150–200 CE: A ‘watch and wait’ period in early Christian history

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 3

In a recent comment, Albert Wubs kindly brought to my attention a work entitled Ad Autolycum, the only surviving writing (in three ‘books’) by Theophilus of Antioch, a Christian bishop in the latter half of the second century CE. The Greek text and English translation, edited by the late Robert M. Grant, are available via PDF download here.

The problem

Wubs correctly notes that “any reference to the name ‘Christ’ is totally absent. Maybe Theophilus also knew a ‘Christianity’ without Christ.” This is interesting, for Ad Autolycum (composed c. 185 CE) seems to know the canonical gospels—it names “John” as one of “the sacred scriptures” (and includes two verbatim quotations from the Johannine Prologue) and also has several close parallels to logia known from the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. So, if Theophilus knew several of the canonical gospels, then he must of course have known Jesus of Nazareth and his ministry. Yet, in sixty pages of Greek, he doesn’t mention Jesus at all. Not a single time. He 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.

Theophilus also doesn’t mention “Paul” or his career, though Ad Autolycum has many quotations closely paralleling verses from the Pauline epistles (including the Pastorals)—a corpus of letters that, we recall, also make no mention of Jesus of Nazareth.

Robert Grant writes: Bishop Theophilus’ “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.”

Presumably, we are to believe that Bishop Theophilus and a whole slew of Christian writers knew the virgin birth, the ministry, the apostles, the passion, the cross, the bodily resurrection, and yet found the Savior Of The Whole World not important enough to even mention once in their prolix exhortations and defenses of Christianity!

It just doesn’t add up.

Or does it? We recall that the dominant first century theology—that of early (what I have called “Stage II”) Christianity was in a Jesus (“Savior”) that was a spiritual entity, the Logos, the “Son” of God (in an abstract sense), divine “power” and “spirit.” I’ve elsewhere characterized this emphatically pre-Nicene Christianity as one in which “Jesus” is a mobile spiritual entity that indwells the worthy person. Any worthy person can, in this “mystery religion,” become a Jesus. And there were, in fact, many Jesuses—Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Paul himself… (see my post here).

But after the appearance of the canonical gospels in mid-II CE all this radically changed. Now civilization had Jesus of Nazareth—God appearing in the flesh to save the world once (His “only begotten Son”) for all time! This marvelous new message needed an appropriately grand declamation, and that declamation is the canonical gospels with the virgin birth, the ministry, the miracles, the apostles, the passion, the cross, and the bodily resurrection—all grippingly described in dramatic and awe-inspiring detail.

So, how are we to explain Christian writings after the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth, writings like Ad Autolycum that still simply do not mention Jesus of Nazareth?

The tyranny of the timid multitude

We all know what happens when something radically new arrives on the scene. People don’t automatically flock to the new idea en masse—it doesn’t matter how good the idea might be. People are cautious. First, they look to see if anybody else is following what is new… That gives them a little confidence. After all, no one wants to be the first to espouse a losing proposition.

The bigger the idea, the more different, the quieter are people. The timid multitude wants to see which way the wind is blowing before it jumps on the bandwagon. People in power, too, are especially cautious. They have the most to lose.

When the over-the-top figure, Jesus of Nazareth, arrived like a bombshell in four great, astonishing gospels in mid-II CE, Christians everywhere were awestruck. By and large they were quiet. For several decades, Christian apologists from Spain to Mesopotamia were very careful how they handled this radical new information, this stunning new Savior of the world. They looked, watched, and listened.

This explains the curious nature of a great deal of Christian writing. For at least a half century—let’s say from c. 150 to c. 200 CE—the Christian world was in a ‘watch and wait’ period. Writings from that period are characterized by: (a) demonstrable knowledge of the canonical gospels; (b) suppression of the biography of Jesus of Nazareth; (c) clinging to the old ‘Jesus as spirit’ model; and (d) moving away from the ‘mobile Jesus’ and (tentatively) towards the divine elevation of a single fleshly Jesus of history.

Implications for dating?

Is it possible to use the above new criteria for dating purposes? A Christian text that does not have parallels to the canonical gospels and that does not know Jesus of Nazareth readily dates sometime before c. 150 CE. On the other hand, a Christian text that does know the canonical gospels and yet does not mention of Jesus of Nazareth may well fall into a limited later period: c. 150–c. 200 CE.

Here are some test cases. First: the Pauline epistles. According to the foregoing general schema, what are we to make of those New Testament writings? They do not know Jesus of Nazareth. Do they know the canonical gospels? That is a question for a Pauline expert such as Bob Price, but looking in my Index to the Gospel Parallels, I see only a few parallels between the Epistles (mostly 1 Corinthians) and the 4G. Is it possible—even conceivable—that one or more Pauline epistles postdate the canonical gospels? Admittedly, I have never considered such a late dating for those epistles, namely, as late as 200 CE. Of course, the universal view (I know of no scholar who challenges it) is that the epistles preceded the canonical gospels. Maybe, however, that view is (or should be) open to challenge…

I have elsewhere suggested that the Pauline epistles date to the second century. The present argument, then, leaves the door at least slightly ajar that one or more epistles date even after the gospels, namely, post-150 CE. Support for this also comes from an astonishing fact: no reference exists in the Church Fathers to either the epistles or gospels before c. 150 CE!

Another test case: the Gospel of Thomas. Again, this text does not know Jesus of Nazareth. However, it has numerous parallels with the canonical gospels. I myself drew up a list of parallels many years ago (1998) and shared it with the CrossTalk2 list on Yahoo Groups. Two thirds of the Gospel of Thomas (62% to be exact) has either accepted or putative (suspected) parallels with the synoptic gospels. That’s a very high percentage, and I think it disqualifies the notion that the Gospel of Thomas and the synoptic gospels were totally independent of each other, even if they drew from the same fund of logia/parables. Two other possibilities remain: the Gospel of Thomas influenced the synoptics (i.e., GTh dates before c. 140 CE), or the synoptic gospels influenced Thomas (i.e., GTh dates after c. 150 CE.).

General scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Thomas contains the more authentic from of many logia—the canonical versions are often elaborations. Also, the actual form of the Gospel of Thomas argues for its greater antiquity. Thomas is essentially a sayings source, while the canonical gospels are sophisticated interweavings of both sayings and narrative elements.

Provisionally, then, I conclude the following:
– The Gospel of Thomas dates before c. 140 CE
– The canonical gospels date between c. 140 and 150 CE (see here)
– One or another of the Pauline epistles may date as late as c. 200 CE (!)
– A number of Christian writings and apologetical tractates that make no mention of Jesus of Nazareth may still date as late as c. 200 CE.

← Previous                    Next →                    (cf. also: ‘Watch and Wait’ period—II)

About René Salm

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


150–200 CE: A ‘watch and wait’ period in early Christian history — 3 Comments

  1. If the canonical gospels were written between 140 to 150 CE, then those writing from that time up to 180 CE or so could well have known the authors and known the narratives were fiction, and therefore knew not to refer to them. It could well have taken them at least a generation or two to become “history”.

    • Exactly. And the opponents of the new figure of Jesus Christ in the flesh would have been labeled ‘docetists’–those who deny that Jesus came in the flesh. Those docetists included all the old-school Christians who would deny the new, great figure of Jesus Christ.

      The authors of the canonical gospels may have themselves overlapped with the Church Fathers/historiographers of the Church. The canonical gospels were, I suspect, in-house documents. In any case, those documents would have greatly surprised everybody (perhaps even alarmed some). So, it’s natural that a ‘waiting period’ would have taken place.

  2. Theophilus was concerned with the impossibility of reconciling the transcendence of the Father with the description of the Jewish god found throughout the Old Testament. Therefore, he developed the theory of the proferred Word of God: this Word is capable of interacting in the world, causing theophanies in the Old Testament, such as (for the first time) in Genesis 3. Moreover, it is already the active force of creation itself.

    Church fathers of the era were frequently concerned with this dilemma, which ultimately led to the conciliar dogma of consubstantual trinity. The burning bush of Exodus was particularly popular as a model for Jesus interacting with Israel, specifically in Justin’s disputes with Trypho. Justin was the most influential in this regard, but Tertullian also saw a direct connection between Jesus and some theophanies in the Pentateuch.

    The Epistula Apostolorum, an anonymous patristic work, lists the theophanies of the Old Testament and the actions of Jesus according to the gospels as activities of one and the same being.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *