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Grande Sabato. Il contesto pasquale quartodecimano nella formazione della teologia del martirio.

Grande Sabato. Il contesto pasquale quartodecimano nella formazione della teologia del martirio. By REMO CACITTI. Pp. lx + 207. (Studia Patristica Mediolanensia, 19.) Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1994. ISBN 88 343 0180 3. Paper L. 48,000.

THE meaning of the term 'great sabbath' as an essential element in dating Polycarp's martyrdom has been debated by scholars and theologians for the past three centuries. At first sight the hagiographer's statement that Polycarp 'was martyred on the second day of the first half of the month of Xanthicus, the seventh day before the kalends of March, a great sabbath, at the eighth hour' looks like a piece of chronological precision aimed at combining Smyrnaean, Roman, and Christian terminology. This presumption is strengthened by the reference to 'a great sabbath' on the anniversary of Polycarp's martyrdom as marking the date of the arrest of Pionius and his companions, also in Smyrna in 250 during the Decian persecution, and the further reference in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (viii. I) to the saint being led into Smyrna on 'a great sabbath day'. As Kirsopp Lake has indicated (The Apostolic Fathers ii, p. 323 n. i); this may have been the Jewish feast, Purim, celebrating the triumph of the Jews in Persia over their enemies, as related in the Book of Esther, or else the sabbath in the passover week.

The author however, in this learned and careful survey of the evidence, questions whether this is the whole truth. After a chapter devoted to the theories of the long line of his predecessors, he discusses in detail the probability that for contemporaries the 'great sabbath' on which Polycarp was martyred had a theological significance, and one, moreover, connected with a Quartodeciman dating of Easter.

That the writer of the Martyrdom of Polycarp had Christ's passion in his mind as he traced each step in the drama from Polycarp's arrest to his execution is clear to any reader. What the author seeks to demonstrate, however, is that many of these recorded events had an eschatological significance also. Thus, Polycarp's and Pionius' fast before arrest were preparations for a Eucharist, itself a preparation for Christ's appearance, while Polycarp standing in prayer facing the east (vii.3, Musurillo) marked the direction whence the Parousia would dawn. In both the Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Acts of Pionius there is a record of pre-dawn vigils, and these, the author points out, would end the period of fast, while the meal that followed would symbolize preparation for the arrival of the Bride and the Heavenly Banquet. Thus the sabbath itself on which these events took place had its own eschatological significance. The author cites the text of Methodius of Olympus (early fourth century) that the sabbath was 'the day of Resurrection' and the 'great feast of Tabernacles' when God rested after his work of creation.

Seen thus, ideas of death and resurrection lay behind what at first sight appears to be simply elaborate chronological precision. The clue, however, could be found in the emphasis in both the Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Acts of Pionius on the deaths of the martyrs 'on the great Sabbath' in which 'Christ was reigning forever', in contrast to secular dating of the event. The day of the martyr's death was also the day of Christ's resurrection and the coming, whatever might be the secular date. The parallel between the blood-witness of the martyr and the death and resurrection of Christ was never far from the minds of the writers of the Acta Martyrum. The martyrs' reward would be to rest with Christ as God had rested after the creation.

So far, so good, but the author goes further. He relates the dates of the deaths of Polycarp and Pionius specifically to the celebration of the paschal feast. Christ was the true paschal lamb. The martyr's fast, his Eucharist, and his death all related to the belief that the martyr's death anticipated the Parousia. The author points to Quartodeciman works, such as an anonymous writing attributed to John Chrysostom, as evidence for the same belief prevailing in Quartodeciman circles in the fourth and fifth centuries.

The author is surely right in pointing to the liturgical significance of events described in the Martyrdom of Polycarp and Acts of Pionius. Less certain is the explicitly Quartodeciman paschal interpretation that he attributes to them. One would expect Quartodeciman views as the norm in second and even third century Asia Minor (compare Eusebius, H.E.v.24.6), but his use of north African sources, such as the Passio Perpetuae and the Donatist Passio Marculi to support his case is questionable.

Quartodecimanism was not an issue in the church in north Africa. The north African Christians believed that martyrs, as 'friends of Christ', were destined to judge their pagan persecutors at the Last Day (Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30 and Passio Perpetuae 17-18), but there was no reference to keeping the paschal feast on 14 Nisan and of the martyrs' deaths being related to a sabbath.

Altogether, it would seem that though the writer of the Fourth Gospel (John 19:31) and hagiographers recorded 'great sabbath' as a time relating to a particular feast-day, namely the Jewish Passover, by the second century the term had also acquired a symbolic, theological meaning connected with Christ's passion and coming. These the author has succeeded in unravelling. With great patience and diligence he has moved the discussion of the Martyrdom of Polycarp and Acts of Pionius a long way forward. Many otherwise obscure passages in these Acta have now become clearer. His scholarly work has placed all students of early Christianity in Asia Minor in his debt.

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Author:Frend, W.H.C.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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