For over two hundred years scholars of antiquity have worked diligently to determine which ancient writings by pagans, Jews, and Christians were actually produced by their alleged authors and which are by authors merely claiming to be some other famous person, as well as which originally anonymous writings were wrongly ascribed to one famous author or another.  If a book is wrongly ascribed, it’s not the author’s fault.  If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that would not make these books “forgeries.”  A “forgery” is when an author intentionally takes the identity of another (famous or important) person with the intent of deceiving her or his readers.  There were lots of reasons for doing that in antiquity, and I discuss all such matters on a popular level in my book Forged (HarperOne, 2011), where by and large I focus on the writings of the New Testament (e.g., the six letters that claim to be written by Paul but appear not to have been; and also letters by Peter; and James; and….).   I give a much more extensive discussion in my book Forgery and Counterforgery (Oxford University Press, 2013) written for scholars.

And that is where the present discussion is coming from, in my analysis of the Martyrdom of Polycarp.  In it I argue that the book was NOT written by an eyewitness to the event, but by someone *claiming* to be decades later.  In my previous post I got a bit into the weeds about how scholars have dealt with the authorship issue.  Here in this post I begin to lay out my case that the author is not who he indicates to his readers that he is.  Again, this will take a couple of posts, and they are not particularly weedy!  This particular one deals with a peculiarity of the text that I think (or hope!) you’ll find interesting. So, from my book:


To begin with – a factor rarely noted – it is precisely the claims of the author to be an eyewitness that show we are not dealing with an eyewitness account.   One should notice 

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where the author’s asseverations occur.  They occur at the very points of the narrative that are the most incredible and least susceptible of critical acceptance.  Whenever a miracle happens, the author vouches for its occurrence by claiming to have observed it.  The first time this happens is already in the summarizing account of the unbelievable noble endurance of torments by the Christian martyrs:

For who would not be astounded by their nobility, endurance, and love of the Master?  For they endured even when their skin was ripped to shreds by whips, revealing the very anatomy of their flesh, down to the inner veins and arteries, while bystanders felt pity and wailed.  But they displayed such nobility that none of them either grumbled or moaned, clearly showing us all that in that hour, while under torture, the martyrs of Christ had journeyed far away from the flesh, or rather, that the Lord was standing by, speaking to them. (2.2)

Not only did the Christians face brutal and excruciating torture, but they – all of them – refrained even from uttering a moan.  That showed “to us” that they were receiving divine succor.

Credulity is strained even more in the next two eyewitness reports.  The first is when Polycarp enters the place of his final trial:

But as he entered the stadium a voice came to Polycarp from heaven: “Be strong Polycarp, and be a man.” No one saw who had spoken, but those among our people who were there heard the voice. (9.1)

This voice from heaven, then, was not heard by anyone else; it was a miraculous exhortation available only to the Christians with privileged access to the heavenly realm.

The final eyewitness guarantee of a miracle is the most striking.  It occurs at the first attempt of the enemies of God to destroy his cherished saint:

When [Polycarp] sent up the “Amen” and finished the prayer, the men in charge of the fire touched it off.  And as a great flame blazoned forth we beheld a marvel – we to whom it was granted to see, who have also been preserved to report the events to the others.  For the fire, taking on the appearance of a vaulted room, like a boat’s sail filled with the wind, formed a wall around the martyrs’ body.  And he was in the center, not like burning flesh but like baking bread or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace.  And we perceived a particularly sweet aroma, like wafting incense or some other precious perfume. (15.1-2)

The fire does not touch the martyr’s body, but forms a wall around him; his body was not burned; and what wafted from the pyre was not the smell of reeking flesh but of perfume.   Not everyone noticed this, though, but only the eyewitness who can guarantee the truth of the report since he and the other Christians were there, were really there.

The problem with this alleged eyewitness report should be clear.  It is precisely at the most disputable and incredible parts of the narrative that the author inserts himself as someone who can testify to what he heard, saw, and smelled.  He does not insert himself at non-problematic points.  His self-assertion is meant, then, to provide much needed assurance for anyone inclined to think that those tortured ever might have moaned, or who doubt that voices come down from the heavens, or who might reasonably think that the flesh of martyrs could burn or stink.[1]


[1] The first person recurs later in the account as well, in the adoration of the martyr’s relics, which I will address later.