Thursday, August 12, 2010

Irenaeus reading Matthew

In Adversus haereses 3.8, Irenaeus apparently counters Marcion's differentiation of Jesus' Father from the God of the Hebrew Bible. As part of his answer, Irenaeus offers an extended discussion of Matt. 6.24 and 12.29. Here are the Matthean texts, according to NA27:

Matt 6.24:
Matt. 12.29:
Οὐδεὶς δύναται δυσὶ κυρίοις δουλεύειν· ἢ γὰρ τὸν ἕνα μισήσει καὶ τὸν ἕτερον ἀγαπήσει, ἢ ἑνὸς ἀνθέξεται καὶ τοῦ ἑτέρου καταφρονήσει. οὐ δύνασθε θεῷ δουλεύειν καὶ μαμωνᾷ.ἢ πῶς δύναταί τις εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν τοῦ ἰσχυροῦ καὶ τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ ἁρπάσαι, ἐὰν μὴ πρῶτον δήσῃ τὸν ἰσχυρόν; καὶ τότε τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ διαρπάσει.
No one is able to serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.Or how can anyone enter the strong man's house and plunder his possessions, unless first he bind the strong man? Only then will he plunder his house.

What I find interesting is the way Irenaeus's concerns as he reads Matthew are so utterly different than the evangelist's concerns in recording Jesus' words. Of course, none of the evangelists dealt with teachings quite like Marcion's, so any appeal to the gospels in this regard is going to apply the texts to situations to which they never envisioned being applied to in the first place. Even so, the way Irenaeus reads Matthew cuts so strongly against the grain of the text that the text itself is barely recognizable.

To illustrate this "cutting across the grain," let's consider Irenaeus's reading of Matt. 12.29. This verse is part of Jesus' response to "the Pharisees" (12.24), who accuse him of casting out demons in the name/power of "Beelzebul, the prince of demons" [ἐν τῷ Βεελζεβοὺλ ἄρχοντι τῶν δαιμονίων].1 Jesus answers their charge with the images of (i) a divided kingdom and (ii) a divided house (12.25), and then applies these images to Satan's [ὁ σατανᾶς] kingdom/house (12.26). In 12.27 Jesus likens his own exorcistic practice to that of "your sons" (viz., those associated with his accusers); in 12.28, however, Jesus isolates his exorcisms as the harbinger of God's kingdom. Matthew 12.29, then, continues these images/themes (house, Satan, God, inter- rather than intra-house conflict). That is, Jesus' exorcisms demonstrate not that he is in league with Beelzebul but that Satan has been bound and has his domain plundered.

Irenaeus recognizes that, contextually, the "strong man" [ἰσχυρός] of 12.29 refers to Satan. And, just as clearly, the one [τις] who binds the strong man is Jesus (note the strong first-person reference in 12.28: εἰ δὲ . . . ἐγὼ ἐκβάλλω [but if I am casting out . . .]). But in other respects Irenaeus pursues a different program than Matthew. In the gospel, the point of Jesus' saying in v. 29 is that Jesus overcomes rather than serves the satan, the enemy of God's people; the focus is on the contrast between Beelzebul and Jesus. In Adversus haereses, the point of Jesus' saying becomes the connection between Jesus and the Creator God, against whom no created thing could reasonably be compared. "[F]or not he alone, but not one of created and subject things, shall ever be compared to the Word of God, by whom all things were made, who is our Lord Jesus Christ" (Haer. 3.8.2). The link with traditions of creation in both the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 1–3; Isa. 55) and the developing canon of NT texts (John 1.1–14; Col. 1.15–20) are intentional; notice that Irenaeus immediately proceeds to offer a meditation on the proper relation of the created order vis-à-vis the Creator and the language that befits this relation (Haer. 3.8.3).

Certainly my expertise in Christian history in the second through fifth centuries is very limited. But I suspect that this hermeneutical development—in which the gospels' witness to Jesus is being pressed in service of christological debates significantly different than those the evangelists engaged in—would continue until its climax in the great ecclesial councils, especially Nicaea. I can't help but wonder, though, the extent to which writers such as Irenaeus may have been aware that they were wielding the texts in alien arenas and for alien purposes even as they felt themselves constrained to honor and faithfully preserve the heritage of the past. For all Irenaeus's hermeneutical innovation in reading Matthew, he seems to have felt genuinely that Marcion had crossed the line in shaking off the constraint of the past and developing a scandalously new theological program.

(Of course Marcion, for his own part, apparently thought he was restoring, not repudiating, the heritage of the past. But that's a discussion for another post.)

1 For a detailed discussion of "the Beelzebul controversy," see chapter 7 of my Structuring Early Christian Memory: Jesus in Tradition, Performance, and Text (ESCO; London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 174–210.

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