Church History Series 1, Post 2: The Importance Of Biblical Interpretation For Early Christian History

The Continued Importance of Proper Interpretation for Defining Christianity

Ignatius of Antioch

Bishop of Antioch from 69-107, when he was martyred in Rome, he explicitly taught the kerygma (the message of Jesus as the Christ, as the Crucified and Risen Savior, the one who is both human and God).  In the Epistle to the  Ephesians, 7.2, reflected upon Christ by writing:

There is One Physician:

Both fleshly                and Spiritual

Born                            and yet eternal

In flesh                        God

In death                       true Life

Both from Mary          and from God

First passible               and then impassible

Jesus Christ our Lord

Accordingly, this message is in the Old Testament, which he and other Christians called “the charters.”

“I heard some say, “Unless I find it in the ‘charters,’ I do not believe it in the gospel.”  And when I told them, ‘It is written,’ they answered me, ‘that is the question.’  ‘But for me, the ‘charters’ are Jesus Christ; the inviolable characters are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith which exists through him [see 1 Cor 1.22-4; Acts 3.16]. [Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8.2].

Justin Martyr (fl. 138-165)

As with the Gospels and early Church liturgies we have examined, Justin understands Jesus Christ’s relationship with the Scriptures in a circular manner:

1)      Jesus the Christ is presented “according to the Scriptures” (by way of prophecies and Scriptural titles and names)

2)      Scripture is understood according to the kergyma (the Gospel of Christ) in the first place

Justin does not argue with Trypho concerning the Scripture’s authority.  Rather, what is being debated is the proper interpretation of those Scriptures.  According to Justin, if Trypho refuses to read the Scriptures in light of Christ, Trypho forfeits his right to those Scriptures.   “God kept from you the power to discern the wisdom in his words.”[1]

One result is that the Scriptures are one harmonious whole referring to Christ.  There are no contradictions not because on the literal level there are no discrepancies, but because all of the verses speak of Christ.  In this sense, they all say the same thing.

Furthermore, Justin believes the truths of Christ that exist in the non-Christian world, exist because non-Christians (especially philosophers and poets) have read the Scriptures.  “For Moses is more ancient than all the Greek writers . . . [therefore because of this and anything true that the philosophers and poets have said] there seem to be seeds of truth within everyone.”[2]


Memoirs of the Apostles

One important point to note is that Justin called the Gospels “memoirs” or “memoirs of the apostles” rather than “Gospels,” though he does use the word “Gospel” in the singular.  During Justin’s time, known as the second sophistic, Athenaeus used the word “memoirs” to refer to “remembered sayings” while Favorinus used it to refer to a biography of philosophers from the classical period (the sixth to fourth centuries BC).  Why did Justin do this?  Scholars differ in opinion on this, but I think the following may explain this.

During the second sophistic, philosophers found refuge in historiography in one of two ways:

1)      Either they reappropriated world history into Roman history

2)      or they consciously refused to do this, escaping to a glorified past and writing histories that ended with Alexander the Great.[3]

Justin resembles those who would reappropriate all of history as Roman history, except that Justin reappropriated history as Christian history.  Certainly, the option to accept only a literal, historiographical reading of the Scriptures was an option.  He could have become a member of Trypho’s group.  Such a maneuver would have been akin to those in the second sophistic who ended their historiography works with Alexander the Great.  Instead, Justin reappropriated philosophical and religious history as Christian historiography but with an exegetical twist.  Truth resides in the ancient texts known as Scripture and this truth is properly exegeted by the apostolic memoirs.

By using this approach, the superiority of first century Christian writings is established.  Christian Gospel material could not have predated the classical age of the Greeks, but by presenting the Gospels as memoirs, not in the strict second sophistic sense of the term, but in a Christian, hermeneutical sense, Justin implicitly claimed that their message was more ancient than that of the memoirs of the Greeks.

Irenaeus (ca. 125-200) and Valentinus (fl. 120-160)

Irenaeus proves important for the second century not simply because he argues against Gnosticism, but because of how he argues against Gnosticism.

Gnosticism is a term used to describe religious groups during the early centuries of Christianity that taught

1)      a tradition of secret knowledge, one that often involved learning complex spiritual hierarchies and secret ways to ascend to ever higher levels

2)      a cosmic dualism, where the “spiritual” realm is good and the material realm is evil and to be transcended

3)      an eclectic combination of beliefs from various religions, including Christianity (in fact, many of these groups claimed to be Christian)

When arguing against the Gnostics, Irenaeus uses the New Testament writings as Scripture, though he offers no reflections on any “list” of Scriptures.  He does appeal to apostolic succession, and focuses on Rome, but we must be careful not to think this is the same as what the Roman Catholic Church teaches today.

1)      The Church in Rome, during Ireneaus’ days, did not have what we would call a monarchic episcopate.  There were many local churches, many house churches in Rome at the time.  From what we can tell, one of the leaders was chosen as the representative, or secretary, in order to write on behalf of the entire Church in Rome.  So, Irenaeus is not referring to a papacy as we know it.

2) Irenaeus does write of Rome’s “principle” leadership, but because we do not have the Greek text, it is ambiguous as to what this means.  Even if he upholds a Roman primacy, it is not the primacy of a singular, monarchic pope.  When he lists the “succession” of Roman bishops, he is listing the succession of Roman representatives.

The basis for his refutation of Valentinus and other heretics, then, is through a Christocentric interpretation based upon the “rule of truth” or “canon of truth,” which is “there is one God almighty, who made all things by his Word,” and one Holy Spirit. [See Against Heresies 1.9.4; 1.22.1; 2.27.1; 2.28.1; 3.11.1; 3.12.6; 3.15.1; 4.35.4 for references to the Rule of Truth].

Irenaeus puts all of this together in the following manner:

[After listing a bunch of quotes from Homer, out of order, so as to make up a story/poem that never existed, Irenaeus says,] 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? But he who is acquainted with the Homeric writings will recognise the verses indeed, but not the subject to which they are applied, as knowing that some of them were spoken of Ulysses, others of Hercules himself, others still of Priam, and others again of Menelaus and Agamemnon. But if he takes them and restores each of them to its proper position, he at once destroys the narrative in question. In like manner he also who retains unchangeable129 in his heart the rule of the truth 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. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But 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. [Against Heresies 1.9.4].


Valentinus, as a Gnostic, took a different approach.  For Valentinus, Jesus had passed on secret knowledge to his disciples. Valentinus used the New Testament to support this.  “The knowledge about the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but to the rest it comes by means of parables so that they may look but not see and listen but not understand.”(Luke 8:9-10 See Ireneus Against Heresies 1:3:1).  As a Valentinian put it, “The scriptures are ambiguous and the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition.” (Irenaeus Against Heresies 3:2:1).

Valentinus’ teaching (according to Irenaeus):

The ineffable and silence (b) There was a duality, of which one member is called the ineffable and the other is called silence.

Production of the other aeons (c) Then from this duality a second duality was emitted, of which one member he calls the parent and the other he calls truth. The quartet yielded:

the Word;
the human being;
the church.

This is the first octet. And—he says—from the Word and life ten powers were emitted, as I already said. And from the human being and the church twelve powers were emitted.

Revolt of the mother (d) One of these revolted and became lacking; this one was responsible for the rest of the affair.

Two boundaries (e) He assumes the existence of two boundaries: one is between the deep and the rest of the fullness, bounding the engendered aeons away from the unengendered parent; the other bounds their mother apart from the fullness.

Production of the anointed (Christ) and “shadow” (f) And furthermore, the anointed (Christ) was not emitted from the aeons within the fullness. Rather, he and a shadow were engendered by the mother, according to her memory of the superior realm, while she was outside (of the fullness). Since he was male he cut off the shadow, (removing it) from himself; and he hastened up into the fullness.

Loss of spirit by the mother. The craftsman. (g) The mother was left behind with the shadow; and having been emptied of the spiritual substance, she emitted another child. This was the craftsman, whom he also calls the almighty of those that are subject to it.

The left-hand ruler (h) Just like the gnostics—falsely so called!—of whom we shall speak further on, he holds that along with this (crafstman) was emitted also a ruler on the left.

The emanation of Jesus (i) And furthermore, sometimes he says that Jesus emanated from that being who had drawn away from this mother of theirs and had merged with the entirety, i.e. the wished-for. At other times he says that he emanated from that being which had hastened up into the fullness, i.e. the anointed (Christ); at still other times, he says that he emanated from the human being and the church.

The holy spirit (j) And the holy spirit, he says, was emitted by truth, for the scrutiny and yielding of the aeons, invisibly entering into them. Through it the aeons yielded the plants of truth.

Similarity and Dissimilarity

Both Irenaeus and Valentinus treat the Scriptures (Old Testament) as a collection of works to be perused for the truth.  This was how ancients used texts they considered Scriptural.  The difference is that one arranges them to form an image of Christ Crucified and Risen (the king) and the other arranges them to speak about a Gnostic myth (the fox).  Needless to say, the Valentinian book, The Gospel of Truth, did not receive canonical status and so, is not found in our New Testament.


Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament Scriptures was a different God from the Father of Jesus the Christ.  In other words, God the Father was someone other than the God of the Old Testament. [Remember, 2 Cor 4.6 is the only NT passage we have that explicitly states that Jesus’ Father is the God of the OT—everywhere else it is implied and/or assumed.]  Marcion developed his own church (with bishops, priests, and deacons, a church that survived until the middle of the fifth century, or about AD 450).  He also developed a list of works he believed were canonical.  He accepted nothing from the Old Testament.  Together with this, he insisted that the Old Testament must be interpreted literally.  In other words, the Old Testament did not have the status of “Scripture,” according to Marcion.  Of the NT, he accepted only the Gospel according to Luke (after having many passages edited out) and the letters of Paul (again, with passages edited out).

Unlike the Gnostics, Marcion did not teach a secret knowledge or have an eclectic combinations of beliefs made into an elaborate myth.

The Question of Canon

Although Marcion, already in the second century, clearly and definitively said what was canonical for his church, Christianity would spend much more time deciding whether certain works were canonical.

However, we know from citations, that during the second century, the four Gospels we have were accepted as canonical.  By the fourth century, the NT that we have was considered canonical, with a few exceptions that had yet to be played out.  For example, the Apocalypse of Peter, was in the lectionary used by some Eastern churches in Syria through the 6th century.  The Book of Revelation continued to be disputed in the East up through the ninth century, and never did make it into the lectionary of the Orthodox Church.

The debate over “canon” is not a debate over which books are “historical” or which books are included on somebody’s “list.”  The debate throughout the centuries centered on which books were “Scripture” and for Christians discerning what was canonical and part of what we now call the NT, this debate centered on how Christ was portrayed.  Is the Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew the Christ, according to the Scriptures, who opens the Scriptures, all understood on the basis of the Rule of Truth, wherein Christ is both divine and human?  Yes, so it is canonical.  Is the Jesus presented in the Gospel of Mary [Magdalene] the Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew the Christ, according to the Scriptures, who opens the Scriptures, all understood on the basis of the Rule of Truth, wherein Christ is both divine and human?  No, so it is not “canonical.”  Saying this does not mean that no Christians ever used these texts.  We know that near Antioch, some Christians used the Gospel of Peter until Bishop Sarapion of Antioch put a stop to it in about the year 200.  Might this mean that there are some books, not in our printed bibles today, that should be considered canonical?  Perhaps, but this is simply the consequence of understanding “canonical” to mean “normative” rather than “list.”

[1] Dial.55.3.  Justin’s contention that the Jews do not understand the very Scripture they read bears striking resemblance to 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.6, where Paul claims that the Jews read the Scriptures with veiled faces because they do not have Christ to remove the veil.

[2] Ap. 44.8, 10.

[3] E.L. Bowie, “Greeks and Their Past in the Second Sophistic,” Past and Present 46 (1970), 12.