The earliest of the Alexandrian Gnostics; he was a native of Alexandria and flourished under the Emperors Adrian and Antoninus Pius, about 120-140. St. Epiphanius's assertion that he was a disciple of Menander at Antioch and only later moved to Alexandria is unlikely in face of the statement of Eusebius and Theodoret that he was an Alexandrian by birth. Of his life we know nothing except that he had a son called Isidore, who followed in his footsteps. The remark in the Acts of Archelaus (lv) that Basilides was "a preacher amongst the Persians" is almost certainly the result of some confusion. Basilides invented prophets for himself named Barcabbas and Barcoph, and claimed to have received verbal instructions from St. Matthias the Apostle and to be a disciple of Glaucias, a disciple of St. Peter.
As practically nothing of Basilides' writing is extant and as we have no contemporaneous Gnostic witnesses, we must gather the teaching of this patriarch of Gnosticism from the following early sources: (a) St. Irenaeus, "Contra Haereses", I, xxiv, written about 170; (b) Clement of Alexandria, "Stromata", I, xxi, II, vi, viii, xx, IV, xi, xii, xxv, V, I, etc., written between 208-210, and the so-called "Excerpta ex Theodoto" perhaps from the same hand; (c) Hippolytus of Rome, "Philosophumena", VII, written about 225; (d) Pseudo-Tertullian, "Against All Heresies", a little treatise usually attached to Tertullian's "De Praescriptionibus", but really by another hand, perhaps by Victorinus of Pettau, written about 240 and based upon a non-extant "Compendium" of Hippolytus; (e) Artistic remains of Gnosticism such as Abrasax gems, and literary remains like the Pistis Sophia, the latter part of which probably dates back to the end of the second century and, though not strictly Basilidian, yet illustrates early Alexandrian Gnosticism. Later sources are Epiphanius, "Adv. Haer.", xxiv, and Theodoret, "Haer. Fab. Comp.", I, iv. Unfortunately, the descriptions of the Basilidian system given by our chief informants, St. Irenaeus and Hippolytus, are so strongly divergent that they seem to many quite irreconcilable. According to Irenaeus, Basilides was apparently a dualist and an emanationist, and according to Hippolytus a pantheistic evolutionist.
Seen from the viewpoint of Irenaeus, Basilides taught that Nous (Mind) was the first to be born from the Unborn Father; from Nous was born Logos (Reason); from Logos, Phronesis (Prudence); from Phronesis, Sophia (Wisdom) and Dynamis (Strength) and from Phronesis and Dynamis the Virtues, Principalities, and Archangels. By these angelic hosts the highest heaven was made, by their descendants the second heaven, and by the descendants again of these the third, and so on till they reached the number 365. Hence the year has as many days as there are heavens. The angels, who hold the last or visible heaven, brought about all things that are in the world and shared amongst themselves the earth and the nations upon it. The highest of these angels is the one who is thought to be the God of the Jews. And as he wished to make the other nations subject to that which was especially his own, the other angelic principalities withstood him to the utmost. Hence the aversion of all other peoples for this race. The Unborn and Nameless Father seeing their miserable plight, sent his First-born, Nous (and this is the one who is called Christ) to deliver those who should believe in him from the power of the angelic agencies who had built the world. And to men Christ seemed to be a man and to have performed miracles. It was not, however, Christ who suffered, but rather Simon of Cyrene, who was constrained to carry the cross for him, and mistakenly crucified in Christ's stead. Simon having received Jesus' form, Jesus assumed Simon's and thus stood by and laughed at them. Simon was crucified and Jesus returned to His Father. Through the Gnosis (Knowledge) of Christ the souls of men are saved, but their bodies perish.
Out of Epiphanius and Pseudo-Tertullian we can complete the description this: the highest god, i.e. the Unborn Father, bears the mystical name Abrasax, as origin of the 365 heavens. The Angels that made the world formed it out of Eternal Matter; but matter is the principle of all evil and hence both the contempt of the Gnostics for it and their docetic Christology. To undergo martyrdom in order to confess the Crucified is useless, for it is to die for Simon of Cyrene, not for Christ.
Hippolytus sets forth the doctrine of Basilides as follows:
There was a time when nothing existed, neither matter nor form, nor accident; neither the simple nor the compound, neither the unknowable nor the invisible, neither man or angel nor god nor any of these things, which are called by names or perceived by the mind or the senses. The Not-Being God (ouk on theos) whom Aristotle calls Thought of thought (noesis tes noeseos), without consciousness, without perception, without purpose, without aim, without passion, without desire, had the will to create the world. I say "had the will" only by way of speaking, because in reality he had neither will, nor ideas nor perceptions; and by the word 'world' I do not mean this actual world, which is the outcome of extension and division, but rather the Seed of the world. The seed of the world contained in itself, as a mustard seed, all things which are eventually evolved, as the roots, the branches, the leaves arise out of the seedcorn of the plant.
Strange to say this World-seed or All-seed (Panspermia) is still described as Not-Being. It is a phrase of Basilides: "God is Not-Being, even He, who made the world out of what was not; Not-Being made Not-Being."
Basilides distinctly rejected both emanation and the eternity of matter. "What need is there", he said, "of emanation or why accept Hyle [Matter]; as if God had created the world as the spider spins its thread or as mortal man fashions metal or wood. God spoke and it was; this Moses expresses thus: 'Let there be light and there was light'." This sentence has a Christian ring, but we must not forget that to Basilides God was Absolute Negation. He cannot find words enough to bring out the utter non-existence of God; God is not even "unspeakable" (arreton), He simply is Not. Hence the popular designation of Oukontiani for people who always spoke of Oukon, Not-Being. The difficulty lies in placing the actual transition from Not-Being into Being. This was probably supposed to consist in the Sperma or Seed, which in one respect was Not-Being, and in the other, the All-seed of the manifold world. The Panspermia contained in itself a threefold Filiation, Hyiotes: one composed of refined elements, Leptomeres, a second of grosser elements, Pachymeres, and a third needing purification, Apokatharseos deomenon.
These three Filiations ultimately reach the Not-Being God, but each reaches him in a different way. The first Filiation rose at once and flew with the swiftness of thought to the Not-Being God. The second, remaining as yet in the Panspermia, wished to imitate the first Filiation and rise upwards; but, being too gross and heavy, it failed. Whereupon the second Filiation takes to itself wings, which are the Holy Ghost, and with this aid almost reaches the Not-Being God. But when it has come near, the Holy Ghost, of different substance from the Second Filiation, can go no further, but conducts the Second Filiation near to the First Filiation and leaves. Yet he does not return empty but, as a vessel full of ointment, he retains the sweet odour of Filiation; and he becomes the "Boundary Spirit" (Methorion Pneuma), between the Supermundane and the Mundane where the third Filiation is still contained in the Panspermia. Now there arose out of the Panspermia the Great Archon, or Ruler; he sped upwards until he reached the firmament, and thinking there was nothing above and beyond, and not knowing of the Third Filiation, still contained in the Panspermia, he fancied himself Lord and Master of all things. He created to himself a Son out of the heap of Panspermia; this was the Christ and being himself amazed at the beauty of his Son, who was greater than his Father, he made him sit at his right hand; and with him he created the ethereal heavens, which reach unto the Moon. The sphere where the Great Archon rules, i.e. the higher heavens, the lower boundary of which is the plane where the moon revolves, is called the Ogdoad.
The same process is repeated and we have a second Archon and his Son and the sphere where they rule is the Hebdomad, beneath the Ogdoad. Lastly, the third Filiation must be raised to the Not-Being God. This took place though the Gospel. From Adam to Moses the Archon of the Ogdoad had reigned (Rom., v, 14); in Moses and the Prophets the Archon of the Hebdomad had reigned, or God of the Jews. Now in the third period the Gospel must reign. This Gospel was first made known from the First Filiation through the Holy Ghost to the Son of the Archon of the Ogdoad; the Son told his Father, who was astounded and trembled and acknowledged his pride in thinking himself the Supreme Deity. The Son of the Archon of the Ogdoad tells the Son of the Archon of the Hebdomad, and he again tells his father. Thus both spheres, including the 365 heavens and their chief Archon, Abrasax, know the truth. This knowledge is not conveyed through the Hebdomad to Jesus, the Son of Mary, who through his life and death redeemed the third Filiation, that is: what is material must return to the Chaos, what is psychic to the Hebdomad, what is spiritual to the Not-Being God. When the third Filiation is thus redeemed, the Supreme God pours out a blissful Ignorance over all that is and that shall so remain forever. This is called "The Restoration of all things".
From Clement of Alexandria we get a few glimpses into the ethical side of the system. Nominally, faith was made the beginning of the spiritual life; it was not, however, a free submission of the intellect, but a mere natural gift of understanding (Gnosis) bestowed upon the soul before its union with the body and which some possessed and others did not. But if faith is only a natural quality of some minds, what need of a Saviour, asks Clement, and Basilides would reply that faith is a latent force which only manifests its energy through the coming of the Saviour, as a ray of light will set naphtha on fire. Sin was not the results of the abuse of free will but merely the outcome of an inborn evil principle. All suffering is punishment for sin; even when a child suffers, this is the punishment of its own sin, i.e. the latent evil principle within; that this indwelling principle has had no opportunity to manifest itself, is immaterial. The persecutions Christians underwent had therefore as sole object the punishment of their sin. All human nature was thus vitiated by the sinful; when hard pressed Basilides would call even Christ a sinful man, for God alone was righteous. Viewed in another way evil was a sort of excrescence on the rational soul, the result of an original disturbance and confusion. "Their whole system", says Clement, "is a confusion of the Panspermia (All-seed) with the Phylokrinesis (Difference-in-kind) and the return of things thus confused to their own places." St. Irenaeus and St. Epiphanius reproach Basilides with the immorality of his system, and St. Jerome calls Basilides a master and teacher of debaucheries. It is likely, however, that Basilides was personally free from immorality and that this accusation was true neither of the master nor of some of his followers. That Basilidianism, together with the other forms of Gnosticism, eventually led to gross immorality, there can be no doubt. Clement of Alexandria and St. Epiphanius have preserved for us a passage of the writings of Basilides' son and successor, which counsels the free satisfaction of sensual desires in order that the soul may find peace in prayer. And it is remarkable that Justin the Martyr in his first Apology (xxvi), that is, as early as 150-155, suggests to the Roman emperors that possibly the Gnostics are guilty of those immoralities of which Christians are falsely accused. It is true that in this passage he mentions only Simon, Menander, and Marcion by name; but the passage is general in tone, and elsewhere Valentinus, Basilides, and Saturninus follow in the list.
Nearly all the writings of Basilides have perished, but the names of three of his works and some fragments have come down to us.
(a) A Gospel. Origin in his Homily on Luke, I, states that Basilides had dared to write a Gospel according to Basilides. St. Jerome and St. Ambrose adopt this state of Origen; and St. Jerome, in the Prologue of his Commentary on St. Matthew, again speaks of an "Evangelium Basilidis". In all likelihood this "Gospel" was compiled out of our canonical Gospels, the text being curtailed and altered to suit his Gnostic tenets, a diatessaron on Gnostic lines.
(b) A Gospel Commentary in twenty-four books. (Clement of Alexandria calls it "Exegetica"; the Acta Archelai et Manetis, "Tractatus".) Fragments of this Commentary have come down to us (in Stromata, IV, 12-81, sqq.; Acta Arch., lv; probably also in Origen, Commentary on Romans V, i).
(c) Hymns. Origen in a note on Job, xxi, 1 sqq., speaks of "Odes" of Basilides; and the so-called Muratorian Fragment, containing a list of canonical and non-canonical books (170 or thereabouts) ends with the words: "etiam novu psalmorum librum marcioni conscripserunt una cum Basilide assianum catafrycum constitutorem". This sentence, notwithstanding its obscurity, supports Origen's statement. For a collection of Basilidian fragments see Hilgenfeld, "Ketzergeschichte des Urchrist" (Leipzig, 1884), 207, 213.
Basilides never formed a school of disciples, who modified or added to the doctrines of their leader. Isidore, his son, is the only one who elaborated his father's system, especially on the anthropological side. He wrote a work on the "Psyche Prosphyes" or Appendage-Soul; another work, called "Ethics" by Clement and "Paraenetics" by Epiphanius; and at least two books of "Commentaries on the Prophet Parchor." Basilidianism survived until the end of the fourth century as Epiphanius knew of Basilidians living in the Nile Delta. It was however almost exclusively limited to Egypt, though according to Sulpicius Severus it seems to have found an entrance into Spain through a certain Mark from Memphis. St. Jerome states that the Priscillianists were infected with it. Of the customs of the Basilidians, we know no more than that Basilides enjoined on his followers, like Pythagoras, a silence of five years; that they kept the anniversary of the baptism of Jesus as a feast day and spent the eve of it in reading; that their master told them not to scruple eating things offered to idols; that they wore amulets with the word Abrasax and symbolic figures engraved on them, and, amongst other things, believed them to possess healing properties.
Although Basilides is mentioned by all the Fathers as one of the chiefs of Gnosticism, the system of Valentinus seems to have been much more popular and wider spread, as was also Marcionism. Hence, though anti-Gnostic literature is abundant, we know of only one patristic work, which had for its express purpose the refutation of Basilides, and this work is no longer extant. Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., IV, vii, 6-8) says: "There has come down to us a most powerful refutation of Basilides by Agrippa Castor, one of the most renowned writers of that day, which shows the terrible imposture of the man." With the exception of a few phrases given by Eusebius we know nothing of this Agrippa and his work. (See GNOSTICISM.)
Buonaiuti, Lo Gnosticismo (Rome, 1907); Duchesne, Hist. ancienne de l'Eglise (3d ed., Paris, 1907), I, xi, s.v. La Gnose et le Marcionisme; Bareille in Dict. de theol. Cath., s. vv. Abrasax, Basilide; Leclercq, Dict. d'arch. Chret., s.v. Abrasax; Bardenhewer, Gesch. der altkirch. Lit. (Freiburg, 1902), I; King, The Gnostics and Their Remains (2d ed., London, 1887); Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (London and Benares, 1900); Hort in Dict. Christ. Biog., I, 268-281; Mansel, Gnostic Heresies; De Groot, Basilides als erster Zeuge fur das N. T. (Leipzig, 1868); Urlhorn, Das Basilidianische System (Gottingen, 1855).
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Arendzen, J. P. "Basilides." Early Christian Writings. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/info/basilides-cathen.html>.