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Bible Dictionaries

A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Dositheus (1), Leader of Jewish Sect

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Dositheus (1) . The earliest ecclesiastical writers speak of a sect of Dositheans, which, though it never spread far outside Samaria, seems to have had some considerable duration in that quarter. It was rather a Jewish sect than a Christian heresy, for Dositheus was regarded rather as a rival than as a disciple of our Lord, but trustworthy information as to his history and his doctrines is very scanty. Only the name of himself and his sect occurs in Hegesippus's list of heresies, preserved by Eusebius (H. E. iv. 22). He is there placed next after Simon and Cleobius. The earliest detailed account of him is given in the Clementine writings, and it is not unlikely that their account was derived from the treatise on heresies of Justin Martyr. The Recognitions (ii. 8) and Homilies (ii. 24) agree in making Simon Magus a disciple of Dositheus, and the Recognitions would lead us to suppose that Dositheus was clearly the elder. They represent him as already recognised as the prophet like unto Moses, whom Jehovah was to raise up; when Simon with difficulty and entreaty obtained election among his 30 disciples. The Homilies make Simon and Dositheus fellow disciples of John the Baptist, to whom in several places the author shews hostility. As our Lord, the Sun, had 12 apostles, so John, the Moon, had 30 disciples, or even more accurately answering to the days of a lunation, 29½, for one of them was a woman. On John's death Simon was absent studying magic in Egypt, and so Dositheus was put over his head into the chief place, an arrangement in which Simon on his return thought it prudent to acquiesce. Origen, who was acquainted with the Recognitions, probably had in his mind the story of the 30 disciples of Dositheus, when he says ( contra Celsum, vi. 11) that he doubts whether there were then 30 Dositheans in the world ( ib. i. 57) or 30 Simonians. Recognitions and Homilies agree that Simon after his enrolment among the disciples of Dositheus, by his disparagement among his fellow-disciples of their master's pretensions, provoked Dositheus to smite him with a staff, which through Simon's magical art passed through his body as if it had been smoke. Dositheus in amazement thereat, and conscious that he himself was not the Standing one as he pretended to be, inquired if Simon claimed that dignity for himself, and, being answered in the affirmative, resigned his chief place to him and became his worshipper. Soon after he died. Elsewhere (i. 54) the Recognitions represent Dositheus as the founder of the sect of the Sadducees, a sect which, according to their account, had its commencement only in the days of John the Baptist.

Next in order of the early witnesses to the activity of Dositheus is Hippolytus who as we learn from Photius (Cod. 121) commenced his shorter treatise on heresies with a section on the Dositheans. We gather the contents of this treatise from Epiphanius (Haer. 13) Philaster (4) and Pseudo-Tertullian and the opening sentence of the latter which relates to the Dositheans is almost exactly reproduced by St. Jerome (adv. Luciferianos iv. 304). The first section of the work of Hippolytus apparently contained a brief notice of pre-Christian sects the foremost place being given to the Dositheans. Hippolytus seems to have adopted the account of the Recognitions as to the origin of the sect of the Sadducees and to have also charged Dositheus with rejecting the inspiration of the prophets. A statement that Dositheus was a Jew by birth was understood by Epiphanius to mean that he had deserted from the Jews to the Samaritans a change which Epiphanies attributes to disappointed ambition. Origen mentions Dositheus in several places (cont. Celsum u.s. tract 27 in Matt. vol. iii. 851; in Luc. iii. 962; in Johann. iv. vol. iv. p. 237; de Princ. iv. 1-17); but only in the last two passages makes any statement which clearly shews that he had sources of information independent of the Clementine Recognitions; viz. in the commentary on John he speaks of books ascribed to Dositheus as being then current among his disciples and of their belief that their master had not really died; and in de Princ. he asserts that Dositheus expounded Exo_16:29 so as to teach that persons were bound to remain to the end of the sabbath as they found themselves at the beginning of it; if sitting sitting to the end; if lying lying. Epiphanius who may have read Dosithean books adds from his personal investigations to the details which he found in Hippolytus. He describes the sect as still existing observing the Sabbath circumcision and other Jewish ordinances abstaining from animal food and many of them from sexual intercourse either altogether or at least after having had children; but the reading here is uncertain. They are said to have admitted the resurrection of the body the denial of which is represented as an addition made by the Sadducees to the original teaching of Dositheus. Epiphanius adds a story that Dositheus retired to a cave and there under a show of piety practised such abstinence from food and drink as to bring his life to a voluntary end. This story appears in a slightly different shape in a Samaritan chronicle of which an account is given by Abraham Ecchellensis ad Hebed Jesu Catal. lib. Chald. p. 162 Rom 1653 the story there being that it was the measures taken by the Samaritan high-priest against the new sect especially because of their use of a book of the law falsified by Dositheus (there called Dousis) which compelled Dositheus to flee to a mountain where he died from want of food in a cave. The notes of Ecchellensis are not given in Assemani's republication of Hebed Jesu (Bibl. Or. iii.). This account is taken from Mosheim (v. infra) and from De Sacy's Chrestomathie Arabe i. 337.

It appears that the sect of Dositheans long maintained a local existence. In Hebed Jesu's catalogue of Chaldee books (Assemani Bibl. Or. iii. 42) we read that Theophilus of Persia who was later than the council of Ephesus wrote against Dositheus. And Photius (Cod. 230) reports that he read among the works of Eulogius patriarch of Alexandria (d. a.d. 608) one entitled Definition against the Samaritans the argument of which is that the people of Samaria being divided in opinion as to whether the "prophet like unto Moses" was Joshua or Dositheus Eulogius held a synod there (in the 7th year of Marcianus according to the MSS.; if we correct this to the 7th year of Maurice it gives a.d. 588) and taught them the divinity of our Lord. The independent notices of the continued existence of the sect make it not incredible that Eulogius may have encountered it. He appears to have really used Dosithean books and reports that Dositheus exhibited particular hostility to the patriarch Judah and if he claimed to be himself the prophet who was to come he would naturally be anxious to exclude the belief that that prophet must be of the tribe of Judah. The form (Dosthes) given by Eulogius for his name is a closer approach than Dositheus to the Hebrew Dosthai which it probably really represents. Drusius (de Sectis Hebraeorum iii. 4 6) and Lightfoot (Disquis. Chorograph. in. Johann. iv.) shew that this was according to Jewish tradition the name of one of the priests who was sent (2Ki_17:27) to teach the manner of the God of the land and that the same name was borne by other Samaritans.

There seems no ground for Reland's conjecture (de Samaritanis, v.) that Dositheus was the author of the Samaritan book of Joshua, since published by Juynboll (Leyden, 1848). Juynboll, p. 113, quotes the testimony of an Arabic writer, Aboulfatah (given more fully, De Sacy, p. 335) that the sect still existed in the 14th cent. This writer places Dositheus in the time of John Hyrcanus, i.e. more than a hundred years before Christ. Jost ( Gesch. des Judenthums, i. 66) refers to Beer ( Buch der Jubiläen ) as giving evidence that the sect left traces in Abyssinia. Several critics who have wished to accept all the statements of the above-mentioned authorities, and who have felt the difficulty of making the founder of the sect of the Sadducees contemporary with John the Baptist, have adopted the solution that there must have been two Dosithei, both founders of Samaritan sects. But we may safely say that there was but one sect of Dositheans, and that there is no evidence that any ancient writer believed that it had at different times two heads bearing the same name. Considering that the sect claimed to have been more than a century old when our earliest informants tried to get information about its founder, we need not be surprised if the stories which they collected contain many things legendary, and which do not harmonise. Probably the Dositheans were a Jewish or Samaritan ascetic sect, something akin to the Essenes, existing from before our Lord's time, and the stories connecting their founder with Simon Magus and with John the Baptist may be dismissed as merely mythical. The fullest and ablest dissertation on the Dositheans is that by Mosheim (Institutiones Historiae Christianae majores, 1739, i. 376). Cf. Harnack, Gesch. der Alt.-Chr. Lit. Theol. pp. 152 f.


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Dositheus (1), Leader of Jewish Sect'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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Saturday, November 28th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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