A name occurring in variant spellings in several patristic texts and referring either to an allegedly revelatory book or to a religious teacher.
Details about a book connected with the name Elchasai or Elxai are found in Hippolytus’ Refutation and in the Panarion of Epiphanius. In Hippolytus, Elchasai is assigned a role in the transmission of the book, while Epiphanius states that Elxai was the author of the book. In addition, the book is briefly mentioned in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (VI.38) and in patristic texts that are dependent upon Eusebius.
From Hippolytus (Refutation IX.13 and IX.16), we may conclude that the book in question was written by an anonymous Jewish author in Mesopotamia during Trajan’s Parthian war (114-117). On the authority of an angel of gigantic proportions and his female companion, “the Holy Spirit,” the book announced that a war of much larger dimensions, a final struggle among all forces of evil, would break out within three years (Refutation IX.16.4). Furthermore, the book stipulated how men should act in view of the forthcoming Day of the Great Judgment. They should formally declare before seven nonhuman witnesses (heaven, water, holy spirits, angels of prayer, oil, salt, earth) that they would keep themselves free from all kinds of sins (Refutation IX.15.5f.). The book also indicated how certain sins (idolatry, fornication) could be avoided.
Although the book was originally written in Aramaic, the text quoted in Hippolytus and Epiphanius is that of a Greek version. In the Greek text, the eschatological features of the book were obscured while the esoteric, mysterious features were strongly emphasized. Missionary representatives of a Judeo-Christian community resident in Syria, who appeared in Christian churches in Rome and Palestine between 220 and 253, were in possession of this book and proclaimed that whoever listened to the book and believed in it would be forgiven his sins (Hippolytus Refutation IX.13-17; Eusebius Ecclesiastical History VI.38).
The leader of the above-mentioned Judeo-Christian missionaries in Rome, a certain Alcibiades, referred to Elchasai as a “righteous man” who had brought the book of revelations from Parthia to somebody called Sobiai (or, rather, to a community of sobiai [baptists]) in Syria (Hippolytus Refutation IX.13.1f.; apparently this was all Alcibiades knew about Elchasai).
In the fourth century, a syncretistic sect of Elkeseans living in trans-Jordan areas referred to Elxai as their teacher (Epiphanius Panarion 53.1.2). The Cologne Mani Codex includes four stories about a baptist authority, Alchasaios, supposedly told by Mani. In al-Nadim’s Fihrist, al Hasih is reported to have been the head and founder of a baptist sect in Babylonia. Curiously, there are no clear indications that the trans-Jordan Elkeseans of Epiphanius’ Panarion and the Babylonian baptists of the Cologne Mani Codex and the Fihrist were acquainted with or influenced by the book.
In all likelihood, the name Elchasai (Hayil kesai, Aramaic for “hidden power”) originally belonged to the manlike angel who was said to have revealed the book. It is possible to conclude from Hippolytus and Epiphanius that the name of the angel was mentioned in the title of the book. Since readers of the Greek version could no longer relate the name Elchasai to the revealer- angel, this title is liable to have given rise to misunderstandings. Thus it would seem that Syrian Judeo-Christians believed that the name belonged to the one who had put the book in their possession. This may have been the basis of the idea of Elchasai as a religious teacher.
In the course of time, the book was lost and the supposed teacher became more and more a legendary figure. In the Cologne Mani Codex, Alchasaios is a precursor of Mani and the prototype of the Manichaean elect.
[See also: Manichaeism.]
- Brandt, W. Elchasai. Ein Religionsstifter und sein Werk. Amsterdam, 1971. Reprint of 1912 edition.
- Cirillo, L. “La tradizione eresiologica di Elchasai.” Henoch 1 (1979):371-95.
- Henrichs, A. “The Cologne Mani Codex Reconsidered.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 83 (1979):339-67.
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- Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 32 (1978):87-199. Klijn, A. F. J., and G. J. Reinink. “Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects.” In Supplements to Novum Testamentum 36. Leiden, 1973.
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- Luttikhuizen, G. P. The Revelation of Elchasai. Tübingen, 1985. Strecker, G. “Elkesai.” In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Vol. 4. Stuttgart, 1959.
GERARD P. LUTTIKHUIZEN