The Absence of Jesus in Discussions of Conversion in a Few Second-Century Writings

While it is difficult for us today to think of salvation in terms that exclude Jesus’ life, death, or resurrection, there appears to have been some Christian groups that understood God’s plan of salvation apart from these events of Jesus’ earthly existence. In what follows I want to look at three second-century texts that speak of conversion without mentioning Jesus’ life, death, or resurrection.

Theophilus to Autolycus

Theophilus was a second century bishop of Syria Antioch and an apologist. According to Jerome, his three volume apologetic was “well fitted for the edification of the
church” (Lives, 25, 347–419). At the beginning of the three volumes, Theophilus self identifies as a Christian: “And furthermore, you call me a Christian as if I were bearing an
evil name, I acknowledge that I am a Christian. I bear this name beloved by God in hope of being useful to God” (1.1). Theophilus never mentions the name or the person of Jesus in his three volumes. Nevertheless, he does speak about how God saves people: “For God gave us a law and holy commandments; everyone who performs them can be saved and, attaining to the resurrection, can inherit imperishability (2.27).” There is a hope of resurrection but no discussion about Jesus or his resurrection. Turning to a life of
immortality is not by knowing about Jesus but by “keeping the commandments of God” (2.27). God’s Logos does appear in the three volumes but is not identified with the person of Jesus. Rather, the Logos is innate within the “bowels” of God, who generates (γεννάω)
the Logos with the help of Sophia (2.10). The Logos was generated for the purpose of creating all things and enlightened the prophets about the creation and Torah (2.10; 3.11). Although the Logos is the divine mediator, speaking and acting on behalf of God (2.22),
the Logos’ role in salvation is to reveal God’s commands to the prophets, who in turn reveal them to all humanity (3.11). Again, obedience to these divine commands, not the work or knowledge of Jesus, is the means of salvation (2.27).

Minucius Felix

In another apologetic text, we encounter a debate between a (uneducated) Christian (Caecilius) and a Philosopher (Octavius), where Jesus is mentioned only a couple of times. This first mention of Jesus is in Octavius’ attack on Christians for following a criminal who was crucified: “There are also stories about the objects of their veneration: they are said to be a man who was punished with death as a criminal and the fell wood of his cross, thus providing suitable liturgy for the depraved fiends: they [Christians] worship what they deserve” (9.4). Caecilius’ response to Octavius’ charge reflects the second mention of Jesus: “Now, you ascribe to our religion a criminal and his cross. You are not even remotely correct in supposing that either a criminal could have merited or an earthly creature been able to be though a god” (29.2). He goes on to argue by analogy that it is not unreasonable that Christian recognize the human Jesus as a god because human
“emperors and kings” are upheld as great men and gods. Although Caecilius does not consider emperors and kings to be gods, it nevertheless defends the Christian belief that Jesus is to be venerated as a God. In his defense against Jesus being a criminal, Caecilius argues that the cross is not a symbol of indictment against Jesus because the cross is a symbol of nature and natural order: “…[T]he sign of the cross is fundamental to the order of nature [and] that it forms the framework of your [Octavius] own religion” (29.8). Thus, the conversation about Jesus in Minucius Felix is in relation to the cross, but there is no attempt on the part of Caecilius to present Jesus and the cross as points of salvation for humanity. It might then be surprising that Octavius becomes a Christian after he listens to Caecilius’ lengthy defense of Christianity. In his final words of approbation, Octavius says, “We have both won in a sense: it may sound outrageous, but I claim victory too, for while Octavius is victorious over me, I am triumphant over error” (40.1). Conversion, then, is not recognizing the actual work of Jesus on the cross but realizing that Jesus is not a criminal and that it is completely reasonable for Christians to worship the man Jesus as a god. But, this is just an isolated examples within a larger debate about a defense against anti-Christian accusations concern praxis and ritual. Overall, Octavius is converted from error because Caecilius proved to be the better philosopher––Jesus and the cross are simply one small part of that philosophical defense.

Acts of John

In the Acts of John (AJ), the apostle John travels around Asia Minor healing the afflicted and performing miraculous acts (cc. 18–86; I am excluding from this discussion John’s gospel message [cc. 87–105] and the Metastasis of John [cc. 106–115], because these accounts are significantly different than cc. 18–86). It is through healing and miracles that conversion takes place and conversion is either spoken of in terms of resurrection imagery or is the result of resurrection. Thus, the repeated trope is basically, God/Jesus (they are indistinguishable in the AJ) is a healer and physician who heals/raises the lost who are afflicted so that they might become believers in the one true God. It is remarkable, then, in light of all this language and imagery of suffering and resurrection, that Jesus’ suffering and
resurrection is never mentioned. Furthermore, conversion does not take place because the lost person believes in Jesus’ ministry, death, or resurrection, but rather because the person accepts that it is the one true God/Jesus who heals/raises from the dead. (This is not a eschatological bodily resurrection. Rather, in the AJ, at death a soul is either translated directly to God or is eternally damned––the flesh is merely a substance that disintegrates into nothing.)

The Didache and The Apology of Aristides are two other texts (that I can think of) where Jesus ministry and death is surprisingly absent when it comes to discussions about conversion. It seems, then, that it was not too uncommon for some Christian groups in the second century to not view Jesus earthly ministry, death and resurrection as salvifically significant. For me, this is perhaps one of the most striking and unexpected points of diversity within second-century Christianity.

Attempts to Harmonize Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity

Personifications of Church and Synagogue at the Strasbourg Cathedral, depicting the triumph of Christianity over Judaism

Typically, when I think about the relationship between early Christianity and Judaism, I picture binary opponents. That is, there are two extreme positions, each one deeming the other a heresy and, thus, self-identifying in relation to their extreme counterpart. More specifically, I picture Christians who viewed Judaism as antiquated, erroneous, or simply insufficient. On the other side, I picture non-Christian Jews viewing the Jesus movement as a heretical and defunct sect of Judaism, erroneously attesting to have certain ties to Judaism. Within this latter group I would also place Jewish Christians who would view Jesus and the movement associated with him as completely harmonious with Judaism and any Christian suggesting otherwise demonstrates in their beliefs that they are, in fact, not followers of the God of Judaism, and thus, not followers of Jesus.

This default picture of extreme parties having it out against their mirror opposites is a product of the common view that the NT authors represent such binary conflict. While I do not doubt that James and Matthew would have liked to punch Paul in the face (and vica versa), there seems to be evidence that there were “bipartisan” groups, who viewed the extremist’s as valid in their own way.

Finding this voice of a middle group is not always easy, for it is buried beneath the voice of its louder opponents. Nevertheless, it seems that we first hear of such a mediating view from Barnabas (late first–early second c.).

For Barnabas, the Jews never obtained the covenant. Just when they were about to receive it, they permanently lost it when Moses smashed the stone tablets on the ground. From that point on, according to Barnabas, the covenant was established for the Christians (4.6–8). “Christian” for Barnabas is strictly of a non-Jewish persuasion. In fact, to believe otherwise––that is, to believe that the Jews qua Jews also receive the covenant––is sinful. He writes:

Watch yourselves now and do not become like some people by piling up your sins, saying that the covenant is both theirs [Jews] and ours [Gentiles]. (4.6)

This statement reveals to us that there was a group of believers––whether of Jewish or Gentile origin––who believe that the Jesus movement is not an either/or but (perhaps) a both/and. In other words, there are some who do not see Jesus as a divisive line between Jews and Gentiles, but rather, Jesus was a mediator of a shared covenant.

This mediating position emerges again later in the second century in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho. In the middle of Justin’s defense of the virgin birth, Trypho retorts:

Let you who are of Gentile origin…who are all named Christians after Christ, profess him to be Lord and Christ and God, as the Scriptures signify. But we Jews, who adore the God who made him, are not obliged to confess or worship him. (64.1)

Despite Justin’s excoriating response to Trypho’s inability to understand his argument, Justin is fairly “flexible” in what he views as acceptable conduct for Jewish converts to Christianity. For instance, when Trypho asks whether a Jew who confesses Jesus to be the Messiah and yet continues to observe the Mosaic Law, would still be saved, Justin responds:

In my opinion…I say such a man will be saved, unless he exerts every effort to influence other men [Gentiles]…to practice the same rites as himself, informing them that they cannot be saved unless they do so. (47.1)

Justin then speaks of “some Christians who boldly refuse to have conversation or meals with such persons [Jewish-Christian law observers]” (47.2); thus, showing that there was diversity in Gentile Christianity about the validity of Law observance for Jewish Christians. For Gentile Christians who observe the Mosaic Law, Justin is uncertain of their final outcome. For these, he can only say that they “will probably be saved” (v. 3). Finally, Justin states what he assumes to be the correct (“orthodox”) belief of the time, that Jews or Gentiles who only practice Jewish Law and deny Jesus, forfeit salvation (v. 4). There is no uncertainty in Justin’s tone here. Justin’s uncompromising tone (and the fact that he brings the issue up at all) suggests that there were Jews and/or Gentiles who argued that the “covenant is both theirs and ours” (Barn 4.6). In other words, it seems that Justin is reacting against a group who believes that Jesus is good for the Gentiles, Moses is good for the Jews, and both are from God; thus, both are acceptable.

At the beginning of the fourth century we find a text that stands between the extremes. The author/editor of the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions appears to be a Jewish Christian and sees no conflict between Jesus and the Torah or Moses. He writes:

If anyone has been thought worthy to recognize by himself both [i.e., Moses and Jesus] as preaching one doctrine, that one has been counted rich in God, understanding both the old things as new in time and the new things as old. (Hom. 8.7; cf. Rec. 4.5)

From this selection, the author/editor is similar to Matthew, in that Jesus is the like Moses and speaks and teaches in harmony with Moses. However, in the Recognitions we find a flexibility that we do not see in Matthew. In Matthew, those who reject Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah will be damned at judgment. In the Recognitions we read:

By which it is certainly declared, that the people of the Hebrews, who were instructed out of the law, did not know him [Jesus]; but the people of the Gentiles have acknowledged Jesus, and venerate him; on which account also they shall be saved, not only acknowledging him, but also doing his will. But he who is of the Gentiles, and who has it of God to believe Moses, ought also to have it of his own purpose to love Jesus. And again, the Hebrew, who has it of God to believe Moses, ought to have it also of his own purpose to believe in Jesus; so that each of them having in himself something of the divine gift, and something of his own exertion, may be perfect by both. (Rec. 5.5)

For the author/editor of the Recognitions, each group “ought” to recognize the validity of the other, but it is not commanded. It would seem that, for this author, the Gentiles are in good standing if they do not acknowledge Moses and the Law and the Jews are in good standing if they do not acknowledge Jesus. Perfection, though, is attained when the extreme parties acknowledge the beliefs and traditions of the other as acceptable before God.

I can only imagine that this group found itself getting beat over the head by both extremes (similar to the way bipartisan candidates today receive criticism from both Republican and Democrats). In the end, the extreme groups are often the loudest and most prolific in writing; thus, we find ourselves inundated with literature from the extreme parties. Perhaps, though, the best way to see the legitimacy of the work of God is through the eyes of the author/editor of the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions, who views the extreme factions as factions and perfection is attained when these factions cease and harmony among God’s people is realized.

The Patristics and Lost Texts concerning the Descent of Christ

descent_of_christ_to_limbo_wga I was reading up on the interpretation of the “spirits in prison” passage in 1Peter 3:19-20 in John H. Elliott’s Anchor Bible Commentary when I realized that one of the primary interpretations held by the church fathers seemed to have been partially rooted in an extant OT textual tradition.  As Elliott references a few texts from the fathers (particularly Irenaeus and Justin Martyr) to identify their interpretive tradition, he observes that in their addressing of the descent of Christ, they do not openly refer to or quote 1 Peter 3:19-20, but to a textual tradition seemingly shared by early fathers that is no longer attested to by any biblical manuscripts we have recovered thus far.

The view spoken of as espoused by these early fathers (as 1 Peter 3:19-20 has frequently been interpreted, even among later reformers such as Calvin) is as follows: when Christ descended (πορευθεὶς – having gone) to the realm of the dead upon His death before His resurrection, He in the spirit proclaimed good news to the righteous who perished before the flood (and in some cases all those faithful to God before Christ came) whose souls were imprisoned there to deliver them (most likely in conjunction with 4:6).

Oddly enough, though it may be in mind, this specific passage is not sited in defense of this view which some of the apostolic fathers clearly espoused but is supported by an unknown text attributed to Jeremiah (and also once to Isaiah by Irenaeus [Against Heresies 3.20.4]), referred to often by scholars as the “Jeremiah Logion”.  We find this supposed lost textual tradition cited in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 72.  In context, Justin charges his Jewish interlocutor’s teachers with a most sweepingly general accusation that they have removed from the true scriptures, which Justin argues the LXX rightly represents or interprets.  Trypho then asks for an exmaple of these alleged texts that have been removed by his Jewsih kinsmen who militantly appose the Christian faith.  Justin gives two examples: one he says from Esdras and the other from Jeremiah.  The supposed Jeremiah fragment is at the heart of our discussion.  He says it read as follows:

The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation.”  –  Dial. 72

Interestingly enough, we see the same kind of quotation by Irenaeus in his Against Heresies in multiple locations at important theological intersects (3.20.4; 4.22.1; 4.33.1; 4.33.12; and 5.31.1).  This supposed extant OT textual tradition seems to be a theological butress to Irenaeus’ understanding of the descent of Christ.  In the very places you would expect him to default a quotation of 1 Peter 3:19-20, he does not, and instead supplies us with the same extant quotation.  The citation is recorded in minor formulaic variations as follows:

And the holy Lord  remembered His dead Israel, who had slept in the land of sepulcher; and He came down to preach His salvation to them, that He might save them.”  –  Her. 3.20.4 (here Irenaeus claims this passage is from Isaiah)

“And the holy Lord  remembered His dead Israel, who had slept in the land of sepulcher; and He descended to them to make known to them His salvation, that they might be saved.”  –  Her. 4.22.1 (here Irenaeus claims the passage is from Jeremiah, in congruence with the claim by Justin Martyr)

The holy Lord remembered His own dead ones who slept in the dust, and came down to them to raise them up, that He might save them.”  –  Her. 5.31.1 (here Irenaeus states that “others”, in context speaking of the prophets, have said this, indicating he may of thought both prophets had recorded this sentence in its most rudimentary form)

It seems unlikely for the fathers to invent similiar passages to build a theology upon, especially as they are in context being used apologetically.  Due to its frequent citation, its apolegetic usage, and its proposed deletion from manuscripts due to Jewish removal, this leaves us with the strong possiblity of the previous existence of an extant LXX tradition that provides seemingly adequate support for a possible view regarding the descent of Christ.

Clement of Rome and the Unity of the Chosen of God

Clement of RomeWhen reading the Apostolic Fathers such as 1 Clement as a biblical studies student, my first knee jerk reaction is to read it with the excessively critical lenses of one who is searching for theological trajectories that can be traced from the scriptures to these deuterocanonical texts and do comparative work in order to be able to say something about the authorial conception of God.  Last night, to my own amazement I must admit, I did not read the text in this way.  I just layed back comfortably in my bed, tired from a long day, and said “hey, why not read some 1 Clement (if you are thinking random, I know)?”

Surprisingly enough I was encouraged and lifted up at the choice words of one of our fathers in the faith.  After reading the opening of the letter, presumably written to the Corinthian church from the church in Rome, I was struck with its overwhelming focus: a plea for the unity of the people of God and the warning against the sin that would separate us from each other and from the Lord.  Scripture was coming to mind as I was struck by these words of the first verse:

Because of the sudden and repeated misfortunes and reverses that have happened to us, brothers, we acknowledge that we have been somewhat slow in giving attention to the matters in dispute among you, dear friends, especially the detestable and unholy schism, so alien and strange to those chosen by God, which a few reckless and arrogant persons have kindled to such a pitch of insanity that your good name, once so renowned and loved by all, has been greatly reviled.

Many churches in the baptist tradition have been through splits or schisms in recent times; I having personally experienced this in the beginning of my ministry to students.  When I read this I began to hurt with the realization that we have lost a strong view of the unity and the sanctity of the people of God.  The last time we have heard of a split did we see it as detestable?  Did we see it as unholy?  Has splits in churches become so common that it is no longer realized as strange?  Has it become something indigenous to the church and no longer foreign?  Have we been so conditioned that we have never seen it as strange or foreign?

When Clement states why the schism has occurred in Corinth, it begins to hit a little to close to home.  It began with “reckless and arrogant persons“.  This seems always to be the case.  Time and time again this line rings true.  Men who are reckless: theologically, relationally, administratively, etc.  Arrogant men who are puffed up and full of their own knowledge, which is for the benefit of others, as it swells and makes heavy the head of the unwise man.  He raises himself high and exalts himself over his peers.  His cancerous banter is an excretion of prideful lewdness that one might call “a pitch of insanity”. The all-to-familiar sound rings true of a great many men today who have forgotten the humility of Christ and the gospel they once believed.

Something else in this text rattles our ecclesiological cages.  Notice the way Clement recognizes the previous state of the church: “…your good name, once so renowned and loved by all…”  Did our churches ever have a good name?  Were we ever loved by all?  Did our love and unity become apparent to the community around us?  Have we served our community in such a way that word has spread of our good name and we could actually be recognized as renowned?  Have our lives been such where it spawns a great love for our people from among all our community?  Lord help us.  May they see and hear our gospel from our deeds.  May we gain a name and community that when reckless and arrogant men cause a schism, people could say that our name would have to change to be reviled.  May we then amongst our busy and trying schedules be bold enough to address it publically and seek reconciliation and faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who is the head of a body to be unified and holy; to be recognized among the peoples of the earth as the Chosen of God.