The earliest gospels 2 — the Gospel of Basilides (according to P.L. Couchoud)

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Marcion, continues Paul Louis Couchoud, was fascinating reading but received outside Marcionite churches only after appropriate corrections. The first of these was in Alexandria by the gnostic philosopher Basilides.

The works of Basilides have been lost. We know they consisted of 24 books making up his Gospel and Commentaries. From Hegemonius we know the gospel of Basilides included Marcion’s parable of Dives [the Rich Man] and Lazarus. In Marcion’s gospel this parable addressed the Jews exclusively. The place of torment and place of refreshment (for those who obey the Law and Prophets) were both in “Hell”. Heaven is the bosom reserved only for those who belong to the Good God (who is greater than the Jewish creator god).

Basilides’ gospel did not have Jesus actually crucified. For Basilides, who may have been influenced by Buddhism, all suffering is the consequence of sin, even if for sins committed in a former life.

Basilides taught that Jesus somehow was confused with Simon of Cyrene and it was this Simon who was crucified in his place. Jesus, being supernaturally related to God or Mind was able to change his appearance at will, and so escaped crucifixion and was taken, laughing at how he had deceived mere mortals, to heaven. Thus the Pauline theme of the mocked Archontes/Rulers was maintained, but in the process the crucifixion was denied — a denial we see repeated in the Acts of John and in the Koran of Islam.

So Basilides was extending the original notion found in Marcin’s gospel that Jesus had no real human body.

Basilides is apparently responsible for the institution of the festival of the Epiphany of Jesus and of his Baptism on January 6.

This makes us think that according to Basilides the manifestation of Jesus as a god took place at a baptism similar to the water festival celebrated at Alexandria on January 6, but in honour of Osiris. (ppp. 169-170)

Next post, the Roman reaction: the Gospel of Mark

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “The earliest gospels 2 — the Gospel of Basilides (according to P.L. Couchoud)”

  1. My suspicion is that Irenaeus either misunderstood or deliberately garbled Basilides teaching. Basilides likely did teach that Simon the Cyrenian was transformed and switched places with a certain man whom the Romans were crucifying for sedition. But I suspect Basilides held it was Simon — and not the seditionist — who was the Son of God and who just moments before the switch had descended through the seven heavens precisely in order to get himself crucified by mistake. This descent into the world, transformation of appearance, and trading of places with the seditionist is, I believe, the incident that was originally present in chapter 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah and that, in the extant translations, has been replaced by interpolations, in one case a one-line summary (the Latin and Slavonic), and in the other (the Greek) a more extensive insertion. I realize, of course, that unless a copy of the original version of the Ascension is found there will probably be no conclusive way to prove what was present in chapter 11.

    If my explanation of the Basilidean transformations and switcheroo is correct, it would explain why those held responsible for the mistaken crucifixion were the spirit rulers of this world. The Romans, in crucifying the seditionist, were just doing their job, “inflicting wrath on the evildoer” (Rom. 13:4). If in this instance the Son of God used his transformative powers to trick them, they cannot really be blamed for not seeing through his trickery. Human power of detection cannot be expected to be a match for the deceptive power of the Son of God. But it is otherwise with the spirit rulers of this world. Since they are spirits, they are in the same league as the Son of God. And their ignorant and prideful belief that there was no God above them was the reason why the Son of God was able to so easily pass unrecognized through their heavens and then switch places on their earth with the seditionist.

    But if the man with whom Simon switched places was a seditionist, why, in the gospel that was later written, was the earlier life of that man presented as that of a wandering, exorcizing, teaching Son of God? That presentation, I submit, was created by a Simonian and was meant to be a cryptic allegory about Simon of Samaria. The early proto-orthodox heresy hunters acknowledge that Simon claimed to be a new manifestation of the one who “appeared among the Jews as the Son” and “seemed to suffer in Judaea”. That is, a new manifestation of the Son who had descended while the seditionist was being led out for crucifixion, switched places with him, and was crucified in his place. Simon’s claim to be that Son can explain why allegorical narratives about him were added to the earlier element, the Son’s crucifixion, to form the first gospel.

    Thus in this scenario UrMarks’ wandering Son of God who teaches and frees people from the various bondages of the spirit rulers of this world (including their law) would be Simon in allegorical disguise. His disciples’ repeated failure to believe his message and their ultimate abandonment of him would be the allegorical portrayal of Simon’s relationship with the Jerusalem church and its pillars.

    But what then are we to make of the other details that GMark provides about Simon the Cyrenian: “And they compelled a certain passer-by, Simon the Cyrenian, coming out of the field, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross” (Mk. 15:21)?

    First, the root meaning of “Cyrenian” may contain some hidden Simonian significance. Mark sometimes explains the meaning of words, but not always. His intent, remember, is that those on the outside “see but not perceive, hear but not understand” (Mk 4:12). He doesn’t tell us, for instance, that Nazarene has the same root meaning as Samaritan. And that the root meaning of Magdalene is “tower” (as in Simon’s consort Helen, the tower woman). The Greek word for Cyrenian is “Kyrenaios”, and although the precise origin of the word is unknown, it is thought that it includes a form of the word “kuros” which means “supremacy” and is the same root as the Greek word for “Lord”(Kyrios). Notice how if you lift the three middle letters of `Kyrenaios’ you are left with the word `Kyrios’. Why might this be significant? Because Simon, according to Hippolytus, was called “Lord” by his followers, at least his later ones (Refutation of All Heresies, 6,15).

    Second, the passer-by is identified as the father of Alexander and Rufus. Here again a root meaning may hold the key. Rufus is the Latin word for “red”. It is known that the Jews used a couple other words whose meaning was “red” to cryptically designate Rome: Esau and Edom. Couchoud, on page 100 of his The Creation of Christ, notes the use of Edom for Rome. Likewise Edward Gibbon: “…the name of Edom was applied by the Jews to the Roman empire.” (vol. 1, ch. 16, note 7 of his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. As for the similar use of the word “Esau”, see , for instance, Louis Feldman’s Remember Amalek!, p.57.

    If “Rufus” is code for Rome, the text is apparently telling us that the mysterious passer-by Simon, is not only Lord but also the father of Greece and Rome (Alexander and Rufus). The Greco-Romans had a god like that, whose title was: Father of gods and men. His name was Zeus. Why might this be significant? Because, according to Irenaeus, Simonians “have an image of Simon made in the likeness of Zeus” (Against Heresies 1,24,4).

    I’ll finish by saying that I realize the above scenario is speculative. I offer it as just another possibility to keep in mind. Perhaps going forward other pieces will fall into place that show there is something to it. Or, on the other hand, that it is just the product of an overactive imagination.

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