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Although Asia was already disturbed by the sectarian spirit, it nevertheless continued to be, next to Rome, the province in which Christianity flourished the most. It was the most pious country in the world; the country in which credulity offered to the inventors of new religions the most fertile field. To become a god was a very easy matter; incarnations, the terrestrial alternations of the immortals, were looked upon as ordinary events: every kind of imposture succeeded. People were still full of the recollection of Apollonius of Tyana—the legend regarding him increased day by day. An author, who took the name of Mœragenes, wrote the most marvellous stories about him; then a certain Maximus of Æges composed a book exclusively devoted to the extraordinary things which Apollonius had done at ages in Cilicia. In spite of the railleries of Lucian, “the tragedy,” as he calls it, succeeded astonishingly. Later, about the year 200, Philostratus wrote at the 229 request of the Syrian lady, Julia Domna, that insipid romance which passed for an exquisite hook, and which, according to a very serious Pagan writer, should have been entitled, “Sojourn of a God among Men.” Its success was immense. Because of it, Apollonius came to be considered as the first of sages, a veritable friend of the gods, as a god himself. His image was to be seen in the sanctuaries; temples were even dedicated to him. His miracles, his beautiful speeches, afforded edification for all classes. He was a sort of Christ of Paganism; and undoubtedly the intention of opposing an ideal of beneficent holiness to that of the Christians was not foreign to his apotheosis. In the last days of the struggle between Christianity and Paganism he was compared only to Jesus, and his life, as revealed in his letters, was preferred to the Gospels, the work of grosser minds. A Paphlagonian charlatan, Alexander of Abonoticus, attained through his assurance a success no less prodigious. He was a very handsome man. He had a superb presence, a most melodious voice, hair of enormous length, which it was pretended he had inherited from Perseus, and passed as one who predicted the future with the frantic enthusiasm of the ancient soothsayers. He enclosed a small serpent in a goose’s egg, broke the egg before the multitude, and made believe that it was an incarnation of Esculapius, who had chosen for his abode the city of Abonoticus. The god attained maturity in a few days. The people of Abonoticus were astonished soon to see on a canopy an enormous serpent with a human head, splendidly clothed, opening and closing its mouth and brandishing its sting. It was Alexander himself who was thus decked out, he having coiled round his chest and about his neck a tame serpent, whose tail hung down in front. He had made himself a head of linen, which he had besmeared artistically enough; and by 230means of horse hair he made the jaws and the sting move. The new god was called Glycon, and people came from every part of the empire to consult it. Abonoticus became the centre of unbridled thaumaturgy. The result was an abundant manufacture of painted images, talismans, idols of silver and of bronze, which had an extraordinary popularity. Alexander was powerful enough to raise in his district a genuine persecution against the Christians and the Epicureans who refused to believe in him. He established a cult which, in spite of its wholly charlatanistic and even obscene character, had much vogue, and attracted a multitude of religious people. But the most singular thing of all was that Romans of high standing, such as Severian, legate of Cappadocia, and Rutilianus, a man of consular dignity, one of the first men of his time, were his dupes, and that the impostor succeeded in having the name of Abonoticus changed to Ionopolis. He required also that the coinage of that city should bear henceforth on the one side the effigy of Glycon, on the other his own, with the arms of Perseus and of Esculapius. Actually the coins of Abonoticus, at the time of Antonine and Marcus Aurelius, bore the figure of a serpent with the head of a man with long hair and beard, and on the obverse the word ΓΛΥΚΟΝ. The coins of the same city, with the medal of Lucius Verus, bore the serpent and the name ΙΩΝΟΠΟΛΕΙΤΩΝ. Under Marcus Aurelius we shall see this ridiculous religion assume an incredible importance. It lasted until the second half of the third century.
Nerullinus, at Troas, succeeded in a fraudulent enterprise of the same kind. His statue uttered oracles, cured maladies; sacrifices were offered to it, and it was crowned with flowers. It was especially the absurd ideas about medicine, the belief in medical dreams, in the oracles of Esculapius, etc., which kept the minds of people in that state of superstition. We 231are dumfounded at seeing Galian himself addicted to similar follies. More incredible still is the career of that Ælius Aristides, religious sophist, devout Pagan, a sort of bishop or saint, pressing pious materialism and credulity to its utmost limits; yet this did not prevent him from being one of the most admired and most honoured men of his age. The Epicureans alone repudiated these follies unreservedly. There were still some men of intellect, such as Celsus, Lucian, Demonax, who could laugh at it. Soon, however, there shall be no more such, and credulity will reign mistress over a debased world. The name of Atheist was dangerous, for it put him to whom it was attributed without the pale of the law, and exposed him even to the scaffold; yet one was an Atheist because he denied the local superstitions and stood up against charlatans. We can conceive how such devices must have been favourable to the propagation of Christianity. We do not perhaps exaggerate much when we admit that nearly the half of the population had avowed Christianity. In certain cities, such as Hierapolis, Christianity was publicly professed. Some inscriptions, still decipherable, attest beneficent foundations which were to be distributed at Easter and at Pentecost. Co-operative associations of workmen, societies for mutual succour, were there skilfully organised. These manufacturing cities, which contained for a long time colonies of Jews, who perhaps had carried with them thence the industries of the East, were ready to receive every social idea of the age. Works of charity were wonderfully developed. Nursing institutions and establishments for foundlings were there. The labourer, so depised in ancient times, attained, through association, to dignity of existence and to happiness. That interior life, all the more active because it was not disturbed by politics, made of Asia Minor a field closed to all the religious strifes of the times. The directions in 232which the Church was divided there were singularly visible; for nowhere else was the Church in such a state of fermentation, or showed its internal labour more distinctly. Conservatives and Progressists, Judeo-Christians and enemies of Judaism, Millenarians and Spiritualists, were there opposed as two armies, who, after having fought, finished by breaking their ranks and fraternising together. There had lived, or was still living, a whole Christian world which did not know St Paul. Papias, the most narrow-minded of the Fathers of his times; Melito, almost as materialistic as he; the ultra-conservative Polycarpus; the presbyteri who taught Irenæus his unpolished Millenarianism; the chiefs of the Montanist movement, who pretended to have witnessed again the scenes of the first supper at Jerusalem. There too were to be found, or had come thence, the men who had most boldly launched themselves into innovations—the author of the fourth Gospel, Cerdo, Marcion, Praxeas, Noetus, Apollinarius of Hierapolis, the Aloges, who, full of aversion for the Apocalypse, Millenarianism, Montanism, gave the hand to Gnosticism and to philosophy. Spiritual exercises which had disappeared elsewhere, continued to flourish in Asia. They had prophets there—a certain Quadratus, and one Amnia of Philadelphia.
People gloried especially over the considerable number of martyrs and confessors. Asia Minor witnessed numerous executions, in particular crucifixions. The different Churches made a boast of this, alleging that persecution was the privilege of truth; a matter that is debateable, seeing that all those sects had martyrs; at times, the Marcionites and Montanists had more than the orthodox. No calumny then was spared by the latter in order to depreciate the martyrs of their rivals. These enmities endured to the death. We see the confessors, while expiring for the same Christ, turning their backs on one another, in order to avoid all that 233might resemble a mark of communion. Two martyrs, born at Eumenia, namely, Caine and Alexander, who were executed at Apamea Kibotos, went the length of taking the most minute precautions in order that it might not be thought that they adhered to the inspirations of Montanus and of his wives. Such conduct shocks us, but we must not forget that, according to the opinions of the times, the last words and the last acts of martyrs possessed a high importance. Martyrs were consulted on questions of orthodoxy; from the depths of their dungeons they reconciled dissentients, and gave certificates of absolution. They were regarded as being charged by the Church with the rôle of pacificators, and with a sort of doctrinal mission.
Far from being hurtful to propagandism, these divisions were serviceable to it. The churches were rich and numerous. Nowhere else did the episcopate contain so many capable, moderate, and courageous men. We may cite Thraseas, Bishop of Eumenia; Sagaris, Bishop of Laodicea; Papirius, whose birthplace is not known; Apollinaris of Hierapolis, who was destined to play a considerable part in the capital controversies which were soon to divide the Churches of Asia; Polycrates, the future Bishop of Ephesus, the descendant of a family seven members of which before him had been bishops. Sardis possessed a real treasure, the learned Bishop Melito, who already had prepared himself for the vast labours which, later on, rendered his name celebrated. Like Origen, at a subsequent date, he was anxious that his chastity should be distinctly attested. His erudition resembled much that of Justin and of Tatian. His theology had also a little of the materialistic dulness which was a characteristic of these two doctors; for he thought that God had a body. He appears to have been reproached by Papias for his apocalyptic ideas. Miltiades, on his part, was a 234laborious author, a zealous polemic, who struggled against the heathen, the Jews, the Montanists, the ecstatic prophets, and made an apology for Christian philosophy, which he addressed to the Roman authorities.
The aged Polycarpus, in particular, enjoyed high authority at Smyrna. He was more than an octogenarian, and it would seem that he was believed to have inherited his longevity from the Apostle John. He was accredited with the gift of prophecy: it was alleged that each word that he uttered would come to pass. He himself lived in the belief that the world was full of visions and of presages. Night and day he prayed, including in his prayers the wants of the entire world. As everybody admitted that he had lived several years with the Apostle John, people believed that they still possessed in him the last witness of the apostolic age. People surrounded him; everybody sought to please him; a mark of his esteem was regarded as a high favour. His person was charming in the extreme. The docile Christians adored him; a band of disciples and of admirers pressed around him, eager to render him every service. But he was not popular in the city. His intolerance, the pride of orthodoxy, which he did not pretend to dissimulate, and which he communicated to his disciples, wounded deeply both the Jews and the heathen; the latter knew but too well that the disdainful old man looked upon them as wretches.
Polycarpus had all the peculiarities of an old man; he had a certain manner of acting and speaking which made a vivid impression on young auditors. His conversation was fluent, and when he went to sit down on the place which he affected—doubtless one of the terraces of the slopes of Mount Pagus, whence one could see the sparkling gulf, and its beautiful surrounding of mountains, it was known beforehand what he was going to say. “John and 235others who have seen the Lord;” this was the way in which he always commenced. He would tell about the intimacy he had had with them, what he had heard them say about Jesus, and about his preaching. An echo of Galilee was thus made to resound, at a distance of a hundred and twenty years, upon the shores of another sea. He repeated constantly that those men had been ocular witnesses, and that he had seen them. He made no more difficulty than did the Evangelists in regard to borrowing from the presbyteri the maxims best adapted to the second century, at the epoch in which they were reputed to have lived. To so many other obscure traditions in regard to the origins of Christianity, a new source, more troublesome than the others, was now about to be added.
The impression which Polycarpus produced was not less profound. A long time after, his disciples would remind one another of the bench on which he sat, his gait, his habits, his bodily peculiarities, his manner of speaking. Every one of his words were graven on their hearts. Now in the circle which surrounded him there was a young Greek, of about fifteen years of age, who was destined to play one of the leading parts in ecclesiastical history. His name was Irenæus, who afterwards transmitted to us the image—doubtless often false, yet, at the same time, in many respects very vivid—of the last days of the apostolic world, whose setting sun he had, in a sort of way, been a witness of. Irenæus was born a Christian, which did not prevent him from frequenting the schools of Asia, where he acquired an extensive knowledge of the poets, and of the profane philosophers, especially of Homer and of Plato. He had for a young friend and co-disciple, if one may so express oneself, near the old man, a certain Florinus, who held a somewhat important posit on at court, and who, subsequently, 236embraced at Rome the Gnostic ideas of Valentinus.
Polycarpus, in the eyes of every one, was regarded as the perfect type of orthodoxy. His doctrine was the materialistic Millenarianism of the old apostolic school. Far from having broken with Judaism, he conformed to the practices of the moderate Judeo-Christians. He resented the foolish embellishments which the Gnostics had introduced into the Christian teaching, and appears to have ignored the Gospel which in his time already circulated under the name of John. He held to the simple and unctuous manner of the apostolic catechesis, and would not have anything at all added to it. Everything that had the resemblance of a new idea put him beside himself. His hatred of heretics was intense, and some of the anecdotes which he delighted to tell about John were destined to make the violent intolerance which, in his opinion, formed the basis of the apostle’s character, appear in a strong light. When any one dared to give vent in his presence to some doctrine analogous to that of the Gnostics, some theory calculated to introduce a little of rationalism into the Christian theology, he would get up, stop his ears, and take to flight, exclaiming, “Oh, good God, to what times hast thou reserved me, that I should have to put up with such language!” Irenæus was permeated to a large extent with the same spirit, but the sweetness of his character served to correct it in practice. The idea of holding fast to the apostolic teaching became the basis of orthodoxy, in opposition to the presumption of the Gnostics and Montanists, who pretended to have re-discovered the actual doctrine of Jesus, which, in their opinion, had been corrupted by his immediate disciples.
Following the example of Paul, Ignatius, and other celebrated pastors, Polycarpus wrote many letters to 237the neighbouring Churches and to individuals, in order to instruct and exhort them. Only one of these letters has been preserved to us. It is addressed to the faithful at Philippi, as touching some confessors who were destined to martyrdom, who chanced to be with them on their way from Asia to Rome. Like all the apostolic or pseudo-apostolic writings, it is a short treatise addressed to each of the classes of the faithful which composed the Church. Some serious doubts might be raised against the authenticity of this epistle if it were not certain that Irenæus had known it, and held it to be a work of Polycarpus. Without this authority, we should rank this short treatise with the epistles of St Ignatius, in that class of writings of the end of the second century by which it was sought to cover, by the most revered names, the anti-Agnostic doctrines, and those which were favourable to the episcopate. The document, which is somewhat commonplace, possesses nothing that is specially befitting the character of Polycarpus. The imitation of the apostolic writings, particularly the false Epistles to Titus and Timothy, the first of Peter, and the Epistles of John, makes itself fully felt in it. The author makes no distinction between the authentic writings of the apostles and those which have been attributed to them. He evidently knew the Epistle of St Clement by heart. The way in which lie reminds the Philippians that they have an epistle from Paul, is suspicious. What singular things all those hypotheses are! The Gospel attributed to John is not cited, whilst a phrase of the pseudo-Johannine epistle is brought in. Docility, submission to the bishop, enthusiasm for martyrdom, after the example of Ignatius, horror of heresies, which, like Docetism, overthrew the faith in the reality of Jesus; such were the dominant ideas of the author. If Polycarpus is not the author, we can at least say that if he had been resuscitated a few 238years after his death, and had seen the compositions which were read as his, he would not have protested, and would have even found that people had correctly enough interpreted his thoughts. Irenæus at Lyons may have been deceived in this matter like every one else. If it was an error, he recognised in this fragment the perfect character of the faith and the teaching of his master.
Polycarpus, in those years of extreme old age, was regarded as the President of the Church of Asia. Some grave questions, which at first had barely been stated, began to agitate these Churches. With his ideas of hierarchy and of ecclesiastical unity, Polycarpus naturally thought of turning towards the Bishop of Rome, to whom almost the whole world about that time acknowledged a certain authority in composing the divisions in Churches. The controversial points were numerous; it appears, moreover, that the two heads of the Churches—Polycarpus and Anicetus—had some petty grievances against one another. One of the questions in controversy was in regard to the celebration of Easter. In the early days, all the Christians continued to make Easter their principal feast. They celebrated that feast on the same day as the Jews, the 14th Nisan, no matter on what day of the week that day fell. Persuaded, according to the allegations of all the ancient Gospels, that Jesus, on the eve of his death, had eaten the Passover with his disciples, they regarded such a solemnity rather as a commemoration of the supper than as a memorial of the resurrection. When Christianity became separated more and more from Judaism, such a manner of viewing it was found to be much out of place. First, a new tradition was circulated, according to which Jesus before his death had not eaten the Passover; but died on the same day as the Jewish Passover, thus substituting himself for the Paschal Lamb. Besides this, that purely Jewish 239feast wounded the Christian conscience, especially in the Churches of St Paul. The great feast of the Christians was the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred, in any case, the Sunday after the Jewish Passover. According to this idea, the feast was celebrated on the Sunday which followed the Friday next after the 14th of Nisan.
At Rome this practice prevailed, at least from the pontificates of Xystus and Telesphoros (about 120). In Asia, people were much divided. Conservatives like Polycarpus, Melito, and all the old school, held to the ancient Jewish practice, in conformity with the first Gospels and with the usage of the Apostles John and Philip. It hence happened that people did not pray or fast on the same days. It was not till about twenty years after that this controversy attained in Asia the proportions of a schism. At the epoch in which we now are, it had only just had its birth, and was no doubt one of the least important among the questions about which Polycarpus felt himself obliged to go to Rome to have an interview with Pope Anicetus. Perhaps Irenæus and Florinus accompanied the old man on that journey, which being undertaken during the summer, according to the customs of navigation of the age, had nothing fatiguing about it. The interview between Polycarpus and Anicetus was very cordial. The discussion upon certain points appears to have been somewhat lively; but they understood one another. The question of Easter had not yet reached maturity. For a long time before this, the Church of Rome had acted upon the principle of exhibiting in this matter great tolerance. Conservatives of the Jewish order, when they came to Rome, practised their rites without anybody finding fault with them, or without causing any one to cease fraternising with them. The Bishops of Rome sent the Eucharist to some of the bishops who followed in this particular another rule. Polycarpus and 240Anicetus observed between them the same rule. Polycarpus could not persuade Anicetus to renounce a practice which the Bishops of Rome had followed before him. Anicetus, on his part, forebore when Polycarpus said to him that he held by the rule of John and the other apostles with whom he had lived upon a footing of familiarity. The two religious chiefs continued in full communion with one another, and Anicetus even bestowed on Polycarpus an honour almost unexampled. He was willing, in fact, that Polycarpus should, in the assembly of the faithful at Rome, pronounce instead of him, and in his presence, the words of the eucharistic consecration. These ardent men were full of too passionate a sentiment to rest the unity of souls upon the uniformity of rites and exterior observances. Later, Rome will display the greatest pertinacity to make her rites prevail To speak the truth, the point at issue, in this matter of Easter, was not merely a simple difference of calendar. The Roman rite, in choosing for its base the grand Christian festival the anniversaries of the death and the resurrection of Jesus, created the holy week—that is to say, a whole cycle of consecrated days, to the mysterious commemorations during which fasting was continued. In the Asiatic rite, on the contrary, the fast terminated on the evening of the 14th Nisan: Good Friday was no longer a day of sadness. If that usage had prevailed, the scheme of the Christian festivals would have been arrested in its development.
The orthodox bishops had still too many common enemies for them to pay attention to pitiful liturgic rivalries. The Gnostic and Marcionite sects inundated Rome, and threatened to put the orthodox Church in a minority. Polycarpus was the declared adversary of such ideas. Like Justin, with whom he was probably in accord, he inveighed fiercely against the sectaries. The rare privilege which he possessed of 241having seen the immediate disciples of Jesus, gave him an immense authority. He pleaded, as was his custom, the teaching of the apostles, of which he alleged he was the only living auditor, and maintained as a simple rule of faith the tradition which ascended by an unbroken chain to Jesus himself. Nor was he free from rudeness. One day he encountered in a public place a man who, for a thousand reasons, should have commanded his respect—Marcion himself. “Do you not recognise me? “ said the latter to him. “Yes,” responded the passionate old man; “I recognise the first-born of Satan.” Irenæus cannot enough admire this response, which shows how very narrow the Christian mind had already become. Jesus had much more wisely remarked: “He who is not for you is against you.” Is one always quite sure of not being oneself the first-born of Satan? How much more wise it is, instead of anathematising at first him who chooses a different path from oneself, to apply oneself to discover in what points one may be right, what method he employs in looking at things, and if there is not in his manner of observing some grain of truth that one ought to assimilate.
But that tone of assurance exercises a great efficacy upon semi-cultured men. Many Valentinians and Marcionites saw Polycarpus at Rome, and returned to the orthodox Church. Polycarpus hence left in the capital of the world a venerated name. Irenæus and Florinus in all probability remained at Rome after the departure of their master; these two minds, so different from one another, were destined to pursue paths the most opposite.
An immense result was accomplished. The rule of' prescription was laid down. The true doctrine will henceforth be that which is generally professed by the apostolic Churches, which it has always been. Quod semper quod ubique. Between Polycarpus and 242Valentin the matter is quite clear. Polycarpus held to the apostolic tradition; Valentin, whatever he may say himself, has not got it. Individual Churches formed by their union the Catholic Church, the absolute depository of the truth. He who prefers his own ideas to those of this universal authority is a sectary, a heretic.
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