The Christian community

As the shores of the Mediterranean and the valley of the Rhone had long since been home to Greeks from the east, especially Asia, who remained in contact with their fellow countrymen back home, it is not surprising that the earliest witness we have of the Christian communities in Gaul indicates such diversity. This is the 'Letter of the churches of Vienne and Lyons' to their brethren in Asia and Phrygia, written shortly after the persecutions in these two cities. The date of this pogrom and thus the letter depends upon Eusebius, who is not, however, totally consistent. His Chronicon would place the persecutions duringthe seventh year of Marcus Aurelius' reign (166-7), while his later Historia ecclesiastica, in which the letter is preserved, places the events a decade later, in his seventeenth year (177), the date that is generally accepted.4 The letter seems to indicate that the founders of the two churches were among the martyrs (cf. HE 5.1.13), suggesting that Christianity was established in this region only in the mid-second century. That Christianity had made its way up the Rhone valley probably implies that there was already a Christian community in Marseilles, at the mouth of the Rhone, although the earliest evidence for this comes from the crypt of St Victor, which can possibly be dated as early as the mid-third century.

That the title of the letter places the church of Vienne before that of Lyons is striking, given the pre-eminence of Lyons. The leader of the community in Lyons was Pothinus, who was imprisoned during the persecution and subsequently martyred. He was already over ninety years old (HE 5.1.29), and so presumably was one of the original founding fathers of the church in Lyons. Around this time, Irenaeus was sent on a mission to Rome, which will be discussed below, taking with him a letter for Eleutherus, the 'bishop of the Romans' (174-89 ce), which describes Irenaeus as a 'presbyter', a word which was used interchangeably with 'bishop' during the course of the second century.5 The fact that the letter mentions Vienne before Lyons, together with its particular style and theological tenor, makes it probable that the letter was written by Irenaeus as the leader of the community in Vienne, assuming a general oversight of Lyons while its leader was imprisoned.6 When Irenaeus

4 Cf.Grant, 'Eusebius and the martyrs of Gaul'. The text of the letter can be found in Euseb. HE5.1-3.

5 Euseb. HE 5.3.4-4.2. Irenaeus describes Polycarp as being a 'presbyter' (letter preserved in HE 5.20.7) and refers to Victor's predecessors as 'presbyters' (HE 5.24.14). The indistinct employment of the vocabulary of ecclesial office is also shown by the description, in the 'Letter of the churches of Vienne and Lyons', of Pothinus having been entrusted with 'the ministry of episcopacy in Lyons' (tën diakonian tes episkopes, HE 5.1.29).

6 Cf.Nautin, Lettres, 54-61, 93-5; Doutreleau, 'Irénée de Lyon', 1928-9.

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