Gnosticism

Carpocrates of Alexandria was the founder of an early Gnostic sect from the first half of the 2nd century. Basilides is acknowledged as one of the earliest Alexandrian Gnostics. a native of Alexandria and flourished under the Emperors Adrian and Antoninus Pius, about 120-140. Basilides invented prophets for himself named Barcabbas and Barcoph, and claimed to have received verbal instructions from St. Matthias the Apostle and to be a disciple of Glaucias, a disciple of St. Peter.

Hippolytus sets forth the doctrine of Basilides as follows:

There was a time when nothing existed, neither matter nor form, nor accident; neither the simple nor the compound, neither the unknowable nor the invisible, neither man or angel nor god nor any of these things, which are called by names or perceived by the mind or the senses. The Not-Being God (ouk on theos) whom Aristotle calls Thought of thought (noesis tes noeseos), without consciousness, without perception, without purpose, without aim, without passion, without desire, had the will to create the world. I say “had the will” only by way of speaking, because in reality he had neither will, nor ideas nor perceptions; and by the word ‘world’ I do not mean this actual world, which is the outcome of extension and division, but rather the Seed of the world. The seed of the world contained in itself, as a mustard seed, all things which are eventually evolved, as the roots, the branches, the leaves arise out of the seedcorn of the plant.

As with many Gnostic sects, we know of the Carpocratians only through the writings of the Church Fathers, principally Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria.

As the former strongly opposed Gnostic doctrine, there is a question of negative bias when using this source. While the various references to the Carpocratians differ in some details, they agree as to the libertinism of the sect.

What is Gnosticism: 

  • Gnosticism was a curious synthesis of Jewish apocalypticism, Platonism, strains of pagan religions, and early Christianity. There are some indications of an early form of Gnostic thought in the NT, but nothing like what developed in the second century.
  • Gnosticism consisted of an extreme dualism, drawing a distinction between the body and the spirit realm.
    • The “demiurge” was the evil creator of the physical universe, humans were bound in their “evil” physical body, and could only be released from the confines of that body through the gaining of gnosis, or divine knowledge.
    • The seven visible heavenly bodies (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) gave rise to a belief in eight heavenly realms.
    • Plato had written about the concept of pre-existent souls in a state of perfection prior to taking on a mortal body on the earth. When the soul is released from the prison of the body it ascends back to the heavenly realm where it is reunited with the realm of ideas.
    • The soul in the Gnostic system must ascend through these heavenly realms in the quest to return to a state of perfection.
    • Along the way the soul must pass guardians of each level; typically to pass into the next stage, or heavenly realm, the soul must recite some of the heavenly gnosis learned during the earthly trek.
    • The eighth level is the place of perfection, the ultimate goal for every soul.

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