Sunday, 10 April 2016

They were devoted to the apostles' teaching

Irenaeus – On the Apostolic Preaching

I like to post about evidence for early Christianity that gets less attention that it could get, if we open our eyes a little more. Stuff that the ‘ordinary’ Christian doesn’t know, but academic scholars do know. I like to put this in the hands of ordinary Christians.

This one is about a late but valuable witness to what Jesus’ apostles were preaching. You might think that we have it all in the New Testament. But what if there is more? In the Book of Acts, in the New Testament, it is written that the church was devoted to the apostles’ teaching, but how much of this teaching do we have? Nothing in the New Testament ever says that the New Testament includes the apostles’ whole teaching. (How could it? It wasn’t all completely collected and called the New Testament until after the writers’ deaths, so none of them knew its contents list.) The Gospel of John says that it doesn’t have enough space to tell of everything Jesus did.

So here it is: Irenaeus’ book called On the Apostolic Preaching. This is something special: an early church document that says it contains the apostles’ teaching, preserved by the church, and now summarised in the second century. Could there be a core in this that really does go back to Jesus’ apostles?

This document was written down by a second century Christian, Irenaeus of Lyon. The second century might seem a bit late at first, but on the other hand, Irenaeus was well placed. He tells us that he learned as a young man from a Christian bishop called Polycarp who had learned from John. (See Irenaeus’ other book Against Heresies, III.3.4.) So the relationships between these people are not far removed from the first century at all.  

On the Apostolic Preaching isn’t based on the New Testament, that’s for sure. And its contents lend credence to its claim to go right back to the apostles’ era. And Irenaeus didn’t just make it up. Before him, Justin Martyr also wrote down chunks of it, and he didn’t base it on the New Testament either. Writing in the second half of the second century AD, Irenaeus is quite clear about the first century origins of the material. He is writing it down, he says,

‘as the elders, the disciples of the apostles have handed down to us’ (3)

 ‘true is the tradition of preaching, that is, the witness of the apostles’ (86)

 ‘This, beloved is the preaching of the truth ... the apostles handed over...’ (98)

(John Behr’s translation, the numbers are as in his translation.)

The document sets out how Old Testament predictions come true in the life of Jesus:

  • His country of birth was Judea and his people were the Jews (58)
  • This happened while the land of Israel was under Roman rule (57)
  • He was born in Bethlehem and born of a virgin (63)
  • The magi visited the infant Jesus in a house (58)
  • Jesus performed healings including for the deaf, the blind and the lame (67)
  • He also raised the dead (66)
  • Some believed in Jesus and others did not (56)
  • Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a foal (65)
  • At his arrest, Jesus was left abandoned by his disciples (76)
  • Jesus was tortured and killed and his death was voluntary on his part (68)
  • Herod and Pontius Pilate between them condemned Jesus to crucifixion (74)
  • Pilate had, until then, held ill-will toward Herod (77)
  • Jesus’ arms were stretched out on the cross (79)
  • The soldiers crucifying him cast lots for his tunic (80)
  •  Judas took thirty pieces of silver from Jewish leaders but repented and hanged himself, and the silver was used to buy a field for burial (81)
  • On the cross Jesus was given vinegar to drink (82)
  • He died (78)
  • He was buried (72)

And there is a fair bit about his resurrection too.

Now I’m not writing this to say that On the Apostolic Preaching proves anything about the life of Jesus to us. That’s not my point at all.

What is so interesting is that Irenaeus is not saying that he is quoting from the gospels (which he had read) but that he was writing down the apostles’ preaching which had been handed down. We usually consider that we have this sort of information from the gospels. But Irenaeus has to be taken to mean this: that the core of this teaching is older than when the gospels were written down. He is writing down what was handed down from the apostles. If you are familiar with reading the gospels, and read On the Apostolic Preaching, then you will immediately note the difference in style when reading this. As for the style of it, it feels more like the sermons of Peter in the Book of Acts. That fits, given that this is supposed to be the apostles’ preaching.

Why did Irenaeus write it down? He himself gives his reason, when addressing his document to someone called Marcianus:

‘since at this present time, we are separated from each other in body... we have not hesitated to speak a little with you... by writing ... and to demonstrate, by means of a summary, the preaching of the truth, so as to strengthen your faith.’ (1)

In other words, this isn’t even the whole thing! It is a summary written down for Marcianus, since this man wasn’t present with Irenaeus to keep hearing the fuller tradition.

John Behr makes some really helpful comments about this document: one of the things that makes the document special is that it is the first summary of plain and straightforward church teaching that was passed from person to person. Unlike much of what Christian wrote in the second century -

  • It isn’t argumentative – it isn’t one side of a polemical debate.
  • It isn’t apologetics – it isn’t written as a defence of the faith from the attacks of outsiders – it’s teaching inside the early church.
  • It isn’t a system of theology and beliefs.
  • It hardly talks about how the church should be organised.
  • The New Testament isn’t used as the basis of the teaching, although Irenaeus knows the NT.[1]

What the apostolic preaching does show is how the early church understood the Old Testament to be about Jesus. Whether you think it makes a good preach is another matter of course! This is a contribution to the evidence of a very early way of telling the story of Jesus that, at its core as an oral tradition, may be even older than the written version of the gospels – indeed in my view it likely is.

Whether or not you are convinced by the way the Old Testament has been drilled and mined and quarried and excavated to find scriptures to fit the life story of Jesus is up to your judgment. Some may seem to be stretching things, unearthing things in the Old Testament that you would never have thought of applying to Jesus’ story but making that connection anyway!
All that remains is for you to go and read it! I Recommend John Behr’s translation. Online versions can also be found.

[1] I don’t mean to give the impression that parts of the Bible were called ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ in Irenaeus’ day. These terms hadn’t been thought of, but I’m keeping this simpler for the general reader.


  1. Thanks for this awesome post. I wish we had more surviving stuff from the 2nd century church fathers.