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§ 128. The Ophites. The Sethites. The Peratae. The Cainites

I. Hippolytus: Philosoph. bk. V. 1–23. He begins his account of the Heresies with the Naasseni, or Ophites, and Peratae (the first four books being devoted to the systems of heathen philosophy). Irenaeus: Adv. Haer. I. 30 (ed. Stieren, I. 266 sqq.). Epiphan. Haer. 37 (in Oehler’s ed. I. 495 sqq.).

II. Mosheim: Geschichte der Schlangenbrüder. Helmstädt, 1746, ’48.

E. W. Möller: Geschichte der Kosmologie. Halle, 1860. Die ophitische Gnosis, p. 190 sqq.

Baxmann: Die Philosophumena und die Peraten, in Niedner’s "Zeitschrift für die Hist. Theol." for 1860. Lipsius: Ueber das ophitische System. In "Zeitschrift für wissenschaftl. Theologie" for 1863 and ’64.

Jacobi in Herzog, new ed., vol. V. 240 sq.

George Salmon: "Cainites," in Smith and Wace, vol. I. 380–82. Articles "Ophites" and "Peratae," will probably appear in vol. IV., not yet published.

The origin of the Ophites,898898    Ὁφιανοί, from ὄφις, serpent, Serpentini.98 or, in Hebrew, Naasenes,899899    From שׁחָנִ.99 i.e. Serpent-Brethren, or Serpent-Worshippers, is unknown, and is placed by Mosheim and others before the time of Christ. In any case, their system is of purely heathen stamp. Lipsius has shown their connection with the Syro-Chaldaic mythology. The sect still existed as late as the sixth century; for in 530 Justinian passed laws against it.

The accounts of their worship of the serpent rest, indeed, on uncertain data; but their name itself comes from their ascribing special import to the serpent as the type of gnosis, with reference to the history of the fall (Gen. 3:1), the magic rod of Moses (Ex. 4:2, 3), and the healing power of the brazen serpent in the wilderness (Num. 21:9; Comp. John 3:14). They made use of the serpent on amulets.

That mysterious, awe-inspiring reptile, which looks like the embodiment of a thunderbolt, or like a fallen angel tortuously creeping in the dust, represents in the Bible the evil spirit, and its motto, Eritis sicut Deus, is the first lie of the father of lies, which caused the ruin of man; but in the false religions it is the symbol of divine wisdom and an object of adoration; and the Eritis sicus dii appears as a great truth, which opened the path of progress. The serpent, far from being the seducer of the race, was its first schoolmaster and civilizer by teaching it the difference between good and evil. So the Ophites regarded the fall of Adam as the transition from the state of unconscious bondage to the state of conscious judgment and freedom; therefore the necessary entrance to the good, and a noble advance of the human spirit. They identified the serpent with the Logos, or the mediator between the Father and the Matter, bringing down the powers of the upper world to the lower world, and leading the return from the lower to the higher. The serpent represents the whole winding process of development and salvation.900900    As Baur (K. Gesch. I. 195) expresses it: "Die Schlange ist mit EinemWort der durch die Gegensätze dialectisch sich hindurchwindende Weltentwicklungsprocess relbst."00 The Manichaeans also regarded the serpent as the direct image of Christ.901901    Augustin, De Haer. c. 17 and 46.01

With this view is connected their violent opposition to the Old Testament. Jaldabaoth,902902    תוּהבָּ אדָּלְיַ, product of chaos.02 as they termed the God of the Jews and the Creator of the world, they represented as a malicious, misanthropic being. In other respects, their doctrine strongly resembles the Valentinian system, except that it is much more pantheistic, unchristian, and immoral, and far less developed.

The Ophites again branch out in several sects, especially three.

The Sethites considered the third son of Adam the first pneumatic man and the forerunner of Christ. They maintained three principles, darkness below, light above, and spirit between.

The Peratae or Peratics903903    From περάω, to pass across, to go beyond (the boundary of the material world). We know their system from the confused account of Hippolytus, Philos. I. v. 7 sqq. He says, that their blasphemy against Christ has for many years escaped notice. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Epiphanius are silent about the Peratae. Clement of Alex. mentions them.03 (Transcendentalists) are described by Hippolytus as allegorizing astrologers and as mystic tritheists, who taught three Gods, three Logoi, three Minds, three Men. Christ had a three-fold nature, a three-fold body, and a three-fold power. He descended from above, that all things triply divided might be saved.904904    The following specimen of Peratic transcendental nonsense is reported by Hippolytus (v. 12): "According to them, the universe is the Father, Son, [and] Matter; [but] each of these three has endless capacities in itself. Intermediate, then, between the Matter and the Father sits the Son, the Word, the Serpent, always being in motion towards the unmoved Father, and [towards] matter itself in motion. And at one time he is turned towards the Father, and receives the powers into his own person; but at another time takes up these powers, and is turned towards Matter. And Matter, [though] devoid of attribute, and being unfashioned, moulds [into itself] forms from the Son which the Son moulded from the Father. But the Son derives shape from the Father after a mode ineffable, and unspeakable, and unchangeable ... No one can be saved or return [into heaven] without the Son, and the Son is the Serpent. For as he brought down from above the paternal marks, so again he carries up from thence those marks, roused from a dormnant condition, and rendered paternal characteristics, substantial ones from the unsubstantial Being, transferring them hither from thence."04

The Cainites boasted of the descent from Cain the fratricide, and made him their leader.905905    Καϊνοι (Hippol. VIII. 20), Καϊανισταί (Clem. Alex. Strom, VII. 17), Καϊανοί (Epiph. Haer. 38), Caiani, Cainaei.05 They regarded the God of the Jews and Creator of the world as a positively evil being, whom to resist is virtue. Hence they turned the history of salvation upside down, and honored all the infamous characters of the Old and New Testaments from Cain to Judas as spiritual men and martyrs to truth. Judas Iscariot alone among the apostles had the secret of true knowledge, and betrayed the psychic Messiah with good intent to destroy the empire of the evil God of the Jews. Origen speaks of a branch of the Ophites, who were as great enemies of Jesus as the heathen Celsus, and who admitted none into their society who had not first cursed his name. But the majority seem to have acknowledged the goodness of Jesus and the benefit of his crucifixion brought about by the far-sighted wisdom of Judas. A book entitled "the Gospel of Judas" was circulated among them.

No wonder that such blasphemous travesty of the Bible history, and such predilection for the serpent and his seed was connected with the most unbridled antinomianism, which changed vice into virtue. They thought it a necessary part of "perfect knowledge" to have a complete experience of all sins, including even unnamable vices.

Some have identified the Ophites with the false teachers denounced in the Epistle of Jude as filthy dreamers, who "defile the flesh, and set at naught dominion, and rail at dignities," who "went in the way of Cain, and ran riotously in the error of Balaam for hire, and perished in the gainsaying of Korah," as "wandering stars, for whom the blackness of darkness has been reserved forever." The resemblance is certainly very striking, and those heretics may have been the forerunners of the Ophites of the second century.

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