I am participating in the group Read the Fathers, so in order to help me maintain this discipline I will be sharing my notes every Saturday:
This week’s readings were from Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against Heresies, Book 3.
Simon Magnus is considered the “father of all heretics” by Irenaeus, who claims to relay the traditions of the apostles. According to Irenaeus all of these gnostic sects can be traced to his error. In Book 3 he aims to continue his attack on the heretics: “…the first [book] comprises the opinions of all these men, and exhibits their customs, and the character of their behavior. In the second, again, their perverse teachings are cast down and overthrown, and, such as they really are, laid bare and open to view. But in this, the third book I shall adduce proofs from the Scriptures…” (Preface).
The Apostolic Tradition begins with Jesus ordaining the Apostles after his resurrection to go into the world with the Gospel. Matthew is said to have written a Gospel to the Hebrews. Mark recorded Peter’s stories. Peter and Paul preached in Rome. Luke recorded Paul’s stories. John is identified with the Beloved Disciple and he is said to have his Gospel “at Ephesus in Asia”. These men proclaimed one God, the Father, and Jesus Christ (3.1.1-2). The elders have passed along the tradition of the Apostles, and the Scriptures preserve this traditions, but according to Irenaeus the gnostic sects claim to have another oral tradition going back to the Apostles that verifies their teachings (3.2.1-3).
Bishops were ordained by the Apostles, and these Bishops maintain and relay the Apostolic Tradition. Irenaeus claims that the Church at Rome is the one with which all the rest of the Church must agree, because Peter and Paul organized the Apostolic Tradition there. Of course, there has been debate between Roman Catholics and Orthodox (and Anglicans) over what it means for the Church at Rome to be preeminent. Irenaeus traces apostolic succession in Rome from Peter and Paul to Linus, then Anacletus, then Clement, saying that Clement had heard the preaching of the apostles. Evaristus followed Clement, then Alexander, then Sixtus, then Telephorus, then Hyginus, then Pius, then Anicetus, then Soter, then Eleutherius. This is the remember succession of Roman Bishops according to Ireneaus. He claims to have known Polycarp of Smyrna when he was young. He connects Polycarp to the Apostle John, and talks about Polycarp’s stand against heretics of his day, like Marcion, and John’s stand against Cerinthus, apparently grounding his own polemic in this tradition (3.3.1-4). Irenaeus argues that if there weren’t writings from the apostles it would be the Churches that had verifiable apostolic succession that would be the preservers of the tradition alone, therefore, these Churches should be honored, unlike the heretics who can be traced back as far as their founders alone (3.4.1-3). Irenaeus advocates distancing from the heretics, aligning with the true Gospel that traces back to Christ (3.5.1-3).
The Holy Spirit is portrayed as the active voice speaking in Scripture, speaking of one God alone, not a pantheon like the gnostics teach. This monotheism is presented as Father and Son, one God. Obviously, the Spirit is the active revealer of Father-Son, so it seems that Irenaeus’ theology proper is a hybrid of Binitarianism and Trinitarianism. Irenaeus quotes a variety of passages arguing the the one God is portrayed by the Spirit as a singular duality of Father-Son. The Pneumatology of Irenaeus is difficult to frame. The Spirit speaks in Scripture, reveals God the Father and his Son, but he is not aligned specifically with Father-Son at many points (3.6.1-5). Yet there are places where the Spirit is mentioned alongside Father-Son (3.17.1-4). Pneumatology is intertwined with Ecclesiology. At the end of Book 3, Irenaeus will argue that, “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth.” This closes the door on the gnostic sects being guided by the Spirit anew, distinct from the Apostolic Tradition (3.24.1-2).
Exegesis matters to Irenaeus. He argues against some gnostic interpretations of Paul’s writings, implying that Paul’s word order is misunderstood and misappropriated by his opponents to teach things Paul did not teach (3.7.1-2). Similar debates occur over the meaning of statements in the Gospel of Matthew. Irenaeus argues canonically (not saying a canon is established, but rather than received books like the Gospel of John may inform the meaning of other received books like the Gospel of Matthew, 3.8.1-3). Matthew is an apostolic representative who aligns with the Hebrew prophets in proclaiming one God, Father and Son. Irenaeus argues that John the Baptist proclaimed one God, and that when he baptized Jesus, this was not an adoption, but an anointing of the one who is the Word of God already. Irenaeus cites prophets like Isaiah, and writings like the Psalms, to support his argument from the Old Testament (3.9.1-3). Luke is portrayed as sharing this message. John the Baptist was great, but he introduced Christ, who is born of a virgin to reign over the household of David forever. Mark affirms the message of Matthew and Luke, and he portrays John similarly as a monotheist, according to Irenaeus. The main idea is that there is one God, Father-Son, as revealed by the Spirit, affirmed in the Gospels, and traced to the preaching of people like John, indicating John’s testimony, as recorded in the Gospels, remains valuable (3.10.1-5).
The Johannine writings are presented as affirming this same message. The Apostle John opposes Cerinthius, and the Nicolaitans (mentioned in the Apocalypse), who taught what the gnostics teach (again, the gnostics are connected with opponents of the Apostles, like Simon Magnus, placing the Bishops on the side of the Apostles, 3.11.1-6).
The Fourfold Gospel–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–are presented as providing a unified message. The “first principle” being monotheistic: “…that there is one God, the Maker of this universe; He who was also announced by the prophets, and who by Moses set forth the dispensation of the law,—[principles] which proclaim the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ignore any other God or Father except Him.” Irenaeus argues that even the heretics rely on these Gospels, but that they pick-and-choose: Ebonites use Matthew, Marcion used (some of) Luke, some adoptionistic types use Mark, the Valentinians used John. Yet there cannot be less than four Gospels, or better yet a Fourfold Gospel. Irenaeus argues that there are four zones of the world, four winds, four pillars, the cheribum is four-faced (a Lion, a Calf, a Man, and an Eagle = the fourfold presentation of Jesus). According to Irenaeus, using one Gospel creates heresy (3.11.7-8). The Book of Acts receives Irenaeus’ attention as well as he argues that Peter and the other Apostles did not preach someone else after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but proclaimed Jesus. He recounts many of the narratives beginning with Peter replacing Judas, to Pentecost, to the preaching of John, Philip, Paul, and others (3.12.1-10).
The Montanists, an early charismatic sect, are presented as trying to monopolize the prophet Spirit. Interestingly, Irenaeus doesn’t have qualms with their emphasis on a prophetic Spirit, but he perceives they reject the Gospel of John catholicity of the Paraclete and Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians (quoting 1 Cor. 6:4-5) for limiting the gift. He says Paul approved of men and women prophesying, which seems (?) to indicate he thinks the Montanist don’t allow for this diversity (3.11.9).
The Old and New Covenants must remain connected, even if distinct, for Irenaeus. The error of the gnostics is thinking that the Jewish message of the Apostles is inferior to their insights, dejudaized. Irenaeus recounts the Acts 15 council, arguing that even as the Apostles made decisions to let Gentiles remain Gentiles, they continued to wrestle with the meaning and application of the Old Covenant, because it mattered and it was holy (3.12.11-15). The Marcionites are presented as trying to make distinction between the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Paul. Irenaeus argues for a unified message from these two (foreshadowing contemporary debates over Paul’s connection to the earliest disciples). Irenaeus writes, “Peter, therefore, was an apostle of that very God whose was also Paul; and Him whom Peter preached as God among those of the circumcision, and likewise the Son of God, did Paul [declare] also among the Gentiles. For our Lord never came to save Paul alone, nor is God so limited in means, that He should have but one apostle who knew the dispensation of His Son.” Irenaeus cites Paul, indicating Paul respected Peter as a witness of the resurrection, alongside the Twelve, and that it was their mission to go to the household of Israel, while Paul came to the Gentiles (3.12.1-3). Against the idea that Paul may have taught things preserved outside his writings, Irenaeus appeals to Luke, his companion, arguing that he teaches nothing about these things, and that he wrote a Gospel himself (3.13.1-4).
The Ebionites deny Paul’s apostleship. Irenaeus argues that it is logically consistent for them to cease using Luke’s Gospel, since Luke supported Paul (3.15.1). Irenaeus attacks the Adoptionistic ideas that “Jesus” and the “Christ” are different, that Jesus is somehow not the same with the Logos, the Word, the Son of God (3.15.2–16.9; 18.1-4). He presents Logos Christology as an alternative to Adoptionistic ideas, or any view that would minimize Jesus as merely human, and not divine (3.19.1-3). For Irenaeus the plan of God is to give humans the gift of existence, so that he might save them, resurrecting them from the dead, and this is impossible unless God does the saving, for if Jesus was merely human he cannot save humanity (3.20.1-4). Since the virgin birth is an essential part of Irenaeus’ Christology, as regards his deity, he follows Justin Martyr in arguing for the validity of the LXX rendering of Isaiah 7:14 (“virgin” rather than merely “young woman”) over against some Jewish proselytes who argue otherwise. He accompanies his argument with other passages from the OT. He accompanies this with an interpretation of Romans 5:12-21, arguing that as Adam was born without a human father, if Christ is going to “recapitulate” humanity, redeeming humanity through Mary, he must have God as his Father, not Joseph (3.21.1-10). On the flip side, Irenaeus argues that Jesus must have received something from Mary, he must have been authentically human, and not merely divine (3.22.1-3).
Recapitulation includes Jesus being the new Adam and Mary being the new Eve. Eve is presented as a virgin in Eden, too young to have children at the time of her failure. Jesus undoes Adam’s sin; Mary undoes Eve’s (3.22.4). This coincides with Roman Catholic and Orthodox Mariology. The Resurrection of Christ is understood to be the victory of God. If Jesus had not been resurrected, Death wins, God loses (3.23.1). Likewise, Jesus’ actions must redeem Adam (contra Tatian) for recapitulation to have occurred (3.23.2-8).
We’ve discussed John the B. a bit before. Since Ir. says he introduced Jesus (not surprisingly, since he apparently went with all major themes from the eventually canonical gospels), I wonder if he gives any other evidence than testimony of the gospels? It sure appears to me that what was probably a brief overlap in their ministries was used with benefit by the evangelists (and perhaps based on earlier stories). But some ref’s in Acts and the statement of Josephus about John sure makes it seem they were likely pretty separate movements tho sharing in some points theologically (but not much methodologically).
What were the pre-Christian antecedents for presbyters, elder, bishops, etc. and for apostolic succession?
Other than the Gospels we have Josephus’ statement about John in Antiquities 18.5.2:
“John, that was called the Baptist; (117) for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (118) Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late. (119) Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure against him.”
Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).
Only the Gospels and the Book of Acts connect Jesus to John. This was a double-edged sword for early Christians. Association with John was like Obama getting support from Bill Clinton, on the other hand, it seems to have had a similar problem in that Jesus may have remained under John’s shadow if he didn’t do something distinct. John’s identity in the Gospels is not identical to that in Josephus, but there is enough overlap to get the idea that (1) John was known for baptizing; (2) John preached a message of repentance, of fidelity to the Covenant; and (3) maybe he was somewhat apocalyptic (we need to make sense of the unique baptism he offered, which as Joan E. Taylor has shown, is not quite 1 for 1 with the Essenes and/or Qumran).
In some sense, yes, because there were prophets in the Old Covenant (some who wrote like Habakkuk and Isaiah, some who did not like Elijah and Elisha), though the continuation-discontinuation between the roles of Old and New Covenant prophets is debated. Local cities and villages had elders who made decisions for the community (see passages on meeting at the gates of the city, this was a town hall meeting of sorts) and we see elders/presbyters doing something similar in early Christian assemblies (known as ekklesia; [trans. “church”], a word for a civic gathering). Bishops were episkopos or “overseers”, which seems to be a synonym for Elder in the earliest days, but differentiated over time.
Brian, thanks for copying in Josephus’ statement about John. There is a good book about Christian use and abuse of Josephus by Steve Mason. I don’t recall details of how he deals with this passage; of course he covers the one on Jesus and its many complications and questions (which the John one apparently does not suffer). But in general I think he goes to where reasonable logic and analysis takes one: to wondering why John is NOT connected in any way to Jesus by John… why his role in the NT is so focused on being a “way preparer”, on “decreasing” so Jesus can “increase”, being inferior, etc., whereas Josephus either knows nothing of this dynamic or does but it is either relatively unimportant to him or he omits it from bias. (The latter doesn’t seem to fit his pattern of bias and there is no real reason to suspect it here, that I have found.)
The doubt shed by Josehpus’ comments on the kind of theological connection in the gospels does seem consistent with what we see in Acts (mainly ch. 19 I believe) and another place (Ch. 26?). (Cf. our exchange on this a couple weeks ago.) I would like to re-read (or finish reading) the book by Mason… it’s an important one.
Correction to my 2-3, 3:58 comment: Mid 1st graph should read: “… why John is NOT connected in any way to Jesus by Josephus…” (not “by John”).
I am quite sure that Josephus has little interest in Jesus’ connection to John. Josephus doesn’t seem to think Jesus was that big of a deal. I do think Josephus’ statement on Jesus has an authentic core manipulated by later editors, so along with his mention of Jesus’ brother James, Josephus shows some awareness of the Christian movement, but he doesn’t think of Christians as Christians think of Christians. Of course, at this juncture, Josephus seems convinced that Rome and her emperor have become the center of the divine plan, so some sect like Christianity is not going to be of great interest to him.
There are some connections between Josephus and John, but all they tell us is what was generally perceived about John in general, and there is no way to validate or deny the subjective interpretation of John by Christians on these grounds. One may argue that it is unlikely that John said something like “I must decrease and he must increase”, but I don’t know if we have enough material to reconstruct their relationship, unless the Gospels are taken as generally accurate. I do think Jesus knew John, and I think Jesus was baptized by John, but after that historical methodology hits a wall.
I agree with your assessments above pretty closely Brian. I appreciate the careful way you seem to weigh what is historical and what cannot be established as such. Often the lines are unclear, of course, partly because of the great scarcity of sources to compare with one another, and the scantiness of things like actual governmental documents and/or correspondence re. the Palestine area and politics of the 1st century. We are left with only writers with clear and strong “agendas”, the Evangelists and Josephus for the most part (Paul peripherially, but not much historically as to Jesus’ time itself).
I do think, like you, that Jesus did know John, at least to the extent of hearing him and submitting to his baptism. I’m not at all sure the Evangelists would have included the baptism part if it were not well-established lore and thus probably true. The various stories of heaven opening, the “heavenly” words spoken, etc. would make sense as literary and/or authority-conferring devices, perhaps not actually believed literally even by the authors. I have an operating hunch to that effect about much of their writing, which I’d like to know more how to substantiate or disconfirm…. I also have gradually come to think the Gospel writers themselves didn’t always believe their audiences would take everything as historical that was written as if factual (from our perspective anyway). It’s really tough to put ourselves into the picture of either these authors or their audiences. Even after studying the NT, pertinent backgrounds and Christian origins for years, way beyond even most pastors (as to origins lit, anyway), I don’t believe I have a very in-depth picture of the literary world of the day, the subtle codes embedded (not nefariously, just as a function of lang. and lit.), etc.
Also, when we talk about establishing the historicity of events like the heavens parting at the baptism of Jesus we are left with a few problems: (1) if we are fair, and we are doing critical historical work, since this is something without analogy it may be beyond the scope of our work, which means, at best, we can say, “some believed that this happened” or “some believed to have experienced this to have happened” and (2) there may be something analogous to apocalyptic literature here in that we can’t explain the nature of the event. For example, if the crowd had a vision, in their minds, at the same time, divinely inspired, how do we talk about that happening in the real world. In other words, let’s presume the experience was true, and in the minds of the crowd they heard the voice of God and their eyes saw the sky move uniquely with a dove descending from the phenomenon, did it happen in the space-time universe, or in the minds of those present? Was it a vision seen by Jesus alone, Jesus and John, Jesus and everyone else present? What is the difference between an internal vision and an external one?
I enjoy reading about neuroscience on the side. It is fun to postulate ideas as to how this event may have occurred if there were people who testified to having these experiences. That said, yes, there is the possibility that this is merely a literary function, though I don’t know that the literature itself shows signs of this. I am hesitant to explain Gospel material as invented out of thin air. It may not have happened, and it may have been a tradition that expanded over time, but it seems like the Evangelists believed the stories they told, if it they manipulate those stories to fit within an overarching narrative and theological agenda.
You know, Brian, I’m glad you’re a workaholic (or at the least a type A with intense curiosity)! You are the first person I’ve been able to engage with consistently to discuss mutual interests in this area, large and small… especially when I often disagree and/or challenge. I had something started a few yrs ago with an Evangelical NT scholar (prof.) who I honestly don’t recall the name of now. We seemingly hit it off but once I tipped my thoroughly progressive hand (maybe I WAS kind of challenging… don’t recall), he basically cut off all discussion with some brief “writing off” statement I can’t exactly remember either. In other cases, more conservative folks have been polite but (understandably) want to continue writing, teaching focus and just don’t engage much. Progressives I’ve found to be responsive but not always taking the time to dig in either (again, understandably… commenting and corresponding on the Net [or emails] is not a quick way to real personal relationships). So anyway, long way of saying I appreciate you and glad you will take time to go bk and forth.
As to neuroscience, you may be into details I’ve not kept up with. Psych was my major and then (’76-’78) my Masters (Mar. and Fam. csg.), then practice for a decade (along w/ teaching/church min.) Then my interdisciplinary psych/theol/rel. ed. PhD work at Claremont, and I’ve become a BIG proponent of interdisciplinary work and perspectives. But it’s bucking the trend and what seems most “practical” of narrow specialization academically in order to carve one’s niche and/or generally get ahead. Most unfortunate, and I know early Americans (along with Europeans of the era) from Edwards to Adams, Jefferson et al, would agree heartily! (BTW, have you ever checked into the life and career of Joseph Priestly, the Brit/American who may have been a key player in how/why Adams and Jefferson patched up their friendship in their post-pres. years, and who played a big role not only in sci. but in theology and the early days of “higher criticism”?… fascinating stuff!). Generally, tho they often know some good psych intuitively, most church leaders and religious/biblical academics don’t know diddly about psych or even psych of religion, religious experiences, etc. Great to see you DO pay attn to that area!
Clarification re. my Priestly remarks: I only mean that he indirectly may have been instrumental in the Adams-Jefferson reconciliation, that being via his theological work which they jointly read and discussed a bit, one of them recommending him, as I recall, particularly to the other… I think Jefferson to Adams. (Adams moved gradually more liberal later in life, it appears, and Jefferson of course seemed always to be a deep skeptic re. the Bible but still seriously “religious” [or maybe “SNR” in our terms, tho he did NOT denigrate religion per se that I am aware]).
Another P.S. (sorry things are coming to mind too late to include before I hit “post”): There was also a political dimension in that Priestly was at the center of the Alien and Sedition Act which I think Adams instituted and later “repented of” (details are sketchy in my memory… apologies to any political historians, who are welcome to correct or modify my remarks).
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