Basilides and Egyptian Gnosticism

BASILIDIANS: A sect of heretics who took their name from Basilides, the chief of the Egyptian Gnostics.  They acknowledged the existence of one supreme God, perfect in wisdom and goodness, who produced from his own substance seven aeons of a most excellent nature.  According to a description of Irenaeus:

“from the self-existent Father was born Nous, or understanding; from Nous, Logos; from Logos, Phronesis, prudence or providence; from Phronesis, Sophia and Dunamis, wisdom and power; from Dunamis and Sophia, powers, principalities, and angels, by whom the first heaven was made; from these sprung other angels, and other heavens, to the number of three hundred and sixty-five of each; whence are so many days in the year.  The angels which uphold the lower heaven made all things in this world, and then divided it among themselves; the chief of which is the God of the Jews, who wished to bring other nations into subjection to His people, but was opposed.  The self-existent Father, seeing their danger, sent His first-begotten Nous, the Christ, for the salvation of such as believe in Him: He appeared on earth as a man, and wrought miracles, but He did not suffer; for Simon of Cyrene was compelled to bear His cross, and was crucified for Him; he was transformed into the likeness of Jesus, and Jesus took the form of Simon, and looked on, laughing at the folly and ignorance of the Jews; after which He ascended into heaven.  Men ought not to confess him who was actually crucified, but Jesus, who was sent to destroy the works of the makers of this world.  The soul only was to be saved, not the body.  The prophecies are from the makers of the world; the law was given by the chief of them, who brought the people out of Egypt.  They took things offered to idols without scruple, and all kinds of lewdness were esteemed indifferent.  They practised magic and incantations; and distributed the local positions of the three hundred and sixty five heavens, according to the theories of mathematicians, the prince of which is called Abraxas, a name having in it the number three hundred and sixty five.” 

Basilides placed at the head of his system an incomprehensible god, the attributes of whom he made living personified powers, unfolded from his perfection; as the Spirit, Reason, Thought, Wisdom, and Power, who were the executors of his wisdom.  To these he added the moral attributes, showing the activity of the Deity’s almighty power, namely, Holiness and Peace.  The number seven was a holy number with Basilides: besides these seven powers, in accordance with the seven days of the week, he supposed seven similar beings in every stage of the spiritual world, and that there were, like the days of the year, three hundred and sixty five such stages or regions, which were represented by the mystical number Abraxas, the symbol of his sect. 

From this emanation-world sprung the divine principles of Light, Life, Soul, and Good; but there was an empire of evil, which assaulted the divine principles, and forced a union of undivine principles opposed to each, namely, Darkness to Light, Death to Life, Matter to Soul, Evil to Good.  The Divine Principle, to obtain its original splendour, must undergo a process of purification before it can effect its reunion with its original source: hence arose a kind of metempsychosis, in which the soul passed through animals, according to its desert, and this by way of punishment. 

Basilides also suppressed the passage of the soul through various living creatures, in order to a gradual development of spiritual life.  The Creator of the world he supposed to be an Angel acting as an instrument under the supreme God; and to redeem human nature, and to make fit for communion with Himself, and the higher world of spirits, He sent down the highest Aeon (Nous) for the fulfilment of the work of redemption, who united himself to the man Jesus at his baptism in Jordan; but the Nous did not suffer, only the man Jesus.  Many particulars respecting these heretics may be found in the writings of Irenaeus and Clemens Alexandrinus.  The sect flourished for a long time and did not become extinct till the fourth century.  Their opinions are a tissue of absurdities.

Farrar, John, 1878, “An Ecclesiastical Dictionary, Explanatory of the History, Antiquities, Heresies, Sects, and Religious Denominations of the Christian Church”, entry “Basilidians” p. 87-88, pub. Wesleyan Conference Office, London