Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Coming to Terms With Forgotten Reports of an Ecclesiastical Council Determining Orthodoxy During the Reign of Hadrian [Part One]

We have just discovered the existence of an early Syriac tradition that says that Christians gathered at Ancyra in northern Galatian during the reign of Hadrian to condemn a certain kind of heresy.  This historical event is understood to have happened either at the very beginning of his reign (Chronicle of 724, Zuqnin Chronicle) or at the very end (Michael the Syrian, Bar Hebraeus).  While the idea that a council of bishops happened this early in Christianity is necessarily challenging as it does not seem to be acknowledged in the early Church Fathers, a careful examination of the claim actually can be argued to be supported by many things written about the heretics . Moreover, it just makes plain sense.

Look at it this way.  If you have ever been a parent you know that unless you tell your children that something is prohibited it is pointless to try and justify punishment.  In other words, there has to have been a clear warning that certain beliefs and practices was forbidden in order to expect anyone to stop doing them.  The problem is that we simply don't have any reporting about how religious prohibition was organized in the second century.  We all share this vague notion that Irenaeus was writing letter after letter circulating his ideas in the 'general consciousness' of the Church, without any claim to having greater authority than those he was addressing.

In other words, if all bishops were equal, why should any one bishop have bowed down to the opinion of one of his peers as law.  It just doesn't make sense.  Indeed there is this vague notion in academia that somehow 'everyone just agreed' in the Church without any explanation of how this was possible given the fact that by the time of Nicaea - that is with a religious body that basically agreed on the same canon - that even with Constantine and his right hand man Hosius of Cordoba lurking in the background, the official position was to allow most of the local traditions to stand save for a few key messages that had to be shared by everyone.

So how on earth can Irenaeus a hundred and twenty five years earlier basically demand total unanimity in doctrine and moreover claim that everything was always in agreement in all the churches from the very beginning?

As we have been noting over the last few posts, the first book of his Against Heresies is a hodgepodge of source material, mostly being made up of previous lectures.  This explains why the 'book' opens up with such a weak introduction.  It just rambles basically into a discussion of the followers of Ptolemy who are said to be 'Valentinians' with a clear explanation of the purpose of the whole book.  Some might argue that this section which appears in the middle of the preface fits that bill:

I have deemed it my duty (after reading some of the Commentaries, as they call them, of the disciples of Valentinus, and after making myself acquainted with their tenets through personal intercourse with some of them) to unfold to thee, my friend, these portentous and profound mysteries, which do not fall within the range of every intellect, because all have not sufficiently purged their brains. I do this, in order that thou, obtaining an acquaintance with these things, mayest in turn explain them to all those with whom thou art connected, and exhort them to avoid such an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ. I intend, then, to the best of my ability, with brevity and clearness to set forth the opinions of those who are now promulgating heresy.

Yet this still doesn't make sense.  The whole book isn't about the Valentinians.  The hodgepodge here is a long list of 'heresies' or heretical groups without the author ever explaining one fundamental question - by what authority does he do these things?  

In other words, who the fuck is Irenaeus to tell the Alexandrian Church, the Antiochene Church and churches everywhere, what to think, how to believe, what to practice?  This most basic question is never answered.  It reminds me of the Bush presidency and Americans I knew couldn't see why anyone in Iraq should mind that they had invaded their country and were now telling them what to do.  The basic premise of Bush's supporters was - we're Americans, we're the good guys.  It's like the old logic that only bad guys run away from the police.  But I would try and explain to these same Americans that no one likes when a visitor comes over to their house and starts criticizing how they live - and even worse move furniture, paint the walls, and remodel the place.

The fundamental sociological question in every age and in every culture is the same as was asked Jesus in the gospel - according to what authority does anyone have the right to tell someone else what to do, what to believe and how to live?  Sure, there is always the comeback that 'Christians' should all believe the same things.  But clearly the Church Fathers - and Celsus no less - are all testifying that there were lots of different groups believing lots of different things.  How then did anyone person - i.e. Irenaeus - assume the authority to walk into other people's homes and remodel their furniture?  This is the fundamental question that never gets answered by scholars of early Christianity.

The Philosophumena for instance records that the Marcosians were pissed off with Irenaeus's description of their sect.  So the natural question is - why didn't they tell him to fuck off?  The world is a big place and in the ancient world it was even bigger because there wasn't all this modern technology making it seem smaller. If Irenaeus was supposedly writing letters in Rome why not just throw the paper in the garbage?  Or send them back return to sender?

No matter how much scholars want to avoid the question it has to be assumed that Irenaeus was writing with presumed authority.  Of course there familiar come back is that he did have authority - he was the disciple of Polycarp, who was a respected figure in the Church.  But even this doesn't make sense.  Florinus the Valentinian was a much better recognized disciple.  Even Irenaeus is forced to admit that Florinus spent more time with him.  Moreover there must have been hundreds of people who could claim to have been a hearer of Polycarp.  Many probably thought Polycarp was a horrible heretic judging by his run in with Anicetus.

But let's stop right there and look at the model for 'authority in the ancient Church' that Irenaeus gives us with respect to his predecessor Polycarp of Smyrna. After citing the lengthy Roman bishop succession list from Hegesippus he goes one step further and says:

But 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

This is a most curious segue.  Irenaeus is essentially saying - there is this succession for this most glorious Church at Rome that everyone should adhere to, but there is also this one guy Polycarp who is equal to this entire structure, and I heard him too so I am equal to the Church of Rome.

Polycarp's beliefs were different than those of the Church at Rome.  We know this because they disagreed about something as basic as the manner to celebrate Easter.  So when Irenaeus goes on to say immediately after our last citation that Polycarp managed to

tarry [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,--a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. 

The question now is why Polycarp is raised up as the teacher of 'all of the churches of Asia.'  It is plainly in the text - first there is 'the had learned from the apostles and which the Church has handed down.'  This implies that the apostles are not only the Church in the broadest sense but specifically as we read in the next line - 'to these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time.'

In other words, Polycarp is a living counterweight to something.  He is the Church held up against something which is 'not Polycarp' but indeed also at the same time 'not the Church.'  While 'Valentinus and Marcion' are explicitly mentioned in the next line, it is also important to note that the section begins with a quote from the Roman episcopal succession list and now comes back to a single bishop on that list - Anicetus:

[Polycarp] it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles,--that, namely, which is handed down by the Church.

Yet if you just read this story in a vacuum you wouldn't know that Irenaeus on another occasion had to acknowledge that "when the blessed Polycarp was sojourning in Rome in the time of Anicetus ... a slight controversy had arisen among them as to certain other points."

While Irenaeus tries to pass off these disagreements as 'slight' the reality is that 'fundamental' is a better word.  This was a serious dispute and it is no wonder that 'Valentinus and Marcion' are squeezed into a discussion of Irenaeus's 'authority' in relation to the Roman episcopal tradition.  Valentinus and Marcion were certainly a part of the pre-Irenaean fabric of the Roman Church.  Irenaeus's point now is to say that Polycarp wasn't disputing with Anicetus, he wasn't encroaching on his territory (think of one 'bishop' making converts in the domain of another 'bishop').  He was merely contending with 'heresies.'

The whole idea that an Asiatic bishop was proselytizing in the territory of the Roman bishop is strange enough.  But then there is the point of this present post - Polycarp's silly claim to 'authority.'  In other words, by what authority did he think he had the right to piss off 'heretics'?  Irenaeus uses the example of John insulting Cerinthus as the basis for Polycarp's alleged slap in the face when Marcion asked 'Do you recognize me?' - ' 'I do recognize you ... [I recognize you] as the first-born of Satan.' Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth ... then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles."

The idea that some madman wandering the earth, supposedly a 'bishop of Smyrna' should be allowed to make converts in the domain of the bishop of Rome is simply untenable.  The story just doesn't make sense.  The only sense that we can make from it is that - without it being said explicitly - is that Marcion and Valentinus's presence in Rome was tolerated by Anicetus.  I don't see how we can get around this.  It is the companion not only to the Roman Church 'giving back' the bribe of Marcion.  The implication clearly is that the Roman Church was bribed and only came to its sense because of the work of one man - a foreign bishop from a tradition that held beliefs so at odds with their own that forty years later another of their bishops - Victor - excommunicated the Church of Polycarp!

My point is simply that the fable of 'one righteous man' transforming the beliefs of Rome simply doesn't make sense.  Let me put it plainly to people - if we had a time machine we wouldn't expect to see Polycarp converting Anicetus's church from wicked heresy.  Polycarp after all is intimately associated with John and the writings associated with John (the gospel, the Revelation) were resisted here.  So we are back to the same question - how do we explain the authority of Irenaeus?  Who was he writing to?  By what authority did he do these things?

The real answer has to go back to the syntagma of Justin.  There had to be a precedent for the idea of banning certain beliefs which went back to the Hadrianic period.  There is no other explanation that makes sense.  This is undoubtedly why Irenaeus tries to hard to 'co-opt' Justin.  He doesn't say much about Justin but what he does reinforce is the idea that Justin shared his hatred of the Marcionites - a 'fact' that I am not at all certain off.  But how did Irenaeus 'prove' that Justin was 'against Marcion'?  Irenaeus's cleverness exceeded itself here.

Irenaeus transformed the original syntagma which came from the Imperial authorities into something which Justin wrote on behalf of the Emperor.  He says in his Apology 'hey I have this new thing that I think you might like - it's a syntagma of all heresies.'  This certainly beats admitting that the list of heresies, with all their Latin -ianus ending for the names of associations, came from the Imperial court.  This also explains the implausibility of having Polycarp go to Rome on his own initiative to combat heresy.  The portrait that emerges is one of a few noble individuals 'making a difference,' of faith moving mountains.  The reality however was certainly that there was a council in the reign of Hadrian which established all these rules.

Why did Irenaeus cover up the existence of this council?  The answer should be obvious.  His list of heresies wasn't the same as the original syntagma.  This is why he has Justin so closely identified with anti-Marcionite activity.  Marcion was not on the original list.  Neither was Valentinus.  This is why then we hear of Polycarp coming to Rome and confronting Marcion.  Polycarp is continuing "Justin's work."  There is a circular way of thinking at the heart of this understanding - indeed of all Irenaeus's writings.  The reality was that there was a council during the reign which undoubtedly established the first syntagma or 'rules' of the church.

Yet why were Marcion and Valentinus still at the Church of Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius?  Peter Lampe presents much evidence that Valentinians were tolerated in the Roman Church until Irenaeus managed to change Victor's mind about them (and Florinus in particular).  Ulrich Schmid has noted the Marcionite canon's resemblance to the Old Latin.  The 'reality based' answer might have been that the first council of Ancyra never condemned either of these traditions.  Justin himself cites readings from the Marcionite gospel and speaks of Valeninus very favorably.

Irenaeus however will have nothing to do with reality or truth.  The reason why the heresies remained at Rome was because there never was a council during the reign of Hadrian.  Irenaeus just ignores the ruling and not surprisingly - the council is said to have condemned Sabellianism and Irenaeus was a Sabellian with Stuart George Hall's identification of Praxeas of Tertullian's Against Praxeas as Irenaeus.  In other words, orthodoxy was established during the reign of Hadrian and that result was unfavorable for Irenaeus's tradition and at the same time helped make 'Marcion' and 'Valentinus' feel welcomed in Rome.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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