The Peculiar Case Of The Martyrdom Of Polycarp and interpreting the Death of Jesus

Martyrs are one of our noblest types of heroes. Scott Myers points out, typically, we associate the term with someone who suffers persecution or even death for their religious or political beliefs. There are plenty of movie examples of this iteration including Braveheart, Ghandi and Silkwood. Myers comments:

  • Their suffering can be simply tragic, but more often than not, their deaths are a cause of inspiration for others. This hearkens back to the original root of the word from the Greek μάρτυς which means “witness.” A martyr has seen or experienced something so profoundly true, at least to them, they are willing to sacrifice everything on its behalf, including their own lives. More generally, a martyr can commit an act of self-sacrifice on behalf of someone or something other than him/herself. The death of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope is a case in point.

In previous posts I’ve talked a bit about how strange death portrayals seem to have been invented by ancient writes to add force to the event.  I spoke to how the account of the death of John the Baptist in the gospel of Mark has been altered to mimic the humiliating death of Jesus because it is very difficult to see how the gospel account of the death of the Baptizer can be reconciled with that of the Baptizer account of Josephus.  Something similar pops up when we try to reconcile Josephus’s mass suicide account, because recent archaeological studies makes it seem unlikely the mass suicide occurred.  I pointed out that scholars like Dr. Candida Moss and Dr. Bart Ehrman have put into question many persecution narratives regarding the early church.

For instance, Ehrman has called into question the historicity of the narrative of the martyrdom of Polycarp.  This is a well known case of difficulty in reconciling the fantastic account of a noble death with history.  Wikipedia is even up to date here, which says:

  • A challenge to the dates could well call into question the authenticity of the document itself. Part of the skepticism regarding the MartPol text has centered on the number of parallels with the passion narratives of the Gospels, including Polycarp’s prediction of his capture and death (5.2), the eirenarch named Herod (6.2), the arrest of Polycarp “with weapons as if he were a criminal” (7.1), and Polycarp being carried on a donkey back to Smyrna (8.1), miraculous occurrences such as the ‘voice from heaven’ urging Polycarp to ‘Be strong and be a man!’ (9.1)…The most difficult aspect of the narrative to accept as authentic is its treatment of Roman legal proceedings. Polycarp’s trial is represented as taking place before one of the leading magistrates of the Empire on a public holiday, in the middle of a sport stadium, with no use of the tribunal, no formal legal accusation, and no official sentence. Though the trials of Christians, and of all subjects for that matter, were subject to the governor’s procedural method of cognitio extra ordinem, this still does not explain the lack of a formal legal accusation and sentence. This lack of information muddles the case that the account is historically reliable; Roman capital trial procedure would presumably have been well known to the population of the time. The Martyrdom of Polycarp is also a theological composition designed to support a particular understanding of martyrdom in relation to the Christian Gospel; the question is how much, if any, of the narrative is from a historical base, and how much was modified or outright invented for theological purposes.

Ehrman reaches the skeptical conclusion that:

  • (1) It is clear even from a superficial reading of the “report” that the Martyrdom was never meant to be a disinterested account of the death of Polycarp, but had from the outset literary pretensions and apologetic motives.  The author engages in polemics against other groups, including the Jews who are especially eager to participate in the killing of the Christian witness, and, from a completely other sphere, the voluntary martyrs (Montanists?) who, contrary to the Gospel (and contrary to Polycarp), needlessly offer themselves up as sacrifices to the cause.  Yet more germane for our purposes, the account goes out of its way to show that Polycarp’s death was “in conformity with the Gospel”; on page after page the events mirror episodes known from the  canonical accounts of Jesus’ passion.  In addition, the author stresses not only that true martyrs were doing the will of God, but that as a reward God gave them strength to endure their inhumane torments with a fortitude that could only be ascribed to divine intervention (e.g., 2.2-4).   One result was the amazement of the crowds who looked on, who realized that the Christians were not normal humans (2.2-4; 3.2; 16.1).  In other words, this work is driven by an apologetic impulse to defend the divine character of this persecuted religion.
  • (2) 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.
  • (3) This was not written by someone who was there, or possibly by someone who was ever present at animal hunts, gladiatorial contests, or Christian executions.  This conclusion is borne out by the fact that there is no official trial of the condemned, but only a summary mock trial that does not follow any known legal precedent (even though allegedly “observed” by an eyewitness).  Even Bisbee, who very much wants to find something historical lying behind the traditions of the narrative, acknowledges that the account as we have it is not a real trial, based on a surviving commentarius.  If a real trial did take place, it would have happened sometime before the scene in the stadium.  But it is difficult to imagine when that might have been, given the flow of the narrative.  It is better, with Moss, to see this account as modeled not on something that actually happened but on the Gospel accounts…The other pretensions to historicity in the account also fail.  In Chapter 21 the author gives us a precise indication of when the martyrdom took place: the eighth hour “on the second day of the new month of Xanthikos, February 23,” when “Philip of Tralles was high priest” and “Statius Quadratus was proconsul.”  In this attempt to locate the narrative in time and place, however, the author has blundered.  Timothy Barnes has shown that the dates simply do not work.   Philip the Asiarch was high priest in 149/50, but “no conceivable argument will put the pro-consulate of Statius Quadratus before 153/4.”… There was, in other words, a three year gap – and no one writing at either time could fail to know that the two terms did not overlap.  This is written by someone living later… And what he is writing is a kind of historical legend.  The legendary character of the account is seen in numerous details, including the remarkable “coincidences” that make Polycarp’s trial and death so much like that of Jesus: Polycarp does not turn himself in but waits to be betrayed (1.2); he knows about his coming execution in advance and predicts it to his followers (5.2); he prays intensely before his arrest (7.1-3); he asks that God’s will be done (7.1); the official in charge of his arrest is named Herod (6.2); Polycarp rides into down on a donkey (8.1); and so on.   These are literary touches, not historical recollections.  So too other parts of the story, including the remarkable account of Germanicus in chapter 3,  who evidently has a wild beast standing meekly by, waiting for his suicidal impulse.  To leave this life, he drags the beast-in-waiting onto himself, forcing it to kill him.  It is hard indeed to know how we are supposed to imagine this actually worked… And then there is Quintus, the voluntary martyr turned coward [NOTE: in the account Quintus is a gung-ho Christian who turns himself in to be martyred but when faced with his death backed out and apostacized; the author of the account condemns voluntary martyrdom because it often doesn’t work and it’s not what the Gospels teach to do].  As Candida Moss has argued, the Quintus episode creates enormous problems for the traditional dating of the text, seen simply from a traditio-historical perspective.  If the account dates, say, from 155-167 (as we have seen, scholars differ), then we have the unparalleled situation that this text is the earliest to recognize the category of “martyr” at all; at the same time it is also the first to refer to voluntary martyrs; and yet further, it is the first to condemn the practice of voluntary martyrdom.  As Moss notes: “it is remarkable to suppose that the first text to construct an ideology of martyrdom accurately anticipates later ‘enthusiasm’ for an as yet-undefined practice.”

I have posted previously of the borderline lunacy in ascribing historicity to the account of Jesus’ death in our first gospel Mark. Generally, as most scholars agree such as the Jewish Annotated New Testament, Mark is not writing history but creatively recapitulating/copying Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 – just as the Polycarp tale later creatively rewrote the gospel account. The Gospel accounts also go out of their way to stress the absurdity and illegality of Jesus’s trial, such as occurring with the Jewish Supreme Council on Passover Eve! However, just where we look to find the most naked presentation of the death of Jesus, in Paul’s letters, we find this from the pre Pauline Corinthian creed:

  • For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor 15:3)

But how does this reflect how Jesus actually died? Paul clarifies:

  • —”All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’ … Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:10, 13)

So, Jesus’s crucifixion in Paul is not simply a brute fact, but points to a scriptural theological basis. Daniel L Streett comments that:

  • When Paul says that Jesus “became a curse,” he is saying not that God cursed Jesus but rather that Jesus condescended to the humility of the cross, was executed by his countrymen in a miscarriage of justice, and was considered by his people to be under a divine curse. (2) When Paul cites Deut 21:23, he does not intend to say that all crucified victims are de facto cursed. Rather, for Paul and his contemporaries, the charge and its validity matter. Because Jesus was innocent, he was not under the curse of Deut 21:23. Paul likely cites the passage to explain how Christ’s death brought special humiliation in the eyes of the Jewish people. (3) Finally, I have argued that Gal 3:13 is not intended to explain the mechanism of atonement, that is, some behind-the-scenes divine transaction. Rather, the text is meant to emphasize the extent of Christ’s suffering in order to redeem his people. The mechanism of redemption is more properly sought in other passages, most likely those that refer to the work of the Spirit in baptism, uniting believers to Christ in his death and resurrection. (Streett, 2015, p. 209)

So, everything we know about the death of Jesus is hidden behind a theological coloring. Paul and the first Christians were stressing the humiliating nature of Jesus’ death, but supposing a cross was actually involved in any way related to accounts full of hyperbole and superlative is hermeneutic guesswork, which we can infer on the same grounds the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp is suspect. All that can really be inferred is Jesus was thought to be a really great guy by his followers who was wrongly treated by a perceived corrupt world. But this typology simply rewrites the death of Socrates who thought the poison cured him of his body, and cured society of its blinders from seeing how corrupt it was (we no long execute someone for being a gadfly like Socrates, at least not in civilized society).

We are justified in bracketing the historicity of elements that seem to have a theological flavor, because the early church had motivation to invent them. The current state of scholarship is sometimes special pleading: that we use one method to establish the martyrdom of Polycarp as suspect, but not using the same methodology when investigating the death of Jesus. We can bracket the historicity of the account of Jesus’s death on the same grounds as we can the martyrdom of Polycarp. Just as the Polycarp account becomes historically tainted because it is trying to emulate the model of Jesus in the gospels, so too does the death of Jesus imitate Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, (and Wisdom of Solomon in Matthew), and also is the death of Jesus a type of the great man being wronged by society mytheme (on top of which is being conveyed by believers).

Paul, being from the birthplace of the stoic enlightenment, apparently has the idea of the impaled just man in the most famous book in the ancient world, Plato’s Republic. Of course, Plato talks about impalement rather than crucifixion, but nor should we expect him to because crucifixion was a kind of impalement, and did not exist in Plato’s time. Even the former Pope Ratzinger made this connection, emphasizing:

  • The Cross is revelation. It reveals not any particular thing, but God and man. It reveals who God is and in what way man is. There is a curious presentiment of this situation in Greek philosophy: Plato’s image of the crucified ‘just man.’ In Republic the great philosopher asks what is likely to be the position of a completely just man in this world. He comes to the conclusion that a man’s righteousness is only complete and guaranteed when he takes on the appearance of unrighteousness, for only then is it clear that he does not follow the opinion of men but pursues justice only for its own sake. So, according to Plato, the truly just man must be misunderstood and persecuted in this world; indeed Plato goes so far as to write: “They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified.” This passage, written four hundred years before Christ, is always bound to move a Christian deeply. (Ratzinger, 1969, p. 292; cf. Plato, Republic, II.362a).

Crucifixion represented something in the ancient world. It was humiliating to the victim, having to urinate and defecate on themself, etc. Is this coincidence that this paradigmatically humiliating torture would have been the end of a Jesus wrongfully killed by a corrupt society? This all smells of literary device, not history. However, even if we want to argue for the historicity of the crucifixion as per the pre Pauline Philippian Christ hymn, any sense we get of that from Paul and the gospels, like Jesus was wrongfully killed, is guesswork. And, “crucified” could have been a nom de plume for something “hung on a tree,” which is another way Jesus’s death is characterized. It suggests a society looking down on its victim. Another interesting detail is that the cross of Christ was sometimes referred to in Jewish contexts as a “tree.” Acts 5:30 states, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree”. Acts 10:39 says, “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree”. See also Acts 13:29. The writers are making a theological point when describing the crucifixion, not reporting history.