the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(Gr. ῤφίται . i. e. serpent brethren, from ὄφις, a serpent) is the name of an Egyptian sect of Christians who are regarded as a branch of the Gnostics (q.v.); but while the Ophites shared with the Gnostics the general belief of dualism, the conflict of matter and spirit, the emanations, the Demiurgus, and other notions common to the many subdivisions of this extraordinary school, the, Ophites were distinguished by their peculiar doctrine and worship connected with the ophis, or serpent. Like most other Gnostics, they regarded the Demilurgus, or the Jehovah of the Old Testament with great abhorrence, but they pursued this notion into a very curious development. Regarding, like the Valentinians, the emancipation of man from the power and control of the Demiurgus, or, as they called him, Jaldabaoth, as a most important end, they declared the serpent who tempted Eve, and introduced into the world "knowledge" and revolt against Jehovah, to have been the great benefactor of the human race, and hence they worshipped the serpent. Other views which they held and sought to propagate were equally strange. We may instance their singular attempt to engraft "Othism" on Christianity; their seeking, as it were, to impart to the Christian Eucharist an Ophitic character, by causing the bread designed for the eucharistic sacrifice to be licked by a serpent, which was kept in a cave for the purpose, and which the communicants kissed after receiving the Eucharist (Tertullian, Adv. Haeres. 2; Epiphanius, Hor. 37, § 5). Regarding Christ, they taught that he who was born of the Virgin was Jesus alone, and that afterwards Christ descended upon Jesus and in proof of this they pointed to the fact that Jesus wrought no miracle either before his baptism or after his resurrection.
They held that Jaldabaoth brought about the crucifixion of Christ. After his resurrection Jesus remained eighteen months on the earth, during which time he received from the Sophia a clearer knowledge of the higher truth, which he imparted to a few of his disciples. He was then raised to heaven by the celestial Christ, and sits at the right hand of Jaldabaoth unobserved by him, but gradually receiving to himself every spiritual being that has been emancipated and purified by the redemption. Jaldabaoth they set forth as begetting six beings, the spirits of the seven planets. By these six beings man was created after their common image, a body without a soul; and they brought him to Jaldabaoth, who breathed into him a living spirit. At the sight of man's perfection Jaldabaoth became envious, and gave him a command which the serpent led him to disobey. Hence the conflict of good and evil in the world, the good being represented by the serpent. The mythic Christ of the Valentinians is the opponent of Jaldabaoth, and is ever endeavoring to defend man from his enemy. So meager is our information regarding the Ophites that it is difficult to give much of an exhibit of them or their doctrines. Their principles appear to have been a compound of the mysteries of His and of the involved fancies of Oriental mythology, mingled with corrupt notions of Christian history and doctrine.
The doctrines maintained by this sect in regard to the origin and destination of man are thus described by Neander: "The empire of Jaldabaoth is the starry world. The stars are the representatives and orians of the cosmical principle, which seeks to hold mans spirit in bondage and servitude, and to environ it with all manner of delusions. Jaldabaoth, and the six angels begotten by him, are the spirits of the seven planets, the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Vellnus, Jupiter, Mercuyl, and Saturn. It is the endeavor of Jaldabaoth to assert himself as self-subsistent Lord and Creator, to keep his six angels, from deserting their subjection, and, lest they should look up and observe the higher world of light, to fix their attention upon some object in another quarter. To this end he called upon the six angels to create man, after their own common image, as the crowning seal of their independent creative power. Man was created, and being in their own image, was a huge corporeal mass, but without a soul. He crept on the earth, and had not power to lift, himself erect. They therefore brought the helpless creature to their Father, that he might animate it with a soul. Jaldabaith breathed into it a living spirit, and thus, unperceived by himself, the spiritual seed passed from his owns being into the nature of man whereby he was deprived himself of this higher principle of life. Thus had the Sophia ordained it. In mann (i.e. those men who had received some portion of this spiritual seed) was concentrated the light, the soul, the reason of the whole creation. Jaldabaoth was now seized with amazement and wrath when he beheld a being created by himself, and within the bounds of his own kingdom, rising both above himself and his kingdom. He strove therefore to prevent man from becoming conscious of his higher nature, and of that higher order of world to which he had now become related — to keep him in a state of blind unconsciousness and thus of slavish submission. It was the jealousy of the contracted Jaldabaoth which issued that. command to the first man; but the mundane soul employed the serpent as an instrument to defeat the purpose of Jaldabaoth by tempting the first man to disobedience.
According to another view, the serpent was itself a symbol or disguised appearance of the mundane soul: and, in the strict sense it is that part of the sect only that adopted this view which rightly received the name of Ophites, for they actually worshipped the serpent as a holy symbol; to which they may have been led by an analogous idea in the Egyptian religion, the serpent in the latter being looked upon as a symbol of Keph, who resembled the Sophia of the Ophites. At all events, it was through the mundane soul, directly or indirectly, that the eyes of the first man were opened. The fall of man — and this presents a characteristic feature of the Ophitic system, though even in this respect it was perhaps not altogether independent of the prior Valentinian theory — the fall of man was the transition point from a state of unconscious limitation to one of conscious freedom. Man now became wise, and renounced his allegiance to Jaldabaoth. The latter angry at this disobedience, thrust him from the upper region of air, where until now he had dwelt in an ethereal body, down to the dark earth, and banished him into a dark body. Man found himself now placed in a situation where, on the one hand, the seven planetary spirits sought to hold him under their thrall, and to suppress the higher consciousness in his soul; while, on the other hand, the wicked and purely material spirits tried to tempt him into sin and idolatry, which would expose him to the vengeance of the severe Jaldabaoth. Yet ‘ wisdom' never ceased to impart new strength to man's kindred nature by fresh supplies of the higher spiritual influence; and from Seth, whom the Gnostics generally regarded as a representative of the contemplative nature, she was able to preserve through every age a race peculiarly her own, in which the seeds of the spiritual nature were saved from destruction. The doctrines of the Ophites were far from being favorable to purity of morals. Olrien indeed goes so far as to exclude them from the Christian Church, and declares that they admitted none to their assemblies who did not curse Christ. Irenens, Theodoret, Epiphanius and Augustine regard them as Christian heretics. Origen gives a minute account of the Diagram of the Ophites, which appears to have been a sort of tablet on which they depicted their doctrines in all sorts of figures, with words annexed."
The Ophites originated in Egypt, probably from some relation to the Egyptian serpent-worship, and spread thence into Syria and Asia Minor. They continued to exist as a sect after other forms of Gnosticism had died out, the emperor Justinian enacting laws against them (Cod. i, v. 1, 18, 19, 21) so late as A.D. 530. Offshoots of them are the Cainites. (See SETHITES).
Cyprian mentions the Ophites (Ephesians 72:4); and the last chapter but one of Irenaeus's first book is supposed to have been written against them and the Sethians (Adv. Haeres. i, 30). Origen calls them "a very obscure sect," and denies that they were Christians, saying that "no person was allowed to join their assemblies till he had uttered curses against Jesus" (Contr. Cels. 3:13; 6,-24). He also says they were founded by a man named Euphrates (ibid. 11:28), a name mentioned by Theodoret as belonging to the founder of the heresy of the Peratee, but which in the account of the Naassen, or Ophites, given by Hippolytus is regarded as the name of the mystical water of life spoken of John 4:10. Hippolytus looks upon the Ophites as the originators of all heresies, and associates them with both Jews and the Gnostics; for he writes of them under the Hebrew form of their name as "the Naasseni," from נחשׁ (nachash, "a serpent"), "who call themselves Gnostics" (Hippol. Refut. v. 6). Philastes places them first in his list of heresies before Christ (De Haer. 1), while Epiphanius (Panar. 38) and Augustine (De Haer. 17) say that they were alleged to have been derived from the Nicolaitanes or the Gnostics. The heretical philosophy of the sect is given by Hippolytus and Epiphanius, as above quoted. The former says that they professed to derive it from James, the brother of our Lord, who handed it down to Mariamne. He also quotes from a "Gospel according to Thomas" which was in use among them, which seems to be the "Gospel according to the Egyptians" mentioned by Epiphanius in his twenty-sixth book among the Gnostic Apocrypha. In addition to these sources of information, there is also an account given by Origen of their "‘ Diagram," a tablet on which they set forth their doctrines in a hieroglyphical form (Contr. Cels. 6:33). See, besides the literature on Gnosticism, Pressense, Doctrines and Heresies of the Early Christian Church, p. 58; Werner, Gesch. d. rimisch. - kathol. Kirchenlehre;— Neander, Ch. Iist. vol. ii; id. Genetische Entwickelung des gnostischen Systems, p. 231 sq.; id. Hist. of Christian Dogmas, 1:178, 179; Haag, Histoire des Dogmes Chretiens, i, § 25; Walch, Gesch. der Ketzereien, 1:447 sq.; Milman, Hist. of Christianity; Liddoll, Divinity of Christ, 1:59, 143, 163; Schaff, Ch. Hist. vol. i; Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines; Baur, Die christl. Gnosis, p. 171 sq.; and his Das Christenthum der ersten drei Jahrhunderte, p. 176; Mosheim, Gesch. der Schlangenbruder (Helmst. 1748, 8vo); Schumacher, Lehrtofel der Ophiten (Wolfenb. -1755, 4t0); Fuldner, Commentaria de Ophitis; Jdcher, De Ophio-um heresi; Kille, Ophitarum mysteria retecta (Freib. 1822, 4to); Vogt, De Ophitis, in his Bibl. heresiol. 2:37 sq.; Wilke, De Oph. (Regiom. 1706); Schrockh, Kirchengesch. 2:409 sq. There is an article on the Ophitic System, by Lepsius, in the Zeitschr. fur wissenschaftliche Theologie, 1863, vol. iv; 1864, vol. 1. (See SERPENT-WORSHIPPERS).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Ophites'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​o/ophites.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.