Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead


WE next pass on to the contradictory and manifestly absurd legends, which Patristic writers have woven round the second best-known name of the Carpocratian circle. We have already referred to the extraordinary blunder of Epiphanius, who has ascribed a whole system of the Gnosis, which he found in Irenæus assigned simply to a "distinguished teacher" (probably the Valentinian Marcus), to this Epiphanes; the Greek for "distinguished" being also "eiphanes."

This is excusable in a certain measure, seeing that Epiphanius wrote at the end of the fourth century (at least 250 years after the time of the actual Epiphanes) when any means of discrediting a heretic were considered justifiable; but what shall we say of Clement of Alexandria, who is generally fair, and who lived in the same century as Epiphanes? His blunder is even more extraordinary. This is his legend. Epiphanes was the son of Carpocrates and Alexandria, a lady of Cephallenia. He died at the early age of seventeen, and was worshipped as a god with the most elaborate and lascivious rites by the Cephallenians, in the great temple of Same, on the day of the new moon.

Such an extraordinary legend could not long escape the penetrating criticism of modern scholarship, and as early as Mosheim the key was found to the mystery. Volkmar has worked this out in detail, showing that the festival at Same was in honour of the moon-god, and accompanied with licentious rites. It was called the Epiphany (τ? ?πιφ?νια) in honour of Epiphanes (? ?πιφαν?ς), the "newly-appearing one," the new moon. This moon lasted some seventeen days. Thus Clement of Alexandria, deceived by the similarity of the names and also by the story of licentious rites, bequeathed to posterity a scandalous libel. It is almost to be doubted whether any Epiphanes existed. Clement further asserts that among the Carpocratians one of their most circulated books was a treatise On Justice, of which he had seen a copy. He ascribes this to Epiphanes, but it is scarcely possible to believe that a boy of seventeen or less could have composed an abstract dissertation on justice.

Communism.We thus come to the conclusion that the Carpocratians, or Harpocratians, were a Gnostic circle in Alexandria at the beginning of the second century, and that some of their ideas were set forth in a book concerning justice, a copy of which had come into the hands of Clement. This Gnostic community was much exercised with the idea of communism as practised by the early Christian circles; being also students of Plato, they wished to reduce the idea to the form of a philosophical principle and carry it out to its logical conclusion. The false ideas of meum and tuum were no longer to exist; private property was the origin of all human miseries and the departure from the happy days of early freedom. There was, therefore, to be community of everything, wives and husbands included--thus carrying out in some fashion that most curious idea, of Plato's as set forth in The Republic. We have, however, no reliable evidence that our Gnostics carried these ideas into practice; it is also highly improbable that men of education and refinement, as the Gnostics usually were, who came to such views through the Pythagorean and Platonic discipline, and through the teachings of Jesus--the sine quâ non condition of such ideal communities being that they should consist of "gnostics" and be ruled by "philosophers"--should have turned their meetings into orgies of lasciviousness. Such, however, is the accusation brought against them by Clement. This has already been in part refuted by what has been said above; but it is not improbable that there were communities at Alexandria and elsewhere, calling themselves Christian, who did confuse the Agapæ or Love-feasts of the early times with the orgies and feasts of the ignorant populace. The Pagans brought such accusations against the Christians indiscriminately, and the Christian sects against one another; and it is quite credible that such abuses did creep in among the ignorant and vicious.

The Monadic Gnosis.The Carpocratian school has been sometimes claimed, though I think improperly, as the originator of the so-called Monadic Gnosis. This idea has been worked out in much detail by Neander. The following summary by Salmon will, however, be sufficient for the general reader to form an idea of the theory.

"From one eternal Monad all existence has flowed, and to this it strives to return. But the finite spirits who rule over several portions of the world counteract this universal striving after unity. From them the different popular religions, and in particular the Jewish, have proceeded. Perfection is attained by those souls who, led on by reminiscences of their former conditions, soar above all limitation and diversity to the contemplation of the higher unity. They despise the restriction imposed by the mundane spirits; they regard externals as of no importance, and faith and love as the only essentials; meaning by faith, mystical brooding of the mind absorbed in the original unity. In this way they escape the dominion of the finite mundane spirits; their souls are freed from imprisonment in matter, and they obtain a state of perfect repose (corresponding to the Buddhist Nirvana) when they have completely ascended above the world of appearance."



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