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Heracleon was a Gnostic who flourished about AD 175, probably in the south of Italymarker. He is described by Clement of Alexandria (Strom.iv. 9) as the most esteemed (δοκιμώτατος)of the school of Valentinus; and, according to Origen (Comm. in S. Joann.t. ii. § 8, Opp. t. iv. p. 66), said to have been in personal contact (γνώριμος)with Valentinus himself. He is barely mentioned by Irenaeus (ii. 41) and by Tertullian(adv. Valent. 4). The common source of Philaster and Pseudo-Tertullian(i.e. probably the earlier treatise of Hippolytus) containedan article on Heracleon between those on Ptolemaeus and Secundus, and on Marcusand Colarbasus.

In his system he appears to have regarded the divine nature as a vast abyss in whose Pleroma were Aeons of different orders and degrees, emanations from the source of being. Midway between the supreme God and the material world was the Demiourgos, who created the latter, and under whose jurisdiction the lower, animal soul of man proceeded after death, while his higher, celestial soul returned to the Pleroma whence at first it issued.

He seems to have received the ordinary Christian scriptures; and Origen, who treats him as a notable exegete, has preserved fragments of a commentary by him on the fourth gospel, while Clement of Alexandria quotes from him what appears to be a passage from a commentary on Luke. These writings are remarkable for their intensely mystical and allegorical interpretations of the text.

Life

Neander and Cave have suggested Alexandriamarkeras the place where Heracleon taught; but Clement's language suggests some distanceeither of time or of place; for he would scarcely have thought it necessary to explainthat Heracleon was the most in repute of the Valentinians if he were at the timethe head of a rival school in the same city. Hippolytus makes Heracleon one of theItalian school of Valentinians; but the silence of all the authorities makes itunlikely that he taught at Rome. It seems, therefore, most likely that he taughtin one of the cities of S. Italy; or "Praedestinatus" may be right in making Sicilythe scene of his inventions about Heracleon.

The date of Heracleon is of interest on account of his use of St. John's Gospel,which clearly had attained high authority when he wrote. The mere fact, however,that a book was held in equal honour by the Valentinians and the orthodox seemsto prove that it must have attained its position before the separation of the Valentiniansfrom the church; and, if so, it is of less importance to determine the exact dateof Heracleon. The decade 170–180 may probably be fixed for the centre of his activity.This would not be inconsistent with his having been personally instructed by Valentinus,who continued to teach as late as 160, and would allow time for Heracleon to havegained celebrity before Clement wrote, one of whose references to Heracleon is inwhat was probably one of his earliest works. He had evidently long passed from thescene when Origen wrote.

Commentary

The chief interest that now attaches to Heracleon is that he is the earliestcommentator on the N.T. of whom we have knowledge. Origen, in the still extant portionof his commentary on St. John, quotes Heracleon nearly 50 times, usually controverting,occasionally accepting his expositions. We thus recover large sections of Heracleon'scommentary on cc. i. ii. iv. and viii. of St. John. There is reason to think thathe wrote commentaries on St. Luke also. Clement of Alexandria (Strom. iv.9) expressly quotes from Heracleon's exposition of ; and another reference(25 Eclog. ex Script. Proph. p. 995) is in connexion with ,and so probably from an exposition of these verses.

Martyrdom

The first passage quoted by Clement bears on an accusation brought against someof the Gnostic sects, that they taught that it was no sin to avoid martyrdom bydenying the faith. No exception can be taken to what Heracleon says on this subject.

Exposition



In this exposition every word in the sacred text assumessignificance; and this characteristic runs equally through the fragments of Heracleon'scommentary on St. John, whether the words commented on be Jesus's own. or onlythose of the Evangelist. Thus he calls attention to the facts that in the statement"all things were made by Him," the preposition used isδιά; that Jesus is said to have gone downto Capernaum and gone up to Jerusalemmarker; that He found the buyers and sellersἐν τῷ ἱερῷ, notἐν τῷ ναῷ; that He said salvation is ofthe Jews not in them, and again ( ) that Jesus tarried withthe Samaritans, not in them; notice is taken of the point in Jesus's discoursewith the woman of Samaria, where He first emphasizes His assertion with "Woman,believe Me"; and though Origen occasionally accuses Heracleon of deficient accuracy,for instance in taking the prophet ( ) as meaning no more than a prophet;"in three days" ( ) as meaning no more than "on the third day"; yet on thewhole Heracleon's examination of the words is exceedingly minute. He attempts toreconcile differences between the Evangelists, e.g. Jesus's ascriptionto the Baptist of the titles "Elias" and "prophet" with John's own disclaimer ofthese titles. He finds mysteries in the numbers in the narrative—in the 46 yearswhich the temple was in building, the 6 husbands of the woman of Samaria (for suchwas his reading), the 2 days Jesus abode with the people of the city, the 7thhour at which the nobleman's son was healed.

He thinks it necessary to reconcilehis own doctrine with that of the sacred writer, even at the cost of some violenceof interpretation. Thus he declares that the Evangelist's assertion that all thingswere made by the Logos must be understood only of the things of the visible creation,his own doctrine being that the higher aeon world was not so made, but that thelower creation was made by the Logos through the instrumentality of the Demiurge.Instances of this kind where the interpreter is forced to reject the most obviousmeaning of the text are sufficiently numerous to show that the gospel was not writtenin the interests of Valentinianism; but it is a book which Heracleon evidently recognizedas of such authority that he must perforce have it on his side.

Valentinianism

He strives to find Valentinianism in the Gospel by a method of spiritual interpretation.Thus the nobleman (βασιλικός, ) is theDemiurge, a petty prince, his kingdom being limited and temporary, the servantsare his angels, the son is the man who belongs to the Demiurge. As he finds theψυχικοί represented in the nobleman's son,so again he finds the πνευματικοί in the womanof Samaria. The water of Jacob's well which she rejected is Judaism; the husbandwhom she is to call is no earthly husband, but her spiritual bridegroom from thePleroma; the other husbands with whom she previously had committed fornication representthe matter with which the spiritual have been entangled; that she is no longer toworship either in "this mountain" or in "Jerusalem" means that she is not, likethe heathen, to worship the visible creation, the Hyle, or kingdom of the devil,nor like the Jews to worship the creator or Demiurge; her watering-pot is her gooddisposition for receiving life from the Saviour.

Heracleon's method is one commonly used by orthodox Fathers,especially by Origen. Origen even occasionallyblames Heracleon for being too easily content with more obvious interpretations.Heracleon at first is satisfied to take "whose shoe latchet I am not worthy to loose"as meaning no more than "for whom I am not worthy to perform menial offices," andhe has Origen's approbation when he tries, however unsuccessfully, to investigatewhat the shoe represented. It does not appear that Heracleon used his method ofinterpretation controversially to establish Valentinian doctrine, but, being a Valentinian,readily found those doctrines indicated in the passages on which he commented.

The devil

One other of his interpretations deserves mention. The meaning which the Greekof
 most naturally conveys is that of the pre-Hieronymian
translation "mendax est sicut et pater ejus," and so it is generally understoodby Greek Fathers, though in various ways they escape attributing a father to thedevil. Hilgenfeld and Volkmar consider that the Evangelist shows that he embracedthe opinion of the Valentinians and some earlier Gnostic sects that the father ofthe devil was the Demiurge or God of the Jews. But this idea was unknown to Heracleon,who here interprets the father of the devil as his essentially evil nature; to whichOrigen objects that if the devil be evil by the necessity of his nature, he oughtrather to be pitied than blamed.

Redemption

To judge from the fragments we have, Heracleon's bent was rather practical thanspeculative. He says nothing of the Gnostic theories as to stages in the originof the universe; the prologue of St. John does not tempt him into mention of theValentinian Aeonology. In fact he does not use the word aeon in the sense employedby other Valentinian writers, but rather where according to their use we shouldexpect the word Pleroma; and this last word he uses in a special sense, describingthe spiritual husband of the Samaritan woman as her Pleroma—that is, the complementwhich supplies what was lacking to perfection. We find in his system only two beingsunknown to orthodox theology, the Demiurge, and apparently a second Son of Man;for on
 he distinguishes a higher Son of Man who sows
from the Saviour Who reaps. Heracleon gives as great prominence as any orthodoxwriter to Christ and His redeeming work. But all mankind are not alike in a conditionto profit by His redemption. There is a threefold order of creatures:
  1. The Hylic or material, formed of the ὕλη, which is the substance of the devil, incapable of immortality.
  2. The psychic or animal belonging to the kingdom of the Demiurge; their ψυχή is naturally mortal, but capable of being clothed with immortality, and it depends on their disposition (θέσις) whether they become sons of God or children of the devil.
  3. The pneumatic or spiritual, who are by nature of the divine essence, though entangled with matter and needing redemption to be delivered from it.
These are the special creation ofthe Logos; they live in Him, and become one with Him. In the second class Heracleonseems to have had the Jews specially in mind and to have regarded them with a gooddeal of tenderness. They are the children of Abraham who, if they do not love God,at least do not hate Him. Their king, the Demiurge, is represented as not hostileto the Supreme, and though shortsighted and ignorant, yet as well disposed to faithand ready to implore the Saviour's help for his subjects whom he had not himselfbeen able to deliver. When his ignorance is removed, he and his redeemed subjectswill enjoy immortality in a place raised above the material world.

Besides the passages on which he comments Heracleon refers to
;
;
,
;
;
,
;
;
.


Bibliography

  • Neander, Gen. Entwick. 143, and Ch. Hist. ii. 135.
  • Heinrici, Val. Gnosis, 127.
  • Westcott, N. T. Canon. 299.
  • The Gk. text of The Fragments of Heracleon has been ed. with intro. and notes by A. E. Brooke (Camb. Univ. Press).


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