The Council of Nicaea, 325 AD (Patristic Summaries Series)

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEAThe next number of posts in the Patristic Summaries Series will concern what is known as “The Seven Ecumenical Councils” of the Church.  In writing these posts, I am consulting (a) historical insights from Leo Donald Davis’ The First Seven Ecumenical Councils: Their History and Theology and Peter L’Huillier’s The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils and (b) the primary sources surrounding each council (to the extent that we have them) in volume 14 of the post-nicene writings of Philip Schaff and Henry Wace’s (editors) 38 volume Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Second Series).

The Emperor Constantine convened the first great ecumenical council in 325 AD primarily to address the Arian attack on the full deity of Christ, though the council addressed many other issues as well.  The most significant contribution of the council was, of course, the Nicene Creed.

I believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of his Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made;
who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost
of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again
according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the quick and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life,
who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son];
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshipped and glorified;
who spake by the Prophets.
And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. AMEN.

Along with The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed is acknowledged to be one of the most substantive, concise, beautiful, and theologically rich statements on the essence of Chrisitianity ever written.  The creed was adopted with very little opposition and it should be rightly hailed as the seminal achievement of the Council of Nicaea.

Baptists are traditionally considered to be anti-creedal.  This is an oversimplification to be sure.  While Baptists unapologetically hold to the Reformation maxim sola scripture, we really mean by it suprema scripture.  That is, Baptists have never held that all creedal statements are utterly useless and wholly flawed.  On the contrary, Baptists have simply asserted that the witness of Scripture outweighs all other statements of man, no matter how revered, and should be granted preeminence and supremacy.  In point of fact, the 38th article of the 1679 General Baptist “Orthodox Creed” commends the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds to all Baptists as valuable and worthy of study and consideration.

The subtle but profound debates surrounding the terminology of the creed, particularly pertaining to Christology, are important but go far beyond the nature of these patristic summaries.  Suffice it to say, the language of the creed is in no way accidental.  Rather, it communicates biblical orthodoxy as agreed upon by conciliar consensus and establishes an orthodox line of demarcation against all inferior Christological assertions.

In addition to the creed, the Council of Nicaea approved a number of canons addressing various and sundry realities facing the church at that time.  For instance, the canons forbade those who mutilated themselves from holding ecclesial office, addressed the question of how the church should receive back repentant schismatic bishops, condemned usury, forbade the clergy from taking women disciples into their homes, addressed the issue of deaconesses, etc.  These canons are fascinating and insightful, and are still essentially binding to large segments of Christianity today.

The Council of Nicaea has been the subject of a great deal of misunderstanding.  On the popular level this is undoubtedly due to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code nonsense.  Wherever these misunderstands originate, it is almost a given today among those who have never studied what happened at Nicaea that the council was convened by a sinister Emperor who arbitrarily and almost single-handedly defined orthodoxy over against earlier and more appealing orthodoxies within early Christianity, that he used a structure of power to establish further structures of power in order to subjugate the people to oppressive systems of belief he himself proclaimed true and binding, and that Constantine chose at the Council which books would be included in the canon of scripture editing out those texts that challenged the increasingly narrow orthodoxy of institutional Christianity.  This last allegation is simply inexplicable since the Council said nothing about the canon of scripture in terms of what books should be included therein.  These readings of the Council are borne from ignorance at best and a modernistic agenda at worst.

That is not to say that the Council was perfect or infallible or devoid of politics or anything of the sort.  I am no apologist for any pronouncements of any gathering of Christians, no matter how august that gather might be.  Rather, it is simply to say that the Council articulated a vision of orthodoxy that has struck the vast majority of the Church as biblical and God-honoring and true for the vast majority of her history.  Baptist Christians should study the results of Nicaea with great appreciation and interest.  They will, however, along with many other believers, judge the fruits of even this amazing assembly by holy writ.

Irenaeus’ Against Heresies – Book I (Patristic Summaries Series)

saint_irenaeus_oflyonsIrenaeus was a brilliant 2nd century churchman and bishop of Lyon whose major contribution to the Church is his five-book-work, Against Heresies.  Book I is a dizzying and seemingly exhaustive account of the false teachings of the gnostics, particularly of Valentinianism.  Irenaeus researched and wrote the book in order to provide the Church a clear understanding and refutation of the gnostic heresies.

Throughout Book I, Irenaeus essentially lets the gnostics speak for themselves.  Again, it is astonishing the amount of detail he provides in doing this.  The reader may find himself growing numb at the long descriptions of gnostic eisegesis, numerology, mythology, and symbolism.  Irenaeus is nearly encyclopedic in his chronicle, and the thoroughness with which he approached his task cannot help but impress.

I was struck throughout by a sense of the importance of Irenaeus’ example for Christian apologists and, indeed, for all Christians today.  He does not appear to be attempting to caricature his opponents, whether or not his descriptions were completely accurate.  He provides more than ample space for his description of their views.  This, it seems to me, is admirable.  The work does not read like a modern hatchet job.  It reads almost like a dispassionate description (in his descriptions of the gnostic beliefs, anyway), though it is anything but.  Even so, here we find a model for the quality of effort we should make to understand that about which we are speaking.

In contrast to the gnostic heresies, Irenaeus makes some powerful statements about Christian truth and offers some notable summaries of such.  For instance:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

[The Church Fathers (2014-06-12). The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection (Kindle Locations 11938-11949). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.]

Furthermore, I was struck by Irenaeus’ strong biblicism.  Here is one of his criticisms of the gnostics:  “They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures” (Kindle Location 11792).  Furthermore, Book I is replete with biblical citations as well as examples of passages that the gnostics twist to their own ends.

I suppose what I found most refreshing and convicting, however, was Irenaeus’ conviction that Christianity does have a doctrinal core and content that is not open to editing.  On this basis, he confidently argues for an existing catholicity of doctrine around the world.

For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth (Kindle Locations 11953-11956).

In a day in which the very definition of Christianity is consistently undermined by those who appear to believe that the word “Christian” means whatever a given individual or group wants it to mean, it is refreshing to see such a clear and robust defense of the idea of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Finally, one cannot help but be struck by the courage and passion of Irenaeus himself.  Simply put, one would not want to be on the receiving end of his critical attention.  Irenaeus clearly had a deep, abiding love for the truth of the gospel and felt a personal responsibility to stop the spread of heresies in the life of the Church.  As such, he stands even today as a champion of biblical, orthodox belief.

The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs Justin, Chariton, Charites, Paeon, and Liberianus, Who Suffered at Rome

justin_trial-e1338565866755This is a short and fairly straight-foward work chronicling the martyrdom of Justin and his friends before Rusticus, the prefect of Rome.  In essence, Justin and the others refuse Rusticus’ command, “Obey the gods at once, and submit to the kings.”  Justin asserts that he will obey “our Saviour Jesus Christ.”  When quizzed on the doctrinal content of Christianity, Justin informs him that God is “one from the beginning,” that He is “the maker and fashioner of the whole creation,” and that they worship “the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God…the herald of salvation and teacher of good disciples.”  He boldly proclaims the “boundless divinity” of Christ as well.

The prefect then quizzes Justin and his friends on where they worship and how they became Christians.  Just played a role in many of his friends becoming Christians, as they testified, though, for some of them, they came to know Christ under the tutelage of their parents.  Many of these others are apparently young people as Rusticus asks them where their parents are.  Interestingly, there is a gloss on this martyrology in later editions stating that Justin was forced to drink hemlock.  This is apocryphal, of course, though the reason for the addition is clear enough:  to draw a comparison between Justin and Socrates.  In its original form, however, this work lacks embellishments and is therefore all the more sobering and powerful an account.

Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection and Other Fragments from the Lost Writings of Justin (The Patristic Summaries Series)

justin_martyr_iconI will here deal with these two fragmentary works in one post.  The first is Justin’s apology for the resurrection of the dead against various arguments opposing this idea.  For instance, against those who argue that a resurrection of the body would necessarily mean a resurrection as well of the body’s sinful passions, Justin points to biblical passages showing that the New Testament idea of the glorified resurrected body has both continuities and discontinuities with our earthly bodies.  In doing so, he rejects the rather silly premise behind this argument and shows that though our bodies will be resurrected, we will not, for instance, be married or engage in sexual relations.  He similarly waves off the argument that a resurrected body would have the same physical infirmities it had before death.  (Thus, in this way of thinking, a blind man would be resurrected as a blind man.)  Here Justin points to the healing miracles of Jesus as having eschatological import and as pointing to the fact that we will be raised in a healed body.  It is also nice to see Justin giving a nod to the goodness of creation in this treatise.  Furthermore, he laughs off the suggestion that resurrection is simply impossible by pointing to the omnipotence of God.  Finally, Justin points to the resurrection of Jesus as a sign that we too will rise.

In the Other Fragments from the Lost Writings of Justin we are given a collection of quotations from Justin’s writings that we do not have.  These are quotations from other writers who are alluding to Justin and these lost writings.  Oftentimes these are simply snippets.  There are some intriguing thoughts here, such as the idea that Satan did not understand that he would be condemned to hell until after the coming of Christ since the prophets only spoke in shadows of his punishment.  He intimates that the devil’s fury against the Church is related to his now-increased knowledge of his coming punishment.  In another fragment, Methodius interestingly refers to Justin as “a man who was not far separated from the apostles either in age or excellence.”  This is an interesting little work that reminded me a bit of Luther’s Table Talk.


Justin Martyr’s On the Sole Government of God

justin_martyr_iconOn the Sole Government of God is a classic example of a Christian apologist seeking to point people to divine truth through the usage of culturally known pagan texts.  It is, in other words, a 2nd century example of contextualization.  In this work, Justin is essentially modeling Paul’s approach in Acts 17:28 where Paul quoted the Phaenomena of Aratus in his speech before the Athenians.

Justin is seeking to demonstrate that the great Greek writers and philosophers themselves bore witness to the fact that there is a powerful God above all others, that we are accountable to this God, that we should reject false gods, and that we should seek righteousness.

Thus, to prove the unity of God, Justin appeals to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Philemon, and Orpheus.  Concerning the reality of a future judgment, Justin quotes Sophocles.  Concerning the need for righteousness, Just appeals to Philemon and Plato.  Concerning false gods, he quotes Menander, Hippolytus, Ion, Archelaus, Bellerophon, Piscatores, Fratres, Tibicinae, Phrixus, Philoctetes, and Hecuba.  Concerning the need to acknowledge only one God, Justin appeals to Homer.

This is an engaging little work that is basically an anthology of ancient writers addressing theological themes and reality.  The most significant element in all of this for our day is the fact that Justin, a Christian, engages his audience with these texts.  Of course, he could not do so unless he himself had engaged these texts.  If nothing else, Justin’s impressive grasp of pagan writings and the able way that he employs them in his apologetic task should challenge us to escape the Christian ghetto in which only explicitly Christian texts are read.  Justin has shown us a better model:  careful, critical engagement with a culture’s texts for the purpose of understanding and engaging that culture with the truth of the gospel.  It should also be noted that such an approach to such writings does not rule out the simple enjoyment of the writings or the appreciation of them as works of art.

Lastly, it should not be missed that Justin does not actually argue for the reality of Christ in this work, only for the reality of a theism that is consistent with Christian theism.  In this we may see the limitations of general revelation.  The pagan world, as Paul acknowledged in Romans 1, has a general knowledge of God, but it cannot deduce the gospel from nature or from an observance of the human heart.  What it can deduce, however, is what Justin argues for here:  the reality and presence of a God above all others before Whom we are accountable.  This means that a culture’s texts may include insights that can be used to argue for theism and for some aspects of Christian theism, but explicitly Christian truth will eventually need to be employed if the gospel is going to be advanced.

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho (The Patristic Summaries Series)

justin_martyr_iconJustin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho is a fascinating patristic text.  In it, Justin engages a Jewish man named Trypho and his friends in a lengthy conversation about the nature of Christianity and its relationship with Judaism.  It is an early example of a Christian apologetic specifically regarding Judaism.

There are many interesting elements to the text, not the least of which is Justin’s account of his conversion.  He shares how he was schooled in the schools of philosophy but was challenged by an elderly man on the sea shore to consider the claims of Christ.  While the encounter is not couched in the decision language that modern Protestants might like to see, it is nonetheless a powerful example of early evangelism as the elderly man calls upon the very bright younger man to consider the limitations of earthly philosophy and to consider instead the claims of Christianity.

The bulk of the work consists of Justin’s actual words to Trypho and his companions.  Essentially, Justin’s approach is to show through Old Testament texts that (a) the Law is limited in what it can accomplish and (b) Christ is the rightful object and fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures.  Justin’s hermeneutic is uneven.  He helpful leans heavily on the Messianic passages of Isaiah to demonstrate that Christ is the Messiah.  However, he occasionally lapses into an allegorical reading of the Old Testament that, at times, seems quite strained.

Some of Justin’s words to Trypho will strike the modern reader as possibly anti-semitic.  For instance, Justin more than once informs Trypho that the reason the Jews are experiencing so much heartache in human history is because they crucified Christ and rejected God’s truth.  On this side of the Holocaust, we are likely going to be sensitive to how this kind of reasoning can be easily perverted in the hands of men with nefarious intentions concerning the Jews as a people.  Furthermore, Justin, at times, speaks with sweeping generalities of the wickedness of the Jews as a people.  Notwithstanding, he holds out the hope of salvation to the Jews, calling Trypho and his companions to embrace Christ.

The book is impressive in its serious engagement with the Old Testament, even though we might disagree with Justin’s handling at this or that point.  There is an interesting if somewhat complicated discussion of the nature of Christ’s deity in the text demonstrating Justin’s high Christology.  It is also intriguing to see Justin offer a moderate response to Trypho’s question about whether or not Christians who seek to observe the external rites of Judaism can be saved.  Justin says that, in his opinion, they can be so long as they do not attempt to put other Christians under the yoke of such observances.  He goes on to say that others in the Church disagree with him, but that he thinks they are wrong.  This was an insightful glimpse into the attitude of those within the Church toward Jewish converts.

The Dialogue With Trypho is certainly worthy of consideration.  Flawed though it is, it is an impressive work and a helpful look at the ways in which the early Christians worked out their defenses of the faith.

Justin Martyr’s Second Apology

Justin’s Second Apology, while shorter than the first, offers no less food for thought than his first offering.  The brief time it would take to read this letter will more than reward the reader.

Justin begins again with the charge that Christians are unjustly condemned simply for bearing the name “Christians” while their upright lives are never taken into consideration.  He again appeals (this time to the Roman Senate) to common sense and justice in asking why it is permissible for the Christians to be persecuted thus while men who live wicked lives are celebrated by the Romans.  “But would that even now,” writes Justin, “some one would mount a lofty rostrum, and shout with a loud voice, ‘Be ashamed, be ashamed, ye who charge the guiltless with those deeds which yourselves openly commit, and ascribe things which apply to yourselves and your gods to those who have not even the slightest sympathy with them.  Be ye converted; become wise” (ch.12).

In a moving passage, Justin reveals that he “too, therefore, expect[s] to be plotted against and fixed to the stake” like so many of his brothers and sisters in Christ.  He scoffs at the charge, leveled by Crescens and others, that “the Christians are atheists.”

In this Apology, Justin further developes the idea of Christ (the Logos) as “the whole rational being” (ch.10).  In fact, the reason exercised by pre-Christian philosophers is itself attributed to Christ, for no man, according to Justin, has ever been able to use his reason except that Christ was “partially known” even by the pagans.  “For each man spoke,” Justin tells us, “well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word, seeing what was related to it” (ch.13).  This leads Justin to declare all truth as God’s truth, and thus the property of God’s people:  “Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians” (ch.13).

As I say, this is a brief work, but not unimportant.  Justin’s thoughts on the nature of truth are especially worthy of consideration.

Justin Martyr’s First Apology

With Justin Martyr’s First Apology, adressed to the Emperor of Rome and his son, Christian writing enters a new phase.  Justin has been called “the founder of theological literature,” and one senses in reading him that there is a depth and theological stridency here that we’ve yet to encounter (quite like this) before.

Justin was a philosopher and it could rightly be said that he came to Jesus through Plato.  He offers a powerful apology for the Christian faith in this work that, while not without its problems, cannot help but fire the soul of the modern reader.  Furthermore, Justin offers some tantalizing insights into early Christian life that are quite important and controversial to this very day.

Justin appeals to his recipients’ reason (Caesar’s son is “Verissimus the Philosopher”) when he lampoons the crude and mindless persecution of the Christians simply because they bear the name Christian.  He appeals to a sense of justice by asking whether or not the Christians ought not be persecuted when they behave as bad men worthy of punishment, not when they are simply men and women who bear the name.  Of course, the crux of the matter for Justin is that the Christians are not bad men.  They are good and they live good lives.  This fact is all the more exasperating to Justin (and it’s a theme we find elsewhere among the fathers as well) because it piles ignorance onto cruelty.

Interestingly (and movingly), Justin is so sure of the good behavior of the Christians that he consents to the persecution of any who use that name but don’t live their lives in harmony with Christian principles:  “And to those who are not living pursuant to these His teachings, and are Christians only in name, we demand that all such be punished by you.”  One cannot help but wonder what would happen if such a policy were enacted against our churches today!

Justin clearly sees the faith through eyes trained in Greek philosophy, and he uses this in his argument without reservation.  For example, he writes in ch.5, “For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemnded by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ…”  We see here the much controverted, supposed Hellenization of theology, an issue that is argued about to this very day.

I couldn’t help but chuckle at Justin’s condemnation of the political mindset of the day:  “But just so much power have rulers who esteem opinion more than truth, as robbers have in a desert.”  Nothing really ever changes, does it?

We begin to see a strong sexual aestheticism in Justin.  In ch.15 he notes that “many, both men and women, who have been Christ’s disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race of men.”  And in ch.29:  “But whether we marry, it is only that we may bring up children; or whether we decline marriage, we live continently.”

It is hard to calculate the damage that such a mindset has wrought in and out of the church over the ages.  The denigration of sex as inherently impure, and of the act of sex in marriage only for procreation has arguably wreaked havoc over the ages in the Christian understanding of marriage and the marital relationship.  I do not suggest, of course, that this originated with Justin, but it begins to surface in his writings in ways that it has not heretofore.

In this First Apology we find the fascinating suggestion that heathen mythology is simply the reworking of prophetic truth by demonic forces into tales designed to confuse human beings.  In other words, Justin argues that the demons took the truths of Moses and the prophets and crafted the myths of man out of their raw material in an effort to deceive and confuse (ch.LIV).

We also find an intriguing description of baptism in the early Christian community in ch.LXI.  I’ll no doubt be accused of eisegesis for this, but Justin appears to know nothing of infant baptism.  To be sure, his description of the subjects of baptism (though not necessarily the operation of it) sounds like it could have been written in Nashville:  “I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ…As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.  Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.”

I suppose and advocate for infant baptism would point out that Justin is speaking of the baptism of converts here, and is silent on the question of the baptism of the children of those within the church.  But note that Justin goes on to speak of baptism as an aspect of awakening in knowledge and understanding:  “And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason.  Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone.”

It also needs to be pointed out, contra Baptists, that Justin clearly holds to some form of baptismal regeneration.

There is also a strong Eucharistic statement in Justin’s Apology:  “And this food is called among us [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sin, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ enjoined” (ch.LXVI).  We also find here the interesting observations that the deacons distribute the elements and that the eucharist was observed, seemingly, at each gathering of the church.

Fragments of Papias

The Fragments of Papias are bound to fascinate the modern reader!  Papias lived roughly from the end of the first to the middle of the second century and recorded the thoughts of those who had personally known the disciples.  Only fragments of his five-volume work remain, and not many of these.  What does remain, however, is enthralling.

Papias explains in Fragment I that, “If…anyone who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings, what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which thing Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say.  For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.”

We find this odd observation in Fragment III: “Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.”

There’s a Trinitarian statement in Fragment V: “…and that, moreover, they ascend through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father…”  And Eusebius passes on Papias’ idea of a personal millennial reign of Christ on the earth but interestingly groups this among Papias’ claims that were “of a more fabulous nature.”

Here, too, we find (at the end of Fragment VI) the earliest reference to Mark as the interpreter of Peter: “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered.  It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ.  For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him.  But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings.  Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them.  For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.”  Note, too, Papias’ defense of the style and arrangement of Mark’s gospel.

To be sure, what we have in the Fragments of Papias are second and third-hand reports, but they are precious indeed and have had an impact on how we understand the original disciples as well as the transmission of Scripture.

The Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas is an odd and frustrating letter.  The author’s intent is primarily to show Christ’s fulfillment of various Old Testament passages, images, and types.  He does this by employing allegory and numerology in ways that will likely tax the modern reader.  There are quasi-Gnostic overtones in his appeal to secret knowledge which is appealed to as an evidentiary key to the allegorical interpretations (i.e., “No one has been admitted by me to a more excellent piece of knowledge than this, but I know that ye are worthy.” [ch.6]) and possibly in the light/dark motif as well (chs.19 & 20).

To be sure, this kind of thing is burdensome on this side of the Enlightenment, though we have no doubt traded one set of errors for another in the opposite direction.  (Note as well that I am not trying to laugh off the entire allegorical enterprise.  It is an interesting and complex question that posseses two extremes…like most other complex questions!  The allegorical eisegesis in The Epistle of Barnabas, however, seems forced.)

Furthermore, there are various translation issues with the epistle that make it, at times, difficult to navigate and understand.  The modern reader is also likely to find the epistle’s not-infrequent use of apocryphal writings to be challenging.

There are occasional moments of inspiration, I think.  “Take heed,” the author tells us near the end of chapter 4, “lest resting at our ease, as those who are the called [of God], we should fall asleep in our sins, and the wicked prince, acquiring power over us, should thrust us away from the kingdom of the Lord” (p.139).

I found this sentence from chapter 6 strangely moving:  “For man is earth in a suffering state, for the formation of Adam was from the face of the earth” (p.140).  “Earth in a suffering state” indeed.  Also, the discussion of belief and baptism in chapter 11 is quite interesting and thought provoking.

Finally, the modern reader will likely be interested in the epistle’s condemnation of abortion in chapter 19:  “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born” (p.148).  Likewise, chapter 20:  “…who are murderers of children, destroyers of the workmanship of God” (p.149).

Altogether, this is an interesting and deeply flawed epistle that is equal parts useful and useless.