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AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST.
The mixture of Platonic notions which is found in the Asiatic philosophy, as well as of Oriental doctrines among the later Platonists, may be easily accounted for, from the intercourse which subsisted between the Alexandrian and Asiatic philosophers, after the schools of Alexandria were established. From that time, many Asiatics who were addicted to the study of philosophy doubtless visited Alexandria, and became acquainted with the then popular doctrines of Plato; and, by blending these with their own, formed an heterogenous mass of opinions, which in its turn mixed with the systems of the Alexandrian schools. This union of Oriental and Grecian philosophy was further promoted by the dispersion of the philosophers of Alexandria, in the reign of Ptolemy Physcon: many of whom, to escape from tyranny, fled into Asia, and opened schools in various places.
It is supposed to have been at the time when the Platonic philosophers of Alexandria visited the Eastern schools, that certain professors of the Oriental philosophy, prior to the existence of the Christian heresies, borrowed from the Greeks the name of Gnostics, to express their pretensions to a more perfect knowledge of the Divine Nature than others possessed. The Pagan origin of , this appellation is supposed to be plainly intimated by the apostle Paul in two passages of his writings; in one of which he cautions Timothy against “ the opposition of false science” (1 Tim. vi. 20), and in the other warns the Colossians not to be imposed upon by a “vain and deceitful philosophy," framed according to human tradition and the principles of the world, and not according to the doctrine of Christ, Col. ii. 8. But, whatever may be thought concerning the name, there is little room left to doubt that the tenets at least of the Gnostics existed in the Eastern schools long before the rise of the Gnostic sects in the Christian church under Basilides, Valentine, and others; consequently they must have been imported or derived by the latter from the former. The Oriental doctrine of emanation seems frequently alluded to in the New Testament, as hath been already observed, and in terms which cannot so properly be applied to any other dogmas of the Jewish sects.
The Oriental philosophers, though divided into a great variety of sects, seem to have been generally agreed in believing matter to be the cause of all evil, though they were much divided in
opinion as to the particular mode or form under which it ought to be considered as such. They were unanimous in maintaining that there had existed from all eternity a divine nature, replete with goodness, intelligence, wisdom, and virtue, a light of the most pure and subtile kind diffused throughout all space, of whom it was impossible for the mind of man to form an adequate conception. Those who were conversant with the Greek language gave to this pre-eminent Being the name of Bugos (Buthos), in allusion to the vastness of his excellence, which they deemed it beyond the reach of human capacity to comprehend. The space which he inhabits they named IIlnpwua (Pleroma), but occasionally the term Alwv ( Aion or Æon) was applied to it. This divine nature, they imagined, having existed for ages in solitude and silence, at length, by the operation of his own omnipotent will, begat of himself two minds or intelligences of a most excellent and exalted kind, one of either sex. By these, others of a similar nature were produced ; and, the faculty of propagating their kind being successively communicated to all, a class of divine beings was in time generated, respecting whom no difference of opinion seems to have existed, except in regard to their number, some conceiving it to be more and others less. The nearer any of this celestial family stood in affinity to the one grand parent of all, the closer were they supposed to resemble him in nature and perfection; the farther they were removed, the less were they accounted to partake of his goodness, wisdom, or any other attribute. Although every one of them had a beginning, yet they were all supposed to be immortal, and not liable to any change; on which account they were termed àiūves, that is, immortal beings placed beyond the reach of temporal vicissitudes or injuries.*
Beyond that vast expanse refulgent with everlasting light, which was considered as the immediate habitation of the Deity,
* The Greek term Awwy (Æon) properly signifies indefinite or eternal duration, as opposed to that which is finite or temporal. It was however metonymically used for such natures as are in themselves unchangeable and immortal. That it was commonly applied in this sense, even by the Greek philosophers, at the time of Christ's birth, is plain from Arrian, who uses it to describe a nature the reverse of ours, superior to frailty, and liable to no vicissitudes. There was therefore nothing strange or unusual in the application of this term, by the Gnostics, to beings of a celestial nature, liable to neither accident nor change. Indeed the term is used by the ancient fathers of the purer class to denote the angels in general, good as well as bad.
AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST.
and of those natures which had been generated from him, these philosophers placed the seat of matter; where, according to them, it had lain from all eternity, a rude, undigested, opaque mass, agitated by turbulent irregular motions of its own provoking, and nurturing (as in a seed-bed) the rudiments of vice and every species of evil. In this state it was found by a genius, or celestial spirit of the higher order, who had been either driven from the abode of Deity for some offence, or commissioned by him for the purpose; and who reduced it into order, and gave it that arrangement and fashion which the universe now bears. Those who spoke the Greek tongue were accustomed to refer to the Creator of the world by the name of DEMIURGUS. Matter received its inhabitants, both man and other animals, from the same hand that had given to it disposition and symmetry.
Its native darkness was also illuminated by this creative spirit with a ray of celestial light, either secretly stolen, or imparted through the bounty of the Deity. He likewise communicated to the bodies he had formed, and which would otherwise have remained destitute of reason and uninstructed, except in what relates to mere animal life, particles of the divine essence, or souls of a kindred nature to the Deity. When all things were thus completed, DEMIURGUS, revolting against the great First Cause of all things, the all wise and omnipotent God, assumed to himself the exclusive government of this new state, which he apportioned out into provinces or districts; bestowing the administration and command over them on a number of genii, or spirits of inferior degree, who had been his associates and assistants.
Man therefore, whilst he continued in this world, was supposed to be compounded of two principles, acting in direct opposition to each other: an earthly, corrupt, or vitiated body; and a soul partaking of the nature of the Deity, being derived from the region of purity and light. The soul, or ethereal part, being through its connexion with the body confined as it were in a prison of matter, was constantly exposed to the danger of becoming involved in ignorance, and acquiring every sort of evil propensity, from the impulse and contagion of the vitiated mass by which it was enveloped. But the Deity, touched with compassion for the hapless state of those captive minds, was ever anxious that the means of escaping from this darkness and bondage, into liberty and light, should be extended to them; and had, accordingly, at various times, sent amongst them teachers, endowed with wisdom and filled with celestial light, who might communicate to them the principles of true religion, and thus instruct them in the way by which deliverance was to be obtained from their wretched and forlorn state. DEMIURGUS, however, and his associates, unwilling to resign any part of that dominion of whose sweets they were now become so sensible, or to relinquish the divine honours which they had usurped, set at work every engine to obstruct the Deity; and not only tormented and slew the messengers of heaven, but endeavoured, by means of superstition and sensual attractions, to root out and extinguish every spark of celestial truth. The minds that listened to the calls of the Deity, and who, having renounced obedience to the usurped authorities of this world, continued steadfast in the worship of the great First Parent, resisting the evil propensities of the corporeal frame and every incitement to illicit gratification, were supposed, on the dissolution of their bodies, to be directly borne away, pure, aerial, and disengaged from every thing gross or material, to the immediate residence of God himself; whilst those who, notwithstanding the admonitions they received, had persisted in paying divine honours to him who was merely the fabricator of the world, and his associates, worshipping them as gods, and suffering themselves to be enslaved by the lusts and vicious impulses to which they were exposed from their alliance with matter, were denied the hope of exaltation after death, and could only expect to migrate into new bodies, suited to their base, sluggish, and degraded condition. When the grand work of setting free all these minds or souls should be accomplished, God, it was supposed, would dissolve the fabric of this lower world; and having once more confined matter, with all its contagious influence, within its original limits, would throughout all future ages live in consummate glory, and reign surrounded by kindred spirits, as he did before the foundation of the world.
The moral discipline deduced from this system of philosophy, by those who embraced it, was by no means of a uniform cast, but differed widely in its complexion, according to their various tempers and inclinations. Such, for instance, as were naturally
AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST.
of a morose disposition, maintained that the great object of human concern should be to invigorate the energies of the mind, and to quicken and refine its perceptions, by abstracting it as much as possible from every thing gross or sensual. The body, on the contrary, as the source of every depraved appetite, was, according to them, to be reduced and brought into subjection by hunger, thirst, and every other species of mortification, and neither to be supported by flesh or wine, nor indulged in any of those gratifications to which it is naturally prone; in fact, a constant self-denial was to be rigorously observed in every thing which might contribute either to the convenience or pleasantness of life; so that the material frame being thus by every means weakened and brought low the celestial spirit might the more readily escape from its contagious influence and regain its native liberty. Hence it was that the Manicheans, the Marcionites, the Encraitites, and others, passed their lives in one continual course of austerity and mortification. On the other hand, those who were constitutionally inclined to voluptuousness, and vicious indulgence, found the means of accommodating the same principles to a mode of life that admitted of the free and uncontrolled gratification of all their inclinations. The essence of piety and religion, they said, consisted in a knowledge of the Supreme Being, and maintaining a mental intercourse and association with him. Whoever had become an adept in these attainments, and, from the habitual exercise of contemplation, had acquired the power of keeping the mind abstracted from every thing corporeal, was no longer to be considered as affected by, or answerable for, the impulses and actions of the body, and consequently could be under no necessity to control its inclinations or resist its propensities. Hence the dissolute lives of the Carpocratians and others, who assumed the liberty of doing whatever pleased them, and maintained that the practice of virtue was not enjoined by the Deity, but imposed on mankind by that power whom they regarded as the prince of this world, the maker of the universe.
From this concise review of the state of the Gentile world at the time of Christ's appearance on earth, the inferences to be deduced, are, it is presumed, sufficiently obvious. Mankind