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Wednesday 23 September 2015

Supernatural Evil in the Apostolic Fathers (5): The Martyrdom of Polycarp

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a theologized account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (whose Epistle to the Philippians was the subject of the previous post in this series). This is the earliest extant example of the 'martyr-acts' genre in Christian literature.1 Probably the majority of scholars date the work to the mid-150s A.D.,2 which would be very soon after the events it describes (some scholars date the work as late as 177).3 If the majority view is correct, then the document was probably written by members of Polycarp's own flock in Smyrna,4 people who knew him and his teachings very well. Thus, as was noted previously, the view of Satan reflected in the Martyrdom is a useful proxy for interpreting Polycarp's own reference to Satan in his Epistle to the Philippians 7.1.

What then is the view of Satan reflected in the Martyrdom of Polycarp? This document contains two references to Satan, one under the familiar title ho diabolos ('the devil') and a second under the title ho antikeimenos ('the opposing one') and, possibly, ho ponēros ('the evil one') along with some modifying adjectives (see below).

Martyrdom of Polycarp 2.4(3.1)

The first reference occurs in Martyrdom of Polycarp 2.4 (or 3.1),5 which reads as follows:
And in a similar manner those who were condemned to the wild beasts endured terrible punishments: they were forced to lie on sharp shells and afflicted with various other forms of torture in order that he might, if possible, by means of the unceasing punishment compel them to deny their faith; for the devil (ho diabolos) tried many things against them. 6
That ho diabolos refers to the devil here and not to some human accuser is an interpretation that appears to enjoy unanimous support among scholars.7 As Ehrman writes, in the Martyrdom "the struggle between antagonistic pagan mobs and Christians is actually a cosmic battle between the devil and God." 8 Hartog explains:
In Mart. Pol’s perspective, the devil himself lies in the shadows behind the persecution (2.4-3.1). This view, that the devil (or demons) incited persecution, was not uncommon in the period.9
In support of the last sentence, Hartog cites Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 5.57; 63; 2 Apology 8; Dialogue with Trypho 18.39; 131.2 (texts which are roughly contemporaneous with the Martyrdom of Polycarp). To these could also be added 1 Peter 5:8, Revelation 2:10, 12:17, 13:7;10 Ignatius, Magnesians 1.2, Romans 5.3, 7.1; and Ascension of Isaiah 11.41.11 In short, there is considerable precedent for the theological concept that the devil was responsible for persecution of Christians.12 As Russell explains,
The early church perceived martyrdom as a struggle of the athletes of Christ against the servants of the Devil. The Devil was generally believed responsible for the attitude of both the government and the mob.13
The oddity in the above text is that the 'he' who hoped to compel the Christians to deny their faith has not been mentioned previously. It would be stylistically awkward to refer to an unnamed individual and only subsequently identify him (as the devil). In the Greek there is no pronoun standing for 'he'; it needs to be supplied in translation because there is a third person singular verb with no explicit subject. Interestingly, though, in all but one Greek manuscripts of the Martyrdom, a subject is explicitly mentioned here: ho turannos ('the tyrant'). The two most recent critical texts of the Martyrdom both agree that ho turannos was not part of the original text but was added, perhaps to smooth out the stylistic awkwardness mentioned above.14  

That ho turannos could be the original reading cannot be discounted: this is the view taken in Lake's older critical text15 and is more recently noted as a possibility by Lieu.16 If this were the case, however, it would not imply that no supernatural devil is in view. Lieu thinks that in this case 'the tyrant' would be a title used of the devil. In support of this, one can point to a passage in the Martyrium of Lyon, another second-century martyr-acts, which also refers to 'tyranny' in the context of a reference to the devil's role in persecution.17

A second possibility (if ho turannos is authentic) is that it refers to a human persecutor (presumably the proconsul mentioned later in 3.1) whose torments are given a theological interpretation: the devil was ultimately behind them. This is exactly the idea stated by Russell above. As we will see, this "notion of the devil acting through a human agent"18 is also present in the second reference to the devil in this document.

Hence, the possible reference to 'the tyrant' in Martyrdom of Polycarp 2.4 gives us no reason to doubt the scholarly consensus that ho diabolos in this text carries its usual technical meaning, 'the devil'.

Martyrdom of Polycarp 17.1

The second reference to Satan in this document occurs at 17.1, which is translated by Ehrman as follows:
But the jealous and envious Evil One (ho de antizēlos kai baskanos ponēros), the enemy of the race of the upright (ho antikeimenos tō genei tōn dikaōn), having seen the greatness of Polycarp’s death as a martyr and the irreproachable way of life that he had from the beginning – and that he had received the crown of immortality and was awarded with the incontestable prize – made certain that his poor body was not taken away by us, even though many were desiring to do so and to have a share in [Or: to commune with; or: to have fellowship with] his holy flesh.19
The following two verses elaborate how the Jews instigate the magistrate not to hand over Polycarp’s body lest the Christians begin to worship him, and explain that Christians worship the Son of God and not martyrs.

In the mid-twentieth century there was considerable scholarly debate over the internal integrity of the Martyrdom of Polycarp. However, recent scholars have tended to argue that the book is "a unified whole, written at one time by one author"20 with the exception of the epilogue of chapter 22 and possibly 21.  Schoedel notes that "although serious doubts have been entertained about the integrity of MartPol, critical opinion is now moving in the opposite direction."21 One of the passages which has been seen as likely a later interpolation is Martyrdom of Polycarp 17.2 or 17.2-3.22 However, to my knowledge not one scholar has argued that 17.1 is an interpolation. Indeed, the fact that nearly suggested interpolations begin at 17.2 implies that the authenticity of 17.1 is regarded as unimpeachable.

There are, however, several textual variants in 17.1a, where the Satanological language is found.23 However, the fact that the critical texts of Holmes24 and Ehrman25 agree perfectly in this clause apart from the kai prior to ponēros (retained by Holmes but omitted by Ehrman) suggests we can have some confidence in the original wording.

Gokey notes four possibilities for translating the first clause.26 (1) Antizēlos and baskanos could be attributive adjectives modifying the substantive ho...ponēros: "the jealous and envious evil one…" (2) ponēros and baskanos could be attributive adjectives modifying the substantive ho antizēlos: "the jealous one, envious and evil…" (3) All three terms could be predicative adjectives: “the jealous and envious and evil,…” (4) All three could be substantives: "the jealous one and envious one and evil one…" 27

In any case, the presence of the article, together with the emphatic, multifaceted designation, indicates that the individual referred to is the jealous, envious and evil one par excellence; the enemy of Christians par excellence. ‘Evil one’ is a relatively common designation for Satan in early Christian texts.28 By contrast, the terms antizēlos and baskanos do not occur in the NT. Baskanos "often occurs as a modifier of δαίμων on sepulchral inscriptions… and has common associations with magic".29 Bartelink suggests that "the same terms that were earlier applied to demons [by pagans] could be taken over without any difference and be applied to evil spirits which were known to Christendom."30

On the background to ho antikeimenos, see the previous post on 1 Clement 51.1. However, one further significant parallel should be noted here: the Martyrium of Lyon. This text is quoted at length in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 5.1. It purports to be an encyclical letter from Gaul and is "generally dated 177"31 and thus temporally near to Martyrdom of Polycarp (see above for parallel to MartPol 2.4-3.1). Goodine & Mitchell note that "scholars have overwhelmingly viewed it as authentic."32 Dehandschutter states, "Some correspondences [in the Martyrium] with [Martyrdom of Polycarp] are uncontroversially explained as the influence of the latter on the former."33

Significantly, the Martyrium refers to the instigator of the Gallic martyrdom three times as ho antikeimenos (5.1.5; 5.1.23; 5.1.42),34 and also as tou ponērou (5.1.6), tou diabolou (5.1.25; 5.1.27 [twice; anarthrous in the second instance]), diabolikou (5.1.35),35 tou satana (5.1.14; 5.1.16),36 and, possibly, argiou thēros (5.1.57).37 The way these terms are used leaves no doubt as to their supernatural referent.38 The ferocity of ho antikeimenos gives the Christians a foretaste of his imminent advent, doubtless a reference to the eschatological trial or antichrist event.39  Human persecutors are the "followers" of ho antikeimenos.40 The Christians’ unbelieving servants make false accusations against them because they are "ensnared by Satan."41  Ho antikeimenos had been vanquished by the sufferings of Christ.42 The Satanology of the Martyrium, read in light of the parallels with Martyrdom of Polycarp (probably written only two decades earlier), portends a strong likelihood that the language in Martyrdom of Polycarp 2.4 and 17.1 was understood by its earliest readers to refer to Satan.

Within MartPol 17.1, a further indication that ho antikeimenos is a supernatural figure is 
…having seen the greatness of Polycarp’s death as a martyr and the irreproachable way of life that he had from the beginning – and that he had received the crown of immortality and was awarded with the incontestable prize…
This portion of text, which contains no textual variants, states that ho antikeimenos had seen Polycarp’s way of life from the beginning, which consisted of 86 years in Christ’s service (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.3). It further states that ho antikeimenos had seen that Polycarp had received immortality. Obviously neither of these statements could be made concerning the Roman proconsul or any other human but only concerning a transcendent being.43

Hence, despite uncertainties surrounding the integrity and text of Martyrdom of Polycarp 17.2-3, we can conclude that the referent of Martyrdom of Polycarp 17.1a is not "unclear".44 The referent is Satan, as most scholars agree.45

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is yet another witness to early Christian belief in a supernatural devil. It occurs in a document written by the church shepherded by Polycarp, probably very soon after his death. We thus have a chain of tradition from Ignatius to Polycarp to Polycarp's flock to Lyon (and, indirectly, Irenaeus) showing that this belief was widely held in the second-century church.


  • 1 Middleton, P. (2011). Martyrdom: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury. p. 6; Rhee, H. (2005). Early Christian Literature: Christ and Culture in the Second and Third Centuries. New York: Routledge, p. 40. .
  • 2 Ehrman, B. (2003). (Ed. & trans.). The Apostolic Fathers (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 362.
  • 3 ibid.
  • 4 Indeed, the prescript of the Martyrdom of Polycarp states that it is addressed by the church of Smyrna to the church of Philomelia.
  • 5 Note that the clause which mentions ho diabolos falls within 2.4 in Holmes’ text but commences 3.1 in Ehrman’s (op. cit., p. 371).
  • 6 Holmes, M.W. (2007) The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 309.
  • 7 Schoedel, W.R. (1964). The Apostolic Fathers: Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Fragments of Papias (Vol. 5). R.M. Grant (Ed.), Nashville: Thomas Nelson, pp. 56-57; Holmes, op. cit., p. 309; Ehrman, op. cit., p. 371; Lieu, J.M. (2002). Accusations of Jewish Persecution in Early Christian Sources. In Neither Jew nor Greek? Constructing Early Christianity (pp. 135-150). London: T&T Clark, p. 145; Lieu, J.M. (2003). Image and Reality: The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century. London: Bloomsbury, p. 65; Jefford, C.N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker, pp. 93-94; Hartog, P. (2013). Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians and the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 230; Buschmann, G. (1998). Das Martyrium des Polykarp: Ubersetzt und Erklart. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pp. 108-113.
  • 8 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 360.
  • 9 Hartog, op. cit., p. 230.
  • 10 Foerster, W. (1971/1995). satanas. In G. Kittel & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 7) (pp. 151-163). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 161.
  • 11 Of all of these texts, probably Ignatius, Romans 5.3, parallels Martyrdom of Polycarp 2.4 most strikingly. Both of these passages describe various types of torture including wild beasts and bodily mutilation before attributing these torments to the devil. This parallel is particularly significant given the tradition-historical links between Polycarp and Ignatius, and the fact that Ignatius clearly regards the devil as a supernatural being (as discussed previously in this series).
  • 12 It is possible that this concept originated with the contention in Jesus traditions that the devil was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (Luke 22:3, 53; John 13:2, 27; cf. 1 Cor 2:8).
  • 13 Russell, J.B. (1981/1987). Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 37.
  • 14 If it strikes the reader as odd that textual critics should favour a reading preserved in only one manuscript, consider this: "The single most important principle of modern textual criticism is that manuscripts must be weighed not counted. This means that it is the quality of the manuscripts not their quantity that is decisive in text critical decisions" (Wettlaufer, R.D. (2013). No Longer Written: The Use of Conjectural Emendation in the Restoration of the Text of the New Testament, the Epistle of James as a Case Study. Leiden: Brill, p. 18).
  • 15 Lake, K. (1917). The Apostolic Fathers, with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann, p. 316.
  • 16 Lieu, 2002, op. cit., p. 145.
  • 17 "When the tyrant’s tortures (tōn turannikōn kolastēriōn) had been overcome by Christ through the perseverance of the blessed saints, the Devil thought up other devices: imprisonment in filth and darkness, stretching feet in stocks to the fifth hole, and other atrocities that angry jailers, full of the Devil, inflict on prisoners." (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.1.27, trans. Maier, P.L. (1999). Eusebius – the Church History: A New Translation with Commentary. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, p. 174)
  • 18 Setzer, C.J. (2009). Jewish Responses to early Christians. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, p. 113, commenting on Martyrdom of Polycarp 17.1.
  • 19 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 391.
  • 20 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 361.
  • 21 Schoedel, W.R. (1993). Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch. In W. Haase (Ed.), Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.27.I (pp. 272-358). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, p. 353. Similarly, Buschmann, op. cit., p. 327: "So wird denn in der jüngeren Forschung die Authentizität von MartPol 17f. nicht mehr bezweifelt."
  • 22 Von Campenhausen, the main challenger of the integrity of the Martyrdom, argued for a number of interpolations in MartPol, including the material from 17.2-18 (Von Campenhausen, H. (1957). Bearbeitungen und Interpolationen des Polykarpmartyriums. In H. von Campenhausen (Ed.), Aus der Frühzeit des Christentums, Studien zur Kirchengeschichte des ersten und zweiten Jahrhunderts (pp. 253-301). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 275-277). Some scholars have regarded 17.2-3 in particular as an interpolation since it "fits badly with the syntax of the surrounding material" (Setzer, op. cit., p. 113) and because 17.2d-3 is missing in two manuscripts (as noted above). Dehandschutter argues for the integrity of chapters 17-18, accepting only the name of Alce in 17.2 as an interpolation (Dehandschutter, B. (1993). The Martyrium Polycarpi: A Century of Research. In W. Haase (Ed.), Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.27.I (pp. 485-522). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, p. 497). Setzer regards 17.2 as "probably interpolated" (op. cit.). Schoedel argues broadly for the integrity of the document but brackets a number of passages as secondary, including 17.2-3 (1993, op. cit., p. 252).  He holds that the text reads quite naturally if 17.2-3 are removed. Gibson notes that the Jews would then appear abruptly in 18.1 (Gibson, E.L. (2003). The Jews and Christians in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. In A.H. Becker & A.Y. Reed (Eds.), The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (pp. 145-158). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 156).  However, this abruptness in the original text may explain why a later editor felt the need to provide a back story.
  • 23 Where Eusebius and five Greek manuscripts read antizēlos, Parisinus reads antidikos (cf. 1Pet 5.8) and Mosquensis reads antikeimenos. Two Greek manuscripts (Chalcensis and Vindobonensis) add daimōn after ponēros.
  • 24 Holmes, op. cit., p. 324.
  • 25 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 390.
  • 26 Gokey, F.X. (1961). The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, pp. 95-96 n. 10.
  • 27 Five Greek manuscripts, including Mosquensis, add kai before ponēros, but it is not retained by Ehrman. In the absence of this kai, the first option is clearly correct, in which case ho...ponēros is a designation for Satan. If kai is present, it is less clear whether the three terms are adjectival or substantival.
  • 28 cf. Matt. 5.37; 6.13; 13.38; 13.39; John 17.15; Eph. 6.16; 2 Thess. 3.3; 1 John 2.13; 2.14; 3.12; 5.18; 5.19; Didache 8.2; Epistle of Barnabas 2.10; 21.3
  • 29 Gokey, op. cit., p. 97 n. 10.
  • 30 Bartelink, G.J. (1952). Lexicologisch-semantische studie over de taal van de Apostolische Vaders. Utrecht: Nijmegen, pp. 80-81
  • 31 Dehandschutter, op. cit., p. 502.
  • 32 Goodine, E.A. & Mitchell, M.W. (2005). The Persuasiveness of a Woman: The Mistranslation and Misinterpretation of Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica 5.1.41. Journal of Early Christian Studies, 13(1), 1-19. Here pp. 1-2 n. 1. They do note two scholars who have questioned its authenticity.
  • 33 Dehandschutter, op. cit.
  • 34 Bartelink, G.J.M. (1987). ΑΝΤΙΚΕΙΜΕΝΟΣ (Widersacher) als Teufels- und Dämonenbezeichnung. Sacris Erudiri, 30, 205-224. Here p. 212.
  • 35 An adjective pertaining to the devil: diabolikou logismou, “the Devil’s promptings” (trans. Maier, op. cit., p. 175).
  • 36 Here following the critical text of Lake, K. (1926). Eusebius – Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1: Books 1-5. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • 37 This reference to incitement of the pagan persecutors by "wild beast" has been understood by some to be a reference to Satan (Maier op. cit., p. 177; Grant, R.M. (2006). Irenaeus of Lyons. London: Routledge, p. 5; Stouck, M.-A. (1999). Medieval Saints: A Reader. Peterborough: Broadview Press, p. 17, who make this identification explicit; Roberts, A. & Donaldson, J. (1886/2007). The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8. New York: Cosimo, p. 783; Schaff, P. (1890/2007). Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Vol. 1. New York: Cosimo, p. 217; Frilingos, C.A. (2013). Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 99, who capitalize ‘Beast’ and so clearly take it to mean more than a natural animal). Typical of these is Grant: "Incited by a wild beast [the Devil] wild and barbarous tribes could hardly stop". However, others appear to understand the phrase with reference to a natural animal (Musurillo, H. (1972). The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, in Kraemer, R.S. (2004). Women's Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 355, Weidmann, F.W. (2000). The Martyrs of Lyons. In R. Valantasis (Ed.), Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice (pp. 398-412). Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 410; Kannengiesser, C. (1986). Early Christian Spirituality: Sources of early Christian thought. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, p. 48; Ehrman, B.D. (1999). After the New Testament: A Reader in Early Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 40). Typical of this interpretation is Kannengiesser’s translation: "because a wild and barbarous people once inflamed by a wild beast are not easily held in check." Given the absence of the article, this writer is inclined to follow the latter sense.
  • 38 See the summary in Goodine & Mitchell, op. cit., p. 11 n. 25, who describe the terminology for Satan used in the text, regarding it as reflecting a dualism similar to that in the Gospel of John and in Revelation.
  • 39 "For the Adversary (ho antikeimenos), in a foretaste of his own imminent advent (parousian autou), attacked us with all his might" (Ecclesiastical History 5.1.5, trans. Maier, op. cit., p. 171). Parousia is the word used frequently in the NT to refer to Christ’s second advent (Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Cor. 15:23; 1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1; 2:8; Jas 5:7-8; 2 Pet. 1:16; 3:4; 1 John 2:28). The word is used of an antichrist figure in 2 Thess. 2:9.
  • 40 Ecclesiastical History 5.1.5 (trans. Maier, op. cit., p. 171).
  • 41 Ecclesiastical History 5.1.14 (trans. Maier, op. cit., p. 172).
  • 42 Ecclesiastical History 5.1.23.
  • 43 Buschmann (op. cit., p. 111) argues that Martyrdom of Polycarp reflects a dualism with affinities to the Two Ways or Two Angels teaching: "Dem Dualismus von Leben und Tod entspricht in MartPol 3,1a der Gegensatz von Gott und Teufel (vgl. Barn 18,1). Das Martyrium gilt schlechthin als siegreicher Kampf mit dem Teufel (vgl. MartPol 3,1; 19,2; HermSim 8,3,6)."
  • 44 as claimed by Gibson, op. cit., p. 154.
  • 45 Lunn-Rockcliffe, S. (2015). Diabolical Motivations: The Devil in Ecclesiastical Histories from Eusebius to Evagrius. In H. Elton & G. Greatrex (Eds.), Shifting Genres in Late Antiquity (pp. 119-134). Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, p. 123; Hartog, op. cit., p. 317; Nicklas, T. (2014). Jews and Christians? Second-Century ‘Christian’ Perspectives on the ‘Parting of the Ways’. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 55; Lieu, 2003, op. cit., p. 65; Jefford, op. cit., pp. 93-94; Boyd, J.W. (1975). Satan and Māra: Christian and Buddhist Symbols of Evil. Leiden: Brill, p. 33; Setzer, op. cit., p. 113; Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 89; Lampe, G.W.H. (1961). A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 154; Buschmann, op. cit., p. 327; Bartelink, 1987, op. cit., pp. 211-212; Bobichon, P. (2003b). Dialogue avec Tryphon: Introduction, Texte Grec, Traduction (Vol. 2). Fribourg: Université de Fribourg, p. 864 n. 8; Lindemann, A. (1992). Die Clemensbriefe. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 149.

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