Orthodox Outrage

In Roman times the Catholic clergy spread the most vile and slanderous rumors against the Gnostics. The worst attacks were made by a cleric named Epiphanius of Salamis (310–403) and are preserved in a lengthy anti-heresy diatribe known as the Panarion (“medicine chest”). In this bitter, venomous diatribe the Gnostics are accused of masturbating, of mass fornication, and of eating semen and flux as symbols of the body and blood of Christ. As the final, ultimate outrage, Epiphanius informs his readers that when some Gnostic woman became pregnant, as a result of all this alleged promiscuity, he claims that the Gnostics had a special ritual where they extract the fetus, pound it with spices, roast it, and eat it (Panarion, 26).

The famous theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was another cleric who made similar accusations against the Gnostics. Augustine accused the Gnostic Manichean sect of eating a Eucharist “sprayed with Human semen” (de Haeresibus ad Quodvultdeum, 46). A similar accusation comes from Cyril of Jerusalem (315–386), who accused the “Manichees” of eating pieces of pork dipped in semen (Catechetical Instruction, 6.33). [1]

Of course all of these vile accusations begin to crumble under close scrutiny. Augustine, as an example, had been a member of the Manichean sect for nine years, and was a fanatical defender of the sect, just as he would be for the Catholic Church later ( http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02084a.htm ).

The amazing fact is that Augustine never witnessed any such ritual first hand in the nine years he was in the sect. The basis for his story originates from a scandal supposedly involving local Manicheans in the city of Carthage. This scandal involved the abuse of two young women in an alleged Eucharist ritual that is too bizarre and too depraved to be believed (W. Barnstone, The Other Bible, pg. 676). I will not repeat the sick and disgusting details of this story here. I can only express my disbelief that religious people would engage in such perversions as an expression of their spirituality. I can see where deranged perverts would engage in such depravity, but not religious people. The supposed ritual that Augustine describes is no more sacramental than the molestation of altar boys by Catholic priests can be considered to be a sacramental ritual. Yet this is exactly how Augustine wants this story to appear. He is eager to see this account laid at the front door of all Manicheans everywhere; even as they protest their innocence of such evil deeds. Again, I find it incredible that Augustine was in the Manichean sect for nine years, but never witnessed anything like this with his own eyes.

Personally, I think the more plausible explanation for this paradox, in Augustine’s story, is that Augustine is the kind of man who will repeat such perverted lies when they suit his purposes. This is the kind of man that Augustine was; and this was the kind of smut that he was willing to traffic in. I think the same is true of Cyril of Jerusalem. Cyril claims that the Manichean elect eat a special Eucharist meal comprised of pork dipped in semen. But all historians know that the “elect” Manicheans were strict vegetarians. (Note: Cyril’s comments may have been intended as pure ridicule, malicious humor, and not to be taken literally, viz. that pork is a metaphor for their alleged filthy ritual.) We should also note that in the days of Cyril and Augustine that the Manichean religion was an international movement that eventually spread as far as China. Yet there are no other witnesses from any other source outside of the Catholic clergy who can corroborate Augustine and Cyril. If the Manicheans were really engaged in such perversions as an organized practice then certainly there would be a pattern of reports about it. Sooner or later disgruntled members would leave the sect with stories of its perverted activities–which would stretch all the way to China.

In the case of Epiphanius there too is good reason to doubt the truth of his account. And I will state here that I think that Epiphanius’s accusations are too sick, and at the same time, too fantastic, to be believed. This guy writes of these people in such a way as to lead us to believe that these people aren’t even human. We’re supposed to believe, on Epiphanius’s word, that these people are just a bunch of pigs who revel in their own excrement; and we are expected to believe that this was their concept of religion and piety. Please forgive me if I remain skeptical, and if I note that these accusations have not been settled in court where each side has equal opportunity to state their case. We should also note that in the Roman Empire that Epiphanius and Augustine lived in, the Roman Catholic Church was united with the imperial state. Heretics had no legal rights. The Roman emperors Constantius and Theodosius had both outlawed all other sects and religions, either Christian or pagan. So one need not presume that heretics ever received a fair hearing in court. History has not allowed these people to defend themselves against the monstrous accusations which have been perpetrated against them. To this day, the Catholic sources allow us to know only one side of the story.

Epiphanius actually leads his readers to believe that he was a witness to the deeds he describes. But at the same time he also makes statements indicating that he was never actually present, and that he was “not led away” by the Gnostics he encountered. The dubious nature of his sources appears in the following statements by Epiphanius himself:

“Indeed, beloved readers, I happened upon this sect in person, and was instructed in these matters face to face, by the people who naturally observe this doctrine. Certain women, who had been deceived in this way, not only offered us this verbal information and revealed such things to us, but also…reached out to us in our youth and with babbling recklessness attempted to drag us down. … For though reproached by these deadly women I laughed scornfully, when they indicated to one another, making fun of me, that “We have not been able to save the young man, but have abandoned him to perish in the clutches of the Archon”…

“The women who gave us instruction in this trivial myth [2] were very beautiful in the form of their appearance, but in the content of their wretched thought they possessed the full ugliness of the devil. But the merciful God delivered us from their wickedness. And thus after we had read their books and truly understood their intention we were not led away by them, but rather we avoided them and did not become hooked. And we devoted ourselves to the problem of the moment, pointing them out to the bishops there and detecting the names of those who were hidden within the church. And so they were expelled from the city, about eighty names…” (Panarion, 26.17.4–9) [2]

Epiphanius’s statement here shows that his material is second hand; and is based on a conversation that he had with a group of young women, and not the actual leaders of the sect. He leads us to believe that his evidence is first-hand; but why would these women divulge things to him that are supposed to be secret? Did these women really tell him the whole truth? And, furthermore, has Epiphanius presented an accurate account of what he was told, or is he giving us his own prejudiced interpretation? Indeed there are too many unanswered questions in relation to Epiphanius’s account and the lurid accusations that he makes. Until these questions are answered, Epiphanius’s highly prejudicial statements (which are manifest throughout his treatise) cannot be accepted at face value. Nor can we assume that the “Gnostics” are guilty of the crimes that he charges them with.

The one crime that this sect was actually guilty of under Roman/Catholic Law is the crime of “heresy” and of holding religious services that were not sanctioned by the bishop. This was punishable by the Roman state; and offenders were liable to confiscation of property/books and exile or imprisonment. Epiphanius states that he reported this sect to the bishops, and that they were rounded up and sent into exile. If his accusations of cannibalism were true then it would seem that the sanctions against this sect would be much more serious, and more widely publicized in Catholic sources. Again, Epiphanius’s charges, and the magnitude thereof, lack support.

There is one other issue regarding Epiphanius that I would like to submit for the consideration of my readers. I want to raise the question of whether Epiphanius’s vicious libel was possibly the result of his own sexual repression. Historically, Epiphanius was a lifelong monk ( http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13393b.htm ). It’s quite possible that he was a virgin his whole life. For a young man the celibate path can lead to enormous emotional pressures. The desire for female companionship and comfort can be very powerful, and can lead to deep unhappiness if not fulfilled. I believe it is possible that Epiphanius became agitated over these women. Knowing that these “beautiful” women were heretics, he probably confronted them with some stupid condescending questions or accusations. They probably answered his foolishness with a stinging wit and rebuke, and made fun of him. Epiphanius’s account may very well be an expression of his anger and hurt that he felt toward these women as well as the sexual repression that he felt because of them. He reacted by making these women and their sect the object of all his venomous frustration and anger. Could this be the true source of the emotional charge in his account–as opposed to the popular notion that he witnessed something bad?

Again, Epiphanius can provide no eye-witness to confirm that any of the practices he describes ever took place. Furthermore there is evidence to show that the worst of his accusations are actually derived from a stock of folklore that had been spread against Christians and other groups for years (see below).

So what do the Gnostics themselves say about these issues? It is a simple fact that no extant Gnostic text from antiquity can be shown which gives any sanction to such practices. Nor can the Catholic clergy provide any such evidence from Gnostic circles. Epiphanius claims to quote Gnostic texts, but conveniently, these texts are no longer extant; and there is the problem of whether his interpretations can be trusted, let alone corroborated by other Gnostic sources.

Quite to the contrary, extant Gnostic texts can be shown to actually condemn these practices that Epiphanius complains about. Here is an example from a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia (387; 2 Jeu. 43). The disciple Thomas informs Jesus of a certain rumor regarding some who observe the Eucharist:

“We have heard that there are men on earth who take the sperm of men and the flux of women, and mix them with lentils and eat them… Surely this is an unseemly deed?”

Jesus responds as follows:

“Then was Jesus wroth with the world and said unto Thomas, Amen I say, this sin is more heinous than all sins and all iniquities!”

Jesus next tells his disciples of the fate of those people who engage in such practices:

“Men of that kind, they shall be instantly taken into the outer darkness…they shall be destroyed, they shall perish in the outer darkness, in the region where there is no mercy and no light, but weeping and gnashing of teeth. And every soul that shall be carried into the darkness, shall never again return, but shall perish and be dissolved.” (G. Mead, Pistis Sophia, Theosophical Pub., 1896, pg. 390)

The passage above certainly reflects a time in late antiquity when Gnostics were being accused of such activities. The intent in this passage is to cite the highest authority, Jesus, that such practices are condemned in the strongest terms in Gnostic tradition. There will be no “mercy” for those who engage in such practices. They will not enter the Bridal Chamber with Sophia and the Savior, but will inherit the “outer darkness” instead.

In the Nag Hammadi text Thomas the Contender there is a passage which reflects on the larger issue of promiscuity. Here Jesus warns Thomas that it is the desire for sex and procreation that binds the material order together. Jesus warns Thomas: “Woe to you who love intimacy with womankind and polluted intercourse with them!” and also “Listen to what I am going to tell you, and believe the truth. That which sows and that which is sown will dissolve in fire…” (144:8f., 142:10f.).

The Gnostic text The Sophia of Jesus Christ makes repeated references to sex as the “unclean rubbing” (93, 108).

Hippolytus reports that the Naassenes regard sexual intercourse as an “extremely filthy and wicked practice” and that the Mystery cult god, the castrated Attis, is a symbol of the spiritual man who avoids sexual intercourse (Refutation of All Heresies, 5:2; Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, pg. 49).

The passages above represent a general consensus of what the extant Gnostic texts actually say regarding sex and sex-oriented sacraments. These statements make it unlikely that Gnostics considered sex and emissions to be suitable sacramental instruments. There are no Gnostic writings in existence which extol the joys of sex and the (supposed) power of its essences. Nothing like that exists. There is no Gnostic version of the Kama Sutra. This is really quite significant when you think about it.

But again the Catholic Fathers have their reports, which cannot be entirely ignored. Irenaeus complains how that the Valentinians insist that it is “always necessary for them to practice the mystery of [sexual] conjunction” (Against Heresies, 1.6.4). He also preserves this supposed Valentinian saying: “Whosoever being in this world does not so love a woman, so as to possess her, is not of the truth nor shall attain the truth” (ibid.). Irenaeus claims that the Valentinians are for this reason notorious for seducing women. But then this has to be compared with the testimony of Clement of Alexandria, who wrote of the same sect and doctrine at the exact same time as Irenaeus. Clement was much closer to the Valentinians and had direct access to the letters of Valentinus himself, which Clement quotes on numerous occasions in his treatise Stromateis (3:7, 4:13, 6:6). In book 3 Clement gives this description of the Valentinian doctrine of conjunction: “The Valentinians justify physical union from the divine emanations above (the Aions) and approve of marriage” (Strom. 3.1.1). In my article Orthodoxy, Heresy & Jesus, III I noted how that Clement actually gave credit to the Valentinians for setting a good moral example in comparison to the Carpocratians (Stromateis, 3.4.29., 3.7.59). Clement spoke with grudging respect for the Valentinians while at the same time castigating the Carpocratians for their sexual immorality (ibid. 3.109.2).

From both Irenaeus and Clement there is plausible evidence that the Valentinians regarded sexual union as a “mystery” of the order above. And Clement’s report on the Carpocratians implied that they regarded free sexuality as a demonstration of the liberty that they (supposedly) attained through the Gospel (see below). If there is any truth to what these “Fathers” say then it may be true that there was some womanizing among the Valentinians; and the Carpocratians may have condoned some form of free love. The most important point to be noted in connection with these reports is that neither of these men make the vile accusations as found later with Epiphanius and Augustine. Stated bluntly, neither Irenaeus nor Clement accuse the “heretics” of drinking semen or menstrual blood, or of eating babies. Surely these men would have mentioned these details if these rumors were credible.

Probably the most honest and concise statement from the Catholic clergy on this matter is from Justin Martyr (c. 110–160) who lived during the heyday of the heresies. Justin regarded the rumors against the heretics with skepticism; and he wrote accordingly to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius:

“Whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds–the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh–we know not.” (1 Apology 26)

Justin disbelieved the rumors that were being spread about Christians and heretics even in his own day. Here we see that Epiphanius’s story has roots which go back over 200 years. But what is the source of these rumors? Did they originate among Christians? Justin indicates that these rumors were spread by the pagans against Christians. The historical record indeed shows that there is a long pattern in pagan Roman society where obscure religious groups became the targets of public gossip, slander and persecution. Justin complained in his Apology how that Christians were bearing the same libels and injustices that were also endured by the Greek philosophers, especially Socrates. In real history these kinds of accusations can be shown to be part of a pattern of superstitious rumor-mongering that had long existed in Roman society. Even before the birth of Christ there was a pattern in pagan Roman society where foreign or secretive sects became the objects of public abuse. In the context of history the Christians were simply the latest in a long line of victims that, before them, also included the Druids and the Mystery cults of Isis and Dionysos/Bacchus. [3]

One of the best examples of this persecution can be seen in an account provided by the Roman historian Livy (i.e. Titus Livius, 59 BC–17 AD). Livy records a scandal that broke out in Rome in the year 186 BC, which involved the spread of a Greek mystery cult into Italy that was dedicated to the worship of Dionysos, and whom the Romans called Bacchus (in Latin). The scandal began with the lurid story of a certain young woman who did not want her boy-friend to be initiated into the cult. This offended the young man’s mother and step father, and she was compelled to tell her story to the Roman Consul Postumius. (In the Roman Republic a “Consul” was the equivalent of our “President” today, and was appointed by election. The Romans elected two consuls at a time so that no one consul would have too much power.) The young woman told a lurid story of how young men and women were lured into a secret life of sex crimes and murder:

“From the time that the rites were performed in common, men mingling with women and the freedom of darkness added, no form of crime, no form of wrongdoing was left untried. There were more lustful practices among men with one another than among women. If any of them were disincline to endure abuse or reluctant to commit crime, they were sacrificed as victims. To consider nothing wrong, she continued, was the highest form of devotion among them.”  (Livy, 39.13.10–12; Loeb Classical Library, vol. 11, pg. 255)

Livy records that Postumius brought these charges to the Senate and before the people. He denounced the Bacchic rites as a “false religion” (“prava religio”) and as a secret society engaged in a conspiracy against the state. Postumius also warned about how that “foreign cults” can corrupt the Roman tradition:

“How often in the times of our fathers and grand fathers, has the task been assigned to the magistrates of forbidding the introduction of foreign cults, of excluding dabblers in sacrifices and fortune tellers from the Forum, the Circus, and the City, of searching out and burning books of prophecies, and of annulling every system of sacrifice except that performed in the Roman way.” (Ibid., 39.16.8–9)

Here we can see that religious intolerance among the Romans was an ancient tradition indeed. With the permission of the Senate the consuls Postumius and Marcius set out to remove this menace and to arrest and prosecute anyone who was initiated in the cult. However, Livy never presents any hard evidence that these crimes actually happened. And historians today doubt that this was the real motive behind the suppression of the cult (J. Cook, Cambridge Ancient History, vol. IX, pg. 762; N. Lewis, Roman Civilization, vol. 1, pg. 503). The real motive appears in the second passage quoted above. The Bacchic cult was foreign and it had a secret priest-hood that operated outside of the official Roman religious establishment. Many historians believe that this was the real reason that the sect was suppressed. When we read about the charges leveled against the cult, both in terms of what they do in secret in the dark, and the foreign nature of its rites, we can compare this to the charges that were made against the Christians later by pagan critics. In a later period the Romans accused the Christians of the same litany of offenses that the Bacchists were accused of over 200 years before. The Christians were accused of being a secret society, of sexual immorality and cannibalism. Both Justin Martyr and Tertullian wrote Apologies in defense against these accusations, and both writers wrote fiery reproaches against the Romans for the perversions and abuses that they tolerated among themselves every day, even while they pointed fingers at Christians.

The attitude of many Romans toward the early Christians can be seen in this passage from the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 59–117), in which he relates Nero’s decision to blame the Christians at Rome for the great fire of 64.

“Nero set up as culprits, and punished with the utmost cruelty, a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Checked for the moment this pernicious superstition broke out again, not only in Judea, the source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Thus those who confessed [to being Christians] were first arrested, then on evidence from them a large multitude was convicted, not so much for the charge of arson as for their hatred of the human race.” (Annales, 15:44; cf. Justin, 1 Apology, 26)

In the words of Tacitus it is obvious that the Christians were regarded by Romans in a manner on par with the cult of Bacchus. Like the Bacchists the Christians are regarded as a criminal class of perverts who are of absolutely no worth to ‘good’ society.

But then again, not all Romans agreed on the historical record as to whether the Christians were bad people (aside from their refusal to worship the Emperor and their impiety against pagan traditions in general). Other pagans living in the same age as Tacitus had their doubts. One example is Pliny the Younger (c. 61–112). Pliny was the Roman governor (procurator) of the Asian province of Bithynia, under the emperor Trajan (r. 98–117). Pliny wrote to the emperor of his concern that he could find no evidence of criminal wrong-doing in his investigations of Christian religion and practice. He found that Christians indeed refused to worship the Emperor; but he found no evidence that the Christian religion encouraged immoral behavior. Trajan advised that he should only prosecute Christians if they displayed their piety or defied Roman customs openly; but that no effort should be made to search them out. Trajan also warned Pliny about prosecuting people on the basis of anonymous accusations: “They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished… But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.” Thus both the emperor Trajan and Pliny agreed that Christianity was not some criminal conspiracy orchestrated by perverts–as Tacitus and others would have us believe.

Here is link to the extant letters exchanged between Pliny and the Emperor Trajan: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html

Another Roman emperor who is said to have doubted the rumors against Christians is Trajan’s successor, the emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138). Eusebius preserved a “rescript” supposedly written by Hadrian, in which the emperor orders that Christians are only to be condemned through a court trial, and not simply on the basis of innuendo. Hadrian furthermore urges punishment against those who spread false rumors of criminal activity: “By Hercules! If anyone bring an accusation through mere calumny (slander), make judgment in regard to his criminality, and see to it that you inflict punishment.” (Eusebius, Church History, 4.9.1–3. Note: the authenticity of Hadrian’s “rescript” is disputed by some historians. I have chosen to include the text as evidence because I believe it is plausible. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge the evidence.)

Trajan, Hadrian and Pliny represent the better side of Roman society. These men did not allow themselves to be swayed by the vulgar imaginations and rumors of the common mob. If we can accept the rescript of Hadrian as genuine then this emperor even went out of the way to punish those who reported these slanders to the authorities. But again, these men reflect the exception and not the rule in Roman society. Most Romans traditionally regarded foreign cults with suspicion and contempt.

Over time, this traditional Roman view of foreign cults would become part of the culture of the Catholic Church as it grew and became a mainstream institution. The historical record shows the pattern in the way that the Catholic Church treated the heretics: slander, political repression, confiscation of writings and properties, exile and/or imprisonment. (In the later medieval period these measures would also include the cruelest tortures and public executions–which reflect the exact same measures that pagan Romans used on early Christians.)

Of course, even at an earlier stage the early Catholic clergy can be shown to have engaged in the popular defamatory tactics of the day. An example can be seen with the Catholic Father Hippolytus (c. 170–236) who wrote a scathing account of the Roman church while it was governed by a rival “orthodox” theologian named Callistus (Refutation of All Heresies, 9:7). At this time the Catholic Church was actually divided between two “orthodox” schools of theology. These schools were divided over the question of whether the Son and the Father were actually one (cf. Jn. 10:30) or if the Son and the Father were separate entities (cf. Mt. 19:17). Callistus represented the former position and Hippolytus the latter. This conflict in turn was played out in Rome, in the early third century, where contenders from both sides vied for dominance in the Roman church. Hippolytus represents the faction that eventually won the conflict. Historians refer to Callistus’ doctrine as Monarchianism.

Hippolytus describes the Roman church, under Callistus, as a brothel (ibid.). He accuses Callistus of allowing a lax environment where young women from upper classed Roman families frequent the church out of a desire for intrigue (in an outlaw sect) and to seek out sexual liaisons with low born men and slaves. And, when some of these women became pregnant, Hippolytus claims that Callistus allowed them to induce abortions in various ways. Hippolytus claims that some of the women took poisons to expel their fetuses, whereas others wore braces around their waists which forced the fetus out as it grew in size.

Such were the affairs in the Roman Church in the early third century–that is, according to Hippolytus. Ironically Hippolytus is not talking about a sect of Gnostics. The Monarchian school aspired to orthodoxy and simply believed that Jesus and Jehovah were one and the same. The question is can we really believe Hippolytus’s account? Or is his testimony the product of a factious theologian who was filled with jealousy? Was Callistus really to blame for the sordid events that Hippolytus describes? Or is Hippolytus really blowing certain things out of proportion so that he can smear Callistus? To this day Catholic historians doubt the veracity of this account, and they note that there never was a time in Catholic history where Callistus or his supporters were ever out of communion with the Catholic Church. In general Catholic tradition Callistus has a good reputation. Hippolytus is the only “orthodox” writer to attack him; and indeed Hippolytus slanders him in every possible way.

I suspect that Hippolytus was taking everyday big city social problems, that the Catholic Church had to struggle with, and he was cynically blaming this on Callistus. But Hippolytus’s integrity is suspect, and this can be clearly seen in the way that he tries to link Callistus’ theology with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (ibid., 9:2–7). This is an absurd stretch, and it shows the length to which Hippolytus was willing to go to smear other people’s reputations. Hippolytus was inevitably compelled to smear his own Catholic Church as a depraved den of whores. But in the bigger picture his defamatory tactics are all too familiar.

In the cases of the Catholic clerics I have named in this article, Epiphanius, Augustine, Cyril, and Hippolytus, I think the case can be made that the charges they make are more a reflection of their own depraved minds, and fantasies, or frustrations, or jealousies, as opposed to anything that “heretics” were really engaged in. When we read such lurid accounts, and such disgusting imagery, we must give equal consideration to the mindset of the writer as well as to those who bear the brunt of such defamatory attacks. There can be no doubt that all of these men set out to defame someone else. But what is the motive? And are the reports based on verifiable facts? Too often in these reports the corroborative evidence is lacking.

Personally, I think that Epiphanius, Augustine and Cyril, etc., all had depraved minds to begin with; and this shows up in the ways that these men chose to handle the problem of heresy. Another example of this can be seen with Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–202). Historians regard Irenaeus as the great father of Christian “orthodoxy.” Irenaeus wrote a massive treatise against the Gnostics which was entitled “For the Detection and Overthrow of falsely so-called Gnosis.” Today the treatise is known by its short title Against Heresies (c. 180). Against Heresies represents the first exhaustive effort by an “orthodox” theologian to give a systematic explanation of why “orthodox” doctrine is right, and why everything that the Gnostics and Marcionites say is wrong. In this treatise Irenaeus accused the various heretical groups of engaging in all kinds of excesses. Irenaeus doesn’t repeat the vile accusations that Epiphanius does, but the malicious intent is there.

Inevitably, in his zeal to attack and refute the Gnostics Irenaeus makes certain statements which can only lead one to question the integrity of this man’s state of mind. In the passage quoted below Irenaeus sets forth the most bizarre allegory from the Old Testament in order to drive home his belief that the Gnostics are wrong for finding evil in the Old Testament. Irenaeus claims that if the scriptures do not condemn a certain act as evil then readers are not to judge for themselves, but are to regard the passage as an allegory for something else (Against Heresies, 4.31.1). Irenaeus chooses the biblical account of Lot and his daughters following the destruction of Sodom. Lot’s daughters fear that they are the only survivors and that their father is the last man on earth. So they decide to get him drunk and fornicate with him so that they can preserve his lineage (Gen. 19:32). The children of this incestuous tryst become the tribes of the Moabites and Ammonites, which are portrayed in scripture as enemies of Israel. In Deuteronomy 23:3 it says that “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord…for ever.”

Irenaeus would have us believe that this incestuous tryst between Lot and his daughters was actually arranged by God, and that this is an allegory for the Holy Spirit (read: sperm) that was poured out on both the Jewish and Christian “churches” which are symbolized by Lot’s two daughters:

“[T]he arrangement designed by God was carried out, by which the two daughters (that is, the two churches)…gave birth to children begotten of one and the same Father… For there was no other person who could impart to them the quickening seed… Moreover, by the words they used this fact was pointed out–that there is no other one who can confer among the elder and younger church the power of giving birth to children, besides our Father. … Now this whole matter was indicated through Lot, that the seed (sperm) of the Father of all–that is, of the Spirit of God, by whom all things were made–was commingled and united with flesh–that is, with his own workmanship; by which commixture and unity the two synagogues–that is, the two churches–produced from their own father living sons of God.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.31.1–2; emphasis added)

Irenaeus thus believes that the biblical account of Lot’s incest is a symbol of the Holy Spirit that the “Father” pours out on both the Jewish and Gentile churches, and allows them to beget spiritual children (i.e. converts). The fact that Irenaeus can see correlations between Lot’s filth and the Holy Spirit, and between incest and the providence of God, is incredible to me. That someone could even think this way makes me wonder what kind of things were tolerated at Irenaeus’s house, or at his church? Personally, I don’t see the biblical account of Lot as a suitable allegory for anything. And it seems to me that the biblical story is really a sanitized version of a slanderous myth that the early Israelites told about their enemies, viz. the Moabites and Ammonites, that they were the descendants of a scandalous incest. The Bible itself admits that the children of Lot’s incest, the Moabites and Ammonites, were the enemies of Israel, and were banned from the congregation of YHWH “forever”. This biblical factoid (I’m being facetious) in turn shows that there really is no theological consistency in what Irenaeus says. His allegory is completely inappropriate and disgusting. (Even the Ante-Nicene Fathers editors express their reservations about Irenaeus’s statements; see Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 504, footnote #10.)

I think that Irenaeus’s perverted and blasphemous allegory is typical of the twisted thoughts that thrive in the minds of fanatical “orthodox” theologians. In the same way we can see where other “orthodox” clergy are eager to repeat the most twisted and perverted rumors against people with whom they disagree on theology. And I suspect that this neurotic pattern has some reflection in the Catholic priesthood today, where there is an epidemic of child molestation, and an organized pattern of cover-ups where offending priests were shuttled from parish to parish. Just recently the Pope even came to America to apologize personally for this ongoing scandal. And then there are those Evangelical leaders in America who preach against homosexuality and gay marriage, while at the same time these guys are privately soliciting gay prostitutes and using Meth. It’s all indicative of the reality that some “orthodox” theologians–usually of the fanatical variety–have sick minds to begin with. And once again I’d like to drive my point home regarding Epiphanius: I think Epiphanius invents the sick and lurid stories that he does because this man has a repressed and perverted mind to begin with. In Epiphanius’s “Panarion” we are witnessing the filth that originates from within a man, and not what goes in terms of eye-witness evidence and facts.

On the other hand, I know that there are some pro-Gnostic writers out there who seem more than happy to give credence to people like Epiphanius. I recall the statement of one particular writer: “There is apparently no reason to doubt Epiphanius’s testimony. If we possessed eye-witness accounts of other sects, they would surely describe scenes that varied only in their minor details.” Again I express my skepticism: How can this writer be so certain that Epiphanius actually witnessed what he reports? To my knowledge there are in fact no eye-witness reports that any of these things ever happened. I pity the fool out there who is pretending to be a Gnostic, and is drinking semen, simply on the basis of something that Epiphanius said. Again, I think Epiphanius’s tales are mostly the products of his own sick mind.

Finally, let us consider if there is any core truth at all to what these writers say. Personally I think that Clement of Alexandria gave a reliable account of the Carpocratians in Alexandria. Readers can find this account in book three of Clement’s Stromateis. I cover this account briefly in my archive article Orthodoxy, Heresy and Jesus, III: The Pattern of Gnostic Truth. Clement described the Carpocratians as a sect which believed that the liberation of the Gospel was fulfilled through sexual indulgence. Clement castigated them for this: but he never mentions any of the vile accusations as made by later clergymen. It’s possible that Clement did make some exaggerations. Obviously I can only speculate and rely on my instinct in trying to get to the truth of the matter.

I suspect that the Carpocratians and some other Gnostic sects were controversial because they believed that the Gospel was bringing in a new spiritual/social order. This concept is summarized by St. Paul in Galatians 3:28, where we read that in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gnostics saw this as a release from the bonds of the Demiurge, and the traditional institutions of gender, marriage, slavery and nationalism in the biblical sense (cf. Clement, Stromateis, 3.2.6; Hippolytus, Ref., 5:2). I think that this led some Gnostic sects to have lax and progressive attitudes that in turn were a scandal to other less enlightened prudes. I suspect that some Gnostic sects condoned things like spouse swapping, and they tolerated homosexual activity. None of these things are considered crimes among progressive people today. But in ancient times these types of things led to public gossip and rumors among the common folk, i.e. the “vulgar.” [4]

Some of my readers may be thinking of Paul as they read my words. Wasn’t Paul against fornication and homosexuality? I believe that Paul’s words have to be taken in context, and that we cannot assume that Paul’s letters, in their present form, represent Paul’s statements in the original context. I address these issues in my article On the Ethics of St. Paul. (See my archive article Was Paul a misogynist? for an example of this problem of context in Paul’s letters.)

Hopefully this article has offered my readers an opportunity to reconsider the traditional view of Gnostic morality. I do believe that the ancient Gnostics have been portrayed unfairly; and even some modern pro-Gnostic writers have contributed to this problem. Hopefully I have offered my readers an opportunity to dispel some of that disinformation. –jw



 [1] H. Maier, The Journal of Early Christian Studies, vol. 4, Number 4, Winter 1996, pg. 441f. Cyril’s comments were probably in jest and not to be taken literally, viz. that pork was a metaphor for their alleged filthy ritual.

 [2] My quote from Panarion, 26.17.4–9 is derived primarily from the translation of Bentley Layton along with some material from Frank Williams. The words “trivial myth” are from Williams. Cf. B. Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, Doubleday, NY (1995), pg. 213f. F. Williams, Panarion., E.J. Brill, NY (1987), pg. 97f.

[3] Some readers may notice that I haven’t mentioned Jews here. But historically it is a fact that the Jews and their religion were given special legal recognition by the Roman state beginning with Julius Caesar (Geza Vermes, Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus, pg. 63f.). For this reason Jews cannot be compared to Christians or the worshippers of Bacchus, etc. It is certainly true that Jews were persecuted by the later Catholic Roman state; but this article does not provide the appropriate occasion and context in which to discuss this issue.

[4] As the very word implies, Vulgar people (being ignorant, uncultured and uneducated) are exactly the type of people who spread scandalous rumors and lies about other people or subjects they don’t understand. A modern example is where a vulgar person speculates about someone who is bookish or weird. The vulgar man will choose to label that person a “queer”. Among educated people that person may be held in high esteem as a scientist, or a philosopher or theologian. I believe that this simple vulgar mindset is the source of these scandalous and disgusting tales that some Catholic clergymen told about the heretics. These stories originated from vulgar people (among the pagans) and were developed over generations into lurid and vulgar fables as found in Epiphanius. I believe that Cyril, Epiphanius and Augustine repeated these stories because these men were from vulgar backgrounds themselves. In contrast the Catholic Fathers quite often describe Gnostic teachers as educated men schooled in Greek philosophy. Among the Catholic clergy both Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria had backgrounds in high education and culture. Neither of these men affirm the most vile of the vulgar stories about the Gnostics.

By Jim West. Copyright © 2008, 2012; revised July 12th, 2015.

All Rights Reserved.

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