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The Elcesaites, Elkasaites, Helkesaites, or Elchasaites were an ancient Jewish-Christian sect, a subgroup of the Ebionites, in Sassanid southern Mesopotamia. Some early scholars differentiate Ebionites from Essenic Ebionite-Elchasites. They are discussed by Epiphanius and in pseudo-Clementine literature.


Hippolytus of Rome[1] tells us that under Pope Callixtus I (217-222) a cunning individual called Alcibiades, a native of Apamea in Syria, came to Rome, bringing a book which he said had been received from Parthia by a just man named Elchasai[2]. The contents of the book had been revealed by an angel ninety-six miles high, sixteen miles broad and twenty-four across the shoulders, whose footprints were fourteen miles (21 km) long and four miles (6 km) wide by two miles deep. This was the Son of God, who was accompanied by His Sister, the Holy Ghost, of the same dimensions. Alcibiades announced that a new remission of sins had been proclaimed in the third year of Trajan (A.D. 100), and he described a baptism which should impart this forgiveness even to the grossest sinners.

Adolf von Harnack makes him say "was proclaimed" instead of "has been proclaimed" (as if eúaggelisthênai and not eúeggelísthai), and thus infers that a special year of remission is spoken of as past once for all–that Alcibiades had no reason for inventing this, so that Hilgenfeld was right in holding that Elchasai really lived under Trajan, as Epiphanius supposed. Putting aside this claim of Harnack's (and also his earlier conjecture that the remission in the third year of Trajan meant that the first two books of the Pastor of Hermas were published in that year), we see that the remission offered is by the new baptism. Hippolytus represents this doctrine as an improvement invented by Alcibiades on the lax teaching of his enemy Pope Callixtus I (Hippolytus is often considered the first Antipope). He seems to regard Alcibiades as the author of the book.

Origen, writing somewhat later (c. 246-9), says the heresy was quite new; he seems to have met Alcibiades, though he does not give his name. Lacking a reason to dissent from these contemporary witnesses we must place the first appearance of the book of Elchasai circa 220. A century and a half later, Epiphanius of Salamis found it in use among the Sampsæans, descendants of the earlier Elcesaites, and also among the Ossæns and many other Ebionite communities.

The Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim, an Arabic writer, c. 987, found Mogtasilah, a sect of Sabians in the desert who counted El-'Hasai'h as their founder[3].

According to Hippolytus, the teaching of Alcibiades was borrowed from various sources. He taught circumcision, that Christ was a man like others, that he had many times been born on earth of a virgin, that he devoted himself to astrology, magic and incantations. For all sins of impurity, even against nature, a second baptism is enjoined "in the name of the great and most high God and in the name of His Son the great King", with an adjuration of the seven witnesses written in the book, sky, water, the holy spirits, the Angels of prayer, oil, salt and earth. One who has been bitten by a mad dog is to run to the nearest water and jump in with all his clothes on, using the foregoing formula, and promising the seven witnesses that he will abstain from sin. The same treatment–forty days consecutively of baptism in cold water–is recommended for consumption and for the possessed. Other Ebionites in Epiphanius's time practised this treatment.

That saint tells us that mention was made in the book of Elchasai's brother, Iexai, and that the heresiarch was a Jew of the time of Trajan. Two of his descendants, two sisters, Marthus and Marthana, lived till the days of Epiphanius. They were reverenced as goddesses and the dust of their feet and their spittle were used to cure diseases (cf. Mark 7:33, 8:23, John 9:1-11). This suggests that Elchasai was not a fictitious personage. He was presumably a primitive leader of an Ebionite community, to whom Alcibiades ascribed his own book.

We learn further from Epiphanius that the book condemned virginity and continence, and made marriage obligatory. It permitted the worship of idols to escape persecution, provided the act was merely an external one, disavowed in the heart. Prayer was to be made not to the East, but always towards Jerusalem. Yet all sacrifice was condemned, with a denial that it had been offered by the patriarchs or under the Mosaic Law. The Prophets as well as the Apostles were rejected, and of course St. Paul and all his writings.

It has been customary to find Elcasaite doctrine in the Clementine "Homilies" and "Recognitions", especially in the former. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls this groundless and refers to the article on Clementine literature.


  1. Philosophumena, IX, 13-17.
  2. ’Elchasaí; but Epiphanius has ’Elksaí and ’Elkessaîoi; Methodius, ’Elkesaîos and Origen, ’Elkesaïtaí.
  3. Chwolsohn, Die Sabier, 1856, I, 112; II, 543, cited by Salmon.

See also

External links

This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, a publication now in the public

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