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Cerinthus (c. 100 AD) was a gnostic and to some, an early Christian, who was prominent as a "heresiarch" in the view of the early Church Fathers.[1] Contrary to proto-orthodox Christianity, Cerinthus's school followed the Jewish law, used the Gospel according to the Hebrews, denied that the Supreme God had made the physical world, and denied the divinity of Jesus. 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 matched Greek dualism philosophy and anticipated the Gnostics. His description of Christ as a bodiless spirit that dwelled temporarily in the man Jesus matches the later Gnosticism of Valentinus.

Early Christian tradition describes Cerinthus as a contemporary to and opponent of John the Evangelist, who wrote the Gospel of John against him.[2] All we know about Cerinthus comes from the writing of his theological opponents.



The date of his birth and his death are unknown. In the Roman province of Asia 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. As is the usual case, we can interpret his teachings only through what his more orthodox enemies reported. By the time we have the most detailed accounting of Cerinthus' teachings, from Epiphanius of Salamis in the 4th century, the accounts are all second- and third-hand hearsay and not reliable, as the Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) notes.


The earliest surviving account of Cerinthus is that in Irenæus' refutation of Gnosticism, Adversus haereses[3], which was written about 170 AD. According to Irenæus, Cerinthus, a man educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, claimed angelic inspiration.



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, another heretic associated with Gnosticism, Cerinthus honored Jewish scripture and the God of the Old Testament.


He taught that the visible world and heavens were not made by the supreme being, but by a lesser power (Demiurge) distinct from him. Not Jehovah but the angels have both made the world and given the law. These creator-angels were ignorant of the existence of the Supreme God.

His use of the term demiurge (literally, craftsman) for the creator fits Greek philosophy, which dominated the learned environment of the eastern Mediterranean. Unlike true Gnostics that followed him, Cerinthus taught that the demiurge was good, more like Philo's logos than Valentinus's evil god.


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 distinguishing him from Christ, who descended upon him at baptism and left him again at his crucifixion. 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 Gnosticism of Valentinus and others.

Jewish law

Cerinthus taught his followers to obey the Jewish law to attain salvation, also known as Legalism (theology). This view contradicted the Council of Jerusalem (c. 50 AD), at which Paul of Tarsus had successfully established the understanding that Christians did not need to be circumcised (in other words- become Jewish) to attain salvation. The Apostles in Jerusalem had been proclaiming that circumcision and the following of Torah laws should be continued after converting to believe in Yeshua (Jesus). After listening to Paul and Barnabas, the Jerusalem Council proclaimed that after a person converts they need to follow only 4 requirements (see Acts 15:29). Various other Jewish Christian groups, like Cerinthians, followed the Jewish law and opposed Pauline Christianity.


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[4], 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.

Christian opponents

According to Irenaeus, Polycarp told the story that John the Evangelist, 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!"[5] One tradition maintains that John wrote his gospel to counter Cerinthus's heresy.

Irenaeus opposed Gnosticism, including the teachings of Cerinthus, in Against Heresies. Epiphanius of Salamis documented many heresies and heretics, Cerinthus among them, in his Panarion.

Modern discussion concerning Cerinthus

Rabbi Moshe Yosef Koniuchowsky of Your Arms To Israel, in his article, "The Greater and Lesser YHWH", taught that Cerinthus was a "Born Again Believer" who held the same views as the Nazarenes. He believes that "the world was not created by the Supreme Deity but by a certain power emanating from Him."[Ibid.]

Koniuchowsky's ideas are disputed by Tim Hegg of Torah Resource, in his article, "The Same Old 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 second- or third-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 also


  1. ^ See, in particular, Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, Book I, III and relative External links
  2. ^ Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter 11, Verse 1
  3. ^ I: xxvi; III: ii, iii and xi; Book I and III - external links below
  4. ^ "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[8], Origen, Dionysius the Great[9], Eusebius (as afterwards Jerome and Augustin) opposed it." Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.) 381.[1]
  5. ^ Irenaeus mentions the anecdote about Polycarp in Adv. Haer., III.3.4.

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

CERINTHUS (c. A.D. loo), an early Christian heretic, contemporary with the closing years of the apostle John, who, according to the well-known story of Polycarp, reported by Irenaeus (iii. 3) and twice recorded in Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. iii. 28, iv. 14), made a hasty exit from a bath in Ephesus on learning that Cerinthus was within. Other early accounts agree in making the province of Asia the scene of his activity, and Hippolytus (Haer. vii. 33) credits him with an Egyptian training. There can be no truth in the notice given by Epiphanius (Haer. xxviii. 4) that Cerinthus had in earlier days at Jerusalem led the judaizing opposition against Paul.

The difficulty of defining Cerinthus's theological position is due not only to the paucity of our sources but to the fact that the witness of the two principal authorities, Irenaeus (1.26, iii. 11) and Hippolytus (Syntagma), does not agree. Further, Irenaeus himself in one passage fails to distinguish between Cerinthian and Valentinian doctrines. It would appear, however, that Cerinthus laid stress on the rite of circumcision and on the observance of the Sabbath. He taught that the world had been made by angels, from one of whom, the god of the Jews, the people of Israel had received their Law, which was not perfect. The only New Testament writing which he accepted was a mutilated Gospel of Matthew. Jesus was the offspring of Joseph and Mary, and on him at the baptism descended the Christ,' revealing the hitherto unknown Father, and endowing him with miraculous power. This Christ left Jesus again before the Passion, and the resurrection of Jesus was still in the future. Together with these somewhat gnostic ideas, Cerinthus, if we may trust the notices of Gaius the Roman presbyter (c. 290) and Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 340), held a violent and crude form of chiliasm. But the chief significance of the man is his "combination of zeal for legal observances with bold criticism of the Law itself as a whole and of its origin," which reminds us of the Clementine Recognitions. Cerinthus is a blend of judaizing christian and gnostic.

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