Identity Markers in 2nd-Century Christianity: The Apostolic Letters

The letters of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp

Generally in this collection the major identity markers of Christianity are behaviors or virtues that are demonstrated by behavior. Each of these authors, particularly Polycarp, closely links orthodoxy and orthopraxy: appropriate behavior not only commends one to God, it also demonstrates one’s pure heart and correct theology. Continuing “desire to do good” is a reward for righteousness, i.e., doing good. In this way behavior and belief create a feedback loop that results in strong, steadfast piety.

Key concepts for appropriate behavior in all of these documents include steadfastness, humility, piety, obedience, harmony, chastity, temperance, kindness, and patience. 1 Clement also specifies knowledge and hospitality. Authors or letters with particular concerns will highlight particular behaviors and virtues. Ignatius, with his emphasis on the primacy of the bishop, often discusses obedience, unity, “running together” (suntrechein), and “harmony” (homonoia). When Polycarp extols the martyrdoms of Ignatius and others, he encourages the Philippians in steadfastness and courage.

None of the documents professes much concern for specific rituals, though that is not to say that liturgical life was not important to the authors. Ignatius requires that all attend regular gatherings, overseen by a legitimate bishop, in order to be truly saved. His lack of description simply indicates that there are no disagreements regarding liturgy that he feels the need to address. In the letter to the Philadelphians he expresses the unity of a church in terms of “one Eucharist,” under the supervision of each bishop. His emphasis on such unity implies, sometimes strongly, that he is aware of schismatic groups, but this statement to the Philadelphians suggests that he is more concerned about the fact of their schism than any errors in practice. 2 Clement boasts the only direct mention of polytheistic practice, in a warning about sacrificing to “dead gods,” but the author does not seem concerned that this is taking strong hold in the community.

Major issues of doctrine only come into play in Ignatius and Polycarp. Clearly the opposing factions are docetic. More than once Ignatius emphasizes the “real” life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In Pauline fashion he connects these things to his own impending trial and death: his desire to suffer is proof of the truth of Jesus’s suffering. He understands “Son of Man” as an indicator of Jesus’s humanity, mentioning it in the same breath as Jesus’s lineage from David. Polycarp rails against the docetics, calling anyone who does not confess Jesus’s fleshly existence, suffering, and resurrection “antichrist” and “firstborn of Satan.” Polycarp explicitly connects orthodoxy with proper behavior and virtue, in stronger terms that is usual in the other letters.

Polycarp’s is the only letter that mentions a specific instance of failure to demonstrate correct behavior. The scandal of Valens, whom Polycarp accuses of greed and, presumably, falsehood, is in sharp contrast to Ignatius refrain, “not that any of you are.…” However, Valens seems to be free of any express heterodoxy: although his behavior is clearly not in line with what Polycarp and others consider “godly,” he does not belong with the docetics, and Polycarp insists that his fellows consider him “sick and straying” and thus recoverable. Here we see the edges of Christian identity for one like Polycarp: a person may fall away from the inside through wrong behavior, but the line between inside and outside, as Holmes states in his introduction to the letter, is blurry, and repentance is possible.

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2 Responses to Identity Markers in 2nd-Century Christianity: The Apostolic Letters

  1. Very important phrase to remember; “Repentance is possible.”

    • fcjaugusta says:

      Thanks for your comment! In the period in Christian history when these documents were written, there was a big controversy about whether repentance was possible after baptism. So, if you were baptized and then willingly sinned again, people disagreed on whether you could come back. Most of these authors seem to think you could, or at least they don’t mention the kinds of sin that would make it impossible.

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