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Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries
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CHAPTER 8

THE RELIGION OF A BOOK AND A HISTORICAL REALIZATION

Christianity, unlike Islam, never was and never became the religion of a book in the strict sense of the term (not until a much later period, that of rigid Calvinism, did the consequences of its presentation as the religion of a book become really dangerous, and even then the rule of faith remained at the helm). Still, the book of Christianity—i.e., in the first instance, the Old Testament—did exert an influence which brought it to the verge of becoming the religion of a book. Paul, of course, when we read him aright, was opposed to this development, and wide circles throughout Christendom—both the gnostics and the Marcionites — even went the length of entirely repudiating the Old Testament or of ascribing it to another god altogether, though he too was righteous and dependent on the most high God.457457Cp., for example, the letter of Ptolemæus to Flora, with my study of it in the Sitzungsberichte d. K. Pr. Akad. d. Wiss., May 15, 1902. But in the catholic church this gnostic criticism was indignantly rejected, whilst the complicated position adopted by the apostle Paul towards the book was not understood at all. The Old Testament, interpreted allegorically, continued to be the sacred book for these Christians, as it was for the Jews, from whom they aimed to wrest it.

This attitude to the Old Testament is quite intelligible. What other religious society could produce a book like it?458458It had this double advantage, that it was accessible in Greek, and also that the Hebrew original was familiar. On the Septuagint, see the studies by Nestle and Deissmann, besides the epistle of Aristeas (ed. Wendland, 1900). How overpowering and lasting must have been the impression made by it on Greeks, educated and uneducated alike, once they learnt to understand it! Many details might be strange or obnoxious, but the instruction and inspiration of its pages amply made up for that. Its great antiquity—stretching in some parts, as men held, to thousands of years459459In his treatise de Pallio Tertullian exclaims triumphantly, “Your history only reaches back to the Assyrians; we are in possession of the history of the whole world” (“Ferme apud vos ultra stilus non solet. ab Assyriis, si forte, aevi historiae patescunt. qui vero divinas lectitamus, ab ipsius mundi natalibus compotes sumus”).—was already proof positive of its imperishable value; its contents seemed in part a world of mysteries and in part a compendium of the profoundest wisdom. By its inexhaustible wealth, by its variety, comprehensiveness, and extensive character, it seemed like a literary cosmos, a second creation which was the twill of the first.460460Hence the numerous names for the book, partly due to its origin, partly to its contents (σωτήρια γράμματα). This indeed was the deepest impression which it made. The opinion most widely held by Greeks who came in contact with the Old Testament was that this was a book which was to be coupled with the universe, and that a similar verdict could be passed upon both of them. Variously as they might still interpret it, the fact of its being a parallel creation to the world, equally great and equally comprehensive, and of both issuing from a single author, appeared indubitable even to the gnostics and the Marcionites, whilst the members of the catholic church recognized in this divine author the most high God himself!461461Certain gnostics distinguished the god of creation and the god of the Old Testament. This distinction prevailed wherever nature was depreciated in comparison with the religious attainments of the pre-Christian era. Nature is fierce and fatal; the law is, relatively speaking, moral. In the entire history of human thought, when did any other book earn such an opinion?462462Attacks by gnostics and pagans were not awanting, but the latter must have seldom assailed it on the whole. When they busied themselves seriously with the book, they almost invariably respected it. “Unde scis illos libros (veteri Testamenti) unius veri et veracissimi dei spiritu esse humano generi ministratos?” (Aug., Confess., vi. 5, 7: “Whence knowest thou that these books have been imparted to mankind by the spirit of the one true and most truthful God?”)—this is a Manichæan or gnostic objection.

The Old Testament certainly was an enormous help to the Christian propaganda, and it was in vain that the Jews protested.463463Their right to the book was simply denied; their misinterpretation of it proved that it was no longer theirs; the opinion was even current (cp. Barnabas epist.) that it never had been theirs, and that they had appropriated it unfairly. “In Judaeorum oleastro insiti sumus,” says Tertullian (de Testim., v., after Rom. xi.); but the oleaster had thereby lost its very right to exist. We have one positive testimony, in the following passage from Tatian (Orat. xxix.), that for many people the Old Testament formed the real bridge by which they crossed to Christianity. “When I was paying earnest heed to what was profitable,” he writes, “some barbarian writings came into my hands which were too old for Greek ideas and too divine for Greek errors. These I was led to trust, owing to their very simplicity of expression and the unstudied character of their authors, owing to their intelligible description of creation, their foreknowledge of the future, the excellence of their precepts, and the fact of their embracing the universe under the sole rule of God. Thus was my soul instructed by God, and I understood how other teachings lead to condemnation, whilst these writings abolish the bondage that prevails throughout the world and free us from a plurality of rulers and tyrants innumerable. They furnish us, not with something which we had not already received, but with something which had been received but which, thanks to error, had been lost.”464464Cp. also Justin, Dial. c. Tryph., vii. ff.: Ἰγένοντό τινες πρὸ πολλοῦ χρόνου πάντων τούτων τῶν νομιζομένων φιλοσόφων παλαιότεροι, μακάριοι καὶ δίκαιοι καὶ θεοφιλεῖς, θείῳ πνεύματι λαλήσαντες καὶ τὰ μέλλοντα θεσπίσαντες, ἃ δὴ νῦν γίνεται· προφήτας δὲ αὐτοὺς καλοῦσιν· οὗτοι μόνοι τὸ ἀληθὲς καὶ εἶδον καὶ ἐξεῖπον ἀνθρώποις, μήτ᾽ εὐλαβηθέντες μήτε δυσωπηθέντες τινά . . . . ἀλλὰ μόνα ταῦτα εἰπόντες ἃ ἤκουσαν καὶ ἃ εἶδον ἁγίῳ πληρωθέντες πνεύματι· συγγράμματα δὲ αὐτῶν ἔτι καὶ νῦν διαμένει, κ.τ.λ. . . . . Ἐμοῦ δὲ παραχρῆμα πῦρ ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ ἀνήφθη καὶ ἔρως εἶχε με τῶν προφητῶν καὶ τῶν ἀνδρῶν ἐκείνων, οἵ εἰσι Χριστοῦ φίλοι (“Long ago there were certain men, more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, men blessed and righteous and beloved of God, who spoke by the spirit of God, and foretold what would come to pass, even what is now coming to pass. Their name is that of prophets. They alone saw the truth and proclaimed it to men, neither reverencing nor dreading any man . . . . but only saying what they saw and heard, being filled with the holy spirit. Writings of theirs are still extant. . . . . A fire was at once kindled in my soul, and I was seized with a passion for the prophets and for those who are the friends of Christ”).

This confession is particularly noticeable, not merely on account of the explicit manner in which it brings out the significance of the Old Testament for the transition to Christianity, but also for its complete and clear statement of the reasons for this influence. In the first place, the form of this book made a deep impression, and it is characteristic of Tatian the Greek, though he would remain a Greek no longer, that its form is the first point which he singles out. The vigorous style of the prophets and psalmists captivated the man who had passed through the schools of rhetoric and philosophy. Vigor coupled with simplicity—this was what made the book seem to him so utterly different from those treatises and unwieldy tomes in which their authors trade desperate efforts to attain clearness of thought upon questions of supreme moment. The second item mentioned by the apologist is the narrative of creation in Genesis. This also is significant and quite intelligible. Every Greek philosopher had his cosmology, and here was a narrative of creation that was both lucid and comprehensible. It did not look like a philosophy, nor did it look like an ordinary myth; it was an entirely new genre, something between and above them both. It can only have been inspired by God himself! The third feature which struck Tatian was the prophecies of the book. A glance at the early Christian writers, and especially at the apologists, reveals the prominent and indeed the commanding role played by the argument from prophecy, and this argument could only be led by means of the Old Testament. The fourth item was the moral code. Here Tatian was certainly thinking in the first instance of the decalogue, which even the gnostics, for all their critical attitude towards the book as a whole, considered only to require completion, and which was therefore distinguished by them from the rest of the Old Testament.465465Cp. the epistle of Ptolemæus to Flora. To Gentile Christians the decalogue invariably meant the sum of morals, which only the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount could render more profound.466466Cp. the Didachê. Finally, the fifth item mentioned by the apologist is the rigid monotheism which stamps the whole volume.

This list really includes all the elements in the Old Testament which seemed of special weight and marked its origin as divine. But in a survey of the services rendered by it to the Christian church throughout the first two centuries, the following points stand out clearly.

1. Christians borrowed from the Old Testament its monotheistic cosmology and view of nature. Though the gospels and epistles presuppose this, they do not expressly state it, and in the Old Testament books people found exactly what they required, viz., in the first place, innumerable passages proclaiming and inculcating monotheism, and also challenging polytheism, and in the second place many passages which extolled God as the creator of heaven and earth and depicted his creation.

2. From the Old Testament it could be proved that the appearance and the entire history of Jesus had been predicted hundreds and even thousands of years ago; and further, that the founding of the New People which was to be fashioned out of all nations upon earth,467467The apologists refute the idea that the Jewish proselytes were this new people. It was an obvious objection. But Christians alone have adherents ἐκ παντὰς γένους ἀνθρώπων. had from the very beginning been prophesied and prepared for (cp. pp. 240 f.).4684681To cite but a single passage, compare the Preaching of Peter (Clem. Alex., Strom., VI. xv.): Ἡμεῖς δὲ ἀναπτύξαντες τὰς βίβλους ἃς εἴχομεν τῶν προφητῶν, ἃ μὲν διὰ παραβολῶν, ἃ δὲ δι᾽ αἰνιγμάτων, ἃ δὲ αὐθεντικῶς καὶ αὐτολεξεὶ τὸν Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν ὀνομαζόντων, εὕρομεν καὶ τὴν παρουσίαν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸν θάνατον καὶ τὸν σταυρὸν καὶ τὰς λοιπὰς κολάσεις πάσας, ὅσας ἐποίησαν αὐτῷ οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι, καὶ τὴν ἔγερσιν καὶ τὴν εἰς οὐρανοὺς ἀνάληψιν πρὸ τοῦ Ἱεροσόλυμα κριθῆναι, καθὼς ἐγέγραπτο ταῦτα πάντα ἃ ἔδει αὐτὸν παθεῖν καὶ γεγραμμένων εἰς αὐτόν (“Unrolling the books of the prophets in our possession, which name Christ Jesus partly in parables, partly in enigmas, and partly in plain expressions and in so many words, we find his advent, death, cross, and the other punishments inflicted on him by the Jews, his resurrection and his ascension into heaven, previous to the fall of Jerusalem, even as it is written, ‘All these things which he had to suffer, and which shall be after him.' Learning all this, we believed in God by means of what had been written about him”). This writer explains, then, that on the ground of the Old Testament he came to believe in God the Father of Jesus Christ. Tertull., Apol., xlvi.: “Ostendimus totum statum nostrum, et quibus modis probare possimus ita esse sicut ostendimus, ex fide scilicet et antiquitate divinarum litterarum, item ex confessione spiritualium potestatum” [i.e., the testimony which the demons exorcised by us are forced to bear] (“We have stated all our case, and also shown you how we are able to prove it, viz., from the trustworthy character and great age of our sacred writings, and likewise from the confession of the powers of spiritual evil”). These, then, were the two decisive proofs.

Their own religion appeared, on the basis of this book, to be the religion of a history which was the fulfillment of prophecy; what remained still in the future could only be a brief space of time, and even in its course everything would be fulfilled in accordance with what had been prophesied. The certain guarantee for this was afforded by what had already been fulfilled. By aid of the Old Testament, Christian teachers dated back their religion to the very beginning of things, and connected it with the creation. This formed one of the most impressive articles of the mission-preaching among educated people, and thereby Christianity got a hold which was possessed by no religion except Judaism. But one must take good care not to imagine that to the minds of these Christians the Old Testament was pure prophecy which still lacked its fulfillment. The Old Testament was indeed a book of prophecies, but for that very reason it had didactic significance as the complete revelation of God, which needed no manner of addition whatsoever, and excluded any subsequent modification. The historical fulfillment—“lex radix evangeliorum” (Tert., Scorp., ii.)—of these revelations merely attested their truth in the eyes of all the world. Indeed, the whole gospel was thus put together from the Old Testament. Handbooks of this kind must have been widely circulated in different though similar editions.

3. Proofs from the Old Testament were increasingly employed to justify principles and institutions adopted by the Christian church (not merely imageless, spiritual worship, the abolition of the ceremonial law and its precepts, with baptism and the Lord's supper, but also—though hesitatingly—the Christian priesthood, the episcopate, and the new organizations within the cultus).

4. The book was used for the purpose of exhortation, following the formula of “a minori ad maius.” If God had praised or punished this or that in the past, how much more, it was argued, are we to look for similar treatment from him, we who are now living in the last days and who have received “the calling of promise.”

5. From the Old Testament (i.e., from its prophetic denunciations) Christians proved469469How impressive was the argument— you see, the Jewish nation is dispersed, the temple is destroyed, the sacrifices have ceased, the princes of the house of Juda have disappeared! Compare the extensive use of these facts by Eusebius in his Church History. that the Jewish people had no covenant with God (cp. pp. 66 f.).

6. Christians edified themselves by means of the Old Testament and its sayings about trust in God, about God's aid, about humility, and about holy courage, as well as by means of its heroic spirits and its prophets, above all, by the psalms.

What has been summarized in these paragraphs is enough to indicate the importance of the Old Testament for primitive Christianity and its mission.470470No thorough statement of the significance and employment of the Old Testament in the early church is available even at this time of day. In his Untersuchungen zum ersten Clemensbrief (1891), Wrede, however, has shown how such an essay should be planned and executed. His summary there (p. 75) agrees with what I have stated above. “Clement's use of Scripture,” he writes, “depends wholly on the presupposition common to all Christians, that the Old Testament is the one holy book given by God to Christians, and to Christians directly and expressly; its words can lay claim to absolute authority, and they furnish the primary and most important basis of all Christian παράδοσις (tradition). Historically, it would be a totally inadequate account of the real facts of the case to declare that the Old Testament in whole or part still retained its value for Christians, as though the recognition of this was the result of some kind of reflection. The possession of this wonderful infallible volume was really, in the eyes of Christians, one of the most convincing and attractive features of the new religion, We simply cannot possess our minds too fully of the view that in those days there was not the slightest idea of a second sacred scripture ever rising one day to rank with the Old Testament, much less to round off the earlier book.” In worship, readings were regularly given from the Old Testament, and further acquaintance with it was certainly promoted by means of brief selections and writings like the Testimonia of Cyprian. Private reading of the Bible was also practiced, as is plain from the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, several passages in Tertullian and Origen, and other sources. Origen (Hom. II. in Num., vol. x. p. 19) thinks that from one to two hours of prayer and Bible-reading is barely an adequate minimum for the individual Christian; in Hom. in Levit. ix. 7, he describes “divina lectio, orationes assiduae, et sermo doctrinae” as “nutrimenta spiritus.” In pseudo-Clem., de Virginit., I. x., the reading of the Bible at small devotional gatherings held in private houses is mentioned. Justin assumes, in his Apology, that the Old Testament is easily accessible, and that the emperor could readily procure a copy. But the description of Pamphilus at Cæsarea (Jerome, adv. Rufin. I. ix.) is particularly illuminating: “Scripturas sanctas non ad legendum tantum, sed et ad habendum tribuebat promptissime, nec solum viris sed et feminis quas vidisset lectioni deditas, unde et multos codices praeparabat, ut cum necessitas poposcisset, volentibus largiretur” (“He readily provided Bibles not only to read but to keep, not only for men but for any women whom he saw addicted to reading. Hence he would prepare a large number of volumes, so that, when any demand was made upon him, he might be in a position to gratify those who applied to him”). For the diffusion of Scripture knowledge by means of reading (in small circles or publicly), cp. pseudo-Clem., de Virg., II. vi. Yet Augustine was not alone in his complaint (Conf., vi. 11. 18): “Ubi ipsos codices quaerimus? Unde aut quomodo comparamus? A quibus sumimus? (“Where are we to find even the books [i.e., of Scripture]? Where and how can we procure them? From whom can we get them?”). Be it remembered, however, that a large portion of its contents was allegorized, i.e., criticized and re-interpreted. Without this, a great deal of the Old Testament would have been unacceptable to Christians. Anyone who refused such re-reading of its contents had to reject the book in whole or part.471471Like Barnabas before him, Origen has shown with perfect clearness that the literal sense is in many cases inadmissible. Compare, for example, Hom. VII. 5 in Levit. (vol. ix. pp. 306 f.): “Si adsideamus literae, et secundum hoc vel quod Judaeis vel id quod vulgo videtur accipiamus, quae in lege scripta sunt, erubesco dicere et confiteri, quia tales leges dederit deus. videbuntur enim magis elegantes et rationabiles hominum leges, verbi gratia vel Romanorum vel Atheniensium vel Lacedaemoniorum. si vero secundum hanc intelligentiam, quam docet ecclesia, accipiatur dei lex, tunc plane omnes humanas supereminet leges et veri dei lex esse creditur.” It may not be superfluous to recall that any authoritative text, especially one which was explained as of divine authority, demanded the allegorical interpretation, since those who recognized or maintained its authority usually connected the text with ideas which were quite different from the interpretation sanctioned by the historical interpretation. Nay more. Authority was desired and devised for such ideas themselves. For example, to treat the Song of Solomon as a love-song and then to vindicate the authority of its sacred text, is the acme of absurdity; it became an intolerable burden for the church to do so. But the same difficulty arose in connection with a book like Genesis. Those who admitted the book to the canon had no desire to canonize a wretched Jacob, etc.; but they were prepared for all such contingencies, and employed the allegorical method to remove any stumbling-blocks. Here, indeed, one may even ask whether the final redactor did not smooth over his work with allegorical expositions; in that event, only the sources of the book would need to be explained historically, whereas the book itself (apart from its canonization) would invite the allegorical method—the latter going back to the age of the book's final redaction. Once a Bible text is explained as possessing divine authority, no one needs to trouble any longer about the allegorical interpretation of those who had canonized it; the acceptance of it as a divine authority tacitly enjoined the faithful to read it in such a way as to draw the maximum of edifying matter from it. This was the true method of interpretation! A few connecting links, be they ever so slender and arbitrary, had to be made between certain parts of the literal text and the fine ideas which were attached to the letter. But, once this was done, everything was in order, and those ideas now ranked as the ideas of the text itself. So it is at bottom with all books of human law, mutatis mutandis. They all invite an “allegorical” interpretation alongside of the historical (i.e., the sense of the original lawgiver). They not only permit but involve the acceptance of any explanation as legitimate which can at all be reconciled with the letter of their writing, even though the reconciliation he rather forced.

After the rise of the New Testament, which was the most important and independent product of the primitive church, and which legitimized its faith as a new religion, certain aspects of the Old Testament fell into the background. Still, these were not numerous. Plainly, there were vital points at which the former could not undertake to render the service done by the latter. No doubt any statement of Christian morality always went back to the words of Jesus as its primary source. Here the Old Testament had to retire. But elsewhere the latter held its own. It was only in theory, not in practice, that an imperceptible revolution occurred. The conflict with gnosticism, and the formation of the New Testament which took place in and with that conflict, made it plain to the theologians of the catholic church that the simple identification of the Old Testament and the gospel was by no means a matter of course. The first theologians of the ancient catholic church, Irenæus and Tertullian, already relax this absolute identification; they rather approximate to the conception of the apostle Paul, viz., that the Old Testament and the old covenant mark quite a different level from that of the New. The higher level of the new covenant is recognized, and therewith the higher level of the New Testament as well. Now in theory this led to many consequences of no small moment, for people learned to assign higher value to the specific significance of the Christian religion when it was set in contrast to the Old Testament—a point on which the gnostics had insisted with great energy. But in practice this change of estimate did not seriously affect the use of the Old Testament. If one could now hold theoretically that much of the Old Testament was “demutatum, suppletum, impletum, perfectum,” and even “expunctum” by the New Testament (Tert., de Orat., i.), the third century saw the Old Testament allegorized and allegorically employed as direct evidence for the truths of Christianity. Indeed people really ceased to allegorize it. As the churches became stocked with every kind of sacred ceremony, and as they carefully developed priestly, sacrificial and sacramental ideas, people now began to grow careless and reckless in applying the letter of Old Testament ceremonial laws to the arrangements of the Christian organization and worship. In setting itself up as a legislative body, the church had recourse to the Old Testament in a way that Paul had severely censured; it fell back on the law, though all the while it blamed the Jews and declared that their observance of the law was quite illicit. In dogma there was now greater freedom from the Old Testament than had been the case during the second century; Christological problems occupied the foreground, and theological interests shifted from problems of θεός and λόγος to those of the Trinity and of Christology, as well as to Christocentric mysteries. In the practice of the church, however, people employed the Old Testament more lavishly than their predecessors, in order to get a basis for usages which they considered indispensable. For a purpose of this kind the New Testament was of little use.

The New Testament as a whole did not generally play the same role as the Old Testament in the mission and practice of the church. The gospels certainly ranked on a level with the Old Testament, and actually eclipsed it; through them the words of Jesus gleamed and sparkled, and in them his death and resurrection were depicted. But the epistles never enjoyed the same importance—particularly as many passages in them, in Paul especially, landed the fathers of the church in sore difficulties,472472The second epistle of Peter already bewails this, and one can see from the great work of Irenæus what difficulties were raised by the Pauline doctrines of predestination, sin, freedom, and grace. Tertullian felt these difficulties still more keenly than Irenæus, but as a Montanist he could solve them by means of the Paraclete; cp., e.g., de Resurr., lxiii.: “Deus pristina instrumenta manifestis verborum et sensuum luminibus ab omni ambiguitatis obscuritate purgavit” (“God has now purged from all the darkness of ambiguity those ancient scriptures, by the plain light of their language and their meanings,” i.e., by the new prophecy). above all during the conflict with gnosticism. Augustine was the first to bring the Pauline gospel into prominence throughout the West; in the East, it never emerged at all from the shadow. As for the Johannine theology, it left hardly any traces upon the early church. Only one or two sections of it proved effective. As a whole, it remained a sealed book, though the same may be said of the Pauline theology.473473Along with the Bible, i.e., primarily with the Old Testament, a considerable literature of apocalypses and allied writings entered the Christian churches. These also contained cosmological and philosophical materials. Tertullian conjectures that pagan philosophers may have been acquainted with them, but he speaks very slightingly of them (de Anima, ii.): “Quid autem, si philosophi etiam illa incursaverunt quae penes nos apocryphorum confessione damnantur, certos nihil recipiendum quod non conspiret germanae, et ipso iam aevo pronatae propheticae paraturae, quando et pseudoprophetarum meminerimus et multo prius apostatarum spirituum,” etc. (“What if the philosophers have also attacked those writings which we condemn under the title of ‘apocryphal,' convinced as we are that nothing should be received unless it tallies with the true prophetic system which has also arisen in the present age, since we do not forget the existence of false prophets and apostate spirits long before them,” etc.); cp. de Resurr. lxiii., where he says that the gnostics “arcana apocryphorum superducunt, blasphemiae fabulas” (“introduce apocryphal mysteries and blasphemous fables”).


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