HIERACAS OF LEONTOPOLIS
A third-century heresiarch.
Hieracas and his teachings are chiefly known from the notice devoted to the “Hieracites” by Epiphanius of Salamis in his Panarion (PG 42, chap. 67). It is very doubtful that Epiphanius ever met Hieracas himself, as reported by the Life of Epiphanius (PG 41, cols. 41, 57), the authenticity of which is debatable, but he probably knew some of his disciples, and his information is drawn from good sources. In addition we have available two documents in Coptic: a “Letter to Virgins” of Saint ATHANASIUS published by L. T. Lefort, who considered the Coptic text to be authentic (1929, pp. 197-264), and the report of a discussion between MACARIUS THE EGYPTIAN and a disciple of Hieracas, published by M. Chaine (1925-1926, pp. 232-75).
The dates of his life are impossible to determine with precision, but he must have lived in the last third of the third century and the first half of the fourth. According to Epiphanius, he resided at Leontopolis, and died at the age of ninety; he was well instructed in the knowledge of the Greeks and the Egyptians, and particularly versed in the exegesis of the Old and New Testaments, which he had memorized. He professed heterodox opinions, which he claimed to base upon Holy Scripture; he denied the resurrection of the flesh, affirming that only the soul revives, an opinion also reported by the story concerning Macarius, which adds that his disciples also denied the reality of the incarnation of Christ.
He rejected marriage, holding that though legitimate under the Old Covenant it had been abolished by the Gospel, an opinion also reported by Saint Athanasius. He admitted as disciples only those who were celibate or had renounced marriage. He believed that asceticism is necessary for salvation, and for this reason he excluded from the Kingdom those who died at an early age. He affirmed that paradise is purely spiritual. His theology, according to Epiphanius, was orthodox, but he identified the Holy Spirit with MELCHIZEDEK, basing this opinion on the letter to the Hebrews. To this the story about Macarius adds that his disciples affirmed the existence of three principles: God, matter, and evil.
It is impossible to verify the correctness of these allegations. Of the numerous books, commentaries on scripture, and psalms which, according to Epiphanius, Hieracas composed in Greek and Coptic, nothing has survived. E. Peterson (1947, pp. 257-60) thought to recognize a fragment of one of his psalms in a Coptic text, in the Akhmimic dialect, but this identification is very doubtful.
His opinions spread as far as the region of Arsinoe and in the Fayyum. Epiphanius asserts that Hieracas made numerous disciples, especially among the monks. Those disciples not only renounced marriage but led an ascetic life, abstaining from meat and wine. Nevertheless Epiphanius reproaches them for living each in cohabitation with a woman, in conformity with the practice of the subintroductae (virgins who live under the same roof as the monastics) current in the church of the early centuries. This allows one to think that Hieracas and his disciples did not live in a monastery, as K. Heussi thought (1936, pp. 58-65), in reliance on the Life of Epiphanius, but according to the way of life of the ascetics of the premonastic period.
Historians, it seems, have had a tendency to exaggerate the role of Hieracas in history. In the eighteenth century I. de Beausobre, still followed by some modern historians although this opinion is without solid foundation, made of Hieracas a disciple of Mani, thus establishing a bond between MANICHAEISM and monasticism. A. Harnack (1931, Vol. 1, p. 777) saw in him “the intermediate link between Origen and Coptic monasticism.” More recently F. Wisse (1978, pp. 431-40) has advanced the thesis that one of the books discovered at NAG HAMMADI, the Testimonium veritatis (Nag Hammadi Codex 9.3) may have been authored by Hieracas or one of his disciples, which would allow us to forge a link between GNOSTICISM and monasticism. See a critical examination of this thesis by A. Guillaumont (1980-1981, pp. 411-13).
- Bareille, G. “Hiéracas ou Hiérax.” In Dictionnaire de Théologie catholique, Vol. 6, cols. 2359-61. Paris, 1920.
- Chaine, M. “La double recension de l’histoire lausiaque dans la version copte.” Revue de l’Orient chrétien 25 ser. 3, 5 (1925-26):232-75.
- Guillaumont, A. “Hiéracas de Léontopolis et les textes de Nag Hammadi.” Annuaire du Collège de France (1980-1981):411-413.
- Harnack, A. Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche, 3rd ed., Vol. 8, pp. 38-39.
- . Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte. 3 vols. Tübingen, 1931. Heussi, K. Der Ursprung des Mönchtums. Tübingen, 1936.
- Lefort, L. T. “Letter to Virgins.” Le Muséon 42 (1929):197-264. Peterson, E. “Ein Fragment des Hierakas (?)” Le Muséon 60 (1947):257-60.
- Preuschen, E. Palladius und Rufinus. Giessen, 1897.
- Wisse, F. Gnosis. Festschrift für Hans Jonas. Göttingen, 1978.