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from issue no. 04 - 2003

It is the Serpent who gives knowledge of good and evil

The pact with the Serpent. The survival of ancient Gnosticism and its perversions

by Lorenzo Bianchi

The bronze serpent, Anthony van Dyck  (1599-1641), Prada Museum, Madrid

The bronze serpent, Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Prada Museum, Madrid

"It is better and healthier then, to be simple and ignorant and to come close to God through charity, rather than to think to know many things and after many adventures of thought to be blasphemous against God"1. So Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, who lived in the second half of the 2nd century, expressed his summary judgement on the theories of the various heretical gnostic sects. An article by Massimo Borghesi which appeared in these pages2, dealing with the gnosticism which modern culture is subject to, recalled its attractions for the ancients, and the particular appeal of the doctrine of the Ophite sect specifically.
This sect, "the worshippers of the Serpent", is known to us from allusions, more or less widespread, in the works of the Christian apologists: from the descriptions of Irenaeus3 and Hippolytus4, to the more summary reports of Tertullian5, Origen6, Epiphanius7, Philastrus8, and finally there is an allusion also in Augustine9. They are known to us also because of some strong resemblances with much of what was handed down to us by Irenaeus, from an original gnostic writing, the Hypostasis of the Archons, a tract in Coptic (Egyptian of the Roman and Hellenistic period) discovered in Codex II of Nag Hammadi10.
It is Irenaeus especially, contemporary of the most widespread diffusion of the Ophite gnostics, who speaks of them, illustrating "their fantastic things"11. A simple reading of Irenaeus’ account is sufficient, in the difficulty of following the complicated and fanciful story of the fatal and ruinous fall of the spirit of the divine creator into matter, which unfolds through wholesale use of texts from the Old and New Testaments, to bring out the nature of the perversion of reason and reality of their theories (cf. in the first box on the preceding page the most summary, but nonetheless significant, exposition attributed to Tertullian). The Ophites (or Naassenes, the name by which Hippolytus knew them) take their name from the Serpent (fiw in Greek), because for them it is the Serpent itself which is the center, the dominating element in the events that characterize their doctrine; it is the Serpent, in antagonism with the evil demiurge creator of matter, the revealer of the dualism that underlies the gnostic concept; it is the Serpent himself who gives gnosis, the enlightened knowledge of good and evil; the Serpent is the positive element who must be worshipped and turned to as the way of the salvation of what is hidden in man (in the matter of the flesh as in a prison) of the "pneumatic", spiritual, originating, that is, from the creator of good, and from the consequent eternal abandon of what is "ilico", material, evil, that is, the evil that is in the world and which is the world12. A redemption which can be reached, precisely through contempt for the flesh, matter, also through the most perverse libertinism (cf. in this regard the passage in the second box on page 49, put by Irenaeus as final conclusion to the description of the various heretical gnostic sects13.
A little more than two centuries after Irenaeus, at the time of Augustine, the gnostic doctrine was re-echoed in Manicheism, which retained its fundamental character, namely a dualism which also splits the person of man, the effect of a double creation, divided within himself between good and evil, between light and darkness, the creation respectively of a good god and an evil demiurge.
The same characteristics were to be found, in the course of history, down as far as the medieval Bogomils, who preached that God had created or emanated the soul, while the devil had molded the body; and again, in the Cathar movement.
If, beyond these chronological limits, it is difficult to see in purely historical terms a direct derivation of modern gnosticism from that of the ancients, it is taken up again, especially in the form of esoteric speculation14, in certain modern cultural contexts: the attractions of the Ophite sect, highlighted by Borghesi in the article quoted at the beginning, are testimony of this .

1 Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus haereses II, 26, I.
2 M. Borghesi, The Pact with the Serpent, in 30days, no.2, February 2003, pp.78-84.
3 Irenaeus of Lyons, op.cit. I, 30, 1-15.
4 Hippolytus, Refutatio; he refers to the worshippers of the Serpent in three different places: V,7, 2-9, 9 (from a script of the Nassenes); V,10, 2 (the psalm of the Nassenes on the soul); V, 24, 2-27, 5 (from the Book of Baruch by the gnostic Justine.
5 Some codices add a continuation to the damaged text of Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, attributing it to Tertullian, published by the editors under the title of Libellus adversus omnes haereses. The Ophites are dealt of in II, 1-4.
6 Origen, Contra Celsum VI, 24-39.
7 Epiphanius, Panarion I, 37.
8 Philastrus, Liber de haeresibus I, 2, 9.
9 Augustine, De Genesi contra Manichaeos II, 36-40.
10 For this text see W. Förster (ed.) Gnosis, vol. II, Zurich-Stuttgart 1971, pp. 46-52. The German translation is on pp.53-62. The English translation can be found in J. Robinson (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 2nd edition, Leiden 1984, pp. 152-160.
11 Irenaeus of Lyons, op.cit. I, 30, I.
12 cf. U. Bianchi, Prometeo, Orfeo, Adamo. Tematiche religiose sul destino, il male , la salvezza, Ateneo Editions , Roma 1991, p. 29.
13 Irenaeus of Lyons, op. cit. I, 31, 2.
14 See on this subject the book by G. Filoramo, Il risveglio della gnosi ovvero diventare dio, Rome-Bari 1990.

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