Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Polycarp the Stranger

An annotated but slightly earlier version of this same article is available at Herman Deterings' site.

In his 2004 article Is Lucian’s ‘On the Death of Peregrinus’ a Satire on Marcion Detering makes the case for identifying the elusive preacher ridiculed in Roman satirist’s work with the greatest heretic of early Christianity. Detering concludes his work by asking – “is Marcion Peregrinus? Is Peregrinus Marcion?” Many might be inclined to accept the powerful arguments put forward by the Dutch radical as to the presence of a Marcionite underpinning in De Morte Peregrini.

Many of the unique features of this heretical tradition can be found in Morte. Nevertheless I believe Detering has got all wrong when it comes to the identification of the main character of Lucian’s work, alternatively identified as “Peregrinus” or “Proteus.” Peregrinus Proteus isn’t Marcion. Instead he is the heretic’s mortal enemy, Polycarp, the man I have already identified as the founder of our Catholic tradition.

How can a Church Father, so clearly identified with opposing Marcion, be identified now as the figure Detering so clearly demonstrates is related to Marcionitism? The answer to this question gets right to the heart of the problem of tradition approaches to “heresy” and “orthodoxy.” If you believe the rhetoricians of any period you would be led to see everything in “black” and “white.” Reality however is inevitably closer to grey.

As such most New Testament scholars fall victim to portrait of this theological period as a dualistic struggle between Polycarp and Marcion. We are made to believe by followers of Polycarp that their master was nothing like his mortal enemy. Indeed the official propaganda of the Church argues that the differences between the two men were as clear and distinct as the line between good and evil.

The whole situation reminds me a lot of the hyperbole we see during an election. Whether Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberals, all spin doctors inevitably find that the best means by which to distract people from the “sameness” of all politicians is to exaggerate the small differences between their candidate and his opponent. Of course in the end no matter how radical the polemic during the campaign one sees remarkable continuity after the victors are announced.

The same thing I will necessarily argue occurred in the middle to late second century A.D. when the Catholic tradition effectively “took over” from Marcionitism. The differences simply couldn’t have been “night and day.” There had to be continuity for converts going from one tradition to the next otherwise they quite simply wouldn’t have been able to follow what was going on during the services.

In my opinion religious scholars too easily buy into the propaganda of the Church Fathers that Marcion and the “heresies” represented a “complete break” from established tradition. Why would Tertullian have warned his followers to be aware of the “sameness” of a heretical assembly if the differences were as obvious as some new claim? Clearly then heresy was very much in the eye of the beholder.

I believe that in the same way most scholars have learned to exaggerate Marcionitism’s “antinomian” characteristic they also tend to underestimate the chasm between what Christianity is defined as being today and that the beliefs, practices and worldview of the first Fathers of the Church. In fact I am certain with this comparison in mind that Marcionitism and the “Catholic community” of Polycarp would appear very alien to all we take for granted is “the true faith.”

Thus it is quite consistent to argue that Morte can at once contain Marcionite elements while at the same time telling the story of a Father of the Catholic Church. The two ideas are not, I assure you, mutually exclusive. Polycarp could well have been the leader of a new anti-Marcionite Church revelation as we now understand and at the same have retained elements borrowed from that faith.

If Harnack can acknowledge that the Marcion was the first to establish a canon of holy writings - isn’t that the same thing as saying the Catholics effectively borrowed this idea from him? Indeed in another article I will display the clearest proof of this “sameness” when I reveal for the first time that Polycarp’s To the Philippians employs a “Diatesseron” for its citations of scripture rather than our inherited quaternion.

Indeed one can choose to see matters in “black” and “white” but experience teaches us that life is essentially somewhere in between. To this end it is not hard to see that from a Marcionite perspective Polycarp “borrowed,” “forged” and ultimately “misappropriated” their canon. The same ideas seem to have found their way into Lucian’s account of the “parricide” of the anonymous Christian’s “father.”

For the moment however let’s begin with a careful look at what about Morte convinces Detering that it is unmistakably Marcionite. He begins his examination with “the question of the identity of Lucian’s Peregrinus” and pays special attention to the itinerant preacher’s name. “Peregrinus Proteus” Detering notes “is not meant to be a real name of some person but a symbolic nickname is explicitly noticed by almost all investigators, at least as regards to the second part.”

Peregrinus the Latin word meaning “stranger” or “foreigner” was “used to describe the non-Roman citizen.” Detering goes on to borrow Doerrie’s interpretation of its meaning as “Peregrinus, the one who is nowhere at home.” There can be no doubt that the figure of “the stranger” figures prominently in the Marcionite tradition. However the question of all questions is now whether anyone outside of this faith can be connected to the term.

While Detering seems to argue that “the stranger” was a specifically Marcionite term it would have been instructive for him to read in Pionus’ Life of Polycarp more carefully. It is quite clear from that tradition that not only was Polycarp quite fond of referring to himself with this title but even more significantly “polycarpou” or “fruitful one” itself might well have been only one of many titles that this “stranger” applied to himself.

Pionius identifies for us that Polycarp was of Semitic extraction and quite likely a Jew. This would mean his real name was Ephraim – a recognized messianic name. “Ephraim” also accounts for parallel reports of Peregrinus as being “of Parium.” These things are also reflected in Pionius’ statement that Polycarp’s “Eastern stock bore (if one may so say) blossom as a token of good fruit hereafter to come. For the men who dwell in the East are distinguished before all others for their love of learning and their attachment to the divine Scriptures.”

Thus not only is Polycarp a “foreigner” or indeed “stranger” but it is apparently at once that the name that he went by in the western tradition was likely only a descriptive title. The specific details of this “fruitful one” calling himself “the stranger” emerge later in the same narrative where again according to Pionius Polycarp:

having been brought to Asia and having come by the will of God to live in Smyrna, after making himself fully acquainted with the ways of the people of the country … [and teaching] that here on earth we are bidden to sojourn for a while and not to settle; for we are strangers and visitors [italics in the original]

So it is now clear that as part of the teachings of this elusive Church Father it is understood that all Christians were to be “strangers” and “foreigners.” This certainly sounds like something a man called “Peregrinus” might say.

There are other details from Life of Polycarp which seem to help us connect the Church Father to the anonymous Christian preacher in Morte. One of the most striking things of course being the manner in which the description of Polycarp contained therein conforms to that of a “Cynic philosopher.” We must always remember that when Lucius reports to us the details of his Peregrinus he is necessarily forced to translate foreign ideas and concepts from Christianity into the general pagan milieu.

So it is that when we read in Life that Polycarp “ate such food as came to hand, meager and simple though it was, and he wore such clothing only as absolute necessity required, for the sake of warmth and of the modest and seemly covering of the body” Lucius could easily have taken this for adhering to the Cynic ideal. In fact Christians were often mistaken or deliberately connected with the followers of Diogenes throughout this period.

Similarly Life goes on to say that Polycarp spent most of his time withdrawn from humanity and:

in consequence of this he was staid alike in his mental thoughts and in his bodily … those also who came to see him and desired his conversation, he was wont to shun and avoid, if he possibly could, the garrulous and foolish talkers, on the plea that he was intent on some important business and had not noticed the person who met him; but if he happened to get entangled with him, he would answer him briefly just not to seem to be haughty, and then would keep silence.

This description taken together with what we just read conforms perfectly to the Cynic ideal of parrhēsia, which essentially means “frank speech” or “speaking so freely and frankly.”

Cynics made it a point to shun such personal contact with people, groups or communities. Indeed “the Cynics strive for self-sufficiency and strength, neither of which is capable of being maintained once one enters into the conventional political game. The life of an impoverished, but virtuous and self-sufficient philosopher is preferable to the life of a pampered court philosopher.”

I don’t mean to belabor the point of course but any contemporary Christian could have been taken to be a Cynic by a casual observer. Detering is quite right in identifying much of the information about Marcion has passed through this assimilation process. His followers are said to be “dog-like” and Marcion himself from “Pontus” or “Sinope” undoubtedly because of these underlying similarities just mentioned.

The reason why it is so important to stress the Cynic aspects of the description of Polycarp in Life is because it goes against the manner in which we traditionally view the “Church Fathers.” We think of them as members of an ecclesiastical hierarchy first and foremost. It is difficult to “think outside of the box” so to speak when almost every detail of their lives have been shaped by the Church establishment.

Has any scholar ever considered that “our Polycarp” might have appeared “dog-like” to the rest of the world? This is likely because few of us have ever read Pionius’ narrative. Indeed this is why I think it so important to pay careful attention to the details of Life because it is important to see how his parrhēsia and his “strange” nature inevitably come together in an apparent event in the biography of the Church Father.

We are told by Pionius that when the chief men of the Smyrnaeans request that he break his Cynic ways in order to help them plead for rain. “Polycarp,” they say, “thou seest that the city of which thou also art an inhabitant is in straits, and thou thyself sharest with us and dost participate, if not in our customs, at all events in the scarcity which now exists owing to the drought.” Here again we should recognize that for all intents and purposes “our Polycarp” must have seemed to be a Cynic to contemporary witnesses.

Of course when Polycarp does indeed agree to help petition God for rain it is very important to note how he goes on to defend his decision to break from social conventions. Life records that Polycarp responds to this request by once again stressing his identity as a “stranger” to their ways:

Sirs, ye who inhabit this most beautiful city, give ear to me [as] a sojourner and a stranger, to whom every city is foreign by reason of my heavenly citizenship and all the world is a city by reason of the gift of God who created all things.

Not only did we demonstrate earlier then that the mayor of Smyrna saw Polycarp as a “stranger” (and identifies Christianity as such as the “religion of strangers” a little later) we now see that the Church Father applied this term to himself.

So it is that Polycarp must have been quite comfortable being identified as a “peregrinus.” If Lucian’s account was really a report about Polycarp as I suggest it would only have been natural that he should be so called. The Church Father apparently used the term repeatedly in his everyday discourse with people. Once again we must suspect that the term testifies to the underlying dependence of Polycarp’ religion on the beliefs of Marcionitism and that Detering is certainly proved wrong when he argues that “no other theologian but Marcion gave the term such a central position in his doctrine.”

In fact one significant difference between Marcion and Polycarp should also be mentioned here which effects Detering’s identification. The particular itinerant Christian preacher in Morte describes himself as “the stranger.” Marcionites certainly used the term as Detering suggests but it is never applied to Marcion. In the system of Marcionitism “Jesus” was the stranger; there is nothing to suggest that Marcion ever called himself by this name. As such we are left with only one known contemporary Christian preacher who ever identified himself as the “stranger” – Polycarp of Smyrna.

To this end we move on to make a more detailed examination of the details of the story that both men were best known for in the contemporary age – that of the circumstances of their death. Polycarp was the paradigmatic Christian martyr of the ante-Nicene Church while Peregrinus was made so famous by his efforts to secure a death for himself that Lucian – a non-believer – ended up writing a narrative about him.

Of course the details of Polycarp’s life comes down to us through the so-called Martyrium Polycarpi which survives in two principle forms – the Encyclical Epistle of the Church of Smyrna to the Church at Philomelium and a parallel report in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History iv. 15. While many scholars may find it difficult to reconcile the “inspirational” story of Polycarp’s last day with Lucian’s hostile portrait of the death of the Christian huckster Peregrinus this obstacle will not be difficult to overcome.

What is immediately problematic is how to get around the apparent contradiction of the place each man met his untimely end. The surviving Christian tradition is absolutely certain that Polycarp died in Smyrna, the modern Turkish port city of Izmir while Lucian’s account of Peregrinus explicitly records the fact that “Peregrinus” met his end in Olympia in mainland Greece.

We will keep this “apparent contradiction” in mind as we begin our examination of the parallels between the two men. The natural starting point here would be the obvious similarity in the description of their death. Scholars might like to imagine that here too lies a contradiction whereby Morte portrays its “stranger” as a para-suicidal maniac, while Martyrium has Polycarp as an unwilling victim who was somehow goaded into his death by the “evil Roman authorities.”

A carefully reading of the Martyrium Polycarpi will immediately dispel this misunderstanding. The two accounts are actually amazingly similar to one another. Lucian characterizes the motivation of his subject of course in the most disparaging terms. After all he is attempting to write satire rather than a historical study. As such he claims that when his “stranger” was unable to advance “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.”

Here too it is important to understand the setting for Morte. The “stranger” wants very much to die and has a specific method of self-destruction in mind – he wants to be burned alive. To this end he had been promising to give his “testimony” for years now and his day has finally come. Large throngs of onlookers have gathered at the present Olympiad to witness the unfolding of this horrific spectacle.

We will demonstrate shortly that the subject of Martyrium shares this very same zeal for “martyrdom by fire.” For the moment however I would like to take up that difference we began our study with - namely the fact that Peregrinus died specifically during the Olympic Games while – at least according to the surviving account – Polycarp most certainly did not.

It would be hard to argue with the idea that Martyrium places Polycarp’s death in Smyrna but can we say for certain that the tradition denies that he ended up being martyred during “games” as such? I don’t think so. Thompson’s Martyrdom of Polycarp: Death in the Roman Games brings forward that aspect of the tradition. Scholars are also quite clear that Martyrium was only established in the fourth century from early sources. Lucian’s Morte by contrast was written very close to the time of the events in question.

A lot can happen in two hundred years. Place names can certainly become substituted one for another. However for our immediate purpose I should only mention our own inherited notion of what sport belongs at the Olympics was different than that of Polycarp’s age. By Roman times gladiatorial fights with wild beasts were already part of the games. To this end it should be emphasized that both Polycarp and Peregrinus died during “games” where “blood sports” were carried out.

As we shall see later in the paper the actual timing of the death was even closer when we consider that both martyrdoms were carried out specifically “after the games had already finished.” This is a very significant detail which we cannot lose sight of. Indeed we should also begin to become conscious of the reality that neither Polycarp nor Peregrinus should be understood to be simply killed because of their Christian beliefs either. In either case the games were already over and each man went out of their way to seek out their own martyrdom.
So now we are prepared to confront the big question - how could “Polycarp” and “Peregrinus” be one and the same person if the former is reported to have died in Smyrna and the latter in Olympia? The first step is in my mind to acknowledge that there is no reason to suspect that Lucian would have lied about the locale of his stranger’s martyrdom. I believe that given the consistent reporting of Lucian that “Peregrinus” desired above all else to secure a wide audience for his “offering,” the choice of Olympia makes perfect sense.

There is a logical consistency in Lucian’s account which is entirely lacking in the Martyrium. We are never allowed to get too deeply into Polycarp’s head. We never get a clear picture of his surroundings. The surviving narrative was written many generations after the events in question and the author freely admits that along with historical elements he mingled “direct revelation” from Polycarp in the world. As a result it is very difficult to discern very much about the circumstances of the actual death of the Church Father.

While Martyrium never sways from assigning Smyrna as the site of Polycarp’s death we should remind ourselves how corrupt the surviving Martyrium of Polycarp tradition really is. Most significant of all is Eusebius, the earliest surviving Martyrium tradition, contradicts key details of our existing Encyclical texts.

First and foremost Eusebius makes clear that Polycarp died at same time as other martyrs not mention in our Martyrium. A certain Pionius and a Marcionite bishop named Metrodorius are strangely absent from the Encyclical Epistle. Instead their stories are now placed in another tradition entirely – in a text called the Martyrdom of Pionius – where the Catholic editor now claims these two men died almost a hundred years later after albeit strangely on the very anniversary of Polycarp’s martyrdom.

Why did someone come along and change this critical detail? The answer might lie in the fact that the Martyrdom belongs to an original Marcionite encyclical. This would explain our surviving text’s connection to “letters sent from Pontus,” its confession that the present work is merely a “summary” of a work passed on “through our brother Marcian,” as well as the explicit mention of the Marcionite bishop Metrodorus.

Why would a later Catholic editor have gone to such lengths to distance Polycarp from key elements in the original story? Could it be that Smyrna was not the original locale but rather a convenient place to remove the narrative from the widely circulating report of Lucian? The Catholic editor certainly wanted to remove Polycarp’s death from being a mere footnote in the original Marcionite narrative. Perhaps the underlying problem was that previous generations of the text demonstrated how close Polycarp actually was to the heresies.

Indeed even though Eusebius’ slightly earlier narrative connects him to “a celebrated martyr of those times … named Pionius” the actual information we receive about Polycarp’s “comrade in arms” demonstrates an affinity for Marcionite practices. We learn Pionius celebrates the Marcionite sacraments of “bread and water” rather than our familiar “bread and wine.” Was Polycarp really a heretic from the Marcionite establishment? The evidence from many sources seems to support the idea. At the very least the idea helps reconcile Detering’s identification of Marcionite traits in Morte with all that we are about to uncover.

All that we can say for certain about the clear Marcionite underpinnings in both Morte and Martyrium seriously questions the “certainty” that scholars have that Polycarp was martyred in Smyrna. After all if some details could be changed - why not others? In fact the whole Martyrium narrative seems entirely contrived when properly scrutinized. It can’t even decide why Polycarp was martyred. Stock “anti-Jewish” references abound which seem deliberately added as a distraction. Why couldn’t the location of Smyrna as a substitute for Olympia be one of many such “corrections” of the lost original material?

That scholars act as if all settled regarding the dating of Martyrium is misleading too. Most of them cite Lightfoot’s conclusions as if they were written in stone. His claim that the various “officials” mentioned in the text can be identified with historical figures who presided over Asia Minor and Smyrna in particular is among the flimsiest arguments ever made in religious scholarship.

Indeed if matters were so “straightforward” with regards to Polycarp’s martyrdom why can’t academics agree on the year of his death or even whether it happened during the rule of Antoninus or his son Marcus? Everyone points to “certain facts” about the case but when something as basic as the dating his death comes up we suddenly see the limits of our knowledge. Eusebius’ identification of Polycarp’s martyrdom in the seventh year of Marcus Aurelius reign i.e. 166 A.D very closely matches Peregrinus’ death which can be exactly dated from material in the text to the 236th Olympiad or 165 A.D. But scholars prefer Lightfoot’s identification of Polycarp’s end to 154 – 155 A.D.

With all the posturing done by scholars we see at once why Killen’s work The Ignatian Epistles Entirely Spurious is so important for our purposes. He neatly demonstrates that all of Lightfoot’s calculations are “obviously mere guesswork.” Killen notices that the postscript upon which all “historical proofs” are based form actually form “no part of the original document.” Indeed Lightfoot himself acknowledges the weakness in his own argument saying that Martyrium’s postscript is “generally treated as a later addition to the letter and as coming from a different hand.”

If there are many layers to the material how are we so sure that any of the names mentioned in official offices match anyone in Smyrna at all. Lightfoot, while still clinging to his belief of the authenticity of the information admits nevertheless that when “tested as to ‘external evidence’ the supplementary paragraphs … ‘do not stand on the same ground’ as the rest of the epistle.”

Of course Killen is quite right to be incensed by this passing comment and so should we. How can anyone be so sure that “Smyrna” is the original locale of the events in Martyrium? The official’s mentioned in the next actually might not individuals from Smyrna at all. So Killen notes that Lightfoot’s “whole chronology rests on the supposition that the name of the proconsul is correctly given in this probably apocryphal addition to the Smyrnaean letter” and he adds that “it is far more probable that the writer has been slightly inaccurate as to the exact designation of the proconsul … about the time of the martyrdom.”

The facts remain that there really is another possibility which no one has considered so far. Maybe the names of the officials who presided over the games where Polycarp was martyred are somewhat accurate but they actually match up to another city – perhaps even Olympia the site of “Peregrinus” death? It’s not a crazy as you might think. Instead of inventing parallels between the “Quadratus” who appears in Martyrium and any reference to a “proconsul” which appears at any time let’s consider another name which appears in both Morte and Martyrium – that of “Herod Atticus.”

Let us consider Herod’s appearance in Lucian’s Morte first where the author tells his readers of the Christian “stranger” having:

libeled [Herod] a man outstanding in literary attainments and position because he had been a benefactor to Greece in many ways, and particularly because he had brought water to Olympia and prevented the visitors to the festival from dying of thirst, maintaining that he was making the Greeks effeminate, for the spectators of the Olympic games ought to endure their thirst—yes, by Heaven, and even to lose their lives, no doubt, many of them, through the frequent distempers which formerly ran riot in the vast crowd on account of the dryness of the place! And he said this while he drank that same water!

When they almost killed him with stones, mobbing him with one accord, he managed to escape death at the moment by fleeing to Zeus for sanctuary (stout fellow!), and afterwards, at the next Olympiad, he gave the Greeks a speech which he had composed during the four years that had intervened, praising the man who had brought in the water and defending himself for running away at that time.

It would be impossible for anyone to have been in Greece at the time and not come across this Herod Atticus as he was certainly one of the richest and most influential men in the world.
I needn’t get into a detailed account of his background other than to say he was a man of letters who was appointed to various important posts. In 140 A.D. Antoninus Pius brought him to Rome to educate Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. Three years later the Emperor named him consul. In addition to his literary work Herod was associated with a number of funded a number of public projects too numerous to cite in the limited space of this work.

Only one of these projects which figures into our present discussion was the exedra mention in Morte – the exedra of Olympia. Archaeologists uncovered it at the turn of the last century and we can fill in some of the gaps in the details provided us by Lucian. It seems one of two things might have bothered “Peregrinus” about the object. The first was it was dedicated to the pagan god Zeus. The second was that it clearly demonstrates Herod’s “love” for the Imperial family.

Philostratus similarly records that Herod was often berated by Proteus. Whatever we determine what the actual reason was for his anger it is quite significant in my mind that “Herod” is not just an adversary of Lucian’s protagonist but also plays an important as a prominent role in Martyrium as Polycarp’s adversary. If the story of the Church Father is completely separate from that of “Peregrinus” one how is that we have in each case the chief antagonist of each narrative with the name “Herod”?

So when we read the concluding statement of Martyrium that Polycarp “was apprehended by Herod.” “Herod” is the furthest thing from an inconsequential character in this tradition. He can’t simply be dismissed or mistakenly identified as an invented reference to “Herod” at the time of Jesus as many ignorant scholars like to pretend. It is imperative that we pay special attention to the arrest narrative when it is said that Polycarp:

was met by Herod the eirenarchos … who took him into their carriage, and sitting beside him endeavored to persuade him, saying, `For what harm is there in saying, Lord Caesar, and sacrificing and saving your life?' He at first did not answer; but when they persisted, he said, `I am not going to do what you advise me.' And when they failed to persuade him, they uttered dreadful words, and thrust him down with violence, so that as he descended from the carriage he lacerated his shin. But without turning round, he went on his way promptly and rapidly, as if nothing had happened to him, and was taken to the stadium.

It is very important to see that while Martyrium avoids explaining what the reason was for Polycarp’s arrest there is a pattern of conflict between the “stranger” and a powerful figure named “Herod” which extends through both traditions.

For some reason it is one of those unfortunate mistakes which occurs during the process of translation that the term eirenarchos here is rendered as “police chief” in many translations. With this we imagine the eirenarchos as a kind of “blue collar” figure which couldn’t be further from the truth. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes:

public prosecution under the empire began by arrest of the accused, who was taken before an eirenarcha, who examined him (by torture in the case of a slave or parricide) and sent him on for trial before the praeses of the diocese.

Herod Atticus certainly was an eirenarchos or had the authority of one. He was among the richest men in the world at that time and as Boeft and Bremmer note “the eirenarchos was usually a person from the highest classes.”

So at last we have made some headway. We have a motive for Herod’s involvement in the martyrdom. If the two traditions can be read together we have discovered a well documented hostility existing between the two which likely went back over a generation. Moreover we can be certain that Herod himself would certainly have still present at the Olympiad of 165 A.D. where the “stranger” Polycarp must have died.

Of course there still is the difficulty that three supporting characters – Nicetas, Alce and Quadratus. While Martyrium identifies “Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce” Herod’s actual father wasn’t named “Nicetas” but rather “Atticus.” Nevertheless as I shall demonstrate in more detail in a subsequent article “father” was also a title used for members of the presbytery. Most of us remember an “Anicetas” the bishop in Rome who was involved in a dispute with Polycarp in Rome. The two names are one and the same and could easily be the result of a scribal slip somewhere along the way.

While Irenaeus pretends that the dispute between the two men was ended amicably but as I shall show elsewhere – there are good reasons to question this claim. Apparently another man who went by the Latin equivalent of “Nicetas” – viz. “Victor” continued to impose policies against members of Polycarp’s “Quartodecimian” tradition. As such the attribution that “Nicetas” conspired with Herod to kill Polycarp may reflect latent hostilities between the communities still resurfacing.

“Alce” is a prominent figure in Polycarp’s letters of Ignatius to himself where she is she is “Alce my dearly beloved.” In historical terms she wasn’t Herod’s sister at all (at least as far as we know). Nevertheless it is interesting that his father Atticus’ wife was Vibullia Alcia. Perhaps what was meant was that she was bishop Nicetas’ “sister” (i.e. the female equivalent of “brother” the early term denoting Christian believer).

Lastly and most interestingly is the figure of “Quadratus.” Killen attacks Lightfoot for developing his argument that there ever was such a proconsul of Asia. Robinson notes “there is a suspicious resemblance between Quadratus the apologist and another Quadratus who was bishop of Athens in the reign of Antoninus Pius succeeding to Publius whom Jerome affirms to have been martyred.” In other words, the original tradition might simply have made reference to the fact that the martyrdom occurred when Quadratus was bishop of Athens, the closest see to Olympia.

If we follow W. Schmid's (Die Lebensgeschichte des Rhetors Aristides pp. 53 - 83) Quadratus was proconsul of Asia from 165 - 166 CE or the exact period of the Olympic games.

The most important thing for us to keep in mind here as we continue our comparison of the common “stranger” figure in both traditions is that his death is in both cases connected to mention of Herod. In Morte the account of Peregrinus’ previous insult against Herod’s exedra is immediately followed by his declaration of his impending martyrdom by fire. Lucian writes that:

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.

This idea that his attacks against Herod lead to his desire for a “glorious end” patterns what appears in Martyrium. The only difference being that Morte explains the animosity between the two men while Martyrium glosses over it completely.

To this end we should look carefully at Martyrium’s “positive spin” on the incident, saying only that:

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.

Of course there is another commonality to the two traditions – the context already mentioned of the “games” coming to a close and “Polycarp” witnessing a Christian “recanting” his self-sacrifice. Nevertheless in either case we can see that the confrontation with Herod looms over both texts.

Indeed once we separate the corresponding biases of each author we can flush out another structural similarity – the death of either Christian preacher was unprovoked. Whether called “Polycarp” or “Peregrinus” the man in question wanted to die he doesn’t have to die. Take the example of Polycarp. He is reported in Martyrium to have been repeatedly “constrained by the solicitude and love of the brethren to leave” nevertheless he steadfastly refuses, desiring instead to provoke his martyrdom in order to demonstrate the faith that he saw lacking in the games which just ended.

Lucian by contrast sees only a desire for fame at the heart of this self-offering on the pyre. He comically identifies 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.”

I think we can begin to see a common martyrology in both accounts. Polycarp wants above all else to appear “Christ-like” to his followers. After his followers celebrate the Eucharist and Polycarp leads them in prayer we are told that “the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, the hour of departure being come put him upon an ass and brought him to the city, it being a great Sabbath.” The theatrics developed by Polycarp and his followers must have went over the head of most of the pagans present nevertheless Lucian does manage to translate some of the underlying ideas in more familiar terms.

Take Polycarp’s belief in the resurrection for instance. In the corresponding section of Morte has Lucian compare this understanding to the legend surrounding the mythical Phoenix. Similarly the “stranger’s” actions are ridiculed in what follows by identifying the gathering as being:

full of people criticising Proteus or praising his purpose, so that most of them even came to blows Finally, Proteus himself appeared, escorted by a countless multitude, after the contest of the heralds, and had somewhat to say about himself, telling of the life that he had led and the risks that he had run, and of all the troubles that he had endured for philosophy' s sake. His speech was protracted, though I heard but little on account of the number of bystanders. Afterwards, fearing to be crushed in such a throng, because I saw this happening to many, I went away, bidding a long farewell to the sophist enamoured of death who was pronouncing his own funeral oration before his demise.

One suspects that those “for” and “against” this “stranger” correspond to Marcionite and Catholic communities. The important thing to see is that the Eucharist was used as a place to confirm martyrs in the early community. This idea is common to both texts again.

Both texts make it seem as if “the stranger” didn’t really have to die. Perhaps it was for entirely satirical purposes that Morte has its protagonist make the fire himself and jump into the flames with out any real clear and present danger. We shall never know for sure. What is important to see again is that it is at this point in the common narrative that Martyrium has Herod take Polycarp into his carriage as we have already reported. As Polycarp refuses Herod’s efforts to spare his life he is compared to Judas and a voice from heaven congratulates Polycarp for his steadfastness. The burning sacrifice is about to be completed for real.

There is something inherently contradictory in the Martyrium narrative which I would like to reader’s attention. Even though the author claims that Polycarp was already decided to die by fire in the beginning of the narrative we see something like an editor’s hand appear and change the complexion of the story completely. The new storyline suddenly makes it seem as Polycarp merely by confessing he was Christian forced the proconsul into executing him. This was certainly not accurate in the Antonine period. Why then did the editor transform the original narrative?

One wonders why the fourth century author of Martyrium has deliberately injected familiar stock devices into his account. Was it to assist in differentiating Polycarp from Peregrinus? Did he recast the story in light of recent persecutions against Christians in his day? Or was it Lucian who was deliberately trying to discredit the reality of a contemporary persecution of believers? The latter seems the most unlikely given other obvious “stock devices” in Martyrium – namely the sudden introduction of the Jews as protagonists in the narrative.

All of a sudden we are supposed to believe that Jews were so numerous in Smyrna that they alone had the power to convince the proconsul to execute Polycarp. It is claimed that they wanted him to be fed to the wild beasts but the proconsul declares instead that:

that it was not lawful for him, since he had closed the games. Then they thought fit to cry out with one accord that Polycarp should be burned alive.

None of this can be taken seriously. This is obvious part of the reshaping of the historical details to conform to the pattern first set by the gospels. Polycarp is being laid out as a figure equal to Jesus just as Lucian reports of his Peregrinus.

The subsequent editor of the Martyrium text reminds the readers his readers immediately after the Jews supposedly succeed in securing Polycarp’s execution 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.’” Once again the artificiality of the overall narrative should make us seriously doubt almost all its claims – including that the events ever occurred at Smyrna at all.

I put it to you that only where the two texts agree can we be sure that the fourth century Christian editor is still in touch with actual historical details. One such agreement is as aforementioned that Morte also confirms that the martyrdom of the “stranger” occurred after the “games were closed.” We read Lucian report that:

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.

Once again an unmistakable parallel between the two texts that defies explanation other than of course the acknowledgement once again that the same event is being described by two different witnesses for two very different purposes.

Notice again how Martyrium despite earlier introducing those “stock devices” (i.e. blaming the Jews, denying to swear to Caesar etc.) ultimately agrees with Lucian’s portrait again and again coming back to the idea of Polycarp’s sacrifice as being entirely voluntary. Whereas Lucian exaggerates this by having the “stranger” prepare the pyre entirely on his own Martyrium instead says that the:

These things were done with great speed,—more quickly than they were said,—the crowds immediately collecting from the workshops and baths timber and fagots, the Jews being especially zealous in the work, as is their wont.

We already noted that the addition of the Jews as hostile agents in the martyrdom is a mere “stock device.” Nevertheless ignore that for a moment and notice how haphazard the preparations are. This is not the Christian persecutions were originally carried out at this time. It is rather a spontaneous expression of one man’s will to die for God.

As we are continuing to chalk up parallels between the two texts it is important to pay careful attention to what immediately follows in Martyrium. We read of the seemingly insignificant details 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.

Martyrium puts forward the idea that Polycarp was dressed in “stinky old clothes.” If the two accounts are somehow related this is surely something which we should expect Lucian to turn for satirical effect.

Indeed just as we suspected Morte reports much the same scene only from the perspective of someone trying to deprecate the proceedings. Lucian mockingly puts forward 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. When the moon was rising—for she too had to witness this glorious deed—he came forward, dressed in his usual fashion, and with him the leaders of the Cynics, in particular, the gentleman from Patras, with a torch—no bad understudy. Proteus too was bearing a torch. 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 Martyrium that Polycarp never changed his clothes.

We should also pay attention paid to the “disrobing” of the martyr in either narratives; it wasn’t a necessarily prerequisite to execution. Instead it was another little detail which binds both texts together. Lucian follows this up by saying that his “stranger”:

requested incense to throw on the fire, when someone had proffered it, he threw it on, and gazing towards the south—even the south, too, had to do with the show —he said, "Spirits of my mother and my father, receive me with favour." With that he leaped into the fire, he was not visible, however, but was encompassed by the flames, which had risen to a great height.

The parallel material in Martyrium interestingly says that:

Forthwith then the materials prepared for the pile were placed about him; and as they were also about to nail him to the stake. He said, ‘Leave me thus; for he who hath given me strength to endure the fire, will also grant me strength to remain in the fire unmoved without being secured by you with nails.’ So they did not nail him, but bound him. And he, with his hands behind him, and bound like a noble ram taken from a great flock, an acceptable burnt-offering unto God omnipotent.

Once again there is an underlying voluntary nature to the offering which has escaped most commentators. These are not a pathetic displays of innocent victim wrongly pushed into the flames by an “evil protagonist.” Rather, they are separate reports of one man seeking to make a spectacle out of his public death.

Indeed before moving on I want to move on I would like to demonstrate some of the common gnostic elements in both reports. While most people wouldn’t normally identify Polycarp as a “gnostic” I feel that the word has gotten a bad rap from theologians. Gnostikos merely means “to bring into acquaintance” and the martyr’s job in essence was according to the early literature to bring eyewitnesses into acquaintance with their heavenly Father.

For this reason then Polycarp’s prayer as described in Martyrium emphasizes himself as “the slave” through whom his witnesses “receive the knowledge of the Father.” Look carefully at Morte again and notice how Lucian reports that:

The Cynics stood about the pyre, not weeping, to be sure, but silently evincing a certain amount of grief as they gazed into the fire, until my gorge rose at them, and I said, "Let us go away, you simpletons. It is not an agreeable spectacle to look at an old man who has been roasted, getting our nostrils filled with a villanous reek.

Why are they staring into the flames? The answer is obvious to anyone who has studied the phenomenon of martyrdom in the early Church. They are looking to see Christ in his example.

Lucian’s report has the “stranger” declaring that “the father” should “receive him with favor.” Martyrium records Polycarp’s prayer as a petition to the Father for him to “receive a portion in the number of martyrs … unto resurrection of eternal life.” Martyrium says that as Polycarp “finished his prayer, the firemen lighted the fire … we, to whom it was given to see, saw a wonder, and we were preserved that we might relate what happened to the others. For the fire presented the appearance of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, and made a wall about the body of the martyr.” In Morte similarly says that he “encountered many people coming out to see the show themselves, for they expected to find him still alive.”

All in all it should be quite apparent to anyone reading the material so far that the two accounts are almost identical. However I have saved the two strongest parallels for the end because they both appear at the termination of both accounts. Martyrium identifies a bird as flying out of its pyre saying specifically that:

a dove came out and a quantity of blood so that it extinguished the fire; and the whole crowd marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this man also was one, the most wonderful teacher in our times, apostolic and prophetic, who was bishop of the catholic Church

Of course Lucian must have heard the same as occurring with his martyr for he writes:

when the pyre was kindled and Proteus flung himself bodily in, a great earthquake first took place, accompanied by a bellowing of the ground, and then a vulture, flying up out of the midst of the flames, went off to Heaven, saying, in human speech, with a loud voice “I am through with the earth; to Olympus I fare.” They were wonder-struck and blessed themselves with a shudder, and asked me whether the vulture sped eastwards or westwards; I made them whatever reply occurred to me.

It can’t be mere coincidence that a bird came out of a prominent Christian martyr in this part of the world at that particular time. He must have been made aware of the contemporary claims about this creature.

The facts are that claims of a bird flying out of a dead persons body are very rare in the history of recorded history. Pearse reminds the reader of Plato and Augustus having reports of eagles associated with their passing but here again half a century separates the two men. In the case of the supposedly separate deaths of “Peregrinus” and “Polycarp” we are to believe that two Christian martyrs living and dying at approximately the same in history and side by side in Greece and Asia Minor and both dying a “martyrdom of fire” also had birds flying from their charred corpse. I think we’d all have a better chance of winning the lottery than of this kind of a thing being duplicated twice.

Indeed everything about Lucian’s account seems to recognize that this story was having a great impact on contemporary Christianity. If Peregrinus was really such an influential figure why has everyone forgotten his martyrdom? Isn’t it more likely that what we are witnessing here is the death which started the explosion in Catholic belief? In other words, because this “stranger” made a spectacular witness of his faith many others came to believe in his authority?

Of course they don’t teach these things in Sunday school but consider for a moment how important Polycarp’s voluntary sacrifice in flames was to the Church. Everyone cites in the late second century A.D. seems to be aware of the circumstances of his death. This is exactly why Lucian seems to have written his work – i.e. to ridicule that influence. The only difference of course is that Morte mockingly identifies the bird as an “ugly vulture” while Martyrium canonizes the apparition as a “beautiful dove.” Each author is only playing to the pre-existent prejudices of his audience.

If you want to get an idea of how significant this martyrdom was to the contemporary world look carefully at what following Morte. Lucian comes back to the site of the martyrdom only to find a bearded old man with a:

general air of consequence, telling all about Proteus, and how, since his cremation, he had beheld him in white raiment a little while ago, and had just now left him walking about cheerfully in the Portico of the Seven Voices, wearing a garland of wild olive. Then on top of it all, he put the vulture, swearing that he himself had seen it flying up out of the pyre, when I myself had just previously let it fly to ridicule fools and dullards.

The important thing to gain from this is that despite what Lucian says in his introduction, Morte is necessarily developed to specifically counter the oral traditions surrounding the martyrdom of Polycarp. This was the furthest thing from a “chance encounter” the death of the “stranger” was sending ripple effects throughout contemporary Roman society.

Polycarp’s death was recognized to have had a wide-impact on contemporary society at large in Martyrium. The narrator concludes with the acknowledgement that “the blessed Polycarp … is especially remembered more than the others by all men, so that he is talked of even by the heathen in every place: for he showed himself not only a notable teacher, but also a distinguished martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate, seeing that it was after the pattern of the Gospel of Christ.” Was Morte part of a greater tradition of pagan reaction against Polycarp? Again I certainly think so but I will have to tackle this in a subsequent article.

Indeed Martyrium also seems to echo Lucian’s claims of witnesses to Peregrinus’ “resurrection” or continued existence after his being burned alive. Pionius explains how “the blessed Polycarp showed me in a revelation, as I will declare in what follows.” In other words, even after the martyrdom the man I have demonstrated to be the founder of the Catholic tradition still contacted his followers.

I believe also that this is the “glory” which Lucian identifies his “stranger” as seeking after. It is echoed in Martyrium where Herod’s circle encourages the magistrate to hold back on giving up his body, `lest,' it was said, `they should abandon the crucified One and begin to worship this man.’” There are obvious echoes of the gospel here again but all of this only reinforces an underappreciated historical phenomenon I have been examining for some time. Polycarp was a near messianic figure in the early Catholic Church.

Of course none of us still worship Polycarp rather than Jesus. Nevertheless there is a common thread which runs through all my investigations – the question of whether Polycarp in his lifetime was venerated as the Paraclete in the Montanist manner. The evidence seems to indicate that for Irenaeus and many others, Polycarp was possessed of the very Holy Spirit from John and thus had the authority to know things as if Jesus himself were there within his soul.

I could cite the idea in Irenaeus of Polycarp presiding over a “royal court” and the like but for the moment I want to move on to confront the absolutely most significant point of contact between Morte and Martyrdom yet. It comes almost at the end of Lucian’s account where he reflects upon influence of the “stranger” not only upon the many the witnesses at Olympia but:

also to the other Greeks, to whom he said he had sent letters. The story is that he dispatched missives to almost all the famous cities—testamentary dispositions, so to speak, and exhortations and prescriptions—and he appointed a number of ambassadors for this purpose from among his comrades, styling them " messengers from the dead" and "underworld couriers.”

Lightfoot rightly notes that these words represent clear citations from the Ignatian corpus. Yet what is “Peregrinus” doing sending out these letters, you ask? We will see shortly that this corpus is directly identified as being Polycarp’s historical handiwork.

Lucian uses the connection between “Peregrinus” and “Ignatius” to prove what I said earlier – namely that the forged epistles were employed as part of a letter writing campaign throughout Greece to support the foundation of a new Church. Morte sees the martyrdom of its maniacal “stranger” as the last part of a master plan to subvert the pre-existent Christian community. Lucian ridicules this “poor wretch” identifying him not only as a liar but one who “did and said everything with a view to glory and the praise of the multitude, even to the extent of leaping into fire.”

He is left with one question – why would this madman have carried such a thing? Why forge epistles in another man’s name (a man whose name “Ignatius” interestingly means “burning one” or “angel of the presence”)? Even if all these things did accomplish the intended purpose of subverting the established (Marcionite) Church why carry it out given that he “was sure not to enjoy the praise because he could not hear it”?

Why go through all this anonymous forgery? Why done various “forms” like a Proteus manipulating letters and texts not only in the name of “Ignatius” but also other luminaries like “Paul,” “John” and various other “fellow workers” when Polycarp himself was “sure not to enjoy the praise”? Could it be that a man was that devoted to the Church that his forgeries could be see as being done out of “love” for its apostles? Could such a thing still viewed today as thing worthy of praise even today?

Whatever the case, Lightfoot while unable to recognize the pattern of forgery in the case of his study of Polycarp, manages to “picks up the sense” when he gets around to examining his “double” in the figure of Lucian’s “stranger.” According to him Lucian’s work “caricatures the progress of Ignatius through Asia Minor.” In other words, he sees the same phenomenon we just examined but views Ignatius as the real person. The “stranger” is only a satirical tool imitating the supposedly authentic life of the Church Father whose name means “burning one.”

According to Lightfoot “there is very strong reason for believing that Lucian has drawn his picture, at least in part, from the known circumstances of Ignatius’ history.” But this is utterly absurd! The parallels we have demonstrated between the “Polycarp the stranger” and “Peregrinus” now immediately shatter any believability whatsoever in the Ignatian canon.

While Lightfoot is certain that Ignatian epistles stood as the authentic background to the charlatan described in Lucian’s work we now certainly know better. He is correct in seeing the reference to the falsified canon in Morte but his faith in the Catholic canon sends him off in a hopeless task of defending the authenticity of Ignatius. He reminds us of a researcher who is so incensed that stones can’t float that he blames the water for the problem.

Similarly his opponent Killen who rightly wants to deny the authenticity of the canon is similarly distracted by his love for the apostolic Fathers. He attacks Lightfoot’s employment of Morte to prove the historical veracity of the Ignatian epistles saying “Peregrinus” begins his life by killing his father and “dies like a madman and yet we are asked to believe that Lucian has thus sketched the history of an Apostolic Father!”

Of course my answer to these traditional scholars is – yes Polycarp was undoubtedly guilty in having a hand in the death of his precursor, Marcion, the “father” of the Church. He was certainly the ringleader in the false dissemination of the Ignatian canon to support the triumph of his own vision of a new Catholic orthodoxy. Of all previous examinations of this material Detering was the closest to getting it right; he just didn’t hit the bull's-eye.

To this end I implore my reader don’t be deceived any more by simple disguises. Previous generations of scholars couldn’t see “Polycarp” as the “stranger” of Lucian. I am sure that none of you will have any doubts about my identification. We have unmasked Polycarp, the savior of the Church, and look what we found. As flimsy a thing as a change of locale and a few superficial details and no one sees him any longer as a stranger.

Ah but generations of comic book aficionados buy into Superman being disguised by a pair of eyeglasses. Why should religious scholars be any better? Maybe Polycarp always wanted to be the stranger; so strange that we would never recognize him for whom he really was. Like Clark Kent he reports on super-heroic “acts” however the only difference being that the things in his historical dispatches never happened until the very end. Only then, after taking off his “stinky” clothes and throwing himself on the flaming pyre he finally became transformed into the man he always wanted to be.

In a flash all the invented things he had established in his writings over the years took on a new meaning. It was clear that his faith could move mountains. Through his display of “belief” he proved to all those gathered at Olympia that he alone was the true heir of the apostles. His voluntary death demonstrated clearly for all to see that he was “Christ-like” in his mindset and he was a man worthy of the deepest admiration.

Perhaps a new standard of truthfulness was coming to its own. Maybe “belief” could justify anything - perhaps imagined things were now truer than historical occurrences. Perhaps one man’s demonstration of virtue had the authority to wipe away the charge that none of the things he claimed in his books and letters ever happened as verifiable fact. These things are left up to future generations to decide. The first step has now been accomplished. Polycarp is no longer a stranger to us; he is Peregrinus.

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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