A second-century Alexandrian Gnostic teacher. According to CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (Stromata vii.106.4), Basilides taught in Alexandria during the reign of Hadrian (117-138) and Antoninus Pius (138-161). EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA gives the precise date of A.D. 132 (Jerome, 1846, cols. 619-20). He would seem to be the earliest of the three leading Gnostic teachers in Alexandria. The others were Valentinus (c. 140-160) and HERACLEON (170-180).
Basilides appears to have claimed Glaukias, “Peter’s interpreter,” as his teacher (Clement Stromata vii.106.4), which also points to an early date for his activities. He and his son, Isidore, were prodigious workers. They are credited with compiling the first full-scale Christian commentary on any of the Gospels (perhaps Luke), the twenty-four-book Exegetica (Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica iv.7.7). In addition, they were responsible for works on Oriental prophecy, “The Exposition of the Prophet Parchor” (Clement Stromata vi.53.2); on Platonic philosophy, “On the Inseparable Soul”; on ethics; and on poetry. They ranged widely over theology, theosophy, ethics, exegesis, and mysticism, seeking to relate Christianity to the general religious experience of mankind.
Unfortunately, very little of Basilides’ work has survived. Clement of Alexandria quotes from it verbatim and must be preferred as a primary source. Irenaeus and Hippolytus, who also seek to refute him, fail to agree, though in places Hippolytus stands nearer to Clement’s sources than does Irenaeus. Hegemonius, writing the Acta Archelai early in the fourth century, tends to overemphasize the dualism in Basilides’ system and relate it to that of Mani (Acta Archelai 67.4).
Both Hippolytus and Irenaeus agree that for Basilides, God was the origin of all things. According to Irenaeus, He was “unborn” (Adversus haereses 1.24.3); for Hippolytus, “God came from nothingness” (Refutation of All Heresies vii.23.2). Creation “out of nothing,” in opposition to current Hebrew-Christian affirmations that “in the beginning was God” (cf. Gen. 1:1), is one of Basilides’ claims to originality as a thinker.
Hippolytus records that Basilides believed that God made the world out of nonexistents (Refutation of All Heresies vii.23.4) through a “world seed” created out of nothing. Irenaeus is more explicit. To him, Basilides thought in terms of progressive emanations, which Hippolytus denies (Refutation of All Heresies vii.22.2): Mind (Nous), followed by Reason (Logos) and then, in descending order, Prudence, Wisdom, and Power. Thus the Stoic virtues are placed at the summit of Basilides’ scale of values. From these divine forces emanated “the powers, principalities and angels that are also called the first, and by them the first heaven was made” (Adversus haereses 1.24.3).
From their emanations, other angelic powers emanated until 365 separate heavens had come into existence, corresponding to the number of days in the year. The angels who possessed the last heaven were responsible for creating the earth and the nations inhabiting it. The chief ruler of the nations was Yahweh, the God of the Jews, whom Basilides described as an aggressive god whose aim was to subject all other nations to himself, an aim opposed by all the other guardian deities. “For this reason the other nations were alienated from this nation” (the Jews), says Basilides (Adversus haereses 1.24.3), doubtless echoing the extreme anti-Jewish feeling of Alexandria at the time.
At this point God sent Nous to appear to mankind in human form, as Jesus of Nazareth, to bestow deliverance from Yahweh. Naturally, the Crucifixion was not a real act, as Nous could not suffer; the Jews crucified Simon of Cyrene, who had carried the cross, believing him to be Jesus, while Jesus, taking the form of Simon, stood by, laughing at them.
The key to this system was that each of the high deities believed himself to be God and was ignorant of the existence of the heavens above his own sphere. Thus, Yahweh thought that he was God and ruler of the universe, and hence had no answer to the message of salvation preached by Nous through Jesus. Man had the means of saving his immortal soul by accepting this message. “He had,” Basilides declared (Clement Stromata iv.12.86), “one fragment of the will of God to love everything,” and hence could apprehend the divine message. However, belief only in the literal message of the Gospels implied that such a believer was still a slave of Yahweh.
True religion was wholly spiritual, attuned to Nous and not to any intermediary power.
Basilides, however, was not concerned only with cosmogony. Another fragment of the Exegetica (bk. 23) preserved by Clement shows him to have been a deep-thinking moral theologian concerned with the nature of evil and of suffering (Stromata iv.12.81.1-83.1). He aimed at answering objections to Christianity concerned with why God did not intervene to protect confessors, and why martyrs had to suffer if God was good and compassionate.
All suffering, Basilides replied, was the result of sin. Confessors may not have been grievous offenders, but they possessed the capacity and the desire to sin—perhaps they were even being punished for sins committed in a previous life. Martyrdom cleansed them from all guilt. Even Jesus, as the temptations showed, possessed the possibility to sin, since through his incarnation he had become man.
Though Clement of Alexandria recoiled from these ideas as “atheistic” (Stromata iv.12.85.1), they were founded on the conviction that God could not be the author of evil. Basilides accepted the Platonic view of Providence: that in no sense could it be responsible for evil (Stromata iv.82.2). Evil was due, rather, to the influence of the archons, chief of whom was Yahweh.
Basilides was the first Christian theologian to interpret the New Testament allegorically. Plato and Homer, as well as Paul, aid in the elucidation of the divine message contained in the Gospels. Basilides reveals himself as a thinker of boldness and speculative power. Though he may have been influenced by some pre-Christian Gnostic writing, such as the PARAPHRASE OF SHEM, he was the first to see that a Christianity that relied so heavily on the Old Testament for its understanding of God could hardly be the real saving religion for mankind.
If many of his ideas proved unacceptable to orthodox Christians, Basilides nonetheless helped to free Christianity from subjection to the prevalent apocalyptic and millenarian concepts. He saw that a universal religion must draw on the wisdom of all mankind, and that if the end was a mystical faith, the way to that end lay through understanding the message of the great philosophers and poets, in particular Plato and Homer. The emergence of an authentically gentile Christianity owes much to Basilides.
Basilides’ views seem almost certainly to have influenced VALENTINUS; and there are reminiscences of his ideas, such as the ignorance of the Great Archon (Yahweh) and crucifixion of a substitute for Christ, in the Second Treatise of the Great Seth. Isidore is mentioned in the Nag Hammadi Codex, tractate IX. Much of the Gnostic view of the origins of creation, and man’s relation to it and to God, may be said to have originated with Basilides. He is part of the Alexandrian Jewish and Christian philosophical tradition that produced PHILO, Valentinus, Clement, and ORIGEN.
- Förster, W. “Das System des Basilides.” New Testament Studies 9 (1962-1963):233-55. , ed. Die Gnosis, trans. and ed. R. McL. Wilson, Vol. 1. Oxford, 1972.
- Hegemonius. Acta Archelai, ed. H. Beeson. Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte 16. Leipzig, 1906.
- Hort, F. J. “Basilides.” In DCB 1, pp. 268-81. Repr. New York, 1974.
- Jerome. S. Hieronymi interpretatio Chronicae Eusebii Pamphili. In PL 27, cols. 34-676. Paris, 1846.
- May, G. Schöpfung aus Nichts, pp. 63-86. Berlin, 1978.
- Mulenberg, E. “Basilides.” In Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Vol. 5, pp. 296-301. Berlin and New York, 1980. Discussion in detail of Basilides’ system.
- Nautin, P. “Les fragments de Basilide sur la souffrance.” In Mélanges offerts en honneur de H. C. Puech, pp. 393-403. Paris, 1974.
- Quispel, G. “L’homme gnostique: la doctrine de Basilide.” Eranos Jahrbuch 16 (1948):89-193.
- Robinson, J. M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library. San Francisco, 1977.
- Waszink, J. H. “Basilides.” In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Vol. 1, cols. 1217-25. Stuttgart, 1950.
W. H. C. FREND