At first glance, Carpocrates looks like an unremarkable character in the history of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the first half of the second century CE. None of his writings survive, only fragments of his son’s writings retain his rhetoric, and other ancient writers only briefly mention him in the midst of larger works, However, all surviving references to Carpocrates tell us that he was a heretic. From Origen and Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Epiphanius all the way to Augustine and John of Damascus, the common motif of Carpocrates’ heresy runs deep. Even Clement of Alexandria says that it was through Carpocrates and his son Epiphanes that “the greatest blasphemy followed against the name of Christ” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 188.8.131.52). Carpocrates may never have become as famous as some of his opponents, but he was certainly infamous.
His “greatest blasphemy,” one of the prominent heresiological accusations leveled against Carpocrates, was his scandalous teaching that wives should be held in common (i.e., shared communally for the purposes of procreation). The Carpocratians taught that wives should be shared because members of the community shunned private property based on their understanding of the righteousness of God. Epiphanes, the son of Carpocrates, identified God’s righteousness as “a kind of communion together with equality” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 184.108.40.206). Private property then transgressed this higher ideal of God, including the possession of a wife. Epiphanes taught that the command “you will not lust after your neighbor’s wife” must be a joke of the Lawgiver, for “the very one who gives the sexual desire to sustain this [process] of birth commands to take it away, while taking it away from none of the other living creatures” and in issuing such a command “he is forcing what is in common to be individual” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 220.127.116.11. To the opponents of Carpocrates, this theology was, as Clement mocked, “fornicating righteousness” and Theodoret said that they “make licentiousness law” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 18.104.22.168; Theodoret, Compendium Haereticarum Fabularum 1.5). These Carpocratian theological and philosophical explanations were simply excuses to more “orthodox” authorities, designed to justify licentious behavior.
Carpocrates represented an understanding of God that resulted in a more “liberal” relationship of a person to his or her body, which would have been especially troublesome to his opponents. What we now call “orthodox” Christianity went through a shift in the 4th and 5th centuries toward asceticism and sexual renunciation. Carpocrates’ understanding of the body and sexuality, however, needed to be refuted if the ascetic project was to be successful. In some cases, Carpocrates’ teachings were misrepresented or exaggerated to serve as a foil to the consolidating ideals of asceticism. In other cases, the “orthodox” Christians slandered Carpocrates with outlandish charges of orgies or said that he taught that salvation was achieved by doing every evil deed possible. In all cases, though, the goal was to stifle Carpocrates’ “radical” ideas and deter Christians from following his teachings or any other “heretical” lifestyle or philosophy. For those engaging in the larger pre- and post-Nicene conversation about what to do with one’s body, Carpocrates and the Carpocratians were necessary and useful conversation partners.
One would expect that someone who represented “the greatest blasphemy” against the name of Christ would have received enormous attention from scholars of early Christianity. Carpocratianism, though, has largely been ignored in scholarship, often meriting no more than a footnote or a few sentences. This is, no doubt, due to the paucity of materials. With only fragments from Epiphanes’ On Righteousness and heresiological attacks on Carpocrates, using the figure of Carpocrates to make larger points about the history of early Christianity is not a straightforward task. Carpocrates deserves the attention, though, not just because of who he was, but also because of what he represents. Beyond simply providing another example of the plurality of both ancient Judaism and Christianity, Carpocrates represents early Christian opposition to asceticism, a topic that has received precious little attention from scholars (one notable exception is David Hunter’s Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy). My dissertation works to reverse this trend and reconstructs Carpocrates’ teachings based on the claims of his opponents and the extant fragments from Epiphanes. While some modern scholars have written briefly on Carpocrates or the Carpocratians (about two dozen scholars since George Salmon’s 1877 entry on Carpocrates in the Dictionary of Christian Biography), almost all have allowed the ancient heresiological categories found in Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria to go unchallenged. Other so-called “heresies,” like Marcionism and Gnosticism, have benefited from studies that do not take the heresiologists at face value. My project attempts to give Carpocratianism the same treatment and allow it to stand on its own. While my reconstruction does not simply take these ancient authors at their word, I do think that they contain some reliable information. We cannot completely ignore the works of these authors as some have been keen to do more recently. My reconstruction is based on claims that are made by more than one author independent of each other. From this reconstruction, then, a picture has emerged of what we might call “Carpocratianism” that is more nuanced, less polemical, and more accurate.
By reconstructing the teachings, philosophy, and practices of “heretical” individuals and groups we will continue to paint a fuller picture of Christianity in the ancient world (as people have done with Valentinus, Jovinian, and Syriac Christianity, for example). Numerous scholars have helped us understand the significant transition toward asceticism and renunciation that took place in early Christianity. Studying Carpocrates helps us understand the opponents of this change. We as scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity are slowly and painstakingly creating a mosaic that serves as a portrait of the ancient world. Seen through a microscope, my one little piece of the mural may seem insignificant, but when we zoom out, a larger picture emerges. This mosaic, though, remains, and might always remain, woefully incomplete. We need more scholars digging deep into these “less significant” figures like Carpocrates to provide the surrounding tiles and help bring the larger picture into greater relief.
Thomas Whitley is a a PhD Candidate at Florida State University in Religions of Western Antiquity studying sexual slander and identity formation in early Christianity.
www.thomaswhitley.com | @thomaswhitley