BMCR 2023.02.09

Carpocrates, Marcellina, and Epiphanes: three early Christian teachers of Alexandria and Rome

, Carpocrates, Marcellina, and Epiphanes: three early Christian teachers of Alexandria and Rome. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781032285351



Carpocrates, Marcellina, and Epiphanes: three early Christian teachers of Alexandria and Rome” impressively documents the diversity of Christian schools in the 2nd century. It is part of the recent trend to rehabilitate Christians who were branded as heretics and to perceive them as thinkers of their time. Carpocrates and Epiphanes are still condemned in recent research as libertine Gnostics. Litwa attempts to correct this image; he wants to eliminate the unprovable accusations of the heresiologists and to advance to the true doctrine of the Carpocratians. This apologetic objective is visible throughout the book.

The book is divided into 5 chapters: an introduction, 3 chapters with text, translation, and commentary; and a concluding section in which Litwa attempts to draw an overall profile of the three dazzling figures.

In the introduction, Litwa engages with older and more current research. He shows that even today encyclopedias uncritically adopt assertions of ancient heresiologists. As an example, “The Columbia Encyclopedia” (eighth edition 2018) refers to the Carpocratians as a “Hellenistic sect.” They were “notoriously licentious”, and Epiphanes had demanded community of goods, including women. (p. 2) Against such “fake news” (the term apparently now finds its way into science, too) Litwa enters the field. Litwa demands not to put the Carpocratians uncritically into prefabricated categories like “libertine”, “gnostic”, “antinomian” etc., and to not reinscribe heresiological reports. The history of research is detailed, giving adequate consideration to both older and recent research. Those who are already familiar with the primary sources discussed will find a critical examination of the research. On the other hand, those who are not yet thoroughly familiar with the texts will be left somewhat helpless by the details and should first read the ancient voices themselves.

We find these treated in the chapters 1 to 3. The first chapter is dedicated to a text fragment entitled “On Justice”, which is said to have been written by the 17-year-old son of Carpocrates, Epiphanes. Clement of Alexandria quotes it at length in the third book of his “Stromateis.” Litwa reproduces not only a Greek text, but a critical text in which he notes deviations from the common editions (GCS and SC). Unfortunately, the publisher forgot to break down the key to the apparatus, just as other bibliographical information is sometimes missing.[1]

After a brief introduction to the person and the work of Clement of Alexandria, Litwa reproduces a text excerpt of a few lines with translation and comments on it afterwards. In this way, Litwa works through the text piece by piece and can discuss individual passages in a concentrated manner. I found this approach very convincing, as it allows the author to contextualize individual assertions of Epiphanes or Clement separately. Only in the final conclusion does Litwa then attempt to draw an overall profile.

As an example of a critical but apologetic reading, consider the following passage: οἱ δὲ ἀπὸ Καρποκράτους καὶ Ἐπιφάνους ἀναγόμενοι κοινὰς εἶναι τὰς γυναῖκας ἀξιοῦσιν (Clem. Alex. Strom., here p. 30). Uncritically, it can be read here (also in connection with “On Justice”) that Carpocrates and Epiphanes would have regarded women as “communal.” Litwa, on the other hand, frees Epiphanes from the accusation by translating: “Those deriving from Carpocrates and Epiphanes make the claim that wives are common.” Neither Epiphanes or Carpocrates themselves held this opinion, but an (unknown) following that went back to the founders of the school.

Central to the rehabilitation of Epiphanes is Litwa’s methodology of letting the primary source speak for itself and contextualizing it with contemporary Christian and philosophical voices. Separate from this are the commentaries of Clement of Alexandria, who followed a clear agenda (the condemnation of supposed “Gnostics”) and therefore distorted the text he was quoting at length. Epiphanes wrote in On Justice: …τὴν δικαιοσύνην τοῦ θεοῦ κοινωνίαν τινὰ εἶναι μετ’ ἰσότητος (Clem. Alex. Strom., here p. 40). Κοινωνία is transformed by Clement into the negative and given sexual elements, “making it his codeword for the putative licentiousness of Carpocratians” (p. 42). Litwa, on the other hand, traces Epiphanes’ two central concepts, κοινωνία and ἰσότης, back to their Stoic and Cynic (and sometimes Platonic) roots. Epiphanes also draws on Paul when he writes that God “does not discriminate a rich person from a poor one, a citizen from a ruler, fools from sages, females, males, free people, slaves” (Clem. Alex. Strom., transl. p. 44). Epiphanes argues that the natural law had provided no separation between these, and no private property was possible; only the Mosaic law introduced property, and thus the end of an ideal state.[2] To call for the abolition of private property, and thus in effect the abolition of slavery, would have been impertinence (although a slave-free state was idealized in many Christian and non-Christian writings alike, such as the vision of a Golden Age or the coming Kingdom of God). But Epiphanes’ writing remained a theory; nowhere do we find evidence that any Alexandrian or Roman group implemented these ideals.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the treatise “Against Heresies” of Irenaeus of Lyon, who was himself in Rome around the year 160 and seems to have come into contact with the teaching of Carpocrates, the father of Epiphanes. At about this time, a certain Marcellina was also active in Rome as the leader of a group that followed the Carpocratian teaching. In a brief overview, Litwa shows the impact of Irenaeus’ report. Thus, later heresiological treatises would generally be based on Irenaeus and had little independent or original to offer. In particular, the treatise of Epiphanius of Salamis is cited by Litwa, but generally dismissed as untrustworthy.

The theological and philosophical profile that Litwa extracts from Irenaeus’ account again reads diametrically opposed to the accusations. Carpocrates and his followers revered Jesus as a Stoic sage who had overcome his passions. “The Carpocratian Jesus was one of the very few who maintained absolute purity and sinlessness.” (p. 102). On this basis, Litwa rejects the accusations that the Carpocratians committed all sorts of sins – they followed an ideal of Jesus who certainly did not perform “impious or irreligious acts” (p. 118). “Accordingly, it seems unlikely that Carpocratians (…) did either.” (S. 118). One of the accusations against the group was that of magic (artes enim magicas operantur et ipsi incantationes philtra quoque et charitesia et paredros et oniropompos et reliquas malignationes…, Irenaeus, AH 1.25.3, p. 110). Litwa rightly points out that the accusation of magic was standardized and could be directed against any hostile group – it served to delegitimize the others. This simplified accusation of magic, on the other hand, is contrasted by a wide variety of rituals, which Litwa classifies (with S.K. Stowers) as “the religion of everyday social exchange.” These rituals could include incantations, love charms, divination practices, visions, and healing magic. Most literate elites have rejected such religious practices, but the majority of Christians have been less critical of them. Litwa now wants to free the Carpocratians from the accusation that they practiced “malign practices” (p. 112), on the other hand, he asserts that they certainly performed “beneficial” rituals (to support his argumentation, Litwa exceptionally falls back on Michael Syrus (Chronicle 6.4) from the 12th century – how should he still know after almost a thousand years?). Here the argument seems somewhat blurred, and Litwa’s apologetic interest is once more visible. Christians in the 2nd century, like non-Christians, were in contact with numerous rituals now classified as “magical” practices, and the Church deliberately resorted to them in shaping its rituals. But the separation between “malign” and “beneficial” is, as Litwa actually shows, an artificial one that served only to delegitimize the other. Would it not be plausible to assume that the Carpocratians were no more and no less involved in such rituals than other Christian groups of the time?

These and similar passages show the author’s great apologetic interest as well as a certain effort to bend small passages of the text in the intended direction. Litwa also marks this by admitting not a few assumptions (“it is possible”, “probably”, “I find it unlikely” (p. 112)). I do not mean to cast doubt on Litwa’s conclusions, but it is evident here, as in Chapter 3, that the passages in the text would at least allow for a different interpretation.

Chapter 3 is devoted to Morton Smith, the “Epistle to Theodore” and the “Secret Gospel of Mark” (the famous researcher Morton Smith allegedly found in the mid-20th century in the monastery of Mar Saba near Jerusalem, in a book of letters by Ignatius, a letter from Clement of Alexandria to a Theodore, rejecting the teachings of the Carpocratians. Explosive here is that the Carpocratians allegedly possessed an expanded, “secret” version of the Gospel of Mark.) Litwa argues against the authenticity of the letter and gospel published by Morton Smith, but also gives a balanced account of pros and cons. A detailed analysis of the vocabulary and passages cited make it clear to Litwa that the “Letter to Theodore” is a pastiche, “a piece of literary imitation” (p. 187), and Litwa considers Morton Smith to be the author of this work. With this stroke of genius, Smith tried to answer modern questions on ancient problems and reinforced his own research interests.

As interesting and controversial as the question is, by denying the authenticity of this source, this chapter unfortunately contributes little to the interpretation of Epiphanes and Carpocrates. However, it is not without value for Litwa’s mission: by rejecting the authenticity of the Letter to Theodore, he can remove “additional falsehoods” (p. 191) from his protagonists and refute further “libertine” accusations.

The Conclusion provides an opportunity to place the three figures in a broader context, namely Alexandria in the mid-2nd century. Litwa takes up new questions here with a short excursus on Jewish history. In the 1st and 2nd centuries there were several revolts and massacres of Jews, culminating in the near annihilation of Jews in Alexandria about 117 CE under the reign of Emperor Trajan. The Christian groups in the city were thus concerned with Gentile recruitment, and Alexandrian thinkers such as Basilides, Valentinus, and Carpocrates were very successful during this period. Litwa here opposes voices that understood these Alexandrian groups as primarily Jewish. Litwa gives his protagonists a sharp profile, also in comparison with other Alexandrians such as Basilides and Prodicus. In doing so, he also underscores the importance of the Carpocratians. With Marcellina, they were the only Roman Christian group in the 2nd century led by a woman and which venerated female apostles.

One would like to know more about this fascinating figure and her community – thanks to Litwa’s book we know at least some more, and some of the distortions and untruths Litwa has been able to remove from his protegés. Reconstructing the characters and their theology and thinking from heresiological treatises written many years after the events is a difficult matter. I would at least argue that various interpretations are possible – Litwa has presented a quite convincing one.[3]



[1] E.g. Johannes Munck is mentioned repeatedly in the third chapter, but nowhere do we find the title of the quoted work. There are also repeated references to Morton Smith’s books in the third chapter – but you have to get the bibliographical information in the first chapter. Why the editor decided to have a separate bibliography and endnotes for each chapter is beyond me. It makes the handling unnecessarily complicated.

[2] I have briefly discussed Epiphanes’ On Justice from this perspective in D. Vaucher, Sklaverei in Norm und Praxis. Die frühchristlichen Kirchenordnungen, Hildesheim 2017. I would revise my argument in some respects after reading Litwa, a credit to Litwa’s clear and convincing analysis.

[3] I agree with most of Litwa’s assertions. But when it comes to Marcellina, one can see the many assumptions. I quote, as an example, pp. 224-226: “possibly,” “probably,” “probably,” “possibly,” “one can reasonably suspect,” “Marcellina may be,” “this may indicate,” “probably,” “perhaps,” “probably,” “it is more likely,” “probably,” “she may have claimed,” “it seems.”