Thursday, October 14, 2010

Why an Appreciation of Polycarp's Lost Hypomnemata Completely Transforms Our Understanding of Early Christianity

If 'early Christianity' was made into a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle I think we only have about thirty or forty pieces available to us. To carry the analogy one step further - we don't even have the original box. Instead we have inherited a picture which the Catholic Church tells us 'fills in' the other missing nine hundred and sixty pieces.  But I am not so sure that they have given us the right image.  I don't think they have any clue what Christianity originally looked like in the earliest period.

All the scholarship on the subject of early Christianity amounts to being little more than a reaction to this underlying paradigm.  Everything that has ever been written is speculative.  We have no compelling proof for or against the historical Jesus.  We have no reason to believe that the disciples did any of the things described in the Acts of the Apostles.  The question of whether there was a historical St. Peter or St. Peter is an entirely open question too.

Christianity only gets 'real' by the end of the second century.  This doesn't mean again that there wasn't a Christian religion before that period.  It's just that a number of 'real' witnesses start to emerge in this period - Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria just to name the most prominent.  This doesn't mean that the writings attributed to Clement of Rome and Ignatius didn't develop from historical individuals.  There just happens to be something artificial about these early characters as with all the semi-legendary saints of the early period.

Indeed, as I have noted many times before - the Catholic tradition only seems to begin with Polycarp's visit to Rome.  Yet we don't even seem to get the 'real Polycarp.'  If Irenaeus is acknowledged to be the station broadcasting the message of Polycarp - this is clearly a propaganda network. 

It is thus so very difficult to around Irenaeus's control over the media.  We only seem to get his characterization of events and personalities.  This is why our rediscovery of Lawlor's work on the lost hypomnemata is so critical. 

It is impossible to get around Irenaeus but we can dig through him with this wall.  We can finally see through the darkness he has deliberately formed around himself with the aid of this work. 

Every fortification has its vulnerable point.  In Irenaeus's case, the 'great Church' that he consolidated had to be built on something.  In this case it was the wild popularity associated with the charismatic preacher he identifies for us as 'Polycarp' (who knows what his actual historical name was). 

As we have noted there is very good reason for believing that Irenaeus held that Polycarp wrote the hypomnemata ascibed by Eusebius to a certain 'Hegesippus' and Clement to 'Josephus.'  The place that all lines intersect is with the idea that Polycarp wrote the first edition of Josephus's Jewish War.  Even our best Josephan scholars (Shaye Cohen, Louis Feldman) have posited the existence of a hypomnemata behind the existing account of the uprising of 66 - 70 CE. 

Of course people will immediately question how a hypomnemata purporting to be from the hand of Josephus could have been used to found the Catholic tradition.  To that I argue that Josephus is to this day our underpinning for interpreting the gospel.  We just don't realize it because we are so dependent on 'Josephus' that we take him for granted.  He is quite figuratively the air we breathe when we travel throught the period. 

Yet as we noted earlier the existence of this lost hypomnemata made clear that the historical Josephus did not actually write Jewish War nor did he compose the Antiquities of the Jews (but this is another argument completely).  Jewish War developed much like Acts insofar as it was a second century 'interpretation' of the events surrounding the destruction of the Jewish temple, 'Josephan' only in name. 

I have demonstrated that there was nothing short of a genre of Christian hypomnemata.  The term itself has a range of meanings but here it is best translated as 'commentaries.'  Polycarp was writing a five volume commentary on the cause of the end of the Jewish religion.  Jesus certainly figured into the events but it is well demonstrated from existing descendants of the original hypomnemata (which still happened to pass under the name 'Hegesippus') Josephus was never identified as a Christian.  It was important for the overall purpose of the work to merely describe him as a repentant leader of the Jewish revolt.   
Indeed another feature of the original hypomnemata which still casts a shadow over existing manuscripts of the Jewish War is the manner in which the author refers to Josephus in the third person.  In the surviving Latin copies of 'Hegesippus' the author is quite clearly a separate figure.  At one critical point in the narrative - he even admits to switching from a reliable account (presumably as Cohen theorizes, an original hypomnema which came from the hand of the historical Josephus) which covers the period upto the actual destruction of the temple, to a source which described the events of the Jewish war which he had to admit was somewhat less reliable. 

The point in all of this is that it is not all difficult to see how this account could have made the seamless transition from narrative which covered the events up to and after the destruction of the Jewish temple, to one which - by universal agreement - also contained details of the development of the Christian community down to the year 147 CE.  Lawlor has done the most to understand the Christian content in the hypomnemata and even he admits that all these references seem to appear in the fifth and last book of the series.  I would argue that this is not coincidental.  They must, further more have appeared especially clustered in the end of the book and would have taken us up to the time of Polycarp's arrival in Rome during the episcopate of Anicetus (whoever that was).

I have also noted that there is a strange 'addition' to the original work.  The chronological references all point to an original work composed in 147 CE (cf. Turner's discussion of Epiphanius and Clement's use of the original material).  But then everyone seems to also cite what must be regarded as a longer addition developed during the episcopate of Eleutherius c. 175 CE.  The original work seemed to have only featured an episcopal succession for the Jerusalem Church ending with Judas in the tenth year of Antoninus Pius.  The additional material seemed to focus its attention on the Roman Church.  It introduced a parallel episcopal succession list for the Roman Church down to Eleutherius and introduced a section on Roman heresies which focused on the seduction of the contemporary Christian community by a woman who appeared in the time of Anicetus as 'little Marcia' (Marcellina). 

It is tempting to identify Irenaeus as the author of the new material.  Whatever the case, the material was already established as a 'historical work' long before Irenaeus began work on the lectures which were eventually developed into the Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (also known as Against Heresies). The pagan critic Celsus seems to have used the hypomnemata for his True Account, a work which principally refuted the various sects of Christianity outside of the Catholic Church (Celsus in fact often voices his preference for members of the 'great Church'). 

Indeed Celsus is one of our most important witnesses for the influence of this hypomnemata.  He certainly knew the version of the work which contained 'extra material' added in the time of Eleutherius.  Celsus also seems to distinguish between two basic interpretations of the identity of Jesus among the various sects of the age.  He says that on the one hand there were those who posited that Jesus the one of a kind angel (i.e. a type of hypostasis never before seen on earth) and those who acknowledged that Jesus was a child born to Mary. It is safe I think to associate the former position with the Marcionites (and the various 'heresies' related to them) and the latter position to the 'great Church' (and various later groups related to them).

Most of the studies which have been written on the subject of the 'historical Jesus' have failed to grasp that the hypomnemata is our earliest witness to the existence of a human Jesus.  The author of that text - i.e. Polycarp according to Irenaeus as I have noted many times - brings forward the familiar claim that Jesus was born of Mary but also the absolutely unhistorical claim that Jesus's descendants were the heads of the Jerusalem Church.  It is impossible to take seriously the latter claim.  I have never seen any supporting evidence for the existence of this Jerusalem Church in any of the Patristic writings.  What happens instead is that Eusebius, Epiphanius and others basically recycle the claims of the hypomnemata.

Indeed the fact that even these authors have to admit that there is an 'overlap' in the Jerusalem chronology.  There is a separate chronology dating back to the time of Hadrian of a Gentile Church which knows nothing of this fabulous 'Church of Jesus's extended relatives' living side by side with them in the Holy City.  The latter chronology actually introduces real historical people whereas no additional names are ever added to the fictitious hypomnemata succession of 'Jewish Christianity.' 

I am certain that James the Just is a completely fictitious character.  There never was a 'brother of Christ' nor was there ever a James the brother of James the son of Zebedee.  These confused references were all developed owing to the influence of Polycarp over our Church - the 'great Church' of Rome through Irenaeus. 

It is terribly important that our first reference to 'the historical Jesus' is a baseless fiction.  The author of the hypomnemata had the freedom to invent his own history about Jesus's family because quite frankly he was dealing with a blank slate.  One cannot shake the feeling that this state of affairs casts a deep shadow over the whole question of whether Christianity originally held that Jesus was a human being.  The Marcionites, let's not forget, were contemporaries of Polycarp and they certainly held fast to the aforementioned idea that Jesus represented nothing short of God coming down from heaven to visit his people.  This expectation is witnessed in the literature associated with Qumran.  Is it possible at last that we are beginning to assemble proof that this interpretation was the original Christian understanding?

The hypomnemata utterly transforms our understanding of the origins of Christianity not merely because it casts doubt on the traditional assumption that Jesus was 'always' held to be a historical person.  The hypomenata can also be seen to have a specific function paralleled by its treatment of Josephus.  Jesus was developed into a Jew.  As we shall see this will be critical for our solving the mystery of the motivation of the original author. 

For the moment we should acknowledge that the hypomnemata does indeed acknowledge that at least some Christians identified Jesus as a historical person by the year 147 CE.  This date as we have noted many times here is utterly significant as it marked the seventy seventh anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish temple and the end of the Jewish War.  This date would not only mark the perfect time to introduce a work purporting to be a 'commentary' on Josephus but more importantly provides us with some insight as to which audience Polycarp was appealing his message. 

Where as Marcionitism and the Alexandrian tradition was principally a Greek speaking community in this period, Polycarp and his community were Semites.  Harvey has already demonstrated telltale signs in Irenaeus's work that he too shared this characteristic.  Indeed Harvey even speculates that the name 'Irenaeus' might mask a Semitic original (viz. Shlomo, Solomon etc).  When Irenaeus says that he had to write his work in a 'barbarous language' because he has been so long 'among the brethren' it should be acknowledged that he is confessing to being a native Syriac speaker. 

Yet Polycarp's message wasn't just appealed to Semities; the fact that the hypomnemata was dated to the seventy seventh anniversary of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple no less than the contents of the commentary itself (i.e. Josephus a repentant Jew coming to terms with the misguided halakhah which 'caused' the Jewish revolt) make clear that Polycarp was converting Jews to Christianity.

Polycarp's message was very much developed with the contemporary needs of this audience in mind (i.e. after the disastrous consequences of a second revolt in 135 CE).  Polycarp not only developed Jesus into a human being but argued that he was the long awaited messiah of Israel.  It would be impossible for contemporary audiences not to see a deliberate juxtaposition here with the recent pseudo-messiah Simon bar Kochba. 

Not only was Jesus the Christ for the first time James was his brother was now his representative on earth, the high priest to a new Israel which God established as a preferred covenant to traditional Judaism.  The purpose of the hypomnemata was also to establish the Jews failed to heed God's new covenant.  The destruction of the temple was now said to be caused by the mistreatment of James by the Jews.  We should note the obvious difference with the Marcionite/Alexandrian understanding that the Jews mistreatment of God causing their downfall. 

The important thing to keep our eye on is the underlying appeal to Jews in the aftermath of the bar Kochba revolt.  Under the traditional paradigm, the Jews proved themselves wicked owing to their rejection of God.  Now they are accused of something less than utter and total wickedness.  They killed a just man.  God punished them for this sin by destroying the temple but they are still capable of redemption no less than Peter - a gospel character loathed by the Marcionites - is transformed into the head of the Church.

As we said earlier, the hypomnenata is clearly our earliest reference to the idea of a 'historical Jesus' - i.e. Jesus the man.  Yet if we take this one step further and speculate that this might in fact have been the first reference to the historical Jesus in history, then all of a sudden we suddenly see that its POV - its 'point of view' - was at once also intimately Jewish.

It should be seen as a Judaizing revision of an original Alexandrian form of Christianity which was closer - if not identical - with Marcionitism.

This is again why the rescuing of this hypomnemata from historical obscurity is so important.  It explains the contemporary hostility from those identified as 'Marcionites' to the Catholic message as such.  We hear over and over again that the Marcionites rejected what they saw as 'Judaizing' tendencies in the Church.  However with our inherited biases it is usually assumed that what is meant here is that they were 'correcting' gospels and traditions which had stood from the time of the apostolic Church. 

Now at last we can begin to see that what they were opposing wasn't something ancient.  It was in fact a recent innovation.  They were opposed to Polycarp.  They must have rightly regarded the whole system of the Catholics as a Judaizing conspiracy in Christianity. As such the often reported 'anti-Semitic' tendencies of the Marcionites have to be viewed as something that has been completely distorted by later Catholic propagandists.

The Marcionites most likely were not reacting against the Jews at all but a specific 'heresy' within the Christian family which was in fact corrupting the original Christian message (or at least 'the original Christian message' according to the Marcionites) in the latter half of the second century.  This is indeed when we hear about reports of Marcionite objections to the Catholic tradition.  The Marcionites are only said to commence from the time of Polycarp because this is when he appeared in Rome and - very importantly - deposited his original version of the hypomnemata

If the hypomnemata created the historical Yeshu (cf. AH 2.24) out of the rib of the Marcionite Jesus then it is no wonder that the opponents of the 'great Church' were crying foul.  The invention of the Jerusalem Church was only part of the Judaizing 'takeover' of Christianity.  Indeed Polycarp's interests weren't limited to 'Judaizing additions to the gospel' and 'Judaizing additions to the letters of the Apostolikon but also the hypomnemata's claims about a Jerusalem episcopal line, its likely interest in developing Josephus as a witness to the truth of the Catholic message (i.e. why the temple was destroyed, why Judaism had to end etc) and most importantly the hitherto unheard of idea that Jesus was a historical 'Jew' with family who went on to populate the Christian high priesthood in Jerusalem. 

Can you imagine the scandal in Alexandria when this historical nonsense was unleashed on the world?  But the reality is that Irenaeus bought into this system if only to open the door to the idea that the end of the Jerusalem Church meant the beginning of Rome's rise to power. 

For the moment at least, let's just stick with Polycarp's original Judaizing interest within Christianity.  The hypomnemata preserved a variant myth about the preservation of Judaism.  a contemporary historical counterpart to the rabbinic myth of Javneh (Jamnia) which is even more fictitious than anything contained in the New Testament.   It was composed a little over a decade after the Bar Kochba revolt. Hadrian and then Antoninus already issued decrees related to the 'restoration' of Judaism (i.e the repeal on the ban on circumcision).  It seems to fit the contemporary milieu of Jews struggling to find their footing after the failure of yet another messianic uprising. 

It has always just been assumed that 'the Jews' somehow 'knew' what to do in the aftermath of Bar Kochba.  The revolt failed - well fine, let's go back to being Jews again.  Well, wait a minute.  Did the Jews have anything really to 'go back' to?  I find it hard to find any evidence that the failure of the bar Kochba revolt wasn't viewed as anything short of being a failure of Judaism. 

If the Judaism of the 'blackhole period' (70 - 137 CE) - a period for which we know little if anything about the shape of Christianity, Judaism or Samaritanism - led to the Akiba's authentication of bar Kochba as the awaited messiah of Israel it is obvious that this halakhah had failed.  It would be even more improbable to believe that the Romans would simply allow Jews to go back to whatever religious beliefs and interpretations led to a massive revolt which almost succeeded ridding Palestine of Roman occupation.

While Judaism was finding its feet Polycarp seized the moment and offered a specifically 'Jewish' form of Christianity.  I find it hard to come up with any evidence which suggests that anyone before Polycarp ever put forward these ideas.  His Yeshu is the first historical Jesus and there can be no doubt that this historical Jesus was above all else a Jewish Jesus. The Jewishness of Jesus is always front and center in the Catholic gospel tradition.  It is unlikely that this was so originally in the Marcionite tradition. 

The Marcionites who did not believe that Jesus was a historical person must have regarded the introduction of a tradition which not only said Jesus was a person but an observant Jew with absolute horror.  As such, it is difficult for me not to suspect at least that the historical Jesus was likely CONFIRMED if not invented (at least from the Marcionite perspective) with the publication of the hypomnemata. The author and the tradition he was associated with MUST HAVE been rooted in a appeal to Jews after the Bar Kochba revolt to convert to the divinely ordained covenant of Israel. The pages of the hypomnenata must have confirmed this understanding through the person of Josephus and his witness about the excesses of 'traditional Judaism.'

It was a wholly original 'spin' on Christianity's relationship with Judaism and it was developed with the specific purpose of recruiting large numbers of Jewish converts.  One may even argue that it ultimately changed the balance of power in Christian Church forever.

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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