Monthly Archives: August 2013

Tales From Apocrypha 3: The Gospel of Thomas

I started this post about six months ago and part of the reason was to use the Gospel of Thomas as an illustration of various early Christian groups originating independent of one another. Unfortunately, I don’t recall exactly where I was going with that so instead I’m going to talk about what I find most fascinating about the Gospel of Thomas; simply that it may provide a window into very early Christianity.

Before I get started on that a quick review of what seems to be the most prevalent scholarly thinking on the development of the Canonical Gospels is in order. New Testament scholars generally believe that the Synoptic Gospels; Mark, Luke and Matthew, originated from two main sources. One of these consisted of oral stories circulating about Jesus’ life, accounts of what he did. The second is some source, commonly identified as the Q or Quelle source, which contained a list of Jesus’ sayings. These stories and sayings were then combined to form the Synoptic Gospels. 1

The Gospel of Thomas has been among the most analyzed, critiqued and written about of all Apocryphal works. It is unlike any of the Canonical Gospels as it provides no details of Jesus’ life. It is a sayings gospel. The Gospel of Thomas includes 114 quotations from Jesus. Nothing more, nothing less. 2 The Gospel was only recently discovered among the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945 however once it was analyzed historians realized that they already possessed fragments of it in Coptic from Oxyrhynchus, dated from before 200 CE. 3 The version found at Nag Hammadi dates from the early fourth century.

Nag_Hammadi_Codex_IIfolio 32 of Nag Hammadi Codex II, with the ending of the Apocryphon of John, and the
beginning of the Gospel of Thomas. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is some debate about the date the Gospel of Thomas was written and this is pretty important. The Nag Hammadi version is believed to have consisted of an early version which had been added to over the years, resulting in a final version which became more widely disseminated from around 140-200. The interesting point for me within this context is the earlier material which some historians believe originated in the early second century while others believe it may have been written earlier, perhaps as early as about 40. I find the argument for an early date persuasive (to be fair, at this time I have not read a detailed explanation of why it may be later).

One argument for the possibility of an early date for GT is when we compare phrases from Thomas to those in another Gospel. Helmut Koester writes, “If one considers the form and wording of the individual sayings in comparison with the form in which they are preserved in the New Testament, The Gospel of Thomas appears to have preserved a more original form of the traditional saying(in a few instances, where this is not the case, the Coptic translation seems to have been influenced by the translator’s knowledge of the New Testament gospels), or presents versions which are independently based on more original forms.” 4 Bart Ehrman writes, “Many of these sayings are pithier and more succinct than their canonical counterparts. Is it possible that Thomas presents a more accurate version of the sayings than, say, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (there are fewer parallels to John)- that is, a closer approximation to the way Jesus actually said them?” 5

Here are some examples from Wikipedia where Thomas includes the same general message as one of the canonical Gospels but in a shorter form: 6

Thomas 8: And Jesus said, “The person is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisherman discovered a fine large fish. He threw all the little fish back into the sea, and easily chose the large fish. Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!”

and Matthew 13:47-50: “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

or Thomas 107: Jesus said, “The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, I love you more than the ninety-nine.”

with Luke 15:3–7: Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” 7

Following the same reasoning as the historians I’ve quoted above, to me it’s logical that the shorter, less detailed saying would usually be the earlier one. There’s no law which says this must be the case but it’s much easier to argue that someone took a short saying, the meaning of which confused some folks, and expanded it to make its message clearer than for someone to have taken a detailed, fairly clear message and made it shorter and less clear. Now not every saying in Thomas is paralleled in the New Testament and obviously the proposed earliest date of 140 for the text found in the Nag Hammadi manuscript postdates the writings of the Gospels by half a century or more. However it is reasonable to think that at least some of the sayings included in it were not edited and are very early.

Where the Gospel of Thomas is fascinating is this window it provides (or may provide) into very early Christianity, well before it would have been considered anything more than a Jewish sect, possibly even before Paul’s letters. Where the canonical Gospels are a merging of oral stories told of the life of Jesus combined with his sayings, teachings and parables into a narrative, Thomas is more of a raw form; a component, possibly, of what came to be the Gospels of the New Testament. 8

NOTE: This is a link to an online version of the Gospel of Thomas.

1 Hopefully folks realize this is woefully oversimplified. For example, most of Mark is included in Matthew and Luke, but the latter two incorporate considerable additional material, resulting in some historians’ belief that they must have had an additional source or two. BTW, these three are called Synoptic because they share so much material. John is significantly different.

2 As far as I know Thomas has never been identified as the Q document mentioned above however it has often been described in terms such as, “similar to what the Q document may have been.”

3 For me the most useful introduction is by Helmut Koester in Robinson (1990), pp 124-6. If your preference is for a more detailed analysis, see Hennecke, et al. (1973) pp 278-307.

4 Helmut Koester, “The Gospel of Thomas,” p 125 in Robinson (1990).

5 Ehrman, Lost Christianities (2003) pp 55-6.

6 OK, here I have to admit something. Not sure if I should be embarrassed by this or not. When I began writing this post back whenever, I recalled someone having done a very nice job comparing sayings in Thomas with those in the canonical Gospels demonstrating that while they are similar, in many cases those in Thomas were shorter and simpler. I was sure this was in one of the books I’d read on it – my “Apocrypha Collection” includes 13 books and I have more on the Gnostics and other heresies. One of the reasons I’ve taken so long publishing this post is I couldn’t find this comparison. Until today when I Googled the term, “Gospel of Thomas Comparison Matthew” which took me to Wikipedia. I’ve not used it as a source before but we use the tools we are given (I’m still convinced this is in a book I have here, someplace). Anyway, take that for what it’s worth. I categorize Wikipedia as useful for quick reference but not dependable (IOW I like to double check what it says – then again, I’d give someone the same advice if we were talking about me). But since Wikipedia uses me as a source, I suppose it’s time I return the favor.

7 (2013)

8 I think it’s important to note that the Gospel of Thomas was found among Gnostic documents and there are hints of a Gnostic emphasis on secret knowledge in it, enough that early Christian writers such as Hippolytus, Origen and Eusebius consider it heretical. However these hints are subtle compared with texts such as The Apocryphon of John. To me Thomas fits in the category of, “not Gnostic but something which contains material which is appealing to Gnostics.” Of course then there’s the discussion of what exactly we mean by the terms “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism,” is this another “ism” which has become so generalized as to be virtually useless, etc. I’m not going there, not today anyway but if you want to, Meyer(2005) discusses this scholarly debate in his introduction, pp x-xiii.

Ehrman, Bart, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0195-14183-2

Ehrman, Bart, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2003). ISBN:978-0195-14182-5.

Ehrman, Bart and Plese, Zlatko, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011). ISBN:978-0-19-973210-4.

Hennecke, E., Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha: Gospels and Related Writings, Volume 1. Trowbridge, Wiltshire: Redwood Press (1973). ISBN:978-0-334-01111-8.

Meyer, Marvin, trans. & ed., The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus: The Definitive Collection of Mystical Gospels and Secret Books about Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperCollins (2005). ISBN: 978-0-060-76208-7.

Pagels, Elaine, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House (2005). ISBN:978-0-375-50156-2.

Robinson, James M., ed., The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume. New York: HarperCollins (1990). ISBN:978-0-06-066934-8.

Wikipedia, Gospel of Thomas, page last modified August 19, 2013. (last accessed August 26, 2013).


Posted by on August 31, 2013 in Literature, Religion


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Clement of Alexandria, Theologian for the Wealthy

As I mentioned in my first post on Clement I think his thoughts on wealth are very interesting and possibly indicative of a contemporary social movement which I’ll discuss at the end of the post. Clement comes across as something of an anti-ascetic. To this point none of the other Early Christian writers I’ve read have promoted extreme asceticism as would later become monasticism, either cenobitic or eremitic. 1 Their opinions on things seem to have been pretty close to those of Clement; eat but do not be a glutton, have sex within marriage but do not be lustful, drink wine but don’t be a drunk, etc. However Clement takes this to a new level, not by simply arguing for moderation, but spending considerable time arguing against asceticism, particularly voluntary poverty.

It’s important to remember that throughout Clement’s writings his dominant theme is instruction on what it takes to be a good Christian. In Instructor he talks about behavior. Christians are not to dress extravagantly, women should be veiled with head covering in public and beyond the wearing of a finger-ring to carry a seal, or women doing so to please their husbands (see note 13 in my prior post), the wearing of jewelry is to be avoided. He discusses items such as whether men should wear beards, if their hair should be short or if women can wear extensions made of another’s hair. Much of this involves restraining oneself but the Christian is also allowed to eat at sumptuous meals to please one’s host, his bed may be comfortable, the gymnasium is acceptable while the baths are not, he may drink wine or eat meat in moderation, etc. 2 Significant for its absence from Clement’s writings (so far as I can recall) is any admonition that the Christian should distance himself from non-believers. The overall impression I received from this is that Clement is saying that in order to be part of Roman society, Christians are permitted to participate in some aspects of Roman life which might be viewed as luxurious. Even here he goes into details not found in Justin Martyr or the other apologists but I don’t think they would have found anything in it to disagree with.

Clement takes his discussion of wealth to a whole new level. He returns to this issue regularly throughout the Stromata and devotes an entire treatise, Who is the Rich Man That Can be Saved to this question. He again has a dominant message; wealth is not in and of itself evil but loving wealth or becoming obsessed with it is. The wealthy man is able to pursue Clement’s path of Gnostic contemplation of God and the mysteries of the faith. The poor man, consumed by the need to secure what he needs to live, will be distracted from this contemplative life and will find it nearly impossible to become Clement’s Gnostic perfect man.

StPakhomSaint Pachomius, reputed to be the founder of the first Christian Monastery. I don’t think
Clement would have joined his fan club. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Clement sets out his theme rather neatly in Stromata IV.5:

The same holds good also in the case of poverty. For it compels the soul to desist from necessary things, I mean contemplation and from pure sinlessness, forcing him who has not wholly dedicated himself to God in love, to occupy himself about provisions; as, again, health and abundance of necessaries keep the soul free and unimpeded, and capable of making a good use of what is at hand.

In IV.6 he uses the Beatitudes to support his point. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means that the wealthy are able to be saved, so long as they desire to be poor, and he combines this with, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” to craft the following statement:

“And blessed are the poor,” whether “in spirit” or in circumstances – that is, for righteousness’ sake. It is not the poor simply, but those that have wished to become poor for righteousness’ sake, that He pronounces blessed – those who have despised the honours of this world in order to attain “the good” …

He continues by discussing the wealthy man from Matthew 19.16-22. This man was not rejected by Christ because of his wealth but because he did not choose to cast aside the burdens of his soul and live his life according to Christ:

For God dispenses to all according to desert, His distribution being righteous. Despising, therefore, the possessions which God apportions to thee in thy magnificence, comply with what is spoken by me; haste to the ascent of the Spirit, being not only justified by abstinence from what is evil, but in addition also perfected by Christlike beneficence.

All of Who is the Rich Man that shall be Saved is full of these types of arguments, quotes from scripture where Clement explains how the hidden meaning of statements such as “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” in Mark 10.25 actually returns to the theme of someone using wealth to live good works and for the benefit of others rather than casting aside all possessions. From Rich Man Chapter 16, contrasting the rich who lust after wealth and those who do not:

For he who holds possessions, and gold, and silver, and houses, as the gifts of God; and ministers from them to the God who gives them for the salvation of men; and knows that he possesses them more for the sake of the brethren than his own; and is superior to the possession of them, not the slave of the things he possesses; and does not carry them about in his soul, nor bind and circumscribe his life within them, but is ever laboring at some good and divine work, even should he be necessarily some time or other deprived of them, is able with cheerful mind to bear their removal equally with their abundance. This is he who is blessed by the Lord and called poor in spirit, a meet heir of the kingdom of heaven, not one who could not live rich.

I suppose I could keep quoting as I have several thousand words to choose from (I really like Chapter 26 of Rich Man as a summary) but I think this is enough to give Clement’s general direction. His tendency is to interpret Christ’s discussion to not mean material wealth but a poverty of spirit. Since for Clement the surest way to be a good Christian was to grow in the understanding of God and the mysteries of the faith, anything which distracted from the pursuit of that understanding was to be avoided. 3 This might mean to be wealthy and obsessed with and in love with wealth. Or it might mean to be poor and for your life to be consumed with pursuing the needs required to maintain your existence. It never occurs to Clement that you might give away all your possessions and remove yourself from all worldly cares to pursue a life of contemplation. If it had, I have a feeling we’d have an argument against it as he sure wasn’t one to back down from a challenge.

As with so many of his other concepts, Clement’s opposition to living a life of poverty never caught on, not officially anyway. His vision of a poor Christian was not of someone divesting him- or herself of all worldly cares and possessions to live a contemplative life but of someone who had to spend so much time just living as to not be able to pursue this contemplative life. Yet this became the mainstream view of the person who gave all to the poor to enter monastic life, whether solitary or communal. On the other hand, the idea that a wealthy person could still enter the kingdom of heaven by using his or her wealth for the benefit of others certainly gained favor. If it hadn’t the Church would never have gained so many possessions. Clement’s belief that it was OK to be wealthy and that you could be a good Christian with money or property was not out of the mainstream either during that time or at any point in time including today. His criticism of those giving away all they own to live in poverty is another story, at least once we reach the 4th century.

To date none of the authors I’ve read can be considered proponents of asceticism. They certainly don’t resemble later figures such as Athanasius or Jerome. Their guidelines were for a Christian to be modest in behavior and appearance. However none of the others have taken a stance which I’d consider to be anti-ascetic, to the point of interpreting the Scriptures, including the words of Christ, to mean pretty much the opposite of what they say. The question which makes this particular aspect of Clement so interesting to me is, why?

Why is Clement so vehemently opposed to “sell all you have and give to the poor” as to devote an entire treatise and substantial portions of another to this topic? The only reason I can come up with is that asceticism was beginning to pick up in Egypt about this time. There had probably always been a few Christians around who practiced extreme asceticism but perhaps they began to become more active, were forming into groups and gaining new adherents about this time. Perhaps one of the ascetic heretical sects was active. I have to think there was someone, some popular voice, group or movement, that was accusing the wealthy of not being true Christians and stating that their wealth was a hindrance to their salvation and doing so effectively enough to gain some converts/adherents/support.

How would Clement have viewed this? He seems to have been a very Roman Christian. He understood classical society and it’s very possible that he viewed this development as one in which members of his faith were willingly removing themselves from the upper levels of society and, consequently, from positions of influence. I think it’s very possible, even probable, that he viewed this potential loss of influence as disastrous. I’m making a fair amount of conjecture here (and have read nothing in any secondary books which raise this issue though I haven’t yet explored the development of monasticism) but something inspired Clement to go to these lengths to argue against this practice. We’re over a century before the first known founding of a Christian monastery but to me, Clement’s concern over this activity; that wealthy Christians might give away all they own, shows that something was probably going on, he didn’t like it, and he was going to do what he could to put a stop to it.

1 Eremitic monasticism equals solitary, cenobitic equals communal.

2 These concepts are discussed throughout Instructor.

3 As part of being a philosopher included having time to oneself to think rationally about things, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is so important to Clement. Similarly his concern that a true Gnostic Christian not be overly consumed worrying about mundane issues of the world.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.


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New Page Added

I’ve added a new page to this blog which lists all of the posts I’ve made since I started this Early Christianity Reading effort. It’s becoming difficult to find earlier posts which I may want to refer back to. Listing them all on one page makes this much simpler.

If what I’ve been reading and posting about on this interests you(I can dream can’t I?), you may also find it helpful.

I had to chuckle when I saw in my introduction post that I thought I’d be reading about this “for the next few months.” That seems rather naive at the moment; I don’t think there’s any interpretation of “a few” where it can mean 21.

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Posted by on August 26, 2013 in Blogology


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Clement of Alexandria: Merging Greek and Christian

Before I get to specific ideas Clement proposes, I think it’s important to discuss my overall impression of him and some of his dominant themes. First, he is the most long-winded Early Christian author I’ve run across to date. A lot of words, quite a bit of repetitiveness and he comes across as disorganized in the Stromata. He is much more coherent in The Instructor, Exhortation to the Heathen and Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved. 1 Now Stromata translates to Miscellanies and he openly states these are just his thoughts written down so I could forgive him for this except for one thing; I had to read it (well, I guess nobody made me). 2

Clement is the most philosophical of all of the writers I’ve gone through to date, and that’s saying something. Justin Martyr uses philosophical methods extensively, Irenaeus less so but it’s still present and most of the other apologists do as well. Clement takes this to a new level. His writings are a true merging of Greek and Christian thought. He admires Plato and uses him extensively and also borrows quite a bit from Philo. He quotes philosophers a lot and some of their writings are only known of through him.

There is a lot of information in Clement, even though he could have said the same in a third of the space. What is interesting is how little of it became part of post-Nicene Orthodoxy. I originally thought this would be a fairly short post but have decided that talking about these various items which were not adopted by The Church is as important as discussing what was.

ClemensVonAlexandrienClement of Alexandria, image from Wikimedia Commons. Notice the lack of a halo
indicating he is not a saint however keep in mind that in some Christian churches he is.

Clement’s overall theology isn’t heterodox though there are a few items that must have disturbed early theologians which I’ll touch on. However, while generally mainstream, he engages in a general rewrite of scriptures so they mean what he thinks they say, to an extent I’ve not seen outside of Barnabas. Irenaeus would have hated parts of it, particularly where Clement places great importance on the hidden, mystical symbolism of words and numbers. 3

Clement’s overriding theme is one of how to be a good Christian. Except for in Exhortation, his discussion of this is dominant throughout his surviving writings. This merging of Greek and Christian thought has a great deal of impact on how he approaches this topic. For Clement, there are multiple levels of the faithful. Simple faith and good works is a means by which Christians may be saved however those who advance in their understanding of God and Christ will also advance in their reward. Clement’s ideal Christian is one who seeks to understand and know God as fully as possible, who tries to unlock what are repeatedly referred to as the “mysteries of the faith”. This is achieved through knowledge, contemplation and study. Clement uses the term Gnostic in a positive manner, to represent the enlightened Christian. To believe is good, to know is better. In essence men are children but by using philosophy, Christians can advance in knowledge to become the type of Christian which God had in mind when he formed Adam. This Gnostic, “perfect” man will come to know God and the mysteries of the religion in a way one who simply believes will not, and will be given higher status in heaven. 4

One of Clement’s most profound ideas is that the Greeks and the Jews are not wrong, it is just that the Christians are more right. The Greeks and Jews know God, the Greeks through philosophy, the Jews through the Old Testament. Philosophy is a gift to men from God, a means whereby they may come to know him more fully. Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, have been studying God for centuries although Christians are better at it. 5 This is a huge shift from prior authors and apologists who argued not just for their faith but that Jews and Greeks were in error. For Clement philosophy has a great deal of value and even heretics have some usefulness. Keep in mind this is not the same as Clement believing that the worship of the Roman Gods is correct. He is quite explicit that the Roman Gods do not exist, that stories of them are either invented or of evil men. 6 However Clement’s Christianity is more inclusive than that of other early writers and Greek philosophers. Jews, and even heretics are not wholly excluded. Personally, of all of Clement’s ideas I find this one the most interesting. Christianity may have evolved very differently if this had gained acceptance.

Following the lead of Irenaeus and others, Clement states that the Greeks received their philosophy from other sources. For the most part this is from Moses and the Old Testament. He also believes much of their thought originated with barbarians including Egyptians and Indians. By the time Clement gets done comparing the ideas of the Greek philosophers with concepts from the Old Testament and barbarians, the Greeks are pretty much left without an original thought they can call their own. 7

While Clement’s theology is not heretical, hints of heresy pop up from time to time. The most serious are some statements that I think are pretty close to Adoptionism. Clement provides several instances where he indicates that Christ did not truly suffer, was not harmed and did not truly die. This is significant enough that I’ll provide a couple of quotes, using bold text for emphasis:

And where, then, was the door by which the Lord showed himself? The flesh by which he was manifested. He is Isaac (for the narrative may be interpreted otherwise), who is a type of the Lord, a child as a son; for he was the son of Abraham. as Christ the Son of God, and a sacrifice as the Lord, but he was not immolated as the Lord. Isaac only bore the wood of the sacrifice, as the Lord the wood of the cross. And he laughed mystically, prophesying that the Lord should fill us with joy, who have been redeemed from corruption by the blood of our Lord. Isaac did everything but suffer, as was right, yielding precedence in suffering to the Word. Furthermore there is an intimation of the divinity of the Lord in His not having been slain. For Jesus rose again after his burial, having suffered no harm, like Isaac released from sacrifice. 8


Well, I assert, simultaneously with His [Christ’s] baptism by John, He becomes perfect? Manifestly. He did not then learn anything more from him? Certainly not. But He is perfected by the washing – of baptism – alone, and is sanctified by the descending of the Holy Spirit? Such is the case. 9

Another interesting concept he provides is that Christ descended to Hades and preached the Gospel there, so that those who might believe would be saved. In Hades Christ did as he instructed the Apostles; to go and preach the Word of God. Clement clearly believes that the souls in Hades would not be left without an opportunity for salvation. 10

He also has some interesting things to say about Martyrdom. Martyrdom is a good thing and the man or woman who gives up his or her life for the faith is blessed. The Martyr “has exhibited the perfect work of love.” However this is not the case for those who rush to martyrdom, eager for death. Clement considers them cowards, engaged in a form of suicide and self-death, and these are not truly Christians though they may share the name. How have those who desire death suffered? Those who fear death but hold fast to their faith despite this fear are to be admired and considered perfect. These others, the suicides, are guilty of their own deaths and accomplices in the crimes of the persecutors. 11

In order to not make this post too long, I’m going to list some other themes from Clement. I’ll discuss them a bit more in the notes.

  • 1. Places are not holy, people are. 12
  • 2. Men and women are spiritually equal though men are to be obeyed, particularly in marriage. 13
  • 3. However much man might study and learn; even to the Gnostic Christian, God is not fully comprehensible and cannot be described by words or ideas. 14
  • 4. He is not extensively anti-heretical though he identifies some heretics, particularly Valentinus and Basilides. He believes that even heretics have a purpose and can help Christians discover the truth. 15
  • 5. He does not seem to be strictly vegetarian however at times he appears to be opposed to eating meat. 16
  • 6. Christians should not give oaths. As a Christian, their statements should be accepted as true without them. 17
  • 7. Marriage is a blessed institution and a virtuous married man is superior to a virtuous unmarried man. 18
  • 8. Bodily pleasures are not in and of themselves evil or sinful but overindulgence and becoming obsessed with them is. 19
  • 9. He believes Barnabas is an apostle and quotes extensively from the Shepherd of Hermas, to me as if he believes it is part of scripture. 20
  • 10. He provides the earliest statement I’ve come across in favor of free range chickens. 21

Clement of Alexandria is a tedious read. While the other three works aren’t bad, his Stromata came across to me as confused and disorganized and he repeats the same ideas a LOT. It really wasn’t until Book 5 where he seemed to get his thoughts organized. Other than his discussion of Martyrdom, I think you could start Stromata with Book 5 and get most of his main ideas.

Much of what he says ended up being outside of eventual mainstream Christian thought. I’m unaware that different levels in heaven ever gained widespread acceptance (though Purgatory did appear and he may have had something to do with that) and his granting to the Greeks extensive knowledge of God goes beyond anything else I’ve seen, though during the Middle Ages Plato was pointed to as an example of someone who at least had some knowledge of God before the coming of Christ. I’m also not aware that the idea of Christ preaching in Hades was ever accepted by mainstream Christianity and his concept of a man becoming perfect and thereby abstaining from eating meat sure sounds like a Cathar/Albigensian precursor. 22 As for his thoughts on the willing martyr, while this theme does surface occasionally, stories of the willing or even eager martyr became its own literary form. As I stated above, the idea that Jesus was anything other than fully God and Man from the moment of conception has always been considered heretical. And the idea of marriage being as beneficial as abstinence, while not exactly what Clement said (his single person was not identified as a virgin though as for Clement sex was only for the purposes of procreation and marriage was the only way to legitimately produce children I think it’s implied) became a knock-down, drag-out fight between Jovinian and Augustine in the early 5th century, something I’m looking forward to reading about.

I keep coming back to how he tried to merge Greek and Christian thought. If this had caught on, how different would Christianity’s development have been, or its final form? It evidently did not though until I read Tertullian and Origen I won’t be able to say whether it gained traction for a little while. As a minority religion, or a superstition as the Romans believed it, there was little chance of Clement convincing the Greeks of that time and once Christianity received official recognition in the early 4th century the need for compromise was over. Clement becomes notable, not for his legacy to what would become Orthodox Christianity, but in considering how so much of what he wrote did not become part of it.

NOTE: I was originally going to spend some time talking about Clement’s ideas on wealth and poverty but I’ve decided to make a separate post about this. Very interesting stuff though, at least I think so. In any case, my followup post is here.

1 I’m using the titles as given in the Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume II even though I have a feeling these aren’t the preferred ones. For example, Exhortation to the Heathen is usually given as Exhortation to the Greeks.

2 I’ve decided to skip the bio because, other than that he lived in Alexandria in the late 2nd/early 3rd century, almost all we know about Titus Flavius Clemens is through his writings. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI.13.2, mentions that Clement studied under Pantaenus which indicates he was associated with the Christian School at Alexandria.

3 This pops up several times, most extensively in Stromata V.4-10 and VI.16, the latter related to numbers, particularly 10. He also discusses divine symbolism contained in music in Stromata VI.10.

4 This general theme pervades all of Stromata but is most clearly described, including Clement’s celestial hierarchy, in VI.10-18. For Clement’s concept of men as Children see Instructor I.5-6 where he discusses this in detail.

5 This is another idea Clement frequently returns to. He is most explicit in Stromata VI.5 and VI.17 in discussing how philosophers had some knowledge of God and he talks all the time about how Greek philosophy came from the Old Testament. In VI.5 he writes, “For clearly, as I think that he [Christ] showed that the one and only God was known by the Greeks in a Gentile way, by the Jews Judaically, and in a new and spiritual way by us.”

6 This is a main theme of Exhortation, particularly Chapters 2-4.

7 There’s a lot of discussion of the origin of Greek thought in Clement. He approaches the topic early in Stromata I.15-16 regarding the barbarians and in V.14 he goes into great detail about it, including with the Jews. The Egyptians and Indians are mentioned in VI.4. In I.21, he writes, “And Numenius, the Pythagorean philosopher, expressly writes: ‘For what is Plato, but Moses speaking in Attic Greek.'”

8 The quoted passage is from Instructor I.5, towards the end (the ANF II does not provide passage numbers). Stromata VII.3 describes Christ as “wholly immutable” and the ANF II p. 586 quotes JA Cramer’s Catenae Graecorum patrum in Novum Testamentum, Oxford (1840), Volume VI, p 385 as saying that Clement’s fourth book of Hypotyposes states that Christ was not subject to the influences of the flesh, including being hungry, thirsty, weary or needing sleep.

9 Instructor I.6. Adoptionism was the idea that Jesus did not always contain Christ, that God’s Son entered him at some point after his birth, and that up to that time Jesus was a man though one who was being prepared to be the vessel of Christ. A variation on this includes the belief that Christ was immune to suffering and pain as is evidenced by Jesus crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross indicating that Christ’s spirit left him and the man was left to endure the crucifixion alone. Clement doesn’t quite go this far but this statement indicates that something was added at Jesus’ baptism.

10 Stromata VI.6.

11 For his thoughts on martyrdom, Stromata IV.7-9. For his criticism of the willing martyr, IV.4 and IV.10.

12 He first brings this up in Stromata V.11 and expands on it in VII.5. This theme that Christians as people were holy but things, including places, were not was a prominent theme in Early Christianity.

13 Both concepts are discussed in Stromata IV.8. He also implies male dominance in Instructor at various points where he advises women that one of their main roles is to please their husbands and do things for them which might otherwise be considered sinful, in particular in III.11 where he tells women that they may adorn themselves to please their husbands and keep him from seeking his pleasures elsewhere.

14 This concept is also discussed several times, most fully in Stromata V.12

15 Clement is quite mild when discussing heretics, particularly when you read him, as I did, right after Irenaeus. This specific idea is covered in Stromata VI.15.

16 Clement is pretty contradictory with this. To provide a couple of examples, in Instructor Chapter 2 he says that meat can be eaten in moderation and this is not a sin. However in Stromata VII.6 he comes out and says, “But I believe sacrifices were invented by men to be a pretext for eating meat.” In VII.12 he states that the true Gnostic will not eat meat as to do so would involve succumbing to pleasure, “How, then, can what relates to meat, and drink, and amorous pleasure, be agreeable to such an one?”

17 Stromata VII.7. This was a fairly widespread opinion among early Christians though if you really want to get your fill of it, read John Chrysostom’s homilies.

18 I will be very curious when I read up on it to see whether Jovinian’s ideas can be traced back to Clement. Clement speaks highly of marriage in Stromata II.23. In VII.12 he states that the married man, having to deal with all of the distractions that come with having a wife, family, household, etc., is superior to the single man whose study of God is unencumbered with all of this.

19 This is related to Clement’s discussion of wealth where various things are permitted but should not be indulged in. He discusses this related to eating in Instructor II.1, in II.2 on drinking and in II.10 on enjoying sex within marriage so long as its primary purpose is procreation.

20 Barnabas is quoted many times but Clement calls him an apostle in Stromata II.6, II.7, II.20 (here named as one of the 70 sent out by the 12), V.10, and I may have missed one or two. The important issue here is not that Barnabas is an Apostle as he is named in Acts but that Clement believes the Epistle of Barnabas should be attributed to him, something which even then was not universally accepted. Irenaeus’ disavowal of mystical imagery and numerology to explain scripture is a pretty strong indicator that Barnabas was falling out of favor at the time, at least among some Christian circles. Hermas is most extensively quoted in Stromata II.9, II.12, IV.9 and in VI.15 Clement comes awful close to calling it Scripture.

21 I thought about saving this for a separate brief humorous post sometime when I hit a lull. The agriculturalist in me caught this quote in Stromata II.1, “And they say that fowls have flesh of the most agreeable quality, when, through not being supplied with abundance of food, they pick their sustenance with difficulty, scraping with their feet.” Meaningless theologically but it entertained me and I’m including it in case I ever get into a conversation about the topic. I probably need to read On Agriculture by Varro but for the time being this is the earliest mention I’m aware of extolling the benefits of free range poultry.

22 Then again, I’m not very up on eastern religions and maybe one or more of these influenced his thoughts in this direction.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.


Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Religion


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We Are Old: An Argument for Christian Legitimacy

Early Christians used a variety of arguments as they looked for recognition by Roman authorities as a legitimate religion/philosophical school. One of these which I find interesting is that Christianity should be viewed as old, a progression of a belief system which predates, in some cases, pretty much everything else.

One of the very earliest Christian themes, evolving from the time when it was still another Jewish sect, was apocalyptic. The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabus, Ignatius and many others argued that The Last Days, if not having already begun, were very near. As things progress into the middle of the second century another theme begins to gain importance; arguments supporting Christianity not as a recently founded religion but as a belief system of great antiquity. A key to understanding why this is important is to consider Roman attitudes toward tradition and the status of Judaism in the Empire.

Judaism enjoyed a rather unique status, particularly prior to the rebellion of 66-73 and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-35. Jews were granted the freedom to practice their own religion and, largely, exempted from having to offer obeisance to Roman Gods or the Emperor. This freedom was not absolute throughout the Empire or over time, however it was largely in effect in Judea and Jerusalem. While I’m not going to get into this, it can be argued whether Judaism was actually monotheistic as some Jews did not deny the existence of the Roman Gods but stated that their obedience was given to Yahweh and they had been ordered to “have no other God before him.” Some Jews even made offerings to Roman Gods and the Emperor while maintaining that, though they did not wish the Roman Gods or Emperor ill, their reverence was reserved for their own God. This is an interesting topic in and of itself but isn’t something I’m going to explore here.

Chief among the reasons given for Jews possessing this status is that they had been following their God and practicing their rites well before they had entered the empire. The Romans placed a great deal of value on tradition and the antiquity of these types of practices. Because Judaism was ancient and because Jews had been following the same belief system and practices for so long, the Romans saw this as legitimate (to an extent, some still named it superstitio which implies an invalidity) and allowed them to continue. 1

Christianity, from the time when it began to split from Judaism, did not enjoy this status. It was illegal. By not offering prayers and sacrifices to Roman deities and Emperors, Christians were endangering the state. While persecution to the point of creating martyrs occurred relatively infrequently, it’s likely that Christians were discriminated against on a fairly constant basis. They were forced to conduct their religious observances in secret, in small groups in private houses. If you were openly Christian you were less likely to hold public office and often were excluded from various aspects of Roman life. 2

Ancient Christian authors set out to correct this. They used a variety of strategies to demonstrate the validity and antiquity of Christianity. One of the most dominant themes was that Christ and the concept of Christ was not new but could be found in the oldest Jewish writings. Christ had existed from the beginning and if you read the Old Testament correctly, there was plenty of evidence for this and plenty of evidence that the man who had walked about Judea, who had been tried, crucified and resurrected, was frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, specifically enough to know beyond all doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was the person prophesied about. Christians, not Jews, were practicing an ancient religion which should be given legal status by Rome. They were the followers of the ancestral faith and should inherit the rights enjoyed by the Jews. Christians were simply following what had long been prophesied and had come to pass while Jews were stuck in the past, worshiping in a manner which did not recognize the truth of the scriptures.

A great deal of this comes across as anti-Jewish polemic. If I were a researcher in this area it would be interesting to argue whether this is from outright antagonism toward Judaism or more of a usurpation of the Judaic place in society as the legitimate inheritor of Moses and Abraham. I’m not going to footnote specifics as this theme is so dominant but among those writing along these lines are Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus, Melito, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and I’m sure there are plenty more. If you want to see how far they were willing to go to rewrite the Old Testament to account for Christ, see Barnabas. When I was reading him I was pretty sure he and I weren’t talking about the same book. He and Clement are more, er, creative. Most of the others restrict themselves to an examination of the Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah.

Isaiah_(Bible_Card)The Prophet Isaiah, Bible card from Wikimedia Commons. He gets most
of the credit among early Christians for predicting the coming of Christ.

As time went on, these arguments progressed. With Justin Martyr we first discover that not only are Christians following written texts of great antiquity but so, indirectly, are the Romans. Moses predates anything written by the Greeks and Justin directly attributes concepts in Greek philosophy to Moses. Many of Plato’s ideas come from Moses. 3 While Irenaeus ignores this argument Tatian uses it and Clement of Alexandria in the Stromata absolutely rolls with it. According to Clement the Greeks seem not to have had an original idea they can call their own. Everything they wrote about came from the Jews, or Egyptians, or Barbarians.

The early Christians used plenty of other arguments to try to gain legitimacy, many of which I touched on in my post on the Apologists. This argument for the antiquity of their religion; despite no longer sacrificing, eating the same foods, following the same ritual cleansing as Jews and; adding baptism, the Eucharist and other rituals to their religion is something I find very interesting. 4

1 This respect for the Jews observing their ancestral traditions is noted as late as 361-3 in a letter from the Emperor Julian (letter 20 in the Loeb edition) to High Priest Theodorus in which Julian states that Jews do not break the law in their worship.

2 Eusebius, Ecclesiatical History V.1.5. Eusebius provides the letter from the Church of Lyons about the persecution it suffered in 177. At the start of the persecution, before the trials and executions, “For the adversary assailed us with his whole strength, giving us already a prelude, how unbridled his future movements among us would be. And, indeed, he resorted to every means, to accustom his own servants against those of God, so that we should not only be excluded from houses, baths, and markets, but every thing belonging to us was prohibited from appearing in any place whatsoever.” I haven’t read an analysis of this but it wouldn’t surprise me if this type of activity, preventing Christians from fully participating in Roman life, was fairly common. Keep in mind that Christians were often cautioned from mingling with pagans any more than they had to and, at least in Lyons, they were likely a Greek-speaking minority (at the very least they practiced their religion in Greek) in a Latin city. So you had an isolated minority group which spoke a different language, did not worship the Roman Gods, and kept to themselves. Discrimination would not be surprising.

3 Justin Martyr, First Apology 59.

4 To be clear, the specific arguments used by the various authors become tedious (some of these are extremely long-winded and I haven’t even gotten to Tertullian) but I find the overall strategy intriguing.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Kleist, James A., trans & ed., Ancient Christian Writers Volume 6: The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabus, the Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the Fragments of Papias, the Epistle to Diognetus, Mahwah, NJ, USA: Paulist Press (1948). ISBN: 978-0-8091-0247-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume II: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VIII: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-090-4.

Wright, Wilmer Cave, trans., The Works of the Emperor Julian, Volume III, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1923). ISBN: 978-0-674-99173-6.


Posted by on August 19, 2013 in Religion


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Book Buying IV: This is how I get in Trouble

I received an e-mail from Barnes and Noble with a 20% off one item offer, good through the end of today (Sunday, August 18, 2013 for anyone who may stumble across this in the future). Now ordinarily a 20% off deal isn’t enough for me to pull out the credit card. But as I’ve been reading ancient Christianity sources I keep finding myself wanting to pick up a modern book or two on a particular author, mainly as a check on myself to make sure I’m not completely misreading what the source material says. 1 As an example of this, as I began reading Clement of Alexandria I picked up Clement of Alexandria by Eric Osborn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2005). ISBN: 978-0-521-09081-0.

As I’m coming to the third-century I thought this offer would be a good chance to pick up something I’m pretty sure I’ll want when reading those authors, all while saving a few bucks. Makes sense, right? So I started working through my wishlisted Christianity books on Library Thing to see what I should order.

I came up with two books:
Allen Brent, Cyprian and Roman Carthage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-521-51547-4 and
Peter Martens, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-199-63955-7

However, in the same category in Library Thing was; Anthony Briggman, Irenaeus of Lyons and the Theology of the Holy Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-199-64153-6

When I’m looking for information on books I typically go to Amazon. I’m familiar with how their book pages are laid out and it gives me the information I want for the spreadsheet I keep where I list the books I own and those I want (this is my backup to Library Thing). Whenever possible, I buy books from someone else. I don’t have an Amazon boycott or anything but I’ve had some negative experiences with them and am not completely thrilled with some of the labor practices they’ve adopted as they’ve transitioned from a small virtual bookseller to the online version of WalMart. If I can find a book for close to the same price elsewhere, I buy from elsewhere.

Anyway, the Martens book was around $100 at Amazon (unless I want to rent it, WTF is that about? is Amazon trying to compete with libraries or end Inter-Library Loans?). It was higher at B&N so that went off the list. However Brent was under $70 so with 20% off it’s reasonable. Except at B&N it’s also at about 100. Briggman was a bit under 80 at Amazon but around $120 at B&N.

That ended my use of the 20% off. (I also checked publisher prices BTW). You’d think this meant I didn’t buy something, right? Well, you only think that if you don’t know me very well. By this time I was infected as visions of a shiny new book on a topic I’m interested in were running through my head. The addiction had kicked in; I needed my fix.

My opposition to Amazon isn’t on the same scale as, say, Nike due to their labor practices. So it came down to a choice between Briggman and Brent from Amazon. I’ve complained rather frequently that if I do what I want to do which is really dive into early Christianity (I’ve now been reading on it for 20 months so I’m beginning to question my use of “really dive into”) I’ll never get back to the 4th-6th centuries. This means leaving my knowledge level below my inclinations. I’ve already read Irenaeus and bought one modern book about him. And I’ve started my Irenaeus posts on this blog. So I should buy a book on Cyprian, right? Wrong.


Subsequent posts on Irenaeus will have to wait until I finish Briggman, despite my being over a thousand words into one. The interesting thing is that Irenaeus’ theology related to the nature of God and Christ wasn’t one of the major points I was going to be talking about. I was going to mention it as he writes in Trinitarian terms and explicitly states that Christ was begotten which indicates a progression from Justin Martyr, however his thinking is not yet refined to that displayed during the Nicaean-Arian conflict of the Fourth Century. But I expect Briggman will discuss more than just this.

Instead I’ll be following with some interesting issues discussed by Christian writers from the first and second centuries. I suspect some of these continued into the 3rd and even the early fourth but I’d hate to not post for another month while I finish this book. And there are a couple of interesting things in Clement of Alexandria which I think would make good posts.

When I started this whole Christianity thing I had a plan. I seem to be having trouble keeping to it. There’s just way too much interesting stuff to look into. At some point I need to quit complaining about this though. I think it’s just my nature.

1 As I’ve stated before, a huge weakness for me is that I don’t read Greek or Latin, though I am capable enough in the latter to parse through it and determine if a translation means what the English version says. However the Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers Series’ I’m using are a) old (though generally considered OK despite being written in Victorian English) and b) not accompanied by the Latin or Greek originals. So reading modern books, among other things, is a way to make sure that what I’m seeing in a translated source isn’t due to a misinterpretation/mistranslation. To date this has happened occasionally though not related to what I’d consider a major issue.


Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Books, Religion


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Cool Stuff on Other Blogs VIII

I’ve been pretty busy preparing for a significant work activity and haven’t had time to really buckle down on Irenaeus. Also, I am not entirely happy with my first post. To me it’s a bit disjointed and – this is coming from the person who wrote it – once I posted it and re-read it I was left with something of a “so what?” feeling. It’s not a complete waste of electrons as it has some decent information but it reads as if I didn’t have a clear point or objective I was trying to communicate. I don’t write blog posts like I do my professional work. Once I feel comfortable with a topic I just start typing it up in WordPress. But for my subsequent Irenaeus posts, I think I’ll at least write out a first draft in a word processor program and edit that. There’s just too much there. I debated pulling that post and doing a complete re-write and didn’t, partly because Irenaeus the heresiologist is just a prologue to why I think understanding him relative to the early church matters. But it showed me I need to do something different next time.

Up to about a month ago the blogosphere had been relatively quiet. But over the past few weeks things have really taken off. I don’t know why unless as the fall semester approaches people have recharged themselves mentally and are starting to think about their respective areas of expertise. Whatever the reason, being as I’m not going to offer anything remotely original for a little while, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at what other folks have been posting about. I’ve organized these “Cool Stuff” posts in different ways since I’ve been doing this, including chronologically by posts. This time, I’m going alphabetically by blog title.

This is the eighth of these round-up-type posts that I’ve done and I have a feeling Jonathan Jarrett is batting 100% for appearances with his blog, A Corner of Tenth Century Europe. And as his is at the top of my blog list alphabetically, I’m going to lead off with a recent post where he highlights a relative lack of sources from southwest Europe around the year 1000 and an example of how charter evidence can sometimes add information to the narrative history of the region, in this case related to the sack of the Iberian peninsula town of Manresa by Muslim forces around 997.

A recent post on Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, while not medieval, is another example of how archaeological finds often have been misinterpreted by researchers, and then used to support bias. In this case, the blogger (I’m not sure if the author is searching for anonymity however, though you can easily deduce who this is, said author will remain unnamed here) discusses the assumption that the remains found at Western Hemisphere sacrificial sites were of individuals who were; a) women, b) virgins, and c) beautiful. Additional analysis has shown that these first two assumptions are not always true and the third premise is both unprovable and subjective enough to where it really shouldn’t be talked about without other supporting evidence.

A new and very active blog is archaeodeath by Howard Williams of the University of Chester. He has posted a lot and what’s also great is that much of his archaeological investigation includes taking his family along. What a great way to further your profession! If you’re interested in archaeology and haven’t come across his site yet, take a long, hard look. Very frequent (I’m jealous), quality posts which often include a lot of pictures. I’ll link to one from just yesterday where he explores Anglesey Island sites (Anglesey Island is just off the coast of Wales).

I’d have to check to be sure but I bet Bones Don’t Lie, written by Katy Meyers, a Michigan State grad student, has made it on these Cool Stuff posts every time since I started following her blog. This is another very active blog. Over the summer she posted regularly about a research trip to England and her latest post is one on how Quicklime has often been misused in modern novels and is far more effective in preserving bodies than destroying them.

At Heavenfield Michelle Ziegler recently posted about Bede’s relating how St. Oswald interceded against the plague in the late 7th century and how this contributed to Oswald’s cult.

Historian on the Edge recently posted a journal article he wrote in 1992 about Viking Violence and how it was perceived in (mostly British) sources.

Magistra et Mater recently posted summaries from a couple of IHR Early Medieval Seminars. Each of these seminars discuss aspects of state formation and continuity/change, the first for 7th and 8th century Egypt, the second for later Anglo-Saxon England.

On Norse and Viking Ramblings Viqueen has a post about how Valkyries are portrayed in Scandinavian literature. I really haven’t gotten to my Viking/Scandinavian reading yet but this post was a nice complement to a presentation by Phil Purser that I heard a couple of years ago.

Karen Jolly provided an interesting post, along with quite a few pictures, of the monastic site of Glendalough on Revealing Words. I like living in the US most of the time but I do get envious of Europeans when I see posts like this.

Continuing with the monastery theme, Tim Clarkson posted a summary of a lecture on Kirkmadrine, a religious site in Southern Scotland on his blog, Senchus. Actually, he posted a summary of what can be found on a link to a description of the lecture (is this a summary of a summary?). You’ll need to go to Tim’s post to get to that one.

Another blog I’ve only recently been following is Surrey Medieval, authored by Robert Briggs. In it he discusses work he’s been doing, primarily focused on the County of Surrey in England. I’ll link a detailed post he recently put together summarizing statistical evidence of coins finds in Surrey, along with some interesting implications which the nature of these finds provide.

Maybe this post is really about blogs I’ve only recently come across. In any case, Michael Cheong provides a post which includes some humorous passages from Bald’s Leechbook on The Eastern Anglo-Saxonist. I find Medieval medicine very interesting myself and I enjoyed this post.

Gabriele of This Old Fort recently provided an excellent post on a Roman Signal Post at Scarborough. And as usual, she provides great pictures to go along with her description of the site.

That’s it for this time. Hopefully I’ll figure out what I want to say about Irenaeus in the near future.


Posted by on August 11, 2013 in Other Blogs


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Irenaeus of Lyons and the Evolution of Orthodoxy Part I

Having finished Irenaeus and finally finding the time to post about it, I’m amazed at how much there is in him to talk about. And then there’s the whole issue of not just what he said but how it was received, how influential he was, etc. I’m also running into an interesting phenomenon. I have never been all that interested in the development of doctrine and complex theological issues but I’ve been reading enough on it that it’s starting to become intriguing. Heck, I think I could even use a word like soteriological in a sentence if I had to. That can’t be good. I really need to get back to the 5th century, or at least the 4th. I suppose rambling on like I have for the past few sentences doesn’t make this happen any more quickly. In addition to rambling I’ve decided to split my Irenaeus comments into multiple posts, the first looking at him as heresiologist, the second (I may need a third post to get it all in) as theologian. 1

As usual, a brief biography seems to be in order. Irenaeus was born sometime in the early to mid 2nd century somewhere and grew up in some place. That was enlightening, wasn’t it? His writings betray that he almost certainly had received training as a philosopher. As Irenaeus mentions that during his childhood he heard Polycarp speak it has been theorized that he spent his early years, or at least a portion of them, in Smyrna. 2 Then again, maybe Irenaues’ family was traveling to Smyrna for some reason. All we know for sure is that he was born and grew up in the Greek-speaking regions of the Empire. And we can’t even use this to date Irenaeus’ birth with any certainty. Polycarp was martyred around the year 155 and was 86 at the time. 3 I’m not enough of a linguist to talk about this in any depth however Irenaeus’ use of the Greek term for child/boy could, depending on context, be used to describe anyone up to the age of 18. I think Irenaeus could have been born anywhere from the early 130’s to the late 140’s based on this. 4 I’ll return to this matter of age a bit later in this biography.

From that point we know very little about him until 177 when he became Bishop of Lyons though he appears to have spent some time in Rome. He took this position in the wake of what must have been tragic circumstances following a persecution which resulted in the martyrdom of 48 Christians belonging to that Church. A presbyter at the time, Irenaeus had been sent to Rome carrying a letter against Montanism (and praising the bearer) when this persecution was in its early stages. It’s easy to read an implication that the elders of the Lyons Church sent him in order to spare his life though I’m not aware that this is explicitly stated anywhere. 5 For me, one of the persuasive arguments in favor of Irenaeus having been an older youth when he heard Polycarp is that it seems unlikely that he would have been very young at this time in taking over a Church in crisis which would have needed a figure who could command respect. I’m unaware of any age requirement for bishops at this time however if he was around 40 it would indicate that he was in his teens when he heard Polycarp which helps explain how in his Letter to Florinus he could state that he remembered what Polycarp said so clearly. 6

As Bishop, Irenaeus was fairly active. He wrote several books and letters, many of which are lost and only known of through mentions by later writers. According to Eusebius he had significant influence on the Church and was able to persuade the Bishop of Rome not to excommunicate churches for not following the customary dating for Easter. 7 It’s unfortunate that more of his material hasn’t survived as it might shed more light on what he intended with some of what he wrote. Still, his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching is informative and his Against the Heresies or Adversus Haereses is monumental, both in scope and influence.

St.-IraneusIrenaeus of Lyons

The end of Irenaeus’ life is another mystery. The Easter incident seems to have happened in 190 or 191. Some time after this, he died. Gregory of Tours later states that he was martyred however I don’t see how this could be considered reliable. 8

There are a couple of ways of looking at Irenaeus and his writings. I’m going to start with the simplest and the area where there isn’t a lot of debate; his influence on heresiology. Quite simply, as Justin Martyr is considered the first Christian Apologist, Irenaeus is the first heresiologist. Now this may not be quite fair to Justin as he was known to have written a book against heresies but it has not survived. 9 I’m going to speculate a bit on why this may have happened toward the end of this post.

Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies consists of five books. Book I is a listing of various heresies and heretics, their belief systems, how they (mis)use scriptures and false books they’ve written. While he uses some of this book to counter their beliefs, for the most part Book I is descriptive, not argumentative (this is far from absolute and certainly Irenaeus does not portray heresies in a favorable light). Books II-V contain Irenaeus’ theology, used to counter heretical claims and beliefs and as a “proof” of what is correct Christian belief, or what Irenaeus would then have considered Orthodoxy.

For Irenaeus, the single ultimate source of all heresy is Simon Magus. He used magic arts to delude people into believing that a woman who accompanied him was the mother of all mankind, an eternal being who had been, among other incarnations, Helen of Troy. His sect was called the Simonians and all other heresies can be traced back to this first error. 10

I am not going to go into Irenaeus’ description of the various heresies in any detail. Though his most vehement arguments are used against Valentinian Gnosticism, he lists plenty of others. 11 Based on a review of my notes, in the order he mentions heresies and noted heretics in the text (I won’t be footnoting all of these) he discusses; Valentinian Gnosticism, Marcus and Marcosians, Simon Magus and Simonians, Saturninus, Basilides, Carpocrates, Cerinthus, Ebionites, Nicolaitanes, Cerdo, Marcion and Marcionites, Tatian, Encratites, Barbeliotes and Cainites. 12

Now, so what I’ve written so far doesn’t end up reading as a preface to a series of Irenaeus articles, I want to touch on a couple of aspects of Against the Heresies which I found notable. These are his knowledge of heretical texts and the rhetorical methods he used to argue against the validity of various heresies.

Throughout Against the Heresies, Irenaeus shows that he possesses considerable knowledge of texts used by heretics, particularly Valentinian Gnostics but others as well. This knowledge level has been substantially supported by examining surviving texts, though it’s unlikely that what we have are identical to those known by Irenaeus. He opens Against the Heresies with a lengthy description of the beliefs of Valentinian Gnosticism. 13 Many of the points he describes can be found in The Gospel of Truth, discovered at Nag Hammadi. Howard Attridge and George McRae go so far as to state, “Given the general Valentinian affinities of the text of Codex 1[containing this gospel], it is quite possible that it is identical with the work known to Irenaeus.” Other historians are less confident of this however it’s pretty hard to argue that Irenaeus wasn’t very familiar with it. 14

Another interesting text which Irenaeus discusses, though in less detail, is the Gospel of Judas. In discussing the Cainites he says, “They [Cainites] produce a fictitious history of this kind which they style the Gospel of Judas.” 15 According to Irenaeus the Cainites have a tradition where Judas alone is aware of the true meaning of Christ and the necessity of his crucifixion. While this brief description is not enough for anyone to say that the recently discovered Gospel of Judas is identical to the one known by Irenaeus, or even that he had read the text rather than knowing of its existence, it does agree with one of the overall themes of the Gospel of Judas. 16

Having spent several months late last year and early this year reading up on apocrypha I was pretty impressed by Irenaeus’ knowledge level. During the Medieval period a lot of contemporary anti-heresy works betrayed a lack of knowledge about the groups they were attacking. While it’s certain that he portrayed heresies and heretics negatively, when it comes to their belief systems Irenaeus knew what he was talking about.

The other aspect of Irenaeus and heresy which interests me are his methods of argument. The bulk of Books II-V involve an examination of scripture, particularly the Old Testament, along with logical arguments, as would be expected from someone with a philosophical background. 17 He also uses references to pagan borrowings by heretics as a source of error and the influence of demons. 18 However he also uses ridicule in interesting and (to me anyway) entertaining ways.

Using a form of reductio ad absurdum he provides a delightful example mocking the (as he describes it) seemingly random method by which the Valentinians name their deities by calling a power/deity a “Gourd” which produces deities named “Cucumber” and “Melon.” I’ve mentioned before how I need these little points of entertainment to break up what are often monotonous texts (at least to me), and Irenaeus’ botanical journey through the Cucurbit family did this for me. Too bad the American pumpkin wasn’t known in the Old World or we might have another myth about the origin of Halloween. He uses a similar argument against the Marcosians’ applying a complex numbering and lettering system to items found in the Old Testament to explain their theology. 19

A similar theme, though he tends to approach it more seriously, is that of complexity. Irenaeus thinks the belief systems posed by various gnostic sects and others such as the Marcosians are too complex. For him, Christianity is fairly simple. God would not have hidden his meaning so completely in such a complex belief system with mystical meanings of words and letters and complex hierarchies as the heretics have devised. God’s message is designed for everyone, not just a learned few. The world is ruled by one God, his son the Word, and his Wisdom the Holy Spirit. 20

In reading Irenaeus one issue, beyond theology and heresiology, kept popping up in my mind. Justin Martyr was a respected theologian, a martyr and a saint. Why didn’t his book against heresies survive? I can hypothesize three reasons. First, he and Irenaeus may have said the same thing so why preserve both? Second, Irenaeus may have written something which later religious leaders considered superior. Third, and one which isn’t much fun to talk about, simple accident of survival. Based on the general tone of their writings, I lean toward the second, and I think this indicates something of a change in the Church, or at least in what would become the Orthodox branch.

Justin, throughout his writings, is more moderate toward those who believe differently from the mainstream than Irenaeus. He has numerous statements where he says something along the lines of, “We believe this, but those who believe this instead are still Christians.” For example, he believes that those who believe in Christ but observe all other matters of Jewish Law will be saved. 21 Irenaeus is harder, less forgiving, not as willing to allow those holding diverse opinions membership in Christianity. It is not yet as strict as it would become in the fourth century with Athanasius, but things are moving in that direction. There is less room in the Church for variance in belief. I believe later Church writers may have read Irenaeus and looked at how he viewed heresy and heretics and found him to be more in line with what they believed, enough so to preserve his work while discarding Justin Martyr’s. Then again, we don’t have many copies of Irenaeus so maybe accident is the better explanation.

In any case, Irenaeus became a model for later heresiologists. His anti-heretical arguments are frequently used by writers such as Eusebius, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, etc. For whatever reason, his reputation as a theologian wasn’t nearly as strong. I’ll be looking at Irenaeus’ theology in subsequent posts.

Abbreviations used in notes:

AH = Irenaeus, Against the Heresies
Proof = Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching

NOTE: My numbering system for source citations is pretty simple; it’s based on how the source was numbered in whatever I read it in. These may not match those used in other editions.

1 One of the risks of my posting on what I find in reading Ancient Christian authors is that I’m often not very familiar with much of the recent work done on said author and/or topic. So some of the things I find puzzling or have questions about may well have have been clarified by historians. However, since I’ve evidently decided to spend a couple of years diving into this area, it’s either make posts about it, despite my relative level of ignorance, or not have a blog. I should probably make this a standard disclaimer, at least until I get back to the 4th century.

2 AH, III.3.4

3 Well, probably. In The Martyrdom of Polycarp, IX, Polycarp says he has served God for 86 years. This could mean 86 years from his baptism, not his birth but I’m sticking with this as a statement of age.

4 For a more detailed discussion of what Irenaeus’ use of the term child or boy may indicate, see Charles E. Hill, “The Man Who Needed No Introduction”, pp 97-102 in Parvis and Foster (2012). Hill goes even further in arguing that Irenaeus may have been up to 40 when he heard Polycarp. While I’m convinced by his argument where he takes this to the age of 18, I’m not persuaded when he takes this to 40 (though I’d like to be, see my thoughts on Irenaeus being older when he becomes Bishop of Lyons).

5 The account of the Lyons persecution, including Irenaeus as letter-bearer, is given by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.1-4.

6 As recounted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.20.

7 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.24.9-14. Eusebius states that Irenaeus was considered a peacemaker which initially seems a bit odd considering his anti-heretical writings however this was in reference to helping preserve the unity of the Church. For more details on this see Paul Parvis, “Who was Irenaeus? An Introduction to the Man and His Work,” in Parvis and Foster (2012).

8 Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, I.29. As a historian, Gregory seems to be pretty reliable when talking about things close to him geographically and chronologically. Otherwise, not so much. As Gregory places Irenaeus’ martyrdom at the start of the Lyons persecution, even before the other 48 martyrs, I don’t think we need to place much stock in this.

9 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV.11.10.

10 For Irenaeus’ description of Simon and Simonians see AH, I.23. For additional statements about his being the root of all heresy see AH, I.Preface.1, II.Preface, and II.12.12.

11 There’s no space here for much of a discussion of the heresies but the Gnostics and Marcosians both constructed belief systems based on symbology they found in the Bible. The Valentinians found hidden meanings in scripture while the Marcosians use numbers to indicate what words and terms actually mean. Both believe the supreme deity did not create the world and possessed very complex celestial hierarchies. Irenaeus goes after every heresy I’ve listed but the Valentinians receive the most attention and I’d say the Marcosians probably come in second.

12 My apologies for not footnoting all of these but I’m figuring anyone who really gets into this can check the index of whatever edition of Irenaeus they’re using. Also, sometimes Irenaeus names a heresy and sometimes he talks about an individual, what he taught and his followers, such as in AH, I.24.1 where he says, “Arising among these men[followers of Simon Magus], Saturninus (who was of that Antioch which is near Daphne) and Basilides laid hold of some favourable opportunities, and promulgated different systems of doctrine – the one in Syria, the other at Alexandria.”

13 AH, I.1 – I.7.

14 Quote from Attridge and McRae, “The Gospel of Truth (I,3 and XII,2),” p 38 in Robinson (1990). For a fuller discussion of Irenaeus’ knowledge of apocrypha, see Paul Foster, “Irenaeus and the Noncanonical Gospels,” in Parvis and Foster (2012).

15 AH, I.31.1.

16 The Gospel of Judas had previously been known only by reference and a few surviving fragments, either of the text or the text as quoted in other sources. In 2004 it was discovered in a papyrus known as the Codex Tchachos. More correctly, it was discovered in the late 1970’s but not identified as the Gospel of Judas until 2004. For a translation, see Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst (2006). For its discovery and a history of Codex Tchachos see Ehrman (2006), pp 1-10 and Rudolphe Kasser, “The Story of Codex Tchachos and the Gospel of Judas,” in Kasser, Meyer, and Wurst (2006).

17 While most of Irenaeus’ biblical arguments come from the Old Testament, he happens to be the earliest Christian author to make extensive use of the New Testament. See Charles E. Hill, “Irenaeus, the Scribes, and the Scriptures: Papyrological and Theological Observations from P.Oxy. 405,” pp 119-20 in Parvis and Foster (2012).

18 His main argument for pagan influence is detailed in AH, II.14 but he returns to this theme with some regularity and using various arguments and examples.

19 For melons, AH, I.11.4. Marcus’ extensive lettering and numbering system is discussed in AH, I.14 – I.21. Irenaeus’ compares this with someone trying to number every grain of sand on every beach, or every hair on every head in the world in AH, II.26. He also says that any name can be deduced from a creative use of numbers in AH, V.30.3.

20 For Irenaeus’ Trinitarianism see Proof, XLVII.

21 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, XLVII.

Ehrman, Bart, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19-531460-1.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Kasser, Rudolphe, Meyer, Marvin & Wurst, Gregor, eds., The Gospel of Judas. Washington: National Geographic (2006). ISBN: 978-1-4262-0042-7.

Parvis, Sara and Foster, Paul, eds., Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-8006-9796-9.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Robinson, James M., ed., The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume, New York: HarperCollins (1990). ISBN:978-0-06-066934-8.

Smith, Joseph P., trans & ed., St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Mahwah, NJ, USA: Paulist Press (1978). ISBN: 978-0-80910-264-8.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.


Posted by on August 4, 2013 in Religion


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