Why early churches chose a Book over living prophets (Couchoud continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

I have copied here the entire next chapter (by machine, not hand-typed!) by P.L. Couchoud in The Creation of Christ. My previous post in this series introduced the book section in which he will present his argument for the emergence of the Gospels and the New Testament collection as we know it. (Click Couchoud: Creation of Christ for the complete series.) In this chapter Couchoud gives his account of how the various Christian churches filled the gap left by the prophets. It was the vigour of the prophets, recall, that propelled the growth of the churches in the early days. But prophecy is also anarchistic and is not equipped to maintain control or future growth and stability of the churches.

How did the churches shift from being enthused by spirit-filled prophetic messages to bodies dominated by sober teachers and a Book?

I have slightly altered some of the formatting of Couchoud’s chapter (pages 114-118) by indenting longer quotations, moving footnotes inline and indicated by curly brackets {  } and by adding headings and highlighting here and there.


The first great problem was to fill the gap left by the prophets.

In primitive institutions the prophet is the principal person in the Church. In Syria the Churches had their own particular prophets, whom they fed, clothed, and cared for according to the Law for the upkeep of the Jewish priests.

“Thou shalt take from the press and the threshing-floor, from the oxen and from the flocks all the firstlings and give them to your prophets, for they are your priests. . . . If thou bakest bread, take the first made and give according to the commandment. If thou openest an amphora of wine or of oil, give the first cup to the prophets. Take what is due of money, of clothes, of any form of wealth, and give according to the commandment.” {Didache, xiii.}

Inevitably abuses cropped up. It became necessary to declare false prophets those who in the spirit had a meal served to them, or again who in the spirit asked for money. If, however, the money was asked for the poor, the “prophet” was not to be judged. If the prophet works “in view of the earthly mystery of the Church” — i.e., probably symbolizes the union of the Church and the Lord by a strange marriage as did Hosea — he is neither to be judged nor imitated. {Didache, xi.} As for the title of apostle, so proudly vindicated by St. Paul, it had fallen into disrepute. There were too many wander­ing beggars calling themselves apostles.

“Let an apostle who comes to thy house be received as the Lord. He shall stop only one day, or two if in need. If he remain three days, he is a false prophet. Let the apostle, when he leaves, receive nothing, but bread that he may go as far as the next night’s lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.” {Didache, x.}

What irony to say of some nuisance thrown out thus that he is “received as the Lord”! Lucian’s Peregrinus, lecher, sodomite, and parracide, was for a time a Christian prophet and head of a church. Thrust into prison, he was looked on as a martyr and given many a basketful of good things. {Lucian, De morte Peregr., ed. Jacobitz, iii. p. 274. . . . . written about 165.}

The leader of one Syrian church led his flock — men, women, and children — out into the desert to meet Christ. Lost and wandering in the mountains, they were nearly captured and put to death as brigands. In Pontus another prophet announced that it had been revealed to him in visions that the Judgment would take place the following year. His worthy followers, in tears and trembling, sold all their gear and left their homes. Next year came, and they had to do their best to get back what they had sold, given away, or lost (Hippolytus, Comm, on Dan., iii. 18; written in 202-204).

Hermas tells how in Rome a prophet would give consul­tations like a magician; which moved him to wrath, since he spoke no prophecies “in corners” (Hermas, Mand., xi).

Rivalry between prophets wore out the patience of the Churches. It became too difficult for the faithful to distinguish a true prophet.

A slow and sage revolution

A slow and sage revolution raised above the prophets those whom Paul had placed lower — the didascaloi or teachers — and to the highest place those whom Paul had placed lowest — the administrators or episcopoi. We have a particular case of a clash between the prophet and the teacher. At a time of severe persecution, probably that in which the Bishop Telesphorus perished gloriously in the reign of Hadrian {Irenæus, Haer., iii. 3}, many Christians apostatized. As the saying then was, they “deserted the living god.” {Hermas, Vis., ii. 3, 2 and iii. 7, 2 ; Heb. iii. 12}  Could they be re-admitted to the Church ? The teachers said “no”; it was against the teaching, for the Church is an assembly of Saints, and the remission of sins granted by baptism cannot be renewed.

With the authority of a vision and in opposition to the teachers, Hermas declared they might be re-admitted. {Hermas, Mand., iv. 3, 3. “Lord, I have heard say by certain teachers that there is no other means [than that of baptism].”}  A Woman from heaven had given him a script, which he had copied, in which there was prom­ulgated a special pardon of sins; this celestial being symbol­ized the Church. Clemens, whose duty it was, sent it out to the other churches, Graptas taught it to the widows and orphans; and he, Hermas, read it to the Elders of the Church at Rome. {Hermas, Vis. ii. 2-3}

There was a didascalus, a thinker, a Philonian of high attainments, who expounded to the chosen few who would become didascali as he was, the doctrinal and scriptural reasons for strict observance. {Heb. vi. 4—8; x.26-31; xii. 16—17. The insistence of the author on this point is remarkable. Cf. Heb. v. 12 : “ For a long time ye ought to have been teachers, ’ ’ and xiii. 7, in which the rulers. . . , and not the prophets, “have spoken unto you the word of God.”}

What authority could be greater than a prophet’s? That of an Apostle. Add a few lines giving news of Timothy and a greeting for the brethren in Italy, and a fine homily becomes an Epistle from Paul to the Hebrews in Jerusalem. St. Paul was a much greater authority than Hermas. In this manner the pseudepigraphic literature which the living word of the prophets had brought to an end was revived. According to the need of the moment were published an Epistle of James, three of John, two of Peter, one of Jude, and several of Paul, to mention only those which are generally accepted. The three “pillars” of Jerusalem and their former adversary gave posthumous instruction, even as Daniel, Enoch, and Moses had revealed their prophecies.

The need for a Book

This appeal to the famous dead was, however, only an expedient; the scheme was to discover a book which should contain the whole Christian doctrine and put the prophets out of action. A problem connected with this discovery was the attitude to be adopted towards the Hebrew Bible. The Psalms and the Prophets of old were the food of faith and the nourishment of piety. Where would the Pentateuch come in? How should it be interpreted? Should it be in part, or whole, or not at all? A Book cannot be revealed by God, and then its commandments ignored.

The Syrian Churches were clear on the point, as we may read in the Epistle of James ii. 10 : “Whosoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend on a single of the points, he is guilty of all.” That is the law for Christians of Jewish birth. As for the others, the Didache tells us that it is good for them to keep the law as far as they can, “If thou canst bear the whole yoke of the Lord, thou wilt be perfect; if thou canst not, what thou canst, thou shalt do.” {Didache, vi. 2. In the Talmud occurs this : “ He who does all things, but omits a single one, he is guilty in respect of all ” (Schabbath, lxxii. 2).} This solu­tion is suitable for such Christians as are externally indis­tinguishable from Jews and for whom the efforts of Paul have been in vain.

The solution of the Roman didascali appears in the Epistle to the Hebrews, succinct and elegant. It refers to the pas­sage in Jeremiah in which God announces that he will make with his people a new covenant; Christianity is this New Covenant. The first is therefore “made old.” {Heb. viii. 13}  The old order was changed. The old priesthood of the Levites was to give way before the priesthood of Christ. The Law was weak, carnal, inefficacious; for it came from the angels, and not direct from God, it “made nothing perfect” (Heb. vii. 19). It is to be replaced by the Word of God, and the Living God will not require sacrifices, but praise and works of charity. The stains which had once been cleansed at the Temple were washed away once and for all by baptism. The forbidden foods were forbidden no more. The Law had had its day. The New Covenant was at once the completion and the conclusion of the Old. The Bible was to be respect­fully disobeyed.

In the Epistle of Barnabas a solution was found in Egypt which was still more radical and more shocking from the point of view of Jewish law. The Old Covenant had never been enforced. On the day when Moses, at the sight of the idolatry of the Jews, broke the tablets of the Law, the Jews lost the Law. The Pentateuch was never written for the Jews, but for the Christians as a mystery. It was not even common to both; it was “ours” alone (Barnabas iv. 6-7, . . .). The commandments contained therein have in themselves no value, not even temporary. They conceal hidden spiritual precepts which the initiate alone can understand.

For example, pork is forbidden. This signifies that the initiate should avoid those who, like pampered hogs, call on their master God only when they have need of him. The sparrowhawk means that rapacious men should be given the “go-by.” The hare refers to pederasts, since every year the hare develops an additional anus. The weasel means those women who act uncleanly with their mouths, since the weasel conceives through its mouth (Barnabas x). {The author makes use against the Jews of the method of exegesis employed in The Letter of Aristaeus and by Philo. Paul used it: “Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn” (1 Cor. ix. 9-10) means that the Christian apostle has a right to his share of “ carnal things ” (ix. 11). The Book of Exodus was written for the Christians (i Cor. x. 1-11).} 

In short, Judaism is simply nonsense. The initiate should ignore it with scorn, but keep the Bible which was an allegory specially destined for the followers of Christ. This answer, paradox fathered by St. Paul, was untenable. It were better to reject the Bible altogether than to interpret it in so strange a manner.

The problem offering the greatest difficulty was the presentation of Jesus. The next chapter looks at early Christian efforts to resolve this.

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Neil Godfrey

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