Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead


CONTINUING to pick our way back along this trace towards the times of the origins, we next come upon the circle of the Cerinthians (or the Merinthians, according to the variant of Epiphanius). They are said to derive their name from a certain Cerinthus, who is placed in "apostolic times," that is to say the latter half of the first century.

Epiphanius has busied himself exceedingly over Cerinthus, and cleverly made him a scapegoat for the The Scapegoat for "Pillar-apostles.""pillar-apostles’" antagonism to Paul. Most writers the have followed his lead, and explained away a number of compromising statements in the Acts and Pauline Letters by this device. Impartial criticism, however, has to reject the lucubrations of the late Epiphanius, and go back to the short account of Irenæus, from whom all later writers have copied. Irenæus, who was himself a full century after Cerinthus, has only a brief paragraph on the subject.

Cerinthus is the strongest trace between Ebionism, or the original external non-Pauline tradition, and the beginning of the second century. He is supposed to have come into personal contact with John, the reputed writer of the fourth Gospel; but the same story is told of the mythic Ebion, and it must therefore be dismissed as destitute of all historical value.

Cerinthus is said to have been trained in the "Egyptian discipline," and to have taught in Asia Minor. The Egyptian discipline is supposed to mean The Over-writer of the Apocalypse.the Philonic school, but this is a mere assumption. In any case the importance of Cerinthus, whom some Gnostics claimed to have been the writer of the Apocalypse orthodoxly ascribed to John, is that his name has preserved one of the earliest forms of Christian tradition. Its cosmogony declared the stupendous excellence of the God over all, beyond the subordinate power, the World-fashioner. Its christology declared that Jesus was son of Joseph and Mary; that at his "baptism" the Christ, the "Father in the form of a dove," descended upon him, and only then did he begin to prophesy and do mighty works, and preach the hitherto unknown Father (unknown to the Jews), the God over all. That the Christ then left him; and then Jesus suffered, and rose again (that is, appeared to his followers after death).

Such is the account of Irenæus, which seems to be straightforward and reliable enough as far as it goes. The scripture of the Cerinthians was not the recension of the Sayings ascribed to "Matthew," but a still earlier collection in Hebrew. All other collections and recensions were rejected as utterly apocryphal. The Greek writer of the fourth canonical Gospel is said to have composed his account in opposition to the school of Cerinthus, but this hypothesis is not borne out by any evidence.



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