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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2023-01-22T09:44:07-05:00January 23rd, 2023|Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

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  1. tom.hennell January 23, 2023 at 5:43 am

    Fascinating Bart; and convincing.

    With particular respect to Polycarp though, but his epistle rather than his martyrdom; I am intrigued how, as a translator, did you handle the sections preserved only in Latin?

    Do you translate the Latin portions directly into English?

    Or do you reconstruct a complete Greek letter from the Latin, and then translate that Greek text into English?

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2023 at 6:30 pm

      Yes, I translated the Latin into English. As you may know, at one point the Latin could be retrotranslated into Greek in a way that completely changes the quesiton of when and in what context the letter was written (or rather whether it is one letter or two)

  2. Moshe25 January 23, 2023 at 8:02 am

    I’ve heard a claim that Polycarp was a a disciple of John son of Zebedee the disciple of Jesus. Is there any evidence to this claim?

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2023 at 6:33 pm

      It’s what Irenaeus says, who claims he knew Polycarp when he (Irenaeus) was young. But it’s interesting that Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, which we still have, quotes Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but never John!

      • tom.hennell January 26, 2023 at 11:36 am

        I have seen it suggested Bart – by Michael Holmes I think – that Polycarp is abridging 1 John 4:3 in saying “everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist” (7:1). Would you agree?

        • BDEhrman January 29, 2023 at 12:02 pm

          Do you mean with the implication that Polycarp was familiar with 1 John? No, I don’t think it’s a direct literary dependence, but I’m not wed to the view. It would be interesting if it was. I suppose it would be the first attestation of 1 John (apart from 2 john, which more clearly paraphrases the verse); and there would be nothing to suggest that Polycarp thought John wrote the letter. (But one key point is that if he is quoting 1 John, it would be additional evidence against the important textual variant in the verse “who looses Jesus” instead of “who does not confess Jesus” I think Harnack has a long article on the Poycarp citation, but I’m away from my resources just now and can’t check.

          • tom.hennell January 30, 2023 at 4:41 am

            I fully agree, Bart, that there is no indication (were we to assume Polycarp as referring to 1 John) that he associates this letter with the Gospel of John.

            My interest , perhaps with reference to your recent work on the Apocalypse, is more in Polycarp’s application of the term ‘Antichrist’. Much Christian understanding of the Apocalypse of John is focussed on identifying one or more apocalyptic figures in that vision with the person of ‘Antichrist’; though that term is not found directly in the text.

            Whereas the term ‘Antichrist’ in the letters of John, appears to present a contrary understanding of ‘antichrists’ as contemporary, non-apocalyptic, antagonists. The Polycarp reference appears , to me, to align with this latter view.

            So, if we see the letters of John as the product of a particular community of Christian believers, then it does not seem that much of a stretch to see Polycarp as in some way related to that community.

          • BDEhrman January 31, 2023 at 4:48 pm

            Yes, I agree. That is the close connection with the Johannine letters and Polycarpt. I don’t think Revelation figures into the discussion of that though, since he doesn’t present an alterntive understanding of the Antichrist.

      • Moshe25 January 26, 2023 at 10:00 pm

        Fascinating! Is there any discernible reason that Polycarp would not have quoted from John? Like for example that he did not not consider it canon/divinely inspired?

        • BDEhrman January 29, 2023 at 12:21 pm

          More likely he simply hadn’t heard of it.

  3. wpoe54 January 23, 2023 at 11:54 am

    Were doves used by other ancient writers as a symbol of the spiritual? Or is the use of the imagery specific to Christianity?

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2023 at 6:36 pm

      Great question. I don’t know much about it, but I’m sure there’s a lot to be known. Doves show up elsewhere, of coruse (e.g., Noah’s ark). Maybe someone else on teh blog can help us out o nthat one.

    • giselebendor January 24, 2023 at 9:33 pm

      David and the Dove. Psalm55:6
      David is in great spiritual distress ” Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at peace”

      Song of Songs. 2:14 ” My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice”

      Talmud – The Spirit of God hovering over the waters is like a dove that hovers over her young.

      Aphrodite/Venus is symbolized by a dove.

      The name Jonah, as in the Book of Jonah. Jonah means dove in Hebrew.

      Incidentally, in the film Jesus of Montreal the surname of Jesus/Daniel is Coulombe, a variation of Colombe, dove.

      • BDEhrman January 26, 2023 at 3:52 pm

        Yup, re “Daniel” — not an accident! Little in that moive is. Brilliant. (But: think NT as well: the spirit of God descends on Jesus as a dove at the outset of his ministry, showing he is empowered by the Spirit.)

  4. GeoffClifton January 23, 2023 at 12:47 pm

    Dr Ehrman, so do we have very early copies of the Polycarp manuscript, if the ‘later’ ones available to Eusebius had the dove redacted? Or do we just have later ones that somehow managed to keep the dove in? Thanks (I’m hoping it’s the former 🙂).

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2023 at 6:37 pm

      There are seven mss with the account, dating from the 10th to the 13th century. That’s why Eusebius, from the 4th century, is important, even though he quotes it rather than copies it as a ms.

  5. hogpharmd January 23, 2023 at 3:08 pm

    Hi, Dr. Ehrman,
    Sorry this is off topic, but I’m new to this blog and couldn’t find this subject from a cursory glance of the archives. What do you think of scholars (Stevan Davies “Spirit Possession”: Bardic, 2014; Giovanni Bazzana “Having the Spirit of Christ”: Yale, 2020; Graham Twelftree “Jesus, the Exorcist”, etc.) positing that Jesus as exorcist and healer should be a historical, if not THE historical, category to describe him, and that “spirit possession” (viewed via cultural and psychological anthropology) continued from its inception in the Christ groups? In other words, “holy” spirit possession is a more powerful paradigm in explaining the beginning of Christianity than, as you stated in another blog, “I really do think that what made Jesus so special was that his followers believed he was raised from the dead. That started everything and made all the difference.”
    Thank you.

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2023 at 6:43 pm

      Yes, I think it’s possible that Jesus was seen as an exorcist. There are exorcists still today. And there were lots back then too (well attested). So I”m not sure that can explain why Jesus in particular was seen as special, except to the extent that most people are not thought of as exorcists. Those who are, though, are generally not intepreted as Saviors of the world, if you see what I mean.

      • hogpharmd January 24, 2023 at 9:34 pm

        Hi, Dr. Ehrman, I guess I’m explaining this poorly. Let me give a short excerpt from Davies’ book and you can respond: “Jesus of Nazareth had very little to do with the initial foundation and spread of Christianity…the description of the importance of Jesus’ career as an exorcist, provided and then rejected in the Gospel of Mark, and the vision of the originating Pentecostal impetus of the Christian movement presented in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, are generally correct and that those descriptions of the career of Jesus and the rise of the Christian movement do sufficiently account for the origin of Christianity.”

        • BDEhrman January 26, 2023 at 3:54 pm

          Ah. I’m not sure what to make of the claim that mark rejects the idea that Jesus is an exorcist, since it’s one of the leading motifs of the Gospel. And if he thinks that Pentecost really happened to explain the beginning of the church … uh — as a historical event? I completely agree that you cannot get the origin out of Xty out of the life and teachings of Jesus, but I don’t understand what he’s arguing here. Or, at least, if I do understand it (if I’m reading it right) I think he’s completley wrong.

      • Moshe25 January 26, 2023 at 9:48 pm

        Do you know where the idea and practice of exorcism comes from? Josephus mentions someone by the name of Eliezer who received the wisdom of exorcism from inherited tradition going back to Solomon and had performed exorcism in front of the emperor which he witnessed. But there is no mention of this practice in the Hebrew Bible. So where would it have originated from?

        • BDEhrman January 29, 2023 at 12:20 pm

          I don’t know. But it’s a remarkably wide cross-cultural phenomenon (i.e., found in numerous religious contexts)

  6. JacobSapp01 January 23, 2023 at 3:37 pm

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Unrelated to the specifics of this post, but connected to Paul’s apparent Martyrdom: Like Polycarp’s death, stories about Paul’s demise are also legendary in nature, but what do you make of the claims that Paul’s sarcophagus was excavated near the place where traditions say he died, and is subsequently in the possession of the Catholic Church? Is this evangelistic nonsense, or perhaps a genuine historical find? I have found several non-religious articles that treat the idea with an open mind, and at least take the claim seriously. Curious if you had any thoughts.

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2023 at 6:44 pm

      Nope. Bogus. But I”m interested — why do these evangelical writers think the CAtholics are keeping it hidden? ‘Cause otherwise they’d have to convert to evangelical Xty???

  7. fishician January 23, 2023 at 10:19 pm

    I seem to recall Morton Smith in Jesus the Magician saying that in pagan mysticism it was common to think of spirits taking the form of birds, which explains why the Holy Spirit was said to descend on Jesus like a dove. Your thoughts?

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2023 at 6:54 pm

      Ah, possibly?

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2023 at 6:54 pm

      Ah, possibly?

    • david January 28, 2023 at 2:22 pm

      Genesis 1:1 has the Spirit flying over the void. A proto-dove?

    • idglenn99 January 30, 2023 at 8:55 am

      I’ve always wondered why it is assumed that the symbols in major world religions must originate from obscure corners of paganism. Who did the pagans get their symbols from? Or what makes it more likely that pagans were capable of creating their own symbology than Christians or Jews for instance?

      • fishician January 30, 2023 at 10:28 pm

        I think Smith was noting that the bird-spirit association was common in the pagan religions of the area that predated the JudeoChristian tradition, but I don’t recall the rest of his reasoning. I don’t doubt that various religions come up with similar ideas independently, but it then looks like they are connected. Like when Jesus says something that sounds like Buddhism and some people assume he must have studied the teachings of the Buddha. Sometimes bright people come up with the same good ideas independently. Likewise with bad ideas!

  8. joeydag January 24, 2023 at 1:02 pm

    I decided to make a comment to point out a know know typo in the second sentence, but when I saw several instances of what I took as deliberate humor I wanted to applaud your choice of words in this passage “the air is filled not with the smell of reeking flesh but of sweet perfume. The pagan authorities are themselves incensed”.

    And when you remarked that the dove was removed “not just from Polycarp’s side but from the account” I knew I had to show my appreciation for this post.

  9. RAhmed January 27, 2023 at 11:27 pm

    In both this article and the one about Ignatius, you refer to scribal changes due to their anti-gnostic views. A question that comes to mind is, when and where were Gnostic Christian’s most active? And also, how does Gnostic Christianity even come into being (especially so early)? I mean how do you go from a very Jewish guy in Galilee to people thinking there were multiple gods and mix him into a complicated story involving Yaldabaoth, etc.? I get how Jesus was increasingly viewed as divine and that some(like Marcion) thought that the God of the OT was a differen god, but the Gnostic groups seems to have way more mythology built on and around all of this.

    • BDEhrman January 29, 2023 at 2:31 pm

      Ah, a much debated question. The consensus has shifted considerably from, say, 70 years ago, when it was widely thought still that Gnostics were around at the same time as the beginning of Christianity and influenced a number of the canonical books (e.g., the Gospel of John). Today it is usually thought that what we know of as Christain Gnosticism started appearing in the second century after nearly all the NT writings were completed. But Gnosticism is an extremely diverse and complicated phenomenon (or set of phenomena). These days it is usually thought to be derived from middle Platonic thought that has in some ways been Christianized.

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