Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 14: Carpocrates, Epiphanius and the Tradition of Simon of Samaria

Going against the Christian current, which was generally ascetic and propagated in the Second Century by Gnostic esotericism and the pistis of the New Prophecy, the teachings of Carpocrates and his son Epiphanius inscribed themselves in a line of life that only Simon of Samaria had known how to trace out upon the tormented colorlessness of the era.

Carpocrates’ biography remains obscure. Origen confused him with Harpocrates, son of Isis and Osiris, a solar god under Greco-Roman domination, often represented in the magic papyrus seated on a lotus, the male principle that penetrated the feminine principle in order to impregnate her with his light. Carpocrates taught at Alexandria and wed Alexandreia. Their son, Epiphanius, who died at the age of 17 in 138, was interred on his island of birth, Cephalonia. Around 155 or 156, a [female] philosopher named Marcellina taught the doctrines of the father and the son in Rome.

Clement of Alexandria had the merit of transcribing a short extract by Epiphanius on justice:

“Justice consists in a community of equality. A single sky spreads out and embraces the entire earth within its circumference; the night shows all of the stars equally; as for the sun, author of the day and father of the night, God makes it shine on the earth from on high, equally for all the beings that can see. They all see it in common, because he makes no exception for the rich, the beggar or the sovereign, no matter if foolish or wise, woman or man, free man or slave. The brute animals themselves have no difficulty in seeing the sun, because God has poured the light of the sun on all creatures from on high, as a communal good, and he proves his justice to the good as well as to the wicked; thus no one possesses more, nor steals from his or her neighbor in order to double his or her own share of light. The sun makes the pastures grow for the communal enjoyment of all the animals, and his justice is distributed among all, in common and in equality. It is for such a life that the species of the cow was made, as well as each individual cow, that of the pigs as well as each individual pig, that of the sheep as well as each individual sheep, and so on. Justice is manifested in them under the form of a community.

“Moreover, all is spread out in equality for the species following the principle of community; nourishment is spread out for the beasts that graze, for all equally, and without being ruled by law; on the contrary, nourishment is provided by the liberality of the Master for all in conformity with his justice. Even concerning procreation, there are no written laws; because these would be false laws. The animals procreate and engender in the same fashion, and practice a community that was inculcated in them through justice. The Creator and Father of All gives the faculty of sight to them all in common, and his legislation consists exclusively in the justice issued from him. He does not make a distinction between man and woman, reasonable and reasonless, or one being and another. With equality and communally he shares the faculty of sight and he gives it equally to all through a single and self-same commandment. As far as the laws, which do not punish men who are ignorant of them, there are those who have learned them in order to act illegally. Particular laws fragment and destroy communion with divine law. Do you not understand the words of the Apostle: ‘I have only known sin through the law’? By this, the Apostle meant that ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ only entered the world through the laws and that this was the end of all community. Because what remains in common for those who do not enjoy property, goods, or even marriage? And yet God created for all, communally, the vineyards that do not chase away the sparrows or the thieves, and likewise with the cereals and other fruits. But it was from the day that community was no longer understood in the sense of equality and was deformed by the Law that the thief who steals animals and fruit was produced. God created all for the communal pleasure of mankind; he united man and woman so that they could enjoy shared company [un commerce commun], and he likewise coupled all the living beings to manifest his justice as community in equality. But those who were born thanks to this have denied their origin from the community that brings people together. They say: ‘He who marries her must keep her,’ whereas all can share her, as the example of all the other living beings shows.”

Epiphanius still taught in proper [religious] terms that “God placed in male beings a powerful and impetuous desire to propagate the species, and no law, no custom, can exclude it from the world, because it is the institution of God. Thus the words of the legislator, ‘You must not covet’ (Exodus, 20:17, and Deuteronomy, 5:21), are ridiculous and even more ridiculous is what follows, ‘[you must not covet] the goods of your neighbor,’ because the same God who gave to man the desire intended to couple beings with a view towards procreation [also] ordained the destruction of desire, although he did not take it from any living being. But the most laughable of all is ‘[not coveting] the woman of your neighbor,’ because this necessarily leads the community to separation.”[1]

Epiphanius’ text, which was of an astonishing modernity, participated in a thought and a behavior that was radically hostile to Stoic, Epicurean and Christian morals.

Carpocrates and Epiphanius both belonged to a Greek milieu that rejected Judaism. In the same way that Simon of Samaria restored the spirit of the Pentateuch (and Genesis, in particular) to the body, Epiphanius mocked the biblical commandments and the notions of sin and guilt. The Law of Moses fomented crime for the same reason that prohibition engenders transgression.

Thereafter, quotations from Paul were subjected to the ordinary revisions made by the heresiologues, who added canonical extracts to them in order to blunt the dissent of doctrines that had nothing to do with Christianity but nevertheless brought the Messiah Joshua (as well as Serapis, Seth, Abrasax and Harpocrates) into their own syncretisms; or these quotations referred back to a Paul who was completely different from the image of him that Marcion and his successive manipulators presented, that is to say, a Saul/Paul whose teachings justified the name Simon, which was adopted by Elchasaites living under the rule of Trajan.

Written when Epiphanius was 15 or 16 years old, the work of this young man whom Jacques Lacarrière[2] called the Gnostic Rimbaud linked social equality to the free exercise of desire. His critique of property surpassed the Rousseauist conception, and one had to wait until [Charles] Fourier and the radicalism of individual anarchy, with its principle “We only group ourselves according to affinities,” for there to be an echo of the precocious genius of Epiphanius of Cephalonia.

I do not see why Marcellina, a disciple of Carpocrates and Epiphanius who taught in Rome around 160, would have decorated her school “with painted icons enhanced with gold, representing Jesus, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle,” as Irenaeus claimed,[3] unless this wasn’t simply an occasion for the Bishop of Lyon to condemn the Christians who preferred Greek philosophy to the Bible.

On the other hand, it is probable that the community founded on the liberty of desire drew the idea that “the soul must be thoroughly tested before death” from Pythagorean theory, because, “for Epiphanius, desire was the expression of the first will of God and nature.”[4] And according to Simon [of Samaria], since desire was identified with fire (the principle of creation and the principle of passion), there was nothing in the unity of the macrocosm and the microcosm that could limit it.

Epiphanius applied his conception of justice to mankind, the animals and the plants. The living beings and things perpetuated themselves by changing form. Irenaeus interpreted this theory, which rendered everything strange and odious to him, in terms of magic and metempsychosis:

“They also practiced magic, incantations, amorous love potions, love feasts, the invocation of the spirits of the dead and the spirits from dreams, and other forms of necromancy, claiming that they had power over the princes and creators of this world and, moreover, used that power over all creatures of this world. They had loosened the bridle on aberration to the point that they claimed to have complete freedom to commit any act, impious or atheist, which pleased them, as if it were human opinion that made the difference between a good act and a bad one. The soul, they said, must – through a migration from one body into another – exhaust all forms of life and possible actions, if it had not done so in its first life. We do not dare to say, hear, or even think about or believe that such things took place in our towns; but their writings teach that, before death, the soul must be completely tested before its final repose.”[5]

A line by Irenaeus does not appear troubling: “[For them] it is faith and love that saves; the rest is irrelevant and only human opinion distinguishes between good and evil.”

According to Simon’s Megale Apophasis, faith in oneself and love led to the Great Power, which resided in each person and moved the world. What is astonishing is the fact that, in a letter by Paul, the theme of faith and love gave birth to an enthusiastic development that clashed with misogyny and ascetic harshness, which were confirmed everywhere [else] in the epistolary works of the man who, successor to Moses, stole the title of Apostle from him.

“When I speak in tongues, [the language] of men and angels, if I lack love, I am merely resonating metal, a resounding cymbal. When I have the gift of prophecy, the science of all mysteries and all knowledge (gnosis); when I have the most complete faith, that which moves mountains; if I lack love, then I am nothing. When I give all my belongings (to those who are starving); when I surrender my body (like a slave), to remove pride; if I lack love, then I gain nothing. Love takes patience, love renders service, it is not jealous, it does not swagger, it does not inflate with pride, it is not ugly, it does not seek its own interest, it does not become irritated, it does not hold grudges, it does not rejoice in injustice; it finds its joy in truth. It fills everything, it believes everything, it endures everything. Love will never disappear [...]” (Epistle to the Corinthians, I:13).

Which anti-Marcionite, coming to the potluck of Paul’s epistles, brought this fragment of Carpocratic doctrine and inserted it into a Christian perspective?

[1] Clement of Alexandria, Stromates, III, 2, 9, and 3, 9.

[2] Translator: cf. Jacques Lacarrière, Les Gnostiques (Idées Gallimard, 1973).

[3] Leisegang, op. cit., pp. 180 and 181.

[4] Leisegang, La Gnose, op. cit., p. 179.

[5] Irenaeus, I, 25.

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! April 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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