Irenaeus On The Age of the Lord, John, and the Sanctification of Infants

I ran across an interesting passage in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies today. First, he argues that Jesus died when he was almost fifty. Strange. Second, in his discussion of how Jesus sanctified aging, he mentions the sanctification of infants. The hardbound copy I use of this says that this is a reference to infant baptism. I’m not sure; that doesn’t seem to be a necessary conclusion, or am I missing something? If you know, do leave a note. Third, he recalls a tradition that John lived until the time of Trajan. Could be useful to know where that is.

The digitization of this text comes from CCEL. The work itself is in the public domain and the use of CCEL’s digitization is authorized. It comes from Book II, chapter 22.

3. But it is greatly to be wondered at, how it has come to pass that, while affirming that they have found out the mysteries of God, they have not examined the Gospels to ascertain how often after His baptism the Lord went up, at the time of the passover, to Jerusalem, in accordance with what was the practice of the Jews from every land, and every year, that they should assemble at this period in Jerusalem, and there celebrate the feast of the passover. First of all, after He had made the water wine at Cana of Galilee, He went up to the festival day of the passover, on which occasion it is written, “For many believed in Him, when they saw the signs which He did,” as John the disciple of the Lord records. Then, again, withdrawing Himself [from Judæa], He is found in Samaria; on which occasion, too, He conversed with the Samaritan woman, and while at a distance, cured the son of the centurion by a word, saying, “Go thy way, thy son liveth.” Afterwards He went up, the second time, to observe the festival day of the passover. He there seeing a great crowd had followed Him, fed all that multitude with five loaves of bread, and twelve baskets of fragments remained over and above. Then, when He had raised Lazarus from the dead, and plots were formed against Him by the Pharisees, He withdrew to a city called Ephraim; and from that place, as it is written “He came to Bethany six days before the passover”. and going up from Bethany to Jerusalem, He there ate the passover, and suffered on the day following. Now, that these three occasions of the passover are not included within one year, every person whatever must acknowledge. And that the special month in which the passover was celebrated, and in which also the Lord suffered, was not the twelfth, but the first, those men who boast that they know all things, if they know not this, may learn it from Moses. Their explanation, therefore, both of the year and of the twelfth month has been proved false, and they ought to reject either their explanation or the Gospel; otherwise [this unanswerable question forces itself upon them], How is it possible that the Lord preached for one year only?

4. Being thirty years old when He came to be baptized, and then possessing the full age of a Master. He came to Jerusalem, so that He might be properly acknowledged by all as a Master. For He did not seem one thing while He was another, as those affirm who describe Him as being man only in appearance; but what He was, that He also appeared to be. 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. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, 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, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master 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.

5. They, however, that they may establish their false opinion regarding that which is written, “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” maintain that He preached for one year only, and then suffered in the twelfth month. [In speaking thus,] they are forgetful to their own disadvantage, destroying His whole work, and robbing Him of that age which is both more necessary and more honourable than any other; that more advanced age, I mean, during which also as a teacher He excelled all others. For how could He have had disciples, if He did not teach? And how could He have taught, unless He had reached the age of a Master? For when He came to be baptized, He had not yet completed His thirtieth year, but was beginning to be about thirty years of age (for thus Luke, who has mentioned His years, has expressed it: “Now Jesus was, as it were, beginning to be thirty years old,” when He came to receive baptism); and, [according to these men,] He preached only one year reckoning from His baptism. On completing His thirtieth year He suffered, being in fact still a young man, and who had by no means attained to advanced age. Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards 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 Ptolemæus, who never saw the apostles, and who never even in his dreams attained to the slightest trace of an apostle?

6. But, besides this, those very Jews who then disputed with the Lord Jesus Christ have most clearly indicated the same thing. For when the Lord said to them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad,” 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. He did not then want much of being fifty years old; and, in accordance with that fact, they said to Him, “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?” He did not therefore preach only for one year, nor did He suffer in the twelfth month of the year. For the period included between the thirtieth and the fiftieth year can never be regarded as one year, unless indeed, among their Æons, there be so long years assigned to those who sit in their ranks with Bythus in the Pleroma; of which beings Homer the poet, too, has spoken, doubtless being inspired by the Mother of their [system of] error:—

Οἱ δὲ θεοὶ πὰρ Ζηνὶ καθήμενοι ἠγορόωντο
Χρυσέῳ ἐν δαπέδῳ:

which we may thus render into English:
“The gods sat round, while Jove presided o’er,
And converse held upon the golden floor.”


Swaub 2008-07-02 06:14:24

On the issue of age, I actually have always liked and appreciated Irenaeus' tradition abour Jesus' age and it certainly makes sense of that passage in John. As you know, the argument for Jesus' age as 33 at death is based entirely on Luke's statement that Jesus was 30 when he was baptized and that the Synoptic tradition only mentions 3 Passovers, therefore a 3 year ministry.  But there is nothing to say that Jesus went up to Passover every year, or that the 3 Passovers mentioned are not the conflation of teachings and events that occurred at many other Passovers, etc.  If Jesus died c. Passover 36 CE, and was born 12 BCE, that puts at 48, and allows for him to be born during Herod's crazy phase, still be a child of 8 at 4 BCE and the reign of Archelaus, etc.  And as I recall there's was Hailey's comet in 12 BCE that might fit Matthew's star. 

 Re: the baptism bit, no, I don't think there's any evidence for infant baptism per se.  I believe that there is evidence that when a pater familias converted, his entire household, including infants and children, were baptized as well.  But that's not quite what is meant by infant baptism.

I think Irenaeus' point is simply that Jesus lived a normal life as a man, thus sanctifying each age a person experiences in life and by extension every deed a normal person would engage in is sanctified by Jesus doing those deeds as well.

Eric 2008-07-02 09:19:21

Personally, I am not too read on the matter of Jesus' lifespan. I've generally gone with the default. Perhaps this merits a further look. As for the number of passovers and whatnot, yes, I don't think you can just count passovers and be done. There could certainly be either conflations or omissions.


Yes, that strikes me as a good interpretation of Irenaeus' point here. Christ is our example and has gone before us and shown us how to be both young and old, so there is no excuse for being disobedient in any age.