Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism 4 — The Christ Title (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

This continues the series on an introductory chapter from Walter Schmithals’ Gnosticism in Corinth. The full series is archived here.

Now it is no longer a very long step to the identification of this system as “pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism.” When Simon identifies himself as the “Great Power,” he therewith makes the claim, not to be a definite divine emanation, but an emanated part of the one original God himself. We have seen that the Apophasis developed just this Simonian claim and how it developed it. It is immediately understandable that all the divine predicates can be claimed by Simon or can be attributed to him. Thus, following Irenaeus, Hippolytus rightly says that Simon tolerated “being called by any name with which people wished to name him.” Hence he is called not only Great Power or The Standing One, but also God, Son of God, Father, Holy Spirit, Kyrios, Savior, and so on. (p. 45)

The pre-Christian system of Simonianism did not use the Judaistic term Christ in the sense of being a unique redeemer but as a title only. So when Hippolytus says that

Simon had appeared as a man although he was not a man, and had apparently suffered in Judea, had appeared to the Jews as Son, and to the other peoples as Pneuma Hagion [Holy Spirit], it is still clear in this late report that Simon is the Christ not as the one Christ who has appeared in Jesus but as the Pneuma who has appeared in all, and only thus also in Jesus. (p. 46)

Dositheus who was reputed to have been Simon’s teacher presented himself as Christ, according to Origen (Celsus, 1, LVII).

But of course none of the above proves the existence of a pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism.

For Schmithals what is important first of all is to be clear about the nature of what he calls “the structure” of the pre-Christian Gnostic system:

A heavenly being (έστώς) — whether God himself or a divine emanation

enters into matter (στάς) — which was always there or (in good Jewish tradition) is first created by him

and there concerns himself with the return upwards (στησόμενος) — which means the liberation from captivity in matter or the transfer of the “Dynamis,” which has been actualized out of potentiality into substance, into the heavenly treasury.

Note that in this system there is no special redeemer figure or a real redeemer myth.

Every man or every pneumatic is part of the descended heavenly being and is responsible for his “redemption” or self-realization, which has as its presupposition the “redemption” also of the other parts of the “Dynamis”.

Simon was able to say he was part of the power of God, the source power of the universe, as were all pneumatics or all humans in his system. The power was dwelling in them all in a potential form.

S. then points out that the “I am” [Ἐγώ εἰμι] formula “stems from the oriental sacral style and is widespread in Gnosticism”. This expression is said to be characteristic of those who are spiritual [“Pneumatics”] generally and Simon in particular as they identify their divine attributes.

These expressions —  e.g. I am the son of [the] God, the unbegotten power, etc — express their belief that they are, spiritually, a part of God. And by proclaiming the hidden knowledge (gnosis) they were themselves redeemers.

S. casts a forward glance at what is to follow in his book on “Gnosticism in Corinth” by noting that “pneumatics” or spiritual ones in such systems, those who shared the “fellowship of the spirit” and who were ‘active as redeemers’ were often known as “apostles” while on their missionary journeys.

Schmithals now comes to discuss the title Christ in this system.


In the previous post mention was made of the earliest discernible teachings of the Naassenes as possessing a similar Gnostic system — another one without a redeemer emissary-from-heaven figure. Hippolytus discusses these in Book 5 of his Refutations.

The central figure in the Naassene system that corresponds to the Dynamis/Power in Simon’s is a Man or a Son of Man, called Adamas. Christ in this system was not the Christian redeemer but one of the several designations for the primal man.

This designation betrays Jewish but no Christian influences, even if the quotation in [Hippolytus’s account] should stem from Eph. 5:14 — which in view of the difference in wording is by no means certain — and not rather from common Gnostic source.

Schmithals discusses in some depth this Naassene system but most of it is in Greek so I will need to take some time to be sure I grasp it as completely as possible before saying anything more here.

How could the Jewish title Christ become assigned to the Gnostic Primal Man?

Schmithals (or his translator?) has a complex way of explaining that it was the way of Gnosticism to incorporate motifs from other religions. This made it inevitable, he says, that the Jewish title of “Messiah/Christ” would also be embraced and joined with the Gnostic chief figure, the Primal Man.

(I don’t know if this is a truly satisfactory explanation. It seems to be assuming that the Messiah concept was as central to Jewish religion as was the Primal Man to Gnosticism. I am not sure what evidence there is for this. I would rather look for interpretations relating to one like the heavenly Son of Man appearing in Daniel and possible associations with perhaps a Davidic anointed one or comparable.)

S. goes further, however, and sees the union of these two as being a natural fit since both figures were “in essence eschatalogical”. Both belong to primordial time and the end-time.

Besides, if, as is plausible, Jewish Gnosticism had its origins among Diaspora Jews, particularly in Mesopotamia, the Messianic title would more easily have been spiritualized and be stripped of any real-world advent expectation that supposedly preoccupied other Jews in the traditional land of Israel.

For further details of this system S. turns to Jewish Gnosticism itself (what he was addressing prior to this was ambiguous) — and he takes as the exemplar the Elchasai as described, however inadequately, by Hippolytus.

The Elchasai

According to Hippolytus here are their views of Christ:

And he asserts that Christ was born a man in the same way as common to all, and that Christ was not for the first time on earth when born of a virgin, but that both previously and that frequently again He had been born and would be born. Christ would thus appear and exist among us from time to time, undergoing alterations of birth, and having his soul transferred from body to body. (IX, 9)

They do not, however, confess that there is but one Christ, but that there is one that is superior to the rest, and that He is transfused into many bodies frequently, and was now in Jesus. And, in like manner, these heretics maintain that at one time Christ was begotten of God, and at another time became the Spirit, and at another time was born of a virgin, and at another time not so. And they affirm that likewise this Jesus afterwards was continually being transfused into bodies, and was manifested in many (different bodies) at different times. (X, 25)

Schmithals believes that behind this description lies the actual belief among these Jewish gnostics that Christ appears not as a particular man but as an ordinary man, at all times divided up among many men. The term Elchasai he suggests also is derived from the meaning of “hidden power” and was the counterpart of the Power/Dynamis of Simon’s system. Christ, he say, according to this gnosticism, is found “at all times in many ordinary men”. (I cannot be sure this is really what Hippolytus is saying, but I wonder if S. would respond that Hippolytus is not accurately reporting what he, S., is sure is their belief.)

The Christ Gnosticism before us here is a purely Jewish Gnosticism. (p. 51)


Hippolytus compares these Jewish sectarians fable-telling with that of the gnostics like Cerenthus and Carpocrates (VII, 22) and says of their understanding of the Christ title:

For if even any other had fulfilled the commandments (contained) in the law, he would have been that Christ. And the (Ebionaeans allege) that they themselves also, when in like manner they fulfil (the law), are able to become Christs; for they assert that our Lord Himself was a man in a like sense with all (the rest of the human family).

There are quite a number of other sources and examples Schmithals discusses but I will leave those for the next post.

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12 thoughts on “Pre-Christian Christ Gnosticism 4 — The Christ Title (1)”

  1. This is an intertesting subject. I’ve been thinking that the idea that Jesus was a man might have started with Jewish Christians/Ebionites/Essenes/DSS sect, and then spread to people like Cerenthus, the Naassenes, Elchasites, Mandeans, etc, so I like this series on Schmittals and seeing another viewpoint on the matter.

  2. I would like to continue and finish this chapter by Schmithals. It is forcing me to look more closely and carefully at some of his arguments. He is certainly not always clear and seems to fluctuate between giving too much detail and omitting details altogether. He sometimes refers to his earlier books and maybe I would have less of a struggle if I had read those first. I don’t know if he is giving something important or something that is wrong. But either way, the book is introducing me to a closer look at some things I had not before considered. So I’m taking this as part of a journey, not a destination, at this point. The exercise is making me eager to read more about Jewish gnosticism from other perspectives asap.

  3. Your Part 3 of this series mentioned that Simon’s finding the angel in the slave prostitute was like the story about the “lost sheep”. In my comment, I speculated that perhaps the “lost sheep” story was about an archangel who commanded 100 angels, one of whom failed to return from a mission to Earth. Therefore, the archangel himself went to Earth to look for that angel — like a shepherd who would leave 99 sheep to look for one lost sheep.

    When I read this Part 4, a new thought occurs to me. If Simon thought that he himself found the angel in the slave prostitute, then Simon might deduce logically that he himself was the archangel. More specifically, Simon’s human body contained the holy spirit (the pneuma hagion) of the archangel who was looking for the lost angel (aka the lost sheep).

    . . . .

    Simon was called “The Great Power” and “The Standing One”. If he considered himself to be containing the holy spirit of an archangel, then the meaning of the title “The Great Power” is rather obvious. I speculate further that the title “The Standing One” might come from the idea that an archangel sends his subordinate angels on various missions to Earth while he himself normally remains standing at his command post in Heaven.

      1. Mike, what I see in Schmithals’ book is discussion of the evidence itself — that is, of the specific words and phrases we read in Hippolytus, Irenaeus and others. He is comparing this data with specific information we have in other texts, Jewish and Greek, that inform us of the differences and relationships between their respective thought worlds.

        As a result his discussion is not about speculative ideas about how things might have been, but rather it is about the details of the evidence itself and what is the simplest or more logical way to interpret that evidence. When others disagree with him they do not simply posit alternative speculative scenarios. What they do is point to the evidence discussed by Schmithals or overlooked by him, and explain why they think there is a better way of understanding what it means or how it should be read in relation to some other text.

  4. In Hippolytus’s Refutation of All Heresies, Book Six describes the teachings of sorcerers like Simon Magus, whose “doctrine derives its force from the lucubrations of magicians and poets”. This Book Six should be read in the light of Book Four’s Chapters 28-42, which expose the methods that the sorcerers used in their magic tricks to deceive their dupes. These various methods included secret inks, secret collaborators, secret waxes, secret preforations, secret poisons, secret chemical reactions, and so forth. Hippolytus clearly categorizes Simon Magus and Marcus as sorcerers who used such magic tricks to deceive people who are called “dupes” (in the translation) .

    In Hippolytus’s Refutations, Book Five describes the teachings of a group that is called the Naaseni, “who style themselves Gnostics and that they advance those opinions which the Philosophers of the Greeks as well as those who have handed down mystical rites.” In other words, the Naaseni do not attract believers by using magic tricks to deceive dupes, but rather attract believers by appealing more to philosophical logic and to the reasoning of traditional rites.

    Hippolytus informs us that the name “Naaseni” comes from the Hebrew word “naas”, which means “serpent” in English.

    The Naaseni comprised several subgroups, one of which called themselves the “Peratae”. In his description of the Peratae, Hippolytus elaborates about the origin of the group name “Naaseni”. He explains that this origin was related to serpent stories that involved Moses and his leadership of the Hebrews’ departure from Egypt and wanderings in the Wilderness. In particular, there was the story about the statue of the bronze serpent, the mere sight of which could purify Hebrews from snake bites. As Hippolytus concludes this paragraph about the origin of the name “Naaseni”:


    ” …. numerous were the gnawing serpents which were seen in the wilderness by the children of Israel, from which that perfect serpent which Moses set up delivered those that were bitten. This is that which has been declared: “In the same manner as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also must the Son of Man be lifted up.” …

    Of this [the perfect serpent] alone the image is in Heaven, always conspicuous in light. This is the great beginning respecting which Scripture has spoken. …. And if the eyes of any are blessed, this one looking upward on the Firmament, will behold at the mighty summit of heaven the beauteous image of the serpent, turning itself, and becoming an originating principle of every species of motion. …. In regard of this is the great wonder which is beheld in the Firmament by those who are able to observe it.


    Thus, Hippolytus indicates that the Naaseni (Nazarenes?) originally “styled themselves as Gnostics” who would look upward on the Firmament and behold the beauteous image of a serpent. Furthermore, these Naaseni explicitly compared the beholding of this serpent image to the ancient Hebrews’ beholding of Moses’s bronze sculpture of a serpent, the sight of which would purify snake-bit Hebrews from the poisons in their bodies.

    I consider this to be good evidence that all the original, First-Century Christians were Gnostics (Naaseni-Nazarenes) who understood Jesus Christ to be a mystical being on the Firmament, hanging from a cross, like the bronze sculpture of a snake hung from a pole held erect by Moses. The idea that Jesus Christ was a human-like being who walked around on Earth did not originate until the Second Century.

  5. “Thus, following Irenaeus, Hippolytus rightly says that Simon tolerated ‘being called by any name with which people wished to name him.’ Hence he is called not only Great Power or The Standing One, but also God, Son of God, Father, Holy Spirit, Kyrios, Savior, and so on” (p. 45 of “Gnosticism in Corinth”).

    But it may be significant, for dating purposes, that there is nothing in the early record to indicate that Simon ever used the name or title ‘Christ’ at all; not for himself and not for the Power of God that he claimed to be. Schmithals is aware of this. He writes: “Did Simon himself also call that divine figure, as a part of which he was on earth by the name of Christ?… Unfortunately it cannot be proved that Simon himself used this name” (p. 46).

    And all the examples provided by Schmithals of the Gnostic use of the name ‘Christ’ apparently belong to a time after the first gospel appeared. So it may be that Simonian and Gnostic use of the name only began after urMark was written. In the scenario I am exploring, this would mean that it was only after his death that Simon was called Christ by his followers. He was only called Christ by them after one of his followers wrote an allegory in which Simon the Hestos (“the standing one”) was hidden beneath the figure of Jesus the Christos. To those on the outside urMark was about a Jewish Christ (Messiah); to those on the inside it was about a Samaritan Hestos (Standing One).

  6. Yes, Schmithals has not yet given me the tell-tale pre-Christian Christ fingerprint I was expecting to see.

    It is very tempting to think of Mark as allegory, parable, metaphor or whatever for many reasons. Once we do we take special notice of the tomb midrash (Isaiah likens the ruined Temple to a tomb), and the many references to Jesus being in “a house” as also symbolic. Tombs, houses were common enough metaphors for the human body. And those who dug out the roof of the house to lower a man to Jesus in order to walk out of a blocked doorway is surely meant to be related to the carved out tomb from which Jesus emerges. And Jesus appears in a Simon’s house both at the beginning and end of the gospel. Another Simon takes his place subsequently, etc.

    But I admit I do have a hard time accepting a Jesus-Simon link nonetheless. It has kinda been ingrained into me that Simon Magus was the enemy, after all. And I’ve never been able to take the real existence of a man who was reported to have had a flying competition with Peter in Rome very seriously.

    1. I can understand having serious reservations, but try to keep an open mind about the Jesus-Simon link. I agree that Simon and the sects spawned by him were indeed the enemy – to proto-orthodox Christians like Justin, the author of Acts of the Apostles, and the author of the document that underlies the Pseudo-Clementines. And I would argue that is why the proto-orthodox responded by trying out different ways of supplanting the Simonian allegory (the first edition of Mark) with their own gospels e.g. Matthew, Luke, and the document that underlies the Pseudo-Clementines. Look at how much of the literature in the New Testament is polemical. And then look at who it is that Justin despises more than anyone else. The New Testament literature reflects the second-century battle between the proto-orthodox and Simonians. Paul is a name that was used as part of the sanitization of Simon. When Simon’s letters were converted into letters of Paul he went from being “in Hestos” to being “in Christ.”

      What is sad is that if indeed Mark’s Gospel is a double-meaning Simonian allegory it will be practically impossible to prove it. Hidden-meanings are by definition hidden. So I don’t see how – apart from some new document find – one could ever be reasonably sure that apparent hidden meanings were really intended by the author. Without a key, how can one prove that an apparently cryptic text is in reality cryptic? Perhaps that is why Basilides could safely boast that “only one in a thousand, two in ten thousand” know his doctrines. And: “know all of them, but don’t let any of them know you.”

      In regard to Simon’s flying competition: that is related only relatively late in the Simon literature, in the Acts of Peter. But do notice, nevertheless, that it is Peter (not Paul) who confronts Simon. So even that late in the game it is Peter who confronts the anti-Law Simon. And in the New Testament Peter goes at it at Antioch with the anti-Law Paul. Thus Peter confronts the two anti-Law apostles to the Gentiles. Could the two anti-Law apostles to the Gentiles be the same, as is practically spelled out by the Pseudo-Clementines? Why is there not in the early literature some account of the two anti-Law apostles to the Gentiles squaring off with each other?

    2. “Yes, Schmithals has not yet given me the tell-tale pre-Christian Christ fingerprint I was expecting to see.” – Neil Godfrey

      I agree with Schmithals that Simon’s system was a pre-Christian Gnosticism, but I don’t see that its central figure, the Standing One (or Great Power, or Father – these all refer to the same), was yet called Christ.

      As for the Christian element that later became part of Simon’s system, I think this could have come about by his subsequent embracing of belief in something like chapters 6-11 of the “Ascension of Isaiah” and amalgamating it with the teaching of his own Apophasis Megale. In the “Ascension” the Son of God is sent down basically to fool the prince of this world into crucifying him by mistake. That type of limited ‘gospel’ fits what Simon claimed: to be the Son who suffered in Judaea. The early record does not say that Simon claimed to be Christ, or Jesus, or the Son who taught, or exorcised, or worked miracles, or founded the church, or any of the other things that are part of the later gospels. And that “Ascension “ type of limited gospel, of course, is what we find in the Pauline letters which, I suggest, previously had Simon as the sender.

      (I’m aware that we don’t have the “Ascension of Isaiah” in its original form, and that tampering has occurred at a crucial point in chapter 11 of it. But it seems clear from the other passages that describe the Son’s mission — 9:14-17 and 10:8-14 — that he was sent to get the prince of this world to mistakenly kill him. To accomplish that, no need for teaching, exorcizing, miracle-working, disciple-training, etc. He would have just needed to transform himself and trade places with any poor soul the Romans happened to be leading out for crucifixion at the time. I am also abstracting from the issue of whether that crucifixion happened on earth or on the firmament.)

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