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Cerinthus (Greek: Κήρινθος; fl. c. 100 CE) was a gnostic and to some, an early Christian, who was prominent as a heresiarch in the view of the early Church Fathers. Contrary to proto-orthodox Christianity, he used the Gospel of Cerinthus, and denied that the Supreme God made the physical world. In Cerinthus' interpretation, the Christ came to Jesus at baptism, guided him in his ministry, but left him at the crucifixion.
He taught that Jesus would establish a thousand-year reign of sensuous pleasure after the Second Coming but before the General Resurrection, a view that was declared heretical by the Council of Nicaea. Cerinthus used a version of the gospel of Matthew as scripture.
Cerinthus taught at a time when Christianity's relation to Judaism and to Greek philosophy had not yet been clearly defined. In his association with the Jewish law and his modest assessment of Jesus, he was similar to the Ebionites and to other Jewish Christians. In defining the world's creator as the demiurge, he emulated Platonic philosophy and anticipated the Gnostics.
Early Christian tradition describes Cerinthus as a contemporary to and opponent of John the Evangelist, who may have written the First Epistle of John and the Second Epistle of John to warn the less mature in faith and doctrine about the changes Cerinthus was making to the original gospel. All that is known about Cerinthus comes from the writing of his theological opponents.
The date of his birth and his death are unknown. In the Asia (Roman province) he founded a school and gathered disciples. None of Cerinthus' actual writings seem to have survived, and it is unlikely that any were ever very widely disseminated. Our most detailed understanding of the man Cerinthus' teachings are from the 4th century Epiphanius of Salamis, onwards, a good few centuries after his death and therefore we do not have a clear understanding of his teachings.
The earliest surviving account of Cerinthus is that in Irenæus' refutation of Gnosticism, Adversus haereses, which was written about 170 AD. According to Irenæus, Cerinthus, a man educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, claimed angelic inspiration.
Epistula Apostolorum, a little-known 2nd-century text, which is roughly contemporary with the above work of Irenaeus, seems to have been written as a direct refutation of the teachings of Cerinthus.
Prior to Irenaeus, various Christian communities commonly used one gospel over the others. Cerinthus used a version of the Gospel of Matthew, the most Jewish of the four canonical gospels. Unlike Marcion of Sinope, a 2nd-century heretic who was hostile to Jewish scripture, Cerinthus honored Jewish scripture and the God of the Hebrews.
He taught that the visible world and heavens were not made by the supreme being, but by a lesser power (Demiurge) distinct from him. These creator-angels were ignorant of the existence of the Supreme God.
His use of the term demiurge (literally, craftsman) for the creator fits Platonic, Neopythagorean, Middle Platonic, and Neoplatonic schools of philosophy, which dominated the learned environment of the eastern Mediterranean, see also Hellenistic Judaism. Unlike true Gnostics that followed him, Cerinthus taught that the demiurge was good, more like Philo's logos than the evil demiurge taught by Valentinus.
Cerinthus distinguished between the man Jesus and the Christ. He denied the supernatural birth of Jesus, making him the son of Joseph and Mary, and distinguished him from Christ, who descended upon him at baptism (see also Adoptionism) and left him again at his crucifixion. But never to embody the flesh. Cerinthus is also said to have taught that Jesus will be raised from the dead at the Last Day, when all men will rise with Him.
In describing Jesus as a natural-born man, Cerinthus agreed with the Jewish Christian Ebionites. In portraying Christ as a spirit that came from heaven, undertook its divine task in the material world, and then returned, he anticipates the fully developed Christian Gnosticism in later decades.
Cerinthus instructed his followers to maintain strict adherence to Mosaic law for the attainment of salvation. This soteriological worldview is termed legalism. This view contradicts the soteriology conveyed at the Council of Jerusalem (c. 50 AD), when Paul of Tarsus established the understanding that Christians are not required to be circumcised to attain salvation. The Book of Acts chapter 15 lists only four lifestyle requirements for Gentile converts to Christianity for the purpose of their attending synagogue, after which they would learn the law of Moses as it was preached every Shabbat (Acts 15:21). Many scholars see these four requirements set out by the Jerusalem Council as a parallel to Noahide Law. Conversely, certain Jewish Christian sects, including the Cerinthians, recognized Mosaic law as both practicable and necessary.
Cerinthus believed that Christ would establish a 1,000-year earthly kingdom prior to the general resurrection and the spiritual kingdom of God in heaven. This belief, premillennialism, was common among early Christians, as it is a literal interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6. The Council of Nicea and Augustine of Hippo both opposed this belief, and it came to be considered heretical.
According to Irenaeus, Polycarp told the story that John the Apostle, in particular, is said to have so detested Cerinthus that he once fled a bathhouse when he found out Cerinthus was inside, yelling "Let us flee, lest the building fall down; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!" One tradition maintains that John wrote his first two epistles to counter Cerinthus' heresy.
Works attributed to Cerinthus
Cerinthus may be the alleged recipient of the Apocryphon of James (codex I, text 2 of the Nag Hammadi library), although the name written is largely illegible. A 2nd- or 3rd-century heretical Christian sect (later dubbed the Alogi) alleged Cerinthus was the true author of the Gospel of John and Book of Revelation. According to Catholic Encyclopedia: Caius: "Additional light has been thrown on the character of Caius's dialogue against Proclus by Gwynne's publication of some fragments from the work of Hippolytus "Contra Caium" (Hermathena, VI, p. 397 sq.); from these it seems clear that Caius maintained that the Apocalypse of John was a work of the Gnostic Cerinthus."
Cerinthus in literature
Cerinthus is featured in John's Story: The Last Eyewitness, part of Christian writer Tim LaHaye's The Jesus Chronicles. In the book Cerinthus, much to the disciple John's frustration, has begun spreading his gnostic teachings to the populace whereupon John is moved to write his counter-argument: the Gospel of John.
- See, in particular, Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, Book I, III and relative External links
- Gundry, Robert (2012). A Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. p. 536. ISBN 978-0-310-49474-4.
- Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter 11, Verse 1
- The First Epistle of John, Chapter 2, verses 18-19, Chapter 4 verse 3
- I: xxvi; III: ii, iii and xi; Book I and III - external links below
- "The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgement. It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers, such as Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius, while Caius, Origen, Dionysius the Great, Eusebius (as afterwards Jerome and Augustin) opposed it." Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.) 381.
- Irenaeus mentions the anecdote about Polycarp in Adv. Haer., III.3.4.
- CHARLES E. HILL, Cerinthus, Gnostic or Chiliast? A New Solution to an Old Problem, in JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES (8.2, Summer 2000)
- Catholic Encyclopedia: 'Cerinthus'
- Cerinthus from Encyclopædia Britannica (1911)
- Cerinthus from New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1952)
- Schaff's History of the Christian Church, volume II, chapter XI: THE HERESIES OF THE ANTE-NICENE AGE section 123: Cerinthus
- EarlyChurch.org.uk: Cerinthus
- Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book I (Chapter XXVI, §1-2)
- Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book III (Chapter II, §1; Ch. III, §4; Ch. XI, §1)
- Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae.
- Gaius argument for Cerinthus' authorship of the Gospel of John