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Carpocrates
2nd century
Ancient Christian Church
Alexandria/Egypt


Carpocrates is another of those remembered by Eusebius of Caesarea (c.260-340) as falling within the "succession" of those who "proclaimed themselves as introducers of 'knowledge falsely so-called'" (H.E. I.1 <tês pseudônumou gnôseôs, citing 1 Timothy 6:20>; Oulton 1927: 3), at Alexandria, like Basilides or Isidore, but even less well-recalled or documented. Citing Irenaeus (c.115-202), Eusebius identified Carpocrates as a contemporary of Satorninus the Antiochene and Basilides the Alexandrian, who were in the "succession" from the Samaritan Simon Magus through Menander, but specifically designating Carpocrates as "the father of another heresy, that of the Gnostics, as it was called" (H.E. IV.7.9; Oulton 1927: 109). Citing the second century church historian, Hegesippus, many of whose fragments he preserved, Eusebius quoted him as observing in his day followers who could be labelled "Menandrianists and Marcianists and Carpocratians and Valentinians and Basilidians and Satornilians, each by themselves and each in different ways, <who had> introduced their own peculiar opinions" which "divided the unity of the church by injurious words against God and against his Christ" (H.E. IV.22.5-6; Oulton 1927: 128). Another fragment of Hegesippus, cited by Epiphanius (c.315-403; cf. Lawlor 1928: 141), knew specifically of a lady named Marcellina, who came from Alexandria to Rome when Anicetus was bishop [c.155-165; cf. Kelly ODP (1986) 10-11] as "a teacher of the school of Carpocrates" (Carrington 1957: II.155), which occurrence best fixes the dates ante quem.

Irenaeus makes more specific the thought of Carpocrates who with his disciples "say that the world and what is in it was made by angels much inferior to the ungenerated Father" and that "Jesus was the son of Joseph and was like all other men, though superior to the others because his soul, strong and pure, remembered what it had seen in the sphere of the ungenerated God" (Against Heresies I.25.1; Grant 1997: 92). This alternate perspective led them to "work magic arts and use philters and charms and familiar spirits and dream senders" so as "to dominate the archons and makers of this world" (I.25.3; Grant 1997: 93).

Clement of Alexandria (160-215) picked up more on the concern of Carpocrates for righteousness or justice of God, understood to be "a kind of sharing along with equality" among all creatures: "For all see alike, since here <under "the light of the sun" poured out by God from above> is no distinction between rich and poor, people and governor, stupid and clever, female and male, free men and slaves. Even the irrational animals are not accorded any different treatment" (Stromateis III.2.6 apud Grant 1961b: 39). Thus it is difficult to know whether Carpocrates is more faulted for his speculative philosophy or his egalitarianism in an imperial world.

Philo (c.20 B.C.-A.D. 50) had opposed those "who claimed that as they understood the mysteries of the Law they could disregard its ordinances," so it is evident that "by A.D. 40 libertinism was beginning to claim an intellectual respectability for itself in Alexandrian Judaism and a century later it had established itself as one of the principal aspects of Gnosticism in Alexandria through Carpocrates' movement" (Frend 1984: 204). While Clement can be sympathetic to aspects of gnosticism, he "loathed the Gnostics, not least the Carpocratians, for their fatalism and libertinism" (Frend 1984: 372). Thus the implication of Carpocratian "egalitarianism" could include sexual promiscuity, for it was his son, Epiphanes, who had written the treatise "On Justice," which Clement criticized, precisely for the libertarian notion of sharing wives (Grant 1961b: 40; Carrington 1957: II.68-69). The boy died at the age of seventeen, so that Clement also knew that he "was adored as a god at Sama in Cephallenia" where a temple had been built (Carrington 1957: II.69).

It has been observed that "the Carpocratians worshipped Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Christ (perhaps also Paul and Homer, as Augustine says), and erected statues of them" (Grant 1946: 131; cf. Frend 1984: 415, citing Irenaeus I.25.6), though this sounds more like the practice of any classical philosophical school: "They crown these images and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world" (apud Q1.7.2.11 p. 267). As a consequence we may interpret the specific omission of Carpocrates or his disciples from Hippolytus' (c.155-235) Refutation of All Heresies, not as his ignorance of their particular thought but as his having subsumed them under his more detailed treatment of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, etc. [cf. Book I; X.1-4; ANF V (1886) 9-23, 140-141].

However, in recent times the peculiar recovery of a letter of Clement of Alexandria with its reference to a "Secret Gospel of Mark" has revived attention to Carpocrates as the one who "so enslaved a certain presbyter of the church in Alexandria that he got from him a copy of the secret Gospel, which he both interpreted according to his blasphemous and carnal doctrine and, moreover, polluted, mixing with the spotless and holy words utterly shameless lies" (Cameron 1982: 70). The perspective of this so-called "Letter to Theodore" makes clear on the one hand that the gospels as encountered in the second century were open to unusual understandings, but also that those ultimately viewed as heretics, like Carpocrates, derived those very understandings from their reading of Scripture (cf. Frend 1984: 281). As this letter would have it:

Such men are to be opposed in all ways and altogether. For, even if they should say something true, one who loves the truth should not, even so, agree with them. For not all true things are the truth, nor should that truth which merely seems true according to human opinions be preferred to the true truth, that according to the faith. (Cameron 1982: 69)
Thus, everything recalled puts Carpocrates into the early second century in a time of fervent effort to make sense of the meaning of Christianity especially for those with some kind of previous Greek or Hellenized Judaean philosophical heritage.

Clyde Curry Smith



Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):

Q1.7.2.11; DECL 117 (CMarkschies); ODCC 240; NIDCC 195; OEEC 145 (AMCastagno); GEEC 215 (RRea)


Supplementary Bibliography:
ANF V 1885 Hippolytus, translated by Stewart Dingwall Fordyce Salmond, in Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo and New York: Christian Literature. Volume V, pp. 9-153.
Cameron 1982 The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts, edited by Ron Cameron. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.
Frend 1984 The Rise of Christianity, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Grant 1946 Second-Century Christianity: A Collection of Fragments, by Robert McQueen Grant. London: SPCK.
Grant 1961b Gnosticism: A Sourcebook of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period, by Robert McQueen Grant. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Grant 1997 Irenaeus of Lyons, by Robert McQueen Grant. The Early Church Fathers, edited by Carol Harrison. London and New York: Routledge.
Kelly 1986 The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, by John Norman Davidson Kelly. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.
Oulton 1927 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume I: Translation, by John Ernest Leonard Oulton. (Specific references also cited as H.E. with book and chapter).



This article, received in 2001, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.


Click here for Abbreviations and Source References for Ancient African Christians.