Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


Additional Links

According to the scanty information we possess about the Cainites, they seem to have formed one of the Gnostic sects which are classed together under the somewhat inadequate and perhaps misleading name ‘Ophites,’ though the serpent, from which the name ‘Ophite’ is derived, seems to have played no part in their system. Our oldest source is to be found in Irenaeus, adv. Haer. i. 31. He tells us that the Cainites regarded Cain as derived from the higher principle. They claimed fellowship with Esau, Korah, the men of Sodom, and all such people, and regarded themselves as on that account persecuted by the Creator. But they escaped injury from Him, for Sophia used to carry away from them to herself that which belonged to her. They regarded Judas the traitor as having full cognizance of the truth. He therefore, rather than the other disciples, was able to accomplish the mystery of the betrayal, and so bring about the dissolution of all things both celestial and terrestrial. The Cainites possessed a fictitious work entitled ‘The Gospel of Judas,’ and Irenaeus says that he had himself collected writings of theirs, where they advocated that the work of Hystera should be dissolved. By Hystera they meant the Maker of Heaven and Earth. They taught, as did Carpocrates, that salvation could be attained only by passing through all experience. Whenever any sin or vile action was performed by them, they assorted that an angel was present whom they invoked, claiming that they were fulfilling his operation. Perfect knowledge consisted in going without a tremor into such actions as it is not lawful even to name. Epiphanius (Haer. 38) characteristically gives a much longer account, in substantial harmony with what Irenaeus says. He appears to have had some source of information independent of Irenaeus. He speaks of Abel as derived from the weaker principle-a statement which bears the marks of authenticity. He also says that Judas forced the Archons, or rulers, against their will to slay Christ, and thus assisted us to the salvation of the Cross. Philaster, on the other hand, assigns the action of Judas to his knowledge that Christ intended to destroy the truth-a purpose which he frustrated by the betrayal.

The account given by Irenaeus is unduly curt and the text not quite secure, but it is not difficult to form a general estimate of the sect from it, especially with the assistance of our other sources. Like other Gnostics, the Cainites drew a distinction between the Creator and the Supreme God. Presumably they identified the Creator with the God of the Jews. They viewed Him and those whom He favoured with undisguised hostility; redemption had for its end the dissolution or His work. They claimed kinship with these to whom He showed antagonism in His book, the Old Testament, and shared themselves in the same hostility. Nevertheless He was the weaker power, who could do them no permanent harm, for Sophia, the Heavenly Wisdom, drew back to herself these elements in their nature which they had derived from her. Presumably, then, they thought of a division of mankind into two classes-the spiritual and the material, the latter belonging to the realm of the Creator and deriving their being from Him, but doomed to dissolution, while the former class contained the spiritual men, imprisoned, it is true, in bodies of flesh, but yet deriving their essential being from the highest Power, opposed by the Creator and His minions, but winning the victory over them as Cain did over Abel. Unfortunately we cannot be sure what view they took of redemption. There is no doubt that they applauded the action of Judas in the betrayal, but our authorities differ as to the motive which prompted him. The view that Judas through his more perfect γνῶσις penetrated the wish of Jesus more successfully than the others, and accomplished it by bringing Him to the Cross through which He effected redemption, is intrinsically the more probable.

So far as the moral character and conduct of the Cainites is concerned, there is no doubt that Irenaeus intended to represent them as shrinking from no vileness, but rather as deliberately practising it. Carpocrates, we are told, defended this practice by a theory of transmigration. It was necessary to pass through all experiences, and hence the soul had to pass from body to body till the whole range of experience had been traversed. If, however, this could all be crowded into a single lifetime, then the transmigration became unnecessary. We have no ground to suppose that the Cainites held such a view, but they seem to have professed the belief that this fullness of experience was essential to salvation. We have no substantial justification for doubting the truth of Irenaeus’ account, though accusations of immorality urged against heretics should always be received with caution. G. R. S. Mead (Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 1900, p. 229) thinks that originally they were ascetics, while N. Lardner (History of Heretics, bk. ii. ch. xiv. [= Works, 1829, viii. 560]) questions whether a sect guilty of such enormities ever existed. But there is no valid reason to deny the generally accepted view that the Gnostic attitude to matter did lead to quite opposite results. To some it would seem a duty to crush the flesh beneath the spirit by the severest austerity, but the premiss might lead to a libertine as well as to an ascetic conclusion: if the spirit alone was important, the flesh but contemptible and perishable, what happened to the latter might seem a matter of complete indifference, inasmuch as its degradation could not stain the white purity of the spirit. The principle that the jewel is undimmed though its casket lie in the mire, or that the Gnostic may do what he will for he is saved by grace, probably found quite faithful expression in the attitude of such Gnostics as Carpocrates and the Cainites.

It is held by several scholars that some of the Ophite sects date back into the pre-Christian era, and, if this view is correct, Pfleiderer (Das Urchristentum2, Berlin, 1902, vol. ii. pp. 52-54, 82, 97f. = Primitive Christianity, London, 1910, vol. iii. pp. 72-74, 114, 139f.) may be right in thinking that the Cainites whom we know from Irenaeus were the successors of the people who were attacked by Philo in his de Posteritate Caini. Whether the reference in Judges 1:11 is to the Cainites must be regarded as very doubtful (see Jude).

Literature.-In addition to the Literature named in the article, the following may be consulted: H. L. Mansel, Gnostic Heresies, London, 1875; A. Hilgenfeld, Die Ketzergeschichte des Urchristenthums, Leipzig, 1884; A. Harnack, Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur, i. [Leipzig, 1893] p. 163ff., ii. [1897] p. 538ff. The subject receives some discussion in Church Histories and Histories of Doctrine. Of articles in Dictionaries special mention may be made of that in DCB [Note: CB Dict. of Christian Biography.] by G. Salmon.

Arthur S. Peake.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Cainites'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry