CERINTHUS (c. A.D. 100), an early Christian heretic, contemporary with the closing years of the apostle John, who, according to the well-known story of Polycarp, reported by Irenaeus (iii. 3) and twice recorded in Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. iii. 28, iv. 14), made a hasty exit from a bath in Ephesus on learning that Cerinthus was within. Other early accounts agree in making the province of Asia the scene of his activity, and Hippolytus (Haer. vii. 33) credits him with an Egyptian training. There can be no truth in the notice given by Epiphanius (Haer. xxviii. 4) that Cerinthus had in earlier days at Jerusalem led the judaizing opposition against Paul.
The difficulty of defining Cerinthus's theological position is due not only to the paucity of our sources but to the fact that the witness of the two principal authorities, Irenaeus (1. 26, iii. 11) and Hippolytus (Syntagma), does not agree. Further, Irenaeus himself in one passage fails to distinguish between Cerinthian and Valentinian doctrines. It would appear, however, that Cerinthus laid stress on the rite of circumcision and on the observance of the Sabbath. He taught that the world had been made by angels, from one of whom, the god of the Jews, the people of Israel had received their Law, which was not perfect. The only New Testament writing which he accepted was a mutilated Gospel of Matthew. Jesus was the offspring of Joseph and Mary, and on him at the baptism descended the Christ, revealing the hitherto unknown Father, and endowing him with miraculous power. This Christ left Jesus again before the Passion, and the resurrection of Jesus was still in the future. Together with these somewhat gnostic ideas, Cerinthus, if we may trust the notices of Gaius the Roman presbyter (c. 290) and Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 340), held a violent and crude form of chiliasm. But the chief significance of the man is his “combination of zeal for legal observances with bold criticism of the Law itself as a whole and of its origin,” which reminds us of the Clementine Recognitions. Cerinthus is a blend of judaizing christian and gnostic.
- So Irenaeus. According to Hippolytus and Epiphanius it was the Holy Ghost that thus descended.