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A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography
Elkesai, Elkesaites ( Ἠλχασαί , Hippolytus; Ηλξαί, Ἐλκεσσαῖοι , Epiphanius; Ἑλκεσαιταί , Origen). A book bearing the name of Elkesai and purporting to contain angelic revelations, was, at the end of the 2nd cent., in high repute among certain Ebionite sectaries, who were most numerous in the district E. of the lower Jordan and the Dead Sea. This book first became known to orthodox writers in the 3rd cent., and we have accounts of it from three independent primary sources, Hippolytus, Origen, and Epiphanius. Hippolytus ( Ref. ix. 12, p. 292) gives several extracts, and states that it was brought to Rome by a certain Alcibiades, a native of Apameia in Syria, and indicates that the time was during, or immediately after, the episcopate of Callistusâ€” i.e. c. a.d. 222. The great controversy then agitating the church of Rome was whether, and with what limitations, forgiveness might be bestowed on grievous post-baptismal sin. Hippolytus took the side of rigour and Callistus of leniency. This book of Elkesai announced a new method of forgiveness of sin, asserted to have been revealed in the third year of Trajan, by which any person, no matter of what sins he might have been guilty (some of the very grossest are expressly mentioned), might obtain forgiveness by submitting to a new baptism with the use of a certain formula of which we shall speak presently. A similar baptism was prescribed as a remedy for the bite of a mad dog or a serpent or for disease. Hippolytus takes credit for resisting the teaching of Alcibiades, and blames Callistus for having, by the laxity of his doctrine and practice concerning church discipline, pre-disposed men's minds to the easy methods of forgiveness expounded in this book. Origen, in a fragment of a homily on the 82nd Psalm, preserved by Eusebius ( H. E. vi. 38) and assigned by Redepenning to a.d. 247, speaks of the teaching of the Helcesaites, some specimens of which he gives, as having then but lately troubled the churches. Epiphanius, though a later witness, professes to speak from personal acquaintance with the book, and this is confirmed by his coincidence in a number of details with the other authorities. We may count the Pseudo-Clementine writings as a fourth source of information concerning the books of Elkesai. Hippolytus states that the book, according to its own account, had been obtained from Seres, in Parthia, by a righteous man named Elkesai; that its contents had been revealed by an angel 96 miles high, accompanied by a female of corresponding size; that the male was Son of God, and the female was called Holy Spirit. Epiphanius speaks of Elkesai as a false prophet. Probably this Elkesai was an imaginary personage, and we must reject the account of Epiphanius who assigns to him a certain part in the history of the Ebionite sects.
The book is evidently of Jewish origin. Jerusalem is made the centre of the world's devotion, and the right rule of prayer is to turn not necessarily to the East, but towards Jerusalem. The names of the book are formed from Hebrew roots. A further mark of Aramaic origin is the representation of the Holy Spirit as a female. The book ordered compliance with ordinances of the Jewish law, but condemned the rite of sacrifice, so involving the rejection of parts of O.T., and of the eating of flesh. The superiority of the forgiveness of sins by the washing of water over that by the fire of sacrifice is based on the superiority of water to fire (Hipp. ix. 14; Epiph. Haer. 19, p. 42; Clem. Rec. i. 48; Hom. xi. 26). It is taught that Christ is but a created being, but the greatest of creatures, being Lord over angels as well as over every other created thing. The name Great King is applied to Him (Epiph. Haer. 19, p. 41; Hipp. ix. 15; Hom. viii. 21). The formula of baptism runs, In the name of the Most High God and of His Son, the Great King; but this Great King is not exclusively identified with Jesus of Nazareth, for He appeared in the world in successive incarnations, Adam being the first. The book agreed with the Clementines in complete rejection of St. Paul. It taught the lawfulness of denying the faith under persecution (Eus. vi. 38; Epiph. 19), thus getting rid of the class of offences as to the forgiveness of which there was then most controversy.
The statement of the book that the revelation was made in the 3rd year of Trajan is of no historic value. The work, however, which was the common groundwork of the Clementine Recognitions and Homilies [See Clementine Literature] asserts that a new gospel was published (the Homilies add "secretly") after the destruction of the Holy Place; and it seems on other grounds probable that a number of Essenes, who had always held the Temple sacrifices in abomination, were brought to recognize Jesus as the true Prophet when the destruction of the Temple and the abolition of its sacrifices fulfilled His prediction. At this time, then, probably arose those Ebionite sects which combined a certain reverence for our Lord's utterances, and an acknowledgment of Him as a divine prophet, with the retention of a host of Essene usages and doctrines. Hence the book of Elkesai may have been, as it professed to be, a considerable time in secret circulation among the Ebionite sects before Alcibiades brought it to Rome, though it is also possible that it may have been then of quite recent manufacture.
It would seem to be long before the sect of Elkesaites disappeared. En-hedim, an Arabic author (c. a.d. 987) quoted by Chwolson ( Die Sabier, i. 112, ii. 543), tells of a sect of Sabeans of the Desert who practised frequent religious washings, and who counted one El-Chasaiach as their founder. See Ritschl, Zeitschrift fÃ¼r histor. Theol. (1853), pp. 573 sqq., Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche, pp. 234 sqq.; Hilgenfeld, Nov. Test. extra Canonem Receptum, iii. 153, where all the fragments of the book are collected; Uhlhorn, Hom. u. Recog. des Clem. Rom. p. 392; and Lightfoot's Dissertation on the Essenes, "Ep. to Colossians," pp. 118 sqq.
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Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Elkesai, Elkesaites'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hwd/e/elkesai-elkesaites.html. 1911.
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