The Lost Gospel
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Introduction & Map

Debate Emerges in the Church

A.D. 180

The amphitheater in Lyon, France, once was the scene of Christian executions. Lyon was the home of St. Irenaeus, the first theologian to condemn the Gospel of Judas as a
The amphitheater in Lyon, France, once was the scene of Christian executions. Lyon was the home of St. Irenaeus, the first theologian to condemn the Gospel of Judas as a "fictitious history."
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic

Diverse writings and beliefs competed for prominence during the early centuries of the Christian church. In these formative times several notable figures helped to chart the course of Christian belief by championing scriptures that they believed truly represented the life and teachings of Jesus. They relentlessly attacked others whom they believed to be heretical.

One such theologian was St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon for much of the second century, who lived from approximately A.D. 130 to 200. He was a prominent force in developing the early Christian canon, particularly the four New Testament Gospels. Irenaeus' own writings establish that as a young child in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) he saw and heard Polycarp, the martyred saint some consider a living link between Jesus' Apostles and the early fathers of the orthodox Christian church. Polycarp may have studied under the Apostle John. If so, only one generation would separate Irenaeus from the Apostles themselves.

Irenaeus' Adversus haereses (Against Heresies), also known as The Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called, was a scathing attack on the mystical Gnosticism that influenced and threatened to absorb the church in his day. The text was originally written in Greek around A.D. 180, but is now known only from a later Latin translation.

Irenaeus strived to obliterate Gnostic ideas and the writings that espoused them. He and other ecclesiastical leaders were so successful that before the discovery of a surviving Gnostic library at Nag 'Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, Irenaeus' detailed refutations of the Gnostic movement were among the only modern sources explaining its beliefs.

The bishop stressed a single "Rule of Faith" for all Christian churches, consistency between Old Testament and New Testament texts, and the sanctity of scriptures which were not open to interpretation.

He supported the apostolic succession of bishops—the belief that all bishops can trace their authority through a succession of bishops stretching back to Jesus' Apostles—as a proper way to refute Gnostics' claims that their faith is truer to Jesus' actual teachings. Among Irenaeus' targets were the Gospel of Judas and anyone who looked favorably on Jesus' betrayer.

"They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion," Irenaeus wrote in the Doctrines of the Cainites. "They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."

Origen, who lived from about A.D. 185 to 254, was a slightly later ecclesiastical scholar who produced a version of the Old Testament, called the Hexapla. The book showed six versions of the texts side by side in columns, which combined several different Greek and Hebrew Old Testament texts.

His Contra Celsum (Against Celsus) was a resounding answer to the thinker Celsus' indictment of the Christian faith entitled On the True Doctrine. One complete copy of Against Celsus survives, at the Vatican.

Celsus argued that Christianity was incompatible with long-standing traditions of Greek philosophy. Origen's comprehensive repudiation of Celsus' ideas stands as an important source for pagan ideas about Christianity—since Celsus' original texts do not survive.

St. Epiphanius was bishop of Salamis (Constantia) in Cyprus. A former ascetic monk and a zealous persecutor of heresies, he was an energetic theologian who traveled widely, and argued fiercely, in his quest to defend the orthodox canon. Though he was widely respected, he was also known to sometimes overstep his bounds in his enthusiastic pursuit of heresies.

The writings of the venerable Origen were among his favorite targets. Although Origen refuted the Greek philosophical ideals of Celsus, Epiphanius considered Origen himself more of a Greek philosopher than a Christian. He believed Origen to be the primary source of many heresies, including Arianism.

Epiphanius' most comprehensive writing was the Panarion, which details and counters some 80 "heretical" beliefs. To this day it remains an invaluable source for scholars of the era's religious and philosophical thought—though Epiphanius might not be pleased by his important role in the survival of these noncanonical texts.