When we come to the second book of Irenaeus, where he argues from tradition and the Gospel of John that Christ “did not then wont much of being fifty years old,” the modern reader generally has one of two base reactions. On the one hand, the reader that does not think much of the patristic writers generally will harbor a suspicion regarding Irenaeus that he is a man of small mind, much as Eusebius describes Papias owing to the latter’s chiliast opinion of a 1000-year paradise on earth (an opinion shared by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Victorinus of Pettau). On the other, the one that exalts the Church Fathers will find a way to harmonize Irenaeus with the dominant post-Nicene church tradition and interpretation of the New Testament, whether that is by misunderstanding or marginalizing the author. One finds a hard time getting through the impasse created by the polemicist who giggles and the apologist who gags Irenaeus. Still it is the only genuine option open to us as critics that we steer clear of the gaping errors on both sides here and press on to reach an understanding of Irenaeus in his historical context.
I’ve used the picture of Einstein simply because the photo is a modern representation of a mature, noble “master” of a man, the very kind of picture of Jesus that Irenaeus held. We can understand the argument of Irenaeus more clearly by looking at similar church tradition and by comparing it with knowledge about the stages of life current in the era.
There is in Victorinus of Pettau’s On the Creation of the World an extended interpretation of the seven days of creation, which are the primary scriptural touchstone of the chiliastic view that the seventh day (most typically) represents a 1000-year kingdom established by Christ (using Psalms about a day being a thousand years, quoted by Victorinus). After comparing the seven days to seven aspects of the Word of God (Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Power, Knowledge, Piety, Fear of the Lord) and the nativity of the Lord (in a somewhat confusing passage owing to the sequence and number of comparisons), there follows this simple statement.
He, moreover, consummates His humanity in the number seven: of His nativity, His infancy, His boyhood, His youth, His young-manhood, His mature age, His death. (nativitas, infantia, pueritia, adulescentia, iuventus, perfecta aetas, occasus - ANF, vol. 7, p. 343)
With this in mind, we refer back to Irenaeus and his argumentative presentation of the same idea:
Being a Master, therefore, He also possessed the age of a Master, not despising or evading any condition of humanity, nor setting aside in Himself that law which He had appointed for the human race, but sanctifying every age, by that period corresponding to it which belonged to Himself. For He came to save all through means of Himself-all, I say, who through Him are born again to God -infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men [infantest et parvulos et pueros et invenes et seniores]. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants [infantibus infans], thus sanctifying infants; a child for children [in parvulis parvulus], thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths [in invenibus invenis], becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men [senior in senioribus], that He might be a perfect Master [perfectus magister] for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence, the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all. (A.H. 2.22.4)
Let us count Irenaeus here. First infants, children, boys, youth, and old men. Then omitting boys but only in the elucidation, while adding that old age allows perfection, followed by death. Here we have five ages followed by death itself, which is not necessary to the argument but is added anyway. Balancing death, which is not an age, with the nativity at the beginning, would give us the same seven as Victorinus: nativity, five ages of life, and death.
Victorinus is not paraphrasing Irenaeus, who does not make the connection to the number seven, nor is Irenaeus pulling this argument out of his own “small mind,” as already John Chapman has demonstrated a century ago, with much more detail and rigor than I muster here (“Papias on the Age of the Lord,” Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 9, p. 42 ff. – accessible online). Here it will suffice just to quote from Irenaeus where he got this tradition:
old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. Whom then should we rather believe? Whether such men as these, or Ptolemaeus, who never saw the apostles, and who never even in his dreams attained to the slightest trace of an apostle? (A.H. 2.22.5)
Compare with the fifth book of Irenaeus:
as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: … [quote follows] … And these things are borne witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp, in his fourth book; for there were five books compiled by him.
Noting the common phrasing about “the elders… who saw John,” who bear witness regarding the apostolic sayings of the Lord, it is easy to see that both Victorinus of Pettau and Irenaeus have relied on an older account for their statement, namely that of Papias. It is then no wonder that we find in a widely cited fragment of Papias this said:
Taking their start from Papias the great, of Hierapolis, the disciple of the Apostle who leaned on Christ’s bosom, and Clement, Pantaenus the priest of the Alexandrians and Ammonius, the great scholar, those ancient and first expositors who agree with each other in understanding all the work of the six days (as referring) to Christ and His Church. (Anastasius of Sinai [?], Contempl. Anagog. In Hexaemeron, 1; cf. ibid., 7)
We may suppose that the original passage of Papias at a minimum contained the source behind Victorinus and Irenaeus for the nativity, five stages of life, and death of Christ. The text of Anastasius suggests that it contained other exegesis regarding the six days of creation besides this.
We cannot deny the obvious sense of the passage, nor can we dismiss the statements of Irenaeus as an aberration arising from the heat of argument. We are left with determining the significance of such statements found in these second and third century authors, those of Papias, Irenaeus, and Victorinus.
In fact, their particular significance in elaborating the stages in the life of a man is not due to any defect in the intelligence of the ecclesiastical writers but rather stands firmly in the same understanding of the world shared by their brightest Greek and Roman peers, men like the philosopher Aristotle, the physician Hippocrates, and the astronomer Ptolemy.
Thus in the classic text attributed to Aristotle, which we must assume found wide circulation for use in teaching rhetoric, we find:
To put it generally, all the valuable qualities that youth and age divide between them are united in the prime of life, while all their excesses or defects are replaced by moderation and fitness. The body is in its prime from thirty to five-and-thirty; the mind about forty-nine. (Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.14)
The echo is found in a fifth century Latin author:
The number seven multiplied by itself produces the age which is properly considered and called perfect, so that a man of this age, as one who had already attained not yet passed perfection, is considered ripe in wisdom, and not unfit for the exercise of his physical powers. (Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, 75)
And hear the quote from a first century writer in Alexandria:
But Hippocrates the physician says that there are Seven ages of man, infancy, childhood, boyhood, youth, manhood, middle age, old age; and that these too, are measured by periods of seven, though not in the same order. And he speaks thus; “In the nature of man there are seven seasons, which men call ages; infancy, childhood, boyhood, and the rest. He is an infant till he reaches his seventh year, the age of the shedding of his teeth. He is a child till he arrives at the age of puberty, which takes place in fourteen years. He is a boy till his beard begins to grow, and that time is the end of a third period of seven years. He is a youth till the completion of the growth of his whole body, which coincides with the fourth seven years. Then he is a man till he reaches his forty-ninth year, or seven times seven periods. He is a middle aged man till he is fifty-six, or eight times seven years old; and after that he is an old man. (Philo, On the Creation of the World, 36)
In all these authors, the full age of a man is reckoned at 49 years, due to the numerological significance of seven sevens, a fact helpful to understanding Irenaeus when making the argument that his Master attained a perfect age and “did not then wont much of being fifty years old.” And here we can convict the error that assumes that Irenaeus says that Christ lived to be 50 or past 50. It is plausible that Irenaeus considered Christ to have been baptized at 30, to have begun his public ministry no later than age 46, and thus to have attained the perfect number of years at age 49.
It is still quite possible, of course, that Irenaeus regarded the age of his Master at his death as being not exactly determined or being slightly greater or lesser. The same general point, however, is retained regarding the general age of life that one can be said to have attained all the attributes of humanity that are acquired from infancy to old age. A man who is not yet forty has accomplished the full development of his body but not of his mind.
Further note the second century astronomer and astrologer, Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 4.10.
[1st-4th] “For up to about the fourth year, following the number which belongs to the quadriennium, the moon takes over the age of infancy…
[5th-14th] “In the following period of ten years, Mercury, to whom falls the second place and the second age, that of childhood,…
[15th-22nd] “Venus, taking in charge the third age, that of youth, for the next eight years, corresponding in number to her own period, begins, as is natural, to inspire … the impetuous lover.
[23rd-41st] “The lord of the middle sphere, the sun, takes over the fourth age, which is the middle one in order, young manhood, for the period of nineteen years, …
[42nd-56th] “After the sun, Mars, fifth in order, assumes command of manhood for the space of fifteen years, equal to his own period. …
[57th-68th] “Sixth, Jupiter, taking as his lot the elderly age, …
[69th-] “Finally to Saturn falls as his lot old age, the latest period, which lasts for the rest of life.”
Both Hippocrates, as quoted by Philo, and Ptolemy agree that youth begins after the first 14 years and that old age begins after the first 56 years. (By the English and Latin way of counting age, starting from zero, these would be ages 14 and 56. However, Greek texts from Egypt reckoned inclusively, counting a newborn as one year old, so I have rendered everything in ordinal form above, making 14 into 15th and 56 into 57th, etc.)
Claudius Ptolemy can be seen as interpreting the Aristotelian tradition by placing manhood between the 42nd and 56th years, for fifteen years, as the middle year in this period is the 49th year that Aristotle defines as the prime of the mind. The middle year of young manhood is the 32nd year, which can be taken as an interpretation of Aristotle’s description of the prime of the body being from 30 to 35.
Someone would have to be at minimum in his 42nd year to be a man (instead of a young man) according to the understanding of Claudius Ptolemy. The necessity of being in the fifth decade in order to attain to a mature age, the prime of the mind, is not lost on Irenaeus.
The note above, incidentally, about the method of reckoning age inclusively, as can be determined from census records in Egypt, should help us understand Ptolemy the Gnostic. When he reads that Christ was baptized at 30 years old, he understands that Christ had completed 29 full years and entered his 30th year. Ptolemy then places 12 months before the crucifixion, which makes the lifespan of Christ exactly 30 years. The numbers 12 and 30 were interpreted astrologically as the number of months and lunar days, while the latter was decomposed into 8, 10, and 12 aeons (ogdoad, decad, and duodecad).
But to return to Irenaeus, in conclusion, and to quote him again:
they answered Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham? ” Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, “Thou art not yet forty years old.” For those who wished to convict Him of falsehood would certainly not extend the number of His years far beyond the age which they saw He had attained; but they mentioned a period near His real age, whether they had truly ascertained this out of the entry in the public register, or simply made a conjecture from what they observed that He was above forty years old, and that He certainly was not one of only thirty years of age.For it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that they were mistaken by twenty years, when they wished to prove Him younger than the times of Abraham. For what they saw, that they also expressed; and He whom they beheld was not a mere phantasm, but an actual being of flesh and blood. (A.H., 2.22.6)
Irenaeus was of sound mind when he wrote, in agreement with tradition and scripture. Instead of stifling his voice, it is necessary to elucidate the cultural context of the passage and witness that the five stages of life that he sees in Christ, culminating in an age of death near 50, is drawn straight from cultural assumptions about the stages of life and the prime of life that in his day would be commonplace, especially among those with an education in Greek. We need not suppose that his remarks are motivated by isolated, trifling musings gone wild or angry, exaggerated efforts to refute his opponents.
Instead we should see the statements about his Lord living to more than forty years as being part of the theology of Irenaeus that is integral to his understanding of the incarnation itself. His own words about Christ going through all ages of life in order to save all men impress upon us that we do so.