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Journal of Early Christian Studies 8.1 (2000) 117-118
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Polycarp and John: The Harris Fragments and Their Challenge to the Literary Tradition
Frederick W. Weidmann. Polycarp and John: The Harris Fragments and Their Challenge to the Literary Tradition. Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity 12. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Pp. xvi + 189; 8 plates. $35.00.
The "Harris Fragments," four papyrus fragments (preserving portions of three separate leaves) containing a text written in Sahidic, preserve a narrative about the martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna that offers a unique perspective on both Polycarp and John the Apostle. Perhaps composed, as Weidmann suggests, within the Christian community at Smyrna during or after the third century, this narrative understands Polycarp's martyrdom as a compensation or surrogate for the apostle John, who as an apostle should (it was widely thought) have died a martyr's death but (according to the dominant tradition, at any rate) did not. As such, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the civic and ecclesiastical rivalry between Ephesus and Smyrna in the the third century.
Following a brief introduction, chapter 1 sets out a critical edition of the fragments and two accompanying registers. The first records parallels (including the relevant text in the original language) between the phrases and ideas in the narrative and other ancient literature, and the second records paleographical and philological notes and observations regarding the text, including possible alternative restorations. Chapter 2 presents an English translation of the text, including the alternative reconstructions suggested in the critical notes in chapter 1. Chapter 3 investigates the narrative strategy of the document, with particular attention being given to the differences between it and the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Notable are the use of conventional motifs characteristic of literary portrayals of teachers, the provision of a broader hagiographical framework for the narrative, and the emphasis on the necessity of Polycarp's death as compensation for the reprieve granted to the apostle John (see especially 55v, lines 14-21: "The apostle of the Lord" said to Polycarp, "Since the Lord granted to me that I die on my bed, it is necessary that you die by the lawcourt").
Chapter 4 (comprising a third of the book) offers a detailed commentary on the text, including considerable attention to the significance, or lack thereof, of the parallels between the narrative and other ancient literature listed in the first register in chapter 1. Finally chapter 5 draws together some of the key themes that emerged piecemeal in the earlier chapters for more sustained consideration. These include the testimony about Polycarp as a disciple of John given by Irenaeus; the differing traditions about the death of John; and the rivalry between Ephesus and Smyrna. Photographs of the fragments, a bibliography, and three indexes complete the volume.
Overall this is a very fine piece of historical research. The presentation of the text is clear and accurate, and the translation is both careful and helpful. The commentary and other discussions raise the right questions, which Weidmann answers (given the fragmentary state of the text and the tentative nature of much of the other evidence) with appropriate caution and nuance. This intriguing study [End Page 117] deserves the attention of anyone interested in Polycarp, the traditions about the apostle John, or early understandings of the concepts of apostolicity and martyrdom.
Michael W. Holmes