Midweek Blog: Anger Choking the Holy Spirit in the Shepherd of Hermas

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Well, faithful readers, we have reached the end of our series on the Apostolic Fathers. Today’s installment will be the last before we switch gears. I want to begin a new series on Augustine next week, which I am excited about. Be on the lookout for those blogs in the future. Today’s post returns us to the Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century text which we have looked at previously. I wanted to highlight a small passage on anger from Hermas.

The picture above is of the character “anger” from the recent movie, “Inside Out.” Obviously it’s a bit of a humorous take on a very real and very powerful emotion. The picture of anger in Hermas is unfortunately much darker. The passage we are examining today comes from the “Commandments” section of Hermas, which, as the text relates, were given by the Shepherd to Hermas in order that they might be written down for later generations. The passage is from chapter 33:

“3 But if an angry temper approaches, immediately the holy spirit, which is very sensitive, is distressed because it does not have a clean place, and it seeks to leave the place. For it is choked by the evil spirit and does not have the room to serve the Lord the way it wants to, because it is polluted by the angry temper. For the Lord lives in patience, but the devil lives in an angry temper. 4 So if both spirits live together, it is unfortunate and evil for that person in whom they live.” (Hermas 33.3-4)

I find a few things intriguing about this passage. The first being that the holy spirit is “sensitive.” Now, it’s possible that Hermas is just talking about a “holy spirit” and not the third person of the Trinity. For example, above in verse 2, the text says, “If you are patient, the holy spirit that lives in you will be pure, uncontaminated by some other, evil spirit; living in a spacious room.” Side-stepping a possible question about the Holy Spirit being contaminated, I would argue that since the text is likely from the second century, it is unlikely that the author had a strong Trinitarian understanding of God. Therefore, the big theological question that one might want to ask, can’t be asked of such a text. Suffice it to say, Hermas understood there to be a holy spirit dwelling in believers that was indeed “sensitive” to other, evil spirits.

Additionally, the spirit can be “choked” by the evil spirit which comes from anger. I don’t know if this scares you as much as it does me, but the very idea that 1) our anger arises from an evil spirit and 2) that said evil spirit limits or obstructs a spirit from God shows just how powerful anger is. For those who have been angry before (likely most of you, I think) you know how anger can take over in a flash, compromising our ability to see things clearly and intelligently. That fits in with Hermas’ depiction of anger here.

Another element from the above passage is that the “Lord lives in patience” and the “devil lives in an angry temper.” Again, the attribution of anger to a demonic source is unsettling to say the least. However, it might be equally unnerving to note that in verse 6, Hermas notes that “if an angry temper is mixed with patience, the patience is polluted, and its intercession is no longer useful to God.” If we connect the dots here, it would seem that the author cautions against anger because the the devil can use it to pollute the patience in which the Lord lives (v. 3). Is the devil that powerful? Is anger? What about when Jesus is angry and “cleanses the temple?” Is that the devil’s work? Just some fun questions to leave hanging. (I honestly don’t know what Hermas would say with regard to Jesus using anger in cleansing the temple, but it would be a fun exercise).

To begin to wrap up our discussion today, I wanted to address the conclusions drawn above, namely that anger is the key to the devil unraveling God’s plan within our lives. Now, as with the rest of the Apostolic Fathers, Hermas should not be weighed the same as biblical books, despite the fact that some of the books in the collection were included in early codices, including Hermas). Hermas obviously is cautioning against allowing one’s anger to flourish within his or her own life. The purpose in doing so could be reflective of a culture which generally saw emotional outbursts and other displays of emotion as a weakness, particularly among men. See Peter Brown’s The Body and Society in my “Recommended Books” page.

However, I think the point that Hermas makes regarding anger is appropriate: that it is a dangerous emotion that has side effects which we mostly do not want in our lives. We should take heed that anger, especially going unchecked, can begin to breed other habits or general sourness of disposition. Hermas in the next chapter describes the chain of emotions that are linked to anger: “An angry temper is first of all foolish, fickle, and senseless. Then from foolishness comes bitterness, and from bitterness wrath, and from wrath anger, and from anger vengefulness. Then vengefulness, being composed of all these evil elements, becomes a great and incurable sin.” (Hermas 34.4)

To close, I think that many emotions can be linked to anger; certainly bitterness and vengeful thoughts. However, if we make an effort to curtail anger, can we stay on the side of patience, as Hermas would seem to suggest? Also, is anger at situations, people, places, injustices all on equal ground? Can there be good anger? If so what does it look like? These are some grandiose questions which I have considered for many years, particularly the latter two. I think I have come to the conclusion that “good anger” is truly hard to define, but does exist. Helpful right? What do you all think? I’d love to hear from you on this.

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Midweek Blog: The Didache and Proper Giving

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After last week’s sidebar into the world of Chrysostom and Suicide, this week we return to our series on the Apostolic Fathers. This will be the penultimate post in this series, with next week’s blog being the final installment. This week’s post examines a short book in the Apostolic Fathers, and possibly the earliest, the Didache. The title might seem weird, but it’s a Greek word meaning “the Teaching” and it comes from it’s heading: “The Teaching of the Lord to the Twelve Apostles.” This document probably originated around the end of the first century, but it’s possible that it dates as early as the middle of the first century, i.e. about 50 CE. Either way, it’s a very early example of church teaching, possibly predating much of the New Testament. This week’s blog examines a section from the Didache about giving and receiving.

The author writes:
“5 Do not be one who stretches out the hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving. 6 If you earn something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins. 7 You shall not hesitate to give, nor shall you grumble when giving, for you will know who is the good paymaster of the reward. 8 You shall not turn away from someone in need, but shall share everything with your brother or sister, and do not claim that anything is your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more so in perishable things!” (Didache, 4:5-8)

There is a lot within this text that I want to unpack, but the first thing that jumps out to me is how similar this is to New Testament passages. Jesus notes in Matthew 6:1-4 that Christians should give without wanting praise from others or announcing their gifts. Jesus also praises a poor widow in Mark 12: 42-44 for giving “everything she had to live on” (NIV). Acts 2: 42-47 describes how all the believers in the early church “sold their property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (NIV). There are others as well, but these passages line up quite closely with the text in the Didache. 

Jesus’ command towards freely giving without wanting praise from others aligns well with the Didache’s message to “not hesitate to give.” The story of the poor widow and the passage from Acts both line up with the Didache and its message to “not claim anything as your own,” and that all are sharers in perishable things. So does the Didache just parrot New Testament teaching on giving and receiving? Is there no reason to read it when you have the same principles in the Bible already?

Well, aside from the fact that Christians should read the Bible with more authority than the Apostolic Fathers, the passage from the Didache above has a couple of nuances that I want to highlight. The first being the line that “if you earn something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins” (Did. 4:6). What is the “ransom for sins” to which the author is referring? I think the author actually meant verse 7 to be the answer to that question: giving without hesitation to others. Should we look at almsgiving as ransom for our sins? Well, to side-step that theological question, yes and no. I think that we should practice almsgiving because we do not deserve the gift of salvation and atonement from Christ at all. However, I do think there’s a danger in viewing giving as a ransom for our sin; i.e. that it’s something we have to do, or worse, that we are somehow taking over Christ’s role in our own salvation. I think the principle is sound though: viewing giving as a “ransom for our sin” helps us remember that we have received much in the past. Therefore we should give “without hesitation” to those in need. The Didache, in verse seven, even notes that “you know who the good paymaster is of the reward.”

The second principle from our text today that I wanted to underscore is the idea of sharing what is imperishable and what is perishable (Did. 4:8). This idea is something that struck me, since the author actually starts off by saying that if we share what is imperishable, we should absolutely share what is perishable too. Now, one could sidestep this in their giving by saying that the author meant that we should only give to Christians (or those who are our brother or sister, or sharers in with us in what is imperishable). Some might say that verse 8 from the passage above is really just echoing Acts 2, with believers sharing every possession in a commune-type arrangement. I would push back against this idea on two fronts: The first being how can we know if the person in need is a true believer or not? I would argue that we can’t know and therefore should give indiscriminately. The second is I feel that the author actually means that if we are sharing “what is imperishable” with those in need, we are sharing the love and the Gospel of Jesus. Therefore we should not withhold sharing our material possessions.

Disclaimer here: I think that the author is indeed talking to a Christian community and is concerned with how they are not being truly open with giving of their possessions, wealth, etc. However, I think that the lesson should be that since Christians are called to “go out into the world and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20), we are indeed called to “share what is imperishable” with the rest of the world. In that spirit, we should be willing to share what is perishable, i.e. our possessions or wealth or time with others in need, Christian or not.

Living in Los Angeles, this hits home for me. There are over 100,000 homeless people in the city, with many of them living on Skid Row. While I support the LA City Mission, I really wish I did more sometimes. There are often people on the street near where I walk or near the beach in Santa Monica and I often do not stop to share anything with them. I make excuses about being busy, having no money on me, being in the middle of running an errand, etc. I often wonder if Jesus would stop every time, even though He, like I, would encounter some of the same people week in and week out. I am betting that Jesus would indeed always stop. I think that in the spirit of the Didache passage above, I hope to do more. I hope to share more, to give more. May I be more focused on not “withdrawing my hands when it comes to giving,” and less focused on “stretching out the hands to receive.”

What do you think? Is this passage about giving to the poor and needy around us, or is it more about sharing withing the early church? Can it be about both? I welcome your thoughts and also your stories about how you give in your own life to those in need.

Midweek Blog: Competition and 2 Clement

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(Image courtesy usnews.com)

In continuing our series on the Apostolic Fathers, this week’s blog examines the book of 2 Clement. While some is known about the authorship and date of 1 Clement, much less is known about 2 Clement, who wrote it, and when. It is traditionally associated with 1 Clement and many have thought it to be an early 2nd century text with some connection to Corinth (Holmes 134-35). Either way, although much is not really known about the background of the text, it is preserved in collections of the Apostolic Fathers and therefore worth examining.

For our blog this week, I wanted to discuss 2 Clement chapter 7 and its discourse on competition:

“So then, my brothers and sisters, let us compete in the games, realizing that competition is at hand. While many come to enter the earthly competitions, not all are crowned, but only those who have trained hard and competed well. Let us compete, therefore, so that we may all be crowned. Let us run the straight course, the heavenly competition, and let many of us come to enter it and compete, so that we may also be crowned. And if we cannot all be crowned, let us at least come close to it. We must realize that if one who competes in the earthly contest is caught cheating, he is flogged, disqualified, and thrown out of the stadium. What do you think? What will be done to the one who cheats in the heavenly competition?” (7:1-5)

The image of the heavenly competition is something that appears in the New Testament (2 Tim. 4:7-8; Hebrews 12:1-2), and it therefore should not surprise us that it is employed by the author of 2 Clement as well. Here we have something a little bit more elaborate, however. The notion of what happens to cheaters is one of the most poignant parts of this passage, in my opinion. The author notes that in earthly competitions cheaters are “flogged, disqualified, and thrown out of the stadium.” While in sports today cheaters are punished, they are not flogged. However, the abuse they have to endure on social media could be a form of “flogging.” Their reputation certainly experiences it to a degree.

Take Lance Armstrong’s example for a minute. He was seen as the golden child of American athletics. He beat cancer and won the Tour de France 7 times in a row. Well, it turns out he cheated and experienced a dramatic fall from grace. Heck, half of baseball players from the 1990’s and early 2000’s have been accused and found guilty of cheating to the point that it may have ruined their chances of being in the Hall of Fame someday (see Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, A-Rod, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, etc.).

But bringing this blog back to 2 Clement, we see a question that hangs in the air in verse 5: “What do you think? What will be done to the one who cheats in the heavenly competition?” The author answers the question in verse six by quoting “Their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched, and they will be a spectacle for all flesh” (Isaiah 66:24). Obviously this punishment is far worse and more lasting than being flogged and thrown out of the stadium. The audience of 2 Clement is thus warned not to cheat in the heavenly race because the punishment is far worse. It also fits the author’s phrasing in 7:3 that “if we cannot all be crowned, let us at least come close to it.” Clearly just competing in the race is important, even if the crown is not earned. Putting aside any theological debate about what that means, let us as modern readers see that it’s better to get 2nd or 3rd or 50th in the competition (competing with integrity) than to cheat.

Competitions can be fun, lighthearted (like those in the picture above), or serious (like those in the Olympics). I find the topic of competition applicable particularly in a 21st century Western context. In a funny exercise, go ahead and do a google image search for “competition.” Many of the images that come up are people in business suits racing in athletic-style events trying to get there first. The metaphor there is obvious: in the business world, getting there first is always the goal. In other careers, often getting to the top requires that we step on others along the way. The importance of competing with integrity therefore should not be missed, even in those contexts. Isn’t it better to remain honorable and end up not quite as far as you could have if you had “cheated?” I feel that this is the message regarding competition that the author of 2 Clement is trying to convey.

What do you think? How have you seen competition play out in your own life, career, ministry? Can it be fun, healthy, or even productive? Is there a type of positive competition?

Midweek Blog: Is the USA a Christian Nation? The Epistle to Diognetus and Life as a Foreigner

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In continuing our series on the Apostolic Fathers, this week’s post examines a small text known as the Epistle to Diognetus. This text is more of a tract than an epistle, with a general tone of defending and promoting Christianity that was written sometime between 150-225 AD (Holmes, 686-689). The section of the text that I wanted to focus on today comes from chapter five of Diognetus:

“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom… But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.” (5.1-5.5)

This text should not surprise Christians who read it, especially based on its date and tone. Much of the rest of chapter five talks about Christians facing persecution, not exposing their children (unlike the rest of Roman society), and “not sharing their wives” (5.7). The period between 150-225 AD was marked by persecutions and also characterized as the period of the Christian apologists. Justin Martyr was one of the more famous apologists, who wrote in defense of Christianity. Like Justin, Diognetus seeks to show how Christians’ true citizenship and allegiance is not of this world, but a part of the heavenly kingdom. Such a theme will be later picked up and popularized by Augustine in his City of God, which draws a separation between the earthly city and the heavenly city. Suffice it to say, the idea that Christians’ “do not belong to this world” (John 15.19) is a theme that runs throughout Christian history. In fact such a phrase is repeated often today in Churches in the USA.

If that is true, then why do people also try to claim that the USA is a “Christian nation” and that it was “founded on Christian principles?” I would contend that people who argue such things should check their American history, since this country was founded on religious freedom and freedom from harsh taxation. Religious freedom means exactly that, not simply “freedom to be whichever type of Christian you choose.”

As we get closer and closer to the next presidential election in 2016, we will be having debates and primaries and other political speeches being made. The upcoming general election has so many republican candidates that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Without getting into political discussions about which candidate you do or do not support, there is usually a candidate or two that claims that they want to get this country back in line with it’s founding Christian principles (usually to gain the support of very conservative groups and a majority of the Religious Right). This is not to say that all who identify as the Religious Right want the USA to get back to being a Christian nation, but there are many within it who do.

I would contend that such groups fail to understand texts like Diognetus which are a part of Christian history. Christian thinkers throughout history have underscored the truth that Christians have to navigate life on earth as foreigners whose true citizenship is in heaven. Jesus himself in John 15 (noted above) emphasizes that the disciples are not of this world. Why do people want to continually view the USA as a special exception to this idea? Why do people think that the USA is God’s new promised land?

There are many different types of people who make up the USA, including many different religious groups. To “get this country back to being a Christian nation” would ostracize a great many of those who call this country home. In my opinion, Christians should worry less about lining up the political machine with their specific Church’s policies and doctrines (since even if this were a “Christian nation,” whose Christianity would rule it?), and more about how to help the people in the USA. Making this country a safer, better, and more enjoyable place for all is a great political goal. Just don’t try to make it the Christian capital of the world. After all, Diognetus tells us that there are many nations around the world that have Christians in them. We can’t forget about their place in this world either.

Midweek Blog, “The Last Days Are at Hand:” The Epistle of Barnabas and Reading the Signs of the Times

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In continuing my series on the Apostolic Fathers, I wanted to examine the Epistle of Barnabas today. My reason for doing so lies within many of the comments I have read online and even heard from some individuals regarding the United States today. I want to preface this by saying that this blog will not get into the recent debates regarding the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage a few weeks ago (I find that such debates belong in a more philosophy- or theology-centric blog); however, the ruling has been one of the main catalysts for individuals clamoring that the end of days must be at hand. At this point, I want to jump into the Epistle of Barnabas.

Barnabas reads:

“We must therefore investigate the present circumstances very carefully and seek out the things that are able to save us. Let us avoid, therefore, absolutely all the works of lawlessness lest the works of lawlessness overpower us, and let us hate the deception of the present age, so that we may be loved in the age to come… The last stumbling block is at hand, concerning what the scriptures speak.” (Barnabas 4:1-3)

And further:

“Consequently, let us be on guard in these last days, for the whole time of our faith will do us no good unless now, in the age of lawlessness, we also resist, as befits God’s children, the coming stumbling blocks.” (4:10)

As we did last week, I want to pause to note that the original intent and flavor of such commentary on the world around the author was likely rhetorical in order to inspire direct action. Barnabas was probably written sometime between 70-135 AD (Holmes 373), and contains a general anti-Jewish tone throughout. Israel often serves as a negative example, such as their tendency of reading Mosaic laws too literally, instead of an allegorical understanding of the laws’ true, spiritual message (Barnabas 10). As the author’s purpose is to invoke action by Christians in the present age, one must read the above passages from chapter four as a rhetorical device designed to inspire Christian piety in their lives.

To pull a 180, there have been many people throughout American Church History who have claimed intimate knowledge of when the end of the world would come. Heck, Y2K inspired a number of groups to wait for the end times on a mountaintop, or in Jerusalem, for a front-row seat to the apocalypse. Even today many people will point to social or political events in order to show that “the end is nigh.” I think that some people may have called Barack Obama the antichrist a time or two. The most recent apocalypse-inspiring event has been the SCOTUS’s legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states. Some have decided that this will be what finally causes Christ to return to earth.

The reason I am making the connection between those who claim the end of the world is upon us and the Epistle of Barnabas is twofold. First, the idea that a text written in the first two centuries AD (almost 2,000 years ago) taught its audience that they were living in the last days should serve as proof that no one has any idea when the end of the world is actually going to happen (so how about we stop trying to figure it out?).

The second reason is more nuanced. I wonder what someone who today claims that the end of the world is coming actually wants to accomplish by such rhetoric. Does that person want to inspire his or her own community toward a more righteous way of life (as Barnabas did)? Or is their message intended to scare others into joining their ranks/ aligning with their ideology? Do people who are currently claiming that the USA is “beyond saving” really want it to be saved? Or would they rather the USA just align with their message and teaching?

In closing, I feel like the type of people who are so focused on the end of days often miss out opportunities to serve the world around them. Instead of seeing some event as “the sign that Christ is returning soon,” why not try to lovingly minister to those with whom one disagrees? If one’s goal is truly that people will hear the Gospel, why the fear-mongering? Why not action that speaks a loving message into the hearts of those around you? I would argue that much of Barnabas has an ax to grind (particularly against Jews). As a historian, I do like how it is an early example of a more allegorical interpretation of scripture and shows how that exegetical method developed. Yet, I wonder how Jews would have responded to such a work. I conclude with one final question: Do people claiming the “end is nigh” ever wonder what impact their message has on people? As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.

Midweek Blog: The Shepherd of Hermas and the Burning of Black Churches

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(Photo courtesy CNN.com)

I missed blogging last week because I was travelling to Washington DC to see my oldest nephew become a Bar Mitzvah. It was a great time of celebration and seeing family. Now that I am back, I want to pick up my series on the Apostolic Fathers by exploring a small passage from The Shepherd of Hermas. It is one of the more interesting books of the Apostolic Fathers (and certainly the longest). There are many elements and passages from Hermas that I could focus on (and I will probably do at least one more blog from this intriguing book), but the passage I want to highlight today will serve a discussion on current events.

The work is probably from several periods with certain sections arising at various points from the late first to the middle of the second century (Holmes, 447). The passage I want to underline today is from chapters 9 and 10. Hermas, goes up to a field accompanied by an elderly woman who will show him “what you must see” (9:2). Hermas sees an ivory couch (9:4) and is instructed by the woman to sit on the couch (9:8), but he is prevented from sitting on the right side and instead told that he must sit on the left (9:9). Hermas is not a fan of being told to sit on the left and the woman notices. She responds, which leads us to the main section that I want to focus on:

“”The place on the right side is for others, who have already pleased God and have suffered for the sake of the Name. But you fall short of sitting with them. But persevere in your sincerity, as you are now doing, and you will sit with them, as will all who do what they have done and endure what they have endured.’ (9:9)

“‘What,’ I asked, ‘have they endured?’ ‘Listen,’ she said: ‘scourgings, imprisonments, severe persecutions, crosses, wild beasts, for the sake of the Name. This is why the right side of holiness belongs to them, and to anyone who suffers because of the Name. The left side belongs to the rest. But to both, to those sitting on the right and to those sitting on the left, belong the same gifts and the same promises; the only difference is the former sit on the right and have a certain glory.'” (10:1)

So, before I continue, I want to state that I know that this passage was written during a time when persecution of Christians was widespread and a very real possibility for most if not all Christians around the Roman Empire. The historical context of Hermas would suggest that the way we read the passage quoted above should center on persecutions in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

That said, I want to draw a link between this passage and a very alarming problem facing people in the United States right now: the rampant persecution of black Christians in this country. By now, I am sure you have heard of the shooting in Charleston at an AME Church Bible study two weeks ago. Nine people were killed in an awful hate crime. However, many people are just now hearing about the number of churches that have been burnt in the two weeks since Charleston. At least 6 predominantly black churches have suffered damage and destruction from fires in several states throughout the South, many of them suspected to be the work of arsonists. The latest, a church fire in South Carolina, is now believed to have been caused by a lightning strike, but the fact remains that black churches in the South are being targeted, attacked, and, often, destroyed.

This is where I want to draw the connection with the Shepherd of Hermas. We have seen above that Christians who have faced horrible suffering get a special place at the ivory couch in Hermas. Hermas himself is not allowed to sit on the right side of the couch because he had not undergone such trials. While the “promises and gifts” remain the same for both camps, there is a “certain glory” for those who have so suffered. I feel that many white Christians in the US (a group that I would put myself in as well) have literally no idea what our black brothers and sisters face today (and have faced over hundreds of years in this country). This happened during the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and is still happening today. Often you hear phrases like “racism is over,” or “don’t play the race card,” to basically downplay the struggles of black men, women, and children. Such statements are most often uttered by white individuals. Racism affects black communities in many ways, and even houses of worship are being targeted.

I think that the most poignant part from the Hermas quote above comes when the elderly woman says, “persevere in your sincerity.” Christians must continue to be sincere with regard to the struggle of black Christians in this country. Engaging in endless debates about gun control and the confederate flag (although they can help enact real, positive changes) must not overshadow or ignore the more prevalent issue in this country: the continued racism and bigotry that black individuals face, even when they go to church. In order to drive home the point: how many of you knew about the problem of black churches being burnt in the South before the most recent “lightning strike incident?” It had not been discussed, it had been overshadowed, and isn’t that part of the problem?

A Godly Gladiator: The Martyrdom of Polycarp as a Fragrant Offering

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I want to continue my series on the Apostolic Fathers this week with a foray into the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It is an intriguing tale of the arrest, trial, death, and aftermath of Polycarp’s martyrdom. Martyr tales are very interesting works, especially from the early church: see my post about Perpetua and Felicity. Often there are hagiographical elements within them, and the Martyrdom of Polycarp is no exception, as we will see below. I wanted to focus on this text because of some of the statements Polycarp makes prior to being executed. I have titled this post “A Godly Gladiator” because Polycarp’s martyrdom occurred in the arena, as did many Christian martyrdoms in the early Church. The text is probably from 155-160 AD (Holmes, 301), therefore it is a relatively early martyrdom account.

One part that I truly love about this text occurs in chapter 9 (as before, I am using the Holmes translation here). In Martyrdom 9.3, a dialogue is preserved: “When the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear an oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?'”

Polycarp shows great courage and faithfulness in the face of adversity, and likely impending death. Also the sheer fact that he has served Christ for 86 years baffles me. I am about 17 years into my life as a Christian and that makes me roughly 70 years short of Polycarp. SEVENTY years! Amazing and humbling to say the least. I can only imagine the wisdom, and faithfulness Polycarp would have exuded to all who encountered him with such a long faith journey. We see an instance of such faithfulness in another passage below:

“So the proconsul said, ‘I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.’ But he [Polycarp] said: ‘Call for them! For the repentance from better to worse is a change impossible for us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is evil to righteousness.’ Then he said to him again: ‘I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.’ But Polycarp said: ‘You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish'” (Martyrdom, 11:1-2).

Now, I ask that you let me be a bit honest and graphic for a minute. There are two ways of dying (drowning be the third) that I would basically choose to avoid if I had my say: those are being burned alive and being ripped apart by hungry wild animals. So many times we read in these martyrdom accounts that Christians were faithful in the face of such threats, even going into battle with wild beasts (see my post on Perpetua and Felicity linked above for another instance of this). I think when we read these accounts we are often focusing on the literary devices and the grand statements of faithfulness by these martyrs (as well we should), but I also sometimes think we miss just how scary and awful the situations were in which they found themselves. The wild beasts and the pyre are two very real, very present threats for these martyrs, and yet they not only go willingly to their deaths, but these punishments don’t always work the way they are supposed to.

I want to close by examining one last aspect from the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It comes from two passages which I will link below:

The author of the text (presumably one of Polycarp’s associates since there is a great amount of detail about what happens after Polycarp’s death) describes Polycarp as “a splendid ram chosen from a great flock for a sacrifice, a burnt offering prepared and acceptable to God” (14:1); and notes that “the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a very fragrant aroma, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice” (15:2).

Clearly this is a comment on the acceptability of Polycarp’s willing sacrifice for his faith. He chose to stay true to God, and God accepted this fragrant offering so much so that the people present observed a pleasing aroma. Now, one can say that this is simply an editorial on the part of the author in an effort to praise Polycarp and contribute to his legacy. Further evidence of this occurs in Chapter 16 when one of the guards had to stab Polycarp (since the fire wasn’t working) and a dove flew out of his chest as well as enough blood to extinguish the fire (16:1). Clearly the latter is an example of hagiographical writing. While some might believe that a literal dove flew out of his chest, most will attribute this to the author trying to show how peacefully Polycarp’s willing sacrifice was.

I want to close this blog by noting how this text has two impactful aspects to me, despite the debatable historical details. The first is that Polycarp is a very old man that likely had not long to live, yet he willingly endured tortures and execution for his faith. He did not hide or run away from the authorities (7:1). One final element of interest from the text occurs in chapter 16 as the author notes that Polycarp’s death shows the difference between the unbelievers and the elect (16:1). Such a statement implies that one can only see whether or not someone is elect after their death. Throughout all of Polycarp’s faithful statements and actions in the Martyrdom, the author only makes the claim that “this man was certainly one of the elect” (16:2) after he died.

How do you read martyrdom accounts like this? Are they historical? Fictional? Somewhere in between? What about theological statements such as that noted above concerning “the elect?” Should we put stock in such theology even if it’s attached to a text that has questionable historical details?