Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Against Polycarp [Part Six]

It should be noted that we are not the first to connect the ‘Herod’ of Polycarp with Herod Atticus. Cardinal Baronius, Catholic ecclesiastical historian develops a similar theory only hoping to retain the Smyrnaean locale for the martyrdom. So he posits that Herod Atticus might have “governed in the free cities of Asia, and resided sometimes at Smyrna.” The parallels between Polycarp and Peregrinus make clear that the original location must have been Olympia. Indeed Polycarp’s reference to Statius Quadratus as ‘proconsul of Asia’ at this time has no support from any surviving historical witnesses, however there certainly seems to have been a ‘bishop Quadratus in Athens at this time, the closest see to Olympia.

Lucian goes out of his way to demonstrate that the stranger had an issue with authority figures. Not only did he berate the Emperor Antoninus and the leaders of the Christian community of Rome we have already noted that he may well have taken any sign of accommodation with Imperial power as weakness and hypocrisy. Not only does Lucian report that he railed against the emperor and encouraged the Greeks to take up arms against Roman rule but as Gleason notes he might have “read the dynastic symmetries of Herod’s monument as indication of too much complaisance with Roman political domination.” Moreover we see “in his diatribes Peregrinus associated the enterprise with the dangers posed to Hellenic manhood by Roman rule. He publicly attacked Herod for bringing water to Olympia, on the grounds that he was 'feminising the Hellenes.’ Real Greeks, evidently, ought to tough out their thirst. It seems that Peregrinus' model of how Greeks should comport themselves vis-`a-vis Rome was not happy marriage, but manly resistance.” It is worth noting that in Polycarp, the dialogue between the stranger and Herod is developed in a very similar manner with Herod asking Polycarp “what harm is it to say, `Lord Caesar,' and to offer sacrifice, and so forth, and to be saved?" But he at first did not answer them, but when they continued he said: "I am not going to do what you counsel me."

Indeed it is interesting to note that Herod figures indirectly in the sudden desire of our stranger to die a fiery martyrdom. Lucian writes that it was only after audiences grew tired of tirades against Herod and his exedra that a new grander ‘scheme’ was planned “at last, he was disregarded by all and no longer so admired; for all his stuff was stale and be could not turn out 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.” Thus in Peregrinus there is a clear effort to portray the stranger as being frustrated about his inability to get the crowd to turn on Herod. In Polycarp by contrast Herod is apparently actively involved in a plot to arrest him - “three days before his arrest, while he was praying, he saw in a vision at night the pillow under his head suddenly seized by fire and consumed; and upon this awakening he immediately interpreted the vision to those that were present, almost foretelling that which was about to happen, and declaring plainly to those that were with him that it would be necessary for him for Christ’s sake to die by fire.”

The reason we can dismiss Polycarp’s claims about an imminent arrest is because both traditions repeatedly affirm - whether called 'Polycarp' or 'Peregrinus' - the man in question wanted to die he doesn’t have to die. He wants above all else to ‘seize’ a fiery martyrdom for himself. In Polycarp we are repeatedly told that the stranger was repeatedly “constrained by the solicitude and love of the brethren to leave.” Indeed the claims about Polycarp resisting making sacrifices for Caesar are clearly a later addition as Christians were not compelled to make these sort of offerings in this age. Without this supposed ‘abomination’ which Polycarp was refusing to partake, there is no logical reason for his arrest and we are left with the exact same situation as in Peregrinus - Polycarp wants to die and does everything he can to secure a fiery martyrdom for himself.

Indeed Lucian comically represents his subject as so desiring to die that he portrays him as “playing the mountebank over that very thing, digging a pit, collecting logs, and promising really awesome fortitude.” All of these efforts of Peregrinus we are told were done “for the sake of his fellow men, that he may teach them to despise death and endure what is fearsome.” Thus we can begin to see a common martyrology in both accounts. Both reports have the stranger desire above all else to appear ‘Christ-like’ to his followers. He wants to die as a way of proving that he partakes of the divine essence of Jesus. To this end we read in Polycarp that after his followers celebrate the Eucharist and Polycarp leads them in prayer we are told that as the hour of his death approached his followers “put him upon an ass and brought him to the city.” Lucian references the strangers likening of himself to the mythical Phoenix - i.e. that he expected to reborn through his fiery death.

The bottom line however if we read both texts carefully is that ‘the stranger’ didn’t really have to die. He wanted to attain martyrdom. These seems to be at the core of both accounts and it is what probably defined the stranger’s historical legacy. It is for this reason that Lucian has his protagonist first kindle the fire and jump into the flames with out any real clear and present danger. In Polycarp the same figure refuses Herod’s efforts to spare his life and a voice from heaven congratulates Polycarp for his steadfastness. Indeed many layers are added to the original narrative but at bottom there is only ‘Polycarp’ and his quest to die.

So when the Jews are introduced as another stock device who demand the death of Polycarp but the Asiarch can’t “since he had closed the games.” Polycarp nevertheless ultimately steps forward and acknowledges that “it was necessary that the vision should be fulfilled which had been shown him concerning his pillow, when he saw it burning while he was praying, and turned and said prophetically to the faithful that were with him, ‘I must needs be burned alive.’” It is apparent that our fourth century text is still in touch with actual historical details when we see Lucian’s report also confirm the same basic framework - i.e. that the martyrdom of the 'stranger' occurred after the “games were closed.” So we read Lucian declare “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. Soon the Olympic games were ended [emphasis mine] … Peregrinus kept making postponements, but at last had announced a night on which he would stage his cremation.”

The parallels continue through the remaining text as Lightfoot has already noted before us when Polycarp tells us that “when the pile was ready, taking off all his upper garments, and loosing his girdle, he attempted also to remove his shoes, although he had never before done this, because of the effort which each of the faithful always made to touch his skin first; for he had been treated with all honor on account of his virtuous life even before his gray hairs came." There is an unmistakable idea here that ‘Polycarp’ was dressed in ‘stinky old clothes.’ Lucian preserves many of the same details noting that “as soon as we arrived, we found a pyre built in a pit about six feet deep. It was composed mostly of torchwood, and the interstices filled with brush, that it might take fire quickly ... Men, approaching from this side and that, kindled the fire into a very great flame, since it came from torchwood and brush. Peregrinus—and give me your close attention now !—laying aside the wallet, the cloak, and that notable Heracles-club, stood there in a shirt that was downright filthy.” The reference to the “wallet” of course is to emphasize the earlier report that the Church Father was a fraud. However notice the “stinky shirt” here compared with the admission in Polycarp that the Father of the Church never changed his clothes.

The point of course is that this disrobing before martyrdom isn’t a common feature in other narratives. It is something very unique which again makes clear that the two texts are describing one and the same historical event for very different purposes. There are countless other references which Lightfoot has already identified for us “the lighting of the fire with torches and faggots ( ) the divesting of garments ( ) the prayer on the funeral pyre ( ) the flame blazing up ( ) the comparison to a baking ( ) the anxiety of the company to secure relics ( ) are among the points of resemblance. It might even be though that the incident of Peregrinus’ sprinking incense on the fire ( ) was suggested by the statement of Polycarp's companions that a fragrance, as of incense, issued from the fire when the martyr's body was burnt ( ). Lastly as a dove as a dove is seen issuing from the body of Polycarp (§ 16), so in like manner Lucian deludes the gobemouches ( ) of the company witht he fiction that at Peregrinus' self-immolation a vulture rose from the flames and flew up to heaven.” [Greek text to follow]

It is difficult to imagine that any reasonable person would hold that there really were two separate Christian martyrs who claimed to be wandering ‘strangers’ throughout Greece and Asia Minor, made a visit to Rome in the middle of the second century, fought with almost every person they met along the way including a ‘Herod’ who plays a prominent role in their fulfilment of their personal obsession with dying in a massive bonfire - a martyrdom which takes place with identical details down to a bird being seen existing their body. Yet scholars don’t want to give up on their Polycarp. Even Lightfoot will only allow himself to compare Peregrinus and Polycarp only one way - by asking ‘did Lucian develop a satire of our familiar Martyrdom of Polycarp narrative?’ The idea that the linguistic similarities between the two texts might be owing to the latter being crafted as nothing short of‘damage control’ from the implications of the former text isn’t even considered!

Indeed it has to be admitted that most of the studies that developed these side by side comparisons took place over a century ago. In that age it would be unthinkable to even suggest that the Martyrdom of Polycarp might be developed in response to a more accurate pagan original. But let’s consider what the texts themselves say in order to determine which text was written first and is based on actual eye-witness testimony. As Robert van Voorst accurately notes, the Death of Peregrinus is based on what Lucian saw of the martyrdom with his own eyes with the text being “written shortly after 165.” With the Martyrdom of Polycarp however the manuscripts make explicit that it is a composite text originally written by someone who never witnessed the events in question. In the concluding words of all manuscripts there is an acknowledgment that “Gaius copied this from the writing of Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, and he lived with Irenaeus, and I, Socrates, wrote it out in Corinth, from the copies of Gaius” - in other words, there are at least three different stages of transmission for the core narrative.

Yet this isn’t the end to the story of the transmission of our Martyrdom of Polycarp. There is yet another subscription where we learn that there is yet another layer to our surviving text which adds ‘revelation’ to the mix:

And I, again, Pionius, wrote it out from the former writings, after searching for it, because the blessed Polycarp showed it me in a vision, as I will explain in what follows, and I gathered it together when it was almost worn out by age, that the Lord Jesus Christ may also gather me together with his elect into his heavenly kingdom, to whom be glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever, Amen.

So it has to be stressed once again that this reference to a third century revelation is in all our existing manuscripts. The only thing that an MS in Moscow adds to the mix is that Irenaeus, the alleged ‘original author’ of the whole tradition was in fact not there as an eyewitness to the events as Lucian was, he was “at the time of the martyrdom of the bishop Polycarp, was in Rome.” Indeed even this claim is suspect as Irenaeus is generally thought to have been prolific during the reign of Commodus which extends at the earliest possible estimate to a date around 175 CE - a full decade after the historical events we are discussing. And since Irenaeus didn’t himself witness any of the historical martyrdom what historical sources did he employ to make his lost original narrative? Certainly he could and likely did draw from contemporary Christian eyewitneses. But we must think, given the linguistic similarities demonstrated by Lightfoot, that Lucian’s original report was really at the heart of the Martyrdom of Polycarp.

To this end when we look at matters in this way and compare the two texts there can be no doubt which tradition is the more reliable. On the one hand there is an admittedly hostile narrative which is nevertheless a near contemporary eyewitness to the original events. On the other a text which is by its own admission a third century ‘revelation’ loosely based on a copy of a copy of a text written by Irenaeus, a highly controversial figure who never himself saw any of the events related to the original martyrdom. It is only habit and the misinformation fed to our ancestors which makes it seem as if Polycarp’s death ‘belongs’ in Smyrna. The real story as we will demonstrate shortly is that Irenaeus’s efforts to reshape the original stranger’s legacy didn’t end with the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Indeed one could make a very convincing case that our entire inherited picture of early Christian was filtered through Irenaeus’s distorting lens.

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