Sunday, February 3, 2013

Genesis 28 and The Martyrdom of Polycarp - Introduction through 1

Genesis 28 – This chapter is a retelling of what just happened in 27. In this telling of the story there is more of an emphasis on where the “blessed son” should go and whom he should marry. Here Jacob does not flee from his brother’s wrath; he simply follows the instructions of his father to go to his grandfather Bethuel and marry one of his uncle’s daughters. It seems as if Esau thinks he looses the blessing not because of any chicanery of his brother but because he married women his father did not approve of. So he too goes out and tries to rectify this by marrying one of Ishmael’s daughters.

On Jacob’s journey north toward Haran, he has a dream of a ladder or stairway rising up to heaven (like the figure of a Ziggurat).  The dream is an encounter with God Himself, who renews the promise yet again: “In you and your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing” (28:14). Schocken translates this “all the clans of the soil.”  I will review at the end of Genesis all the repetitions of the promise, the variations in wording, etc., but it is apparent from the very beginning of the promise-giving (28:2) that God intends Abraham’s faithfulness to be the source of world-wide blessing, not a parochial blessing for the Hebrew people alone. 

The seed of the whole redemption saga is in the promise to Abraham, and here he says, “I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you” (28:15).  Jacob wakes to see the place and the rock on which he lay his head as “God’s holy place.” And he “cuts a covenant” with God—that is he takes on a reciprocal responsibility: If God remains with him, if he protects him on his journey; if he gives him bread to eat and clothing to wear and if God brings him safely back to the home of his father, “the Lord shall be my God” (28:21) and he (Jacob) will give a tithe of what he has to God (as Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe). A lot of “ifs” in this covenant!

The Martyrdom of Polycarp
The Martyrdom of Polycarp is “earliest surviving authentic account of Christian martyrdom outside the New Testament” (Louthe, Andrew. 117). The Penguin note to the letter’s opening says “the above account [was] been transcribed by [a man named] Gaius from the papers of his contemporary Irenaeus, who was disciple of Polycarp” (132). The copyist (named Socrates) says that he made this copy of Gaius’ copy in Corinth.

Eusebius, who includes most of the letter in his History of the Church, places it in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180). But there are problems with this and scholars disagree as to the date. Some hold that it happened in 155 AD; some 168 and some 177.

Just trying to get some background information on this account of Polycarp’s martyrdom during the reign of Marcus Aurelius [or whoever] turned into a very interesting inquiry. That persecution of early Christians occurred is undeniable. Most of the early apostles ended up martyred, but the extent of the persecutions throughout the first 300 years is quite debated among scholars. When I visited the Roman Coliseum back in 2000, one of the guides there told me he didn’t think any early Christians had been martyred there – that the martyrdoms, to the extent they had occurred in coliseums, had taken place elsewhere – in Lyons or in Carthage.

Roman authorities were generally pretty tolerant of religious differences throughout the Empire, but a variety of factors played into the exception for Christianity: early word that these Christians ate “body and blood” as a part of their religious practice made some think that cannibalism was involved; some thought the constant reference to members as “brothers and sisters” made it likely that incestuous relationships were tolerated; verses from New Testament writings that Christ came not to bring peace, but the sword and sought to have believers reject fathers and mothers made some think the faith encouraged anti-social and anti-family behaviors, which were anathema to traditional Roman values.

The other factor was that some Christians SOUGHT OUT martyrdom. They really wanted to follow in Jesus’ footsteps this way. He had, after all said that those who were hated, and excluded and insulted and rejected because of Him could expect a great reward in heaven (Matt 5:10). So there were Christians were sought out martyrdom. All of these things are interesting to explore. But the study of things that happened so long ago is full of uncertainty.

Chapter 1 – “In this letter, brothers, we are sending you an account of the martyrs, and in particular of the blessed Polycarp, whose witness set the seal, so to speak, on the persecution and brought it to an end” (125).

The lead-up to Polycarp’s martyrdom follows the same pattern as the martyrdom of Jesus, “for Polycarp, just like the Lord, had patiently awaited the hour of his betrayal” (125), and used his suffering to save others as well.

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