A New Look to the Fathers of the Church
Our main topics will be the Jewish heritage within the early Christian theological and spiritual tradition, especially in early patristics. The history of Christian theology and ascetic doctrines is normally considered as a history of adaptation of concepts borrowed from Greek philosophy. Such an approach is completely justified but it is not sufficient to understand the evolution of Christian doctrines. Moreover, it is especially unhelpful in the study of Christian origins and some other particular but crucial issues, e.g., the spiritual doctrines of early monasticism or the interaction between Christian milieus and the communities of emerging Islam. In such cases, it becomes necessarily to deal with the Jewish matrix of Christianity or, at least, with the Jewish legacy incrusted in medieval Christian doctrines.
Early Christianity and patristics continue Second Temple period Jewish traditions, first of all, in what we now call “mysticism.” This is not a strictly defined term but a rather vague notion encompassing three areas: (1) dogmatics, (2) spirituality/ascetics, and (3) liturgy. In each of these areas truths are revealed as a result of mystical experience, and so, the whole early Christian theology is “mystical.” (The main lines of the Christian mystical tradition as a continuation of the Jewish heritage are sketched by Alexander Golitzin in his “Christian Mysticism over Two Millenia,” s. Attachment 1).
Dogmatics is given as a revelation of the heavenly realm and the salvatory incarnation of the Son of God. Spirituality defines the way of life that needs to have an access to revelation, even to the understanding of the already accumulated Tradition of the Church. The liturgy of the earthly Christian communities is a direct continuation of the liturgy of the former unique Jewish Temple which was, in turn, patterned after the angelic liturgy in the heavenly Temple which is the abode of God. In our course, we will concentrate ourselves on dogmatics and ascetics while touching liturgical traditions only occasionally.
Up to the middle of the second century Christian theology was almost exclusively Jewish—in the sense that it was not Greek. It was based on the theological concepts elaborated in the pre-Christian (sometimes called “intertestamentary”) epoch within messianic movements of “unofficial” Judaism with the additional constatation that Messiah already arrived as Jesus. After the texts of New Testament (especially the Epistle to the Hebrews), such elaborated theological doctrines were presented in several writings of the Apostolic Fathers but very few of them are presently available in the original form.
For instance, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and a martyr (ca 115) was a prolific theological writer but only few epistles written by him on his way, under escort, from Antioch to Rome (where he was executed) are preserved; all of them were written ad hoc and not as straightforward theological treatises. Ignatius’ properly theological works are lost. If such authoritative theological works are not preserved in the manuscript tradition, the only possible explanation is their “archaic” sounding (and so, incomprehensibility and equivocacy) when Christian theology became more “Greek.” However, we can obtain a partial access to these early theological ideas through the second-century works of vulgarisation which were addressed to a larger audience, and so, translated into the local languages of the remote corners of the Christian universe where they are preserved. They are labelled “apocrypha” or “pseudepigrapha” but this is not to say that they were necessarily at odds with the doctrine of the Great Church of their epoch. A systematic study of such literature started in the twentieth century. One of the most brilliant and best preserved works of this type is the so-called Epistula Apostolorum (a second-century treatise preserved in Ethiopic and Coptic translations from Greek and also in a small fragment of a Latin translation but lost in its Greek original). Many of its ideas, despite their “unorthodox” appearance are shared by the most of the second-century Church Fathers (s. Charles E. Hill, “The Epistula Apostolorum: An Asian Tract from the Time of Polycarp,” s. Attachment 2, from p. 24 onwards).
Another important early Christian work is the Pastor of St Hermas, written in the very early second century in Rome (where Greek was by then the main language of the Christians). The veneration of St Hermas among the “Apostolic Men” was never broken and, moreover, in second-century Rome and third- to fifth-century Egypt the Pastor was considered as a part of the New Testament. Nevertheless, this text in its Greek original is not preserved completely (and is to be completed with the early Latin version; there is also an Ethiopic version of the whole text). It is also interesting by its Christology—and, in the same time, problematic: in the fourth century this Christology became sounding “Arian” (heretic). In fact, the problem was in development of the theological language. It was recognized as such by its contemporaries already in the fourth and fifth centuries, who have never accused the work of being unorthodox. However, in the Great Church, the actual demand for the Pastor sharply decreased; this is why we do not dispose of its full Greek text.
Being a Christian text, the Pastor is a typical Jewish apocalypse. Fortunately, it contains some scenes of the life in the Christian community (in its framing account); otherwise, it would be problematic to decide whether this work is Christian or Jewish. Compare, for instance, the discussions on either Christian or Jewish origin of another work containing an apocalypse, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Even the Christology of the Pastor (a teaching on the Son of God implied) is not a guarantee of its Christian origin.
The very peculiar and very fundamental feature of early Christologies is their explicit connexion to salvation doctrine. In further patristics, the level of explicitness was different: salvation doctrine could be derived from Christology or vice versa, although, in the early Christian writings, salvation doctrine was transparent in its very basic concepts and terms. Among these, one of the most important is the concept of the Church as an uncreated pre-temporary being. It is present in the Pastor of Hermas and in other highly authoritative works, including 2 Clement (ch. 14). 2 Clement is an early second-century work written by an unknown author in Rome; preserved in the Greek original; listed within the New Testament canon in the fourth-century Canons of Holy Apostles, canon 85, but “deferred”—not rejected!—as “corrupted” by heretics at the Quinisextum Council in AD 692, canon 2. Following 2 Clement, in the early fourth century, St Methodius of Olympus (The Banquet, III and VIII) elaborates on the imagery of the “sacred marriage” between Christ and the pre-existing Church from which the faithful are to be begotten. This doctrine of salvation as divine sonship will be recognizable in later Patristic doctrines on the theosis (deification).
Another very important but so far underestimated link between the Jewish matrix of Christianity and later patristics is presented in the traditions about the Mother of God (Theotokos—a common title of the Virgin Mary since the early fifth century). The earliest accounts (outside the Gospels) on the Mother of God are the Nativity of Mary (previously known under the seventeenth-century scholarly title Protevangile of James; the original title is preserved in a third-century Greek papyrus and the Ethiopic version; the earliest available text’s recension goes back to the second century) and the group of different narratives concerning the Dormition and the Ascension of the Theotokos (so-called Transitus of the Theotokos). The Transitus are presented in about a hundred texts in different languages dated to not later than the eighth century but all these texts go back to the two groups, one of them being edited in the late fourth century and another one being composed in the middle of the fifth century. Both Nativity and Transitus are saturated by early Jewish-Christian and, probably, Second Temple liturgical material and, of course, these texts express the veneration of the Theotokos in its earliest forms.
The history of the Transitus continues to be enigmatic, and so, is a warning to us, recalling how our present knowledge of the history of the Christian tradition is far from complete even in its most important details. The Transitus texts were rescued from oblivion in the middle of the fifth century when a new cult of the Theotokos in Gethsemane near Jerusalem was established. The circumstances of these events are, more or less, known but we definitely neither know where these narratives were kept before nor the channel(s) connecting the Imperial Church of the fifth century and the early Christian milieu where the earliest recensions of the Transitus appeared (probably, in the second century). When, in the late fourth century, a great scholar and antiquarian, Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus was trying to know how and where the Virgin died, he obtained nothing, although he was in a better position than us. It is to be supposed that, before the middle of the fifth century, the Transitus accounts were transmitted by some Christian movements separated from the Great Church...
The Transitus have largely contributed to the further development of mystical theology. According to the Transitus, when Jesus descended to his Mother to take her soul, the heavens opened and the angelic choirs were seen by the apostles staying around the deathbed of Mary. This vision, in the second half of the fifth century, was used as the principal scene of the most influencing work of the Eastern and Western Christian tradition of mystical theology, the Corpus Areopagiticum. This pseudepigraphic Corpus was attributed to Apostle Paul’s disciple Dionysius the Areopagite. The structures of the heavenly and ecclesiastical hierarchies there described are based on a revelation whose main moment is said to be the Dormition scene when the heavens opened. The open heavens of both Corpus Areopagitum and the Transitus of the Virgin are, in turn, similar to those of early Christian apocalypses, especially the Ascension of Isaiah (a first/second-century Christian text based on earlier Jewish traditions) and the Epistula Apostolorum. The Corpus Areopagiticum, in turn, became one of the main channels translating these Jewish traditions—already in Neo-Platonic dresses but still absolutely recognisable—to the late patristics and the scholastics.
The ascetical and mystical traditions of the fourth and the fifth centuries were normally based on a Jewish background. It is especially clear in the earliest monastic movements. Some of them were Jewish in such an extent that they would be more similar, to the modern eye, to the Jewish therapeuts described by Philo of Alexandria in the first century than to a Christian monastic community. Thus, the first coenobitic (sharing common life) communities founded in Egypt by St Pachomius in the first half of the fourth century were patterned after the camp of Israel in the wilderness; the monks used to call themselves “Israelites.” However, the most important part of the Jewish legacy of the Pachomians as well as of other monastics of the fourth century (including the author of the epistles ascribed to St Anthony the Great, the Syrian Church Father Aphrahat the Persian, the Latin Father John Cassian and his Egyptian interlocutors in the Scetis...) was the notion of Testament. All of them were considering their mode of life as an answer to the God’s demand. This demand and their answer resulted in a New Testament between them and God, in the same manner as in the case of the archetype of the monks of all epochs, the biblical Abraham. Only this personal response to God must be considered as introducing them into the New Testament of Christ, although the “habitual” Christian life is, in the best case, the life according to the Old Testament. This view was shared as well by the theologians of this epoch such as John Chrysostom and Ambrosius of Milan. In later epochs, it was challenged many times and, of course, defended in many ways...
A Jewish background is to be found in one of the most strange but most authoritative forms of Christian ascetic life, the stylitism (pillar asceticism: staying on a pillar for many years, normally, until the death)—despite the fact that we do not know any Jewish stylites, nor do we know any Christian stylite before St Symeon the Great in Syria, in the middle of the fifth century. In an early Life of the first stylite, his way of life is explained as an imitation of the heavenly Watchers, that is, the angelic beings whose duty is to watch the created world. In mainstream Jewish Second Temple traditions the Watchers fell but there were other traditions, whose traces are known in early Christianity, according to which there were as well unfallen Watchers, the true helpers of humankind. St Symeon joined these Watchers when staying on his pillar or, better, his watch-tower—thus demonstrating to us the importance of this apparently extinguished tradition for his fifth-century Syrian Christianity.
Our present knowledge of early Christianity does not allow presenting a systematic picture of various Jewish traditions accepted by the Christians from the Jewish matrix of Christianity. Yet the examples reviewed could provide a general idea of this little explored field of research.