By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Apocryphal/Apocalyptic Writings


In relation to the Secret Gospel of Mark, Clement attacks a group known as the Carpocratians. Who were they, and why was he upset with them?


The Carpocratians were a sect founded by Carpocrates, who lived and worked in Alexandria around 125 CE. His followers continued writing on his behalf for decades. None of their original works exist, so this is another group known to us only through the writings of its opponents. Most of our information comes from Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus of Lyons. Both of these men were writing in the latter half of the second century.

According to Irenaeus, Carpocrates taught that Jesus was Joseph's son and was brought up in Judaism. Once he realized the limitations of Jewish law, he searched for higher truths. Not only was Jesus given supernatural power, but he was also able to rise above the angels, and ascend to the supreme god. Whereas Jesus was the first to accomplish this, he would not be the last.

Anyone who intuitively understood the inadequacies of human laws could achieve the same greatness. Carpocrates, himself, had accomplished this. He was able to control the angels and use them for magical purposes. To this end, he and his followers believed Jesus revealed secret teachings that they kept among their religious materials. One would attain salvation not by following Jesus but, rather, by becoming like Jesus.

As part of their journey out of mortality, they would advance from body to body, each time reaching a higher level. Once they had experienced everything, they would have satisfied all their obligations to the angels (who had created the material world), and they would find release.

They identified each other by a brand on the back of their right ear. They were likely to classify themselves as gnostics, and had pictures of Jesus that they adorned with wreaths, honoring him as one of the great philosophers. Irenaeus wanted to write them off as Platonic wannabes, but many of their ideas can be found among the canonical writings – gift of the spirit, ascending to God, freedom from the law, healing powers. Yet, these are tempered by their other teachings that included being in servitude to cosmic powers, being imprisoned in the body, and seeking release from all material experiences.

Also, according to Irenaeus, they were quite successful healers. Of course, he was quick to point out that their healings were based on magic and demons not any Christian healings that were rooted in the Holy Spirit! Carpocrates denied the validity of the virgin birth and the resurrection of the body; their whole theology was about obtaining release from the body. They were accused of being very libertine, but scholars don't know if that was accurate.

Clement claims that Carpocrates had a son, Epiphanes, whose mother's name was Alexandria. The son apparently wrote several treatises; among them were segments on free love and sharing all in common. Upon his death at the age of seventeen, he was honored as a god in Cephalonia, the birthplace of his mother. Yet, other scholars think most of this is quite legendary, especially the part about being worshiped as a god.

The early Church Fathers were universally critical about gnostic teachings and worked hard to discredit them. Accusations of sexual misconduct would certainly help advance their case. Yet, scholars are unclear whether any sects actually committed licentious acts or whether orthodox Christians (some of whom practiced asceticism) threw those accusations out there to discredit them.

In either event, it appears that the sect did not write much beyond Irenaeus, though their followers persisted into the fourth century. Irenaeus was known to say that he had never met a live Carpocratian, and scholars think that at least that statement could have been true.

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