Thursday, September 16, 2010

Against Polycarp [Part Eight]

It may be difficult for some readers to believe that a real historical figure like our stranger could be reshaped and developed in so many different ways. How is it, they might ask, that modern scholarship has failed to recognize the underlying commonality between all these different Catholic Church Fathers rooted in Lucian's Peregrinus? The reality is however that the idea that there was a relationship between this text and the writings of Ignatius, Polycarp and other of figures in the earliest Christianity was actually a hot topic of debate for many generations in Patristic scholarship. The idea that Lucian might have been a real witness to a towering figure in the history of the Church was never disproved, it just became less fashionable in academic circles to talk about such matters.

Yet we are suggesting that there was in the late second century an individual so influential that at least one pagan decided to write a near contemporary but ultimately hostile report. Who is this figure that Lucian was actually reporting on? Our Catholic texts ultimately diminish his significance. He is called 'Polycarp' in some reports, 'the presbyter' in others and - as we shall demonstrate in this chapter - 'Ignatius' too.

The name 'Ignatius' is a much later development. If we ignore for a moment the testimony of the letter of Polycarp which we will discuss in a subsequent chapter the first person to mention 'Ignatius' by name is Origen of Alexandria in the mid third century. Indeed William Slater a Professor in Biblical Literature at Didsbury College, Manchester who famously passed away while giving a sermon in 1924 notes that it is Irenaeus who first references the Ignatius letter but strangely fails to give a name to its author saying only that "a certain man of ours said when he was condemned to the wild beasts, because of his testimony with respect to God: I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of God.' This appears to be a quotation from the letter of Ignatius to the Romans (c.4) and Zahn and Lightfoot regard it as such. "

Some critics have noticed that Irenaeus does not report Ignatius as writing these words, but only as saying them. Indeed it must be acknowledged that though Irenaeus mentions Polycarp and his Epistle to the Philippians, he never mentions Ignatius by name, nor makes any reference to his Epistles. As we shall demonstrate in this chapter, the Catholic writings of Ignatius and Polycarp are arranged one might suppose that Irenaeus chose his words very carefully because 'Ignatius' makes it explicit that someone else - and indeed often making direct reference to 'Polycarp' - is actually writing epistles on his behalf.

Could it be that Irenaeus, the first editor to reshape material associated with our stranger was cautiously introducing his original attempts to reshape his legacy? Already another pagan critic makes reference to the gospels being reshaped 'threefold and fourfold' in order to answer objections? Could the same historical editor - a figure David Trobisch identifies as 'the final editor of the New Testament canon' - also have been responsible for reshaping the literature associated with the most important personality in the history of Christianity?

It may seem like a wild and even crazy 'conspiracy theory' but as I will demonstrate in this chapter parts of the theory at least have the wide spread and possibly even near universal support among scholars. The important thing for us to keep in mind is what a different age we happen to be fortunate enough to have been born into. We live in a world of mass communications and often take for granted that the citizens of the planet Earth always enjoyed the privilege of ready access to accurate information. The unfortunate reality which makes engaging 'the truth' about early Christianity so difficult is that we are essentially dealing with an underground - even clandestine - tradition. The texts associated with the religion - the gospel and related New Testament epistles - go unmentioned by pagan witnesses until the late second century because they were certainly kept 'safe' or indeed 'secret' from outsiders.

Indeed what makes our stranger such an important individual in the history of ideas is that his arrival at Rome seems to coincide with a 'blowing off of the lid' of this concealed religious tradition. As we shall demonstrate in a subsequent chapter our stranger seems to have went out of his way to reveal what he claimed to be its most sacred mysteries. Before his coming to Rome and making public a υπομνηματα (a word which can be loosely translated as a historical 'commentary') the exact beliefs and practices of Christianity were essentially an unknown commodity to the world. The stranger changed all of that and in the process brought great fame and attention to himself.

Our point is now that the reader should pay careful note that those who claimed to follow this stranger built a tradition around this parrhesia, this 'bold, open speech.' The gospels and the epistles of the great men of this 'Catholic tradition' were openly manifested to the authorities of the world. Christianity became defined this transparency and those traditions which clung to the old ways of mystery and darkness would eventually fade into obscurity. For the first 'heresiologists' of the Catholic Church clearly used this apparent 'guilessness' as a weapon against their opponents.

With respect to the current issue at hand there can be absolutely no doubt that Irenaeus and his followers did their best to capitalize on the fame associated with the stranger. They were more than eager to produce 'letters' and testimonies associated with their 'Polycarp.' But does their openness and so-called transparency in any way prove that they were in fact presenting the world with unadulterated testimonies? Isn't this what politicians engage in - in other words mastering the art of appearing sincere of seeming to present a credible, trustworthy face to the world?

Walter Frederic Adeney a former lecturer on the history of doctrine at Lancastershire College in the University of Manchester gets it right when he finds "in the pages of Lucian a remarkable testimony to the impression made upon their age by Ignatius and Polycarp." This text he notes was "written by the most popular author of his age, Peregrinus was no doubt recited at the dinner-tables of wealthy Romans and laughed over at the baths." To this end one wonders whether Irenaeus 'transparency' was rather an attempt at damage control aimed at the respectable members of society who might have come across the vitriol of Lucian. As the great German theologian Adolf von Harnack writes "the seven epistles of Ignatius form, as it were, a commentary upon these observations of the pagan writer."

Our purpose then is to crack the origins of this figure 'Ignatius.' How could a single mysterious individual who made his way to Rome and then Greece and Asia Minor before dying in a spectacular blaze of glory be remembered under so many different names and titles? We have already encountered a few of these appellations - Peregrinus or 'stranger' who later changed his name or was called 'Proteus.' 'Polycarp' is clearly yet another. Now in this present chapter we will have to deal with at least one more - Ignatius, a name which means 'the fiery one.'

When we really stand back from it there really isn't much of a mystery where Irenaeus got the idea for calling the stranger 'Ignatius.' There can be no doubt whatsoever that Ignatius was a title associated with our stranger's original fiery martyrdom. The Syrian Church to this day preserves his name as 'Nurono' which also means 'the fiery' in the Syriac language. When we remind ourselves of Irenaeus's caution to actually utter the name in print, it now hardly seems surprising. The name 'Ignatius' might well have been readily recognized as a description of our stranger as long as Lucian's account was influential.

Indeed the meaning of the name 'Ignatius' actually goes a long way toward explaining how he presented himself to his followers. It shines a light on a gap in our knowledge which will help clarify something of his 'real personality.' For given the fact that Lucian tells us that our stranger spent a long while in Palestine we can safely assume that the original name was Seraph - which means not only 'fiery one in Aramaic but also 'angel' and even 'cremated one' in Hebrew.

Let me give a brief etymology of the original term. The word "seraph" is derived from the Hebrew word for "burn" and is used in the Biblical story when it is said that a burning coal from the heavenly altar to purify the lips of the prophet Isaiah at the time of the prophet's call (Isa 6:6-7). But what is really being described by the Seraph is the idea of an intermediary power, between God and man who manifests himself in fire.

So it is that we read in the Old Testament that "God is a devouring flame" (Deut 4.24) and also in the New Testament that God "is a consuming fire" (Heb 12.29). The underlying conception here is that the Most High God in heaven is not being referenced here but a mediating power who intercedes on behalf of man. So it is also that the rabbinic tradition emphasizes that "Moses received the Law from Sinai. Not from an angel, nor from a seraph, but from the Holy One, Blessed be He." Origen the Alexandrian Church Father is said to have argued that Jesus the Word was really a seraph. This concept likely likely ultimately explains why the stranger chosing the title Proteus or 'firstborn' for himself - he was clearly intimating that he was the second coming of Jesus the firstborn Word.

The important thing to see now is that all the little bits and pieces are starting to come together once we begin to see that the seeming plurality of names associated with our stranger are really titles emphasizes that he was a contemporary messianic figure. The real historical stranger wanted to make his nature manifest to everyone he met; it is precisely why he wanted to die in a massive bonfire. Irenaeus by contrast wants to keep his original messianic status under wraps. His Polycarp is allowed to be the ultimate authority on the teachings of Jesus and his disciples but all traditions which point to his original claim that he was a reincarnation of Christ are denied through a carefully laid out body of literature which show him acting only as a devoted disciple of someone else named 'Ignatius.'

Yet as we have demonstrated time and again Lucian's testimony should be given the greater weight when attempting to determine the real 'stranger.' To know the real individual behind the 'mask of Polycarp' we should look more carefully at the statement in Lucian where he compares our stranger directly to Jesus saying that:

he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be?—in a trice he made them all look like children, for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world

Lucian clearly gained the impression that our stranger was taken to be nothing short of a second Christ. This cannot be ignored any longer. As we have just seen this very same idea is present in the title 'Ignatius' (a Latin rendering of the Aramaic title seraph) and as the noted German theologian Pfleiderer remarks, it is also paralleled by Ignatius other title 'Theophorus' i.e. 'bearer of God.'

It is only because many of these statements occur in a satirical work that many scholars feel justified in ignoring their implications. Perhaps many of them can't interpret their meaning because they are unable or unwilling to take seriously the relationship between Irenaeus's Polycarp and Lucian's Peregrinus. Nevertheless there can be no mistaking that this stranger was holding himself up as the second coming of Christ - the god who had once again sojourned with 'his people' in the middle of the second century.

That such a claim would be enthusiastically received in Asia Minor for instance is hardly surprising. We have a great deal of evidence to suggest that a Christian community centered around someone claiming to be 'the Paraclete' in the same period was wildly popular in the province of Phrygia and many other places. When given the choice of participating in an essentially 'dead religion' focused on old books and old traditions and a charismatic movement being visited by a second incarnation of Christ, it is not surprising that many people would chose a direct relationship with God. Indeed as just noted this idea of a transference of divinity passing from body to body was very common among the early sectarian groups of Christianity. It would also explain why Peregrinus thought he had the authority to write authoritative books and commentaries on various topics and more significantly why followers continued to write books in his name after he died.

The divine Proteus or "firstborn" was probably understood, at least initially, to have the potential to continue this transmigration process and take ever new anthropomorphic forms. Indeed Lucian seems to make this belief explicit when he says:

as to statues [memoralizing the now dead stranger] I know that many will be set up right soon by the Eleans themselves and also by the other Greeks, to whom he said he had sent lettersthe story is that he despatched missives to almost all the famous cities—testamentary dispositions, so to speak, and exhortations and prescriptions—and he appointed a number of ambassadors for this purpose from among his comrades, styling them "messengers from the dead" and "underworld couriers.

The Christian apologist Athenagoras reports that Parium, where Peregrinus was born, did indeed cherish a statue of him from which oracles were derived. (Leg. de Christ., 26) This is the ancient equivalent of the talking or crying 'image of Jesus' appearing in a bathroom stall. But the idea is testimony also to the basic idea that that the protean spiritual being that once resided in the living Peregrinus had now been transfered to a Catholic 'saint statue.'

Yet we should pay closer attention to the second reference in this report from Lucian, the one which tells of a continuing stream of letters being directed by Peregrinus to important urban centers all over the Empire through living earthly intermediaries, is extremely significant for our present purposes as it has been almost universally recognized to a reference to the Catholic epistles of our said 'Ignatius.' Like Ignatius, Peregrinus is represented as sending about letters to nearly all the churches but the particular language that is used in both traditions is particularly striking.

The words in which Lucian relates how Peregrinus 'nominated' (ἐχειροτόνηε) certain of his companions ambassadors (πρεσβευτάς) whom he called 'death-messengers (νεκραγγέλους) and infernal couriers (νερτεροδρόμους) have been argued by a great many scholars to be a parody of the claim now preserved in the Catholic epistles of 'Ignatius' that he would 'nominate' (χειροτονῆσαι Philad. 10, Smyrn. 11, Polyc. 7) certain persons who should visit Syria as God-couriers (θεοδρόμος Polyc. 7) or God-ambassadors (θεοπρεσβεύτην Smyrn. 11). It was Joseph Lightfoot, the great English theologian and Bishop of Durham who first noticed this similarity. He also noted that "at an early part of his narrative Peregrinus is described in an expression which closely resembles the language used by Ignatius of himself. He is 'made a prisoner in Syria.'" He points us to compare the statement in Ignatius to the Ephesians 1 '... on my way from Syria, in bonds' (δεδεμένον ἀπὸ Συρίας).

The point is that we have just completed a lengthy discussion of the manner in which a great many scholars have concluded that there was a relationship between the stranger of Lucian's report and Irenaeus's 'Polycarp.' It may seem confusing to some for us now to claim that there is also an even stronger argument in scholarship that Peregrinus might well have been 'Ignatius.' The key thing to remember is that the Catholic tradition makes explicit that there was indeed a relationship between Ignatius and Polycarp. Polycarp is made out to be Ignatius's original secretary - the guy whose job it was to write out and mail the letters that were coming from 'his boss' in effect. Ignatius further nominates Polycarp to act as his successor until the right guy is found to take over his leadership position in the Church.

So the point here should be made clear that the idea that Peregrinus might have had some relationship with the literature associated with Ignatius and the literature associated with Polycarp isn't nearly as improbable as it might seem even at first glance because even in the Catholic tradition the one figure is effectively portrayed as acting as the spokesperson for the other. The real question now before us is to determine what that historical and lierary relationship really was.

In other words, we can no longer just accept the traditional Catholic claims about the relationship between these two men. Can we just take their word that there was this guy named 'Ignatius' who lived at the beginning of the second century who was convinced he was about to die and so assigned another guy named 'Polycarp' with the job of sending out a collection of letters he had written after his death? There is no doubt that this is the exact scenario which emerges from the Catholic tradition itself. If you walk into a church of any denomination pretty well and ask about these men an authority figure will likely come out and show you the canon of Ignatius and the one surviving letter of Polycarp and demonstrate to you that they support this claim completely.

The real question is whether the relationship we have already determined do exist between Lucian's Peregrinus and Polycarp and the relationship we are about to establish exists between Lucian's Peregrinus and the letters of Ignatius necessarily trumps the 'neat tidiness' of merely accepting the claims of the inherited tradition at face value.

It would seem useful for our present examination of the Ignatian epistles is to demonstrate the scholarly consensus to our readership that the idea that some sort of relationship does exist between Peregrinus and Ignatius. Since most people reading this book are likely to make reference to Philip Schaff's online edition of the Early Church Fathers it might be worth citing a source that he directs the readers attention to on this point - the nineteenth century French philosopher Ernest Renan - who notes on this subject that:

the most curious thing is that this history, told more recently by one of the most intelligent writers of the age by Lucian, inspired him with the principal features of his little picture of manners, entitled “Of the Death of Peregrinus.” It is scarcely to be doubted that Lucian borrowed from the narratives of Ignatius the passages in which he represents his charlatan playing the part of Bishop and Confessor, chained in Syria, shipped for Italy, surrounded by the faithful with cares and attentions, receiving from all parts deputations of ministers sent to console him. Peregrinus, like Ignatius, addresses from his captivity to the celebrated towns which he finds upon his way, letters full of counsels and of exhortations that they should observe the laws; he institutes, in view of these messages, missions clothed with a religious character; finally he appears before the Emperor, and defies his power, with an audacity which Lucian finds impertinent, but which the admirers of the fanatic represent as a movement of holy liberty.

Indeed Schaff also points to the nineteenth century Biblical scholar Theodor Zahn who is similarly convinced that "Lucian had before him the letter of Ignatius to Polycarp, and that this led him to combine the incidents of the death of Polycarp with those attending the suicide of Peregrinus"

There is no need for us to restrict ourselves to nineteenth century writers to demonstrate the widespread consensus on this point. In recent times Mark J Edwards lecturer at Oxford notes that "we are constantly reminded that the sophist has taken the imitation of Heracles to an extremity (Peregrinus 21, 24, 25, 29 and 33), and when in prison he carries on a voluminous correspondence which, like the letters of Ignatius is even added to the body of Christian Scripture (12);21." Leofranc Holford-Strevens simply notes that "the letters to Greek cities (Luc. Per. 41) recall Ignatius' missives." Robert McQueen Grant adds that "the description of Peregrinus has often reminded scholars of the picture of Ignatius found in his letters, and it has been suggested that Lucian was parodying the letters themselves, adding further Christian traits from his own observations."

The British theologian Frederick John Foakes-Jackson similarly notes that "it seems highly probable that Lucian based the story of his hero's adventures as a Christian upon an account of the martyrdom of Ignatius." While Henry Elias Dosker of Western Theological Seminary concedes that "Lucian's 'the Death of Peregrinus' is a covert satire on Paul and on the martyrdoms of Ignatius and Polycarp." After a lengthy discussiont the Reverend Percival Gardner-Smith concludes that "the heathen writer Lucian, in his satirical account of the death of Peregrinus, thus refers to the martyrdom of Ignatius." Moreover the Italian scholar Bellarmino Bagatti adds that "the pagan Lucianus of Samosata in the Death of Peregrinus sought to parody St. Ignatius, saying: "having been in Palestine he had learned the marvellous wisdom of the Christians at the school of their priests."

Frederick Fyvie Bruce, one of the founders of the modern evangelical interpretation of the Bible more cautiously notes that "Lucian possibly models his account on the behavior of Christians at various places where Ignatius broke his journey" and Michael O. Zappala simiarly speaks of "Lucian's possible parody of Ignatius." Yet Austin Morris Harmon emphasizes that Lucian's account "seems to indicate a knowledge of these letters, but on the part of Peregrinus, not Lucian" William R Schoedel, Everett Ferguson and many others point in particular to "Lucian's knowledge of Ignatius's letter to Polycarp, and his possible parody of the letter in Peregrinus." While Adolf Planck, Dean of Heidenheim, in Wurtemburg draws our attention in particular to the Ignatian Epistle of the Romans and the fact that "the Christians wished to liberate Peregrinus (12), reminds us of the so oft repeated prayer of Ignatius, that the churches would forbear anything which could hinder him in his way to martyrdom (ad Rom. 1)."

The point of course my friends that the idea that Lucian's satire of Peregrinus has parallels with the writings attributed by the Catholic Church to two separate figures named Ignatius and Polycarp should not trouble us any longer. Irenaeus was engaging in damage control. He was trying to make Christianity into a respectable Roman religion which would ultimately gain the trust and favor of the highest ranks of society. In order for this endeavor to work he would simply have to develop a body of literature which presented Polycarp as merely a devoted and humble servant of a tradition that he was merely nominated to be a spokesman.

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