Translated from the original by Chris Tsilikas
As we have already pointed out in other posts, our goal is not limited to facing heresies and exhibiting the Orthodox Faith, but we are also interested in giving information on various issues, so that the faithful have a global and clear picture of what they worship.
Therefore, we dealt with heresies in our post “Heresies in the years of the Apostles” and with the apocryphal books of the Old Testament in our post “Angels and Demons in the apocryphal book of Enoch”.
In our current article we are going to deal with the heresies that existed after the years of the Apostles, spanning the 1st to the middle of the 3rd centuries AD...
The heresies spanning those years are of a Judaic form, influenced by Judaism, and of a Gnostic form, influenced by Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a philosophical-theological system, against which Christianity fought hard during the first three centuries until it managed to prevail. It preceded Christianity and it had been influenced by Platonism, by the eastern religions of Zoroastrianism, Parsism etc., as well as by the Egyptian mysteries. When Christianity appeared Gnosticism took elements from Christianity as well, that’s why it became dangerous for the Church.
Gnosticism accepted two worlds, one superior unconceivable world, where real God with the pure spirits existed, and another inferior world, the material one, in which people’s souls were imprisoned. Between these two worlds there existed the angels and some other superior beings called “aions”.
Christ was conceived as one such “aion” who came in order to give people the “knowledge” of how the spiritual element they have imprisoned in their bodies will be liberated and will return to the pure spiritual world where it belonged right from the beginning.
Gnostics wanted to destroy the body because they regarded it as the prison of the soul. So, they either reached extreme abstinence (from food, drink, etc.) – admirable indeed – or extreme debauchery and immorality.
Amazed though the student of this era will be by the variety of the existent heresies, he will realize that remnants of these heresies still exist in heresies nowadays.
Additionally, the wide majority of the people ignore the fact that the Fathers of that era gave a gigantic fight against the heresies of Gnosticism in order to keep the Orthodox Faith intact. And this was due to the fact that Gnosticism had the advantage of adjustment; that is, it had the ability to employ elements from different religions and adjust them to its own system. Of course, Christianity was not an exception to that.
That’s why, - as we are informed by the sources of that era – Christianity was charged with offences that the Gnostics had committed under the cover of Christianity.
After all, Christianity managed to prevail over Gnosticism after three centuries of “war”.
The Gnostics Sotorninos, Basilides and Carpocrates
Under the emperor Hadrian – around 130 A.D. – the heresiarchs Satornius (Satorninos) and Basilides appear, the former from Syria and the latter from Egypt. According to Irenaeus, Satorninos continues the lies of Menander, while Basilides claiming that he owns secret teaching he makes up unbelievable stories to convince the naïve people. Apart from Irenaeus, we get information about Basilides from the work of the ecclesiastical Father Agrippa Castor, contemporary to Basilides. He relays that Basilides had edited his own Gospel with 24 books-interpretations and he claimed that he had revelations from some non-existent in reality prophets, who had some sonorous barbarian names like Barkabbas and Barcoph, in order to impress the masses.
He also taught that The Christians could deny their faith during the Persecutions by eating foods sacrificed to idols (eidolothyta in Greek) and certainly influenced by Pythagoras he told them to avoid talking for five years!
Contemporary to Satorninos and Basilides, Carpocrates acted in Alexandria. He taught the magic of Simon out in the open without the need to hide them as he did, and used potions and dream transmitters and called demons as well. (For Simon and Menander see our earlier post “Heresies in the years of the Apostles”.
Carpocrates taught that Christ was naturally born by Mary and Joseph; he was fairer than the other people and managed to be liberated from the dynasty of the angels who, according to him, had created the world. He and his son Epiphanius, who died at the age of 17,were preachers of sin and orgy, believing that the ravage of the body and the flesh would lead to the liberation of the soul. Sexual orgy was taking place during special dinners which had a mystic element. They were exponents of joint ownership, of materials and of women. It’s worth pointing out that Epiphanius was honored after his death as the god of Cephalonia, His mother’s – Alexandria – place of origin.
According to Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History D’ 7, 11, all these constituted the reason why the Christians were charged with obscenity by the Nationals (pagans); the most appalling charge leveled against the early Christians was that in their gatherings what took place was sexual orgies with their mothers and sisters and feasting with human flesh especially of young children! All these remained known in Ecclesiastical History as “oedipodean intercourse” and “thyestean feasts”. The Apologists managed to put things right explaining that what really took place during the Christian gatherings was the “sacrament of Christ’s flesh and body” and the feasts were innocent dinners, the well-known “Loves”.
The heresy of the Encratites and Valesians
From the ecclesiastical writer Musanus who acted in the second half of the 2nd century A.D. we learn about a belief that appeared then called “the heresy of Encratites”. The word “Encratite” derives from the Greek language and it means “self-controlled”. A lot of faithful had been influenced by this heresy. But the one who disseminated their ideas was the apologist Tatian who was Justin’s disciple. While Justin Martyr was in life Tatian hadn’t dared to reveal his preaching, which he overtly disclosed after Justin’s death.
The Encratites preached against
marriage, which they described as corruption and prostitution. They even blamed
God because He created male and female. They preached that marriage stemmed
from devil. They didn’t eat animal meat because they believed – probably
influenced by Pythagoras – that animals have souls just as humans. They even
rejected Adam’s salvation.
After Tatian it was another man called Sevirus who shed new light to the heresy of Encratites, after whose name his fans were named, known as Severians. They interpreted the Law, the Prophets and the Gospels in a peculiar way, and they even rejected Paul’s epistles and the Book of the Acts.
Apostle Paul had foreseen the
heresy of Encratites and had even spoken prophetically about it in his first
epistle to Timothy:
“Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” Epistle to Timothy, chapter 4, verses 1-3
It’s worth pointing out, though, that some Orthodox hermits also abstain from meat. Can we then assume that they belong to the heresy of Encratites as well? No, of course not! And that’s because the Orthodox hermits abstain from meat for exercising reasons and not because they consider meat polluted as the Encratites did.
And it couldn’t have been otherwise since Apostle Paul beautifully continues in his epistle to Timothy leaving absolutely no doubt for misinterpretations and misunderstandings:
“For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” Epistle to Timothy, chapter 4, verse 4
The Fathers of the Church take all these into consideration when they enact various laws in order to avoid misunderstandings and to protect the faithful:
“If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any one of the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or flesh, or wine, not by way of religious restraint, but as abhorring them, forgetting that God made all things very good, and that he made man male and female, and blaspheming the work of creation, let him be corrected, or else be deposed, and cast out of the Church. In like manner a layman” Apostolic Canon 51 (LI)
Encratites detest wine as well,
apart from marriage and meat. That’s why they used water instead of wine in
their ceremonies. According to some testimony, some fans of Encratites exceeded
This heresy started to decline towards the end of the third century and then it became extinct.
From the third century onwards
we have the appearance of the heresy of Valesians. A man named Valens
is believed to have founded it, who is a rather mythical person. Valesians had
the same aversion to marriage as the Encratites, and they considered
reproduction of mankind as the ultimate sin. As a result they moved to
castration, in other words to cutting off their genital organs. Saint Nicodemus
of the Holy Mountain claims that Valesians did this action due to
misinterpretation of the Lord’s words to Matthew:
“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee… And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee” Matthew, chapter 5, verse 29
So, the Valesians believed that amputation was what one should do whenever his members led him to sin. Of course, as Holy Chrysostom explains, Lord refers to close relatives and friends who become an obstacle to our love to God and who, then, it is an urgent need to keep away.
Unfortunately it was not only
Valesians who resorted to their own castration at that time. A lot of faithful
did the same, that’s why local and Ecumenical Synods took measures against
“If any man being a clergyman shall mutilate himself, let him be deposed, for he is a self-murderer” Apostolic Canon 23 (XXIII)
Even Origen had castrated himself. As Eusebius of Caesarea supported in Ecclesiastical History 6, 8 he took this step due to his youth and imprudence, because he wanted to dilute any evil thought from unfaithful people since he preached not only men but women as well.
The heresy of the Elcesaites
The heresy of the Elcesaites or Elksaites became known to us due to Origen who fought against it. We find its beginning towards the end of the 2nd century A.D. around 190. It was a Jewish heresy and its followers liked calling themselves Bene el Kessai, which means sons of the hidden power. They had been influenced by Gnostics just as Ebionites (see our article Heresies in the years of the Apostles).
There are three different suppositions for their name. The first says that they are called after the village they came from, Elcesi in Galilee. The second says that they took their name from their leader Elksi and the third goes that they are called so because their name means apostate.
Research, however, has concluded that they are probably called so from the “hidden power” that the Holy Spirit denotes or from an apocryphal book which had that name.
They considered this book to be
of high origin, they even claimed it had fallen from Heaven. Some others
claimed that the book had been disclosed to them by Angels.
Their preaching was a mixture of Jewish-Christian elements together with National (pagan) elements. They took to purifications and they believed a new baptism was necessary for forgiveness of sins. Apart from all these, they were also occupied with Astrology and magic. From Judaism they accepted Sabbath, circumcision, and a few acts of the Law, but at the same time they rejected a lot of books from the Old Testament.
Coming to Christ, they regarded
him as an Angel of supernatural dimensions, claiming that he was 96 metres tall
and 24 metres broad! Another peculiar characteristic of their teaching was that
they believed in Christ’s often and continuous reincarnation.
They didn’t mind rejecting faith in times of persecution because they thought that this rejection was made in words and not by heart, so it didn’t play a negative role in their salvation.
They celebrated Thanksgiving using bread and salt and they also taught abstinence from meat. However, they rejected all epistles from Apostle Paul.
Their action took place in the
area around the Dead Sea.
Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 6, 38) claims that their heresy vanished in the 3rd century. However, we find remnants of the heresy of the Elcesaites in the 6th century as well, when it definitely becomes extinct.
The heresy of the Arabs or of the Soul’s Mortality
This heresy appeared in the 3rd
century in Arabia. They were called the Soul’s Mortality because they believed
that the soul is vanished together with the body when one dies. They taught
that the soul will revive together with the body in the time of resurrection. A
synod was called upon in 246 to fight against this heresy. Origen was
called to speak in this synod and his speech was so successful that he managed
to transform the thoughts of all the people who had been misled somehow, Eusebius Ecclesiastical History
We should not forget though, that although the heresy of the Soul’s Mortality vanished in the 3rd century, their preaching is still alive. This erroneous belief is still found intact today in the heresy of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A peculiar incident with a heretical who had been misled
From Ecclesiastical History5 28, 8 by Eusebius we learn about a peculiar incident that happened to a Christian Orthodox who had been misled by heretics. We believe it’s worth mentioning it. Eusebius found this incident in a book by an anonymous writer who was fighting against the heresy of Artemon, which taught that Christ was a simple man.
So the book refers to a man
called Natalius who had been misled by the
heretics Asclepiodotus and Theodotus
who were both disciples of Theodotus the tanner, the first
heretic to claim that Christ was just a simple man. Well, Natalius was persuaded to become a bishop of this
heresy and he also received a salary of 150 denarii a month for his services.
But, Christ did not want to let a witness of His sufferings get lost, so he
came to Natalius with visions to give him
Natalius however gave little heed of these visions because of the profit he made and the place of honour he thought he had. Then something peculiar happened. During one night’s sleep he was whipped and severely beaten by Angels so that when he woke up in dawn he wore a sack and covered himself in ashes – a sign of mourning – and went in tears before bishop Zepphyrinus, cleric and secular, and asked for forgiveness showing his wounds in order to make them believe him and let him come back to Church.