Irenaeus of Lyons seems like he was a witty fellow. If there are pubs in the age to come, where we can go to have a beer in the new creation, then I want to go have a drink with Irenaeus. I think he would be hilarious.
He mocks the Valentinians’ use of Scripture as being like some who deconstructs a mosaic made of beautiful jewels depicting a king who in turn reconstructs a picture of a dog or a fox thinking it is the same thing:
“Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavor, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma.” (Against Heresies, 1.8.1)
Later he jokes about the novelty of the gnostics by inventing his own pantheon of deities with names like “gourd”, “melon”, and “cucumber”:
“There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and alongwith this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus.For if it is fitting that that language which is used respecting the universe be transformed to the primary Tetrad, and if any one may assign names at his pleasure, who shall prevent us from adopting these names, as being much more credible [than the others], as well as in general use, and understood by all?” (Against Heresies, 1.11.4)
I haven’t read Irenaeus directly, beyond short excerpts like yours. But I’d have to wonder how much we really learn about Gnosticism overall from him. (I know he wrote a lot, so maybe a fair amount, at least in terms of sources HE was familiar with.) But comparison of his and other early Father’s descriptions of Gnostic beliefs and practices to the direct literature of certain Gnostics (via Nag Hammadi docs revealing it after well over a millennium buried, literally, or burned out of existence) apparently shows he and other “heresy” exposers either didn’t know or distorted some aspects (straw men, likely?).
For one thing, my understanding is that Ir. was pretty literalist in his thinking and approach (correct me if wrong here). If so, is it not quite possible that he was thinking certain Gnostic stories or writings were meant literally when the authors or other Gnostics never intended or took them that way? Or that maybe there were various forms of unwritten “codes” that both biblical writers and their counterparts writing non-canonical “gospels” and such understood re. what was meant to be seen as historical and what was not…. For example, to me (after literally 1000’s of hours of study), the trial, crucifixion and resurrection accounts in the Gospels cannot effectively be separated into “piles” that are historical, good “story” (fictional), or pure magical/supernatural fabrication for persuasion or validation effect (e.g., particularly the extravagances of the Matt. account or the claim — in all Gospels I think — of the Temple veil being torn supernaturally in an obvious symbolic reference, etc.).
I have a strong feeling that 1st century readers (or hearers of reading) had a whole different way (a type of “decoder”) of hearing/understanding the Gospels and probably the non-canonical lit, including some by Gnostics, than we moderns and non-semites, non-Greeks do.
We need to remember that “gnosticism” included many sects with many doctrinal systems. Irenaeus admits this, though he does attempt to find a common root error in their teachings. It seems that Irenaeus’ main target is Valentinian Gnostics. I don’t think Irenaeus is trying to argue against “straw men”, but I do think there are forms of gnosticism, which we see unearthed in the literature from Nag Hammadi, that are different than the forms addressed by Irenaeus.
Another thing to consider is that even if some gnostic thinkers didn’t aim to be interpreted as literally as Ireneaus interprets them, it is likely that there were some who were forming doctrinal systems based on literal interpretations of Valentinian cosmology. Ireneaus speaks of a variety of people who began with Valentinian doctrine who then morphed it anew. If Irenaeus as a pastor is concerned that some form of gnosticism that looks like what he attacks exists, and is confusing people under his care and the care of churches with which he associates, then he needs to address those concerns, even if this means the gap between the doctrine being attacked and the doctrine being accepted by some is greater than known by Irenaeus.
To your reading so far, does Ir. ever clearly identify or describe the “orthodoxy” (or equivalent term) he is defending “against heresies”? I realize he claims the apostolic line of authority in some manner, involving bishops, and that none in it were Gnostics. Does he address the fact that certain Gnostics did lean a lot on Paul (or also the Pauline-school epistles written at least in his name if not directly by him) and I think some on John’s Gospel as well? My own fairly informed understanding of early Gnosticism (not all its specific and often bizarre forms you reference) indicates that indeed Paul’s concepts either have a common source or there was direct borrowing, probably both ways.
I’m also inclined toward the position of at least some good scholars that Gnosticism probably emerged more or less simultaneously within both Judaism and Christianity in its early stages, that being at least by early to mid first century, perhaps before. I know others say later, but I’ve not seen any good evidence to indicate any particular period later than around mid 1st century. Do you know of such? Even if not till the 90-120 range, that still puts it around the time of John (probably, not definitively), Luke/Acts, and later parts of the NT, from my study of dating of NT docs.
Irenaeus presents his understanding of the apostolic tradition in Against Heresies 1.10.1, and he expounds on parts of it in various places. (If you read quote #3 of this post, you can see what he says http://nearemmaus.com/2013/01/19/reading-the-fathers-01-19-2012/ ).
Irenaeus knows that the gnostics are familiar with Paul, but he argues that they have misread him.
It does seem that gnostic thought emerged in both Jewish and Christian contexts, but we have a lot to learn about this. Lester L. Grabbe’s An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism has a useful section on this. I review that book here: http://nearemmaus.com/2012/10/09/book-review-lester-l-grabbes-an-introduction-to-second-temple-judaism/ .
I would agree that if gnostic thought begins to emerge in the 90-120 range it coincides with the Gospel of John. I don’t think it fits Luke-Acts, since I think those documents were written in the 70s and/or 80s. As far as some of the Catholic Epistles, the dating of these documents are always in flux, with some like the Epistle of James seeming to me to be quite early, while something like 2 Peter may be later.
Of course, we have a problem when it comes to pinpointing the emergence of gnostic thought because it seems to have many streams that borrow from many streams. Irenaeus shows some verisimilitude in that it is very possible that some of the Neoplatonic ideas regarding the One, the Demiurge, personification of things like Mind (Nous), and a cosmic pantheon would all fit. I find no reason to doubt that Irenaeus knew self-declared gnostics who have merged Neoplatonism with Christianity. In this sense the “roots” of gnostic thought may go back further than Christianity, then it swallowed Christian concepts when the two synthesized. Of course, as we’ve said, there seem to be other forms with very different origins.
It’s all pretty mind-boggling, isn’t it? That is, not just re. gnosticism, Judaism in its many forms, and Christianity, but just how active the period seems to have been, with SO MANY variations emerging rapidly in several different lines of religion, philosophy, etc., mostly cross-borrowing and such, yet very pitted against one another.
To my view, Paul was a great syncretist himself, mainly Judaism, proto-gnostic thought and mystery religions, with obvious creations of his own. I don’t doubt that he had multiple ecstatic “revelations” and PERHAPS the key early one was actually the spirit of Jesus himself. (I can make my progressive theology make sense either way, because, unlike typical “liberals”, I do not at all rule out the role of spiritual communication and “inspiration” from beyond the rational, or generally understood cognitive level of consciousness. With that, however, I also can find no clear criteria by which to designate any given “revelation” — whether from Paul, one of “The Twelve” or anyone else, as from God “himself” in any exclusive or unique way — such as suggested by the typical understanding of our biblical canon, and even more so, the “closed canon” idea.)
That’s too bad, Howard.
Can you elaborate, please?… not sure what you mean.
I was shocked to find even Jesus (and Paul) used sarcasm.
I also greatly enjoyed the connection drawn between Veggie Tales and Irenaeus’ comments.
Paul was able to adapt and he was uniquely qualified to bring a Jewish Gospel to the rest of the world. I am more hesitant than you to align him with proto-gnosticism, since Paul seems quite cautious in defending the simplicity of the Gospel, whereas what we gain from most gnostic thinkers is aimed at the elite, at those who know better than others, and sometimes for those who are better than others ontologically (who need to “discover” this). If there is a touching point it has to do with revelation. Both Paul and most gnostic thinkers seem to emphasize that certain people are revealed truth, others are not.
I imagine doing the work done by Jesus and Paul would demand the ability to use some sarcasm, and laugh a lot, otherwise sanity would be impossible to maintain!
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