The following words of Irenaeus are recorded in Eusebius's Church History:

For some of them drive out demons effectually and truly, so that those who have been cleansed from evil spirits frequently believe and unite with the Church. Others have a foreknowledge of future events, and visions, and prophetic revelations. Still others heal the sick by the laying on of hands, and restore them to health. And, as we have said, even dead persons have been raised, and remained with us many years.

This passage was satirized by Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2.15.3; he sees no other credible evidence for this during this time and mockingly overstates Irenaeus's quote:

In the days of Irenaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event; that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterwards among them may years.

Is there an alternative interpretation here? Is Irenaeus really saying that people were being raised from the dead during his lifetime at the end of the 2nd century?


Christians from both sides of the continuation of spiritual gifts debate understand Irenaeus's quote here more charitably than Gibbon, and do not see it as evidence that people were being raised from the dead in the late 2nd century. I'll refer to the writings of cessationist B. B. Warfield and charismatic Ronald A. N. Kydd.

Warfield addresses Gibbon directly and agrees with his assessment of the period, saying "Irenaeus alone of all the writers of this period speaks of raisings of the dead at all." Eusebius mentions one raising told by Papias from the apostolic age, but his overall work indicates the scarcity of such events:

It is very clear that Eusebius was not familiar with raisings from the dead in his own day, and also that Papias was not familiar with them in his day; and it is equally clear that Eusebius did not know of numerous instances of such a transaction having been recorded as occurring in the course of the early history of the church, which history he was in the act of transcribing. (14)

Warfield cites the writings of several other early authors, such as Theophilus of Antioch and Tertullian. The latter in particular, in On Modesty, XXI, contrasts the spiritual powers of the apostles from their successors, saying that the former "raised the dead." Warfield concludes:

It is an understatement to say that Irenaeus's contemporaries were unaware that the dead were being raised in their day. What they say amounts to testimony that they were not being raised. (14)

So why, then, does Irenaeus say this? Kydd defends Irenaeus as a scholar, citing the vindication of his writings on Gnosticism following the discovery of the Gnostic Nag Hammadi documents in the 1940s. And based on their analysis of the passage, Kydd and Warfield hold that Irenaeus is actually refering to the apostolic-era raisings of the dead, not ones happening in his own day. Warfield writes:

Irenaeus throws the raisings from the dead well into the past. This is made evident not only from the past tenses employed, which are markedly contrasted with the present tenses used in the rest of the passage, but also from the statement that those who were thus raised had lived after their resuscitation a considerable number of years, which shows that recent resuscitations are not in view. (242)

Warfield also notes the phrase, "as we said," which he argues points back to Irenaeus's mention of raisings from the dead in the apostolic era (5.7.2), not recent instances. Kydd summarizes:

Warfield concludes by saying that "there is no reason why the cases he [Irenaeus] has in mind may not have occurred during the lifetime of the Apostles or of Apostolic men," and I think he is right. (45)

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Yes, there is no doubt that Irenaeus was speaking of some raising the dead in his own time. The following extract contains the words by Irenaeus that appear to be cited by Eusebius and criticised by Gibbon. Irenaeus is comparing the powerlessness of his opponents to perform miracles with what the Christian brotherhood is capable of performing. After dismissing the claims of his opponents as magical deceptions, Irenaeus then makes bold claims about what the Christian brotherhood had done, apparently in the recent past at least, then finally reproaching his opponents for not believing that it is possible to raise the dead:

Against Heresies II.31.2: Moreover, those also will be thus confuted who belong to Simon and Carpocrates, and if there be any others who are said to perform miracles— who do not perform what they do either through the power of God, or in connection with the truth, nor for the well-being of men, but for the sake of destroying and misleading mankind, by means of magical deceptions, and with universal deceit, thus entailing greater harm than good on those who believe them, with respect to the point on which they lead them astray. For they can neither confer sight on the blind, nor hearing on the deaf, nor chase away all sorts of demons— [none, indeed,] except those that are sent into others by themselves, if they can even do so much as this. Nor can they cure the weak, or the lame, or the paralytic, or those who are distressed in any other part of the body, as has often been done in regard to bodily infirmity. Nor can they furnish effective remedies for those external accidents which may occur. And so far are they from being able to raise the dead, as the Lord raised them, and the apostles did by means of prayer, and as has been frequently done in the brotherhood on account of some necessity — the entire Church in that particular locality entreating [the boon] with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man has returned, and he has been bestowed in answer to the prayers of the saints — that they do not even believe this can be possibly be done, [and hold] that the resurrection from the dead is simply an acquaintance with that truth which they proclaim.

The fourth-century Church historian Eusebius believed that Irenaeus was speaking of his own time, saying:

These things Irenæus, in agreement with the accounts already given by us, records in the work which comprises five books, and to which he gave the title Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So-called. In the second book of the same treatise he shows that manifestations of divine and miraculous power continued to his time in some of the churches.

The following statement by David Zeisberger comes from The Christian Observer, Volume 26 (July 1826), pages 395-6:

As to Irenaeus, such is the extravagance of his assertion in the passage quoted from him, and such the structure of the sentence, that I would submit for consideration, whether the most objectionable part may not be an interpolation. If it is genuine, then Dr. Hey's censure of Irenaeus is fully justified... [A]ccording to Irenaeus, after the Apostles were dead, and were succeeded by men confessedly inferior to them in spiritual gifts, these inferior men do very often this greatest of all miracles, which their predecessors had done very sparingly!

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From a Biblical perspective, I don't understand why one should be incredulous about Irenaeus' claims. Jesus said He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do [John 14:12].

The Synaxaria tell of other Christian saints who were granted the gift of raising the dead. These include:

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