1902 Encyclopedia > Cerinthus

Founder of early heretical Christian sect
(fl. c. 100 AD)

CERINTHUS was the founder of one of the earliest heretical sects of the Christians. He was brought up in Egypt (Theod. Hcer. Fab. ii. 3), but removed to Asia Minor, where he propagated his doctrines. He flourished, according to Eusebius (Hist. Fed. iii. 28) in the time of Trajan (98-117). Irenseus relates a story which repre-sents him as a contemporary of the apostle John (Contra Hcer. iii. 3, 4). He says that John, the disciple of the Lord, when in Ephesus went to bathe, and when he saw Cerinthus inside, he leapt from the bath without bathing, crying out, " Let us flee, lest the bath fall, for Cerinthus the enemy of the truth is within." Ireuaeus heard this story from some people who heard it from Polycarp, who may have heard it directly, or more likely at second-hand, from some of the friends of St John. The same story is told in regard to Ebion, but not on so good authority. We know nothing of the death of Cerinthus.

We possess three different authorities for the opinions of Cerinthus, to some extent inconsistent with each other,— Ireuaeus, Caius the Roman presbyter, and the third unknown. Lipsius has tried to prove that the third was Hippolytus.

According to Irenaeus (Contra Hcer. i. 26), Cerinthus taught " that the world was not made by the supreme God, but by a certain power which was separated and distant from the supreme authority, which is over all, and which was ignorant of the God over all." He also maintained " that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but was the offspring of Joseph and Mary, born like all other human beings, and that he was juster and wiser and more prudent than all." He affirmed also " that after his baptism the Christ came down into him in the form of a dove from the Lord, who is above all, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father and performed miracles, but towards the end the Christ flew away from Jesus, and that Jesus suffered and was raised up, but that the Christ remained impassible, being spiritual." The same information is given in the treatise The Refutation of Heresies, first ascribed to Origen, and now to Hippolytus (lib. vii. c. 33), in the very words of Irenseus, and the writer repeats it in his summary (x. 21), with the addition that it was by an angelic power that the world was made. Irenaeus (iii. xi. 7, see also Jerome, De Viris III. c. 9) also informs us that the gospel of St John contained statements which were specially intended to remove the error of Cerinthus, and of the Nicolaitanes who held the opinion before him, that the maker of the world and the supreme God were different.

From Caius the Roman presbyter our information is as follows. " Cerinthus, by means of revelations which pretend to be written by a great apostle, speaking falsely, introduces wonders which he speaks of as if they had been shown to him by angels, saying that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ was to be on earth, and that again men in bodily form would live in Jerusalem and be subject to lusts and pleasures. And being an enemy to the Scriptures, and wishing to lead astray, he affirms that a thousand years will be spent in marriage feasting" (Eus. Hist. Feci. iii. 28). It is plain from this passage that Caius derived his opinion of the character of the millennium in which Cerinthus believed from the revelations which Cerinthus wrote in the name of a great apostle. Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, affirms that some maintained that the Apocalypse was not the production of the apostle John, not even of a saint, but of Cerinthus, who established the sect called Cerinthian from him, and who wished to give a respectable name to his own fiction (Eus. Hist. Feci. vii. 25). The context proves conclusively that Dionysius refers specially to Caius, whose words he partly quotes and partly paraphrases. The paraphrase shows how easy it is to invent a discreditable character and doctrine for a heretic. He says that Cerinthus believed " that the kingdom of Christ would be on earth, and that being fond of the body and altogether carnal, he dreamt that he would revel in these delights for which he longed—the satisfaction of the stomach and the parts below it, that is, in foods, and drinks, and marriages, and the means by which he thought that he could more decently procure these, namely, feasts and sacrifices and the slaying of victims." It is barely possible that Dionysius may have had access to other sources of information than the state-ment of Caius, but the probability is all on the other side. He was a determined antagonist of millenarianism, and was prepared to see gross sensuality in the adherents of the doctrine ; but there is no good evidence that Cerinthus was sensual. We cannot even affirm that he was a millenarian, for Caius evidently formed his opinion on this matter in consequence of his belief that Cerinthus wrote the Revelation ascribed to St John—a belief which others seem to have shared with him (Epiph. Heer, li., 3).

Our third source is not extant in its original form, but is to be traced in Epiphanius (Hcer. xxviii.), and in almost all the Latin writers on heresy contained in Oehler's first volume of his Corpus Hceresiologicum, but most markedly in Philastrius (c. 36) and Pseudo-Augustinus (c. 8). According to Irenseus, Cerinthus carefully distinguished between the historical man Jesus and the aeon Christ. This source evidently represented Jesus and Christ as the same, and it was the descent of the Holy Ghost after his baptism that rendered Jesus Christ capable of performing miracles. Jesus Christ was the son of Joseph and Mary, and was for the short time of his ministry miraculously endowed through the descent of the Holy Ghost, but the Holy Ghost left him before he suffered, and he died and did not rise again, but will rise again when the general resurrection takes place.

Cerinthus, according to these authorities, affirmed that the world was made by angels, and that the law and the prophets were given by one of the angels who made the world. Philastrius thus sums up the other features of the heresy. " He taught circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath . . . He does not receive the apostle Paul, he honours Judas the traitor, he receives the gospel accord-ing to Matthew, he despises three gospels, he rejects the Acts of the Apostles, he blasphemes the blessed martyrs." Epiphanius makes him accept only a portion of the gospel of St Matthew. He thinks that he was one of those Judaic Christians referred to in Acts xv. 24, that he also found fault with the apostle Peter for going to Cornelius (Acts xi. 3) and created a commotion against Paul in connection with Titus (Acts xxi. 28), and that St Paul alludes to a practice of Cerinthians in noticing baptism for the dead.

Most of these statements are probably incorrect, and some of them are to be rejected without hesitation for chronological reasons. Some of the writers mention a Merinthus, who was either the same as Cerinthus or was confounded with him. It is likely that this is not the only confusion in these accounts, and we may well doubt whether either Justin or Hippolytus could be the source from which they were drawn, or that the account contained in it was more accurate than that of Irenaeus.

Cerinthus is mentioned in nearly all the historians of early Christianity, hut special reference may be made to Lardner's works, vol. viii. (Kippis's edition) ; Hansel's Gnostic Heresies (London, 1875); Lipsius's " Gnosticismus," in Ersch and Gruber, p. 257 ; his Zur Quellenkritik des Epiphanios (Vienna, 1865), p. 115, and his Die Quellen der ältesten Ketzergeschichte (Leipsic, 1875), p. 39 ; and Adolf Harnack's Zur Quellenkritik der Geschichte des Gnosticismus (Leipsic, 1873). p. 46. (J. D.)

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