CH101 - The Second Century
The Persecuted Church, 90 - 202 A.D.
Persecution of the Roman Empire
The defining moment in the life of the primitive church came after the first true Roman persecution under Nero that led to the execution of the apostles Peter and Paul (circa 62-64 A.D.) followed shortly thereafter by the seige of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Would this small movement survive?
For the next 250 years the Christian church endured periods of persecution at the hands of the Roman empire. It is important to realize that Roman persecution of Christians came in waves, tended to be regional in nature, and typically did not last more than a couple of years. The Romans were not always the inhumane savages we picture, throwing people into the pit with hungry lions. The Romans were basically cultured and disciplined, however warfare was an important part of that culture, and in war they were brutal, but only if you resisted them. When the Roman armies came against a territory the defending nation could send a peace envoy - the Romans were content to annex your territory and collect taxes for Caesar. You could keep your properties, continue to farm your lands, and live under the banner of Rome. If, however, you sent your armies to meet the Romans in battle you were very likely to suffer military defeat and then face the full brutality of the Roman legions. Punishment might include burning many of your buildings and homes to the ground, allowing the soldiers to plunder and rape their way through the countryside, and/or salt your fields, making them useless for 2-3 years.
To round up and imprison or kill citizens as they did from time to time with the Christians was not a popular act - many Romans were rightly disturbed when these pogroms were initiated - and some emperors refused to authorize such persecution [Vespasian (69-79 A.D.) and Nerva (96-98 A.D.) apparently released prisoners and recalled exiles]. Nonetheless, Roman persecution against Christians did happen. I will mention the various periods of intense persecution as we move through the next 200+ years.
The end of the first century included one of these times of persecution under Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D.). Although Domitian's father, Vespasian, did not take emperial divinity seriously, Domitian was over the top. Probably due to a combination of insecurity and an unstable personality, Domitian insisted on being worshipped and punished those who refused. The details of the Domitian Roman persecution (95-96 A.D.) are somewhat sketchy, but it appears to have been contained to Rome and in Asia Minor. Most scholars believe that the Domitian persecution is the historical backdrop for John's Revelation, the closing document of the New Testament. The writer is urging the first century believers to remain faithful in the midst of this persecution. There are other first century writings with similar theme - here is a brief introduction to a group of documents now known as the Apostolic Fathers.
We know about the Roman persecution during the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) because we can read Trajan's own writing contained in letters exchanged between the emperor and one of his governors, Pliny the Younger, 111-113 A.D. Pliny had written Trajan asking how to deal with the Christians. This is a portion of that request,
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome. Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96
This is part of Trajan's reply:
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it - that is, by worshiping our gods...shall obtain pardon through repentance. Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.97
In his letter to Trajan, Pliny indicates that he is not exactly sure what to do with these Christians, but that if they were citizens he would transfer them to Rome, presumably for trial. This is significant because, according to Eusebius, it was during Trajan's reign that Ignatius of Antioch the bishop, is taken prisoner and transferred by armed guard to Rome where he is executed.
More discussion on persecution in the Roman Empire will be covered in a later section.
The Apostolic Fathers
This set of early Christian writings, referred to as "The Apostolic Fathers," were written by the first generation of Christian leadership after the apostles, thus the term "fathers." Some of these documents, written in the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century, were considered by second and third century fathers to be sacred and were quoted as inspired text. The early church took these writings very seriously as early witnesses of the faith.
This letter, written by Clement of Rome, named later as the bishop of Rome, is sent to the church in Corinth probably in the 90's. Apparently the church in Corinth had moved to replace their acting leadership and Clement is writing to instruct them concerning apostolic succession. He uses the OT example of Moses, showing that God appoints leaders as He did with the priesthood and those leaders appoint the next generation "with the consent of the whole Church."
(1 Clement 44.2)
Points of Interest:
It is from 1 Clement 5 that we learn the fate of Peter and Paul in Rome,
Through envy and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church] have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter...endured not one or two, but numerous labours, and when he had finally suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him....Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity...and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west...having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.
Clement is familiar with Paul's letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians), referring to it in chapter 47, yet no NT text is ever quoted - his biblical citations and illustrations all come from the OT. Although he also quotes from Paul's letter to the Romans, his view of faith is more in line with James, "being justified by our works, and not our words." (1 Clement 30.3)
1 Clement is counted in the NT canon for several regions and was included in the Alexandrian Codex. Clement of Alexandria (cir. 198-202) often quotes from 1 Clement as scripture.
This appears to be the transcript of a sermon rather than a letter. It follows 1 Clement in the early manuscripts and has always been connected to the first letter, but the Greek is decidedly less proficient which points to a different author. This author also clearly quotes from the NT (words of Jesus) more freely, this is also different from 1 Clement.
Point of Interest:
Although this sermon contains some of the canonical sayings of Jesus, there are also some gnostic-like sayings, "For the Lord Himself, being asked by a certain person when his
kingdom would come, said, 'When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female, neither male or female'." (2Clem 12:2) This saying is very similar to Gospel of Thomas 22.
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This early document, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, could be dated prior to 70 A.D. and bears many marks of being an early Jewish-Christian document. It opens with what is called "The Two Ways" teaching, a derivative of what is found in Qumran manuscripts and The Manual of Discipline. The Didache also relies on Matthew's gospel and does not put any emphasis on the divinity of Jesus - these characteristics are consistent with the early Jewish movement referred to as Ebionites.
Didache is something of an early Minister's Manual. It gives very practical guidelines for baptism, fasting, prayer, the Lord's Supper (the Eucharist), and how to take care of traveling preachers and prophets.
Point of Interest:
This early document gives us an example of a lack of dogmatism:
...baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Didache 7
The Epistle of Barnabas
The dating for Barnabas is highly disputed, ranging from 70 to 128 A.D. Some early fathers, like Clement of Alexandria, ascribed this document to the Barnabas named in Acts with the apostle Paul. In fact, Clement refers to Barnabas as an apostle and quotes from Barnabas as inspired text. Most scholars do not accept NT Barnabas as the author.
Barnabas has a very negative view of Judaism, believing that the Jews were being punished for crucifying Jesus. The author quotes extensively from the Greek OT and rarely from the NT. The same "Two Ways" teaching found in Didache is found at the end of Barnabas.
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The Letters of Ignatius
Early in the second century, probably during the reign of Trajan, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch is arrested and is being taken to Rome for trial. Along the way he writes letters to various churches, urging them to remain faithful and to pay respect to the bishop. These letters give us any interesting insight into this period and the development of what is now called monoepiscopacy, the idea of a single bishop over a region.
Points of Interest:
We saw in the chapter on the first century that Ignatius writes against a group that holds to some kind of docetic view of Jesus, an emphasis that denies his humanity. Perhaps to combat this doceticism, Ignatius expresses a strong christology, Johannine in nature, but even more pronounced. This represents a continued confirmation of the early church belief in the divinity of Jesus,
There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Ephesians 7
In the letter to the Trallians there is an interesting section that points to a very early witness of what becomes known as the Apostle's Creed:
Jesus Christ....descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly begotten of God and of the Virgin, but not after the same manner....He was crucified and died under Pontius Pilate....He descended, indeed, into Hades alone....He also rose again in three days, the Father raising Him up; and after spending forty days with the apostles, He was received up to the Father, and "sat down at His right hand, expecting till His enemies are placed under His feet... Trallians 9
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The Martyrdom of Polycarp
This document tells the story of Polycarp's arrest and martyrdom sometime in the middle of the second century. Polycarp had a large reputation as the bishop of Smyrna - Irenaeus reports that Polycarp had been a disciple of John the Evangelist. The story related in this document is fantastic in nature and becomes part of a growing body of martyrdom accounts.
After being arrested and taken into a stadium to be executed as part of the brutal entertainment in the Roman Empire, the proconsul urged Polycarp,
Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say, "Away with the atheists." Then Polycarp with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, "Away with the atheists." Polycarp 9.2
Polycarp is 86 years old, yet is treated roughly, urged to renounce Christ, and is threatened with being burned at the stake. His retort to the officials in the face of certain death has inspired generations of believers,
'Thou threatenest that fire which burneth for a season and after a little while is quenched: for thou art ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why delayest thou?' Polycarp 11.2
The attendants prepared the fire and as they moved to nail Polycarp to the stake he asked that he be allowed to have his hands free saying that the one who would give him the strength to endure the flames would also give him strength to remain in the fire.
Point of Interest:
This martrydom account became immediately popular among Christians of that age and fueled an already growing martyrdom cult. This will be discussed more fully in the next section, but it is important to mention here that martyrs (literally, witnesses) were being given favored status. Their bones were collected and venerated - stories of healings and miracles happening through the use of prayer and these "relics" circulated. Martyrs in prison were seen as having such a high standing that believers consistently visited them, asking for their prayers - this led to some friction within the local church leadership.
The Shepherd of Hermas
This interesting document was written in Rome sometime before the middle of the second century. The author is Hermas, brother of then bishop of Rome, Pius. This is an apocalyptic document, a series of visions and revelations given to Hermas through an angel, a shepherd.
This document seems to have been written as an encouragement to believers to endure persecution, but had a controversial aspect to it - a second chance for repentence. We will discuss this issue more fully in a later section, Second Repentence, but for now we can simply acknowledge that this caused The Shepherd of Hermas to be rejected by some early fathers.
The Spirit of Martyrdom
From the time when "godly men buried Stephen" after he was executed by the Jews, martyrs were treated with great respect. Martyrs, or "confessors," were believed to have a greater degree of grace from God. There were reports (although some might be considered questionable) that miracles were performed through martyrs: bones (relics) could be used for healing, confessors sitting in prison were reported to have heavenly visions and personal audience with the risen Lord - these could offer prayers of special power, and could even grant confirmation of God's forgiveness.
By the middle of the second century pockets of the Church had followers desiring martyrdom to the point of throwing themselves in the way of officials of the empire, hoping to be selected for the "perfecting" of their faith, execution. This careless attitude had become commonplace enough that Clement of Alexandria urges believers not to offer themselves to their persecutors, but to flee.
Bishops of the second century found their authority being challenged by imprisoned confessors. People were flocking to imprisoned saints seeking empowered prayer and forgiveness for sins. During times of intense persecution many believers "lapsed" into various levels of their former sinful lives, then wanted to come back to the church. Each region had its own method of repentance, which typically depending on the local bishop. When lapsed believers started approaching, and gaining forgiveness through imprisoned confessors the authority of the bishop suffered.
The Issue of Second Repentance
As was mentioned in the section on persecution in the Roman Empire, there was an ebb and flow in the persecution against Christians. It was not unusual for great numbers of believers to "lapse" during times of intense persecution. Some simply backed into the shadows for fear of being associated with the Christians. Others found it easy to go back to riotous living, the life of excessive drink and sexual indiscretions. Once the persecution lifted bishops would often find themselves faced with literally dozens, sometimes hundreds, of lapsed believers desiring to be readmitted to the fellowship of the saints. Lapsing during a time of persecution was a serious offense, especially when there were others who stood the test and were tortured and/or killed. Lapsed believers were not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist or to enter into the main church meeting, but had to sit in an outside room, or even outside the building or house. They could listen, but could not take part. Some never tried to come back, feeling that they were beyond forgiveness, others decided they did not want to come back.
In North Africa, according to Tertullian (On Purity 13), lapsed believers would dress in rags to show their penance, lay prostrate in the outer foyer where the elders would enter, and beg for prayer and forgiveness. Following 1 John 5:16,17 the elders were not to speak to or even pray for such "penitents," but were to let them continue in penance until the Lord somehow showed His mercy to them. Some of these lapsed believers would eventually give up, figuring they had lost their souls. Others would spend months, maybe years, in this condition, hoping that God would accept them when they died.
A point I now insist upon is this, that the penance which has been revealed to us by the grace of God, which is required of us and which brings us back to favor with the Lord, must never, once we have known and embraced it, be violated thereafter by a return to sin....Grant, Lord Christ, that Thy servants may...know nothing of repentance nor have any need of it [after baptism]. I am reluctant to make mention here of a second hope, one which is indeed the very last, for fear that in treating of a resource which yet remains in penitence, I may seem to indicate that there is still time left for sin. God grant that no one come to such a conclusion. On Penitence 5-7 [emphasis added]
This "second hope" Tertullian refers to is the second repentance issue we mentioned earlier in the short discussion on The Shepherd of Hermas. Tertullian refers to The Shepherd in one of his later works, saying it is the only writing "which favours adulterers." (Modesty 10.12)
In this discussion it is quite important to remember the historical context - Roman persecution. Some believers are seeking forgiveness for what Tertullian calls mortal sins, apostasy, adultery, and fornication, and as we have seen, The Shepherd of Hermas indicates that many were willing to grant such forgiveness. Callistus, bishop of Rome, produced a decree (cir. 217-222) which authorized bishops to allow absolution for penitent adulterers. This idea greatly angered Tertullian. His response was to write On Purity in which he was critical of the idea that an adulterer could receive the same absolution that might be withheld from the one
whom savagery has overcome after he has struggled with torments in the agony of martyrdom. It would, in fact, be unworthy of God and of His mercy...that those who have fallen in the heat of lust should more easily reenter the Church than those who have fallen in the heat of battle. On Purity 22
He paints the picture of a believer being tortured, with a glowing iron held close to his face, being told to deny Christ. He maintains that this believer should be given opportunity for forgiveness before the adulterer.
As with other major issues, the Church had to grapple not only with practical application of "truth" in the lives of believers, but also with obscure biblical texts. In the end, judgments had to be made and tradition was established, but getting to that place was not easy. In 251 AD, under Cyprian of Carthage, the "second repentance" issue took on the added significance of who could offer penance and forgiveness to the 'lapsed.' The authority of the bishop was again being questioned and Cyprian's document, On the Unity of the Catholic Church, established the rule of the church followed from that time forward - authority rested with the bishops.
Learn more details on the issue of Second Repentance.
The Initial Heresies and Heretics
Beginning with the apostle Paul, the leaders of the early church had to address wrong headed ideas that threatened the integrity of the gospel message. One of the first, docetism, was mentioned in our discussion of the first century. Docetic, which comes from the Greek word meaning "to appear." Those who proposed this heresy maintained that Jesus really did not possess, or inhabit a physical body, but only "appeared" to have a body. The basis of docetism is that Jesus was truly a spiritual being, and as such, could not have had a true body.
There are aspects of the New Testament that suggest docetism was already a problem in the first century. Some scholars believe John's gospel contains some anti-docetic texts, for example in chapter 21 where Jesus eats fish with disciples. It seems that 1 John may have been written to combat this heresy, "...every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God." 1 John 4:2
As was mentioned in an earlier section (Century 1, page 9), Ignatius of Antioch is clearly writing against docetics when he says, "He was then truly born, truly grew up, truly ate and drank, was truly crucified, and died, and rose again." Philippians 3
Around the year 85 Marcion was born, the son of a bishop. He traveled around the world as a merchant and moved to Rome around 135 where he became known in the church and began to teach.
Marcion observed the vast differences between the God represented in the Old Testament and the God of Jesus in the NT. His answer was to reject the God of the OT, seeing him as the evil craftsman (gk. demiurge) creator of an evil world. Marcion constructed a list that represents the first recorded listing of NT texts, basically his personal canon - he excluded the entire OT, and included only Paul's letters and Luke's gospel. He also excluded a few parts of Paul's letters - anything where Paul refers to the OT in a positive way (Marcion claimed these had been tampered with by Jews) and references to hell and/or judgment (for example 2 Thess 1:6-8). It is this unorthodox canon that leads the church fathers to begin naming the "accepted" documents.
Marcion's influence was significant enough for his teaching to be argued against by several church fathers including Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian. He worked hard as an evangelist and the Marcionite churches spread throughout the Roman Empire. Marcionite churches held strong until the beginning of the fourth century.
Sometime in the 160's on the borders of Mysia (western Turkey) a believer named Montanus broke onto the scene. He testified that he had experienced an ecstatic visitation of the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) and, along with two women (Maximilla and Priscilla), had the ability to deliver prophetic messages from God.
The Montanist message, whether spoken or delivered in ecstatic utterance, consisted of: the promise (or warning) of the immanent return of Jesus and the apocalyptic end of the world, a new outpouring of the Spirit announcing this message, and an encouragement to embrace persecution and martrydom. The church had not discouraged these messages up to this point, and indeed, did not immediately disagree with Montanus. Unfortunately, other messages existed behind these to form a three-part subtext. First, two of the primary characters were women. There are some modern scholars who seize upon this as evidence for a patriarchical stronghold that would deny any leadership to women. There are good arguments against this position, but the early church was a male dominated movement and women certainly did not have equal access to leadership roles. Another subtext was the over-zealous approach to martrydom. We have already covered the problems with what can be called "the cult of the martyrs." It is highly likely that Montanists were among the martyrs in the famous persecution scene of Lyons in the year 177. Probably the most problematic aspect of the Montanists was the view that their prophecies carried the authority of the gospels, and of apostolic teaching. Montanus and his two prophetesses did not see themselves in need of the authority of the church. The leading bishops did, however, prevail even after Tertullian defected from the church and joined the Montanists. Around 179 AD Maximilla complained of the treatment she had received, "I am driven as a wolf from the sheep. I am not a wolf. I am word, spirit and power." (Eusebius, History V.16.17)
In the end, Montanism was rejected more for being fanatical than for being heretical. David Wright concludes his study on Montanism by saying, "The reaction against Montanism brought upon the church impoverishment more detrimental than the upset caused by the unbalanced excesses of the New Prophecy." (Wright, David, "Why Were the Montanists Condemned?", Themelios 2:1, pp.15-22; also www.earlychurch.org.uk/article_montanists_wright.html)
In the early second century a strange movement began to emerge, more strongly concentrated in Egypt, but with pockets of activity throughout the Roman Empire. Gnosticism was a curious synthesis of Jewish apocalypticism, Platonism, strains of pagan religions, and early Christianity. There are some indications of an early form of gnostic thought in the NT, but nothing like what developed in the second century.
Similar to Marcion, basic Gnosticism consisted of an extreme dualism, drawing a distinction between the body and the spirit realm. The "demiurge" was the evil creator of the physical universe, humans were bound in their "evil" physical body, and could only be released from the confines of that body through the gaining of gnosis, or divine knowledge. The seven visible heavenly bodies (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) gave rise to a belief in eight heavenly realms. Plato had written about the concept of pre-existent souls in a state of perfection prior to taking on a mortal body on the earth. When the soul is released from the prison of the body it ascends back to the heavenly realm where it is reunited with the realm of ideas. The soul in the Gnostic system must ascend through these heavenly realms in the quest to return to a state of perfection. Along the way the soul must pass guardians of each level; typically to pass into the next stage, or heavenly realm, the soul must recite some of the heavenly gnosis learned during the earthly trek. The eighth level is the place of perfection, the ultimate goal for every soul.
Gnosticism in the second century was not a unified movement. Each group tended to gravitate around a single enlightened leader, and most groups were exclusive, seeing their particular set of dogma to be unique and essential. This lack of cohesiveness between Gnostic sects makes it difficult to quickly summarize the gnostic system beyond the above overview. To learn more, see the explanations regarding some of the chief gnostics of the second century:
The second century brought with it a steady growth of Gentile Christianity, but not without opponents. We have seen the rise of various heresies, opposition marked by a twisting of "apostolic teaching." This led the early Christian leadership to further develop creeds and formulas as a way to solidify "orthodox" positions. One must remember that in the early second century the New Testament had not come fully into form – the writings of the apostolic successors was held in high esteem. The growth of the church into something of a "grassroots" movement also brought critics like Lucian (a writer), Galen (a physician) and Celsus (a philosopher). Celsus is the most well-known early critic of Christianity. His attack must have had some influence - we know his writing through Origin's argument against him, Contra Celsum, written nearly 100 years later. The following arguments, voiced by Celsus, were commonly used against Christianity:
- Jesus could not have been divine
- with secret teachings, Christianity is suspicious (Eucharist, the Holy Spirit, etc.)
- how can God be "eternal" and be known?
It is important to understand that intellectual criticism of the Christian faith and doctrine was not uncommon in the second century. This is important for many reasons, but let me point out two:
1. Christianity has always had critics. What we see and hear leveled against the faith is not new – believers before us had to find answers against critics and so does the contemporary church.
This consistent criticism of the faith gave rise to another special group of Christian writers, the Apologists. These writers argued for the faith, and in the process allowed Christians for all ages to know what the second century church believed. The first two men (Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons) are clearly second century; the influence of the two other men (Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria) was mainly felt in the third century and beyond, but they are both considered apologists, therefore I will introduce them as such with a brief discussion of their influence in this area. These apologists have already briefly appeared in other sections of CH101 and continue to come up (for example in the next section on the New Testament canon).
2. The answers we find to the objections clearly indicate that the primary doctrines of the faith were well established before the NT took its final form. Those who argue that the faith being taught in the 21st century is somehow different from what the earliest believers held is simply not true. The virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the divinity of Jesus – we find the same cardinal doctrines of faith in early second century Christianity.
Justin Martyr (cir. 100-165)
Justin was an ardent student of philosophy (mainly Stoicism and Platonism) and taught philosophy. In his early thirties he met an elderly man on a seashore who impressed upon Justin the trustworthiness of the gospel. Justin investigated the faith and became convinced. He continued to wear his philosopher's gown and teach philosophy, but now advocating the only true philosophy to be Christianity.
Justin is mainly known through his writings:
The Apologies – a set of discourses propounding the supremacy of the Christian faith. The first Apology is addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161) and to his son, Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180), who himself was something of a philosopher. Justin appeals to these emperors and their sense of decency, arguing against the persecution directed at Christians.
Dialogue with Trypho – a treatise again proposing the primacy of the Christian faith, but with more emphasis on how the followers of Jesus represent the “new” people of God. Trypho was an educated Jew and also a student of philosophy.
Justin is often criticized for leaning too heavily on his Greek philosophy, but he must have stood out as an intellectual giant among his peers and perhaps dulled some of the sharp attacks coming from the critics of the faith.
Justin is also quite important for the role his writings play in the development of the NT canon. He quotes from, or alludes to, each of the four gospels and to many of Paul's letters. Many early fathers cite Justin as an important early Christian voice. He was arrested and beheaded in Rome and thus receives his name as Justin Martyr.
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Irenaeus of Lyons (cir. 135-202)
Irenaeus, a bishop in Gaul sometime in the latter half of the second century is mainly known for his work Against Heresies circa 175-185. The title is actually Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge, falsely so-called - thus the shorter title. This work is a summary and brief history of all the heresies known by Irenaeus, focusing on Gnosticism. Indeed, Gnosticism was the dominant heresy of that time, even overshadowing the orthodox faith in the Egyptian region to some extent.
We learn from the author himself that he grew up in the faith and actually sat at the feet of Polycarp as a young boy (A.H. III.3,4). Eusebius gives us more from a letter of Irenaeus which no longer survives:
"For when I was a boy I saw you in lower Asia with Polycarp....I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the 'Word of life,' Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures...I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God's grace, I recall them faithfully.” (E.H. V.20,5-7)
What begins as a refutation of gnostic groups becomes something of a history of the Christian church up until his day. In fact, Eusebius leans upon Irenaeus to a great degree in his church history volume written 200 years later. Irenaeus gives us many details about Christianity during this period that might have otherwise been lost. For example, he recounts the succession of bishops in Rome from Peter and Paul to his day. This is done to combat a claim being made by several heretical leaders that they were in the rightful lineage of the apostles. He gives us the basis for a creed recited during his day (A.H. III.4,2). He cites passages from the four canonical gospels and from almost every other NT book.
Many scholars during the early years of the 20th century attacked Irenaeus and his description of these gnostic groups, accusing him of exaggeration in order to make the Gnostics look far worse. The discovery of Nag Hammadi in 1945 of several gnostic writings dated from the second century (the Nag Hammadi Library) have proven that Irenaeus was, in fact, not making anything up, nor was he exaggerating.
Irenaeus served as the bishop of Lyons until 202 when it is thought he may have died during the persecution under Emperor Severus.
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Tertullian (cir. 155–230)
It is not known exactly when Tertullian was born, but he was born in Carthage, North Africa, the son of a Roman centurion and the Empire. He was trained in law and apparently served as a jurist in Rome for a while. We do not know how he came to faith, but he does seem to indicate in some of his writings that he was not always in the faith.
He is known only for his writings, which are many. Tertullian was a prolific writer and is the first of the Latin Fathers – the first Christian writer to write in Latin. His biblical quotations come from a Latin bible as well. He is a master of the written word and penned some works specifically for the general educated public in defense of Christian faith. Some were written as open letters to the authorities arguing (as did Justin) against the persecution of Christians in the empire. His writings are terse, direct, and always attacking – as he probably argued in courtrooms, his aim is always to win the battle of the argument.
Tertullian had a fiery temperament and that contributed to some very strong disagreements with others in church leadership. The most serious issue is known “second repentance.” Basically the church believed that after your initial repentance, baptism, and entrance into the family of faith you could not be formally allowed readmittance to the church if you commit a “sin unto death.” Typically three sins were considered mortal sins: adultery, fornication, and apostasy (denouncing Christ during persecution).
During some of the more heated persecutions of the second century the faith of many believers failed, or “lapsed.” After the persecution calmed bishops found themselves with numbers of the lapsed desiring forgiveness and admission to the church. This number could be in the dozens in the major cities. As in any age, some bishops were more stern than others – some wanted to grant mercy to these penitent sinners. Others wanted to the church to hold to a high standard and demanded that lapsed believers could not be forgiven. Tertullian falls into the rigorous camp, but the issue is not a simple one – he mainly felt that to go easy on an adulterer and to then hold someone at arms length whose faith held failed under torture was just wrong. We cannot go further into this issue, but you can read a paper on Second Repentance to get a better explanation and understanding.
Clement of Alexandria (cir. 150-215)
The final significant second century apologist is Clement of Alexandria. It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Clement. Although his influence is not focused in the second century, he certainly served as an apologist.
Clement's first major work is titled “Exhortation to the Greeks” and is basically a call to the educated Greco-Roman society to hear the gospel of Jesus. Many scholars say this is Clement's most graceful piece of writing. This “Exhortation” is filled with numerous citations from the most popular Greek writers, each citation being used to prove Clement's underlying arguments. The document reads like an anthology of Greek literature, and it is clear that Clement is not new to this literature. He is an educated man and his use of Greek is of a high quality.
His other significant apologetic is “Miscellanies,” a strange work that covers a multitude of topics without any apparently clear outline. What is clear in this work is that Clement is attacking the various Gnostic leaders who had made an impact in second century Egypt, chiefly Basilides and Valentinus (Gnosticism was briefly covered in another chapter). He names these men throughout this work, citing texts from their writings and arguing against them. “Excerpts from Theodotus” is another work attributed to Clement. In this work Clement takes large portions of Theodotus, a teacher of Valentinian gnosticism, and argues against this gnostic teaching.
Although Clement is clearly on the offensive against gnosticism, it is also clear that some of his views are not consistent with other early writers. This is something a problem with Clement of Alexandria. He represents a time in the development of Egyptian Christianity when the church was recovering from what appears to have been a 50-60 year period when gnosticism was the dominant force. Nonetheless, Clement of Alexandria certainly represents the development in early Christianity when highly educated Christian leaders presented a reasoned defense of the faith.
Clement of Alexandria
Origin of Alexandria
Comparison: the Schools of Alexandria and Antioch
The New Testament Canon, Part 3
We have seen that most of the earliest non-NT Christian documents cite the OT as “scripture” and only make allusion to what is now NT text. Ignatius of Antioch is full of allusions to, and paraphrases of, NT texts. It is only when we come to the second century apologists that verified citations from what we now call NT texts begin to be common.
In the 140's Marcion constructed his own canon which included most of Paul's letters in edited form, along with Luke's gospel. Marcion rejected the other gospels as having been tainted by the Jews. This list by Marcion is the first known listing of what is called a New Testament canon.
Justin Martyr does not cite any NT writing by name, but he designates his several NT citations with “it is recorded,” or the “memoirs of the apostles.” He refers to the “Gospels” saying,
For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me..." First Apology 66
Sometime around 170-175 Tatian, possibly a disciple of Justin, created a harmony of the four orthodox gospels known as the Diatessaron. This text was accepted in some circles, even being used to replace the four gospels, but this success was short lived. What this harmony reveals, however, is that the church recognized four gospels.
The four gospels are confirmed by Irenaeus of Lyons in Against the Heresies (cir. 175),
From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. A.H. III,11.8
Irenaeus also quotes from, or alludes to, almost all the documents that become the orthodox NT. These citations are mostly from Pauline works (25+ occurrences from each of these: Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians and Ephesians). His Pauline citations/allusions include all three "Pastoral" epistles. The other general NT letters get scant recognition and a few are totally absent (Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude). He also refers to a few non-NT documents as “inspired” (1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas).
By the time we come to the end of the second century and look at the citations of Clement of Alexandria (writings cir. 195-202) and Tertullian (writings cir. 205-225) we find hundreds of references from almost every NT document. The NT writings that are excluded by these two men are very similar to that of Irenaeus, but Clement then includes many writings as “scripture” that did not get final acceptance. One can take the citations from Clement and Tertullian and reconstruct the entire NT excluding the 4 or 5 small epistles which they neglect. Indeed, this is a very important factor from this point forward - “Did Clement/Tertullian cite from it?” These are the first two prolific Christian writers. From this point forward we find an increasing number of fathers writings great numbers of documents filled with biblical citations.
The Muratorian canon is a manuscript fragment that represents the oldest known list (or canon) of the New Testament. The beginning and ending of the MS is missing. The document is dated by most scholars about 170 AD. It was discovered in a library in Italy by Ludovico Antonio Muratori, a famous historian of the time. This list consists of the following:
- (Matthew and Mark were apparently named in the beginning of the fragment which is missing)
- Luke and John
- all 13 of Paul's letters
- 1 and 2 John is assumed since the writer only names two letters of John
- the Revelation of John
This listing omits Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. It also names a few documents that do NOT appear in the orthodox NT.
So by the middle of the second century most of the 27 documents in the orthodox NT canon had already gained widespread acceptance, especially the four gospels. It is critical to understand the importance of why only four gospels were accepted. These early fathers were very familiar with the other gospels that were floating around – Marcion's gospel of Luke, the various gnostic gospels, and other “proto-orthodox” gospels that simply were not well accepted.
Gnosticism was at its zenith during the second century. There were many Gnostic texts and many orthodox ones as well that did not make the NT canon. Most of the documents that were not accepted had too many bizarre texts and thus did not have a large following. One aspect of why a gospel/document was affirmed to be in the NT was how much acceptance it received among the churches in various regions. This acceptance was also reflected in if, and how much, the church fathers cited the document.
In our next section on the NT we will illustrate some of the bizarre texts that one finds in the various documents that failed to make the orthodox NT canon.
The New Testament Canon, Part 4
As we stated at the end of our last section, Gnosticism reached its zenith in the second century, particularly in Egypt. We do not have the space to look at Gnosticism to any great degree - I am not an expert in the subject and quite frankly I quickly become bored with the details - this section will focus on the bizarre nature of the Gnostic texts.
For more on Gnosticism, see the discussion on The Initial Heresies and Heretics.
You can also read An Introduction to Gnostic Texts.
It is important to understand that many ancient texts have some bizarre passages - the NT has some strange passages as well, and one must be ready to admit this before launching an attack against strange gnostic texts. For example,
"I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left."
"Where, Lord?" they asked. He replied, "Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather."
Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered. Matthew 21:18-19
I know there are many who have given explanation for these passages - I have just read 2-3 explanations for both of these, and none satisfy me 100% - my point is simply to say that we must admit that there are some strange passages in our NT documents that cannot be easily explained. I could list many more. And if you read the early fathers you will find many strange passages as well. One can give some explanation for the strange gnostic passages, but even with the proper historical context bizarre is...well, bizarre. The gospel contained in the New Testament is powerful because it is profound - taking the complicated and making it exceedingly simple to understand. These gnostic texts are just not easy to grasp.
Gospel of Thomas
Jesus said, "Blessed is the lion which the man shall eat, and the lion become man; and cursed is the man whom the lion shall eat, and the lion become man." Gospel of Thomas 7
Jesus said to them, "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside as the outside, and the outside as the inside, and the upper side as the lower; and when you make the male and the female into a single one, that the male be not male and the female female; when you make eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then shall you enter [the kingdom]." Gospel of Thomas 22
For those who attack Christianity for being male dominated and somehow think the gnostics were more favorable to women:
Simon Peter said to them: "Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life." Jesus said: "Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven." Gospel of Thomas 114
Read An Introduction to Gnostic Texts.
Summary and Applications
The church of the second century grew into a force, but not without struggle. Persecution Roman Empire was a consistent challenge, but this only helped the church grow with internal strength. Sometimes the reaction to brutal persecution was heroic, sometimes ridiculous. There was a general sense among Christians that it was virtuous to be tortured and, especially to be executed for the faith. Because of this persecution it seems like this young movement developed real inner strength.
But is it always GOOD to put yourself forward for persecution?
This attitude seems to encourage less thoughtful Christians to be overly aggressive in their witness, almost taunting others to "persecute" them. We all need wisdom when it comes to aggressive evangelism. We do not want to avoid stepping out and speaking up when the occasion demands it, but we do not need to thrust ourselves into harm's way just so we can "be a witness." Many of us know a few believers who have a habit of speaking too harshly, or being too "holy" around non-Christians. It seems that they are happy (maybe even proud) when non-Christians mock and scorn them. I think we need wisdom to know when, and where, to be aggressive.
The era of Christianity when there were possibly the most "heresies" was the second century. Oddly, Christian theology was not very developed in the second century compared to modern times.
Outside basic and essential theological positions, is good or correct theology important?
My personal opinion is that most Christian sects/denominations put too much emphasis in their theology. I am not saying that theology is NOT important, but outside what should be called the "essentials" I think we need to hold our theology with humility. What are the essentials? To a great extent, it depends on which denomination you are aligned with.
My baseline position is the Apostle's Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilot,
was crucified, dead, and buried.
On the third day He rose from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.
From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
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