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THE AGE OF CHRIST AND THE RELIABILITY OF IRENAEUS

Nipping the Bud
"Phantaz Sunlyk"

A skeptic who goeth by the name of "skepticbud" ("Bud" from here on) has recently debated J. P. Holding regarding the authorship of Matthew. In that debate, Bud brought up the issue of Irenaeus' claims regarding the age of Jesus, and in the context of the debate, this was done for the sole purpose of showing both Irenaeus and "tradition" in general to be of dubious reliability. Though I make it a habit of simply ignoring such skeptics, Bud actually did bring up an issue which deserves our attention. I say this not because he had a good point in his argument, but rather because the issue is capable of a more general application. And that issue is this: did Irenaeus teach that, according to the gospels and apostolic tradition, Jesus was in his fifties when he died? And, furthermore, what do Irenaeus statements regarding Jesus' age do to the basic credibility of Irenaeus' as an historical witness? Because of my above mentioned avoidance of low-brow atheist apologetics such as Bud, I was unaware that they used Irenaeus' testimony as a sort of free pass to avoid any and every claim made by historical Christianity insofar as it is convenient. On the other hand, I have seen Irenaeus' testimony used in a more general sense as a free pass against "tradition" in whatever form. Some Christians, mostly Catholic from what I've seen, have attempted to explain away what Irenaeus says, as though the entire notion of "tradition" would be proven wrong if they couldn't. My goal in this essay is two-fold: to analyze the passage in question from Irenaeus' Against Heresies within its theological context, and to apply these findings to the various stances mentioned above.

First, then, the passage in question.

So, likewise, he was an old man for old men … Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while he still fulfilled the office of a teacher … those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. … Some of them [i.e., those who teach this, PS], moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2:22:4-6)

Such, then, is the controversial passage in question. Before analyzing it, let's now turn to Bud's comments, aimed in the context of his debate as an anti-"tradition" argument, and therefore an indirect argument against the tradition that testifies to Matthew being the author of the gospel that bears his name.

I'm sure you've heard how Irenaeus, in a different context, insisted that his tradition that Jesus didn't die until he was in his fifties, was the result of accurate and direct apostolic instruction

Bud goes on, drawing out the implications:

Irenaeus is one of the main sources of how the early church thought, isn't it scary? Jesus lived to be fifty? This early witness to gospel authorship clearly wasn't talking about any gospel that YOU have ever read. It makes you wonder whether anything else the church fathers said was similarly way out in left field.
Irenaeus insisted his doctrine that Jesus lived into his fifties, not dying in his thirties, came by direct apostolic succession. That's an example of how the early Fathers "carefully preserved" their oral traditions, unfortunately for Holding.

At this point it is worth noting that Bud's "key sources" (more accurately, "only sources") for substantiating his claim (i.e., that Irenaeus taught that Jesus lived into his fifties) were the editors to the 19th century Early Church Fathers series. From his repeatedly calling them "universally esteemed patristic scholars" and suchlike (alongside his lauding of Gibbon, who also was an esteemed patristic scholar … a very very long time ago), it is painfully obvious that Bud is completely in the dark regarding patristic scholarship of any kind whatever, and at this point the reader would be justified in suspecting that Bud is trying to-by any means necessary-hijack Irenaeus interpreted as holding this view, insofar as he (as being thus held hostage) commits the errors necessary to advance Bud's attempt to smear Church Tradition in general, and Irenaeus in particular. This particular modus operandi can be called "black hole hermeneutics"-the exegete takes material sentences, from either primary or secondary sources, capable of being used to advance a particular point, and imposes a meaning or validity on them that they do not in themselves necessarily, or even probably, have.

In the debate, J.P.'s response to this charge against Irenaeus was to point out that it was a forced interpretation given by Irenaeus in order to rebut a specific group of heretics (Gnostics) against whom Irenaeus was arguing. In other words, insofar as Irenaeus is in error here, it is, claimed Holding, a mistake to take this error as violating the basic validity of "tradition" in general; rather, it is an instance of a particular theologian forcing evidence to suit a particular need. Holding points out that this view is generally accepted by scholars (though these particular scholars haven't yet been dead for over 100 years, pace Bud). Now, for Bud's comments to this general approach:

Holding next bombs out trying to escape Irenaeus' classic embarrassing error of the 50 year-old Jesus by saying that his desperate defense (that Irenaeus was trying too hard to refute Gnostics and lied about Jesus age when he knew better) is a "standard" view. Since he is talking about views that are "standard", you would figure he would provide at least a single quotation from a patristic scholar. Nope, when Holding says the view is standard, his word should be good enough.

And so on it goes. In the "Commentary" thread for this debate, I offered a brief explanation and justification of Holding's position, which will be developed more fully below. But before I do that, and subsequently beat Bud's patristic nonsense into the ground, I think it relevant to add Bud's comments to what I had said:

if the gospels are correct about Jesus approximate age at death, then Irenaeus insisting the apostles taught Jesus lived into his fifties is equally mindless, perhaps even deliberately dishonest, which is why patristic scholars called this a "worthless tradition". I want to stress here that Holding hasn't cited any patristic scholar who agrees with him on Irenaeus classic error. Sunlyk's quotations didn't work because the quoted scholar never specified that recapitulation was the cause of Irenaeus saying Jesus lived into his fifties, that was Sunlyk's own inductive inference/fallacy. I defy any reader to go back and read everything Irenaeus said on that subject, and then YOU tell ME he was just "trying too hard to refute Gnostic ideas...". No way. No matter how you slice it, Irenaeus give us a perfect example of contrivance. And if Holding's explanation of "trying too hard" was the truth, it would still hurt his case, because then we would have a church father insisting upon authority for his view when none exists. Irenaeus who said only 4 gospels because of 4 quarters of the earth, would probably also say there's only one son because there's only one sun. And this was an "apologist" of Christianity. … Irenaeus' 50-year-old-Jesus-error: It is not necessary all the arguments. I quoted Roberts and Donaldson to show that even these patristic scholars agreed with me that this is a full-fledged boo-boo on Irenaeus' part, which is significant because he dogmatically insists it came straight from the apostles, and expresses more confidence on it than even in some of his scripture-quotations. Sunlyk's quotation of a scholar was merely that irenaeus generally made use of recapitulation; the conclusion that such recapitulation is what was going on in this instances was never drawn by the author, by only by Sunlyk.

And now we're ready to offer an interpretation of this passage of Irenaeus within its theological context, and to apply those results to the above mentioned issues. It is universally recognized that Irenaeus' theology is dominated, almost completely, by the motif of recapitulation. Hans urs von Balthasar calls it "the central concept of Irenaeus' theology" (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 2, pg. 51), and Johannes Quasten states that it is "[t]he heart of Irenaeus' Christology and indeed of his entire theology" (Patrology, vol. 1, pg. 295). This point cannot be emphasized enough. As every good theological motif should, Irenaeus' doctrine of recapitulation ties into every aspect of his theology, be it the Trinity (3:19:2, cf. 4:20:4, 5:18:2) Christology (3:18:1, 5:14:2), Mariology (3:22:4), Ecclesiology (3:16:6), the Eucharist (4:18:5), or Soteriology (4:6:2). Irenaeus' theology is an integrated whole, and the nucleus that coordinates it is recapitulation. What is recapitulation? Eric Osborn's comments are worth being quoted in full at this point:

What then is recapitulation? Who is the agent? It is the work of the incarnate Christ. What is summed up? The totality of humanity and the universe is recapitulated in Christ. What happens in recapitulation? First, the whole history of salvation is resumed, so that beginning, middle and end are brought together (3:24:1). Secondly, the sovereignty of Christ over all things is assumed; just as he reigns over the unseen world, so he is lord of the visible world, which he supports by the axis of his cross. Thirdly, all things are recreated, restored, renewed and set free. Lastly, all things achieve the purpose for which they were made; they are not merely repaired but are brought to perfection in Christ. (Irenaeus of Lyons, pg. 116)

In other words, recapitulation is a soteriological term which takes its point of departure from God as he is in himself: it is, ultimately, the extension of the Trinity into time and space via the Incarnation, and the result of this is the salvation and recreation of all things via participation in the Son, and thereby the entire Trinity. Here are a few examples of the doctrine, applied in various instances, as found in Irenaeus:

There is therefore, as I have pointed out, one God the Father, and one Christ Jesus, who came by means of the whole dispensational arrangements [connected with Him], and gathered together all things in himself. (3:16:6)
For as by one man's disobedience sin entered, and death obtained [a place] through sin; so also by the obedience of one man, righteousness having been introduced, shall cause life to fructify in those persons who in times past were dead. … He who is the Word, recapitulating Adam in himself … enabling him to gather up Adam [into himself]. (3:21:10)
Now this is his Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in the last times was made a man among men, that he might join the end to the beginning, that is, man to God. (4:20:4)
For by summing up in himself the whole human race from the beginning to the end, he has also summed up its death. From this it is clear that the Lord suffered death, in obedience to his Father, upon that day on which Adam died while he disobeyed God. … The Lord, therefore, recapitulating in himself this day, underwent his sufferings upon the day preceding the Sabbath, that is, the sixth day of the creation, on which day man was created; thus granting him a second creation by means of his passion … (5:23:2)

With the above in mind, we're now ready to analyze the passage in question. Irenaeus is (2:22:1), in context, arguing against Gnostics who maintained that "30" was a magical number of sorts-

There are not, therefore, thirty aeons, nor did the Savior come to be baptized when he was thirty years old for this reason, that he might show forth the "thirty silent". … Moreover, they affirm that he suffered in the twelfth month [of his thirtieth year, PS] …

Hence we arrive at our first major point, that Irenaeus is arguing against the specific claim that Jesus was thirty when he died, a particular notion that has especial import for the Gnostics who hold to it. After showing up the various and tortured proof-texts that the Gnostics use to advance this notion (such as Isaiah 61:2: "…the acceptable year of the Lord…"), Irenaeus brings in (2:22:3) a Scriptural counterexample to their claims-

But it is greatly to be wondered at, how it has come to pass that, while affirming that they have found out the mysteries of God, they have not examined the Gospels to ascertain how often after his baptism the Lord went up, at the time of the Passover, to Jerusalem, in accordance with what was the practice of the Jews from every land, and every year, that they should assemble at this period in Jerusalem, and there celebrate the feast of the Passover. … Now, that these three occasions of the Passover are not included within one year, every person whatever must acknowledge.

And this is our second major point, that Irenaeus specific evidence regarding the age of Christ is all contained within Scripture. The Gnostics argue that Christ died in the first year of his ministry; Irenaeus proves them wrong by noting that the gospels give evidence of (at least) three, (yet no more than three), years. And now, we pass to the absolutely central point of our argument contra Bud the proof-text molester. Irenaeus speculations regarding Jesus' age, though taking their point of departure from the explicit data of Scripture and Tradition, are tied into and determined by his doctrine of recapitulation (2:22:4)-

Being a master, therefore, he also possessed the age of a master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in himself that law which he had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to himself. For he came to save all through means of himself-all, I say, who through him are born again to God-infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age … So likewise he was an old man for old men, that he might be a perfect master for all, not merely as regards the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, he came on to death itself, that he might be 'the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he might have the pre-eminence,' the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.

Thus we see recapitulation molding Irenaeus' interpretation of the data; recapitulation is brought into service as a means of exposing the falsehood of the Gnostics. Irenaeus then (2:22:5) restates the Gnostic claim that Jesus died in his thirtieth year, and he complains against this claim that it robs the Savior "of that age which is both more necessary and more honourable than any other". If the Gnostics were correct, Christ would have died "being in fact still a young man". Irenaeus then gives something like a description for the different "periods" of life, according to age-

Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while he still fulfilled the office of a teacher.

What Irenaeus is saying here can be summarized thus: youth lasts up to the age of thirty; from thirty to forty old age is approached, but youth is not yet completely left behind; and from forty onwards one enters the period of "old age". It is also interesting to note here that Irenaeus claims that, with regard to Jesus entering "old age", the "gospels testify" to it (alongside the "tradition" of the Church). We've already seen what the gospels say about this - they say only that there were three years of Christ's ministry (but, with respect and sympathy to Irenaeus, not "three and only three")-the conclusions that Irenaeus reaches beyond this have no explicit backing. This seems to back up the claim made above, namely, that Irenaeus isn't giving testimony to an actual and explicit Church tradition, but rather, that he is subverting the data which tradition offers to his doctrine of recapitulation for the purpose of blowing the Gnostic arguments sky-high. And also, it should be pointed out that Irenaeus never once claims that Jesus lived to be fifty-in point of fact Irenaeus claims that Christ was "between the thirtieth and the fiftieth year" (2:22:6). According to the above description of the "periods" of life, Irenaeus therefore thought Christ to have been between forty and fifty, though "not want[ing] much of being fifty years old".

This, then, is the argument which we have advanced, and do advance, against Bud's claims. Irenaeus never claimed that Jesus lived to have been fifty, and that his error regarding the age of Jesus has no bearing whatever on the validity of tradition, as it is to be accounted for with reference to Irenaeus' dominant theological motif, and the particular persons and claims he was trying to rebut. There can be little doubt that Bud isn't well enough acquainted with Irenaeus to even be able to see how such an explanation might, still less should, be adopted. Be that as it may, he makes quite a fuss regarding "patristic scholars" not backing us up here, and therefore to patristic scholars we now turn.

First, it is worth noting that the above mentioned work of Osborn, which Bud claimed didn't specifically back me up on this point, does precisely that. Bud's comments that "such a conclusion was never drawn by the author, but only by Phantaz" are directly contradicted by the source itself on page 116, wherein Osborn cites 2:22:4, and in light of this fact, Bud is advised to actually consult the works he talks about.

Jaroslav Pelikan also notes the presence of recapitulation in this passage when he writes, "After his incarnation he passed through every stage of human growth, hallowing each and redeeming each by 'being made for them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission. … He summed up in himself the entire continuity of the human race and provided man with salvation in a concise summary." (The Christian Tradition, vol. 1, pg. 144).

Aloys Grillmeier, at the implicit level, adds further proof as he calls recapitulation the "theological framework into which Irenaeus inserts his picture of Christ", (Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 1, pg. 102), and we can place W.H.C. Frend alongside him, as he makes explicit mention of the fact that "in his earthly life Christ had sanctified each age of humankind from infancy to old age itself, thus joining humanity to God and making it a partaker of incorruptibility." (The Rise of Christianity, pg. 248)

Alongside these, we can add Robert Grant's bok Irenaeus of Lyons, pg. 33. And finally, we have a surprise for Bud. Fr. John Behr is the Associate Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. His credentials include a D.Ph. in theology and M.Ph. in Eastern Christian studies from Oxford, and a M.Th. from St. Vladimir's. He has written two doctoral theses on Irenaeus, alongside two books, and four articles in major theological publications, not to mention his several other works not dealing specifically with Irenaeus. He is, in sum, an expert on Irenaeus and an authority on Patristic studies of the highest caliber.

In his work entitled The Way to Nicaea (which, by the way, is a highly recommended introduction to the "formation of Christian theology" as instanced in the ante-Nicene era), Behr offers commentary that is directly relevant to this subject-

An interesting consequence of the need for Christ to recapitulate the whole economy, is that for Christ's work of recapitulation to be complete he must recapitulate not only Adam's formation, by becoming man, but also all the stages pertaining to human life. So Irenaeus states that Christ "therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants", a child for children, a youth for youths, and an old man for old men, offering to each an example appropriate to their age. … The literary coherence of Scripture, and the rhetorical coherence derived by engaging with Scripture to interpret Christ, is the ultimate criterion for Irenaeus' reflections on the eternal Word of God. (pgs. 130-131)

I took the trouble to write Fr. John Behr regarding this specific issue, and he was kind enough to respond. I asked if it were true that, according to the consensus of patristic scholarship, Irenaeus' claims regarding the age of Christ were to be attributed to his dominant theological motif of recapitulation. He replied in the affirmative, further stating that, "[I]t seems best to account for it in this way, rather than ignoring it (as most previous scholars did) as simply a piece of misinformation that came his way." These precisely were the claims advanced against Bud in both the debate with Holding and my commentary on the debate, alongside what is being argued for in the present essay.

So, in bringing this essay to a close, the following can be said. First, Bud has in effect been kicked right in his skepticals, shown up for the patristic toper he is, and exposed as a loudmouth fraud whose historical prowess consists of beating claims that are sufficiently vague (or unestablished) into saying what he wants them to say, or possessing the validity that he needs them to. He didn't cite a single modern patristic scholar to back up his case (and at this point I doubt seriously that he has the requisite intelligence that would indicate to him that he would or should need to do this), and the only thing going for his take on Irenaeus was the fact that it fits into his particular agenda rather comfortably. He is a researcher of the worst sort-a proof text molester-and it has been my pleasure to send him packing.

But back to more general themes, held by people of a more sane disposition, the following can be said. First, as regards those who wish to explain away what Irenaeus says on this issue, and try to make it sound as though Irenaeus in fact actually taught Jesus to have been thirty three when he died, it can be claimed with certainty that the evidence strongly leans against this notion. At both the explicit and implicit levels, all the evidence seems unavoidable that Irenaeus indeed did believe that Jesus was in his mid to upper forties when he died. If it is the case that Irenaeus believed otherwise, we can honestly claim that there is no evidence in his extant writings that this is so.

But I think the most important issue here is the validity of "tradition" in general. As at one end of the spectrum we have those who wish to (for the sake of "salvaging tradition") act as though Irenaeus presents no problem whatever here, there are those at the other end who like to use this as a prooftext which, presumably, invalidates all claims to the authoritative value of "tradition" whatever. And whereas the former read the text until they get what they want out of it (i.e., "proof" that Irenaeus didn't really mean what is perfectly clear in his writings), the anti-traditionalists can be charged with reading the text "too lightly". This was, in fact, a large part of Bud's error. As argued above, there is no evidence whatever that Irenaeus was actually giving testimony to an actual and explicit Church tradition; rather, it seems he was using the data of tradition and subverting it to a theological motif for polemical purposes contra heretics. In other words, tradition itself is absolutely unscathed by Irenaeus claims here; rather, what we have is evidence of Irenaeus himself making a few marginal wrong turns in his attempt to "connect the dots". And as there is no evidence of anyone either before or after Irenaeus claiming the same as regards the age of Christ, there is no warrant whatever for calling this a "tradition" in any sense.

The conclusions we must draw are, on the contrary, rather more nuanced. Just as with any other issue, "tradition" and "traditions" are something that must be subjected to analysis and approached within and according to context, among other factors. Passages from the fathers, or any author for that matter, must be subjected to careful interpretation, and the particular passage must be viewed in light of the work as a whole, the literary, theological, cultural, and historical context of the author, and then compared with other writings both chronologically before and after the author, and the reader should have his own conclusions conditioned by the works of experts in the field. Hence, if anything, it is my hope that this brief analysis will serve as an impetus of sorts, awakening people to the fact that a study of the fathers requires more than a text, a set of philosophical a prioris, an agenda, and a KJV-onlyist mentality. We should approach the fathers as N. T. Wright approaches Paul. We may not like all of the conclusions that we come to (to wit, it doesn't exactly fill me with joy that I'm forced to conclude that Irenaeus-one of my favorite theologians-was so very wrong on this issue), but they will no doubt be less far-fetched, and more coherent, than if we were content to be naοve. In other words, if we aren't in some sense "shaken" by our analysis, we've probably failed; so often, exegetical rigor means discovery.

Of Bud and those of his ilk, this can be said. Not all skeptics are alike. Of course, this rule can be applied to any group of people, but for present purposes, I wish to apply it to the world of skeptics. The most honorable and dignified skeptics are, without doubt, those such as Nikos Kazantzakis, Albert Camus or J. L. Schellenberg. The reason I say this is simply due to the fact that such as these take no especially great joy in the fact that they don't believe in a god; they sense a seemingly other-worldly beauty pervading life from all sides, and yet at the same time the seeming absurdity of certain facts seizes their attention with an unyielding grasp. He thinks it unlikely that such a world as this, for whatever reason, indicates that there is a god; on the contrary, he believes it rather likely that certain indisputable facts (pain, evil, or whatever) point strongly in the other direction. But the point is this: such people are endowed with a certain ability to perceive, and it is this capacity for perception that seems to radiate throughout their thoughts-however flawed they no doubt are-and lives. It is for this reason that a staunch Christian, such as myself, can have a certain respect and admiration for them. They argue against us, they doubt, they disbelieve; yet this is always done with a marked connection to the spiritual reality and vitality which permeates life, leaving them in a situation where, though they may not acknowledge the ground, there at least can be no doubt that they are well enough aware of gravity. A certain openness accompanies them, and hence they rarely, if ever, make ridiculous or obnoxious claims. You won't find such a one rolling in tortured logic like a pig rolls in mud; you won't hear him spout out obnoxious claims and then cling to an extremely muddled set of a prioris for dear life; you won't find him using data as though his mind were a black hole, capable only of drawing into itself that which can be transformed into its own blackness. You won't find these things because such a person has outgrown the immaturity of intellectual youth. The angst and accompanying childishness of the teenager has been left behind, and the face of the earth is to be embraced; and though he may think it unlikely that there is a sun behind the clouds, at the very least we can congratulate him on not walking away from the horizon.

And then, on the other hand, there are skeptics such as Ferry-Berry Go-Go Till, and the inspiration of the present essay, Bud. I make it a point to ignore such as these, for the simple reason that I know their arguments to be worthless. They don't deserve to be dignified with a response-the fact that they don't realize that their statements failed to constitute a point isn't my problem. They don't deserve to be spoken to-they lack sincerity and quite often they are in severe need of the requisite intelligence necessary to "digest" an answer that actually does answer the question they pose. Speaking broadly, their dialectical prowess-if we are to dignify their thought life with such a term-seems to be this: a rigorous, unflexible, and continuously flawed logic, wedded to an egomaniacal love of debate, advanced stubbornly with the force of a train, and incapable of functioning in more than one intellectual dimension. They are very much at home arguing with a kjv-onlyist, but if the issue is treated in as nuanced a fashion as the investigation of the subject requires, their incompetence becomes manifest at once. The result is, usually, that the believer is accused of "avoiding the issue", or some such. And this is due, no doubt, not to the believers inability to answer the question, but to the skeptics' not being intelligent enough to "get" the answer. They ask you whether or not a god exists-you give them a copy of Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God or Mark Wynn's God and Goodness, and they are confused by what they read. If they manage to take in any of it at all, this no doubt comes at the high-price of missing the point entirely so that the argument could be reduced to the terms within which they are comfortable operating. A consistent and rigorous application of logic brings their minds to a halt at once: something has gone wrong, and this is, they assume, no doubt due to their opponents' incompetence. (Such a modus operandi should also be familiar to those who argue for the Trinity against Unitarians who are convinced that they are being eminently "reasonable"). They leave the argument with a feeling of triumph. No thought that was offered that was able to convince them of their wrongness. Much the same, you can't use a brick wall for a dart-board; the wall lacks the necessary capacity to receive. Whether skeptic or heretic, it can be claimed with dogmatic certitude that the pillar and bulwark of the mentality which gives birth to such a hermeneutic is indeed a stupidity that operates as though a force of intellectual gravity.

Happy day, skepticbud.

Ed. note: Commentators on John explain the core verse behind this, John 8:57, in a couple of ways. D. A. Carson says that this was just a round number. Another interesting theory suggests that Jesus looked older than he was due to the extreme pressures he faced in his ministry. Either way Bud's treatment of Irenaeus is notably shabby.


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