Whether “Basilides, who came to Alexandria from Antioch and flourished under Hadrian, is the first Alexandrian Christian whose name is known” (Grant 1946: 18), he certainly is “the first Egyptian Christian of whose writings we possess any fragments” (Grant 1946: 14). Hadrian reigned from 8 August 117 to 10 July 138. As has been tellingly observed, “in many locations what have come to be known as heretical forms of Christianity preceded what has come to be known as orthodox” (Burke 1984: 2), and certainly the most extensively documented evidence for the rise of Christianity in Egypt fits this criterion.
Alexandria, in particular, with its already existing center for Hellenized Judaism, under a central figure such as Philo Judaeus (c. 20 BC-AD 50), meant that contemporary religious movements were intensively under the scrutiny of Hellenistic philosophy, irrespective of the languages from which these movements had emerged. And the development with respect to Christianity was no exception. “With Basilides, one sees the opening phase of a serious and considered effort to reconcile Christianity with contemporary Greek philosophy” (Frend 1984: 162).
Among those whom the first major Christian historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340), writing long after the fact, indicated were those he intended to incorporate among the various “successions from the Apostles”, were “the names, number and times of all those who through love of innovation fell into the most grievous error” (H.E. I.1.1; translation by Oulton 1927: 3), but who nevertheless also showed that sense of sequence whereby one generation taught the next in a “succession” not unlike that which Eusebius considered “apostolic.”
From a Samaritan origin with a certain Simon and his “successor” Menander, in an era almost immediately “sub-apostolic”, Eusebius details, “there proceeded a power with, as it were, the double jaws and twin heads of a serpent, which produced the authors of two different heresies”: Satorninus, an Antiochene in Syria, and Basilides, an Alexandrian in Egypt (H.E. IV.7.3; Oulton 1927: 108). Basilides was identified as having received from Matthias “secret words which he had heard from the Saviour in private instruction” [Hippolytus, Refutation VII.viii apud Grant 1961b: 137; ANF V (1886) 103] or as being in the “succession” from “Glaukias, the ‘interpreter’ of Peter” (Clement, Stromateis VII.106.4 apud Grant 1961b: 137), so that his own “school” was but one among several indicative of “the variety and audacity of the intellectual life in the various academies” of second century Alexandria (Carrington 1957: I.421; cf. Grant 1970: 200).
What Eusebius fails to realize is that Basilides may well be among the several originators of The Christian School at Alexandria, since the Tradition recalled by name no one earlier than him within Egypt, as teacher of Christian intent, even if “Gnostic” by self-definition or subsequent condemnation, though one cannot ignore previous Jewish developments within Alexandria, as witnessed by Josephus (and quoted by Eusebius) or evidenced by Philo (named along with Josephus among the “Illustrious Men” by Jerome).
In fact, it is from the kind of perspective on the activities of the “Egyptian false prophet” related by Josephus (De bello Judaico II.13.5 apud H.E. II.21; Whiston 1960: 483) or on those of the Therapeutae detailed by Philo (De vita contemplativa apud H.E. II.17; Yonge 1993: 698-706), that there probably arose the kinds of misapprehensions that ascribed to the early Christian gnostics, like Basilides and his successors, pejorative connotations. Such described them second-hand without genuinely listening to, or learning from them, as one was to have found being done much earlier in the days and writings of Clement of Alexandria and his successor Origen – critical as these rightly had to become of many of their predecessors, while recognizing within their own teaching legitimate “gnostic” elements.
Eusebius knew, through Agrippa Castor, of Basilides as author of a volume of twenty-four books on the Gospel entitled “Exegetics” (Grant 1957: 127), but for the obvious reason of identifying him among his “succession of heresies” gave no citations, as was his custom with respect to the “succession of the orthodox” (H.E. IV.7.7). But two significant portions of that work are preserved, that of book 13 within the fourth century anti-Manichaean disputation known as the Acta Archelai (lxvii.5-11; Ayer 1913: 82-84; Grant 1946: 18-19; Grant 1961: 135-136), and that of book 23 by Clement of Alexandria of the late second century in his Stromateis (IV.12.81-83; Ayer 1913: 84-85; Grant 1946: 19-20; Stevenson 1957: 83; Grant 1961: 136-137).
More extensive summaries of Basilides’ “system”, though written from the pespective of his refutation, appear independently within Irenaeus (c. 115-202) of Lyons in Gaul (cf. Q126.96.36.199 pp. 288-292), and Hippolytus (c. 155-235) of Rome (cf. Q2.3.3 pp. 166-169; Smith 1988 III.999-1004), each providing a somewhat distinctive impression of that portion of Basilides which had most offended the rebutting author, even if what these two have in common is their attack “against all heresies” (cf. Grant 1997: 15). That given by Irenaeus is relatively brief, less philosophical, and focuses upon those docetic tendencies (Grant 1961a: 10) which would undermine the soteriology of the crucifixion, as well as providing hints at numerological and astrological ingredients in Basilides’ thought (Against all Heresies I.24; Stevenson 1957: 81-83; Grant 1961b: 33-35; Grant 1997: 91-92).
By contrast Hippolytus enters into the abstractive elements of the “system” within a context of the history of ancient Greek philosophy, perhaps derived from the “Exegetics” itself, whereby one is brought to the effort by Basilides to make sense out of the more ancient Hebraic creation narratives from a point-of-view derived from Aristotle (384-322 BC) but over against Philo (Grant 1966: 142-147), so that one could define a beginning from “nothing” with reference to the absolute transcendence of God, which made difficult an understanding of the incarnation of Jesus [Refutation of all Heresies VII.ii-xv; ANF V (1885) 101-109; Stevenson 1957: 75-80; Grant 1961b: 125-134]. A much more abbreviated version (cf. Q2.3.3 pp. 169-170 with Q2.4.2 p. 272) has come down among the writings of Tertullian (c. 160-220), under the title Libellus “against all heresies”, which “is probably a Latin epitome of Hippolytus’ Syntagma” (Grant 1946: 124), which brings Hippolytus more into line with Irenaeus (section 4; Grant 1946: 127). Basilides’ thought remained more exegetical than philosophical, but of the kind demonstrated by the recovery of works like the “gospel of Philip” (Grant 1966: 144, 193-195).
Jerome does assert that Basilides had died at Alexandria during Hadrian’s reign (117-138), which he seems to make more specific by a connected allusion to this being that “tempestuous time” when the Bar Kokhba (Simon son of Kosba) rebellion had occurred in which this “leader of the Jewish faction put Christians to death with various tortures” [ J 21; NPNF 2 III (1892) 368], which effectively narrows the date to 132-135 with the attacks against Christians earlier than the crushing of the revolt in Judaea by Hadrian’s general, Sextus Julius Severus [OCD3 (1996) 663]. According to Agrippa Castor, Basilides had referred to “Barkabbas and Barkoph <with many variant spellings in the manuscripts> as his prophets” (H.E. IV.7.7 and J 21), so he might well have appeared to be parodying the name of the Jewish leader, for which he was included among those, when Bar Kokhba “ordered the Christians, and them alone, to be led off to terrible punishments unless they denied that Jesus was the Christ and blasphemed him” (Grant 1970: 84 citing Justin Martyr, Apology I.31.6). The Tradition remembered Basilides, however, not as “saint and martyr” but only as “gnostic and heretic.” Yet Basilides had made “the earliest known attempt by a Christian to reconcile the Jewish requirement of righteous suffering with the Platonic view of Providence” so that “the result was the first major attack on the spiritual value of martyrdom” itself (Frend 1967: 181).
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):
PG 7; CPG 1.1127; TLG 1217
Q188.8.131.52; DECL 100-101 (CMarkschies); FOTC 100 41-42; ODCC 140; NIDCC 109 (CPWilliams); OEEC 113 (AMCastagno); GEEC 176-177 (FWNorris); <P1>
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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.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Basilides