Responding to some “writers” just goes against sound wisdom and judgment. There are some who are simply so ill-behaved, so nasty of temperament, that to respond to them is tantamount to poking a rabid dog with a stick: don’t be surprised when you get a consistent response of growling and slobber. And so it is against my better judgment to even invest the time to respond to some materials by Mark Bonocore, one of Art Sippo’s fellows, but since his work was promoted in the Armstrong series as containing a “rebuttal” of my position, I feel it necessary to try to make my way through all of the nastiness and gratuitous ad-hominem and document the truth. Further, as I was contacted by a pastor asking about another of Bonocore’s blasts, I thought I would put the two replies together and hope, despite the inevitable character of the response, to edify someone in the process. Also, I promise as well that there will be fewer exclamation marks in my response than in Mr. Bonocore’s texts.
Irenaeus on the Date of Jesus’ Death
In introducing chapter 22 of Book II of Against Heresies, the editors of the 38-volume collection of early church writings under the direction of church historian Philip Schaff wrote,
The Thirty Aeons Are Not Typified By The Fact That Christ Was Baptized In His Thirtieth Year: He Did Not Suffer In The Twelfth Month After His Baptism, But Was More Than Fifty Years Old When He Died
Now, some of you might be familiar with the content of this chapter, as I have noted it in the past as an example of the unreliable nature of claims of “apostolic tradition.” But let’s get everyone up to speed, for it is the idea that Irenaeus did as the editors say—specifically, that he said Jesus was more than fifty years old when He died—that is the substance of the first portion of my response to Mr. Bonocore.
Irenaeus’ work is a polemic against gnosticism, the great enemy of the early church in those first vital centuries. Indeed, much of what we know of gnosticism’s specific theology has come down to us not so much in the writings of gnostics but in the writings of Christians apologetically responding to gnosticism (the apologetic urge is deep). If you have ever attempted to actually read through this massive work, you will quickly come to realize that it is not intended for the faint hearted. Irenaeus responds to every form of argumentation the gnostics have put forth, much of which, from our vantage point, seems so vacuous, so silly, as to be a complete waste of time. And to be honest, at times, the responses are not much better than the gnostic arguments they are designed to refute.
In any case, in Book 2, starting in chapter 20, Irenaeus begins arguing against the gnostic use of various biblical passages to substantiate the “sufferings of the twelth Aeon.” For example, we read, “They endeavor, for instance, to demonstrate that passion which, they say, happened in the case of the twelfth Aeon, from this fact, that the passion of the Savior was brought about by the twelfth apostle, and happened in the twelfth month. For they hold that He preached [only] for one year after His baptism.” Like Harold Camping in modern days, the gnostics would latch onto anything in the text so as to make a connection with their teachings. Irenaeus is seeking to debunk these parallels (a difficult task, since most of the time such assertions have no meaning, and refuting a meaningless assertion can require an immense amount of effort). In the 21st chapter he goes after the argument that the twelve apostles were a type of the Aeons (typological argumentation is common amongst gnostics: it happens to be common in defending the unbiblical teachings about Mary in modern Roman Catholicism as well, and both usages lack meaningful exegetical grounding). And then, in chapter 22, Irenaeus seeks to debunk another argument the gnostics have presented, one that draws a parallel between Jesus’ baptism when he was thirty years old, to that of the thirty Aeons. Here is how the chapter begins:
I have shown that the number thirty fails them in every respect; too few Aeons, as they represent them, being at one time found within the Pleroma, and then again too many [to correspond with that number]. There are not, therefore, thirty Aeons, nor did the Savior come to be baptized when He was thirty years old, for this reason, that He might show forth the thirty silent Aeons of their system, otherwise they must first of all separate and eject [the Savior] Himself from the Pleroma of all. Moreover, they affirm that He suffered in the twelfth month, so that He continued to preach for one year after His baptism; and they endeavor to establish this point out of the prophet (for it is written, “To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of retribution”), being truly blind, inasmuch as they affirm they have found out the mysteries of Bythus, yet not understanding that which is called by Isaiah the acceptable year of the Lord, nor the day of retribution. For the prophet neither speaks concerning a day which includes the space of twelve hours, nor of a year the length of which is twelve months.
So how does Irenaeus argue against this? In section 2 of chapter 22 he seeks to address the meaning of “the day of retribution” and the “acceptable day of the Lord,” tying this to the present day. Then in section 3 he argues that Jesus went up multiple times to the Passover Feast after His baptism, this in contradiction to the gnostic claim that He ministered only one year.
Now at this point I need to reproduce Irenaeus’ words, for we enter here into the section of dispute. In section 4 we read,
Being thirty years old when He came to be baptized, and then possessing the full age of a Master, He came to Jerusalem, so that He might be properly acknowledged by all as a Master. For He did not seem one thing while He was another, as those affirm who describe Him as being man only in appearance; but what He was, that He also appeared to be. Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all through means of Himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God – infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.
Now, notice, when Irenaeus refers to Christ truly being human and truly having age he is arguing against the ancient heresy of docetism, which taught that Christ only seemed to have a physical body. And then he boldly asserts that Christ went through all the ages of men so that He might sanctify them all (producing echoes of the recapitulation theory, it seems to me), and that includes that of an “old man.” In the 5th section, he lays out what this means:
They, however, that they may establish their false opinion regarding that which is written, “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” maintain that He preached for one year only, and then suffered in the twelfth month. [In speaking thus], they are forgetful to their own disadvantage, destroying His whole work, and robbing Him of that age which is both more necessary and more honorable than any other; that more advanced age, I mean, during which also as a teacher He excelled all others. For how could He have had disciples, if He did not teach? And how could He have taught, unless He had reached the age of a Master? For when He came to be baptized, He had not yet completed His thirtieth year, but was beginning to be about thirty years of age (for thus Luke, who has mentioned His years, has expressed it: “Now Jesus was, as it were, beginning to be thirty years old,” when He came to receive baptism); and, [according to these men,] He preached only one year reckoning from His baptism. On completing His thirtieth year He suffered, being in fact still a young man, and who had by no means attained to advanced age. Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. Whom then should we rather believe? Whether such men as these, or Ptolemaeus, who never saw the apostles, and who never even in his dreams attained to the slightest trace of an apostle?
Irenaeus argues that by limiting Jesus to only a single year of ministry, they are robbing Him of what is necessary and what the gospels indicate concerning him. He insists Jesus must have taught longer than this. He says that the “first stage of life” extends to 40 years of age, and that a 30 year old is a “young man.” But, he says, between 40 and 50 one begins to “decline towards old age,” which “our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a teacher.”
At this point we have the direct assertion on the part of Irenaeus that the Gospel and “all the elders testify” that the Lord “possessed” this age; in fact (and this is why this issue has come up in the past), Irenaeus claims as backing for this information the testimony of those “who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information.” What information? The information concerning the age of Jesus. He claims John remained with them up to the times of Trajan, seeking to make the time period between the source of the tradition and his own sources as small as possible. He then adds to this the claim that “other apostles also” heard the “very same account from them, and bear testimony” in support of the concept of Jesus’ entrance into old age. Irenaeus belabors the claim of tradition at this point (a tradition that would be, self-evidently, corrupt, and that after less than a century). He does, however, attempt to provide some basis from Scripture, if only from observation, and that in section 6:
But, besides this, those very Jews who then disputed with the Lord Jesus Christ have most clearly indicated the same thing. For when the Lord said to them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad,” they answered Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, “Thou art not yet forty years old.” For those who wished to convict Him of falsehood would certainly not extend the number of His years far beyond the age which they saw He had attained; but they mentioned a period near His real age, whether they had truly ascertained this out of the entry in the public register, or simply made a conjecture from what they observed that He was above forty years old, and that He certainly was not one of only thirty years of age. For it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that they were mistaken by twenty years, when they wished to prove Him younger than the times of Abraham. For what they saw, that they also expressed; and He whom they beheld was not a mere phantasm, but an actual being of flesh and blood. He did not then wont much of being fifty years old; and, in accordance with that fact, they said to Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” He did not therefore preach only for one year, nor did He suffer in the twelfth month of the year. For the period included between the thirtieth and the fiftieth year can never be regarded as one year….
Drawing from John 8 Irenaeus argues that Jesus could not have been only thirty when the Jews said “you are not yet fifty years old….” Hence, Irenaeus makes the direct assertion, “He did not then wont [i.e., lack] much of being fifty years old.” What Irenaeus claimed to know from “tradition” he then reads into John 8 in an effort to refute an already meaningless argument of the gnostics.
Thus is Irenaeus’ argument, for which he claims direct information from those who knew the apostles themselves. This provides us with the earliest reference we can find to a claim of oral tradition, and yet, it is a tradition no one believes today. So how did Mark Bonocore respond to this? In our next installment we will examine his effort.