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A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography
Encratites ( Ἐγκρατεῖς , Irenaeus; Ἐγκρατηταί , Clem. Alex.; Ἐγκρατῖται , Hippol.), heretics who abstained from flesh, wine, and the marriage bed, believing them essentially impure. Persons who so abstained called themselves continent (ἐγκρατεῖς , Iren. i. 28, p. 107); and the slightly modified form, Encratites, soon became a technical name to denote those whose asceticism was regarded as of a heretical character (Clem. Alex. Paed. ii. 2, p. 182; Strom. i. 15, p. 359, vii. 17, p. 900; Hippol. Ref. viii. 20, p. 276). We are not bound to suppose that all who were known by the name formed a single united sect. Irenaeus, e.g. ( l.c. ), says that some of the earliest of them were followers of Saturninus and Marcion; and it is reasonable to understand by this, not that they united in a single heretical body, but that, independently using the same mode of life and making the same boast of continence, they were known to the orthodox by the same name. The practice of such abstinence was older than Christianity. Not to speak of the Indian ascetics (to whom Clement of Alexandria refers as predecessors of the Encratites), the abstinence of the Essenes, both in respect of food and of marriage, is notorious. Josephus's account of the Essenes is referred to by Porphyry, who, like them, objected both to the use of animal food and to animal sacrifices. An interesting specimen of Pythagorean doctrine on this subject is his work περὶ ἀποχής τῶν ἐμψύχων , addressed to a friend who after trial of abstinence had wickedly relapsed into the use of flesh diet. He insists on the importance of keeping the soul, as far as possible, free from the bonds of matter, to which animal food tends to enslave it; on the wisdom of avoiding everything over which evil demons have power, viz. all material things, and especially animal food; and on the injustice of depriving of life for our pleasure animals akin to ourselves, having reason, emotions, sentiments, completely like ours.
The account given by Hegesippus of James the Just (Eus. H. E. ii. 23) shews that righteousness of the Essene type was clearly held in admiration in the Christian church; and 1Ti_4:3-6 shews that teachers had already arisen who inculcated such abstinence as a duty. But it does not appear that they held the Gnostic doctrine that matter is essentially evil and its creation the work of a being inferior or hostile to the Supreme; for the apostle's argument assumes as common ground that the things they rejected were creatures of the good God. We find from the Clementines that the Ebionite sects which arose out of Essenism permitted marriage but disallowed flesh meat and wine; and that their doctrine respecting God's work of creation was quite orthodox. Hippolytus too who takes his account of the Encratites from his own acquaintance with them as a then existing sect describes them as orthodox in doctrine concerning God and Christ and differing from the church only in their manner of life. But the Gnostic teachers named by Irenaeus (l.c.) undoubtedly based their asceticism on the doctrine of the evil of matter denying it to be the work of God and consequently deemed it wrong by generation to bring new souls under the dominion of death and expose them to the miseries of this life. A full discussion of their arguments occurs in the third book of Clement's Stromateis (though the name Encratites does not occur here) the principal writers whom he combats being Marcion Tatian already mentioned by Irenaeus as a leader of that sect and Julius Cassianus. The Gospel according to the Egyptians contained alleged sayings of our Lord which they used in support of their doctrines. Epiphanius mentions that they used other apocryphal writings such as the Acts of Andrew John and Thomas. This controversy seems to have been actively carried on in the last quarter of the 2nd cent. Eusebius (H. E. iv. 28) relates that Musanus a writer early in that period addressed a very effective dissuasive argument to certain brethren who had turned aside to that sect then newly come into existence; and Theodoret (Haer. Fab. i. 21) mentions that another writer of the same date Apollinaris wrote against the Severian Encratites. Eusebius (iv. 29) derives this name Severians from a certain Severus who became an Encratite leader shortly after Tatian. He adds that these Severians received the O.T. and the Gospels only putting their peculiar interpretations on them but reviled Paul rejecting his epistles and also Acts. This shews Ebionite features and these Severians may have been of Ebionite origin for great diversity probably existed between the teaching of persons classed together as Encratites. The Severians are described by Epiphanius (Haer. 45) with all the features of an Ophite sect; but evidently from hearsay only as he speaks of the sect as having almost died out; and Lipsius (Q.-K. des Epiph. 215) gives good reason for thinking that he found no article on them in previous heretical treatises. Epiphanius describes (Haer. 48) the Encratites as widely spread enumerating seven different countries where they were then to be found. Evidently therefore there were in these countries heretics leading an ascetic life though it would be unsafe to assert an absolute identity in their teaching. We may conclude Epiphanius mistaken in placing the Encratites after the Tatianites as if they were a branch of the latter sect the true relation being just the opposite. Some additional information about the Encratites is in the work of Macarius Magnes pub. in Paris 1876. He wrote c. 400 and enumerates (iii. 43 p. 151) some countries where the Encratites (whom he also called Apotactites and Eremites) were to be found. He was thus probably acquainted with the work of Epiphanius. But he adds that a defence of their doctrines in eight books had been published by a leader of theirs Dositheus a Cilician in which he inveighed against marriage and the tasting of wine or partaking of flesh meat. In his account of the Samaritan Dositheus Epiphanius introduces some Encratite features not attested by other authorities and may have allowed his knowledge of the doctrine of the one Dositheus to affect his account of the other. We cannot give much weight to the account of Philaster who (72) assigns the name and doctrine of the Encratites to the followers of Aerius; and we may wholly disregard the inventive "Praedestinatus" (who represents the Encratites as refuted by an Epiphanius bp. of Ancyra) except to repeat his distinction between Encratite and Catholic abstainersâ€”viz. the former asserted the food they rejected to be evil; the latter owned it to be good too good for them. Canons of St. Basil on Encratite baptism (clxxxviii. can. i; cxcix. can. 47) have given rise to some dispute but it seems clear that St. Basil wished to reject the baptism of these Encratites not because the orthodox formula of baptism was lacking but because regarding them as tainted with Marcionite error he could not accept the verbal acknowledgment of the Father in the baptismal formula as atonement for the insult offered to the Creator Whose work they looked on as evil. For a reference to these canons as well as to the law of the Theodosian code (a.d. 381) against the Manicheans who sheltered themselves under the name of Encratites see Apostolici. Not many years earlier the Encratites were an existing sect in Galatia; for Sozomen (v. 11) records the sufferings of Busiris at that time one of them in the persecution under Julian.
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Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Encratites'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hwd/e/encratites.html. 1911.
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