Elkesaites a sect of Jewish Christians, which sprang up in the 2d century. The origin of the name is uncertain. Delitzsch (in Rudelbach u. Guericke, Zeitschrift, 1841) derives it from a hamlet, Elkesi, in Galilee. The Church fathers derived it from the name of a pretended founder, Elxai, which name, according to Epiphanius, denotes "a hidden power" (הֵיל כֵּסָי). Elxai is probably not the name of a person, but the name of a book which was the chief authority for this sect. Gieseler thinks that the name signifies the Holy Ghost, which in Hom. Clem. 17:16, is called δὐναμις ἄσαρκος, "the incorporeal power." At all events, the sect held as highest doctrinal authority a book which is brought into connection with Elxai. This book, which appears to have been the chief authority of all the Gnostic sects of Jewish Christians, was known to Origen (Euseb. Hist. Eccl. 6:38), and the Syrian Alcibioades of Apamea brought it with him to Rome. Epiphanius shows its influence among all sects of Jewish Christians. As Origen reports, this book was believed to have fallen from heaven; according to an account in the Philosophoumena, it was revealed by an angel, who was the Son of God. Elxai is said to have received it from the Seri, in Parthia, in the third year of Trajan (A.D. 101), and its contents were communicated to no one except upon an oath of secrecy. Ritschl puts the origin of the book in the last third of the second century, while Uhlhorn thinks that it must have originated soon after the beginning of the second century, as it served as the basis of the doctrinal system of the Clementine Homilies, which were nearly completed about A.D. 150.
The best account of the standard book of the Elkesaites is to be found in the Philosophoumena, and its main points are confirmed by the statements of Origen. Epiphanius, as usual, is somewhat confused in his exposition of the sect, and his report seems in many points to refer to a modified, and not the original system. According to the Philosophoumesa, there was in the Elkesaite system a pagan element of naturalism, mixed with Jewish and Christian elements. The pagan element shows itself in particular in the ablutions. A remission of sins is proclaimed upon the ground of a new baptism, consisting without doubt in oft-repeated ablutions, which were also used against sickness, and were made in the name of the Father and the Son. In connection with these ablutions appear seven witnesses — the five elements, and oil and salt (also bread), the latter two denoting baptism and the Lord's Supper. The same pagan element appears in the use made by the Elkesaites of astronomy and magic; even baptismal days were fixed in accordance with the position of the stars. The Jewish element appears in the obligatory character of the law, and in circumcision. They rejected, however, sacrifices, and also several parts of the Old and New Testaments (of the latter, the Pauline epistles). Their views of Christ seem not to have been settled. On the one hand, their Christ is described as an angel; on the other, they taught a repeated, continuous incarnation of Christ, although his birth of a virgin seems to have been retained. The Lord's Supper was celebrated with bread and salt; the eating of meat was forbidden; marriage was highly esteemed; renunciation of the faith in time of persecution was allowed. A prayer, which is preserved by Epiphanius (19:4), is entirely unintelligible.
The Elkesaite doctrine probably arose among the Jewish Christians, who, in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea, coalesced with the Essenes, and were to some extent influenced by Oriental paganism. Under bishop Callistus of Rome, a certain Alcibiades of Apaemea went to that city as an Elkesaite teacher, and in 274 Origen met a missionary of the sect at Caesarea. These efforts appear, however, to have met with but little success. The Clementine Homilies contain a further development of Elkesaite doctrines, with a stronger predominance of the Christian element. At the time of the emperor Constantius, Epiphanius found Elkesaites to the east of the Dead Sea, in Nabathaea, Ituraea, and Moabitis. He calls them Σαμψαῖοι, which name he explains as ἡλιακοί, and therefore seems to have derived from שֶׁמֶשׁ, "sun." From the circumstance that in Epiphanius Elxai appears among nearly all parties of Jewish Christians, Uhlhorn infers that the Elkesaites were not so much a separate sect as a school among all sects of Jewish Christians. Rilschl regards them as antipodes of the Montanists, and, as their chief peculiarity, the setting forth of a new theory of remission of sins by a new baptism. Hefele, in Wetzer u. Welte, Kirchen-Lex. art. Ebioniten, 3:359, takes the Elkesaites for the highest of four classes of Jewish Essenes, from whom, or, rather, from a member of whom (the Elxai of Epiphanius), a party of Ebionites received about the middle of the second century a gnosis or theosophic secret system, which was fully developed in the Clementine Homilies. See Uhlhorn, in Herzog, Real- Encyklop. 3:771 (which article is the basis of our account); Ritschl, Ueber d. Sekte. der Elkesaiten, in Zeitschriftfur histor. Theologie, 1853; Hefele, in Wetzer u. Welte, KirchenLex. [art. Ebioniten], 3: 358; and [art. Clement 1] 2:590; Schaff, Hist. of the Christ. Church, § 69; Lipsius, Zur Quellen- Kritik des Epiphanius (Vien. 1865); Mosheim, Ch. list. Luke 1, c. 2, part 2, chapter 5:3, 5-7. (A.J.S.)