BASILIDES (Βασιλιδης)—a Gnostic theologian and philosopher of the early second century.
Basilides was of Syrian descent. He lived, worked, and taught in Alexandria in the time of Hadrian (117–138) and Anthony the Elder (138–161). He taught that he owed his knowledge (gnosis) to the secret teachong of the prophet Baruch (Parchor), a disciple of St. Matthew (according to other accounts, his teacher was Glaucias, a translator of St. Peter). He is considered as the author of a gospel (the so-called Gospel of Basilides), a commentary on the gospel in 24 books Εξηγητικοι εις τον ευαγγελιον [Exegetikoi eis ton euangelion] and poetic works. All that survives of these works is a great number of citations in the works of Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, and others, and a longer fragment provided by Hegemonius (Acta Archelai, 67, 4–11); W. Völker collected and published these (Quellen zur Geschichte der christlichen Gnosis, Gö 1855). We look for knowledge of Basilides’ views mainly in the polemical statements of Christian heresiologists. The broadest discussion of these is found in Hippolytus (Refutatio omnes haereses, VII 20–27), Clement of Alexandria (Στρωματεις [Stromateis] — II 36, 1; IV 81, 1–83, 1, and other passages), and Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses,I 24; II 16), to which Epiphanius refers (Haereses, 23, 24), Theodoret (Haereticorum fabularum compendium, I 4), Pseudo-Tertullian (Adversus omnes haereses, 4), and St. Jerome (In Amos, 3). Basilides’ views are also mentioned in Origen (Commentaria in epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, V 1) and in a fragment of a work by Castor Agrippa cited by Eusebius (HE IV 7, 5–8).
From Hippolytus’s account, Basilides’ system was a concise system of pantheistic monism. Every being comes from the unbegotten God, the pure form of all things who is beyond time and space, beyond the categories of “to be” and “not-to-be”. Basilides speaks of him as “God who is not” (ουκ ων [ouk on]). He threw forth from himself the embryo of all things, in which was contained a triple filiation (three essentially consanguinous beings). The first, the Universal Spirit in God (πνευμα [pneuma], returned immediately to the source Non-Being; the second, the Universal Spirit under God, stopped at the boundary of Non-Being (it is separated from pneuma, but possesses within itself its power), the third fell into the chaos of the world (a mixture of spirit with matter); the particles of spirit dispersed in the world are able to return only in part, and this return is an individual purifying process in which the spirit loses the burden of matter. The fall (mixture) of the divine universal seed-spirit-light with chaos-matter-darkness, the battle of light with darkness (good with evil) that releases particles of spirit from the chaos of matter and the return of the spirit to the original source (these lines of thought are already typically Gnostic in character) were also presented in the fragment cited by Hegemonius.
Irenaeus presented a somewhat different version of Basilides’ teaching. According to Irenaeus’ account, successive hypostases of Being emerged from the unbegotten and ineffable Father: Reason (Νους [Nous]—which is a figure of Christ, Thought (Λογος [Logos]), Idea (Φρονησις [Phronesis]), Wisdom (Σοφια [Sophia]), Power (Δυναμις [Dynamis]), Strengths (Virtutes) and Rulers (Principes), as well as the first angels who made the first heaven and the second angels who made the second heaven. Finally 365 celestial spheres arose by emanation, which were inhabited by spiritual beings (angels, archons, and demons). They were led by the Great Archon Abraxas, a deity who possessed a solar character and was related to other deities of this type, including the Iranian Mithras and the Greek Helios (which Basilides’ disciples treated as a representation of the Supreme God).
Basilides, like his contemporary Carpocrates, thought that the material world is the work of angels or demiurges who dwell in the last heaven; among them is found the God of the Jews, Yahweh, who desires to make the other demiurges and nations subordinate to himself (hence conflicts and wars). Yahweh’s domination was broken by Nous-Christ whom the Father sent to Earth to perform the work of salvation (the liberation of spirit). This is possible only by knowledge (gnosis). Like most Gnostics, Basilides saw Christ as the bearer of “good news” rather than a savior. He taught that Christ possesses only an illusory body (docetism) and was therefore free of sin. It was also impossible for him to suffer (since suffering is a consequence of sin) or to die (he taught that Simon of Cyrene was crucified in the place of Christ).
Basilides’s son Isidore developed a doctrine of sin in the work On the increased soul (Στρωατεις II 113, 3–114, 1; among Isidore’s other writings it mentions Explanation of the prophet Parchor); he taught that sin is the result of passions that the body evokes in man (these are the so-called attachments of the soul); the soul gradually loses them in successive incarnation. Being subject to passions is also a form of purification. Therefore the observance of the law (the decalogue) is not only unhelpful in attaining salvation but also delays process of purification. Therefore the law should be rejected (antinomianism). The teachings of Basilides and Isidore were continued by their disciples (the so-called Basilidians; Στρωματεις III 1, 1–3, 2), who were still active in the fifth century in Egypt.
G. Quispel, L’homme gnostique. La doctrine de B., Eranos 16 (1948), 89–139; R. M. Grant, Gnostic Origins and the B. or Irenaeus, Vigiliae Christianae 13 (1959), 121–125; W. Foerster, Das System des B., New Testament Studies 9 (1962–1963), 233–255; E. Procter,Christian Controversy in Alexandria. Clement’s Polemic Against the B. and Valentinians, NY 1995; W. A. Lohr, B. und seine Schule, T 1996.
Anna Z. Zmorzanka