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.