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Travelogue: Persevering in the Christian Life

Marcion of Sinope began dismissing Old Testament books, and has left behind a truncated canon, known as “the heresy of Marcion.” On one occasion, Polycarp and Marcion met. “Marcion not only was a heretic, he had a little bit of an issue with humility,” Dr. Nichols told the story. “So he approaches Polycarp and says, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Polycarp was supposed to quake before him and just be in awe to even be in the presence of such a great person as Marcion. ‘Do you know who I am?’ And to that, Polycarp said, ‘Of course I know who you are: the firstborn of Satan.’ A deflating moment in the life of Marcion.”

Getting beaten to the top of the rock wall by Ian Nichols, age 10.

Getting beaten to the top of the rock wall by Ian Nichols, age 10.

Polycarp, whose name is translated “many fish,” also wrote his own epistle to the Philippians. Ignatius had written a number of epistles to the churches. Polycarp was the one who assembled those epistles into sort of a body of literature and those epistles circulated among the churches. As Polycarp was doing that, he appended his own epistle to Ignatius’ epistles and entitled it The Epistle to the Philippians.

Dr. Nichols said, “What is fascinating about both Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians and Ignatius’ epistles to the churches is that when they went to make a point, they simply quote Scripture. And when they really want to make a point, they just string quote upon quote upon quote. What these bishops’ epistles amounted to, was pinpointing what were the issues in the church, and then lining up for them verse upon verse, teaching upon teaching, from the gospels and the epistles and putting it before them, and showing them how God’s Word would come to bear upon the issues in that church. That is precisely what is happening in Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians. In fact, we can build a canon list of the New Testament books out of the citations of Polycarp. So these bishops were bringing Scripture from the people of God.”

Polycarp was 86 years old, and he had lived such a life and had brought such prominence to the church at Smyrna, that he had brought embarrassment to the Roman Empire. From the beginning, Rome had labeled Christianity an illicit religion. The technical terminology is, ilicitas superstitio. A legal religion was called licitas religio. Not only was Christianity illegal, ilicitas, but it was mocked by being given this title of a superstition. We see this right off the bat. In fact, some of the tension between the Jews and the Christians that is present here at Smyrna might be entirely owing to the fact that Judaism was granted licitas religio status. Judaism was granted a legal religion in the Roman Empire. Judaism felt threatened by Christianity’s presence, and if the empire looked deeply enough, there was risk that they might some similarities and connections, and maybe that charge of ilicitas supersitio would be thrown over Judaism. So the early Christians were not only persecuted by Rome and her powerful empire, but by Jewish synaguges as well.

Here is Christianity, an illegal religion, with charges such as that Christians were cannibals because of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It was totally misunderstood. Putting ourselves in the 1st-century context, there were these odd mystery religions. Roman soldiers conquered the world, and they brought back the spoils of war. They would also bring back some cultural practices. One of these cultural practices was the Mithraic cult, which celebrated the bloodbath rituals. This was appealing to Roman soldiers who brought back to Rome the Mithraic cult.

Christ teaching the Apostles, a fresco about 15 inches high and 51 inches wide, Catacombs of Domitilla, circa A.D. 300.

Christ teaching the Apostles, a fresco about 15 inches high and 51 inches wide, Catacombs of Domitilla, circa A.D. 300.

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