Saturday, September 18, 2010

Against Polycarp [Part Ten]

We have stumbled across a most amzing find - an uncharted world hiding within the existing texts of the earliest Church Fathers - which might reveal a more accurate understanding of how Christianity developed in the second century.  In due course we will attempt to follow in the footsteps of our stranger as he travels from Alexandria to Rome in 153 CE.  Yet for the moment we have still a great deal more work to do scrutinizing our existing sources and in particular the Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians.

But before we go any further there is something that we should say something about where the evidence is pointing us.  There can now be doubt whatsoever that Irenaeus purposed the common texts of the 'middle' and 'long' recensions of Ignatius corpus.  It was done as part of a plan to demonstrate the existence of a great many eyewitnesses living in every age who testify to the continuation of the Catholic Church.  Most scholars have for generations simply assumed that the message which comes to us from these witnesses - Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp - is unfiltered.  Irenaeus is simply 'passing along' a collection of texts that were passed on to him in the very manner he received them.  It is impossible for us to continue to engage in this faux naïveté any longer.

Life experience should teach us differently. It is difficult to see Irenaeus as an altruistic figure. He is after all, by his own admission 'at war' with other disciples of the same 'Polycarp'. The fact that scholars have noticed anomalies in the texts associated with Irenaeus's master should have sent up red flags a long time ago and questions should have been raised about Irenaeus's reliability as a historical witness. Of course it is only because Patristic scholarship began with a belief in the sacredness of the very texts it was studying - a belief which continues in many places to this day - there is little interest in treating the texts as ancient forgeries or better yet corrupted versions of lost original material.

At every turn, Irenaeus is supposd to have acted in 'good faith' when we sets up the framework for a massive witch hunt singling out those contemporary teachers who share the same tradition as his rival Florinus. Who is Florinus of Rome?  Florinus happens to be the strongest reason to doubt that Irenaeus hands us an accurate picture of the teachings associated with the stranger. For even Irenaeus has to admit that Florinus 'distinguished' himself in the company of 'Polycarp.' Florinus spent a great deal of time in the company of their common master whereas Irenaeus can only cite a possibly apocryphal experience when he was a child.

Florinus is identified as a member of a condemned sect - the Valentinians. Indeed we should state this more accurately - Florinus is a member of a sect that Irenaeus condemned. Yet it is palpably obvious that Florinus was claiming that he was nothing other than perpetuating the original teachings of Polycarp. Irenaeus can only refute that original claim by positing that claim about the existence of a worldwide Church which we have already demonstrated only emerges from the later expansion of original texts - "these opinions [you put forward], Florinus, that I may speak in mild terms, are not of sound doctrine; these opinions are not consonant to the Church, and involve their votaries in the utmost impiety; these opinions, even the heretics beyond the Church's pale have never ventured to broach; these opinions, those presbyters who preceded us, and who were conversant with the apostles, did not hand down to you."

Yet why should we believe Irenaeus when he is already connected with the production of false texts, false traditions and false personalities? The benefit of the doubt is inevitably extended by scholars to the material he brings forward to support his implausible claim about 'Polycarp' because it is tidy. It takes a great deal of messy work going through and scrutinizing the texts associated with this falsification effort. Yet what we have managed to demonstrate from the Ignatian corpus is no mean achievement - the earliest literary references associated with the 'fiery one' do not couple him with a person named 'Polycarp.' Even Irenaeus can't bring himself to utter this claim in public. Florinus would have called him out on this obvious lie.

Indeed when we go back to the original material we just examined the most likely historical scenario was that the common master of Florinus and Irenaeus was the stranger at the heart of Lucian's Peregrinus 'divided' as it were into 'Polycarp' and 'Ignatius' in the later Patristic literature. Florinus the Valentinian would undoubtedly have been very comfortable accepting Polycarp as a kind of gnostic mystic. He would have had no qualms at all accepting the historical reality reported in Lucian's pages that the basis to the entire Catholic tradition was a 'heavenly revelation.' It was Irenaeus who had the problem with the truth. It wasn't 'respectable enough' to withstand the contemporary assaults of pagan critics like Celsus and likely many snide remarks at the Imperial court.

So it is that it is that the development of Ignatius and Polycarp as separate historical figures only occurred later in the literary tradition. The actual historical situation was that Irenaeus's Polycarp, the martyr who died by flames, and 'Ignatius' the 'fiery one' were one and the same person. Indeed the literary evidence clearly suggests that the familiar Catholic paradigm developed as a reaction to the hostile original report of Lucian.

It is important for us to get out from under the constraint of relying solely on the familiar testimony of Irenaeus. Irenaeus had a clear agenda. This doesn't in itself justify dismissing his claims but rather his testimony should always been placed in a greater context. Lucian and Florinus seem to recall a different person and our three short Ignatian epistles seem to support their portrait. Our stranger clearly understood himself to be possessed of divine knowledge - he was a gnostikos in the truest sense. And can we really say that Irenaeus disputes this understanding? His great treatise against 'false knowledge' and 'false gnostics' necessarily infers that someone - presumably 'Polycarp' was in possession of true knowledge. Would Irenaeus have identified his master as the 'true gnostic.' The idea sounds strange to our ears but it is indeed very possible if not likely.

The other historical reality, the only reality that really matters to people, is that Irenaeus did eventually managed to get the world to believe in his 'great Church.' He did so undoubtedly by riding on 'the coattails' as it were of the wildly popular stranger. While the letters were initially quite necessary to help establish the identification of Irenaeus's tradition as the great church of the 'fiery one' he seemed to have been careful in subsequent rewriting efforts to expand the number of witnesses. It was in due course a faith in a tradition rather than a mere faith in John, 'Irenaeus' or 'Polycarp.'

So it is that when think in term of Irenaeus's expansion of the original Ignatian correspondances we should propose the following timeline:

c. 153 CE the lost original correspondances with the Roman Church
165 CE the fiery martytrdom of the stranger at Olympia
166 - 167 CE. Irenaeus's discovery and distribution of the stranger's Roman epistles as part of an initial evangelicalizing effort for the so-called 'great Church'
170 CE the publication of Lucian's the Death of Peregrinus which makes reference to Irenaeus's marketing campaign
c. 174 CE Irenaeus's development of the middle recension and its allusion's to Lucian's 'death-couriers'
c. 180 CE Irenaeus's development of the 'long recension' alongside the introduction of the so-called 'final edition' of the New Testament

Witnessed from the most objective historical perspective Irenaeus's 'war against the gnostics' developed in the  pages of Against Heresies cannot be seen as a quest for truth or truthfulness.  It is above all else an effort to consolidate his hold on the stranger's 'brand.' He is identifying himself as the only authentic guardian of the 'tradition of Polycarp.'

There is no reason for us to believe Irenaeus over Florinus. This is especially true as we have already seen that Irenaeus can be connected with the long recension of the Ignatian letters, texts almost universally ascribed to be counterfeit. Yet there is a much clearer example of Irenaeus's involvement in the falsification of ancient texts. While we have seen that he refuses to identify a separate figure named 'Ignatius' as the author of the Ignatian canon he does promote a counterfeit letter ascribed to Polycarp which in turn references 'Ignatian' his epistles. Irenaeus says in the closing words of his reference to Polycarp in Book Three of Against Heresies that "there is also a very powerful Epistle of Polycarp written to the Philippians, from which those who choose to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth."

So while Irenaeus won't directly mention a separate figure by the name of 'Ignatius' he will go out of his way to direct his readers to search out this letter of Polycarp which will do the work for him. Indeed anyone reading the closing words of this 'letter to the Philippians' will hear 'Polycarp' explain the person of 'Ignatius' in the following words:

The letters of Ignatius which were sent to us by him, and others as many as we had by us, we send unto you, according as ye gave charge; the which are subjoined to this letter; from which ye will be able to gain great advantage. For they comprise faith and endurance and every
kind of edification, which pertaineth unto our Lord. Moreover concerning Ignatius himself and those that were with him, if ye have any sure tidings, certify us.

And so the issue of whether 'Ignatius' and 'Polycarp' were two separate people is effectively closed for people. But notice that Irenaeus masterfully keeps his hands clean! He refuses to get caught 'promoting' his own agenda. He let's the falsified texts do it for him.

First some background on the epistle itself. The letter of Polycarp to the Philippians refers three times to Ignatius, once indirectly and twice by name, and states that Polycarp has made a collection of Ignatius' letters which he is forwarding to the Philippians. Many scholars throughout the ages - including most recently Rius-Camps and Joly - have dismissed the evidence of Polycarp by supposing that his letter is interpolated, and both posit forgeries which were already established by the time of Eusebius. Apart from this their theories typically differ in slight details.

Joly's first and strongest argument is one that is used also by Rius- Camps. It concerns the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians. If one denies the authenticity of Ignatius' letters it is necessary to account for the fact that Polycarp appears to refer to them in chapter 13 of his letter. The differences in style and preoccupations between Polycarp's letter and those of Ignatius are so great that it is impossible to ascribe both to the same forger. What can be done, however, is to maintain that chapter 13 is an interpolation inserted into a genuine letter of Polycarp by the forger of Ignatius' letters in order to authenticate his forgery.

The main argument in favour of this theory is the fact that Polycarp's remarks in chapter 9 of his letter, where he appeals to the example of Ignatius and other martyrs, seem to imply that he assumes that Ignatius' martyrdom has already taken place, whereas chapter 13 gives the impression that Ignatius had only recently left Philippi and that Polycarp had not yet had news of his fate. A new turn was given to the discussion of the question by PN Harrison, who in 1936 published a book1 in which he maintained that Polycarp's letter is in fact made up of two genuine letters, chapters 1-12 being a later epistle, to which an earlier epistle (chapters 13-14) were accidentally attached. This hypothesis has been widely accepted, although some of those who adopted it have confined the earlier epistle to chapter 13, reattaching chapter 14 to chapters 1-12. Joly, however, argues that the accident assumed by Harrison is highly unlikely.

If we imagine the two letters of Polycarp copied one after the other on the same roll or in the same codex, we must explain how the longer one lost its final salutations after chapter 12 and how the shorter one lost its opening greeting efore chapter 13. If we prefer to assume the deliberate insertion of the short letter as chapter 13 by a later editor we must supply a motive. Rius-Camps, in arguing the same case, adds that the sentence in chapter 13, 'we have sent you Ignatius' epistles . . ., which are subjoined to this letter', implies that what Ignatius' epistles were subjoined to was something longer than just chapter 13 alone. These criticisms of Harrison's thesis would seem to be justified.

The rest of the articles in the series - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,10

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