Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday is for 'Heretics': # 1, Basilides

I am currently reading through Antii Marjanen and Petri Luomanen (eds.), A Companion to Second-Century Christian 'Heretics' (VGSup, 76; Leiden: Brill, 2005). I'm taking a break from my 'Friday is for Ad Fontes' series for something different with the 'other' side of Christianity. The first essay in this volume is by Birger Pearson and is about Basilides .

Eusebius wrote that: 'Basilides the heresiarch was living in Alexandria; from him derive the Gnostics'. As to who actually was the first 'Gnostic' was a bit of a debate in the early church (Simon Magus was normally the culprit on that score, see Stephen Haar's book on this subject!). What is known about Basilides comes mainly from Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 1.24.3-7) and other quotes from various patristic authors (W.A. Lohr has collected fifteen ancient testimonies about him [see some here]). According to Pearson, Basilides operated principally in Alexandria and taught from 132-138 CE. His teachings reflect an Alexandrian milieu as they reflect the influence of Philo, Alexandrian Jewish Gnosticism, and Greco-Roman philosophy. It is possible that Basilides made a journey to Antioch (Irenaeus may be following Justin Martyr as his source on this point) and there Basilides may have come across Saturninus and the 'classic Gnostic myths' in Antioch during a sojourn ca. 115-17 during the Jewish uprising in Alexandria (heresiologists argue that Basilides and Saturninus got their doctrines from Simon Magus and Menander who were also in that region). He then returned to Alexandria where he made his own adaptations to that myth. According to Clement, and unlike Saturninus, Basilides taught a primal Ogdoad (consisting of Unbegotten Father, Nous, Phronesis, and Dynamis) similar to that found in the Testimony of Truth and Eugnostos. But like Saturninus he believed that the world was made by creator-angles and the chief archon was named 'Abrasax'. Basilides sharesd with Saturninus that the saviour was sent to liberate people by the power wielded by the secreator-angels. Whether Basilides was docetic (as was Saturninus) is more debatable as the evidence is ambiguous. Origen attributes to him a doctrine of reincarnation: 'Indeed, the Apostle (Paul) has said, "I was once alive apart from the law," [Rom 7:9] at some time or other. That is (Paul means), before I came into this body, I lived in the kind of body that is not subject to the law: the body of a domestic animal or a bird.' Basilides' most lasting literary activity was his 24 volume Exegetica which is an exposition of the Gospels (which Origen may have mistakenly called the 'Gospel of Basilides'). In terms of his legacy, Basilides stands as a precursor to later Gnostic thinkers like Valentinus (another Alexandrian) but also to other Alexandrian exegetes such as Clement and Origen given his mix of exegesis and philosophy.

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