Formation of the Canon

“The idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning, that is from Apostolic times, has no foundation in history. The Canon of the New Testament, like that of the Old, is the result of a development, of a process at once stimulated by disputes with doubters, both within and without the Church, and retarded by certain obscurities and natural hesitations, and which did not reach its final term until the dogmatic definition of the Tirdentine Council [in 1545].” -New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, “Canon of the New Testament”

Justin Martyr, Tatian, and the Diatessaron

The earliest known gospel to be sanctioned by the early church is the Diatessaron (Greek for “Coming Through Four“), written in 173 by an Assyrian named Tatian, who was a “hearer” of St. Justin Martyr. Also referred to as Evangelion da Mehallete (“The Gospel of the Mixed“), the text is a combination of the four gospels into one harmonized gospel, similar to the way four Old Testament sources have been harmonized into one Torah. The Diatessaron was written in the Syriac language, but a Latin version of it would spread out around the west as well. Around 160, Justin sent Tatian from Rome to reform the Syrian church in Odessa (northeast of Antioch), prohibiting meat, wine, and marriage. The Syrian church’s Doctrine of Addai, from 400 A.D., records that Tatian set down that the only books to be read were the Diatessaron, the Pauline Epistles, and the Book of Acts. The doctrine adds that Paul’s epistles had been sent by Peter from Rome and Acts had been sent by the disciple John from the Athenian city of Ephesus. Which Pauline Epistles were promulgated is not known for sure, but it could not included the late Pastorals (Titus, etc.), which allowed the eating of meat, drinking wine, and marriage. The Diatessaron’s chronology departed wildly from that of all four gospels, but manages to include about 72% of the combined whole. Some things, like the two irreconcilable genealogies of Matthew and Luke, had to be dropped. The Diatessaron would continue to be the official gospel of the Syrian church until 423, when the bishop of Cyrrhus, Theodoret, had over 200 copies destroyed and replaced with the four gospels under the order of the bishop of Edessa. Theodoret would later become embroiled in a Christological controversy, taking the side of the heretic Nestorius against St. Cyril of Alexandria.

Justin was born 100 A.D. in Flavia Neapolis, a city founded by Emperor Vespasian in Palestine following the aftermath of the sack of Jerusalem. Justin referred to himself as a Samaritan although he was uncircumcised, his father and grandfather had Roman names, and he was raised a pagan. In the opening of his Dialogue, Justin tells of his vain search for God among the emotionally detached philosophy of the Stoics, Aristotle’s Peripatetuic school, and the mathematical cult of the Pythagoreans. But the Stoics knew nothing of God, the Peripatetuics wanted to be paid, and the Pythagoreans asked that he learn music, astronomy, and geometry first. Platonism remained on his mind as he went walking one day along a beach, and came upon a mysterious old man who he had a long discussion with. Speaking with the old man, Justin reached an epiphany that the rational mind can not conceive of God on it’s own but must be interceded upon by the Holy Spirit. He later established a school in Rome, which Tatian joined sometime around 150 A.D. Unlike earlier writers, who tended to focus on epistles, Justin quotes only from the gospels.

Justin is said to have worn a philosopher’s gown to accentuate that he had found the one “true philosophy” in Christianity. The Latin church father Tertullian called him a philosopher and the first opponent of the heretics. According to the 46th chapter of Justin’s First Apology, Justin makes it clear that there were people following the Christian philosophy before Jesus:

But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born 150 years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible- let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Logos [Word] of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought Atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians [non-Greeks]: Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias [Elijah], and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.

Justin’s dating places the birth of Jesus is in agreement with that of the Gospel of Luke, which puts the Nativity at 6 A.D. over that of the Gospel of Matthew, which places it 10 years earlier. Plato’s teacher Socrates would have been thought of as the prime example of someone who “lived reasonably” even though he was tried and sentenced to death on the accusation that he was an Atheist. Ananias, Azarias, and Misael were Jewish noblemen who served the king of Babylon alongside Daniel in the Book of Daniel. Elias, or Elijah, is an Old Testament prophet who was taken to heaven by a whirlwind.

Heraclitus, who lived before Socrates, was the first pagan philosopher who gave a philosophical or theological interpretation to the Logos. Nicknamed “The Riddler” and “The Weeping Philosopher,” he described the universe as being in a constant state of change, like a river, saying, “Time is a child playing dice; the kingly power is a child’s.” Although the world was in constant flux, there was also a single, unchanging law that governed the cosmos, called the Logos. The Logos was seen as a unification of opposites. It’s physical manifestation was fire, which likewise was in constant change but stayed the same. He believed that most people followed “the Word,” without seeing or understanding it, as if sleepwalking, and is quoted as saying, “The Logos is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, overindulgence and hunger.” Plato saw the nature of these ideas as breaking the Law of Non-Contradiction. Heraclitus also made a distinction between divine knowledge, which was objective truth that everyone has, and human knowledge, the collection of facts available to individuals.

Although Justin gives these philosophers credit for their teachings being similar to Christianity, he does not go so far as to suggest that Jesus built on Heraclitus or Plato or any other philosophies which preceded him. He instead argued that evil spirits had stolen Jesus’ message before his arrival and warped it so as to fool people and that others could peer through darkness of reality and come upon pieces of divine wisdom. But Jesus was the human representation of the “spermatic Logos” from which all those prior writers drew their inspiration from. In Justin’s Second Apology, he writes:

For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed both at those who framed these falsehoods, and at the disguise itself, and at popular opinion; and I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians. For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic Logos, seeing what was related to it. But they who contradict themselves on the more important points appear not to have possessed the heavenly wisdom, and the knowledge which cannot be spoken against. Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Logos who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that, becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them. For the seed and imitation imparted according to capacity is one thing, and quite another is the thing itself, of which there is the participation and imitation according to the grace which is from Him.

Justin also believed that in the End Times, everyone would be physically resurrected and reside on the earth, and uses the physical resurrection of Jesus as proof for that belief. Since he believed that sex was a corruption, he argued that the sexual organs of men and women would have some other function in the new world, and sees women who have barren wombs as reason to believe that God would have some other purpose for the organs in the afterlife. In his lost work on the resurrection, he writes:

And we see men also keeping themselves virgins, some from the first, and some from a certain time; so that by their means, marriage, made lawless through lust, is destroyed. And we find that some even of the lower animals, though possessed of wombs, do not bear, such as the mule; and the male mules do not beget their kind. So that both in the case of men and the irrational animals we can see sexual intercourse abolished; and this, too, before the future world. And our Lord Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, for no other reason than that He might destroy the begetting by lawless desire, and might show to the ruler that the formation of man was possible to God without human intervention. And when He had been born, and had submitted to the other conditions of the flesh, I mean food, drink, and clothing, this one condition only of discharging the sexual function He did not submit to…

Tatian originally came from Assyria, now northern Iraq, and wrote that he first became interested in Christianity due to the greed and immorality of the pagan cults. Tatian said he first became convinced of the irrationality of paganism after reading the Old Testament. Although trained in Greek philosophy from his youth, he wrote an apology for Christianity showing nothing but utter contempt for Greek philosophy and manners.

According to Irenaeus, Tatian was expelled from the church in 172, seven years after his mentor’s death, for: declaring marriage to be a corruption, inventing a system of Aeons like that the Valentinus, and for denying the salvation of Adam. Irenaeus tried to connect Tatian’s Encratite (“Abstainer”) heresy of believing matter to be evil and refraining from meat, wine, and sex to Marcion and a Marcionite teacher named Saturninus, but Tatian’s ascetic ideas were no doubt influenced from Justin if not others before him. This is also about the time the Pastoral epistles appeared on the scene, like 1 Timothy, which ‘predicts’ that in “later times” deceiving spirits and demons would lure the faithful away with teachings that forbid marriage and certain foods (4:3). According to Eusebius, Jerome, and Epiphanius, Tatian went to Mesopotamia and founded the Encratite sect, which extended it’s sphere influence into Turkey. Regarding the damnation of Adam, Ireneaus said that this teaching was unique to Tatian, who believed “since immortality is obtainable only where a soul forms a union… and since the divine Spirit was lost by the same man, the first man Adam cannot have been saved.” Tatian’s practice of asceticism would continue to be kept in Syria, as the Persian Sage Aphraates recorded how the vow of celibacy was a condition of accepting baptism in the 300s. The church father Clement of Alexandria is believed to have been a pupil of Tatian. Another church father, Origen, studied under the same Alexandrian school that Clement taught at and Origen himself was posthumously declared a heretic, although Clement was not. Both of their writings show some Semi-Gnostic leanings, although they still opposed "full" Gnostics.

Origin of the Gospels

An early known reference to a canon almost identical to what is found in the Bible today was discovered in the Ambrosian library in Milan by the famous Italian historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori and published in 1740. The lost and fractured text, called the Muratorian fragment, had been copied down some time in the 600s, but the text mentions Pius I being bishop of Rome recently (142-157), and so is believed to have been originally written around 170 A.D. Particular attention is paid by the fragment’s author to the Gospel of John, describing how all the disciples and bishops fasted for 3 days and then shared with everyone else what had been revealed to them. It’s revealed to Andrew that although all of the disciples were to author and review the gospel, it would be John who should write them all down under his own name. “And so, though various elements may be taught in the individual books of the Gospels, nevertheless this makes no difference to the faith of believers, since by the one sovereign Spirit all things have been declared in all…” The story, however, contradicts the dating of the fourth gospel by both scholars and clerics to that of 90 A.D., long after most of the disciples were believed to be dead. The earliest known fragment from the Gospel of John, known as p52 or the John Rylands fragment, was dug up in Egypt and dated paleographically to the 120s.

The Muratorian fragment lists all of today’s canonical epistles except for the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Epistle of James, and the Third Epistle of John. It also mentions the Epistle to the Laodiceans, believed to be related to an edited version of the epistle to the Ephesians, and the formerly unknown epistle to the Alexandrians, both of which the fragment says were forged to further the heretical church of Marcion. These epistles, as well as several others, “cannot be received into the Catholic Church-- for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey.” The apocryphal Book of Wisdom, said by the fragment to have been written by Solomon’s friends in his honor, was also accepted into the canon. The church is said to have accepted not one but two apocalypses, one written by John, known as “Revelations,” and another apocalypse of Peter, though some were not willing for the second to be read, according to the fragment. The apocryphal Shepherd of Hermas is also mentioned, and credited to a Christian named Hermas, who the fragment says was brother to Pius, the bishop who held the seat in Rome “in recent times.” Just as the start of the fragment is missing, the end of the Muratorian fragment cuts off with, “But we accept nothing whatever of Arsinous or Valentinus or Miltiades, who also composed a new book of psalms for Marcion, together with Basilides, the Asian founder of the Cataphrygians…”

It is to Irenaeus we must give credit for the oral tradition of the gospels side-by-side. From Irenaeus’ perspective, the four gospels are “four witnesses,” yet only two are supposedly eye-witnesses. In the third book, Irenaeus says that each of the four main Christian heresies took one of the four gospels as their own and formed erroneous opinions without the guidance of the other three:

“Such, then, are the first principles of the Gospel: that there is one God, the Maker of this universe; He who was also announced by the prophets, and who by Moses set forth the dispensation of the law, [principles] which proclaim the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ignore any other God or Father except Him. So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavors to establish his own peculiar doctrine. For the Ebionites, who use Matthew's Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel, as I have shown in the first book. Since, then, our opponents do bear testimony to us, and make use of these [documents], our proof derived from them is firm and true.

“It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sits upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, ‘You who sit between the cherubim, shine forth.’ For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, ‘the first living creature was like a lion,‘ symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a [bull] calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but ‘the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,‘ an evident description of His advent as a human being; ‘he fourth was like a flying eagle,‘ pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. “

As most scholars who quote this are apt to point out, the reasons Irenaeus uses for why there are four gospels says nothing of tradition, but instead tries to associate them with a form of esoteric numerology, relating them to the four compass points, or zones, and the “four winds.” Needless to say, the “four winds” argument does not pack the same kind of philosophical punch it did in the late second century. A comparison of the gospels shows deep theological rifts between each of their philosophies, despite the attempts of Justin, Tatian, Irenaeus, and others to harmonize them into one four-layered biography. Irenaeus’ own apologetics act as the best evidence against his “apostolic source” theory by identifying the original sources of the four gospels, each one of them a Gnostic or Semi-Gnostic sect.

Matthew comes from the Ebionites, which matches the Matthew’s traditionally Jewish stance that Jesus did not “come to abolish the law or the prophets.” Luke coming from the Marcionites matches with Luke’s Hellenistic philosophy, the gospel-writer’s focus on Paul, as well as portrayals of Jesus having an incorporeal body, such as when he walks through people and disappears when people tried to stone him, similar to the Docetic nature attributed to him in Marcionism. The Gospel of John, no doubt a version closer to that of Cerinthus, is attributed to the Valentinians, another Pauline group. The Valentinains were said to be the first group to define the Trinity as the Father, the Logos, and the Holy Spirit, which matches with John’s focus on Jesus as being the divine Logos.

The earliest gospel, Mark, is said to have been used by those who believed that “Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered.” This Gnostic sect was also known as the Adoptionist because they believed that the spirit of Christ adopted the body of the gospel Jesus when he was baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptist and that it left him when he was crucified. This particularly matches with Mark because in the other gospels, as we have them today, the Holy Spirit is portrayed as being with Jesus at birth. The baptism by John the Baptist is the first event in which Jesus is mentioned in Mark, and it is at this time that God tells him, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” which matches with the concept of the Holy Spirit “adopting” Jesus at that point in time.

Using the conception of a distinct canon, the second century church created a more limited definition for what it meant to be Christian, which would come to be known as “Orthodoxy.” True Orthodoxy, however, as it is known today, comes with the “Father of Orthodoxy,” St. Athanasius, and Constantine’s Council of Nicaea in 325. Prof. Bart Ehrman instead refers to these second century Christians as “Proto-Orthodox.” Ehrman places Justin in this same category, and although Justin is traditionally considered to be a Roman Catholic saint, he could arguably be considered an Encratite. Since St. Irenaeus is the first known church father to promote the four gospels over that of the Diatessaron, and is also the first to argue the idea of Church tradition being handed down through apostolic succession, I will consider Ireneaus to be the starting point for those following the Proto-Orthodox tradition of belonging to the “Apostolic Church.”

Let’s consider the differences in theology as we trace how the gospels were distributed across the Mediterranean. The Gospel of Mark was spread primarily around Rome, Alexandria, and just south of Antioch, the same three cities in which the earliest Christian churches were founded. Various arguments have been for Mark’s origin in each of these cities on based on variant reasons. Irenaeus places Mark in Rome and the gospel’s message is congruent with having a Roman audience. Legend places Mark as Patriarch of the Alexandrian church, where the combination of Judaism and Neo-Platonism had already formed the amalgamated Hellenistic philosophy of Philo. Prof. Burton Mack and Howard Clark Kee have both made excellent arguments for Mark originating around Galilee, close to where gospel story is based. Mack places it in a large city so as to have access to the necessary resources to complete such a project. Tyre and Sidon, though condemned to damnation by Jesus in Mark, are the most likely candidates. Syria has often been considered to be the heart of Christianity, with Egypt the brain, and Rome the financial backbone. While Syria boasted the highest in number, Alexandria became the primary city from which a seemingly infinite number of theological hairs were split, while the church in Rome proved to have the greatest political influence. The Gospel of Matthew was spread around the Dead Sea in the Levant, the only gospel distributed through Israel and Judah, where traditional Jerusalem-centered Judaism was most prevalent. Luke-Acts, more than any of the other gospels, is found distributed around the Aegean Sea throughout Greece and western Turkey, in the cities most of Paul‘s epistles were addressed to. The final version of John is believed to have been edited by John in Ephesus from an earlier gospel used by Cerinthus.

Stoicism, Montanism, and Quartodecimanism

During the Christian persecution of 177, Justin Martur, Irenaeus’ teacher, Polycarp, Polycarp’s companion Papias, and Ponthius the first bishop of Lyons were all martyred under the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was also an important Stoic philosopher and the last of what are called the “Five Good Emperors.” Ponthius, the first bishop of Lyons was killed during the purge as well. Although it remains doubtful that the emperor himself was catalyst for it, the fourth great persecution of Christians was inaugurated under his reign while his son, Commodus, ruled Rome as Co-Emperor beside him. In general the revival of persecution seems to have been brought about by the local action of the provincial governors impelled by city mobs. If any general imperial edict was issued, it has not survived. Rome itself saw little violence as the persecution was centered in Gaul, where many Germanic raiders had been threatening the country, but the violence also moved into Turkey and Syria. Although Irenaeus is remembered as the second bishop of Lyons, there is no clear historic evidence for him officially assuming clerical duties there. Irenaeus is also said to have been martyred as well, but there is no record or legend explaining how he died, and if true, would almost certainly have been recorded by Tertullian, St. Hippolytus, Eusebius, or St. Epiphanius. Justin wrote two Apologies defending the Christian religion to Marcus Aurelius before he was murdered.

Yet Marcus Aurelius himself was called the noblest character of his time. The French historian of Roman moralists, M. Martha, said that with Marcus Aurelius’ Stoicism “the philosophy of Heathendom grows less proud, draws nearer to a Christianity which it ignored or which it despised, and is ready to fling itself into the arms of the Unknown God.” Marcus did not believe in the afterlife though, and discredited the pagan concept of immortality through fame.

In his Meditations, he wrote, “See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the changeableness and want of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of the space within which it is circumscribed, and be quiet at last.” Marcus lists some of the most famous men of prior generations, asking, “Where then are those men? Nowhere, or nobody knows where. For thus continuously you will look at human things as smoke and nothing at all; especially if you reflect at the same time that what has once changed will never exist again in the infinite duration of time.” Everything that exists is “already disintegrating” and “made but to die.” He stressed the insignificance of man with respect to the universe, referring to man as a “rational animal,” and writing, “Of the life of man the duration is but a point, its substance streaming away, its perception dim, the fabric of the entire body prone to decay, and the soul a vortex, and fortune incalculable, and fame uncertain. In a word all things of the body are as a river, and the things of the soul as a dream and a vapor; and life is a warfare and a pilgrim's sojourn, and fame after death is only forgetfulness.” Desire is a womanly vice which only breeds disappointment and shows a lack of control. The good man “pleased and content with what happens, and with the thread which is spun for him; and not to defile the divinity which is planted in his breast, nor disturb it by a crowd of images, but to preserve it tranquil, following it obediently as a god, neither saying anything contrary to the truth, nor doing anything contrary to justice.”

While Marcus Aurelius said that he had learned “manliness without pretentiousness” from his own father before the man’s death when Marcus was only 3 years old, Marcus’ son Commodus did little to follow in the footsteps of his father. He’s largely considered one of the “Mad Emperors,” like Caligula and Nero, who constantly battled criticism through evermore outrageous levels of self-aggrandizement. He infamously entered into gladiator matches with animals and people, allowing defeated opponents mercy during matches, but reportedly slaying men during practice sessions. His reign had begun poorly by surrendering lands that his father had previously conquered, and he would often claim full honors for partial victories in battles fought against the Germans. He was said to have frequently brothels and kept over 300 concubines, along with a good number of boys. He appointed corrupt politicians to very high stations, men who killed senators to confiscate their wealth and sold government offices to the highest bidder. Commodus’ sister Lucilla conspired with her husband to overthrow him but was exiled to Capri in 182 and later killed. The character of Commodus was also made into the role of the villain in the fictional movie Gladiator.

But his 11 and a half years of rule were also known to Christians as a period of freedom from persecution. This is largely ascribed to the influence of a concubine named Marcia, who was his cousin and possibly a Christian. According to Hippolytus, she was brought up by the Presbyter Hyacinthus. When the mismanagement of grain caused a famine in 190, a rebellion was said to have been nearly averted through the plea of Marcia to execute the grain commissioner and his son. She is also said to have negotiated the release of Christian mine workers, getting their names from Pope Victor and sending Hyacinthus to the island of Sardinia with an order of release. But then Commodus went so far as to declare himself the divine Hercules, rename the capital Rome Commodiana, and changed the name of every month on the calendar to one of his titular names. He then tried to gain support by taxing all the senators on his birthday and then giving citizens 140 denarii each, around 5 months in common wages, or $2800. It was said that Marcia and 2 others learned Commodus was going to kill them and move into the gladiator barracks, so Marcia attempted to poison him. Supposedly, Commodus vomited this up and lived, and was instead strangled by an athlete named Narcissus in his bath on the last day of 192.

Some time during before the year 180, a sect of Proto-Gnostic Christianity called Montanism began to take hold in Turkey. It was led by a convert named Montanus who originally come from Phrygia. It was said that he was a priest in an Oriental ecstatic cult of Cybele, the mother goddess of fertility, but the legitimacy of this accusation is hotly debated. He traveled around the rural areas of Turkey east of Ephesus, preaching and testifying, emphasizing chastity and forbidding it‘s members to marry. It’s said that the two prophetesses had left their husbands to join Montanus and were each given the title of “Virgin” by him. “The Three” eventually came to a small village of Pepuza and dedicated it as the New Jerusalem of the Christian world, stretching to Africa and Gaul (France). They urged their followers to fast and pray, so that they might share these personal revelations. They also taught that once a Christian had fallen from grace, they could never be redeemed, which matches a verse from the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:27). The movement spread rapidly into Galatia (Turkey) and in North Africa, and for a time in Rome itself. The sect had many Jewish qualities to it, but at the same time many claimed to have suffered persecution from Jews.

Irenaeus was sent to Rome in 177 or 178 with a letter regarding the Montanist controversy from imprisoned Christians in Lyons for Pope Eleutherius. Although the Christians of Lyons opposed the Montanist movement, they asked that the pontiff be tolerant and not excommunicate them so as to preserve Christian unity. When exactly the Montanists were excommunicated is unknown, but it was probably after the last of the three prophets had died in 179. It’s said that Irenaeus returned to Lyons with his church in turmoil, which is what moved him to write Against Heresies in the first place. Listed between the Marcionites and Valentinians, he calls the Montanists “wretched men” who “wish to be pseudo-prophets, in fact, but who set aside the gift of prophecy from the Church; acting like those [Encratites] who, on account of such as come in hypocrisy, hold themselves aloof from the communion of the brethren.” The bishop of Rome is reported to have set forth a decree against Gnostics and Montanists that Christians should not abstain from certain kinds of food. The Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century reads:

“Visitors came from far to witness the wonderful phenomena; and the condemned prophets hoped to reverse the first unfavourable verdict by the sentence of a larger tribunal. But all the leading bishops of Asia Minor declared against it. At length an attempt was made to influence or overrule the judgment of Asiatic Christians by the opinion of their brethren beyond the sea. We cannot be sure how long Montanus had been teaching, or how long the excesses of his prophetesses had continued; but in 177 Western attention was first called to these disputes, the interference being solicited of the martyrs of Lyons, then suffering imprisonment and expecting death for the testimony of Christ.”

Montanism’s greatest defender was Tertullian, who joined with the Montanists by 207, reportedly as soon as he heard about it. Although Tertullian died a heretic, he is still too important a writer in church history, and is still commonly referred to as the Father of the Latin Church, although it did cost him his sainthood. Tertullian recounted that at one time a Roman bishop, probably either Eleutherius or Victor, tried to reach an accord with the Montanists but that the letters of conciliation were ultimately recalled. The phrase Tertullian had previously coined for Proto-Orthodox Christianity, saying, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church” bore a better description of the Montanist sect, which celebrated martyrdom to such a degree as to disapprove that one should try to flee or bribe their way out of death. Montanus is quoted as saying, “You are made an outlaw? It is good for you. For he who is not outlawed among men is outlawed in the Lord. Be not confounded. It is justice which hales you in public. Why are you confounded, when you are sowing praise? Power comes, when you are stared at by men.” But aside from the acceptance of Montanist prophecy, Tertullian’s main argument against the Apostolic Church was that it allowed second marriages, which is prohibited in the Synoptic gospels. Tertuillian said that the Apostolic church had become “a church of a lot of bishops,” succumbing to adultery and gluttony, slow to fast and quick to remarry. But his Tertullianist sect ultimately reconciled with the Catholic/Orthodox church hundreds of years later through St. Augustine.

The Montanist sect called itself the New Prophecy because it regarded the work to which it was appointed not as a reaction but as a step in advance. It preached of a King of the Holy Spirit, to which the earlier apostles had been the prologue. Montanus declared, “The Lord has sent me as the chooser, the revealer, the interpreter of this labor, this promise, and this covenant, being forced, willingly or unwillingly, to learn the Gnosis of God.” The church father Epiphanius quoted him as saying, “I have come, not an angel or ambassador, but God the Father.” Didymus quoted him with, “I am the Father and the Son and the Paraclete [Comforter].” Tertullian quotes Priscilla as saying, “For continence brings harmony, and they see visions, and, bowing their heads, they also hear distinct voices, saving and mysterious.” Epiphanius quotes her, “Appearing as a woman clothed in a shining robe, Christ came to me [in sleep]; he put wisdom into me and revealed to me that this place is sacred and that here Jerusalem will come down from heaven.” Priscilla is also said to have claimed that Christ had appeared to her in female form. The Comforter would often speak through Priscilla and Maximillia in strange tongues and ecstatic visions.

Montanists believed that Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all different forms of the same person, a belief referred to as Modism. Montanists who became one with God through their ecstatic trances in which they would become filled with the Holy Spirit and identify themselves with God. The formation of Trinity theology isolating those particular forms into three different persons of God might have been a means to allow Christians to “become filled with the Holy Spirit” without self-identifying with God the Father the way Montanists did. The Father, Logos, and Holy Spirit were instead understood as literal Divinities that formed a matrix of three persons in one God, while Sophia was to be read generically, as in intelligence, losing the language of feminine spiritualism. By identifying the Holy Spirit as one being with the Father, it helped limit the exaltation given to an ecstatic leader who would claim to be God the Father after being filled with the Holy Spirit. But in accepting “three persons” in Trinity, the church was technically no longer monotheistic.

Some Presbyters tried to get them to stop by attempting to prove ecstatic prophecy was not a part of Christianity, and so the Montanists appealed to scripture to prove that, in Genesis, “The Lord sent an ecstasy upon Adam.” (Greek Septuagint ektasin, literally a trance or deep sleep, as in the deep sleep Adam was put in when God took his rib.). A more relevant identification is made in Acts in which the disciples spoke in tongues in Jerusalem at Pentecost (2:4) and when Peter went into a trance while eating at the house of Cornelius (10:10; 2:4). Paul himself was said to have entered the “Third Heaven” while in a trance mentioned in 2 Corinthians (12:2), although he confessed he didn‘t know if it was his spirit or his body that had been taken up into third (and highest) heaven.

There is no sure way to know what brought on all these visions, but it is known that in other mystery cults, the venom from snakes would be ingested or injected at gradually increasing amounts until the body built up an immunity to it, at which point a large dose of the venom could be applied without killing the person and that it would send the user into an ecstatic euphoria in which they would communicate with the spirit world. Whoever appended the longer of the two fake endings on the Gospel of Mark has the risen Jesus telling his “stubborn” and “unbelieving” disciples to “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. All these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (16:15-18). Paul himself was said to have been bitten by a snake on the island of Malta and survived. In Acts of the Apostles, which in this particular section is speaking in “first person” a’ la’ “Luke,” that the islanders of Malta are so amazed that Paul lived through it (28:3), they mistake him for being a God!

When Bishop Apollinarius of the Turkish city of Ancyra condemned the Montanist prophesies, he wrote up a decree with a list of signatures from neighboring bishops who condemned the Montanist prophecies. We know one of these bishops, Sotas of Anchialus, was already dead at the time of his supposed signature. But Bishop Aelius Publius Julius of the neighboring colony of Debeltus swore that Sotas had tried to cast the demon out of Priscilla. Another writer claimed that two others attempted to exorcize Maximilla, but both times the “hypocrites” stopped them. After Maximilla was excommunicated, Eusebius quotes Maximilla as saying, “I am driven as a wolf from the sheep. I am not a wolf; I am word, spirit, and power.” Tertullian quotes Priscilla as saying, “They are flesh, yet they hate the flesh.” The Montanists continued to survive all the way up until the 600s, it’s demise much helped by Justinian the Great, “the Last Roman Emperor.” Inscriptions found in the Tembris valley of northern Phrygia proclaiming allegiance to Montanism have been dated from 250-280 A.D.

Another schism that broke out between Rome and Asia Minor (Turkey) around this time based on the numbering of Easter. Christians in Turkey, including the Montanists celebrated Easter on the same day as the Jewish Passover, the 14th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar, the same night as Passover. This closely followed the theology of the Gospel of John, which had Jesus die on the same day as Passover, acting as the sacrificial lamb. Latin-speaking Christians and many bishops from the east instead celebrated Easter on the Sunday after the full moon, more in line with the Synoptic gospels, which had Jesus celebrate Passover in the form of the Last Supper the night before he died. Western Christians called the Turkish belief Quartodecimanism, meaning “Fourteenism,” because they celebrated on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan.

The Pope of Rome following Eleutherius was St. Victor, who called the earliest known Roman synod regarding the issue and sent out many letters to various churches across the Mediterranean. After gaining support from the bishops of Italy and receiving letters from bishops from Syria, Palestine, Gaul, and from the cities of Caesarea, Pontus, Corinth, Jerusalem, all agreeing that Easter was to be celebrated on Sunday, Victor decided to order the Quartodecimanists to change their Easter celebration to Sunday. Polycrates of Ephesus returned with a list of well-known Christians who had all celebrated Easter on the Passover before they “fell asleep,” including Irenaeus’ teacher, Polycarp. Victor excommunicated Polycrates and the rest of the Quartodecimanists, but later received a letter from Irenaeus in 191 or 192, arguing that although Victor had gone too far. Irenaeus said that Victor was right about the Easter date, but that all the previous bishops before him who had maintained unity with the bishops from Turkey. It’s unknown how the schism was ultimately resolved, but eventually the tradition of celebrating Easter on Passover was abandoned after the Council of Nicaea made Sunday the official Easter holy day in 325.

Pope St. Victor also changed the language of the mass from Greek to Latin, which would become the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council in 1962. This may have been when the Muratorian fragment was drawn up. According to Jerome, Victor was the first Christian theologian to write in Latin. Irenaeus’ own Against Heresies had originally been written in Greek but only survives through Latin copies. St. Victor’s numerous excommunications also included a rich leather seller named Theodotus, an Adoptionist Christian from the city of Byzantium, which would later become Constantinople. Although Theodotus was an Adoptionist, he still believed that Jesus was born of the virgin, but as a mortal man. Like Pope Leo I after him, Pope Victor was able to establish himself as head of the church by dividing the church through an established council, in this case centering on the budding Apostolic Church in Rome and France. Christianity itself was still relatively unpopular at the time, but the “divide and consolidate” routine would set the mold for future power shifts. When Constantine centered the church in Constantinople and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, it was the Council of Nicaea that once again defined Christianity, but this time with a huge amount of support from the general public in the east. The Council of Chalcedon in turn brought more authority back to Rome, just as the Western Empire itself was in military decline, in exchange for promoting Constantinople and Jerusalem into the former three-city hierarchy.