THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH - Volume 2: by Philip Carrington, Archbishop of Quebec. Published by the syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957. Katapi edition by Paul Ingram, 2013.

|19 CHAPTER 2: THE CHURCH IN ASIA

| HOME | |< | << | The times of Hadrian | Hadrian in Athens: A.D. 124-5 | The Apology of Quadratus | Persecution in Asia | Hadrian's rescript: A.D. 124 – 5 | The conversion of Justin | The Christian philosophy | Hadrian in Asia Minor: A.D. 129 | Irenaeus and Florinus | The Johannine school | Papias the Phrygian | Papias and the Gospel tradition | The traditions of Papias | Cerinthus and the Ebionites | >> |


Hadrian

THE TIMES OF HADRIAN

The Emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus was a Spaniard by descent, a Roman by birth and breeding, and a Greek by temperament and culture. He had a restless and inquiring mind which was always interested in some new thing. He had succeeded his uncle Trajan, not without difficulty, in 117. He had withdrawn from oriental adventures, leaving kings of his own choosing in the principalities east of the Euphrates; a course of action which had settled the frontier for the time being, but allowed the Parthian king to build up his power once more. He abandoned the province of Dacia, north of the Danube. He secured the frontier in Britain. He created what seemed to be a workable Roman empire on the lines which Augustus had laid down for the benefit of his successors; the ocean on the west, the deserts on the south, the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates on the north and east, would seem to be its natural frontiers.

Maritime Theatre, Hadrian's Villa

The middle years of this century were the last serene years of the Hellenistic world; the fusion of Roman power and Greek wisdom was complete; the foundations of the European culture had been laid. All that was now required was the influx of oriental religion, and this was coming fast.

Hadrian's reign marks the end of the old classical Latin literature. Pliny had died under Trajan. Tacitus and Suetonius and Juvenal were still writing when he came to the throne; but the Greek tongue would soon predominate as the language of culture and business in Rome, though the senate, the magistrates and the army would continue to use I.aiin. Greek had always been the language of the Roman church, |20 though we cannot rule out the possibility of a derivative Latin Christianity in Rome from very early times.

The writings of Tacitus show that neither Judaism nor Christianity was understood by the governing classes. The Jew was well known for his total intolerance of all the gods and goddesses. His was the spirit that denied; he was commonly called an atheist. He was known, of course, to have peculiar superstitions of his own, including the rite of circumcision which was regarded as revolting, the institution of the sabbath which was inconvenient, various daily washings, and distinctions of clean and unclean meats. The gnostic type of Jew had produced a host of discreditable teachers who performed magical rites and knew the names of angels and devils. The sublimity of their ideas about God, in their legitimate tradition, was not widely understood. Tacitus, for instance, shows himself culpably ignorant about them, and seems to have swallowed whole the libels of controversial writers like Apion, who stated that they were lepers and criminals of Egyptian origin who had been expelled from Egypt by the Pharaohs and worshipped a god with an ass's head. Celsus, the critic of Christianity, repeats this information, which must, therefore, have been widely accepted in literary and official circles. The Jews had recently attempted to wage a desperate war against the empire, and were working up for a new one. Their record of rebellion was a bad one.

The Christians, as a branch from the root of Judaism, inherited this bad reputation; and more was added. Celsus says that they originated as a rebellious faction among the Jews, just as the Jews themselves had originated as a rebellious faction among the Egyptians. Tacitus knew that their founder had been executed as a criminal under Pontius Pilate, a statement which produced the worst impression. They were classified with bandits and outlaws. The Jewish view of the Christians is preserved by Justin and Celsus; it was that they had abandoned the worship of the one God to set their hope upon a man, and that man a convicted criminal. Nor did they hesitate to compare their faith in Christ crucified with the myths of Greek and oriental religion.

It was widely believed that they met together to murder a new-born infant and feast upon its flesh and blood; after that the lights went out, and the so-called brothers and sisters indulged in promiscuous sexual intercourse with one another. Every effort had been made, by torture and by executions, to get them to give up their allegiance to their |21 crucified founder, and to worship the lawful gods, especially the divine emperor; but it was known now that no real Christian could be persuaded to do it. So great was their obstinacy that they would rather die; and they had convinced themselves that if they did die in this way, they would go straight to God and enjoy a blessed life in his kingdom for evermore. The miserable creatures, Lucian remarked, had convinced themselves that they were immortal. It would appear that the magistrate or philosopher often wished heartily that they would all die and go to heaven and trouble him no more.

We should assume that the gospel had now spread in some shape or form to every part of the empire, and even beyond its borders. About 150 Justin offered his Apology to the emperor on behalf of Christians 'from every race of men'. Allowing for some exaggeration in that statement, we may yet think that Christianity had spread to all the main centres, and was everywhere well known.
top

HADRIAN IN ATHENS: A.D. 124-5

On his accession in 117 Hadrian had the difficult task of withdrawing from military adventures, fixing the boundaries of the empire, and restoring peace. In the course of his work, he personally visited all the provinces. He built a great palisade from the Rhine to the Danube as a means of defence against the German tribes, and a' wall' across northern Britain from the mouth of the Tyne to the Solway Firth, as a means of defence against the Picts and Scots. The latter defence marks the furthest extension of the Roman power in Britain, which was due to the energy and ability of the great general, Julius Severus. Caerleon, Chester and York were the three principal centres of military administration. No doubt Christianity had reached these points, along with Mithraism and other oriental cults.

On his return from Britain, Hadrian paid a visit to Athens. This was in 124 or 125. Athens was participating in the Hellenic revival and basked in academic and literary glory. A millionaire named Herodes Atticus was providing it with new buildings and endowments. Naturally, too, it benefited from the liberality of a monarch who everywhere interested himself in the monuments and traditions of the past. He rebuilt a great part of the city, a part which came to be known as Hadrian's City. He submitted to the mysteries and was initiated at |22 Eleusis; for there was probably no experience that he would not try once. This must have occurred either in 124 or in his later visit in 129.

It would be perfectly in accord with his broad-minded disposition to receive an 'apology' or defence of the Christian tradition; and Eusebius tells us that two such 'apologies' were presented to him in Athens, one by Quadratus, and one by Aristides. It has been proved now that Eusebius was wrong about the Apology of Aristides, which was written some fifteen years later, and presented to Antoninus Pius; and this has sometimes been taken to imply a later date for Quadratus too; but surely the probabilities are in favour of an opposite conclusion. Eusebius possessed a copy of Quadratus and followed whatever indications he found in the text; he did not possess a copy of Aristides, and simply adds a notice about Aristides to his account of Quadratus. The modern scholar differs from Eusebius in having Aristides but not Quadratus.
top

THE APOLOGY OF QUADRATUS

It is hardly possible, in any case, to place the Apology of Quadratus much later than 124 or 129, because, in the short extract which Eusebius quotes from it, he makes the statement that some of the persons healed by Jesus had survived 'even into our times'. How late could such a claim be plausibly made? The phrase is an elastic one, but a date after the hundred-and-twenties is rather difficult to accept.

The passage which is quoted by Eusebius runs as follows:

But the works of our Saviour remained permanent, for they were genuine; that is to say, those who were healed, and those who rose from the dead. They were not only seen when they were being healed or raised; they remained permanently – and not only while the Saviour was dwelling [on earth] but also after his departure – they lived on for a considerable time, and some of them survived even into our own times.
(Quadratus, Apology, in Eusebius, E.H. iv, 3, 2.)

The use of the expression 'our Saviour' rather suggests that Quadratus was presenting the figure of Christ as a saviour or healer, in contrast to the pagan healers or saviours, such as Apollo and Asclepius, whose cures he may have said were not permanent. Eusebius calls his book an apology on behalf of our theosebeia or way of worshipping the deity, which looks as if it were a refutation of the charge of atheism and a defence of Christianity as a pure monotheistic worship, through Christ, |23 on the lines of the old Jewish Hellenism. Something of this sort had appeared already in the Preaching of Peter, a book which must have been known in Athens, since it appears to have been used by Aristides.

The production by Quadratus of the first Christian book to be written in the Greek manner was occasioned by a persecution. Certain wicked men had molested our people. About thirty-five years later, Dionysius of Corinth mentions a persecution in Athens in which Publius, the bishop at that time, died as a martyr, and his successor Quadratus had great difficulties in reorganizing the church. The words of Dionysius give no help in dating this persecution, which may not have been the one to which Quadratus alluded in his Apology ; but doubtless it was the same Quadratus.

On the other hand, the Quadratus who is mentioned by the Phrygian Montanists is probably another man.
top

PERSECUTION IN ASIA

The years 122-3 certainly saw a severe persecution in Asia Minor. It was due to popular demonstrations against the Christians. So formidable were they that the Roman legate in Asia, Silvanus Granianus, wrote to Hadrian asking him whether he ought to yield to such campaigns of violence. We shall see what they were like when we come to study the martyrdoms of St Polycarp and of the martyrs of Gaul. There were times when it was customary to satisfy the religious and patriotic sentiments of the populace with scenes of violence and bloodshed in the arena, and on these occasions an excited crowd was apt to make demands to which it was politic to yield. Pontius Pilate had found himself in just such a predicament.
top

HADRIAN'S RESCRIPT: A.D. 124-5

Granianus finished his term of office without receiving any reply from the emperor who may have been in the east in 123; but his successor, Minicius Fundanus, whose years of office were 124-5, received an official reply or 'rescript'. This was the year when Hadrian paid his visit to Athens. It is a remarkable document.

I have received the letter which was written to me by your predecessor, Serenius « An error for Silvanus. Granianus, a most distinguished man, and it did not seem to me |24 that I could pass over the question in silence, lest innocent persons might be interfered with and informers be given an opportunity of doing harm. Therefore if the inhabitants of your province are willing to support their petition against the Christians openly and to plead their case in a court of law, I am not forbidding them to do it, but not to rely on petitions and outcries only. The right procedure is for you to inquire into the allegations, should anyone consent to bring a charge. So, if anybody accuses them of doing something contrary to the law and proves their case, it is for you to decide the punishment in proportion to the offence. But, by Hercules, you must be very careful to see that, if anybody accuses one of them falsely, you assign him severe penalties in proportion to his malice.
(Rescript of Hadrian in Eusebius, E.H. iv, 9.)

The law was not in any way changed, but this directive with regard to procedure must have operated in favour of the Christians. Trajan had ruled out anonymous letters; Hadrian ruled out malicious accusations and popular clamour. It would appear that he was no persecutor.

The rescript is quoted, in a Greek translation, in Justin's Apology.
top

THE CONVERSION OF JUSTIN

Many of those who watched the Christians marvelled at their faith and courage, and were attracted towards their religion. Among these was Justin of Samaria, who ultimately became a martyr himself and is known by that title. When he wrote his own Apology, twenty-five years later, he appended to it the text of Hadrian's rescript, which must have become known to him at this time. He was, by then, the successor of Quadratus and Aristides as champion and defender of the much-maligned Christian philosophy.

He gives us an amusing account of his search for the truth. He had received the usual education, and had read about the loves and wars of the gods and goddesses in the Greek poets. After this he went to the philosophers to find out the truth about God and the soul. His first master was a Stoic; but he said that he knew nothing at all about God, and that such studies were of no importance. Justin left him for a 'Peripatetic', an exponent of the philosophy of Aristotle, who insisted on fixing his fee, so that both of them might have pleasure and profit withal. Disgusted with this commercial attitude, Justin passed on to a Pythagorean, who asked him if he had been grounded in music and geometry. As he lacked these academic prerequisites, he passed on to a |25 Platonist 'of our town', and fell in love with his doctrine of an eternal reality which was infinitely superior to this world and could be known only by the pure intellect. The words 'in our town' were spoken in Ephesus, but the inference that they referred to Ephesus is a little uncertain. It might equally well be Athens or any other centre of learning where philosophers abounded.

While he was walking by the sea (and this shows that he was no longer in Samaria), he fell in with a venerable old man who was no mean hand at a philosophic argument; and it was this unnamed Christian teacher, whom he met by chance and never saw again, who directed his attention to the highest philosophy of all, which had been set forth by the divine prophets, as Justin describes the Hebrew scriptures. He read these books, and imbibed their sublime doctrine of God. He was deeply impressed by their predictions, which he found fulfilled in the Christian Gospels and in contemporary history. He studied the words of the Saviour, which he found short, precise, terrible, and yet full of refreshment. And he became a Christian in the manner which he describes in one of his books. He was baptized in the laver of regeneration in the name of the Father of all things, even the Lord God, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. He did not cease, however, to be a philosopher. He went about wearing the gown which all philosophers wore, but he preached the new 'barbarian' philosophy, which was the oldest of them all.
top

THE CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY

It is clear that the presentation of Christianity as a form of philosophy was no new thing. He had run into a Christian school in which the apostolic tradition had undergone a certain amount of formal definition. We find in his Apology a certain number of general propositions with regard to the faith, which he introduces by the formula, 'We have been taught and instructed'; and he regards them as expressions of the common Christian faith which would be valid everywhere. In the philosophic schools they would be called 'dogmas', that is to say, authoritative formulations of the received opinions. The Christian teachers from whom he had received them seem to have been following in the trails of certain Jewish scholars of the Hellenistic tradition who had for a long time been trying to commend Jewish monotheism as the best form of 'philosophy'.

|26 These authoritative doctrines included such propositions as these: There is but one God, eternal, invisible and immaterial. He stands in no need of such sacrifices as were offered in the pagan temples, or for that matter in the old Jerusalem Temple either. He had created the whole universe by his ' Word'; the creative Word of the Lord having been equated with the divine Mind or Reason of the Stoics which ordered and governed the world. Justin had a developed theology of his own about the Word, but in one form or another it was among the doctrines which he had received.

Here is the same equation of the Hebrew and Greek monotheisms which Jewish Hellenists had already attempted and Christian apologists would continue to preach. It would be the stock-in-trade of the Christian philosopher as he made his approach to the intellectuals. Actually Justin does not stray far from the teaching and instruction of this kind which he had received in the church; he goes to the Hebrew scriptures to 'prove' his doctrine of the divine Word, however much he may universalize it in the Stoic manner or find it in some germinal form in every human heart; and his access to the Father of all things was through Christian worship and revelation.

His dependence upon the Judaeo-Christian tradition is proved most effectively by his uncritical faith in the apocalyptic of the school of Papias, which he thought was taught in the Revelation of John. The same rather over-realistic form of imaginative thinking is manifested in his doctrine of the dominion of daemons in the cosmos, which was in harmony with the usual Platonic theory as well as with the mythology of Enoch ; and in his conventional belief in the dissolution of the cosmos by fire, which was in harmony with the Stoic philosophy as well as with 2 Peter and the Sibyllines; and in the final judgement, for which he could find analogies in the Greek poets. In all these matters he was a man of his own age. He accepted the current Christian philosophy as he found it, though his individual genius rises superior to it at many points.
top

HADRIAN IN ASIA MINOR: A.D. 129

In the year 129 affairs in the east demanded the personal attention of the emperor, who had not been there for twelve years. He passed through Athens for the second time, crossed the Aegean Sea and arrived in Asia.

|27 Among the young men who attended upon him were two whose names appear in later Christian records, Antinous and Florinus. Florinus was either a Christian already or else deeply interested; and while the royal party was in Smyrna he visited the local bishop, Polycarp, and listened eagerly to his anecdotes about St John and others who had seen the Lord. We are still within hearing of the apostolic period.

There was a boy named Irenaeus who was present on these occasions, and fifty years later he recalled the scene in a letter to Florinus, in which he describes him as' faring sumptuously at the royal court'. The visit of Hadrian to Smyrna is the obvious occasion to which to assign this encounter, since there is no other record of an imperial visit to Smyrna during the lifetime of Polycarp. Irenaeus was still a boy at the time, he says; and if he was fifteen years old in 129, he would be in his sixties or early seventies when he wrote his great book Against Heresies, and about five years older when he took part in the Paschal controversy. (There are some scholars, however, who think that this chronology makes Irenaeus too old at the time when he appears as a bishop and an author; and they suggest that there may have been some later unrecorded imperial visit,when this encounter with Florinus, in the presence of Polycarp, took place.)
top

IRENAEUS AND FLORINUS

Fifty years later Florinus had taken up with gnostic heresy, and this is what Irenaeus wrote to him by way of reminder.

I have a better remembrance of the things which happened then; for the things we learn in childhood grow together with the soul and become united with it. I can tell you the very place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and talk; I can tell his goings forth and his comings in, and the way of life he had, and his bodily appearance, and the speeches which he made to the multitude, and how he told us about his intercourse with John and the others who had seen the Lord, repeating their words from memory; and certain things about the Lord which he had heard from them, about his miracles and his teaching; as Polycarp received them from eyewitnesses of the life of the Word, so he reported everything in harmony with the scriptures.

And I, by the mercy of God which was given me, was listening eagerly to all these things and committing them to memory; not on paper but in my heart; and by the grace of God I ponder on them continually; and I can testify before God that if that blessed and apostolic elder had heard these |28 things, he would have cried out aloud and stopped his ears, as his manner was, saying, 'O good God, what times hast thou preserved me unto, that I must bear with this?' And he would have fled from the spot where he was sitting or standing when he heard such words.
(Irenaeus, Epistle to Florinus, in Eusebius, E.H. v, 20, 4-8.)

We would give much to have a few more vivid eyewitness pictures like this from the second century, and less contentious theology. The lapse of years is reduced to nothing when elderly men recall the memory of their school-days. Irenaeus and Florinus had a common memory to which confident appeal could be made.

The critics who deny the reality of the ministry of John the apostle at Ephesus have to take into account this honest straightforward evidence; and are obliged to argue that Irenaeus and Florinus made a mistake about the identity of the John of whom Polycarp was speaking; and of course that everyone else in their circle was mistaken, too; Justin for instance, who was teaching in Ephesus a year or two later, and received the Revelation as the work of the Apostle. In fact the whole Ephesian church must have fallen into the same error. Quite frankly, it does not seem possible that so gross a misconception of the truth can have become current when Polycarp himself and other pupils of John were in a position to correct it. It was hardly thirty years since his death. All the older people would remember him.
top

THE JOHANNINE SCHOOL

It was the period when the great masters of the school of John were presiding in their own schools and passing on the teaching which they had received from him and from others who had seen the Lord; they were the men to whom Irenaeus alludes as the elders. Polycarp was now sixty years of age, and had twenty-five years more to go; he had been baptized about the year 69 or 70 in the height of the apostolic age; he became the grand old man of the Christian church. Only less venerable was Papias,who is described by Irenaeus as a pupil of John and a companion of Polycarp; but the critics who reject his evidence about John, are obliged to regard this as another of his mistakes. Irenaeus himself was an example of the younger men who were being trained in their schools, and would spread their teaching and influence far and wide during the remainder of the century.

|29 We do not know who was the bishop or leading teacher in Ephesus at this time; but we have information about a curious phenomenon, a family succession of bishops; for Polycrates, who was born at this time, says that seven members of his family had been bishops before him, and it would not be unreasonable to suppose that this remarkable family was already prominent in the church life of the time. He was bishop of Ephesus himself about 190-5. He left on record interesting statements about Philip and John and Polycarp.
top

PAPIAS THE PHRYGIAN

Papias of Hierapolis was a familiar ecclesiastical type, the crusted conservative who does not change his opinions from youth to old age; a most valuable authority for the historian, and a protection to the church in an age of transition. Hierapolis, where he was bishop, had been the headquarters of the apostle Philip, « A Roman theologian named Proclus, about A.D. 200, thought that he was the Philip of Caesarea mentioned in the Acts; many critics think he was right, but if so Papias, Irenaeus and Polycrates have made another mistake. with whose daughters he was personally acquainted; it was about one hundred miles east of Smyrna and Ephesus, and had become the leading church in eastern Phrygia. No doubt it had its own rather different tradition. Papias was a native Phrygian, judging by his name, and we can already detect a certain individuality about Phrygian Christianity. We see signs of the preoccupation with apocalypse, which gave birth to Montanism in a few years; we may even see the forerunners of the feminist movement in the two daughters of Philip who lived there 'in the Spirit' as virgins, to a great age. The third lived in Ephesus, and may have been married. « The Philip who lived at Caesarea had four virgin daughters who prophesied, so that Proclus can be excused for confusing the one with the other. The near-by city of Philadelphia had its prophetess, whose name was Ammia. An otherwise unknown Quadratus also exercised a prophetic ministry in these parts; he should be carefully distinguished from the Athenian Quadratus.

Papias was deeply interested in the Judaeo-Christian apocalypses and studied the Revelation of St John, which had been written in his lifetime and contained special messages for the Phrygian churches. He was a famous promoter of the doctrine of the 'chiliad' or millennium, the thousand-year period after the resurrection during which Christ |30 would reign with the saints on this earth, which would then become miraculously fertile. Justin received a form of 'chiliasm', which located the centre of this earthly kingdom in Jerusalem, but we do not know whether Papias held this form of the belief. He may simply have thought of an earth redeemed from sin and death, and free from war and hunger and toil. He took very simply the hope of the kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven, and elaborated it with detail from the Hebrew prophets and other sources.

It is most unfortunate that the five volumes of his Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord have been lost; but even so we are grateful for the quotations which have come down to us in the works of other writers.
top

PAPIAS AND THE GOSPEL TRADITION

We see Papias mainly through the eyes of Eusebius, who had a low view of his intelligence. He may be perfectly right, of course, but he was unsympathetic with eschatological fancies and impatient with him on that account. He blames Papias for the dogmatic chiliasm of Justin and Irenaeus and other second-century fathers, who, he thought, were too deeply impressed with the 'antiquity of the man'. This is a just criticism, but it admits that he was a person of influence in his time.

Modern writers represent him as a devotee of the oral tradition, who had an antipathy to books; but this opinion seems to go beyond the evidence; for he was one of the first Christians to write a book after the secular or Gentile manner. Let us look at what he said.

I supposed that things out of books did not profit me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice.
(Papias, Expositions, Preface, in Eusebius, E.H. iii, 39,4.)

It is a single sentence, and too much may be built upon it. He has been calling to mind a period in his youth when the voice of Jesus was still echoing in the oral tradition of the apostolic church. He had heard the words of Jesus repeated by disciples of Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew. It must have been a memorable experience. Their words must have come with an authentic intonation which was no longer to be heard in his old age when the church had to depend on written Gospels. The memory of that experience naturally meant more to him than anything he now heard read in church.

|31 The 'Oracles of the Lord' on which he commented in his book were taken from written Gospels, and his oral traditions were brought in as supplementary material. This is made perfectly clear in another sentence from his preface.

I will not hesitate also to set down for your benefit, along with my 'Expositions', everything that I carefully remembered from the elders, guaranteeing its truth. (Ibid. iii, 39, 3.)

Eusebius did not think highly of these oral traditions of Papias. He remarks that he frequently referred to John and Aristion by name, and set forth their traditions. Other traditions were received from the two daughters of Philip. Others were quoted as from an unwritten tradition; and these included certain strange parables and teachings of the Saviour and other matters of a rather mythical character, among which Eusebius includes the doctrine of the millennium. He explains these as misunderstandings of the apostolic narratives, since Papias did not realize that they were expressed in figurative or mystical language; which may be a very just criticism.

One example of this kind of material was given in an earlier chapter and other examples are found in Irenaeus. The following extract is given by him on the authority of the elders generally, but no doubt he takes it from the Expositions.

As the elders say: Then also shall they which have been deemed worthy of heaven go thither; while others shall enjoy the delight of Paradise; and others shall possess the brightness of the city; for in every place the Saviour shall be seen according as they who see him shall be worthy.

They say moreover that this is the distinction between the dwelling-places of those who bring forth a hundredfold, and those that bring forth sixtyfold, and those that bring forth thirtyfold. ...

The elders, the disciples of the apostles, say that this is the arrangement and disposition of those that are saved. (Irenaeus, A.H. v, 36, 1-2.)

Here is a piece of eschatological fancy which has been fitted to an ' Oracle of the Lord' taken from a written Gospel; for the parable of the sower in Matthew and Mark is the source of the thirtyfold, sixty-fold and hundredfold, and it is linked by Mark with teaching on spiritual vision. The second-century fathers uniformly explain this parable as a symbol of the Resurrection, as the Asian elders do here.
top

|32 THE TRADITIONS OF PAPIAS

The book has vanished; but it made a deep impression. We can see the old bishop among his people, like the wise scribe in the gospel, bringing out of his treasury things new and old; what the elder used to say about Mark's Gospel; how the Lord answered Judas when he found the apocalyptic imagery rather thick; or how old the Lord was when he began teaching. He dealt out mystical explanations of the parables and commandments in answer to teachers who brought in strange commandments; he supported them by references to the Revelation of St John, which had arrived from Patmos in his time; he quoted John; he quoted the unknown Aristion, whom he called the disciple of the Lord; he recalled what had been said by the pupils of this or that disciple; he drew on the tales that used to be told by the daughters of Philip. It was from them that he heard how Justus Barsabbas drank a draught of deadly poison, and by the grace of the Lord took no harm from it; and also of the resurrection of a corpse in their time, the 'mother of Manaim' according to the unreliable Philip of Side.

He had a revolting tale from some source or another about the death of Judas Iscariot, and a story about a woman who was falsely accused of many sins before the Lord; a tale which was also to be found in the Gospel of the Hebrews, Eusebius says; possibly the story of the' woman taken in adultery', which has found its way into the texts of the Bible.
Our picture of Papias is a very important one, since it gives us a glimpse of the gospel tradition as it was when the apostolic age was not quite out of hearing, and sayings and stories of Jesus were still passing from lip to lip in the preaching and teaching of the church. It shows us the kind of source from which additions and emendations crept into the Gospel manuscripts, and how material could be found for new Gospels like the Hebrew Gospel or the Egerton fragment. Papias was not the only venerable elder who could hand on personal memories in this way. He happens to be so well remembered because he wrote a book. The date of writing cannot be determined; it is usually assigned to the latter part of the reign of Hadrian.
top

|33 CERINTHUS AND THE EBIONITES

Asia Minor was not destined to produce an abstract other-worldly theology of the superior gnostic type. Asian Christianity had a firm hold on the old-fashioned gospel in its literature and in its manifestation as religious fellowship. It gloried in the apocalyptic and liturgical language of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and it gained its understanding of the new spiritual life through the prophetic and sacramental media of the fellowship. Such a temperament was not likely to run into the refined form of gnosis which proclaimed a remote nameless deity and an immaterial Christ. We know from the evidence of John, Ignatius and Polycarp that docetism did exist among the Asian Christians as a separate sect; but when gnosticism clearly appears at Ephesus, it is the gnosis of magic and ritual and sex; not the gnosis of absorption into the infinite.

The only heretical name which comes down to us from this early period is that of Cerinthus, the traditional opponent of St John. His views are far from clear. According to Irenaeus, who ought to know, he reposed his faith in a higher deity than the God of the Jews. Some higher sovereignty sent down the ' Christus' in the form of a dove, to enter the man Jesus after his baptism; he then proclaimed the hitherto unknown Father, and worked miracles; he flew back to the Father before the Passion. This is mythological thinking, though it expresses a theological theory. It is found again in the Basilidian sect and in Carpocrates, a later gnostic of Alexandria, the centre where Cerinthus had received his training. It was, no doubt, an Alexandrian idea.

Cerinthus rejected the virgin birth and called Jesus the son of Joseph and Mary; Carpocrates did this too. He must have rejected the Jewish Law with the Jewish God, as Carpocrates did. Carpocrates saw no harm in participation in idol-sacrifices and sexual pleasures; and Cerinthus may have taken the same line. St John denounces teachers of this sort in the Revelation. They are veiled under the names of Jezebel and Balaam; anti-Jewish characters both.

We arrive at a paradox at this point. Cerinthus, who rejected the Jewish God, is coupled by Irenaeus with the narrow sect of Jewish-Christians which he calls the Ebionites, since both deny the virgin birth. Both explained the divine element in Jesus as the indwelling of a Holy Spirit, though with considerable differences theologically. It |34 seems that Cerinthians and Ebionites existed side by side in Asia and were bracketed together in the church catalogues.

Gaius of Rome, the opponent of Proclus, who wrote about the year 200, attributed to Cerinthus an eschatology not unlike that of Papias and Justin, though it is more sensually denned. There will be a resurrection of the flesh; the kingdom of Christ will be established on earth for a thousand years in Jerusalem; the flesh will once again serve the lusts and pleasures in nuptial festivities. A similar statement is found about fifty years later in Dionysius of Alexandria, but without reference to Jerusalem; he emphasizes the nuptial character of life in the kingdom and speaks of feasts and sacrifices and slaying of victims.

If this is correct, we may conclude that while Cerinthus rejected the God of the Jews, and also no doubt the Law which he gave to Israel, he recognized an element of inspiration in the prophets, as the Ophites did, for instance, and that he used the parables of Jesus and the poetry of Jewish apocalypse very much as Papias and the Elders did. The Ebionites very probably did the same. They interpret the prophecies in a curious way, Irenaeus says, and they adore Jerusalem as the house of God. It looks as if the apostolic-minded Papias, and the antinomian Cerinthus, and the Judaizing Ebionites, may all have been working in the same kind of apocalyptic material. The Expositions of Papias might thus be aiming at the establishment of a correct (traditional) understanding of this material in the face of divergent views.

On the other hand, Irenaeus and Hippolytus say nothing at all about the apocalyptic teachings which Gaius attributes to Cerinthus; and Irenaeus is our earliest and best authority on him. We cannot feel confident that Gaius at the end of the second century had any very reliable information to go on, especially as he makes the extraordinary statement that Cerinthus was the true author of the Revelation of John. Neither Gaius nor Proclus seems to have been very well informed.
<<
| top | >>