A Completely Different Reading of Melito’s Peri Pascha
Studies of early Jewish-Christian relations often focus on the origins of anti-Semitism. Many early Christian works have been reinterpreted and used to legitimize anti-Semitic sentiments in a much later context. Nevertheless, "anti-Semitism" is a very simplistic way of understanding the complex and subtle issues that came up as two Second-Temple movements slowly came to define themselves against each other. Melito of Sardis’ homily on Passover and the passion of Christ first appears to many as raving anti-Judaism. Indeed, it is not without foundation that Melito has been called the poet of deicide. The homily, composed around 190 C.E. in Sardis, is very deeply concerned with guilt for the sin of killing Christ. On one hand, in many periods the Jews have been blamed for the death of Christ, not only historically but eternally. On the other hand, the current Catechism of the Catholic Church blames the death on "the sins of all men" (paragraph 312). The following proposes that Melito follows neither of these interpretations. Melito’s theology is not entirely abstract. He is concerned with the historical death at the hands of the Jews and the inherited culpability, but he does not define Jew as "other," or at least not without reasonable doubt.
There are those who understand Christianity as essentially new, and those who understand it as the logical continuation of the history of Israel. The question of anti-Judaism in Melito hinges upon his understanding of the "otherness" of Judaism. In attempting to reevaluate anti-Judaism in Melito we begin with an analysis of anti-Judaism. Anti-Judaism levels accusative guilt, Judaism levels reflexive guilt. Anti-Judaism convicts, Judaism calls for repentance with compassion. Anti-Judaism asserts identity through destructive identity distinctions, Judaism calls for a new progression in a constructive manner. Anti-Judaism condemns what Judaism is, Judaism condemns what Judaism has come to be, and calls for a return to the better, glorified past. Prophets and Sages are no less harsh, but because they claim part of the tradition they condemn, we assume they do so with sincere compassion. As for the Christians who fail to completely break with Judaism, the line becomes more blurred. Considering that the term "Christian" as opposed to "Jew" was so undefined in the formative period following the destruction of the second temple, we have no warrant to jump to conclusions. The "in-between" status of those who defy our categories makes it difficult to understand where Judaism ends and anti-Judaism begins. In attempting to reevaluate anti-Judaism in Melito’s theology I begin with a review of the few external historical sources on Melito.
It is clear from Eusebius that Melito celebrates Easter on the fourteenth of Nisan, rather than the Sunday following (Eusebius HE 5.24). It is not clear, however, what can be determined from that fact. The apparently earlier practice of celebrating Passover and Easter together on the date determined by the Jewish calender was eventually abandoned in favor of emphasizing the Sunday cult and independence from rabbinic authorities in determining the church calender. Evidence does not confirm, however, that the dating system debate had any connotation of Jewish relations in Melito’s time. Shortly after the death of Melito in the second century a bishop of Rome ordered the Eastern churches to follow the Roman dating system, but without mention of Jewish affinity (Eusebius HE 5.24). The order seems more concerned with unifying the church under Roman authority than cutting ties with the pre-Christ origins of the holiday. The claim that quartodecimians mingle too close to Jews doesn’t come explicitly until the fourth century, and even then there is no reason to believe that the quartodecimians took this as a serious fault in their tradition, which they traced to the Gospel of John (Eusebius HE 5.24). Melito may simply have been following the convention he inherited, or may have followed the gospel of John without thinking about the implications for Jewish relations.
It is no less plausible, however, that Melito and those of his time were concerned about the Jewishness of quartodecimianism. S. G. Wilson has suggested that if Melito had other reasons for following the Jewish calender and was aware of the criticism, he may have been under pressure to avoid the charge of Judaizing (Wilson 1985: p. 350). On the other hand, if the criticism reflects historical reality, Melito may actually have been Judaizing. If Melito were indeed anti-Judaic, one wonders why Melito would have stood up for a practice associated with Judaizing. Another source, not referring to Melito specifically, enhances our understanding of the quartodecimian relationship to Judaism. Didascalia and Epiphaneus preserve that the quartodecimians fasted on behalf of the Jews as part of their Pascha, "When they feast, mourn ye for them with fasting, for they crucified Christ on the day of the feast" (Epiphaneus Heresies 70.11). While this clearly does present the element of guilt, it also contains the subtle element of compassion that will become central later in the discussion.
Eusebius preserves two other interesting bits of knowledge about Melito. A letter of Melito’s reveals not only his particular interest in the Hebrew Bible, but also that he traveled to Palestine to study Bible, apparently in Hebrew (Eusebius HE 4.26). Without conclusiveness, this may contribute to the possibility that Melito saw more to the Jewish roots of Christianity than irony. More convincingly, in a letter to the Roman emperor, Melito states, "The philosophy which we profess, first indeed, flourished among the barbarians [Jews]" (Eusebius HE 4.26). One may be so cynical as to consider this an insincere attempt to make a Christian claim to Judaism’s age and consequent status as a permitted religion. Nevertheless, such an argument did not have to be used if one believed that Judaism was the complete antithesis of Christianity.
More evidence that Melito had a deep interest and affinity to Judaism will appear in our reading of the text itself. As for the external evidence determining our approach going into the text, we take a modest assessment of what we really know about Melito. The balance of factors suggests that Melito considered himself a continuation of the Jewish tradition in scripture, language, and history, despite a crucial point dividing those who kept the faith by changing with it, and those who lost the faith. Even the latter, however, he approaches with compassion by fasting for them.
Melito starts from the beginning, God created man and placed him in the garden. From that very beginning, however, man sinned and left an inheritance for his children of sin, suffering, death, and slavery—both literal slavery and slavery to the flesh (27-49). Patricide and incest ruled the earth, and the human soul was damned to Hades (51-52, 55). Nevertheless, God, Christ in particular, guarded over his chosen people like a father from the time of the Patriarchs through the captivity in Egypt (83-84). As part of the design of salvation, God brings salvation to the suffering and punishment to the oppressors. Therefore, God punished the faithless, sinful Egyptians and brought salvation for the initiated, leading them and nurturing them in the desert (84-85). There He gave them a new inheritance to replace the inheritance of sin and slavery from Adam (85). This inheritance was precious, but narrow (45).
In order to fulfill the design of salvation and undo the sin from Adam, a new sacrifice, modeled on the former, had to be accomplished (56-57). This would have entirely ended suffering, death, crime, injustice, and slavery of the flesh (102). Such a salvation would overturn the "strangest and most terrible thing that occurred on earth" (52), i.e. incest, as well as patricide and fratricide that occurred from the sin of Adam.
Such a thing was indeed accomplished, but a new sin, an "unprecedented crime" replaced the old and led to even greater suffering (97). The crime was patricide (81-86) and regicide (91-91), but with a twist. A just man suffered a cruel and unjust death (74). An ungrateful child rejected the compassion and signs of its guardians (87 ff.). The child was Israel itself, who more than anyone else should have known better (81-82). From that time the inheritance again becomes a worthless one of guilt, sin, and suffering, as in the days following Adam.
Such is generally the Rabbinic explanation of the events that followed. "On account of the sin of [innocent] bloodshed God’s Presence departs and the Temple is defiled." (Tosefta Yoma 1:12). Jerusalem is destroyed, with suffering only escalating in the Bar Kochba revolt. In the wake of this, Melito writes, "It was a terrible spectacle to watch... mothers with hair undone, fathers with minds undone, dreadfully wailing...." (29). In referring to the suffering of the Egyptians, he implicitly refers to the suffering of the Jews in his own day and in recent memory. Melito’s theodicy, his explanation for suffering, echoes that of the Biblical prophets and the Sages. Suffering results from faithlessness and unjust oppressiveness, precisely following the model of the Egyptians. In times of suffering, Melito offers a promise of hope, that God has ultimate power over the physical enemy and even over death (102). Also similar to the Exile Prophets, as well as the Rabbinic Sages of his own time, Melito calls for repentance and faithfulness to their God from whom they turned. Melito closes his oration with the plea, "Come then, all you families of men who are compounded with sins, and get forgiveness of sins." (103) With the call to repentance comes the hope of salvation: "I will raise you up by my right hand." (103)
Melito recognizes some crucial division between those who accept Christ and those who do not. It is equally clear, however, that he makes no distinction between Christ and the God of Israel. Furthermore, besides the apologetic letter mentioned in the introduction, the homily itself rejects the division between Christianity and traditional Judaism made in his time. The mystery of the Lord on the cross is mistakenly "considered new by men." (58) For Melito, the claim to be the true faithful, the true Israel, is not merely a claim, but a sincere perception of the progression of history through the Scriptures. For Melito, as well as the Prophets, the relevant division is not between Christian and Jew, but faithful and faithless. It may appear from a modern perspective that those who make the lesser change are the faithful, and those who introduce something new are the deviants. Melito doesn’t seem to think that way. As in the Prophets, the criticism is for being "stiff-necked" (17) when signs indicate the time for something new. Melito defines "Israel" as those who "see God," who recognize the Lord. Implicitly, those who recognize the divinity of Christ would be the true Israel. In calling out to those who do not recognize Christ, Melito attempts to avoid the appellation "Israel," instead preferring suggestive phrases such as "the uninitiated", "the hostile," and "the faithless." Given a new, but continuous, preordained and prefigured turning point in salvation history, it becomes clear that in Melito’s understanding, those who recognize the God of Israel on the cross are the faithful Jews; and that the stiff-necked faithless are the ones in need of repentance. The difference between the faithful and the "other" in Melito lies not in culpability, but in the distinction between the repentant and the unrepentant.
Old and New
Among the most easily misunderstood elements of Melito’s perspective is his conception of the relationship between the old and the new. Melito states that "the mystery of the lord is new and old" (58). In that sense the term appears to be used without pejorative connotation. It is clear that the same loving, saving God that was crucified was present throughout Jewish history. The terms would seem to suggest inherent superiority, yet the "old" appears as indispensable for understanding the "new." In contrast to those who present Christ as the key to understanding the Hebrew Scriptures, Melito praises the Hebrew Scriptures as the key to understanding Christ. Stating the principal repeatedly with numerous examples, Melito says, "If you wish to see the mystery of the Lord, look at Abel who is similarly murdered, at Isaac who is similarly bound..." (59). And again, "the mystery of the Lord is proclaimed by the prophetic voice" (61). Following this principal, sections 57-65 and 69-71 expound the meaning of the gospels from evidence in the Hebrew Bible. These discussions may on one level be considered "prooftexts." Yet with careful attention it becomes clear that the passages Melito selects seldom center on the prophetic heralding of the coming of Christ. It would be too cynical to generalize Biblical typology as a tool to prove the divinity of Christ based on Hebrew Scriptures. It appears that Melito sincerely appreciates the "old," and finds therein exegetical inspiration for understanding the Christian myth, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, Melito’s emphasis on the supersession of the old by the new surpasses the minimum warranted by his concept of salvation history. Melito goes beyond constructive praise of the new to say "the model was abolished when the Lord was revealed, and today, things once precious have become worthless, since the really precious things have been revealed." (43) What exactly is "the model?" Judaism? The Hebrew Scriptures? Melito makes no use of the former category, and clearly holds high respect for the later. To understand Melito, we owe it to him to read the next two sections in which he enumerates exactly what has become worthless: "The slaying of the sheep," "the death of the sheep," "the blood of the sheep," "the temple," "the Jerusalem below," "the narrow inheritance." (44,45) The temple cult and the city of Jerusalem are all things that had been lost in the period preceding the homily. The passage serves as a consolation, and continues with the optimistic note that all those beloved things we lost, we don’t really need anyway because, "for it is not in one place nor in a little plot that the glory of God is established."
Ben Zakkai and the Rabbinic tradition following him are not quite as prepared to devalue the temple past, yet they do emphasize that the old things can be fulfilled in a new form, and that life must move on. Everyone in the second century who felt a continuity with pre-destruction Judaism had to deal with the loss in some way or another. In comparing Melito to the sages, one might think that Melito’s "new" is newer than the way of life proposed at Yavneh, but the modern reader again has to overcome the retrospective that Rabbinic Judaism is the logical continuation of Temple Judaism, and Christianity is not. Objectively speaking, the idea of Torah study as replacement for sacrifice is no more logical than a cosmic sacrifice built on the model of temple sacrifice. More importantly, even if we are to assume the term "Judaism," a text can not be labeled "anti-Judaism" if it operates from the same motivation as the Tannaim. There cannot be anti-Judaism without anti-Judaic intent.
We introduced this reading with a discussion of what anti-Judaism is and is not. In conclusion, we find Melito to be closer to the Prophets and the Sages than modern anti-Judaism. Melito identifies himself within the same tradition as those he criticizes, and he calls them to repentance with compassion. The sin of rejecting God is not hereditary, an inherent and accusative guilt, but a contemporary sin of the faithless who fail to repent for the common sin of the past. In introducing something new (although he emphasizes continuity over novelty) he uses constructive and hopeful language. The negative language appears not as an attack on any kind of "Judaism" in his own time, but as a weaning off of the unattainable past. Well predating the redaction of the Mishnah, it is not entirely clear how aware Melito was of the Tannaitic alternative attempt to maintain continuity with the temple tradition. Particularly with regard to the Paschal tradition, there is no evidence that a Rabbinic tradition even existed before Melito. Although some have presented Melito as parodying the Rabbinic Haggada, more recent scholars have pointed out that certain elements of the Haggada are more likely borrowed from Christianity than vice-versa.1 The homily presents a glorified portrayal of Israel in Egypt, and contrasts that to the present faithlessness both as a call to repentance and a theodicy explaining why the once saving God has apparently abandoned his people. This exact same technique appears often in the Hebrew Bible and one might well assume that a Hebrew Bible scholar such as Melito might have borrowed directly therefrom.
The scope of this paper has not included all possible comparisons between Melito and Biblical Prophecy. Besides Melito’s fluid use of Biblical references, even his literary style echoes the parallelism and structure of Biblical poetry. Further studies could very well show more links between Melito and canonical Judaism, and thereby support further Melito’s affinity for the tradition he has been accused of hating. However Melito understood his relationship to the Biblical Jewish tradition he knew and acknowledged, his passions are undeniably strong, and we have seen how easily love can be mistaken for hate. One need not rely entirely on comparisons with the traditions of the Bible and Rabbinic commentaries. The love of a parent for a child does not depend on constantly speaking rosy words. In speaking of anti-Judaism in any context, it is important not to polarize a dichotomy between gratuitous laud and anti-Judaism.
Is Christianity essentially anti-Jewish? One could argue that the very similarities made a painful cleft inevitable. This reading of Melito suggests that a certain amount of naive innocence makes it possible to delay the inevitable, and develop a rich theology that offers continuity at times when history demands innovation in one way or another.
1 For the former view see S. G. Hall, "Melito in the Light of the Passover Haggadah," Journal of Theological Studies 22 (1971). Both Israel Yuval and David Satran have argued the later case in seminars at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, without publications to my knowledge. Their arguments are based on several points, including: (1) the earliest evidence for a Rabbinic context of certain disputed portions comes significantly later than Christian evidence; (2) the disputed passages fit better in the Christian context; (3) the origins of terms such as "afikomen" fit the Christian etymology better than a Rabbinic one.
Eusebius of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History, ed.-tr. by Kirsopp Lake, New York, Putnam: 1946.
Epiphanius, Saint, Bp. of Constantia in Cyprus. Panarion. translated by Frank Williams. Brill, New York: 1994.
Melito of Sardis, On Pascha and Fragments, ed.-tr. by S. G. Hall, Oxford: 1979. 3-61.
Tosefta Yoma, translation my own.
Catechism of the Catholic Church Liberia Editrice Vaticana: 1994.
Efroymson, D. P., "The Patristic Connection" in A. T. Davies, ed., Anti-Semitism and the Foundations of Christianity. New York: 1979.
Gager, J.G., The Origins of Anti-Semitism. New York: 1985.
Hall, S.G., "Melito in the Light of the Passover Haggadah," Journal of Theological Studies 22 (1971) 29-46
Hirshman, M., A Rivalry of Genius. Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation in Late Antiquity. SUNY Judaica Series, Albany, 1986.
Satran, D., "Anti-Jewish Polemic in the Peri Pascha of Melito of Sardis: the Problem of Social Context" in Limor, O., and Stroumsa, G. G. (eds.), Contra Iudaeos: Ancient and Medieval Polemics Between Jews and Christians, Tubigen: 1996. 49-58.
Wilson, S. G., "Passover, Easter, and Anti-Judaism: Melito of Sardis and Others" in Neusner, J., and Frerichs, E. S., eds.), "To See Ourselves as Others See Us." Christians, Jews, "Others" in Late Antiquity, Chico, CA: 1985. 337-355.
——, ed., Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity. Volume 2, Separatoin and Polemic, Waterloo, Ontario: 1986.