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I am interested in learning more about whether reincarnation was a part of early Christian church dogma, and how that belief may have evolved or survived as the church splintered into multiple sects. The internet is a bit of a quagmire, divided mostly into three major categories: Catholic writings that regurgitate the modern church's stance, random new-ageish writings that have bad or no references, and some academic writings which I (as an aspiring fiction writer, not a scholar) cannot tell if they are disproven or seconded by other authors. Generally my questions are:

  1. Was reincarnation part of the early Christian church?
  2. If yes, did it also exist in Judaism of the time or was it an import specific to the Christian church?
  3. If yes, did that dogma survive inside significant sects after 6th century, and even into modern times?

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Some of my layman research (I am just listing a few since they tend to repeat):

According to catholic.com

Historical facts provide no basis for this [reincarnation] claim. [...] What did take place in A.D. 553 was the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. But records from this Council show that it, too, did not address the subject of reincarnation. None of the early councils did.

They do reference some early writings on the subject (later on the linked page), but I don't know if they engage in cherry picking? They claim that the second council of Constantinople limited references to reincarnation to a single sentence condemnation of Origen (A deeper discussion here: Flesh and Fire: Reincarnation and Universal Salvation in the Early Church)

I've also found a number of writings from various theological groups (see What about Reincarnation?, but the arguments feel dogmatic, and do not address the history of reincarnation in the church.

I'm also of course aware that Catholics do not speak for the entire Christian community. It is hard for me to find writings from the Eastern Orthodox church, due to my unfamiliarity with it.

Now...

According to a paper abstract on the U. of Utah (The Argument over Reincarnation in Early Christianity. Utah Historical Review) :

Many of the early Christian theologians who believed in the idea of reincarnation were taught their religious beliefs at, or near Alexandria, Egypt; these are theologians including Basilides, Valentinus and Origen. Christian and non-Christians alike that were living in or near Alexandria were still greatly influenced by the ideas of Plato.
[...]
These men would eventually be referred to today as Christian Platonists.

This seems to contradict the claim the catholic.com's thesis.

Any recommendations for better peer-reviewed articles and papers?

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    Question needs focus... There are three very large and distinct questions listed here but the quotes only relate to question #1.
    – Brian Z
    Sep 10, 2023 at 18:10
  • I think you have to read up on monotheism in general. Reincarnation is a doctrinal impossibility in monotheism.
    – Jos
    Sep 11, 2023 at 0:41
  • Reincarnation is mentioned in connection with the Cathars, but I cannot offer any insight how much of that is founded in sound evidence. This book claims to discuss the issue.
    – ccprog
    Sep 11, 2023 at 15:28
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    @Jos Why? I don't see that as self-evident.
    – Stewart
    Sep 11, 2023 at 16:22

2 Answers 2

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I'll ignore the additional questions and focus on the headline / question #1.

When it comes to the basic historical facts (as opposed to the interpretation of theological fragments) there isn't actually a whole lot of disagreement between the quoted sources. The Catholic.com piece says that Origen was against reincarnation, while the other articles say it's more complicated. The Catholic.com piece doesn't mention Valentinus or Basilides of Alexandria at all, but that's who Jensen (in the Utah Historical Review) states most unequivocally supported reincarnation.

In an essay in the book A Companion to Second-Century Christian “Heretics” (2005, edited by Antti Marjanen & Petri Luomanen) there's a paragraph (with extensive footnotes you may dig further into) regarding Basilides' possible acceptance of reincarnation, which largely comes to us from Origen.

There are fragments from Basilides’ writings which suggest that he taught a doctrine of reincarnation, or metempsychosis. One such fragment is found in Origen’s Commentary on Romans, where he reports that Basilides interprets Paul’s statement in Romans 7:9, “I died,” to refer to reincarnation. Origen quotes Basilides as saying, “The Apostle explicitly said, ‘I lived once without the Law’ (Rom 7:9), that is, before I came into this body, I lived in the sort of body that is not under the Law, such as a beast or a bird.” Some doubt has been cast upon Origen’s quotation, notably by Pierre Nautin, who argues that Origen’s statement here, and also in his Commentary on Matthew, is dependent on Clement, not on Basilides, whose works Origen never read. Nautin also doubts Clement’s attribution to Basilides of the doctrine of reincarnation, and asserts that Basilides taught no such thing. On balance, I do not see any reason to doubt that a Platonizing theologian like Basilides, along with a number of other Gnostic teachers, taught the doctrine of reincarnation.

In sum, while we have only indirect evidence, it is very possible that reincarnation was discussed by certain early Christian Neoplatonists. From that we might speculate that certain Gnostic subcurrents of early Christianty (particularly followers of Valentinus) may have accepted such ideas. To claim that any such generalized belief in reincarnation among early Christians is a matter of historical fact would be false.

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Putting is simple terms, such a thing was never a dogma is the Church history. In general, the Christian belief accept the idea of eternal life, in Heaven or in Hell.

This can be seeing in the Niscene Constantinopolitan Creed, which was made during the Council of Nicaea during the IV century. Here is a small passage :

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The "ressurection of the dead" is a dogma which says that after the consummation of the times our bodies will be resurrected and will be united to our souls in Heaven or in Hell.

More over, in the Bible we can clearly see the the everlasting idea of afterlife. Here are somepassages that talk about Hell being forever, for example:

Matthew 13:41-42

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.

Matthew 25:41

  • Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

To summarize, there is no tradition of reincarnation in Christianism, the closest we have to that is some books written centuries after the events of the New Testament by people who were not even in comunion with the Church.

Moreover, in respect to the answer of Brian, the passage is his article does not make much sense, Saint Paul was clearly using a methaphor, nothing as distant as saying something like "I am scared to death of spiders" (this sentece makes more sense in portuguese, by the way)

Post Scriptium : I recommend you to read the whole passages I quoted, because they seem a bit decontextualized

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    I'm not much into using the Bible to prove history because of many edits and omissions made to support the official stance and simplify things for the laymen. Matthew 17:12 is often cited by proponents as supporting reincarnation, but theologs argue they just don't know better.
    – Will I Am
    Sep 12, 2023 at 19:53
  • @WillIAm what are those "edits" you claim happened ? Show me evidences that support your point( but for goodness, don't say to me you are using the "Da vince code" as main resource)
    – HaveMercy
    Oct 29, 2023 at 19:24
  • "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture" by Barth Ehrman, and of course "Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown (sorry, couldn't resist)
    – Will I Am
    Oct 30, 2023 at 20:32
  • @WillIAm Hello, Will. Thanks for the fast response ! I noticed you cited an article from britannica concerning the King James Bible. In relation to that, protestants Bibles are well known for their edits. For example, When Luther was first writting his translation of the Bible to german, he just cutted of the book of James, because it contradicted directly his "sola fedes" doctrine. Also he cutted of others 5 books from the old testament. Notice a important thing here : he corrupted the Truth by his (false) doctrine and them, knowing it was false, he just cutted of these books[,,,]
    – HaveMercy
    Oct 31, 2023 at 0:52

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