7th post in the series by Roger Parvus. The complete series is archived here.
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.
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 his position in regard to it, as will be seen, is in a way 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’ (accessible in 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.”)
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.
Apelles’ teaching on the nature of Christ’s body was also peculiar to himself. He held that the body of Christ 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”).
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: “He (Christ) reinstated in heaven in spirit only” (“Against All Heresies,” 6). And: “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). 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.
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. To my knowledge, no other early Christian sect subscribed to it.
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 says 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).
In regard to the Old Testament: 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).
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 argues 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.
THE AUTHOR OF THE SO-CALLED IGNATIANS WAS AN APELLEAN CHRISTIAN
From this survey of the teaching of Apelles it can be seen how closely his doctrine matches the combination of beliefs exhibited by the author of the letters. The most straightforward way to account for this is to conclude that their author, Peregrinus, was an Apellean. That affiliation can account for the little interest he has in the Old Testament and his disdainful estimation of Judaism as consisting of little more than falsehoods and fables. And that would in turn explain his belief that Christ is God’s “Word who came forth from silence” (IgnMag. 8:2). The characterization of God as silent is certainly not proto-Catholic, but makes sense in an Apellean scenario. Proto-Catholics believed God had spoken often in the past through the prophets, and the Old Testament contained the record of his communication. But for Apelleans—since most of the Old Testament was not an authentic revelation of God—the amount of supposed divine communication to mankind prior to the coming of Jesus was drastically reduced. This reduction of divine communication, this silence of God, was likely what Epiphanius was referring to when he wrote that “nothing here in this world is of any concern” to the God of Apelles.
Apellean affiliation can account for the absence of any praise of the created world and its maker in the letters. It explains how Peregrinus could believe that “nothing visible is good;” and why he believes man’s possession of a body is something that requires justification: “For this reason you are of both flesh and spirit, that you may attend kindly to the things that are visible to you” (IgnPoly. 2:2). And it explains why he gives no indication of belief in a future resurrection of the body. As an Apellean he believed that the visible world was the poorly made product of the glorious angel whose attempt to make something that would honor the highest God failed. Despite the best of intentions the glorious angel created a world that is flawed. So neither the world nor its creator, the lost sheep, deserved praise. He receives only a single mention in the letters, and that is a passing one in an anti-docetic section of the letter to the Smyrneans. We are told that he too must believe in the real body and suffering of Christ:
““Let no one be deceived: Even for the heavenly powers and the glory of the angels and the rulers both visible and invisible there is judgment, if they do not believe in the blood of Christ” (IgnSmyr. 6:1).
The terminology used in this verse—powers, angels, and rulers—is exactly the terminology that, according to the early record, was used by Apelles. Pseudo-Tertullian says, “He (Apelles) introduces one God in the infinite upper regions, and states that he made many powers and angels” (“Against All Heresies,” 6). And Tertullian is witness that Apelles called the fiery angel in his system the “ruler” (Latin: praeses) of evil. But it is the expression “the glory of the angels” that is especially interesting here. Ignatian scholars have been unable to positively identify this “glory of the angels.” The recognition that Peregrinus was an Apellean makes a plausible solution accessible, for Apelles called the angel who created the world “the glorious angel.” To disguise a title that was too recognizably Apellean, the proto-Catholic redactor changed the “glorious angel” to the less recognizable “glory of the angels.”
The realization that Peregrinus was an Apellean gives the perspective needed to plausibly identify his uncircumcised Judaizing opponents. Who were these Gentile Judaizers who were not even trying to impose the Law of Moses on anyone? From an Apellean perspective they come into focus. They are proto-Catholics. As Ernest Renan recognized long ago, in the eyes of Apelles, the Catholics were Judaizers (“Marc-Aurele et la Fin du Monde Antique,” Calmann Levy, 1882, p. 153). They were Judaizers because they continued to use Jewish Scripture that, as Apelles saw it, consisted mainly of fables and falsehoods. And by according authority to that Scripture they were letting themselves be duped, just like the Jews, into accepting the fiery angel as the supreme God. As Tertullian acknowledges, for Apelles the fiery angel was “the God of Israel and of us” (“On the Soul,’ 23) i.e. of Israel and of Tertullian and his coreligionists. And that was enough to earn for proto-Catholics the label of ‘Judaizer.’ In turn, the main objection that Apelles’ proto-Catholic contemporaries would have had to him was his failure to accord due authority to the Old Testament. And for that reason they would not have been able to accept his gospel no matter how antidocetic and inspiring it was. Unless they found the “ancient sources” (IgnPhil. 8:2) in his gospel, they would not believe in it.
Peregrinus’ Apellean affililiation also gives the key to identifying his other opponents—the docetic ones—and it can plausibly explain the animosity exhibited towards them. They are Marcionites. Family feuds are often the most bitter. Apelles had not only deserted Marcion, he became the leader of a sect that held beliefs opposed to Marcion’s. Being an intelligent and capable man, his sect initially would have consisted of ex-Marcionites who followed him out the door. Christianity has experienced countless breakaways over the centuries and they usually result in splits in all the churches that the leader of the breakaway was involved with. I expect it was no different in this instance. There would have been splits in the churches that Apelles had founded as a Marcionite. And for a time the parent body would have tried to win its former members back. In that situation Peregrinus’ warning to absolutely avoid all communication with or about the docetists makes sense.
That the docetists in question were indeed Marcionites receives confirmation from the ways that Peregrinus refers to them. He sarcastically describes their docetic doctrine as “alien,” choosing the word that Marcion used to describe his god: “Anyone who walks in alien doctrine has no share in the Passion” (IgnPhil. 3:3). They are the party that caused the disturbance in the church at Antioch, for by their departure that church was filtered clean of “every alien stain” (Inscr. to IgnRom.). Now, “Through all the centuries of the existence of the Marcionite church and in all the languages that the Marcionites spoke, ‘the Alien’ or ‘the good Alien’ remained the proper name for their God. Conversely, from the standpoint of God men also were called ‘the aliens’” (“Marcion—The Gospel of the Alien God,” Adolf von Harnack, p. 80).
Recall too that when Marcion expounded and defended his teaching before the Roman presbyters he appealed to two Gospel passages in particular: A tree, good or evil, is known by its fruits (Lk. 7:43-44) and new wine cannot be contained in old wineskins (Lk. 6:37-38). In the letters those two images of fruit and wine are used by Peregrinus against his docetic enemies: They are “evil offshoots which bear deadly fruit. Anyone who tastes it immediately dies. For these are not the planting of the Father” (IgnTral. 11:1); “They are like those who administer a deadly poison mixed with honeyed wine, which one unwittingly drinks with pleasure and then dies” (IgnTral. 6:2). So although Peregrinus did not provide the names of his docetic enemies—and he says that the omission is deliberate (IgnSmyr. 5:3)—his choice of words seems to identify them well enough anyway.
The scenario I am proposing involving Apelleans, Marcionites and proto-Catholics can also explain the presence of bishop, presbyters and deacons in the churches addressed by Peregrinus and the considerable authority he claims for the bishop in charge of each of those churches. It should not be surprising, of course, that Apelles, as an ex-Marcionite, set up his churches with bishops, presbyters, and deacons. That is to say, there is nothing in the early record to indicate that Apelles rejected the type of ecclesiastical offices in place not only in Marcion’s communities but probably also in those of the proto-Catholics. Sebastian Moll says that “… we can still agree with Harnack that Marcion in all probability introduced these offices in his church himself, or, to be more precise, that he retained these offices when he broke with the Church. For it is far more likely that these offices were retained from the beginning than that the Marcionite church adopted any kind of ecclesial practice during the period of schism in which the churches openly fought with each other.” (“The Arch-Heretic Marcion,” p. 124).
But what requires an explanation is the amount of authority that Peregrinus insistently demands for the single bishop in each church. I think that, in essence, Walter Bauer hit upon the correct explanation in his “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity:”
“Demands like these are typical of minorities which, through their own strong man who is clothed with a special aura and equipped with unusual power, endeavor to obtain that overriding importance which they are unable to gain by virtue of the number of their members. But if they can supply one who is in absolute control of the whole group, then the possibility emerges either of bringing those who differ to heel within the community, or else, if there is no alternative, of crowding them out. So long as a council is in control of the church, it is unavoidable that it will be composed of Christians of various sorts and that—to move from generalities back to the specific case of Ignatius—alongside members holding views like those of Ignatius there would also be representatives of the gnostics and of acknowledged Jewish Christians in it. If, however, the leadership of the community responds to the command of the one bishop, then orthodoxy can hope to take the helm even where it constitutes only a minority of the whole group—provided that the others are disunited. Of course, there is the possibility that Ignatius’ group actually represented the majority in certain cities. However, in view of Ignatius’ frantic concern, it hardly seems likely that this was the general rule” (pp. 62-63).
Centralized authority can be an effective defensive measure when a community feels threatened. As I see it, the Apelleans were caught in the middle between two churches much larger than theirs. They were a minority both in regard to the Judaizing proto-Catholics (with whom, however, they were still on speaking-terms) and in regard to the docetic Marcionites (with whom they refused to speak). The Apellean bishops, as leaders in the newly-formed sect, were almost certainly the people who had been the most loyal to Apelles and his creed at the time of the split. For they would have been the ones who, despite the fact that Marcion was the better known and more imposing figure, took the decisive step of siding with Apelles and of accepting leadership roles in his breakaway communities. Peregrinus saw that the best hope of survival for his churches lay in getting their members to unquestioningly obey those bishops. As an Apellean he could not do that by appealing to the Old Testament or to apostolic succession. The best argument available to him in those circumstances was to claim that authority in the church should be modeled on the authority of heaven.
In my next post I intend to continue examining passages in the letters and showing how my Apellean scenario can account for them.
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