This article is part of a series on Gnosticism
|History of Gnosticism|
Cerinthus (c. 100 AD) was a gnostic and to some, an early Christian, who was prominent as a "heresiarch" in the view of the early Church Fathers. Contrary to proto-orthodox Christianity, Cerinthus's school followed the Jewish law, used the Gospel according to the Hebrews, denied that the Supreme God had made the physical world, and denied the divinity of Jesus. In Cerinthus' interpretation, the Christ came to Jesus at baptism, guided him in his ministry, but left him at the crucifixion.
He taught that Jesus would establish a thousand-year reign of sensuous pleasure after the Second Coming but before the General Resurrection, a view that was declared heretical by the Council of Nicaea. Cerinthus used a version of the gospel of Matthew as scripture.
Cerinthus taught at a time when Christianity's relation to Judaism and to Greek philosophy had not yet been clearly defined. In his association with the Jewish law and his modest assessment of Jesus, he was similar to the Ebionites and to other Jewish Christians. In defining the world's creator as the demiurge, he matched Greek dualism philosophy and anticipated the Gnostics. His description of Christ as a bodiless spirit that dwelled temporarily in the man Jesus matches the later Gnosticism of Valentinus.
Early Christian tradition describes Cerinthus as a contemporary to and opponent of John the Evangelist, who wrote the Gospel of John against him. All we know about Cerinthus comes from the writing of his theological opponents.
The date of his birth and his death are unknown. In the Roman province of Asia he founded a school and gathered disciples. None of Cerinthus' actual writings seem to have survived, and it is unlikely that any were ever very widely disseminated. As is the usual case, we can interpret his teachings only through what his more orthodox enemies reported. By the time we have the most detailed accounting of Cerinthus' teachings, from Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century, the accounts are all second- and third-hand hearsay and not reliable, as the Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) notes.
The earliest surviving account of Cerinthus is that in Irenæus' refutation of Gnosticism, Adversus haereses, which was written about 170 AD. According to Irenæus, Cerinthus, a man educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, claimed angelic inspiration.
Prior to Irenaeus, various Christian communities commonly used one gospel over the others. Cerinthus used a version of the Gospel of Matthew, the most Jewish of the four canonical gospels. Unlike Marcion, another heretic associated with Gnosticism, Cerinthus honored Jewish scripture and the God of the Old Testament.
He taught that the visible world and heavens were not made by the supreme being, but by a lesser power (Demiurge) distinct from him. Not Jehovah but the angels have both made the world and given the law. These creator-angels were ignorant of the existence of the Supreme God.
His use of the term demiurge (literally, craftsman) for the creator fits Greek philosophy, which dominated the learned environment of the eastern Mediterranean. Unlike true Gnostics that followed him, Cerinthus taught that the demiurge was good, more like Philo's logos than Valentinus's evil god.
Cerinthus distinguished between the man Jesus and the Christ. He denied the supernatural birth of Jesus, making him the son of Joseph and Mary, and distinguishing him from Christ, who descended upon him at baptism and left him again at his crucifixion. Cerinthus is also said to have taught that Jesus will be raised from the dead at the Last Day, when all men will rise with Him.
In describing Jesus as a natural-born man, Cerinthus agreed with the Jewish Christian Ebionites. In portraying Christ as a spirit that came from heaven, undertook its divine task in the material world, and then returned, he anticipates the fully developed Gnosticism of Valentinus and others.
Cerinthus taught his followers to obey the Jewish law to attain salvation, also known as Legalism (theology). This view contradicted what is often called the "Council of Jerusalem" (c. 50 AD), after which Paul of Tarsus claimed to have established the understanding that Christians did not need to be circumcised to attain salvation. The Apostles in Jerusalem had been proclaiming that circumcision and the following of Torah laws should be continued after adopting belief in Jesus. The Book of Acts lists only four lifestyle requirements for those who have become Christians (see Acts 15:29). Various other Jewish-Christian groups, like Cerinthians, followed Jewish law more fully.
Cerinthus believed that Christ would establish a 1,000-year earthly kingdom prior to the general resurrection and the spiritual kingdom of God in heaven. This belief, premillennialism, was common among early Christians, as it is a literal interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6. The Council of Nicea and Augustine of Hippo both opposed this belief, and it came to be considered heretical.
According to Irenaeus, Polycarp told the story that John the Apostle, in particular, is said to have so detested Cerinthus that he once fled a bathhouse when he found out Cerinthus was inside, yelling "Let us flee, lest the building fall down; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!" One tradition maintains that John wrote his gospel to counter Cerinthus' heresy.
Irenaeus opposed Gnosticism, including the teachings of Cerinthus, in Against Heresies. Epiphanius of Salamis documented many heresies and heretics, Cerinthus among them, in his Panarion.
Modern discussion concerning Cerinthus
Rabbi Moshe Yosef Koniuchowsky of Your Arms To Israel, in his article, "The Greater and Lesser YHWH", taught that Cerinthus was a "Born Again Believer" who held the same views as the Nazarenes. He believes that "the world was not created by the Supreme Deity but by a certain power emanating from Him."[Ibid.]
Works attributed to Cerinthus
Cerinthus may be the alleged recipient of the Apocryphon of James (codex I, text 2 of the Nag Hammadi library), although the name written is largely illegible. A second- or third-century heretical Christian sect (later dubbed the Alogi) alleged Cerinthus was the true author of the Gospel of John and Book of Revelation. According to Catholic Encyclopedia: Caius: "Additional light has been thrown on the character of Caius's dialogue against Proclus by Gwynne's publication of some fragments from the work of Hippolytus "Contra Caium" (Hermathena, VI, p. 397 sq.); from these it seems clear that Caius maintained that the Apocalypse of John was a work of the Gnostic Cerinthus."
Cerinthus in Literature
Cerinthus is featured in John's Story: The Last Eyewitness, part of Christian writer Tim LaHaye's The Jesus Chronicles. In the book Cerinthus, much to the disciple John's frustration, has begun spreading his gnostic teachings to the populace whereupon John is moved to write his counter-argument: the Gospel of John.
- See, in particular, Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, Book I, III and relative External links
- Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter 11, Verse 1
- I: xxvi; III: ii, iii and xi; Book I and III - external links below
- "The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgement. It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers, such as Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius, while Caius, Origen, Dionysius the Great, Eusebius (as afterwards Jerome and Augustin) opposed it." Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.) 381.
- Irenaeus mentions the anecdote about Polycarp in Adv. Haer., III.3.4.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: 'Cerinthus'
- Cerinthus from Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)
- Cerinthus from New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1952)
- Schaff's History of the Christian Church, volume II, chapter XI: THE HERESIES OF THE ANTE-NICENE AGE section 123: Cerinthus
- EarlyChurch.org.uk: Cerinthus
- Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book I (Chapter XXVI, §1-2)
- Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book III (Chapter II, §1; Ch. III, §4; Ch. XI, §1)
- Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae.
- Gaius argument for Cerinthus' authorship of the Gospel of John
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