Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Bart Ehrman Is Wrong About Irenaeus

Earlier this week, I reviewed the first part of a debate between Bart Ehrman and Richard Bauckham. Ehrman raised the popular objection that Irenaeus had too much of a role in giving us the gospels' authorship attributions. Other critics focus more on Papias in this context, but Ehrman seems to assign a larger role to Irenaeus.

I've already discussed some of the problems with Ehrman's view. Some of our extant sources who predate Irenaeus name the gospel authors and/or describe them in some significant way. Irenaeus cites earlier sources when discussing gospel authorship. The gospels were circulating in such a manner that their authorship would have been widely discussed long before Irenaeus wrote. And so on.

What I want to do in this post is discuss how inconsistent Ehrman's hypothesis is with the larger context of Irenaeus' life, including his writings. Ehrman is attributing some behavior to Irenaeus that's highly unlikely in light of what else we know about the man.

I've written a lot over the years about Irenaeus' character and evidential standards. See, for example, here and here on his character. See here, here, here, here, and here on his standards of evidence. Here's a summation of some of the issues involved from a patristic scholar who specialized in the study of Irenaeus:

"Eusebius' claim that Irenaeus was a peacemaker in name and nature (H.E. 5.24.18) is not simply a play on words but a fact borne out by Irenaeus' life and work (H.E. 5.23-5). His irenic approach shows that his objection to heresies on matters of faith had little to do with a struggle for power....Even on matters of faith, elsewhere he prays for his adversaries whom he loves more than they love themselves (3.25.7)....Irenaeus follows Justin as a lover of truth....As a ruthless empiricist, he constantly appeals to evidence and demands respect for facts....The evidence of facts must be accepted without argument, whether these facts are proclaimed by scripture or observed in the world....Irenaeus would not raise harmful rumour for the sake of scoring a point against his opponents." (Eric Osborn, Irenaeus Of Lyons [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 5, 18, 203, n. 13 on 240)

If you read the third book of Irenaeus' treatise Against Heresies, you'll see him repeatedly appealing to public and verifiable facts, the testimony of eyewitnesses, hostile corroboration, what Christians have believed for generations, and so on. He's appealing to common standards of evidence. It's in that context that Irenaeus describes the origins of the gospels, including their authorship. If those authorship attributions had been fabricated by Irenaeus, had just recently been brought up for the first time by somebody else, or had existed longer, but had only recently become popular, Irenaeus' use of such material would have been easily controverted and inconsistent with the standards of evidence he was advocating. You don't condemn heretics for putting forward private and recent beliefs, only to appeal to such beliefs yourself on a matter as significant as gospel authorship while writing in the same context in which you were condemning those heretics. Irenaeus, in the context in which he names the gospel authors and bases the documents' authority on their authorship, refers to the gospels as "the ground and pillar of our faith" (Against Heresies, 3:1:1), "those which have been handed down to us from the apostles" (3:11:9), and so forth. Those are claims that Irenaeus and his contemporaries, including his enemies, would easily have known to be false if they were as false as Ehrman suggests, and the claims could easily be shown to be false if they were so.

In previous posts, I've documented Irenaeus' relationship with Polycarp and Polycarp's likely role in influencing the gospel authorship attributions of individuals like Irenaeus. The predecessor of Irenaeus in the bishopric of Lyons, a man named Pothinus, died beyond age ninety in the late 170s (Eusebius, Church History, 5:1:29). He was a contemporary of the apostles at a young age and a contemporary of the apostles' disciples as a grown man. Irenaeus would have had access to Pothinus, Polycarp, and probably many other men who could have, and surely would have, given him significant information about the gospels. It's highly unlikely that he would have misunderstood what all of those people said or would have lied about it, for example. It's even more unlikely that all of the sources who corroborate Irenaeus were mistaken as well and were mistaken in the same way.

And we know that Irenaeus had studied and/or been in contact with apostolic churches (Smyrna, Rome, etc.). When he attended their church services and others' and interacted with the people of those churches in other ways, he would have encountered the reading of the gospels during church services and discussions of the gospels in other contexts.

Furthermore, we know that Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 5:30:1) and other early Christians would have encountered and were interested in consulting older manuscripts of the New Testament documents, not just recent ones. So, they would have known what titles (The Gospel According To Matthew, etc.) and other data were attached to those earlier manuscripts.

We also know that Irenaeus had access to and/or consulted many documents no longer extant. He refers, for example, to the writings of Papias and multiple letters of Polycarp, even though we today only possess one of Polycarp's letters.

You can't live in a context like the one Irenaeus lived in and be as ignorant of or dishonest about the history of the gospels as Ehrman suggests Irenaeus was. You could be ignorant or dishonest to some degree, but not nearly as much as Ehrman's view requires. The gospels' authors were widely named and widely discussed for many decades before Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies, and Irenaeus was involved in many contexts that gave him highly significant, highly reliable information on the subject.

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