From its inception, Christianity has been divided by different practices and different interpretations of religious texts. In the early centuries, their were many Christian groups floating around and councils were held to define unified beliefs. Sects that failed to accept the agreed upon doctrines were kicked out of the mainstream church which became Catholicism. In one analogy used in a Time magazine, Christianity had previously been seen as oak tree with branches such as Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Protestantism at the top but now is seen more as a mangrove with branches at the top and numerous trunks with names like Gnosticsm, Ebionism and Marcionism. Scholars debate their significance: some simply dismiss them as “2nd century rubbish.” Other say they made important contributions to the devolvement of mainstream Christianity.

Many small early sects were regarded as heretical. These included the Montanists (a 2nd century movement founded by self-proclaimed prophet, Montanus, who said he received messages directly from God and these were more important than the teachings of Jesus); the Arianists (a 4th century movement that called Christ a semi-divine being); and the Monarchianists (a movement with strong beliefs about monotheism). There were also groups like the Sethians and Valentinians. The Carpocratioans were a sect that allegedly engaged in ritualized spouse swapping. Much of what we know about them comes from the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.

Some groups believed that Christ’s death led to salvations; other believed that he never died. Not all of them were monotheists. Some groups believed in two gods, some in as many as 30. These groups have largely been lost to history but they did force the larger Christian church to confront challenging issues (such as the true nature of the relationship between Jesus and God), develop concepts and adopt rules that helped standardize and universalize their religion and agree on canonical text that became the New Testament. Most early sects had disappeared by the 300s.

Around the time the Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire in the 4th century Christianity was relatively unified. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire the center of the religion was Byzantium (present-day Istanbul). One by one different sects broke away. The first sects to break from away from Byzantine control were the Egyptian Copts, Syrian Maronites and Nestorians.

Websites and Resources: Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org


In a review of the book “Heresy” by Catherine Nixey, Harry Sidebottom wrote in The Telegraph: In the first three centuries AD, there were almost innumerable different types of Christians. There were those who denied the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ and the Resurrection. Others thought that the Holy Spirit was female, or that God’s mother was responsible for the Creation. Some worshipped Jesus alongside “Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and the rest”, while another group worshipped him in the form of a snake. Exhaustingly, one secret sect elevated sex to an act of devotion: go round the track twice with 365 women in view of the congregation, and you could announce “I am Christ”. Nor was the child-killer of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas alone. There were other “bad Jesuses”, such as the one who sold one of his disciples into slavery, or that substituted another victim in the Crucifixion and looked on laughing as the man died.[Source: Harry Sidebottom, The Telegraph, February 25, 2024]

There were so many different sects, all claiming to be Christians, that modern scholars now tend to refer not to “early Christianity”, but “Christianities”. The sources for these “other” Christianities are mainly obscure and difficult, and fall into three broad categories. These versions of Christianity were not just competing against each other. The new pagan cults of Mithras and Jupiter Dolichenus were spreading across the empire from the east. Paganism was not short of divine miracle-workers. Apollonius of Tyana healed the sick, and raised the dead. Once even an emperor joined in: in Alexandria, Vespasian was said to have made a lame man walk, and a blind man see.

Holland Lee Hendrix told PBS: "Christianities" of the second and third centuries were a highly variegated phenomenon. We really can't imagine Christianity as a unified coherent religious movement. Certainly there were some religious organizations.... There were institutions developing in some Christian churches, but only in some. And this was not universal by any means. We know from, for example, the literature recovered at Nag Hammadi, that gnostic Christianity didn't have the kind of clear hierarchy that other forms of Christianity had developed. They still clung to a charismatic leadership model. And so there was a lot of variety in 2nd and 3rd century Christianity.... [Source: Holland Lee Hendrix, President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“There were very different views of Jesus in the various types of Christianity.... Perhaps the starkest contrast was among those who considered themselves as gnostic Christians, and those who considered themselves Christians in the old Pauline view of things. On the one hand, Paul, and Pauline Christianity, would have placed all of the emphasis on Jesus' death and resurrection, and the saving power of that death and resurrection. Gnostic Christianity, on the other hand, would have placed its prime emphasis on the message, the wisdom, the knowledge, the gnosis, that's where the word gnostic comes from, the Greek word for knowledge, the knowledge that Jesus transmits, and even the secret knowledge that Jesus transmits. So one would have on the one hand faith in the saving event of Jesus' life and death, and on the other hand knowledge as the great source of adherence to the Jesus movement on the other hand.

Sects That Existed When Christianity Evolved

The early 20th century Roman-era scholar Oliver J. Thatcher wrote: “As is evident from the writings of Seneca, Epictetus and others, philosophy in the West ceased to be purely speculative, and dealt with moral and religious questions. This tendency toward the moral and religious was strengthened by the spread of Jewish and Christian teachings, together with the development of the Neo-Platonists toward mysticism, and the consequent mingling of western and eastern thought. Philo Judaeus lived in Alexandria, Egypt, from 20 B.C. to 40 A.D. He was a Jew in religion but a Greek in philosophy, and did much to promote this fusion of thought. The selection below describes the pre-Christian ascetics of Egypt. lt is important because it shows that asceticism was common in the deserts of Egypt even before the Christian monks and thus by no means peculiarly Christian. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 355-369]

Early documents suggest the first Christian communities — as well as Christian-like sects — had radically different interpretations of the meaning of Jesus' life and teachings. According to martin.luthersem.edu: “Orthodoxy stressed continuity with Old Testament and classicism. Heresies tended to stress newness and discontinuity. Most of our knowledge of early Xn heresies come from their opponents. Orthodox 100-600 AD believed that truth was one, and allowed of no pluralism. Distinction between heresy and schism has nct been easy to maintain with any consistency. But the primitive church was not characterized by any explicit unity of doctrine. Yet there was a unity of life (i.e. fidelity to Old Testament, devotion and loyalty to the Lord witnessed to in Old Testament and New Testament. Heresy was a deviation from the unity of life. Dogma - from agreement among bishops to rule by sunodal law, idea borrowed from Roman civil government. [Source: web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu]

Geoffrey Wigoder wrote in the “Encyclopaedia Judaica”: Several Jewish Christian sects (such as the Nazarenes, Ebionites, Elchasaites, and others) existed for some time, and a few of them seem to have endured for several centuries. Some sects saw in Jesus mainly a prophet and not the "Christ," others seem to have believed in him as the Messiah, but did not draw the christological and other conclusions that subsequently became fundamental in the teaching of the Church (the divinity of the Christ, trinitarian conception of the Godhead, abrogation of the Law). [Source: Geoffrey Wigoder, “Encyclopaedia Judaica”, 1960s, Encyclopedia.com]

Ebionites and Marcionites

Ebionites believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and he wasn’t divine at birth but was chosen by God to sacrifice himself to redeem humanity’s sins because was unusually righteous and followed the hundreds of Jewish laws to the letter. The Ebiobites believed that one had to be a Jew to be a follower of Jesus. They obeyed Jewish law; ate kosher meals; took ritual baths; prayed facing Jerusalem; and required men to be circumcised. Their text consisted of the Old Testament plus the Gospel of Matthew. and disliked Paul because of his rejection of Jewish law. The sect was particularly attractive to Jews who could follow the sect and remain Jews. [Source: David Van Biema, Time, December 22, 2003]

Marcionites rejected Jewish law and Old Testament teachings and believed in two Gods: 1) the Jewish God, who created a canon of laws that were impossibly difficult for humanity to keep and made them miserable; and 2) Christ, an unrelated individual who freed humanity from the grasp of the Jewish God. The sect was very popular in Asia Minor. Followers were attracted by its emphasis on love and salvation rather than judgment, punishment and damnation.

The Marcionites are named after Marcion, a rich shipping merchant who was based in the Black Sea port of Sinope and traveled to Rome in A.D. 139. He donated a large sum of money to the church there and then was excommunicated and given his money back after discussing some of his ideas.

Marcion (c. 140 AD)

Carl A. Volz wrote: Marcion “is in a class by himself, though he has affinities with the Gnostics. He is motivated by soteriological and not metaphysical concerns. Salvation is through faith and not through gnosis. Opposed the gnostic emanation theory. He was actually a reformer who desired, on the basis of Paul's writings, to free the Church from the Law and to plant it squarely on the Gospel. In Marcion we see a reaction against the legalism which was a characteristic of most of his orthodox contemporaries. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu] /~\

Marcion Beliefs: “Theory of 2 gods. Old Testament god created the world. Cared only for Israel. He was the Just God but he did not know the Higher God, the Good God. This Good God was the God of Mercy and the Father of Christ. The 12 apostles followed the Old Testament God. Paul had to fight them, since only Paul and Christ followed the Good God. Christ often is identified with the Good God. Marcion is a Modalist re: Trinity - i.e. Fr. Sn., HS are 3 different modes or faces of the same Good God. Christ did away with the Old Testament Law, and that's why the Old Testament God had Him crucified. But Christ had no human body, so His death was only apparent. He went to hell in order to liberate the heroes of the Old Testament, those who fought the Old Testament God., i.e. Cain, Korah, et al.

Marcion teaching

“Salvation was deliverance from flesh and matter. Esp stressed salvation of soul. Was especially horrified by sex, whereby new matter is created and new souls are imprisoned. Strongly ascetic. Also docetic. "Human nature, or the condition of having a material body and participating in the change and suffering of the creation, was that from which man had to be delivered, but not that by which he would be delivered."

Canon: Marcion repudiated the Old Testament. Old Testament not fulfilled but abolished. In so doing he also repudiated the non-literal interpretation of the Old Testament which was followed by the orthodox Fathers. Re: New Testament, Paul alone transmitted the Gospel in purity. Luke was the only authentic Gospel. Pauline epistles were purged of elements which viewed the Old Testament as authoritative. /~\

“Marcion is therefore significant in the development of the Canon: 1) He purchased the doctrine of salvation at the expense of the unity of God; 2) Discontinuity of Old Testament and New Testament, and discontinuity of apostles with Paul; 3) The sheer volume of the anti-heretical literature directed against Marcion during the 2nd and 3rd centuries is testimony to its continuing importance.


Thomasines believed that all human beings were born with a divine competent and Jesus taught us how to rediscover our divine self with an emphasis on faith rather than following laws. The Thomasines are believed to have been ascetics who explored esoteric ideas, were open to women’s participation, rejected hierarchal structures and allowed personal expression.

The Thomasines primary text was the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus written in Coptic and found at Nag Hammadi. Some scholars consider it to be the 5th Gospel. Many of the sayings are similar to those in the Gospels but some have a more introspective twist and advocate seeking self-knowledge rather than finding answers through Jesus and Christian doctrine.

Many Thomasines are believed to have been former Gnostics who were attracted to Thomas’s teachings because there were more democratic and less elitist.

Book: “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas” by Elaine Page (Random House, 2003)


Gospel of Thomas
Ascetic sects also arose in early days of Christianity. They made vows of poverty, obedience and chastity and headed to the deserts of Egypt to seek solitude and communion with God. Some lived for years in caves on nothing but bread and water. The most famous of these hermits was Paul of Thebes who reportedly lived for 112 years in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The word “hermit” is derived from the Greek word “cremeites”, meaning “desert dweller.”

Saint Anthony is credited with launching the greatest monastic movement in religious history. A healer, sufferer, pioneer of monasticism in Christianity, he promulgated celibacy and asceticism and spent most of his life praying and fasting in the desert, where it was said he was tempted many times by the devil, who often appeared dressed as a woman. There is now an Anonite order of monks.

St. Anthony was born in Egypt in 251. Following the admonitions of Matthew, he sold all of his possession, gave his money to the poor so the at he could find the treasure of heaven. He fled to the deserts of Egypt, where he took up an austere life. Others followed his example and a monastic colony arose around his cave in the mountains. Since the Middle Age St. Anthony has been acknowledged as the patron saint of domestic animals. The day of the saint is celebrated with bonfires in communities across Spain.

The world's oldest monasteries are in Egypt. The monastery of Phuim, founded on the Nile River in A.D. 305, is regarded as the world's first monastery. It was founded by St. Anthony but was not like a medieval monastery in that monks lived in isolated cells within the monastery but otherwise had little contact with one another.

Philo on 1st Century Ascetics in Egypt

In the A.D. 1st century, Philo of Alexandria wrote: “I. Having mentioned the Essenes, who in all respects selected for their admiration and for their especial adoption the practical course of life, and who excel in all, or what perhaps may be a less unpopular and invidious thing to say, in most of its parts, I will now proceed, in the regular order of my subject, to speak of those who have embraced the speculative life, and I will say what appears to me to be desirable to be said on the subject, not drawing any fictitious statements from my own head for the sake of improving the appearance of that side of the question which nearly all poets and essayists are much accustomed to do in the scarcity of good actions to extol, but with the greatest simplicity adhering strictly to the truth itself, to which I know well that even the most eloquent men do not keep close in their speeches. [Source: Philo of Alexandria, Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 355-369, sourcebooks.fordham.edu */]

“Nevertheless we must make the endeavor and labor to attain to this virtue; for it is not right that the greatness of the virtue of the men should be a cause of silence to those who do not think it right that anything which is creditable should be suppressed in silence; but the deliberate intention of the philosopher is at once displayed from the appellation given to them: for with strict regard to etymology, they are called therapeutae and therapeutrides, either because they profess an art of medicine more excellent than that in general use in cities (for that only heals bodies, but the other heals souls which are under the mastery of terrible and almost incurable diseases, which pleasures and appetites, fears and griefs, and covetousness, and follies, and injustice, and all the rest of the innumerable multitude of other passions and vices, have inflicted upon them), or else because they have been instructed by nature and the sacred laws to serve the living God, who is superior to the good, and more simple than the one, and more ancient than the unity with whom, however, who is there of those who profess piety that we can possibly compare? Can we compare those who honor the elements, earth, water, air, and fire? to whom different nations have given names, calling fire Hephaestus, I imagine because of its kindling, and the air Hera, I imagine because of its being raised up, and raised aloft to a great height, and water Poseidon, probably because of its being drinkable, and the earth Demeter because it appears to be the mother of all plants and of all animals. */

Saint Anthony
“II. But since these men infect not only their fellow countrymen, but all that come near them with folly, let them remain uncovered, being mutilated in the most indispensable of all the outward senses, namely, sight. I am speaking here, not of the sight of the body, but of that of the soul, by which alone truth and falsehood are distinguished from one another. But the therapeutic sect of mankind, being continually taught to see without interruption, may well aim at obtaining a sight of the living God, and may pass by the sun, which is visible to the outward sense, and never leave this order which conducts to perfect happiness. But they who apply themselves to this kind of worship, not because they are influenced to do so by custom, nor by the advice or recommendation of any particular persons, but because they are carried away by a certain heavenly love, give way to enthusiasm, behaving like so many revelers in bacchanalian or corybantian mysteries, until they see the object which they have been earnestly desiring. */

“Then, because of their anxious desire for an immortal and blessed existence, thinking that their mortal life has already come to an end, they leave their possessions to their sons or daughters, or perhaps to other relations, giving them up their inheritance with willing cheerfulness: and those who know no relations give their property to their companions or friends, for it followed of necessity that those who have acquired the wealth which sees, as if ready prepared for them, should be willing to surrender that wealth which is blind to those who themselves also are still blind in their minds. */

“When, therefore, men abandon their property without being influenced by any predominant attraction, they flee without even turning their heads back again, deserting their brethren, their children, their wives, their parents, their numerous families, their affectionate bands of companions, their native lands in which they have been born and brought up, though long familiarity is a most attractive bond, and one very well able to allure any one. And they depart, not to another city as those do who entreat to be purchased from those who at present possess them, being either unfortunate or else worthless servants, and as such seeking a change of masters rather than endeavoring to procure freedom (for every city, even that which is under the happiest laws, is full of indescribable tumults, and disorders, and calamities, which no one would submit to who had been even for a moment under the influence of wisdom), but they take up their abode outside of walls, or gardens, or solitary lands, seeking for a desert place, not because of any ill-natured misanthropy to which they have learned to devote themselves, but because of the associations with people of wholly dissimilar dispositions to which they would otherwise be compelled, and which they know to be unprofitable and mischievous. */

“III. Now this class of persons may be met with in many places, for it was fitting that both Greece and the country of the barbarians should partake of whatever is perfectly good; and there is the greatest number of such men in Egypt, in every one of the districts, or nomes, as they are called, and especially around Alexandria; and from all quarters those who are the best of these therapeutae proceed on their pilgrimage to some most suitable place as if it were their country, which is beyond the Maereotic lake, lying in a somewhat level plain a little raised above the rest, being suitable for their purpose by reason of its safety and also of the fine temperature of the air. */

Houses of Pre-Christian Ascetics in Egypt

Philo of Alexandria wrote: “For the houses built in the fields and the villages which surround it on all sides give it safety; and the admirable temperature of the air proceeds from the continual breezes which come from the lake which falls into the sea, and also from the sea itself in the neighborhood, the breezes from the sea being light, and those which proceed from the lake which falls into the sea being heavy, the mixture of which produces a most healthy atmosphere. [Source: Philo of Alexandria, Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 355-369, sourcebooks.fordham.edu */]

St. Anthony's Monestary in Egypt

“But the houses of these men thus congregated together are very plain, just giving shelter in respect of the two things most important to be provided against, the heat of the sun, and the cold from the open air; and they did not live near to one another as men do in cities, for immediate neighborhood to others would be a troublesome and unpleasant thing to men who have conceived an admiration for, and have determined to devote themselves to, solitude; and, on the other hand, they did not live very far from one another on account of the fellowship which they desire to cultivate, and because of the desirableness of being able to assist one another if they should be attacked by robbers. */

“And in every house there is a sacred shrine which is called the holy place, and the house in which they retire by themselves and perform all the mysteries of a holy life, bringing in nothing, neither meat, nor drink, nor anything else which is indispensable towards supplying the necessities of the body, but studying in that place the laws and the sacred oracles of God enunciated by the holy prophets, and hymns, and psalms, and all kinds of other things by reason of which knowledge and piety are increased and brought to perfection. */

“And there are two kinds of covering, one raiment and the other a house: we have already spoken of their houses, that they are not decorated with any ornaments, but run up in a hurry, being only made to answer such purposes as are absolutely necessary; and in like manner their raiment is of the most ordinary description, just stout enough to ward off cold and heat, being a cloak of some shaggy hide for winter, and a thin mantle or linen shawl in the summer; for in short they practice entire simplicity, looking upon falsehood as the foundation of pride, but truth is the origin of simplicity, and upon truth and falsehood as standing in the light of fountains, for from falsehood proceeds every variety of evil and wickedness, and from truth there flows every imaginable abundance of good things both human and divine. */

Practices of Pre-Christian Ascetics in Egypt

Macarius the Great

Philo of Alexandria wrote: “Therefore they always retain an imperishable recollection of God, so that not even in their dreams is any other subject ever presented to their eyes except the beauty of the divine virtues and of the divine powers. Therefore many persons speak in their sleep, divulging and publishing the celebrated doctrines of the sacred philosophy. And they are accustomed to pray twice a day, at morning and at evening; when the sun is rising entreating God that the happiness of the coming day may be real happiness, so that their minds may be filled with heavenly light, and when the sun is setting they pray that their soul, being entirely lightened and relieved of the burden of the outward senses, and of the appropriate object of these outward senses, may be able to trace out trust existing in its own consistory and council chamber. And the interval between morning and evening is by them devoted wholly to meditation on and to practice virtue, for they take up the sacred scriptures and philosophy concerning them, investigating the allegories as symbols of some secret meaning of nature, intended to be conveyed in those figurative expressions. [Source: Philo of Alexandria, Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 355-369, sourcebooks.fordham.edu */]

“They have also writings of ancient men, who having been the founders of one sect or another, have left behind them many memorials of the allegorical system of writing and explanation, whom they take as a kind of model, and imitate the general fashion of their sect; so that they do not occupy themselves solely in contemplation, but they likewise compose psalms and hymns to God in every kind of meter and melody imaginable, which they of necessity arrange in more dignified rhythm. Therefore, during six days, each of these individuals, retiring into solitude by himself, philosophizes by himself in one of the places called monasteries, never going outside the threshold of the outer court, and indeed never even looking out. */

Gatherings of Pre-Christian Ascetics in Egypt

Philo of Alexandria wrote:“But on the seventh day they all come together as if to meet in a sacred assembly, and they sit down in order according to their ages with all becoming gravity, keeping their hands inside their garments, having their right hand between their chest and their dress, and the left hand down by their side, close to their flank; and then the eldest of them who has the most profound learning in their doctrines comes forward and speaks with steadfast look and with steadfast voice, with great powers of reasoning, and great prudence, not making an exhibition of his oratorical powers like the rhetoricians of old, or the sophists of the present day, but investigating with great pains, and explaining with minute accuracy the precise meaning of the laws, which sits, not indeed at the tips of their ears, but penetrates through their hearing into the soul, and remains there lastingly; and all the rest listen in silence to the praises which he bestows upon the law, showing their assent only by nods of the head, or the eager look of the eyes.

“And this common holy place to which they all come together on the seventh day is a twofold circuit, being separated partly into the apartment of the men, and partly into a chamber for the women, for women also, in accordance with the usual fashion there, form a part of the audience, having the same feelings of admiration as the men, and having adopted the same sect with equal deliberation and decision; and the wall which is between the houses rises from the ground three or four cubits upwards, like a battlement, and the upper portion rises upwards to the roof without any opening. on two accounts; first of all, in order that the modesty which is so becoming to the female sex may be preserved, and secondly, that the women may be easily able to comprehend what is said, being seated within earshot, since there is then nothing which can possibly intercept the voice of him who is speaking. */

“IV. And these expounders of the law, having first of all laid down temperance as a sort of foundation for the soul to rest upon, proceed to build up other virtues on this foundation, and no one of them may take any meat or drink before the setting of the sun, since they judge that the work of philosophizing is one which is worthy of the light, but that the care of the necessities of the body is suitable only to darkness, on which account they appropriate the day to the one occupation, and a brief portion of the night to the other; and some men, in whom there is implanted a more fervent desire of knowledge, can endure to cherish a recollection of their food for three days without even tasting it, and some men are so delighted, and enjoy themselves so exceedingly when regaled by wisdom which supplies them with her doctrines in all possible wealth and abundance, that they can even hold out twice as great a length of time, and will scarcely at the end of six days taste even necessary food, being accustomed, as they say that grasshoppers are, to feed on air, their song as I imagine, making their scarcity tolerable to them. */

Fra Angelico, Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers

“And they, looking upon the seventh day as one of perfect holiness and a most complete festival, have thought it worthy of a most especial honor, and on it, after taking due care of their soul, they tend their bodies also, giving them, just as they do to their cattle, a complete rest from their continual labors; and they eat nothing of a costly character, but plain bread and a seasoning of salt, which the more luxurious of them do further season with hyssop; and their drink is water from the spring; for they oppose those feelings which nature has made mistresses of the human race, namely, hunger and thirst, giving them nothing to flatter or humor them, but only such useful things as it is not possible to exist without. On this account they eat only so far as not to be hungry, and they drink just enough to escape from thirst, avoiding all satiety, as an enemy of and a plotter against both soul and body.” */

Montanism - New Prophecy (e. 156 AD)

Carl A. Volz wrote: Montanism was “an apocalyptic movement in the latter half of the 2nd C. which is to be traced back to one Montanus in Phrygia. It lived in the expectation of a speedy outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church, of which it saw the first manifestation in its own prophets and prophetesses. Montanus himself, who began to prophesy either in AD 172 (Eusebius) or 156-157 (Epiphanius) proclaimed that the Heavenly Jerusalem would soon descend near Pepuza in Phrygia. Closely associated with him were two women, Prisca and Maximilla. [Source: Carl A. Volz, late professor of church history at Luther Seminary, web.archive.org, martin.luthersem.edu]

“The movement soon developed ascetic traits which became prominent in an offshoot of Montanism in North Africa. Here, where c. 206 it won the allegiance of Tertullian, it disallowed second marriages, condemned the existing regulations on fasting as too lax, imposing a discipline of its own, and forbade flight in persecution. Tertullian also condemned the penitential discipline current at Rome for its leniency and termed the Catholics "Psychics" or "animal men" as opposed to their own members who were the "Pneumatics" or "Spirit-filled." /~\

“Certain elements in the movement (enthusiasm, prophecy) had their parallels in primitive Christianity, and in modern times it has sometimes been regarded (i.e. A. Harnack) as an attempt to revert to primitive fervor in the face of a growing institutionalism and secularization of the Church. More probably the movement is to be understood as an early instance of the apocalyptic groups which have constantly sprung up in Christian history. It was attacked by a large number of orthodox writings most of which have unhappily been lost. It was formally condemned by Asiatic synods before AD 200 and also, after some hesitation, by pope Zephyrinus. /~\

Manichean Jesus, Adam and Eve

“Montanus claimed to possess (or be) the Spirit of prophecy. Joined by two women, Priscilla and Maxima who deserted their husbands with Montanus' approval. Claimed to complete the revelation of Old Testament and NT. Rigorist. Intense discipline. Fasting, martyrdom, no second marriage, separation from the world. Only those Christians who met these demands were pneumatic. Preached a doctrine of "invisible church" as opposed to the organized, external Church. Tertullian wrote after 206 AD, "Therefore the Church can indeed forgive sins, but only the Church of the Spirit can do this through Spirit-filled people, and not the Church which consists of a number of bishops." /~\

“Montanism, represented both a reform movement and an ecclesiastical reaction to institutionalization. I can also be viewed in terms of a decline in charismatic gifts and decline of eschatological hope and rise of monarchical Episcopate. There are problems of Trinity as expressed in the Doctrine from Tert Adv Prax. There is also the problem of continuation of revelation after the Apostles. Where can such revelation be found? How is it authenticated? The answer lies in: 1) Apostolic Canon (Old Testament and New Testament); Apostolic Creed; and Apostolic Episcopate. Criteria of apostolic continuity: Historically, if not also theologically, it is a distortion to consider any one of the criteria apart from the others. No problem of "Scripture" vs. "Tradition." It was a unified system. Emphasis of Scr over Trad (or vice versa) is to do violence to the Christian history.


Manichaeism is a religion that thrived mainly in Eurasia between the A.D. third and seventh centuries but made its way east as far as China and maybe Japan. Regarded by some as a Gnostic sect, it was centered on the idea of Manichean dualism, which divided many important things into two opposing sides. To Manicheans, life could be divided neatly between good or evil, light or dark, or love and hate. Under the Manichaean view of the universe, the world was formed by 10 layers of heaven and eight layers of the Earth.

Incorporating elements of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Gnosticism and Christianity, Manichaeism emphasized the duality of being between light and darkness and the belief that all light is held in a special place and found with the help of intermediaries such as Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster or Mani. The Manichaeans viewed spirituality as a struggle within the body. They avoided sex and ate only vegetables and believed that the personal fight between good and evil represented a cosmic battle. The movement spread out across he Sassanian Empire and entered the late Roman Empire and counted St. Augustine among its followers.


David Fingrut wrote: “Mani preached a dualistic theological system emphasizing the purity of the spirit and the impurity of the body. He believed that the universe was controlled by the opposing powers of good and evil which had become temporarily intertwined, but at a future time would be separated and return to their own realms. Manichaean ethics focused on freeing the soul from the body and opposing material and physical pleasures. Mani's followers attempted to assist this separation by leading ascetic lives, preaching renunciation of the world, and discouraging marriage and procreation.” [Source: David Fingrut in conjunction with a high-school course at Toronto's SEED Alternative School, 1993, based largely on the work of Franz Cumont (1868-1947) /]

Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: “Pagans and Christians alike were suspicious of the Manichees’ secretive ascetic lifestyle; the pagan emperor Diocletian issued an edict against them at the end of the third century, and even after Constantine had declared that pagans and Christians should be allowed to worship whatever gods they liked, the Manichees continued to be singled out, banned and persecuted. The fact that Manichee beliefs included Christian elements was particularly vexing for the church, and also explains why some notable Christians began their religious journey in the Manichee sect. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011]

Some scholars view Manichaeanism as a form of Mithraism, worshippers of the ‘Unconquered Sun God Mithras’, one of best known foreign cults of the late Roman Empire. Mani given the title 'The Seal of the Prophets' (a title since given to Mohammed by Islam) and also called the Bagh, or the Lord to succeed Mithras. Fingrut wrote: “Even when it had been dethroned by Christianity, the Mithraic faith lived on in dignified opposition by mutating into a Christian heresy known as Manichaeism, which was to become a source of strife and bloodshed right down to the Middle Ages. The Persian dualism of Zarathustra introduced such strong principles into Europe that they continued to exert an influence long after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Manichaean faith succeeded as an heir to Mithraism, spreading within decades throughout the territories once covered by Mithraism in Asia and throughout the Mediterranean, eventually encompassing regions from China to North Africa, Spain, and Southern France.” /


The Manicheans followed Mani, a third century A.D. Babylonian sage and theologian who tried to unify all prophets and teachers into a single religion. Mani, or Mianes, was persecuted and finally put to death in A.D. 276 along with many of his followers under the Sassanian King Braham II. Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe of the University of Cambridge wrote for the BBC: Mani consciously blended aspects of Gnostic Christianity, Persian Zoroastrianism and Buddhism to create a new religion which might be acceptable in both the east and west. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011|]


Mani was born in A.D. 216 near Seleucia-Ctesiphon, perhaps in the town Mardinu in the Babylonian district of Nahr Kutha, according to other accounts in the town Abrumya. Mani's father Pātik , a native of Ecbatana (modern Hamadan, Iran), was a member of the Jewish-Christian sect of the Elcesaites (a subgroup of the Gnostic Ebionites). His mother was of Parthian descent (from "the Armenian Arsacid family of Kamsarakan"; her name is reported variously, among others Mariam. [Source: Wikipedia +]

At ages 12 and 24, Mani had visionary experiences of a "heavenly twin" of his, calling him to leave his father's sect and preach the true message of Christ. In 240–41, Mani travelled to India (now the Sakhas in modern-day Afghanistan), where he studied Hinduism and its various extant philosophies. Al-Biruni says Mani traveled to India after being banished from Persia. Returning in 242, he joined the court of Shapur I, to whom he dedicated his only work written in Persian, known as the Shabuhragan. Shapur was not converted to Manichaeanism and remained Zoroastrian. +

Shapur's successor Hormizd I (who reigned only for one year) appears to have continued to patronize Mani, but his successor Bahram I, a follower of the Zoroastrian reformer Kartir, began to persecute the Manichaeans. He incarcerated Mani, who died in prison within a month, in A.D. 274. Mani's followers depicted Mani's death as a crucifixion in a conscious analogy to the death of Christ; Al-Biruni says that Bahram ordered the execution of Mani. He was flayed alive and his skin stuffed with straw, was nailed to a cross and suspended over the main gate of the great city of Jundishapur as a terrifying spectacle for those who followed his teachings. His corpse was decapitated and the head placed on a spike. Bahram also ordered the killing of many Manicheans.+

Manicheism, St Augustine and Early Christian Ideas

Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe wrote for the BBC: “Augustine, a North African pagan who experienced a number of conversions until he finally and dramatically embraced Christianity, was briefly entranced by Manicheism during his youth. He provides a riveting account of the diet of the Manichee elect: they believed that certain fruits contained trapped particles of the divine, which could be released by consumption and digestion, with the result that, as Augustine puts it, the Manichee fruit-eater would 'breathe out angels' or 'bring up bits of God'. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Augustine’s Manichee past had a huge influence on the formation of his Christian theology. His interest in the big question: ‘Where does evil come from?’ was one of the preoccupations of the Manichees, and a favourite opening line when they engaged in debate. |But the very fact that Augustine had dabbled in Manicheism made some Christians suspect the purity of his theology. |::|

“For instance, he had to be very careful to show that his idea of 'original sin' did not derive from the pessimistic Manichee conviction that flesh and matter were evil. 'Original sin' entailed the biological transmission to all mankind of the guilt from Adam’s disobedient consumption of the apple in Eden. |But Augustine insisted that man had been created entirely good, and that even after sinning so heinously, could be redeemed. |::|

David Fingrut wrote: “Ironically, Manichaeism was denounced in the west by the Papacy as a dangerous heresy considered detrimental to social life and common human institutions. It was also condemned in Persia for similar reasons. Regardless, Manichaeism spread widely and was a major religion in the East until the 14th century. It died out in the West by the 6th century, but later led to the creation of several early Christian heresies, such as those of the Cathars and the Albigenses.” [Source: David Fingrut in conjunction with a high-school course at Toronto's SEED Alternative School, 1993, based largely on the work of Franz Cumont (1868-1947)]

spread of manicheism

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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