Persians: Irenaeus on Marcus the Valentinian Magian (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Irenaeus on Marcus the Valentinian Magian (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2024,

Ancient authors: Irenaeus of Lyons (late-second century CE), Against Heresies 1.13 (link; link to Greek and Latin).

Comments: Valentinus (active in Rome in the mid-second century CE) and his followers, who incorporated Jesus within their philosophical worldviews, are the primary target in Irenaeus’ attempted exposure of the so-called “knowledge” (gnõsis). Immediately after dealing with Valentinus, Irenaeus (originally from Smyrna but serving as overseer of an assembly in Lyons in Gaul) moves on to debunking Valentinus’ followers, including Marcus. With Marcus, Irenaeus’ explicit strategy is to draw on negative characterizations of Persian, Magian knowledge and practice (sometimes wrongly translated “magic” and thereby losing this emphasis on foreignness) in order to debunk these groups or societies (thiasoi) who claim to be devoted to Jesus. In doing so, Irenaeus is joining the likes of Pliny the Elder (link) in characterizing such Persian practices as inherently deceptive and dangerous, unlike many other Greeks (and, less so, Romans) who view the Magians as wise foreigners or wise “barbarians” (see many examples under “Persians” in category four, including Apuleius). So Irenaeus is working against what Pliny expressly describes as the more prevalent wise barbarian approach. Irenaeus (like other heresy-hunters among Jesus-adherents) continues this strategy in his approach to Simon the Magian (link), who may well serve as the model for this characterization of Marcus due to the precedent set by the author of the Acts’ narrative. The author of Luke-Acts previously negatively employed the “Magian” label quite a few decades before Irenaeus (link). This is another clear case in which participation in ethnographic discourses is part and parcel of living in the Greco-Roman world as a Jesus adherent and/or devotee of the Judean god, in this case in an educated elite context.


Book 1

[Marcus as a Magian deceiver]

(13.1) But there is another among these, named Marcus, who boasts that he has improved on his master. He is a perfect adept in Magian deceits. Drawing away a large number of men and more than a few women by these means, he has induced them to join themselves with him, as if he is one who possesses the greatest knowledge and perfection and has received the highest power from the invisible and ineffable regions above. So it appears as if he really was the precursor of antichrist. For, joining the tricks of Anaxilaos to the craftiness of the Magians (Magi / Magoi), as they are called, he is regarded by his senseless and crazy followers as working wonders by these means.

[Example of his tricks]

(13.2) Pretending to consecrate cups mixed with wine, and protracting to great length the word of invocation, he contrives to give them a purple and reddish color, so that Charis (literally Favour), who is one of those that are superior to all things, should be thought to drop her own blood into that cup through means of his invocation, and that by this those who are present should be led to rejoice to taste of that cup, in order that, by so doing, the Charis, who is set forth by this Magian, may also flow into them. Again, handing mixed cups to the women, he calls on them to consecrate these in his presence. When this has been done, he himself produces another cup of much larger size than that which the deluded woman has consecrated, and pouring from the smaller one consecrated by the woman into that which has been brought forward by himself, he at the same time pronounces these words: “May that Charis who is before all things, and who transcends all knowledge and speech, fill your inner man, and multiply in you her own knowledge, by sowing the grain of mustard seed in you as in good soil.” Repeating certain other similar words, and so leading the wretched woman on, he then appears a worker of wonders when the large cup is seen to have been filled out of the small one, so as even to overflow by what has been obtained from it. By accomplishing several other similar things, he has completely deceived many, and drawn them away after him.

[Attempts to prophesy by means of a lower spirit]

(3) It appears probable enough that this man possesses a lower spirit (daimōn) as his familiar spirit, through which he seems able to prophesy and also enables as many as he counts worthy to be partakers of his Charis themselves to prophesy. He devotes himself especially to women, and those such as are well-bred, elegantly attired, and wealthy. Marcus frequently seeks to draw them to him by addressing them in such seductive words as these: “I am eager to make you a partaker of my Charis (Favour), since the Father of all does continually perceive your angel before his face. Now the place of your angel is among us: it is our responsibility to become one. Receive Charis first from me and by me. Adorn yourself as a bride who is expecting her bridegroom, that you may be what I am, and I what you are. Establish the germ of light in your bridal chamber. Receive from me a spouse, and become receptive of him, while you are received by him. Behold Charis has descended upon you. Open your mouth and prophesy.” The woman replies, “I have never at any time prophesied, nor do I know how to prophesy.” Then Marcus engages, for a second time, in certain invocations so as to amaze his deluded victim and says to her, “Open your mouth, speak whatever occurs to you, and you shall prophesy.” Then she is vainly puffed up and elated by these words and greatly excited in soul by the expectation that it is herself who is to prophesy. With her heart beating violently, she reaches the required pitch of audacity and, idly as well as impudently, utters some nonsense as it happens to occur to her, nonsense that might be expected from one heated by an empty spirit. (Referring to this, one with superior knowledge to me [Irenaeus] has observed that the soul is both audacious and impudent when heated with empty air.) From that point on, she considers herself a prophetess and expresses her thanks to Marcus for having imparted to her from his own Charis. She then makes the effort to reward him, not only by the gift of her possessions (in which way he has collected a very large fortune), but also by offering him her body, desiring in every way to be united to him so that she may become completely one with him.

[Some faithful women aware of Marcus’ Magian deception]

(4) But already some of the most faithful women, who have a fear of God and are not being deceived (whom he nevertheless tried to seduce like the rest by calling them to prophesy), hate and loath him and have withdrawn from such a secret society (thiasos). They have withdrawn because they are very aware that the gift of prophecy is not conferred on men by Marcus, the Magian, but that only those to whom God sends his favour (charis) from above possess the divinely-granted power of prophesying. Then they speak where and when God pleases, and not when Marcus orders them to do so. For that which commands is greater and of higher authority than that which is commanded, in so far as the former rules while the latter is in a state of subjection. If, then, Marcus, or any one else, does command – as these are accustomed continually at their feasts to play at drawing lots and then to command one another to prophesy, giving forth as oracles what is in harmony with their own desires – it will follow that he who commands is greater and of higher authority than the prophetic spirit, though he is but a man, which is impossible. But such spirits as are commanded by these men, and speak when they desire it, are earthly and weak, audacious and disrespectful, being sent forth by Satan for the seduction and destruction of those who do not hold fast that well-compacted faith which they received at first through the assembly (or: church).

[Further Magian techniques]

(5) Moreover, this Marcus makes use of love-charms and love-potions in order to mistreat the bodies of some of these women, if not of all of them. Those of them who have returned to the assembly of God –a thing which frequently occurs – have acknowledged this, also confessing that they have been defiled by him, and that they were filled with a burning passion towards him. A sad example of this occurred in the case of a certain person from Asia, one of our “deacons”, who had received Marcus into his house. His wife, a woman of remarkable beauty, fell a victim both in mind and body to this Magian and, for a long time, travelled around with Marcus. Finally, when, with significant difficulty, the brothers had turned her away from this, she spent her whole time in the exercise of openly confessing, weeping over and mourning about the defilement which she had received from this Magian.

[Followers adopting the same practices]

(6) Some of Marcus’ disciples, also addicting themselves to the same practices, have deceived many little women, and defiled them. They proclaim themselves as being “perfect,” so that no one can be compared to them with respect to the immensity of their knowledge, not even in relation to Paul, Peter, or any other of the apostles. They assert that they themselves know more than everyone else, and that they alone have taken in the greatness of the knowledge of that power which is unspeakable. They also maintain that they have attained to a height above all power, and that therefore they are free in every respect to act as they want to, having no one to fear in anything. For they affirm that, because of the “redemption,” it has come to happen that they can neither be apprehended nor even seen by the judge. But even if the judge should happen to lay hold upon them, then they might simply repeat these words, while standing in his presence along with the “redemption”: “O you, who sit beside God, and the mystical, eternal Silence, you through whom the Aeons, who continually view the face of the Father, having you as their guide and introducer, do derive their forms from above.” (She [Achamoth = Wisdom] in the greatness of her daring inspiring with mind on account of the goodness of the First Father, produced us as their images, having her mind then intent upon the things above, as in a dream). “Look, the judge is at hand, and the crier orders me to make my defense. But do you, as being acquainted with the affairs of both, present the cause of both of us to the judge, inasmuch as it is in reality but one cause.” Now, as soon as the Mother hears these words, she puts the Homeric helmet of Hades [Greek god of the underworld] upon them, so that they may invisibly escape the judge. And then she immediately catches them up, conducts them into the bridal chamber, and hands them over to their consorts.

[Local cases in Gaul / Celtic region]

(7) Such are the words and actions by which, in our own district of the Rhone river [in Gaul], they have deluded many women, who have their consciences burned as with a hot iron [2 Timothy 3:6]. Some of them, in fact, make a confession of their sins. Yet others of among them are ashamed to do this and, in a tacit kind of way, despairing of gaining the life of God, have, some of them, completely deserted. Still others hesitate between the two options, and incur that which is implied in the proverb, “neither without nor within.” They possess this as the fruit from the seed of the children of “knowledge (gnōsis)”.


Source of translations: A. Roberts and W. Rambaut, “Irenaeus, Against Heresies,” in The Writings of Irenaeus, 2 volumes, Ante-Nicene Christian Library volumes 5 and 9 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1868-1869), public domain, adapted by Harland with reference to the Latin and the Greek.

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