Basilides



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Fast Facts
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Function: 
Religious Figure
Traditions: 
Gnosticism, Christianity
Main Countries of Activity: 
Egypt
Date of Birth: 
Around 2 AD
Place of Birth: 
Alexandria, Egypt
In His/Her Body ("alive"): 
No
Date Left His/Her Body: 
Unknown

Biography

Basilides (early 2nd century) was an early Christian religious teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. He is believed to have written over two dozen books of commentary on the Christian Gospel (now all lost), making him one of the earliest Gospel commentators. His theology was identified as a "dualistic" heresy by later detractors and is commonly associated by modern scholarship with early Christian Gnosticism. The followers of Basilides, the Basilideans, formed a movement that persisted for at least two centuries after him - Epiphanius, at the end of the fourth century, recognized a persistent Basilidian Gnosis in Egypt. It is probable, however, that the school melded into the main stream of Gnosticism by the latter half of the second century.
Historians know of Basilides and his teachings only through the writings of his detractors, Agrippa Castor, Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus of Rome. It is impossible to determine how reliable these hostile accounts are.

Basilides

Basilides was a pupil of an alleged interpreter of St. Peter, Glaucias by name, and taught at Alexandria during the reign of Hadrian (117–138). He may have been previously a disciple of Menander at Antioch, together with Saturnilus. The Acta Archelai state that for a time he taught among the Persians. He composed twenty-four books on the Gospel, which, according to Clement of Alexandria were entitled Exegetics. Some fragments, preserved by Clement and in the Acta Archelai, supplement the knowledge of Basilides furnished by his opponents.
The oldest refutation of the teachings of Basilides, by Agrippa Castor, is lost, and we are dependent upon the later accounts of Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, and Hippolytus of Rome, who in his Philosophumena, gives a presentation entirely different from the other sources. It either rests on corrupt accounts, or, more probably, on those of a later, post-Basilidian phase of the system. Hippolytus describes a monistic system, in which Hellenic, or rather Stoic, conceptions stand in the foreground, whereas the genuine Basilides is an Oriental through and through, who stands in closer relationship to Zoroaster than to Aristotle.

Theological system

Main article: Basilideans
Basilides assumed the existence of two principles, not derivable from each other: Light and Darkness. These had existed for a long time side by side, without knowing anything of each other. At the head of the "kingdom of light" stands "the uncreated, unnamable God." From him divine life unfolds in successive steps.
Seven such revelations form the first Ogdoad, from which issued the rest of the spirit-world, till three hundred and sixty-five spirit-realms had originated. These are comprised under the mystic name Abrasax, whose numerical value answers to the number of the heavens and days.
When Light and Darkness first perceived each other, the Light had only looked and then turned away; but the Darkness, seized with a longing for light, now interferes. A struggle of the principles commences, in which originated our system of the world as copy of the last stage of the spirit-world, having an Archon and angel at its head.
The earthly life is only a moment of the general purification-process which now takes place to deliver the world of light from darkness. Hence everything which is bad and evil in this system of the world becomes intelligible when regarded in its proper relations. Gradually the rays of light find their way through the mineral kingdom, vegetable kingdom, and animal kingdom.
Man has two souls in his breast, of which the rational soul tries to master the material or animal. For the consummation of the process an intervention from above is necessary, however. The Christian idea of the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ is the historical fact which Basilides subjects to his general thoughts. God's "Mind" (Nous) descended upon Jesus as dove at the Jordan, and he proclaimed salvation to the Jews, the chosen people of the Archon. The Spirit of God is the redeemer, not the crucified one: Jesus suffered only as man (or was it Simon of Cyrene?), whose light-nature was also contaminated through the matter of evil. But the belief in the redemption which came from above lifts man beyond himself to a higher degree of existence.
How far the individual can attain it depends on the degree of pure entanglement in former degrees of the spirit-world. In the perfected spirit-world the place will be assigned to each which belongs to him according to the degree of his faith.

Popularity

Although Basilides is mentioned by all the Roman Catholic Church Fathers as one of the chiefs of Gnosticism, the system of Valentinus seems to have been much more popular and wider spread, as was also Marcionism. Hence, though anti-Gnostic literature is abundant, we know of only one patristic work, which had for its express purpose the refutation of Basilides, and this work is no longer extant. Eusebius[3] says: "There has come down to us a most powerful refutation of Basilides by Agrippa Castor, one of the most renowned writers of that day, which shows the terrible imposture of the man." With the exception of a few phrases given by Eusebius we know nothing of this Agrippa and his work.

Writings

Nearly all the writings of Basilides have perished, but the names of three of his works and some fragments have come down to us.
The Gospel of Basilides. Origen states that Basilides had dared to write a Gospel according to Basilides. St. Jerome and St. Ambrose[5] adopt this state of Origen; and St. Jerome, in the Prologue of his Commentary on St. Matthew, again speaks of an "Evangelium Basilidis".
A Gospel Commentary in twenty-four books. Fragments of this Commentary have come down to us (in Stromata, IV, 12-81, sqq.; Acta Arch., lv; probably also in Origen, Commentary on Romans V, i).
Hymns. Origen in a note on Job, xxi, 1 sqq., speaks of "Odes" of Basilides.
Other fragments are known through the work of Clement of Alexandria:
The Octet of Subsistent Entities (Fragment A)
The Uniqueness of the World (Fragment B)
Election Naturally Entails Faith and Virtue (Fragment C)
The State of Virtue (Fragment D)
The Elect Transcend the World (Fragment E)
Reincarnation (Fragment F)
Human Suffering and the Goodness of Providence (Fragment G)
Forgivable Sins (Fragment H)

Isidorus

Basilides never formed a school of disciples, who modified or added to the doctrines of their leader. Isidorus, his son, is the only one who elaborated his father's system, especially on the anthropological side. He wrote a work on the Psyche Prosphyes or Appendage-Soul; another work, called Ethics by Clement and Paraenetics by Epiphanius; and at least two books of Commentaries on the Prophet Parchor. Isidorus set up celibacy, though in a modified form, as the ideal of the perfect. It is remarkable too that Isidorus held the existence of two souls in man, a good and a bad; with which may be compared the teaching of Mani about the two souls, and also the teaching of the Pistis Sophia.

Influence

Twentieth-century psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote his Seven Sermons to the Dead and attributed them to Basilides. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was interested in Irenaeus' account of Basilides' Gnostic doctrine and wrote an essay on the subject: "A Vindication of the False Basilides" (1932). Basilides is also mentioned in Borges's short story "Three Versions of Judas" (1944), which opens with the striking passage "In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides published that the Cosmos was a reckless or evil improvisation by deficient angels... "

Sources: 
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