The restored Prescriptions Against the Sects confirm that Irenaeus very much had in mind Papias and his original testimony about the elder. Irenaeus was trying to overcome this community’s tradition distaste for written testimonies in order to control the kind of doctrines that were being promulgated in the name of ‘Christianity.’ Yet before we go down that road let us make one more observation about the ‘cutting up’ and ‘redistributing’ of original material in the writings of Irenaeus. A great irony appears in the parallel situation we noted with respect to Tertullian’s Adversus Valentinianos and Book One of Adversus Haereses a little earlier. As we already noted, the Latin text of Tertullian necessarily copied a lost original Greek lecture that Irenaeus gave ‘against the Valentinians’ but chapters 8 – 10 were unknown to Tertullian’s source and do not appear in his meticulous recopying of Irenaeus.
Why is this significant? Within this section of ‘new’ material now associated with Irenaeus we find the famous but ultimately puzzling reference to homerocentones to explain a strange pattern which manifested itself whenever the heretical gospels and their orthodox equivalent were placed side by side. The author notes that the heretics were in the habit of collecting “a set of expressions and names scattered here and there” in other sources for the purpose of “twisting them, as we have already said, from a natural to a non-natural sense.” In other words, this phenomenon was widespread of taking sections from an existing text and dividing it and scrambling the contents in order to get a new ‘desired’ outcome was commonplace in the second century. It was so prevalent that the author (the editor? Irenaeus?) associates this activity with every sort of testimony – written or oral – in the contemporary age.
Irenaeus immediately goes on to say that his enemies “in so doing, 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.” But then something strange happens. The author then strangely goes on to demonstrate how easy it is to bring new meaning to original passages through chopping them up and switching them out with others in a completely new arrangement – exposing him to the very charge he levels against his enemies, the heretics! Like a magician proudly demonstrating a marvelous trick, the editor takes a few verses out of Homer to demonstrate his skill at transforming passages.
His point, he says, is to demonstrate that “many” are misled by “the regularly-formed sequence of the verses, as to doubt whether Homer may not have composed them” and after showing how easy it is done he declares “now, what simple-minded man, I ask, would not be led away by such verses as these to think that Homer actually framed them so with reference to the subject indicated?” One can almost envision this whole routing coming out of a bad movie where the confident criminal boasts to the investigating offer how easy it would be to carry out a crime and in the process throw suspicion on himself. He continues again saying[MV5] :
There are now clearly ‘shadow texts’ to every ‘orthodox’ document where the individual passages have now been shifted around into a different order. As the author puts it “they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.” He likens the situation to a beautiful mosaic made of jewels depicting a king should be rearranged by someone “and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.”
The author goes on to conclude that “in like manner do these persons patch together old wives' fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.” Yet we can’t allow ourselves to simply take his word that when the gospels of the heretics and the orthodox take the appearance of ‘being out of order’ that it is attributable to the wicked men outside of the Church. After all the author has already demonstrated himself to be adept at this insertion technique. What’s more the writings of the early Church Fathers are filled with such transpositions of chapters and paragraphs – even the very writings of Irenaeus which make this bold accusation against the heretics demonstrates the very same pattern. The more likely scenario is that the ‘centonizing’ of literary material was widespread in early Church and certainly included the very testimony which now makes this bold accusation ‘against the heresies.’
If we go back to our original discussion regarding the ‘connecting link’ between 3.4.1 and 4.27.1 after this lengthy digression, the restored Prescriptions now demonstrates Irenaeus to have discovered not only the apostolic succession list but also gospels supposedly mentioned in Papias’s original testimony about ‘the elder.’ Irenaeus’s reference in 4.26.1 - that when the ‘writings’ are “read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field” - makes reference to the unusual Latinized Greek term Χριστιανοί which had very specific implications at the time he was writing. Celsus identifies this as the correct identification for the followers of Jesus. But the origin of this terminology – as well as many of those describing the ‘bad’ sectarian communities in Latin is strange. Certainly not all identified themselves as ‘Christians.’ But when Irenaeus uses this terminology he certainly means members of ‘the great Church’– that is, those who assemble in a voluntary association sanctioned by the government of Commodus and read the authorized scriptures of the new covenant.
The underlying implication of this reconstituted section of text is that Irenaeus must have claimed that the scriptures associated with the apostles were formerly kept hidden by the heretical assemblies and only brought to light by Irenaeus’s recent actions. Hengel speaks in terms of a discovery in a vault and he may well be correct.’ If we assume that the text of Irenaeus’s Prescriptions was to some extent preserved in Tertullian’s text of the same name, it is possible that we have before us the very means he managed to get access to this ‘vault’ - i.e. by means of a praescriptio. This was a Latin legal term which implied that Irenaeus had won his claim against the ‘fallen elders’ who formerly presided over the Church an act which ‘restored’ the property of the apostles back to its rightful owners – i.e. the ‘great Church.’
Whether such a legal action was actually taken in the time of Commodus or was simply an allegory developed from his own imagination and transferred to ‘the Christian lawyer’ Tertullian can’t be answered here. Let us take for granted the symbolic nature of the praescriptio for the sake of argument – i.e. something similar to that which now appears in De Praescriptione Haereticorum 37. Irenaeus ‘laid claim’ to the gospels hidden away secretly in the Church of Rome as a result of his ‘legal action’ immediately following the persecutions of 177 CE. The important thing is that Irenaeus wants his audience to believe he found the very truths the unrighteous elders had ‘hidden’ from their duped believers and which ‘the elder’ referenced in the citation from Papias. This is the real context of the restored document now divided between the beginning of Book Three and Book Four.
Thus when we move forward to consider the first reference to what Irenaeus ‘heard (auditi) from a certain Elder’ we are immediately left in a quandary. Could Irenaeus have really cited an oral tradition to negate the Christian community’s dependence on the ‘living voice’ of Christ? The prospect seems unlikely given what is plainly written – that is, ‘hearing’ means ‘with the ears’ rather than the eyes. However previous studies have not sufficiently considered the original literary context in which the statement was made. Leaving aside what appears now in Book Three – viz. the ‘first part’ of the Prescriptions and the confirmation that the writings were left ‘in the bank vault’ of the church – we need only go back to Irenaeus’s original declaration still connected to the CEF in Book Four to understand the strange language used here.
For in our last citation Irenaeus plainly says that that for the Christian who “reads the writings with attention … it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field … declaring His dispensations … and proclaiming beforehand that the man who loves God shall arrive at such excellency as even to see God, and hear His word, and from the hearing of His discourse be glorified to such an extent (emphasis mine).” In other words, the experience of reading the written word of the elder is deliberately likened to hearing the ‘living voice.’ To a certain extent this can be explained by his frequent reference to scripture being ‘heard’ throughout the Adversus Haereses. As such it should not be surprising that the nature of the citations of the elder has led many commentators make reference to the CEF in terms of “ Irenaeus “possibly drawing on a written source, quotes ‘a certain elder’ on the interpretation of scriptural passages (Against Heresies 4.27.1–28.1, 30.1–31.1).”
The underlying point is that Irenaeus has deliberately framed the seemingly dull experience of reading words on a page as still possessing the magic originally associated by Papias and his contemporaries with hearing the spirit. In other words, Irenaeus has heard ‘the elder’ as scripture and he as an elder heard the testimony of the apostles. We shall argue therefore that Irenaeus has selected a specific passage from a pre-existent written text associated with ‘the elder’ which specifically deals with the theme of the elders of the former generation kept the gospels and other sacred writings hidden away from the people. What were the Christians doing all the while ignoring his alleged written sources? They, heads of Papias’s actual tradition abided by the ‘living voice’ of Christ – that is watching people get ‘moved’ by the spirit and declaring new proclamations. Irenaeus however was unhappy with this state of affairs and offered up what was clearly up until that point the traditional Marcionite emphasis on written scriptures.
To this end, when we now go forward to engage our first fragment of the elder we see that above all else he stresses its value as a ‘correcting’ agent and more importantly as a means of reigning in the abuse of elders within the community:
This original citation of ‘the Elder’ in Irenaeus’s original treatise was preceded by an extended reference to the theme of ‘the fall of the contemporary elders’ which Hill mostly ignored in his study. Hill indeed at one point rejects the Latin reading of ‘presbyterii’ in favor of the singular presbyter by effectively ‘moving the goal posts’ from 4.26.1 to 4.27.1 and claiming no other examples of the plural. However it is here that the proper context of the fragments are to be found. In other words, they clearly developed from the original contrast of ‘the elders’ of old – namely the apostles and their disciples – and the current disgraced group who allegedly hid the writings Irenaeus claims he found in the vaults of the Roman Church.
So it is that we read again in that ignored material from 4.26.1 (but which Hill admits properly belongs with the material in Book Three) that Irenaeus rails against:
Irenaeus was writing as the Church came out of a period of prolonged Imperial persecution. The only treatise which tells us anything about those dark days was unfortunately also written by Irenaeus. Even from this account of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne however we can see that the authorities identified those in leadership positions in the Christian community through exacting confessions from their slaves. It can be argued that this experience raised questions about the elders or at least Irenaeus was eager to have those questions raised. His purpose in citing the elder was clearly part of his effort to restore the written records allegedly established by the apostles in a former age. After all the elder himself said those writings would help curb the excesses of the custodians of the faith.
The sudden emergence of various συντάγματα in this age – after all even Celsus offers up a σύνταγμα to help Christians assist their living a better and more productive life – develops as a consequence of Irenaeus’s ‘discoveries.’ Indeed Adversus Haereses grew from one such early text. To this end it is not at all surprising that we hear the repeated mention - both in Irenaeus’s ‘set up’ (4.26.2) and his eventual citation of the actual writing of the elder – of the claim that once the contemporary elders are exposed to the written ‘doctrine of the apostles’ their behavior will be corrected. This was the original point of the text. As such it would certainly seem that Irenaeus’s citation of the ‘elder fragment’ develops directly from the discussion about ‘apostolic tradition’ at the beginning of Book Three.
For this book begins with the juxtaposition of various heretics who clearly hold positions of authority (and are thus ‘elders’ in some sense, and almost certainly the aforementioned ‘elders’ who serve their own lusts) and the authority of the apostolic tradition. Irenaeus will later jump ahead to the idea that these wicked elders who now sit on their thrones and are now “confuted” from the newly ‘re-discovered’ writings. But in Book Three it is only said that these fallen authorities “turn round and accuse these same writings, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition.”
In other words, we have to see that Irenaeus’s citation from the Elder has in mind the experience of the leaders confronted by his heroic rescue of the very documents they wanted hidden from public view. As such the Church Father has in fact recast Papias’s appeal to oral tradition as sign of suspicion, as a proof that they are hiding from the truth. So he continues that these wicked elders declare:
But again we have to emphasize, that it is unlikely that Irenaeus was introducing his apostolic succession list and the opinion of the elder specifically to oppose Papias. Rather Papias’s preference for the ‘living voice’ of Christ was reflective of a broad segment of the Christian tradition and one that was actively opposed interestingly enough by Marcionitism. Did Papias and the Marcionites venerate the same elder? Did Irenaeus merely turn the written record of the Marcionite community and its association with an anonymous gospel, an anonymous apostle and an anonymous elder who clarified the writings of those other text against those who merely showed interest to revelations of the spirit? We will come back to this question a little later.
It is enough for us now to follow the remaining references to the presbyter that follow the one just cited. The next reference that Hill wants us to believe is from the elder is clearly only Irenaeus’s application of the previous citation to the lengthy discussion of Solomon he has just developed. Similarly the allusion to Christ’s descent into the underworld is from Irenaeus not the elder. The usual line of reasoning for making this claim has to do an intimation of a Marcionite interest in such a descent. But the sect was by no means alone in this regard. The Shepherd, Clement of Alexandria and Origen all testify the widespread appeal of such claims.
Indeed our next explicit citation from the elder appears only later in same chapter. Irenaeus declares:
Summarizing our findings then, we begin with Irenaeus’s first announcement that he has in his hand the very words of the beloved elder, and as a means of softening the jarring effect of having dead words on a page read to them, he cites these words as if they still contained the breath of life within them:
 Tertullian’s use of Irenaeus the ‘eager discoverer of all doctrines (of the Valentinians)’ (Adv Valent. 5) in his own treatise Adversus Valentinianos is better fits an earlier lecture against the Valentinians rather than direct knowledge of Adversus Haereses Book One. The conclusion of the latter derives from the material used at the beginning of Adv. Valent. Adv Valent uses the same material from chapters 1 – 7 and 11 – 12 but does not know 8 – 10.