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Sect of Gnostic Ebionites

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Elcesaites (or HELKESAITES), a sect of Gnostic Ebionites, whose religion was a wild medley of heathen superstitions and Christian doctrines with Judaism. Hippolytus (Philosophumena, IX, 13-17) tells us that under Callistus (217-222) a cunning individual called Alcibiades, a native of Apamea in Syria, came to Rome, bringing a book which he said had been received from Parthia by a just man named Elchasai (Elchasai; but Epiphanius has Elxai and Elkessaioi; Methodius, Elkesaios, and Origen, Helkesaitai). The contents of the book had been revealed by an angel ninety-six miles high, sixteen miles broad, and twenty-four across the shoulders, whose footprints were fourteen miles long and four miles wide by two miles deep. This was the Son of God, and He was accompanied by His Sister, the Holy Ghost, of the same dimensions. Alcibiades announced that a new remission of sins had been proclaimed in the third year of Trajan (A.D. 100), and he described a baptism which should impart this forgiveness even to the grossest sinners. Harnack makes him say “was proclaimed” instead of “has been proclaimed” (as if euangelisthenai and not euengelisthai), and thus infers that a special year of remission is spoken of as past once for all—that Alcibiades had no reason for inventing this, so that Hilgenfeld was right in holding that Elchasai really lived under Trajan, as Epiphanius supposed. If we put aside this blunder of Harnack’s (and also his earlier odd conjecture that the remission in the third year of Trajan meant that the first two books of the Pastor of Hermas were published in that year), we see that the remission offered is by the new baptism. Hippolytus represents this doctrine as an improvement invented by Alcibiades on the lax teaching of his enemy Callistus. He does not perhaps expect us to take this seriously—it is most likely ironical—but he seems to regard Alcibiades as the author of the book. Origen, writing somewhat later (c. 246-9), says the heresy was quite new; he seems to have met with Alcibiades, though he does not give his name. There is no reason why we should dissent from these contemporary witnesses, and we must place the first appearance of the book of Elchasai c. 220. A century and a half later, St. Epiphanius found it in use among the Sampswans, descendants of the earlier Elcesaites, and also among the Ossans, and many of the other Ebionite communities. Enhedim, an Arabic writer, c. 987, found a sect of Sabaeans in the desert who counted El-Chasaiach as their founder (Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier, 1856, I, 112; II, 543, cited by Salmon).

According to Hippolytus the teaching of Alcibiades was borrowed from various heresies. He taught circumcision, that Christ was a man like others, that he had many times been born on earth of a virgin, that he devoted himself to astrology, magic, and incantations. For all sins of impurity, even against nature, a second baptism is enjoined “in the name of the great and most high God and in the name of His Son the great King”, with an adjuration of the seven witnesses written in the book, sky, water, the holy spirits, the Angels of prayer, oil, salt, and earth. One who has been bitten by a mad dog is to run to the nearest water and jump in with all his clothes on, using the foregoing formula, and promising the seven witnesses that he will abstain from sin. The same treatment—forty days consecutively of baptism in cold water—is recommended for consumption and for the possessed. Other Ebionites in Epiphanius‘s time practiced this treatment. That saint tells us that mention was made in the book of Elchasai’s brother, Iexai, and that the heresiarch was a Jew of the time of Trajan. Two of his descendants, two sisters, Marthus and Marthana, lived till the days of Epiphanius. They were reverenced as goddesses and the dust of their feet and their spittle were used to cure diseases. This suggests that Elchasai was not a fictitious personage. He was presumably a primitive leader of an Ebionite community, to whom Alcibiades ascribed his own book. We learn further from Epiphanius that the book condemned virginity and continence, and made marriage obligatory. It permitted the worship of idols to escape persecution, provided the act was merely an external one, disowned in the heart. Prayer was to be made not to the East, but always towards Jerusalem. Yet all sacrifice was condemned, with a denial that it had been offered by the patriarchs or under the Law. The Prophets as well as the Apostles were rejected, and of course St. Paul and all his writings. It has been customary to find Elcesaite doctrine in the Clementine “Homilies” and “Recognitions”, especially in the former. On the groundlessness of this see Clementines.


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