Encratism and the first-century Jesus religion

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 12

To understand the second-century origins of ‘Christ-ianity’ (a religion based on the fleshly, miracle-working Christ), we have to go back and understand the competing forces that eventually split the fellowship. Throughout the first century, as we have seen, the “Christ” did not exist—that awesome figure from Nazareth had not yet been invented. What did exist was belief in the spirit of God, a spirit of wisdom that can save ( –> Jesus, “Savior”), sometimes simply referred to as “the Lord”:

1.    …
2.    I am putting on the love of the Lord.
      And His members are with Him,
      And I am dependent on them; and He loves me.
3.    For I should not have known how to love the Lord,
       If He had not continuously loved me.
4.    Who is able to perceive love,
       Except him who is loved?
5.    I love the Beloved and I myself love Him,
       And where His rest is, there also am I.
6.    And I shall be no stranger,
       Because there is no jealousy with the Lord Most High and Merciful.
7.    I have been united [to Him], because the lover has found the Beloved,
8.    Indeed he who is joined to Him who is immortal
       Truly shall be immortal.
9.    And he who delights in the Life
       Will become living.
10.  This is the Spirit of the Lord, which is not false,
       Which teaches the sons of men to know His ways.
11.   Be wise and understanding and vigilant.
        Hallelujah.                     [Odes of Solomon 3, Charlesworth translation]

We are suddenly in a different world, a world marked by an intensely personal relationship between the believer and the Lord. The odist gives three commands in the last verse that mark the ode as a gnostic text: “Be wise, and understanding, and vigilant.” Being vigilant, watching (Gk gregorein, from which “Gregory”) was a code word in the gnostic language of this community, and that code was also known to the later canonical evangelists   who, however, veiled any gnostic meaning. Note also verses 7 and 8: the proselyte is “united” with the Lord as a lover is united with his/her beloved. A relationship does not get any more intense or personal than that.  [Note]

For the gnostic encratites of the first century, the great event in life was the union of the human being with gnosis. They expressed this union in a complex symbolic language that mirrored the most personal of human relationships and that was opaque to, and often misunderstood by, outsiders. Thus, the Secret Gospel of Mark portrays a youth (Gk. neaniskos) spending a night with Jesus. Nothing sexual is intended. The Secret Gospel depicts the spirit of the Lord (‘Jesus’) as pure love and perfect understanding being ‘wedded to’ or ‘becoming part of’ the youth/believer. In fact, it is an intensely personal way of depicting the moment of enlightenment—that is, ‘baptism’ or entry into the kingdom of heaven.

Furthermore, the first century Jesus-followers actually replaced an earthly lover (wife, husband) with their Lord. Jesus became the ‘bridegroom.’ This way of thinking, and the symbolism that accompanied it, characterize what scholars term encratism.   Encratism was a key element in the pre-Catholic religion of the divine spirit (gnosis, ‘Jesus’) indwelling the worthy human being. Encratite elements survive in the second-century canonical gospels, as we see in the parable of the ten virgins (Mt 25:1 ff) and in the passages referenced above. Encratism continued to thrive side-by-side with Catholicism for many centuries. In fact, the Catholic Church itself betrays such elements (cf. the doctrine of the virgin birth and the celibacy of priests and nuns).

Encratism derives from the Greek egkrateia which, in Liddell’s lexicon is defined as “moderation in sensual pleasure, self-control… abstinence from or in a thing…” The Greek word itself comes from en kratos, “in strength, in might” and yields egkrates, “holding fast, stout, strong, not yielding.” For the encratites, “not yielding” meant being vigilant, watching.

Denying oneself the pleasures of life will appear strange to ordinary folk who shrug and simply ask: “Why?” The answer can only be arrived at through a series of steps. If understanding life is the true goal of man—as the encratites (and also the Buddhists before them) were convinced—then all else must be subordinated to that goal. One cannot shoot an arrow at two targets, and so one must choose between understanding (the “big fish” of Jesus’ parable) or the myriad pleasures of life (the “little fish”):

And he said, “The man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up full of little fish. Among them the wise fisherman discovered a fine large fish. That wise fisherman easily chose the large fish and threw all the little fish back into the sea. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Th 8, emphasis added.)

Related passages from scripture teach that one cannot be partial, tentative, or half-hearted in the quest for salvation—keeping, for example one or two ‘little fish’ in reserve and hoping, perhaps, that this sleight of hand will not be noticed:

– [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (Mt 22:37)

– Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk 9:62)

– “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Mt 13:45–46)

– “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt 5:28)                     [Emphases added.]

For gnostic encratites—and, indeed, for most Jesus-followers in the first century CE—  the commitment required to reach ‘the kingdom of heaven’ was total and extended to the voluntary rupture of social and even family ties:

– If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

– And Jesus said to them… “Those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

– “For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck.”  

Later Church Fathers, as usual, were intent on postdating ‘heretical’ currents (and also backdating Catholicism). Thus, Irenaeus (c. 180 CE) postulates that the Encratites originated with Marcion during his own lifetime (Against Heresies 1.28), a view later taken up by Eusebius. Even after the introduction of the Christ in mid-II CE, encratism, gnosticism, and the ‘spiritual Jesus’ movement did not disappear. In particular, the second-third century apocryphal acts of various apostles and disciples (Thomas, Paul and Thecla, Andrew, etc) perpetuate a radical encratism that originated well back in pre-Catholic times:

Blessed are they who have kept the flesh chaste, for they shall become a temple of God;
Blessed are the continent, for unto them will God speak…
Blessed are they that possess their wives as though they had them not, for they shall inherit God…
Blessed are the bodies of virgins, for they shall be well-pleasing to God and shall not lose the reward of their continence.
                     (Acts of Paul and Thecla 5–6)

Some Church Fathers also endorsed encratism, forgetting that it had been all about the attainment of gnosis:

Gregory of Nyssa dismisses marriage as a “sad tragedy”; Jerome, in his inimitable and scurrilous fashion, expatiates upon its manifold inconveniences and tribulations, and praises it solely because it produces virgins; Ambrose considers it a “galling burden” and bids his brethren reflect upon the oppressive bondage and servitude into which wedded love too often degenerates… On the whole, patristic literature adopts a pessimistic view of matrimony even while it vindicates its goodness, and the Fathers argue from the parable (Mt 13:1 ff) with monotonous frequency that the wedded state produces a mere thirty-fold as compared with the sixty-fold of widowhood or the hundred-fold of virginity. (D. Bailey, Sexual Relation in Christian Thought. Harper, 1959:24.)

For the first century Hebrew Jesus-followers, the state of total continence and purity represented the state of Adam in the Garden of Eden before the Fall (“pre-lapsarian”). For them, that state represented the vanquishing of the devil and the only state in which God can be apprehended. Adam before the Fall was innocent and all-knowing.

Encratism and the acquisition of gnosis were teachings of Yeshu ha-Notsri, yet they were teachings suitable only for very few. Such severe and impossibly strict views could never be popular among the masses. We must fully appreciate the enormous pressure placed upon ordinary Jesus-followers in the first century in order to appreciate the eventual fracturing of the Jesus movement and, indeed, the birth of Catholicism in the mid-second century. For Catholicism stepped into the breech and offered a far easier way to salvation: belief in the Christ Jesus of Nazareth. The Catholic religion is calculated to bring families together rather than drive them apart (1 Cor 7), to be within society rather than outside of it (Col 3). Catholicism involved a rejection of the severe way of the ascetic, of gnosticism, encratism, and of the entire worldview that could produce a dictum such as “Become passers-by” (Th 42).

It is my belief that the tensions within the Jesus community are reflected (albeit in a veiled way) in the confrontation between Hellenists and Hebrews in Acts:

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” (Acts 6:1–4)

Here we detect an elite cadre of “Hebrews” who wish only to meditate and pray (not unlike Buddhist monks) while the actual physical needs of a subservient community of “Hellenists” are not being met. The writer clearly depicts the arrogance of the Hebrews, for whom attending to starving widows is simply like “waiting on tables.” Furthermore, the Hebrews don’t wish to be bothered in their personal prayers. The author of Acts describes a scene in which practical, community considerations confront impractical, personal considerations. That opposition—a reaction to the unacceptably difficult teachings of Yeshu and magnified exponentially in scenes such as the above—eventually exploded in the complete rupture of the Jesus fellowship that produced the birth of the Catholic Church.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website www.NazarethMyth.info.


Encratism and the first-century Jesus religion — 1 Comment

  1. Encratism derives from the original gnostic doctrine of the serpent teaching Adam and Eve to disobey YHWH’s commandments, thus turning away from the latter and converting to the Father. It expresses severe disdain for YHWH and his creation.

    This disdain is later expressed in the term koinwnia, found e.g. in Acts 2:42f as descriptive of the lifestyle of early believers, combined with prayers, apostolic teaching, and bread breaking — the structure of the Roman Catholic mass, which, consequently, is a continuation of gnostic celebration of the violation of YHWH’s commandments. The basic structure of the celebration remained but the etiological dogma changed severely. Koinwnia requires the believers to donate the monetary worth of all their worldly belongings to the fellowship of believers when joining. Somewhere in Acts, Peter punishes Ananias and Sapphira for refusing to do so.

    To see that the offering (collection of money) in the Catholic liturgy is a supersession of gnostic koinwnia, it is also necessary to examine comparatively the patristic witnesses of the early Christian liturgy and liturgical protocols themselves (Roman canon missae, Greek anaphora, Diataxeis, Apostolic Constitutions, Didascalia, Didache,…) The evolution of the etiology is often hidden by redactional fatigue.

    The gospels still remain traces of this phase of koinwnia: The parables of the pearl, the fishnet, the hidden treasure, treasure which does not corrupt, the blessing of women who have not given suck, the camel not passing through the needle’s eye, the commandment to abandon parents…

    The parallels in the Gospel of Thomas are often clearer. Some references to the koinwnia has been brutally mistreated by the Catholic reworkers of the gospels, who illogically identified YHWH with the Father. The most important case is the treatment of the rich young man in the synoptics, where Jesus makes fellowship dependent on the Mosaic commandments.

    This late misidentification forced a change in the etiology of the Holy mass: No longer the gnostic derived koinwnia but the Jewish practice of giving alms and sacrifices was used as justification for the offering, part of the mass which involved the collection of goods contributed by believers. Christian priesthood properly only made sense when the donations were considered as a sacrifice. Finally, the crucifixion was the ultimate sacrifice, and the holy mass basically was a celebration of the reproduction of this sacrificial act which constitutes the new covenant.

    In practice, monetary donations were replaced to a great deal by natural offerings, following the example of seasonal offerings in Jewish sacrificial law. My frequently cited Supra Quae in the Roman Canon Missae suggests that living animals were offered on the altar at some point of the history of Catholic liturgy.

    The story of Paul’s collection for the poor in Jerusalem is an example for the shift to collection of alms, as is the prayer of Zaccheus in Luke 19. The legend of Marcion giving lots of coins to Rome is a parody on Paul’s collection. The worries for the poor in Mark’s story of the dinner in Bethany is also an interpolation from that era, like other references to “you always have the poor” etc. The scene in Acts with the institution of deacons is also a point of transition from koinwnia to charity. In 1 Cor. Paul complains about the abuse of agapic meals in Corinth, which are another expression of the same shift in etiology. An extra-NT witness to the introduction of this charity meal is hinted at in the apocryphal epistle of Clement (of Rome) to James.

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