Unity in Diversity


Polycarp of Smyrna

Former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, or LBP – not to be confused with U.S. President LBJ, dominant Japanese political party the LDP, or women’s wardrobe staple the LBD – once obscurely remarked that Canada needed to maintain a “unity in diversity”. (I’d’ve written “famously remarked”, but let’s be realistic, it wasn’t at all famous or notable… :) )

The phrase came to mind in early April, after the Liberal Party won a majority in the Quebec provincial election, the Parti Quebecois suffering a substantive-enough defeat that we probably won’t have to worry about the separatist movement for another decade or two. And hopefully we soon reach the point where the overwhelming majority of Quebecers perceive their culture as being inextricably woven into the Canadian fabric.

That’s right, I started making mental notes for this, five full months ago! Long enough for an even bigger separatist movement in Scotland, to suffer a much lesser, much more recent defeat…

It’s pretty cool to think that the colonies of two rival imperial powers (Britain and France) decided to work together, building bridges between their cultures. Even if they did manage to forget the contributions of the First Nations along the way. :) And Canada’s even young enough that we can identify many of the key individuals who helped make it happen: people like Louis LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, John A. MacDonald and George-Etienne Cartier, one out of four of whom is famous enough for most Canadians to know their name. :)

It’s all the more impressive, considering that politics is second only to religion in its ability to divide otherwise like-minded people. And that got me wondering, if the live-and-let’s-live-together creation of Canada is a silver medal, what would be the gold?

Tolerance gold

Among the world’s major religions, Hinduism probably wins for doctrinal tolerance. Not that this necessarily counts for much, since doctrine and practice are two very different things. There’s nothing stopping even broadly-regarded-as-mild-mannered religions from having violent zealots, as evidenced by the rising threat in recent years of … Buddhist fundamentalism (yes, Buddhist fundamentalism).

Now, I give Hinduism the doctrinal-tolerance props because the faith umbrella covers a covers a vast spectrum of mutually-contradictory beliefs and world-views, and that’s still okay. (Unity in diversity!)

Think your eternal soul is the same as the spirit of the universe? Or maybe it’s different? Perhaps it’s of the same essence, but not identical (the “you are to God as your dandruff is, to you” worldview)? Or maybe you don’t even have an eternal soul? Well, Hinduism’s underlying unity is strong enough to encompass these and more, as religiously acceptable metaphysical positions.

There are some comical side-effects from this diversity, too. We have letters from early Christian missionairies to India complaining that, the more they told the locals that Jesus had descended from Heaven and taken on a human form to save mankind, performing miracles as signs of his divine power, the more convinced the Indians got, that He was God – specificaly, the long-awaited tenth incarnation of Vishnu, descended from Heaven in human form to upend evil and restore religious righteousness. And the stronger their faith in Hinduism became!

Unfortunately, Hinduism is old enough that we won’t ever know what enlightened pluralists first invoked the notion in the Rig Veda (which probably dates to 1400 BC, give or take a few centuries) that “the truth is one, though the sages speak of it by many names”.

Similarly, we’ll probably never know which Jewish priests braided together regional traditions about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into the unifying tri-generational family epic that underpins part of the Hebrew Bible. (We‘ll never know which Greek bards did the same thing for their local gods, but they must’ve had a sense of humour, since the Olympic pantheon is the world’s most impossibly-dysfunctional family!! :) )

When it comes to early Buddhism, when the first big schism occurred, we do have both sides’ versions of the story, but that’s more a case of “disunity in diversity”. :)

Which leaves us with Christianity, which most definitely is a “unity in diversity” story. From two thousand years on, it’s easy to think of it as monolithic – by and large, adherents use the same text and agree on the same core doctrines, even if their interpretations vary wildly.

But the same wasn’t true at all in Christianity‘s early decades. A casual read of the New Testament reveals that the different writers have different priorities; and the letters of Paul even go into some of his disputes with other early leaders. Even so, adherents tend to think of these as minor disagreements within a backdrop of broad unity, thanks to the narrative of the Book of Acts, whose version of early Church history contradicts pretty much every other early Christian source, canonical or not. :)

It wasn’t until German scholars in the 1800’s applied the techniques of literary analysis to the Christian scriptures, that anyone realized how far apart those early writers were. They weren’t squabbling teammates; they were on opposite sides of seething disagreements, with each faction trying to exterminate the others. The form-critical method these academics pioneered would go on to revolutionize Biblical studies, undermining church tradition so completely that it gave rise to the saying popular in academic circles, that “those who take the Bible seriously, don’t take it literally; and those who take it literally, don’t take it seriously”.

As an aside, I’ve got to say, between the aforementioned scholars, Charles Darwin, and Friedrich “God is dead” Nietzsche, the 19th century was a tough one for conservative Christians. (Unlike today’s biggest attention-getting atheists, Nietzsche came from a long line of Christian preachers; he knew the Bible inside out, and knew exactly how to undermine it, having spent his youth defending it.)

Mind you, in Nietzsche’s case, God got his revenge: even while the mercurial Freddy was alive, his mouth-foamingly anti-Semitic, Christian brother-in-law repurposed Nietzsche’s concept of the superman to serve the claims of German racial superiority. (We have vitriolic letters from Nietzsche demanding his brother-in-law cease, desist, and disavow anything to do with him.) Which is how many folks continue to think Nietzsche hated Jews, when he actually hated anti-Semites. Well played, Jehovah, well played…

Sadly, some congregations turn away from the new insights of scholarship, maybe worried that the experiential reality of their religious experience is somehow dependent on the factual accuracy of their texts. And so their study classes – accredited by no institution except the group leadership (bit of a warning signal there) – are less about discovering truth, than defending tradition.

Happily, other congregations embrace the work of their academic co-religionists; I attended a seminar series at a local cathedral once, where the implications of modern scholarship were discussed in an intellectual-yet-devotional setting. It was probably the pinnacle of my religious tourism. (This was a different cathedral from the local one which, when it finally let a woman take over, saw membership triple in ten years, due to an influx of yuppies seeking a scientifically-literate faith experience. Perhaps the congregation is wondering whether it would be worth taking a chance on another male leader, ever again. ;) )

While it can take a long, long time for scholarly opinion to change in the social sciences, I hope that by the time I’m so old I prattle on verbosely on obscure topics, oblivious to my audience’s acute disinterest :) a solid minority of academics will have come around to the hypothesis that Polycarp of Smyrna (approx. 70–160 AD) was the seamster who pulled the feuding Christian factions together.

The basic theory is explained in this article by Biblical scholar David Trobisch, which is a continuation of his postdoctoral thesis. The thesis argued that since virtually all early canonical (that is, non-heretical) Christian writings that have survived, use shorthand contractions for specific words, they were likely copied from an abbreviation-friendly scribe’s master copy.

The article suggests that it was Polycarp; the evidence is circumstantial, of course, but there’s a lot of it. And while it wouldn’t be good enough for a criminal conviction (“beyond a reasonable doubt”), I think it would meet the standard for civil law (“balance of probabilities”).

Polycarp – the case in point (well, several points)

The general sense is that the New Testament must’ve been compiled by someone sympathetic to the Gospel of John community, or it wouldn’t’ve been included – it was regarded with suspicion because it’s radically different from the other three canonical Gospels, and was popular among Gnostic Christians, whom the emerging orthodoxy deemed heretics. (As you can imagine, the Gnostics returned the favour.)

Among other things, John has a 46-year-old Jesus working a three-year ministry, while Mark, Matthew and Luke have a 30-year-old Jesus and imply a one-year ministry. Bit of a difference, there. (The idea that Jesus was 33 upon his death is arrived at by adding John‘s three-year ministry to the others’ 30-year-old Jesus.)

As it turns out, Polycarp was a prominent follower of John of Gospel of John fame, had been chosen as his community’s representative at a summit with the Pope, and lived at the same time as one bishop Theophilus of Antioch. And not only are the prefaces to the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts addressed to one Theophilus, but at the end of John, the narrator addresses the readers directly and basically reassures them that what he wrote was the testimony of the “beloved disciple” (John) himself – testimony that Polycarp would’ve been in a position to have claimed to have directly received.

It’s also universally accepted that the first person to create a collection of Christian writings was Marcion, around the year 140. Since the orthodox church considered him a heretic and an existential threat – in some parts of the Roman Empire, Marcionites became the dominant Christian group – it would make sense that it would create its own authoritative collection of texts, in short order. (Indeed, the New Testament contains the entire Marcionite canon – ten letters of Paul, plus the Gospel of Marcion, a “corrected” version of which we call the Gospel of Luke.) And once again, Polycarp is attested as having been an orthodox contemporary and opponent of Marcion’s.

The most tantalizing hint comes from one of the Pastoral Epistles (2 Timothy), traditionally attributed to Paul, but long recognized as coming from the 2nd century – when Polycarp lived. The Pastorals discuss issues that Paul couldn’t’ve encountered in the 1st century, so are judged to be forgeries for the same reasons that, oh, letters of Abraham Lincoln discussing the internet would be recognized as fakes.

2 Timothy references a variety of early Christian figures known from elsewhere in the New Testament, and two who aren’t: one Carpus (perhaps he hadn’t yet earned his “Poly-” prefix?) and Crescens, who is known from Polycarp’s introduction to the Letters of Ignatius… as Polycarp’s own secretary.

All of which makes Polycarp a better candidate than virtually anyone else, to have actually compiled various Christian writings into what became the New Testament, uniting the fractious factions of orthodox Christianity by including a sampling of each side’s favoured writings, in a comprehensive collection of orthodox writings designed to turn the tide against the Marcionites. And not only that, the theory makes him out to be a compiler who couldn’t resist “pulling a Raphael” on occasion, either! (The Renaissance artist / Ninja Turtle sometimes painted himself in the backgrounds of his masterpieces. :) )


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