The impression made on the world by circumstances immediately before the rise of Christianity received a sort of confirmation upon its rise, in the appearance of the Gnostic and kindred heresies, which issued from the Church during the second and third centuries...
The Gnostic family suitably traces its origin to a mixed race, which had commenced its national history by associating Orientalism with Revelation. After the captivity of the ten tribes, Samaria was colonized by "men from Babylon and Cushan, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim," who were instructed at their own instance in "the manner of the God of the land," by one of the priests of the Church of Jeroboam. The consequence was, that "they feared the Lord and served their own gods." Of this country was Simon, the reputed patriarch of the Gnostics; and he is introduced in the Acts of the Apostles as professing those magical powers which were so principal a characteristic of the Oriental mysteries. His heresy, though broken into a multitude of sects, was poured over the world with a Catholicity not inferior in its day to that of Christianity. St. Peter, who fell in with him originally in Samaria, seems to have encountered him again at Rome. At Rome, St. Polycarp met Marcion of Pontus, whose followers spread through Italy, Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and Persia; Valentinus preached his doctrines in Alexandria, Rome, and Cyprus; and we read of his disciples in Crete, Cæsarea, Antioch, and other parts of the East. Bardesanes and his followers were found in Mesopotamia. The Carpocratians are spoken of at Alexandria, at Rome, and in Cephallenia; the Basilidians spread through the greater part of Egypt; the Ophites were apparently in Bithynia and Galatia; the Cainites or Caians in Africa, and the Marcosians in Gaul...the Ebionites of Palestine, the Cerinthians...the Encratites... the Montanists, who, with a town in Phrygia for their metropolis, reached at length from Constantinople to Carthage.
"When [the reader of Christian history] comes to the second century," says Dr. Burton, "he finds that Gnosticism, under some form or other, was professed in every part of the then civilized world. He finds it divided into schools, as numerously and as zealously attended as any which Greece or Asia could boast in their happiest days. He meets with names totally unknown to him before, which excited as much sensation as those of Aristotle or Plato. He hears of volumes having been written in support of this new philosophy, not one of which has survived to our own day."
Many of the founders of these sects had been Christians; others were of Jewish parentage; others were more or less connected in fact with the Pagan rites to which their own bore so great a resemblance.Montanus seems even to have been a mutilated priest of Cybele; the followers of Prodicus professed to possess the secret books of Zoroaster; and the doctrine of dualism, which so many of the sects held, is to be traced to the same source. Basilides seems to have recognized Mithras as the Supreme Being, or the Prince of Angels, or the Sun, if Mithras is equivalent to Abraxas, which was inscribed upon his amulets: on the other hand, he is said to have been taught by an immediate disciple of St. Peter, and Valentinus by an immediate disciple of St. Paul. Marcion was the son of a Bishop of Pontus; Tatian, a disciple of St. Justin Martyr.
Whatever might be the history of these sects, and though it may be a question whether they can be properly called "superstitions," and though many of them numbered educated men among their teachers and followers, they closely resembled, at least in ritual and profession, the vagrant Pagan mysteries which have been above described. Their very name of "Gnostic" implied the possession of a secret, which was to be communicated to their disciples. Ceremonial observances were the preparation, and symbolical rites the instrument, of initiation.
kept three Lents in the year. All the Gnostic sects seem to have condemned marriage on one or other reason. The Marcionites had three baptisms or more; the Marcosians had two rites of what they called redemption; the latter of these was celebrated as a marriage, and the room adorned as a marriage-chamber...The prophecies of Montanus were delivered, like the oracles of the heathen, in a state of enthusiasm or ecstasy...honour was paid by the Carpocratians to Homer, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, as well as to the Apostles; crowns were placed upon their images, and incense burned before them. In one of the inscriptions found at Cyrene, about twenty years since, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Epicurus, and others, are put together with our Lord, as guides of conduct. These inscriptions also contain the Carpocratian tenet of a community of women. I am unwilling to allude to the Agapæ and Communions of certain of these sects, which were not surpassed in profligacy by the Pagan rites of which they were an imitation. The very name of Gnostic became an expression for the worst impurities, and no one dared eat bread with them, or use their culinary instruments or plates.I think I may have figured out the gnostics, who have always been a great mystery to me. They were the original comparative religionists, or indifferentists, or relativists. If you're going to cram worship of every deity, of every spiritual or intellectual eminence you can think of into your "liturgy", can you really claim to prefer one to another? Musn't the pious make accomodation to the profane, such that the two eventually merge? And which do you suppose will triumph? They were very modern, those Gnostics.