The Theosophists and Irenæus
Theosophist, February, 1884
The Rev. Editor of the Christian College Magazine comes down short and heavy upon Col. Olcott. He speaks of somebody’s “invincible ignorance” and remarks that “on the same footing may be placed Colonel Olcott’s great discovery that Irenaeus wrote John’s Gospel.”
Now the Magazine in question is a most excellent periodical, and its editor no doubt a most excellent and estimable gentleman. Why then should he become guilty of such a—begging his pardon—gross misstatement? Colonel Olcott has never meant to convey that Irenaeus—the hypothetical Bishop of Gaul (whoever he was), whose singularly uncritical and credulous character is noticed and admitted on all hands even by Christian Apologists—could have ever written the ideal composition so full of beauty and poetry that passes current as the fourth Gospel; but simply that the too zealous father of that name, caused it to be written and to appear in order to gain his point over the gnostics and heretics of his day. Again, that these “heretics” rejected the fourth Gospel when it appeared, as they had denied before its very existence, is told to us by Irenaeus himself (Adv. Haer., iii, xi, 9).
It is a dangerous discussion to rush into for theologians. It is too late in the day to deny that which has been so generally admitted by nearly every Bible critic as well as by some Apologists themselves; namely that the fourth Gospel is the production of a totally unknown, most probably a Greek author, and most undeniably a Platonist. Dr. G. Ewald’s attempt to attribute the fact of the Gospel bearing no signature to the “incomparable modesty” of its author, the apostle John, has been too ably and too frequently upset and shown frivolous to justify any lengthy controversy upon this point. But we may as well remind the learned editor of the C. C. Magazine, who so generously bestows epithets of ignorance on his opponents whenever unable to answer their arguments—of a few facts too well known to be easily refuted. Can he deny that for over a century and a half after the death of Jesus there was not one title of evidence, to connect the author of the fourth gospel with the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” him who is held identical with the author of Revelation? Nay, more: that there was no certain trace even unto the days of Irenæus that such a Gospel had ever been written? Both internal and external evidence are against the assumption that the said Gospel could have been ever the work of the author of the Apocalypsis, the hermit of Patmos. The difference of the style of writing, of language, and the great contrast of thought between the two are too glaring to be denied. The harsh Hebraistic Greek of the Apocalypse confronted with the polished elegance of the language used by the author of the fourth gospel cannot stand one moment’s serious criticism. Then the details of the latter disagree in most cases with those of the three Synoptics. Shall Canon Westcott be also charged with “invincible ignorance” when saying (Introd. to the Study of the Gospels, p. 249):
“It is impossible to pass from the Synoptic Gospels to that of St. John without feeling that the transition involves the passage from one world of thought to another . . . [Nothing] can destroy the contrast which exists in form and spirit between the earlier and later narratives. The difference between the fourth gospel and the Synoptics, not only as regards the teaching of Jesus but also the facts of the narrative, is so great that it is impossible to harmonize them . . . both cannot be accepted as correct. If we believe that the Synoptics give a truthful representation of the life and teaching of Jesus, it follows of necessity that, in whatever category we . . . place the fourth gospel it must be rejected as a historical work.” (p. 249)
In the Synoptics Jesus is crucified on the 15 Nisan, whereas the fourth gospel puts him to death on the 14th—a point with reference to the Paschal lamb having to be gained; and the general inaccuracy of all the gospels is shown in that no two of them agree even about so simple a matter as the inscription on the cross. The Synoptics are utterly ignorant of the raising of Lazarus, “a mere imaginary scene,” says the author of Supernatural Religion, “illustrative of the dogma: I am the resurrection and the life, upon which it is based . . . The fourth gospel . . . has no real historical value. The absolute difference between the teachings becomes intelligible only when we recognize in the last gospel the style of Alexandrian Philosophy, the mysticism of the Christian Platonists artistically interwoven with developed Pauline Christianity, and put into the mouth of Jesus” (p. 76).
In connection with the subject one cannot do better than give an extract of “an eloquent passage from an unpublished Essay by a distinguished living Greek scholar,” in the words of Mr. Wordsworth, the learned Principal of Elphinstone College (Bombay), who quotes it in a Lecture delivered by him on “The Church of Tibet, and the Historical Analogies of Buddhism and Christianity.”
“What more contrasted in style and manner than Paul with John, and both or either with Matthew, Mark, and Luke? and yet the Epistles and the fourth Gospel are as thoroughly permeated with the best spirit of the three first Gospels, as with phrases and forms and associations that pertain to the very core of the Schools, when Mythos new-born in Judea could thus coalesce with the primeval imaginations of the Greek, we need not wonder that philosophical theology from either side soon found itself a common ground. The Stoicism of Seneca repeats St. Paul in every other page, and the Fourth Gospel is only becoming really legible in the light of the Platonism of Alexandria.”
We invite the reverend editor to read the two volumes written by that king of scholars, the author of Supernatural Religion, the anonymous writer being at one time closely connected in London gossip with a certain Bishop. Our critic seems to forget, or never knew, perhaps—that this work passed through twenty-two editions in less than three or four years; and that £40,000 were unsuccessfully offered by the Roman Catholic Church to whosoever could refute its arguments and proofs, the money being still there, we believe. We are quite aware that,—as the same learned Prof. Wordsworth expresses it—“a certain precipitancy in negative demonstration has, perhaps, partly compromised the effect which so able a book as Supernatural Religion was fitted to produce.” Yet, if Mr. Arnold thinks with his admirers––too prejudiced to be in this case trusted—that he has demonstrated the “authenticity” of the fourth Gospel, others more impartial and far more scholarly maintain that he has done nothing of the kind. At any rate, no one can deny that such eminent theological scholars as Bauer, Lücke, Davidson, Hilgenfeld, Schenkel, Volkmar, Nicolas, Bretschneider and a good many others we could name,1 have proved the following points: (a) the fourth Gospel, by whomsoever written—was never written by a Jew, not even a native of Palestine, the numerous geographical, and topographical mistakes and blunders in names and explanations given precluding entirely such possibility; (b) that the gospel could have never been written before the end of the 2nd century, i.e., the date assigned to Irenaeus; and (c) that it was most probably written at the command of that personage. The first writer whom we find quoting a passage of this gospel with the mention of his author is Theophilus of Antioch, in Ad Autolycum, II, 22, a work dated by Tischendorf about A.D. 180-l90; and it was precisely about that time that Irenaeus became presbyter in Gaul, and had his controversy with the “heretics.” It is, however, useless to devote much time to a personage who, if not altogether himself mythical, presents in his life another blank, as the moot question about his martyrdom is able to show. But that which is known of him and on the strength of his own writings is, that he is the first writer who distinctly numbers the four gospels, claiming for their existence and number most interesting if not altogether convincing reasons. “Neither can the gospels be more in number than they are,” says he, “nor . . . can they be fewer. For, as there are four quarters of the world in which we are, and four general winds, and the gospel is the pillar and prop of the church . . . it is right that she should have four pillars.” Having delivered himself of this highly logical and quite unanswerable argument, Irenæus adds that: “as the cherubim also are four-faced” and “quadriform are the living creatures, quadriform is the gospel, and quadriform the course of the Lord; therefore—vain and ignorant, and moreover, audacious are those who set aside the form of the gospel and declare its aspects as either more or less than has been said.” (Con. Haer., III, II, 55, 89.) We love to think that it is not to follow in the steps of this intellectual and logical Father, that the editor of the C. C. Magazine thought it his sacred duty to bestow upon Col. Olcott and all who believe that the fourth gospel is simply a theological after-thought,—the epithet of “ignorant”? We are perfectly alive to the dire necessity of clinging to the fourth gospel for all those who would prolong the agony of Christian ecclesiasticism. There are several important reasons for this. For example:—The authors of the three Synoptics are pure Jews with no prejudice toward their unbelieving race, and they know not of Jesus, “the son of David”; while the fourth gospel shows decided contempt for the non-Christian Jews, and its Jesus is no longer of the race of David but the son of God and the very God himself. The first three teach pure morality and no theology; on the contrary, priesthood and pharisaism are strongly denounced in them. The fourth gospel teaches a distinct theology and quite another religion. Hence the just suspicion created in the minds of most Biblical scholars that the so-called “Gospel according to St. John,” was simply written to meet the logical conclusions of Irenaeus—as quoted above.
But whether due to him or born independently—it is as artificial as any other work of art, howsoever great the intrinsic value of its outward form. Realism may be less attractive than Idealism; for all that, the first is sober fact and as such preferable to pure fiction––however beautiful. And this statement is amply corroborated by the author of Supernatural Religion, who has devoted one-fourth of his two volumes to the discussion of this subject. In the concluding words of his chapter 2, Vol. II:
“Enough has been said to show that the testimony of the fourth Gospel is of no value towards establishing the truth of miracles and the reality of Divine Revelation.”
This, we believe, added to the damaging testimony of Canon Westcott,—settles the matter at rest.
1. See G. C. F. Lücke’s Versuch einer vollständigen Einleitung in die Offenbarung des Johannes, ii, p. 504.