By Alexander Maistrovoy
How does an idea lay a path for itself in the thicket of centuries? Why does the spirit reveal himself in a certain place at a certain time? How does a thought return to the place where the chapter has been closed once and for all?
Five centuries after Gnosticism was uprooted by the Church and a century after Justinian eradicated the ‘Manichaean contagion’ with fire and sword, filling Byzantium with fires, cultists and dissenters were done away with. Like-mindedness reigned undivided in the areas from Transdanubia, Bulgaria, Sicily, and Carthage.
And precisely at that moment, at the end of the seventh century, in the depths of conquered Armenia, an Armenian called Constantine from the village of Mananalis near Samosata (1) had an afflation. Whilst reading the gospel and the epistles of Peter, he came to the conclusion that the Church was a perversion of Peter’s teaching. This afflation overwhelmed him; he felt he was the bearer of truth and the apostle’s follower. His grand purpose was to return Christianity to its original image, and Constantine zealously proceeded to achieve this. He called himself Silvanus after one of Paul’s loyal disciples. For a quarter of a century, Constantine-Silvanus spread his teaching in Samosata and the surrounding villages, contaminating the other provinces in Byzantium with a dangerous superstition. Constantinople had no option but to destroy the contagion. The punitive operation was headed by the officer Simeon. His army marched across Armenia, punishing citizens, taking them captive, and forcefully converting them into the ‘genuine’ faith. Constantine-Silvanus was captured and stoned to death. However, history played a low-down trick with the emperor and his executioner: on completing the expedition, Simeon himself succumbed to the defiling influence of heresy. Unable to cope with the obsession, he fled to Samosata, took the name Titus, and headed the dissenters who had managed to hide in the mountains and attract new followers. The fate of the renegade officer was tragic: in the best tradition of the merciful Church, he was burned alive at the order of Justinian II. However, by that time the movement had acquired a life of its own, and its followers called themselves Paulicians—according to one version, in honour of the Apostle Paul, according to another version, in honour of the Armenian preacher Paul of Samosata who lived in Antioch in the third century.
Thus happened the second birth of the Marcion church. The cornerstone of their teaching was John’s words: ‘We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (John 5:19) Having absorbed Christianity, they became the antipodes of Christianity, the religion in which Jesus was doomed to forever withstand earthly forces of evil in the person of Jewish synagogue and Christian church worshipping the blind and soulless Creator.
Like Marcion’s Gnostics, they maintained that human nature consisted of two entities that were alien to one another: matter, which is in the grip of the demiurge, and pneuma, which connects humankind with an ideal divine world. However, unlike Gnostics, Paulicians were more optimistic. They did not divide humanity into the chosen ones on the one hand, and the material and spiritual on the other. According to them, all people carried within themselves a particle of the divine, and, however low they fell into the abyss of selfish desires and appetencies, they were capable of beholding a true God and rejecting a demiurge.
Paulicians adopted the Gnostics’ idea of seduction in Eden turned upside down. The snake of temptation in their interpretation gave Adam and Eve back free will: the ‘apple of knowledge’ woke them from the sleep of the pointless animal existence in which they found themselves at the will of the demiurge. Like Gnostics, they deprived Jesus of his theandric (divine-human) nature: Jesus did not take the form of a man or suffer on the cross, and his body was just an illusion, a phantom, a body shell without true flesh and blood. He was the spirit in its pure form, sent from above to bring people the knowledge of their fate and liberation from the manacles of the demiurge. Being the spirit, Jesus returned to the kingdom of heaven after passing onto people the mystery of being.
In their perception, the redeeming of the original sin was out of the question as there was no such sin. Man was the hostage of the Creator, the captive of the material kingdom; he did not fall from grace and only had to realize the cause of his suffering—the intrigues of the demiurge considering himself God. The very idea of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection reminded the Paulicians of the cult of dying and regenerating pagan gods—Osiris, Atias, and others, and this caused in them an unveiled aversion. They felt the same about deification in the image and likeness of Isis, Ishtar, and the Idaean Mother Virgin Mary whom they positively refused to call the ‘Blessed Virgin’ and the ‘Mother of God’.
Like Marcion, they were against fasting, miracles, magic, conjurations, sacraments, including the Mystery of the Eucharist, which, according to them, was no more than reminiscence of pagan ritual cannibalism with the symbolic ‘consumption of flesh and blood’. They threw off the sacred legend all the superficial paraphernalia, and the legend itself they reduced, as Marcion had, exclusively to Paul’s sermons and messages and abridged gospels from John and Luke. And it goes without saying that, like Marcion, they positively rejected the Old Testament as the creation of the demiurge. Even the Apostle Peter provoked their rejection as, unlike Paul, he drew upon the Jewish tradition. There could be no mention of worshipping the cross, icons, or holy relics as, in their eyes, these bore similarity only to the primeval superstitions and not to the divine spirit.
Their way of life was moderate but not ascetic. They did not set about mortification of the flesh or reject normal life; neither did they induce their followers to reject any type of food. On the contrary, cultivating modesty, restraint, and contempt for luxury, Paulicians advocated marriage and procreation as a means of deliverance from the captivity of the demiurge. Their rites were simple and even scanty as, in their opinion, ceremonies only distracted the soul from its mission and were the instruments priests used to manage the people.
The monk Peter of Sicily, whose descriptions provide us this information about Paulicians, emphasised that they dissociated themselves from Mani’s ideas and called themselves true Christians.
With support of emperors-iconoclasts at first and later with the help of caliphs in the middle of the ninth century, Paulicians created their own state with the capital at fortress Tephrike (now Divriği, Turkey) at the centre of Asia Minor. With varying success, they waged wars against the Byzantine army, which significantly exceeded them in numbers. Chrysocheir, a talented and resourceful commander, held Byzantine rulers who disdainfully rejected the Gnostic schools of late antiquity in fear over a span of ten years, alas stooping to all of the demiurge’s villainies.
Ultimately, his army was beaten, and he was taken captive and beheaded. Around a hundred thousand Paulicians were killed. Many adopted Christianity or fled to the neglected corners of Armenia.
Those who remained at the end of the tenth century were resettled in Thrace (now south-eastern Bulgaria) by the emperor John Tzimiskes as a buffer on the boundary with militant Bulgarians. At that, their participation in history practically comes to an end, although Paulician communities that spread across the Balkan territory survived up until the modern time. The relay of Gnostic movements was passed onto the Bogomils.
Check out Alexander’s previous article: Gnosticism, Abducted and Defiled, as well as his book, “Gnosticism through the Prism of the Third Millennium: Or between God and the Creator” Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
- Samosata was an ancient city on the west bank of the Euphrates, capital of the ancient Armenian kingdom Commagene.
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