"Since, then, our opponents do bear testimony to us," Irenaeus says introducing his 'gospel in four' formula - "and make use of these, our proof derived from them is firm and true." This is a most puzzling statement. Yet as Wheeless accurately paraphrases Irenaeus, the Church Father is saying necessarily that the idea for the four gospels came after Marcion and the other schools were already comfortable using a single gospel - "the heretical use of the Four confirms their like acceptance and use by the True Churches ... The 'canonical Four' were manufactured precisely for the purpose of meeting and confuting the heretics." If the idea for a four gospels set came after Irenaeus observed the four schools using Matthew, Luke, Mark and John surely Marcion can't be faulted for using only one of those gospels. It wasn't as if he was afforded a time machine to know what Irenaeus would write generations later.
In fact in what immediately following this critical statement Irenaeus provides little to help clarify his preference for the number four. "It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are" - they are with respect to their association with the aforementioned four schools in the late second century. Irenaeus digresses to mentioning the four zones of the world, four principal winds, four pillars, four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit and later four living creatures of Ezekiel and the Apocalypse. But surely an equally poetic argument could be made for the correctness of the one gospel - i.e. God is one, two gospels or even three gospels - the Trinity, the three wise men etc. The most substantive argument in favor of the correctness of four gospel is found in the first line - that is that Irenaeus experience in the world while writing the Adversus Haereses and easily dividing the principle schools into four.
So Irenaeus ultimately decided the right number of gospels quite arbitrarily and in an age long after the schools were already functioning, attracting disciples and writing commentaries on their single beloved gospel text. If the schools couldn't be faulted for 'ignoring' the four gospel set of Irenaeus because it hadn't been invented at the time their schools were established what possible justification could Irenaeus have found for rejecting three other gospels which were mostly unknown to them at their foundation? The traditional way of understanding the situation is to effectively imagine a representative of the Catholic tradition knocking on the door of the various schools with codices in hand and the community inside reject the literary missionaries.
Yet the schools of Plato got along with out necessarily embracing the writings of the Stoics or the schools of Epicurus the writings of Aristotle. How did it become objectionable for a school to remain steadfastly devoted to only a few written texts? How did Irenaeus manage to question Marcion's credibility for only preserving 'a fragment' of the true gospel? The answer has to be found in Eusebius's reference to a massive expansion of Christianity at the beginning in the Commodian period. The one common characteristic of the various schools seems to have been their reluctance to make their gospel public. With Irenaeus we see the exact opposite situation. He can cite scripture and scripture in rapid succession to make his points because, presumably, his readership had these texts 'at hand.'
Eusebius makes clear that among the new converts at the end of the second century were literate men. Those who could read would certainly want to learn about their new religion from written sources. In the case of the various 'schools' that encounter with the text seems to have occurred after a prolonged initiation for the catechumen and not every 'believer' went through this process. Indeed if we think about matters a little further, the concealing of the gospel effectively meant that the mysteries were only revealed once one had already committed a great deal of time and energy. If however prospective converts had their religion defined for them at the beginning of their journey - through encountering both the principal scriptural texts and the commentaries of the elders of the Church - the traditional manner of acquiring 'knowledge' was effectively overturned.
The facts are that even if as Celsus and Irenaeus acknowledge there were an abundance of public preachers telling the world 'what Christians believed' Christianity itself was defined by the written gospel. Certainly Irenaeus attempts to redefine the traditional devotion of the schools to the gospel. He borrows heavily from Papias to explain the existence of a worldwide Church without gospels. If indeed we imagine that only a few of the many 'believers' actually saw a written gospel text, what would stop someone like Irenaeus from depositing a set of scriptures in a library purporting to be the 'true Gospel' along with other texts that had laid buried in private libraries and redefined the tradition in one fell swoop?
We may use the example of another contemporary as a close parallel. Julius Africanus was a very influential Christian who work closely on a number of projects with the Severan Emperors. Like Irenaeus scrolls rather than codices seemed to be his preferred method of preserving his works. Only one fragment of his works survives in direct transmission. The final two columns of the 18th Cestus have been preserved thanks to a papyrus scrap discovered in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus at the end of the 19th century and acquired by the British Museum in 1914. Written across the grain of the papyrus, the recto, which contains the text of Africanus, has been given the number 412 (F10, see also fig. 1-4 on pp. 221 - 224. Because of the papyrus' reuse, the text of the Cestus has been truncated.
The verso of the papyrus (Pap. Oxy. 907), which runs against the grain and thus in the opposite direction of the Cestus text, contains a copy of the testament of a certain Hermogenes, originally drafted in 276 CE. during the reign of the Emperor Tacitus. In terms of the recto's dating, we should assume that the copy of the testament found on the verso was produced not long after its initial publication. We can also reasonably assume that the book roll with the text of the Cesti had been left in that state for a fairly long time before being cut up and reused. The terminus ante quem for the recto can, therefore, be arguably set at around 265 CE and perhaps even as early as the middle of the fifties of the third century.
The book copy of the Cesti would thus have been produced only a generation the completion of the original work. The papyrus, measuring 26.5 × 22.3 cm, contains two vertically intact columns of text. The second of these, also horizontally intact, includes, at the end of 25 lines of text, both a subscript with the author's name Iulius Africanus and the number of the 18th Cestus, which concludes at this point. The first preserved column, containing lines of text, was truncated on the left side before the papyrus was reused. While the print, sometimes in scriptio continua, is flowingly written, it remains clearly within the realm of the book face type.
What makes this discovery so interesting is that Africanus has both composed a new edition of scripture - in this case pagan scripture - and actively deposited the new composition in various libraries. If we were to compare Africanus's changes to the text with a Christian scriptural example Clement of Alexandria's Secret Gospel of Mark immediately comes to mind. A large chunk of text is inserted in the middle of a familiar narrative introducing a new literary digression. When Morton Smith first discovered the Clementine fragment a number of scholars including R M Grant compared it to Irenaeus's reference to poets who developed new gospels by re-arranging individual lines of Homer. In his lost original Prescription Against the Heresies Irenaeus boasts that 'one of his relatives' was a skilled composer of Homerocentoes. In Against Heresies he goes so far as to demonstrate himself as a skilled manipulator of Homeric material.
Africanus is yet testimony to the popularity of transforming Homer by moving around verses and in this case introducing totally new material into the narrative. It might be useful to take a look at his transformation of the pagan scriptures. First the original passage of Homer in English translation (emboldened text identifies the portions transformed, red removed by Africanus):
Perimedes and Eurylochus restrained the sacrificial victims while I drew my sharp sword from its sheath, and with it dug a pit two foot square, then poured a libation all around to the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, thirdly of water, sprinkled with white barley meal. Then I prayed devoutly to the powerless ghosts of the departed, swearing that when I reached Ithaca I would sacrifice a barren heifer in my palace, the best of the herd, and would heap the altar with rich spoils, and offer a ram, apart, to Teiresias, the finest jet-black ram in the flock. When, with prayers and vows, I had invoked the hosts of the dead, I led the sheep to the pit and cut their throats, so the dark blood flowed.And now the transformation itself:
Then the ghosts of the dead swarmed out of Erebus – brides, and young men yet unwed, old men worn out with toil, girls once vibrant and still new to grief, and ranks of warriors slain in battle, showing their wounds from bronze-tipped spears, their armour stained with blood. Round the pit from every side the crowd thronged, with strange cries, and I turned pale with fear. Then I called to my comrades, and told them to flay and burn the sheep killed by the pitiless bronze, with prayers to the divinities, to mighty Hades and dread Persephone. I myself, drawing my sharp sword from its sheath, sat there preventing the powerless ghosts from drawing near to the blood, till I might question Teiresias.’
‘The first ghost to appear was that of my comrade Elpenor. He had not yet been buried beneath the broad-tracked earth, for we left his corpse behind in Circe’s hall, unburied and unwept, while another more urgent task drove us on. I wept now when I saw him, and pitied him, and I spoke to him with winged words: “Elpenor, how came you here, to the gloomy dark? You are here sooner on foot than I in my black ship.”
“[But when with both vows] and prayers, to the host of the dead [I made supplication], I took [the] sheep and slit their throats [over the pit]. The dark blood [flowed]: and there gathered the [souls from beneath Ere]bos, of corpses having died, [maids boys] and the long-suffering aged and tender [virgins] suffering misfortune recently mourned; [and man]y wounde[d by b]ronze-tipped spears, [me]n slain by Ares, with gore-stained armor, [the multi]tude beside the pit wandering about from one place and another [with an aw]ful wail; and pale fear seized me. [But] I drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh, and [sat] there, not allowing the feeble heads of the dead to draw nearer to [the blood]; and in response, I uttered these words:” (He has described the actions that must be done.)
“[O Rive] rs and Earth and Those Beneath, you who punish [me]n who are through with life, whoever swears a false oath, [you] be our witnesses, fulfill our invocation. [I have come] to enquire how I might arrive at the land [of Telem]achus, whom I left at his nurse's bosom, my [so]n. For the following was a most useful spell.” (He utters the incantation that must be sung.)
“[Hear] me, wise and watchful, well-aim[ing An]ubis ........] † aullipaepareunetaôsithoei ... † [Come] always hither, robber, well-tressed Zeus of the underworld, by granting [its success] fulfill this spell; [come hither Had]es and Earth, undying Fire, Titan Helios; [come also] Iaa and Phthah and Phrên †Omosôsô†, [and Neph]thô much-revered, and Ablanathô rich in blessings, [fier]y serpent-girded, earth-shaking Kareiê, [Abrax]as, far-famed deity of cosmic name, controlling [the world axis] and heavenly dance and cold light of northern Bears; [come a]lso, Phrên, in self-control more excellent than everyone else to me, [...] † ôrieu and phasie and sisyôn † [and Bi]rth and Death and beauteous-burning Fire; [come Isi]s earthly and heavenly and dreams [guardian goddess], and Sirius who “[And thes]e words, standing beside the pit, I sang; [for well] I remembered Circe's stern admonitions, who knows [as man]y potions as the broad earth grows; [and there came] a great wave of lion-fighting Acheron, [Kokytus] and Lethe and Polyphlegethon most mighty, [and a gh]ost army was standing round about and beside the pit; a[nd first] came the ghost of my comrade Elpenor.” (and so forth)
Either this was the way it really stood, and the Poet himself omitted the extraneous part of the incantation for the sake of the dignity of the subject matter; or the Pisistratidae, when they were stitching together the other verses, excised these words, determining them to be incompatible with the verse ordering of the poem. I have reached this conclusion for many reasons ... I myself have arranged it here, seeing that I bear within me a very valuable fruit of inspiration, And you will find my proposed passage in its entirety deposited in the archives of the former homeland, Colonia Aelia Capitolina of Palestine, and in Nysa of Caria, and up to the 13th (book) in Rome near the baths of Alexander in the beautiful library in the Pantheon, the construction of which I personally supervised for the Emperor.
The first four omitted lines from the original Odyssey (11,44 - 47) - one's originally emboldened in red - in which Odysseus urges his companions to call upon Hades and Persephone after the skinning and burning of the sheep, are omitted in the papyrus, which then immediately continues with the three succeeding lines (11,48-50). Here, Odysseus stays the shades of the dead with his drawn sword. In place of the Homeric ending of the last line (11,50) — “before I asked Tiresias," Africanus' version substitutes the somewhat inappropriate "and in response I uttered these words." The following lines (col. 1 14-42) completely abandon the text of the Odyssey. Only in the final line of the first column does the text resume at Od. 11,51, at which point Odysseus meets with his unfortunate companion Elpenor.
For reasons of content, Africanus skips over the Odyssey's account of how Odysseus, following his sacrifices (Od. II, 33–43 = col. I 1–10), bids his companions to make a prayer (Od. 11, 44– 47). He replaces it with a different command, also spoken by Odysseus. This departure from the canonical text is indicated by the parenthetical remark (col. I ): “He has described the actions that must be done" (ἃ δεῖ ποιῆσαι εἴρηκεν), which parallels a further remark a few lines later (col. I 14): “He utters the incantation that must be sung” (ἃ δεῖ ἐπᾶσαι λέγει). In between these two one-line prose interjections, we find six lines (col. I – 21) in which rivers, Gaia, and the gods of vengeance for perjurers are called upon as witnesses and as helpers for the invocation (col. I, 15–20). By invoking this trilogy of gods, the necromancer hopes to facilitate the arrival of the human souls, with whose help he will enquire about how to return home where he has left his young son Telemachus (col. I 18–20). This appeal, composed in Homeric style, rounds off the portion quoted from the Odyssey (see ποιεῖν col. I ).
Although the first three lines of the appeal reproduce verses from the Iliad (3 , 278 –280), and the other three resemble Homeric phraseology, violations of metrical rules suggest that the author of the interpolation lacked total mastery of epic versification.135 Fifteen completely different lines (col. I 22– 36) follow the second parenthetical remark (col. I 21).136 Here we find a magical invocation made up of a mixture of Greek (chthonic Zeus, Helios etc.), Egyptian (Anubis, Ptah, Nephthys) and Judaic (Iaa for Jahwe) religious elements. It also contains typical voces magicae and propitious names (Omososon, Abraxas, Ablanatho), through whose acknowledgement their invoker could, in the Egyptian-Oriental tradition, bring a deity under his control.137 While to some extent comparable with invocations in other magical papyri (e.g. PMG , 4,1443 f) it is entirely unrelated to the situation in the Nekyia and thus distinctly set apart from the preceding six lines (col. I, 15 - 20) that for their part clearly supplement the text of the Odyssey.
Six further Homeric-sounding verses (col. I 37 – 42) seamlessly follow on from col. I , which ends with the words “for the following was a most useful spell.” These six lines describe how the rivers of the underworld earlier invoked now make their actual appearance. The Odyssey interpolation in the first column is thus made up of two parts. The first part consists of the Homeric lines (col. I 15–20 and 37–42), which Wünsch dates to the pre-Christian era on the basis of the absence of any later syncretic or magical elements. The second is the magical hymn, whose composition can confidently be dated to the Roman Empire, probably not long before Africanus or perhaps even in his age. The metrical anomalies provide additional support for this conclusion. Contrary to Wünsch's conclusion, the metrical inaccuracies found in the Homeric lines suggest that this part too stems from the period of the Roman Empire and served simply to create a link between the magical invocation and the authentic text from the Odyssey.
In the second column, Africanus speaks in his own voice. He first explains how the invocation that he has quoted had been omitted either by Homer or by the Pisistratidae, the Athenian tyrants credited with having drafted the first text of Homer in the sixth century. They did so, he says, because it was deemed inappropriate in the context of heroic epic poetry. Africanus is therefore concerned less with questions of textual criticism and authenticity than he is with literary criticism. Because, in his opinion, the incantation as it currently stands in Homer is only hinted at it is incomplete and does not adequately portray the conjuring up of the souls.
So how and why did Africanus carry out this enterprise? As Adler points out, Africanus nowhere claims to have discovered this version of the Odyssey while conducting antiquarian research in some library which he then credulously adopted. He notes that "[t]here is equally little evidence for the claim that Africanus either deliberately or even maliciously falsified these additional lines, or that he composed them as a parody such as one finds, for example, in Lucian's handling of epic. Instead Adler argues that Africanus, taking as his point of departure a gap in the text of the Odyssey, complements the text with his own inspired, epic-like composition. In his opinion "[t]his is also the best explanation for the line: “bearing within me a very valuable fruit." Africanus simply felt 'inspired' to rewrite the Odyssey and then systematically deposit this 'new scripture' as many libraries as he could influence.
As Adler concludes "[i]f we can credit his own claim, the importance of Africanus' edition of the Odyssey caused it to be deposited in three public libraries—at Jerusalem, Nysa, and Rome ... the authorization to deposit his edition of the Odyssey in the three aforementioned urban libraries, together with his claims about supervising the construction of the library at the Pantheon in Rome, underscores his social standing and prestige within the inner circle of the Roman elite." Certainly Irenaeus speaks at great length of his own connection to the same 'inner circle' of Imperial society and moreover as already noted explicitly states that the methodology of those who transform Homer was used on the gospel. Aside from demonstrating that he was more than capable of composing homerocentos perhaps the most interesting thing Irenaeus says about the phenomena is that 'centonizing' scriptures isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are apparently 'good' centonized scriptures and bad ones. One has to distinguish compositions 'according to their fruit.'
In Against Heresies immediately following his demonstration of his adeptness at manipulating Homer, Irenaeus declares:
But since what may prove a finishing-stroke to this exhibition (of centonizing texts) is wanting, so that any one, on following out their farce to the end, may then at once append an argument which shall overthrow it, we have judged it well to point out, first of all, in what respects the very fathers of this fable differ among themselves, as if they were inspired by different spirits of error. For this very fact forms an a priori proof that the truth proclaimed by the Church is immoveable, and that the theories of these men are but a tissue of falsehoods.In other words, the various schools were inspired by an evil spirit to do evil through their manipulations of scripture.
The various schools have a distinct version of the same scripture openly promulgated in the contemporary Roman world. The major differences between the two recensions have resulted from the manipulations to the original text of the apostle by the leaders of the various schools. "[C]ollecting a set of expressions and names scattered here and there [in the gospels], they twist them, as we have already said, from a natural to a non-natural sense. In so doing, they act like those who bring forward any kind of hypothesis they fancy, and then endeavour to support them out of the poems of Homer, so that the ignorant imagine that Homer actually composed the verses bearing upon that hypothesis, which has, in fact, been but newly constructed; and many others are led so far by the regularly-formed sequence of the verses, as to doubt whether Homer may not have composed them."
Just as "he who is acquainted with the Homeric writings will recognise the (original) verses ... but not the subject to which they are applied" in the centonized text "if he takes them and restores each of them to its proper position, he at once destroys the narrative in question." "In like manner," says Irenaeus, "he also who retains unchangeable the rule of the truth in his heart which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them ... when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics."
In a parallel passage preserved by Tertullian's hand, Irenaeus hints at the possibility of rearranging scripture according to the Holy Spirit:
A near relative of my own from the same poet has amongst other literary trifles arranged the "Table" of Cebes. Moreover, "Homerocentones" is the common name for those who from the poems of Homer patch together into one piece, quilt-like, works of their own, out of many scraps put together from this passage and that. Unquestionably the Divine writings are more fruitful in affording resources for any kind of subject. Nor do I hesitate to say that the Scriptures themselves were arranged by the will of God in such a manner as to afford material for heretics, inasmuch as I read that there must be heresies, which cannot exist without the Scriptures."The idea that God arranged for the scriptures to be easily 're-arranged' to help the spread of heretical ideas is a difficult one to swallow. This especially since we have seen that Irenaeus also says that God arranged for the existence of four main types of 'schools' to foreshadow the 'correctness' of a fourfold gospel canon.
All that seems to be certain through any of this is that the order of the narratives and sentences in the canonical gospels did not match the heretical ones. The surviving references to 'gospel harmonies' of Justin, Tatian and others often appeared to 'isolate' and rearrange the individual sentences of a given passage in the various gospels. The order of the narrative of the gospel of the Epistula Apostolorum does not match our canonical texts. Papias complains about Mark having the wrong order which necessarily means that he knew of a gospel with a different chronology from our canonical texts. Luke starts off his gospel with a related interest in 'correct order' and seems to have consulted a number of sources in order to arrive at the right answer. Yet Rhodes has demonstrated that the last chapters of this very same author's gospel have signs of 'Homeric glosses' related to Irenaeus's discussion of the homerocentos.
The question comes down to - was it the heretical gospels which centonized our four gospels, texts which did not exist as a set until Irenaeus or were our four gospels manufactured after the manner of the homerocentos? While it is undoubtedly impossible to prove matters conclusively either way it is noteworthy that those who used 'gospel harmonies' - Justin, Ephrem and the like - inevitably saw little problem with the order of Marcion's gospel. Yet clear breaks of order and content manifest themselves when any detailed examination of our canonical gospel to their harmonies and especially Luke. Since Irenaeus and Africanus are generally acknowledged to have shared a similar variant text of Luke which enumerated 72 rather than 77 generations stretching from Adam to Jesus's birth isn't it at least possible that Africanus's methodology with respect to 'centonizing' canonical scripture - in this case pagan - imitated Irenaeus's a generation earlier?
Yet of course there is one clear distinction to be made in closing. Whereas the canonical text of Homer was established - indeed it was 'canonical' because it already resided in library archives for centuries - the same was certainly not true with respect to Irenaeus's enterprise. There were no previous exemplars when and if Irenaeus deposited them into a library archive in Rome. In other words, whereas Julius Africanus's enterprise to replace the standard edition of Homer with a 'spiritually' centonized text was doomed to fail from the start, Irenaeus's was destined to succeed by the mere fact that the established schools of Christianity resisted exposing their secret gospel to outsiders. The victims in this case, the four schools who collectively anticipated the revelation of the correctness of four gospels in a later age, were prohibited by their establish codes of conduct from offering a replacement for Irenaeus's new exemplars.
That is why Irenaeus's repeatedly speaks of his efforts as 'exposing' the beliefs and practices of the heretics. These were above all else secret associations and traditions. Celsus says as much undoubtedly referencing his source for 'all knowledge' about the schools - schools which the pagan naturally assumed represented the totality of Christian belief. Indeed the reason why 'the great Church' couldn't be described as a haeresis was quite obvious too - they didn't sit around 'philosophizing' that is studying texts or coming up with clever arguments. Their holy writ was safely held in the public archives in Rome somewhere - or perhaps everywhere by the beginning of the third century as the pattern of distribution with respect to Irenaeus's own writings demonstrate.
At a critical juncture of the Praescription Irenaeus looks at the heretical application of a beloved sentence from Paul that was perhaps 'centonized' from its original context to the forged 'First Letter of Timothy':
they will have it that they did not reveal all things to all persons, but committed some things openly to all, and others secretly to a few; basing this assertion on the fact that Paul used this expression to Timothy, "O Timothy, guard the deposit"; and again, "Keep the good deposit." What was this "deposit" of so secret a nature as to be reckoned to belong to another doctrine ? Was it a part of that charge of which he says, "This charge I commit to thee, son Timothy " What is this deposit? Is it so secret as to be supposed to characterize a new doctrine? ... what is (this) commandment and what is (this) charge? From the preceding and the succeeding contexts, it will be manifest that there is no mysterious hint darkly suggested in this expression about (some) far-fetched doctrine, but that a warning is rather given against receiving any other (doctrine) than that which Timothy had heard from himself, as I take it publicly: "Before many witnesses" is his phrase. Now, if they refuse to allow that the church is meant by these "many witnesses," it matters nothing, since nothing could have been secret which was produced "before many witnesses." Nor, again, must the circumstance of his having wished him to "commit these things to faithful men, who should be able to teach others also," be construed into a proof of there being some secret gospel (id quoque ad argumentum occulti alicuius euangelii interpretandum est). For, when he says "these things," he refers to the things of which he is writing at the moment.In other words, the Catholic nexus of 'new texts' composed 'in the spirit' as if they were Paul's there is new dictum against the secrecy of the past. Above all else, the writings need to be made public; they need to be placed 'before many witnesses.'
And to this end, my friends, what better way to make a book public than placing it in a public library? What could be more 'pseudo-apostolic' than that ...