Outside the New Testament there are some truly terrific early Christian writings, including accounts of early martyrs. And sometimes we know know what the authors of these texts actually wrote, because our surviving manuscripts have differences. Sometimes rather bizarre differences.
There are lots and lots of textual variants in the various writings of the apostolic fathers. As with the New Testament (where there are thousands more manuscripts and hundreds of thousands more variants), most of the variant readings do not matter for much. But some of them are of real importance. Yesterday I mentioned one in Ignatius. Today I discuss one in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, possibly our earliest surviving Christian martyrology – that is, the first account, outside the New Testament, of a Christian being martyred for his faith. It is a fascinating account – required reading for anyone interested in early Christianity!
In the narrative, the old man Polycarp, Christian bishop of Smyrna, is tracked down and arrested by the local officials, who take him to the arena for public judgment. When he refuses to renounce his faith, he is ordered to be burned at the stake. But through a divine miracle, the flames never touch the saint; they instead form a kind of envelope around him, as if he is bread baking in the oven; and the air is filled not with the smell of reeking flesh but of sweet perfume. The pagan authorities are themselves incensed, and order the executioner to put an end to it all. He stabs Polycarp in the side, and there emerges a dove and such a quantity of blood that it extinguishes the fire. Now that’s a spectacular account.
A number of scholars since the nineteenth century, however, have doubted whether there was any dove. The reference to the bird does appear in all of the surviving manuscripts of the Martyrdom. But the passage is quoted more or less accurately by the church father Eusebius in the fourth century, in his Church History, and Eusebius doesn’t mention the dove – only the blood. Some scholars since the nineteenth century (including J. B. Lightfoot, that great scholar I mentioned in my previous post) have maintained that Eusebius would not have been averse to mentioning such a supernatural occurrence (as that remarkable dove) had he known it from the manuscripts of the event that he had available to him (so those manuscripts must not have had the dove in their account). Moreover, for these scholars, without the dove the account appears to be so restrained in its invocation of the supernatural that it (the account) looks like an authentic report, not a legendary story. And so, these scholars (esp. Lightfoot) have concluded that the dove was added by a later scribe, who wanted to magnify Polycarp, the great man of God, by showing that his departing spirit was in the untainted form of the dove, like the Holy Spirit in the Gospel accounts of Jesus.
I don’t buy this position, even though it is popular among scholars. In particular, one wonders why the author of the account himself could not have held some such view about Polycarp. Why, for example, is the emergence of a dove any more supernatural than the voice of God coming from the clouds (as it does), or the flames that refuse to touch the saint’s body, or the effusion of his blood that douses the entire conflagration? Moreover, it is important to remember that the dove is found in all of our surviving manuscripts of the text.
Supposing it were originally there, why might it have been removed, not just from Polycarp’s side but from the account?
Let me suggest one solution. The author of the Martyrdom is quite explicit that the death of Polycarp was in conformity with the Gospel – that is, that the account of this martyr’s death is modeled on Jesus’ passion in the Gospels. And so his descriptions of the events leading up to Polycarp’s death are clearly modeled on the earlier passion narratives of the Gospels: early on in the narrative Polycarp predicts his own death, he prays before his arrest, the officer in charge of the proceedings is called Herod, Polycarp is opposed by the crowds who call for his death – etc. etc. Given the parallels to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion, could it be that a scribe removed the dove from the martyrdom of Polycarp because it opened itself up to a heretical construal of the death of Jesus?
This is how it would work: We know of Gnostic groups who believed that Jesus and the Christ were separate beings, that Jesus was a man and the Christ was a divine aeon, who came into Jesus at the moment of his baptism in the form of a dove. One group, the Marcosians, had a special interpretation of the dove at Jesus’ baptism; according to Irenaeus, they noted that the numerical value of the letters of p-e-r-i-s-t-e-r-a (the Greek word for dove) were 801, the same as the numerical value of the two letters Alpha and Omega. For these Gnostics, the alpha and omega – the divine being – came into Jesus at his baptism. Moreover, these Gnostics typically argued that the divine being left Jesus prior to his death. Hence his cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God my God, why have you left me behind?”
The death of Polycarp was portrayed to stand in conformity with the Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus. Possibly its text was changed because it was thought to be too close to a Gnostic separationist understanding of Jesus’ yielding up of his divine element. This strikes me as at least possible, given the fact that the account is found in all of our surviving manuscripts, Lightfoot’s uneasiness over such a flagrantly unbelievable detail notwithstanding.
My overarching point: before one can even start translating an ancient text from one language (in this case: Greek) to another (English), one has to decide what to translate. Does one include the dove in the passage or not? The outcome on the translation is obviously rather seriously affected, whichever wording one chooses. I left the dove in there, where, in my view, it belongs.
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