« Hedibia, a lady in Gaul Hegesippus, father of church history Hegesippus, author »

Hegesippus, father of church history

Hegesippus (1), commonly known as the father of church history, although his works, except a few fragments which will be found in Routh (Rel. Sacr. i. pp. 207–219) and in Grabe (Spicil. ii. 203–214), have perished. Nothing positive is known of his birth or early circumstances. From his use of the Gospel according to the Hebrews, written in the Syro-Chaldaic language of Palestine, his insertion in his history of words in the Hebrew dialect, and his mention of unwritten traditions of the Jews, Eusebius infers that he was a Hebrew (H. E. iv. 22), but possibly, as conjectured by Weizsäcker (Herzog, Encyc. v. 647), Eusebius knew this as a fact from other sources also. We owe our only information as to his date to a statement of his own, preserved by Eusebius (iv. 22), which is understood to mean that at Rome he compiled a succession of the bishops of the Roman see to the time of Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. After this statement Hegesippus is represented as adding, "and to Anicetus succeeds Soter, after whom Eleutherus." Much as the interpretation of these words has been disputed, it does not seem difficult to gather that Hegesippus means that the list of bishops compiled by him at Rome was drawn from the authentic records of the church there. That list closed with Anicetus. He was afterwards able to add the names of Soter and Eleutherus. It thus appears that he was at Rome in the days of Anicetus and made his inquiries then, but did not publish them till considerably later. But Anicetus, according to Lipsius (Chronologie der römischen Bischöfe), was bp. of Rome 156–167, and Eleutherus 175–189. Hegesippus had thus written much of his history previous to a.d. 167, and published it in the time of Eleutherus, perhaps early in his episcopate. Any difficulty in accepting these dates has been occasioned by the rendering given to another passage of Eusebius (iv. 8), where he quotes Hegesippus as speaking of certain games (ἀγών) instituted in honour of Antinous, a slave of Hadrian, of which he says ἐφ᾿ ἡμῶν γενόμενος (a better established reading than γινόμενος). But these words seem simply to mean that the games had been instituted in his own time, thus illustrating the μέχρι νῦν of the preceding sentence. Hadrian reigned 117–138, so that if Hegesippus published c. 180, being then well advanced in life, he might well remember the times of that emperor. This derives confirmation from a statement of Jerome, generally regarded as somewhat extravagant, that the life of Hegesippus had bordered on the apostolic age ("vicinus apostolicorum temporum," de Vir. Ill. c. 22). But there is no extravagance in the remark. If Hegesippus was born c. 120 or earlier, he may well be described as having lived near the times of St. John. We may, therefore, fix the bloom of Hegesippus's life about the middle of the 2nd cent.

His history embraced, so far as we may judge from its fragments, numerous miscellaneous observations, recollections, and traditions, jotted down without regard to order, as they occurred to the author or came under his notice during his travels. Jerome tells us that the work contained the events of the church from Palestine to Rome, and from the death of Christ to the writer's own day. It is not a regular history of the church, Weizsäcker well remarking that, in that case, the story of James the Just ought to have been found in the first book, not in the last.

Its general style was thought plain and unpretending, says Jerome, and with this description what remains sufficiently agrees. The question of its trustworthiness is of greater moment. The account given in it of James the head of the church in Jerusalem has led to many charges against Hegesippus of not having been careful enough to prove what he relates. He has been thought to be contradicted by Josephus, who tells us that "Ananus, the high-priest, assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus Who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. And, when he had formed an accusation against them, he delivered them to be stoned" (Ant. xx. 9, 2). We may be permitted to doubt, however, whether the sentence thus referred to was carried out, for not only was it unlawful for the Sanhedrin to punish by death without consent of the Roman authorities, but Josephus informs us immediately after that the charge of the citizens against Ananus was, that it was not lawful for him to assemble a Sanhedrin without the procurator's assent, nothing being said of the stoning to death. Further, Eusebius, who has preserved the narrative of Hegesippus, and the early Fathers who allude to it, appear to have placed in it implicit confidence; and there is nothing improbable in most, if not even in all, of the particulars mentioned. Eusebius speaks of him in the most commendatory terms, and quotes him on numerous occasions (see H. E. ii. 23; iii. 11, 16, 20, 32; iv. 8, 11, 22), illustrating his own words in iv. 8, πλείσταις κεχρήμεθα φωναῖς. Such confidence appears to have been deserved. Hegesippus had an inquiring mind, and had travelled much; he endeavoured to learn all he could of the past and present state of the churches that he visited: at Corinth the first epistle of Clement excited his curiosity; at Rome the history of its early bishops. All this, and his unpretending and unexaggerated style, shows him as very far from being either a hasty observer or a credulous chronicler.

An important question remains: Was Hegesippus of the Judaizing Christian party?

Baur looks upon him as representing the 437narrowest section of the Jewish Christians, even as a most declared enemy of St. Paul, travelling like a commissioned agent in the interests of the Judaizers (K. G. i. p. 84; so also Schwegler, Nachap. Zeit, i. p. 342, etc.). This view is founded mainly upon an extract from his works, preserved in Photius (see in Routh, R. S. i. p. 219), where Hegesippus comments on the words, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for the just," "Such words are spoken in vain, and those who use them lie against the Holy Scriptures and the Lord Who says, 'Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear.'" It is argued that Hegesippus is here directly attacking St. Paul's words in I. Cor. ii. 9; and the inference is that Hegesippus was keenly Judaic. We know that the Gnostics were in the habit of so using the words in question, and that they described by means of them the very essence of that spiritual insight which the neophyte who had just sworn the oath of allegiance to them received, "And when he [i.e. he who is about to be initiated] has sworn this oath, he goes on to the Good One, and beholds 'whatever things eye hath not seen, and ear hath not heard, and which have not entered into the heart of man'" (Hippolytus, Ref. of all Heresies, i. p. 193, T. &T. Clark). It is much the more probable inference, therefore, that Hegesippus refers to this Gnostic misinterpretation of the words and not to St. Paul (cf. Routh, R. S. i. p. 281; Ritschl, Die Entstehung der Altk. Kirche, p. 267; Hilgenfeld, Die Apost. Väter, p. 102). Further, Hegesippus must have known that Clement, whose epistle he approved, quotes in c. xxxiv., for a purpose precisely similar to that of the apostle, the very passage in question, though with a slight variation in the words. How, then, can he have held the contrary opinion as to the use made of it by St. Paul? It is obviously a particular application of the passage, different from that of the apostle, that he has in view.

In the light of these considerations, Hegesippus appears to have been not a Judaizing but a Catholic Christian; and, if so, he becomes a witness not only for the catholicity in the main of the Christian church of the 2nd cent., but for the extent to which Catholic truth prevailed in it, for his evidence, whatever its purport, has reference to the condition of the church upon a large scale. Either, therefore, over this wide extent the church was as a whole marked by a narrow Judaic spirit, or over the same wide extent it was catholic in spirit, with heretical sects struggling to corrupt its faith. If our verdict be in favour of the latter view, it becomes impossible to look at Hegesippus in the light in which he has been presented by the Tübingen school. We must regard him as a Catholic, not as a Judaizing Christian, and his statements as to the condition of the church in his day become a powerful argument against, rather than in favour of, the conclusions of that school. Cf. Zahn, Forschungen, 1900, vi. 228–273.


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