The early (nonexistent) Church Fathers

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 13

For hundreds of years scholars have been largely relying on the Church Fathers to reconstruct the history of Christianity. The Fathers tell us when something happened, who did it, what the circumstances were, and also the consequences. Regarding the archheretic Marcion, for example, we learn that he was either a nauclerus (Lat. “ship-owner” or “ship-builder”) or the excommunicated son of a bishop (there are two traditions), that he tried to buy his way into the Church, that he was a disciple of a certain Cerdo, that he had a distinguished disciple named Apelles, that he came to Rome in 144 CE and/or 155 CE (again, there are two traditions), etc. And now let us carefully note: without the Church Fathers we would know absolutely nothing about Marcion—or even that he existed.

As we just saw, the Church Fathers often disagree as to what they write. The modern scholar can use logic, textual criticism, and the other tools at his/her disposal, but often the sources are so flagrantly flawed and tendentiously reworked (Tertullian wrote his “Against Marcion” three times!) that any conclusion must remain tentative. For example, as regards Marcion, it is simply not possible that he was already excommunicated before he met with the bishop of Rome. To me, that in turn casts doubt on the entire 155 CE visit to Rome. Again: could Marcion have been already excommunicated by his father before he went to Rome in 144 CE? That also seems doubtful to me and so I would suggest the following: the excommunication occurred in Rome c. 144 CE and was erroneously transferred later (by Epiphanius) to Marcion’s father. In any case, whatever conclusion we reach in regards to so much relating to early Christian history, we do so necessarily relying upon the Church Fathers.

Who were those Church Fathers? One thing is clear: the further back we go in history, the less we know about them. In fact, the earliest Fathers are known only through statements made by later Fathers. This should give us pause! In a modern court of law, of course, relying on third-party testimony is called “hearsay.” In our case, however, the very existence of the earliest Church Fathers depends on how much faith we are willing to place in just a few statements made by later Fathers.

Even conservative scholars admit that the Church Fathers’ primary task was to defend the faith. Those ancient heresy hunters could be acidly polemical and not a little biased. Furthermore, ample evidence demonstrates that they could be creative, contradictory, more than a little dishonest, and often downright nasty.

We have seen in these posts that the Catholic religion actually began towards the middle of the second century CE, with the creation of the canonical gospels and the figure of ‘Christ.’ Before that time, the Church Fathers are nebulous, very poorly attested figures. Very early writings attributed to Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch have been shown to be later forgeries.  

It is only after mid-II CE that orthonymous works (writings that bear the name of the actual author) actually survive from the Church Fathers, beginning with Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165 CE).

Forging a whole century

Now for my main point: given the facts that the religion they were defending appeared only in mid-II CE, and that the alleged founder was supposed to have lived over a century earlier, one of the main tasks of the Church Fathers—if not the main task—was to produce links going back to the invented apostles and to the equally invented Jesus of Nazareth. Upon those links rested the Church’s entire claim to authority.

The principal Church Fathers until ca. 300 CE. No authentic writings survive from those in red font. They are known only through one or more statements of later Church Fathers. All surviving Catholic writings credited by some conservative scholars to those figures who flourished before c. 150 CE (Clement, Papias, Ignatius, Polycarp) have been shown to be pseudonymous (false attribution).

Hence, there was the need to backfill the period c. 50 CE–c. 150 CE with ‘Catholic’ figures and texts, all—we can now conclude—being invented and forged, since the figure Jesus of Nazareth was itself fabricated only in the middle of the second century CE.

Thus, authenticating the new religion involved populating the years 50 to 150 CE with early Church Fathers as well as with pseudonymous texts attributed to those invented people. It’s not surprising that no authentic texts survive that were penned by Clement of Rome, Papias, or Ignatius (and perhaps by Polycarp)—because they didn’t exist.

Besides the frank invention of early Church Fathers and the forging of early Catholic texts, we also encounter a preoccupation with lists of various kinds, lists calculated to establish the continuity of the Church from earliest times—for example, the list of popes (bishops of Rome) going back to Peter the apostle, the list of Christian patriarchs of Alexandria going back to Mark the evangelist, and so on. These manufactured lists—as has long been suspected—are totally bogus.

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus in the late second century seems particularly implicated in much of this invention and obfuscation, as well as in the codification of the New Testament. He basically canonized the four gospels with the assertion that there could only be four gospels “just as there can only be four winds and four corners of the earth.” He is the first to cite the (obviously forged) Pastoral and Johannine epistles, letters that attack ‘anti-Christ’ views that perpetuated the old ‘Jesus as spirit’ model and that viewed the new gospels only symbolically and allegorically.

Irenaeus also effected a number of strategic linkages: he made the evangelist Mark into a student of Peter; paired Peter with John; turned James the Just into a friend and ally of Paul (this is particularly remarkable, since James was head of the Jerusalem Church!—see Gal 2:12); and also aligned Paul with the Johannine Church in Ephesus. It was likely Irenaeus who linked early bishops such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch with the presbyters of Ephesus and Smyrna through apocryphal epistles ascribed to them. In his writings Irenaeus also connected himself personally to John the Evangelist through the invented figure of Papias.

To effect some of these linkages, Irenaeus had to resort to inordinately long time spans. For example, the (invented) evangelist John is made to live almost one hundred years—long enough so that (the invented) Papias could be his disciple. Irenaeus describes Papias as an old man “who was a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp” (AH 5.33.)

Secure attestation is also lacking for Polycarp, whom Irenaeus claims was his teacher. Irenaeus also ascribes an extremely long life to Polycarp (c. 70?–c. 165 CE?). Thus, through various overlaps and connections, Irenaeus establishes multiple ladders of authority from himself back to John the Evangelist.

Irenaeus claimed that Papias wrote the Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord—lost apart from brief excerpts in the writings of (you guessed it) Irenaeus himself. This lost work of Papias has been highly touted. With the information above, would you be willing to consider it “an important early source on Christian oral tradition and especially on the origins of the canonical Gospels”?

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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 early (nonexistent) Church Fathers — 4 Comments

  1. Most of them are claimed to be martyrs, which is frequently used as another attack on the spirit model for it makes the passion of Jesus appear as an example for Christians to follow. Basilides did not value martyrdom as it was just recompense for karma.

    • I agree. Interestingly, Yeshu ha-Notsri was crucified c. 65 BCE. So I think there may be some legitimate background for the passion of ‘Jesus’ (aka John of the Hasmonean family).

  2. Before determining what Jesus, the Apostles, and Virgin Mary said or did – they being objects of worship and often described as doers of amazing (and frankly impossible) deeds – the first duty of the investigator into Christian origins is to ensure that they actually existed. The latter task is abetted by researching the secular authors of late antiquity who, according to various Christian texts, interacted with these prodigious Christian figures. The writings of those known secular authors are a goldmine of information supported by archeology, philology, epigraphics and numismatics.

    Textual criticism can determine whether the accounts of the Church Fathers in relation to the famous people of the time are authentic, fake, or deliberately manipulated.

    Tacitus, Suetonius, Flavius Josephus, Dio Cassius, Pliny the Younger, the Essenes and the Zealots of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Church Fathers and many others, when reporting the events of the time, have unknowingly helped us to reconstruct the Jewish events of two thousand years ago, as examined on the website “Christ: An invented myth.” The ancient sources can shed much light on the primitive Messianism (Christianity) of the first century, which subsequently gave birth to the myth of “Jesus Christ.”

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