Monday, August 5, 2013

Jesus the Roman Demi-God [Part Seven]


Here are the facts: we simply don’t have any reliable information about Polycarp of Smyrna. Moreover most of what we do know about the original teacher of Florinus and Irenaeus is highly suspect. Irenaeus needs to show that he is a more faithful steward of the tradition of Polycarp. Yet the real situation is so bad, we can’t be even sure that Polycarp was his teacher’s original name. The only place he calls him by this name appears outside of the context of Irenaeus’s ongoing debate with Florinus. When Irenaeus speaks directly to Florinus he refers to their common teacher as ‘the blessed presbyter.’ There has never been a good explanation for this phenomenon.

So it is that we can’t see we know ‘Polycarp’ or claim any familiarity with his actual beliefs or practices. It is generally assumed by scholars that because ‘Irenaeus is a good guy’ and ‘Florinus is a ‘bad guy’ – again characterizations establish by as an unbiased source as Irenaeus himself – Polycarp must have been ‘more like’ Irenaeus. After all, Polycarp was also a ‘good guy.’

We are so fortunate to have history divided for us into clearly divided camps of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Most scholarship written about this ancient ‘love triangle’ goes no further than taking the claims of Irenaeus at face value. Indeed in the very same way, we are told that Tatian ‘fell away’ from Justin Martyr, that Marcion ‘falsified’ the gospel according to Luke, that Ebionites ‘falsified’ the gospel according to Matthew. Over and over again, scholars have traditionally taken these claims at face value without much in the way of criticism.

Let us begin afresh and acknowledge for once that the ‘true Polycarp’ is an unknown commodity to us. We can, of course, use what Irenaeus says about his master as long as we examine it with a critical eye. This is especially true with regards to a long section of text at the heart of Book Four of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies. Many generations of scholars have mined this material for information about Polycarp. In recent times Charles Evans Hill an associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL has written an influential book on this very subject.

The thing that everyone is in basic agreement is that Irenaeus received his understanding that all scripture was typological from Polycarp. We have already noted that interpreting the gospel ‘typologically’ was a Jewish Christian trait. Not surprisingly Irenaeus provides us with many important clues that Polycarp came from just such a community. He is usually identified as a Quartodeciman, which means that his observance of Easter would have been virtually indistinguishable from the Jewish Passover. Indeed Polycarp association with Jewish Christianity seems to be also reinforced by special attachment to St Peter’s canonical epistle, his favorite New Testament work which he cites twelve times in his short letter.

Of course Irenaeus develops another association, one with the disputed gospel according to John. We must take this claim with a grain of salt – as we should will all identifications of a ‘Johannine’ tradition. Most contemporaries in Rome drew their ‘line in the sand’ with respect to Irenaeus’s make believe nonsense at John. The gospel of John was a fake - it was not even remotely associated with the 'beloved disciple John' - nor the Apocalypse of John, nor undoubtedly also his alleged canonical letters.

In the end we can’t stress enough how difficult it is to say anything substantive about Polycarp of Smyrna. The one thing that shines through Irenaeus’s refutation of Florinus is again, his attachment to the Jewish Christian concept of ‘typology.’ At one point in his ‘discussion’ Irenaeus baldly states that it was of Polycarp who instructed him and indeed all his students on this matter. “We should search for a type. For not one of those things which have been set down in Scripture without being condemned is without significance.” Moreover in another part of the same work Irenaeus reminds his readership that Polycarp declared long ago that “if God had not accorded this in the typical exodus (i.e. the one described in the Pentateuch), no one could now be saved in our true exodus.”

Hill goes through Book Four of Against Heresies and demonstrate exactly how much of the discussion of Polycarp is dominated by ‘typology.’ As Hill puts it “a key part of the struggle against Marcionism was of course the struggle for the possession and interpretation of the OT scriptures, and the contents of the new Christian scriptures we call the New Testament.” “The importance of Polycarp,” he says, “to a typological approach to the interpreation of the Old Testament scriptures is obvious.” Hill says that we may certainly attribute a strong element of Irenaeus' training to Polycarp and that “typological exegesis of scripture characterizes the entire section on the presbyter's teaching.”

Hill concludes that “the use of typology to solve difficulties is part of an overarching approach which sees analogues of Christ and of the church throughout the history of God's dealings with his people. By the middle of the second century, ‘looking for a type’ had become a time-honored hermeneutic.” While we must concur that it had become indeed an established tool to help make sense of the mysterious gospel, we cannot go all the way with Hill and acknowledge that Irenaeus has Marcion in mind when he makes most of these points. Indeed the specific term ‘Marcion’ or ‘Marcionite’ is never mentioned in this entire original section of text.

Where Hill and other scholars go wrong is being influenced by a single chapter heading explains the content of what follows as having to do with ‘the Marcionites.’ As B. Hemmerdinger has noted in a recent article we can dismiss the chapter divisions as a later invention developed by in the later Latin translation which is the sole means by which this material has survived. As the Armenian version of Against Heresies is not divided into chapters but book 4 is preceded by a summary, while book 5 is not. In Latin, book 4 is preceded by a summary and divided into chapters, while book 5 has neither.

Hemmerdinger goes on to note that “this implies that in Latin the chapters were created from the summaries, and that the Greek archetype of the Latin and the Armenian had a summary before book 4, but not before book 5. This summary does not vary, either in the manuscripts or in the early editors from Erasmus to Grabe. It is an innovation in the Latin version to copy these argumenta and insert them in the text as titles of chapters. So there is no need for us to encumber the text of Irenaeus with these titles, which don’t belong there.”

To this end generations of scholars – including Charles Hill - have been led to believe that the typological arguments at the heart of Book Four were somehow directed against the Marcionites owing to a later subdivision of chapters. The idea doesn’t make sense at all of course given that the Marcionites had no love for Polycarp so the continuous allusion to ‘remember what the presbyter said …’ would have no place in such a polemic. It is rather nothing other than an internal dispute between two factions of the school of Polycarp – viz. Irenaeus and Florinus of Rome.

The real question then isn’t whether typology is an acceptable form of exegesis – or as Hill would contend orthodoxy versus Marcionitism– but rather the question over whose understanding of typology is the correct one – Irenaeus or Florinus – whose understanding is more faithful to the original principles of their common master.

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