What follows here is a synopsis of quotes from Hippolytus showing the theology and cosmology of Basilides’ system: which began with the non-existent God, from which came the Seed and the three-fold or triple-sonship (the three natures). From the Seed came the triple-sonship, the existent cosmos, and the Great Archon of the Ogdoad, the lesser Archon of the Hebdomad; and a peculiar Archon who is said to be the sum of all the principalities & powers of the Hebdomad, and of the 365 heavens therein, who is called Abrasax (or Abraxas).
Source: Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 7:10-15; A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V, pp. 104-109.
This text has been edited in certain passages for clarity.
The words of Basilides regarding the non-existent God and the Seed of all existence, as quoted by Hippolytus:
“Whatsoever I affirm to have been made [beyond] these, ask no question as to where. For the Seed had all seeds treasured and resting in itself, just as non-existent entities, and which were designed to be produced by a non-existent Deity.” –Basilides
What follows is Hippolytus’s report:
“There existed, he says, in the Seed itself, a Sonship, threefold, in every respect of the same Substance with the non-existent God, and begotten from nonentities. This Sonship involved a threefold division, one part was refined, another lacking refinement, and another requiring purification.”
“The refined portion, therefore, in the first place, simultaneously with the earliest deposition of the Seed by the non-existent One, immediately burst forth and went upwards and hurried above from below…and attained, he says, unto him that is nonexistent.”
“For every nature desires the nonexistent God… However, each nature desires this after a different mode. The unrefined portion of the Sonship continuing still in the Seed…was not able to hurry upwards. For this portion was much more deficient in the refinement that the [first] Sonship possessed…and was left behind. Therefore the unrefined Sonship equipped itself with some such wing as Plato, the Preceptor of Aristotle, fastens on the soul in his Phaedrus.” (Note: in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus it is said that the soul must grow “wings” through the practice of philosophy in order to regain its memory of and to return to its original Divine estate. This process is described in terms of the soul acquiring or growing wings.)
“And Basilides styles such, not a wing, but Holy Spirit; and Sonship invested in this Spirit confers benefits, and receives them in turn. … For the Sonship, carried upwards by the Spirit as by a wing, bears aloft… And it approaches the refined Sonship, and the non-existent God, even Him who fabricated the world out of nonentities.”
“The third Sonship, however, that which requires purification, has continued, he says, in the vast conglomeration of all germs conferring benefits and receiving them. But in what manner it is that the third Sonship receives benefits and confers them, we shall afterwards declare when we come to the proper place for discussing this question.” (See below)
“When, therefore, a first and second ascension of the Sonship took place, and the Holy Spirit itself also remained after the mode mentioned, the firmament was placed between the super-mundane spaces and the cosmos.”
“While, therefore, the firmament which is above the heaven is coining into existence, there burst forth, and was begotten from the cosmical Seed, and the conglomeration of all germs, the Great Archon and Head of the cosmos…”
“This Archon, when begotten, raised Himself up and soared aloft, and was carried up entire as far as the firmament. And there He paused, supposing the firmament to be the termination of His ascension and elevation, and considering that there existed nothing at all beyond these.”
“… He became more wise, more powerful, more comely, more lustrous… pre-eminent for beauty above any entities you could mention with the exception of the Sonship alone, which is still left in the conglomeration of all germs.”
“For he was not aware that there is a Sonship wiser and more powerful, and better than Himself. Therefore imagining Himself to be Lord, and Governor, and a wise Master Builder, He turns Himself to the work of the creation of every object in the cosmical system.”
“And first, he deemed it proper not to be alone, but made unto Himself, and generated from adjacent entities, a Son far superior to Himself, and wiser. For all these things had the non-existent Deity previously determined upon, when He cast down the conglomeration of all germs.”
“…and the Archon caused Him to sit on his right hand. This is, according to these heretics, what is denominated the Ogdoad, where the Great Archon has his throne. The entire celestial creation, then, that is, the Aether, He Himself, the Great Wise Demiurge formed. The Son, however, begotten of this Archon, operates in Him, and offered Him suggestions, being endued with far greater wisdom than the Demiurge Himself.”
“The account, therefore, which Aristotle has previously rendered concerning the soul and the body, Basilides elucidates as applied to the Great Archon and his Son. For the Archon has generated, according to Basilides, a son; and the soul as an operation and completion, Aristotle asserts to be an entelecheia of a natural organic body. As, therefore, the entelecheia controls the body, so the Son, according to Basilides, controls the God…” (Note: the term “entelecheia” refers to a concept invented by Aristotle and means the process of a potentiality being manifest into a sustained actuality. This may perhaps be understood as Aristotle’s basic theory of existence and how all existence came forth from non-existence.)
“When all objects in the aethereal regions, then, were arranged, again from the conglomeration of all germs another Archon ascended, greater, of course, than all subjacent entities with the exception, however, of the Sonship that had been left behind, but far inferior to the First Archon. And this second Archon is called by them Rhetus. And this Topos is styled Hebdomad, and this Archon is the manager and fabricator of all subjacent entities. And He has likewise made unto Himself out of the conglomeration of all germs, a son who is more prudent and wise than Himself, similarly to what has been stated to have taken place in the case of the First Archon.”
“When, therefore, according to these heretics, the entire world and super-mundane entities were finished, and when nothing exists labouring under deficiency, there still remains in the conglomeration of all germs the third Sonship, which had been left behind in the Seed… And it must needs be that the Sonship which had been left behind ought likewise to be revealed and reinstated above.”
“The Gospel then came, says Basilides, first from the Sonship through the Son, that was seated beside the Archon, to the Archon, and the Archon learned that He was not God of the universe, but was begotten. But ascertaining that He has above Himself the deposited treasure of that Ineffable and Unnameable and Non-existent One, and of the Sonship, He was both converted and filled with terror, when He was brought to understand in what ignorance He was involved.”
“When, then, the Great Archon had been orally instructed, and every creature of the Ogdoad had been orally instructed and taught, and after the mystery became known to the celestial powers, it was also necessary that afterwards the Gospel should come to the Hebdomad…”
“The Son of the Great Archon therefore kindled in the Son of the Archon of the Hebdomad the light which Himself possessed and had kindled from above from the Sonship. And the Son of the Archon of the Hebdomad had radiance imparted to Him, and He proclaimed the Gospel to the Archon of the Hebdomad. And in like manner, according to the previous account, He Himself was both terrified and induced to make confession.”
“When, therefore, all beings in the Hebdomad had been likewise enlightened, and had the Gospel announced to them; for in these regions of the universe there exist, according to these heretics, creatures infinite in number, viz., Principalities and Powers and Rulers (1 Cor. 15:24f., Eph. 6:12), in regard of which there is extant among the Basilidians a very prolix and verbose treatise, where they allege that there are three hundred and sixty-five heavens, and that the great Archon of these is Abrasax, from the fact that his name comprises the computed number 365…” (Note that the text here indicates that the 365 heavens exist within the region of the Hebdomad, as opposed to the Ogdoad of the Great Archon. Thus Abrasax exists within the confines of the Hebdomad and is not to be identified with the Great Archon. Moreover Abrasax is identified with the wicked “principalities and powers” of Ephesians 6:12, which implies that Abrasax is a malevolent or satanic being. More will be said on this in the concluding comments, regarding Hippolytus’s report, the report of Irenaeus regarding “Abraxas” and Carl Jung’s “Abraxas” in the Seven Sermons of the Dead.)
“When these two events, viz. the illumination of the Hebdomad and the manifestation of the Gospel had thus taken place, it was necessary, likewise, that afterwards the Formlessness existent in our quarter of creation should have radiance imparted to it, and that the mystery should be revealed to the Sonship, which had been left behind in Formlessness, just like an abortion.”
“And as far as this, the entire Sonship, which is left behind for benefiting the souls in Formlessness, and for being the recipient in turn of benefits—this Sonship, I say, when it is transformed, followed Jesus, and hastened upwards, and came forth purified. And it becomes most refined, so that it could, as the first Sonship, hasten upwards through its own instrumentality. For it possesses all the power that, according to nature, is firmly connected with the light which from above shone down…”
“When, therefore, he says, the entire Sonship shall have come, and shall be above the conterminous spirit, then the creature will become the object of mercy. ‘For the creature groans until now’, (Rom. 8:19-22) and is tormented, and waits for the manifestation of the sons of God, in order that all who are men of the Sonship may ascend from thence.”
“When this takes place, God, he says, will bring upon the whole world enormous ignorance, that all things may continue according to nature, and that nothing may inordinately desire anything of the things that are contrary to nature.”
“But far from it; for all the souls of this quarter of creation, as many as possess the nature of remaining immortal in this region only, continue in it, aware of nothing superior or better than their present state. And there will not prevail any rumour or knowledge in regions below, concerning beings whose dwelling is placed above, lest subjacent souls should be wrung with torture from longing after impossibilities.”
“It would be just as if a fish were to crave to feed on the mountains along with sheep. For a wish of this description would, he says, be their destruction. All things, therefore, that abide in this quarter are incorruptible, but corruptible if they are disposed to wander and cross over from the things that are according to nature.”
“In this way the Archon of the Hebdomad will know nothing of superjacent entities. For enormous ignorance will lay hold on this one likewise, in order that sorrow, and grief, and groaning may depart from him; for he will not desire anything of impossible things, nor will he be visited with anguish. In like manner, however, the same ignorance will lay hold also on the Great Archon of the Ogdoad, and similarly on all the creatures that are subject unto him, in order that in no respect anything may desire anything of those things that are contrary to nature, and may not (thus) be overwhelmed with sorrow. And so there will be the restitution of all things which, in conformity with nature, have from the beginning a foundation in the seed of the universe…”
The underlying wisdom in Basilides’ doctrine is that all sorrows are the result of a longing for the non-existent realm by those who have an essence of that realm within them, having this from their connection with the third sonship that is confined and formless in the existent cosmos. Those souls who have a portion of the third sonship will be purified along with the sonship and restored to the non-existent realm. A fascinating detail is that Basilides seems to construct this interpretation in part from Paul and the cryptic passage in Romans 8:19ff. that the “manifestation of the sons of God” refers to the revealing and ascension of the triple-sonship, and the “groaning of the creature” refers to the remaining sonship, within the creation, that was in need of purification.
While Basilides’ doctrine and myth are notably different from the Valentinian and Sethian myths, there is nonetheless a common set of themes. There is the unknowable, ineffable God beyond comprehension. There is the three-natures doctrine, pneumatic, psychic and hylic, which corresponds to Basilides’ triple sonship. The third sonship is also described as an “abortion” which the Valentinians assigned to Sophia Achamoth and which the Sethians assigned to Yaldabaoth. All three schools teach the recovery of the most sublime essence to the realm above. But in Basilides’ system there seems to be no doctrine of evil matter. There is also no doctrine of the destruction of the world. Instead there is a doctrine of restored harmony; which includes the unique theme that the elect are saved and restored through knowledge, whereas the lower realms are saved and restored through ignorance–once the impure sonship has been recovered, purified and removed.
Finally, Basilides’ system has been made popular and is known for his peculiar doctrine of Abrasax (spelled “Abraxas” by Irenaeus). In Irenaeus’s account of Basilides (which may be regarded as incomplete and inaccurate) Abraxas is said to be the great Archon and the name is derived from a combination of the 365 heavens & rulers (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.24.7). And in Carl Jung’s channeled work The Seven Semons of the Dead (supposedly channeled from Basilides himself) “Abraxas” is identified as the supreme Deity–in a report that I believe is not to be trusted, or accepted as complete. But in Hippolytus’s account he shows that Abrasax was something of a third rank being, existing within the Hebdomad and beneath the Ogdoad; and that Abrasax was not the Great Archon but was rather a combination of the heavenly principalities and powers, as mentioned in Ephesians 6:12. The Seven Sermons state that the only way for the soul to escape Abraxas, the great Archon of all, good and evil in one, is to ascend to the realm of the fixed stars. But Hippolytus shows a much more sublime and nuanced teaching that should not be dismissed or ignored.
By Jim West. Copyright © September 1; revised Sept. 9, 2014.