Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Irenaeus and the Reliability of "Early" Oral Tradition
06/03/2009 - Tur8infanPeople sometimes like to think that if you go back to the earliest fathers you'll get very good accounts of extra-scriptural tradition. There is a certain amount of intuition to back this up. After all, the earliest fathers were closer in time to the gospel accounts than we are.
Intuition is wrong - at least to some extent. One reason it is wrong is that we look at the fathers with a foreshortened perspective. If you've ever looked at a mountain range from a distance and then driven up to it, you know what I'm talking about. From far enough away the mountain range looks like the serrated edge of a knife. From up close, you see that some of the mountains are miles closer or further from you. You also see the same effect when photographers take in urban scenes using a telephoto lens. Things blocks apart can look practically adjacent.
Even so it is with the "Early Church Fathers." Most of the early church fathers are not just decades but centuries removed from the apostles. Even those in the second century were about as far or farther removed (in practical terms) from the gospel accounts than you are from Abraham Lincoln.
Consequently, even as early as the second century there were a number of wildly erroneous traditions trying to take hold with greater or lesser success. Thus, for example, we see Irenaeus (lived and died in the 2nd Century) who declares that Jesus lived to be 50 years old, which today is rejected virtually unanimously.
Of course, Irenaeus also provides testimony that those who are of the Church of Rome today find helpful to their case (they don't much care about the 50 years old claim, but they like some of the other traditions he alleges). Thus, you can see folks like Art Sippo (on the newly re-opened "Speak Your Mind" forum), an apologist who is part of the "Catholic Legate" group making the following claim to try to revitalize Irenaeus:
Jesus was likely 30 or so when he started his ministry. That is close to 50 since the life expectancy of most men at that time was ~45. That age represented a man in his so-called "declining years" since it was all down hill from 30 onwards.(source).
St. Irenaeus was postulating that Jesus as the New Adam had lived out in his body all the ages of man from infancy to adolescence to young manhood to seniority. This recapitulation theory was never picked by other theologians and is of no real importance than as an historical curiosity. The only relevant thing about it is that it emphasizes that Jesus was truly human and not just a phantom.
One wonders whether this is simple ignorance on Sippo's part or a disregard for the truth in the form of a lie to try to support mother Rome. Surely Sippo is aware that Irenaeus doesn't equate 30 and 50, in fact, he specifically distinguishes them:
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, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information.(Against Heresies, 2:22:5)
But, besides this, those very Jews who then disputed with the Lord Jesus Christ have most clearly indicated the same thing. For when the Lord said to them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad,” they answered Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, “Thou art not yet forty years old.” For those who wished to convict Him of falsehood would certainly not extend the number of His years far beyond the age which they saw He had attained; but they mentioned a period near His real age, whether they had truly ascertained this out of the entry in the public register, or simply made a conjecture from what they observed that He was above forty years old, and that He certainly was not one of only thirty years of age. For it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that they were mistaken by twenty years, when they wished to prove Him younger than the times of Abraham. For what they saw, that they also expressed; and He whom they beheld was not a mere phantasm, but an actual being of flesh and blood. He did not then want much of being fifty years old; and, in accordance with that fact, they said to Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” He did not therefore preach only for one year, nor did He suffer in the twelfth month of the year.(Against Heresies, 2:22:6)
No, Irenaeus didn't mean that Jesus was thirty which is basically the same thing as fifty - quite to the contrary he made a big fuss over the fact that Jesus had a long ministry of closer to 20 years than 1 year. Sippo's comment about Jesus being flesh and blood rather than a phantasm suggests that Sippo is not ignorant of the context of the quotation - which then would suggest a measure of dishonesty in suggesting that Irenaeus was simply equating 30 and 50.
Incidentally, in the same thread, another poster recommended an article by another apologist for Rome, Mark Bonocore (link). This article has long ago (January 2005) been rebutted (link to rebuttal), and I will not bog down this blog unnecessarily be repeating what has already been said in rebuttal.
The bottom line is that just because Irenaeus declares something to be tradition and is one of the earliest fathers (though not one of the apostolic fathers), it does not mean that Irenaeus got it right. Sometimes (as with Jesus' age) Irenaeus got it horribly wrong. There's another example we can point to as well:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops.(Against Heresies 3:3:2)
Yes, Irenaeus thought that the church of Rome was founded and organized by both Peter and Paul. In fact, however, we can know with assurance from Paul's epistle to the Romans that Paul did not found the church at Rome. So, again, Irenaeus - while undoubtedly sincere - was sincerely wrong about what the history of the even more recent event of the founding of the church(es) at Rome was.
That's why we need Scripture to be our rule of faith: not oral tradition (even if it was written down in the second century). Oral tradition is prone to error and Irenaeus is a prominent example of that problem. Scripture on the other hand is the inspired Word of God and has been providentially preserved for us down through the centuries so that we me read and believe it. Don't let the telephoto lens of phrases like "the early church" lead you to erroneous conclusions regarding their historical reliability.
Place your confidence without reservation in one worthy of your whole trust, in God the author of Scripture, not in Irenaeus the mistaken author of Against Heresies or in your church which likewise can err - either sincerely or in a self-serving way. The wise man built his house upon a rock, and you will do well to emulate his example.