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(From archon , prince, ruler).

A Gnostic sect which existed in Palestine and Armenia about the middle of the fourth century. St. Epiphanius seems to be the earliest Christian writer who speaks of this strange sect. He relates that a young priest in Palestine named Peter had been convicted of Gnostic errors, deposed from the office of the priesthood and expelled by Bishop Aëtius. He fled into that part of Arabia, where there was a centre of Ebionitism. In his old age, apparently but not really converted, he returned to Palestine, where he lived the life of an anchorite in a cave near Jerusalem and attracted followers by the austerity of his life and the practice of extreme poverty. Shortly before the death of the Emperor Constantius (337-361), Eutactus, coming from Egypt, visited the anchorite Peter and was imbued by him with the doctrines of the sect and carried them into Greater and Lesser Armenia. St. Epiphaniusexcommunicated Peter and the sect seems to have died out soon after.

Following the description of St. Epiphanius in giving a summary of the doctrines of the sect, we find there are seven heavens, each of which is ruled by an archon (prince) surrounded by angels begotten by him, who are the jailers of the souls. In the eighth heaven dwells the supreme Mother of light. The king or tyrant of the seventh heaven is Sabaoth, the god of the Jews, who is the father of the Devil. The devil, dwelling upon earth, rebelled against his father, and opposed him in all things, and by Eve begot Cain and Abel. Cain slew Abel in a quarrel about their sister, whom both loved. The souls, which are of heavenly origin are the food of the princes who cannot live without them. When the soul has reached the stage of Knowledge ( gnosis ), and has escaped the baptism of the Church and the power of Sabaoth, who is the author of the law, it flies to each of the heavens, makes humble prayer to its prince, and finally reaches the supreme Mother and Father of all things, from whom it has dropped upon the earth. Theodoret adds that it is the practice of some of these heretics to pour oil and water on the heads of the dead, thereby rendering them invisible to the princes and withdrawing them from their power. "Some of them", continues St. Epiphanius , "pretend to fast after the manner of the monks, deceiving the simple, and boast of having renounced all property. They deny the resurrection of the body, admitting only that of the soul ; they condemn baptism and reject the participation of the Holy Mysteries as something introduced by the tyrant Sabaoth, and teach other fables full of impiety." They are addicted, says St. John Damascene, "to a most shameful kind of lust." Their apocryphal books were the greater and lesser "Symphonia", the "Anabatikon [assumption] of Isaias ", a book called Allogeneis , and other pseudo-prophetical writings. They rejected the Old Testament, but used sentences torn from their context both in the Old and the New Testament to prop up their heresy. St. Epiphanius refutes their extravagant doctrines at some length, showing the absurdity and dishonesty of their abuse of Scripture texts. He writes, not with the calm detachment of the historian, but with the zeal of the pastor who is dealing with contemporary error.


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