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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 124. Basilides.


Besides the sources in Irenaeus, Hippolytus (L. VII. 20–27), Clemens Alex. (Strom. VII.), Eusebius (IV. 7), and Epiphanius, comp. the following monographs:

Jacobi: Basilidis philosophi Gnostici Sentent. ex Hippolyti lib. nuper reperto illustr. Berlin, 1852. Comp. his article Gnosis in Herzog, vol. V. 219–223, and in Brieger’s "Zeitschrift für Kirchengesch." for 1876–77 (I. 481–544).

Uhlhorn: Das Basilidianische System. Göttingen, 1855. The best analysis.

Baur in the Tübinger "Theol. Jahrbücher" for 1856, pp. 121–162.

Hofstede de Groot: Basilides as witness for the Gospel of John, in Dutch, and in an enlarged form in German. Leipz. 1868. Apologetic for the genuineness of the fourth Gospel.

Dr. Hort in Smith and Wace, "Dictionary of Christian Biography (Lond. 1877). I. 268–281 (comp." Abrasax," p. 9–10). Very able.

Hilgenfeld, in his "Zeitschrift für wissensch. Theol." 1878, XXI. 228–250, and the Lit. there given.


Basilides (Βασιλείδης) produced the first well-developed system of Gnosis; but it was too metaphysical and intricate to be popular. He claimed to be a disciple of the apostle Matthias and of an interpreter (ἑρμήνεύς) of St. Peter, named Glaucias. He taught in Alexandria during the reign of Hadrian (A. D. 117–138). His early youth fell in the second generation of Christians, and this gives his quotations from the writings of the New Testament considerable apologetic value. He wrote (according to his opponent, Agrippa Castor) "twenty-four books (βιβλία) on the Gospel." This work was probably a commentary on the canonical Gospels, for Clement of Alexandria quotes from "the thirty-third book" of a work of Basilides which he calls Exegetica."842842    Comp. Euseb. Hist. Eccl. IV. 7 and Clem. Alex. Strom. IV. 12. p. 599 sq. Origen (Hom. in Luc. I: 1) says that Basilides "had the audacity (ἐτόλμησεν) to write a Gospel according to Basilides;" but he probably mistook the commentary for an apocryphal Gospel. Hippolytus expressly asserts that Basilides, in his account of all things concerning the Saviour after "the birth of Jesus" agreed with "the Gospels."42

His doctrine is very peculiar, especially according to the extended and original exhibition of it in the "Philosophumena." Hippolytus deviates in many respects from the statements of Irenaeus and Epiphanius, but derived his information probably from the works of Basilides himself, and he therefore must be chiefly followed.843843    The prevailing opinion is that Hippolytus gives the system of Basilides himself, Irenaeus that of his school. So Jacobi, Uhlhorn, Baur, Schaff (first ed.), Möller, Mansel, Hort. The opposite view is defended by Hilgenfeld, Lipsius, Volkmar and Scholten. The reasoning of Hort in favor of the former view, l.c. p. 269 sq., is based on the extracts of Clement of Alex. from the ἐξηγητικά of Basilides. He assumes the priority of the Valentinian system, from which Basilides proceeded to construct his own by contrast. But history puts Valentinus about a decade later.43 The system is based on the Egyptian astronomy and the Pythagorean numerical symbolism. It betrays also the influence of Aristotle; but Platonism, the emanation-theory, and dualism do not appear.

Basilides is monotheistic rather than dualistic in his primary idea, and so far differs from the other Gnostics, though later accounts make him a dualist. He starts from the most abstract notion of the absolute, to which he denies even existence, thinking of it as infinitely above all that can be imagined and conceived.844844    Herein, as already remarked, be resembles Hegel, who likewise begins with the idea of absolute non-entity, and reconstructs the universe ex nihilo. In both systems "nothing" must be understood in a non-natural sense, as opposed to all definite, concrete being or form of existence. It is in fact identical with the most abstract conception of pure being. Nichts ist sein, and Sein ist Nichts, but, set in motion by a dialectic process, they produce the Werden, and the werden results in Dasein. And here again the latest German philosophy meets with the oldest Hindu mythology. See the note on p. 453.44 This ineffable and unnamable God,845845    ἀρρητος, ἀκατονόμαστος .45 not only super-existent, but non-existent,846846    ὁ οὐκ ὣν θεος.46 first forms by his creative word (not by emanation) the world-seed or world-embryo,847847    πανσπερμία-a Stoic idea.47 that is, chaos, from which the world develops itself according to arithmetical relations, in an unbroken order, like the branches and leaves of the tree from the mustard seed, or like the many-colored peacock from the egg. Everything created tends upwards towards God, who, himself unmoved, moves all,848848    ἀκίνητος κινητής48 and by the charm of surpassing beauty attracts all to himself.

In the world-seed Basilides distinguishes three kinds of sonship,849849    υἱότης τριμερής.49 of the same essence with the non-existent God, but growing weaker in the more remote gradations; or three races of children of God, a pneumatic, a psychic, and a hylic. The first sonship liberates itself immediately from the world-seed, rises with the lightning-speed of thought to God, and remains there as the blessed spirit-world, the Pleroma. It embraces the seven highest genii,850850    νοῦς, λόγος , φρόνησις, σοφία, δύναμις , δικαιοσύνη, and εἰρήνη.50 which, in union with the great Father, form the first ogdoad, the type of all the lower circles of creation. The second sonship, with the help of the Holy Spirit, whom it produces, and who bears it up, as the wing bears the bird, strives to follow the first,851851    Hence it is called μιμητική.51 but can only attain the impenetrable firmament,852852    στερέωμα52 that is the limit of the Pleroma, and could endure the higher region no more than the fish the mountain air. The third sonship, finally, remains fixed in the world-seed, and in need of purification and redemption.

Next Basilides makes two archons or world-rulers (demiurges) issue from the world-seed. The first or great archon, whose greatness and beauty and power cannot be uttered, creates the ethereal world or the upper heaven, the ogdoad, as it is called; the second is the maker and ruler of the lower planetary heaven below the moon, the hebdomad. Basilides supposed in all three hundred and sixty-five heavens or circles of creation,853853    κτίσεις, ἀρχαί, δυνάμεις , ἐξουσίαι.53 corresponding to the days of the year, and designated them by the mystic name Abrasax, or Abraxas,854854    Ἀβρασάξ or Ἀβραξάς. Abraxas is a euphonic inversion, which seems to date from the Latin translator of Irenaeus.54 which, according to the numerical value of the Greek letters, is equal to 365.855855    Thrice α =3; β =2; ρ =100; ς =200; ξ =60. Epiphanius mentions that the Basilidians referred the word to the 365 parts (μέλη) of the human body as well as to the days of the year. But modern writers are inclined to think that the engravers of the Abrasax gems and the Basilidians received the mystic name from an older common source. Dr. Hort suggests the derivation from Ab-razach, Ab-zarach, i.e. "the father of effugence," a name appropriate to a solar deity. According to Movers, Serach was a Phoenician name for Adonist, whose worship was connected with the seasons of the year. Comp. Bellermann, Ueber die Gemmen der Alten mit dem Abraxasbilde (Berlin, 1817, ’19) King, The Gnostics and their Remains (London, 1864), Hort, l.c., Matter, Abraxas,"etc. in Herzog, I. 103-107, and Kraus, in his " Real-Encykl. der christl. Alterthümer,"I. 6-10 (with illustrations).55 This name also denotes the great archon or ruler of the 365 heavens. It afterwards came to be used as a magical formula, with all sorts of strange figures, the "Abraxas gems," of which many are still extant.

Each of the two archons, however, according to a higher ordinance, begets a son, who towers far above his father, communicates to him the knowledge received from the Holy Spirit, concerning the upper spirit-world and the plan of redemption, and leads him to repentance. With this begins the process of the redemption or return of the sighing children of God, that is, the pneumatics, to the supra-mundane God. This is effected by Christianity, and ends with the consummation, or apokatastasis of all things. Like Valentine, Basilides also properly held a threefold Christ—the son of the first archon, the son of the second archon, and the son of Mary. But all these are at bottom the same principle, which reclaims the spiritual natures from the world-seed to the original unity. The passion of Christ was necessary to remove the corporeal and psychical elements, which he brought with him from the primitive medley and confusion (σύγχυσις ἀρχική). His body returned, after death, into shapelessness (ἀμορφία); his soul rose from the grave, and stopped in the hebdomad, or planetary heaven, where it belongs; but his spirit soared, perfectly purified, above all the spheres of creation, to the blessed first sonship (υἱότης) and the fellowship of the non-existent or hyper-existent God.

In the same way with Jesus, the first-fruits, all other pneumatic persons must rise purified to the place where they by nature belong, and abide there. For all that continues in its place is imperishable; but all that transgresses its natural limits is perishable. Basilides quotes the passage of Paul concerning the groaning and travailing of the creation expecting the revelation of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19). In the process of redemption he conceded to faith (pistis) more importance than most of the Gnostics, and his definition of faith was vaguely derived from Hebrews 11:1.

In his moral teaching Basilides inculcated a moderate asceticism, from which, however, his school soon departed. He used some of Paul’s Epistles and the canonical Gospels; quoting for example, John 1:9 ("The true light, which enlightens every man, was coming into the world"), to identify his idea of the world seed with John’s doctrine of the Logos is the light of the world.856856    Philosoph., VII. 22. He also quoted John 2:4, "My hour is not yet come" , and Luke 1:35, "A Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and a power of the Most High shall overshadow thee." It is true that Hippolytus sometimes mixes up the opinions of the matter with those of his followers. But there is no ambiguity here where Basilides is introduced with φησί, "he says," while when quoting from the school he uses the formula "according to them (κατ’ αὐτούς). The joint testimony of these early heretics (to when) we must add the pseudo-Clementine Homilies and the heathen Celsus) is overwhelming against the Tübingen hypothesis of the the origin of the fourth Gospel. See vol. I. p. 707, and Abbott, Authorship of the Fourth Gospel. p. 85 sqq.56 The fourth Gospel was much used and commented upon also by the Ophites, Perates, and Valentinians before the middle of the second century. The Gnostics were alternately attracted by the mystic Gnosis of that Gospel (especially the Prologue), and repelled by its historic realism, and tried to make the best use of it. They acknowledged it, because they could not help it. The other authorities of Basilides were chiefly the secret tradition of the apostle Matthias, and of a pretended interpreter of Peter, by the name of Glaucias.

His son Isidore was the chief, we may say the only important one, of his disciples. He composed a system of ethics and other books, from which Clement of Alexandria has preserved a few extracts. The Basilidians, especially in the West, seem to have been dualistic and docetic in theory, and loose, even dissolute in practice. They corrupted and vulgarized the high-pitched and artificial system of the founder. The whole life of Christ was to them a mere sham. It was Simon of Cyrene who was crucified; Jesus exchanged forms with him on the way, and, standing unseen opposite in Simon’s form, mocked those who crucified him, and then ascended to heaven. They held it prudent to repudiate Christianity in times of persecution, regarding the noble confession of martyrs as costing dearly before swine, and practiced various sorts of magic, in which the Abraxas gems did them service. The spurious Basilidian sect maintained itself in Egypt till the end of the fourth century, but does not seem to have spread beyond, except that Marcus, a native of Memphis, is reported by Sulpicius Severus to have brought some of its doctrines to Spain.



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