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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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Of Cerinthus, the founder of this sect, Dr. Burton gives the following account: Cerinthus is said to have been one of those Jews who, when St. Peter returned to Jerusalem, expostulated with him for having baptized Cornelius, Acts 11:2 . He is also stated to have been one of those who went down from Judea to Antioch, and said, "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved," Acts 15:1 . According to the same account, he was one of the false teachers who seduced the Galatians to Judaism; and he is also charged with joining in the attack which was made upon St. Paul, for polluting the temple by the introduction of Greeks, Acts 21:27-28 . I cannot find any older authority for these statements than that of Epiphanius, who wrote late in the fourth century, and is by no means worthy of implicit credit. He asserts, also, that Cerinthus was one of the persons alluded to by St. Luke, as having already undertaken to write the life of Jesus. But all these stories I take to be entirely inventions; and there is no evidence that Cerinthus made himself conspicuous at so early a period. Irenaeus speaks of the heresy of the Nicolaitans, as being considerably prior to that of the Cerinthians. According to the same writer, Carpocrates also preceded Cerinthus; and if it be true, as so many of the fathers assert, that St. John wrote his Gospel expressly to confute this heresy, we can hardly come to any other conclusion, than that it was late in the first century when Cerinthus rose into notice. He appears undoubtedly to have been a Jew; and there is evidence that, after having studied philosophy in Egypt, he spread his doctrines in Asia Minor. This will account for his embracing the Gnostic opinions, and for his exciting the notice of St. John, who resided at Ephesus. He was certainly a Gnostic in his notion of the creation of the world, which he conceived to have been formed by angels; and his attachment to that philosophy may explain what otherwise seems inconsistent, that he retained some of the Mosaic ceremonies, such as the observance of Sabbaths and circumcision; though, like other Gnostics, he ascribed the law and the prophets to the angel who created the world. This adoption or rejection of different parts of the same system was a peculiar feature of the Gnostic philosophy; and the name of Cerinthus probably became eminent, because he introduced a fresh change in the notion concerning Christ. The Gnostics, like their leader, Simon Magus, had all of them been Docetae and denied the real humanity; but Cerinthus is said to have maintained that Jesus had a real body, and was the son of human parents, Joseph and Mary. In the other points he agreed with the Gnostics, and believed that Christ was one of the aeons who descended on Jesus at his baptism. It is difficult to ascertain who was the first Gnostic that introduced this opinion. Some writers give the merit of it to Ebion; and yet it is generally said that Cerinthus and Ebion agreed in their opinions concerning Christ, and that Cerinthus preceded Ebion. Again Carpocrates is said to have held the same sentiments; and he is placed by Irenaeus before Cerinthus: so that it is difficult, if not impossible, to decide the chronological precedence of these heretics. Perhaps the safest inference to draw from so many conflicting testimonies is this: that Carpocrates was the first Gnostic of eminence who was not a Docetist; but that the notion of Jesus being born of human parents was taught more explicitly and with more success by Cerinthus. Carpocrates is reported to have been distinguished by the gross immorality of his life; and whatever we may think of the imputations cast upon the Gnostics in general, it seems impossible to deny that this person, at least, professed and practised a perfect liberty of action. There is also strong evidence that in this instance Cerinthus followed his example.

There is a peculiar doctrine ascribed to this heretic, which, if it originated with him, may well account for the celebrity of his name. Cerinthus has been handed down as the first person who held the notion of a millennium; and though the fathers undoubtedly believed that, previous to the general resurrection, the earth would undergo a renovation, and the just would rise to enjoy a long period of terrestrial happiness, yet there was a marked and palpable difference between the millennium of the fathers and that of Cerinthus. The fathers conceived this terrestrial happiness to be perfectly pure and freed from the imperfections of our nature; but Cerinthus is said to have promised his followers a millennium of the grossest pleasures and the most sensual gratifications. It is singular that all the three sources, to which we may trace the Gnostic doctrines, might furnish some foundation for this notion of a millennium. Thus Plato has left some speculations concerning the "great year," when, after the expiration of thirty-six thousand years, the world was to be renewed, and the golden age to return. It was the belief of the Persian magi, according to Plutarch, that the time would come, when Ahreman, or the evil principle, would be destroyed; when the earth would lose its impediments and inequalities, and all mankind would be of one language, and enjoy uninterrupted happiness. It was taught, in the Cabbala, that the world was to last six thousand years, which would be followed by a period of rest for a thousand years more. There appears in this an evident allusion, though on a much grander scale, to the sabbatical years of rest. The institution of the jubilee, and the glowing descriptions given by the prophets of the restoration of the Jews, and the reign of the Messiah, may have led the later Jews to some of their mystical fancies; and when all these systems were blended together by the Gnostics, it is not strange, if a millennium formed part of their creed long before the time of Cerinthus. It seems probable, however, that he went much farther than his predecessors in teaching that the millennium would consist in a course of sensual indulgence; and it may have been his notions upon this subject, added to those concerning the human nature of Christ, which led him to maintain, contrary to the generality of Gnostics, that Christ had not yet risen, but that he would rise hereafter. The Gnostics, as we have seen, denied the resurrection altogether. Believing Jesus to be a phantom, they did not believe that he was crucified; and they could not therefore believe that he had risen. But Cerinthus, who held that Jesus was born, like other human beings, found no difficulty in believing literally that he was crucified; and he is said also to have taught that he would rise from the dead at some future period. It is most probable that this period was that of the millennium; and the words of St. John in the Revelation would easily be perverted, where it is said of the souls of the martyrs, that "they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years," Revelation 20:4 .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Cerinthians'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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