Quaestiones Melitonianae 1: the Syriac apologia

In response to a request from “Robert” in comments below I am posting on the ps-Melito of Sardis, perhaps, better, Melito the philosopher, Apology.

“Robert” asks for “information.” I fear I have little. Previously I had read the apology simply with a view to whether it should be attributed to Melito of Sardis. Having decided fairly rapidly that it should not, I left it. Even now I cannot claim to have undertaken a deep study, beyond re-reading the document in W. Cureton, Spicilegium Syriacum: containing remains of Bardesan, Meliton, Ambrose and Mara Bar Serapion (London: F&J Rivington, 1855), available on archive.org, (from whom any English citations here are taken), reading Jane L. Lightfoot, ‘The Apology of Pseudo-Meliton’ SEL 24 (2007), .59-110, and a skim of Sebastian Toby Nichols, ‘The Gods of the Nations are Idols’ (Ps. 96:5): Paganism and Idolatry in Near Eastern Christianity, Diss. Durham, 2014, (Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/10616/). I have no particular knowledge or insight, so simply list what seem to be the key questions with some highly tentative answers and suggestions.

My initial uncertainty about calling the author “ps-Melito” or “Melito” comes about because, although it is possible that this is intended in some way to be a work of Melito of Sardis, it is also possible that this is a work which is entirely independent and by another Melito. The attribution in the title, and the statement that is was delivered in the presence of “Antoninus Caesar”, whereas obviously fictive, may be the fiction of a scribe intent on attributing the apology to Melito, but “Melito” was not an uncommon name. My feeling is that the author’s name was “Melito”; the characterization of this Melito as “the philosopher” is not one which would readily occur to a scribe with limited knowledge of the sophist of Sardis. The reference to Antoninus is, moreover, part of the fictive setting, rather than any scribal initiative, as one of the characterizations of the philosopher is that of a king who claims that he is bound to worship idols by virtue of his position. The answer is given that the king might lead his people in worshipping a true God. This indicates that an address to an emperor is part of the fictive construction.

Another question which is posed, and not answered here, is the original language of the document. Although some have argued for Greek the consensus seems to be moving in the direction of a Syriac original. Certainly there is nothing here which sounds like awkward translation. Whereas the work is clearly indebted to the Greek philosophical tradition, this does not preclude a Syriac original, as Greek philosophy was taken into Syriac speaking circles. Thus a Syriac original stemming from somewhere like Hierapolis (Mabbug) would not be unreasonable as a supposition.

An origin in Hierapolis would be consistent with the section in which the philosopher speaks of the origin of the gods in human heroes, with a catalogue of Syrian cults. However, Lightfoot suggests that this section, that which has received the most attention, is an interpolation. This is absolutely feasible; the speech makes far more sense, seems much more coherent, without this section. This, in turn, makes a Syrian origin less compelling, even while still possible.

Nichols suggests that this might be a product of the latter part of the second century. This is, again, plausible, especially if the Euhemeristic section is omitted. Lightfoot finds some possible indication of date in a part of the Euhemeristic section: “The Syrians worshipped Athi a Hadibite, who sent the daughter of Belat, who was skilled in medicine, and she cured Simi, daughter of Hadad, king of Syria ; and after a time, when the leprosy attacked Hadad himself, Athi entreated Elishah, the Hebrew, and he came and cured him of his leprosy.” Here, rather than a reference to the story of Naaman, she sees a reference to the Historia Addaei, and so suggests a terminus a quo in the fourth century. I am less than convinced; in any event, this is from a section which may be interpolated.

I am also unconvinced by any suggestion that there is literary dependence on the Apology of Aristides. Certainly there is some common material, but nothing which is unique; what they hold in common is the lingua franca of early Christian apologetics.

Finally I note that “Robert” has picked up on the reference to the final dissolution of the world by fire: “So also it will be at the last time; there shall be a flood of fire, and the earth shall be burnt up together with its mountains, and men shall be burnt up together with the idols which they have made, and with the graven images which they have worshipped; and the sea, together with its isles, shall be burnt.” There seems to be a consensus that this is a reference to II Peter. My feeling is that this refers, rather, to the ekpyrosis known in stoicism.

I am grateful to “Robert” for causing me to re-read this Bekehrungspredigt (a better characterization, perhaps, than “Apology”.) Possibly, one day, I may find time to return to it to produce something more coherent than this.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Quaestiones Melitonianae 1: the Syriac apologia

  1. Robert

    Thank you again for your work. This post is extremely helpful, and you have articulated several ideas that will help me in my own research.

    Like

  2. I am so glad to be of assistance. I have now posted two further animadversions on the questions you raise.

    Like

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