Satanology of the Apostolic Fathers: Conclusion

Conclusion

The following list summarizes this assessment of supernatural evil in the Apostolic Fathers.

1. Didache: strongly demythologized.
2. Epistle of Barnabas: strongly mythological.
3. 1 Clement: strongly non-mythological.
4. Visions 1-4 (Shepherd of Hermas): strongly demythologized.
5. Vision 5, Mandates, Parables (Shepherd of Hermas): weakly mythological.
6. Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians: weakly mythological.
7. Martyrdom of Polycarp: non-mythological.
8. Fragments of Papias: non-mythological.
9. Epistles of Ignatius: strongly mythological.
10. 2 Clement: strongly non-mythological.
11. Epistle to Diognetus: strongly demythologized.
12. Quadratus: non-mythological.

Two witnesses are weakly mythological and two are strongly mythological, whereas five are non-mythological, two are strongly non-mythological, and three are actually strongly demythologized. Thus the overwhelming majority of the Apostolic Fathers exhibit a non-mythological character, with three being strongly demythologized in a manner demonstrating outright rejection of belief in supernatural evil. These conclusions challenge the typical assumption that the Apostolic Fathers believed in a supernatural evil being which they referred to as ‘satan’ or ‘the devil’, and provide grounds for a review of satanological terminology in early Christian texts.

The non-mythological character of these witnesses becomes even more apparent when they are contrasted with the mid- to late-second century apologists who introduced new satanological ideas.1 Justin Martyr was the first to identify the serpent of Genesis 3 as Satan,2 a novelty which was adopted by other second century apologists.3 Justin also imported a theology of fallen angels borrowed from Jewish apocryphal writings.4 Such borrowing was not unique to Justin; Russell documents how the second century apologists imported satanological concepts from apocryphal Jewish and Christian texts, even while they opposed their authors.5

More theological innovation soon followed. Theophilus of Antioch not only identified Satan as a demon,6 and as responsible for the fall of Adam and Eve,7 but also described demons as the source of temptation and sin.8 Tatian likewise drew his demonology from a belief in the rebellion of Satan, and developed further the concept of demons seeking to deceive and entrap Christians.9 The non-mythological texts of the Apostolic Fathers show no evidence of such beliefs, differentiating them distinctly as belonging to an earlier Christian tradition in which supernatural evil had no theological place.

This study makes three contributions. One is a synthesis of the evidence for, and scholarly commentary on, a non-mythological witness within the Apostolic Fathers. A second is the evidence it presents for a first century demythological Christianity which survived well into the second century. A third is the demonstration of the early second-century rise of a persistent and increasingly popular mythological Christianity, which existed in parallel with its non-mythological counterpart until it became dominant from the mid-second century onwards. Further research is necessary to identify whether or not these two opposing views correlate to specific geographical locations, and to traditions generated by or passed on from specific Christian leaders.

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  1. ‘Justin and Tatian, and to a lesser degree Athenogoras, represent an important stage in the growth of belief in the malevolence of the powers.’, Wesley Carr, Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Phrase Hai Archai Kai Hai Exousiai (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 152. []
  2. ‘Finally, I take up the Samaritan philosopher Justin Martyr, concentrating on his Dialogue with Trypho (ca. 160 ce). As noted at the beginning, Justin seems to have been the earliest writer whose works are extant to identify the serpent in Eden with Satan. Such an inference on his part, if it was original with him, shows that he could ride roughshod over the clear text of Holy Writ when it suited his preconceptions: for Genesis unequivocally says that the serpent was one of the animals created on the earth by God. Instead, Justin says that Eve’s tempter was one of the angels designated as gods or princes in Psalm 82, who was called “the serpent.”’, H. A. Kelly, “Adam Citings before the Intrusion of Satan: Recontextualizing Paul’s Theology of Sin and Death,” Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture 44, no. 1 (2014): 24; ‘As previously mentioned, Justin Martyr, a second-century apologist for the Christian faith, is among the first to argue that the prince of demons participated in the fall of humanity.’, Miguel A. De La Torre, Genesis (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 70. []
  3. ‘Other Greek Apologists, notably Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch later on in the second century, and Justin’s student Tatian, shared Justin’s belief that Satan first went astray in misleading Adam and Eve, and so did the slightly later North African Latin Christian Tertullian, as we shall soon see.’, Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 177. []
  4. ‘Justin was original in combining this Jewish doctrine of the angels of the nations with the apocalyptic idea of the watcher angels who sinned through lust. For him the sinful Watchers were angels of the nations who were derelict in their duty.’, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Cornell University Press, 1987), 64; ‘An example of this tendency may be seen in 2 Apol. 5, in which he makes a rare allusion to the demons as the offspring of the union of angels and women, but then confuses this offspring with the fallen angels themselves. He also combines the angelic custodians of the world with the fallen angels. The way is thus left open for the development of the concept of a kingdom of mighty powers who are under Satan’s control and are opposed to God.’, Wesley Carr, Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Phrase Hai Archai Kai Hai Exousiai (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 150. []
  5. ‘The orthodox fathers often drew upon these ideas even while opposing them.’, Jeffrey Burton Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Cornell University Press, 1987), 62. []
  6. ‘Satan is mentioned only twice (2.28, 29), but not outside the context of the Genesis story. Satan is called “the maleficent demon” (o kakopoioV daimwn), who is “still at work in those men who are possessed by him.” He is not only called a demon, but also a “dragon” (drakwn) because he “escaped” (apodedrakenai) from God. According to Theophilus, Satan was originally an angel. The bishop concludes by saying he could expand up on the subject, but it is dealt with sufficiently elsewhere. He does not explain whose book he has in mind here, his or someone else’s.’, Rick Rogers, Theophilus of Antioch: The Life and Thought of a Second-Century Bishop (Lexington Books, 2000), 68. []
  7. ‘Nevertheless, it is as true for Theophilus as it is for these other Christianities, and even Enochian Judaism, in contrast to Hellenistic and Rabbinic Judaisms, that Adam’s sin and human responsibility are correlated with a strong belief in the evil role of Satan.’, Rick Rogers, Theophilus of Antioch: The Life and Thought of a Second-Century Bishop (Lexington Books, 2000), 68. []
  8. ‘The bishop speaks of demons several times (1.10; 2.6, especially 8; and 3.2), but without any description. Theophilus claims that daimonia or daimoneV filled people with pride and misinformation, but never speaks of them as the origin of evil.’, Rick Rogers, Theophilus of Antioch: The Life and Thought of a Second-Century Bishop (Lexington Books, 2000), 68. []
  9. ‘He emphasizes the demonic aspects of paganism and derives his understanding of demons from the Judaeo-Christian myth of the rebellion of Satan. This effectively puts the fall of the demons, who are associated with idolatry, prior to the fall of man. The deceit that the demons practise on all men is exactly that which they formally practiced on the first man, Adam (Orat. 7 and 14). There is, however, a subtle change in Tatian from Justin’s view of demons. Tatian constantly stresses the desire of the demons to enslave men: they are more than beings that cause evil and have become beings in their own right who wish to bring men into servitude.’, Wesley Carr, Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Phrase Hai Archai Kai Hai Exousiai (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 161. []

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