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.

11 Replies to “The Absence of Jesus in Discussions of Conversion in a Few Second-Century Writings”

  1. Very interesting.

    I also find interesting the absence of the resurrection in modern Christians’ discussions of salvation, considering that the New Testament never says we are “saved” by Jesus’s death, but that we are saved by His resurrection.

    It’s amazing, the power of Christian tradition to ignore Scriptural teaching, both in the 2nd century and the 21st century but in different ways.

  2. I agree that the resurrection is absent in much of the modern popular conversation about salvation (the more I think about it the more it becomes apparent). I’m not sure about your second statement, though. Assuming that by “Scriptural teaching” you are referring to the NT (and OT), then no, we can’t say that “Christian tradition” in the second century “ignored Scriptural teaching,” because this did not exist.

    1. What did not exist? The New Testament didn’t exist in the 2nd century? (I’m asking about the writings, not the canon as such.) I was referring more specifically to the letters of Paul, which clearly connect salvation with Jesus’s death and resurrection. His letters didn’t exist in the 2nd century?

      1. Clearly Paul’s letters existed in the second century. But it did not seem that you were referring to the mere existence of documents that make up what we now consider NT texts or even the Pauline collection. For your statement to have any bite, you must be assuming there to be some authority behind Paul’s letters, which demands some type of organization and recognition of his “approved” letters. But Paul’s letters only become more broadly accepted as “Scriptural teaching” after the second century. Paul was not considered to be an ally by every Christian group in the second century (cf. Acts of John 113)––or in the first century for that matter (cf. James, Matthew). And even if Paul is accepted by certain Christian groups, which “Paul” is the accepted Paul (e.g., the Ignatian Paul, the Valentinian Paul, the Marcionite Paul, the Epistula Apostolorum Paul, the Acts of Paul/Paul and Thecla Paul, the Acts of Peter Paul, etc.)? Each of these sources represents a unique Pauline tradition and is one among many features that illuminates the diversity of Christianity during this time. It is difficult––if not impossible––to say, then, that there was a singular Pauline teaching in the second century that would have functioned as the paradigm for Christian identity. Thus, when I say that there was nothing to ignore, I am referring to the NT canon as we have it today and even the Pauline collection as we have it today, which did not exist as an authoritative collection in the second century.

        1. I WAS assuming there to be some authority behind Paul’s letters. I guess I was thinking from a sort of proto-orthodox perspective and forgot about all the Christians who didn’t know Paul’s letters in today’s canon. My bad. I guess they would have to know about the teaching to ignore it….

        2. I would think we know that Paul’s letters did carry some authority since the late first century and early second century work, 2 Peter, referred to them as carrying the authority of the Tanakh.

          Also, though this is not universally held (though as I far as know at least Dr. Goodacre has defended this), the Gospel of Thomas (A.D. 150?) is written with at least the Synoptic Gospels in mind and in a reaction to them. The Protoevangelium of James also was written with Matthew in mind. It seems that what we would consider canon did possess authority at least in some communities by the second century – albeit not recognized as a canon.

        3. I read your post quickly, but – upon reading it again – I understand what you’re saying. Some of the Pauline writings you mention may well be memories of the historical Paul. But, of course, the historical Paul is of little importance when compared to the remembered Paul in these communities. That said, the writings you list are all based in reaction to, presumably, the core Pauline works accepted by many. Even if they rejected them, the fact they rejected them indicates a wider acceptance of authority.

          As to your general point, however, I agree that there was a great deal of flexibility – even regarding what we would call the O.T. (1,2,3 Enoch, 4 Ezra, etc.).

          It would seem to me that second century Christians wanted to reach a wide Gentile audience. I mean, if these writings are designed to convert or maintain the retension of Gentiles by claiming Christianity as the “true philosophy,” then possibly these writers were uncomfortable with presenting the more “mythological” or “fantastic” elements their audiences would scorn. Not that the authors did not believe in the Resurrection, but that opening that can of proverbial worms would unnecessarily drive them away. Reading through Theophilus of Antioch for the first time, anyways, (and I enjoyed it) it seemed like he was trying to keep things relatively “philosophical” and being quite selective – like Josephus.

          Not unlike how missionary work is approached today. I’m thinking of that book Christ The Eternal Tao .

          Of course, on the other hand, St. Clement of Alexandria promoted Christianity very much as the “true gnosis,” and yet as far as I have read there were some very Jewish elements to his work.

  3. Petrarch, (I get tired of the tapered field so I started a new one),

    I have thought about the idea that these writers simply chose not to mention certain things about Jesus’ ministry and death or his resurrection because it might be off-putting or “fantastic”, as you put it. And while I do recognize that we can’t extrapolate the full scope of a community’s beliefs from a single document (especially ones that are focused on a specific agenda), I can’t help but think that the topic of conversion is an exception to this line of reason. Gaining membership into a community means that the convert knows about and adheres to the important and critical identity markers of the community, especially those that distinguish them from others. So, if the belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is indeed mocked or frowned upon by others, I do not think that these authors would shy away from it, but rather seek more vehemently to self-identify against the other. Such self-identification would also be demanded of the convert. Thus, to me the absence of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the conversion portions of these documents implies that Jesus’ death and resurrection did not constitute the identity markers of these communities. I don’t think it necessarily follows that these communities rejected these tenets but rather that these weren’t the crucial ones on the list of things for converts to adhere to. Your thoughts?

    I enjoyed Theophilus as well. Was there anything particular that stood out to you about his apologetic?

  4. I’m not sure that this selection of texts really demonstrates that it was at all common for Jesus’ death and resurrection to be left out of an understanding of conversion.

    First, Theophilus is explicitly not giving the complete account of Christian belief (3.15, 3.30). He deals chiefly with creation and the antiquity and accuracy of the Hebrew Scriptures, along with the typical Apologetical attacks on the morality of the Greek gods and refutation of accusations that Christians practice immorality. So, his limited purposes and topics give no reason to conclude anything one way or the other about what doctrine he held regarding conversion or Christ.

    Second, the Didache is chiefly a handbook a handbook of morality and church procedure, so there’s no reason to expect it to give the basic doctrines or account of conversion.

    Third, the Didache brings up the point about the circulation of these texts. There is only one surviving MS of the Didache–so how firm a basis does it really give for considering its views to be common anyway? Likewise with the other texts. But the letters of Paul and the four Gospels had a very wide circulation and use fairly early (cf. the Muratorian canon & Irenaeus’ comments within the 2nd century). So, even in communities where, say, the Acts of John were read, one or more of the canonical Gospels would most likely have been known, and possibly some of the canonical letters of Paul. Thus, one document is not the basis for any Christian community’s entire doctrine.

  5. Again, “Octavius” is explicitly incomplete, as the new convert Caecilius (Ch. 40) says:

    “Yet even still some things remain in my mind, not as resisting the truth, but as necessary to a perfect training of which on the morrow, as the sun is already sloping to his setting, we shall inquire at length in a more fitting and ready manner.”

    Its structure is also determined by Caecilius’ objections, which Octavius then systematically refutes, so it is not given as an independent presentation of Christian doctrine per se, but as an ad hoc (in a good way) response to specific objections.

    1. Thanks for this. As far as a general response, I have not argued that any of these texts present the full discloser of its community’s beliefs. So I agree with your statement that “Theophilus is explicitly not giving the complete account of Christian belief.”

      I disagree with you assertion, however, that because conversion is not a dominant theme in Theophilus’ volumes that we cannot know his thoughts on conversion or Christ. Concerning the latter, Justin’s apologies speak against the same scurrilous claims (Christian immorality, Greek Gods, etc.), but in his works, Jesus is mentioned everywhere. Thus, the topics set before Theophilus do not in anyway determine how much he is to speak about Jesus. Concerning conversion, In 2.27 Theophilus is speaking about God creating humanity capable of attaining mortality or immortality. Theophilus is explicit about how to attain these––by disobedience or obedience, respectively. For Theophilus then, the natural human “turns” (ῥέπω) to a life of immortality through obedience and Jesus plays no role in this turning. If Jesus does play a role in conversion in Theophilus’ mind, then this is a glaring omission on his part. It would be like Campus Crusade believing that there are four spiritual laws (as they do) but omitting laws three and four (which are about Jesus) in their publications and inserting a law about obedience to God’s commands. It is precisely because they believe Jesus is a vital component for attaining eternal life that they include Jesus in two of the four laws. It seems to me, then, that if there is a statement about how one is to attain immorality, it is quite natural––and even warranted––to assume that that statement is a complete representation of what it “takes” to attain it. If the author omits Jesus and believes that Jesus is a vital component of conversion (as you are proposing), then the author is completely misleading.

      In addition to the Didache being a handbook on morality and church order, it is interpreted by many to be a catechism (chs. 1–8 at least): the Two Ways representing the commandments the catechumen are to abide by, the baptism representing the ritual conversion, and the Eucharist representing the first celebratory feast of the new initiates. That the conversion at baptism takes place after a lengthy recounting of regulations and that there is no mention of Jesus’ cross or resurrection is significant. It is possible that the recognition of Jesus’ death and resurrection were vital components of conversion in the Didache community, but if they were, it is certainly odd that these elements are absent in the catechism.

      As far as your argument that Paul’s letters and the canonical gospels we known by the communities of the texts in question, I agree that some (many?) would have been known. But that does not mean that the communities behind the texts in question agreed with Paul’s letters or the canonical gospels (or that they shared an interpretation of these texts that would later be considered “orthodox”). The Acts of John is a case in point. Portions of this text reveal a polemic against the canonical Acts (it is John who is blinded, not Paul; it is John who is a minister to the Gentiles, not Paul; it is John is is the dominate apostolic figure in Ephesus, not Paul; etc.). Thus, just because a given community might know about canonical writings does not mean that they ascribe to the teachings therein.

      Concerning Minucius Felix, by the end of the apology Caecilius is a convert. If he has other questions regarding Christian training that might invoke an answer that revolves around a theology of Jesus, it is nevertheless after his conversion. While it is true that Octavius only responds to Caecilius’ objections to Christianity, Octavius nevertheless has a prime opportunity to insert a “gospel message” about Jesus and the cross into his response (ch. 29) but he fails to do so. Thus, I still believe that the evidence as we have it suggests that Jesus’ cross was not perceived as an instrument of salvation but rather as a sign that coincides with nature.

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