A concern for many polemical arguments over the reliability of “Apostolic Tradition” is that of Saint Irenaeus’ near-certainty that Jesus Christ lived to almost 50 years of age. This is not only a stray comment made in passing in Against Heresies Book 2, Chapter 2. It is carefully discerned idea of Irenaeus’. It chronologically aligns with the dates he gives for Christ’s birth and death between both of his surviving works. Following Irenaeus’ chronology, the very youngest Christ could have been when he died and resurrected was approximately 44 years old due to him placing the Lord’s crucifixion during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Par 74; cf Against Heresies, Book 3, Chap 21, Par 3)
There are several problems with Irenaeus’ chronology. First, secular historians are aware that Pontius Pilate served specifically during the reign of Tiberius and perhaps the very beginning of Caligula’s reign—not Claudius. Additionally, this obviously does not align with modern conceptions of the Lord being approximately 33 years old before the resurrection.
Most importantly to those looking at the earliest Christian sources on the question, Irenaeus’ chronology does not match that of his contemporaries. Saint Justin Martyr, writing before Irenaeus, placed the Lord’s death under the reign of Tiberius. (First Apology, Chap 13) Saint Hippolytus, writing a generation after Irenaeus, explicitly held to a chronology of Christ having an approximately 33-year life before the resurrection. Other near-contemporaries such as Tertullian (Apology, Chap 21), the author of the Acts of Pilate (Prologue), and Julius Africanus (Fragment 18) concur. Hence Irenaeus is contradicted on this specific chronological view by a consensus of Christian saints and thinkers in his own time.
Protestant Polemics. No Protestant apologist has found it concerning that Irenaeus, an otherwise careful and studied thinker, is so far out of line with everyone of his day. This is because it is inconvenient for their polemics. The polemical argument they employ is as follows: Irenaeus was factually incorrect about Jesus age and he justified his view by appealing to extra-Biblical Apostolic Tradition. Therefore, said Apostolic Tradition cannot be reliable as Irenaeus was a far more credible witness to it in the late second century than later thinkers. In the words of Turretinfan on James White’s Alpha and Omega Ministries blog:
People sometimes like to think that if you go back to the earliest fathers you’ll get very good accounts of extra-scriptural tradition. There is a certain amount of intuition to back this up. After all, the earliest fathers were closer in time to the gospel accounts than we are. Intuition is wrong…Place your confidence without reservation in one worthy of your whole trust, in God the author of Scripture, not in Irenaeus the mistaken author of Against Heresies or in your church which likewise can err – either sincerely or in a self-serving way.
James White himself has many times repeated the same sort of argument, an example of which can be found here.
What Irenaeus Really Said. There have been some polemical responses to the Protestants over the years and usually their focus is on discrediting that Irenaeus really meant that Jesus was nearly 50 before the crucifixion. However, this confutes the obvious meaning of Irenaeus’ words and the point he was trying to make. Below are the relevant passages with my own comments from Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 22:
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. (Par 4)
This is a large section, but it is necessary so one can surmise Irenaeus’ explanation of the atonement (which is absolutely accurate and Orthodox). Pertinent to the issue at hand, one can see that Irenaeus makes two points:
1. Jesus at 30 years old possessed “the full age of a Master.”
2. Reaching old age was necessary so that Christ’s incarnation corrects the fallen tropos of all men. (i.e. He would experience the temptations common to all mankind and respond sinlessly to them, cf Heb 4:15)
Let’s continues to see where Irenaeus goes with this:
They [the Gnostics], however, that they may establish their false opinion…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…[H]ow 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. (Par 5)
There appears to be some contradiction in the criteria Irenaeus lays out for the “full age” of a Master. In Par 4 simply being 30 appears to meet the criteria (“[b]eing thirty…then possessing the full age of a Master”). In Par 5, Christ must be above 30. Perhaps, the English translation is wanting (or perhaps, the Latin translation of the Greek). This certainly adds to confusion in interpreting the passage. Let’s continue:
On completing His thirtieth year [according to the Gnostics] 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, everyone 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… 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. (Par 5)
Irenaeus now gets even more confusing in his explanation. In rejecting the Gnostic idea that Christ died at the age of 30 (due to there being 30 Aeons in the Pleroma and 12 chief Aeons, representing 12 months of Christ’s final year), Irenaeus rejects their view because it is necessary that Christ reach “advanced age.” This cannot be merely 30 years, he conjectures, as this is “the first state of early life.” Yet, as Irenaeus continues, he appears to extend youth to “the fortieth year” on the basis of common knowledge (“everyone will admit.”)
Most interpreters miss this all-important detail and immediately hone in on Irenaeus’ claim that Christ had to be between 40 and 50 years old. Additionally, this chronology, allegedly, has the support of both tradition and Scriptures. The latter point Protestant polemicists often neglect in their analysis. Nevertheless, they missed the crucial detail! Irenaeus tipped his hand. Saint John/the Apostles and those who conversed with then were not told that Christ reached an age between 40 to 50. This is not explicitly Irenaeus’ claim.
Irenaeus conflates common knowledge (that young age lasts to approximately 40 years of age) with the Apostolic Tradition. This tradition, one can know with confidence, is that Christ reached the “age of a Master” and this was important for the reasons already conveyed. Irenaeus interpreted this “age of a Master” perhaps inconsistently (at one point someone 30 has reached the “full age” and at another he conjectures one must be at least 40). Likely, the Apostolic Tradition was that Christ reached this “full age” at 30 as Par 4 explicitly states. Irenaeus re-interpreted this due to his polemical needs and what he viewed as common sense. In any event, Irenaeus took it upon himself to make a major inference as to when such an “age” fully took effect.
In other words, “the statement” preserved by Apostolic Tradition is that Christ reached “age of a Master” and Irenaeus personally inferred (because “everyone will admit”) that this must be after the age of 40. If the Apostolic Tradition explicitly expounded the opinion that “early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year,” he would not have appealed to common knowledge to make this point.
[T]hose 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, You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham? John 8:56-57 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, You are not yet forty years old. (Par 6)
Irenaeus, apparently without explicit traditional warrant for Christ being above 40 when He died, appeals to the Scriptures to justify his inference. It should be said, Scripturally, the inference Irenaeus is making is justified. Furthermore, as an apologetic against the Gnostics on this point, it also is very effective. Hence, it is understandable why Irenaeus interpreted the Apostolic Tradition the way he did. Add the fact he was under the presumption that Christ died under Claudius and voila, an understandable and well-reasoned mistake.
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, You are not yet fifty years old, and have You 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. (Par 6)
Irenaeus emphasizes Christ’s advanced age and mortality in order to contradict any Docetist implications that were drawn from the Lord allegedly being an Aeon that appeared 30 years of age (essentially the perfect age for a male). The embolden also makes clear that any attempt to reinterpret Irenaeus as somehow not teaching Jesus was about 50 to be a desperate eisegesis.
Ramifications Upon “Sacred Tradition.” As covered previously, both the Scriptures and the earliest Christian thinkers expound upon the notion of “Sacred Tradition.” In a few words, Sacred Tradition is a harmonious symphony of the Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition and they necessarily interconnect. The latter interprets the former and even confines, canonically, what constitutes it. However, if Protestant polemicists are correct in their appeal to this passage as proof that Apostolic Tradition is unreliable, this calls into question whether “Sacred Tradition” is both cogent and real.
Protestants, by failing to address the five other contemporary sources addressing the chronology of Christ’s life, fail to prove Apostolic Tradition unreliable on this otherwise minor point. In fact, an impartial historian simply counting the sources would discern that Tradition is consistent and that Irenaeus is an outlier. Being that Protestants are not wed to a doctrine of superintendence of the saints and their writings as the Orthodox are (this requires an understanding of the Orthodox Magesterium), the preponderance of historical attestations should be sufficient to address their concerns over reliability. On this point, Apostolic Tradition overall has been proved to be reliable and this is validated by secular chronology (from Philo, Josephus, the Pilate stone, etcetera).
While the preceding is sufficient to “win” the polemical argument, one must feel compelled to vindicate Irenaeus in some way. Some have attempted to do this with questionable interpretations. However, there is no avoiding that Irenaeus’ interpretation of Apostolic Tradition on this chronological point was incorrect. This was despite him, evidently, correctly preserving a central doctrinal tenet: that Christ recapitulated all ages, reaching the “age of a Master.”
In a “glass half full” sort of way, one could see that despite himself, Irenaeus had actually by God’s grace preserved an important truth that was passed on to him. Was it obscured by a mistaken interpretation of the evidence? Yes. But, God “steering [the] Holy Church to her mooring in the quiet haven” (Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 43:4) corrected through the preponderance of the extant writings before and after Irenaeus the truth on this specific detail. This prevented what could have been a veering into proverbial rocks (as Irenaeus surely did not hit those rocks, but one picking up on his chronology could have). From this episode, an Orthodox Christian would perceive the agency of the Spirit in preserving tradition—not the opposite.
Conclusion. Most admit that Saint Vincent de Lerins was reasonable when he expounded upon weeding through tradition by discerning universality, with all of its chronological and geographic connotations. Universality does not mean that correct doctrine can only be identified if everyone agreed with everything on every point. Simply, it is sufficient for Christians to “adhere to the consistent definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.” (Vincent de Lerins, Commonitorium, Par 6)
Hence, this is the sort of line Sacred Tradition tows in preserving the Apostolic Tradition as understood in the Church and the Scriptures. Those who want to call into question this view will have to look a little harder for examples (one is not good enough) where this is not the case. Otherwise, they fail to discredit the historical view of Christendom on this point. The example of Irenaeus’ interpretation of Christ’s age quite simply does not discredit what was a solidly preserved tradition in the Church nor call into question Irenaeus’ general reliability in preserving Apostolic Tradition.
For more on the topic: