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Part II. The Early Church and the Origins of Gnosticism
The enfranchisement of the church from the bonds of the synagogue was a work, however, of some time and of some difficulty.
The Jewish converts, who acknowledged Jesus in the character of the Messiah foretold by their ancient oracles, respected him as
a prophetic teacher of virtue and religion; but they obstinately adhered to the ceremonies of their ancestors, and were desirous of
imposing them on the Gentiles, who continually augmented the number of believers. These Judaizing Christians seem to have
argued with some degree of plausibility from the divine origin of the Mosaic law, and from the immutable perfection of its great
Author. They affirmed, that if the Being, who is the same through all eternity, had designed to abolish those sacred rites which had
served to distinguish his chosen people, the repeal of them would have been no less clear and solemn than their first promulgation:
that, instead of those frequent declarations, which either suppose or assert the perpetuity of the Mosaic religion, it would have
been represented as a provisionary scheme intended to last only to the coming of the Messiah, who should instruct mankind in a
more perfect mode of faith and of worship: 15 that the Messiah himself, and his disciples who conversed with him on earth,
instead of authorizing by their example the most minute observances of the Mosaic law, 16 would have published to the world the
abolition of those useless and obsolete ceremonies, without suffering Christianity to remain during so many years obscurely
confounded among the sects of the Jewish church. Arguments like these appear to have been used in the defense of the expiring
cause of the Mosaic law; but the industry of our learned divines has abundantly explained the ambiguous language of the Old
Testament, and the ambiguous conduct of the apostolic teachers. It was proper gradually to unfold the system of the gospel, and to
pronounce, with the utmost caution and tenderness, a sentence of condemnation so repugnant to the inclination and prejudices of
the believing Jews.
Footnote 15: These arguments were urged with great ingenuity by the Jew Orobio, and refuted with equal ingenuity and candor by the Christian Limborch. See the Amica Collatio, (it well deserves that name,) or account of the dispute between them.
Footnote 16: Grotius de Veritate Religionis Christianae, l. v. c. 7. A little afterwards, (c. 12,) he expatiates on the
condescension of the apostles.
The history of the church of Jerusalem affords a lively proof of the necessity of those precautions, and of the deep impression
which the Jewish religion had made on the minds of its sectaries. The first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were all circumcised Jews;
and the congregation over which they presided united the law of Moses with the doctrine of Christ. 17 It was natural that the
primitive tradition of a church which was founded only forty days after the death of Christ, and was governed almost as many
years under the immediate inspection of his apostle, should be received as the standard of orthodoxy. 18 The distant churches
very frequently appealed to the authority of their venerable Parent, and relieved her distresses by a liberal contribution of alms.
But when numerous and opulent societies were established in the great cities of the empire, in Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus,
Corinth, and Rome, the reverence which Jerusalem had inspired to all the Christian colonies insensibly diminished. The Jewish
converts, or, as they were afterwards called, the Nazarenes, who had laid the foundations of the church, soon found themselves
overwhelmed by the increasing multitudes, that from all the various religions of polytheism enlisted under the banner of Christ: and
the Gentiles, who, with the approbation of their peculiar apostle, had rejected the intolerable weight of the Mosaic ceremonies, at
length refused to their more scrupulous brethren the same toleration which at first they had humbly solicited for their own practice.
The ruin of the temple of the city, and of the public religion of the Jews, was severely felt by the Nazarenes; as in their manners,
though not in their faith, they maintained so intimate a connection with their impious countrymen, whose misfortunes were
attributed by the Pagans to the contempt, and more justly ascribed by the Christians to the wrath, of the Supreme Deity. The
Nazarenes retired from the ruins of Jerusalem * to the little town of Pella beyond the Jordan, where that ancient church
languished above sixty years in solitude and obscurity. 19 They still enjoyed the comfort of making frequent and devout visits to
the Holy City, and the hope of being one day restored to those seats which both nature and religion taught them to love as well as
to revere. But at length, under the reign of Hadrian, the desperate fanaticism of the Jews filled up the measure of their calamities;
and the Romans, exasperated by their repeated rebellions, exercised the rights of victory with unusual rigor. The emperor founded,
under the name of Aelia Capitolina, a new city on Mount Zion, 20 to which he gave the privileges of a colony; and denouncing the
severest penalties against any of the Jewish people who should dare to approach its precincts, he fixed a vigilant garrison of a
Roman cohort to enforce the execution of his orders. The Nazarenes had only one way left to escape the common proscription,
and the force of truth was on this occasion assisted by the influence of temporal advantages. They elected Marcus for their
bishop, a prelate of the race of the Gentiles, and most probably a native either of Italy or of some of the Latin provinces. At his
persuasion, the most considerable part of the congregation renounced the Mosaic law, in the practice of which they had
persevered above a century. By this sacrifice of their habits and prejudices, they purchased a free admission into the colony of
Hadrian, and more firmly cemented their union with the Catholic Church. 21
Footnote 17: Paene omnes Christum Deum sub legis observatione credebant Sulpicius Severus, ii. 31. See Eusebius, Hist.
Ecclesiast. l. iv. c. 5.
Footnote 18: Mosheim de Rebus Christianis ante Constantinum Magnum, 153.
Footnote *: This is incorrect: all the traditions concur in placing the abandonment of the city by the Christians, not only before it was in ruins, but before the siege had commenced. Euseb. loc. cit., and Le Clerc. - M.
Footnote 19: Eusebius, l. iii. c. 5. Le Clerc, Hist. Ecclesiast. p. 605. During this occasional absence, the bishop and church of Pella still retained the title of Jerusalem. In the same manner, the Roman pontiffs resided seventy years at Avignon; and the patriarchs of Alexandria have long since
transferred their Episcopal seat to Cairo.
Footnote 20: Dion Cassius, l. lxix. The exile of the Jewish nation from Jerusalem is attested by Aristo of Pella, (apud Euseb. l. iv.
c. 6,) and is mentioned by several ecclesiastical writers; though some of them too hastily extend this interdiction to the whole
country of Palestine.
Footnote 21: Eusebius, l. iv. c. 6. Sulpicius Severus, ii. 31. By comparing their unsatisfactory accounts,
Mosheim (p. 327, &c.) has drawn out a very distinct representation of the circumstances and motives of this revolution.
When the name and honors of the church of Jerusalem had been restored to Mount Zion, the crimes of heresy and schism were
imputed to the obscure remnant of the Nazarenes, which refused to accompany their Latin bishop. They still preserved their
former habitation of Pella, spread themselves into the villages adjacent to Damascus, and formed an inconsiderable church in the
city of Beroea, or, as it is now called, of Aleppo, in Syria. 22 The name of Nazarenes was deemed too honorable for those
Christian Jews, and they soon received, from the supposed poverty of their understanding, as well as of their condition, the
contemptuous epithet of Ebionites. 23 In a few years after the return of the church of Jerusalem, it became a matter of doubt and
controversy, whether a man who sincerely acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, but who still continued to observe the law of
Moses, could possibly hope for salvation. The humane temper of Justin Martyr inclined him to answer this question in the
affirmative; and though he expressed himself with the most guarded diffidence, he ventured to determine in favor of such an
imperfect Christian, if he were content to practice the Mosaic ceremonies, without pretending to assert their general use or
necessity. But when Justin was pressed to declare the sentiment of the church, he confessed that there were very many among
the orthodox Christians, who not only excluded their Judaizing brethren from the hope of salvation, but who declined any
intercourse with them in the common offices of friendship, hospitality, and social life. 24 The more rigorous opinion prevailed, as it
was natural to expect, over the milder; and an eternal bar of separation was fixed between the disciples of Moses and those of
Christ. The unfortunate Ebionites, rejected from one religion as apostates, and from the other as heretics, found themselves
compelled to assume a more decided character; and although some traces of that obsolete sect may be discovered as late as the
fourth century, they insensibly melted away, either into the church or the synagogue. 25
Footnote 22: Le Clerc (Hist. Ecclesiast. p. 477, 535) seems to have collected from Eusebius,
Jerome, Epiphanius, and other writers, all the principal circumstances that relate to the Nazarenes or Ebionites.
The nature of their opinions soon divided them
into a stricter and a milder sect; and there is some reason to conjecture, that the family of Jesus Christ remained members, at
least, of the latter and more moderate party.
Footnote 23: Some writers have been pleased to create an Ebion, the imaginary
author of their sect and name. But we can more safely rely on the learned Eusebius than on the vehement Tertullian, or the
credulous Epiphanius. According to Le Clerc, the Hebrew word Ebjonim may be translated into Latin by that of Pauperes. See
Hist. Ecclesiast. p. 477.
Footnote 24: See the very curious Dialogue of Justin Martyr with the Jew Tryphon. The conference between them was held at Ephesus, in the reign of Antoninus Pius, and about twenty years after the return of the church of Pella to Jerusalem. For this date
consult the accurate note of Tillemont, Memoires Ecclesiastiques, tom. ii. p. 511.
Footnote 25: Of all the systems of Christianity, that of Abyssinia is the only one which still adheres to the Mosaic rites.
(Geddes's Church History of Aethiopia, and Dissertations de La Grand sur la Relation du P. Lobo.) The eunuch of the queen
Candace might suggest some suspicious; but as we are assured (Socrates, i. 19. Sozomen, ii. 24. Ludolphus, p. 281) that the
Ethiopians were not converted till the fourth century, it is more reasonable to believe that they respected the Sabbath, and
distinguished the forbidden meats, in imitation of the Jews, who, in a very early period, were seated on both sides of the Red Sea.
While the orthodox church preserved a just medium between excessive veneration and improper contempt for the law of Moses,
the various heretics deviated into equal but opposite extremes of error and extravagance. From the acknowledged truth of the
Jewish religion, the Ebionites had concluded that it could never be abolished. From its supposed imperfections, the Gnostics as
hastily inferred that it never was instituted by the wisdom of the Deity. There are some objections against the authority of Moses
and the prophets, which too readily present themselves to the skeptical mind; though they can only be derived from our ignorance
of remote antiquity, and from our incapacity to form an adequate judgment of the divine economy. These objections were eagerly
embraced and as petulantly urged by the vain science of the Gnostics. 26 As those heretics were, for the most part, averse to the
pleasures of sense, they morosely arraigned the polygamy of the patriarchs, the gallantries of David, and the seraglio of Solomon.
The conquest of the land of Canaan, and the extirpation of the unsuspecting natives, they were at a loss how to reconcile with the
common notions of humanity and justice. * But when they recollected the sanguinary list of murders, of executions, and of
massacres, which stain almost every page of the Jewish annals, they acknowledged that the barbarians of Palestine had exercised
as much compassion towards their idolatrous enemies, as they had ever shown to their friends or countrymen. 27 Passing from
the sectaries of the law to the law itself, they asserted that it was impossible that a religion which consisted only of bloody
sacrifices and trifling ceremonies, and whose rewards as well as punishments were all of a carnal and temporal nature, could
inspire the love of virtue, or restrain the impetuosity of passion. The Mosaic account of the creation and fall of man was treated
with profane derision by the Gnostics, who would not listen with patience to the repose of the Deity after six days' labor, to the rib
of Adam, the garden of Eden, the trees of life and of knowledge, the speaking serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the condemnation
pronounced against human kind for the venial offence of their first progenitors. 28 The God of Israel was impiously represented
by the Gnostics as a being liable to passion and to error, capricious in his favor, implacable in his resentment, meanly jealous of his
superstitious worship, and confining his partial providence to a single people, and to this transitory life. In such a character they
could discover none of the features of the wise and omnipotent Father of the universe. 29 They allowed that the religion of the
Jews was somewhat less criminal than the idolatry of the Gentiles; but it was their fundamental doctrine, that the Christ whom
they adored as the first and brightest emanation of the Deity appeared upon earth to rescue mankind from their various errors, and
to reveal a new system of truth and perfection. The most learned of the fathers, by a very singular condescension, have
imprudently admitted the sophistry of the Gnostics. * Acknowledging that the literal sense is repugnant to every principle of faith
as well as reason, they deem themselves secure and invulnerable behind the ample veil of allegory, which they carefully spread
over every tender part of the Mosaic dispensation. 30
Footnote 26: Beausobre, Histoire du Manicheisme, l. i. c. 3, has stated their objections, particularly those of Faustus, the
adversary of Augustin, with the most learned impartiality.
Footnote *: On the "war law" of the Jews, see Hist. of Jews, i. 137. - M.
Footnote 27: Few writers have suspected Tacitus of partiality towards the Jews. The whole later history of the Jews illustrates as well their strong feelings of humanity to their brethren, as their hostility to the rest of mankind. The character and the position of
Josephus with the Roman authorities, must be kept in mind during the perusal of his History. Perhaps he has not exaggerated the
ferocity and fanaticism of the Jews at that time; but insurrectionary warfare is not the best school for the humane virtues, and
much must be allowed for the grinding tyranny of the later Roman governors. See Hist. of Jews, ii. 254.
Footnote 28: Dr. Burnet (Archaeologia, l. ii. c. 7) has discussed the first chapters of Genesis with too much wit and freedom.
Footnote 29: The milder Gnostics considered Jehovah, the Creator, as a Being of a mixed nature between God and the Daemon. Others confounded him with an evil principle. Consult the second century of the general history of Mosheim, which gives a very
distinct, though concise, account of their strange opinions on this subject.
Footnote 30: See Beausobre, Hist. du Manicheisme, l. i. c. 4. Origen and St. Augustine were among the allegorists.
It has been remarked with more ingenuity than truth, that the virgin purity of the church was never violated by schism or heresy
before the reign of Trajan or Hadrian, about one hundred years after the death of Christ. 31 We may observe with much more
propriety, that, during that period, the disciples of the Messiah were indulged in a freer latitude, both of faith and practice, than has
ever been allowed in succeeding ages. As the terms of communion were insensibly narrowed, and the spiritual authority of the
prevailing party was exercised with increasing severity, many of its most respectable adherents, who were called upon to
renounce, were provoked to assert their private opinions, to pursue the consequences of their mistaken principles, and openly to
erect the standard of rebellion against the unity of the church. The Gnostics were distinguished as the most polite, the most
learned, and the most wealthy of the Christian name; and that general appellation, which expressed a superiority of knowledge,
was either assumed by their own pride, or ironically bestowed by the envy of their adversaries. They were almost without
exception of the race of the Gentiles, and their principal founders seem to have been natives of Syria or Egypt, where the warmth
of the climate disposes both the mind and the body to indolent and contemplative devotion. The Gnostics blended with the faith of
Christ many sublime but obscure tenets, which they derived from oriental philosophy, and even from the religion of Zoroaster,
concerning the eternity of matter, the existence of two principles, and the mysterious hierarchy of the invisible world. 32 As soon
as they launched out into that vast abyss, they delivered themselves to the guidance of a disordered imagination; and as the paths
of error are various and infinite, the Gnostics were imperceptibly divided into more than fifty particular sects, 33 of whom the
most celebrated appear to have been the Basilidian, the Valentinian, the Marcionite, and, in a still later period, the Manichaean sects.
Each of these sects could boast of its bishops and congregations, of its doctors and martyrs; 34 and, instead of the Four Gospels
adopted by the church, ! the heretics produced a multitude of histories, in which the actions and discourses of Christ and of his
apostles were adapted to their respective tenets. 35 The success of the Gnostics was rapid and extensive. 36 They covered Asia and Egypt, established themselves in Rome, and sometimes penetrated into the provinces of the West. For the most part they
arose in the second century, flourished during the third, and were suppressed in the fourth or fifth, by the prevalence of more
fashionable controversies, and by the superior ascendant of the reigning power. Though they constantly disturbed the peace, and
frequently disgraced the name, of religion, they contributed to assist rather than to retard the progress of Christianity. The Gentile
converts, whose strongest objections and prejudices were directed against the law of Moses, could find admission into many
Christian societies, which required not from their untutored mind any belief of an antecedent revelation. Their faith was insensibly
fortified and enlarged, and the church was ultimately benefited by the conquests of its most inveterate enemies. 37
Footnote 31: Hegesippus, ap. Euseb. l. iii. 32, iv. 22. Clemens Alexandrin Stromat. vii. 17.
Footnote 32: In the account of the Gnostics of the second and third centuries, Mosheim is ingenious and candid; Le Clerc dull, but exact; Beausobre almost always an apologist; and it is much to be feared that the primitive fathers are very frequently
Footnote 33: See the catalogues of Irenaeus and Epiphanius. It must indeed be allowed, that those writers were inclined to
multiply the number of sects which opposed the unity of the church.
Footnote 34: Eusebius, l. iv. c. 15. Sozomen, l. ii. c. 32. See in Bayle, in the article of Marcion, a curious detail of a dispute on that subject. It should seem that some of the Gnostics (the Basilidians) declined, and even refused the honor of Martyrdom. See Mosheim, p. 539.
Footnote !: M. Hahn has restored the Marcionite Gospel with great ingenuity. His work is reprinted in Thilo. Codex. Apoc. Nov. Test. vol. i. - M.
Footnote 35: See a very remarkable passage of Origen, (Proem. ad Lucam.) That indefatigable writer, who had
consumed his life in the study of the Scriptures, relies for their authenticity on the inspired authority of the church. It was
impossible that the Gnostics could receive our present Gospels, many parts of which (particularly in the resurrection of Christ) are
directly, and as it might seem designedly, pointed against their favorite tenets. It is therefore somewhat singular that Ignatius
(Epist. ad Smyrn. Patr. Apostol. tom. ii. p. 34) should choose to employ a vague and doubtful tradition, instead of quoting the
certain testimony of the evangelists.
Footnote 36: In the time of Epiphanius (advers. Haereses, p. 302) the
Marcionites were very numerous in Italy, Syria, Egypt, Arabia, and Persia.
Footnote 37: Augustine is a memorable instance of this
gradual progress from reason to faith. He was, during several years, engaged in the Manichaean sect.
But whatever difference of opinion might subsist between the Orthodox, the Ebionites, and the Gnostics, concerning the divinity or
the obligation of the Mosaic law, they were all equally animated by the same exclusive zeal; and by the same abhorrence for
idolatry, which had distinguished the Jews from the other nations of the ancient world. The philosopher, who considered the
system of polytheism as a composition of human fraud and error, could disguise a smile of contempt under the mask of devotion,
without apprehending that either the mockery, or the compliance, would expose him to the resentment of any invisible, or, as he
conceived them, imaginary powers. But the established religions of Paganism were seen by the primitive Christians in a much
more odious and formidable light. It was the universal sentiment both of the church and of heretics, that the daemons were the
authors, the patrons, and the objects of idolatry. 38 Those rebellious spirits who had been degraded from the rank of angels, and
cast down into the infernal pit, were still permitted to roam upon earth, to torment the bodies, and to seduce the minds, of sinful
men. The daemons soon discovered and abused the natural propensity of the human heart towards devotion, and artfully
withdrawing the adoration of mankind from their Creator, they usurped the place and honors of the Supreme Deity. By the
success of their malicious contrivances, they at once gratified their own vanity and revenge, and obtained the only comfort of
which they were yet susceptible, the hope of involving the human species in the participation of their guilt and misery. It was
confessed, or at least it was imagined, that they had distributed among themselves the most important characters of polytheism,
one daemon assuming the name and attributes of Jupiter, another of Aesculapius, a third of Venus, and a fourth perhaps of Apollo;
39 and that, by the advantage of their long experience and aerial nature, they were enabled to execute, with sufficient skill and
dignity, the parts which they had undertaken. They lurked in the temples, instituted festivals and sacrifices, invented fables,
pronounced oracles, and were frequently allowed to perform miracles. The Christians, who, by the interposition of evil spirits,
could so readily explain every preternatural appearance, were disposed and even desirous to admit the most extravagant fictions of
the Pagan mythology. But the belief of the Christian was accompanied with horror. The most trifling mark of respect to the
national worship he considered as a direct homage yielded to the daemon, and as an act of rebellion against the majesty of God.
Footnote 38: The unanimous sentiment of the primitive church is very clearly explained by Justin Martyr, Apolog. Major, by
Athenagoras, Legat. c. 22. &c., and by Lactantius, Institut. Divin. ii. 14 - 19.
Footnote 39: Tertullian (Apolog. c. 23) alleges the confession of the daemons themselves as often as they were tormented by the Christian exorcists
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To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. 1st ed. (London : Printed for W. Strahan ; and T. Cadell, 1776-1788.), pp. 455-463.