Irenaeus and The Big Lie

Engraving by Michael Burghers, c 1685

Tradition holds that Polycarp inherited apostolic authority in the early church from his predecessor John the Apostles.  Irenaeus inherited Polycarp’s authority, and wrote as much in Against Heresies:


But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time

Irenaeus painted Polycarp as the centerpiece for Johannine Christianity in Western Turkey, modern-day Izmir (Smyrna), which is about a one-day walk from Ephesus, where Irenaeus and other early church leaders claimed the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, lived.  Tradition puts this event around the year 70, though a proper skeptic should raise their brow to this story of how a geriatric John moved from Jerusalem to Ephesus.

Roman Asia, and prominent Johannine cities

Irenaeus made allusion to a rift between Marcion, who was from Northern Roman Asia, and Polycarp:

There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath…And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, Do you know me? I do know you, the first-born of Satan.

Here Saint Ireanaeus depicted a paradigm:  the Johannines were the Orthodoxical counterweight to the heretical Marcionites.

The following 100 years saw an onslaught of anti-Marcionite attacks by the emerging orthodoxy – Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Origen all took aim at the long-dead Marcion, despite his zealous reverence for Paul, a quasi-apostle who the emerging Orthodoxy was happy to claim as their own.  Marcion also seems to have been the first person to have discovered Paul’s letters, which adds intrigue to the Orthodoxy’s adoption of him.

A passage in an obscure early Christian text recently caught my eye.  In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, there is a passage regarding the deliverer of the martyrdom story:

Since, then, you requested that we would at large make you acquainted with what really took place, we have for the present sent you this summary account through our brother Marcus.

Mark was a common name, but in the original Greek of the text, the Greek name that was used in this passage was not Marcus.  It was Mark the Less – Μαρκίωνος.  Μαρκίωνος literally translates to Marcion!  This was the same spelling Irenaeus used against Marcion.

It could be true that there was more than 1 Marcion.  However it is suspicious that the Johannines, who were in a similar geographic area as the Marcionites (Roman Asia), and who revered Marcion’s favorite apostle, would have had such hostile views towards Marcion.  The Johannines clearly held a hostile view of Marcion by the second half of the second century.  The writer of Polycarp’s surviving epistle (which I suspect was written by Irenaeus) wages an attack on the Docetae (Marcion’s theology was docetic – believing Jesus was a phantom on earth, not composed of flesh):

For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh [The Docetics], is antichrist…whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.

This reference to the “first-born of Satan” in Polycarp’s epistle matches Irenaeus’ reference; coupled with Irenaeus’ deep reverence for Polycarp, this detail amplifies my assumption that Polycarp’s epistle was written by Irenaeus.

There are 5 references to the Timothy pastoral epistles in Polycarp’s epistle – 4 references to 1 Timothy, and 1 reference to 2 Timothy.

The Pastoral epistles are widely acknowledged to be later forgeries, presumably written by the winners of the 2nd and 3rd century Christian battles.

Given this detail, if we choose to presume that the Pastorals are forgeries, 3 intriguing speculations are:

  1.  The Pastorals (at least 1 and 2 Timothy) were written prior to Polycarp’s surviving epistle
  2. The writer of Polycarp’s epistle forged 1 and 2 Timothy himself, or he knew the person who did
  3. If Irenaeus did indeed write Polycarp’s epistle, then he either created the Pastorals, or knew the person who did

I’ve written in the past that I think Cerinthus is the common denominator between the Johannines and the Marcionites.  Cerinthus was in Ephesus, according to Irenaeus, and Galatia according to Epiphanius.   Marcion’s theological centerpiece, Paul, makes reference to Cerinthus and his Revelation text in 2 Corinthians 12 (and also alludes to a mystery, tiered component, which was in line with other mystery religions of the day):

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven…caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

Interestingly enough, several groups later held that it was Cerinthus who wrote Revelation, which is a story that parallels Paul’s claim in 2 Corin 12.  If Paul and Cerinthus were actually historical concoctions based on Marcion and Cerinthus, then what is peppered throughout the New Testament and supplemental texts is a tremendous con-job, crafted by Irenaeus and relayed in his 150,000 word tome.

Ireneaus did not even have to grapple with the inconsistency and incoherence of his phony narrative; for instance, he never had to answer the historical puzzler of how an illiterate, Aramaic-speaking fisherman came to write such a Greek-heavy gospel which drew on the highest philosophy of the day.  Nor did Saint Irenaeus have answer why no one noticed Christians or their persecution in the secular record.  But the true genius in Irenaeus’ scheme was that he didn’t have to answer why his apostolic authority was so superior to everyone else’s, despite the fact that there were supposedly other apostle-disciples who were just as qualified to map out the orthodoxy in the vision of their masters.  It’s almost as if this was an organized conspiracy…


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

2 thoughts on “Irenaeus and The Big Lie”

  1. Almost …? Explore the motives of the people involved (assuming the usual disposition on the validity of revelations through mystical means) and the “almost” in your last sentence goes away.


    1. It would be nice if people would stop perpetuating the lies.

      For example, the translation in the Martyrdom of Polycarp – they call the guy Marcus, despite the fact that it’s the Greek name for Marcion. The only reason I discovered the wonky translation is because I’ve recently gotten interested in all the Marks who supposedly existed at this time.

      Why not just translate it to Marcion?

      I suppose the most benign response would be that the translator did not want the reader to confuse the Johannine Marcus with Marcion.

      But why would the translator be concerned about this issue? Might it be because they know of the rift described by Irenaeus? That’s certainly the case.

      But why would the translator want to defend Marcion’s narrative? Because they believe what Irenaeus wrote carte blanche, without the slightest skepticism or concern that too much faith in a 2nd century cult member might not be advisable.


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