Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Against Polycarp [Part Five]

Of course the details of Polycarp’s life comes down to us through the so-called Martyrium Polycarpi which survives in two principle forms – the Encyclical Epistle of the Church of Smyrna to the Church at Philomelium and a parallel report in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History Book 4 Chapter 15. While many scholars may find it difficult to reconcile the 'inspirational' story of Polycarp’s last day with Lucian’s hostile portrait of the death of the Christian huckster Peregrinus this obstacle will not be difficult to overcome. What is immediately problematic is how to get around the apparent contradiction of the place each man met his untimely end. The surviving Christian tradition is absolutely certain that Polycarp died in Smyrna, the modern Turkish port city of Izmir while Lucian’s account of Peregrinus explicitly records the fact that 'Peregrinus' met his end in Olympia in mainland Greece.

We will keep this 'apparent contradiction' in mind as we begin our examination of the parallels between the two men. The natural starting point here would be the obvious similarity in the description of their death. Scholars might like to imagine that here too lies a contradiction whereby Peregrinus portrays its 'stranger' as a para-suicidal maniac, while Martyrium has Polycarp as an unwilling victim who was somehow goaded into his death by the 'evil Roman authorities.' A carefully reading of the Martyrium Polycarpi will immediately dispel this misunderstanding. The two accounts are actually amazingly similar to one another. Lucian characterizes the motivation of his subject of course in the most disparaging terms. After all he is attempting to write satire rather than a historical study. As such he claims that when his 'stranger' was unable to advance “any further novelty with which to surprise those who came in his way and make them marvel and stare at him—a thing for which he had a fierce craving from the first. So he devised this ultimate venture of the pyre, and spread a report among the Greeks immediately after the last Olympic Games that he would burn himself up at the next festival.”

Here too it is important to understand the setting for Peregrinus. The 'stranger' wants very much to die and has a specific method of self-destruction in mind – he wants to be burned alive. To this end he had been promising to give his 'testimony' for years now and his day has finally come. Large throngs of onlookers have gathered at the present Olympiad to witness the unfolding of this horrific spectacle. We will demonstrate shortly that the subject of Martyrium shares this very same zeal for 'martyrdom by fire.' For the moment however I would like to take up that difference we began our study with - namely the fact that Peregrinus died specifically during the Olympic Games while – at least according to the surviving account – Polycarp most certainly did not.

It would be hard to argue with the idea that Martyrium places Polycarp’s death in Smyrna but can we say for certain that the tradition denies that he ended up being martyred during 'games' as such? I don’t think so. Thompson’s Martyrdom of Polycarp: Death in the Roman Games brings forward that aspect of the tradition. Scholars are also quite clear that Martyrium was only established in the fourth century from early sources. Lucian’s Peregrinus by contrast was written very close to the time of the events in question. A lot can happen in two hundred years. Place names can certainly become substituted one for another. However for our immediate purpose I should only mention our own inherited notion of what sport belongs at the Olympics was different than that of Polycarp’s age. By Roman times gladiatorial fights with wild beasts were already part of the games. To this end it should be emphasized that both Polycarp and Peregrinus died during 'games' where 'blood sports' were carried out.

Polycarp was also burned in a public assembly, according to Jerome, universo populo in amphitheatre adversus eum personante. Indeed as we shall see later the actual timing of the death was even closer when we consider that both martyrdoms were carried out specifically 'after the games had already finished.' This is a very significant detail which we cannot lose sight of. Indeed we should also begin to become conscious of the reality that neither Polycarp nor Peregrinus should be understood to be simply killed because of their Christian beliefs either. In either case the games were already over and each man went out of their way to seek out their own martyrdom.

So now we are prepared to confront the big question - how could 'Polycarp' and 'Peregrinus' be one and the same person if the former is reported to have died in Smyrna and the latter in Olympia? The first step is in my mind to acknowledge that there is no reason to suspect that Lucian would have lied about the locale of his stranger’s martyrdom. I believe that given the consistent reporting of Lucian that 'Peregrinus' desired above all else to secure a wide audience for his 'offering,' the choice of Olympia makes perfect sense. There is a logical consistency in Lucian’s account which is entirely lacking in the Martyrium. We are never allowed to get too deeply into Polycarp’s head. We never get a clear picture of his surroundings. The surviving narrative was written many generations after the events in question and the author freely admits that along with historical elements he mingled 'direct revelation' from Polycarp in the world. As a result it is very difficult to discern very much about the circumstances of the actual death of the Church Father.

While Martyrium never sways from assigning Smyrna as the site of Polycarp’s death we should remind ourselves how corrupt the surviving Martyrium of Polycarp tradition really is. Most significant of all is Eusebius, the earliest surviving Martyrium tradition, contradicts key details of our existing Encyclical texts. First and foremost Eusebius makes clear that Polycarp died at same time as other martyrs not mention in our Martyrium. A certain Pionius and a Marcionite bishop named Metrodorius are strangely absent from the Encyclical Epistle. Instead their stories are now placed in another tradition entirely – in a text called the Martyrdom of Pionius – where the Catholic editor now claims these two men died almost a hundred years later after albeit strangely on the very anniversary of Polycarp’s martyrdom.

Why did someone come along and change this critical detail? The answer might lie in the fact that the Martyrdom belongs to an original Marcionite encyclical. This would explain our surviving text’s connection to “letters sent from Pontus," its confession that the present work is merely a “summary” of a work passed on “through our brother Marcian,” as well as the explicit mention of the Marcionite bishop Metrodorus. Why would a later Catholic editor have gone to such lengths to distance Polycarp from key elements in the original story? Could it be that Smyrna was not the original locale but rather a convenient place to remove the narrative from the widely circulating report of Lucian? The Catholic editor certainly wanted to remove Polycarp’s death from being a mere footnote in the original Marcionite narrative. Perhaps the underlying problem was that previous generations of the text demonstrated how close Polycarp actually was to the heresies.

Indeed even though Eusebius’ slightly earlier narrative connects him to “a celebrated martyr of those times … named Pionius” the actual information we receive about Polycarp’s 'comrade in arms' demonstrates an affinity for Marcionite practices, a sectarian tradition associated with a certain heretic 'Marcion' later condemned by Polycarp's student Irenaeus. We learn Pionius celebrates the Marcionite sacraments of 'bread and water' rather than our familiar 'bread and wine.' Was Polycarp really as orthodox as Irenaeus makes him out to be? This is a good question but one best left for another time. All that we can say for certain about the clear Marcionite underpinnings in both Peregrinus and Martyrium seriously questions the “certainty” that scholars have that Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna. After all if some details could be changed - why not others?

In fact the whole Martyrium narrative seems entirely contrived when properly scrutinized. It can’t even decide why Polycarp was martyred. Stock 'anti-Jewish' references abound which seem deliberately added as a distraction. Why couldn’t the location of Smyrna as a substitute for Olympia be one of many such 'corrections' of the lost original material?  Indeed how can anyone be so sure that 'Smyrna' is the original locale of the events in Martyrium? The official’s mentioned in the next actually might not individuals from Smyrna at all. Maybe the names of the officials who presided over the games where Polycarp was martyred are somewhat accurate but they actually match up to another city – perhaps even Olympia the site of 'Peregrinus' death?

 It’s not a crazy as some might think. Let’s consider a figure who appears in both Peregrinus and Martyrium – that of 'Herod.'  In Peregrinus it is absolutely clear who this 'Herod' is - he is Herod Atticus, perhaps the richest man in the second century Roman world.  In Lucian's Peregrinus we are told that our Christian 'stranger':

libelled [Herod] a man outstanding in literary attainments and position because he had been a benefactor to Greece in many ways, and particularly because he had brought water to Olympia and prevented the visitors to the festival from dying of thirst, maintaining that he was making the Greeks effeminate, for the spectators of the Olympic games ought to endure their thirst—yes, by Heaven, and even to lose their lives, no doubt, many of them, through the frequent distempers which formerly ran riot in the vast crowd on account of the dryness of the place! And he said this while he drank that same water! When they almost killed him with stones, mobbing him with one accord, he managed to escape death at the moment by fleeing to Zeus for sanctuary (stout fellow!), and afterwards, at the next Olympiad, he gave the Greeks a speech which he had composed during the four years that had intervened, praising the man who had brought in the water and defending himself for running away at that time.

Indeed it would be impossible for anyone to have been in Greece at the time and not come across this Herod Atticus as he was certainly one of the richest and most influential men in the world.  He was a renowned Athenian rhetorician of the second century, famous for his architectural who built many buildings including the marble Stadion at Athens, considered one of the wonders of the world, and the Odeion, still standing for the most part at the foot of the Acropolis.

 Herodes Atticus' family had long enjoyed public prominence, reaching a great height with his grandfather, Tiberius Claudius Hipparchus, who made the family fortune world- famous. The father, Tiberius Claudius Atticus Herodes, not onlyinherited a large fortune and a powerful banking house, but married a very rich woman, Vibullia Alcia Agrippina. Herodes, himself, called amicus by the emperor Hadrian, was consul under Antoninus Pius, and was the advisor of Marcus Aurelius, marrying a clanswoman of the Antonines, the heiress Appia Annia Regilla. Throughout his life he made a career of architectural philananthropy including the exedra mention in Peregrinus – the exedra of Olympia.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Olympia in the ancient world. It was of course a sanctuary of ancient Greece in Elis, most famous of course for being the site of the Olympic Games. In ancient times, Greek men from all corners of the Mediterranean made the pilgrimage to Olympia to pay tribute to Zeus, to forge friendships and alliances, and to enjoy or compete in poetry, music, and athletic events.  The Exedra of Herodes Atticus stood at the north limit of the Altis, close to the north-east angle of the of the Heraeum, and immediately west of the westernmost treasure-house (that of Sicyon). It consisted of a half-dome of brick, 54 ft. in diameter, with south-southwest aspect. Under the half-dome were placed twenty-one marble statues, representing the family of Antoninus Pius, of Marcus Aurelius, and of the founder, Herod Atticus. Herod used older statues and ordered new ones for his Exedra. Both sets of statues were skillfully juxtaposed in the elaborate architecture. In front of the half- dome on the south, and extending slightly beyond it, was a basin of water for drinking, 71 J ft. long. The ends of the basin at north- north-west and south-south-east were adorned by very small open temples, each with a circular colonnade of eight pillars. A marble bull, in front of the basin, bore an inscription saying that Herod dedicates the whole to Zeus, in the name of his wife, Annia Regilla.

An exedra properly means a niche containing stone seats. There are several of them at Delphi cut out in the solid rock. But the word was also, it seems, used to mean a sort of niche-like building erected to cover statues or groups and protect them from the weather. It was likely in such an exedra that the Venus of Melos was found. At all events, there can be no doubt that this was the purpose to which the exedra of Herodes was put. Connected with it was a cistern supplied by two pipes, and furnished water to the whole Altis. At the two ends of the cistern were small temple-like buildings, probably containing statues of Herodes and his wife, Regilla. No fewer than 14 statues and a cow presented by Regilla were found in this exedra.

In a line with the exedra, on a platform, stretching toward the Stadion, was a row of treasure houses belonging to different cities, many of them containing untold wealth, which the over-crowded temples could not contain. In front of these houses was the Metroon or temple of Kybele, Mother of the Gods, a small building, appropriately enough used in Pausanias' time as a museum for the statues of the Emperors who claimed to be gods. In a line with this temple was a row of 16 statues having quite a curious history. They were called Zanes and were bronze statues of Jupiter, made out of the coin collected as fines from those athletes who cheated at the games. Judging from the number of the statues, cheating must have been pretty common, in spite of the fact that every athlete was obliged to take an oath to act fairly. As the price of sin was accursed or devoted, the only thing that could be As the price of sin was accursed or devoted, the only thing that could he done with it was to make statues of it, to perpetuate the infamy of evil-doers.

This elaborate, thick-walled structure was a thanks-offering to the goddess Demeter after Rigilla had been chosen as honorary priestess of the Olympic Games of 153. It is difficult to say when this structure was constructed - i.e. whether it was done in preparation for this honor or after the fact. The bottom line however is that we can say that this object was built out of gratitude for the honour shown his wife. Herod Atticus. Philostratus similarly records that Herod was often berated by our stranger. Whatever we determine what the actual reason was for his anger it is quite significant in my mind that 'Herod' is not just an adversary of Lucian’s protagonist but also plays an important as a prominent role in Martyrium as Polycarp’s adversary. If the story of the Church Father is completely separate from that of 'Peregrinus' one how is that we have in each case the chief antagonist of each narrative with the name 'Herod'?

So when we read the concluding statement of Martyrium that Polycarp “was apprehended by Herod it should be obvious that 'Herod' is the furthest thing from an inconsequential character in this tradition. He can’t simply be dismissed or mistakenly identified as an invented reference to 'Herod' at the time of Jesus as many scholars like to pretend. It is imperative that we pay special attention to the arrest narrative when it is said that Polycarp “was met by Herod the eirenarchos … who took him into their carriage, and sitting beside him endeavored to persuade him, saying, `For what harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and sacrificing and saving your life?' He at first did not answer; but when they persisted, he said, `I am not going to do what you advise me.' And when they failed to persuade him, they uttered dreadful words, and thrust him down with violence, so that as he descended from the carriage he lacerated his shin. But without turning round, he went on his way promptly and rapidly, as if nothing had happened to him, and was taken to the stadium.”

It is very important to see that while Martyrium avoids explaining what the reason was for Polycarp’s arrest there is a pattern of conflict between the 'stranger' and a powerful figure named 'Herod' which extends through both traditions. For some reason it is one of those unfortunate mistakes which occurs during the process of translation that the term eirenarchos here is rendered as 'police chief' in many translations. With this we imagine the eirenarchos as a kind of 'blue collar' figure which couldn’t be further from the truth. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes “public prosecution under the empire began by arrest of the accused, who was taken before an eirenarcha, who examined him (by torture in the case of a slave or parricide) and sent him on for trial before the praeses of the diocese.” Herod Atticus certainly was an eirenarchos or had the authority of one. He was among the richest men in the world at that time and as Boeft and Bremmer note “the eirenarchos was usually a person from the highest classes.”

So at last we have made some headway. We have a motive for Herod’s involvement in the martyrdom. If the two traditions can be read together we have discovered a well documented hostility existing between the two which likely went back over a generation. Moreover we can be certain that Herod himself would certainly have still present at the Olympiad of 165 A.D. where the 'stranger' Polycarp must have died. Indeed his presence in the Martyrdom of Polycarp makes it absolutely certain that the original historical location of the death of Polycarp was Olympia, the reference to Smyrna being added later as a means of distancing the newly christened ‘Church Father’ from his true historical identity as the cynical gadfly of the richest man in the contemporary world - Herod Atticus.

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