Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Against Polycarp [Part Seven]

Our purpose in highlighting the inherent superiority of Lucian’s testimony was not to ridicule the Christian faith but rather to draw attention to the utter superficiality of all previous attempts to explain the origins of Christianity.  Scholars have had little interest over the last few centuries to upset the inherited 'apple cart.'  Above all else they have wanted to keep a ‘neat room’ and accept primary sources at face value in order to develop an easy to understand model for the development of the Church. To this end, ‘Polycarp’ is held up as the lynch pin connecting the apostolic age and later eyewitnesses like Irenaeus of Rome and everyone seems to be happy with that.  It allows them to perpetuate what seems on the surface at least to be a 'substantive history' drawn from a number of 'different sources.'

It has always been the desire of these men to have us take the texts 'as they are' - in other words, use the Martyrdom of Polycarp and related material to guide us through the ancient labyrinth which is the history of the Church.  As we just noted this state of affairs allows for it to seem at least as if there is a real 'historical cow' being reverenced in the classrooms which purport to 'study' and examine the history of the Church.  Of course, as we have already noted this suggestion that 'true history' is discernible in the pages of the Martyrdom of Polycarp is utterly absurd.  As we noted, the manuscripts themselves tell us they were developed in the third century as a kind of 'divine revelation.'  Indeed anyone who pretends that the Martyrdom of Polycarp is a reliable historical document either hasn't scrutinized with the original texts say or has a belief system which won't let him do so.

If of course none of us should ridicule people for holding private beliefs.  If there are people somewhere who want to believe in Santa Claus or the idea that aliens made contact with human beings at Roswell we should as courteous neighbors do our best to avoid shaming them to their face.  Nevertheless as the entire official reconstruction of the history of the Church is to a large extent based on the acceptance of the historical 'facts' surrounding Polycarp, his relation to the apostles and the circumstances of his martyrdom, those of us who want to get at the real truth of Christian origins have a duty to dispel these myths.

To this end it might be instructive to work backwards from our examination of the chain of transmission we developed for our existing texts of the Martyrdom of Polycarp and focus on the person of Pionius - the individual who had the 'revelation' which established the final form of the narrative as we have it now.  When we look closely at Pionius's relationship with the existing document we will see that many details of his own martyrdom have been injected into the earliest manuscripts of the Martyrdom of Polycarp. This situation will, among other things, demonstrate an underlying principle that rarely gets enough attention in the study of early Christianity - namely that those individuals 'preserving' ancient texts in the late second and early third centuries were actively reshaping that same material.

In any event, let's get to the details at hand.  Pionius lived in Smyrna, the place that all of us associate with Polycarp. What apparently separates the two martyrdom narratives is time - Polycarp died around 165 CE and Pionius 250 CE. The details of Pionius’s martyrdom not only bear striking resemblance to the narrative of Polycarp but Eusebius the great church historian demonstrates that his copy of the Martyrdom of Polycarp injects characters from the narrative associated with Pionius's death to that of Polycarp. Indeed it is difficult to describe how bizarre the relationship between the Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Martyrdom of Pionius really is. It is as if the earlier narrative dealing with Polycarp has been filtered through the more recent experience with Pionius at Smyrna.

To this end we see the stage set for Pionius’s martyrdom in the very opening lines of the narrative where it is said that “on the second day of the sixth month, on the occasion of a great Sabbath, and on the anniversary of the blessed martyr Polycarp, while the persecution of Decius was still on, there were arrested the presbyter Pionius.” What is so interesting about this of course is that there are just too many parallels here for anyone to take any of this seriously. Not only do we see presented an amazing coincidence established by ‘divine arrangement’ - i.e. that a devotee of our stranger just happened to be in the same city, on the same day (the anniversary of Polycarp’s death), during a very similar persecution (‘games’ where Christians are being fed to wild beasts owing to their refusal to carry out sacrifices) - but as we already saw in our last chapter, this individual had a hand in arranging the final edition of our Martyrdom of Polycarp ‘according’ to a divine revelation.

Indeed there is now something inherently puzzling about Pionius’s relationship with the narrative of the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Did Pionius always take an interest in the life of Polycarp and then ‘by coincidence’ end up getting martyred on the same day as his spiritual master? Of course it is our natural tendency to think this way because we try an reconstruct ancient personalities around some basic assumptions about the basic nature writers and literary compositions as we know them. In our day and age an author generally goes about assembling information about a subject and then tries to make sense of it all by marshaling the ‘facts’ into some sort of coherent narrative developed around ‘cause’ and ‘effect.’ We generally assume that the writer is also removed from the thing he is writing about, a kind of dispassionate observer.

The reality here however is that Pionius is clearly very much involved in the ‘eternal cycle’ of the remembering the martyrdom of Polycarp. Not only is he arrested on the Polycarp’s feast day but the manuscripts of the Martyrdom of Polycarp are said to have been developed by Pionius as from a ‘divine relevation’ presumably also related to its annual observance. Yet could Pionius have written the narrative of Polycarp’s death at the time of his arrest on ‘the day of Polycarp’? Is this how the two narratives ultimately merged together? Clearly this is the implications of the opening lines of the Martyrdom of Pionius where the narrative itself is said to have been written by the almost dead Pionius - viz. “when he was finally called to the Lord and bore witness, he left us this writing for our instruction that we might have it even to this day as a memorial of his teaching.” In other words, like a latter day Moses Pionius wrote about the details of his own death just before finally ‘giving up the ghost.’

Of course it sounds utterly absurd to us to imagine a third century figure bringing his own death into personal contact with that of a man he so admired - literally recreating ‘Polycarp’ after his own image - but the conclusions are inescapable given the bald statement in the existing manuscripts. When we heard that Pionius wrote the Martyrdom of Polycarp ‘by revelation’ we naturally assumed that there was this ‘real event’ in the past which Pionius was attempting to uncover more information to supplement that original report by Irenaeus through a ‘communion with the Holy Spirit.’ Now we learn from the text of his own Martyrdom which he wrote while still alive that in fact he was as much looking forward as looking back.

The very next line in the Martyrdom of Pionius tells us quite explicitly that our third century martyr knew exactly the type of martyrdom he was about to face in the days leading up to his arrest “Pionius knew on the day before Polycarp' anniversary that they were all to be siezed on that day. Being together with Sabina and Asclepiades and fasting, as he realized that they were to be taken on the following day, he took three sets of woven chains and placed them around his own neck and the necks of Sabina and Asclepiades and thus entertained them in his house.” This is absolutely critical for our understanding of the parallels in both traditions. Pionius, in a manner very reminiscent of Lucian’s stranger has arranged ahead of time to establish his ‘martyrdom by fire’ on a particular day. He sits in the house literally in chains awaiting for his arrest. Yet all of this artificiality casts a pall over the parallels which exist between the two narratives he has laid down - i.e. the his own martyrdom and that of Polycarp. Are the parallels here part of a ‘divinely arranged’ imitation or has Pionius himself recast ‘Polycarp’ in his own image?

When the two texts are examined side by side there can be absolutely no doubt that the differences we noted between Polycarp and Peregrinus have almost all come about through Pionius’s remodelling of the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Let me give the reader some instructive examples. Pionius begins by saying that the anniversary of Polycarp’s death in 250 CE was a ‘great Sabbath’ just like Polycarp’s death occurs in the Martyrdom on a ‘great Sabbath.’ We noted earlier that Polycarp’s claim that Christians were forced to swear by Caesar and make idolatrous sacrifices in the second century is a detail incorporated from the persecutions of the third century. Not surprisingly Pionius ‘already knows’ that he and his companions will be ‘dragged to offer sacrifices and taste forbidden foods’ before they are arrested which means that he had more than enough time to incorporate these details not only in his own martyrdom narrative but that of ‘the original template’ - viz. the Martyrdom of Polycarp.

There are many other parallels which show that Pionius deliberately established our narrative of Polycarp’s death as a ‘forerunner’ to his own end. He foretells of an encounter with Polemon, the high priest where the dialogue is suspiciously reminiscent of Polycarp’s discussion with Herod in the other text. But leaping out off the page is the parallel understanding that ‘the Jews’ were the real instigators of the punishment of the Christian. So in the Martyrdom of Polycarp we read that Polycarp was led “into the city, on a great Sabbath day" and once in the stadium “the multitude of heathen and Jews living in Smyrna cried out with uncontrollable wrath and a loud shout: 'This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our Gods, who teaches many neither to offer sacrifice nor to worship.'"  The Martyrdom of Pionius similarly reports that there were a great number of Jews in the stadium as “they were on holiday because it was a great Sabbath” and Pionius makes a long speech directed to “those among this audience who are Jews, listen while I make my brief outline. I understand that you laughed and rejoiced at those who deserted as a joke the error of those who voluntarily offered sacrifices.”  His speech goes on for several pages questioning why the Jews continue to persecute the Church when the community is blameless.

The point is that the anti-Semitism inherent in both texts must be attributed to Pionius. Pionius envisions world history as an endless unfolding of a ‘plot’ of Jewish conspiracy against the Church, the true Israel of God There is absolutely no reason to believe that Irenaeus shared these sentiments nor that they were ever present in the original manuscript of Polycarp’s martyrdom. Of course this only confirms our suspicion that the other historical details of the Martyrdom of Polycarp which were conflict with Lucian’s original account were also likely injected into the narrative in the third century. Yet even this acknowledgement doesn’t entirely solve the mystery of the development of the Martyrdoms of Polycarp and Pionius as Eusebius and other historical chroniclers report the existence of curious hibred texts which completely blur the distinction between Pionius and Polycarp.

Indeed it is worth noting that Eusebius recounts the martyrdom of Polycarp and Pionius side by side at the end of the chapter on the persecutions at the beginning of the rule of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus in his Church History. We read at the end of his account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp the words:

Of such an end was the admirable and apostolic Polycarp deemed worthy, as recorded by the brethren of the church of Smyrna in their epistle which we have mentioned. In the same volume concerning him are subjoined also other martyrdoms which took place in the same city, Smyrna, about the same period of time with Polycarp's martyrdom. Among them also Metrodorus, who appears to have been a proselyte of the Marcionitic sect, suffered death by fire. A celebrated martyr of those times was a certain man named Pionius. [Church History 4.15]

Eusebius goes on to encourage his readers to pick up a copy of a book called ‘the Martyrdom of the Ancients’ which depicts Pionius’s “several confessions, and the boldness of his speech, and his apologies in behalf of the faith before the people and the rulers ... and besides these the sufferings and the nailings, and his firmness on the pile, and his death after all the extraordinary trials.”

It is difficult to pin point where Eusebius went wrong to suppose that Pionius and Polycarp died at the beginning of the reign of the two Emperors unless it be the idea that Pionius was the ultimate author of an original text which served as the source for the information about both martyrdoms. This is perhaps why Pionius is listed just after Polycarp in Eusebius’s account. It is worth noting that Eusebius never specifically references a book called ‘the Martyrdom of Polycarp’ but rather a 'Smyrnaean encyclical' which purports to be “an account of what happened to those that suffered martyrdom and to the blessed Polycarp, who put an end to the persecution, having, as it were, sealed it by his martyrdom.” Indeed when we hear Eusebius say that Metrodius appeared in the same Smyrnaean encyclical and then adds that Pionius was also a prominent Catholic at that time it seems to anticipate the conclusion of the Martyrdom of Pionius where Pionius and Metrodorius the bishop of the Marcionites dying together in the same pyre - ‘one one the left, the other on the right facing the east.’

The historical reality was that Pionius did indeed die during the persecutions of the third century. This cannot be disputed by anyone today. Nevertheless we should be equally sure that Pionius developed a ‘revelatory text’ which connected his impending death on a ‘great Sabbath’ at the instigation of the Jews with Polycarp’s death almost a century earlier. We can be certain of this because this same text and its development of a close relationship between Polycarp and Pionius led Eusebius to identify Pionius as a contemporary of Polycarp but also fooled the fifth century chronicler Socrates into thinking that Polycarp was a contemporary of Pionius. For Socrates writers “also that Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who afterwards suffered martyrdom under [Emperor] Gordian.” There were three Emperors named Gordian, all ruled in the decade before Decius.

So it is that we can be absolutely certain that there was original one compendium of ‘martyrs of Smyrna’ which stretched from the time of Polycarp to Pionius, written by ‘revelation’ which attributed details pertaining to the latter figure to the former. This is undoubtedly how we arrive at our particular understanding of the person of ‘Polycarp.’ There is interestingly then is it that we learn that there is another tradition entirely associated with the martyrdom of Polycarp preserved in fragments from a manuscript written in a dialect of Coptic which presents a very different story from what we have read here. We shall propose that these so-called ‘Harris Fragments’ of the Martyrdom of Polycarp are much closer to the original of Irenaeus and help purify many of the later ‘re-interpretations’ which Pionius imposed on the text.

For the moment it is enough for us to recognize however that Pionius’s reworking of an original Irenaean text was hardly an isolated example in Christian antiquity. As we shall demonstrate in our next section, there was a constant reworking of original texts from the late second century. This was principally because the stranger had himself introduced a dangerous new conception into Christianity - the idea that the Christians could reinterpret historical literary traditions ‘according to the Holy Spirit.’ This idea is first referenced in Lucian’s narrative when he says that the stranger “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.”

The Church Fathers of the late second and third centuries always accuse the heretics of being actively involved in such activities. Yet as we have seen and will continue to demonstrate - the Catholics can easily be demonstrated to have engaged in very similar activities throughout the third century especially with regards to the literature of Christians from the previous century. Original texts are openly acknowledged to have been written and rewritten until ‘objectionable’ passages were finally removed and the material as a whole was made to approximate ‘orthodoxy.’

What we will ultimately suggest here is that this activity began with the stranger and continued through every subsequent generation until finally in the fourth century the ‘habit’ was discontinued. At that time, a firm history of the Church was established and with it a framework for understanding and interpreting the historical documents associated with earliest Christianity. Up until that point however, as we shall, the earliest Catholic authorities could take great liberties reshaping the history of their tradition. One can even make the case that in the same way that the story of Polycarp was reshaped by the experience of Pionius, Irenaeus originally used Polycarp as a filter to recast the entire history of the Church before him. Indeed the Harris Fragments make that absolutely explicit.

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