2020-07-08

Further Details on those Medieval “Christ Mythicists”

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by Neil Godfrey

I am now able to add more information to a month-old post, Medieval “Christ Mythicists” and the Ascension of Isaiah. In that post we saw how Peter of Les Vaux-De-Cernay documented in his history of the Albigensian Crusade against certain “heretics” in southern France known as Cathars

Further, in their secret meetings they said that the Christ who was born in the earthly and visible Bethlehem and crucified at Jerusalem was ‘evil’, and that Mary Magdalene was his concubine – and that she was the woman taken in adultery who is referred to in the Scriptures; the ‘good’ Christ, they said, neither ate nor drank nor assumed the true flesh and was never in this world, except spiritually in the body of Paul. I have used the term ‘the earthly and visible Bethlehem’ because the heretics believed there is a different and invisible earth in which – according to some of them – the ‘good’ Christ was born and crucified. Again, they said that the good God had two wives, Oolla and Ooliba, on whom he begat sons and daughters. There were other heretics who said that there was only one Creator, but that he had two sons, Christ and the Devil; they said moreover that all created beings had once been good, but that everything had been corrupted by the vials referred to in the Book of Revelations.

Of course, the Cathars were not “Christ mythicists” in the way we think of that term. There was surely nothing “mythical” for the “some of them” about the Christ who died in “a different and invisible earth”. I admit I merely use the term “christ mythicist” in this context because it has meaning for quite a few interested readers here in its relation to a belief in a “celestial crucifixion”. I myself have doubted the view of some mythicists — Couchoud, Doherty, Carrier — that any early Christians believed in a heavenly crucifixion of Jesus. I also have come to doubt their interpretation of the Ascension of Isaiah which posits a crucifixion in the firmament above the earth. But I cannot deny the interest that certain beliefs of the Cathars must hold for many of us, including me.

But anyone who has seriously studied the history of the Cathars must surely know of a surviving document by a Dominican friar, Rainerius Sacconi, who claims that he himself was a Cathar for seventeen years. He writes with loathing of the beliefs of those with whom he once identified. At one point he singles out the beliefs of John of Lugio who led a certain subgroup among the Cathars. The account is quite lengthy but I pick out a few details of particular interest. The document, dated 1250, is titled

THE SUMMA OF BROTHER RAINERIUS OF THE ORDER OF PREACHERS ON THE CATHARS AND THE POOR OF LYONS

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although at one time sects of heretics were numerous, by the grace of Jesus Christ they have been almost completely destroyed; yet, two in particular are now found, one of which is called the Cathars or Patarines, the other the Leonists or Poor of Lyons. Their beliefs are set forth in the pages which follow.

. . . .

On the Beliefs of John of Lugio . . . .

Also, he thinks that the good God has another world wherein are people and animals and everything else comparable to the visible and corruptible creatures here; marriages and fornications and adulteries take place there, from which children are bom. And what is even more base, there the people of the good God, against His command, have taken foreign women to wife, that is, daughters of a strange god or of evil gods, and from such shameful and forbidden intercourse have been born giants and many other beings at various times.

. . . .

Also, he says that when God inflicts punishments for sins upon His creatures, He does evil and does not comport Himself as God but rather serves His adversary.

Also, he says that when God declares, “I am God and there is no other,” and again, “See that I alone am God,” and the like, repetitiously, then He is influenced by His adversary, for the true God spêaks but once and, as Job says, does not repeat Himself.

Also, he says that God, by the power of His own knowledge, does not have foreknowledge of anything evil, since it does not emanate from Him, but sometimes He does have foreknowledge of it through His adversary.

Also, he believes that the true God brought about the Flood, destroyed Pentapolis, and overthrew Jerusalem, because of the sins of His creatures; and, to summarize, the true God, provoked by His adversary, brought upon His people Israel all the afore-mentioned evils which they suffered in Judea or in the Promised Land because of the sins which they had committed. So this John says; he also believes that all the events mentioned took place in a certain other world, belonging to the true God.

Also, he believes that the souls who are of God are transferred from body to body and that in the end all will be freed from punishment and guilt.

Also, this John accepts the whole Bible, but thinks that it was written in another world, and that there Adam and Eve were formed.

Also, he believes that Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other patriarchs, and Moses, Joshua, and all the prophets, and the Blessed John the Baptist were pleasing to God and that they were men in another world.

Also, that Christ was born according to the flesh of the fathers of old, just named, and that He really assumed flesh from the Blessed Virgin and really suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, and rose again on the third day, but he thinks that all these things took place in another, higher world, not in this one.

Also, that in the aforesaid world, the whole human race incurred death because of sin to which it yielded, sin which this John calls the principle and cause of all evil, as we have repeatedly remarked. And after their bodies were buried in that world, their souls necessarily descended into hell, that is, into this world, and to this hell Christ came down to help them.

Also, he believes that in the upper world will come the resurrection of the dead, namely, that each soul belonging to God will receive its own body.

Also, that in that same world the true God gave the law of Moses to the people we have described. There, also, priests offered sacrifices and burnt offerings for the sins of the people, as their offering is commanded in the Law.

Also, in that same place Christ literally wrought true miracles in raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, and feeding five thousand men, not counting the women and children, from five barley loaves and two fishes.

Why say more? Whatever in the whole Bible is stated to have been in this world he changes to have actually taken place in that other world.

[23] How John of Lugio Wrote a Book about His Errors.—Indeed, the oft-mentioned heresiarch John of Lugio fabricated the blasphemies and errors described above and many others which would take too long and be too disgusting for me to recount. From them he compiled a large volume of ten quires, a copy of which I have. I have read it all and from it have extracted the errors cited above. It is also to be noted especially that this John and his associates do not dare to reveal to their believers the errors described, lest their own believers desert them on account of these novel errors and because of the schism existing among the Albanensian Cathars, of which they are the cause. The Albanensian Cathars censure the Concorezzenses and are in turn censured by the latter.

I’m not sure how some of Sacconi’s account fits neatly with Peter’s in his history of the Albigensian crusade. That someone claiming to have formerly been a member of a heretical group professes to write a true account of their beliefs is not necessarily an indication that everything they say is true. I don’t know what the actual relationship between Sacconi and John of Lugio was, and I suspect some caution is required on the basis of the admission that some of the beliefs described were actually kept secret from all but an inner circle. Does Sacconi’s stress that he has “read the original writings” reassure us or leave us with questions?

Bugger — I nearly forgot. . . .

Something else of interest, especially for anyone with an interest in word origins:

Throughout France the Cathars were popularly described as Bulgarians. . . . In northern France the popular name for Cathars was Bougres, Bulgarians, which became a term of abuse, passing into English as bugger, because the Cathar perfects were each assigned a companion of the same sex, and this led some of their opponents to make ribald comments. 

(Hamilton, p.100)

The things one learns when following the tributaries from a study of the Ascension of Isaiah!


Sacconi, Rainerius. 1991. “The Summa of Rainerius Sacconi.” In Heresies of the High Middle Ages: Selected Sources Translated and Annotated, translated by Walter Wakefield and Austin Evans, 329–46. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hamilton, Bernard. 2006. “Bogomil Infuences on Western Heresy.” In Heresy and the Persecuting Society in the Middle Ages: Essays on the Work of R.I. Moore, edited by Michael Frassetto, 93–114. Leiden ; Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.


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3 thoughts on “Further Details on those Medieval “Christ Mythicists””

  1. Neil,
    while I believed that the Cathars could give an explicit evidence of a belief in a celestial death, now I think that there is a even better evidence:

    But, in truth, the passion of Christ was neither similar to the passion of the Æon, nor did it take place in similar circumstances.
    (Irenaeus, AH II, 20,3)

    The immediate context is a polemic against some Gnostics who, evidently, were claiming that the passion of Christ was similar to the passion of the Æon and it take place in similar circumstances (meaning: in outer space). This can be derived easily in virtue of the fact that, for the entire chapter, Irenaeus is going to deny any single point of the Gnostic belief.

    This evidence is particularly interesting since it shows that the passion of Christ in outer space was not something of different from a passion (for example: a mere passage), but was a ‘real’ suffering.

  2. Re “Something else of interest, especially for anyone with an interest in word origins:..” Well, that was cathartic!

    Is that how the Cathars got their name, from the root sense of purging/purifying?

    1. There is nothing simple among scholars, you know. From the same chapter as the Bourges quote, . . .

      Cathars are referred to in the sources in a variety of names. Cathars is in origin a Greek word, κααρι. It was first applied to Western heretics in 1163 by Egbert of Schonau who had examined a group of them at Cologne. He wrote a set of sermons against them and was influenced in his description by what St. Augustine had said of the Manichaeans in the late Roman Empire, but was not influenced by Augustine in his choice of name for them. Augustine did not describe the Manichaeans as κααρι, and Byzantine writers did not describe the Bogomils in that way either. In the Orthodox Church the name κααρι referred to the Novatians, condemned by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 as schismatics, but unswerving in their adherence to the Catholic faith in a form which had been professed in Rome in c. 200 A.D.15 Henri Grégoire pointed out that the Novatians and the Cathars both called themselves by the same Greek name, but no direct connection between them has ever been established. It is probable that both groups used this name because they both claimed to hold the Christian faith in its pure form. 16

      So it is from the Greek word for purification — or perhaps rather from the cat as the devil’s pet!

      16. 16 H. Grégoire, “Cathares d’Asie Mineure, d’Italie et de la France,” Archives de l’Orient chrétien 1 (1948): 142–151. Alan of Lille did not know what the word Cathar meant and derived it from cattus, the Latin form of the German name for felis domesticus, claiming that the Cathars worshipped Satan in the form of a cat.

      Alas, the endnote continues:

      De fide Catholica contra haereticos sui temporis, Bk. I, chap. 63, in J.P. Migne, Patrologia Latina [henceforth PL] 210, col. 366. No scholar except Duvernoy has taken this suggestion seriously because there is no corroborative evidence in any other source: J. Duvernoy, La Religion des Cathares (Toulouse: Privat, 1976), 302–304.

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