The Portrayal Of The Jews In The Martyrdom Of Polycarp

One of the consistent aspects of the Apostlic Fathers that bears considerable scrutiny is the nearly universally negative portrayal of Jews and Judaism in them [1].  At times this portrayal is somewhat crude and at times it is relatively seriously done, and here in the Marytrdom of Polycarp we have another interesting look at the portrayal of Jews that has its own distinctive flavors of negative portrayal.  Given that the Martyrdom is a short text, it is possible without any trouble to organize our argument by providing what the text says about Jews and then discussing the nature of this negative portrayal and what it means.  What is the author seeking to prove by painting Jews in a negative light?  What is the nature of the extreme competition faced between these two marginalized religions during the time when the Martyrdom of Polycarp was written in the middle 2nd Century AD?  These are the sorts of questions it is worthwhile to ask even if they cannot be definitively answered.

The first mention of something relating to Judaism comes early in the document when the author notes “that day [of Polycarp’s martyrdom] was a Greater Sabbath; and Herod, the Police Commissioner, accompanied by his father Nicetas, came out to meet him (127).”  There is some question as to what is meant by a Greater Sabbath here.  Several options are available.  For one, it is possible that the Sabbath was a High Day, which means that the author is aware of the distinction made between the normal Sabbath and the Holy Days.  Alternatively, it could be a weekly Sabbath on which there was a Holy Day simultaneously, as frequently occurs.  In either case, the reference was one that suggests that the Sabbath remained important to the audience of the text.  It is quite possible that this recognition of the Sabbath reflects the worship practice of the author and his associates, for we know Polycarp from ancient history to have been deeply interested in the Holy Days and their proper observance, such that he was willing to oppose the self-important bishop of Rome in order to defend the 14th of Nissan as being the proper occasion to celebrate the Passover.  It is quite possible that this reference speaks to some Sabbatarianism remaining in the Christianity of Polycarp’s time in Smyrna and neighboring congregations to whom this document was written.

The next reference in the text relating to Judaism comes when the author makes a sideways remark about the eagerness of Jews to participate in the persecution of Christians:  “It was all done in less time than it takes to tell.  In a moment the crowd had collected faggots and kindling from the workshops and baths; the Jews, as usual, being well to the fore with their help (129).”  One wonders why the Jews were so eager to persecute Christians, as this appears to have been a pattern.  Perhaps the writer (and other Christians of the time) had certain expectations of Jews being willing to stand by them as fellow unpopular monotheists in a world where polytheism was common and indeed enforced by the state (in terms of making oaths to the emperor as a god).  Yet these expectations were not met, because the Jews appeared to be quite willing to see in the persecution of Christians a chance for someone else besides them to be persecuted for a change.  This would have momentous negative consequences, as we will shortly discuss.

The third and final reference to the Jews contains more references to the bad relationship that existed between adherents of the two faiths as recorded by the author of the Martyrdom of Polycarp:  “However, when the centurion saw that the Jews were spoiling for a quarrel, he had the body fetched out publicly, as is their custom, and burnt.  So, after all, we did gather up his bones – more precious to use than jewels, and finer than pure gold – and we laid them to rest in a spot suitable for the purpose (131).”  Here we see that the author associates the Jews with trouble and wanting to stir up quarrels even when it comes to the dead body of a martyred Christian leader.  Again, one wonders what sort of trouble was stirred up, and why it was that the Jews were seeking to make themselves that conspicuous in causing difficulties for Polycarp’s congregants even after Polycarp had been put to death.  Unfortunately, the text does not give the details about what trouble the Jews were causing, only that it was repeatedly noticeable to the Christians in Smyrna and that it was resented by the Christians and that some of the Romans themselves appeared to be sensitive to it as well.

There were, as we may note, some serious consequences to the bad blood between Christians and Jews in the early centuries of Christianity.  For one, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be some disagreement given the origin of Christianity within Second Temple Judaism and the disputes between the two faiths over such issues as the Sabbath and law.  But the fact that Jews actively stirred up trouble for Christians was to have immensely negative consequences for Jews themselves, not least in the fact that this bad blood would be remembered and returned with interest when Christians were the ones in charge and it was the Jews who were facing persecution.  Likewise, the bad blood between Christians and Jews would make it increasingly difficult for either faith to recognize what it had lost in trying to reject everything that came from the other faith.  As Jews increased their devotion to salvation by works even after the destruction of the temple and Christians became heavily influenced by antinomianism and especially a hostile to distinctively Jewish elements like the Sabbath, one wonders if the joy that could be had by cheering on the suffering of one’s rivals was really worth what was lost in not having at least some positive feelings about fellow monotheists under societal pressure in the Roman Empire.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

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10 Responses to The Portrayal Of The Jews In The Martyrdom Of Polycarp

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