2013-03-24

The Teachings of Apelles, Marcion’s Apostate

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by Roger Parvus

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This post continues from An Unusual Mix of Beliefs in the Letters of Ignatius Peregrinus

All posts so far in this series: Roger Parvus: Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius

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In my previous post I called attention to the assortment of unusual beliefs held by the author of the so-called Ignatian letters. That assortment and the description of his Judaizing and docetic opponents have convinced me that he was a follower of Apelles, and that the churches he addressed in his letters were Apellean.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with that little-known early Christian and his sect I will start by reviewing what the extant record says about them.

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Marcion’s Deserter

Apelles, the founder of the Apelleans, was at first a disciple of Marcion. If, as is thought, he was born early in the second century, he could have been Marcion’s disciple as early as the 120s, assuming Marcion was already actively proselytizing at that time. It is not known how long Apelles was associated with Marcion, but at some point he broke with him and adopted doctrinal positions that were at odds with those of his teacher. Tertullian says the break was sparked by Apelles’ rejection of Marcion’s rigorist teaching regarding celibacy:

Apelles . . . deserted Marcionite chastity and withdrew from the presence of his most holy master to Alexandria. Returning after some years, he was in no way improved except he was no longer a Marcionite. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 7).

Their differences went beyond the issue of celibacy, however, and the split was likely not an amicable one. Apelles abandoned Marcion’s dualism and returned to belief in one supreme God. He repudiated Marcion’s docetism, emphatically insisting on the real and non-phantasmal nature of Christ’s body. From Marcion’s canon he retained only the Apostolicon, replacing Marcion’s Gospel with one of his own. He did continue to view the Old Testament negatively, and in a way his position in regard to it is, as will be seen, even more negative than Marcion’s. But on the other hand, Origen concedes that Apelles

did not entirely deny that the Law and the Prophets were of God (Commentary on Titus).

In breaking with Marcion, Apelles adopted new beliefs that unquestionably moved him closer to doctrinal positions held by the proto-Catholics, but his new beliefs still differed from theirs in significant ways. No complete exposition of his teaching has survived. Tertullian wrote a treatise against the Apelleans but it is no longer extant. However, the early record does contain enough information to permit at least a partial reconstruction of what Apelles taught. Elements can be found in the following:

  • Tertullian’s On the Flesh of Christ, On the Prescription of Heretics, On the Soul, and an extant fragment of Against the Apelleans (Migne’s Patrologia Latina, 42, 30, n. 1)
  • Pseudo-Tertullian’s Against All Heresies
  • Hippolytus’ The Refutation of All Heresies
  • Origen’s Commentary on Titus and Against Celsus
  • Eusebius’ History of the Church
  • Epiphanius’ Panarion.

For my quotes from the Panarion I will use the translation by Frank Williams in his The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis. Quotes from the other sources are either my own translations or those of the Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Fathers down to A.D. 325.

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1. The Supreme God and the Creation of the Material World

Apelles returned to belief in one supreme God. This supreme God, the Father of Christ, was the creator of powers, angels, and men’s souls but was not the immediate creator of the world:

Apelles concocted some kind of glorious angel of the higher God as the creator. . . (On the Prescription of Heretics, 34).

The glorious angel’s intent in creating the world was to glorify the supreme God. He attempted to create the world on the model of the higher world but, unfortunately, he missed the mark. Thus in the Apellean system the world is

mingled with repentance because he (the glorious angel) had not made it so perfectly as that superior world had been originated (Against All Heresies, 6).

It should be noted that, in contrast to Marcion’s teaching, the Apellean world is not evil. It is only imperfect, “a world poorly made” (Panarion, 44, 5, 5).

Because of the poor quality of his work, the glorious angel was ashamed. Apelleans sometimes called him ‘the lost sheep’ (On the Flesh of Christ, 8).

But, ultimately, he asked the supreme God to send Christ into the world to save men. Why the supreme God waited to be asked before acting is unclear. Epiphanius says Apelles taught that nothing here in this world was of any concern to the supreme God (Panarion, 44,1,4), but that assessment may be proto-Catholic slant of what Apelles actually held.

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2. A Real-Flesh Jesus

Apelles’ teaching on the nature of Jesus’ body was also peculiar to himself. He held that the body of Jesus was a true human body and not just a semblance or phantasm. But strangely enough and however contradictory it may seem, Apelles also taught that it was not a body derived from Mary or any other human being:

He (Christ) has not appeared in semblance at his coming, but has really taken flesh; not from Mary the virgin, but he has real flesh and a body, though not from a man’s seed or a virgin woman. (Panarion, 44,2,2,)

Christ’s body, said Apelles, was one he made for himself out of elements he borrowed from the starry regions in the course of his descent to this world:

He (Christ) borrowed . . . his flesh from the stars, and from the substances of the higher world. (On the Flesh of Christ, 6)

And:

He did get real flesh, but in the following way. On his way from heaven he came to earth, says Apelles, and assembled his own body from the four elements (Panarion, 44,2,3)

To support this teaching Apelles may have appealed to 1 Corinthians 15:

The first man is of earth earthly; the second man is the Lord of heaven (On the Flesh of Christ, 8).

However, its real source appears to have been a woman named Philumena, whom he regarded as a prophetess:

This man (Apelles) having first fallen in the flesh from the principles of Marcion into the company of women, and afterwards shipwrecked himself in the spirit on the virgin Philumena, proceeded from that time to preach that the body of Christ was of solid flesh, but without having been born. (On the Flesh of Christ, 6)

Philumena, in turn, claimed that the source of her information was a phantom (phantasma) who appeared to her “dressed as a boy and sometimes stated he was Christ, sometimes Paul” (Against the Apelleans).

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3. Resurrection in the Flesh, but Fleshless Ascension

Philumena’s revelations may have also been the source for Apelles’ distinctive views in regard to the ascension of Jesus. According to Apelles, although Jesus truly suffered, died, and rose from the dead in a solid human body, at his ascension he did not go up into to heaven in it:

Apelles says Christ allowed himself to suffer in that very body, was truly crucified and truly buried and truly rose, and showed that very flesh to his own disciples. . . And thus, after again separating the body of flesh from himself, he soared away to the heaven from which he had come. (Panarion, 44, 2, 7-8)

And:

He (Christ) reinstated in heaven in spirit only. (Against All Heresies, 6)

To Epiphanius and, no doubt, to the proto-Catholics in general, this Apellean doctrine did not make sense:

And tell me, what was the point of his abandoning it (his body) again after the resurrection, even though he had raised it? . . . If he raised it to destroy it again, this is surely stage business, and not an honest act. (Panarion, 44, 5, 10)

And what became of the body of the Jesus after his ascension? According to Apelles, Jesus returned the elements of his body to the sources from which he had borrowed them:

In the course of his ascent, he restored to the several individual elements whatever had been borrowed in his descent; and thus — the several parts of his body dispersed — he reinstated in heaven his spirit only. (Against All Heresies, 6)

And it appears that in the Apellean scenario the disciples of Jesus witnessed his separation from his body, for Epiphanius reproaches the Apelleans for making that claim:

They (the disciples) did not see his remains left anywhere — there was no need for that, and it was not possible. And Apelles and his school of Apelleans are lying. (Panarion, 44, 3, 9)

The extant record, however, contains no description of what the ascending Jesus looked like without a body.

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4. A Unique Combination of Two Beliefs

In connection with Apellean teaching on the nature of Christ’s body, it is important to note that Apelles also denied that there will be a future resurrection of the body:

He teaches the salvation of souls alone. (Against All Heresies, 6)

He claimed that there is no resurrection of the dead. (Panarion, 44,4,1)

So Jesus rose from the dead bodily — if only briefly — but no one else will! This unusual combination of incongruous beliefs — that a real-flesh Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and yet there will be no future resurrection of the body, whether for the believers or unbelievers — is uniquely Apellean.

No other early Christian sect combined strong anti-docetic belief regarding Jesus with disbelief in a bodily resurrection of Christians.

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5. Apelles’ Gospel and Apostle

After his break with Marcion, Apelles apparently started putting together a gospel of his own. It drew in part from other gospels, for Hippolytus accuses Apelles of having selected from the Gospels whatever he pleased. And Hippolytus provides one the few extant glimpses of the contents of Apelles gospel. Apelles claimed that:

[Christ], on receiving in his body cosmical powers, lived for the time he did in this world. But he was subsequently crucified by the Jews, and expired, and that, being raised up after three days, he appeared to his disciples. And he showed them the prints of the nails and the wound in his side, desirous of persuading them that he was in truth no phantom, but was present in the flesh.

After he had shown them his flesh he restored it to earth, from which substance it was derived, for he coveted nothing that belonged to another. He might use it for the time being, yet in due course he rendered to each what peculiarly belonged to them. And so it was that, after he had once more loosed the chains of his body, he gave back to heat to what is hot, cold to what is cold, moisture to what is moist, dryness to what is dry.

And in this condition he departed to the good Father, leaving the seed of life in the world for those who through his disciples should believe in him. (The Refutation of All Heresies, 7,26)

It is noteworthy that the Apellean Jesus, in common with the Johannine one, has a side wound. That feature is not found in the synoptic gospels.

The principal source, however, of Apelles’ gospel was again Philumena:

He (Apelles) has, besides, private but extraordinary lections of his own, which he calls ‘Manifestations’ of one Philumena, a girl whom he follows as a prophetess. (Against All Heresies, 6)

And:

He fastened on another woman, that very virgin Philumena already mentioned. . . and, misled by her influence, he wrote the Manifestations which he learned from her. (On the Prescription of Heretics, 6-7)

That the Manifestations was a gospel-like book can be gathered from the Pauline words Tertullian used to dismiss Philumena’s revelations:

To this angel of Philumena, the apostle will reply in tones like those in which he even then predicted him, saying

Although an angel from heaven preach any other gospel to you than that which we preached to you, let him be anathema. (On the Flesh of Christ, 6)

As for the other part of Marcion’s canon: Apelles did retain the Paulines:

He uses, too, only the apostle, but it is Marcion’s, that is to say, it is not complete. (Against All Heresies, 6).

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6. The Old Testament and Its God

Apelles’ rejection of the Law and the Prophets was almost total on the grounds that they consisted of fables and falsehoods.

Origen describes him as

that disciple of Marcion who became the founder of a certain sect, and treated the writings of the Jews as fables (Against Celsus, 5:54).

Hippolytus writes:

He (Apelles) composed his treatises against the Law and the Prophets and attempts to abolish them as if they had spoken falsehoods (The Refutation of All Heresies, 10:16).

Pseudo-Tertullian concurs:

He (Apelles) has his own books, which he has entitled Syllogisms, in which he seeks to prove that whatever Moses has written about God is not true, but is false (Against All Heresies, 6).

Apelles’ rejection of the Old Testament, however, was significantly different from Marcion’s. First, Marcion attributed none of the Old Testament to the inspiration of his good Alien God. Apelles, on the other hand, made distinctions.

Epiphanius reproaches him for presuming to sit in judgment of Scripture, “taking what you choose from it, and leaving what you choose” (Panarion, 44,5,1). Apelles, appealing to the agraphon “Be competent money-changers,” claimed that Christ (perhaps through Philumena?) “showed us which sayings are actually his and in which Scripture” (Panarion, 44,2,6).

Just as competent money-changers can tell which money is genuine and which is counterfeit, he held that Christians must distinguish the genuine parts of Scripture from the counterfeit. And Apelles did find something in the Old Testament that was genuine, for Origen says that he “did not entirely deny that the Law or Prophets were of God” (Commentary on Titus). However the early record nowhere records which books or parts of books he accepted.

Apelles’ stance regarding the Old Testament differed from Marcion’s in a second way. For Marcion, the Old Testament was religiously irrelevant since it was inspired by a god who was not the Father of Jesus. But he did view it as a true and trustworthy account of the creator demiurge’s dealings with the Jewish people. Adolf von Harnack writes:

It is highly remarkable that Marcion acknowledged the Old Testament as a self-contained whole, assumed it had no adulterations, interpolations, or such, and did not even regard the book as false; instead he believed it to be trustworthy throughout. (Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, p. 58)

Marcion held that its prophecies had already been fulfilled by earlier historical figures or would be fulfilled when the Jewish warrior Messiah came. To Apelles, on the other hand, “the Prophets refuted themselves, because they have said nothing true; for they are inconsistent, and false, and self-contradictory” (History of the Church, 5,13). He “treated the writings of the Jews as fables” (Against Celsus, 5:54).

Apelles taught that the source who inspired the Old Testament fables and falsehoods was an “opposing spirit” (History of the Church, 5,13), the “ruler of evil,” and was described as a “fiery” angel (On the Flesh of Christ, 8). That description was most likely a way of identifying him as the “god” who on Mount Sinai addressed Moses from the burning bush, for “he was in the habit of speaking with Moses” (The Refutation of All Heresies, 7,26).

Thus the fiery angel duped Moses and the Jews into believing he was God:

Apelles concocted some kind of . . . god of the Law and of Israel, affirming him to be of fire (On the Prescription of Heretics, 34).

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7. Pre-Incarnation

Finally, Tertullian says Apelles taught that it was the same fiery angel, “Israel’s God and ours,” who by means of earthly food lured human souls down from their heavenly habitation and securely confined them in material bodies (On the Soul, 23).

Thus Apelles believed in some kind of pre-incarnation. Men are spirits or souls whose true home is heaven. And they are detained in this world because they were locked into bodies by the fiery angel after they had either been sent to this world or lured down to it. Epiphanius argued that this Apellean doctrine must logically lead to a denial of God’s foreknowledge or supreme power:

If the souls are his (the supreme God’s), however, and if it is evident that they have come from above, then they were sent into a good world — not a world poorly made — by your good God on high. But if they were sent to serve some purpose, of which you probably give a mythological account, and were diverted to another one on their arrival — if, in other words, they were sent to do something right but accomplished something wrong — it will be evident that the God who sent them had no foreknowledge. He sent them for one purpose, and it turned out that they did something else. Or again, if you say that they have not come by his will, but by the tyranny of the God who seizes them, then the inferior demiurge whom the good God created is more powerful than the good God — since he snatched the good God’s property from him and put it to his own use. (Panarion, 44, 5,5)

It should be noted again how the Apellean doctrine regarding the origin of man’s soul stands in opposition to Marcion’s. Marcion taught that the good God had no part at all in man, not even in his soul or spirit. And for that reason he was the Alien God, the Stranger God, who took pity on man even though man was in no way his property.

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[I have split the original post by Roger Parvus into two. In the second part of this post Roger begins to examine in detail how the so-called Ignatian letters espouse an Apellean faith. — Neil]

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4 Comments

  • 2013-03-25 05:24:24 UTC - 05:24 | Permalink

    You do realize that this article makes it sound like 1Cor. 15 and the gospel of John is mid second century, right?

    • Roger Parvus
      2013-03-26 06:03:45 UTC - 06:03 | Permalink

      Yes. I think Apelles’ Manifestations Gospel was written in the mid-140s and, after being reworked by the proto-orthodox in the mid-150s, emerged as the Gospel according to John. I will go into this a bit more in the final installment of the series.

      In regard to 1 Cor. 15: Yes, I think at least some parts of verses 3 thru 12 were added in the mid-second century. Verse 9, for instance; the portrayal of Paul as a persecutor: “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

      • 2013-03-26 12:32:59 UTC - 12:32 | Permalink

        There’s an obvious connection between John 6 “I am the bread which came down from heaven….and the bread I shall give is my BODY…” and Apelles’ doctrine that Jesus created himself a body of stardust on the way down from heaven.

  • 2013-03-26 12:30:05 UTC - 12:30 | Permalink

    “This unusual combination of incongruous beliefs….is uniquely Apellean.

    No other early Christian sect combined strong anti-docetic belief regarding Jesus with disbelief in a bodily resurrection of Christians.”

    Its surprisingly modern. Most Christians today believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but in only the salvation of souls. The resurrection is pretty much pointless if we go to heaven when we die. No other famous writers may have espoused the position in ancient times, but what do we think the average man on the street actually believed? that you go to heaven when you die only to be later pulled out and put back in a body for some unknown and nonsensical reason? That’s the stuff for professional theologians; the common man undoubtedly even among the Catholics thought more in Apellean terms on this point, as they do today!

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