Collective name for several Gnostic sects which regarded the serpent (Greek, ὄφις; Hebrew, "naḥash"; hence called also Naasseni) as the image of creative wisdom. Such sects existed within Judaism probably even before the rise of Christianity; and as there were Ophites who rejected the Gospels it would be proper to make a distinction between Jewish, Christian, and anti-Christian Ophites were not the sources, which are all post-Christian, too confused to admit of even approximately positive discriminations.
Irenæus, who, toward the end of the second century, wrote a history of heresy, did not know the Gnostics under the name of "Ophites"; but Clement ("Stromata," vii. 17, § 108) mentions beside the "Cainists" (see Cain) the "Ophians" (Οφιανοί), saying that their name is derived from the object of their worship. Philaster, an author of the fourth century, places the Ophites, the Cainites, and the Sethites at the head of all heresies (ch. 1-3), because he holds that they owed their origin to the serpent (the devil). The Ophites, Cainites, Sethites, Naasseni, etc., declared the serpent of paradise to be wisdom itself (σοφία), since wisdom had come to the earth through the knowledge of good and evil which the serpent had brought. Hence they exalted Cain and Seth, who they held were endowed with this knowledge, as the heroes of the human race; other Gnostics regarded Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and even the traitor Judas, as tools of Sophia; whereas Jacob and Moses, for instance, who were the instruments of the Creator (Demiurgus), were regarded as being inferior (Irenæus, "Against Heresies," i. 31, § 2). All Ophistic circles believed in a demonic hebdomad (i.e., seven spirits under the dominion of the serpent) side by side with the holy hebdomad under Jaldabaoth. The last-mentioned is the son of fallen wisdom ("yalda bahut" = "son of chaos"), and from him proceeded, in successive generations, Jao (), Sabaot, Adoneus, Elœus, Oreus ("or" = "light"), and Astaphæus, which are said to be manifestations of the God of the Old Testament. The Ophites claimed that Moses himself had exalted Ophis by setting up the serpent, and that Jesus also had recognized it (comp. John iii. 14).The Naasseni.
The Naasseni went even further, and the retention of the Hebrew name shows that their belief represents the oldest stage of the heresy. "Whoever says that the All proceeded from the One, errs; but whoever says, from Three, speaks truth and can explain the All. The first of these three is the blessednature of the sainted higher man, Adamas [strangely explained as "diamond"]; the second is the death below; the third is the unruled race that had its origin above, and to which belong Mariam, 'the sought one' (ἡ ζητσυμένη), Jothar (Jethro), the great sage, Sepphora, the seeing one, and Moses." The three words "Kavlakav," "Savlasav," and "Zeer Sham" (taken from Isa. xxviii. 10), they declare, indicate Adamas above, death below, and the Jordan flowing upward (Hippolytus, "Philosophumena," v. 8), and present the threefold division of the realm of blessedness or immortality which forms a part of all Gnostic heresies—the world of spirits, the corporeal world, and redemption. The "Naas" is the primal being and the source of all beauty (ib.v. 9)—the spiritual principle. Side by side with it exists chaos, or matter. The human soul leads a troubled existence between chaos and spirit until redeemed by Jesus.Diagram.
The mysterious diagram of the Ophites is famous. Celsus and his opponent Origen ("Contra Celsum," vi. §§ 24-38) both describe it, though not in the same way. Celsus maintains that there were circles above circles; but Origen maintains that there were two concentric circles, across the diameter of which were inscribed the words ΠΑΤΗΡ ("father") and ΓΙΟC ("son"); a smaller circle hung from the larger one, with the words ΑΓΑΠΗ ("love"). A wall divides the realm of light from the middle realm. Two other concentric circles, one light and one dark, represent light and shadow. Hanging from this double circle was a circle with the inscription ΖΩΗ ("life"), and this enclosed two other circles which intersected each other and formed a rhomboid. In the common field were the words ΣΟφΙΑC ΦγCΙC ("the nature of wisdom"), above ΓΝΩCΙC ("cognition"), and below ΣΟΦΙΑC ΠΩΟΝΟΙΑ ("knowledge"); in the rhomboid was ΣΟΦΙΑC ΠΩΟΝΟΙΑ ("the providence of wisdom"). There were altogether seven circles, with the names of seven archons: Michael, in the form of a lion; Suriel, of a bull; Raphael, of a dragon; Gabriel, of an eagle; Thauthabaoth ("Tohu wa-Bohu"), of a bear's head; Erataoth, of a dog's head; and Onoel or Thartharaoth, of an ass's head. The archons are perhaps identical with the above-mentioned seven generations of Jaldabaoth. They signify the corporeal world, which follows the middle realm, and with which the dominion of Sophia ends. The hexagram (Shield of David) of the Jews, whose thought was not always foreign to Gnosis, may be in some way connected with this diagram. But the serpent as symbol is found likewise in connection with the mysteries of Egypt, Greece, Phenicia, Syria, and even Babylonia and India. For the Jewish elements in this strange Gnostic lore See Cabala, Name and Origin.
- Mosheim, Hist. Ecclésiastica, i. 242, Yverdon, 1776;
- Hilgenfeld, Die Ketzergesch. des Urchristenthums, pp. 250-283, Leipsic, 1884;
- Grätz, Gesch. 3d ed., iv. 87;
- Friedländer, Der Vorchristliche Jüdische Gnosticismus, pp. 81 et seq.;
- idem, Der Antichrist, pp. 153, 164, et passim, Göttingen, 1901;
- A. Hoenig, Die Ophiten, Berlin, 1889;
- Rubin, in Ha-Eshkol, 1902, iv. 35;
- Mead, Fragmente eines Verschollenen Glaubens (transl. from the English by A. von Ulrich), pp. 150-156, Berlin, 1902.