Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Against Polycarp [Part Two]

So how do we begin write to the biography of a faceless, nameless man?  It would seem to be an impossible endeavor.  Even our best surviving Christian sources really aren't all that reliable.  They lack credibility, objectivity and worst of all -  fail to provide much in the way of color or depth for any stage in the life of our Stranger.  By far the best and most detailed historical portrait emerges from Lucian of Samosata's satirical work, the Passing of Peregrinus.  Yet aside from Joseph Barber Lightfoot's pioneering work there has been little interest in employing this text as a source for our 'Polycarp.'

The reality is of course that there is clearly a vested interest in preserving the venerated figure of 'St. Polycarp.'  You don't have to be a believer to want to maintain the status quo.  There are a lot of scholars out there who just like to keep a tidy house.   Polycarp's martyrdom is one of the most important historical marker in the development of Christianity.  It is not at all an overstatement to suggest that dislodging this stone overturns the whole Catholic tradition.  If we disprove Polycarp we disprove St. John and the most strongly attested connection between the Church and the apostolic age.  Very few people want to let go of that kind of straightforward simplicity, after all it's very rare in Patristic scholarship.

It should be noted then that we will follow Lightfoot's original suggestion in order to fill in the gaps left by the official account.  We will use the Passing of Peregrinus to learn more about the mysterious Stranger.  We will also employ the Life of Polycarp especially where it agrees with Lucian's text.  For the facts of the matter are that even if these other sources didn't exist many of us would still notice certain peculiarities within the official account which would almost certainly lead most of us to suspect that we "weren't getting the full story."

A point in case is the story which surfaces in Irenaeus of our Stranger coming to Rome.  Irenaeus keeps telling us elsewhere that 'Polycarp' was in perfect agreement with the Roman tradition.  Yet why is he always depicted as arguing with everyone he meets - even the contemporary head of the Church?  In short, this is the true historical reality that inevitably gets swept under the table and reworked in countless ways.  Irenaeus is always trying to reconcile the churches of Asia Minor and Rome but if this were true why is always having to
'smooth over differences'?  Why is Irenaeus always ironing out 'wrinkles' in the original historical fabric of Church history?

The bottom line is that no one should take any claim about 'Polycarp' at face value.  The Church had a vested political interest to transform Polycarp's death into a transformative moment in the history of the Church.  And just look at who is caught trying developing this utterly artificial hagiography.  The earliest manuscripts of the Martyrdom of Polycarp still witness the original historical creative process in their concluding address:

This account Gaius copied from the papers of Irenaeus. The same lived with Irenaeus who had been a disciple of the holy Polycarp. For this Irenaeus, being in Rome at the time of the martyrdom of the bishop Polycarp, instructed many; and many most excellent and orthodox treatises by him are in circulation

There is something so utterly significant in these words that we should always go back to them as we wade through all the official references to 'Polycarp.'  They all derive from Irenaeus.  Irenaeus's account disagrees with Lucian's but more significantly, even with fellow Christians sitting in the court of Commodus.  Irenaeus's version of history eventually won out but just look, he certainly did have friends in high place ...

Indeed there is something else very curious in the official martyrdom accounts of 'Polycarp.'  We see, for the first time, the Roman Church was taking an interest in an event which did not take place on Roman or Italian soil.  Why exactly did it become so interested in this man - a man who had proved to be so obnoxious to the Roman leadership in a previous age that he was ultimately run out of town?  The simple answer has to be that Irenaeus and his circle were not part of the traditional Roman establishment.  They may have been living in Rome and they may also have been Christians but they represented a very different tradition from the men who had previously opposed Irenaeus's beloved 'Polycarp.'

But we should notice something else being reflected in this text.  The Roman Church was indeed becoming 'Catholic' in our inherited sense of that word.  It was beginning to present itself as the center of the Christian world, as the home of the tradition associated with Polycarp and John.  While it is difficult to exactly pinpoint when Irenaeus wrote the Martyrdom of Polycarp,  all indications suggest that it was developed - along with countless other texts - during the reign of 'freedom' (Gk. ελευθερία) which seemed to coincide with the rise of Commodus to the throne in 175 CE.  As Eusebius notes about the period "about the same time, our condition became more favorable, and through the grace of God the churches throughout the entire world enjoyed peace, and the word of salvation was leading every soul, from every race of man to the devout worship of the God of the universe. So that now at Rome many who were highly distinguished for wealth and family turned with all their household and relatives unto their salvation."

The point here is that our Stranger emerges in the generation before this 'Golden Age.'  What is more essential for us to acknowledge is that the literature associated with 'Polycarp' is nothing short of the foundation on which this Catholic Church of Rome developed.  As much as Irenaeus tries to twist the evidence to make this itinerant maphryānā from Asia Minor 'agree' with a pre-existent Roman Church the reality was that Rome was not the center of the Christian universe when 'Polycarp' came to visit nor again when he died.  It was only in the years which followed the very famous martyrdom of this unnamed Stranger did Irenaeus manage to establish something resembling the Catholic Church we now take for granted.  .

One must suspect that Irenaeus necessarily saw an opportunity to correct the schismatic nature of contemporary Christianity by riding this wave associated with this charismatic individual.  Yet this makes it all the more difficult for us to extract the 'real Stranger' from the official account of 'the martyr Polycarp.'  Indeed as we try and separate fact from fiction we will uncover that the fault line runs between student and master.  Who is the liar and who is the saint?  Is it 'Polycarp' the first saint of the Catholic Church or Irenaeus the first saint maker?

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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