Ancient Christian Church

Apelles is first encountered as a younger man in Rome under the influence of the teacher Marcion (d. c. 154). Marcion had come from Pontus to Rome in the days of Pius (I; traditional dates c. 142-155), who “must have presided over the synod of presbyters which expelled Marcion from the orthodox community in July 144” (Kelly 1986: 10). Marcion was teaching from some kind of modified or expurgated gospel “According to Luke,” but also with the oldest known collection of the epistles of Paul, which he called an “Apostolikon.” The Marcionite “prologues” to those epistles are still preserved in most manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate where they had been translated from Greek originals (Grant 1946: 90-91). Marcion’s basic perspective included a rejection of the Hebrew Bible as literally understood, especially with reference to those legal proscriptions which the Jews followed, for the sake of a more permissive interpretation of religious requirements as Jesus was understood by Marcion to have taught “According to Luke” or as Paul was understood by Marcion to have expressed within the epistles. But the rejection of the “Law” for the sake of the “Gospel” carried with it an implication of dual creative principles and a docetic Christ, and so Marcion was working out in his teaching. It has been observed that in that era “no one understood Paul but Marcion – and Marcion misunderstood him” [attributed to Adolf Harnack (1851-1931) by Easton 1947: 22-23, but to Franz Overbeck (1837-1908) by Pelikan 1988: 194).

Apelles disagreed with the tenets of Marcion’s thought, being instead convinced of the unity of the unbegotten God and of a Christ in the flesh, and was forced to leave his mentor. “In Alexandria he fell under the influence of the Valentinian school” (Carrington 1957: II.259). This move to Alexandria in Egypt allowed Apelles to develop his own modifications of the base he had received, and he composed an extensive work entitled Syllogisms (Grant 1997: 18, 47), the extent of which may be gauged from the reference by Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) to its thirty-eighth book (De Paradiso V.28 apud Grant 1946: 84), though the work itself is very poorly preserved except in fragments found in diverse authors (Grant 1946: 84-88), of which many of the extracts show a logical assault upon the literalism of the Hebrew Bible (Carrington 1957: II.259-260; Grant 1993: 75-88). The work was known across North Africa where Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160-220) responded, not merely incidentally (Lawlor 1928: 170), but in a major account solely Adversus Apelleiacos, which unfortunately is no longer preserved (Q2.4.2 p. 318). In Egypt in the next generation Origen (c. 185-254) both quoted Apelles in his Homilies on Genesis (II.2) and on Numbers (VII.1) and perceived the need to go beyond the kind of exegesis which stymied Apelles’ thought (Grant 1946: 84, 86; Grant 1993: 98-103; cf. Grant 1957: 90-104). Yet the work itself survived for at least two more centuries in Latin, as the citations collected from Ambrose demonstrate (Grant 1946: 84-86).

It is not inappropriate, on the other hand, to assume that Apelles might well be included among those who introduced to the church in Alexandria the gospel “According to Luke” and especially the epistles of Paul (Pagels 1975: 157-164), since the oldest papyrus collection of the epistles (P46; McNeile 1953:401) was found in Egypt, dates from the end of the second century, and shows Marcionite tendencies (McNeile 1953: 156-158). Hippolytus (c. 155-235) had critically observed that Apelles “selects from the Gospels or (from the writings of) the Apostle (Paul) whatever pleases himself” [Refutation of All Heresies VII.xxvi; ANF V (1885) 115]. It has been noted that among the gospel material selected by Apelles there was at least one example from that which subsequently became defined as “apocryphal” – a tendency not uncommon for his near-contemporaries, with Clement of Alexandria (160-215) citing as Scripture the very same example (Salmon 1889: 177 note *): “Be ye approved money-changers.”

While the linkage is indefinite some Alexandrians who began as Marcionites or as Valentinians may have been taught by Apelles before they were recovered for a fuller understanding of the faith by Origen – particularly like the example of Ambrosius as related by both Eusebius (c. 260-340; in H.E. VI.18.1) and Jerome (c. 347-419; in J 56), where the former identifies Ambrosius as having been one who “held the views of the heresy of Valentinus,” while the latter refers to him as “at first a Marcionite.” Both heresies originated in Rome; Apelles could have served as intermediary for either or both. Apelles continued to give credence to the continuation of the prophetic movement, and came under the influence of “a certain Philumene,” so that he “wrote a book containing her teaching, with the title Phanerôseis,” to which Tertullian and others pay testimony (Lawlor 1928: 170). Hippolytus provides the most extensive paraphrase from the volume, and its content is revelatory of those trends in late second century Christianity towards some kind of creed-like means by which the divine-human encounter could be expressed:

<Apelles> affirms, however, that Christ descended from the power above; that is, from the good (Deity), and that he is the son of the good (Deity). And (he asserts that Jesus) was not born of a virgin, and that when he did appear he was not devoid of flesh. (He maintains) however, that (Christ) formed his body by taking portions of the universe: that is, hot and cold, and moist and dry. And (he says that Christ), on receiving in this body cosmical powers, lived for the time he did in (this) world. But (he held that Jesus) was subsequently crucified by the Jews, and expired, and that, being raised up after three days, he appeared to his disciples. And (the Saviour) showed them, (so Apelles taught) the prints of the nails and (the wound) in his side, desirous of persuading them that he was in truth no phantom, but was present in the flesh. After, says (Apelles), he had shown them his flesh, (the Saviour) restored it to earth, from which substance it was (derived. And this he did because) he coveted nothing that belonged to another. (Though indeed Jesus) might use for the time being (what belonged to another), he yet in due course rendered to each (of the elements) what peculiarly belonged to them. And so it was, that after he had once more loosed the chains of his body, he gave back heat to what is hot, cold to what is cold, moisture to what is moist, (and) dryness to what is dry. And in this condition (our Lord) departed to the good Father, leaving the seed of life in the world for those who through his disciples should believe in him. [Refutation VII.xxvi; ANF V (1885) 115-116]

At a much later date, during the imperial administration of Commodus (reigned alone 17 March 180 to 31 December 192), Apelles was back in Rome as a very old man, where he was confronted by a new younger Christian named Rhodo, which encounter provides the final anecdote concerning the life of Apelles. Jerome knew Rhodo to have “flourished in the reigns of Commodus and Severus” (reigned from 13 April 193 to 4 February 211). The story is found in a book by Rhodo, and entirely told from his vantage point; the work itself is only known from the few quotations cited directly by Eusebius (H.E. V.13.1-7), though the gist of the story was also recalled by Jerome [ J 37; NPNF 2 III (1892) 370-371]. Rhodo wanted to know from Apelles “how there is a single principle,” to which Apelles replied that “he did not know, but that it was merely his impression.”

Then, on my <= Rhodo> adjuring him to tell what was true, he swore that he was speaking the truth when he said that he did not understand how there was one uncreated God, but that this was his belief. For my part I laughed, and reproved him, because he said he was a teacher, and yet was unable to establish what he taught (H.E. V.13.7; Oulton 1927: 158).

So it can be said that Apelles was not really too far from the mainstream (P1 80), as even Eusebius quoting Rhodo had to admit, though ultimately it was discerned that he had fallen into the “succession of error.” But Apelles was bothered by the fact that the prophecies “are inconsistent and lying and self-contradictory” (H.E. V.13.6), since he had not yet entered the route of allegorical criticism, which alone, in that era, could find a path out of the dilemma he perceived (Grant 1993). As Hippolytus remarked, Apelles “composed his treatises against the Law and the Prophets, and attempts to abolish them as if they had spoken falsehoods, and had not known God” [Refutation X.xvi; ANF V (1885) 147]. But his work had also been centered upon the Marcionite concern for the gospel “According to Luke” and to the epistles of Paul, which thereafter the whole church had to take more seriously, as the anti-Marcionite “prologues” to the canonical gospels make clear, especially with reference to “Luke” whose “prologue survives in both Greek and Latin” (Grant 1946: 92-93; Aland 1978: 532-533).

Clyde Curry Smith

Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):

<J 37>; TLG 1046

Q1.7.2.14; DECL 34-35 (CMarkschies); FOTC 100 60-61; ODCC 66; OEEC 54 (CGianotto); GEEC 71 (DWDeakle); <P1>

Supplementary Bibliography

Aland 1978

Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum: Locis parallelis evangeliorum apocryphorum et patrum adhibitis, edidit Kurt Aland. 10th edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung.

ANF V 1885 Hippolytus, translated by Stewart Dingwall Fordyce Salmond, in Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo and New York: Christian Literature. Volume V, pp. 115-116, 147.

Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. Volume 2, pp. 258-261.

Easton 1947

The Pastoral Epistles, by Burton Scott Easton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Grant 1946 Second-Century Christianity: A Collection of Fragments, by Robert McQueen Grant. London: SPCK.

Grant 1957 The Letter and the Spirit, by Robert McQueen Grant. London: SPCK.

Grant 1993

Heresy and Criticism: The Search for Authenticity in Early Christian Literature, by Robert McQueen Grant. Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press.

Grant 1997 Irenaeus of Lyons, by Robert McQueen Grant. The Early Church Fathers, edited by Carol Harrison. London and New York: Routledge.

Kelly 1986

The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, by John Norman Davidson Kelly. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.

McNeile 1953

An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, by Alan Hugh McNeile; 2nd edition revised by Charles Stephen Conway Williams. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

NPNF 2 III 1892 Jerome, De viris inlustribus, translated by Ernest Cushing Richardson, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo and New York: Christian Literature. Series 2, Volume III, pp. 359-384.

Oulton 1927 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume I: Translation, by John Ernest Leonard Oulton. (Specific references also cited as H.E. with book and chapter).

Pagels 1975

The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters, by Elaine Pagels. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.

Pelikan 1988

The Melody of Theology, by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Salmon 1889

A Historical Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament: Being an Expansion of Lectures delivered in the Divinity School of the University of Dublin, by George Salmon. 4th edition; London: John Murray.

This article, received in 2001, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.

Click here forAbbreviations and Source References for Ancient African Christians.