Cerinthus: An early heretic

By COGWriter

Who was Cerinthus? What views did he hold? How did the Apostle John seem to view him?

This brief article will attempt to address that. This article is briefer than many as the actual information on Cerinthus is limited.

Most of the early information about Cerinthus comes from Irenaeus and Eusebius (who quoted Irenaeus, Dionysius and others). Irenaeus, who wrote in the late second century, is considered as a saint by the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestants., but as a heretic to those in the Continuing Church of God. Eusebius was the Bishop of Caesaria in the fourth century, who also functioned as a historian.

The Catholic Encyclopedia teaches:

Cerinthus A Gnostic-Ebionite heretic, contemporary with St. John; against whose errors on the divinity of Christ the Apostle is said to have written the Fourth Gospel. We possess no information concerning this early sectary which reaches back to his own times. The first mention of his name and description of his doctrines occur in St. Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., I, c. xxvi; III, c. iii, c. xi), written about 170. Further information is gathered from Presbyter Caius (c. 210) as quoted by Eusebius (Church History III.28.2). Hippolytus, in "Philosophoumena", VII, 33 (c. 230), practically transcribes Irenaeus. Cerinthus is referred to by Pseudo-Tertullian in "Adv. Omnes Haeres", written about 240. A fragment of Dionysius of Alexandria, taken from "De Promissionibus", written about 250, is given by Eusebius after his quotation from Caius. The most detailed account is given by St. Epiphanius (Adv. Haeres", xxviii, written about 390), which, however, on account of its date and character must be used with some caution. A good summary is given by Theodoret ("Haer. Fab.", II, 3, written about 450). Cerinthus was an Egyptian, and if not by race a Jew, at least he was circumcised. The exact date of his birth and his death are unknown. In Asia he founded a school and gathered disciples. No writings of any kind have come down to us. Cerinthus's doctrines were a strange mixture of Gnosticism, Judaism, Chiliasm, and Ebionitism. He admitted one Supreme Being; but the world was produced by a distinct and far inferior power. He does not identify this Creator or Demiurgos with the Jehovah of the Old Testament. 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. The Jewish law was most sacred, and salvation to be obtained by obedience to its precepts. Cerinthus distinguished between Jesus and Christ. Jesus was mere man, though eminent in holiness. He suffered and died and was raised from the dead, or, as some say Cerinthus taught, He will be raised from the dead at the Last Day and all men will rise with Him. At the moment of baptism, Christ or the Holy Ghost was sent by the Highest God, and dwelt in Jesus teaching Him, what not even the angels knew, the Unknown God. This union between Jesus and Christ continues till the Passion, when Jesus suffers alone and Christ returns to heaven. Cerinthus believed in a happy millennium which would be realized here on earth previous to the resurrection and the spiritual kingdom of God in heaven. Scarcely anything is known of Cerinthus's disciples...(Arendzen, J. (1908). Cerinthus. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 25, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03539a.htm)

Eusebius wrote:

1. We have understood that at this time Cerinthus, the author of another heresy, made his appearance. Caius, whose words we quoted above, in the Disputation which is ascribed to him, writes as follows concerning this man: 2. “But Cerinthus also, by means of revelations which he pretends were written by a great apostle, brings before us marvelous things which he falsely claims were shown him by angels; and he says that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ will be set up on earth, and that the flesh dwelling in Jerusalem will again be subject to desires and pleasures. And being an enemy of the Scriptures of God, he asserts, with the purpose of deceiving men, that there is to be a period of a thousand years for marriage festivals.”

3. And Dionysius, who was bishop of the parish of Alexandria in our day, in the second book of his work On the Promises, where he says some things concerning the Apocalypse of John which he draws from tradition, mentions this same man in the following words: 4. “But (they say that) Cerinthus, who founded the sect which was called, after him, the Cerinthian, desiring reputable authority for his fiction, prefixed the name. For the doctrine which he taught was this: that the kingdom of Christ will be an earthly one. 5. And as he was himself devoted to the pleasures of the body and altogether sensual in his nature, he dreamed that that kingdom would consist in those things which he desired, namely, in the delights of the belly and of sexual passion, that is to say, in eating and drinking and marrying, and in festivals and sacrifices and the slaying of victims, under the guise of which he thought he could indulge his appetites with a better grace.” 6. These are the words of Dionysius.

But Irenæus, in the first book of his work Against Heresies, gives some more abominable false doctrines of the same man, and in the third book relates a story which deserves to be recorded. He says, on the authority of Polycarp, that the apostle John once entered a bath to bathe; but, learning that Cerinthus was within, he sprang from the place and rushed out of the door, for he could not bear to remain under the same roof with him. And he advised those that were with him to do the same, saying, “Let us flee, lest the bath fall; for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” (Eusebius. Church History, Book III, Chapter XXVIII. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.viii.xxviii.html)

Eusebius is stating the Cerinthus misunderstood scripture, was a false apostle, claimed to get messages from angels, and misunderstood the millennium. It should be noted that there will be a millennial reign on the earth (Revelation 20:4-6), but not truly as Cerinthus claimed.

Here is more related to the account by Dionysius:

3. Now some before our time have set aside this book, and repudiated it entirely, criticising it chapter by chapter, and endeavouring to show it to be without either sense or reason. They have alleged also that its title is false; for they deny that John is the author. Nay, further, they hold that it can be no sort of revelation, because it is covered with so gross and dense a veil of ignorance. They affirm, therefore, that none of the apostles, nor indeed any of the saints, nor any person belonging to the Church, could be its author; but that Cerinthus, and the heretical sect founded by him, and named after him the Cerinthian sect, being desirous of attaching the authority of a great name to the fiction propounded by him, prefixed that title to the book. For the doctrine inculcated by Cerinthus is this: that there will be an earthly reign of Christ; and as he was himself a man devoted to the pleasures of the body, and altogether carnal l in his dispositions, he fancied that that kingdom would consist in those kinds of gratifications on which his own heart was set—to wit, in the delights of the belly, and what comes beneath the belly, that is to say, in eating and drinking, and marrying, and in other things under the guise of which he thought he could indulge his appetites with a better grace, such as festivals, and sacrifices, and the slaying of victims. But I, for my part, could not venture to set this book aside, for there are many brethren who value it highly. Yet, having formed an idea of it as a composition exceeding my capacity of understanding, I regard it as containing a kind of hidden and wonderful intelligence on the several subjects which come under it. For though I cannot comprehend it, I still suspect that there is some deeper sense underlying the words. And I do not measure and judge its expressions by the standard of my own reason, but, making more allowance for faith, I have simply regarded them as too lofty for my comprehension; and I do not immediately reject what I do not understand, but I am only the more filled with wonder at it, in that I have not been able to discern its import.

4. After this, he examines the whole book of the Revelation; and having proved that it cannot possible be understood according to the bald, literal sense, he proceeds thus:— When the prophet now has completed, so to speak, the whole prophecy, he pronounces those blessed who should observe it, and names himself, too, in the number of the same: "For blessed," says he, "is he that keeps the words of the prophecy of this book; and I John who saw and heard these things." That this person was called John, therefore, and that this was the writing of a John, I do not deny. And I admit further, that it was also the work of some holy and inspired man. But I could not so easily admit that this was the apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, and the same person with him who wrote the Gospel which bears the title according to John, and the catholic epistle. But from the character of both, and the forms of expression, and the whole disposition and execution of the book, I draw the conclusion that the authorship is not his. For the evangelist nowhere else subjoins his name, and he never proclaims himself either in the Gospel or in the epistle. And a little further on he adds:— John, moreover, nowhere gives us the name, whether as of himself directly (in the first person), or as of another (in the third person). But the writer of the Revelation puts himself forward at once in the very beginning, for he says: "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which He gave to him to show to His servants quickly; and He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, who bare record of the Word of God, and of his testimony, and of all things that he saw." Revelation 1:1-2 And then he writes also an epistle, in which he says: "John to the seven churches which are in Asia, grace be unto you, and peace." The evangelist, on the other hand, has not prefixed his name even to the catholic epistle; but without any circumlocution, he has commenced at once with the mystery of the divine revelation itself in these terms: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes." (Dionysius. From the Two Books on the Promises, Chapters 3 & 4. Translated by S.D.F. Salmond. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 6. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0612.htm>.)

Irenaeus taught:

1. Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men. Moreover, after his baptism, Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler, and that then he proclaimed the unknown Father, and performed miracles. But at last Christ departed from Jesus, and that then Jesus suffered and rose again, while Christ remained impassible, inasmuch as he was a spiritual being (Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses, Book I, Chapter XXVI. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.xxvii.html).

So, Cerinthus denied that Jesus was divine and basically that it was only for a time Christ lived in Him. This is blasphemous and wrong.

Irenaeus also taught:

1. When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.” And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself. (Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter II. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.iii.html).

Today, many falsely cling to improper anti-biblical tradition as Cerinthus did. He also seemed to prefer allegory and non-biblical tradition, which others sadly also adopted (see What is the Appropriate Form of Biblical Interpretation?).

Irenaeus also taught:

1. John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans, who are an offset of that “knowledge” falsely so called, that he might confound them, and persuade them that there is but one God, who made all things by His Word; and not, as they allege, that the Creator was one, but the Father of the Lord another; and that the Son of the Creator was, forsooth, one, but the Christ from above another, who also continued impassible, descending upon Jesus, the Son of the Creator, and flew back again into His Pleroma; and that Monogenes was the beginning, but Logos was the true son of Monogenes; and that this creation to which we belong was not made by the primary God, but by some power lying far below Him, and shut off from communion with the things invisible and ineffable. The disciple of the Lord therefore desiring to put an end to all such doctrines, and to establish the rule of truth in the Church, that there is one Almighty God, who made all things by His Word, both visible and invisible; showing at the same time, that by the Word, through whom God made the creation, He also bestowed salvation on the men included in the creation; thus commenced His teaching in the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made. What was made was life in Him, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” “All things,” he says, “were made by Him;” therefore in “all things” this creation of ours is [included], for we cannot concede to these men that [the words] “all things” are spoken in reference to those within their Pleroma. For if their Pleroma do indeed contain these, this creation, as being such, is not outside, as I have demonstrated in the preceding book; but if they are outside the Pleroma, which indeed appeared impossible, it follows, in that case, that their Pleroma cannot be “all things:” therefore this vast creation is not outside [the Pleroma].

2. John, however, does himself put this matter beyond all controversy on our part, when he says, “He was in this world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own [things], and His own [people] received Him not.”3432 But according to Marcion, and those like him, neither was the world made by Him; nor did He come to His own things, but to those of another. And, according to certain of the Gnostics, this world was made by angels, and not by the Word of God. But according to the followers of Valentinus, the world was not made by Him, but by the Demiurge. For he (Soter) caused such similitudes to be made, after the pattern of things above, as they allege; but the Demiurge accomplished the work of creation. For they say that he, the Lord and Creator of the plan of creation, by whom they hold that this world was made, was produced from the Mother; while the Gospel affirms plainly, that by the Word, which was in the beginning with God, all things were made, which Word, he says, “was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

3. But, according to these men, neither was the Word made flesh, nor Christ, nor the Saviour (Soter), who was produced from [the joint contributions of] all [the Æons]. For they will have it, that the Word and Christ never came into this world; that the Saviour, too, never became incarnate, nor suffered, but that He descended like a dove upon the dispensational Jesus; and that, as soon as He had declared the unknown Father, He did again ascend into the Pleroma. Some, however, make the assertion, that this dispensational Jesus did become incarnate, and suffered, whom they represent as having passed through Mary just as water through a tube; but others allege him to be the Son of the Demiurge, upon whom the dispensational Jesus descended; while others, again, say that Jesus was born from Joseph and Mary, and that the Christ from above descended upon him, being without flesh, and impassible. But according to the opinion of no one of the heretics was the Word of God made flesh. For if anyone carefully examines the systems of them all, he will find that the Word of God is brought in by all of them as not having become incarnate (sine carne) and impassible, as is also the Christ from above. Others consider Him to have been manifested as a transfigured man; but they maintain Him to have been neither born nor to have become incarnate; whilst others [hold] that He did not assume a human form at all, but that, as a dove, He did descend upon that Jesus who was born from Mary. Therefore the Lord’s disciple, pointing them all out as false witnesses, says, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

4. And that we may not have to ask, Of what God was the Word made flesh? he does himself previously teach us, saying, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came as a witness, that he might bear witness of that Light. He was not that Light, but [came] that he might testify of the Light.” By what God, then, was John, the forerunner, who testifies of the Light, sent [into the world]? Truly it was by Him, of whom Gabriel is the angel, who also announced the glad tidings of his birth: [that God] who also had promised by the prophets that He would send His messenger before the face of His Son, who should prepare His way, that is, that he should bear witness of that Light in the spirit and power of Elias But, again, of what God was Elias the servant and the prophet? Of Him who made heaven and earth, as he does himself confess. John, therefore, having been sent by the founder and maker of this world, how could he testify of that Light, which came down from things unspeakable and invisible? For all the heretics have decided that the Demiurge was ignorant of that Power above him, whose witness and herald John is found to be. Wherefore the Lord said that He deemed him “more than a prophet.” For all the other prophets preached the advent of the paternal Light, and desired to be worthy of seeing Him whom they preached; but John did both announce [the advent] beforehand, in a like manner as did the others, and actually saw Him when He came, and pointed Him out, and persuaded many to believe on Him, so that he did himself hold the place of both prophet and apostle. For this is to be more than a prophet, because, “first apostles, secondarily prophets;” but all things from one and the same God Himself. (Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter XI. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.xii.html)

Essentially, Cerinthus denied Christ and preferred a Gnostic view of creation.

Irenaeus taught that the Apostle John was very seriously opposed to the heretic Cerinthus:

There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within." (Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres.  Book III, Chapter 3, Verse 4)

John, thus, reportedly really opposed Cerinthus and those who had teachings like him.

An Armenian scholar called Ananias of Shirak, circa 600 A.D., wrote:

The Festival of the holy Birth of Christ, on the 12th day before the feast of the Baptism, was not appointed by the holy apostles, nor by their successors either, as is clear from the canons...which is 6th of January, according to the Romans. But many years after their fixing the canons, this festival was invented, as some say, by the disciples of the heretic Cerinthus; and was accepted by the Greeks, because they were truly fond of festivals and most fervent in piety; and by them it was spread and diffused all over the world. But in the days of the holy Constantine, in the holy Council of Nice, this festival was not received by the holy fathers (Ananias of Shirak, On Christmas, The Expositor, 5th series vol. 4 (1896) Translation. pp.323-337, as reported by ccel).

Twelve days before January 6th is December 25th (see also Conybeare F.C. The Key of Truth: A Manual of the Paulician Church of Armenia. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1898, pp. 185). Hence, the above report suggests that December 25th was originally developed by the apostate Cerinthus.

Why would Cerinthus pick December 25th? Probably because that was the day of celebration of the birthday of the sun-god Mithra. December 25th also took place during the Saturnalia, hence it was acceptable to at least two groups of pagans. Followers of Mithra represented an influential group in the Roman Empire. Other practices associated with Mithraism have become part of the Roman and Orthodox Catholic churches (such as their communion services) (for more details, please check out the documented article Do You Practice Mithraism?).

Cerinthus was one of many heretics to rise up in the first and second centuries who opposed the literal reading of scripture and instead proposed false traditions (inclduing improper festivals), mainly coming from pagan sources. Despite condemnations of Cerinthus, many who profess Christ still accept false traditions coming from pagan sources for many of their major religious beliefs.

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