Chapter XXVIII.—Cerinthus the Heresiarch.
1. We have understood that at this time Cerinthus, 834 the author of another heresy, made his appearance. Caius, whose words we quoted above, 835 in the Disputation which is ascribed to him, writes as follows concerning this man:
2. “But Cerinthus also, by means of revelations which he pretends were written by a great apostle, brings before us marvelous things which he falsely claims were shown him by angels; and he says that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ will be set up on earth, and that the flesh dwelling in Jerusalem will again be subject to desires and pleasures. And being an enemy of the Scriptures of God, he asserts, with the purpose of deceiving men, that there is to be a period of a thousand years 836 for marriage festivals.” 837
3. And Dionysius, 838 who was bishop of the parish of Alexandria in our day, in the second book of his work On the Promises, where he says some things concerning the Apocalypse of John which he draws from tradition, mentions this same man in the following words: 839
4. “But (they say that) Cerinthus, who founded the sect which was called, after him, the Cerinthian, desiring reputable authority for his fiction, prefixed the name. For the doctrine which he taught was this: that the kingdom of Christ will be an p. 161 earthly one.
5. And as he was himself devoted to the pleasures of the body and altogether sensual in his nature, he dreamed that that kingdom would consist in those things which he desired, namely, in the delights of the belly and of sexual passion, that is to say, in eating and drinking and marrying, and in festivals and sacrifices and the slaying of victims, under the guise of which he thought he could indulge his appetites with a better grace.”
6. These are the words of Dionysius. But Irenæus, in the first book of his work Against Heresies, 840 gives some more abominable false doctrines of the same man, and in the third book relates a story which deserves to be recorded. He says, on the authority of Polycarp, that the apostle John once entered a bath to bathe; but, learning that Cerinthus was within, he sprang from the place and rushed out of the door, for he could not bear to remain under the same roof with him. And he advised those that were with him to do the same, saying, “Let us flee, lest the bath fall; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” 841
The earliest account which we have of Cerinthus is that of Irenæus (Adv. Hær. I. 26. 1; cf. III. 3. 4, quoted at the end of this chapter, and 11. 1), according to which Cerinthus, a man educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the supreme God, but by a certain power distinct from him. He denied the supernatural birth of Jesus, making him the son of Joseph and Mary, and distinguishing him from Christ, who descended upon him at baptism and left him again at his crucifixion. He was thus Ebionitic in his Christology, but Gnostic in his doctrine of the creation. He claimed no supernatural power for himself as did Simon Magus and Menander, but pretended to angelic revelations, as recorded by Caius in this paragraph. Irenæus (who is followed by Hippolytus, VII. 21 and X. 17) says nothing of his chiliastic views, but these are mentioned by Caius in the present paragraph, by Dionysius (quoted by Eusebius, VII. 25, below), by Theodoret (Hær. Fab. II. 3), and by Augustine (De Hær. I. 8), from which accounts we can see that those views were very sensual. The fullest description which we have of Cerinthus and his followers is that of Epiphanius (Hær. XXVIII.), who records a great many traditions as to his life (e.g. that he was one of the false apostles who opposed Paul, and one of the circumcision who rebuked Peter for eating with Cornelius, &c.), and also many details as to his system, some of which are quite contradictory. It is clear, however, that he was Jewish in his training and sympathies, while at the same time possessed of Gnostic tendencies. He represents a position of transition from Judaistic Ebionism to Gnosticism, and may be regarded as the earliest Judaizing Gnostic. Of his death tradition tells us nothing, and as to his dates we can say only that he lived about the end of the first century. Irenæus (III. 2. 1) supposed John to have written his gospel and epistle in opposition to Cerinthus. On the other hand, Cerinthus himself was regarded by some as the author of the Apocalypse (see Bk. VII. chap. 25, below), and most absurdly as the author of the Fourth Gospel also (see above, chap. 24, note 1).160:835
See Bk. II. chap. 25, §7. Upon Caius, see the note given there. The Disputation is the same that is quoted in that passage.160:836
Cf. Rev. xx. 4. On chiliasm in the early Church, see below, chap. 39, note 19.160:837
It is a commonly accepted opinion founded upon this passage that Caius rejected the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse and considered it a work of Cerinthus. But the quotation by no means implies this. Had he believed that Cerinthus wrote the Apocalypse commonly ascribed to John, he would certainly have said so plainly, and Eusebius would just as certainly have quoted his opinion, prejudiced as he was himself against the Apocalypse. Caius simply means that Cerinthus abused and misinterpreted the vision of the Apocalypse for his own sensual purposes. That this is the meaning is plain from the words “being an enemy to the Divine Scriptures,” and especially from the fact that in the Johannine Apocalypse itself occur no such sensual visions as Caius mentions here. The sensuality was evidently superimposed by the interpretation of Cerinthus. Cf. Weiss N. T. Einleitung, p. 82.160:838
Upon Dionysius and his writings, see below, Bk. VI. chap. 40, note 1.160:839
The same passage is quoted with its context in Bk. VII. chap. 25, below. The verbs in the portion of the passage quoted here are all in the infinitive, and we see, from Bk. VII. chap. 25, that they depend upon an indefinite λέγουσιν, “they say”; so that Eusebius is quite right here in saying that Dionysius is drawing from tradition in making the remarks which he does. Inasmuch as the verbs are not independent, and the statement is not, therefore, Dionysius own, I have inserted, at the beginning of the quotation, the words “they say that,” which really govern all the verbs of the passage. Dionysius himself rejected the theory of Cerinthus authorship of the Apocalypse, as may be seen from Bk. VII. chap. 25, §7.161:840
Irenæus, Adv. Hær. I. 26. 1.161:841
See ibid. III. 3. 4. This story is repeated by Eusebius, in Bk. IV. chap. 14. There is nothing impossible in it. The occurrence fits well the character of John as a “son of thunder,” and shows the same spirit exhibited by Polycarp in his encounter with Marcion (see below, Bk. IV. chap. 14). But the story is not very well authenticated, as Irenæus did not himself hear it from Polycarp, but only from others to whom Polycarp had told it. The unreliability of such second-hand tradition is illustrated abundantly in the case of Irenæus himself, who gives some reports, very far from true, upon the authority of certain presbyters (e.g. that Christ lived fifty years; II. 22. 5). This same story, with much more fullness of detail, is repeated by Epiphanius (Hær. XXX. 24), but of Ebion (who never existed), instead of Cerinthus. This shows that the story was a very common one, while, at the same time, so vague in its details as to admit of an application to any heretic who suited the purpose. That somebody met somebody in a bath seems quite probable, and there is nothing to prevent our accepting the story as it stands in Irenæus, if we choose to do so. One thing, at least, is certain, that Cerinthus is a historical character, who in all probability was, for at least a part of his life, contemporary with John, and thus associated with him in tradition, whether or not he ever came into personal contact with him.