Against Ophites (St. Epiphanius of Cyprus, 403)

NOTE: This article is taken from The Panarion, Anacephelaeosis III, 37, written ca. 374-377:

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As I promised by the power of God, with God’s help I shall also describe the Ophite sect, which follows next after the last stupidities. In some ways it takes the same course but in others, the customs and gestures of its members, it is different—so that everyone can see from the erratic wandering of the disagreement between them that these sects are guided by error, not truth. The Ophites will now be detected by the treatise, and their sort of stupidity refuted.

As I said, the Ophites took their cue from the sects of Nicolaus and the Gnostics and the ones before those. But they are called Ophites because of the serpent which they magnify. For they too disgorge strange things as though they were stuffed with the stinking food we mentioned before; and in their error, as I said, they glorify the serpent as a new divinity.

And see how far the serpent, the deceiver of the Ophites, has gone in mischief! Just as he deceived Eve and Adam at the beginning so even he does now by concealing himself—both now and in the Jewish period up until Christ’s coming.  Then, even in later times, he seduces greedy humanity further with the food they got through him by disobedience; and he provokes them to further treachery and makes them rebels against the true God. He always promises big things, as he did also at the beginning. Even then he cheated them by saying, “Ye shall be as gods”; then, in time, he completed the multiform, monstrous illusion for them. For he had spawned the blasphemous nonsense of idolatry and polytheism long before, by detaching them from the one true God. They were not gods (then), just as they are not (now); < only > God is God. But he was spawning polytheism, the madness for idols, and a deceitful doctrine beforehand.

But the snake which was visible at that time was not the only cause of this. It was the snake who spoke in the snake—I mean < the > devil—and disturbed the man’s hearing through the woman. And the tree was not sin either—God plants nothing evil—but the tree gave them knowledge so that they would know good and evil.

And death did not come because of knowledge, but because of disobedience. Indeed the adversary’s whole plot at that time was laid, not for the sake of food but to make them disobedient. Hence they disobeyed then, and as an entirely just punishment were expelled from Paradise—not from God’s hatred of them but from his care. For the Lord tells them, “Earth thou art, and unto earth shalt thou return.” Like a potter the true Craftsman has charge of his own handiwork and vessel, and if this is later rendered defective by disobedience he must not leave it in that condition—when the vessel is still clay, as we might say, and has been rendered unuseable, as though by a crack. Instead he must change the vessel into the original lump, to restore it to its pristine splendor and better still in the regeneration at the resurrection—that is, < renew > the bodies of those who have committed the most grievous sins, and have repented, renounced their errors and been perfected in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the resurrection of the body from the earth may take place as though the lump, softened by the Craftsman, were being restored to its original form and even better.

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II

Such was the serpent’s scheme against Eve. For the human race is greedy from the first, and always open to seduction by absurd doctrines and empty professions. And in ancient times the serpent remained in hiding and did not disclose the full extent of its poison. But later, after Christ’s incarnation, it coughed up and spat out the entire poisonous, wicked invention of its malice, for it proposed itself in the minds of its dupes for glorification and worship as God.

But the same serpent is recognizable as the author of the deception, both from this school of its followers and from the visible snake. Indeed, sacred scripture calls the devil a serpent; certainly not because he looks like one, but because he appears extremely crooked to men, and because of the treacherous fraud which was at the first perpetrated through a snake.

In the eyes, then, of those who recognize the truth, this doctrine is a ridiculous thing and so are its adherents who honor the serpent as God. No longer able to deceive the masculine reason which has received the power of the truth from the Lord, the devil turns to the feminine—that is, to men’s ignorance—and convinces the ignorant, since he cannot deceive sound reason. He always makes his approach to feminine whims, pleasure and lust—in other words, to the womanish ignorance in men, not to the firm reason which understands everything logically and recognizes God by the law of nature. For their snake says it is Christ. Or rather, it does not—it cannot talk—but the devil does, who has prepared their minds to think in this way.

Thus, on seeing the snake, who will not recognize the adversary and flee? This is why the Lord assigned enmity against the human race to this particular snake—since, being his pet, it was wholly the devil’s instrument, and through it he deceived the man in Paradise—so that, because they had seen the enmity of this visible snake they would flee the plot of its treachery and practically hate even the sight of it.

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III

These so-called Ophites too ascribe all knowledge to this snake, saying that it became the beginning of men’s knowledge, and through mythology they slip the things in that they think are mysteries,5 though they are mimes, full of absurdity and nonsense.

For these are certainly myths: They claim that Aeons were emitted from the Aeon on high, and that Ialdabaoth came into being on a lower level. But he was emitted in accordance with the weakness and ignorance of his own mother, that is, the supernal Prunicus. For they say this Prunicus had come down into the waters and become mingled with them, but could not go back up because of being mingled with the weight of matter. For she has been intermingled with the waters and matter, and can no longer withdraw. But she heaved herself up with an effort and stretched herself out, and thus < the > upper heaven was formed. And as she was fixed in place, no longer able either to go up or to come down but fixed and stretched out in the middle, there she remained. For she could not sink down because she had no affinity (with what was below her); but she could not go up because she was heavy from the matter which she had taken on.

But when Ialdabaoth had been emitted in her ignorance he went to the very bottom and begot seven sons, who begot seven heavens. And he closed off the space above him and hid it from view, so that the seven sons he had emitted, being lower down than he, would not know what was above him, but no one at all but him. And he, they say, is the God of the Jews, Ialdabaoth. But this is not so, of course not! God the Almighty will judge them, for he is God both of Jews and Christians, and everyone, and not any Ialdabaoth, as their silly story has it.

A lion-faced deity found on a Gnostic gem in Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures may be a depiction of the Demiurge
A lion-faced deity found on a Gnostic gem in Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures may be a depiction of the Demiurge

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Then, they say, when the heights had been closed off by Ialdabaoth’s design, these seven sons he had begotten—whether they were aeons, or gods, or angels, they use various terms for them—fashioned the man in the image of their father Ialdabaoth. Not easily or quickly, however, but in the same way in which the earlier sects had made it out in their drivel. For these people too say, “The man was a creeping thing like a worm, not able either to look up or get to his feet.’” But as a scheme against Ialdabaoth the supernal Mother, the one called Prunicus—wishing to empty Ialdabaoth of his power which he had gotten from her by participation— worked in him on the man his sons had formed, intending to drain his power and send a spark from him, the soul supposedly, upon the man. And then, they say, the man stood on his feet, rose in mind above the eight heavens, and recognized and praised the Father on high who is above Ialdabaoth.

And then, distressed because the things high up above him had been recognized, Ialdabaoth stared bitterly down at the dung of matter and sired a power with a snake-like appearance, which they also call his son. And so, they say, this son was sent on his mission and deceived Eve. And she listened to him, believed him as a son of God, and because of her belief ate from the tree of knowledge.

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Then, whenever they are describing this foolishness and the absurdity of this practice—now that they have composed the tragic piece, as we might say, and this comic opera—they begin to point certain things out to us in support of their false so-called “gods.” They say, “Are not our intestines also, by which we live and are nourished, shaped like a serpent?”And in support of their imposture and silly opinion they introduce any number of further points for their dupes. “We glorify the serpent for this reason,” they say; “because it has been a cause if their knowledge for the many.”

Ialdabaoth, they say, did not want the Mother on high, or the Father, remembered by men. But the serpent convinced them and brought them knowledge, and taught the man and the woman the whole of the knowledge of the mysteries on high. Hence his father—Ialdabaoth, that is—was angry because of the knowledge he had given men, and threw him down from heaven. And therefore these people who possess the serpent’s portion and nothing else, call the serpent a king from heaven. And so, they say, they glorify him for such knowledge and offer him bread.

For they have a real snake and keep it in a basket of some sort. When it is time for their mysteries they bring it out of the den, spread loaves around on a table, and call the snake to come; and when the den is opened it comes out. And then the snake—which comes up of its own accord and by its villainy—already knowing their foolishness, crawls onto the table and coils up on the loaves. And this they call a perfect sacrifice.

And so, as I have heard from someone, not only do they break the loaves the snake has coiled on and distribute them to the communicants, but each one kisses the snake on the mouth besides—whether the snake has been charmed into tameness by some sort of sorcery, or coaxed by some other act of the devil for their deception. But they worship an animal of that sort and call what has been consecrated by its coiling around it the eucharistic element. And they offer a hymn to the Father on high—again, as they say, through the snake—and so conclude their mysteries.

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But anyone would call < this > foolishness and sheer nonsense. And it will not require refutation by research in sacred scripture; to anyone with godly soundness of mind its absurdity will be self-evident. For all their drivel will at once appear as something silly. If they say that there is a “Prunicus,” as I have already remarked, how can one fail to detect the unsoundness of their notion from the very name? Anything called “seductive” is unseemly. But if it is unseemly it cannot be ranked among things to be preferred. And how can an unseemly thing be praiseworthy?

And how can it be anything but mythology to say that Prunicus drained Ialdabaoth, and that the spark went down below from him when he was drained; but that once it had lodged in the man, it recognized the person above the person who had been drained? What a very great surprise that the man, with the tiniest of sparks in him, recognizes more than the angels who fashioned him! For the angels, or sons of Ialdabaoth, did not recognize the things above Ialdabaoth; but the man they had made did, by means of the spark!

Ophites refute themselves with their own doctrines by glorifying the snake at one moment, but at the next making him a deceiver who came to Eve when they say, “he deceived Eve.” And they sometimes proclaim him Christ, but sometimes a son of the higher Ialdabaoth, who wronged his sons by shutting off the knowledge of < the > realms on high from them and despised both the Mother and the Father on high, in order to keep the sons he had sired from honoring the Father above him.

How can the serpent be a heavenly king if he has rebelled against the Father? And if he gives knowledge, why is he denounced as having fooled Eve with a deception? Someone who instills knowledge through deceit is no longer giving knowledge, but ignorance instead of knowledge; and one can truly see that, among them, this is the case. For they have ignorance and think it is knowledge—though when they call their own “knowledge” deceit and ignorance, in this they are telling the truth!

Tau shaped serpent crozier from Koeln, Germany, circa 1000
Tau shaped serpent crozier from Koeln, Germany, circa 1000

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They cite other texts as well, and say that Moses too lifted the bronze serpent up in the wilderness and exhibited it for the healing of persons who had been bitten by a snake. For they say that that sort of thing serves as the cure for the bite. But once more, they are making these declarations against themselves. For if the bites were snake’s bites, and these were harmful, then the serpent is not good. The thing Moses held up in those days effected healing by the sight of it—not because of the nature of the snake but by the good pleasure of God who, by means of the snake, was making a sort of antidote for those who were bitten at that time. It is no surprise if a person is cured through the things by which he was injured. And let no one speak ill of God’s creation—as other erring persons do in their turn.

However, this served the people in the wilderness as a type, for the reason the Lord gives in the Gospel when he comes, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up”—which indeed has been done. For dishonoring the Savior like a serpent they were injured by the serpent’s scheme, I mean the devil’s. And as healing came to those who had been bitten by the lifting up of the serpent, so, at Christ’s crucifixion, deliverance has come to our souls from the bites of sin which we have gotten.

But the same people cite this very text as evidence and say, “Do you not see how the Savior said, ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up?’ And on this account,” they say, “he also says in another passage, ‘Be ye wise as the serpent and harmless as the dove.’” And what God has rightly ordained for us as symbols of teaching they cite in their own deluded sense.

Orthodox Bishop Staff

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For our Lord, the divine Word Jesus Christ, begotten of the Father before all ages without beginning and not in time, is not a serpent—heaven forbid!—but came himself to combat the serpent. If he says, “Be ye wise as the serpent and harmless as the dove,” we must inquire and learn why he introduced these two figures, of the serpent and of the dove, for our instruction. There is nothing wise about a snake except for < the > two following things. When it is being hunted it knows that its whole life is in its head, and it is afraid of the order once given about it by God for the man’s sake, “Thou shalt guard against its head, and it shall guard against thy heel.” So it coils its whole body over its head and hides its skull, but with extreme villainy surrenders the rest of its body. In the same way the only-begotten God, who came forth from the Father, wills that in a time of persecution and a time of temptation we surrender our whole selves to fire and sword, but that we guard our “head”—in other words, that we do not deny Christ, since “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God,” as the apostle says.

Again, as the naturalists say of this beast, the snake has another kind of wisdom. When it is thirsty and goes from its den to water to drink, it does not bring its poison with it but leaves it in its den, and then goes and takes its drink from the water. Let us imitate this ourselves so that, when we go to God’s holy church for prayer or God’s mysteries, we do not bring evil, pleasure, passion, enmity or anything else in our thoughts.

For that matter, how can we imitate the dove either without keeping clear of evil—though certainly, in many ways doves are not praiseworthy. Doves are insatiable and incessantly promiscuous, lecherous, given to the pleasure of the moment, and weak and small besides. But because of the harmlessness, patience and forbearance of doves—and even more, because of the Holy Spirit’s appearance in the form of a dove—the divine Word would have us imitate the will of the Holy Spirit and the harmlessness of the harmless dove and be wise in good but innocent in evil.

And their entire dramatic piece has been demolished. For straight off, by saying, “I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his villainy, so your minds should be corrupted from the sincerity and simplicity of Christ, and from righteousness,” the apostle assigns villainy and treachery to none more than to the devil and the serpent. You see how the apostle pronounced the serpent’s dealings with Eve seduction, frightful villainy and deceit, and made it clear that nothing praiseworthy had been done by it.

The serpent is at the center of the resurrecting dead on the axis of the cross. Crucifixion from the V&A Museum. Rheims, France (probably, made) Date:ca. 860-870
The serpent is at the center of the resurrecting dead on the axis of the cross. Crucifixion from the V&A Museum. Rheims, France (probably, made)
Date:ca. 860-870

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Hence their stupidity is discernible and obvious in all respects to anyone who is willing to know the teaching of the truth and the knowledge of the Holy Spirit. But not to waste time, now that I have sailed through this fierce, hazardous storm at sea as well, I shall ready my barque for its other sea voyages, carefully guarding my tongue by God’s power and the prayers of saints, so as to espy the tossing of the wild waves as I sail by, and the forms of the poisonous beasts in the seas, but be able to cross and reach the fair haven of truth by prayer and supplication, untouched by the poison of sea eel, stingray, dragon, shark and scorpaena. In my case too, the text, “They that go down to the sea shall tell the virtues of the Lord,” will prove applicable. So I shall make my way to another sect after this, for its description.

Asclepius hold his rod/staff with a serpent coiled around it.
Asclepius hold his rod/staff with a serpent coiled around it.
Reconstruction from Histoire critique du Gnosticisme; Jacques Matter, 1826, Vol. III, Plate I, D.
Reconstruction from Histoire critique du Gnosticisme; Jacques Matter, 1826, Vol. III, Plate I, D.