ALCHASAI, a sectarian in the early Christian Church, 1st-2nd centuries A.D., in the time of Trajan. His historical existence is still disputed, but is certainly taken for granted by Manichean tradition. In Mesopotamia (Babylonia), then part of the Iranian empire of the Arsacids, Alchasai founded a Jewish Christian baptist community, a faction in the Ebionite movement. The baptists (Greek sobiai) were included, according to H. W. Bailey (Revue des études arméniennes N.S. 4, 1980, p. 7), in the sect name mktk- (“washers,” from the Iranian root mak- “moisten, wash”) in the 3rd century inscription of the magupat and ēhrapat Kartēr at the Kaʿba-ye Zartošt in Persepolis (Mid. Pers. version, line 10).
The sources on the doctrines and history of the Elchasaites are the Philosophumena Refutatio (Elenchos) omnium haeresium (tr. F. Legge, 2 vols., London, 1921) of Hippolytus (3rd cent.), the Panarion (“Medicine basket”) of Epiphanius of Salamis (4th cent.), a short note in the Ecclesiastical History (6.38) of Eusebius of Caesarea (3rd-4th cent.) quoting Origen’s Homily on the 82nd Psalm, Theodoret of Cyrus (Haer. Fab. 2.7, reproducing his predecessors; 5th cent.), and Ebn al-Nadīm’s Fehrest (tr. Dodge, II, p. 811) discussing the Moḡtasela “Washers” (see references in Brandt, Elchasai, p. 3, and translations in J. Irmscher, Das Buch des Elchasai, Neutestamentliche Apokryphen 2, Tübingen, 1964, pp. 530ff.). The Syriac Liber scholiorum of Theodore bar Kōnai contains the important remark that their teaching was “in every respect like that of the Ebionites” (H. Pognon, Inscriptions mandäites des coupes de Khouabir II, Paris, 1894, pp. 122, 176; see also pp. 125 and 182 on the expulsion of Mani from the Elchasaite baptist community).
The most notable primary source, however, is the “Cologne Mani Codex,” a miniature parchment manuscript (4.5 by 3.5 cm) containing a biography of Mani in Greek, translated from a Syriac original of the 5th century (based on paleographic grounds). The text is titled Peri tēs gennēs tou sōmatos autou “On the origin of his [Mani’s] body” and views the doctrine of Alchasai from a Manichean standpoint. It is concerned with Mani’s life from age thirteen to twenty-four, from his first through his second revelation. Mani’s youth is placed in an environment of Elchasaism, the religion of his father Pattikios (q.v.; on the name, see P. Gignoux in Studia Iranica 4, 1975, p. 142). Mani’s final breach with the sect came after his second revelation. (For a thorough exposition of the text, see A. Henrichs and L. Koenen, “Ein griechischer Mani-Codex [P. Colon. inv. nr. 4780],” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 5/2, 1970, pp. 97-216; edition, ibid., 19, 1975, pp. 1-85; 32, 1978, pp. 87-199.)
The name of the founder of the sect is transmitted in various forms (ibid., 32, 1978, p. 182): Elchasai (Hippolytus), Elksai (Epiphanius), ho Elkesaios (Methodius of Olympus, 3rd cent., in his Symposion), Elkesaios (in the Anakephalaiōsis of Pseudo-Epiphanius), Alchasaios (Cologne Mani Codex), ʾlksʾ (Theodore bar Kōnai), Alchasā (ʾlxsʾ, in the Manichean Parthian M 1344 + 5910; W. Sundermann in Acta Orientalia 36, 1974, pp. 130, 148f.). In the Fehrest he is al-Ḥasīḥ (ʾlḥsyḥ, but also ʾlḥsḥ and ʾlḥsḡ), referred to as the head of the Moḡtasela, a reference now proved by the Cologne Codex to be a genuine Manichean tradition. The word is usually explained (so already Epiphanius) as el (= Gk. dýnamis), ksai (= Gk. kekalymménē-), thus as Syriac ḥayl(ā) kasyā (kəsē, cf. C. Brockelmann, Lexicon Syriacum, 1928, p. 337b) “Hidden Power.” This expression is also found in the Pseudoclementine literature (Recognitiones 2.50.21, 51.6, ed. Frankenberg, p. 132.6, 6), in a spiritual climate closely related to that of the Elchasaites. But in the light of the new evidence, the derivation from Syriac ʾalāhā kasyā “Hidden God” could also be seriously considered.
The Elchasaite sect never gained great historical importance, although it attempted a push in Rome about A.D. 220 through Alkibiades from Apamea in Syria (Hippolytus Ref. 9.13.1-3). Thereafter it seems to have submerged into other baptist movements, and in that way survived into the 10th century.
The Cologne Codex as a whole indicates that Elchasaism was more important and widespread than hitherto known. It confirms and clarifies the patristic records, although it adds little to the general knowledge of the movement (or movements): (1) ritualistic conception of piety, life “according to the Law” (nomos), (2) keeping of the sabbath, (3) repeated baptisms (violently attacked by Mani), (4) “baptism” of food, (5) ritual preparation and baking of bread, disapproved by Mani, (6) acknowledgment of the gospels (so also Mani), but rejection of St. Paul, to whom Mani was indebted, (7) vegetarianism (so Ephiphanius and the Fehrest), implied though not expressly mentioned by the Codex (accepted by Mani), (8) cyclic incarnation of the True Apostle (taken over by Mani). (See Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 5, 1970, pp. 158ff.; A. Henrichs, “Mani and the Babylonian Baptists,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77, 1973, pp. 47ff.; A. Henrichs and L. Koenien, “Der Kölner Mani-Codex . . . ,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 32, 1978, pp. 183ff.)
The main purpose of the Codex is to demonstrate that Mani was the reformer of the original teaching of Alchasai, who had been violently misunderstood by his followers. This claim, no doubt, is a hagiographic pia fraus, a purely Manichean interpretation. But Mani did learn from the Elchasaites. To the evidences of the continuation or adaptation of Elchasaite ritual theology in Manicheism listed above may be added the intense Manichean missionary activity and the terms used for the various grades of the Manichean priesthood (cf. Samuel N. C. Lieu, The Journal of Theological Studies N.S. 32/1, 1981, p. 158).
The primary importance of the Cologne Codex is that it convincingly underlines the character of Manicheism as a religion rooted in a Christian (Judeo-Christian/Judeo-Gnostic [but the anápausis of Elchasaism, the eternal rest of the body, removes the latter far from gnosticism]) tradition and not primarily an Iranian mystery religion (R. Reitzenstein’s “iranisches Erlösungsmysterium”), although Iranian elements play no small part in the forming of Mani’s gnostic religion. The text also shows that the apparent “Mandean” influence on Manicheism (cf. the Psalms of Thomas) must be interpreted as indirect, stemming from the common general baptist milieu, out of which also the Mandeans emerged.
Abstracta Iranica 2, 1979, pp. 19ff.; 3, 1980, pp. 129ff.
W. Brandt, Elchasaiein Religionsstifter und sein Werk (Beiträge zur jüdischen, christlichen und allgemeinen Religionsgeschichte), Leipzig, 1912 (review by A. von Harnack in Theol. Literaturzeitung 37, 1912, cols. 683ff.).
D. Flusser, “Salvation Present and Future,” Numen 16, 1969, pp. 147ff. (with further references).
R. N. Frye, “The Cologne Greek Codex about Mani,” Ex Orbe Religionum. Studia Geo Widengren oblata I, Leiden, 1972, pp. 424ff.
G. Quispel, “The Birth of the Child. Some Gnostic and Jewish Aspects,” Eranos Jahrbuch 40, 1971, pp. 285ff.
Idem, “Mani et la tradition évangélique des Judéo-Chrétiens,” Recherches de science religieuse 60, 1972, pp. 143-50.
K. Rudolph, Die Mandäer I, Göttingen, 1960, pp. 233ff.
Idem, “Zum gegenwärtigen Stand der mandäischen Religionsgeschichte,” Gnosis und Christentum, Berlin, 1973, pp. 121ff.
Idem, “Die Bedeutung des Kölner Mani-Codex für die Manichäismusforschung. Vorläufige Anmerkungen,” Mélanges d’histoire des religions offerts à Henri-Charles Puech, Paris, 1974, pp. 471ff.
Idem, “Quellenprobleme zum Ursprung und Alter der Mandäer,” Christianity, Judaism and other Greco-Roman Cults (Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty. Part 4; Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 12), Leiden, 1975, pp. 112ff.
Alexander Böhlig, “Der Synkretismus des Mani,” Synkretismus im Syrisch-persischen Kulturgebiet, ed. A. Dietrich, Abh. Ak. Wiss., phil. hist. Kl. Dritte Folge, Band 96, Göttingen, 1975, pp. 144ff.
(J. P. Asmussen)
Originally Published: December 15, 1985
Last Updated: July 29, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 8, pp. 824-825
J. P. Asmussen, “ALCHASAI,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/8, pp. 824-825; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/alchasai-a-sectarian-in-the-early-christian-church-1st-2nd-centuries-a (accessed on 17 May 2014).