The late second century and Paul

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 8

In the preceding post I introduced some evidence that Christianity in fact predated the turn of the era—such as that Philo (fl c. 20 CE) knew ‘Christian’ sectarians including the Sethians and Ophites, that his description of the Therapeutae was of an early Buddhist-Christian group on the outskirts of Alexandria, that ‘Apollos’ in the Acts of the Apostles already knew ‘Jesus’ but not ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ etc.

In this post I jump forward to the late second century CE—just when the New Testament canon was being formulated. The prevalent form of christology was still ‘Jesus is the indwelling spirit of God’s wisdom’—a christology that I have termed Stage II.

I briefly discussed the text Ad Autolycum in a recent post and return to it here. Ad Autolycum (“To Autolycus”) is a defense of Christianity and is the only surviving text by Theophilus of Antioch (c. 180 CE). Theophilus was writing in the ‘Watch and Wait’ period between the drafting of the canonical gospels (mid-II CE) and their final canonization, evidenced by the Muratorian Canon c. 200 CE. 

Theophilus may well know one or more of the soon-to-be-canonical gospels but—as Robert Grant observed, his “understanding of the work of Jesus Christ can be recovered only from allusions, for like other apologists of his time he never openly speaks of him.” The reason is clear when we understand that Christian writers between c. 150 and c. 200 CE were not sure when, if, and in what form the new story of Jesus of Nazareth would be ‘approved’ in Rome. So, they played it safe. In sixty pages of Greek, Ad Autolycum doesn’t mention Jesus at all. Not a single time. Theophilus doesn’t mention the virgin birth, the ministry, the apostles, the passion, the cross, the ascension… For the Bishop of Antioch, it is as if Jesus of Nazareth did not even exist.

In Ad Autolycum Theophilus continues to argue the spiritual Jesus paradigm. Within a generation, however, this would change, as the older spirit christology gave way to the iconic figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

God is spirit

For Theophilus, God is strictly a spiritual entity and has no bodily form:

1.2] But if you should say, ‘Show me your God,’ I may reply to you, ‘Show me your man and I will show you my God.’ You must show me that the eyes of your soul can see and that the ears of your heart can hear. For just as those who see with bodily eyes contemplate the affairs of life on earth and distinguish things that differ [cf. Rom.2:18 & Phil. 1:10], such as light from darkness, white from black, ugly from beautiful, rhythmical and metrical from the unmetrical, beyond the metre from truncated; and similarly with things that fall under the sense of hearing, sounds that are shrill or deep or sweet; just so, the ears of the heart and the eyes of the soul are potentially capable of beholding God. God is seen by those who are capable of seeing him, once they have the eyes of the soul opened.

1.3] You will say to me, then, ‘Since you see, describe the form of God to me.’ Hear me, man: the form of God is ineffable and inexpressible, since it cannot be seen with merely human eyes.

1.5] Just as the soul in a man is not seen, since it is invisible to men, but is apprehended through the movement of the body, so it may be that God cannot be seen by human eyes but is seen and apprehended through his providence and his works.

1.7] If you know these things, man, and live in purity, holiness, and righteousness, you can see God. But before all, faith and the fear of God must take the lead in your heart; then you will understand these things.

The above citations do not betray an author for whom Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God come in the flesh. Their theology is similarly distant from the (integral) Pauline notions of atonement and redemption—from the saving “cross” of the Lamb of God who gave his life that we all might live. It is almost as if Bishop Theophilus did not know the Pauline epistles… (see below).

More remarkable still is the following passage, in which Theophilus castigates Autolycus:

1.9] The names of the gods you say you worship are the names of dead men.

No person writing the above could himself venerate a God-man who died on the cross for our sins! In another passage we learn that Theophilus venerates a different class of persons: prophets who possess the ‘spirit’ of God:

2.10] It was he, Spirit of God and Beginning and Sophia and Power of the Most High, who came down into the prophets and spoke through them about the creation of the world and all the rest…

The human being who keeps God’s commandments becomes immortal and even divine:

2.27] If man were to turn to the life of immortality by keeping the commandments of God, he would win immortality as a reward from him and would become a god…

Those are powerful words. It is clear that, for Theophilus of Antioch, the Sophia (wisdom) and “commandments of God” were available to the prophets of old and are available to anyone who “would win immortality.” By living according to divine will, one can become perfected, immortal, even ‘god.’ With no Jesus of Nazareth, this is of course a very different theology than what Christians know today. It is the theology that predated the Catholic Church, as I have written about elsewhere. What I find remarkable is that such a theology—with a mobile, spiritual wisdom-savior (“Jesus”)—was still in force in Antioch in the late second century CE.

New suspicion on the Pauline epistles…

‘Bishop’ Theophilus doesn’t mention Paul or his career, though Ad Autolycum has many quotations closely paralleling verses from the Pauline epistles. In other words, Theophilus treats the Pauline corpus with the same ambivalence with which he treats the canonical gospels.

This gives me pause… What, then, prevents one from dating the Pauline epistles after the canonical gospels? There seems to have been a grace period of about a half century, c. 150–200 CE, when Christian writers made only general “allusions” to the life of Jesus of Nazareth (as in the Pauline epistles and Ad Autolycum) while the canonical gospels themselves were being ‘vetted.’

A late II CE dating for the epistles is, admittedly, an astonishing proposition. But it would make very good sense in at least one critical sense: the Pauline epistles suddenly appear as an imprimatur for the recently-appearing figure Jesus of Nazareth. How? Consider: the main thrust of the epistles is to establish faith in Jesus Christ, that is, belief in the “cross of Christ.” In other words, the epistles make the case for the acceptance of the gospels.

A chronological schema now emerges quite clearly:
(1) the canonical gospels are ‘drafted’ in mid-II CE
(2) a “Watch and Wait” period ensues, c. 150–c. 200 CE, during which the gospels are edited and abortive attempts are made to ‘fuse’ them into one (cf. Tatian’s Diatessaron)
(3) during the “Watch and Wait” period the Pauline epistles are drafted by the emergent Church with the purpose of solidifying and buttressing the acceptance of the new gospels
(4) about 200 CE, the Muratorian Canon—including gospels and epistles—shows that the New Testament is now accepted by the Church.

As regards step (3), it would not have been necessary for the Pauline epistles to detail the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, as we see in the actual documents. Not only was that ministry still under ‘review’ by the Church, but the purpose of the epistles would obtain regardless of what the Church decided regarding Jesus of Nazareth. The purpose of the epistles is, as noted above, to reinforce faith in the saving cross of Jesus. That is the core of Catholic Christian doctrine. The (invented) details of Jesus’ earthly ministry are entirely secondary.

The Gospels-Epistles sequence is contrary to, say, the one proposed in Tom Dykstra’s insightful book, Mark: Canonizer of Paul (reviewed on this website here). Dykstra concludes (p. 19): “For Mark, what is uniquely significant about Jesus is not his teaching but his passion, crucifixion, and resurrection.” That is, of course, totally Pauline. Perhaps the best way to view the gospels and epistles is not the one before the other, but both corpora in tandem: they arose more or less together in the later second century, working ‘off one another,’ as it were.

In any case, it appears to me that the Pauline corpus fits neatly into the “Watch and Wait” period 150–200 CE. Like Ad Autolycum, the epistles avoid direct mention of Jesus of Nazareth and speak eloquently of the spiritual Jesus of old. They emphasize in first place the “cross of Christ” and thus implicitly betray knowledge of the (forthcoming) figure Jesus of Nazareth.

Though I developed the foregoing schema on my own, I was very pleased to recently discover that another online scholar shares this ‘late’ chronology. “Bahumoth” (his personal name does not appear on his website) also dates the Pauline corpus c. 180 CE, as we see from the following very detailed graphic (see “Sauline epistles” and “Pauline epistles” at bottom right):

Credit: (“Bahumoth”)

We note from the above that, like myself, Bahumoth also dates the canonical gospels to the mid-second century CE. Furthermore, his extensive website proposes, as I do, that Christianity commenced about a century prior to the turn of the era.

The Christian assimilation of Greek philosophy in late-II CE

In the late second century, Christian doctrine assimilated elements of Greek philosophy. Theophilus identifies the ‘Power of God’ with the Logos, the creative aspect of God:

2.10] Therefore God, having his own Logos innate in his own bowels, generated him together with his own Sophia, vomiting him forth before everything else. He used this Logos as his servant in the things created by him, and through him he made all things.

So, for Theophilus, the Logos is the creative agency of God, “innate in his own bowels,” as well as “his servant.” Theophilus also writes:

Therefore the Command of God, his Logos, shining like a lamp in a closed room, illuminated the region under the heaven, making light separately from the world. [Ad Autolycum 2.13]

The foregoing is only a step away from the identification of the Logos/Word of God with a specific person of history, the Savior (“Jesus,” cf. Jn 1:4, 9):

John 1:1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The foregoing also seems precisely the view of Theophilus:

2.22] What is the ‘voice’ [of God in the garden of Eden] but the Logos of God, who is also his Son?… always innate in the heart of God. For before anything came into existence he had this as his Counselor, his own Mind and Intelligence. When God wished to make what he had planned to make, he generated this Logos, making him external, as the firstborn of all creation… Hence the holy scriptures and all those inspired by the Spirit teach us, and one of them, John, says, ‘In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with god’ [John 1:1]. Then he says, ‘And the Logos was God; everything was made through him, and apart from him nothing was made’ [Jn 1:1-3].

The Johannine Prologue, however, then begins to depart from the theology openly expressed by Theophilus. The gospel places the Logos in a definite and unique historical context:

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.

9 The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10 It was in the world, and the world was made through it, yet the world knew it not. 11 It came to its own home, and its own people received it not. 12 But to all who received it, who believed in its name, it gave power to become children of God; 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Thus far, the Johannine Prologue can still be interpreted with no Jesus of Nazareth. The Logos is still the (abstract) light of the world. There was “a man sent from God, whose name was John,” who bore “witness to the light.” That man, John, was a prophet—like the Jewish prophets of old.

But then the Johannine Prologue takes a new turn: the light/Logos is no longer an abstraction, but is identified by the Fourth Evangelist with a specific person of history, Jesus Christ:

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. 15 (John bore witness to him, and cried, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) 16 And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

The Fourth Gospel and the Pauline epistles are on different, but parallel tracks. The former openly expresses the biography of Jesus of Nazareth. The epistles, however, may know that biography but do not commit themselves to the new paradigm. Together with Ad Autolycum and other contemporary Christian writings, all these texts seem to belong to the mid- to late-second century CE, a critical but tentative era when the Christian canon slowly came into being.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


The late second century and Paul — 3 Comments

  1. Thank you for a very interesting series of posts. There is much I can agree with, but having been persuaded by Detering, Doherty, Carrier and Dykstra of the lack of gospel input to the Pauline corpus, I will need to see a more extended working of your argument for gospel precedence before being persuaded to change my mind on that one. Saying that the gospels and the Pauline corpus evolved “in tandem” is not really a solution, although it is clear that there has been much tampering with the original Pauline writings.

    • Your concern is well taken. My principal reservation would be Marcion’s role. If one maintains that Marcion was the source of, say, the Ep. to the Galatians (Detering, Price, etc.) then the chronology is tight–but still feasible, as Marcion was (presumably) active in mid-II CE and died c. 160 CE. I provisionally date the 4G (all of them) to the 140s CE. That leaves a full decade for Marcion to ‘find’ EpGal—and even to have composed UrLk beforehand.

      Marcion himself is a nebulous figure. J. Querner (“Bahumoth”) writes: “Paul suffers from the exact same problems as Jesus. No one talks about him until the late second century. Even Justin mentioned Marcion but not Paul. The general picture provided by the Marcionite canon that Chrestianity was founded by a single itinerant preacher almost single-handedly sailing from city to city across all the Roman provinces and then preaching on the streets is not only improbable, but also strikingly close to what Marcion himself was believed to have done.”

      In other words, more work needs to be done on resolving the various figures and their activities towards mid-II CE.

  2. Tandem development, and that for the whole NT, is the one and only reasonable assumption — and not only for the middle of the second century but for centuries to come. Still Eusebius wrote in his History of the Church I 2:8-9 about Jerus being the Logos which appeared in the Old Testament to e.g. Abraham and Jacob, and which caused the downpour of fire and brimstone over Sodom and Gomorrha. De Sacramentis and De Mysteriis, assigned to Saint Ambrose, mention the Christ as the creative force of the world by means of his words. So patristic literature had to resort to a pre-existant Christ, appearing in the theophanies of the old testament, until well into the fourth century; and some popular chorales still show redactional fatigue resulting from attempts to adapt them to consubstantial trinitarism, the official Roman Catholic ideology ever since.

    For GMarcion, Stuart Waugh recently realized that it just represents what an early draft of later Luke looked like around the time when Catholics and Marcionites broke apart, which, of course, amounts to the middle of second century.

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