Irenaeus      ca. 120-203 CE 

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Leading theologian and polemicist whose arguments against gnostic sects helped establish the doctrinal standards of Catholic Christianity: creed, canon of scripture & apostolic succession of bishops. A native Greek from Smyrna (Asia Minor), Irenaeus came to prominence after migrating to the Latin west. In 177 CE he was appointed bishop of Lugdunum, Gaul (Lyons, France) where he soon published his five volume Refutation & Overthrow of what is wrongly called 'Knowledge' (commonly referred to simply as Against Heresies). His defense of four canonical gospels became the standard orthodox view of their authorship, sequence & circumstances of composition:

Matthew also published a gospel in writing among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter & Paul were preaching the gospel and founding the church in Rome. But after their death, Mark, the disciple & interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing what Peter used to preach. And Luke, Paul's associate, also set down in a book the gospel that Paul used to preach. Later, John, the Lord's disciple --- the one who lay on his lap --- also set out the gospel while living at Ephesus in Asia Minor. (Against Heresies 3.1.1)

Irenaeus follows the canonical sequence. He did not, however, suggest any literary relationship between these gospels. Note also that he did not explicitly mention the order of composition of the synoptics. While he claims John wrote "later," he lists Matthew, Mark & Luke with parallel grammatical conjunctions ("also...also...also").

The only thing in Irenaeus' statement that would lead someone to infer the chronological priority of Matthew is his attempt to link the canonical gospels with the activity of Peter & Paul. He claims that a Hebrew edition of this gospel was in circulation during the lifetime of the leading apostles, while Mark & Luke were composed "after their death." The source from which Irenaeus derived this dating is not clear. While he knew & valued the now lost commentaries of Papias, he does not credit this chronological data to that source. Nor do the excerpts from Papias cited by Eusebius support this sequence.

It is possible---even probable---that Irenaeus' dating of the gospels is based on nothing more than an educated guess. Irenaeus was, after all, eager to draw direct links between the doctrinal authorities of Catholic Christianity and the apostolic generation. The gospels list Matthew with Peter & other apostles (Mark 3:16-19 & parallels), a role that Paul claimed for himself (1 Cor 9:1 & Gal. 2:8). So Irenaeus would naturally infer that a gospel with an apostolic name must come from the era that apostles were still active. Mark & Luke, on the other hand, were names only associated with companions of the apostles (1 Pet. 5:13; Col. 3:14). So Irenaeus could safely assign works attributed to them to the post-apostolic era.

In any case, Irenaeus claims historical priority only for a Hebrew version of Matthew which is no longer in existence. Unlike Papias, he does not mention the translation of this work. Thus, Irenaeus does not support the opinion of those who claim that the current Greek edition of Matthew was composed prior to the other gospels. Nor does his claim that Mark transcribed Peter's preaching support the view of Augustine, Griesbach & other western Christians that Mark condensed Matthew.

Other On-line Resources:

  • External Evidence: Irenaeus - Latin, Greek & English versions of Against Heresies 3.1 (from Stephen C. Carlson's Synoptic Problem Home Page).
  • Against Heresies 3.3 presents Irenaeus' theory of the transmission of traditions from the apostles.
  • St. Irenaeus - biographical essay by Albert Poncelet (Catholic Encyclopedia; posted by New Advent).

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last revised 19 December 2003


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