THE task we have now to attempt is by far the most difficult which can be undertaken by the student The Obscurity of the Subject. of Patristic Gnosticism. When we have the name of an individual teacher to guide us, there is at least a point round which certain ideas and statements may be grouped; but when we have no such indications, but only scraps of information, or summaries of "some say" and "others maintain," as in Irenæus; or vague designations of widespread schools of various periods, as in Hippolytus; when further we reflect that among such surroundings we are face to face with one of the main streams of evolving Gnosticism, and realize the complete absence of any definite landmarks, where all should have been carefully surveyed--a feeling almost of despair comes over even the most enthusiastic student.
It has been supposed that up to the time of Irenæus Gnostic documents were freely circulated; but that by the time of Hippolytus (that is to say, after the lapse of a generation or more) orthodoxy had made such headway that the Gnostic documents were withdrawn from circulation and hidden, and that this accounts for the glee of Hippolytus, who taunts the Gnostics with his possession of some of their secret MSS. I am, however, convinced that the most recondite and technical treatises of the Gnostics were never circulated; the adherents of the Gnosis were too much imbued with the idea
of a "secret doctrine" and grades of initiation to blazon their inner tenets forth on the house-tops.
Also I doubt exceedingly whether these intertwined schools and phases of doctrine were separated from one another in any very precise fashion, or that the Basilidians, Valentinians, and the rest, distinguished themselves by such designations. Gnosticism was a living thing, no crystallized system or dead orthodoxy; each competent student thought out the main features of the Gnosis in his own fashion, and generally phrased it in his own terms.
In treating this part of our essay also another difficulty presents itself; we are writing for those who are presumably but slightly acquainted with the subject, and who would only be confused by a mass of details. It is, however, precisely these details which are of interest and importance, and therefore a summary must at best be exceedingly imperfect and liable to misconstruction. We have thus to set up our finger-posts as best we may.
The Term "Ophite".As stated above, the term "Ophite" is exceedingly erroneous; it does not generally describe the schools of which we are treating; it was not used by the adherents of the schools themselves, who mostly preferred the term Gnostic; even where the symbolism of the serpent enters into the exposition of their systems, it is by no means the characteristic feature. In brief, this term, which originated in the fallacy of taking a very small part for the whole--a favourite trick of the hæresiologist, whose main weapon was to exaggerate a minor detail into a main characteristic--has been used as a vague designation
for all exposition of Gnostic doctrine which could not be ascribed to a definite teacher. It is in this foundling asylum, so to say, that we must look for the general outlines which form the basis of the teachings of even Basilides and Valentinus, each of whom, like the rest of the Gnostics, modified the general tradition in his own peculiar fashion.
This "Ophite" Gnosticism is said by Philaster to be pre-Christian; Irenæus, after detailing a system, which Theodoret when copying from him calls "Ophite," says that it was from the Valentinian school. Celsus, the Pagan philosopher, in his True Word, writing about the third quarter of the second century, makes no distinction between the rest of the Christian world and those whom Origen, almost a century afterwards, in his refutation of Celsus, calls "Ophiani."
The latest criticism is of opinion that Philaster has blundered, but the statement is sufficient evidence that there was a body of pre-Christian Gnosis, that the stream flowed unbrokenly and in ever-increasing volume during the first two centuries, and that the erroneous designation "Ophite" still marks out one of its main channels.
The serpent-symbol played a great part in the Mysteries of the ancients, especially in Greece, Egypt, The Serpent Symbol. and Phoenicia; thence we can trace it back to Syria, Babylonia, and farther East to India, where it still survives and receives due explanation. It figured forth the most intimate processes of the generation of the universe and of man, and also of the mystic birth. It was the glyph of the creative power, and in its
lowest form was debased into a phallic emblem. Physical procreation and the processes of conception are lower manifestations of the energizing of the great creative will and the evolutionary world-process. But the one is as far removed from the other, as man's body is from the body of the universe, as man's animal desire from the divine will of deity.
The mysteries of sex were explained in the adyta of the ancient temples; and naturally enough the attempt to get behind the great passion of mankind was fraught with the greatest peril. A knowledge of the mystery led many to asceticism; a mere curious prying into the matter led to abuse. Illumination, seership, and spiritual knowledge, were the reward of the pure in body and mind; sexual excess and depravity punished the prying of the unfit. This explains one of the most curious phenomena in religious history; the bright and dark sides are almost invariably found together; whenever an attempt is made to shed some light on the mystery of the world and of man, the whole nature is quickened, and if the animal is the stronger, it becomes all the more uncontrolled owing to the quickening. Thus we find that some obscure groups of dabblers in the mystery-tradition fell into grave errors, not only of theory but of practice, and that Patristic writers of the subsequent centuries tried by every means to exaggerate this particular into a general charge against "error"; whereas, as a matter of fact, it is in the writings of the Gnostics themselves that we find the severest condemnation of such abuses.
As man was generated in the womb from a "serpent" and an "egg," so was the universe; but the serpent of the universe was the Great Power, the Mighty Whirlwind, the Vast Vortex, and the egg was the All-Envelope of the world system, the primordial "fire-mist." The serpent was thus the glyph of the Divine Will, the Divine Reason, the Mind of Deity, the Logos. The egg was the Thought, the Conception, the Mother of All. The germinal universe was figured as a circle with a serpent lying diagonally along its field, or twined a certain number of times round it. This serpentine force fashioned the universe, and fashioned man. It created him; and yet he in his turn could use it for creation, if he would only cease from generation. The Caduceus, or Rod of Mercury, and the Thyrsus in the Greek Mysteries, which conducted the soul from life to death, and from death to life, figured forth the serpentine power in man, and the path whereby it would carry the "man" aloft to the height, if he would but cause the "Waters of the Jordan" to "flow upwards."
The serpent of Genesis, the serpent-rod of Moses, and the uplifting of the brazen serpent in the wilderness, were promptly seized upon by Jewish Gnostics as mythological ideas similar to the myths of the Mysteries. To give the reader an insight into their methods of mystical exegesis, which looked to an inner psychological science, we may here append their interpretation of what may be called "The Myth of the Going-forth."
The Myth was common to a number of schools, but Hippolytus ascribes it to an otherwise unknown
school called the Peratæ, supposed to mean Transcendentalists, or those who by means of the Gnosis had "passed beyond" or "crossed over." The Myth of the Going-forth. Thus then they explained the Exodus-myth. Egypt is the body; all those who identify themselves with the body are the ignorant, the Egyptians. To "come forth" out of Egypt is to leave the body; and to pass through the Red Sea is to cross over the ocean of generation, the animal and sensual nature, which is hidden within the blood. Yet even then they are not safe; crossing the Red Sea they enter the Desert, the intermediate state of the doubting lower mind. There they are attacked by the "gods of destruction," which Moses called the "serpents of the desert," and which plague those who seek to escape from the "gods of generation." To them Moses, the teacher, shows the true serpent crucified on the cross of matter, and by its means they escape from the Desert and enter the Promised Land, the realm of the spiritual mind, where there is the Heavenly Jordan, the World-soul. When the Waters of the Jordan flow downwards, then is the generation of men; but when they flow upward, then is the creation of the gods. Jesus (Joshua) was one who had caused the Waters of the Jordan to flow upwards.
Many of the ancient myths had a historico-legendary background, but their use as myths, or religious and mystic romances, had gradually effaced the traces of history. Those instructed in the Mysteries were practised in the science of mythology, and thus the learned Gnostics at once perceived the
mythological nature of the Exodus and its adaptability to a mystical interpretation. The above instance is a very good example of this method of exegesis; a great deal of such interpretation, however, was exceedingly strained, when not decidedly silly. The religious mind of the times loved to exercise its ingenuity on such interpretations, and the difference between Gnostic exegesis and that of the subsequent Orthodox, is that the former tried to discover soul-processes in the myths and parables of scripture, whereas the Orthodox regarded a theological and dogmatic interpretation as alone legitimate.
Judged by our present knowledge of language, the "silliest" element which entered into such pious Pseudo-philology. pastimes was the method of word-play, or pseudo-philology, which is found everywhere in the writings of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Indians, Jews, and Greeks. Among the Gnostic and Patristic writers, therefore, we find the most fantastic derivations of names, which were put forward in support of theological doctrines, but which were destitute of the most rudimentary philological accuracy. Men, such as Plato, who in many other respects were giants of intellect, were content to resort to such methods. It is, however, pleasant to notice that the nature of the soul and the truths of the spiritual life were the chief interest for such ancient "philologists," and not the grubbing up of "roots"; nevertheless, we should be careful when detecting the limitation of such minds in certain directions, to guard against the error of closing our eyes to the limitations of
our own modern methods in directions where the ancients have done much good work.
We will now proceed to give a brief sketch of the main outlines of one of the presentations of general Gnostic ideas preserved by Irenæus.