When was Purgatory Invented?

PhatCatholic recently addressed a question related to the question above, by posing the following question (link to source):

When was Purgatory first talked about?

PC answered:

The earliest reference to Purgatory that scholars have found so far comes from The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which was written around 160 AD. In that work, we read the following:

“And after the exhibition, Tryphaena again received her [Thecla]. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and said to her in a dream: ‘Mother, you shall have this stranger Thecla in my place, in order that she may pray concerning me, and that I may be transferred to the place of the righteous'”

Notice how Thecla will be praying for Falconilla, even though Falconilla has already died. Prayers for the dead implies the doctrine of Purgatory b/c Purgatory is the only place or state where a soul could reside in which prayers would be necessary or beneficial. Souls in heaven have no need of our prayers and there’s no point in praying for the damned, who can never be freed from Hell.

Note also that the doctrine of Purgatory wasn’t invented in 160 AD, it’s just that the earliest reference to Purgatory that we have comes from that period.

I answer:

She does pray for a dead girl. The problem is this – there is no indication that the place that the girl is in is anywhere other than hell. PhatCatholic discards the idea that it could be hell that is referenced, because that wouldn’t be orthodox.

I agree that it wouldn’t be orthodox – but Purgatory isn’t orthodox either (and likewise prayers for the dead in general are not orthodox). The fact that it has come to be accepted by the papists doesn’t make Purgatory any more orthodox than the idea of successful intercession on behalf of souls in hell.

And the idea of an error with respect to intercession for souls in hell is not so farfetched. After all, it is alleged that Pope Gregory I interceded on behalf of Trajan, who was in hell, and that Trajan was released by Gregory’s intercessions.

Furthermore, Suarez, De Pecatis, Disp. vii. 3, claims that the possibility of such deliverance is an open question, and Estius, in Setent. iv (Disp. xlvi. 241), claims that many people have been so delivered. Even Thomas Aquinas himself seems to credit the legend of Trajan’s release from hell, excusing this oddity by stating: “Trajan had not been finally doomed to hell, but only provisionally, and that his deliverance was granted to him as an exceptional privilege.” (I should note that Aquinas appears to recognize the truth that “there is no redemption in hell” – for he places that phrase in the mouth of an objector on the question of whether the priesthood of Christ endures forever.)

There’s an important road-block left out of PhatCatholic’s analysis: there is no indication that the girl was previously a Christian or that she was baptized. In short, there is no reason to suppose from the story that she was in any place but Hell. Such, it appears from several reports I have read, was the opinion of John of Damascus, though I have not been able to find a precise citation.

Thus, upon weighing this supposed early testimony for the existence of Purgatory, we find it to be nothing but optimistic anachronism. There is no mention of Purgatory in the text, and no reason (except wishful thinking) to make us believe that Purgatory is referenced. That a fictional tale of Paul’s life might include some theological errors is to be expected. After all, the same tale has the heroine, Thecla, baptizing herself in a ditch of water. In the end, it would be a mistake to view this tale from the fictional “Acts of Paul and Thecla” (apparently a work of the late second century) as teaching the modern Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. It would be the sort of mistake one might make if one was disparately grasping for straws of the innovated doctrine of Purgatory in the ECF’s. Nevertheless, it is a mistake: an anachronistic eisegesis of the document. Purgatory is not to be found in the text, and can only be added in through eisegesis. In short, the claim for the earliest evidence of Purgatory must wait its actual innovation later in history.


P.S. If one is going to imagine Purgatory into the text of the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” why not add in the Limbus Infantum (Limbo)? If we let eisegesis be the methodology, there is no barrier. We can insert whatever theory we want, willy-nilly. By requiring the reader to let the text speak for itself, these problems can be avoided.

4 Responses to “When was Purgatory Invented?”

  1. natamllc Says:

    With very little knowledge of purgatory and only being partly a part of the RCC before on the Indian Reservation and at the local parish in the community off reservation where I was raised, [my father was literally born on the reservation and raised there, he attended the RC masses religiously as he grew up there, mostly because of his fear of death] and I myself having attended generally only the two main masses a year, Easter and Christmas, [on the Reservation when a Priest was available during these holiday events some many years] or at St. Joseph’s [the only exception to attending a mass besides Easter or Christmas was when a baby was being baptised from our families and that was not very often even though we had lots of babies coming forth], I put forth something here in refutation of this concept of purgatory as I would most all of the RC doctrines. I do not doubt for a minute that daughters after they die come to their mother still living and while she dreams. I doubt though whether it truly is the mother’s daughter but some spirit or lost being. We do see in Scripture accounts of these kinds of things. I won’t go into these accounts here but say the following and quote Einar Billing.It is from a little booklet that I seem to be reading and rereading for awhile now: “Our Calling”, by Einar Billing, written in 1909.He writes, starting at the last paragraph on page 22 through to the end of the same paragraph on page 23 this:IF THEN THE CALL IS COMPREHENDED IN THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS, IT BECOMES CLEAR THAT FAITHFULNESS IN ONE’S CALLING IS-FAITH. “THIS IS THE WORK OF GOD, THAT YOU BELIEVE ON HIM WHOM HE HAS SENT” [JOHN 6:29]. IT IS WORTHY OF NOTE THAT THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS GIVES NOT ONLY THE MOTIVE AND POWER TO ACCOMPLISH A DEED ALREADY PLANNED, BUT IT GIVES FIRST OF ALL THE DEED ITSELF THAT IS, CLARITY AS TO WHAT DEED GOD DESIRES OF ME. THE ROMAN CATHOLIC DIVORCES THE ONE FROM THE OTHER-HE DEPENDS ON THE PRIEST IN THE CONFESSIONAL FOR HIS CLARITY, ON THE GRACE WHICH IS INFUSED THROUGH THE SACRAMENTS FOR HIS POWER, AND ON THE THOUGHT OF REWARD FOR HIS MOTIVE. BUT THIS IS TO REVEAL A MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE NATURE OF THE INNNER LIFE. WHEN WE ARE CALLED TO A TASK WHOSE WORTH WE DO NOT CLEARLY UNDERSTAND, WE CANNOT GIVE OURSELVES TO IT WITH SINGLENESS OF PURPOSE AND CONCENTRATED POWER. BUT PURPOSE AND POWER NATURALLY FOLLOW CLARITY. WE CAN RECALL TIMES WHEN WE HAVE BEEN CLEARLY CONVINCED THAT A CERTAIN DEED IS OURS TO DO, AND HOW WE HAVE BEEN SURPRISED HOW OUR USUAL MOOD OF DESPAIR HAS GIVEN WAY TO AN INVINCIBLE DETERMINATION. AND WITH THIS ACT OF WILL CAME A POWER BEFORE WHICH OBSTACLES COULD NOT STAND. OF EVEN MORE SIGNIFICANCE, THE ROMAN CATHOLIC TEACHING MISTAKES THE NATURE OF CHRISTIANITY, WHICH HAS BUT ONE CENTER: THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS. IN THE EVANGELICAL CHURCH IT SHOULD BE SUFFICIENTLY CLEAR THAT THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS IS THE SOURCE NOT ONLY OF POWER AND WILLINGNESS, BUT ALSO OF CLARITY IN OUR TASKS. BUT THIS POWER AND CONVICTION CAN BE ASSURED ONLY FOR SUCH DEEDS AS THE EXPERIENCE OF FORGIVENESS ITSELF PRESENTS TO US.In quoting that I am saying that this doctrine, in my opinion, “purgatory”, is an act of one’s own will to believe, which is always unbelief and its intent weakens the word of the Priest and service of the Priesthood, which is also a demonic attack on all the Truth about the Priesthood of the Believers in Christ, about Christ as the High Priest of this Order and as to our calling to administer Life and not false doctrines which produce death within the hearer; but this doctrine of purgatory though, it is here their concept of this priestly idea and function as the sacramental duties of their priesthood is brought into question!I would hope a Roman Catholic who reads this article would consider that when one has received the full force of the forgiveness of their sins, that is indeed all that one needs and to teach otherwise, which it seems to me this doctrine of purgatory does, is to not tell the Word of Truth, the Gospel. The Gospel needs no help! It seems this doctrine of purgatory is offered supposedly to help us deal with God another way when we face our sin nature and our sinful thoughts, words and deeds. There simply is no other way to deal with sin and the sin nature, before, now or ever than by the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins.

  2. Kepha Says:

    Prayers for the dead in the Early Church do not necessarily imply the existence of Purgatory. From what I have gathered from my five visits at the local Orthodox Cathedral, the East believes in praying for the dead, but not because they are in Purgatory. In fact, the East rejects this papal dogma. Eastern Christians have told me that they believe that Christians do not go to Heaven when they die, but instead go to Paradise. If I understood correctly, Christians do not go to Heaven until the General Resurrection. Hence, Eastern Christians pray that their brothers and sisters will finally receive the fulness of their reward. Again, if I understood them correctly, they pray not because these Christians who have passed on might not receive their ultimate reward, rather they pray for them just as we are told in Scripture to pray for the coming of Christ. Obviously Christ is coming whether we pray or not, yet we are told to do so.When I found this out, not only by direct conversations with Eastern Christians but via Bishop N.T. Wright’s insightful little book For All The Saints?, I was stunned because I’ve heard Catholics many times use the East’s practice of praying for the dead to prove the antiquity of Purgatory. Yet the East denies Purgatory! What I’ve begun asking myself as a Catholic is, Why do the East have a totally different understanding of praying for the dead?

  3. luvvom Says:

    I don’t know what this, “Acts of Paul and Thecla”, is. Is this a book that the Catholics have added to their bible?

  4. Turretinfan Says:

    No, Luvvom, the Catholics’ addition to the Bible (as far as books and large passages go) are limited to the Old Testament.The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a fictional account of Paul that is believed to have been written some time in the late 2nd century, based on it being referred to by Tertullian.I don’t think we have any evidence that it was ever believed by anyone to be inspired or historical.-TurretinFan

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