Saturday, September 18, 2010

Against Polycarp [Part Nine]

There is an interesting story in the Harris Fragments of the Martyrdom of Polycarp that is worth citing here. The original author was apparently uncomfortable with our stranger's bizarre obsession with death. As it turns out having a para-suicidal egomaniac as the founder of your tradition wasn't so good for public relations so a new story was developed presenting our man in a better light. The Harris Fragments make Polycarp declare to the world that he had to die the violent death of the martyr in the place of his apostolic teacher, John. Devotion is always presented as a good thing in religion. After all, constancy and dedication are what the Church ultimately demands from its members. The story of Polycarp, thus becomes recast as a lesson in devotion and everyone apparently walks away satisfied.

The reality is of course that Polycarp is always presented as a zealous disciple of John the beloved disciple. Irenaeus promotes the idea every chance he gets. But it is interesting when we go back to what Irenaeus actually says it is amazing to see how ambiguous the references to Polycarp's 'devotion' really are. He says at one point that "Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop." As Lightfoot notes this clearly means not only John but also Ignatius who is inevitably referenced as 'apostolic' in the literature.

Yet this is now the second time that we have seen Irenaeus be very cryptic in his allusions to 'Ignatius' as a separate figure from Polycarp. The relationship with John is explicitly referenced in another section which is why it is so memorable. Irenaeus by contrast avoids making any specific statement about Ignatius anywhere in his writings. At best he is a 'guy who said some things that were written down by someone else.' Robert Joly of the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Université de Mons has done a great deal of work on this subject and his writing is an essential read for anyone trying to make sense of the inherent problems with the Ignatian canon.

According to Professor Joly the letters of Ignatius were composed by a forger writing at Smyrna soon after the death of Polycarp and the composition of the account of Polycarp's martyrdom. He assigns both writings to the seventh decade of the second century. Ignatius the bishop of Antioch did not exist. The forged collection of letters was already available to Irenaeus and Origen, who, however, show their embarrassment concerning the authorship by the evasive way in which they refer to them. Joly argues that if the Ignatius of whom the seven letters give evidence had really existed, details of his fate and of his correspondence ought to have been described in the writings of Irenaeus.

Yet we have approached matters from a slightly different point of view. The question of whether Ignatius or Polycarp existed has already been for the most part settled - they each represent 'pieces' of the original historical stranger first reported in Lucian's narrative. Irenaeus draws our attention to Polycarp, the man who was devoted to 'apostles' because he is paradigmatic of the Christian life being promoted in the churches. Instead of acknowledging the madman ridiculed in the pages of Lucian's account,. Polycarp is now recast as steadfastly uncompromising in his devotion to apostolic teaching.

So it was that our radical stranger figure became transformed into the conservative 'Polycarp' now only zealously testifying to things had "always been observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant." There was a certain genius in Irenaeus's plan but at the same time there was one obvious problem - one which could not have easily been overlooked by contemporary believers. Polycarp's apostle John did not have a feast day in the established canon of saints. A feast day wasn't something that Irenaeus could invent out of thin air. Indeed this would have raised additional problems especially in Rome since a certain presbyter Gaius who was actively disputing the whole Johannine corpus.

The author of the Harris Fragments of the Martyrdom of Polycarp was certainly a cagey thinker. He would turn his lemons into lemonade and essentially admit that John wasn't a 'full saint' because he failed to live up to the Church's martyr ideal. This, he explained, was why our stranger appeared so hell bent on securing worthy death - for he wasn't just martyring himself in his own name, but rather he was also doing it in the name of St. John!

Indeed whoever came up with this innovation certainly had a wonderfully creative imagination. The underlying purpose of the narrative is to change the identity of our original charismatic visionary. It wasn't merely to 'answer objections' but to also seize the momentum and pretend that 'Polycarp' was a member of a greater tradition which certainly did not exist. To this end the development of 'Ignatius' is a direct extension of the 'John' tradition. Ignatius was eventually identified as a successor to Peter but this was not clearly the original understanding. There are many witnesses to the fact that Ignatius was originally counted as a disciple of John. The murkiness of the Petrine claim in Antioch is demonstrated by the curious lack of information about the man who supposed ruled the See between Peter and Ignatius.

The implausibility of the official apostolic line of succession Antioch is no different than what we find in any other see. It represents little more than an attempt many years later of establishing a continuous Catholic presence in every major city in the Empire from the time of Jesus. Indeed, the situation in Antioch demonstrates that the Catholic tradition wasn’t even interested in developing a biography for his supposed ‘fellow worker’ Ignatius much beyond his death. Ignatius eventually became little more than a disciple of John who by the end of his life he was taken to the Rome and executed by orders of Caesar.

Yet the original core of 'Ignatius' identity is Lucian's identification of the stranger as the 'president' (prostrates) of the Christian community. Irenaeus wanted to have his tradition founded on firm footing. The idea that the Catholic tradition was attributable to the claims of some wandering street was likely too much to bear. Thus, in the same way as the Harris Fragments have Polycarp so devoted to his master John he decides to ultimately die on his behalf, the Ignatian canon continues to present a humble picture of the Church Father making it seem that Polycarp continued to serve Ignatius until the day he died. Indeed Polycarp is given almost no personality to speak of he is just a spokesman for the shared apostolic tradition of John and Ignatius.

In order to under the purpose of the invention of 'Ignatius' we have to go back to the beginnings of our basic paradigm. In the beginning of the Catholic universe there was just the stranger who came to Rome making manifest to the world the secrets of earliest Christianity. There must have been some pre-existing association with a disciple named John as so this element was retained and ultimately 'localized' at Ephesus. But there is still no hint of a greater Church, just a stranger wandering the earth with the freedom of a peregrinus. The development of the 'Ignatius' personna in this invented pantheon of early Church Fathers ultimately subordinates the martyr who dies by the flames in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He becomes a doppelgänger projected into the intermediary past between the apostolic age and the advent of our stranger which argues that there was a Catholic tradition in every period since Resurrection.

So it is that the whole history of the Catholic Church appears much like a movie set. It only seems to have reality when you look at through the eye of a camera. When you actual go beyond the facade you realize how everything was only made for appearances sake. Yet can we say that the letters of Ignatius built as they are around an expectation of imminent execution upon his arrival in Rome were invented out of thin air? We should suspect that there was some there was some original authentic core to the material which came from our para-suicidal stranger if only because the strange obsession with an 'imminent' death it at the heart of the collection of letters.

Indeed one may even put forward the possibility that the literature developed in relation to his arrival in Rome c. 153 CE. It is difficult to believe that suddenly 'out of the blue' our stranger decided that it was time to die at the fourth Olympiad. Far more likely is the idea that the 'I am going to die' announcement was a dramatic feature of his presence wherever he went including his visit to Rome.

At once we see the pathology that Lucian found so amusing and Irenaeus desperately wanted to bury.

Irenaeus would certainly have had access to the stranger's original correspondences especially if they were directed at the Roman Church. If there is some truth to our assumption that he was a drama queen, the 'Leave me to become the prey of the beasts, that by their means I may be accounted worthy of God ... provoke ye greatly the wild beasts, that they may be for me a grave' statements in the epistles don't necessarily have to be thought to be connected to an actual clear and present danger. The stranger likely just wanted to attract a crowd around himself, or in the words of Lucian 'You can imagine, I expect, how I laughed; for it was not fitting to pity a man so desperately in love with glory beyond all others who are driven by the same Fury. Anyhow, he was being escorted by crowds and getting his fill of glory as lie gazed at the number of his admirers, not knowing, poor wretch, that men on their way to the cross or in the grip of the executioner have many more at their heels.'

All that Irenaeus did was likely take one of the stranger's attempts to attract a crowd around him - in this case during his visit to Rome - and develop a literary tradition which makes it seem as if 'another guy' actually made good on the promise. Indeed the various letters of Ignatius makes it seems as if Polycarp was instructed not only to write out his letters while he was alive but send out the same epistles once he had died. This clever trick has caused even the best scholars to second guess the obvious parallels between Lucian's account of the death of Peregrinus and the Ignatian canon.

There is a simple way to demonstrate that the original pairing of Polycarp and Ignatius was invented. It just takes the readership to become aware of the shape of the surviving Ignatian canon of letters. There has been a long-standing consensus among the students of patristics as to the definition of genuine and spurious in the letters attributed to Ignatius. It is generally agreed that the genuine Ignatius is represented by seven. Greek letters of the middle recension, so-called to distinguish this type of text from a shorter Syriac form, as well as from the longer recension which contains these seven letters interpolated and enlarged, plus the six additional and spurious letters, now assigned to pseudo-Ignatius.

I have never understood the reason for dismissing the three shorter Syriac texts of Ignatius as 'abridgments' of the middle recension. I don't think there is an argument other than the fact that the texts aren't cited by the Church Fathers of the early period. But for the moment at least let's at least acknowledge that there are these three different recensions of the collection of Ignatian letters - i.e. 'short,' 'middle' and 'long.' I will posit that there was an original correspondence very close in form to the 'short' recension which came from the hand of our stranger. The 'short' recension represents a first attempt to 'add' a few details about a worldwide Church and use the material for propaganda purposes - i.e. 'we are the church of this Peregrinus fellow.'

As Lightfoot has already noted, it is only with the middle expansion that we see an imitation of the language of the Lucian report about the appointment of 'death-couriers' and the like. There are also references to bishops, Catholic dogma, plenty of citations from the New and Old Testaments. The text is utterly implausible attempts to use Ignatius as a mouthpiece for late second century orthodoxy. The 'long' recension take this expansion process to the extreme adding the names of specific gospels, heretical groups and other interests specifically traceable to our Irenaeus of Rome.

Jack Hannah in his most interesting article The Setting of the Ignatian Long Recension has pointed out something which has utterly escaped the attention of previous studies of the material. As corrupt and implausible as this 'long' recension is, it is the recension that is cited by Irenaeus in his Against Heresies. In other words, the dilemma scholarship finds itself in is that the 'long' recension may well be a fake but it is Irenaeus's fake.

Patristic scholarship isn't supposed to be about 'proving the truth' about Irenaeus's Church. Irenaeus gets caught citing from a textual tradition that is without a doubt a fake and scholars literally close their minds and look somewhere else. Why so? It is that 'keeping a tidy house' principle we spoke about earlier. No one wants to dismantle Camelot when there is nothing better to replace it.

The unmistakable proof that Irenaeus is involved in the production of fake manuscripts associated with Ignatius is that he cites from the 'long' version of the Epistle to the Romans. The reality is that there must have been a number of rapid transformations of the original material, all likely occuring within a generation of the original falsification of the letter. Indeed once we acknowledge that Irenaeus must be responsible for the extra material which separates the long recension from the middle recension, the finger must be pointed at him also for all expansions of the original material.

The upshot of this pattern of augmentation with respect to the Ignatian material in the very earliest period should suggest that it was Irenaeus who initially introduced the letters associated with our 'fiery one.' He did so as a means of capitalizing on the widespread interest in his recent martyrdom. Irenaeus took an authentic correspondance written before the stranger's visit to Rome in 153 CE and made only a slight addition to establish what is now called the short recension of the Ignatian letters. The principal addition here was - as we have already noted - to introduce the idea that the 'fiery one' was not some renegade prophet but a devoted member of a 'universal' worldwide Church.

As such the Syriac letters are the most original surviving recension and stand only one step removed from the original address given by the stranger in person to the Romans in 153 CE.  This is the most natural way to interpret three different recensions of the same text of varying lengths.  The effort to distinguish the Catholic Church as the denomination of the 'fiery' stranger eventually proved wildly successful.  'Polycarp' eventually became transformed out of the texts as a figure attached to Ignatius, a man who acted as his loyal secretary but ultimately died a wholly separate death.

The middle recension - the collection of letters preferred by most scholars - makes this distinction between 'Polycarp' and 'Ignatius' absolutely manifest.  Polycarp is acknowledged as Ignatius secretary, writing and sending the letters in the concluding words of most of these letters.  In other words, Polycarp plays the part of the 'death-messenger' and 'infernal courier' referenced in Lucian's satire. The seven letters vouched for by Eusebius consist of four written from Smyrna and three written from Troas. Those from Smyrna are addressed to three nearby churches which had sent delegations to greet Ignatius at Smyrna (Ephesus, Magnesia and Tralles. and to the church at Rome. Troas Ignatius writes to two churches he had passed through, Philadelphia and Smyrna, and also to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna.

Our middle recension collection of Ignatian letters contains four letters written from Smyrna, two written to Smyrna, and one written to a nearby church (Philadelphia). The collection as noted seems to want to put Polycarp very much in the front and center with an arrangement which starts with the two letters written to Smyrna (Smyrnaeans and Polycarp) and then with three letters written from Smyrna (Ephesians, Magnesians, and Trallians) and continues with Philadelphians and lastly Romans.

The most amazing thing occurs however when we step back and return to the shorter recension which we and handful of scholars throughout the ages argue is the more original. The same basic structure is retained. If you open up any book on the Syriac texts they will tell you that a shorter 'Letter to Polycarp' begins the collection followed by a shorter 'to the Ephesians' and lastly a shorter 'the Letter to the Romans.' Yet there is a great revelation in reading the fine print in the footnotes of these books; a discovery which will prove the fictitious nature of Polycarp.

For the reader will discover there that the third letter is never called 'to the Romans' but either 'the Third Epistle' or 'the Third Epistle of the Same St. Ignatius.' Yet far more significant is the fact that the first epistle the name Polycarp isn't actually used in the inscription. The name appears in the title merely because we are so used to the expanded 'middle recension.' There are three Syriac mss - the first, "The Epistle of my lord Ignatius, the bishop" in the second, "The Epistle of Ignatius;" and in the third, "The Epistle of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch." The name 'Polycarp' only is added in the subscription likely by a later hand and the name appears nowhere in the main body of the letter.

In short, in its very earliest stages of transmission the three letters are only acknowledged to have come from the hand of a certain 'fiery one.' His first epistle does not specify the name of the addressee. The collection does not confirm that the 'fiery one' actually died in Rome. There is a marvelous ambiguity here which could mean that the letter was directed to anyone who might have been a close associate of the prostates - anyone ranging from Theagenes, Florinus or even Irenaeus. We need not suppose that the coupling of Ignatius and Polycarp had already begun in this early tradition.

All of this might also go a long way to explain why Irenaeus is so reluctant to actually name who was the original author of the material and who was its secretary. Indeed Eusebius seems also to have intrigued by this pattern that runs throughout the writings of Irenaeus as a whole - "and he (Irenaeus) mentions again what a certain Presbyter recorded who had received from the Apostles, but whose name he has not handed down to us, and he introduces also explanations of the divine Scriptures by the same." [Eusebius Church History 5.8]

Indeed, as amazing as it sounds, this one very short collection of letters seems to be able to do what scholarship has even thought of attempting - viz. casting doubt on the idea that there ever was a historical Polycarp ...

Previous Post - Next Post 

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.