Keyword Search

Table of Contents

Previous Chapter

Essays on "Supernatural Religion"

by J. B. Lightfoot



[AUGUST, 1876.]

In the preceding papers I have investigated the testimony borne by the Churches of Asia Minor to the Canonical Gospels, and more especially to the Fourth Evangelist. The peculiar value of this testimony is due to the close personal relations of these communities with the latest surviving Apostles, more particularly with St John. At the same time I took occasion incidentally to remark on their attitude towards St Paul and his writings, because an assumed antagonism between the Apostle of the Gentiles and the Twelve has been adopted by a modern school of critics as the basis for a reconstruction of early Christian history. I purpose in the present paper extending this investigation to the Churches of Gaul. The Christianity of Gaul was in some sense the daughter of the Christianity of Asia Minor.

Of the history of the Gallican Churches before the middle of the second century we have no certain information. It seems fairly probable indeed that, when we read in the Apostolic age of a mission of Crescens to 'Galatia' or 'Gaul' [251:1], the western country is meant rather than the Asiatic settlement which bore the same name; and, if so, this points to some relations with St Paul himself. But, even though this explanation should be accepted, the notice stands quite alone. Later tradition indeed supplements it with legendary matter, but it is impossible to say what substratum of fact, if any, underlies these comparatively recent stories.

The connection between the southern parts of Gaul and the western districts of Asia Minor had been intimate from very remote times. Gaul was indebted for her earliest civilization to her Greek settlements like Marseilles, which had been colonized from Asia Minor some six centuries before the Christian era; and close relations appear to have been maintained even to the latest times. During the Roman period the people of Marseilles still spoke the Greek language familiarly along with the vernacular Celtic of the native population and the official Latin of the dominant power [252:1]. When therefore Christianity had established her head-quarters in Asia Minor, it was not unnatural that the Gospel should flow in the same channels which had already conducted the civilization and the commerce of the Asiatic Greeks westward.

At all events, whatever we may think of the antecedent probabilities, the fact itself can hardly be disputed. In the year A.D. 177, under Marcus Aurelius, a severe persecution broke out on the banks of the Rhone in the cities of Vienne and Lyons--a persecution which by its extent and character bears a noble testimony to the vitality of the Churches in these places. To this incident we owe the earliest extant historical notice of Christianity in Gaul. A contemporary record of the martyrdoms on this occasion is preserved in the form of a letter from the persecuted Churches, addressed to 'the brethren that are in Asia and Phrygia' [252:2]. The communities thus addressed, it will be observed, belong to the district in which St John's influence was predominant, and which produced all the writers of his school who have been discussed in the preceding papers--Polycarp, Papias, Melito, Apollinaris, Polycrates. Of the references to the Canonical Scriptures in this letter I shall speak presently. For the moment it is sufficient to say that the very fact of their addressing the communication to these distant Churches shows the closeness of the ties which connected the Christians in Gaul with their Asiatic brethren. Moreover, in the body of the letter it is incidentally stated of two of the sufferers, that they came from Asia Minor--Attalus a Pergamene by birth, and Alexander a physician from Phrygia who 'had lived many years in the provinces of Gaul;' while nearly all of them bear Greek names. Among these martyrs the most conspicuous was Pothinus, the aged bishop of Lyons, who was more than ninety years old when he suffered. A later tradition makes him a native of Asia Minor [253:1]; and this would be a highly probable supposition, even if unsupported by any sort of evidence. Indeed it is far from unlikely that the fact was stated in the letter itself, for Eusebius has not preserved the whole of it. But whether an Asiatic Greek or not, he must have been a growing boy when St John died; and through him the Churches of Southern Gaul, when they first appear in the full light of history, are linked directly with the Apostolic age.

Immediately after this persecution the intimate alliance between these distant parts of Christendom was manifested in another way. The Montanist controversy was raging in the Church of Phrygia, and the brethren of Gaul communicated to them their views on the controverted points [253:2]. To this communication they appended various letters of the martyrs, 'which they penned, while yet in bonds, to the brethren in Asia and Phrygia.' About the same time the martyrs sent IrenŠus, then a presbyter, as their delegate with letters of recommendation to Eleutherus, bishop of Rome, for the sake of conferring with him on this same subject [253:3].

Some twenty years later, as the century was drawing to a close, another controversy broke out, relating to the observance of Easter, in which again the Asiatic Churches were mainly concerned; and here too we find the Christians of Gaul interposing with their counsels. When Victor of Rome issued his edict of excommunication against the Churches of Asia Minor, IrenŠus wrote to remonstrate. The letter sent on this occasion however did not merely represent his own private views, for we are especially told that he wrote 'in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided.' Nor did he appeal to the Roman bishop alone, but he exchanged letters also with 'very many divers rulers of the Churches concerning the question which had been stirred' [254:1].

Bearing these facts in mind, and inferring from them, as we have a right to infer, that the Churches of Gaul for the most part inherited the traditions of the Asiatic school of St John, we look with special interest to the documents emanating from these communities.

The Epistle of the brotherhoods in Vienne and Lyons, already mentioned, is the earliest of these. The main business of the letter is a narrative of contemporary facts, and any allusions therefore to the Canonical writings are incidental.

But, though incidental, they are unequivocal. Of the references to St Paul, for instance, there can be no doubt. Thus the martyrs and confessors are mentioned as 'showing in very truth that _the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us_,' where a sentence containing fourteen words in the Greek is given _verbatim_ as it stands in Rom. viii. 18. Thus again, they are described as 'imitators of Christ, _who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God_,' where in like manner a sentence of twelve words stands _verbatim_ as we find it Phil. ii. 6. No one, I venture to think, will question the source of these passages, though they are given anonymously and without any signs of quotation. Nor can there be any reasonable doubt that when Attalus the martyr is called 'the pillar and ground' ([Greek: stulon kai hedrai˘ma]) of the Christians at Lyons, the expression is taken from 1 Tim. iii. 15; or that when Alcibiades, who had hitherto lived on bread and water, received a revelation rebuking him for 'not using _the creatures of God_, in obedience to which he 'partook of all things freely and _gave thanks_ to God,' there is a reference to 1 Tim. iv. 3, 4. These passages show the attitude of the author or authors of this letter towards St Paul; but I have cited them also as exhibiting the manner of quotation which prevails in this letter, and thus indicating what we are to expect in other cases.

From the third and fourth Gospels then we find quotations analogous to these.

Of Vettius Epagathus, one of the sufferers, we are told, that though young he 'rivalled the testimony borne to the elder Zacharias ([Greek: sunexisousthai tŕ tou presbuterou Zachariou marturia]), for verily ([Greek: goun]) he had _walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless_.' Here we have the same words and in the same order, which are used of Zacharias and Elisabeth in St Luke (i. 6). Moreover, it is stated lower down of this same martyr, that he was 'called the paraclete (or advocate) of the Christians, having the Paraclete in himself, the Spirit more abundantly than Zacharias.' This maybe compared with Luke i. 67, 'And Zacharias his father was filled with the Holy Ghost.'

The meaning of the expression 'The testimony of Zacharias' ([Greek: tŕ tou Zachariou marturia]) has been questioned. It might signify either 'the testimony borne to Zacharias,' _i.e._ his recorded character, or 'the testimony borne by Zacharias,' _i.e._ his martyrdom. I cannot doubt that the former explanation is correct; for the connecting particle ([Greek: goun]) shows that the assertion is intended to find its justification in words which immediately follow, '_he walked in all the commandments_,' etc. I need not however dwell on this point, for the author of _Supernatural Religion_ himself adopts this rendering [255:1]. Yet with an inconsistency, of which his book furnishes not a few examples, though he not only adopts this rendering himself, but silently ignores the alternative, he proceeds at once to maintain a hypothesis which is expressly built upon the interpretation thus tacitly rejected.

An early tradition or conjecture identified the Zacharias, who is mentioned in the Gospels as having been slain between the temple and the altar (Matt. xxiii. 35), with this Zacharias the father of the Baptist. And in the extravagant romance called the Protevangelium, which is occupied mainly with the birth, infancy, and childhood of our Lord, the Baptist's father is represented as slain by Herod 'at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord' [256:1]. Our author therefore supposes that these Christians of Gaul are quoting not from St Luke, but from some apocryphal Gospel which gave a similar account of the martyrdom of Zacharias.

Whether this identification which I have mentioned is true or false it is unnecessary for my purpose to inquire. Nor again do I care to discuss the question whether or not the authors of this letter accepted it, and so believed the Baptist's father to have fallen a martyr. I am disposed on the whole to think that they did. This supposition, which however must remain uncertain, would give more point to the parallelism with Vettius Epagathus. But it is a matter of little or no moment as regards the point at issue. The quotation found in St Luke's Gospel has (according to the interpretation which our author rightly receives) no reference whatever to the martyrdom; and therefore affords no ground for the assumption that the document from which it is taken contained any account of or any reference to the death of the Baptist's father.

But, granting that the writers of this letter assumed the identification (and this assumption, whether true or false, was very natural), our Third Gospel itself does furnish such a reference; and they would thus find within the limits of this Gospel everything which they required relating to Zacharias. The author of _Supernatural Religion_ indeed represents the matter otherwise; but then he has overlooked an important passage. With a forgetfulness of the contents of the Gospels which ought surely to suggest some reflections to a critic who cannot understand how the Fathers, 'utterly uncritical' though they were, should ever quote any writing otherwise than with the most literal accuracy, he says, 'There can be no doubt that the reference to Zacharias in Matthew, in the Protevangelium, and in this Epistle of Vienne and Lyons, is not based upon Luke, _in which there is no mention of his death_' [257:1]. Here and throughout this criticism he appears to have forgotten Luke xi. 51, 'the blood of Zacharias which perished between the altar and the temple.' If the death of the Baptist's father is mentioned in St Matthew, it is mentioned in St Luke also.

But, if our author disposes of the coincidences with the Third Gospel in this way, what will he say to those with the Acts? In this same letter of the Gallican Churches we are told that the sufferers prayed for their persecutors 'like Stephen the perfect martyr, _Lord, lay not this sin to their charge._' Will he boldly maintain that the writers had before them another Acts containing words identical with our Acts, just as he supposes them to have had another Gospel containing words identical with our Third Gospel? Or will he allow this account to have been taken from Acts vii. 60, with which it coincides? But in this latter case, if they had the second treatise which bears the name of St Luke in their hands, why should they not have had the first also?

Our author however does not stop here. He maintains that these same writers quoted not only from a double of St Luke, but from a double of St John also [258:1]. 'That was fulfilled,' they write, 'which was spoken by the Lord, saying, _There shall come a time in which whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service_,' where the words of St John (xvi. 2) are exactly reproduced, with the exception that for 'There cometh an hour when' ([Greek: erchetai h˘ra hina]) they substitute 'There shall come a time in which' ([Greek: eleusetai kairos en h˘]. This substitution, which was highly natural in a quotation from memory, is magnified by our author into 'very decided variations from the Fourth Gospel.' He would therefore assign the quotation to some apocryphal gospel which has perished. No such gospel however is known to have existed. Moreover this passage occurs in a characteristic discourse of the Fourth Gospel, and the expression itself is remarkable--far more remarkable than it appears in the English version ([Greek: latreian prospherein t˘ The˘]), not 'to do God service,' but 'to offer a religious service to God'). I may add also that the mention of the Spirit as the Paraclete, already quoted, points to the use of this Gospel by the writers, and that the letter presents at least one other coincidence with St John. Our author certainly deserves credit for courage. Here, as elsewhere, he imagines that, so long as he does not advance anything which is demonstrably impossible, he may pile one improbability upon another without endangering the stability of his edifice.

But even if his account of these evangelical quotations could survive this accumulation of improbabilities, it will appear absolutely untenable in the light of contemporary fact. IrenŠus was the most prominent and learned member of the Church from which this letter emanated, at the very time when it was written. According to some modern critics he was the actual composer of the letter; but for this there is no evidence of any kind. According to our author himself he was the bearer of it [259:1]; but this statement again is not borne out by facts. There can be no doubt however, that IrenŠus was intimately mixed up with all the incidents, and he cannot have been ignorant of the contents of the letter. Now this letter was written A.D. 177 or, as our author prefers, A.D. 178, while IrenŠus published his third book before A.D. 190 at all events, and possibly some years earlier. IrenŠus in this book assumes that the Church from the beginning has recognized our four Canonical Gospels, and these only. The author of _Supernatural Religion_ maintains on the other hand that only twelve years before, at the outside, the very Church to which IrenŠus belonged, in a public document with which he was acquainted, betrays no knowledge of our Canonical Gospels, but quotes from one or more Apocryphal Gospels instead. He maintains this though the quotations in question are actually found in our Canonical Gospels.

Here then the inference cannot be doubtful. But what must be the fate of a writer who can thus ride roughshod over plain facts, when he comes to deal with questions which demand a nice critical insight and a careful weighing of probabilities?

From this letter relating to the martyrdoms in Vienne and Lyons, we are led to speak directly of the illustrious Gallican father, whose name has already been mentioned several times, and who is the most important of all witnesses to the Canonical writings of the New Testament.

The great work of IrenŠus is entitled _Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge falsely so called_, and consists of five books. The third book was published during the episcopate of Eleutherus, who was Bishop of Rome from about A.D. 175 to A.D. 190; for he is mentioned in it as still living [260:1]. It must therefore have been written before A.D. 190. On the other hand it contains a mention of Theodotion's version of the LXX [260:2]; and Theodotion's version is stated not to have been published till the reign of Commodus (A.D. 182-190). Unfortunately Epiphanius, the authority mainly relied on by our author and others for this statement, contradicts himself in this same passage, which is full of the grossest chronological and historical blunders [260:3]. No stress therefore can be laid on his statement; nor indeed can we regard its truth or falsehood as of any real moment for our purpose. It is immaterial whether the third book dates from the earlier or later years of Eleutherus. As the several books were composed and published separately, the author of _Supernatural Religion_ has a right to suppose, though he cannot prove, that the fourth and fifth were written during the episcopate of Victor (A.D. 190-198 or 199). But in his partiality for late dates he forgets that the weapon which he wields is double-edged. If the fourth and fifth books 'must,' as he confidently asserts, have been written some years after the third, it follows by parity of reasoning, that the first and second must have been written some years before it. Yet, with a strange inconsistency, he assumes in the very same sentence that the two first books cannot have been written till the latest years of Eleutherus, because on his showing the third must date from that epoch [261:1].

With the respective dates of the several books however we need not concern ourselves; for they all exhibit the same phenomena, so far as regards the attitude of the author towards the Canonical writings of the New Testament. On this point, it is sufficient to say that the authority which IrenŠus attributes to the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of St Paul, several of the Catholic Epistles, and the Apocalypse, falls short in no respect of the estimate of the Church Catholic in the fourth or the ninth or the nineteenth century. He treats them as on a level with the Canonical books of the Old Testament; he cites them as Scripture in the same way; he attributes them to the respective authors whose names they bear; he regards them as writings handed down in the several Churches from the beginning; he fills his pages with quotations from them; he has not only a very thorough knowledge of their contents himself, but he assumes an acquaintance with and a recognition of them in his readers [262:1].

In the third book especially he undertakes to refute the opinions of his Valentinian opponents directly from the Scriptures. This leads him to be still more explicit. He relates briefly the circumstances under which our Four Gospels were written. He points out that the writings of the Evangelists arose directly from the oral Gospel of the Apostles. He shows that the traditional teaching of the Apostles has been preserved by a direct succession of elders which in the principal Churches can be traced man by man, and he asserts that this teaching accords entirely with the Evangelical and Apostolic writings. He maintains on the other hand, that the doctrine of the heretics was of comparatively recent growth. He assumes throughout, not only that our four Canonical Gospels alone were acknowledged in the Church in his own time, but that this had been so from the beginning. His Valentinian antagonists indeed accepted these same Gospels, paying especial deference to the Fourth Evangelist; and accordingly he argues with them on this basis. But they also superadded other writings, to which they appealed, while heretics of a different type, as Marcion for instance, adopted some one Gospel to the exclusion of all others. He therefore urges not only that four Gospels alone have been handed down from the beginning, but that in the nature of things there could not be more nor less than four. There are four regions of the world, and four principal winds; and the Church therefore, as destined to be conterminous with the world, must be supported by four Gospels, as four pillars. The Word again is represented as seated on the Cherubim, who are described by Ezekiel as four living creatures, each different from the other. These symbolize the four Evangelists, with their several characteristics. The predominance of the number four again appears in another way. There are four general covenants, of Noah, of Abraham, of Moses, of Christ. It is therefore an act of audacious folly to increase or diminish the number of the Gospels. As there is fitness and order in all the other works of God, so also we may expect to find it in the case of the Gospel.

What is the historical significance of this phenomenon? Can we imagine that the documents which IrenŠus regards in this light had been produced during his own lifetime? that they had sprung up suddenly full-armed from the earth, no one could say how? and that they had taken their position at once by the side of the Law and the Psalmist and the Prophets, as the very voice of God?

The author of _Supernatural Religion_ seems to think that no explanation is needed. 'The reasons,' he writes, 'which he [IrenŠus] gives for the existence of precisely that number [four Gospels] in the Canon of the Church illustrate the thoroughly uncritical character of the Fathers, and the slight dependence which can be placed upon their judgments' [263:1]. Accordingly he does not even discuss the testimony of IrenŠus, but treats it as if it were not. He does not see that there is all the difference in, the world between the value of the same man's evidence as to matters of fact, and his opinions as to the causes and bearings of his facts. He does not observe that these fanciful arguments and shadowy analogies are _pro tanto_ an evidence of the firm hold which this quadruple Gospel, as a fact, had already obtained when he wrote. Above all, I must suppose from his silence that he regards this testimony of IrenŠus in the isolated opinion of an individual writer, and is unconscious of the historical background which it implies. It is this last consideration which led me to speak of IrenŠus as the most important witness to the early date and authorship of the Gospels, and to which I wish to direct attention.

The birth of IrenŠus has been placed as early as A.D. 97 by Dodwell, and as late as A.D. 140 by our author and some others, while other writers again have adopted intermediate positions. I must frankly say that the very early date seems to me quite untenable. On the other hand, those who have placed it as late as A.D. 140 have chosen this date on the ground of the relation of IrenŠus to Polycarp in his old age [264:1], and on the supposition that Polycarp was martyred about A.D. 167. Since however it has recently been shown that Polycarp suffered A.D. 155 or 156 [264:2], it may be presumed that these critics would now throw the date of his pupil's birth some ten or twelve years farther back, _i.e._ to about A.D. 128 or 130. But there is no reason why it should not have been some few years earlier. If the suggestion which I have thrown out in a previous paper deserves attention [265:1], he was probably born about A.D. 120. But the exact date of his birth is a matter of comparatively little moment. The really important fact is, that he was connected directly with the Apostles and the Apostolic age by two distinct personal links, if not more.

Of his connection with POLYCARP I have already spoken [265:2]. Polycarp was the disciple of St John; and, as he was at least eighty-six years old when he suffered martyrdom (A.D. 155), he must have been close upon thirty when the Apostle died. IrenŠus was young when he received instruction from Polycarp. He speaks of himself in one passage as 'still a boy,' in another as 'in early life.' If we reckon his age as from fifteen to eighteen, we shall probably not be far wrong, though the expressions themselves would admit some latitude on either side. At all events, he says that he had a vivid recollection of his master's conversations; he recalled not only the substance of his discourses, but his very expressions and manner; more especially he states that he remembers distinctly his descriptions of his intercourse with John and other personal disciples of Christ together with their account of the Lord's life and teaching; and he adds that these were 'altogether in accordance with the Scriptures' [265:3].

But IrenŠus was linked with the Apostolic age by another companionship also. He was the leading presbyter in the Church of Lyons, of which POTHINUS was bishop, and succeeded to this see on the martyrdom of the latter in A.D. 177 or 178. With Pothinus therefore he must have had almost daily intercourse. But Pothinus lived to be more than ninety years old, and must have been a boy of ten at least, when the Apostle St John died. Moreover there is every reason to believe, as we have already seen [265:4], that like IrenŠus himself Pothinus came originally from Asia Minor. Under any circumstances, his long life and influential position would give a special value to his testimony respecting the past history of the Church; and, whether he was uncritical or not (of which we are ignorant), he must have known whether certain writings attributed to the Evangelists and Apostles had been in circulation as long as he could remember, or whether they came to his knowledge only the other day, when he was already advanced in life.

In one passage in his extant work, IrenŠus gives an account of elaborate discourses which he had heard from an elder who had himself 'listened to those who had seen the Apostles and to those who had been disciples,' _i.e._ personal followers of Christ [266:1]. It seems most natural to identify this anonymous elder with Pothinus. In this case the 'disciples' whom he had heard would be such persons as Aristion and John the presbyter, who are mentioned in this same way by Papias; while under the designation of 'those who had seen the Apostles' Polycarp more especially might be intended. But, if he were not Pothinus, then he forms a third direct link of connection between IrenŠus and the Apostolic age. Whoever he was, it is clear that the intercourse of IrenŠus with him was frequent and intimate. 'The elder,' writes IrenŠus, 'used to say,' 'The elder used to refresh us with such accounts of the ancient worthies,' 'The elder used to discuss.' Indeed the elaborate character of these discourses suggests, as I have stated in a former paper [266:2], that IrenŠus is here reproducing notes of lectures which he had heard from this person. With the references direct or indirect to the Canonical writings in this anonymous teacher I am not concerned here; nor indeed is it necessary to add anything to what has been said in a previous paper [266:3]. I wish now merely to call attention to these discourses as showing, that through his intercourse with this elder IrenŠus could not fail to have ascertained the mind of the earlier Church with regard to the Evangelical and Apostolic writings.

Nor were these the only exceptional advantages which IrenŠus enjoyed. When he speaks of the recognition of the Canonical writings his testimony must be regarded as directly representing three Churches at least. In youth he was brought up, as we saw, in Asia Minor. In middle life he stayed for some time in Rome, having gone there on an important public mission [267:1]. Before and after this epoch he for many years held a prominent position in the Church of Gaul. He was moreover actively engaged from the beginning to the end of his public career in all the most important controversies of the day. He gave lectures as we happen to know; for Hippolytus attended a course on 'All the Heresies,' delivered perhaps during one of his sojourns at Rome [267:2]. He was a diligent letter-writer, interesting himself in the difficulties and dissensions of distant Churches, and more than one notice of such letters is preserved. He composed several treatises more or less elaborate, whose general character may be estimated from his extant work. The subjects moreover, with which he had to deal, must have forced him to an examination of the points with which we are immediately concerned. He took a chief part in the Montanist controversy; and the Montanist doctrine of the Paraclete, as I have before had occasion to remark [267:3], directly suggested an investigation of the promise in the Fourth Gospel. He was equally prominent in the Paschal dispute, and here again the relation between the narratives of St John and the Synoptists must have entered largely into the discussion. He was contending all his life with Gnostics, or reactionists against Gnosticism, and how large a part the authority and contents of the Gospels and Epistles must have played in these controversies generally we see plainly from his surviving work against the Valentinians.

Thus IrenŠus does not present himself before us as an isolated witness, but is backed by a whole phalanx of past and contemporaneous authority. All this our author ignores. He forecloses all investigation by denouncing, as usual, the uncritical character of the fathers; and IrenŠus is not even allowed to enter the witness-box.

The truth is that, speaking generally, the fathers are neither more nor less uncritical on questions which involve the historical sense, than other writers of their age. Now and then we meet with an exceptional blunderer; but for the most part Christian writers will compare not unfavourably with their heathen contemporaries. If Clement of Rome believes in the story of the phoenix, so do several classical writers of repute. If Justin Martyr affirms that Simon Magus received divine honours at Rome, heathen historians and controversialists make statements equally false and quite as ridiculous with reference to the religion and history of the Jews [268:1]. Even the credulity of a Papias may be more than matched by the credulity of an Apion or an Ălian. The work of the sceptical Pliny himself abounds in impossible stories. On the other hand individual writers may be singled out among the Christian fathers, whom it would be difficult to match in their several excellences from their own or contiguous generations. No heathen contemporary shows such a power of memory or so wide an acquaintance with the classical literature of Greece in all its branches as Clement of Alexandria. No heathen contemporary deserves to be named in the same day with Origen for patience and accuracy in textual criticism, to say nothing of other intellectual capacities, which, notwithstanding all his faults, distinguish him as the foremost writer of his age. And again, the investigations of Theophilus of Antioch, the contemporary of IrenŠus, in comparative chronology are far in advance of anything which emanates from heathen writers of his time, however inadequate they may appear in this nineteenth century, which has discovered so many monuments of primeval history. There are in fact as many gradations among the Christian fathers as in any other order of men; and here, as elsewhere, each writer must be considered on his own merits. It is a gross injustice to class the authors whom I have named with such hopeless blunderers as Epiphanius and John Malalas, for whom nothing can be said, but in whom nevertheless our author places the most implicit confidence, when their statements serve his purpose.

Now IrenŠus is not one whose testimony can be lightly set aside. He possessed, as we have seen, exceptional opportunities of forming an opinion on the point at issue. His honesty is, I think, beyond the reach of suspicion. He is a man of culture and intelligence. He possesses a considerable knowledge of classical literature, though he makes no parade of it. He argues against his opponents with much patience. His work is systematic, and occasionally shows great acuteness. His traditions, no doubt, require sifting, like other men's, and sometimes dissolve in the light of criticism. He has his weak points also, whether in his interpretations or in his views of things. But what then? Who refuses to listen to the heathen rhetorician Aristides or the apostate Emperor Julian on matters of fact because they are both highly superstitious--the one paying a childish deference to dreams, the other showing himself a profound believer in magic? In short, IrenŠus betrays no incapacity which affects his competency as a witness to a broad and comprehensive fact, such as that with which alone we are concerned.

And his testimony is confirmed by evidence from all sides. The recognition of these four Gospels from a very early date is the one fact which explains the fragmentary notices and references occurring in previous writers. Moreover his contemporaries in every quarter of the Church repeat the same story independently. The Old Latin Version, already existing when IrenŠus published his work and representing the Canon of the African Christians, included these four Gospels, and these only. The author of the Muratorian fragment, writing a few years before him, and apparently representing the Church of Rome, recognizes these, and these alone. Clement, writing a few years later, as a member of the Alexandrian Church, who had also travelled far and wide, and sat at the feet of divers teachers, in Greece, in Asia Minor, in Palestine, in Italy, doubts the authenticity of a story told in an apocryphal writing, on the ground that it was not related in any of the four Gospels handed down by the Church [270:1]. What is the meaning of all this coincidence of view? It must be borne in mind that the Canon of the New Testament was not made the subject of any conciliar decree till the latter half of the fourth century. When therefore we find this agreement on all sides in the closing years of the second, without any formal enactment, we can only explain it as the convergence of independent testimony showing that, though individual writers might allow themselves the use of other documents, yet the general sense of the Church had for some time past singled out these four Gospels by tacit consent, and placed them in a position of exceptional authority.

One other remark on the testimony of IrenŠus suggests itself before closing. IrenŠus is the first extant writer in whom, from the nature of his work, we have a right to expect explicit information on the subject of the Canon. Earlier writings, which have been preserved entire, are either epistolary, like the letters of the Apostolic Fathers, where any references to the Canonical books must necessarily be precarious and incidental (to say nothing of the continuance of the oral tradition at this early date as a disturbing element); or devotional, like the Shepherd of Hermas, which is equally devoid of quotations from the Old Testament and from the New; or historical, like the account of the martyrdoms at Vienne and Lyons, where any such allusion is gratuitous; or apologetic, like the great mass of the extant Christian writings of the second century, where the reserve of the writer naturally leads him to be silent about authorities which would carry no weight with the Jewish or heathen readers whom he addressed. But the work of IrenŠus is the first controversial treatise addressed to Christians on questions of Christian doctrine, where the appeal lies to Christian documents. And here the testimony to our four Gospels is full and clear and precise.

If any reader is really in earnest on this matter, I will ask him to read IrenŠus and judge for himself. He will find many things for which perhaps he is not prepared, and which will jar with his preconceived ideas; but on the one point at issue I have no fear that I shall be accused of exaggeration. Indeed it is impossible to convey in a few paragraphs the whole force of an impression which is deepened by each successive page of a long and elaborate work.


The Anglican Library, This HTML edition copyright ©2001.

Next Chapter

Table of Contents

Keyword Search