Roman Catholics point to a selection from Irenaeus’s “Against Heresies” as a key piece of evidence (a) for Roman primacy and (b) that the concept of “apostolic succession” was widely believed and practiced. Here is that text as cited by Sean Patrick:
“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:3:2 (A.D. 180).
I gave a number of reasons why this selection might be discounted, notably the fact that Peter and Paul (and Paul especially) could not be said to have “founded and organized” the church at Rome. This notion was challenged, but it is not the only reason to dismiss this passage.
I described an account of the church historian Eusebius reporting as actual fact, what really was a fictional account of an exchange of letters between Jesus and the Edessan king Abgar.
Sean Patrick then (351) in response to a question of mine, made a comparison between these letters to and from Abgar and what Irenaeus supposedly wrote in the late second century:
Do you grant that there is a huge difference between Eusebius thinking the Agbar letters to be genuine and apostolic succession?
I mean, if the Agbar letter was foundational to the ecclesiology of the Church and repeated and relied upon for 2,000 years spanning the geography of the known world then maybe you would have an argument. If, in addition to what you call Augustine being hampered by his bad ecclesiology you could argue that he was hampered by accepting and relying upon the Agbar letter then maybe we'd have something to talk about.
Thus, that you can show that this father here or that father there held something that kind of sticks out as unreliable does not even compare to apostolic succession. In fact, that these things are aberrations prove that, to the fathers, apostolic succession was no aberration.
No, I do not grant that there is “a huge difference” between the Eusebius/Agbar fiction and Irenaeus’s account of “apostolic succession”. It is just as easy to dismiss Irenaeus’s account. Here’s why.
K. Doran (353) also refers to this passage “The earliest direct evidence we have”, and, if it is (to use Sean’s words) “foundational to the ecclesiology of the church” and “the earliest direct evidence we have”, then it is not very valuable as evidence, and indeed, should be challenged and dismissed.
Michael Kruger, in a recent blog post, pointed out that the number of manuscripts provide important physical evidence of relative use and popularity of certain works. Thus he says:
The physical remains of writings can give us an indication of their relative popularity. Such remains can tell us which books were used, read, and copied. [The notion here is that important works were copied and re-copied, whereas unpopular works were not.] When we examine the physical remains of Christian texts from the earliest centuries (second and third), we quickly discover that the New Testament writings were, far and away, the most popular. Currently we have over sixty extant manuscripts (in whole or in part) of the New Testament from this time period, with most of our copies coming from Matthew, John, Luke, Acts, Romans, Hebrews, and Revelation. The gospel of John proves to be the most popular of all with eighteen manuscripts, a number of which derive from the second century (e.g., P52, P90, P66, P75). Matthew is not far behind with twelve manuscripts; and some of these also have been dated to the second century (e.g., P64-67, P77, P103, P104).
During the same time period, the second and third centuries, we possess approximately seventeen manuscripts of apocryphal writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, the Protevangelium of James, and more. The Gospel of Thomas has the most manuscripts of all, with just three.
The implications of this numerical disparity has not been missed by modern scholars.
By comparison, a work such as “Shepherd of Hermas”, which appeared in some early canonical lists, and which was very highly regarded in some circles, “has not been well preserved”, according to Michael Holmes (“The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations”, Third Edition ©2007), notes that “Only four incomplete Greek manuscripts and several small fragments have been discovered.” In all, he lists about 22 different manuscript sources (many of which are Latin) in which this work appears.
On the other hand, Irenaeus, whose “Against Heresies” is claimed to be a superb piece of evidence, was not so highly regarded all, with only fragments of one Greek manuscript, and a late fourth century Latin translation as the only extant manuscript evidence prior to the tenth century. Note what Eric Osborn says in his study of Irenaeus:
The original Greek text of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is found only in fragmentary form, while [only one] complete Latin translation prepared about the year 380 has survived (emphasis added). There are three early manuscripts of the Latin translation, the oldest of which (Clareomontanus) dates from the tenth or eleventh century. The others are later (Leydensys, Arundelianus). Erasmus’ edition princeps of Irenaeus (1526) contains some readings not represented by any of these three manuscripts and the sources from which his variants may dreive have since disappeared (pg 1).
No complete text exists, and only one manuscript source exists from prior to the 10th century. Thus, in a period (2nd-10th centuries) when literally thousands of New Testament manuscripts exist, including many complete manuscripts of both the OT and the NT, we have only three extant manuscripts of Against Heresies. Thus, Irenaeus’s account was neither “repeated and relied upon for 2,000 years” nor did it “span the geography of the known world” during that time.
The fact that only three manuscript sources existed is an important piece of evidence against the notion that Irenaeus’s beliefs were widespread. In fact, that’s a very important piece of evidence that actually quite provincial.
Moreover, in addition to the paucity of texts, what text we do have, as Chad Brewer (#356) noted, is “a highly debated Latin text”.
Especially debated (as J.N.D. Kelly notes) is the passage in question. He says:
To illustrate his argument Irenaeus singled out, in a famous and much debated passage, the Roman church; its greatness, its antiquity, its foundation by the apostles Peter and Paul, the fact too that it was universally known, made it an apt example.Ad hanc enim ecclesiam, so the surviving Latin translation runs, propter potentiorem principalitatem necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam, hoc est eos qui sunt undique fideles, in qua simper ab his qui sunt undique conservata est ea quae est ab apostolic traditio. If convenire here means ‘agree with’ and principalitas refers to the Roman primacy (in whatever sense), the gist of the sentence may be taken to be that Christians of every other church are required, in view of its special position of leadership, to fall into line with the Roman church, inasmuch as the authentic apostolic tradition is always preserved by the faithful who are everywhere. This interpretation, or some variant of it, has been accepted by many, but it is awkward to refer in qua to hanc … ecclesiam, and [it is] anachronistic to attribute such thinking to Irenaeus (J.N.D. Kelly “Early Christian Doctrines”, pg 193).
The anachronism he speaks of here is more pronounced, given the date (380) of that Latin manuscript. This was during the papacy of “pope” Damasus, whose mission as a “pope” is widely regarded to have worked diligently to enhanced the status of the papacy. Eamon Duffy notes (“Saints and Sinners”, ©2001 edition), “The Romanization of the papacy was more than a matter of external decoration. Self-consciously, the popes began to model their actions and their style as Christian leaders on the procedures of the Roman state”.
However, whereas we may safely say that Eusebius’s “goof” regarding Agbar was a simple error, it is possible to attribute an active kind of tampering to this passage from Irenaeus (again, the Latin manuscript is dated 380).
Why do I say this? Roger Collins has noted, writing of the Symmachan forgeries”, describes these “pro-Roman” “enhancements” to history:
So too would the spurious historical texts written anonymously or ascribed to earlier authors that are known collectively as the Symmachan forgeries. This was the first occasion on which the Roman church had revisited its own history, in particular the third and fourth centuries, in search of precedents That these were largely invented does not negate the significance of the process. Forgery is an emotive word, and it should not necessarily be assumed that the documents, including the acts of two synods, were cynically concocted to justify a particular claim. Some of the periods in question, such as the pontificates of Sylvester and Liberius (352-366), were already being seen more through the prism of legend than that of history, and in the Middle Ages texts were often forged because their authors were convinced of the truth of what they contained. Their faked documents provided tangible evidence of what was already believed true.
Thus, he says, “It is no coincidence that the first systematic works of papal history appear at the very time the Roman church’s past was being reinvented for polemical purposes.” (Collins, “Keepers of the Keys of Heaven,” pgs 80-82).
Thus it is “not inconsistent” with the facts as we know them, and in fact, it is possible to suggest that there is a high degree of probability, given that there is no complete Greek text, and a “translation” of the text dating to 380, during the time when Damasus was beginning to work to enhance Rome’s status vis-à-vis actual history, that this “controversial text” was doctored to enhance Rome’s status.
(The fact that it was a “known enhancement” would also speak to the fact that so few manuscript copies were produced early on).
So, in response to K. Doran’s list of stipulations about evidence (353), all of these things must temper the kind of, and the amount of enthusiasm we have, for regarding Irenaeus’s text as a “key piece of evidence”.
While it’s possible to say that this passage from Irenaeus is not quite so fictional as the letters between Jesus and Agbar, it is still very possible to challenge the authenticity of the passage on the basis of available manuscripts, the text itself, and the things we know of the Roman and papal cultures of the times.