OUR main source of information is Irenæus; Tertullian, Hippolytus and Epiphanius simply copy their predecessor. Carpocrates, or Carpocras, was (according to Eusebius) a Platonic philosopher who taught at Alexandria in the reign of Hadrian (A.D. 117-138); he was also the head of a Gnostic circle, whom the Church fathers call Carpocratians, but who called themselves simply Gnostics. With regard to the charge which Epiphanius brings against them two hundred and fifty years afterwards, it is evidently founded on a complete misunderstanding of the jumbled account of Irenæus, if not of malice prepense; for the Bishop of Lyons distinctly says, that he by no means believes that they did the things which he thinks they ought to have done, if they had consistently carried out their teachings! As a matter of fact, the whole confusion arises through
the incapacity of the latter Church Father to understand the elements of the doctrine of rebirth. The main tenets of the school were as follows.
Their Idea of Jesus.The sensible world was made by the fabricating powers, or builders, far inferior to the ineffable power of the unknown ingenerable Father. Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, and was born like all other men; he differed from the rest in that his soul, being strong and pure, remembered what it saw in its orbit round (or conversation with) the ineffable Father. This is also the idea (lying behind the Pythagorean, Platonic and Hermetic traditions) of the orderly course of the soul in harmonious circuit round the Spiritual Sun, in the Plain of Truth, when it is in its own nature. In consequence of this reminiscence (which is the source of all wisdom and virtue) the Father clothed him with powers, whereby he might escape from the dominion of the rulers of the world, and passing through all their spheres, and being freed from each, finally ascend to the Father. In like manner all souls of a like nature who put forth similar efforts, shall ascend to the Father. Though the soul of Jesus was brought up in the ordinary Jewish views, he soared above them, and thus by the powers he received from above, he triumphed over human passions.
Believing, then, that all souls which rise above the constraints of the world-building rulers, will receive similar powers and perform like wonders, these Gnostics still further claimed that some of their number had actually attained to the same degree of perfection as Jesus, if not to a higher
degree, and were stronger than Peter and Paul, and the other Apostles who had attained similar powers.
In fact they boldly taught that men could reach higher degrees of illumination than Jesus; it is not, however, clear whether they made the usual distinction between Jesus and the Christ. These powers were of a "magical" nature, and the next paragraph of Irenæus puts us strongly in mind of the tenets of the "Simonian" school. Such ideas seem to have been very prevalent, so much so that Irenæus complains that outsiders were induced to think that such views were the common belief of Christianity.
The next paragraph deals with the doctrine that there is no essential evil in the universe, Reincarnation. but that things are bad and good in man's opinion only. Let us, therefore, see how Irenæus, from his summary of their doctrine of rebirth, arrives at this generalisation.
The soul has to pass through every kind of existence and activity in its cycle of rebirth. Irenæus is apparently drawing his information from a MS. which asserted that this could be done in one life; that is to say, apparently, that some souls then existing in the world could pay their kārmic debt in one life. For the MS. quotes the saying, "Agree with thine adversary quickly whiles thou art in the way with him, lest at any time thine adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to his officer, and thou be cast into prison. Amen, I say unto thee, thou shalt not come forth thence till thou has paid the uttermost
farthing." Now, the adversary is the accuser (diabolus), that is to say the karmic record in the man's own nature; the judge is the chief of the world-building powers; the officer is the builder of the new body; the prison is the body. Thus the MS. explains the text--precisely the same exegesis as is given to it in the Pistis Sophia treatise, which explains all in the fullest manner on the lines of reincarnation and what Indian philosophers call karma.
But not so will Irenæus have it. He asserts that the doctrine means that the soul must pass through all experience good and bad, and until every experience has been learned, no one can be set free. That some souls can do all this in one life! That the Carpocratians, therefore, must have indulged in the most unmentionable crimes because they wished to fill full the tale of all experience good and bad, and so come to an end of the necessity of experience.
Irenæus, however, immediately afterwards adds that he does not believe the Carpocratians actually do such things, although he is forced to deduce such a logical consequence from their books. It is, however, evident that the whole absurd conclusion is entirely due to the stupidity of the Bishop of Lyons, who, owing to his inability to understand the most elementary facts of the doctrine of reincarnation, has started with entirely erroneous premises, although the matter was as clear as daylight to a beginner in Gnosticism.
The circle of the Carpocratians is said to have established a branch at Rome, about 150, under a
certain Marcellina. They had pictures and statues of many great teachers who were held in honour by their school, such as Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, and also a portrait of Jesus.
It is curious to remark that Celsus, as quoted by Origen (c. 62), in referring to these Marcellians, also mentions the Harpocratians who derived their tenets from Salōmē. Is it possible that this is the correct form of the name, and not Carpocratians? Harpocrates was the Græcised form of Horus, the Mystery-God of the Egyptians; and Salōmē, we know, was a prominent figure in the lost Gospel according to the Egyptians.