermon on the Mount, “Agree with thine adversary quickly.”
The “adversary” (whom, Epiphanius tells us, they named Abolus, a corruption, doubtless, from the Diabolus of Irenaeus) was one of the world-making angels, whose office it was to conduct the soul to the principal of these angels, “the judge.” If he found that there were acts left undone, he delivered it to another angel, “the officer,” to shut it up “in prison”—i.e. in a body—until it had paid the last farthing. The doctrine that we ought to imitate the freedom with which our Lord despised the rulers of the world raises the question, Did Carpocrates intend to impute immorality to Him? On this point Carpocrates was misunderstood either by Hippolytus or by his own disciples. According to Hippolytus, Carpocrates taught that Jesus surpassed other men in justice and integrity, and no doubt our Lord’s example might have been cited only in reference to freedom from Jewish ceremonial obligations; yet the version of Irenaeus seems more trustworthy, which does not suggest that the superiority of Jesus consisted in anything but the clearer apprehension of eternal truths which His intellect retained. Carpocrates claimed to be in possession of the true teaching of Christ spoken secretly by Him to His apostles, and communicated by them in tradition to the worthy and faithful; and the apostolic doctrine that men are to be saved by faith and love was used by him to justify an antinomian view of the complete indifference of works.
EPIPHANES, the son of Carpocrates by a Cephallenian woman, maintained a licentious theory of communism in all things, women included. The Carpocratians and the Cainites have often been coupled together as the two most immoral of the Gnostic sects, and in practical effects their doctrines may not have been very different; but the Carpocratian theory of the indifference of human actions fell short of the inversion of good and evil which is ascribed to the
Cainites. Whereas the latter represented the God of the Jews and Maker of the world as an evil Being who ought to be resisted, the former only spoke of the makers of the world as inferior beings whose restrictions it is true enlightenment to despise; and the arguments of Epiphanes, derived from the equality that reigns in nature, assume that the creation is so far conformed to the will of God that from the laws which pervade it we may infer what is pleasing to the supreme power.
Whether immorality were directly taught by Carpocrates himself or not, his followers became proverbial for deliberate licentiousness of life. The Christians thought it likely that the stories current among the heathen of scenes of shameless debauchery in the Christian lovefeasts had a real foundation in what took place among the Carpocratians. Philaster, who, apparently through oversight, enumerates the Carpocratians twice, the second time giving them the alternative names of Floriani and Milites, directly asserts this. His predecessors had suggested it as probable. Irenaeus counts Carpocratian doctrines and practices as means employed by Satan to discredit the Christian name among the heathen.
A more trifling heathen belief about the Christians generally seems to have been true of the Carpocratians, viz. that they knew each other, by secret bodily marks; for the Carpocratians marked their disciples by cauterizing them in the back of the lobe of the right ear. It appears from Heracleon that this was a baptismal ceremony, intended to represent the “baptism with fire,” predicted of our Lord by the Baptist. This confirms the evidence as to the use of at least St. Matthew’s Gospel by the Carpocratians furnished by Epiphanius and by the use made of the Sermon on the Mount.
Mention has already been made of the cultivation of magic by the Carpocratians, and their pretension to equal the miraculous powers of our Lord. Hippolytus, in the fourth book of the Refutation, gives us several specimens of wonders exhibited by magicians, not very unlike feats performed by professional conjurors today. It was easy for Irenaeus to show how very unlike these transient wonders were to be permanent miracles of healing effected by our Lord, and which, as he claimed, continued in the church.
According to Neander, the Carpocratian system sees in the world’s history one struggle between the principles of unity and of multiplicity. From one eternal Monad all existence has flowed, and to this it strives to return. But the finite spirits who rule over several portions of the world counteract this universal striving after unity. From them the different popular religions, and in particular the Jewish, have proceeded. Perfection is attained by those souls who, led on by reminiscences of their former condition, soar above all limitation and diversity to the contemplation of the higher unity.
They despise the restrictions imposed by the mundane spirits; they regard externals as of no importance, and faith and love as the only essentials; meaning by faith, mystical brooding of the mind absorbed in the original unity. In this way they escape the dominion of the finite mundane spirits; their souls are freed from imprisonment in matter, and they obtain a state of perfect repose (corresponding to the Buddhist Nirwana) when they have completely ascended above the world of appearance.
We cannot assign an exact date to Carpocrates; but there are affinities between his system and those of Saturninus and Basilides, which suggest one a little later than Basilides, from whom he may have derived his knowledge of Christianity. Eusebius is probably right in placing him in the reign of Hadrian (d. A.D. 138). It suffices merely to mention the invention of the writer known as Praedestinatus that the Carpocratians were condemned in Cyprus by the apostle Barnabas. Matter, in his history of Gnosticism, gives an account of certain supposed Carpocratian inscriptions, since found to be spurious .