10th and final post in the series by Roger Parvus. The complete series is archived here.
In posts one through five I showed why Peregrinus should be regarded as the author of the so-called Ignatian letters. In posts six through nine I argued that he was an Apellean Christian. In this post I will tie up some loose ends, adding some thoughts regarding the date of his letters, and taking a somewhat speculative last look at his community, the Apelleans.
WHEN WERE THE ORIGINAL LETTERS WRITTEN?
Using the chronological indications that Lucian provides in his sketch of Peregrinus, the year of the would-be martyr’s arrest can only be very roughly pegged to have occurred sometime between 130 and 150 CE. Peregrinus was a Cynic by the time of the Olympic games held in 153 (see note 22 of Harmon’s translation of “The Death of Peregrinus’). And at least a few years must be allowed for his dismissal by the Christians and his trips to Egypt and to Rome (“The Death of Peregrinus,” 16-18). That would yield a terminus ante quem of 150 CE for his arrest and the composition of the letters. The terminus post quem is more difficult to pin down. G.A. Harrar, in his “Studies in the Roman Province of Syria,” would tentatively date the arrest to no earlier than 135 CE (p. 28). But since Lucian provides little guidance on that point, I would add a few years cushion to what Harrar proposed and thus arrive at a comfortable 130 to 150 CE window.
If the year of Marcion’s break with Rome were known with certainty, the date that Peregrinus composed his letters could be further narrowed down, for the schism mentioned in IgnPhil. 3:3 appears to be related to that break. The docetists—Marcionites, in my scenario—were refusing communion with non-docetic Christians (IgnSmyr. 6:2-7:1). Both proto-Catholics and the followers of Apelles fall into that non-docetic category. Harnack proposed 144 CE as the year of Marcion’s split, and his proposal has been widely embraced. He calculated it using a statement made by Tertullian that the Marcionites put 115 years and 6 and a half months between Christ and Marcion (“Against Marcion,” 1,19,2). And he argued that for the Marcionites the end point of that interval would have been the day that Marcion established his church by breaking with the church of Rome. That seems reasonable and I therefore am inclined to date the composition of Peregrinus’ letters to 145 CE or thereabouts. There is, however, another opinion regarding what event was marked by the 115 year interval. Ernst Barnikol argued that the end point—144 CE—was the date of Marcion’s death. That contention seems to conflict with a statement Justin makes in chapter twenty-six of his first Apologia. Justin is thought to have composed that work in the early 150s and in it he says that Marcion was still alive. In any event, if at some point it were found that Barnikol’s contention is in fact correct, the date of Peregrinus’ letters could be correspondingly pushed earlier to, say, the late 130s.
WHEN WERE THE LETTERS MODIFIED?
Peregrinus leapt to his fiery death in CE 165. About fifteen years later, when Irenaeus wrote his “Against Heresies,” the Christian letters of Peregrinus had not yet been changed into letters of Ignatius. Irenaeus used a quotation from IgnRom. 4:1 but apparently to avoid the embarrassment of acknowledging Peregrinus as the author of it, he attributed it only to “one of our people.” As noted in my fifth post, it is only later, in the writings of Origen, that ‘Ignatius, bishop of Antioch’ first appears as the author of the letters. In his Homily on Luke (6:4), Origen says: “I have found it well written in one of the letters of a certain martyr—I am referring to Ignatius who was the second bishop of Antioch after Saint Peter and in a persecution fought with wild beasts at Rome—that ‘the virginity of Mary escaped the notice of the ruler of this age;’ escaped notice on account of Joseph, on account of their marriage because she was thought to have a husband.” The homily was written no earlier than the 230 CE. Thus it would seem that the letters of Peregrinus were transformed into letters of Ignatius sometime between CE 180 and 230.
From the changes made to the letters it is clear that the redactor knew who Peregrinus was, knew his Apellean affiliation, and knew of his ultimate apostasy from Christianity. The changes also reveal the proto-Catholic affiliation of the redactor. He reroutes the prisoner to Rome instead of back to Antioch. He makes Polycarp the recipient of one of the letters. And the corrections he makes to Peregrinus’ Apellean beliefs bring them into line with proto-Catholic ones. His aims were limited to hiding Peregrinus’ authorship of the letters and to correcting perceived creedal deficiencies of the prisoner. I see no sign of any other agenda. He does not push for Roman authority over the other churches. And he does not try to base the local bishop’s authority on some kind of apostolic succession. To me this restraint indicates that his main goal was simply to salvage the letters for use by his own community.
How did he come by the letters? He may, of course, have come across them simply by chance. But there may be something more to his possession of them and his interest in them. The most likely place for them to have been gathered together and treasured would have been at Antioch, for it was there that Peregrinus was imprisoned. And it was to that city that Peregrinus requested delegates be sent to rejoice with him and pray for him. If the churches couldn’t send delegates to the most God-pleasing Antiochene council, they were directed to at least send letters to it (IgnPoly. 8:1). Antioch, then, would seem to be the most likely place that a collection of the prisoner’s letters was made.
And that is why Theophilus of Antioch catches my attention as a candidate for proto-Catholic redactor of the letters. He is from the right city, has the right affiliation, and was still alive during at least the earliest part of the 180 to 230 CE window. And there are some additional considerations that make Theophilus an intriguing candidate. Robert M. Grant, in his analysis of “To Autolycus,” noted that “the prophet is Theophilus’ basic classification for Old Testament writers” (“Greek Apologists of the Second Century,” p. 162). We have seen in the letters that when the redactor wishes to neutralize Apellean dismissal of the Old Testament, he does so by inserting praise of the prophets. Furthermore, the earliest patristic quotation from the Gospel according to John is found in “To Autolycus” (2,22). As I pointed out in earlier posts, Peregrinus’ Apellean gospel has definite Johannine affinities. Add too that Theophilus says it was his study of Scripture that led to his conversion to Christianity. But the only book of the Old Testament that he is known to have written a commentary about (no longer extant) is the book of Proverbs. Set that alongside the fact that the only Old Testament book that Peregrinus quotes from is the book of Proverbs.
So I am wondering not only whether Theophilus of Antioch was the proto-Catholic redactor of Peregrinus’ letters, but also if earlier in his life he was an Apellean and personally acquainted with Peregrinus. He may have even been mentioned in the letters. Two men, Philo and Rheus Agathopus, brought the news to Peregrinus that peace had been restored in the Antiochene church. I have already proposed that Agathopus is the Agathobulus who later initiated Peregrinus into Cynicism (“The Death of Peregrinus,” 17). But what about Philo? Could Philo be the shortened name chosen by the redactor ‘Theo-Philus’ to disguise his own involvement in the affair?
The letter to the Philadelphians says this: “Philo, the deacon from Cilicia, a man well-spoken of, is now ministering to me in the word of God, together with Rheus Agathopus, a remarkable man who has followed me from Syria and has renounced this life” (IgnPhil 11:1). Thus Philo ministered to Peregrinus in the word of God and was, like Peregrinus himself, a deacon. And since he likely returned to Antioch to be there when Peregrinus arrived under military escort, he may have been one of those officials who, according to Lucian, “even slept inside with him after bribing the guards. Then elaborate meals were brought in, and sacred books of theirs were read aloud…” (“The Death of Peregrinus,” 12, Harmon’s translation). As a minister in the word of God, Philo (Theophilus?) may have been the one who read sacred books aloud to Peregrinus in jail.
If I am right in my speculation about Theophilus of Antioch—and, admittedly, that is all it is—it would be he who made a collection of Peregrinus’ letters at the most God-pleasing council in 145 CE. And it was he who thirty-five years later still could not bear to throw the letters of Peregrinus in the trash. He decided to salvage them. He changed Peregrinus into Ignatius; and it was he, Theophilus, who changed his hero’s adopted name ‘Hagiophorus’ to ‘Theophorus.’
WHAT BECAME OF THE APELLEAN GOSPEL?
Peregrinus’ proto-Catholic opponents at Philadelphia in effect said, “If we don’t find the archives in your gospel, we won’t believe in it” (IgnPhil. 8:2). His initial reaction was to assert that the archives were in some way represented in his gospel. To that assertion they, in turn, replied: “That deserves investigation.” It is natural to wonder what the outcome of their investigation was. Did they end up approving the Apellean Gospel?
My suspicion is that they ultimately did approve parts of it, but only after submitting them to the same kind of correction that the letters of Peregrinus underwent. They took the parts of the Apellean Gospel that appealed to them and clumsily put them together in a new way that left very obvious dislocations, rearrangements, and deletions. The archives were not deemed to be sufficiently represented in the Apellean Gospel so they inserted some Old Testament quotes that remedied that defect. Proto-Catholic beliefs were supplied where necessary to make up for the perceived deficiencies in the beliefs of Apelles and Philumena, the authors of the Apellean Gospel. The final product is known today as the Gospel according to John.
So my suspicion is that Apelles’ Gospel—which he also called the ‘Manifestations’ (Greek: Phaneroseis)—may have been more than just Johannine-like; it may have been the actual text that the proto-Catholics reworked in the mid-second century to construct John’s Gospel. Many scholars refer to the earliest Johannine layer as the ‘Sign’s Gospel’ or ‘Signs Source.” It could just as appropriately be called the ‘Manifestations Gospel’ or ‘Manifestations Source’ since its signs are presented as manifestations of the glory of Jesus: “This the first of his signs Jesus did at Cana in Galilee and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (Jn. 2:11). The Gospel according to John may very well be a proto-Catholic redaction of the no longer extant Manifestations Gospel of Apelles.
Apellean authorship of the foundation layer of John’s Gospel would be the reason that gospel contains its unusual mix of mild Gnosticism and strong anti-doceticism. Apelles was a very rare bird: an anti-docetic Gnostic. His anti-doceticism was apparently motivated by his belief that if Jesus did not have a real body his suffering would have been fake. But his Gnosticism would not allow him to provide his Jesus with a body made of materials from this flawed lower world. So his Jesus had flesh but not by way of any human birth, virginal or otherwise. And that would be the reason the Fourth Gospel—even though it is the latest of the canonical gospels—does not have a nativity section. But it does contain the Gnostic dualistic contrasts between light and darkness, spirit and flesh, the world above and the world below. “What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit” (Jn. 3:6). Those who are born of spirit recognize Jesus and listen to him. They belong to the Father above and the world above where they existed before they were enclosed in bodies. (Jn. 9:2 is the only reference to the soul’s pre-incarnational state that the proto-Catholic redactor allowed to remain in the final text). Those who are born of flesh have the devil for their father and cannot believe the words of Jesus.
In the Apellean Gospel it was a subordinate Glorious Angel who created this imperfect lower world. The proto-Catholic redactor had to change this and make the Son of God its creator. Because of that change the “world” is viewed in two opposed ways in the Fourth Gospel. The Apellean Jesus says “I revealed your name to those you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me…I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours… I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the world” (Jn. 17:6, 9 and 14). But to offset this, the proto-Catholic redactor makes the gospel say, for instance, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son… (Jn. 3:16).
Apelles’ views on the Old Testament can explain the hostility of the Johannine Jesus not just to Jews but to historical Judaism itself. In certain passages the Johannine Jesus seems not to be a Jew. He tells the Jews: “Your”—not our—“ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died” (Jn. 6:49). And the Law that the Jews claimed was given by God himself he dismissively calls “your Law.” And he calls all their spiritual shepherds who came before him “thieves and brigands” (Jn. 10:8). And he tells the Jews: “you have never heard his voice (the Father’s) nor seen his form” (Jn. 5:37); and “no one has ascended into heaven except the one who came down from heaven” (Jn. 3:13). No one? What about Moses? Enoch? Elijah? Isaiah? Who could have made the Johannine Jesus so antagonistic to his supposed heritage? I nominate Apelles, “who treated the writings of the Jews as fables, and says that Jesus is the only one who has visited the human race” (Origen, “Against Celsus,” 5,54).
Despite numerous proto-Catholic touch-ups, the Apellean underlayer still often protrudes. That underlayer is the reason why, contrary to the Synoptics, the Johannine Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples is not a Passover meal. And it is the reason why the Fourth Gospel does not relate any baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer. Remember that the redactor of Peregrinus’ letters had to include baptism by John in one of his interpolations (IgnSmyr. 1:1). And there are indications that the underlayer had an ascension scene that did not make the Fourth Gospel’s final cut. As was already pointed out previously, Apelles’ version of a bodiless ascension by Jesus was unacceptable to the proto-Catholics. And an Apellean provenance for the Fourth Gospel can also provide a plausible identification of the Paraclete, that figure who was to continue to pass on the teaching of Jesus until the end of time. The source of Apelles’ Gospel was supposedly a phantom (phantasmata) dressed as a boy who regularly spoke to Philumena and sometimes stated he was Paul, sometimes Jesus. Philumena’s phantom was doing what Jesus prophesied the Paraclete would do.
And Apelles lived at the right time and place to be the author of the underlayer of the Fourth Gospel. It was apparently written shortly after the bar Kosiba revolt: “I am come in my Father’s name and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, him you will receive” (Jn. 5:43). And: “Yes, the hour is coming when whosoever kills you will think that he offers service to God” (Jn. 16:2). The place of origin of the Fourth Gospel has traditionally been associated with the area around Ephesus. This, as we see from the letters of Peregrinus, was an area with a definite Apellean presence around 140 CE. And both the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church honor a shadowy Saint Apelles as the first bishop of Smyrna, a city only a few miles from Ephesus.
There are, then, good reasons to think that the proto-Catholics reworked the Gospel of Apelles, and that it is in part still extant in the Gnosticism-tinged Gospel according to John.
AND WHAT BECAME OF THE APELLEANS?
If I am right that the Fourth Gospel was put together by the proto-Catholics from Apellean materials, I think the Apelleans themselves must have been willing parties to that endeavor. It is hard to see how the proto-Catholics would have just taken over in the 150s the Apellean gospel and reworked it if the Apelleans themselves were not amenable to that. And that there was in fact some kind of merger between both parties is betrayed by the fact that the early record contains no condemnation of Apelles and his sect until well after his death. Tertullian, about thirty years after the death of Apelles, is the first proto-Catholic heresy hunter to target him. In taking aim at Apelles, Tertullian makes clear that he is targeting a figure from the previous generation and that he considers Marcion, Valentinus and Apelles to be its heretical ‘Big Three’ (“On the Prescription of Heretics,” 30). That makes it all the more telling that Irenaeus nowhere condemns or even mentions Apelles or his followers or his doctrines even though he doesn’t hesitate to condemn by name many lesser heretical figures and teachings. Irenaeus’ silence speaks volumes.
But does the early record contain any positive indications about the merger I am proposing? I believe it does.
Question: What would the proto-Catholics have called someone who had at one time been a disciple of Marcion but broke away from him, rejected his rigorism, and returned to belief in a single supreme God and belief that Jesus’ body was not a mere semblance of a human one?
Answer: A proto-Catholic convert. In the “Against Heresies” of Irenaeus we read: “He (Polycarp) it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus, caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics (Valentinus and Marcion) to the church of God…” (3.3.4) As I see it, if any group of Marcion-tainted people were ripe for merging back with the proto-Catholic church of Rome, it was the Apelleans. I think that Apelles and his followers were among those who, according to Irenaeus, turned away from Marcion in the time of Anicetus. (Keep in mind too, that Apelles and his followers did not bear a distinctive name. They simply called themselves ‘Christians.’ As Peregrinus says in IgnMag. 10:1: “Let us learn to live in conformity with Christianity. For whoever is called by any other name besides this is not of God”).
From the letters of Peregrinus we can see that the Apelleans blamed the docetists (Marcionites) for the schism in the church. It was the docetic Marcionites who refused to take part in the Apellean Eucharists. But Peregrinus nowhere gives any indication that the Judaizing proto-Catholics refused to take part in the Apellean Eucharists. The letters are witness that the Apelleans were still on speaking-terms with the proto-Catholics. I suspect that this relationship became stronger and that they ultimately formed a common front against Marcion.
But, one could object, did not Apelles continue to hold that the Old Testament contained many fables and falsehoods? It would seem so. The heretic Rhodon claimed as much when he described his conversation with the elderly Apelles. But it is important to remember that in the mid-second century, even among the proto-Catholics, there apparently was no unanimity about how free from error the Old Testament was. Thus Justin, though he himself held that no Scripture contradicts another, mentions some fellow Christians of his who hold a different view (“Dialogue with Trypho,” 65). And there are the pseudo-Clementine “Homilies,” about which a decent case can be made that the document that underlies them was of mid-second century proto-Catholic provenance. Von Harnack notes that “in some passages the Christianity of the Homilies really looks like a syncretism composed of common Christianity, the Jewish Christian Gnosticism, and the criticism of Apelles” (“History of Dogma,” p. 314, n. 1). In the Homilies Peter acknowledges several times that there are falsehoods and errors in the Old Testament. Three times he quotes the agraphon that was also a favorite with Apelles: “Become competent moneychangers,” the meaning of which is that Christians must carefully determine which parts and verses of Scripture are authentic and which are not.
It should also be kept in mind that Apelles apparently was not dogmatic in his position regarding the Old Testament. He did not consider acceptance of his position necessary for salvation. For according to Rhodon, the aged Apelles asserted “that those who had placed their hope in the crucified one would be saved, if they only were found doing good works” (“Church History,” Eusebius, 5,13,6). These are not the words of a hardliner. I see no insurmountable obstacle to a mid-second century proto-Catholic approval of Apelles. And it may an approval of theirs that is lodged in chapter 16 of Romans. That chapter appears to be a late addition. It was not in Marcion’s version. So I’m wondering if when the proto-Catholics did a final revision of the Pauline letters one of them made Paul issue a prophetic ok for Apelles: “Welcome Apelles, who is approved in Christ” (Rom. 16:10).
The letters of Peregrinus are precious. I am convinced they give us a glimpse into the short-lived community led by Apelles whose gospel may have ultimately been transformed into the Gospel according to John. And they give us new insight, of course, into that strange character who was Peregrinus. Even though he had “interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many” (“The Death of Peregrinus,” 11), he appeared to have been so thoroughly disowned by the Christians that no trace of his literary efforts for them remained. But lo and behold some letters of his were extant all along, hidden under the Ignatian veneer that had been imposed on them. The man who, according to Lucian, was hopelessly driven throughout his life by a relentless thirst for glory can again tell us in his own words about the early days when, adorned with his most God-pleasing chains, he first gained the adulation of a multitude. One cannot help but be captivated, and I have very much enjoyed getting to know him through his letters—the letters supposedly written by Ignatius of Antioch.
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