Episode 90: Ante-Nicene Catholicism

Learn the documentary history behind how the Catholic Church was founded and set up as an organization, together with some of the works of the earliest church fathers.

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The Proto-Orthodox Era and Earliest Church Fathers

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 90: Ante-Nicene Catholicism. In this program, we will consider the very early history of the Catholic Church during what’s called the Ante-Nicene period, or the period of Christian history prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. This council had profound consequences in Christian history. By 325, Christianity had already been designated as a permitted religion with the Edict of Milan in 313, and it was the professed faith of the Roman Emperor Constantine. But during the three centuries before Christianity’s first great ecumenical council, the religion was growing in a number of different directions, and the Council of Nicaea was a meeting designed to stabilize its doctrines, and to chart its path forward now that it had made inroads with the Roman executive branch.

If you’ve listened to the Literature and History podcast up to this point, you already know a fair bit about Early Christianity. We read the New Testament together, and have already learned about two of Christianity’s branch movements during the Ante-Nicene period, these being Gnosticism and Manichaeism, from reading some of their primary scriptures. But there’s a lot more to the birth of Catholicism than the New Testament, and Gnosticism and Manichaeism. To get a precursory sense of how much more of how much more there is, we could walk into just about any theological library and glance at the bookshelves. There – in most theological libraries covering Christianity, I mean – we would almost certainly find a 10-volume collection of writings called The Ante-Nicene Fathers, first published in the 1860s and 1870s. This set of books, intended to be a representative omnibus of the earliest Christian writings, is about 6,500 pages in length, and it excludes several thousand pages of additional material for the purpose of brevity, not to mention an ocean of additional historical and archaeological work that’s been produced in the century and a half since the set’s initial publication.1 With a good 10,000 pages of surviving primary material from Christian theologians writing prior to the year 325, then, we have a lot of reasonably sturdy data about this period, and indeed, if Christian theological history were the main subject of this podcast, those Ante-Nicene Fathers volumes would be our home for the next several dozen episodes.

However, for the purposes of moving forward through Late Antiquity at a reasonably brisk pace, our goal in this show is to take an inventory of the contents of those ten volumes, and in doing so, acquire a basic understanding of how the Catholic Church arose out of the raw materials of Early Christianity. To accomplish this, in our program today, we will explore the writings of six theologians and churchmen at the core of early Catholic history, these being Pope Clement I, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexandria. Two more major Ante-Nicene theologians, Tertullian and Origen, will be covered in later episodes, though toward the end of this one, we’ll take a quick look at them. Some of these names have come up in prior episodes, but our goal over the next two hours or so is to understand their places in Catholic, and more broadly religious history, with a special emphasis on the history of second century Christianity. The six writers covered in this program differ widely from one another in terms of ideology, place of residence, and profession. But as we move through them, I think you’ll see one basic pattern again and again – an energetic desire to define and institutionalize orthodoxy against various beliefs perceived as dissident, together with a conservative, bookish fidelity to creeds established in and before the first century over Christianity’s later evolutions.

By and large, the ante-Nicene thinkers we’ll study in this show valued consensus over innovation, and conformity to existent ideology over new epiphanies and revelations. At first glance, their intensely scholarly approach to doctrine, and their general hostility to further ideological evolutions within Christianity can make the Christian theologians of the 100s and 200s seem pretty austere and hidebound. But it is absolutely critical to remember that the thinkers we will study over the next two hours, in their very emphasis on conformity and creedal tradition, were doing something radically new – attempting to create an ecclesiastical system that was scalable, transplantable, and ideologically consistent, and to disperse this system’s cells and branches throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Since Sumer and Old Babylon, ancient empires had shown themselves capable of creating bureaucracies that could be replicated, scaled and transplanted according to the requirements of central leadership. But the architects of the Catholic Church had to do all of this without any security forces to defend them from external assaults or sudden ideological insurgencies from within, and up until the fourth century, an imperial regime that offered them no protection, and from time to time launched major persecutions against them. That they were successful is a testament to the intrinsic appeal of the ideology which they promoted, their disciplined emphasis on doctrinal harmony, and of course for many Christians, perhaps a little sprinkle of stardust from the Holy Trinity from time to time.

The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp

Six theologians is a wide breadth of material to cover in one show. So I want to break these six theologians into two groups, beginning with the first three of them. The first three are, again, Pope Clement I of Rome, and then the bishops Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. These three figures are what Christian history has subsequently termed the Apostolic Fathers. The Apostolic Fathers have historically been understood as the bridge between the Apostles of Jesus in the first century – particularly Peter, Paul, and John – and then the influential theologians of the later second century. Generations of later Catholic writers have understood Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna as the connecting tissue between Jesus Christ and those who knew him in the first century, and then the major Christian thinkers of the second century, and everything that came afterward. Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp – again – these three churchmen are by many Christians today thought to be what fastens the Apostolic age of the first century with the Catholic Church as an organization.

All three Apostolic Fathers left behind letters like those in the New Testament, epistles set down from roughly the 90s CE to the 130s or 140s. These letters are some of the earliest extant documents from Christianity outside of the New Testament. While the timeframes of their compositions are uncertain, and there has been plenty of discussion on their authenticity, nonetheless many of the epistles of the Apostolic Fathers are now thought to be genuine. The letters of Clement I, Ignatius, and Polycarp, put briefly, show Christianity being passed from a first and second generation of Christians to a third and fourth. Beautifully written and heavily embroidered with quotations from both Old and New Testament documents, the letters of the Apostolic Fathers are a window into an especially mysterious period of Early Christianity. And before we dive into the text of the Apostolic Fathers and later Ante-Nicene theologians, I want to talk about this period – to get this century of Christian history in our heads – specifically, the hundred years between about 60 and 160 CE. [music]

The Origins of the Bishopric: Overseers and Apostolic Succession

Saints Peter and Paul, according to widespread but non-Biblical tradition, died in Rome in the 60s, victims of the erratic temperament and persecutions of the Emperor Nero. Various apocryphal traditions have the other twelve Apostles scattering to the four winds, with Thomas going all the way to India, Jude to Syria, Andrew to Greece, John to Anatolia, and Matthew somewhere far abroad, though accounts vary. The closing lines of the Book of Acts, which take us to the beginning of Saint Paul’s ministry on house arrest in the city of Rome around 60 CE, are the beginning of a fogbank in early Christian history – one that spans multiple generations and begins to clear about a century later, when the works of the theologians Justin Martyr and Irenaeus can begin to be more conclusively dated. Over the next few minutes, then, I want to talk about the years between 60 and 160, and consider some slightly different takes on this very important century.

What happened during this century is one of Christianity’s great mysteries, and one which has been quite hotly debated since the Protestant Reformation. Having covered the New Testament pretty carefully, we know the basic story of the Book of Acts fairly well, a story that culminates, once again, with Paul’s arrival in Rome around the year 60 – the Book of Romans (15:28) also mentions Paul having gone to Spain. Somehow, over the next century, the ecclesiastical installations set up by Paul and his colleagues mostly around Anatolia and the Aegean had proliferated, spreading into North Africa, Syria, and Europe through means of house churches and low profile public meetings, and increasingly, designated places of worship administered by appointed officeholders. The rise of one type of officeholder – the bishop – may have been the most important event in Christianity between 60 and 160. Over the course of this century, the office and functions of the Christian bishop arose and became clearly defined. In the words of church historian Thomas Bokenkotter,
By 150 or 160 [the bishopric] was established practically everywhere. Four factors seem to account for its triumph. First, there was a need for one presbyter – the senior of the college, often – to represent Christ at the Eucharist; the same one would often be deputed to ordain as well, and he gradually claimed this power by right. Second, one person would be charged normally with carrying on correspondence with the other churches. Third, one person would often be chosen to represent a church at a general gathering. Fourth, in view of the Gnostic disturbance, congregations realized the value of having a single person as a focus of unity and as an authoritative doctrinal spokesman.2
In Bokenkotter’s account, then, bishops answered some simple and fundamental needs of Christian congregations, and the office of the bishopric arose organically in the century between 60 and 160. A Christian worship community needed someone to minister the Eucharist, to ordain, and to baptize, and gradually, the person doing so accrued a distinct authority. A Christian worship community needed to network with its neighbors, for the sake of safety, solidarity, community, and love and friendship, and someone needed to be writing letters and checking the mailbox. Though Bokenkotter only briefly alluded to Gnosticism in that quote we heard a moment ago, we know from reading some of the Nag Hammadi library that part of Gnosticism’s ideology was the notion that all individuals could acquire secret knowledge of the divine, and commune with the lucent heavens hidden beyond the demiurge’s material illusion. This idea is intrinsically problematic to congregational Christianity. When everyone has access to the divine, and can pursue the esoteric secrets of the highest reality, a congregation loses some of its cohesion, as individual searches for secret knowledge can begin to trump the ministry of an appointed teacher.

Bishop Irenaeus (Ćirić)

Uroš Predić’s Bishop Irenaeus (1923). Irenaeus of Lyon is one of the lynchpins of Ante-Nicene Catholic theology, perhaps the greatest doctrinal link between the Apostolic generation and the theology of the third century and afterward.

The bishopric, then, emerging onto the historical record during the lives of the early Gnostic thinkers Marcion of Sinope and Valentinus at the outset of the 100s CE, may have been in part an opposition movement to some of the more radical new directions Christianity had begun taking. Once you had your guy at the front of the congregation, and your guy was corresponding with the other guys at the heads of the other congregations, the whole thing was more consistent and interoperable, and your church had more capacity to convert, to share news about new developments, to undertake charity work, and to lock arms during tough times. And also, if your congregation had a guy who was in touch with other guys, in the event that your guy proved to be some kind of a sectarian, or a demagogue, or a swindler, or just a schmuck, your congregation had recourse to swap him out for a new, and better guy. Bishops, ideologically and organizationally, held things together.

In essence, then, because early Catholicism didn’t want to risk forking off infinitely into regional sects, it needed hubs – educated personnel who communicated with one another. Other ancient religious movements we have studied in this podcast together also tended to agglomerate around important officeholders – the Roman Pontifex Maximus, the Oracle at Delphi and hierophant at Eleusis, and the heads of Egyptian cult centers at Memphis and Heliopolis being a few examples. But Christianity, with its unprecedented goal of worldwide ideological hegemony, had to organize and standardize in ways that earlier religions, either restricted to region, or language, or ethnicity, or simply not having global proselytization as a goal, had not. While the Roman historian Tacitus records the 60s CE as no picnic for Christians in the city of Rome, and other records describe Christians having a rough time of it under Domitian two decades later, by and large the somewhat foggy century between 60 and 160 CE falls squarely within the Pax Romana, a period of relative tranquility for the Roman Empire. The early generations of Christians who lived during this century thus had a reasonably peaceful epoch of history and commercially interlinked Empire in which to experiment, and happen upon which models of ecclesiastical organization best suited their needs and their creeds.

Now, this explanation that I have just laid out for you – that bishops emerged as regional church leaders organically out of pragmatism and consensus – this explanation doesn’t entirely line up with an older, and more traditionally Catholic view of the century between 60 and 160. The more traditional view rests on an idea commonly called Apostolic Succession, which we’re going to learn all about now. Apostolic Succession, as the name implies, is the notion that the Apostles appointed key church leaders to succeed them after instilling these leaders with the precise doctrines they had learned from Christ himself, and that this second generation of leaders had passed the doctrines onward in an undiluted form to a third generation of leaders, and so on. Apostolic Succession, in Christian history, has been a hotly contested topic. When the Protestant Reformation began in the sixteenth century, key leaders in the movement sought to delegitimize the idea that the Papacy and the hierarchy beneath it had actually been consecrated by the Apostles of Jesus, and so the idea of Apostolic Succession has been touchy subject between certain generations of Catholics and Protestants. And while we’re not going to sort out how, exactly, the offices of the Catholic Church arose during the early second century, we can certainly read some primary sources from this timeframe on the subject. Because the letters of the three Apostolic Fathers – Pope Clement I of Rome in roughly the 90s, and then Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna from the next few decades – these epistles can at least give us an idea of what these three major architects of Catholicism were thinking as they drew up the blueprints of the church. [music]

Clement of Rome and the Epistle of 1 Clement

Let’s begin with the earliest of the Apostolic Fathers, Clement of Rome. Early sources describe Clement as the fourth Bishop of Rome, or, to use proper Catholic terminology, the fourth Pope.3 There’s some ambiguity about how Clement came to be Bishop of Rome – Tertullian wrote that Clement was ordained directly by the Apostle Peter, whereas Irenaeus and Eusebius describe two other bishops at work in Rome between the 60s and the 80s after the Apostle Peter, traditionally the first Bishop of Rome, died there in the mid-60s. Whatever the exact chronology of Clement’s ordination, the key thing about him was that he was old enough to have known Peter and other Apostles, and young enough to outlive them by about a generation, thus potentially carrying their theology and the ecclesiastical architecture they’d promoted up to the very end of the first century. Clement of Rome is mentioned in the Bible, when, in the Epistle to the Philippians, Paul describes those who have “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers” (Phil 4:4).4 There is an apocryphal legend about Clement of Rome running afoul of the Emperor Trajan and then dying abroad in the waters off the Crimean Peninsula, but the story is the product of later centuries and none of Clement’s earlier biographers mention it, so it’s highly suspect.

Clemens Romanus

Clement of Rome in a mosaic in the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, c. 1000 CE. The epistle of 1 Clement, if genuine, may be primary Christian text older than some of the books of the New Testament.

The first of our three Apostolic Fathers, then, Clement of Rome in all likelihood knew Saints Peter and Paul, and he occupied a powerful ecclesiastical position, which, according to many sources, he used pass the Christianity of the Apostles themselves unadulterated to the next generation. And Clement of Rome left behind one very important document, called the Epistle of Clement, or just First Clement – there is also a second epistle of Clement at one point, but its legitimacy has been discredited. To turn to the Epistle of Clement, this letter, dating roughly to the 90s CE, has the esteem of being the oldest document to have come down to us from Christianity other than the New Testament – indeed 1 Clement may be older than Revelation and some of the later epistles, and has always enjoyed a special esteem in Christian history, a version of it still being canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible. The ancient historian Eusebius, in the fourth century, wrote, “There is an extant epistle of this Clement which is acknowledged to be genuine and is of considerable length and of remarkable merit. . .this epistle has been publicly used in a great many churches both in former times and in our own.”5 So, considering the vintage and importance of the 1 Clement in world history, let’s review some of the salient features of this very early text.

1 Clement, briefly put, is a letter written in Rome and addressed to the unruly church in Corinth, offering its Corinthian audience advice on how to overcome their present crisis, but scattering this advice among other, often more formulaic chapters on what it means to be a good Christian. Like all of the documents attributed to the Apostolic Fathers, the epistle of 1 Clement is difficult to date. It mentions “sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves” (1) as a reason for its not having arrived earlier.6 The events in question, according to some historians, were the various purges and persecutions of the Emperor Domitian, whose reign ended in 96, and so the letter’s reference to “calamitous events,” together with other histeorical references to Clement’s papacy, suggest that 1 Clement can very tentatively be dated to 96 or 97. Knowing, then, that the best evidence we have to go on links this letter to the cusp between the Flavian and Nerva-Antonine dynasties, let’s talk about the contents of the 59 chapters of 1 Clement in a bit more detail.

1 Clement, like the Gospels before it, is woven thickly with allusions to the Old Testament. Pope Clement was thoroughly schooled in the Septuagint, making long inventories of references its characters and theological outlook and quoting it extensively to prove points. Interestingly, the Epistle of Clement reveals almost no traces of direct content from the New Testament.7 Clement may have been familiar with two of the Pauline epistles, but his go-to scriptures come from the Hebrew Bible. With so much of the New Testament, like the Books of John and Revelation, still hot off the press in the mid-90s, it makes sense that even the Bishop of Rome still may not have been acquainted with much of the present canon at that point.

While we don’t see Clement extensively quoting the Gospels or Epistles like he does the books of the Old Testament, we do see Clement exploring some of the same questions that the New Testament does. Clement discusses the important dichotomy between salvation by faith and salvation by good works, in an initial chapter first emphasizing the primary importance of faith, but then in a balanced follow up chapter, also emphasizing the importance of good works (32-3). Elsewhere, he ponders the coming resurrection of Christ, telling his readers that this resurrection is still going to happen. More broadly, while Clement isn’t copying passages from the New Testament in his letter, his ideology is entirely in step with slightly earlier Christian scriptures.

The occasion of the Epistle of Clement – in other words the reason he wrote the letter – was that something, evidently, had gone wrong among the Christian community of Corinth. Clement mentions “shameful and detestable sedition, utterly abhorrent to the elect of God, which a few rash and self-confident persons have kindled to such a pitch of frenzy” (1). Some sort of insurgency had happened in the congregation at Corinth, because Clement brings up sedition multiple times, writing that “the worthless rose up against the honoured, those of no reputation against such as were renowned, the foolish against the wise” (3). Eventually, while Clement doesn’t name names, a more complete picture emerges – two members of the Corinthian Christian community seem to have somehow deposed leaders appointed by Clement’s organization. In Clement’s words, “[W]e see that [you] have removed some men of excellent behavior from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour. . .It is disgraceful. . .highly disgraceful, and unworthy. . .that the most steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians should, on account of one or two persons, engage in sedition against its presbyters” (44,47).

Now, as is the case with much from the century between 60 and 160, we don’t know much more than this about what was happening over in Corinth in the 90s. Corinth had been a problem congregation for Paul, as well, which Clement recollects at one point. But altogether, what you’ve heard so far isn’t really earth shattering – Clement I, again the fourth Bishop of Rome, like the authors of the New Testament, knew the Old Testament well, and also like the authors of the New Testament, was working to formulate the new religion’s creeds and to keep its novel congregations in order. Right – no surprises there. Where Clement I and the other Apostolic Fathers get interesting is when they start to write about church organization, a subject to which I want to turn our attention now.

To Clement of Rome, schooled in the Old Testament as he was, the churchmen of Christianity were akin to the Levites of Ancient Judah. In a fascinating trio of chapters (40-42), Clement thinks through how the priesthood was conferred to Aaron in the Pentateuch, and then Clement recalls the Old Testament’s regulations on meat sacrifices – that if ancient Israelites sacrificed on any altar other than the one at the Jerusalem temple, the penalty was death (41). Though Clement is quite familiar with the Mosaic Law of the seventh century BCE, he – understandably – seems to find Mosaic Law a little hard to square with the new religion being practiced by Christians in modern Rome. Christians of the 90s, after all, were no longer required to sacrifice animals, and they no longer did anything at the Jerusalem Temple, which was 1,500 miles away, and also, no longer existed. After an honorable, but hasty attempt at drawing a parallel between the Levites and modern Christian churchmen, Clement moves on to discuss where the authority of the modern Christian clergy came from.8

A moment ago, I mentioned the important topic of Apostolic Succession – the notion that the twelve apostles had vested various ecclesiastical appointees with their authority and passed the teachings of Jesus to them directly. In the epistles of the three Apostolic Fathers, we can read the words of those appointees themselves as to how this happened. Let’s start with Clement of Rome, who, in a single paragraph, explains Apostolic Succession as he may have personally experienced it. Clement writes,
Our apostles. . .knew. . .there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason. . .they appointed [ministers]. . .and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should [pass away], other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by [the Apostles], or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. (44)
Now, in context, this particular passage is addressed to the Corinthian church of roughly the 90s CE, and its emphasis is that they really shouldn’t have deposed two of their leaders – leaders whom Clement understood as having been appointed with authority that dated directly back to the Apostles themselves. While Clement mentions Apostolic Succession somewhat incidentally in his sole surviving epistle, nonetheless the paragraph you just heard is an exceedingly important and very early statement on ecclesiastical authority, written by a man who was technically a Pope before the bishopric of Rome acquired the centrality that it later would.

So that’s the basics of Clement of Rome, or Pope Clement I, the first of our three Apostolic Fathers. I should add, incidentally, that the prose of 1 Clement is rich and eloquent even in translation, altogether suggesting a very educated and compassionate person in the figure of Catholicism’s fourth Pope. There is a combination of firmness and forgiveness, and anger and simultaneous tenderness and sympathy that we find in 1 Clement that’s on par with the most beautiful writings of Saint Paul. Anyway, to stay on subject, our goal in this episode is a better understanding of Catholicism’s roots as an institution, and thus far, we’ve already been acquainted with the idea of Apostolic Succession – what it means, and where it shows up first in the actual writings of the Catholic clergy – a papal letter that we can tentatively date to 96 or 97 CE.

The Monarchical Episcopate: One of Late Antiquity’s Great Inventions

What I want to do now is to turn to the second of our three Apostolic Fathers, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch. And as we move on to Ignatius of Antioch, we need to return to the subject of the bishopric as an office – how it formally came about, and how its roles and responsibilities were defined and promulgated throughout the early church. The Epistle of Clement that we’ve just finished reviewing clearly emphasizes the idea of Apostolic Succession. What 1 Clement isn’t very clear about, though, is the actual titles and roles of those who have succeeded the apostles. The Epistle of Clement, like some of the Epistles of the New Testament, and other documents from very early Christianity, uses Greek words that we now translate as “presbyters,” “deacons,” and “bishops” without clearly distinguishing the roles of these ecclesiastical officeholders.9 By the 90s CE, these roles existed in Christian institutions, but surviving Christian writings of the first century don’t hierarchize them – Clement tells us that Apostolic Succession was the heart of ecclesiastical authority, but Clement doesn’t offer what we might call an org cart to map out how this succession happened between important appointees and then trickled down to various subordinates. We only have one letter from the guy, so Clement may well have written extensively elsewhere on the subject, but at any rate, let’s change subjects slightly and move forward to talk about the office of bishop.

A critical mass of the texts that we now have from Late Antiquity were written on, or edited on the desks of Christian bishops. Today, the ideas of bishoprics and dioceses are firmly ingrained in the consciousness of the Christian world. European cities center around cathedrals and abbeys, and villages and towns around parish churches. The size and complexity of these structures attest to Catholicism’s awesome capacity to organize and to distribute resources over the nearly 2,000 years of the religion’s existence. And yet, before Gothic architecture began to arise in the twelfth century, before Romanesque architecture showed the Christian world successfully imitating classical designs centuries before this, before even the earliest Christian stuff starts to show up at all on the archaeological record, some consensus had to be arrived at as to how the church would be structured in terms of its personnel, and how its sacraments and worship practices would take place. An important figure in this consensus was Saint Ignatius of Antioch, a man who not only gets the credit for being the first to definitely champion the power of the monarchical episcopate, or office of bishop, but also, the first person to use the Greek word katholikos, or “universal,” or “catholic” to describe the new church centered on Christ.10 [music]

Church Leaders in the New Testament: Epískopos and Presbýteros

Bishops were one of the most important innovations of Late Antiquity. Let’s talk about the history of bishops, starting with some nitty gritty on first century Koine Greek terminology. The office that we now call a bishop was not yet clearly defined when the documents that make up the New Testament were being written. When we see “bishop” in modern translations, it’s often printed in place of the Greek words epískopos, or “overseer” or presbýteros, or “elder.” When epískopos or presbýteros are used, they are often used interchangeably to describe congregational leaders, as Pope Clement I does. Let’s backtrack for a moment to look at some examples of these words being used in the New Testament. When a very early Christian relief package is sent to Jerusalem during a famine in the Book of Acts, it is sent “to the believers living in Judea. . .to the elders” (Acts 12:39-30). Later, in the same book, “the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:22) decide who will accompany Paul during his missionary work. Part of Paul’s work in Acts during his initial missionary journey is conferring ecclesiastical positions – we’re told that while passing through Anatolia Paul “had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting [Paul] entrusted them to the Lord” (14:23). In these cases in the Book of Acts, the word for “elder” is “presbýteros,” which simply means “senior.” Culturally speaking, it makes sense that the earliest Christians would set up councils of elders to lead their worship communities. Being Jewish people establishing what many of them understood as a new sect of Judaism, the apostles and their disciples naturally set up religious organizations akin to synagogues, overseen not by executives with veto power, but instead councils of elders. We notice that in books like Acts and Galatians, there is no Apostle in charge – Paul and Peter tend to get the most page space, and James the Just does serve as a chairperson during the Council of Jerusalem, but still, the apostles work, debate, concur, and interact as a body of equals rather than subordinates to a central officeholder.

Three later, pseudepigraphal Pauline epistles spend a bit more time discussing church leaders – whom to appoint, and whom not to appoint. These are the so-called “pastoral epistles,” letters which describe a church leader’s responsibilities over a congregation, and what sort of person a church leader should be. The Epistle to Titus tells its recipient that he “should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you: someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious” (Titus 1:6).11 In similar language, 1 Timothy states that “a bishop [or epískopos, again, meaning ‘overseer,’] must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way” (1 Tim 3:2-4). It’s interesting to note in passing that these epistles were written prior to the era that the Catholic clergy embraced celibacy – both Titus and Timothy describe church leaders as men who are “married only once” or in Greek syntax, “the husband of one wife.”12 The transition to clerical celibacy happened later, becoming more and more evident during the fourth century, but that’s a subject we’ll revisit a couple of programs from now.13 For our present purposes, it’s important to remember that in first century Koine Greek, the word epískopos just meant “overseer,” and in the earliest Christian texts, the word simply describes a generic congregational leader, rather than an elected official with singular authority over a diocese, as “bishop” later would.

Evidence for the Bishop in the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas

A manuscript of the Didache, one of the oldest documents from early Christianity. The Didache does not define the monarchical episcopate as an office of paramount distinction.

Just as the New Testament never describes bishops in the modern sense of the word, other documents that survive from the very early Christian period – documents once widely considered canonical – also use the word epískopos to describe generic leader figures on part with elders. Let’s take a quick look at two of these – in other words, Christian texts from roughly the first century that have different assumptions about the roles of bishops than we might expect. The first of these texts is the Didache, or “teaching,” a short manual, just a few pages in length, outlining the ideal moral behaviors and ritual practices of a Christian. While neither long nor particularly striking – the Didache seems to have just been a text designed to orient new Gentiles to the norms of first century Jewish Christianity – the Didache is an extremely early text – very likely a work from the first century.14 The Didache, after laying out ethical instructions consonant with those in the New Testament, goes on tell Christian converts that they must receive apostles who come to visit them as they would receive God himself, and that when prophets speak with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, disputing those prophets is an unforgivable sin.15 A subsequent chapter offers additional advice on how to deal with Christian visitors and travelers who end up freeloading and sticking around too long. And the final chapter of the text, again in verses that echo ideas in Acts and the Pastoral Epistles, the Didache tells its Christian readers to “Elect, therefore, for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not covetous, and true and approved, for they perform for you the service of prophets and teachers.”16 There’s nothing earth-shattering there, of course – just a replication of the New Testament’s more general assumptions that bishops are cut from the same cloth as presbyters and deacons. All told, the Didache has more interest in, and instructions for dealing with apostles and prophets than bishops, only mentioning bishops once, in a passage that feels like an afterthought.

Another very early document from Christianity, a long narrative called The Shepherd of Hermas, also envisions an overall parity between bishops and other church officials. The Shepherd of Hermas, probably a mid-second century text, is far longer than the Didache, being first a series of visions, then directives, and then more visions.17 One of the sustained images in The Shepherd of Hermas is of the Christian church as a tower being built, stone by stone. We might expect, with so many cathedral triptychs and altarpieces in our minds, a tower with meticulous attention to rank and moral sanctity, with laity on the bottom, clergy above them, stratified into layers, and the celestial order higher still. Instead, whoever wrote The Shepherd of Hermas – a text considered as canonical scripture by later writers like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian – whoever wrote this envisioned Christian ecclesiastical officeholders as being on par with one another.18 The speaker of The Shepherd of Hermas is told, as he gazes at the foundations of the church tower going up, that “The square and white stones which agree exactly in their joints, are the apostles, and bishops and doctors, and ministers, who through the mercy of God have come in.”19 The personnel of the early church, then, in this very early text, are all shown as equal building blocks. And The Shepherd of Hermas returns to the image some 50 pages later, when toward the end of the text the narrator once again sees the same tower. Gazing at the tower which is a sustained metaphor for the growing Christian church, the main character Hermas is told, “thou seest the whole tower of the same color with the rock, and made as it were of one stone. So also those who have believed in God by his Son, have put on his spirit. Behold there shall be one spirit, and one body, and one colour of their garments.”20 What’s envisioned here is no hierarchical or Gothic structure with bishops or cardinals gazing down from the parapets, but instead snugly packed stones in which each building block is nothing more or less than a Christian person.

The New Testament, then, and early texts like the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Clement do not describe a hierarchical clergy operating with different echelons of power and authority. Instead, we see terms like elder, deacon, and bishop often used interchangeably. This interchangeability is not the case, however, in the epistles of the aforementioned Ignatius of Antioch, the second of our three Apostolic Fathers, and the first Christian theologian on the record to firmly and concertedly emphasize the special powers and prerogatives of the bishopric. So let’s take a look at the office of the bishopric first appearing on the historical record in the pages of Ignatius of Antioch. [music]

Ignatius of Antioch and the Rise of the Bishop

Ignatius of Antioch was a revered figure in Early Christianity. In the Book of Matthew, at one point, Jesus pays special attention to a little child. As the Gospel tells the story, Jesus “called a child, whom he put among [his disciples], and said. . . ‘Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt 18:2,5).21 It’s an anecdote that’s both adorable and profound, and according to some traditions, this child was Ignatius of Antioch.22 Decades later, after Jesus’ death, Ignatius and another Apostolic Father, Polycarp – we’ll get to him in a moment – Ignatius became the disciple of John the Apostle, who according to later accounts had gone the Anatolian city of Ephesus to proselytize.23 Having extensive connections to the circle of the Apostles and even to Christ himself, then, Ignatius became an influential Christian in the Greek speaking east, eventually ascending to the position of Bishop of Antioch. There had only been one bishop before him in this influential Syrian metropolis, and so Ignatius’ ministry in Antioch, roughly in the late first century, allowed a pureblood Christian, trained by John the Apostle and once held by Christ himself, to germinate a legitimate version of the religion from his seat at one of the hubs of the eastern provinces.24 Unfortunately, though, Ignatius eventually ran afoul of the authorities, and was sentenced to be executed in Rome. Following the sentencing, he was transported to Rome on a curiously indirect overland route through Anatolia in chains, being given the opportunity by his captors to meet with various congregations of Christians, and according to the fourth century historian Eusebius, it was during the long, long journey to Rome that Ignatius wrote a series of epistles that promoted the notion of the monarchical episcopate, or powerful bishop.25

Ignatius of Antiochie

Ignatius of Antioch in a seventeenth-century Italian painting. Traditionally understood as an early Christian martyr, this important Greek theologian championed the bishop as Christ’s authority on earth, imagining the new office as a powerful and even unquestionable one.

In letters written, very roughly speaking, in the decades between 70 and 130 CE – Ignatius’ dates are uncertain – Ignatius of Antioch, himself a bishop, envisions the office that he held as one having powerful authority. Let’s hear some of what Ignatius of Antioch has to say about the office of bishop. In a letter written to a church in Ephesus, Saint Ignatius describes Bishops “settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth]. . .by the will of Jesus Christ.”26 While this statement describes widespread bishoprics and links the office itself to divine mandate, a moment later, the same letter explicitly emphasizes the subordination of elders to bishops. Ignatius writes, “[I]t is fitting that [you] should run together in accordance with the will of the bishop who by God’s appointment rules over you. . .For your justly renowned presbytery [or body of elders], worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp” (Eph 3).27 Repeatedly in his correspondence, Ignatius emphasizes the impiety of contradicting a bishop, writing, for instance, “Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God” (Eph 3). Even more emphatically, the same letter states that “It is manifest. . .that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself” (Eph 6). Throughout the letters that Ignatius left behind, though their scope and authenticity are both debated, it’s easy to find statements like this. In a different letter – this one to readers at a church in Magnesia – Ignatius praises a deacon who “is subject to the bishop as to the grace of God” (Mag 2), and he warns against treating a bishop “too familiarly on account of his youth. . .yield him all reverence, according to the will of God. . .be obedient to your bishop, and contradict him in nothing” (Mag 3). With a clear sense of hierarchy, Ignatius tells his reader that “your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles” (Mag 6). In third and final letter, this one addressed to a southwestern Anatolian church, Ignatius’ vision of a powerful bishop reaches its crescendo, as he tells his audience, “For, since [you] are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ. . .It is therefore necessary that. . .so without the bishop [you] should do nothing” (Trall 2).

Saint Ignatius wrote many descriptions of bishops as representatives of God on earth, and authorities who must not be questioned. In a passage that shows him thinking about the past and present of Jewish and Christian leadership, Ignatius writes that members of a congregation should think of “the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrin of God, and assembly of apostles” (Trall 3). The Sanhedrin, being the traditional priestly council of Jerusalem, comes up from time to time in the Gospels, and so in this passage Ignatius likens the bishopric as a new office which, just as Jesus came to earth, effectively replaces the old order of more egalitarian councils overseen by presbyters. While modern scholars can’t quite figure out when Ignatius of Antioch lived and died, and plenty of debate exists on which of his epistles, and which parts of which epistles are genuine, nonetheless, when we look for the roots of the monarchical episcopate as an office, Ignatius of Antioch is the guy who comes up.

For later Catholic historians, living centuries after the office of the bishop had been established, Ignatius’ biography and his epistles helped legitimate the hierarchy of the church. Here, after all, was evidence suggesting that the very man who had most vociferously and speedily promoted the monarchical episcopate had been held by Jesus himself as a child, and had been taught by a figure no less beloved than John the Apostle. And while Ignatius’ history, as Eusebius and other early annals tell it, certainly gives us a link between the Apostolic generation and the churchmen of the second century and beyond, there are a number of problems with it. First, the story of a metropolitan bishop carted overland in a paddy wagon through the entire land mass of Asia Minor and sermonizing and drafting epistles all the while certainly makes for a tragic and intense martyr tale. But Roman criminals were executed in the regions of their arrest, and Antioch was a port city, linked with Rome by efficient sea lanes and not circuitous northern roadways. Second, the timeframe of Ignatius’ life and death are, even by standards of first and second century historiography, especially unclear. Eusebius tells us Ignatius died under the reign of Trajan, who ruled from 98-117, but as scholar Richard Pervo puts it, “Two of Eusebius’ major interests were locating early Christian leaders as early as possible (sometimes earlier than possible) and in demonstrating the succession of bishops in various sees from the time of the apostles.”28 In fact, some modern historians estimate Ignatius as being born far too late to have ever met Jesus. In short, while the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch are documents that Catholic historians have used to legitimize the office of the bishop, the authenticity of the documents has been questioned, and it’s very difficult to sort out who the theologian was, and when he actually lived.

At any rate, that’s a quick overview of Ignatius of Antioch, an early champion of the monarchical episcopate, and the second of our three Apostolic Fathers. Ignatius’ writings about bishops as powerful, authoritative figures vested with the divine authority mark the moment when the Catholic Church as an institution begins to emerge from the obscurer history of the first and early second centuries. Now, Pope Clement I, having fairly certain connections to the apostles Peter and Paul, and then Ignatius of Antioch, with his tutelage under the apostle John, give us some of the traditional connecting points between the apostolic generation and the generations that came after it. But the third of our three Apostolic Fathers gives us something more, still. Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, like his acquaintance Ignatius of Antioch, was allegedly the pupil of John the Apostle. But while neither Pope Clement I, nor Ignatius of Antioch taught any churchmen or theologians whose writings have survived, Polycarp of Smyrna was one of the teachers of Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, one of the great Christian thinkers of the second century. This means, that across that aforementioned fogbank between 60 and 160 CE, there stretches one sturdy pedagogical chord – Irenaeus, who wrote a tremendously influential book that has been in continuous circulation ever since the 100s CE, was taught by Polycarp of Smyrna, who was taught by John the Apostle, who was taught by Jesus Christ. To stick with the Apostolic Fathers for now, then – that long revered glue between the apostles and posterity, let’s learn a bit about Polycarp of Smyrna. [music]

John the Apostle, Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus of Lyon

Polycarp, as mentioned earlier, according to tradition, was a student of John the Apostle – the theologian Tertullian even wrote that the Apostle John himself seated Polycarp as a bishop in the west coast Anatolian city of Smyrna.29 Of the three Apostolic Fathers, Polycarp may be the most mysterious, as only one document from him survives. Polycarp, first of all, knew Ignatius of Antioch – they were roughly contemporaries who’d been taught by the same apostle, and Greek speaking Christian bishops of prominent cities whose dioceses were just 500 miles apart as the crow flies. Polycarp travelled to Rome at one point in the mid second century to hold a conference with the bishop of Rome on the subject of Easter, as the Anatolian churches celebrated the holiday of Easter at a different time than the Roman church, and according to ancient sources, the two bishops essentially agreed to disagree on when Easter ought to be celebrated.30

Polycarp of Smyrna, said to have been the pupil of John the Apostle, was one of the early teachers of Irenaeus of Lyon. The latter’s Against Heresies (c. 180) is one of the earliest pieces of extant patristic theology.

There are two other things to know about our third Apostolic Father, Polycarp of Smyrna. The first is to know a bit about the contents of the lengthy letter that we have from him that survives, the Epistle to the Philippians. Overall, the letter, written some time between 108 and 140, is an interesting glance at how the documents that now make up the New Testament had percolated throughout the bishops of the eastern Empire during this very early period.31 Polycarp quotes or references a wide range of New Testament material – Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Peter, and 1 John, and more still, indicating that while the New Testament canon hadn’t been fully established yet, at least one Christian bishop was already reading and pondering the vast majority of it. Polycarp’s flurry of citations of the New Testament offer a marked contrast to the Epistle of Clement, a document drafted as little as ten years prior, which scarcely mentions a chapter or verse of the New Testament. This discrepancy between these two letters may be a coincidence, but Polycarp’s references to Gospels and Epistles may also demonstrate that manuscripts of these New Testament documents were really getting into proper circulation in Christian communities over the 100s, 110s, and 120s.

There’s one more detail worth keeping in mind about Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians. Polycarp, in a short section of the letter on the subject of heretics, writes the following: “For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist.”32 At first glance, this statement looks like a fairly generic exhortation to believe in the basic premise of Christianity. However, it is a quote from the Epistle of 1 John (4:3), and the emphasis of both texts may be a distinct Christological argument, rather than a general admonition to believe. We know from past episodes on Gnosticism and the Later Epistles that one view of Christ – a distinctly Gnostic view of Christ, was that Jesus’ material form was an illusion – the docetic view of Jesus, as it’s called. If, indeed, Polycarp is drawing a line in the sand against docetic Christianity in this letter of, say, the 110s or 120s or thereabouts, then Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians is the first example we have of a Christian theologian taking a stand against Gnostic ideas, or at least ideas that would later be frequent in the various strands of Gnosticism over the next couple of centuries.

Sadly, Polycarp of Smyrna met a bad end. According to tradition, Polycarp, like his colleague Ignatius, was executed by the Roman state. An alleged eyewitness account of Polycarp’s martyrdom has survived – incidentally we’ll take a look at it in the next on early martyr stories – but the long and short of it is that the distinguished old bishop met his end bravely in the Roman amphitheater at Smyrna, refusing to recant in any way before being burned at the stake and then stabbed when it appeared the flames had no effect on him. Sad as the tale is, let’s not get distracted by it. I want to move forward now in Ante-Nicene Catholic history to Polycarp of Smyrna’s student Irenaeus. [music]

Irenaeus, Gnosticism, and Proto-Orthodoxy

Saint Irenaeus icon

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, an educated, balanced tract aligning itself against Gnosticism and for a more organizationally grounded Christian church, is a central text from Ante-Nicene Catholic history.

Irenaeus of Lyon, student of Polycarp, who was a student of John the Apostle, who was a student of Christ himself, is one of the most important figures in second century Christian history. Irenaeus was a Greek-speaking Christian from Polycarp’s bishopric of Smyrna, where he met and studied with the teacher. At some point, Irenaeus became ordained as the Bishop of Lyon, known in his own time as Lugdunum, Gaul. Today, Irenaeus is most famous as the author of the book Against Heresies, a long volume put into circulation in around the year 180. I don’t mean to be ambiguous about these second century dates, by the way – it’s just that fastening the Apostolic Fathers and their immediate successors to particular years hasn’t been possible. Anyway, Irenaeus’ book Against Heresies, as the name implies, is a volume cautioning its reader against incorrect beliefs – specifically, the beliefs of the theologians Marcion of Sinope and Valentinus. Both of these thinkers, who emerged into the world of Early Christianity in roughly the 130s, 140s and 150s were associated with Gnosticism.

Gnosticism is going to be important to our discussion for the next few minutes, so let’s review some of the basics of Gnosticism. As we learned in a prior episode, Gnosticism is an umbrella term for a number of different Christian movements, some more invested in Greek philosophy than others, with varying ideas of how salvation works, and varying figures, like Jesus’ brother Judas, or Adam’s son Seth, taking on high importance in some of Gnosticism’s different strands. In general, what Gnostic sects had in common was a disdain for the material world as a false creation, a counterbalancing emphasis on the supreme reality of the heavenly, or immaterial world filled with a plurality of angels, or aeons, a confidence in the individual Gnostic believer’s ability to acquire secret knowledge, and a frequent view of Christ’s manifestation on earth as immaterial, rather than flesh-and-blood. The thinker Marcion, whom Irenaeus engages with in Against Heresies, had taken the extreme step of dismissing the entire Old Testament and condemning Yahweh as a false minor deity. As for Valentinus, whom Irenaeus cites as active in Rome from around 130-160, this early theologian seems to have promoted some of the central ideas of Gnosticism – that the heavens expansive and overfilled with billions of angels, that humans were filled with the essence of the heavens in spite of being trapped in a false material world, and that we can be exalted through reunion with our celestial twins.33

Gnosticism is a fascinating subject, which is why we did a multi-hour episode on it and read some of its primary texts. Up until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library and other Gnostic codices in the 20th century, Irenaeus’ book Against Heresies was our most important source on what the Gnostics had believed. Most of what I’ve just summarized could be gathered from Irenaeus’ book Against Heresies, a long and systematic engagement with many prominent Gnostic doctrines, and a text that, in spite of the fact that it sounds like it will be an angry and heavy-handed sermon, is quite learned and also quite illuminating within the history of Early Christianity, offering extensive details about Gnosticism in Books 2 and 3 in order to dismantle the ideology. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is worth knowing about not so much because it’s a polemical text criticizing the theology of a Christian splinter group. Against Heresies is especially important because of the way that Irenaeus formulates his argument, harkening back to the idea of Apostolic Succession, and Apostolic Fathers that we’ve been talking about for the past hour of this program. Irenaeus, in other words, emphasized his own tutelage under Polycarp of Smyrna, who’d been the pupil of John the Apostle, and it was precisely from this pedagogical lineage that he made his own claims of authority against Gnosticism.

In the third chapter of Irenaeus’ third book of Against Heresies, again often dated around 180 CE, in a single page, Irenaeus simultaneously gives us a straightforward history of Apostolic Succession, explains why the bishopric of Rome is the most important, and lays out a crushing argument against Gnosticism. Let me read some of that page to you – slightly longer quote here – Irenaeus writes,
It is within the power of. . .every Church. . .to contemplate clearly the tradition of [Apostolic Succession] manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; [bishops] who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [Gnostics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries [like the Gnostics claim to], which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest [of their students], they would have delivered them especially to those whom they were also committing [leadership of] the Church themselves. . .Since, however, it would be tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the [Apostolic] successions of all the Churches. . .[we must keep in mind] that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with [the Roman] Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [bishops] who exist everywhere. (3.3.1-2)
That little morsel of text is one of the most fascinating pieces of writing to have come down to us from the second century. In it, we have Roman Catholicism, concisely articulated – Apostolic Succession, one church, its nucleus in the city of Rome. We also have an argument that stands not only against the various strands of Gnostic ideology that Irenaeus was trying to intercept during the second century, but more broadly, all latter-day radical departures from first century Christianity. If, Irenaeus emphasizes, Peter and Paul were getting secret gnosis from heavenly aeons, they would have passed this stuff down to the folks whom they taught, or at least mentioned it somewhere on record. If Matthew or John had been receiving occult erudition from a hidden world of heavenly twins about how to overcome evil archons, then their students, some of whom later became bishops, would have heard some of Gnosticism’s greatest hits. But, Irenaeus emphasizes, the apostles never uttered a peep about any of this stuff, and so people later on probably just made it up. It is, again, a pretty damned sturdy argument.

Libel and Etiology in Against Heresies

In making his case against Gnosticism, Irenaeus is at his most piercing and effective when he invokes Apostolic Succession and the primacy of formally appointed bishops and the bishopric of Rome more generally. Elsewhere in Irenaeus’ book Against Heresies, Irenaeus takes a more traditional Roman route of slandering his targets as sexual profligates.34 One particularly farfetched section identifies a Valentinian teacher named Marcosian, and charges Marcosian with personally concocting love philters and potions to seduce women. Marcosian’s followers, in Irenaeus’ words took up, “the same practices, [and] have deceived many silly women, and defiled them” (1.13.6).35 Various comparable charges of personal immorality come up throughout the Irenaeus’ Against Heresies – like so many ancient Romans, Irenaeus knew that you could add spice to your condemnatory tracts with a bit of rumor mongering and poetic license. And when not trafficking in Roman libel’s standard charges of sexual perversion and moral turpitude, Irenaeus elsewhere attempts an origin story of Gnosticism that is condemnatory but unconvincing.

This origin story in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies that all Gnostics, even if they don’t admit it, are the followers of Simon Magus, a figure with whom the apostle Peter briefly clashes in the New Testament Book of Acts (8.9-24). In the actual Book of Acts, however, Simon Magus isn’t doing or saying any Gnostic stuff – Simon Magus is certainly a creep, because he wants to give the apostles money in order to acquire their miraculous powers – but, in the Book of Acts, at least, not a Gnostic creep. In Irenaeus’ words, all Gnostics “set forth, indeed, the name of Christ. . .as a sort of lure, but in various ways they introduce the impieties of Simon; and thus they destroy multitudes, wickedly disseminating their own doctrines by the use of a good name, and, through means of its sweetness and beauty, extending to their hearers the bitter and malignant poison of the serpent, the great author of apostasy” (1.27.4).36 While Irenaeus bitterly associates Gnosticism’s origins with Simon Magus, the association likely springs more from antiquity’s love for etiology, or origin stories, than there actually having been a proto-Gnostic mastermind lurking in the north of modern day Israel in the 30s or 40s CE.

While Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is a mixed bag, then, it is an impressive mixed bag, and as I said a moment ago, most convincing when it cites Apostolic Succession, and the doctrines of the first century, as having total primacy and veto power over the upstart Christian splinter groups of the second century. As Irenaeus himself writes, “Many offshoots of numerous heresies have already been formed. . .This arises from the fact that numbers of them—indeed, we may say all—desire themselves to be teachers. . .Forming one set of doctrines out of a totally different system of opinions, and then again others from others, they insist upon teaching something new, declaring themselves the inventors of any sort of opinion which they have been able to call into existence” (1.28.1).37 It’s easy to understand the frustration in Irenaeus’ voice here – he believes in the church as an institution, set up by apostles – an organization with formal appointment processes that had little patience for cascades of latter-day prophets. Elsewhere in Against Heresies, Irenaeus remembers meeting Polycarp of Smyrna, writing concisely that “Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth” (3.3.4). It’s a brief mention, and Irenaeus doesn’t claim to have been Polycarp’s star pupil or even to have worked with him much. But the point that Irenaeus makes is that unlike all of the self-styled soothsayers of Gnosticism, he himself came from an ecclesiastical organization that had been formed and then carefully passed on by the apostles and their students and disciples. [music]

Apostolic Succession and the Protestant Reformation

As church historian Henry Chadwick puts it, “With Irenaeus the shape of Christian theology became stable and coherent.”38 The stability and coherence in Irenaeus’ theology is anchored in that idea of Apostolic Succession as the foundation of the church. And while Apostolic Succession was the undergirding for his argument about the church’s authority, the church itself – a slowly expanding engine built from consensuses and shared practices and a generally educated clergy – the church itself was part of Irenaeus’ argument against Gnosticism. Christians had written about heresies before – in fact I’ve gone a little out of order, because the theologian Justin Martyr came a little before Irenaeus, and we’re going on to Justin next. Anyway, Christians had written about heresy before, but in the pages of Irenaeus, we see a very clearly articulated dichotomy – an in-group of trained, ordained church officials exalted by the actual teachings of Jesus’ followers, and an out-group of crackpots and hucksters. I don’t think one needs to be Catholic to see the power of that essential argument that runs through Irenaeus’ Against Heresies – in other words, appealing to the authority of a historic institution over the cacophony of current trends; favoring, say, Oxford University Press over Twitter.

John Calvin - Young

A young John Calvin in a sixteenth-century portrait. Calvin and other Protestant pioneers were skeptical about Apostolic Succession, imagining some of the epistles of the Apostolic Fathers to be forgeries.

Irenaeus’ appeal to ecclesiastical authority, and behind it Apostolic Succession, appears in the next major Ante-Nicene theologian, Tertullian. Tertullian, echoing Irenaeus’ words, and reviewing much of the history we’ve covered in this program so far – Tertullian recollects how Polycarp was made bishop of Smyrna by the apostle John, and how Clement had been trained as bishop of Rome by Peter. And Tertullian writes, “In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit [their early clergymen], whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. . .Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning.”39 To Tertullian then, as was the case with Irenaeus, the church’s authority came directly from the teachings and ordinations of the first century.

Alright, we need to take a bit of a turn, now. What I have presented so far in this show has been a straight ahead, traditional account of the origins of the Catholic Church, complete with some samplings of relevant primary texts. We have moved through that especially foggy period from 60-160 CE and we’ve arrived at 180, with Irenaeus’ Against Heresies – a juncture at which dates get a little bit less fuzzy, and we begin to have more and more primary sources to work from. From the story you’ve heard so far in this program, it seems like Irenaeus could have quite well dusted off his hands upon finishing his book – that Apostolic Succession was established, the church formed, and bishops, deacons, and congregations were all set to enjoy smooth sailing through the remainder of Late Antiquity. To some extent this is true – Apostolic Succession continued to be the foundation upon which the early church rested its authority, and certainly the institution of the bishopric, once the word epískopos began to designate a formal office, became instrumental to the church’s identity and activities.

But the associated narratives of the Apostolic Fathers, and Apostolic Succession have also been picked apart for centuries. Perhaps most notably, John Calvin set his sights on the corpus of letters of Ignatius of Antioch, which, if you’ll remember from earlier, are the most important documents from Early Christianity that clearly articulate the monarchical episcopate, or the office of the powerful bishop as Christ’s voice on earth. As a Protestant, dubious about the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, John Calvin decried all of the Ignatian letters as forgeries. Calvin wrote in the 1530s that “nothing can be more absurd than the impertinencies which have been published under the name of Ignatius. . .If [Catholic theologians] wish any authority to be attached to their quotation of Ignatius let them prove that the Apostles delivered any law concerning Lent, and similar corruptions.”40 In other words, Calvin criticized certain Catholic rites and offices in the same way that Irenaeus criticized Gnostic ideas, asking where practices like Lent came from when they weren’t mandated anywhere in the scriptures and not clearly rooted in Apostolic teaching. Objecting to the authority of the Ignatian letters, John Calvin cast doubt on the cable that had traditionally connected the Catholic Church with Jesus himself – that being the Apostolic Succession of the first bishops. If, as John Calvin claimed, the letters of Apostolic Fathers might be forgeries, then the church’s legitimacy was a circular argument – Roman Catholicism was viable because it was a big organization with standard operating procedures, and not because its institutional structure had actually been consecrated by the Apostles.

The actual historical evidence of Apostolic Succession is predominately the relatively small corpus of epistles that we’ve looked at in this program so far, together with later accounts that all had various reasons to emphasize the continuity between first and second century Christianity – accounts from historians like Eusebius and theologians like Irenaeus and Tertullian. Later surviving Apocryphal Acts books – the Acts of John, Paul and Thecla, Peter and Thomas, produced over the second and third centuries, offered more accounts of the lives of the Apostles and their close colleagues, suggesting a geographically broader dissemination of apostolic teachings than what we encounter in the biographies of the three Apostolic Fathers.41 More Acts books than these existed – the Acts of Andrew, Barnabas, Philip, and Matthias, but the Apocryphal Acts books were products of later centuries, and often filled with fantastic miracles and scurrilous villains, a prurient and sensational body of work that has more in common with Ancient Greek novels than the more solemn and intellectual texts that make up the canonical New Testament.

Whatever you make of the tradition of Apostolic Succession, you now understand the roots and immediate textual history of that tradition. When historians speak of Proto-Orthodoxy, or Ante-Nicene Catholicism, generally what is meant is that strand of institutionally-rooted Catholicism that stretches from Irenaeus and those like him, back through the Apostolic Fathers like Polycarp of Smyrna, who had known the John the Apostle, who, of course, had been taught by Jesus himself. A surprisingly important feature of Proto-Orthodox Catholicism may have simply been that Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, unlike Christian Gnostic sects emerging in the early 100s, wanted standard rules, operating procedures, and models for personnel organization, and this desire for regulation set them at odds with Gnostic branches spreading new-agey messages about everyone being able to save themselves through secret knowledge.

Living as we do now more than 1,800 years after all of the events we’ve discussed so far, we’re mostly in the dark as to who actually passed what onto whom, and when, and where. But we do have some advantages that, say, John Calvin lacked, and that is that we know a lot more about Gnosticism and other strands of Early Christianity from archaeological finds of primary texts. Earlier, I mentioned that vast 10-volume set called The Ante-Nicene Fathers – that 6,000 page behemoth that encompasses the majority of Proto-Orthodox Christian writings prior to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. What we can do now that Calvin couldn’t do is that we can set that Ante-Nicene Fathers series on the left side of our desk, and the Nag Hammadi scriptures and Manichaean texts from Turpan and other sites on the right side of our desk. And when we do that, we begin to notice some unorthodox trends among the supposed bastions of early Christian orthodoxy – in other words that Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen, even as they wrote about heretics, had some compelling commonalities with those heretics. So in the remainder of this episode, I want to take you through two more of the so-called Ante-Nicene fathers fairly quickly, introducing their general bodies of works, but also how in each case, some of those works articulate ideas that would later prove to be unorthodox. We call the ideology of Irenaeus and the next few generations of Christians “Proto-Orthodox,” rather than just “Orthodox,” for a reason, because although Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Origen helped design the foundations, lancet windows and flying buttresses of Catholic orthodoxy, they also worked on some other things that ended up being demolished and cast aside. For the remainder of this program, then, let’s consider two more central Ante-Nicene, or Proto-Orthodox theologians – Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria.

Justin Martyr and Christianity’s Intellectual Pagan Converts

Saint Justin Martyr by Theophanes the Cretan

Justin Martyr in a sixteenth-century painting. The earliest of the Ante-Nicene church fathers, Justin’s First Apology and Dialogue with Trypho are among the first non-biblical texts we now possess from Christianity’s first centuries.

During the second century, in addition to attracting commoners and slaves, Christianity was also attracting some educated and accomplished pagan converts. Two of these converts were Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, thinkers whose philosophical and literary backgrounds inspired the ways in which they embraced the new religion. Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria each came to Christianity with backgrounds in the respectable Greek ideologies of the second century – two fifths Plato, two fifths stoicism, and one fifth Presocratic and miscellaneous other Ancient Mediterranean creeds, garnished with a broad awareness of ancient Greek literature. This Greco-Roman intellectual medley fit well together with Christianity. Plato had preached immortal souls and a bipartite afterlife, and had condemned the material world as secondary to a prime world of absolute forms and moral constants. Greek ethical philosophy dating back to the sixth century BCE had promoted self-restraint, moderatism, hardiness, and ever more increasingly as stoicism gained prominence, monotheism. This intellectual seedbed helped give rise to the New Testament, and so when thinkers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria converted to Christianity, the new ideology that they were adopting wasn’t radically different than the ones they’d held before. Platonists had already awarded themselves the ability to understand secret truths hidden from the common rabble, and stoics believed that their unique mindsets gave them insulation and mental clarity unavailable to the uninitiated. Christianity kept this entire apparatus and added a loving personal savior, a vast Hebrew narrative tradition, a new emphasis on human equality, and a growing satellite system of worship communities, all of which spoke to generations of young Greek speaking intellectuals who were energetic about philosophy, but who also seem to have found academic careers in the classist Roman Empire rather chilly and unfulfilling.

When we read Justin Martyr’s autobiography, set down some time between 147-161 – again, Justin Martyr is a bit earlier than Irenaeus – anyway, when we read Justin Martyr’s autobiography, we read a story quite like what I’ve just described. Justin Martyr tell us that he test drove most of the major branches of philosophy – this would have been roughly in the 120s – sampling first Stoicism, then Aristotelian philosophy, then trying out Pythagoreanism, then, finally, Platonism. Platonism, Justin Martyr writes, got him close to where he wanted to be, because “the perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings.”42 But then, according to his book, the Dialogue with Trypho, Justin soon found something much more profound. He met an old Christian man, and in a long sequence of chapters modeled on a Socratic dialogue, this old Christian man changed his life forever. The gist of what Justin learned was that although philosophy had investigated this and that great question, philosophers had no real access to the divine. That right belonged to a class of people Justin learned were called prophets – people who had actually communed with god, and whose writings survived in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hearing about the Old Testament prophets, Justin writes, was what ended his rambles through Greek philosophy, and made him convert to Christianity. Afterward, according to the later Christian historian Eusebius, “Justin contended most successfully against the Greeks, and addressed discourses containing an apology for our faith to the Emperor Antoninus, called Pius, and to the Roman senate. For he lived at Rome.”43 Also according to Eusebius’ account, Justin ran afoul of a prominent Cynic philosopher. This Greek Cynic philosopher, like so many villainous pagans in Christian martyr stories, was a greedy and incomparably lascivious man whose jealousy, insecurity, and back-channel machinations all led to Justin’s execution under a Roman prefect, some time in the 160s, which is why we call him Justin Martyr.44

The logos of John: Key to Justin Martyr’s View of History

With that outline of Justin Martyr’s biography in our head, now, we can delve into his ideology a bit. To do that, we need to revisit the opening verses of the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John begins with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3).45 In Early Christianity, these verses were important for two reasons among many. First, they implied that Christ was co-eternal with Yahweh, which eventually became official doctrine after the Council of Nicaea in 325. Second, and more pertinent to Justin Martyr, whoever wrote the opening verses of the Book of John was an educated Greek person who knew some Greek philosophy. The Greek word logos, to the first and second centuries, not only meant “word.” In stoic philosophy, logos meant something like “reason,” or “expostulation.” And the longer phrase logos spermatikos in stoicism, by the time Justin Martyr came along, had long described the gradual unfolding of the cosmos as animated by the seeds of divine reason, quite like the Hegelian zeitgeist, if you happen to know about that – similar stuff, different centuries. Anyway, one of the central things to know about Justin Martyr is what he wrote about this logos thing.

Justin shares the Book of John’s equation of Christ with the stoic logos – Christ being the core of universal reason and the very thing that causes the motor of the universe to hum and turn. The philosophical problem for Justin, then, was that Christ had appeared only very recently. What about all of Justin’s old philosophical heroes, who had not had the advantage of being born during the Christian era? Were they indeed all duly condemned to hellfire and damnation? Justin, in order to answer these tough questions, makes a dizzying logical leap, a leap which is as follows – this is Justin Martyr’s Second Apology:
Our doctrines, then appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul. For whatever [ancient] lawgivers, or philosophers uttered well [before Christ], they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. But since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves. (Apol 2.10)
In Justin’s imagination, then, before Christ’s manifestation on earth, there were glimmers and cracklings of the logos, and some lucky thinkers stumbled onto them. But unlike the full-blooded Christians who lived after Christ’s arrival on earth, the ancients who lived before Jesus didn’t have the same access to the logos that Justin Martyr and his contemporaries did.

In both of his Apologies, essentially tracts valorizing and explaining Christianity to the broader world, Justin claims that Socrates was a Christian. This claim is made in the following way – I’m going to fasten a couple of passages together from Justin Martyr:

But lest some should, without reason. . .cry out against us as though all men who were born before [Christ] were irresponsible – let us anticipate and solve that difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who have lived [with the Word] are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus. . .and many others. . .And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they attempted to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before tribunals as impious persons. . .And Socrates, who was more zealous in this direction than all of them, was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves. (Apol 1.46, 2.10)
The argument there, though not exactly airtight, is easy to understand. Justin Martyr looked back into history at those whom he understood as his philosophical forebears, and he claimed that they were like him – that they were like him because they had caught pre-dawn glimmers of the light that he had the advantage of enjoying in the bright morning of Christianity’s second century.

Justin’s argument, to generations of early Christians, was appealing. Over two centuries later, Saint Augustine wrote, “For what is now called the Christian religion existed even among the ancients and was not lacking from the beginning of the human race until ‘Christ came in the flesh.’ From that time, true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christian.”46 The argument, essentially, is that the folks who lived in centuries past who exhibited Christian ideas and behaviors were all filled with the electrostatic energy of the logos, even if Christ hadn’t manifested on earth yet. Though Justin and Augustine’s appropriation of pagan philosophers as Christians is counterintuitive, of course they were thinkers trying to make sense of why so many terrific things had happened in intellectual history prior to Christ. The idea of the divine power of logos sprinkling seeds of reason throughout earlier centuries was what Justin deployed in the 160s CE as a sort of apology for his favorite pagans, even though Justin’s texts were nominally apologies for Christianity.

Justin Martyr, however, in spite of all of his earnest work, didn’t enjoy a spotless reputation in posterity. And the reason for this had to do with his Christology – in other words, the way that Justin wrote about Christ, what Christ was, and the relationship between Christ and Yahweh. The consensus that arose at the Council of Nicaea in 325 unfolded out of controversies and circumstances endemic to the early fourth century, rather than, the 160s, but it will suffice to say that after the fourth century, one specific Christology arose as orthodox – this was a Trinitarian deity with three aspects, and a father and son who were co-eternal and consubstantial with one another. Any other Christology – especially those that implied some sort of subordination of Christ beneath Yahweh, was, after the fourth century, considered outmoded, if not heretical. And at a few junctures in his works, Justin Martyr writes of Christ, or the logos, as something created by Yahweh. For instance, Justin writes that Christ “came forth from [God]” (1 Apol 1.6), and elsewhere that “God begat before all creatures. . .the son. . .Lord and logos” (Dial 61).47 Elsewhere Justin emphasizes that although Yahweh is unable to be seen by human eyes, Christ, “who was according to His will His Son” (Dial 127), was the one seen by Old Testament figures like Moses, and that Christ shares power with Yahweh in the same way that kindling takes on flame from a greater fire without diminishing the blaze that ignited it (Dial 128), or the way that a word, once spoken and shared, does not detract from some finite repository of words (Dial 61). To us, perhaps, a lot of this sounds like humdrum Christian theology. But subsequent centuries of Christians were hyperconscious about Christology, and as Justin’s father and son were not co-eternal, he didn’t quite meet the demands of the Nicene Creed of 325.

Clement of Alexandria’s History of Pagan Religion

With what we’ve learned about Justin Martyr over the past few minutes, moving onto Justin’s later contemporary Clement of Alexandria should be fairly easy. First of all, for clarification, there are two Clements in this episode – Clement of Rome, that bishop active around 100 CE whose letter we read, and then Clement of Alexandria, active around 200 CE. Let’s talk about the second Clement, Clement of Alexandria. Clement of Alexandria, like Justin Martyr, was a convert with a very robust education. Born a generation or two after Justin Martyr, who died in the 160s, Clement of Alexandria set down some major works of Christian theology in the 190s and first decade of the 200s, works which put the Proto- into Proto-Orthodox Catholicism.

Clement of Alexandria shared Justin Martyr’s desire to make sense of the pagan past as a Christian. But where Justin Martyr retrojected Christianity into the past, claiming that Socrates and company had been sprinkled with a zest of logos before Jesus was ever born, Clement of Alexandria took a different strategy. Focusing squarely on pagan religion – especially prominent Greek rites and rituals, and bringing to bear a great deal of knowledge on the subject, Clement of Alexandria pulls no punches in making fun of certain Greek myths. The goddess Aphrodite, Clement notes, is born from a puddle of semen splattered onto the ocean from the amputated genitals of Ouranos. Dionysus is the son of Zeus, and, the grandson of Zeus, and also, the nephew of Zeus, because according to Orphic traditions Zeus raped his own sister, and then his own daughter to engender the deity (Pro 2). The Protrepicus – the first major work of Clement of Alexandria – sets itself up as almost a standup routine, with Clement stating, “And now, for it is time, I will prove [pagan stories and rituals] to be full of imposture and quackery. And if you have been initiated, you will laugh all the more at these fables of yours which have been held in honour.”48 Ruthless in his mockery of the eccentricities of Ancient Mediterranean myths and rituals, Clement expresses incredulity that anyone could take them seriously. Now, this alone isn’t terribly surprising – one would expect a Christian convert to call out the idiosyncrasies of the old Homeric world, and we’ve certainly had a laugh ourselves from time to time at the expense of poor old Zeus and company. What Clement does that is rather novel is to call attention to pagan religion as an anthropologically rooted phenomenon made by man. Clement sees pagan religion as something that has evolved over the centuries from animist worship of celestial bodies and other natural phenomena, to cults based on grain harvests and wine, to embodiments of intense emotions. While Clement’s history of pagan religion is quick and condemnatory, it is built of a mosaic of specifics, and it culminates once more in a catalog of some of the more disgusting and undignified narratives about the Olympians. And Clement of Alexandria does something else in order to debunk pagan religion. Clement cites the great Presocratic religious iconoclast Xenophanes, who back during the sixth century BCE had claimed that religion was a human invention, and that men made gods in their own image. Clement quotes his philosophical predecessor’s statements that
Men have the idea that gods are born,
And wear their clothes. . .
But had the oxen or the lions hands,
Or could with hands depict a work like men,
Were beasts to draw the semblance of the gods,
The horses would them like to horses sketch,
To oxen, oxen, and their [gods’] bodies make
Of such a shape as to themselves belong. . .
Ethiopians [make their gods]. . .black,
The Thracians ruddy and tawny.49
These are certainly interesting statements to find in the pages of a Christian theologian writing around 200 CE. Like Xenophanes 700 years before him, Clement saw ancient Mediterranean religion as a series of anthropomorphic inventions.50

A lot of this seems like edgy stuff for a theologian to be writing. But alongside Clement’s dismissal of pagan religion as a human invention is a brassy exceptionalism. Like Justin Martyr before him, Clement believed that Christianity, and everything that came before that had ideological connecting points to Christianity, were consecrated by divine power, and everything else was a sort of erroneous murk. This exceptionalism led Clement of Alexandria to make some pretty iffy historical claims.

Clement’s Argument: Jews Taught Greeks in Egypt

As a Greek-speaking intellectual with a truly impressive command of Greek philosophy and literature, Clement, like Justin before him, couldn’t just kick Plato and the gang into the gutter for not worshipping Jesus. While Justin Martyr redeemed Plato by claiming that Plato and others had been sprinkled with Christly logos, Clement’s appropriation of certain strands of Greek thought was a little different. Like most of Christian posterity, Clement approved of Plato on the basis that Plato had disparaged the physical world as a dingy reflection of a divine reality that only special individuals could understand. To Clement, Plato’s ideas were so consonant with his own Christianity that Plato must have learned them a bit closer to the Christian heartland. And so Clement, in essence, claims that the greatest Greek ideas are not really Greek in origin, but instead, were originally from Egypt and the Jewish population of the Eastern Mediterranean. Clement recounts several junctures in Plato’s works at which Plato speaks favorably of the non-Greek world, calling particular attention to a popular tradition that Plato had spent time studying in Egypt, and that Homer had been Egyptian, and indeed that Thales and Pythagoras had studied with Egyptians, too. Let’s remember that Clement was making these revisionist claims in Alexandria, thus not only appropriating prominent Greek traditions for Christianity, but also for his home turf.

Clement alexandrin

Clement of Alexandria in a sixteenth century French illustration. One of the more intellectually impressive church fathers, Clement of Alexandria used his broad knowledge of the pagan past to dismantle the old narratives of the Greco-Roman past and promote Christianity in their place.

But Clement of Alexandria goes further than this. Clement compares Plato to Moses as an architect of laws and ethics (Strom 1.25, 1.38). With a flurry of quotations drawn from Hebrew Scriptures on one hand, and Platonic works like The Statesman and Phaedrus on the other, Clement attempts to show Platonic ideas coming from Hebrew scriptures (Strom 2.5), and attests that Greek culture was infantile next to the older and more storied Hebrew culture (Strom 1.29). Greeks, in Clement of Alexandria’s mind mind, actually plagiarized some of their cornerstone ideas from Hebrew thinkers (Strom 5.14). Clement’s historical revisionism, shaky as it was, proved attractive to later Christian theologians. Saint Augustine, incensed at the notion that Jesus might have taken ideas from Plato, at one point in his career claimed that Plato had taken ideas from the Prophet Jeremiah during Plato’s stay in Egypt.51 Later, once Augustine’s history was a little more accurate, Augustine admitted that Plato had been born a century after Jeremiah had died, and thus the line of influence was implausible.52

Well, at any rate, without getting lost in the weeds, it’s easy to see why Clement, around 200 CE, was trying to try and make Plato and company appear Christian, or at least Jewish. Taken on his own terms and with the historical sources that were available to him, Clement is an extremely impressive thinker, capable of abstracting ideological kernels from Christian and pagan sources and drawing connecting lines between them. With his left hand in the Bible and his right hand in the vast corpus of Ancient Mediterranean literature and philosophy, Clement looked for elements of his latter day ideology in the annals of antiquity, and he identified thinkers like Plato as heirs of Christian lineage, rather than the other way around.

But of course there are problems with Clement’s history of the world. Justin Martyr, a generation before, could claim that the magic dust of the logos had animated this and that figure from antiquity whom he found appealing. But Clement attempted a revisionism that was more factual, and more falsifiable. In doing so, Clement of Alexandria set himself up for a simple and shattering counterargument. Having been through many the same materials that Clement has, we have seen again and again that many elements of the New Testament had earlier analogs in Ancient Mediterranean texts. Unless we believe that the river of history flows backward, then Plato and his centuries of groupies influenced the New Testament, and not the other way around. Additionally, while modern Biblical scholars and analysts of Biblical Hebrew indeed date the oldest parts of the Old Testament as early as the seventh and eighth centuries BCE, the religion articulated in these parts of the Bible was not Christianity. Written roughly between 700 and 150 BCE, the vast bulk of the Old Testament, as its texts progress, follows the same ideological evolutions of the greater Mediterranean world – a centuries long evolution that begins with belligerent tribal gods sniffing meat sacrifices and riding clouds alongside nations and ends personal, rather than communitarian saviors. The fact that ideas from the Hebrew Bible appear in the pages of a writer as prolific as Plato is hardly any surprise, then, and in hindsight Clement’s attempt to claim various Greek thinkers as Gentile plagiarists of Hebrew traditions is a disquieting and egocentric act of revisionism. As we’ve seen in our show together, many ideas and traditions that were similar to one another rose independently in the Ancient Mediterranean, and belonged to no one, and there were far more cultural groups in Plato’s world than Jews and Greeks.

While much of Clement of Alexandria’s work, then, is historically untenable, it is nonetheless substantial in its marshalling of evidence and consistent in its partisan clarity. We, today, might dismiss much of his oeuvre on the basis of its historical inaccuracies. But Christian posterity found other faults with Clement than these. In the ninth century, Saint Photios of Constantinople, one of the most important theologians of the Early Middle Ages, wrote a fairly harsh assessment of Clement’s works – particularly Clement’s first work, the Protrepicus. In Photios’ Bibliotheca, the later theologian accused Clement of holding a wide array of unorthodox ideas – that Clement made iffy statements about reincarnation, and that Clement discussed other impious doctrines – angels fornicating with human women, for instance; that matter existed before God created the universe, that other worlds existed before Earth, and, in terms of Christology, that Jesus was never made flesh, and that Jesus was created, rather than being coeternal and consubstantial with Yahweh.53 Not all of these accusations were entirely fair, or corroborated by Clement’s actual work.54 But like Justin Martyr before him, Clement of Alexandria seems to have made some offhanded statements about the nature of Christ, which, though supported by certain Gospels, were considered unorthodox by theologians at work after the fourth century.

Ante-Nicene Catholic Theology: Summing Up

Now that we’ve fairly quickly gone through Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexandria, we can make some general observations about second century Christian theology, and bring this program to its close. We have observed, in the pages of these three thinkers, two ideas. Irenaeus, roughly around 180, emphasized the doctrine of Apostolic Succession and, connectedly, the legitimacy of the Proto-Orthodox Church over and above what he saw as other dodgy Christian sects of the second century. Within a couple of decades on either side of him, Justin Martyr around 160, and then Clement of Alexandria, around 200, were doing something a little different, and this was writing two different kinds of revisionist history, both of which sought to claim and appropriate the pagan, and predominantly Greek, past as Christian. Of these two projects – in other words Irenaeus’ trumpeting Apostolic Succession on one hand, and then Justin Martyr and Clement claiming that Plato was somehow associated with Jesus on the other, by far the more consequential was Irenaeus’ promotion of the Church, and the institution of the bishopric as the polestars of authentic Christianity. Fancy historical revisionism could come and go, but the church was something with buildings, staff members, and communication networks. Additionally, even if historical evidence for Apostolic Succession wasn’t comprehensive, there were some solid letters from early bishops that supported it, and besides, the notion that Jesus taught John, who taught Polycarp, who taught Irenaeus was a heck of a lot more reasonable than Justin Martyr’s wacky idea that some sort of Jesus-mist traveled through time and taught Plato everything he knew.

Origen, whose career reached its summit in the 230s and 240s, was the intellectual apex of the Ante-Nicene Christian period, continuing Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyon’s enthusiasm for Plato, and also their occasional tendency to voice ideas out of step with what would become orthodoxy during the 300s and afterward.

If I had time to write 20,000-word episodes and you had the hours to listen to them, we would now move on to Tertullian and Origen, the final two major Ante-Nicene theologians. But Tertullian will get a lot of airtime in our next episode on the martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who died in Tertullian’s hometown of Carthage right in the middle of his career – in 203. And Origen, the most prolific and controversial Ante-Nicene theologian, whose career peaked in the 230s and 240s, is someone we’ll return to again and again. Without going into a lot of detail about either figure, both Tertullian and Origen have some commonalities with Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria. In a sentence, and as we’ll continue to see, all four of these Proto-Orthodox theologians shored up powerful arguments for Christianity, but the breadth of their learning and sheer intellectual energy led them toward ideas that later proved superfluous, or actually heretical. In Tertullian’s case, an interest in a latter-day sect of prophets called the Montanists prevented him from being canonized. In Origen’s case, a subordinationist Christology, and a theory that souls were created before the world, together with a complex method of interpreting scripture allegorically sent his ideological successors down all sorts of rabbit holes – rabbit holes that were fascinating for a third century Christian Platonist like Origen himself, but not exactly useful for workaday bishops of the fourth century and beyond who were just trying to teach stable Catholic doctrine.

The takeaway from the long discussion we’ve had in this episode, other than learning some of the specific history of very early Catholicism, is perhaps above all else that all of the Ante-Nicene theologians fell through ideological trapdoors that they could not have possibly known about. Orthodoxy developed slowly, and even after Constantine’s conversion and the First Council of Nicaea in the first decades of the fourth century, orthodoxy had to be broadcast through the bishoprics of the late Empire. Another complexity was emperors themselves. After Constantine rubber stamped Nicene Christianity in 325, we might think that subsequent imperial dynasties fell in line, their emperors reciting the Nicene Creed and being good Catholics. But Constantius II, who was Constantine’s longest-lived son, became an Arian, as did the Emperor Valens, and so between 337 and 378, the wobbly tetrarchy of emperors ruling the Empire were not practicing the same kind of Christianity. To us today, I think issues of Christology can seem like theological hairsplitting. But to the fourth century, the strife between Arians, who had a subordinationist Christology, and Nicene Christians, who did not, was the great culture war of the era, being exacerbated when barbarian tribes like the Visigoths, who were Arians, invaded the territories of Italy, Gaul, and Hispania, all, on an official level, Nicene Christian at that point. Because fourth century theologians were staking their identities on one or the other side of this theological divide, and because the all important Latin church doctors Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine all came to the apex of their popularity at the cusp between the 300s and 400s and all identified as Nicene Christians, those who lived in centuries before were often lambasted for not being aware of the theological identity politics that emerged in the Christianity of the late Roman empire. [music]

Moving on to Perpetua and Felicity

So now you know a bit more about second century Christianity and the earliest foundations of the Catholic Church. In the next three episodes, we’re going to use some more primary texts to learn about some of the other things going on in Christianity during its earliest centuries, moving very generally through martyr stories, and then through the lives of desert hermits, and then exploring the beginnings of monasticism. So in the next program, Episode 91: Perpetua and Felicity, we’re going to read some of Christianity’s earliest martyr narratives, culminating with what may be an actual primary account of a Christian noblewoman’s death in a Carthaginian amphitheater in 203 CE. Weird, sensational, graphic, and simultaneously earnest and tragic, the first Christian martyr stories established what would become one of the main genres of writing for the next 1,000 years, in the Christian world and beyond. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. There’s a quiz on this show at literatureandhistory.com and there in the details of your podcast app to help you review all the information we’ve covered today. For you Patreon supporters, I’ve recorded the entirety of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” one of American literature’s most famous short stories – another forty minutes of tasty literary content if you’re in the mood for it. For everyone, there’s a song coming up – you know the routine – stay tuned and I’ll sing it for you, and if not, I’ll see you next time.

Still listening? Well, writing a comedy song about the roots of the Catholic church is a tall order – a lot of this is pretty sacred and special stuff to a lot of people. So I decided to write a tune that kind of celebrates the human side of the very early church as an institution. I think a lot of the time when we think about the spread of Christianity during Late Antiquity, we think at kind of a high, diffuse level, but often not so much about the amount of work that people were doing, the operations that were being administrated and set up, and the coordination and ingenuity behind it all. So I wrote this tune about the very early Catholic church – it’s called “120 A.D.,” and it’s a sort of modern hip hop tune with lots of fun triple and quadruple rhymes and stuff. Hope you enjoy it, and I, along with some early Christian martyrs, will see you very soon.

[“120 A.D.” Song]


1.^ The Henrickson Publication company’s revised edition of the 10-volume set weighs in a 6,448 pages, excluding some of the longer works of Origen.

2.^ Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Revised Edition. Image Books, 1979, p. 43.

3.^ See Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses (3.3.3), Tertullian De Praescriptione Haereticorum (32), Clement Historia (3.13-5).

4.^ See NOAB (2010), p. 2065. Eusebius calls attention to the mention in Historia (3.15).

5.^ Eusebius Historia (3.16). Printed in Delphi Collected Works of Eusebius. Delphi Classics, 2019. Kindle Edition, Location 14661.

6.^ First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. Printed in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1. Scribners, 1903, p. 5. Further references to this epistle will be noted with chapter numbers in this episode transcription.

7.^ Chapter 1contains a truism attributed to Jesus in Acts (20:35), though the saying isn’t in the Gospels. 34 shows probable familiarity with 1 Cor 2:9, and 35 with Rom 1:32, but the parallels may also just be due to general truisms.

8.^ Clement, as 19th-century editors saw, misquoted the Septuagint translation of Isaiah. The NRSV translation of the verse in question is “I will appoint Peace as your overseer / and Righteousness as your taskmaster” (Is 60:17), which Clement quotes as “I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith,” naturally taking the Septuagint’s epískopos in the sense that his generation was beginning to use the word.

9.^ E.g. 1 Clement (42, 48).

10.^ This is the Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 8, where Ignatius writes, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Printed in St. Ignatius of Antioch: The Epistles. Veritatis Splendor, 2012, p. 161.

11.^ The letter uses epískopos and presbýteros interchangeably in its descriptions of a church leader’s role.

12.^ See New Oxford Annotated Bible. Ed. Michael D. Coogan et. al. Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 2087n and 2097n.

13.^ Specifically, Episode 92 on Athanasius’ Life of Antony.

14.^ The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, summarizing an ensemble or sources, notes that “most scholars now place it in the 1st cent[ury].” Printed in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. E.A. Livingstone. Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 482.

15.^ Didache (11).

16.^ Didache (15). Printed in The Ultimate Apocrypha Collection, Volume II: The New Testament. Derek Shaver, 2017, p. 414.

17.^ On the dating see Livingstone (2005), p. 764. The Shepherd’s terms for its sections are (1) Visions, (2) Commands, and (3) Similitudes.

18.^ Ibid, p. 764.

19.^ The Shepherd of Hermas (1.3.52). Printed in The Ultimate Apocrypha Collection, Volume II: The New Testament. Derek Shaver, 2017, p. 381.

20.^ The Shepherd of Hermas (3.9.125-6). Printed in Shaver (2017), p. 406.

21.^ Printed in the New Oxford Annotated Bible. Ed. Michael D. Coogan et. al. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1772.

22.^ See St. Ignatius of Antioch: The Epistles. Veritatis Splendor, 2012, p. 254.

23.^ After a number of miracles en route to Ephesus in the apocryphal Acts of John, the titular character reaches Ephesus in Chapter 26.

24.^ Eusebius’ Hist 3.22 briefly describes Ignatius’ bishopric.

25.^ See Eusebius Hist 3.36.

26.^ Ignatius of Antioch. Epistle to the Ephesians (3.511). Printed in St. Ignatius of Antioch: The Epistles. Veritatis Splendor, 2012, p. 54. Further references to this text are noted parenthetically with letter and section numbers in this episode transcription.

27.^ The shorter recension lacks the initial sentence in his quote.

28.^ See Pervo, Richard. The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity. Fortress Press, 2010, p. 134.

29.^ See Jerome, De Viris Illustribus, 16, and Tertullian De Praescriptione Haereticorum 32.

30.^ See Chadwick (1993), pp. 84-5.

31.^ The text mentions Ignatius’ death, hence the dating.

32.^ Polycarp. Epistle to the Philippians (7.1). Printed in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1. Scribners, 1903, p. 34.

33.^ See Meyer, Marvin, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne, 2007, pp. 790-2.

34.^ 1.29.2, for instance, disparages Gnostics as promiscuous polygamists.

35.^ Irenaeus. Against Heresies. Veritatis Splendor, 2012, p. 41. Similar charges appear in 1.6.3.

36.^ Ibid, p. 77.

37.^ Ibid, p. 77. Quite a balanced assessment, following as it does from the less convincing etiology of Gnosticism beneath Simon Magus. Further references to this text are noted with section numbers in this transcription.

38.^ Chadwick (1993), p. 80.

39.^ De Praescriptione Haereticorum (32). Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Tertullian. Delphi Classics, 2018. Kindle Edition, Location 3531.

40.^ Institutes (1.13.29). Printed in Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by John Allen. Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1921, p. 148.

41.^ For the dating of these, see Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Scriptures. Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 93, 109, 135, 113, 122, respectively.

42.^ Dialogue with Trypho (2). Printed in Justin Martyr. Dialogue with Trypho. Fig Books, 2012. Kindle Edition, Location 59. Further references to this text are noted parenthetically with chapter numbers.

43.^ Eusebius. Historia (4.11.11). Printed in Delphi Collected Works of Eusebius. Delphi Classics, 2019. Location 15238. Further references to this text are noted parenthetically in this transcription.

44.^ Eusebius tells the story in the Historia (4.16).

45.^ Printed in the New Oxford Annotated Bible. Edited by Michael D. Coogan et. al. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1881.

46.^ Augustine. Retractions (1.12.3). Printed in Augustine. The Retractions. Translated by M. Inez Bogan. Catholic University of America, 1968, p. 52.

47.^ A similar claim and phrasing appears in Dial 100.

48.^ Protrepicus (2). Printed in The Complete Works of Clement of Alexandria. Patristic Publishing, 2020. Kindle Edition, Location 543.

49.^ Stromata (5.14,7.4). Printed in ibid., Locations 12096, 14353.

50.^ Clement also mentions the skeptic Euhemerus as worthy of praise in Protrepicus (2).

51.^ On the Christian Doctrine (2.28.43) makes this claim.

52.^ City of God (8.11.1)

53.^ See Photios. Bibliotheca CIX-CXI. Printed in Photios, Vol. 1. Edited by J.H. Freese. Macmillan, 1920, pp. 200-201.

54.^ As Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski discusses in Clement of Alexandria on Trial. Brill, 2010.