A History of Orthodoxy vs. Heresy Part III: Philo, Clement and Origen

Origen of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria

In the previous posts of this series, (Valentinus was a Christian, not a “Gnostic”: Exploration of the history shaped by the “Orthodoxy vs Heresy” Dichotomy and A History of Orthodoxy vs. Heresy Part II: Valentinus Up Close) I looked at the way Valentinus has been characterized by modern scholars and argued that, with the scant evidence available to define his school of thought, it is difficult to define him as non-Christian except from the perspective of the orthodox position, which had not yet developed during his lifetime. In this section, I will survey the development of Hellenistic Judaism and early Christianity in Alexandria, Egypt, (where Valentinus grew up and was educated) in order to provide the historical and cultural context needed to fully understand how Valentinus can easily be accepted as the Christian he claimed to be.

The New Testament and early Christian historical narratives are largely silent on Christian origins in Alexandria, but many details can be surmised regarding the general cultural environment in which it developed.

At the beginning of the first century, CE, Alexandria was primarily populated by indigenous Egyptians (the lowest class), Greeks (remnants of the Ptolemaic Dynasty) and diasporic Jews. Under Greek rule, Jews had been legally designated “guests” and allowed to follow historical customs (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times”, 16). Yet, even after Egypt fell to the Romans, Romans did not require Jews to pay the “laographia” tax because of the limited sovereignty granted them by “ancestral laws” as politeuma (Daniel R. Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times”,19), rather than “natives” (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times” 20). As a result, the Greeks began to compete with Jews and native Egyptians for political rights “to protect their differential status” (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times”, 20) in the city. This would explain why Josephus records “a whole corpus of anti-Jewish literature in Greek coming out of Egypt” at the beginning of the century (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times”, 19).

Many citizens of Alexandria (including Jews such as Philo) received Greek “ephebic training” in the Alexandrian gymnasium, which “combined physical education with training in ‘liberal arts’, such as literary study (called ‘grammar’) and rhetoric”, completion of which “allowed one to take part in the civic affairs of the polis” (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family and His Times”,18). This education, combined with Jewish studies, shaped Philo’s work, which combined elements of Platonism, Stoicism and Pythagoreanism in his exegesis of the Septuagint, developed theological ideas such as the ineffable and incorporeal nature of God (Deirdre Carabine, The Unknown God. Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena, 209), the hypostasis of the logos of God to aid in the creation of the cosmos (Cristina Termini, “Philo’s Thought within the Context of Middle Judaism”, 99), and the “two Gods” of mercy and justice, “powers” of God that could also be referred to as “God” (Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism,174-5). A similar education informed the literary output of Alexandrian thinkers Origen, Clement, Valentinus and Basilides, as is evident in their syncretistic combination of Greek philosophy and science, Hellenistic Jewish traditions, exegetical use of allegory and myth, and rhetorical skills. Further, although the Palestinian rabbinic movement seems to have ignored him (David Winston, “Philo and Rabbinic Literature”, 231), Philo’s work was preserved and read by early Christians Pantænus, Origen, Pamphilus, Eusebius and Euzoius, while his work was also labeled “useful” by Didymus (David T. Runia, “Philo and the Early Christian Fathers”, The Cambridge Companion to Philo, 228-9) as an important theological and philosophical bridge between Jews and Gentiles (Runia, “Philo and the Early Christian Fathers”, 226). As a result, Philo may have influenced Valentinus as well. At the very least, they seem to have had a similar education.

Philo’s On the Embassy to Gaius records “anti-Jewish rioting” (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times”, 21), which was more likely caustic ridicule, in 38 CE, stemming from a visit from Agrippa, the first king of Judea since the Romans had established direct rule in 6 CE (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times”, 23). A decade later, Emperor Claudius wrote a letter to the Jews of Alexandria, warning them to deter the immigration of Jews who were “fomenters of what is a general plague infecting the whole world” (Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem, 222). Many scholars would like to attribute the term to the “Jesus movement” missionaries (Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem, 225), but the “fomenters” were never identified (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 47).

Regardless, unrest among the Jewish populations of Palestine and the diaspora had gotten the Empire’s attention by the middle of the first century. In 66 CE, Tiberius Julius Alexander quelled a “violent outbreak of Jewish rebelliousness” in Alexandria “parallel to the start of the Jewish rebellion in Judea” (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times”, 19). Prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, evidence of Jewish communities in Palestine and throughout the diaspora “displays considerable diversity both synchronically and diachronically”, shaped by “different political settings and different social environments”, including open communication between the communities (Termini, “Philo’s Thought within the Context of Middle Judaism”, 95). It is likely Alexandria, as a major city of the Empire with a large Jewish population, experienced a significant influx of refugees from Palestine after the destruction of the Temple, introducing the diverse literature of Palestine and Syria to the diaspora there. Regardless, early in the second century CE, the Romans suppressed another Jewish rebellion (the “tumultus Judaicus”) resulting in “such widespread death and destruction that the Jewish community of the city would more or less disappear” (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times”, 19).

Regarding the early “Jesus movement” in Alexandria, the New Testament is largely silent. Acts 18:24 describes a teacher from Alexandria named Apollos who, although he was “‘mighty in the scriptures’, ‘fervent in spirit’, and ‘instructed in the way of the Lord’, he only knew the baptism of John” (Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem, 24) and his disciples, whom Paul later met at Ephesus, knew nothing of the “Holy Ghost” (Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem, 25). Brandon argues that, because “Apollos’s status as an instructed Christian could not formally be denied, since it was a fact of common tradition” and attested by codex D at Acts 18:25 (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 46), his status as an Alexandrian in opposition to Paul “may thus be reasonably interpreted as indicating that the Christianity of Alexandria was regarded as seriously different from that identified as Pauline, and was judged as being defective in comparison with it” (Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem, 26). This would make sense, Brandon says, as Paul’s letters never mention travel to Alexandria, one of the most important cities of the Greco-Roman world (Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem, 6) and the largest population of Jews outside Jerusalem (Schwartz, “Philo, His Family, and His Times”, 15). Bauer disagrees with this same sentiment in Müller, however, suggesting that it is not a demonstrable rule “that a large population of Jews would immediately attract Christianity” that would necessitate an early Christian church in Alexandria (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 46 n.6).

Although the “Jesus Movement” was originally based on Temple worship and Jewish practices, Paul’s mission work during the second half of the century developed early Christianity further as a Gentile movement largely divorced from its Jewish history. By late second century, a large Jewish diaspora may not have been welcoming to a community of gentile Christians and may explain why Paul did not evangelize there. Outside the canonical literature, Pseudo-Clementine Homilies 1:9 records that Peter sent a man named Barnabas from Jerusalem to establish the church at Alexandria (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 340), one of the earliest churches. If this is the case, it likely retained Jewish laws and practices (Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem, 222), which may further explain why the Alexandrian church might be considered “hostile in its attitude towards Paul and his policy” of evangelizing to Gentiles (Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem, 223). In any event, there is no clear proof of Christianity in Alexandria until the second century, when Justin Martyr (Apologies 29:2-3) describes “one of our people”, a Christian from Alexandria, who lodged a biblidion with the prefect, L. Munatius Felix (ca. 150), “requesting that a physician be permitted to emasculate him” so that he could remain chaste (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 48). This evidence does not sufficiently characterize Alexandrian Christianity, however, which Bauer argues “clearly has grown up apart from all ecclesiastically structured Christendom until far into the second century” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 48) as is obvious from the writings of Clement and Origen.

According to Gilles Quispel, Alexandrian Christianity in the second century was probably “pluriform with gnostics, Encratites, Catholics and Jewish Christians until Demetrius, as a monarchic bishop (189-232), imposed Catholic ecclesiasticism upon it” late in the second century (Quispel, “The Original Doctrine of Valentinus the Gnostic”, 340). Although Quispel’s list may seem slightly fanciful, Bauer argues the “only persons and movements that can be proved to belong to Egypt” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 49 n.20) are Basilides, Isidore, Carpocrates, Valentinus and his disciples, Theodotus and Julius Cassianus, Apelles, pupil of Marcion, Cerinthus and the Barbelo-Gnostics (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 49), demonstrating a variety of cosmological systems.

More significantly, Bauer also cites the mid-second century existence of The Gospel of Egyptians, as attested by Clement of Alexandria, as evidence of “a time in which the Christians of Egypt used this gospel, and only this gospel, as their ‘life of Jesus'” text (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 50). Its title also implies the existence of other gospels (otherwise, its name “would simply be the gospel”) and its primary character Salome “is also a popular figure in subsequent extra-canonical Egyptian gospel literature”, indicating its relationship to a broader network of literature (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 50), the transmission of which has now been lost. Further, its “pronounced heretical viewpoint…accords well with what we have had to conjecture about the earliest state of Egyptian Christianity” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 50) and its title designates it as “the gospel of the ‘real’ Egyptians who had become Christian–the gentile Christians of Egypt” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 52). This is valuable because Clement, Origen and Cyril of Jerusalem also cite from a Gospel of the Hebrews, attributed to the Jewish Christians of Alexandria (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 52), indicating a possible schism between Jewish and Gentile Christian communities (as well as other variations). In Clement, a fragment of the Gospel of the Hebrews reflects language similar to The Gospel of Truth and Valintinus’ fragment F (Layton), in which salvation is equated to reigning in a state of “rest” or repose (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 52). In Origen, fragment of the book refers to the “Holy Spirit” as “my mother” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 52) and, in Cyril, a fragment recounts that God’s “Power”, Michael, descended to earth in the form of Mary in order to give birth to Christ (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 53). These latter details indicate the creative diversity of the work.

As Bauer points out, The Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of the Hebrews indicate the existence of Gentile and Jewish Christian communities in Alexandria early in the second century (if not earlier), “each group congregated around a distinctive gospel, with the Jewish Christians at the same time also being influenced by the synagogue with regard to worship and organization”, both communities, however, using the self-designation “Christian” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 53). Rather than “heterodoxy” or “heresy”, then, the diversity of Christian expression in early second century Alexandria was simply “Christian”, and this is the cultural milieu in which Valentinus converted and was educated.

As Quispel indicated, Bauer confirms the first evidence of orthodox Christianity in Alexandria was Demetrius, the first bishop of Alexandria in 189, whose appointment indicates the prior existence of an orthodox community, however small or recent (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 53). He probably arrived in Alexandria around the same time Clement came under the tutelage of Pantænus at the catechetical school, which Eusebius claimed had been founded long before (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica V.XI.1). Eusebius also informs us that Pantænus, trained as a Stoic, had traveled to India and performed “many good deeds” before becoming head of the school (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica V.XI.1), although this cannot been corroborated.

Clement was born a pagan, possibly in Athens (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 57), and spent his early adulthood traveling to study with teachers in Greece, “Magna Græcia” (southern Italy), “Cœle-Syria” (Lebanon), Assyria and Palestine, before converting to Christianity and becoming Pantænus’ successor and Origen’s teacher at this school (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, V.XI.1-4). Eusebius’ accounts are highly unreliable (for instance, the antiquity of the school is doubtful), but the Greek philosophical training of Pantænus and Clement is attested by their writings, further evidence of the diversity of second century Christian thought in Alexandria. And Bauer argues that, although Clement tended to prefer the “four gospels”, he accepts The Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of the Hebrews as equally legitimate (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 57), a sentiment probably shared by other Alexandrian Christians of the time.

Although Demetrius appears not to have had conflict with Clement as he did with Origen, Bauer explains that Clement “deviated from the teaching of the church far more than did his successor” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 56), suggesting the orthodox bishop’s disagreement with Origen was political rather than theological. For example, according to Photius’ ninth century judgment of Hypotyposeis, Clement attempted to argue for a “distinction between genuine and heretical gnosis” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 57) and sought “support from certain passages of scripture” for theories such as the eternal nature of matter, that the Son is equated with the “status of creation”, the transmigration of souls and “many worlds before Adam”, the angels “interbred with women and begot children by them”, and that the Logos “only appeared” to be flesh and, in actuality, has a dualistic nature (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 56). From this list, we see influence of Platonism (matter/”hyle” as pre-existent “base, a recipient of Form-Ideas” (Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 69); the transmigration of souls from Plato’s Republic and Pythagoreanism; and the cycle of pre-existent worlds from Timaeus), Enochic literature and possible Docetism. As Bauer points out, Clement demonstrates a “stage of development” in Christianity prior to the clear establishment of orthodoxy in Rome (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 57). In other words, Valentinus, born a generation prior in the same city, would have developed his theological perspective in the utter absence of Roman orthodoxy.

By the end of the second century, Demetrius condemned Origen’s “unecclesiastical views”, exiled him from Alexandria and took control of his catechetical school (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 54), likely imposing orthodoxy there for the first time. Origen’s student, Heraclas, excommunicated Origen upon his return in order to secure his succession to Demetrius as bishop (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 55), indicating that Heraclas also condemned Origen for political, rather than theological reasons. The opportunities of Rome simply proved too tempting.

Historian Julius Africanus visited Heraclas to report on this in his Roman-backed Chronicle, shaping Eusebius’ history of Christianity in Alexandria, a false narrative that proclaimed an “unbroken succession of orthodox bishops”, ignoring Origen and the diversity of Christianity that thrived before Demetrius’ arrival (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 55). Bauer proposes the difference in how Origen and his more controversial teacher were treated by Demetrius must owe to the fact that “there existed no prospect of successfully assailing ideas like these and the personalities who supported them one generation earlier in Alexandria” (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 58). In other words, the perspective that developed into Roman orthodoxy held no power in Alexandria prior to the ousting of Origen. And because the orthodoxy developed by the early Church Fathers (heresiologists) defined itself according to other versions of Christianity, which it designated “heresy”, heretics could not have existed in Alexandria prior to Origen, when bishop Demetrius imposed orthodoxy on Alexandrian Christianity. Valentinus could not have been a heretic, because “heresy” and “orthodoxy” did not exist in Alexandria during his lifetime.

This evidence undermines the narrative presented by Eusebius as official Church history, which portrays the catechetical school and line of bishops in Alexandria as representative of a long history of orthodoxy, its authority based on apostolic succession. Bauer argues that “heresy” could not have existed in Alexandria prior to the dominance of orthodoxy to define it (Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 59). The actual history of early Christianity in Alexandria reveals various communities of Egyptian Christianity in the second and third centuries, including Valentinus and his eastern Valentinian school, all of whom were simply “Christian.”

Thank you if you have read this far, I put a lot of work into researching this. The final post will provide a summary and conclusion.


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