Church Fathers - Historical Champions

Wenham Attempts to Discredit Irenaeus by Mocking His Claim That Jesus Was Nearly Fifty Years Old

Those who argue for an early date for Matthew’s Gospel must contend with Irenaeus’s claim that “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.1 My approach for dealing with the timing posed by this statement has been to understand Rome as referring to the empire, rather than to the capital city. Hence, Matthew’s Gospel was published as Peter and Paul began preaching to those other than to the Hebrews, coincident with the events of Acts 10–11.

Others, such as John Chapman, instead argue that “Irenaeus is not giving a history of the origin of the four Gospels”; rather, “he is simply explaining that the teaching of four of the principal Apostles has not been lost, but has been handed down to us in writing.”2 John Wenham echoes Chapman’s assertion, but also seeks to discredit Irenaeus by adding that “it is well known that chronology was not Irenaeus’s strong point. He believed that Jesus lived to be nearly fifty years old and that his public ministry lasted at least ten years!”3 In this, Wenham is referring to Irenaeus’s argumentation within Against Heresies 2.22.5-6. Yet, I contend that even this seemingly erroneous belief, as held by Irenaeus, proves just the opposite, that Irenaeus is actually quite serious about chronology.

First, it is helpful to understand the issue which Irenaeus is addressing in his Against Heresies. In his opening monologue to book 1, Irenaeus methodically and carefully introduces the heresies of the disciples of Ptolemæus, heresies which he identifies as having derived from the teachings of Valentinus.4 Even in his opening words, it is worth noting his deference to Scripture.

INASMUCH as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, “minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,” and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations. These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretense of [superior] knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein. By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions respecting the Demiurge; and these simple ones are unable, even in such a matter, to distinguish falsehood from truth.5

This heretical sect leveraged the terms and symbols found in the biblical writings to build their Gnostic religion, for they conceived of a perfect and pre-existent Æon (Αἰών) who impregnated another being, which led to the birth of Nous (also called Monogenes), along with Aletheia. These two then gave birth to Logos and Zoe, who then brought forth Anthropos and Ecclesia, who gave birth to twelve Æons, including Paracletus and Pistis, … Theletos and Sophia.6 For those of my readers who know some Greek, these terms ought to be familiar. Anyway, there are ultimately thirty of these Æons, or demiurges, within the “Plemora.” At a later time, Monogones produced Christ and the Holy Spirit, and so on.7 And then poor degenerate Sophia “suffered passion apart from the embrace of her consort Theletos” and spawned that which would ultimately bring into existence the physical world, with a little help from Christ.8 Thus, we get this classic Gnostic progression from the perfect spiritual to the evil physical, with a bunch of Christian-ese mixed in. This sect also leveraged an over abundance of biblical types to prove the legitimacy of their contrivances. For example, the twelve apostles are claimed as a type of the twelve Æons which were produced by Anthropos and Ecclesia. Similarly, the thirty years of Christ’s life stands as a type for the thirty Æons, and so on.9

Further, they assert that the passion of the twelfth Æon, Sophia, was proved by “the passion of the Savior [which] was brought about by the twelfth apostle [i.e., Judas, by their reckoning], and happened in the twelfth month. For they hold that He preached [only] for one year after His baptism.10

This stuff is more creative than the Gospel of Thomas!

Before we dive into Irenaeus’s rebuttal to the claim that Christ preached for only one year after his baptism, let’s hit on a couple more points.

Why do we commonly believe that Jesus was only in his early thirties when he was executed? This is based on (1) Luke 3:23, where Luke specifies that “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age” and (2) John’s identification of three Passovers during Jesus’s ministry (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55), and possibly a 4th (John 5:1), which suggests that his ministry lasted for three to four years.11 Of course, it must be recognized that the Gospels do not definitively assert that these are the sum total of the Passovers which transpired during His ministry. Notably, the Synoptic Gospels only identify a single Passover, on Jesus’s final visit to Jerusalem, except that Luke also reports that in His youth, “His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover” (Luke 2:41). Thus, we can hardly speak with confidence concerning how many years His ministry spanned, given the lack of concern expressed by the Synoptics; although, I personally affirm the ‘three or four years of ministry’ view.

Next, based on what we find in Irenaeus’s extensive writings and in his deference to the Scriptures as his primary means for confronting the various heresies, we must acknowledge that Irenaeus was meticulous in his writings, well acquainted with the Scriptures, and committed to the reliability and authority of such. More specifically, in Against Heresies 2.22.34, Irenaeus demonstrates (1) his awareness of the context of Luke 3:23, as Irenaeus explains that Jesus was “thirty years old when He came to be baptized”12 and (2) his awareness of the Passovers within John, for he faults the heretics for not having “examined the Gospels to ascertain how often after His baptism the Lord went up, at the time of the Passover, to Jerusalem.”13 He then proceeds to quote or refer to the events surrounding the Passover references, drawing from John 2:23; 5:1; 6:1; and 11:54/12:1.

After having cited the above Scriptures, Irenaeus then turns to another line of argumentation to also demonstrate that Jesus’s ministry lasted more than the single year claimed by the heretics. Irenaeus quotes the rebuke from the Jews in John 8:57—”Thou are not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?”14—as proof that the Jews thought that Jesus was closer to fifty than to thirty or forty years old. Accordingly, Irenaeus claims that the heretics are doubly wrong. My assessment of Irenaeus is that he has presented a scripture-grounded reasonable argument based on his understanding of John 8:57, which indeed illustrates an interest in chronology.

At the same time, I think that Irenaeus may have misunderstood the challenge which the Jews were presenting. For among the Levites, there was significance in whether someone had reached the age of thirty versus the age of fifty. From thirty to fifty, the Levites were obliged to do “the service of ministry and the service of bearing burdens in the tent of meeting” (Num. 4:46–47 ESV).15 “And from the age of fifty years” they were to “withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. They minister to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but thy shall do no service.” (8:25–26). Perhaps this also allowed more opportunity for the fully mature Levites to pursue their responsibilities in studying and teaching the Law (Lev. 10:11; Chr. 35:3).16 Accordingly, I suspect that the Jews were asserting that Jesus hadn’t even crossed the threshold into being full mature; indeed, he was far from hitting the maturity milestone.

Nonetheless, my bottom-line is that Wenham’s mocking dismissal of Irenaeus over his purported disdain for chronological precision is misplaced. Perhaps Wenham’s charge can be justified elsewhere in Irenaeus’s writings, but this particular passage in Against Heresies is certainly not evidence of a disdain for chronology. Rather, it is just the opposite.

  1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1. Irenaeus, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885), 414. ↩︎
  2. John Chapman, “St. Irenaeus on the Dates of the Gospels,” Journal of Theological Studies VI, no. 24 (July 1905): 564. ↩︎
  3. John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem (Sevenoaks, Kent: Hodder and Stoughton, 1991), 242. ↩︎
  4. Irenaeus, Against Heresies ↩︎
  5. Irenaeus, “Irenæus against Heresies,” 315; Irenaeus, Against Heresies ↩︎
  6. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.1.1–2. ↩︎
  7. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.2.5. ↩︎
  8. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.2.2; 1.4.1. ↩︎
  9. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.21.1. ↩︎
  10. Irenaeus, “Irenæus against Heresies,” 387; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.20.1. ↩︎
  11. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 176. ↩︎
  12. Irenaeus, “Irenæus against Heresies,” 391. ↩︎
  13. Irenaeus, “Irenæus against Heresies,” 391. ↩︎
  14. Irenaeus, “Irenæus against Heresies,” 392; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.22.6. ↩︎
  15. Although per Numbers 8:24 it is indicated that the obligation started at the age of twenty-five. ↩︎
  16. See also Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 272–273. ↩︎

Leave a Reply

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